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Posts from 21 January 2015

  • The Prevalence of Talent

    There are limits to what a person is capable of. In a given population, maximum skill lies along some sort of distribution. If everyone were to devote themselves totally to a single pursuit in a given society, people would eventually reach a point where there was a compressed distribution of that skill close to the maximum possible within that society.

    To put this in concrete terms, if everyone in the US decided to devote themselves to football, we would eventually (within a generation or two) see every person within a couple percent of their maximum possible skill in football. The variance could be explained by factors such as lack of motivation, choosing a bad position (a person whose physiology was more suited to being a linebacker devoting themselves to becoming a quarterback, etc.), and normal imperfections of the world.

    Ignoring other follow-on consequences of such an arrangement—such as the selection pressure to breed more capable children—a lot could be said about the population in a world like this. For instance, the total market for talent would be nearly saturated. Many of the people who are professionals today would not be in such a world because of selection pressures. Most people would be better at evaluating others' skill at the common task—not good necessarily, just better. Given that evaluation of skills and performance of them are correlated yet distinct, not everyone would be suited to determine which of their fellow citizens is better than others.

    Consider: in a given domain, not only are there different specialties (quarterbacks and linebackers; percussion, strings, and wind), there are also different meta-specialties and synergies. A football team, due to the nature of competitive games, needs trainers, managers, coaches, strategists, data analysts, businessmen, and so forth. What makes a team successful in a competitive sense (winning games) and what makes a team successful in a business sense (bringing in as much money as possible) are somewhat distinct skills. Getting the attention of customers and getting them to want to spend money is in part due to the prospect of being excited—close scores, a memorable experience, novelty (being part of something no one else is), camaraderie (being part of something others are)—and not necessarily seeing one team utterly destroy another. A single star player is not enough to produce long-term interest: if no one can ever get the ball to the running back or the defense crumples under an offensive drive, no one is going to be interested in the "product" over time.

    The football metaphor is limiting, so I will set it aside for now. Consider the following, then:

    There is nothing that everyone does well, so we don't know what the limits of performance are. Given that time and attention are limiting factors in most business relationships, we tend to choose products and experiences not on raw quality but rather on some combination of the above factors, and others: exclusivity, inclusivity, identity, memorability, compatibility, reputation, exhaustion.

    When it comes to occupations, there are two main poles at which work accumulates: that which can only be done by many people, and that which need only be done once. The former is represented by the term "labor": cleaning, cooking, building, advising, teaching. The latter is represented (mostly) by the term "creation": design, invention, research, architecture. That isn't to say that this second set of tasks only need be done once, ever; however, designing a particular (e.g.) car allows for the creation of a practically unlimited number of cars, whereas the construction of a single car doesn't allow thousands of people to drive.

  • The Curse of Memory.

    My first year in college, I was best friends with someone whose entire existence has since been reduced to a single anecdote about spoons.

    This isn't to say that I never think of him in any other context, nor that he didn't have any other effect on me. However, the only reason I ever have to bring him up to other people is to mention the following: I knew a guy who decided to steal a spoon from the cafeteria every time he went for a meal, to the point that they no longer had enough to make it through the day without constant washing. Meanwhile, he had an entire desk drawer full of spoons that he brought with him when he moved out of the dorms.

    It's not a particularly interesting anecdote, and I can't recall a single time someone has requested a follow-up. "Oh, that's interesting; why did he do it? How many did he accumulate in the end? He sounds like an interesting guy; tell me more about him…" When I'm reminded of it, I could probably chuckle quietly and reminisce to myself rather than inflict the non-story on another person, but that never happens. I can't say why, precisely, but I have some theories.

    When I arrived in my dorm, the college hadn't opened "officially" yet. Due to the nature of the residence community—we were two floors within a four-building, twenty-floor complex dedicated to people from overseas or who had an interest in international "stuff", for lack of a better word—we were allowed to move in early. For the students who chose to take this option, it was an unparalleled opportunity to explore the college in that golden moment of perfect anticipation, where everything is open and available but not ruined by the pressing crowd.

    The beginning of the semester is defined by people exploring themselves, trying to start anew. This is doubly true for the beginning of the academic year, when the light and warmth of the summer are still making their presence felt, and the clarity provided by three months' vacation meets the promise of all new courses untainted by the anxieties of years past. While the beginning of the spring term is defined by resolutions to do better—the gyms and dining halls are full-up with students trying to make up for past failures, by eating right, working out, waking up early, and so forth—the end of summer is an explosion on all fronts. Freshman are learning what it means to define oneself in the vacuum created by the absence of authority; sophomores and juniors are seeing the world with the veneer of experience (and taking advantage of freshman naïveté), making up for missed opportunities by exploring those places that went ignored in earlier years; and seniors break in the old favorites for the first time of a new year. The end of August is the true spring in a college town: no venue goes unvisited, no random adventure goes untaken, no resource or club goes unconsidered.

    Moving in early allowed us to get a jump on the lines. In the first days before move-in, the international students (real and fake), gained the jaded veneer that only occurs during mass transitions. "Student rate football tickets? Yeah, me and a bunch of the guys bought a block of ten consecutive seats a while back" (yesterday afternoon). "

  • The art of the possible

    Politics is sometimes described as the art of the possible. The possible is the set of all states that are reachable from the current world, given the preferences and abilities of the people currently in power.

  • Ritualized morality.

    People do certain things because that's how they were brought up. Communities raise children to act a certain way and to value certain behaviors because the communities that survived are the ones that shared rituals and values. Having an undercurrent of common beliefs is essential to extended survival because it cuts out a lot of the bookkeeping discussion that is generated by diverse communities.

    Kohlberg's stages of moral development are useful for understanding this next bit. In short, Kohlberg sees humans as having six possible perspectives on morality, in increasing order:

    1. Selfish, egocentric, only punishment-avoiding: For instance: autistic adults; toddlers
    2. Understand that others are people, too; look for self-interest/quid-pro-quo: Sociopaths; children
    3. Seek conformity; look for reputation as a "good person": Religious hypocrites; pre-teens
    4. Obey laws: Authoritarians; most adults
    5. Recognize that laws are social contracts: Democratic governments (ideally); political scientists?
    6. Seek and apply universal moral principles: Philosophers?

    (I would hypothesize a level above this last, wherein you would recognize that other intelligences in the universe could have a different set of universal morals, but it's hard to discuss that without knowing other real intelligences, and not just sci-fi suppositions.)

    (Also note, that Kohlberg splits the stages of morality into three tiers of two perspectives each.)

    In a society composed of mostly people in the second of the three tiers (phases 3 and 4), having standing ethical and moral frameworks is essential. In fact, given that children are born at phase 1, there will always have to be at least some bootstrapping ethical framework for them to scaffold off of if we ever expect a majority of people to hit the third tier. (It is questionable whether having a majority of people at the third tier is even possible.)

    In general, the people around you are going to be legalistic: what is right is what is comfortable, what I've been trained to do, and what my in-group sees as right. There will be norms they follow only because of habit, like praying even when they don't get anything out of it, and saying to others that prayer helps them. And there will be norms that they follow because they see them as "right", such as not stealing or being deferential to others; seeing the opposite of these things happen will get under their skin.

    In tight in-groups that have persisted through the post-industrial era of youth mobility, these norms generally persist, and they're innocuous as long as members of out-groups don't infringe on their territory. Generally, though, the 100-year old WASP village isn't going to be able to incorporate a huge influx of Pakistani Muslims, even if the latter group at the core has many of the same values viz. the importance of family, religiosity, etc.

    Tier 3 humans would recognize pragmatic practices that enable effective social bonding, which are useful to having peaceful social transactions. Having a certain number of tier 3s in a diverse region can enable the free-flow of people and transactions through the area, even if most individuals remain in tier 2. I can practice limited sharia law in your neighborhood, as long as, when I violate the larger social norms, I am able to defer to the overall social context, even if I am not capable of level five thinking.

    In terms of "burning up" morality, or "morality porn", I believe that the group most susceptible to these effects are those at level 3: they want to be known as a "good person", and not necessarily to do good, so they just need to hit a certain level of expenditure and/or public charity to satisfy themselves: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others."

    Overall, then, there is a place for ritual: bonding, in-out group designation (in light of this, one should open one's dinner table to out-neighbors in order to lower those barriers), and the development of morality in children and the sustenance of moral actions in the under-developed. But overall, each person should strive to at least understand the role of the social contract, and dispose of those rituals and groupings that cause friction in practical life.

  • Hangups.

    I never quite accomplish what I wish to. There is a long list of stuff in my head that I can never seem to get out. I know this doesn't make me unique in any way, but so much of my identity is tied up in the belief that I have a lot to offer the world, and I just need to get it out, so it's frustrating to constantly hit the wall.

    A core problem seems to hit when I regress. I start down what should be a productive train of thought, and find myself thinking about bigger and bigger ideas, or at least more and more abstract ones, until I get to a point that I'm trying to solve all the problems of the world at once.

    People don't really care about big ideas if they can't see a solution. The same reaction I give students when they tell me they know the material, but they just can't solve the exercises, is what others rightfully give me. In the meantime, I recognize that doing is more important to me than thinking, at least from an emotional perspective, but I also find myself questioning the merit of the things I do when I simply act. When actions don't fit into a larger context, they don't seem to make me better or lead to anything. This is how I believe people waste their lives.

  • Educational progression

    When students have to make a time/effort tradeoff when swamped with work, not all the work that the professor desires students to complete will be done. Students are still capable of achieving high marks in the absence of 100% commitment, which indicates that there's a disconnect between the work assigned and the demands of a given quantum of instruction.

    Matching these would be a challenge, but consider this:

    • Instructors identify the highest-level skills that students who are successful in the class should possess
    • Instructors make a hierarchy of skills that students would have to progress through in order to develop and demonstrate skills, and connect them together
    • Students are given high-level skills to practice, and if they can't manage them, are given easier and more fundamental skills until they are making progress at their experience level
  • A strange Mail.app bug

    To begin, it helps to understand that things get under my skin easily. I was running Word 2004 on a recent Intel Mac, and spent two hours toggling options and configuring my environment to try to get rid of a 50 ms lag in characters appearing on screen. (I never was able to, and ended up using Word 2010 on a PC to do that piece of work.) I argued with a guy for three hours about the use of a particular piece of iconography and the role of consistency in UI design, because a visual confusion was causing me thirty seconds of inconvenience per day.

    So basically, I'm an asshole (to many of you) or particular ("OCD") about a couple things, which can be roughly boiled down to "responsiveness" and "flow". I'll upgrade my phone to reduce typing lag, I won't use a device that's too old if fast tasks aren't fast—app switching, typing, mouse input—and I hate chrome, animation, and interfaces that reduce application interaction speed. This leads into flow: if a button isn't clear after using it five times, or I mis-hit a menu because my understanding of an app is different from the designers' intent, I get increasingly frustrated. Adobe Reader using the Windows XP file dialog for saving/opening files (as opposed to the Windows 7 version) is one of my pet peeves. Thus, the main reason I prefer OS X is that there are so few exceptions: Apple's "update or get left behind" dictum to software developers is, in my mind, a virtue, because when everything is up-to-date everything behaves predictably and I can flow more easily.

  • A model of how social interaction works, for sociopaths

    "Never dine alone." There's a purpose to this: if you're dining, you should seek to share food with someone whose social bonds and career trajectory might benefit you down the road, or with someone you could mentor in some way. In all aspects, you should seek to dine (that is, eat out) with people who can enrich your life, and who can benefit from or provide benefit to you through the social bonds created by the ancient rites of breaking bread together.

    Jesus said:

    "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

    Genius works the same way. Somewhere in the universe is a creature of an alien species that knows the answers to the problem you're working on, but just as his knowledge does you no good in your life, knowledge you don't share with others does them no good in their lives. People work better in messy offices, where ideas can cross-pollinate and you can (hopefully) find someone who speaks a dialect of the language of your problem, and skip out on a lot of the infrastructure that would accompany writing.

    In general, a good intellectual peer allows you to do what I've heard referred to as "skip talk": you skip a lot of words and ideas because your companion indicates, using non-verbal and sub-verbal cues that they see where you're going because they've already been there. So you quickly get to the meat of the discussion, and gain a lot of ground there because that person can help you recognize which ideas are worth pursuing.

    Once you create something, though, you should polish it to a point that someone who doesn't know you and doesn't necessarily like you can understand it. This is the work that happens alone, for the most part, and that which most resembles "work". The endless polishing, cleaning up of ambiguities, and presentation of data in an understandable format for all to see takes a lot of time, but this is where true genius lives.

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