Shoot first and ask questions later (And have kids even if you don’t want to) (Updated, sorta)

Below is a response to Patri Friedman’s recent post on his pro-parenthood bias:

I’m late to the party.

My first kid is about eight weeks from greeting the world (and piercing my ears for the first few months or years!), so I’ve been giving the whole parenthood thing a lot of thought over the past few months. Incidentally, though we intended to have kids eventually, it happened sooner than we were planning.

Such is the unpredictability of life.

Which brings me to a point that you didn’t make, one that Bryan Caplan has alluded to via some scrounged up surveys of parents. The data Caplan found indicates that almost no one regrets having kids. Most parents wish they had *more* kids than they end up having. And adults who don’t have kids also tend to wish later that they had reproduced (For sake of saving a few words or directing others, see this post on the data).

Even though this backward-looking data supports the argument to have children, I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude that you should reproduce.

We are apparently quite bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. For a nice read on this subject, I recommend picking up Dan Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” (and if you are too busy to do that, just read my selected quotes from Stumbling on Happiness here). A theme of Gilbert, which is also a theme of books like Taleb’s “The Black Swan,” is that everything is much more complex than we make it out to be, and this complexity makes our grossly simplified forecasts fundamentally flawed — useless at best — harmful at worst. As applied to those people who choose not to have kids, as much as they think they know what will make them happy in the future, they are almost certainly going to be wrong about their predictions.

Accepting our inability to know what will make us happy but understanding that it is a biological imperative to reproduce and realizing that it will be much more expensive to reproduce past our reproductive prime, all signs point to shooting first and asking questions later.

Of course, to have kids or not is no simple binary choice. Procreating makes for an incredibly “bushy” (complex) life experience. Kids add randomness and depth to our lives in ways that we can’t possibly foresee but ways we will likely enjoy*. Sure, by having kids you’ll forgo some experiences as you engage life by yourself or with your significant other, but the experiences you’ll forgo by not having children are wholly new and unpredictable — the life of an entirely new human being: you, your significant other, and your kid(s).

In short, I liken parenthood to doing first and understanding later. This is a good rule of thumb to apply across almost all facets of life — lots of iterations make for lots of experiments through which we can learn about and enjoy life. Not having kids is a choice to have a drastically less-interesting, much more simplistic and sterile (literally and figuratively) life. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone I care about.

So I shake my head when friends make that choice.

Finally, I don’t really understand how anyone can understand humanity through the lens of evolution and not have children. Having kids means getting in touch with our core humanity — our biological nature — and living out the imperative coded in our DNA: to create life. Reject your hardwired nature at your own risk.

For my particular contribution to furthering human evolution, our kid is getting a mix of the DNA from a caucasion (me) and an Indian. Gene-swapping for the win!

* Another SoH idea is that we are better off charging into the unknown than doing nothing because our mental immune systems are better at justifying our decisions after the fact than they are at managing grief of what could have been.

** Not a brightline conclusion, I know — you can always adopt or potentially figure out other methods to have children after you pass your reproductive time.

Update: So despite my comment being one of the last out of the 170+ comments to Patri’s post, I got a couple shout-outs in follow-up posts by Patri (here and here). And I had to throw in one more comment, which I’ll copy below, which is more or less an application of Pascal’s wager to the decision to have children. So here’s my second comment:

Another point regarding the buyer’s remorse stats — if the majority of people who don’t have kids ultimately regret it, it seems highly likely that at least one person in a committed sterile-by-choice relationship will regret their decision. Yeah, people often select mates based on whether or not they want to have kids, but these same individuals also often change their minds about their choice (thus the tendency towards regret).

And this often leads to wrecked, otherwise fantastic relationships. I’m sure that I am biased in making this observation — I know someone who clearly regrets not having children. His spouse of twenty years, on the other hand, seems perfectly content. And it has put an enormous amount of unspoken strain on their relationship, not to mention, it is a point of intense sadness for this individual.

I see a slight parallel to religion here. Having kids because you expect it to be somehow fulfilling is a bit like hoping for a reward in heaven when you die — a life lived adhering to some arbitrary religious codes requires a lot of obvious work with less than obvious rewards, not unlike the decision to have kids.

Except that is where the similarity breaks down. With the choice to procreate, not only do we see the direct benefits of our own parents’ choice (as in, I am alive and I believe my life is not only good for me but also for my parents), we see the benefits accruing to our friends and relatives.

I mention all of this because the anti-procreation argument assumes that you know without a reasonable doubt that you will be happier/more fulfilled/better off without children. Not only is there a lot of observational/anecdotal/statistical evidence suggesting you might be wrong, there’s also the reality thatwe are very bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. The cards, it seems, are very much stacked against those who believe they’re better off without children.

So even if you don’t want to now, have kids anyway. To me, this argument is a version of Pascal’s wager that actually makes sense.

Cross-Pollinating Ideas via the Internet

I was just leaving a comment on Richard Nikoley’s latest blog post, Vitamin K1 vs. Vitamin K2 concerning Natto, a fermented soy food from Japan that contains a huge amount Vitamin K2. I was specifically pointing out that fish gonads, which are considered to have a high K2 concentration, something I had learned over at Stephan Guyenet’s Whole Health Source: Seafood and K2, are absolutely dwarfed by the K2 concentration in natto^. I had first learned about natto and the importance of fermented foods via Seth Roberts’ blog (See his Fermented Food Category). Put differently, my comment took data from three different sources and presented it in a coordinated, collaborative manner.

Though this might not be the best term for it, I call these occurrences examples of the “cross-pollination” of ideas. It’s a collaborative, unpredictable, uncoordinated, complex effort whereby ideas and information gleaned from disparate sources are examined in relation to one another. It is knowing the trees and seeing the forest. The goal is to create more useful ideas and better information, and then spread this new knowledge far and wide. And do it over and over again. If this reminds you at all of evolutionary processes, not only are you catching my drift, you’re cross-pollinating.

Idea cross-pollination is amplified by the Internet. Historically, a powerful idea or discovery could languish in obscurity, the pet project of an experimenter who works in the silo of his own research. This was the case with Isaac Newton who had discovered/created calculus decades before it was made public.

Compare how calculus languished to the ideas contained within Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, a book written by a non-specialist (Taubes is a writer, not a scientist) that looks at an enormous amount of nutrition-related research, sees common threads across the data, and presents it all in once place, calling into question the mainstream nutrition mantra that low-fat is healthy, fat will kill you, and people are obese because they eat too much. GCBC was created by having the power to examine the research of a number of disparate specialists and see the big picture.

A book like GCBC is made possible by the Internet because it becomes much less likely that ideas remain within the dusty silos of specialists. The Internet takes curiosity, search, and a great deal of disparate computing power*, and uses them to spread ideas much, much faster. Non-specialists(like Taubes or me) then have the pleasure of making fortuitous discoveries of connections across specialties.

Of course, the means by which cross-pollination is accomplished are unpredictable: we can’t plan a course to find them. All we can do is cast a wide net, examine a lot of ideas, follow our curiosity, and let our organic pattern recognition software do it’s thing. This is very much a “learn by doing, then by thinking” concept. If we dabble in this gamble enough, every once in awhile, we will hit the idea jackpot.

Mind, the idea of idea cross-pollination isn’t really an external process across disparate people, at all. To the extent that we learn ideas, we store copies** of them in our brains, forever taking the ideas with us (A reason legal boundaries around mental concepts is fundamentally absurd). Indeed, it seems that the majority of my intellectual growth has been predicated on being able to cross-pollinate within these internalized knowledge stores. I am always trying to reconcile previously learned ideas with new ones. In this way my organic human network, a human brain, is mimicked by the inorganic mesh of networks we call the Internet.

In sum, cross-pollination of ideas has always been occurring — it is a human specialty, warts and all. Thanks to the Internet, it’s happening more, and we’re getting an explosion of ideas/concepts/knowledge as a result.

^ It seems that Natto is an obscure bastion of nutrition, which may be due to the fact that it (apparently) doesn’t taste the greatest. I’ve yet to get my hands on any as it is exceedingly hard to find. Rest assured, I will be eating some just as soon as I get a chance to check out the only Japanese grocery store in Atlanta.

* As in, human minds that work to understand and pull together the data they discover.

** Albeit imperfect, frequently mutated copies, but this, again, can make for fortuitous idea creation, and as far as I can tell, acts as a positive, dynamic force.

Seth Roberts and the Shangri-La Diet

I cite Seth Roberts’ blog a great deal over at Linked Down. Seth is a Psychology Professor at Berkeley and an avid self-experimenter. I’ve learned a great deal from subscribing to his blog.

For those who don’t know, Seth Roberts created the Shangri-La Diet, which is a diet centered around reducing the association between flavor and caloric load. I haven’t read the book, so this is an approximation of how it works, but the gist is that the more correlated taste is to caloric load, the greater hunger can be, the harder it will be to cut calories, and the higher your body’s set point for weight will be. “SLD” hacks this relationship via ingesting flavorless calories within certain windows of time. These flavorless calories reduce the brain’s association of high energy density and high flavor. Interestingly enough, the macronutrient source of the calories may be unimportant: you can do SLD with oil, sugar water (so long as it is flavorless), or nose-clipping while eating protein. If you’re skeptical about this diet, I suggest taking a trip over to the SLD Forums and be prepared to see plenty of evidence that SLD works.

Even as I have not tried SLD, it is a fascinating idea and it seems that anyone who is serious about better understanding why we gain weight and what regulates hunger and adiposity must take it seriously enough to figure out how it fits into the big picture of human health. Barring that gargantuan task, it’s at a minimum another way to try and hack weight loss if your current regiment isn’t cutting it for you.

I mention all of this because I stumbled on a 2008 interview between Roberts and Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I’ve blogged about exhaustively. What a great thing to find that two people I admire had a thoughtful discussion and, even better, said discussion has been made available to me?

Blogging, science and the internet FTW.

Back to trying to understand how SLD fits into the grand scheme of human physiology. An interesting comment was made at the bottom of Part 13 of Roberts’ Interview of Gary Taubes:

I’ve thought a lot about how consuming tasteless food could supress hunger. My favorite theory is that it is similar to what happens when an animal is hibernating. The “magical” appearance of calories fools your body into thinking it is living off its fat and then it actually does so.

This comment reminded me of how the metabolic pathways while fasted are the same as when we consume a diet of only fat and protein. One effect of low-carb diets is appetite suppression. Could the common theme here simply be that both SLD and low-carbohydrate diets and/or fasting act to “trick” our bodies into switching to a non-hungry state?

Obviously that can’t be the entire picture because insulin is the storage hormone that is unleashed by carbohydrate consumption (though less so with fructose).

This issue is worthy of further thought.

Giving up the Mouse: Use Hot Keys [Grind Skills]

Day 88: Mice? Mouses?
Creative Commons License photo credit: tsmall

In our computer-driven age, quite possibly the greatest “Grind Skill” that everyone could benefit from, aside from knowing how to type, is knowing and using keyboard combinations to perform necessary functions in lieu of using your mouse!

The mouse (or touchpad in the case of laptops) is a fantastic and integral part of using a computer. It has made the computer incredibly user friendly and it’s one-size-fits-all applicability means that it is the de facto universal execution device all computer users have grown to love.

Handicapping your productivity with a little mouse

Unfortunately, near-total reliance on a mouse (As in, using it for almost every computer process except typing) will dramatically and unnecessarily handicap your computer use and waste untold hours, and ultimately days, of your time. This is because whenever you have to switch from typing mode to use a mouse, your hand (typically right) must move off of the keyboard and over to the mouse and then back again. For a very simple operation like bolding a word or copying and pasting some text, the time taken to move hands off the keyboard and back is insignificant by itself but adds up to an incredible amount of time when added up. When you consider that computers are here to stay, and for the forseeable future, we will continue to use QWERTY keyboards and a mouse or other cursor-based hardware to navigate the virtual spaces of software, hardly any grind skill could be more important than maximizing the use of both devices. Since the keyboard is how we input data, our hands actually produce* when they are kept at the keyboard. The more time they stay on the keyboard, the more time we produce and the more efficiently we use our time.

That the problem is waste time moving hand to mouse and back is something you must first acknowledge on a very basic level, and I’m not advocating throwing away your mouse! What I am advocating is that you wake up to how a mouse is handicappign your productivity and actively choose to seek out and implement ways to use the keyboard to accomplish tasks that you normally relegate to the mouse!

If you’re new to the idea of using your keyboard instead of your mouse to “do stuff” on your computer, the idea of learning thousands of tips and tricks on the keyboard to improve your efficiency is no doubt daunting. Thankfully, no one who has mastered this grind skill was required to memorize them all at once. The beauty of this grind skill is that it can be implemented piece-wise, and the skill will build on itself over time. The key is being aware of the problem and working to improve your implementation!

For those of you who are already using your keyboard for certain tasks (I include myself in this category, obviously), be aware that you could almost certainly be using more hot keys and keyboard combinations. As with so many grind skills, mindfulness about how we spend our time on mundane tasks is the key to improving those tasks and making ourselves more efficient so that we can stay on top of the important jobs we want to complete!

Going forward, I will be writing on various hot keys and keyboard combinations to use. As there is such an enormous wealth of information involved in this uber-Grind Skill, it will take some time to get it all published. For now, I’d like to start with some basics.

Using the Ctrl or Control key**

The Ctrl key is typically used in conjunction with a letter or number to perform a “hot key” function, as in you hold both the Ctrl key down at the same time as a letter to perform the function, thus these combinations will be expressed as Ctrl+[the letter/number]. Many novice computer-users have managed to learn Ctrl based hot key functions like Ctrl+b to bold or Ctrl+c to copy or Ctrl+v to paste. The “hot key” moniker typically applies to using these [Ctrl+]-based keyboard combinations.

Try it out. Open up a text editor of your choice. Use your mouse (It’s ok!) and highlight this sentence. Press Ctrl+c. Go to the text editor and use the mouse to click into the input box: press Ctrl+v. Voila!

Using the Alt key

The Alt key is perhaps the most underutilized keyboard key in existence. Many people know a great deal of the Ctrl-based hot keys, but continue to almost universally ignore the power of the Alt key. In most all programs, the Alt key takes you to the top most menu-bar in an application. You can test this out if you open up Internet Explorer (Referenced here because most all PC users have this application). If you open IE and press Alt, you will then see that you are “up” on the menu bar and the various options on the bar have an underlined letter like File or Edit. What this means is that, once Alt has been pressed (and released!), if you then hit the “f” key, you will expand the “File” menu. From there, new functions will be have a letter underlined. Here, again, pressing the letter will either expand the sub-menu or execute a command. Unlike Ctrl-based functions, Alt-based functions are typically expressed like: Alt, [letter], [letter] whereby the comma means you release the key after each instance.

Try it out. In Internet Explorer, press Alt, a, a. This will open up the “Favorites” dialogue box in IE 7 and allow you to add this page to your Favorites! Yeah, you probably don’t want to bookmark this page, but this gives you an idea. Alternatively, you can hit Alt, f, a to bring up the “Save As” dialogue; again, this is just to demonstrate how the Alt function works.

Unlike Ctrl-based hot keys, which you essentially have to discover on your own, Alt-based keyboard combinations require no memorization. Simply pressing “Alt” will show you what letters will do what, and so on. The beauty of the Alt key is that you can learn new functions all the time simply based on the keyboard combinations you find yourself using the most. The more you need to “Save As,” the more times you’ll hit Alt, f, a. Before long, you’ll be using this keyboard combination without thinking about it and “Save As” will be as fluid a motion as typing the word “cat.”

Again, the key is awareness. The next time you need to perform a function that would require you to take the mouse to the menu bar, try Alt.

Using the Tab key

Tab is not just for indenting. Pressing the tab key will toggle the focus within a window forward to whatever the next input area is. On a website, tab will scroll you through hyperlinks. You can witness this by just holding “tab” down on this window. Combining “tab” with “shift” will do this same process in the reverse direction. Check it out.

The Alt+Tab hot key

The bain of managers everywhere and the salvation of employees is the Alt-Tab key combination. Alt+Tab brings up a window that allows you to toggle between windows open on your destktop.

Try it out. Adding “shift” as in Alt+Shift+Tab will take you through open windows in reverse.

What’s the point? For one, imagine if you are at work but not working — like on reddit.com or perezhilton.com. Your boss comes in. Without Alt+Tab, this could send your right hand scrambling for your mouse and moving for the “X” or minimize button. Comparatively, with Alt+Tab and your left hand still resting on the keyboard, you can quickly toggle back to the “work” screen of choice, like PowerPoint or Excel. Your employer will almost certainly be none the wiser!

Outside of goofing off at work, Alt+Tab is very useful when you have multiple windows open. It can also be used in concert with other hot keys to dramatically amplify your productive. Imagine copying from one program, Alt+Tabbing to another, and pasting all without leaving the keyboard.

That is the power of hot keys and keyboard combinations.

Homework

Clearly replacing mouse-reliance with hot keys and keyboard combinations takes some habit-changing effort on your part. However, you will be amazed at how adding single hot keys and keyboard combinations in a piecemeal fashion can save you truly insane amounts of time.

Going forward

There are numerous ways to use hot keys. In my day-to-day grind, I use hot keys and keyboard combinations most in Gmail, Excel, and more generally in other applications. There are a few more universal hot keys that you should know about (like Alt+Tab). Stay tuned for more!

* Exception is graphic design, and hot keys are still very important here, as well.

** I know that many people are increasingly using Macs, which have an Apple key. Many of the Windows-based hot keys translate over to Macs (as they transfer over to Linux Ubuntu). Perhaps at some point I’ll have a Mac and learn the specific intricacies of this O/S, but for now, this grind skill will be primarily focused on Windows and Windows-based software.

Grind Skills Reading

Nassim Taleb on Experts and Negative Advice

Nassim Taleb’s latest from Opacity #113 titled Negative Advice; Why We Need Religion makes the brief case that human beings are “suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do).” Below is the entirety of his post, take a read (Emphasis mine):

At the core of the expert problem is that people are suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do), (tell them how to get rich, become thin in 42 days, be transformed into a better lover in ten steps, reach happiness, make new influential friends), particularly when the charlatan is invested with some institutional authority & the typical garb of the expert (say, tenured professorship). This is why my advice against measuring small probabilities fell on deaf ears: I was telling them to avoid Value-at-Risk and the incomputable rare event and they wanted ANOTHER measure, the idiots, as if there was one. Yet I keep seeing from the history of religions that survival and stability of belief systems correlates with the amount of negative advice and interdicts — the ten commandments are almost all negative; the same with Islam. Do we need religions for the stickiness of the interdicts?

Telling people NOT to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last 60 years. Druin Burch, in the recently published Taking the Medicine

The harmful effect of smoking are roughly equivalent to the combined good ones of EVERY medical intervention developed since the war. (…) Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer”

It is easy to read Taleb’s argument as meaning that negative advice is both more routinely followed and better than positive advice. However, this is clearly not the case as there are countless examples of bad negative advice. For example, look at the “Don’t eat fat” mantra that developed over the past few decades. This is negative advice that I believe Taleb has personally acknowledged as poor (Taleb is a friend of Art De Vany’s and an adherent on some level to the low-carb evolutionary nutrition/fitness theory). The low-fat or lipid hypothesis that has been the driving force behind public health policy over the past few decades may ultimately be proven to have caused the premature deaths of millions of human beings (via cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, etc.). Clearly, not all negative advice is good to follow.

However, negative advice or bright-line rules seem to take hold more strongly than positive advice. Christianity and Islam are the two most dominant religions of the world. Both contain prescriptive, bright-line rules. In the case of Christianity the prominence of rules is particularly ironic: Jesus openly argued for the destruction or irrelevance of the law (The bright-line rules of Judaism at the time). Regardless, the dominating sects of both Islam and Christianity appear to have more negative advice (What not to eat, drink, do) than positive advice (Love your neighbor), and the negative advice tends to be much more concrete: “Do not commit adultery” is much more cut-and-dry than “Love everyone.” It’s the time-tested success of hard-line, negative-advice-based religions that lends the most support for Nassim Taleb’s argument.

Agreeing somewhat with Taleb’s theory, I think it is too limited in scope, and should be expanded and clarified. Simply put: human beings are sucker’s for bright-line rules be they positive or negative; adherence to and success of these bright-line rules is dependent upon their prescriptive strength. Based on conclusions drawn from observing health and religion idealogies, it seems that negative advice promotes the greatest adherence and zealotry, both of which lead to idealogical success**.

That it is human nature to want others to tell us what to do seems hard to deny. Why are we this way?

I just finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (SoH), which discusses how we perceive things and how that affects our happiness. One argument Gilbert makes is that it is human nature to prefer action over inaction. This is because it is easier to justify our action-based decisions after the fact because they have clearcut consequences whereas inaction does not, making inaction difficult to imagine and thereby difficult to justify. I would add to this that I believe it is human nature to put greater faith in our ability to control outcomes; therefore, we act out of the misguided belief that our action can elicit the responses we want.

Regardless of the source of our preference for action, I believe it’s from this bias that springs the need for bright-line positive advice. For proof of concept, look no further than the pervasive mentality that, “We must do something to mitigate the economic crisis!” Charlatans and politicians fully exploit the bias of action over inaction to propagate their own prerogatives.

On the other hand, there is a second contention in SoH that seems an extension of the preference for action over inaction, which is that the elimination of choice can trigger our psychological immune systems. Once triggered, these systems work to make us happy or content with a more restricted existence. Imagine this: having bought the farm, you’re quick to articulate the benefits of the purchase and figure out a way to love the cows. In keeping with this understanding, we can readily explain the human preference for ideologies that drastically reduce choice via negative, bright-line rules.

Thus, here we have two psychological explanations for why humans crave bright-line rules, both positive and negative.

I’d imagine Taleb would agree: life is incredibly more complex and uncertain than our bright-line rules, either positive or negative, allow. We should be aware of our tendency towards dogmatic over-simplifications and be wary of overly prescriptive, bright-line advice.

* It’s always interesting how Jesus is written to have claimed he came to free man from the law. Yet Christianity, via any number of particular denominations like Catholicism or Protestantism all adhere to stringent rules and edicts.

** I can’t help but wonder if its just easier to prescribe negative advice than positive advice even though both are likely to instill dogmatic behaviors.

Further reading

The Importance of Brain Tech and the Limits to Acquiring It

Near my desk there is a stack of unread books (And ebooks). They taunt me. What ideas are they holding, eager to be assimilated and used, but stagnant until I can find the time to read them, tease out the knowledge, and add it to my mental toolbox? There are limits on acquiring brain technology, and it seems they are presently difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

being
This is not my stack! — Creative Commons License photo credit: Annie Ominous

There’s an idea articulated in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon that goes something like this: imagine there is a project that will take five years to complete. Imagine further that a technology that could be developed in a year would, once acquired, enable the project to be completed in only two years. Thus, rather than use existing technology to complete the project in five years, it makes more sense to acquire the time-saving technology first.

Reality is considerably less predictable than this simple example allows, but it still illustrates a useful idea: acquiring the right technology first can save time and effort later.

This idea seems most relevant to acquiring brain technology, which I’ll define as the sum of useful ideas, useful paradigms, and knowledge. Modern-day prosthetics, also known as our mobile phones and laptops, are rapidly eliminating the need for this last bit of brain tech. The rote knowledge we need is almost always a google or two away (See the recent grind skill discussion on maximizing Google search). However, these prosthetic devices can’t yet do the work of a useful idea or paradigm.

Functional ideas and paradigms are the programs by which our brains process data. The better the programs, the faster we can process problems and the better our answers will be. The better our brain technology, the better our lives. It is for this reason that I take measures to acquire as much brain tech as possible. This is why I read books, blog (On the power of blogging), and follow my curiosity. It’s all in an effort to boost my brain tech, which I hope will improve my life as it improves my ability to solve problems and understand the world.

It seems simple enough but there are problems: (1) it takes a long time to acquire brain technology, it’s difficult or impossible to know what it is we should be seeking to know (2), and it’s hard to know when our existing brain technology is obsolete (3). I have no good ideas on how to attack the second problem, which is Black Swan-esque and thereby unforeseeable. Awareness that it exists may mitigate our base ignorance but then again, it probably won’t. Regarding problem three, seeking out new brain tech as well as simply sharing our own brain tech with others may help — as far as mundane tasks go, that is driver behind writing about Grind Skills.

I’m left to dwell on the first problem. My solution here is to filter through as much information as I can manage and mine out the useful ideas and paradigms. By filtering information, I usually mean reading books and blogs. On the blogging front, a feed aggregator is a must-have. And as far as reading books, get thee to a library (or amazon.com)!

Reading provides a starting point, but even here there is a problem. The volume of information that must be mined to find a single useful idea is immense. There is a brain bandwidth problem: I can only read so fast. Furthermore, even supposing I’m maxing out my reading speed*, I will inevitably read books and blogs that have broken ideas and paradigms (or none at all). How do I reduce the risk of wasting time and energy spent reading empty datasets (books/blogs)? I don’t know.

One workaround to my own bandwidth limitations is to leverage the bandwidth of others. I do this by surrounding myself with others who similarly seek out useful ideas and paradigms and are eager to share what they know. As far as the Internet goes, there again we see the power of blogging and the importance of a good, share-friendly feed reader. In real space, I think Nassim Taleb’s suggestion to “go to parties” is astute. Socialize (Don’t isolate yourself!)! Otherwise, observe others and ask questions.

These are ground-breaking insights, I know. I’m mostly just articulating a problem that has been on my mind. It’s great that modern technology has improved our understanding of the world and enabled us to outsource at least some of our brain functions to our gadgets (Thereby freeing up some bandwidth). However, it seems to me that the age-old ways to acquire wisdom, which is all brain technology really is, are the only ways we’ve got. Read as much as you can and share your tech with others**. And that’s what I’ll be doing until some other tech comes along and renders this brain tech obsolete.

* Speaking of brain tech, I’ve previously attempted learning to speed read. I’ve had no success with it though.
** I’m optimistic that this latter method (sharing) is being accelerated via the Internet.

Follow-up

Transcending the Authority Complex

In researching Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat (Ref: Le Corre Link Repository) I continue circling back to two related concepts. The first is the idea of the “guru” and the second is human tendency to defer to authority, a problem I’m calling the authority complex.

We homo sapiens—enlightened apes—face a dilemma of awareness. The more we know about the world, the more we realize that we are little more than the by-products of our DNA’s self-perpetuating existence on a tiny planet that could disappear tomorrow without any noticeable impact on our galaxy (to say nothing of the Universe). There’s a sense of futility that arises from this awareness, our existential angst, which is probably why we so rarely think about it.

So we shelve our angst and continue living. It is our biological imperative, after all. It is in this living that we seek answers to all sorts of questions to improve our lives. Do I have kids? How do I best support my family? How can I be a better parent, friend, spouse? How do I increase my wealth (Some ideas)? What should I do with my career? What should I eat? How do I find happiness? What is my purpose? How should I live?

Our hunger for “the” answer to any particular question leads us to seek out gurus. A guru need not be a spiritual leaders (even as many “experts” often a distinct “spiritual” flair); today “guru” means more “expert” or “authority” on any given subject. On the Internet alone, I have plenty of go-to gurus on health, fitness, politics, and economics, all of whom I “follow” on a regular basis via Google Reader. It seems that gurus like to blog.

To some extent, I play the role guru (Don’t we all?). People ask me about diet, the economy, and technology. It feels good to be considered an expert, even as I secretly confess how very little I really know.

Whether we get answers directly from observation of the world combined with introspection/reflection or we turn to others—the gurus, experts, or authorities—our questions will get answered, and this can sometimes be a problem.

Buddha
“If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill him!” — Zen proverb
Creative Commons License photo credit: woordenaar

If it is answers we want, then it is answers we will receive. Of course, many of the answers we receive from consulting authority, which includes not just the gurus but also established traditions, religions, science, theories, etc., will be right. Unfortunately, many others will be wrong, and the trouble lies in telling the difference.

The tendency of deference to authority is what I’m calling the “authority complex*.” I think we are all affected by the authority complex. We’ve all drank the “Guru-ade” from time to time, and our only assured defense against this problem is awareness that it exists. It reminds me of an idea (probably a bad one) for a bumper sticker stating the imperative to “Question Authority!”

Why? It always comes back to this.

As much as we all want to find truth, many of the most important questions are simply unanswerable with any certainty. Even when we think we’ve figured things out, it is often only a matter of time and testing before our understanding is refined, corrected, and improved. This unanswerable quality applies to all understanding, be it scientific queries or more philosophical questions such as ascribing meaning to our lives. Beyond many questions just being unavoidably open-ended, there is the sense that whatever answers you seek are intrinsically dependent on you and not things that can be prescribed by some one-size-fits-all authority. Even supposing truths are discovered, how likely is it that an authority will be able to convey clearly to others the knowledge they’ve acquired from a lifetime of experience and learning?

Question authority. That is the imperative that arises from awareness of the authority complex. More pointedly, we must be critical of gurus and authorities who claim to have the answers because scarcely any claim is more telling that these so-called experts are no such thing. If you find the buddha, kill him (Nietzsche said something similar in Thus Spake Zarathustra as I recall). The point, as I take it, is that when you think you have all the answers, you most assuredly do not. Any philosophy, religion, or other authority that fails to account for the authority complex is at best incomplete.

Question authority! Question everything. Even if our questions remain forever unanswered, it is the asking that works to define our lives.

Finally, to bring these thoughts full circle, Erwan Le Corre is an emerging guru who seeks to rehabilitate humans suffering from modern day domestication, which is to say he seeks to set human beings free. I wonder if the authority complex is the fundamental barrier to human freedom. Perhaps if we can transcend the complex, even as we fail to find our answers, we might find a freedom that brings us peace.

* My first blog was “autodogmatic,” which is a made-up word that essentially captures the problem of human tendency to defer to authority.

Making the Most of Google Search [Grind Skills]

Magnification
Creative Commons License photo credit: TheGiantVermin

Background: the Importance of Search

Excepting the ability to read and write, perhaps the most important skill in our modern digital life is the ability to search the Internet. Using search engines has become an integral part of our day-to-day existence. It’s hard to remember how we got along without the ability to find the most obscure answers to our questions by merely typing a few words into google.com.

Though there are competitors to Google Search, Google is so pervasively used that you’ll often overhear someone responding to a spoken question with, “Did you google it?” There’s even a snarky website that generates queries to send to apparently clueless Internet noobs: check out “Let me google that for you.” Yahoo search comes in at a distant second place whereas Google search dominates: some 72% of U.S. searches went through Google in January 2009.

Of course, we so frequently google to find the information we need that we hardly think about how we could be doing it better. Thus, the grind skill (What are “Grind Skills?”) of the day is maximizing Google Search.

Confessing Ignorance and Requesting Help

Before I explain how I make the most use of Google search, I need to reiterate the purpose of discussing grind skills. Grind skills is about show-and-tell: by blogging what I know, you see both what I know and more importantly, what I don’t know. I blog about “grind skills” to encourage a collaborative effort of knowledge-sharing, the end goal of which is to save everyone time by spreading the best practices about the mundane tasks of everyday life.

If there is a Google search technique that you find particularly useful, please tell me about it in the comments to this post or email me at [email protected] I’ll make updates to this post as any new google search grind skills are suggested!

How I make the most of Google Search

  • Site specific searches — Perhaps one of the most useful Google search features is the ability to restrict search results to a single site or even a single folder on a site. You do this by typing your normal query and then following it with site:[the domain name here].

    For example, let’s say you wanted to find every post on proteinpower.com that has the words “evolution” and “carbohydrates.” You’d run this query: [ evolution carbohydrates site:proteinpower.com ]. At the present moment, that query returns about 130 results — that’s not terrible but perhaps we can do better by narrowing down our query even further.

    A quick scan of the top 10 results tells you that proteinpower.com can be divided up between the forums at www.proteinpower.com/forum/ and Dr. Michael Eades blog at www.proteinpower.com/drmike/. Let’s say you only want to see the results on from Dr. Mike. Just change your query to be: [ evolution carbohydrates site:proteinpower.com/drmike/ ]. Suddenly you’ve reduced the results from 130+ to only 56! Even better.

    Staying on the subject of nutrition, I often use site search to quickly consult my go-to health gurus — i.e. doing a mash-up site search on [ insulin sensitivity ] for [ site:proteinpower.com ], [ site:marksdailyapple.com ], and [ site:freetheanimal.com ] all at once by using the string [ insulin sensitivity site:proteinpower.com OR site:freetheanimal.com OR site:marksdailyapple.com ] (Note: “OR” needs to be capitalized!). Pretty nifty, huh?

    Google powered site specific search is incredibly useful. It is a rare day that I ever use a website’s built-in search feature instead of just doing a custom [ site: ] search through google. There are widespread applications of site search and if you have any neat tricks for using site: queries, please do tell!

  • Making use of google’s cache — You may have noticed a link that says “Cached” at the end of your search results. Google frequently caches the websites it indexes. This caching can be useful for two reasons.

    The first is that if you click on the “Cached” link to retrieve Google’s saved version of the page, you’ll find that Google uses bright colors to highlight the terms you were looking for in your search. The cached, Google-highlighted page makes it easy to quickly scan for relevant information without having to use your web browser’s clunky internal search feature (I.e. the one triggered by pressing [ctrl+f]). For an example, let’s say you employ the above-explained site search for [ stochastic site:justinowings.com ]. From that search, you click on the second hit, which is my post titled Contrarian advice on passion. See if you can find the word “stochastic” in two seconds. Did you succeed? Now use Google’s cached version of the page and try again. How long did it take? Using the highlight feature through Google’s cached pages can save an immense amount of time scanning, particularly on pages where there are hundreds of user comments and discussion.

    The second use of cached pages is that sometimes sites either go down or site owners take down material. Art De Vany had a wealth of public information that I would often search within to find his thoughts on a particular subject. However, around early- to mid-2007 De Vany started changing his site layout, which ended up taking from public view the gross majority of his blog posts. Thanks to Google’s cache of his site, however, I was often able to still get the material even as the original post was no longer being hosted at arthurdevany.com.

  • Math, conversions, and definitions — You may not realize that not only can you type in math equations into google to have them be calculated [ 25*13658945 ] = 341,473,625. You can also have google do conversions between different units: [ 170 lbs to kg ] = 77.1107029 kilograms, or up-to-date currency conversion [ 50 USD to euros ] = 38.1417347 Euros.

    Math and conversion can both be useful, but I use google to define words numerous times a day. To do this, just type [define: (the word) ]; for example, [ define: anthropomorphic ]. Google define can also be successfully used for phrases or idioms: [ define: penny for your thoughts ]. I like using google for word definitions because it typically consults numerous sources and lists the results in a neat, ad-less fashion.

  • Who’s talking about you? — This one is mostly for folks who have their own websites. If you want to find out what other websites are linking to a particular domain, for example [ link:justinowings.com ]. Like site search, you can get granular and search for specific URL, too.
  • Modifiers you should keep in the back of your mind — You can subtract words from your search by putting a minus sign directly in front of the words you don’t want in your search like [ justin owings -implode ]. Alternatively, you can use an asterisk to signify a wild card such as [ obama site:*.gov ] or use quotes or a plus sign to make sure google doesn’t search synonyms (By default, google will search for synonyms). Good to know in the off chance you’ll need them, these modifiers are all covered in the Google search basics link referenced below.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion there are other techniques I employ with Google search that I’m neglecting to enumerate here. As I think of more, I’ll be sure to update this post.

Are there google search techniques you love but I apparently don’t use? Do tell.

Additional reference documents on Google Search

Grind Skills Reading

Freedom is Found at the Frontier

SFS Interior
photo credit: patrissimo

I’ve heard it said that the success of the creation of the United States was due in part to the American society being founded on a frontier. Of course the Native Americans were already in North America when the “white man” showed up, but the land was sufficiently “up for grabs” for some element of force and technology to overtake “we were here first.” How that unfolded is unfortunate, but I believe generally moot.

The overarching nature of North America was a place without property rights or government. This frontier paved the way for the establishment of a new form of government, a Constitution, and the United States.

Today, what is left unclaimed? Where are the frontiers? How can we experiment with new forms of government if we have no more frontiers left? I think Patri Friedman has enumerated this problem: lack of competition due to both a lack of options (frontiers) and high transaction costs to changing governments means society stagnates within archaic, increasingly bloated and controlling bureaucracies. We need a lot more frontiers if we want to see alternatives to the status quo. However, all the land save the uninhabitable Antarctica has been claimed, so where can we find any frontier, much less the needed abundance to really see a plethora of options take form? And of the options available, which are actually likely to take form? After all, putting “practicality aside” is easier said than done.

Revolting against current regimes can create a frontier of sorts, but if history is any guide (a poor guide), post-revolution governments (again U.S. being excepted for various reasons) don’t tend to be much better than the one’s they replace. Out with the old boss in with the new boss. To some extent, the New Hampshire Free State Project is taking this approach. I wish those liberty-minded folk the best of luck.

Another solution to the shortage of frontier is to go to the oceans. The oceans make up a huge amount of “unclaimed” frontier. Sure, they are water and not land — slight problem. But there is an ounce of historical precedent to support new sovereign nations at sea: see Sealand. This solution to the frontier-problem is what the Seasteading Institute is pursuing. I’m lending my support to TSI however I can, and I wish Patri the best.

Assuming mankind doesn’t blow itself up and we eventually learn to cheaply blaze a trail through the universe, space truly will be the “final frontier” (Save transdimensional pioneering). There are untold millions of planets out there that are just waiting for bungalows and Wal-Marts. Human existence in space could look something like Firefly or perhaps a new frontier is made from the Moon a la Robert Heinlein. Homesteading space just presents a few teeny logistical hurdles.

So where does that leave us?

What about the Internet? Even having advanced radically over the past two decades or so the Internet is still very much a wild west. Could the Internet be the frontier we have available right now to secure increased human freedom?

The logistical problems are fairly obvious, of course. The internet is virtual and as much as our lives become digitized, we still have to eat and live in real space. However, the government can’t tax what it doesn’t know you have. Encryption creates frontier by obscuring information from the taxman. Further, there’s a natural progression that increases the likelihood we move more of our lives beyond the purveyance of Big Brother: as governments make our existence in real space more onerous, there will be ever-increasing incentives to take life to cyberspace, encrypt it, and thereby restore freedom. For practicality purposes, this may be the best option we have for at least increasing our freedom in the near term. To some extent, it is already happening (i.e. see The Pirate Bay’s fight against the RIAA and MPAA).

The frontier problem is real, but human ingenuity is vast. Are there other frontiers out there worth pursuing? Freedom where art thou?

Blockquote Blogging (Thoughts on using blockquotes in your writing)

— Below is an email I sent to a fellow blogger regarding the use of blockquoted material in blog posts. The self-referenced links were added after the fact. Any feedback on my critique is welcome! —

Hey! I’ve been reading and observing your blog posts and your commentary continues to be spot-on and both well-written and fun to read. Having said that and fully realizing that what I’m about to tell you is more a guideline than any kind of bright line rule, I suggest you work on reducing the blockquot-iness (made word that up) of your posts whenever possible. There are multiple reasons for this suggestion.

For one, blog readers have a tendency to gloss over large swathes of blockquoted material. From a big picture perspective, readers [come] to your site to read what you have to say about something. To the extent that you can summarize key points rather than blockquote, you are adding the value and time-savings that readers crave. As you’ll frequently see, most bloggers intuitively realize this fact as they will frequently bolden the major quotes within the blockquote, [which is really a means of highlighting the key points and telling your readers to skip the rest!].

Of course, blockquotes are a way to give credit and save time for the blogger as they usually include enough source material to cover key points — no reason to reinvent the wheel. But assuming you are giving proper source credit, I’d suggest making a conscious effort to nail the important points early on in a post, reduce blockquotes generally, and potentially push blockquotes to the bottom of posts whenever possible. A basic structure of such a post might be:

  1. Introduction
  2. Key points
  3. Conclusion
  4. Source material (blockquote)

Obviously the above structure can’t always be put into play.

A further reason to reduce blockquotes is that they act as subtle visual queues that tell a reader that the real meat of your post is actually somewhere else, as indicated by the blockquotes. Blockquotes can function to reduce your perceived authority.

Finally, one logistical problem of abundant blockquotes is that they can severely break up the flow of your writing. This is because blockquotes necessarily contain multiple sentences written by someone else in a different style than your own. The worst offender of this practice of “blockquote blogging” is Michael “Mish” Shedlock. I went hunting for an example and needed look no further than his latest post: “In Search of Common Sense” — this is Mish’s style and maybe some people really like it. I find it frustrating to read even as I often immensely enjoy Mish’s commentary. My reaction when I see stuff like that is basic: my eyes glaze [over] and I just don’t read it, or best case, I skim for the conclusion and then determine if I need to backtrack into the quoted material.

All of the above advice is based on having both blogged and kept up with blogs now for nearly five years — the last two of which have required spending hours a day reading and managing blog content. From this experience I’ve drawn a number of conclusions about best-practices of blogging, the purpose blogging serves, and what makes a compelling blog work.

Some of my conclusions are unavoidably a biased effect of keeping up with nearly 70 websites daily (via Google Reader). I have to filter through this content to discern the best, most original, and insightful material from a large pool of commentary and news. Heavily blockquoted blog posts routinely get skimmed or skipped in my feed aggregator. More importantly, it is my experience that the best blogs out there speak from authority and minimize blockquotes to the extent possible.

As I said, this is general advice and my own style of blogging is assuredly faulty in any number of ways. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts and feedback, and since it’s your blog, you have the right to reject all of the above as nonsense and carry on doing things your way!