Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Bridging identities for growth

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

We all have different roles in different circles, and present different aspects of ourselves to different parts of the world. For simplicity, I think of behavior as belonging to two selves, one public and one private. The public self is the personality that you affect when you are dealing with strangers – you are polite, non-confrontational but will punish the occasional queue jumper, get excited about certain technical subjects, enjoy talking with people who disagree, etc. The personal self is the one that has ridiculously strong beliefs about sci fi morality, what constitutes a beautiful object, and the nature of happiness, etc.

Every time I move to a new place, I find that there are three stages that happen:

  1. Public self is established by adaptation to local culture – this happens pretty quickly
  2. Private self is established by meeting people who share a large proportion of interest – this just requires you to meet the right people
  3. Bridging of public and private roles by meeting a series of people who are of intermediate familiarity

I’ve found the third stage to be the most interesting. Both public and private selves get along too well with other people, and generate no discomfort through which personal growth can be pushed. The best setting for personal growth is that of encountering a person who is getting to know you better, and having to decide who you want to be.

Meaningful disagreement

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Being able to meaningfully disagree is something I treasure in friends. I’ve found this discussion about the correct way to disagree to be informative:

Why classic prose?

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Everything matters

Communication is a holistic phenomena. When you listen to speech, you consider the motives, interests, and abilities of the speaker in pursuing the resulting goals. You ask yourself why someone is saying something the way that they are saying it.

Are you saying I’m stupid?

This is one of those things that trips me up every so often, especially in one-to-one conversations. When we are in a group, it’s easy to understand that disagreement can be seen as an affront; conversely, it can be difficult to remember that people take badly to disagreement in private conversation as well.

Is it interesting to you too?

Topics inevitably drift over the course of a conversation, and picking up cues and allowing the topic to change in the right direction is also important, lest what one considers a profound line of thought is taken by the other to be irrelevant inanity. I imagine religious aphorisms to be a stark example of this – I believe there are people out there for whom the ability to conclude a conversation to a biblical quotation or some other aphorism is profound, whereas such is somewhat inane to me.

Classic prose

Addressing all these facets can be done by adopting the style of classic prose. Classic prose is a simplifying construct which manages to compartmentalize conversational causes and to clarify what would otherwise be an even more impressionistic exercise. It’s a construct that prioritizes simplicity and clarity over all else.

The role is severely limited because classic prose is pure, fearless, cool, and relentless. It asks no quarter and gives no quarter to anyone, including the writer. While the role can be necessary, true, and useful, as well as wonderfully thrilling, it can hardly be permanent. For better or worse, human beings are not pure, fearless, cool, or relentless, even if we may find it convenient for certain purposes to pretend that we are. The human condition does not, in general, allow the degree of autonomy and certainty that the classic writer pretends to have. It does not sustain the classic writer’s claim to disinterested expression of unconditional truth. It does not allow the writer indefinitely to maintain the posture required by classic style. But classic style simply does not acknowledge the human condition. The insouciance required to ignore what everyone knows and to carry the reader along in this style cannot be maintained very long, and the masters of the style always know its limits. The classic distance is a sprint.


Blog schedule change

Monday, May 7th, 2012

I’ve now completed 21 days of consecutive blog posts! Frequency will be reduced going forward, hopefully meaning I will be able to write longer pieces.

Fatigue point

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

I could eat either ban mian (left) or chicken rice (right) every day and not get tired of it. I don’t know if this is merely because I grew up in Singapore, or something special about this food.

What makes a food, or a person, have a high fatigue point? Mere familiarity and agreement, or something more?

Quantity, not quality

Monday, April 30th, 2012

I’m currently home in Singapore, and will be for all of May. Pace of life at home is a lot slower – getting out one blog post a day has been truly difficult!

Without any form of quality control, it really isn’t that difficult to keep writing. There is a precedent for encouraging writing regardless of quality – Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is an activity held every November, which aims to, for whatever reason, encourage the writing of 50,000 words within the month. I will continue work on my weak derivative of this activity – one blog post a day.

Terry Pratchett

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett and enjoying it very much. So far I’ve finished three books from the watch series, set in discworld.
The series so far is very much centered on the actions of three principled actors, Vetinari the pragmatic non-interventionist dictator, Carrot the charismatic idealist, and Vimes, who is the protagonist. This setup reminds me of Stephen Fry’s commentary on star trek, where the pragmatic Spok and the idealist McCoy compete to influence Captain Kirk’s decisions.
The overall idealistic bent is somewhat libertarian, in my view, which probably accounts for why I am enjoying it so much.

Blogging so far

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

So it’s become this daily routine where I have a deadline for writing this blog post, and I procrastinate until about 1 hour before the deadline and then just throw topics on the screen until one that I don’t hate sticks and I press “Publish.”

It’s slightly stressful, but that’s okay. I certainly do not buy into the notion that I have to wait for some creative mood to strike me. The way I see it it’s more like working out.

In fact, I’d be more worried if I were not feeling strain. Strain is the mark of effort, which is necessary – effortless practice doesn’t build muscle.

Quantitative Management vs. Quantitative Thinking

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.
Carveth Read

When I first learned double-entry accounting, I was struck by how elegant some of the constructs were. There is a joy in knowing exactly where each number was supposed to go over the profit cycle of a business, when it bought assets and amortized fixed costs and generated a clear and continuous indication of profitability by using accounting as a type of low-pass filter smoothing out the cash flow.

I later realized accounting in reality doesn’t work nearly so neatly. It isn’t so much that the accounting constructs themselves are flawed – it’s more that when interpretation is needed it’s common to find the convention of conservatism being applied, and as such a precise but inaccurate answer being the standard.

This is due to the fact that the numbers that appear in accounting are more used for managerial oversight by owners, and not as quantitative thinking tools in their own right.

The statistics and biology used in clinical trials seem to fall in this category as well. Statistics is scientific accounting, and the audience in that case is the FDA.

The risk control applied in banks is another example. There statistics feed directly into accounting, and again are done in ways that are more precise than accurate.

Most of the numbers that appear in our daily lives are there for their ability to be objective. As such, the techniques which produce those numbers have been tweaked to be as precise and ungameable as practical. That precision often comes at the cost of accuracy and space for intelligent judgment.

To know “how” you need to know “why”

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

In the early 90s, when you wanted to drive from point A to point B you would consult a map and try to find the fastest route by tracing the route from local roads at A to highways and then back to local roads at B. If you went off your planned route along the way, you would stop to figure out where you were (maybe at a gas station) and then replan your route.

In the mid-90s, mapquest became available, and you could get directions online and print them. You’d run into a problem if you got too lost, as you would drive off the map you printed and not be able to see where you were.

Nowadays, you have a GPS unit that you enter the destination into, and no matter where you drive it would point to the destination. If there were a traffic jam along the freeway, I would often drive onto local roads in the general direction, ignoring the GPS for a little while to avoid the jam. I would then start following the GPS instructions after a bit.

Using printed online directions is less reliable than using a GPS, and also less reliable than using a paper map. This was because when you use printed directions, you are reduced to following a set of instructions which have a very rigid dependence on each other. If any earlier step is followed wrongly, the later step would be wrong too. There is a sensitivity to detail which amplifies little mistakes and makes them big.

Result-orientation is the state of mind where you keep your attention on the result that you are trying to attain. The GPS is always considering where you are and where you want to be, and the route it formulates is based on parts that all look the same in that way. If the original assumptions were correct, and both the roads and the driving were ideal, then it isn’t so different from following a fixed set of directions.

The differences appear when there are slight mistakes in the plan.
You have to break out of fixed instructions to account for mistakes (well, a smart person would try to salvage as much of the instructions as they can by trying to get back on the route). The GPS has actions at every point flowing from goal of getting to the destination, and so the overall activity becomes more robust, because mistakes or changes to details can be accounted for naturally as part of the same machinery.

In a changing world, a big part of learning “how” is learning “why”. It is sometimes important to break the goal into sub-goals, and only then generate actions from those sub-goals, as opposed to generating a long list of actions from the goal directly.