Creativity, monsters, reefs and refactoring.


In this essay I go over two theories of what makes one creative. I use them and a framework for measuring “intangibles” to create a suggested experiment of how one would go about to try to increase their good idea count. I end with the motivation for this essay.


Gabora and Johnston

I have before mentioned Gabora’s theory of creativity. The core idea is that creativity is a by-product. When your worldview is challenged it must change its internal structure and in that change it produces manifestations which may be external artefacts that are what is usually deemed creative. In processing the bombing of Guernica you produce a painting, but the painting is the byproduct of the creative process, not the creative process itself, or even its aim.

There is another view making the rounds, as things do when they appear on TED. Johnson explains that idea formation (i.e. creativity) happens as the result of 7 patterns:

  1. The adjacent possible
    The principle that at any given moment, extraordinary change is possible but that only certain changes can occur (this describes those who create ideas that are ahead of their time and whose ideas reach their ultimate potential years later).
  2. Liquid networks
    The nature of the connections that enable ideas to be born, to be nurtured and to blossom and how these networks are formed and grown.
  3. The slow hunch
    The acceptance that creativity doesn’t guarantee an instant flash of insight but rather, germinates over time before manifesting.
  4. Serendipity
    The notion that while happy accidents help allow creativity to flourish, it is the nature of how our ideas are freely shared, how they connect with other ideas and how we perceive the connection at a specific moment that creates profound results.
  5. Error
    The realization that some of our greatest ideas didn’t come as a result of a flash of insight that followed a number of brilliant successes but rather, that some of those successes come as a result of one or more spectacular failures that produced a brilliant result.
  6. Exaptation
    The principle of seizing existing components or ideas and repurposing them for a completely different use (for example, using a GPS unit to find your way to a reunion with a long-lost friend when GPS technology was originally created to help us accurately bomb another country into oblivion).
  7. Platforms
    Adapting many layers of existing knowledge, components, delivery mechanisms and such that in themselves may not be unique but which can be recombined or leveraged into something new that is unique or novel.”

Further, he has this one main metaphor, he calls the mind a reef, in the sense that a coral reef is a bank of connections, of ecological niches that reinforce each other and live of each other in waters that are otherwise remarkably nutrient poor, but that their mutual preadaptation creates incredibly strong rock formations that can be up to thousands of feet tall.

He uses this as a metaphor for the mind, but I think he got it wrong. I think that Johnston’s coral reef is Gabora’s worldview.




How to measure anything

In the book How to Measure Anything Hubbard takes a lengthy take to show how “intangibles” aren’t and don’t connect. The idea is that if any particular thing happens then it must affect something and that measurement is finding a “something” that the original thing affects that is easy to interact with (and thus measure). Luke has written a very good, albeit lengthy, summary of this book.

The basic template is as follows:




Metrics for innovation

The question is “Do any of these techniques lead to a significant increase in creativity, as measure by more good ideas, after a baseline count?”

  • Johnston hypotheses
    • The adjacent possible
      • “try to connect your idea”
    • Liquid networks
      • “provide many random collisions for your ideas”
    • The slow hunch
      • “write everything down, hold it forever”
    • Serendipity
      • (not actionable)
    • Error
      • “make more errors”
    • Exaptation
      • “try to apply a particular solution to various problems, and a particular problem to various solutions”
    • Platforms
      • (not actionable)
  • Gabora hypotheses




Actually applying the framework

Now let’s try to apply the framework above to our question (“Do any of these techniques lead to a significant increase in creativity, as measure by more good ideas, after a baseline count?”)

  1. We are trying to measure creativity. But the thing we really want is more good ideas.
  2. Why we care about creativity is answered in the next section. The decision to be made is choosing between these methods as tools to creativity.
  3. We don’t know much. Presumably we can spread out the probability mass over all actionable ideas. 5 ideas = 20% chance for each. (Totally neglecting the hypothesis that none of these work.)
  4. Let’s assume that techniques differ by one order of magnitude and that there is one best technique out of the 5. If this is the case, the consequences of being wrong are having only 1/10th of the possible good ideas with a 4/5 likelihood. (Pulling these numbers out of my hat. I always carry a hat.)
  5. One could practice a method per week and measure how much total good ideas they had that week.
  6. (Neglecting this one)


Wrap up

So what would this actually look like?

  • A weekly method
  • A form of measuring good ideas

Here is how those could look like:

  • Possible methods are
    • The adjacent possible
      • Operationalisation: For a week, when coming up with a new idea, write it down on evernote. Look at context or at random notes and for 1 hour try to draw up as many connection as possible.
    • Liquid networks
      • Operationalisation: For a week, write down everything. Every event, surprise, emotion, thought, feeling, routine. Write everything. Proceed to share it. (On twitter, for example.)
    • Error
      • “make more errors”
      • Operationalisation: For a week, keep and error sheet and mark it every time you make an error. On the second week, triple that count.
    • Exaptation
      • Operationalisation: Write down a list of problems you have been bothered by. For a week search for solutions and try to apply them to the whole list.
      • Operationalisation: Write down a list of solutions you use.For a week search for problems and try to apply each list entry to them. (I vaguely remember that Fenyman did something like this)
    • Various ways for destroying your worldview
  • The simplest way of measuring good ideas is carrying a good idea sheet and a pen and marking it every time you have a good idea.



(These are confounded all the way to hell because of the operationalisation method, but presumably you can learn something through these measurement methods, and thus creativity is not so intangible anymore.)

(Also you would need to take a good baseline measure and then do each technique over long periods of time, or keep your life as constant as you can whilst trying each technique )


Why creativity

“To broaden that question into its most compelling form, how can we, both personally and as a society, increase the number of good ideas we have in the arts, in science, in sociology and government, and in technology?”

There is an argument to be made (in a future essay) that a bunch of things we care about are constrained by our ability to have good ideas. Creativity matters.

I admit that I find the term “creativity” icky, but as Thomas Powell has taught me, fuck names, I love “problem reframing” because it reminds be of problem-solving and Simon and not of fake Einstein quotes in every single paper.

Anyways, I’m getting sidelined, here is suggestion of methods for generating more good ideas. For reasons I’m not sure I seem to drift naturally towards collection (without connection, except through writing) and towards monster harvests (I’ve had this hilarious image of some part going through my beliefs structure and setting fire to all that it could set fire to in a very child-like playful way. Fun times were had at a meta-level, and utter crisis at an immediate level.)






– Read main paper on current state of research in creativity

– see wikipedia main theories of creativity

– Good ideas are built from a collection of existing parts.  (I LOVE THIS! (ITS LIKE YOU ARE BUILDING VARIOUS INSTRUMENTS (LIKE A WINDMILL) AND YOU NEED TO FIND ALL THE PARTS; BUT ALSO TO BE IN THE RIGHT TIME FOR THE WINDMILL TO BE USEFUL (youtube at right time, analytical engine not))

– “Einstein quote” about how you want to keep a lot of routine in your life. (So that you can start drawing causal links between events and their repercussions.)

– karnofsky has said that some people naturally build their world models, i think there is a subset that deliberately seek out monsters (meat eaters that find vegetarian arguments and don’t flinch or rationalise away but go straight into it, deeply, obsessively); people that seek out existential crisis

– numbered argument for importance of creativity



Starving for Worldviews

I have before talked about how to use monsters to advance worldviews and have suggested using ancient worldviews as scaffold for modern ones. I have also made attempts to figure out how worldviews evolve (although I think the previous analysis missed some crucial points).

In this essay I redefined worldview, and explain the modern problem of being starved for worldviews and propose how to solve it.


What is a Worldview?

A Worldview, is a “coherent collection of concepts allowing us to construct a global image of the world, and in this way to understand as many elements of our experience as possible.” (1)

Philosophy is – under this view – an attempt to answer the questions of worldview, that is, philosophy is the method to answer the problems posed by Worldviews.

Question Philosophical Discipline
1. What is? Ontology (model of reality as a whole)
2. Where does it all come from? Explanation (model of the past)
3. Where are we going? Prediction (model of the future)
4. What is good and what is evil? Axiology (theory of values)
5. How should we act? Praxeology (theory of actions)
6. What is true and what is false? Epistemology (theory of knowledge)


The Need for a worldview

Firstly, we “(…) all need a certain worldview, even if it is not made fully explicit, to interact with our world. There is a practical need to have at least an implicit, pre-ontological and for that reason “naive” answer for each of the worldview questions.” (1)

Further, in our modern times, we face a particular problem of meaningness. Here is David Chapman on it: “The atomized mode takes incoherence for granted. It does not seem a problem, in this mode; we don’t need systems. Meanings do not hang together. They are delivered as bite-sized morsels in a jumbled stream, like sushi flowing past on a conveyer belt, or brilliant shards of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. Or—to use the thing itself as a metaphor for itself—like Twitter.

The problems we have now: Throughout the twentieth century, from the beginning of the breakdown of the mainstream systems until the breakdown of subcultures, the underlying worry was “not enough meaning.” The atomized mode delivers, for the first time, way too much meaning. It is overwhelming, like trying to drink from a firehose.

Because the shards of meaning do not relate with each other, it’s impossible to compare them. There is no standard of value, so everything seems equally trivial. The collapse of subcultural community has atomized society, and we find it impossible to construct satisfactory selves from the jagged fragments of meaning we’re bombarded with.”

Modernisation and increasing specialisation led to fragmentation, distillation and diffusion of meaning and experiences. This diffusion lead to clashes.

As our world becomes further modernised and globalised the types of experiences available become incredibly diverse. This is a really short list of possible subcultures one can belong to (each reflecting a inchoate worldview). Then there is the different worldview tidbits one gets bombed with using any sort of media or under any sort of conversation. And finally, through social media, the need to present a coherent self-image to others, and thus to oneself.


Attempted Solutions

Traditional worldviews, which offered an integrated view of the world have failed:

“The religious worldview has no rational mechanism to resolve issues or disagreements; it gives no answer to contemporary developments, and thus is non-adaptive. There is a fundamentalism aspect in them. The traditional reductionist scientific worldview maintain determinism, claim that there is no goal- directedness, and thus no meaning. Holistic worldviews (e.g. “New Age”) are too fuzzy, irrational and impractical.

A humanistic worldview is too anthropocentric; it should consider seriously man in its broader context (evolutionary, ecological, cosmological, etc…). It can’t deal with problems such as the so-called singularity. What about a humanistic worldview if man had to disappear to let place to intelligent machines? Individualism is a value so widespread that it could be interpreted as a worldview. It is often viewed as the main problem of our society. On one side, it can mean one different worldview per person, and thus, no shared worldview. This lead to the claim that no worldview is better than another . To its extreme, this implies no common values and thus no common goals (relativism).”

Philosophy has failed as well to provide us with a worldview. Continental philosophy builds castles on moving sands, and analytic philosophy sets forests on fire. One has the virtue of a broad outlook, the other the virtue of clarity and precision. Yet a broad outlook without precision leads you to being not-even-wrong and clear destruction without any building effort leads you to blindness.

Traditional worldviews and philosophy have failed to live up to the challenge. In response, there have been two answers: trying to hold on to dead worldviews or trying to build new ones piece-meal.

Consumerism and Fundamentalism are the main choices for holding on to macro-shared wolrdviews. At the micro-level you have buffet like offer from rational AI focused, to reactionaries, to secular appropriations of religion.

I choose these examples because they are so different and yet are all an answer this same very modern problem: the jaggedness of meaning and the lack of a worldview that makes sense of our more-diverse-than-ever experience.

Fundamentally, there is problem of a mismatch between our worldview needs – given our drowning in meaning shards – and our worldview offers – given the the impact of modernisation and specialisation, and the failure of traditional worldviews and philosophy to live up to the challenge.

I call this mismatch between our need for worldviews, given our drowning in meaning, and the lack of encompassing, broad, responsible solutions that answer the problem our being starved for worldviews. We cannot make sense of incredibly diverse experiences.


Proposed solution: Worldview Building

I think that the ones building worldviews are taking the right step. We need not only continental and analytic philosophy, we need – more than ever – synthetic philosophy. This was what I called for with Modern(ised) philosophies for living.

Vidal (1) takes an interesting approach to worlview building.  He starts with a toy problem: building a scientific worldview – a worldview that unifies the finding from the various sciences. To do so he proposes a language, a stance and a guiding idea. The language is that of systems theory, the stance is that of problem-solving, and the guiding idea is evolution.

I don’t want to go into detail on his views just yet, but I do want to discuss some of his desiderata for a worldview.


Desiderata of a worldview


One vs Many

Should one hold one worldview or have various and trigger conditions for shifting between worldviews? On the one hand singular worldviews have been dangerous in the past, on the other our problem is drowning in meaning shards.

My intuition is that many is best. Information will have to compressed and any particular worldview will either leave something out or be incoherent. Which leads to the second desiderata.


Completeness vs coherence

Should we aim for completeness or for coherence first? Here I side with Eugine:

“Also keep in mind that it’s more important to make your beliefs as correct as possible then to make them as consistent as possible. Of course the ultimate truth is both correct and consistent; however, it’s perfectly possible to make your beliefs less correct by trying to make them more consistent. If you have two beliefs that do a decent job of modeling separate aspects of reality, it’s probably a good idea to keep both around, even if they seem to contradict each other. For example, both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics do a good job modeling (parts of) reality despite being inconsistent and we want to keep both of them. Now think about what happens when a similar situation arises in a field, e.g., biology, psychology, your personal life, where evidence is messier then it is in physics.”


No single man

This may be the toughest point for intellectuals to come to terms with. Ever since the knowledge explosion that one cannot know everything. This means that one has to rely on others for his worldview building efforts.

Having said that, there are high leverage concepts that illuminate whole areas of knowledge – like the theory of evolution by natural selection, or the idea of legibility and non-predictive control – and yes, the details are messy, but one can check it for coherence against other areas, then.

Secondly, there are various forms of intelligence augmentation in the form of cognitive tools, and this trend can be expected to continue.

Thirdly, one can craft heuristics to figure out how to get knowledge faster. (What I’ve been doing in my analysis of map-making)



We have analysed the origin of our drowning in meaning and our corresponding starvation for worldviews. We have seen how contemporary approaches have mainly failed at answering this problem. We have also sketched some desiderata for worldview building that will guide further attempts.


(1) Vidal, Clément (2008) What is a worldview? [Book Chapter] (In Press)

(2) Vidal, C. (2007). An enduring philosophical agenda. Worldview construction as a philosophical method.






Discourse: Legibility

Mulling over the past posts I see a trend of caring about discourse. I was not really sure why that was happening, but I believe I have some insight now. Inferential distances seem like a terrible problem. I commend Eliezer on structuring the problem, but think we stopped too soon at trying to find a solution.

I *really* want a domain general way of reducing inferential distances. I want to be able to talk to hedgehogs, to have interdisciplinary discourse happen instead of being a buzzword, want people to understand why randomisation of pure strategies is a nash equilibrium without having to explain all of game theory and lose my interlocutor’s goodwill mid-twelfth sentence.

Everything that I care about depends on other humans in some form, and especially in communication lines not breaking down. Safe, ethical, reasonable, alive discourse is really important and I am  thus am grasping at ways to make discourse easier.

I think that legibility provides a way forward from stating the problem of inferential distances. I think it reduces a very broad area of potential inferential distances. If you get legibility then stuff like the invisible hand of the market, or how competing companies end up solving needs of the population, or how cities are built without central planning, or how startups figure out secrets becomes much easier to understand. Grokking legibility allows you to bypass this particular failure of folk epistemology of not grasping how there can be non-predictive control.

This seems, at the moment, to be the right way to approach the “problem of inferential distances”. Find, and share, concepts that explain an area of potential inferential distances. With that in mind, over the next two sections I first describe legibility, using as scaffold an essay by Venkatesh Rao, and then add my commentary in the second session.


Venkatesh has a great introduction to legibility. Legibility justifies a failure mode where you project “your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.”” The failure mode is caused by a desire for legibility.

The idea comes from the book “Seeing like a State” in which James C. Scott’s uses it as an illustration of what states do and how they fail.

“The book begins with an early example, “scientific” forestry (illustrated in the picture above). The early modern state, Germany in this case, was only interested in maximizing tax revenues from forestry. This meant that the acreage, yield and market value of a forest had to be measured, and only these obviously relevant variables were comprehended by the statist mental model. Traditional wild and unruly forests were literally illegible to the state surveyor’s eyes, and this gave birth to “scientific” forestry: the gradual transformation of forests with a rich diversity of species growing wildly and randomly into orderly stands of the highest-yielding varieties. The resulting catastrophes — better recognized these days as the problems of monoculture — were inevitable.

High-modernist (think Bauhaus and Le Corbusier) aesthetics necessarily lead to simplification, since a reality that serves many purposes presents itself as illegible to a vision informed by a singular purpose. Any elements that are non-functional with respect to the singular purpose tend to confuse, and are therefore eliminated during the attempt to “rationalize.” The deep failure in thinking lies is the mistaken assumption that thriving, successful and functional realities must necessarily be legible. Or at least more legible to the all-seeing statist eye in the sky (many of the pictures in the book are literally aerial views) than to the local, embedded, eye on the ground.

Complex realities turn this logic on its head; it is easier to comprehend the whole by walking among the trees, absorbing the gestalt, and becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest, than by hovering above it.

This  imposed simplification, in service of legibility to the state’s eye, makes the rich reality brittle, and failure  follows. The imagined improvements are not realized. The metaphors of killing the golden goose, and the Procrustean bed come to mind.”

“The picture is not an exception, and the word “legibility” is not a metaphor; the actual visual/textual sense of the word (as in “readability”) is what is meant.”

Venkatesh further proposes that legibility is desired because it serves a very specific psychological function. Legibility “quells the anxieties evoked by apparent chaos.”



I have found Venkatesh’s analysis to be both good and incomplete. In what follows I try to augment the analysis with commentary on what I think Venkatesh missed.

Legibility is an interactional property

Presumably “这是废话” is gibberish to you, whilst the rest of the essay is not. “The picture is not an exception, and the word “legibility” is not a metaphor; the actual visual/textual sense of the word (as in “readability”) is what is meant.” Readability is not an object property but an interactional property, the readability of the chinese characters are as dependent on their proper formulation as on your ability to read chinese.

This means that a particular object is not legible or illegible in itself, but legible or illegible to someone.

Legibility serves a social justification purpose

If you are the one being read, the incentives may be stacked in such a way that you really wish to be legible. You can imagine various times in history in which not being legible meant death.
This explains why the same social regularities get explained in wildly different ways – there is an incentive to be legible which means slightly confabulating the original phenomenon being experienced.

Different societal configurations accept different explanations and this change in incentives has wide-reaching consequences. An example is the relatively innocent modern idea that art is self-expression.

“We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to se his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn’t have to ‘think up’ an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there — and this is crucial. When he’d finished carving his friends couldn’t say ‘I’m a bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo’, but only, ‘He made a mess getting that out!’ or ‘There are some very odd bits of bone about these days.’ These days of course the Eskimos get booklets giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It’s no wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It’s not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.” (1)

It should be easy to see how this will shift the type of creative work that can be done.

Legibility eases the anxieties of chaos through control

According to Venkatesh’s analysis, readers want legibility because it quells the anxieties of chaos. I think this is true and incomplete. There is a question left open: why is it that legibility quells the anxiety? Why is it that chaos causes anxiety?

Chaos is the lack of the existence of a pattern. No patterns means that prediction is impossible. And under a certain mindset power and control can only be gained through predictive knowledge.

What the fans of predictive control, of legibility-through-rationalization miss is that not all control entails a better outcome. It seems like there are particular cases in which letting go of (predictive) control leads to a better equilibrium.



Legibility is (1) interactional, (2) social justificatory and (3) provides a sort of predictive control. The first thing to understand is that there is non-predictive control. By definition these things will not be legible, but can still be controllable. Apparent chaos doesn’t not mean uncontrollability or powerlessness. The second one is that legibility is situated and relational, that is, what is legible at a certain time and place may not be in another, and thus one need not see lack of intelligibility as a failing of the object of study. Chesterton said this best: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”


  1. – Keith Johnstone, Impro, p. 78-79.