Mash's Musings


Office sans politics

Published May. 8, 2021

In Oct. 2020, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong took a divisive stance on keeping politics out of the workplace. Sparked by employee walkouts in reaction to Armstrong's reluctance to publicly comment on the BLM movement, this stance was cemented in the wake of heated political discussions preceding the Nov. 2020 US Presidential elections. In Apr. 2021, Basecamp founders Jason Fried and DHH followed suit, stating that there were to be no more societal or political discussions in workplace channels.

Both companies issued the statements alongside generous severance packages ranging from three to six months' pay and benefits. In the aftermath, Coinbase lost 60 employees, representing 5% of its workforce, and Basecamp lost 20 employees, representing a staggering 35% of its workforce.

While long backstories are needed to examine those as case studies (along with a sense of base rate attrition from such a severance policy alone), this got me interested in the philosophical idea of what role politics ought to play at work. If every company had to issue a "Yea or nay?" directive tomorrow regarding politics in work platforms, what should they do?

From the employee side, I get that people want to work somewhere that reflects their values. I would certainly be reluctant to take a comparable role at a payday loan provider or tobacco producer. For many people, this reflection of values extends to working somewhere that represents their political views. Identity at work, especially for millenials seems to have moved from "What are we creating?" to "What do we stand for?". The fusion of these has led to confusing wonders such as Ben & Jerry's What's New page, which provides you with 8 Ice Cream and Beer Pairings Perfect for St. Patrick's Day followed by a digestif of The Derek Chauvin Murder Trial: What's At Stake. Both highly topical and important topics to be sure, but a little more than I bargained for with my soft serve and sprinkles.

In my experience, I have had positive political experiences at work which involved listening to people from specific groups share their personal experiences and concerns on a relevant topic. Given the size and absolute diversity of the workplace, I gained a perspective wholly unavailable to me given my friend group outside of work. However, these sessions involve sharing of exclusively mainstream left-wing views which are from unanimous and I am confident that these public sharing sessions would not be so well-received if they were right-wing, which hints at the heart of the problem.

What people really want with politics in the workplace, as evidenced by the walkouts in 2020, is a place to share their political views and have them affirmed by leadership. Opposing views are loudly decried and end up triggering many. Sharing political views on a podium, at work or elsewhere, does not permit for safe rebuttal or dissent. Speaking to an audience of more than a couple of people quickly triggers the identity and posturing part of our brains and pushback is perceived as a threat to be neutralized. Somebody must win the public opinion. What was once a place to work together on creating a specific value to society quickly devolves into another shouting match.

What really changes hearts and minds are individualized, intimate conversations. People often say that you ought not to talk about religion or politics at work but I disagree. In a one-on-one setting, especially at work, it's much easier to know that we're on the same team. We can argue about the whole world, move on positions without losing face, and grab a drink afterwards, closer than we were before. Things get hairy when you move to talking about politics at work at scale. So to all the CEOs mulling over tomorrow's big "Yea or nay?", vote "Nay". Leave the office as a place to drive specific value and unify anyone interested in that mission; let the politics follow from that unity and not divide it.


Ode to text files

Published May. 5, 2021

Where have gone our beautiful text files?
The simple markdown or markup
Or the endangered .txt?

Think not of Microsoft Word docs
Save that for the businessmen and uninitiated.

Think not of Adobe PDFs
Save that for the lawyers and publishers.

Forget Apple Notes and Google Keep
Who imprison words within their walls.

A good text file is like good peanut butter,
it should contain only a single ingredient.

If Notepad can't read it then neither will I.
Bring back the beautiful text file.

What is love?

Published May. 4, 2021

Baby, don't hurt me

Don't hurt me

No more.

A reminder to myself not to take this endeavor too seriously. Beware of turning another mildly productive distraction into something at stake. That is often the beginning of the end.


Develop empathy

Published May. 3, 2021

Develop empathy as a rational tool. To be truly rational is to choose the most effective method of persuasion.

In March 2019, I had one of the most eye-opening (pun intended) experiences of my life.

"For the next three minutes, gaze into your partner's eyes."

Partner, in this case, referred to a stranger who'd I'd spoken to for less than five minutes. Wasn't this supposed to be a course on rationality? The previous weeks covered topics such as mental models and Bayesian thinking so what was with this weird stuff? Mostly to avoid the greater embarrassment of sitting out, I played along.

The first few seconds were easy, our eyes met with a mutual acknowledgement of the comedy of the situation. The rest of the first minute ended up being an unspoken game of "Who will laugh first?" The discomfort of just gazing directly into a stranger's eyes for some reason made everyone in the room want to giggle, presumably in the hope that laughter would dissolve the awkwardness. It did not...

We get through the initial giggles and enter minute two. I stifled my laughter and intensified my gaze, doubling down on my resolve to make it through this without feeling totally emasculated. Somewhere within that second minute, I found myself smiling again, but this time not out of embarrassment. I noticed we're both smiling and that now there was a sense of warmth and comfort associated with it. My intensity turned to curiosity, "Who is this other human looking at me? How is she feeling? How did she come to be staring into my eyes today?" And of course, "Is she thinking what I'm thinking?"

The final minute ended far too quickly. By that time we were pointing out interesting features in each other's eyes and reflecting on how weird it is to be afraid of this. We're in the middle of sharing our life stories interrupted—"Time's up."

"Now for the next two minutes discuss how you felt but start each sentence with 'When you say that, I feel...' And state an actual feeling: confusion, excitement, embarrassment. None of this 'I feel like...' that we usually use, instead of actually sharing how we feel. Share your acutal feelings. We are always mentally preparing what we want to say next while the other person is talking, what they say is usually secondary. See how that changes now."

What followed was what I can only describe as a conversation with a friend of many years. Of the sort that you only have after you've spent hours catching up on the mundane. There was no shame in talking about my embarrassment or her intimidation, just open sharing of raw emotions. For the rest of that day, I found myself effortlessly engaged and attentive to whatever this stranger had to say. My posture had changed from its usual skepticism to an open curiosity. And incredibly, that instant reflex to start preparing what I wanted to say next had disappeared, I wanted to make sure I caught her every word first. In the span of five minutes, we'd accomplished what would normally take a couple hours of EDM music and a healthy dose of MDMA.

Up to that point in my life, my approach to persuading others involved presenting facts, setting up logical arguments, and calling out biases or fallacies. This was in line with my understanding of rationality: whoever presented the most undeniable evidence was right. I was, of course, always right so cue my confusion at my general inability to persuade almost anyone. I would occassionally convince a close friend of something or another, often begrudgingly, so I chalked up the rest of my failed attempts to the irrationality of the other party; they just weren't thinking about things the right way.

But what I learned that day in the rationality course was that being truly rational meant meeting other people where they were at. Once you take even a little bit of time to build empathy, making yourself understood becomes easy. My decision to continue my debate-style approach despite its horrendous success demonstrated my irrationality first and foremost. Being rational involved understanding others' perspectives in their own words before attempting to change them. In my childish world view, I had conflated correctness with rationality, and ended up often missing the mark on both.

After that day, I immediately dove in to Marshall Rosenberg's work on Nonviolent Communication, the source of inspiration for the exercises. While going through the motions felt painfully awkward and forced, the results were truly remarkable. Without even having the conversations, I felt as if I understood people better, revitalizing my posture towards relationships I'd soured for many years. I tried eagerly to recommend it to anyone within earshot but pitching a YouTube video of an old man wearing hand puppets is admittedly not an easy sell. Reassuringly however, after reading Never Split the Difference and How to Win Friends and Influence People, I realized that all these books were saying the same thing, tailored to different audiences. A hostage negotiator, a self-help guru, and an international peacemaker all had the same basic truth: that people need to be understood to change, and the only way to get there is to listen without trying to be heard. Develop empathy as a rational tool. To be truly rational is to choose the most effective method of persuasion.


Are you rich?

Published May. 2, 2021

However many times this question has come up, the universal answer I hear is "No". Perhaps this is a reflection of my circle or my environment? Maybe I'm surrounded by people working in low-wage service jobs or perhaps I'm in a country with a relatively low standard of living? Alas no, this is the response from yuppies in their mid-20s mostly earning more than $100k/year in two of the richest countries in the world. Ironically, many of these people today would exceed the definition of rich they themselves had given only a couple years prior. Today, that old definition seems irrelevant and any new definition is left vague.

We often snidely refer to rich people as the 1% and yet in my experience the actual 1% and 2% sheepishly deny such classification, instead choosing to self identify as "middle class". People are notoriously comparative creatures, especially when it comes to money, but it seems that 98th percentile income in a 90th percentile country is still insufficient to self-identify as rich. While this is a genuine puzzle to me, I have a few rough thoughts as to why this might be the case:

I don't purport to know why most people feel this way, perhaps they don't know themselves. But what I do know is that by any reasonable measure, they are rich, at least in a financial sense. If you answered "no" to this question, I would ask you to consider why and whether that is really true, and what being "rich" really looks like?

Growing up, I remember at some point asking my dad if we were rich; it seemed like everyone at school lived more luxuriously than us and my mom would often rebuke my asks with a sharp, "We don't have enough money." But I was confused because we had recently moved to a big new house, a big improvement over the old roach-infested apartment, and gotten a shiny new minivan[0], a godsend at the time for my rapidly growing frame. My dad gave me a nonresponse citing that it's not important, much to my frustration. I had wanted to feel superior to the other kids. Everyone else looked happier than me, and I had desperately wanted affirmation that there would be a payoff for this repressive upbringing and angst—that I'd have the last laugh in the end because this is how you got rich. What my dad got right was that I was asking for the wrong reasons. But what he failed to impress upon me were the right reasons.

The reason to ask this question to ourselves is not to gain a sense of superiority over others or breed guilt within ourselves, but to bound the empty pursuit of money and seek real happiness. It is far easier to want more than it is to decide what is enough. And until we truly believe we have enough, we can never find peace.

[0]That Mazda MPV is still running to this day, bless its soul!


Populism and wallstreetbets

Published May. 1, 2021

In late January, I found myself unable to sleep. I felt anxious; a little scared even. But most of all... I felt excited. What would another day bring to the epic saga of r/wallstreetbets vs "Wall Street"? Would GME continue its meteoric rise to $1000? Would paper hands prevail and bring everything tumbling down? When would Elon or Ryan Cohen weigh-in on whether the squeeze was squoze? It was impossible to say and yet the possibilities continued to spiral through my mind. Every guy even remotely aware of what was going on quietly had the same thought pass through his mind: what it would be like if I became an overnight millionaire?

How much skin did I have in this game you might ask? How deep was I in $GME such that I was losing sleep over a meme?

Absolutely nothing. Zip. Nada.

And yet, this David vs Goliath narrative was powerful enough to draw me in. The mass media headlines and 8 million member growth of r/wallstreetbets in February told me that I was not alone. While this type of story goes by many names, the prevailing word at the of writing is populism. And though the "p" word has ugly connotations these days and associations with far-right extremist groups, the reality is that we all find ourselves caught up in the struggles of the everyman in some way.

The most worrying part for me was how emotionally invested I found myself despite my complete lack of skin in the game. What does that say about my susceptibility to other populist movements? Did I really care about Robinhood investors triumphing over Wall Street or was I just caught up in the excitement of watching conflict unfold and fortunes shift?

Eric Hoffer in The True Believer calls out that mass movements are much less about the cause itself and much more about how the narrative unfolds and the personality traits of would-be movers. This theory goes against our sense of being highly conscientious moral agents but fits the evidence of getting caught up in GME or identification with sports teams. Following the theory leads to the unsavory conclusion that there's not a whole lot separating Redditors trying to cancel Vlad from Robinhood and SJWs trying to cancel J. K. Rowling. Or, put more extremely, not a lot separating violent rioters in Portland from insurrectionists in the Capitol Building.

Despite Hoffer's book being published in 1951 when the consequences of nationalism, fascism, and communism all loomed large, the social psychology outlined is just as relevant 70 years later. The rise of populism is real and not going anywhere. And though hindsight makes it easy to classify which movements were right, it is not so easy to predict whether we will be the righteous.

My suggestions on how to tackle this? Short-term: cut out news and social media. The sensationalism and outrage is powerfully designed to draw us into the movement of the day. Long-term: be explicit about your values, write them down and revisit them every year. Having a strong sense of values means that any new thing that wants to capture us must first pass through the gauntlet of values.


Essential reading list

Published Apr. 28, 2021

What are the "essential" things we should learn as students? Nowadays, I often hear "coding is the language of the future" or "everyone should learn how to program" but like most maxims, this is a gross simplification. Yes, everyone who spends 8+ hours a day on a computer should learn something about how to use it more effectively, but everyone should not be a programmer. However, I firmly believe that there are a few foundational skills outside of the current curriculum that literally everyone should learn, especially before college when the training wheels are kicked off. Curriculums are zero-sum so for everything added, something must go; I would rank the following topics/courses at least above grade school history, geography, and maybe even a second language.

How to learn

Encapsulated by Barbara Oakley's Learning How to Learn. This is something that sounds so obvious that everyone assumes they know it already—they don't. The critical practical takeaway is knowledge of how learning actually happens and how to take advantage of your own psychology. Learning this breaks down the idea that there are subjects you are good at and bad at, and replaces it with a set of tools to gain mastery in any area.

Managing your time

Encapsulated by David Allen's Getting Things Done. Given how little attention is paid to time management outside of the corporate world, every young adult unfortunately learns this through the "sink or swim" approach when transitioning from high school to college and again from college to beyond. The big thing here is giving students the idea that you can break down big looming projects, in life and school, into simple actions they can take immediately. Whether they stick to the exact process in the book is inconsequential, what matters is instilling the belief that even for the most daunting and ambiguous of tasks, there is always a simple next step to take. Otherwise, ambiguity can only be tackled when the Panic Monster rears its head.

Reading efficiently and effectively

Encapsulated by Mortimer J. Adler's How to Read a Book. Forget everything you've learned in school about how to read and start over the right way; these 400 pages sum up what 12 years of formal education could not. If you aren't reading the Table of Contents, you're doing it wrong. Students should be able to learn how to quickly get the gist of a book and go deeper in the rare instances it's needed. It's crazy that we are never taught how to understand the big picture, instead spending hours poring over single passages or specific words. Once the required reading list goes from two books a semester to 6 papers and 3 books per class, I'd rather know how to find the main message of a book in a few minutes than how to surmise what the color green really meant in The Great Gatsby.


How to grok SQL

Published Apr. 27, 2021

The rigidity of SQL is both a blessing and a curse. Once you "get it", you really get it, there are almost no surprises. But its inflexible syntax and difficulty to test also means that it can take some time to grok and lead to lots of silent errors.

Confusingly, SQL is not executed top to bottom, the manner in which a human would read it. Reasoning about and reading SQL in the actual execution order, as outlined below, provides much greater clarity. One general tip is to use CTEs (Common Table Expressions AKA WITH statements) liberally to keep things organized.

FROM

The most important part of any query and the source of most mistakes. Reasoning about this involves visualizing, mentally or on paper, the full expansion of each join. Make sure you can state exactly what the the primary keys are on each table before joining. Write out some rows you expect to be dropped with inner joins, some rows you expect to be empty with outer joins, and some rows you expect to be duplicated/expanded if you're not joining two tables at the exact same level of aggregation. Joining at the wrong level of aggregation is really easy and won't return any errors, quietly returning a completely incorrect number.

By the end of this step you should have a sense of some giant megatable you're creating and be satisfied with what each row in the megatable represents. This is likely different than what your left-most table started with. Most of the columns in your megatable will never be used and the columns you joined on will likely be duplicated—this is okay.

WHERE

Once you have your megatable, decide which rows you don't need. This part is relatively well understood. The most common mistake seen stems from trying to filter on fields in joined tables when nothing was actually joined. Again, having a clear visualization of the megatable will help avoid this. Also be explicit about how you handle nulls: if A is null and B is 1, A != B may not do what you expect...

GROUP BY

You should know what level of aggregation you need for your output—only group by those fields! This is the second most common source of confusion. If you find yourself starting to group by numeric fields, stop! If you find yourself grouping by fields that are 1:1 or 1:many with your main field, stop! Really common mistakes would be grouping by city, state, and country or grouping by person_id, person_name, and title. In both of these situations, what you're really trying to do is just group by city or person_id first (within a CTE) and then join in the additional fields; the additional grouping fields are completely redundant! Adding all sorts of unnecessary groupings makes the query perform worse and adds confusion.

HAVING

Did you know that this even exists? WHERE but applied at the level of GROUP BY. Only want to find duplicates? Only care about groups above a certain threshold? This is where you encode it.

SELECT

While this seems like the meat and potatoes when first learning, this is really near the end of the process and should be straightforward after thinking through everything else. Be frugal with what fields you're pulling; a SELECT * might be quick to write but could slow you down 10x in run time. Window functions can get tricky and are outside of the scope of this post.

ORDER BY

You're almost there! Given how late this is in the execution, you can order by all the fancy new fields you defined in the last step (aside from window functions, womp womp).

LIMIT

You made it! Try to be frugal here as well since you probably just want to make sure things are working. Forgetting this can lead to some long wait times as your front-end tries to download 1 GB files when a few KB would have sufficed.


Choose less, decide more

Published Apr. 25, 2021

Choose less, decide more. The simplicity is well worth it.

While a rationalist economist may disagree, there is a profound difference between choosing and deciding. Choosing is the slow process of weighing options against each other, creating some sort of mental ranking, and then reflecting on how optimal your process was after-the-fact. Deciding is making up your mind either ahead of time or within a few moments and then wholly welcoming the consequences.

We are generally taught the value of carefully choosing things. Most engineering and business majors can relate to the experience of taking entire courses related to this; Pugh matrices, Porter's Five Forces, SWOT analyses and other junk are pedalled to students as industry-standard decision making tools. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen any of these show up in the real world, and can count with no hands the number of times they were useful. There is a place for being choosy: when making big life decisions around where to live, who to be with, what our values are—but this choosy mode is switched on far too often and the cost paid unwittingly.

While we focus our efforts on making sure we make the best possible choice for what to buy or where to eat, we rarely consider the cognitive load borne for these choices. We commonly spend 30 minutes deciding whether to eat out, an hour deciding where to go, and 15 minutes deciding what to order. When viewed through a maximalist lens of "did I choose the best thing?", it's easy to rationalize that our final choice from the best reviewed restaurant (cross-referenced on Google Reviews, Yelp, and Reddit of course) really was an improvement over the alternative. But the question we should really be asking ourselves is what is the least amount of time I can spend to get an outcome I'm satisfied with. As poker pro Annie Duke points out in How to Decide, "The time you take to decide is time that you could be spending doing other things, like actually talking to the person sitting with you in the restaurant."

The best part is that making decisions let's us have some fun while getting us that time back. Spending too much money on eating out? Decide to never order something over $11 off the menu. Spending hours agonizing over that next $100 purchase? Decide to make up your mind after the first review you read. Not sure where to eat? Decide on the first place on Maps over 4.5 stars that you haven't been to. Not only will you find this liberating, you'll also have a great conversation starter next time your friends end up in a battle of "I don't know, what do you wanna do?" Choose less, decide more. The simplicity is well worth it.


Parabola of Generosity

Published Apr. 24, 2021

I remember in my early trading days, at age twenty-five or so, when money started to become easy. I would take taxis, and if the driver spoke skeletal English and looked particularly depressed, I'd give him a $100 bill as a tip, just to give him a little jolt and get a kick out of his surprise. I'd watch him unfold the bill and look at it with some degree of consternation ($1 million would certainly have been better but it was not within my means). It was also a simple hedonic experiment: it felt elevating to make someone's day with the trifle of $100. I eventually stopped; we all become stingy and calculating when our wealth grows and we start taking money seriously.

This quote from Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan caught me off guard upon first reading and has lingered me with me since. The story itself is hardly memorable, something I'd expect to find in the memoirs of any self-absorbed Wall Street type. What really got me was the last line: that there is some unflattering and unintuitive stopping point for our generosity.

Reading this book at age twenty-five or so, when money started to become easy, this was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. After a lifetime of parsimony, which my close friends would be too eager to confirm, I was very compelled by the arguments of Effective Altruism. I had paid off my loans, gotten a healthy raise, and realized how little you need to live comfortably with no dependents. The trifle of $100, while providing almost no marginal utility to me, could provide a significant reduction in the likelihood of someone contracting malaria or prevent iodine deficiency in hundreds of others. Tipping taxi drivers generously became easy, especially since most of those tips were reimbursable.

And then, subconsciously and slowly, it became difficult. After another healthy raise and promotion, I oddly found myself second guessing my prior commitments. The argument for generosity was just as compelling as before but it felt a lot harder to give away money. Another year passes and I experience a massive increase in income; enough to start to question the purpose of money and its role in life. While this is the point where most people (naively) think they would suddenly become generous benefactors, I find myself growing even stingier! What kind of moral deficiency was I afflicted with!?

I coin this relationship the Parabola of Generosity. I'll save you the bandwidth of an image with a few words. Imagine a concave quadratic surface with the y-axis representing generosity and x-axis representing wealth. Our generosity starts off very low or negative, constrained by our complete lack of wealth, increases up to a point in as we become self-aware of our relative wealth, and then decreases sharply thereafter. The coefficients are dependent on the individual but I believe that this general shape is universal (viewed locally).

It was around the time of finding myself past peak generosity that I came across this passage from Taleb. I felt seen and understood, as if I'd been let in on some blasé rite of passage of the wealthy. Unfortunately though, I did not feel vindicated; having someone else articulate what I was feeling did not give me the sense of righteousness I would have liked.

While the Parabola provides an accurate description of experience, it does not make a claim about why an inflection point exists. I have yet to find a more satisfactory answer than what Taleb has outlined: that we start taking money seriously. Wealth goes from a feeling of abundance to a feeling of burden. I have a sense (maybe a hope) that this quadratic relationship only appears so in a local sense and upon zooming out, the relationship becomes cubic. That we reach some inflection point of "fuck you" money, after which generosity begins increasing again. This seems to hold true for the ultra-wealthy spanning from the most villainized Gilded Age industrialists to Bill Gates. According to Wikipedia, cubic parabolas are a thing so the theory still stands.

As for where I'm at now, I am glad to report that I have not stopped giving. Meditation and the occasional revisiting of works by Peter Singer and Will MacAskill help the reasoned part of my brain set up automated systems to bypass System 1. To someone experiencing something similar, I'd advise taking a step back to evaluate how your values have changed over time. If the change in wealth has outpaced the change in values, it's worth overcoming that stinginess—before we find ourselves writing our own self-absorbed Wall Street type memoirs.


Emergence of religious values

Published Apr. 21, 2021

Over the last few years, fueled in part by curiosity and in part by the search for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, I have tried implementing a variety of lifestyle changes. Most of these ideas have come from separate sources and some have stuck more than others (I swear I'll start working out everyday tomorrow). But taking a step back on some of the more impactful ones paints an eerily familiar picture:

  1. Rarely drink or do drugs. Inspired by my hatred of weekends spent recovering from hangovers and by examples set by two friends enjoying the same parties.
  2. Abstain from porn and masturbation. Inspired by that one TEDx Talk.
  3. Meditate first thing in the morning and often before bed. Inspired by Sam Harris.
  4. Rarely eat meat. Inspired by a course in air pollution engineering and a long-time partner.
  5. Read philosophy and religious texts. Inspired by desire to find the Answer and catch up on literary tradition.
  6. Rarely lie. Inspired by Sam Harris and a long-time partner. I would say I never lie but...
  7. Tithe. Inspired by a SEO savvy career quiz that led me to 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can.
  8. Reduce amount of "stuff". Inspired by anxiety around clutter and desire to save more.
  9. Intermittently fast. Inspired by David Sinclair's Lifespan.

The clear religious bent of this list would outdo many Muslims I know. Yet my belief in a traditional God is no stronger than it was before. In fact I'd wager that the intense angst and atheist identity formed in my teenage years probably made me more resistant to these ideas than most. But here we are. Like the final zoom out on Art Attack, it is surprising how a series of small unrelated steps looks from a big picture lens.

Does this mean the seemingly arbitrary rules handed down by religions are really some emergent properties that arise from one's search for truth and contentment? If so, does that justify the use of more persuasive tools such as fear and shame to keep others on the path?

While I leave you to ponder the former, I draw a hard line against the latter. It is easy, in hindsight, to preach about virtues, but applying pressure wantonly does more harm than good. For me, each of these habits came from the right conversation at the right time. And the only real teacher was lived experience.

More insidiously, packaging virtues with negative emotions can backfire in a spectacular way. Discovered individually and independently, virtues serve as a rock solid foundation for identity; but handed down from God, the slightest tremor can cause the house of cards to topple into crisis. Inoculation means bottom-up learning. And bottom-up learning means making your own mistakes.


Don't read what others are reading

Published Apr. 19, 2021

In a couple of recent discussions with friends around books to read and suggestions, I drew some ire around my stance on recommendations and book clubs—I am not open to contemporary or topical books. This draws criticism without fail and yet my conviction on this has only strengthened.

One compelling argument is summarized well in a Farnam Street blog post:

If we're reading what everyone else is reading it's harder to think differently about problems, decisions, or life.

There is definitely an element of truth to this but, as my friend pointed out, the Murakami quote around the other boys being crap is elitist at best. While this vague call to a sense of independence is appealing, there is a much better reason to focus on classics.

As Adler points out in How to Read a Book, the reason to read classics is not to feel "cultured"—it's to understand the rich literary tradition behind everything we know. One cannot really understand the significance of Reading Lolita in Tehran without first reading Lolita. Or truly walk with Dante through Hell without knowing of Virgil. And this lack of understanding is often much worse in nonfiction. People nowadays praise Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century with no knowledge of Marx's Capital, which Piketty is transparently trying to build upon. And of the few socialists who have actually read Marx, almost none have read Adam Smith, whose theories Marx was rebutting. To read only contemporary books is to spend your life skating on the tips of icebergs, blind to the centuries of thought that have led us to where we are today.

Accepting this truth is one thing, but acting on it is another. This path can seem extremely daunting; once you start looking for predecessor after predecessor, you realize it's turtles all the way down. And that realization can be demotivating enough to justify abandoning the pursuit altogether. Fortunately, there are some excellent reading lists out there that help stop the infinite regress. While it would take many lifetimes to traverse the entire iceberg of human knowledge, you'll be surprised to see how far along you'll get simply by reading The Odyssey or The Epic of Gilgamesh.

As the ancient Chinese proverb goes:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So dear reader, try taking that first step. Once you cross the chasm from Heather's Picks to Homer's Picks, you'll never look back.


Dos and Dont's of Feynman

Published Apr. 18, 2021

I recently finished reading "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" and found his life to be often profound, sometimes cringe, and consistently wonderful. Here is my ranking of some of his advice.

Words to live by

Above all else, always focus on true understanding. The kind which you get from experiencing, teaching others, and extrapolating beyond the homework. This idea was best summed up by an analogy in which he blasts the Brazilian physics program for its emphasis on volume and rote. Unfortunately, the style of education on blast has become the norm.

Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren't many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek—even the smaller kids in elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, "What were Socrates' ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?"—and the student can't answer. Then he asks the student, "What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?" the student lights up and goes, "Brrrrrrrrr-up"—he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek.

But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty!

What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the student can understand.

Try and understand the phenomena itself instead of just the word.

The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything, "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything... The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word!

Make sure you have a real example to test your understanding.

He thinks I'm following the steps mathematically, but that's not what I'm doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he's trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing.

It is foolish to seek the wisdom of the crowd.

This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China's nose is, and you average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of pople who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.

Reflect on the value of what it is you're achieving. It's easy to get caught up in the joy of achievement.

After the [atomic bomb test] went off, there was tremendous excitement at Los Alamos. Everybody had parties, we all ran around. I sat on the end of a jeep and beat drums and so on. But one man, I remember, Bob Wilson, was just sitting there moping.

I said, "What are you moping about?"

He said, "It's a terrible thing that we made."

I said, "But you started it. You got us into it."

You see, what happened to me—what happened to the rest of us—is we started for a good reason, then you're working very hard to accomplish something and it's a pleasure, it's excitement. And you stop thinking, you know; you just stop. Bob Wilson was the only one who was still thinking about it, in that moment.

Dos

  1. Make learning fun. You won't get very far otherwise.
  2. "I learned that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world."
  3. Don't overestimate your competition. You never know when the fifty person chemistry team you're competing against turns out to be just Feynman and a bottle-washer.
  4. "Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile."
  5. Be afraid when you find yourself wanting to drink or do drugs spontaneously.
  6. "To be a practical man was, to me, always somehow a positive virtue, and to be 'cultured' or 'intellectual' was not. The first was right, of course, but the second was crazy."
  7. "I've very often made mistakes in physics by thinking the theory isn't as good as it really is, thinking that there are lots of complications that are going to spoil it—an attitude that anything can happen, in spite of what you're pretty sure should happen."
  8. Don't worry about how esteemed anyone is in conversation, worry only about your ability to reason through the matter at hand. That's the type of person who the esteemed surround themselves with.
  9. Feynman on imposter syndrome: "You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it's impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!"
  10. "When you're young, you have all these things to worry about—should you go there, what about your mother. And you worry, and try to decide, but then something else comes up. It's much easier to just plain decide. Never mind—nothing is going to change your mind."
  11. When asked about his experience at an interdisciplinary conference on the "ethics of equality": "This conference was worse than a Rorschach test. There's a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!"
  12. On grading elementary school textbooks: "The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous—they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by 'rigor.' They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.
  13. "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."

Proceed with caution

  1. Pursuing lucid dreaming for sexual excitement.
  2. As a professor, asking students at your university to pose nude for your drawings.
  3. Accepting a brothel owner's commission for a nude drawing.
  4. Testifying in court about the merits of a topless dancing bar.
  5. Going into a sensory deprivation chamber for 2.5 hrs on ketamine.

Don'ts

  1. Crawling around your floor trying to see you can smell your own footprints.
  2. Driving straight back to work after your wife's death and telling your coworker, "She's dead. And how's the program going?"
  3. Getting into bar fights in Buffalo.
  4. Picking up a girl by unironically telling her, "You...are worse than a WHORE!"
  5. Sleeping with someone at her motel after she tells you she's a newlywed on her honeymoon.

Sports are dumb

Published Apr. 14, 2021

I'd imagine most people reading the title are either relieved to finally hear what they haven't been allowed to say their whole lives or are already coming up with answers for why I'm wrong. I'm not talking about lowercase sports, the games we play for fun, fitness, and competition. I am saying that Sports — the televised media phenomenon involving following favorite teams, tracking stats, and arguing about players — are dumb.

There is an element of this which I think nobody will disagree with. Everyone at some level is aware that how many times someone throws a ball through a hoop or carries a ball past a painted line doesn't matter. And yet, people defend their love for Sports with a passion.

People often argue that their passion for Sports stems from their passion to see people reach pinnacles of human achievement and athleticism. But if this were the only or main reason, we would expect the most useful or relatable proficiencies to be the most highly esteemed. The fact that you know the names of more basketball players on a single team than you do master carpenters, ultramarathoners, and memory athletes combined should prove that this love for achievement is not the key factor.

Looking past the facade, Sports are really just a way for us to revel in our tribalistic tendencies in a socially acceptable way. They start off as normal entertainment and offer an easy way to connect with others and have fun. But at some point we find ourselves transformed from spectator to sports fan. When the outcome of the game starts triggering an emotional response, the player or the team becomes a part of our identity. And this identification with and glorification of Sports is where the heart of the issue lies.

What we tie our identities to, and thus what ends up getting elevated to celebrity status in society, is a reflection of our values. Ambitiously, we can think of values such as pushing the frontiers of human achievement or seeking fundamental truths. More simply, we can think of values such as living a healthy life or fostering loving relationships. But what values are reflected when we tie our identity to competition over useless games based on geographical location?

While this seems like a scathing review of Sports, I actually don't have a problem with just watching sports. Have fun and enjoy the spectacle of seeing giant superhumans dunk rubber balls! Just take a step back to reflect the next time you find yourself upset about a certain team losing or arguing about what a player ought to have done. What is it you really care about?


Stick to one club

Published Apr. 5, 2021

Stick to one club. Passion stems from honing a skill.

Through most of my schooling, I was almost never involved in extracurricular activities. Growing up, I chalked this up to my parents' haughty attitude towards such things and the constant refrain that studying was all that mattered. But reflecting on my previous post, I realize that there was more at play.

There was a steady stream of trying out what was "cool" or "strategic" such as basketball, Model UN, DECA, or FSAE but then dropping out after the first couple weeks when the novelty wore off and I realized that I wasn't very good. People talked about finding your passion and so I surmised that because I was not passionate about these activities, I should drop them. What nobody told me was that passion is found by building competency and not the other way around. By quitting everything which I didn't naturally excel at, I kept eluding the very thing I was chasing. It was not until starting a full-time job, in which quitting wasn't really an option, that I started to see the joy of developing a craft, regardless of what that craft is. Suddenly I found myself interested in things I'd never thought about in my life such as graphic design, public speaking, and data analysis.

We often poke fun at "sellout" careers such as accountant or management consultant. "Who ever grows up wanting to be an accountant?", we jest. Now don't get me wrong, having met plenty of accountants and consultants, I can confirm that there are no shortage of sellouts and people "playing it safe". But what's missed is the large number of people who found their passion as they honed their craft, something that those repeating the tired trope likely have not experienced.

The hidden beauty of a club or profession is the sense of community that comes from surrounding yourself with people dedicated to honing the same craft. Through competition and camaraderie, the spark of passion grows into a flame. Seeming trivialities such as accounting exams or tech conferences become rites of passage and hotbeds of learning. So much depth becomes available in the simple exercise of coming to terms with your own incompetence. Stick to one club. Passion stems from honing a skill.


Do one thing

Published Apr. 4, 2021

Do one thing at a time. Stop multitasking, it's a lie.

One of the worst habits I had built up was trying to do more at once, thinking that this was the key to productivity. This idea even pervaded into relaxation where listening to music, reading, chatting with friends, watching TV were more often done in concert than alone or even in pairs. And my god what a cacaphony that was. What felt like speeding at 100 mph through the climax of Limitless, was really my brain working on overdrive to complete the most mundane tasks with minimum comprehension. Unfortunately, my psyche finds the intensity of the overstimulation to be far more addictive than the sobering reality of how half-hearted my messages were or the inability to recall which songs had played for the last 30 minutes.

Overcoming that addiction to stimulation is a Herculean task. Like the hydra, two new notifications or recommendations pop up for every one we are able to ignore, leading to that all too familiar fatigue on the other side of a YouTube black hole. And yet, we're all aware of the perfect contentment, even bliss, that comes from concentrated focus. I'd urge my younger self to think about the conversations with friends where the rising sun was the only reminder of how much time had passed. To think about the twilight hours before an exam when stress finally took over and problem sets started melting away. I'd urge him to answer honestly which moments truly resembled happiness and productivity.

While this realization would have been no panacea for distraction, it would have at least served to dispel the myth of multitasking. That it was not just an inability to multitask correctly but a misguided pursuit altogether. And in that dispelling provide at least a moment of clarity on what is really worth pursuing. Do one thing at a time. Stop multitasking, it's a lie.


Go to class

Published Apr. 1, 2021

Go to class. Don't worry about notes or what you miss. Just show up.

One of my top regrets in life is my abysmal class attendance in university. I'd imagine a plot of my class attendance vs time would look almost like a perfectly straight line from 100% in the first few months of freshman year to 20% in the final months of senior year. The regret does not stem from the lost GPA but rather the lost learning. I can already see my younger self rolling his eyes and mentally checking out. And as this is a directive for that younger self, this seems like a lost cause. But bear with me, since I think there is something that younger me missed.

Going to class is the best way to passively learn and collect extra GPA. Like reading, going to class gets built up as this great virtuous activity; one that requires the utmost attention, pre-reads, furious note-taking, and questions that are 9 parts flexing your understanding to the other 150 kids:1 part clarification. And yes, those will all absolutely enrich the experience. But the beauty of class is that you still gain something with absolutely none of that.

As mentioned in Mortimer J. Adler's condescendingly yet aptly-named How to Read a Book, it's important to get the gist of a book before really analyzing it. On the first pass, focus on what you do understand, instead of what you don't. This seemingly simple advice contradicts most of schooling where you can't progress until you understand. And I think this simple shift in focus, away from frantic dictation to a laidback absorption of occasional insight, is what's missed. The rest can (but probably won't) come later. Take the freebies while you can. Go to class. Don't worry about notes or what you miss. Just show up.


Just keep reading

Published Mar. 30, 2021

Just keep reading. Doesn't matter what, doesn't matter when, doesn't matter for how long. Just keep reading.

I, like most people my age, used to love reading as a kid. Like seriously love it. To the point where my mom would have to come take away my flashlight after a new Artemis Fowl or Harry Potter book came out so I wouldn't stay up all night reading. And yet, as I grew up and video games got fancier, broadband internet entered our home, and the nightmarish social pressures of puberty became a thing, I forgot about reading. It wasn't a strong conviction or anything, it just simply faded away. Reading became an activity for school, not for fun. And then at some point reading became a virtue, a painful rite of passage to show how smart you were.

As a result, it took me a full decade to start reading again. And many months after that before I started reading for fun. Ten years of learnings gone, emotions not experienced, perspectives unchallenged. It was a quote from Naval Ravikant that made me realize what I got wrong 10 years ago.

Everybody I know who reads a lot loves to read, and they love to read because they read books that they loved. It’s a little bit of a catch-22, but you basically want to start off just reading wherever you are and then keep building up from there until reading becomes a habit. And then eventually, you will just get bored of the simple stuff.

There were plenty of books that I loved to read but at some point that seemed like the wrong thing to do. Reading for fun was no longer cool and then over time, it became a big thing. A reminder to drop the pretense and just pick up a book, any book, when I'm restless or on vacation would have been great. Keep the habit, embrace the guilty reads! Just keep reading. Doesn't matter what, doesn't matter when, doesn't matter for how long. Just keep reading.


Directives for a younger self

Published Mar. 29, 2021

Every time I read the work of wunderkinder like Vitalik Buterin or Patrick Collison, I find myself awestruck by what they had accomplished at such a young age. During the time in which they were reading cryptography papers and great Western classics, I was busy organizing drop parties in Varrock and PQs in Kerning City. Take Patrick's advice for 10-20 year olds for example. How many 10 year olds could actually internalize this? I'm not even sure that I was thinking on this level at 20 and can only hope to get there at 30.

This stark difference has made me wonder what advice would have reached through to an obstinate arrogant younger me. While I don't think I could have convinced that self to read esoteric books or practice meditation, I do think that simple directives summarizing the lessons could have piqued some curiosity. And so, the next few posts will be my attempt at collecting some of these directives.

Directive #1: Always listen to your future self.

This is part of an effort to build a habit of writing, inspired by #100DaysToOffload. Please feel free to shame me into keeping some pace as I drop off on this.


Cafe privacy

Published Jan. 10, 2021

You ease into your booth for a cup of coffee with friends. It took a bit of convincing to get people to switch cafes but you’re finally here: WhatsCup. You’re aware of all the cameras overhead watching your every move and you know it’s still owned by Facebucks, the same parent company as the last cafe, but hey, at least the cameras here are closed-circuit and there are no hidden microphones at the tables. It’s to help serve you better you’re reassured.

“Another iced WhatsFrapp with the whip cream on the side?”, the barista asks.

You nod suspiciously; they’ve been tracking your purchases. But hey, it makes for more personalized service and at least there are no god damn mics at the table.

A few months pass and you catch a glimpse of a new notice by the entrance. Starting next month, all the footage and data will be shared with the rest of Facebucks. Who you talk to, when you visit, what you ordered — everything is now shared. There's no mention of an opt out. And what about the armies of third-parties Facebucks is affiliated with? You have to squint to read the fine print. It’s all shared with third parties as well. All to help serve you better you’re reassured. “Your privacy is our priority” it states boldly.

“Didn’t I say no to this a few years back? What about the the sign reading ‘You control your privacy’?”, you ask.

You think you hear the camera overhead zoom in a little but you’re not sure.

“Management”, the barista shrugs apologetically, “Can I get you another iced WhatsFrapp?”

You look down the street at Sig & Nal’s. It’s a nonprofit with a 4.8 star rating and prides itself on just serving you and your friends coffee by donation; no cameras, no tracking. They even have the building plans available for anyone to verify.

You look back at your friends settling into the usual booth, unfazed, and the sea of cameras silently watching overhead. What do you do?


Don't know thyself

Published Nov. 15, 2020

When discussing the topic of change or trying something new, I often hear the refrain, “I know myself, I wouldn't like X” or, “I'm not a Y person”. And while there is much wisdom and value in the old aphorism of “know thyself”, I think we would all stand to benefit by knowing ourselves a little less.

As Yuval Noah Harari summarizes in Sapiens, humankind has been driven by shared, often subconscious, narratives. And while these narratives have enabled us to send people to the Moon, they have also served as the backbone of every bloody war. And while it can be easy to unsubscribe from shared narratives, it's important to realize that there are a great many internal narratives we carry as well. And similarly, our internal narratives can bring out the best and the worst in us.

For example, throughout most of my life I had a crystal clear, staunch understanding—nay a fact!— about myself, that I was not “a morning person”. What exactly “a morning person” was I did not know but I was certain that my 4:00 am – 12:00 pm sleep schedule in university certainly disqualified me from consideration. Fast-forward a couple years and after being in a situation in which I could enjoy a nice hot breakfast and flat white only if I woke up before 6:30 am (early birds do get the worms after all), I decided that the alone time and free meal were worth an earlier alarm. Seemingly overnight, I started to hear all my coworkers say how they could never do the same because they were not morning people. How could this be when I was not a morning person either? What had changed? All I had done was tap my phone a couple times to dial my alarm back.

Simply put, I just let go of a narrative. I learned that my “I'm not a morning person” narrative was as bogus as my childhood “I'm a boy and boys like cars” narrative. What took precedence was the narrative of “Of course I can do this”, a less confining and yet equally self-fulfilling mantra. And loosening this rigid sense of identity has led to so many (generally positive) changes that I'm left considering the ship of Theseus and how illusory this whole identity thing was to start with.

So next time you're faced with a positive change that seems way out of character, don't “know thyself”. Take a second to think of whether the change aligns with who you want to be instead of who you are. And then simply try. You'll inevitably wake up at 1:00 pm on a weekend but that's okay. Drop the “I'm failure” story and just try again tomorrow. You'll be surprised at who you can be when you stop trying to be who you are.


Demystifying the logistic regression equation

Published Oct. 1, 2020

After thinking about the whole logistic regression thing for a while, I was confused how we got to the magic e^x function considering our goal was merely to go from a crude linear approximation of a probability to a meaningful probability bounded between 0 and 1. While there are infinitely many ways to get there, here are a few arguably simpler examples I came up with to also achieve the same outcome. Notably, I was curious why we do we not use the x/abs(x) version when that gives us a much crisper binary outcome?[0]

graphs

The problem breaks down into answering the following:

  1. How can we make sure our output is positive?
  2. And how can we make sure our output is bounded at 1?

But thinking about this, we can see that there are infinitely many ways to do this. So again, why an exponential?

I can come up with intuitions that help us understand why we use the equation we use[1]: An exponential reflects the idea that an increase in X result in an increase in p(X) and a decrease in X results in a decrease in p(X). In other words, a negative coefficient means a decrease in probability and vice versa.[2]

Exponentials? :check: Lines? :check: Squares? :x: Absolute? :x:

An exponential, by definition, reflects the idea that the effect a step change in X has on p(X) depends on our current value of X.[3] In other words, if we’re considering the effect of income on probability of default, it matters whether we are going from an income of $0k–$10k vs $200k–$210k.

Exponentials? :check: Lines? :x: Squares? :check: Absolute? :x:

And what about the +1 in the denominator? We could have used any number > 0. It seems 1 is just a convenient choice to help give meaning to p(X) / (1-p(X)). We could just as correctly use +2 or +3, but then we would just be carrying around a factor of 2 or 3. So we just pick +1 arbitrarily to make things simpler.

Hopefully these ramblings kind of help understand the seemingly magical appearance of e^x in this application. As with a lot of other statistical applications, the formula chosen is due to thoughtful convenience and not an absolute truth.

[0] You can just as legitimately use x/abs(x) to create your own binary classifier.

[1] These may not be the actual reasons why this equation was chosen…

[2] I guess this really just means that we want dy/dx > 0 for all x?

[3] I guess this really just means that we want d^2y/dx^2 ≠ 0?