Thoughts on “Thinking, fast and slow”

I couldn’t resist buying a copy of Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller when returning from holidays. Several friends and colleagues told me it was a great book; it got great reviews; and Kahneman’s journal articles are invariably a good read, so I was curious.

Its general message is simple and intuitively appealing: Kahneman argues that people use two distinct systems to make decisions, a fast one and a slow one. System 1, the fast one, is intuitive and essentially consists of heuristics, such as when we without much thought finish the nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a little…’. The answer ‘lamb’ is what occurs to us from our associative memory. The heuristic to follow that impulse gives the right answer in most cases but can be lead astray by phrases like ‘Ork, ork, ork, soup is eaten with a …’. Less innocuous examples of these heuristics and how they can lead to sub-optimal outcomes are to distrust the unfamiliar, to remember mainly the most intense and the last aspect of an experience (the ‘peak-end rule’), to value something more after possessing it than before possessing it (the ‘endowment effect’) and to judge the probability of an event by how easily examples can come to mind.

System 2, the slow way to make decisions, is more deliberative and involves an individual understanding a situation, involving many different experiences and outside data. System 2 is what many economists would call ‘rational’ whilst System 1 is ‘not so rational’, though Kahneman wants his cake and eat it by saying that System 1 challenges the universality of the rational economic agent model whilst nevertheless not wanting to say that the rational model is wrong. ‘Sort of wrong sometimes’ seems to be his final verdict.

Let me below explore two issues that I have not seen in the reviews of this book. The first is on whether or not his main dichotomy is going to be taken up by economics or social science in the longer-run. The second, related point, is where I think this kind of ‘rationality or not’ debate is leading to. Both issues involve a more careful look at whether the distinction between System 1 and 2 really is all that valid and thus the question of what Kahneman ultimately has achieved, which in turn will center on the usefulness of the rational economic man paradigm.

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Quick review of IA Writer – a minimalist writing tool

I recently began using a new writing tool, iA writer. It is one of a slew of new programs that are “minimalist” writing tools including Omniwriter and Writeroom. They help you focus on actually writing rather than tinkering with fonts, layouts, hyperlinks, grammar checkers and other distractions. I was led to search for a new writing tool by Redmond’s Law of Large Numbers which states that a large and complex enough document will definitely crash Microsoft Word. I have been revising a paper for a journal and when it began crashing every ten minutes, I realized I was totally distracted by having to restart my word processor and guessing what changes had actually been saved. I was no longer focused on writing.

Initially I was skeptical and thought a minimalist tool was nothing new, just a modern version of Vi/Emacs or any of the LaTeX editors I’ve used. But it turns out to be a different user experience after all. Even compared to any of those, iA Writer is distraction free. There is no way to underline or italicize text. There are no styles, hyperlinks, or colors or fonts. There are no obscure Control/Alt/Esc commands to remember. There are however numbered headings which is useful. The overall effect is that your mind stays focused on paragraph structures, flow and generating interesting content.

The experience isn’t like using Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit(Mac) either. On iA Writer, one interesting feature — probably its only feature — is the “focus mode” which highlights the currently edited sentence and fades everything else into grey. This keeps your attention squarely on clarifying exactly what you are trying to express in the current sentence. I like that a lot. Oh and it does look great on screen, a bit like the typerwiters from days gone by.

iA Writer syncs to Apple’s iCloud, so you can edit on your Mac, iPhone or iPad and not worry about backups. You can roll back to different versions using iCloud’s built-in features. If you use Windows, the options include Darkroom, Focuswriter and Writemonkey but I haven’t tried any of those.

Because of its lack of features, a minimalist writing tool isn’t for everything, certainly not equation-laden articles. But it is great for a first draft and if you are primarily writing text. I am currently keeping iA Writer as part of my workflow, using it to draft things, then pasting the results into a word processor or other application for layout and finishing. If you have used such a tool, do share your experiences (good and bad) below.

ps: this blog post was written in iA Writer.