There was a time I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I wasn’t teaching yet, and I was bubbling over with things I wanted to say. As a result, I gravitated toward the limerick, the shortest poetic form I could find for conveying a single idea. Even if I didn’t get the floor often, when I got it, I could convey my idea in the time allotted by reciting a limerick. At the height of my obsession with limericks I compiled 250 of them into a booklet I called “Mind Reader’s Insightlopedia” and even recorded a CD of me rapping limericks over a hip-hop beat.

Limericks, it turns out, are short enough to reinforce ideas already conveyed—but too short to convey them. Targeting a business audience, I wrote another limerick book called “Executive UFO: A Field Guide to Unidentified Flying Objectives in the Workplace,” which accompanied each limerick with a definition.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Unfortunately, it was the opposite of a marketable business book. Business books are supposed to look dense but read breezily. My collection of limericks looked breezy but read densely. When publishers turned me down, I didn’t have the spirit to start from scratch on another book. Rather, I decided to let book-writing sneak up on me by producing my Mind Reader’s Dictionary Blog. It’s been book-writing by installment, and the pieces I’ve written in these two and a half years make up more than a book’s worth of material.

At an academic conference last week I presented some of my old limericks and realized that, while they may not be Harvard University Press’s cup of tea, they are worthy of a few Mind-Reader’s issues. Here are my insightlopedia’s entries for the letter A and B. They cover a range of behavior patterns from evolution to everyday life.

ABCDE (Already Been Chosen Degradable Element): A re-evolvable trait. We tend to assume mutation only works on individual genes, but it actually affects whole suites of interdependent genes and the traits they combine to produce. A trait that has been chosen by natural selection and is therefore already good for something may become useful for something else when it gets degraded or mutated (search R&R).

Evolution is not lucky quirks;
Fluke mutants just gum up the works.
But existing formations
Go through permutations
Producing collateral perks.

ACIDS (Ambiguous Cues Implying Divergent Solutions): Tough judgment calls; the name captures their two most significant features. First, you can’t tell how to read your situation. The cues are ambiguous. You could be in situation A or B. Second, what you would do in situation A is completely divergent from what you would do in B. If A do X. If B do Y. But you can’t do X and Y at the same time. Doing X precludes doing Y and vice versa.

The mind meets its greatest confusions,
Its failures to reach resolutions,
When you simply must choose
From ambiguous cues
Implying divergent solutions.

Ad Hackerism: The hacker’s ethic; ad hoc collaboration for the fun of it. This is the object of organizational (and marriage) management—to make doing your part so obviously worthwhile that the question of whether to contribute doesn’t even come up.

Teams operate at their grooviest
When each member is an enthusiast—
Like hackers enjoying
And blithely deploying
Their ad hoc endeavors salubrious.

Affinity and Beyond: The productive advantage of working with people who share your assumptions, methods, and questions. Yes it’s good to have diversity. But beyond a point, the more diversity the less affinity—and the less you can get done together.

I’ve walked many roads by my age
Why revisit an earlier stage?
And with roads still before me
The talk I adore, be
With those almost on my same page.

AND (Always Next Dilemma): The way—in both science and life, all answers can become further questions. Children figure this out early on, and test your limits by asking “Why?” to every answer you give to their previous question. Whenever you find an answer, it’s a good idea to identify the question most likely to arise next. For example, when you’ve solved an organizational problem, before walking away to celebrate, identify a potential problem that might arise from your solution. That doesn’t mean you have to solve it; just identify it. It’s a way to reduce unintended consequences without bogging down in efforts to prevent them.

After finding solutions that fit
I like to kick back and just sit
On my laurels—but then a
Resulting dilemma
Proves questions in life just don’t quit.

Ambigamy: Ambivalence about love now that, with the growth of human culture, we feel the urge to make both children and brainchildren.

Life was so easy when dating
Was mindless genetical mating
Mating mind unto mind
We now often find
It’s the purpose of love we’re debating.

Amiss-tery: Feeling that something’s subtly wrong but not knowing what, and wondering if maybe it’s just a false alarm.

When something somehow feels amiss
Getting over the doubt would be bliss.
Still, a doubt’s like a stone
That maybe was thrown
With a note that you don’t want to miss.

Antinomy: The philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s word for a contradiction between two fundamental truths. Identifying and working with antinomies is a great path to deeper wisdom.

Antinomy names the conditions
Most likely to cause indecisions:
Forced into a fight
In which both sides are right,
And you can’t help but see both positions.

Aspirational Gap: Psychology’s term for the gap between what you have and what you want.

We humans do more than survive;
We strive toward our goals with great drive.
With the force of conviction,
Of fact and of fiction,
We believe that someday we’ll arrive.

Aspirational Tense: The grammatical form used when you declare what you want as though it were what you’ve got; what you aim to achieve as though you’ve achieved it already. The aspirational tense is a fake-it-till-you-make-it tool, a great way to hang onto your moments of high resolve. But it can backfire if you don’t eventually make it.

“I’ve changed and from today hence
My life will start making more sense!”
Is it fixed or still broken?
It seems that he spoke in
The aspirational tense.

Attribution Error: Psychology’s name for the universal double standard whereby we make excuses for our mistakes but not for other people’s, particularly by claiming other people’s failures are a function of bad character, whereas our similar failures are a product of circumstances beyond our control.

My sentence, if I had my druthers
Would be different from those of my brothers
No proof need be shown:
Their crimes are their own,
But me, I’m a victim of others.

Auto-Catalytic Set: Chemistry’s name for a self-amplifying feedback loop or chain reaction whereby two or more things interact to produce more of each other. Extrapolated out to everyday life, this kind of mutual reinforcement between parties leads to growth, synergy, and interconnectedness, but also to addiction and co-dependency.

When A’s making B making C
Making A, reinforcing the three,
There’s more interaction,
More mutual attraction
And less of a chance to break free.

Auto-Immobiles: Devices we can acquire to impose immovable discipline on us so we don’t have to rely on will power, which tends in the long run to be weak and unreliable. Examples include locks on the refrigerator or TV, porn-blockers on computers, and now the medications some alcoholics take that cause alcohol to make them feel sick if they drink.

Controlling myself isn’t easy
Enforcement devices sound cheesy
But to buy a machine
That stands in between
Me and sloth makes the task much more breezy.

Aversginity: A young person’s lack of experience with the reasons to balance intimacy with aversion, naively unaware that giving oneself over completely to another person can be dangerous. When people accuse you of being “afraid to love,” as though that were pathological, it’s good to remember that a little well-founded fear can be useful.

Now when I was young and hormonal
A partner was destined to own all
But what with my age, see
I’m feeling more cagey
I’m even reluctant to loan all.

Baddiction and Goodiction: Bad addictions and good ones. We’re addicted to air, water, food, companionship, all manner of things without which we would not survive. We’ve been addicted to these for ages, but some of our recent addictions are generally beneficial too. We’re addicted to the give-and-take of the marketplace, addicted to the supermarket, even—without which we wouldn’t survive. (Having groceries constantly available, most of us never learn to farm—so we’re out of luck if we can’t buy.) Obviously addictions can be bad as well, but there’s nothing intrinsic to the process of becoming increasingly dependent upon something that makes the resulting addiction bad.

Avoiding all forms of addiction
Is at best unattainable fiction.
Just try not to depend
On what tends, in the end
To inflict an unhealthy affliction.

Basins of Distraction: Attractive delusions. Systems and complexity theory refer to “basins of attraction,” the states things tend to gravitate toward—for instance, the state of maximum entropy. No matter where a system starts, eventually it migrates toward greater and greater entropy. So too in thought and conversation, we tend to slip into certain basins, some of them because they are reliable concepts and some because they are irresistible even if they’re not reliable. Assumptions are not just right or wrong, they’re also strong or weak. A set of strong, wrong assumptions can keep insight away for millennia.

When riding ’round thinking terrain
Just one thought, if subtly inane
Like a wet bar of soap
Sends me off down a slope
Till my thinking just goes down the drain.

Be Like Me Syndrome: The near-universal condition whereby we assume other people should or do want what we want. The condition is, of course part adaptive, part maladaptive; part true, part false. All people have a lot in common with each other, but then again the differences between us can make a big difference. Be Like Me Syndrome has many causes. Mindblindness, for example—our limited ability to know what it’s like to be anyone but ourselves. But there are also motivations for assuming other people should share our preferences, including the one described here—that other people’s preferences can cause us cognitive dissonance and doubt about our own preferences, which sometimes inspires us to launch a campaign to convert the wrong-headed to our right-thinking.

I wish and I hope that I’m right
Though doubt keeps me up in the night.
When surrounded by clones, though
I don’t feel alone, so
With those dastards who differ, I fight.

Beliteraling: Denying subtext by claiming that words are the only thing communicated. Defending something you’ve said by belittling context, tone of voice, and inflection.

We assume that words can be flexed,
By inflection, rhetorically hexed.
This assumption we shed
With “Hey, I merely said. . . .”
As though all we convey is the text.

Both/Antagonism: The internal tension that arises with dualistic (or both/and) solutions. Once you have two explanations for a behavior, you need a third to say which of the other two is operative when. For example, if both nature and nurture rule our behavior, then we need a third rule for understanding the contribution made by each.

I like a good both/and solution,
But it hardly provides resolution.
After feeling elated,
That things are related,
There’s untangling their co-contribution.

Brainchildren: Ideas as our babies, competing with our biological children for our attention. Evolutionary biology indicates that for billions of years success was governed by an organism’s ability to produce biological offspring. With the advent of human culture, our attention is split. We’re no longer just competing by means of the proliferation of children but also that of brainchildren. That is, our success is determined in part by the ideas, technologies, inventions, and beliefs we promote. Our brainchildren are not exclusively our own. Many people spend their entire lives promoting other people’s brainchildren. But then the same is true for biological offspring, which are not strictly speaking our own creation but rather produced through us.

For eons life spelled its success
As producing fit kids in excess.
Now our offspring obsession
Counts brainchild expression
Not the number of kids you possess.

Brainchild Population Explosion: A chain reaction as ideas cross-fertilize with each other, generating ever greater numbers of ideas to cross-fertilize with each other again. Biological populations grow exponentially. So do populations of ideas. The more ideas we have to work with, the more ways we can mix and match them.

Thoughts are promiscuous, breeding
In droves, and they’ve started stampeding
With growth exponential
We are forced to stay mental
And it’s hard to keep up with our reading.