How more content can be better than less... maybe

Had a new thought on this today...

    Context: I dumped way too much text on a coworker, and I'm sure it's too much to process in a single conversation. But that's sort of how conversations should work, if there's going to be synergy: You need to to be able to let your brain go as far as it can before getting more input from others. And yet, if you do that, your conversation partner is overwhelmed.
    • Thought: Perhaps the protocol should be
      • A sends wall of text that represents all of the things A's thinking about
      • B highlights bits for follow-up, for any reason, which are immediately visible to A
      • While A is pondering why those highlights, B writes something about each one - questions, comments, objections. Each of these may themselves be walls of text, ('cause who says your reaction to something will always be simple?) which then follow the protocol recursively.
    • The highlight thing seems important to me, and would need tool support (?). That's the main thought. I can understand a wall of text from you if I can highlight all the things that "catch" in my mind, and when I'm done, that's a TODO list for me.

    More content shouldn’t be worse than less

    I’ve been thinking about how [Co-worker]'s info dumps just get ignored, but if he provided less up-front information, people would engage.
    Also, when I send emails, detailing the whole problem guarantees the email won’t get read.
    Also, recommending someone a whole book on something is worse than a blog post, is worse than a tweet.

    This shouldn’t be so for me. If I want information on something, then a book should be better than a blog post, even if I don’t have time to read the whole book cover-to-cover. A whole book contains the information I need, and I need to get away from my fear of a wall of text.

    As of now, all content lengths are equally usable. I’ll get good at x-raying the longer stuff. I'm already pretty practiced at this, but I want it to be second-nature.

    Life lesson from AlphaGo

    The researchers building AlphaGo first trained a neural network to accurately reproduce the move an expert human would make for a given board state. The neural network didn't end up being a great player, and lost half it's games against the runner-up AIs. Why? Because its goal had been to accurately reproduce the movements it had learned, instead of the actual goal of winning. Have you heard the term cargo-culting? That's what it was doing: merely going through the motions it had seen, without understanding why and using that knowledge to pull its bag of great moves together into an actual strategy.
    Just like how most students sit in class and do their homework because that's what they're expected to do, accurately reproducing their role, and never once thinking about what it would take for them to actually absorb the material and make it a part of themselves. Or how everyone is really impressed with a small set of famous people, and then just go right back to the usual motions of their daily lives, without once trying to work out the path through action-space that would lead to their own ascendency.
    That neural net got to winning 85% of its games against the runner-up AI when they further trained it using Reinforcement Learning to just flipping win any way it could.
    So don't merely do what others do. Sample and remix what others do to win.

    Evolve Bamboo One

    After much agonizing and some budgeting, I bought an Evolve Bamboo One, and it came yesterday!

    It was dark out when the board arrived and I was afraid of riding it for the first time near where I live (too hilly, some traffic, dark), so I only rode it down the hallway of my apartment... Ahem.

    But today... Today I took it out to the nearby metro parking lot, which is quite empty and free over the weekend. It also has this great little hill for experimentation. I rode it for three hours up and down the hill before I started getting the 10% battery warning.

    So fun. I love this thing. Good job, Evolve. 👍

    My wife has named it "Tom", because I suggested "TOB" ("The One Board" [To Rule Them All]), and it sounded like I was saying "Tom" with a cold. Tom it is.

    In case anyone is worried about me riding this thing, rest assured that I too am quite frightened of wiping out or getting hit by a car, so I'm taking every precaution. At the moment that's a helmet, a lot of practice with manual emergency stops, defensive driving, and a habit of hand signals, but I've also ordered a trigger guard for the controller and some wrist guards. I should also mention that it feels a lot safer than my normal longboard because it has brakes with which I can keep the speed down to where I feel comfortable foot-braking in case something goes wrong. There's also enough resistance from the motor that it's easier to keep my speed down without power.

    Correcting for bias when estimating from evidence

    Intuition patch
    1. Base rate
    2. Your guess
    3. Est. correlation b/w evidence & outcome
    4. Deviate #1 -> #2 proportional to #3.
    Kahneman, TFAS

    This is a tweet-packed nugget of wisdom from Thinking, Fast and Slow.

    I love this book because it not only talks about what the evidence shows about our cognitive biases, but also what it says about how to correct for them, and how effective this correction can be.
    What this^ bit is saying is that our guesses are largely based on substitution and intensity matching, which are great heuristics, but systematically biased to ignore regression towards the mean. That is, as he says frequently, we tend to assume that What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI), when there's actually a lot of hidden factors that can influence the outcome other than the evidence we've seen.
    So, when asked to estimate the college GPA of a child who could read by the age of 4, we first do substitution ("estimate future GPA" -> "estimate precocity"), then intensity matching ("quite precocious" -> ~3.7 GPA), and stop there.
    Kahneman suggests a way to approximate the outcome of an actual statistical analysis by adding in two more things: The base rate (in this case average) GPA of any student, without any extra information about them, and our estimate of the correlation between precocity and GPA. You start by assuming the student is merely average, and then you walk in the direction of your intuitive number you got (~3.7) a distance proportional to how correlated you think GPA is to childhood precocity.

    Successful Scheduling System

    Most successful scheduling system to-date:
    I divided each day up into four chunks:
    • Morning (10-12),
    • Early Afternoon (12-3),
    • Late Afternoon (3-6), and
    • Evening (6-9).
    Then I put tasks into one of three categories:
    • Small,
    • Medium, and
    • Large,
    where there are
    • several (~4-5) Small tasks to a Medium,
    • two Mediums to a Large, and
    • only one Large task fits in one of the ~3-hour time-slots.
    Take a break after every significant thing.

    Greedy for beauty, longing never satisfied

    I'm writing this now because, as I often mention, I get reset every morning. Regardless of what went on the day before, I always wake up a new person - sometimes happy, usually neutral leaning towards cynical, and sometimes nasty. I want tomorrow to be different, because today was so good. Today I know God is real and working out a grand plan. Today it started with music.

    There's an amazing song arranged by Jon Schmidt called "Love Story meets Viva la Vida" because it's Jon on the Piano and some other guy on the cello first playing Taylor Swift's Love Story and then transitioning seamlessly into Viva la Vida. It stirs my soul, and alters my mood for the better, casting a generally deep and intriguing atmosphere over all of my thoughts. The song seems to subliminally encourage me to look deeper into thoughts, feelings and events, and I actually listened to it while I got caught up in my Bible reading.

    The day before I had received The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis, and started reading the title essay before going to sleep. I got about a third of the way through, and a couple of concepts hit me. I was affected most deeply by the idea that longing and the apprehension of beauty are very closely related, if not the same emotion. The concept resonates with the core of me for two reasons.

    First, as Lewis mentions, that fact is good evidence that there is a Heaven, and that God is there. We experience longing when we see something beautiful because we have a sort of residual understanding, unmarred by the fall, that there is a place we haven't yet been, that we have been searching for all our lives; that there is something (Someone), some source, from which all the beauty we see with our eyes comes, and to which all that beauty points. This is far better to me than any alternate explanation of our feelings of beauty and longing in response to the beautiful, which is important for my peace of mind.

    Second, I am also gripped by the concept because it seems so very real. I have been consciously keeping an eye out for months for something that I could hold onto - something that would be sufficiently ubiquitous in my daily experience to hold me close to God even when I didn't directly feel his presence. The fact that beauty is longing screams to me that there is a whole other class of beauty out there somewhere, of which the earthly beauty I see everywhere is but a mere suggestion.

    C.S. Lewis also elaborates on the nature of that longing. When I listen to my beautiful music, I want to just dive into it. I want to eat it, become one with it, swish my feet around in it and then slide my whole body in. When I see a beautiful sunset, or the aftermath on a berry-bush of an ice storm, or the red and yellow autumn leaves, contrary to all worldly reason I desire - so badly it hurts - to join myself to that glory. Those desires are not satisfiable in this world, so why are they there? God loves us, and created us to worship him with our whole being forever. This is the greatest satisfaction we can attain, and is far more satisfying than anything we have ever yet experienced. And now one huge piece of evidence for it is felt in my bones, and surrounds me on every side.

    "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

    [This essay first posted while at Cornell, around 2009.]

    The Bible is God's Word. Read it!

    [I just found this tucked away in the old Cru Cornell blog archive, and thought I'd repost.]

    This blog post and subsequent 5-Minute Senior Message Brain Dump brought to you by:


    • Petunia: A book I read in elementary school about this goose who thinks she’s wise because she found a book and carries it around under her arm.
    • Pastor John of KCCE: “If you have never read all the way through the Bible, most of what you believe is lies." I’ll elaborate on that.
    • How messed up I get when I don’t read what God wrote me for a long time. I’m a completely different person when I read (and internalize) my Bible in the morning.
    • The Bible itself, for example Psalm 1 and John 15.
    • The realization that if I don’t read my Bible, everybody and everything else in the world has a say in what I think except God. My classmates, TV shows, movies, my textbooks, magazine articles… all tell me explicitly or implicitly what’s important and worth-living for. They all lie. Only God doesn’t.
    • The fact that the Bible gets more and more interesting and exciting the more you read of it, and the more you dig it up from the swamp of Christian cliches, “holy-speak" and cultural confusion.

    The Bible is God’s word - whatever that means. I don’t mean to be irreverent. I say that because I think we Christians have created a class of words and phrases that we say and sing but never use in our every day lives, so we’ve forgotten what they mean. This phrase is important, so I’m gonna just say it over and over again:

    • The Bible is God’s WORD. That is, in much the same way that Runaway Jury is John Grisham’s word, Harry Potter is J.K. Rowling’s word, Webster’s Dictionary was originally Noah Webster’s word, and Chemical Reaction Engineering is Octave Levenspiel’s word (no joke, that’s actually his name), the Bible is God’s. He has very intentionally written down what he thinks we need to know. He’s also written down a lot of things we’d really like to know, especially regarding his motives. He’s also written it down in such a way that we can find it interesting, assuming we’re not just complete bums.
    • The Bible is God’s WORD (in response to your prayers). I wish God would just thunder answers to my prayers out of the sky, or skype me or something, but that’s just not how it works. That’s never been how it’s worked for most people, by the way. I may envy the Jesus’ disciples for being able to get straight answers out of Jesus directly (har har har), or Moses for being able to ring him up whenever he wanted, but for the vast majority of Israelites and us Christians, we will have to wait until death or the return of Jesus to talk with him face to face. There has always been a mediator. This is the way it works right now: you pray to God, and God really truly speaks to you by the Holy Spirit in the Bible with what you really need to hear. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s like you’ve got a chunk of God inside you doing the speaking, and the words he uses are those of the Bible.
    • The Bible is GOD’s word. God is much cooler than those people I just mentioned. God (via Jesus), using whatever method, created the entire universe and everything in it. He cursed the world when Adam sinned. He did countless miracles and redeemed us from that curse, and Jesus took the throne after returning from the dead. He’s the most interesting person who has ever lived, and he wrote about it in the Bible.
    • The Bible is God’s (THE HOLY SPIRIT’S) word. Not only did God write the Bible using Holy-Spirit-indwelt people so it doesn’t err, but he gives the Holy Spirit to Christians (among other reasons) so that we can understand the thing, so we will actually apply it to our lives (instead of letting it go in one… ear and out the other), and so it can be more than just “not boring". The Holy Spirit, through the Bible, gives us understanding of who God is. There is nothing better than that. Nothing God has created is better than himself, or more satisfying to the human soul. He made it that way.

    I really wanted to excite you all about reading your Bibles, but so far all I’ve done is brow-beat you with a few good reasons why you should. It has been immensely helpful to me in the past few years to get concrete examples of God’s awesomeness in the Bible, so let’s just look quickly at two situations Jesus was in that we can all relate to - someone wanting to know about salvation, and someone trying to trap us in our words: (lots of my progression here ripped off from Michael Ramsden)

    First example: [From Mark 10:17] “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

    GOOD QUESTION. What would you say if some classmate of yours came up to you and asked what he should do to inherit eternal life? First, how would you feel? WIN. Best day ever. Of course you would say, “Why, my dear friend, in order to inherit eternal life ye must repent of thy sins and vouchsafe thy soul unto the Lord Jesus." When someone asked this question of Jesus, he said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone," and then essentially, “follow the ten commandments stupid." Then the guy says he’s kept the commandments, and Jesus pities him and throws him a bone: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

    What’s going on? Doesn’t Jesus understand the gospel? To make a long story short, yes. But he knows this guy is all mixed up. What must I DO could either be a sincere attempt to follow Jesus at all costs, or it could be a confused request for a way to earn his own salvation, and Jesus knows which it is. Jesus’ answer is therefor really cool: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." “Good teacher, what must I do…" held within it an implicit assumption that this guy could make himself good enough to inherit eternal life. But if you must be good to go to heaven and God alone is good, then who is going? No one. In other words, this guy’s application to join the Trinity has been denied. He does not meet minimum entry requirements.

    My point is, Jesus answers people right where they are with exactly the answer/question they need. There’s actually another instance in the gospels where Jesus is asked almost exactly the same question and he answers completely differently. Sometimes he’s harsh, sometimes he’s gentle, but he’s always right on. His answers and counter-questions are always brilliant and I encourage you to go puzzle through them.

    Second example: [from Mark 12:13-17] The Pharisees sent some people to trap Jesus in his words. (It explicitly says that, so we know what they say is to trap him…): “And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?" Does anyone see the trap? Does anyone understand the cultural context this comes out of?

    Israel was under Roman rule. If you pay taxes to Caesar, you’re supporting the oppressors. That’s morally bad, and of course the Messiah isn’t going to morally compromise. But if you don’t pay taxes to Caesar and tell others not to, you’re definitely an insurrectionist and must be killed. Win-win for the Pharisees, or so they think. Jesus cannot answer "yes" or “no" to this yes-or-no question.

    So he doesn’t. “But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ And they brought one. And he said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, 'Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’" And it says they marveled at him. Why did they do that? Because his answer was pure poetry, and in a very compact phrase, answered both “yes" and “no" where it counted. Essentially, “God owns you. Render to God what is his. And as for the tax? Yes pay it, but give God what he wants - your very selves."

    Convinced? Then please start reading your Bible. Start anywhere, and read however much in a day you can stand at the stage you’re at, as long as that’s more than none. If you have a plan you just can’t seem to get into, throw it away and start a new one that you can get into. Here are ten different plans, each of which has its own features and heritage. Some are pretty normal, differing only in the particulars, and others are unusual (like the Chronological reading plan). Please do pick one and start it wherever you are in the year, if you’re not on one yet:


    If you’re like me, though, and having to read a specific passage on a specific day stresses you out so much that getting behind is a death sentence to your reading for the rest of the month, I recommend something like this:


    I don’t know who “Professor Grant Horner" is, and like Challies, I’m a bit wary of anything called a “Bible Reading System", but I like the theory and the bookmarks. Anyway, it’s just a set of ten bookmarks, each of which has a list of books on it. Theoretically, you read one chapter from each bookmark every day, and the bookmarks walk through the books on their list and then wrap around. You get to compare lots of Bible with lots of other Bible, and if you miss a day or two or want to read extra, there’s no penalty, not even a psychological one.

    Unreliable idea handlers

    It's difficult to tell, among all of the conflicting voices in the world, who is right. But some people are just agents of chaos in this endeavor: the ones who will present things they only just heard as facts, those who present as certainties those things of which they are actually uncertain, those who conflate the plausible and the probable, and those who just pick ideas off the ground and wear them unexamined.

    Don't believe a word they say.

    That said, I'm not actually sure what to do with them. I want to help them learn to care more about the difference between truth and rumor, but these people are often offended when I question their rigor. Let me know if you have any ideas.