Friday, May 28, 2010

In Defense Of Searching

Robin Hanson's interesting post today distinguishes between reading that actively attempts to answer a question ("chasing") and reading that broadly looks for new questions ("searching"). I have three thoughts:

1) Let's think of chasing vs searching as a continuum. Reading further towards the chasing end has the goal of finding specific facts, while reading further towards the searching end has the goal of exposing oneself to general thought processes. Most reading modes will not fall on either end of the extreme but instead will be somewhere in between. You might have more conscious critical thoughts about the subject matter towards the chasing end of the spectrum, but whatever, conscious thinking is overrated anyways.

2) Thought processes matter, because having more ways to approach problems is useful. Exposing yourself to different thought processes can help you find ways to test for causality (e.g., dose-dependence), see different frames for thinking about the world (boosting divergent thinking), and etc. As evidence for this, Dean Simonton notes in Creativity in Science (here) that the best scientists tend to read broadly outside their particular field and maintain active correspondence with people outside their specific pursuit. Sure, this could merely be due to an openness to experience / IQ selection bias, but I'd bet there is at least some treatment effect of searching mode reading on improving cognitive style.

3) As Hanson notes, a reading mode towards the chasing end of the spectrum has advantages, as you are more likely to put down something that is impressive but not actually useful. What he underplays is that reading mode towards the searching end of the spectrum also has advantages, as it can allow you to think critically about general thought processes without getting bogged down in the details. In general, a more chasing reading mode should be more helpful in the short run, while a more searching reading mode should be more helpful in the long run. Another reason to prefer at least some searching is that without it you never would have gotten so far down in this post. And then where would you be? Screwed.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Solemn Higher Ed Vows

Tomorrow I will take my last exam in college. It is on math stats. In case I ever end up teaching in higher ed, I want to make a record of which rules I would need to follow in order to respect myself as a teacher. There are two main points, to which, in publishing this blog post, I hereby solemnly swear to follow:

1) I will grade essays / short answers / papers based on the content of the writing, including the precision of the claims made, the relevance of the evidence cited, and, depending upon the context, its originality. To give the content more weight, I will eschew the importance of spelling, formatting, the proper dictionary use of phrases like "begs the question," the alphabetization of references, and other irrelevant tics that apparently haunt so many professors. Whenever possible I will encourage or at least accept the use of words that I have to look up in urban dictionary, or its equivalent thirty years from now, however horribly newfangled they may appear to raggedy old me.

2) Whenever possible, I will attempt to channel students' competitive urges for the good of the world by having them play non-zero-sum games. That includes collaborating on unsolved problems, writing wikipedia pages (or its equivalent), and articulating hitherto unarticulated or poorly articulated sentiments.

All praise be to the god of integration by parts, in whose holy presence I tremble with mortal fear, amen.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Failure And Creativity In Lost

In his podcast yesterday with Bill Simmons, writer Carlton Cuse explains a bit of the driving philosophy behind the composition of Lost. First, he argues that the premise of a TV show is much less important than its execution. Seinfeld, the "show about nothing," is his example here. I do wonder whether this is will be different for comedies, though. The preponderance of movies based on previously successful books / plays in imdb's top 250 suggests to me that the plot is critical for a drama.

Second, he argues that to be successful creatively in any endeavor, one must risk failure. Apparently, Cuse and Lindelof (the other writer) basically expected to fail. Their goal in writing the first twelve episodes in 2004 was to make them as cool as possible so that if / when the show was canceled, it could become some sort of cult classic that they would be proud of. That would make it like Firefly, which only aired in 2002 for eleven episodes but killed it in DVD sales. The writers being cool with conventional failure for such a plausible and specific reason could explain the show's success and its love of ambiguity.

This post is dedicated to Colin Marshall, who ostensibly hates Lost (see here, here, and here), but who loves the idea that risking and / or embracing failure is essential to success in creativity (see here, here, here, and here).

Friday, May 14, 2010

Where Are Other Cross Subsidies?

In his article on the future of news, James Fallows discusses the model wherein certain high-yield aspects of newspapers subsidize less profitable aspects. The net is cutting this down:
“Newspapers never made money on ‘news,’” Hal Varian said. “Serious reporting, say from Afghanistan, has simply never paid its way. What paid for newspapers were the automotive sections, real-estate, home-and-garden, travel, or technology, where advertisers could target their ads.” The Internet has been one giant system for stripping away such cross-subsidies. 
So, in which other industries do such cross-subsidies exist? The most obvious one is higher ed. Students and / or their parents pay for some variable combo of signaling, learning, and networking. Yet, colleges and (especially) universities use this money on tons of other things that benefit students only indirectly.

One particularly interesting use of student funds is in supporting the research pursuits of faculty members. To the extent that higher ed is mostly about classroom learning, research support is merely a cross-subsidy and should eventually be cut out by the growth of the internet. But, to the extent that paying to participate in higher ed is mostly about associating with high status professors, supporting faculty research is not a cross-subsidy and should remain despite the internet. Time may tell which factor is more important.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Two Ringing Bullshit Meters

1) Vaughan Bell chides certain psychologists for erroneously claiming that cortisol rises during crying can be damaging to the brain:
I have a bullshit switch. It gets triggered when I hear certain phrases. 'Neuroplasticity' is one, 'hemisphere' is another and 'raises dopamine' is a regular button pusher. That's not to say people can't use these phrases while talking perfect sense, but I find it useful that they put me on my guard. Most recently, I've found the phrase 'raises cortisol' to be a useful way of alerting me to the fact that the subsequent words may be a few data points short of a bar graph - potentially some poorly understood drivel....

These claims both reflect one-dimensional thinking about how the brain works. Yes, stress tends to raise cortisol levels and there is good evidence to suggest that chronically high levels of stress and cortisol may be detrimental to brain, but this conclusion is typically drawn from people who have been through some fairly serious shit, wars, deprivation, trauma, or have specific hormone problems. There is remarkably little research on cortisol, everyday stresses in young children and none to suggest normal variation damages the brain in any way.

2) Andrew Sullivan elucidates his qualms about US supreme court nominee Elena Kagan:
Her life, so far as one can tell, is her career, and her career has been built by avoiding any tough or difficult political or moral positions, eschewing any rigorous intellectual debate in which she takes a clear stand one way or the other, pleasing every single authority figure she has encountered, and reveling in the approval of the First Class Car Acela Corridor elite....

Kagan strikes me as the Democratic elite's elitist: free of any conviction that is not caged in a web of Clintonian caution, punctiliously diligent in every aspect of her career, motivated by a desire never to offend those with power, and rewarded in turn by the protection and praise of these elites. Here is Walter Dellinger's almost comically balanced, well-polished, piece of bullshit.... David Brooks calls this generational elite pattern - which is far broader and wider than Kagan's lone example - "disturbing." I find it depressing.

One question is whether these people are deliberately attempting to fool others or are merely deluding themselves. In the case of the cortisol experts, sure they might be telling only their side of the story, but might not they also merely be the victims of confirmation bias? In the case of Kagan, might not she have convinced herself that she merely didn't hold any stances on controversial opinions?

In achieving one's own ends through nefarious means, there is a spectrum between the extremes of total self-delusion and total intentional fooling. Fall closer to the self-delusion side, and you'll seem stupider. Fall closer to the deliberately fooling others side of the spectrum, and you'll seem eviler. Ah, the quandaries and trade-offs of careerism.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Alcohol And Vocab Aptitude

Vocabulary, which seems to be a pretty good proxy for general intelligence, shows a positive and dose-dependent correlation with being an alcohol drinker, among Americans: 

Woah. Razib first found this relationship (here; HT R Wiblin) and we both used UC Berkeley's awesome SDA to do the crunching. The error bars are 95% confidence intervals, and their non-overlap between groups means most of these differences are very unlikely (< 5%) to be due to random chance. The general trend holds for all kinds of different age groups (18-30, 30-50, 50-60, 60-70, 70-100, etc.).

Allow me a couple stabs in the dark as to the relationship here:

1) Alcohol reduces anxiety (see here) and, as Steven Pinker has speculated, "people with higher intelligence are better at overcoming their anxious temperament and more likely to see their own worry list as a problem to be solved, minimizing unnecessary anxiety while still being anxious enough to get things done.” So, people with higher intelligence may be more likely to be self-medicating their anxiety with alcohol.

2) People with higher vocabs are more likely to be more highly educated, and thus been introduced to the drinking culture that is commonplace in institutes of higher ed. It may be a part of the culture there because it is more impressive (see bottom here) to be able to succeed in school and party on the weekends. And most people seek to maximize their relative impressiveness.