Tag Archives: experience

Observe the Actor-Observer Bias in Action

What might account for the rather dramatic difference of opinion I had with the management of my former employer? This: the actor/observer bias, an asymmetry of belief proposed by Ned Jones and Richard Nisbett in 1971:

Actors tend to attribute the causes of their behavior to stimuli inherent in the situation, while observers tend to attribute behavior to stable dispositions of the actor.

In this situation, let’s cast me as the actor and the management as the observer. My behavior was to resign. I attribute the cause of my behavior to a very bad decision. I perceive it as inherent since it was made not in consultation with me and was final before I was made aware of it. But undoubtedly the management would attribute by reaction to the situation to “stable dispositions” within me, the actor. That is, something about my makeup–something about me–that has nothing to do with the situation. After all, they knew the situation just as well as I did, but were surprised by my response.

The actor/observer bias hypothesis likes to sit high above the actor and observer, presenting an exalted, unbiased view. Yet this somewhat naïve “scientific viewpoint,” replete with behavioralism, does offer some illumination nonetheless. For example, it illustrates a kind of distance between minds, where belief is fixed very differently based on the relative proximity or involvement to the situation. In this case, I think it’s useful because it frames the dispute. As the actor, I can see what it looks like to the observer. I can see what they don’t see: the causal origin. I recognize that it’s the situation, not me. Or to put a finer point on it: the situation caused a response based on my well-known (to all parties) stable dispositions. And was in turn shaped by their own dispositions.

At least, that’s what I the actor see. The fact that objectivity doesn’t enter into the picture is satisfying. There is no external party with an objective viewpoint, so it has no conceivable relevance. The hypothesis gives rigor and traction without requiring that. And it smoothes the path towards a potential game theoretical solution to the problem.

Turning the Page

Yesterday was a momentous day for me. I resigned from Semantic Research, the software company I’ve worked at for almost a decade.

The circumstances of my resignation came about very quickly. Without getting into the gory details, a management decision was made that took away from me the thing I loved most about working there. I was told it wasn’t any reflection on me or my work, and that it would be returned to me, one day down the road, but no promises as to when, and I’ve been in this world long enough to know not to rely on vague possibilities. The decision was made without any mention to me that there was a problem at all, and on last Friday, when I was told, it was already final. I was stunned, literally speechless. I left the meeting in a daze.

So I had the weekend to mull it over. If this was the deal–take it or leave it–then it was clear to me that the only response was to resign. When I told my boss, the CTO, he was flabbergasted at my decision. I’m surprised he was, really. Taking away the thing I’d done for almost a decade, and asking me to assist–and with no warning! I could not visualize any way to be on board with this. The decision, as painful as it was, was straightforward. So yesterday, I let them know, and they accepted it. And with great haste, it was over. My team had no warning, and I regret that. They deserved better. While I could, I wrote them an email before I left, but that was just hours before they found out officially.

This wasn’t exactly how I’d envisioned things concluding.

I went back to the office this afternoon to wrap up a few HR things and to load my office into the van. Everyone there, including the CTO, senior management and the folks who worked on my team, has been very warm and supportive, even those who felt I was making the wrong decision. There were no hard feelings in either direction. I know they felt it was a decision they had to make. I am grateful for the amazing opportunity and experience I had there. A lot of these folks are old work colleagues I greatly respect, and a few I even consider true friends. A number of people reached out to me, giving me well wishes and wanting to stay in touch. I was offered extremely positive recommendations if I were to ask. Several of my direct reports told me I was the best manager they had ever worked for, and I was deeply moved by that. Then I shook hands with the CEO and left. I was able to get out of there before I started breaking up, just. It’s hard to let go to something so significant to your life, even when it’s your own choice. So much of my DNA is in the thing I must now let go of, so much of my thinking and judgment, so much of my creativity and ingenuity. Now, it’s gone.

My departure from Semantic is a complete leap into the unknown for me. I have no job waiting for me, and aside from basic preparations, I have nothing firm planned. My future is a chasm, utterly wide open. It’s exhilarating to know that nothing but my own imagination limits me, even while I’m in free fall. What do I want to do next? Once I get past the trauma of this very sudden development, I’ll give this some serious thought.

I have to say, being able to speak my mind after all these years is a relief. I am burnt out on software. Maybe I will get into this world once again down the road, but I’ve been doing software professionally since I was 18, and as a hobby since I was 8. It’s in my blood, but I think I’m capable of much more and I feel I need to spread my wings. And while I can really get into the advanced, truly exotic technology called for by my job, I’m just not excited about the intelligence community and the military. It’s not glamorous to me, it wasn’t what Semantic was about originally back when it was a startup, and I while respect the need for it, it’s not my dream and never was. I felt I couldn’t express these things when I worked there, not just because it might be career limiting, but because it’s deflationary to the team. And I want them to flourish and to believe in what they’re doing.

So here I am, free as the wind. And with little safety net, other than my savings and Heather, who is now the breadwinner. I’m 100% uncomfortable with that development. She still works at Semantic, and she has the most awful dilemma to navigate, to be ‘professional’ while processing this extremely sudden and very upsetting disaster. I want to do everything in my power to help her, because the thought of her paying a price for my decision (as much as I feel my back was against the wall) is totally unacceptable. Bless her for her support, but I will find my path and will return it when I can. (My boss, to his credit, specifically asked everyone on the team to be very supportive of her. He’s a good man, even if I completely disagree with this management decision.)

What next? I really don’t know. Maybe I will start a new venture. I’m interested in green tech, and there are some opportunities. Maybe it’s time to get into the real business game. I’ve been contemplating this for a while, this might be just the kick in the pants I needed. Or I could finish my book. I’ve gotten far with it but I have a long way to go. This might be the time to just get it done. I’ve daydreamed about science, perhaps marine biology or botany. I do love plants, I really understand plants. Becoming a scientist might suit me even more than the business world. Or, see what Google thinks of me.

I would like to come out of the shadows and shine. I’m tired of my best work being completely hidden under a cloak of secrecy. I believe I’ve created amazing things, but you’ll probably never see any of that. I’d like to display my prowess, such as it may be. And while I have the time, I think blogging and socializing online may come to greater prominence. I’d like to see my friends and family more. I do have a lot of ideas I’ve kept on the back burner. Maybe now is the time to bring them to the fore, and create something awesome.

Just ideas, for now, but I am in a whole new world. The page is blank, and I’m ready to make my mark.

Monument Valley: Sunday and Monday

Note: This is the 4th (and last) in a series of entries in my Monument Valley travel photo journal. If this is new to you, please start with the first one for the full story of our adventures.

Having checked out Monument Valley proper the day before, Heather and I took a day trip Sunday to explore the nearby area. Basically we took a huge looping route: from our camp near the Utah-Arizona border, we headed north on US 163, continued north on UT 261, then took UT 95 east, then returned south on US 191 back to 163. This is part of the vast Trail of the Ancients.

Map of the day trip loop.

Map of the day trip loop. First stop was Mexican Hat down in the lower left, and we passed by it on the return.

This route is very rural, totally gorgeous and takes you through a bunch of really cool places. I highly recommend it if you visit the area. Gas up before you go and bring food and water. I’m not kidding, it’s very rural. Don’t expect gas stations or restaurants.

The first stop on the highway was Mexican Hat. A unique and very unlikely rock formation near the San Juan River. Crazy how a natural geological process would produce something so fragile, so delicately balanced.

Mexican Hat.

Mexican Hat.

We continued on to Valley of the Gods. It’s not as well known as Monument Valley though I’m not sure why; it has very impressive sandstone formations similar to what I saw the day before, many buttes and pinnacles ranging from small to huge. Plus, this is on BLM land, not tribal land, so access is not restricted. There’s a 17-mile dirt road, FR 242, connecting 261 and 163, that winds and meanders through it. It’s not quite two lanes and is technical, rough enough that I wouldn’t recommend taking an RV or smallish car through it. It reminded me of that dusty road into Guadalupe Canyon in Baja, a pretty wild ride.

Valley of the Gods.

Valley of the Gods.


A towering rock formation, one of many. A person would be a dot in this photo.


This has to be phenomenal camping and mountain biking if you spent a day or two here.

We pulled over several times to get the lay of the land, and even climbed to the top of one of the buttes. From there was a fantastic view and total silence. After an hour or two in the valley we returned to 261 and headed north as it began the 1200ft. climb up to the top of Cedar Mesa. There’s an unpaved switchback taking you up, far above the valley floor.

Next stop was Natural Bridges National Monument. This is operated by the National Park Service, unlike anything else we’d seen. It has complex terrain, a number of natural stone bridges as well as archeological sites. The Anasazi, the Ancient Pueblo, once lived here. Ruins are nestled deep in a crack in a cliff wall.

Anasazi ruins, from far above.

Horsecollar Ruin.

(anthro fact here.)

The settlement was abandoned 7 centuries ago.

There’s a very well paved one-way, one-lane road, Bridge View Drive, that winds through the park. You can take this if you want to see the natural bridges but don’t want to hike. There’s also an outlook high above the Anasazi ruins, so far above that in order to produce the two photos above, I used a telephoto lens and crop the original down to the center of the image before scaling it to post here. Protecting archaeological sites is important, but I was surprised they kept visitors that far away.

Owachomo Bridge. Tricky to make out, but it's there.

Owachomo Bridge. A little tricky to make out, but it's there.

The last stop was Blanding, a town 45 minutes away, and the only town on this circuit. There we had a very late lunch. I ate my first Navajo taco, and for those who’ve never tried one, I highly recommend it. After lunch we drove back, returning to camp at dusk, exhausted but happy. We had a terrible dinner at the restaurant near the lodge–won’t eat there again!–and eventually returned to our campsite and retired.

Next day. We got an early start, struck camp, packed up and drove home. I was looking to get home before sunset if possible, so I went about 85-90mph most of the way. (At the risk of tempting the speeding ticket gods, I dare to say out loud that I never get a ticket when I drive the van. It’s been four years, so I don’t think it’s just luck. Cops somehow can’t see it going fast. Have I said I love my van?) I took the 40 back on a whim, mostly because of a disagreement between two GPS devices. That took us through Needles, Barstow, San Bernadino and finally to San Diego.

Well, how can I wrap this up? It was awesome! This really was a great trip, it blew the doors off anything I expected. Totally fun, interesting, challenging outdoor adventures in absolute beauty all weekend long.

Monument Valley: Friday Night and Saturday

Note: This is the 3rd in a series of entries in my Monument Valley travel photo journal. If this is new to you, please start with the first one for the full story of our adventures.

The drive in from San Diego, through Yuma, Phoenix and Flagstaff, then just crossing the Utah border, took 14 hours. It went smoothly overall aside from a few mapping hiccups near the end. We had a full moon and lightning from thunderheads on the horizon for the last leg of the trip. We got into camp around 11pm local time–turns out the Navajo Nation follows daylight savings when the rest of Arizona doesn’t, which meant the camp had been closed for over an hour–but we found a site on our own. The highest one in the camp actually, with a great view. It was a bit slanted so I used the levelers under one wheel, but even so I was a little surprised no one had taken such a prime spot.

We unloaded the van and tried out the new lights Heather put in. Two lines of amber LEDs running lengthwise from the cabin to the tailgate along the top of each interior wall. It bathes the interior in a warm indirect light coming from behind the valances, just enough to see by but not more. They run off the internal 12V electrical system and the power draw is almost undetectable. It’s a major enhancement to the van.

We stayed up for a while, had a few drinks and enjoyed the view of the stars and the sandstone buttes, just visible in ghostly moonlight. It was eerie how quiet it was. I’m not used to camping without music from every direction and we tried not to wake other people as we set up camp. Eventually we finished and crashed.

Saturday morning I awoke to this view, right out the tailgate of the van:


Rock formation right behind our camp. A deep gully separated it from us.


Towards the road up from the entrance.

There weren’t that many tent campers here, mostly RVs. After lunch we registered and got some information and local maps. Access to Monument Valley itself isn’t unrestricted. You have an 17-mile loop road you can take–it’s a fairly technical dirt road actually–and otherwise you need to be on a tour with a Navajo guide. Saturday night we went on a full moon tour. I wasn’t too thrilled about being on a tour but it’s only for the valley itself. There are a bunch of other parks and destinations nearby to check out, and we did that the next day.

That afternoon, before the tour, we went on a little hike. There were three trailheads from our campsite and none require guides, since they don’t go onto tribal land. I didn’t expect there to be much to see, but damn, I was wrong! Here are a few photos from that hike, which terminated at a natural stone arch. I’d always wanted to see one.

A natural stone arch.

A natural stone arch. Just a 10 minute walk/climb from our camp.

Canyon formed by a collection of buttes.

Heather facing a canyon formed by a collection of buttes.


Just around the corner.

After the high-altitude hike we made our way back to camp. Had a breather, a few drinks and later on, dinner. The full moon tour started at dusk. It was like this initially:

The first stop.

The first stop.

A triplet of buttes, I'll spare you their silly names.

A trio of ancient, huge, delicate buttes. I'll spare you their silly names.

Except these, I like their name: The Three Sisters.

Except these, I like their name: The Three Sisters.

I don’t have photos of the moonlit buttes, but I hope this gives some sense of the experience. The sunset-lit buttes were staggering, and I doubt any photograph can do it justice. There is a deep silence to the area; there are a few Navajo settlements here and there, but mostly the valley is empty. Their towering enormity and incredible age–and the silent stillness–evoke calmness, reflection and a broadening humility. I felt connected from the perspective of the yawning ages, far prior to the advent of humanity. I sensed how the countless busy people and their dusty little machines buzzing around nowadays is a virtually unnoticeable blip compared to the biological and geological processes that resulted in this awesome creation.

This was just what I had in my mind for what I wanted out of this trip. It was already exceeding my optimistic expectations. End of the first full day.

O Death

From a chat I had with my ex-girlfriend Kelly Thomas the other day, regarding the death of my mother the day before. Edited for clarity.

Kelly: Jason, are you online?

Jason: Yeah, I’m here. How are you?

Kelly: I’m ok, I’m really sorry to hear about your mom.

Jason: Thanks. It was a long time coming. Fortunately I got to visit her two weeks ago to say goodbye.

Karen Wells, my mother. 14 December 1945 - 12 February 2009.

Karen Wells, my mother. 14 December 1945 - 12 February 2009.

Kelly: I know she’s been sick for a long time but its still hard. I’m glad you were able to visit her.

Jason: Me too.

Kelly: So when is the funeral?

Jason: I don’t know exactly. Dad says the service will be in the next few days.

Kelly: How’s your dad doing?

Jason: He doesn’t let it out much, but I can tell he’s really hurting. I hope he feels relief.

Kelly: Me too, It does get better, but takes awhile. I still miss my dad.

Jason: I bet.

Mom’s been going, going, gone for a long time though. Once I understood she couldn’t be there for my wedding, that’s when it really sank in that she’s just not there anymore.

Kelly: So how are things otherwise? Are you working today or take the day off?

Jason: I haven’t decided. I’m actually doing okay, basically. I’ll probably go in later.

Kelly: I think after my dad died I was in shock. And then it hit me at the funeral. But I guess you were there so I’m probably not telling you something you don’t already know!

Jason: When I think about her, it doesn’t really hurt. Sometimes it does if I remember how she was a long time ago.

But when I went to see her… man. She was in a cognitive twilight. Some bit of her was there, but not much. That was upsetting to see. Most of who she was was gone already.

Kelly: I like to think that when my dad died he was finally at peace.

Jason: That’s a nice thought. I’m just glad Mom’s long darkness is over.

I know if someone had told her this was to be her fate, she would have been horrified. Especially because of the impact it had on the rest of the family.

Kelly: My dad too. I think he was in denial about it though. But maybe that’s part of why we don’t know the future, eh? We’d never hold out for it. 🙂 Ok it’s not always that bad.

Jason: Heh.

Kelly: I don’t know how you feel about the whole spiritual stuff, but even if her mind wasn’t there I think her spirit was. The body is always just an impermanent condition.

Jason: I look at it this way. Who my mom was came from her mind, from her brain. Mostly people think of the mind as a uniform thing, but it’s not that way at all. From what little I understand of neuroscience, it’s structured in an unbelievably complicated way. When she had the brain tumor, some of those structures were damaged or destroyed. And then the radiation therapy, which did kill the tumor, caused the rest of the gradual but vast damage to her brain that ultimately killed her.

Kelly: So what happens when you die?


Jason: I think we’re all part of the world. We’re natural. We are born in nature. We don’t pop into existence from any ethereal plane. Our mothers give birth to us.

And we die naturally too. Once something in the world no longer exists, it no longer exists. The part of the world that was her is now gone, to be other things now.

Kelly: Like what?

Jason: Lots of things. Our memories of her. Or things that she created or caused, like my existence or Dave’s. Or the effect she had on Dad, or any relatives, or anyone who ever knew her. And her body, the physical expression of her, returns to simpler things.

Kelly: I think that’s really beautiful.

Jason: 🙂

Kelly: I made you smile!

Jason: I never needed a separate spiritual world. The natural world is more than enough for me.

Kelly: Sometimes it’s so beautiful I can barely stand it.