Cheap Tricks

I was disappointed by Venkatesh Rao’s book Tempo, because I expected so much of it. Covering business, time perception and improvisation? Here’s me with a PhD in the psychology of time/memory, experience in the kinds of business environments discussed, and a practitioner of improvisational theatre. But the parts of the book didn’t add up to a whole for me, and I didn’t find much that was useful. But one thing I found very useful: cheap tricks.

imageFig1. – Cheap Trick.

In Rao’s words:

’[A cheap trick is] a key organizing insight that motivates the action in the rest of the deep story. Every such insight is flawed, since it is based on excluding some part of reality as noise. This will eventually catch up with you, so the insight merely  buys you a certain amount of time.

If your wrong answer happens also to be elegant, it will compactly explain the part of reality that you do include, and provide leverage. If this leverage can bring you rewards within the time you’ve bought, you’ve cheated nature: earned real rewards from fake truths, and fled with your ill-gotten gains before nature takes her revenge through unintended consequences. The cheap trick is the insight that allows you to locally and temporarily trick nature into bestowing disproportionate rewards on you.’

The idea squares our desire to model reality with the fact that reality can’t be perfectly modelled: too much chaos, too much agency, too much complexity. Despite this we can still discover angles that squeeze reality down to a few fruitful variables that seem particularly true within this historical moment, context or whatever, and exploit that until we decide to discard it, or reality gets the better of us.

I think Rao is particularly interested in targeting investors, entrepreneurs,  and possibly life hackers, by giving them a piece of cognitive architecture to think about when to get in and out of commodities/making free-to-play apps/pick up artist techniques. But I find it a helpful way to think with a bit of groundedness and humility about just about any model, maxims, insight, technique, or tool. Reality is infinite, so any one true way is going to break down. Working for you? Rockin. You’re currently operating within the groove of the cheap trick.

Obligatory improvisation reference – see what Rachel is talking about here
I was also talking about it on Rob Grundel’s old blog (on this post about Mick Napier’s excellent Improvise)

Obligatory Jung reference pending – lost my book.


If you’re interested in my critique of the book, a little more here, but it’s a bit unstructured; if you haven’t read the book it won’t make a lot of sense. I had planned a comprehensive review but the book didn’t hold my attention and I felt a bit like a nitpicker.

Issues I had:

  •   It felt very much like a whistle stop tour, a pot pourri, and frequently second-hand endorsements of other ideas. Sometimes it feels like he is just showing off his personal canon – he states “it is worth reading one of the many excellent popular treatments” on chronobiology, but I’ve read a bunch of that stuff, and generally, it’s not worth it. Or if it is, he ought to explain why.
  •   He sometimes plays fast and loose with notions to bolt them in to his theory. He shoehorns entropy into his model, breaking its meaning, argues that emotions arise when we are forced to move at a different tempo to that which we choose to, which is a pretty radical psychological theory to prove in under a page…
  •    Related to this, many of his frames of reference are from warfare – so the emotion argument stems from the way in which Shock and Awe is instilled on the battlefield. There is a vast emotion literature that just doesn’t map to this, and it seems unnecessary to borrow this one on fairly flimsy grounds.

In a sense, I feel like he is hoist by his own petard. He doesn’t consider that his warfare research may be examples of conceptual cheap tricks – that emotion is driven by tempo, but only in the local conditions of the battlefield.

It would have been better to have dropped the unifying theme of Tempo and been cut up into three or four semi-related topics, as a kind of blog-book; or it could have been really finely edited and developed to have a tighter, credible theme. The tempo ideas are interesting food for thought, but as it stood it didn’t naturally unify the content, so it tempted Rao to bend things to fit it into place.

Since then I read Refactor your Wetware by Andy Hunt. It had fewer things that were wholly new to me (mix of GTD, neuroscience, and social psychology findings) but was integrated really well, I’d much rather go for Hunt. I left that book with half a dozen things to-do, and a bunch of snippets of interesting facts to plug in to things.

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