Monthly Archives: February 2014

Borrowing Adam Smith from Robin Hanson:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Smith has made a keen observation of human behavior. This observation I think can be extended temporally to our future and past selves and similarly to others. We rarely behave as though our future self has importance for us and connection to our past self is largely a fiction. If that is correct, it follows that extending it to others would be even more limited.

If we are largely geographically and temporally limited:

How big is the bubble we live in normally? (A few days and a few miles?)
Does it vary much by person?
What causes it to expand or contract?
When it does expand or contract, for how long does that last?
How often does it expand or contract?
Are there rules that guide this?
Can the interaction of all these bubbles be modeled and if so, what would that look like?

PS The bubble could be thought of as spacetime coordinates.


I read somewhere* recently that reading poetry was the way to learn about brevity. That makes some sense. If a poet gets an idea across in a few words that is the essence of brevity. Brevity seems to be at the intersection between clarity of idea conveyed and fewest words (or symbols) to convey it.

It is tempting to think of brevity as being necessarily of quality but that isn’t the case. Perhaps there needs to be another word that addresses few words but lacking quality to act as a contrast. Brevity can be difficult and time consuming, which often mark quality, which may be part of the confusion.

What is the advantage of brevity? There certainly doesn’t seem to be an incentive to be brief judging by much of what is out there. Audiences appear to be paying by the word if you consider the results. This may be the exact case in business settings. Rarely do you ever hear of a massive presentation or report getting hammered. On the contrary, it seems almost unimaginable that the output by a consultancy or an internal quarterly report won’t be 75 slides. There is a safety factor in lacking brevity. More stuff means more chances that something works for the audience or can be spun to meet an objection or simply used to wear out the audience.

So why strive for brevity? Rather than a specific reward, it may be best to think of brevity as a self teaching exercise. Teaching a concept normally forces an examination of your own understanding as you try to convey that understanding to others. Brevity similarly forces coming to grips with distilling what you are trying to convey. It should strengthen your understanding or point out weaknesses to be addressed.

PS – Brevity is a personal struggle. Stripping things down in a way that reduces paragraphs to sentences and sentences to words seems wrong. Perhaps this recalls the days when hitting a word count goal was necessary for an assignment.

* I can’t remember who to attribute this to, sorry.

I was that inattentive driver a day or two ago. My apologies to the pedestrian that I almost clipped. You were in the right and I was in the wrong. It’s hard even now to make that admission of being wrong. In the first few seconds you know you are wrong and you are embarrassed. There is a witness so it isn’t like being wrong when no one is around. After whatever awkward attempt at making things right, it is amazing how quickly I wanted to come up with an excuse/justification:
It was raining
He wasn’t there when I first looked there
The light changed and I was already out there and needed to go
What was he doing there anyway
Normally I’m all over this, this was just a rare lapse
I see people do worse stuff all time
He saw me and stopped walking so no problem
He wasn’t anywhere near getting hit so no real harm done

All those thoughts in less than 15 seconds and probably in less than 5. All attempts to get rid of that sick wrong feeling that I might have hurt him. All of that rather than stopping (mentally) and saying wow, that was close. What just happened there? How did I get in that spot and what steps do I need to take to correct for that?

Its so much more tempting to go the first way. You reestablish equilibrium pretty quickly that way, probably no more than minutes. There is no ask of you mentally so it is much easier. No harm is done to the ego. You just pave over the rough spot and everything is back to good.

PS: I tend to bark a lot when I drive. Play by play commentary on all the dumb things that drivers/cyclists/pedestrians are doing around me. There is no shortage of fodder. Perhaps, though quite unlikely, this may be a wedge to change that habit/behavior.

PPS: So far, not so much on changing the play by play commentary behavior.

Continuing with an occasional theme of ‘keeping multiple contending thoughts in your head at the same time’, Brain Pickings has a post about someone’s life learnings and one of them is ‘worrying solves nothing’. A contrasting theme elsewhere is about how we view our future selves as different people and thus have less concern for them. Seemingly there is a contradiction here.

The sweet spot between these thoughts would seem to be something along the lines of taking time periodically to vision your future self (evidently picture aging is a way to connect with that future self) while short circuiting the worry circuit when it happens (consciously box up your worries when you are cycling on them with a self agreement to examine them at a set future point).

Perhaps there is a temporal aspect to this in which worrying is a more near term rather than far term kind of thing which would tend to separate the ideas. Anecdotally though, people seem to worry about plenty of far term things. This could also be wrongly conflating two different things. Rather than worry being a manifestation of concern for some future self, maybe worrying is a different thought process entirely. Then the two ideas aren’t in contention. Worrying does have characteristics of a mental habit or tic. Concern for a future self is most defined by an absence. Basically not thinking about something.

While there isn’t good evidence to keep the two notions linked, there isn’t much contra evidence either so for the time being they stay in the hopper together.

Combinatorial creativity and the connectome are two ideas that aren’t normally talked about at the same time.

Combinatorial creativity is when you take various bits and pieces that already exist and mash them together to come up with something new. An easy example is music. A composer may borrow a particular theme from another composer but then take the timing or feel from another piece to create something new based on things that already exist.*

The connectome is all of the neural connections in the brain and nervous system of an organism (at least according to wikipedia). In a book titled with the same name, the connectome is fleshed out by addressing how those neural connections come to be. Since those connections are constantly changing by what we experience, our connectomes are different even among those who share a number of features. We may have grown up together, in the same place, as part of the same culture, with similar families and yet both our conscious choices and events that happen to us will change the nature of our connectome.

If you bring together these two notions, it is possible that a specific outcome of combinatorial creativity could in principle be limited to one individual. Said differently, it is only through a connectome that developed over time in the way specific to that individual that the pieces brought together by an act of combinatorial creativity might come to be. If that is at all correct, it seems reassuring both from the standpoint of an individual in a sea of humanity and as a reason to continue to try to create.

* The hardware store is an excellent example of combinatorial creativity where you wander the aisles looking at various gizmos in search of an idea that, when combined with a different material or size or function will solve whatever your problem is.

When it comes to endurance sports like running, cycling, and swimming where the athlete is targeting longer distance or time based efforts the question is whether the approach to training is optimal when starting out or when trying to improve performance.

Except for those who have the benefit of having taken up a sport early in life in a formal setting like school, a league, a club, most of us haven’t had a lot of formal training or instruction in any given sport. Even those who do participate in formal settings often don’t have the benefit of good training or instruction. You go out and do. This bias towards doing is problematic in all sports but especially so where there is a low bar for high repetition in the sport. If you go out for a 5 mile run you repeat your motion in the thousands of times. Many training plans focus on building up mileage and speed over time with some call outs to form being more or less present. This structure works well for those who either through intuition or early instruction are already disposed towards better form. It also works if the athlete doesn’t have concerns about their own best performance. For everyone else, it is suboptimal and reinforces habits that will have to be unlearned or lived with.

My hypothesis is that we would be better off with much less emphasis initially on distance or speed and a lot more on perfecting form. I think one of the things this could look like is very short distance sets; immediately stopping when focus is lost or when form breaks. This is hard because everything in these sports is geared towards keeping going. It is also hard because often the original reason for starting is the ease with which you can just go out and do these things. The last hard part is knowing when your form is good and when it isn’t. This piece strikes me as being the most susceptible to a technical hack.

There are, depending on the sport, any number of instructional/training materials with more published daily and yet I don’t seem to have come across much that puts form based limits on progression in the training. This could be attributable to the hard parts mentioned above and if so, those hard parts seem like a good problem space to work on.