Really Ridiculously Thorough Notes

Recently I tried an experiment. My note taking method already involves trying to record every single claim a book makes- I added to that “record every thought I have about the claim.” This included information that bore on the claim (e.g. if the claim was “A wave of German Catholics emigrated to American colonies from 1720-1741”, my thoughts would include “wait, wasn’t Germany Protestant?” and “Germany didn’t have any colonies of its own”) , questions it raised (e.g., “what was the state of German Protestant immigration to American colonies?”, “what constitutes a wave of immigration?”, “how did they fund the travel?”) and potential implications (“They would learn to need English”). Obviously this would be incredibly onerous to do all the time; my goal was to see what changes occurred when I did it, and perhaps train the muscle so it would be easier to do so in the future.

For a test subject I chose Children in Colonial America, of which I had skipped the last three chapters because they didn’t bear on my overall question that much. However they were a much better size and format than my the next two books in my queue, and I’d be able to get to the meat faster because I’d already read the previous chapters.

You can see my notes for the book as a whole here, the experiment starts with Chapter 10

Day 1, Round 1 (Chapter 10):

  • Not a perfect experiment; I’d taken Ritalin for the first time in a while before deciding to run the experiment and it obviously altered the experience a lot.
  • I got through a pre-read (basically a non-exhaustive reading of the first and last few paragraphs) and two pages in 1.5 hours.
  • After 1.5 hours I was done. Could not continue with the experiment for love or money. I went on to work on a blog post about cat-mitigation strategies for an hour, so it’s not that the Ritalin quit.
  • Even explicitly giving myself prompts to write down *everything* I thought related to a claim, I would sometimes notice new thoughts well after I’d left a particular claim.

Day 1, Round 2:

  • Tried for a bit but couldn’t muster the energy to go really into detail like I did above.

 

Day 2, Round 1 (Chapter 10):

  • More intense than D1R2 but less than D1R1, finished early when I finished a chapter.

 

Day 3 and 4, Round 1 (Chapter 11):

  • Started (day 3) and finished (day 4) Chapter 11 of Children in Colonial America. Either something has changed in my capacity to this work, or the work showed me something was wrong with the chapter, even though I can’t put my finger on it.

 

Day 5 (Chapter 12):

  • Became irritated in the pre-reading phase, spent 2 hours writing a blog post about why the final paragraph signaled low quality.

 

Day 6, Round 1 (Chapter 1):

  • Coincidentally experimented with caffeine + theanine + MCT oil in the morning.
  • Published complaints about Chapter 12.
  • I wanted to extend the experiment- both the deep note-taking, and predicting work quality in the pre-reading stage. I have some books out from the library, but they’re full books, not anthologies, and I feel like stand-alone chapters give me faster feedback.
  • Discovered that Children in Colonial America is book 3 in a series on children in America, and there are three other books with the same editor on different time periods. This is great because it lets me minimize the changing variables as I continue the experiment.
  • Read Chapter 1 and deep note take Children and Youth in a New Nation (notes). I’m not able able to go quite as deep as in attempt 1, but then, Ritalin. Chapter 1 of CaYiaNN is one of those middling history works that doesn’t have an overarching thesis but knows it is structurally expected to have one, so makes a thesis out of its uncertainty: “Some people had a variety of experiences with X for a variety of reasons.” Become inspired to write Fake Thesis Vs Absent Thesis.

 

Both my note-taking process and the notes I took on it gradually declined as I attempted to read Chapter 2 of Children and Youth in a New Nation, culminating in going days where I couldn’t even push myself into reading. So… can’t say I recommend this. I’m working out other ways to approach the goal of contextualizing information as I read.

 

 

 

 

 

Fake Thesis vs. Absent Thesis

Yesterday I complained about a stand-alone chapter whose opening and especially closing paragraphs immediately made me think it was low quality, which was correct. Today I want to talk about something that looks similar, but isn’t.

The chapter I complained about was the last chapter in Children in Colonial America (affiliate link), but it turns out CiCA is the third book in a series on the history of childhood in America, all in the same format with the same editor. This lets me minimize variables as I compare chapters. Then as luck would have it, the first chapter of the first-published book, Children and Youth in the New Republic (affiliate link), was the perfect foil for Chapter 12 of Children in Colonial America.

Chapter 1 of …New Republic, “Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution: The Effects of War on Society”, demonstrates a fairly common pattern. The author has a bunch of data and no single frame to capture it all, so they say something like “X is a complicated subject. Different people related to it in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.” In the particular case of Boy Soldiers… X is “boys/young men fighting for America in the Revolutionary War”, and the variety is “Some boys chose to fight for patriotism, material advancement, or to help their family. Some but not all did this against their parents’ objections. Other boys were forced to fight by their families over their objections.”

Or in more words

The factors that drew these soldiers into the service indicate the great diversity of experience in boyhood in revolutionary America. In the glimpses we have of them and their families at the moment of enlistment, we see that some enjoyed the care and protection of their parents while others suffered at the hands of mercenary ones. Some went to war against their parents’ inclinations while others were thrust into it over their own objections. A few boys thought that the army would be a more hospitable place than the places they lived or that it would be an escape from jobs that were tedious and frustrating. For many more, military service was an issue around which they could negotiate with their fathers when they wanted opportunities that could take them away from home. Some saw a real opportunity to contribute to the financial well-being of their families. They could do this either directly by turning over their pay or bounty money or indirectly by substituting for an older family member, allowing the more needed laborer to stay home, or by relieving their families of the need to support and feed them. A few, such as Josiah Brandon, were drawn by the cause itself to set their own course.

Boyer, Paul S.. Children and Youth in a New Nation (Children and Youth in America) (pp. 26-27). NYU Press short. Kindle Edition.

 

The chapter consists of first hand accounts of different boys enlisting in the army for different reasons, and some comments on the state of the evidence.

I could easily see a world where the same amount of actual facts, models, and and narratives led to both the theses of the style of Chapter 1 of CaYiaNN and Chapter 12 of CiCA, depending on writing skill and adherence to a guide book but independent of the quality of information or author understanding. “Iunno” and “A bunch of things happened for a bunch of reasons” are both good descriptions of a pile of data you don’t have a cohesive explanation for. If anything I’d expect “Iunno” to be associated with higher quality works, since it’s more honest. That’s clearly not happening in these cases, although obviously a sample size of two is too small to draw any conclusions.

 

Set Ups and Summaries

Part of the research process I’m developing involves reading and thinking through the first and last chapter of a book, and first and last few paragraphs of a chapter, to get an expectation of what’s to come (combined with some other stuff I call this pre-reading). I’m currently pondering how much you can get out of this, and specifically if it’s fair to reject a work because it failed pre-reading.

Pre-reading is in part derived from advice in How to Read a Book to find a books “Unity”, the idea being that you’ll better incorporate information into your understanding if you know how it connects to the author’s larger point. I objected to HtRaB’s advice on this topic in my review, because it seemed to be trying to enforce an orderliness that reality does not support. Looking for a unified narrative encourages the author to throw out anything that doesn’t fit their narrative, and the reader to ignore it even when it’s included. Even in situations where there is a fairly clear narrative you might not know it yet, and it’s important to be able to share raw data without prematurely deciding what it means.

Then I pre-read chapter 12 of Children in Colonial America (an anthology: chapters have a common theme but each is meant to stand alone), and my immediate reaction was “nothing with this ending is going to be any good.”  The chapter is discussing specific individuals down to the last paragraph, with no attempt to summarize what’s come before. The start is better but not by much- the last sentence of the first paragraph should clearly be the first, and the contextualization the rest of the paragraph provides should have come after, not before, when I know why I care what percentage of 1770s Boston’s population was made up of children.

The paragraphs in question:

Boston, the American Revolution’s “cradle of liberty,” was a town full of children. As in British North America as a whole, over half the population was under the age of adulthood. Children participated in political actions as early as Boston’s first public protest against the Stamp Act, on August 14, 1765: an organizer described “two or three hundred little boys with a Flagg marching in a Procession on which was King, Pitt & Liberty for ever.”1 The first Bostonian to die in political violence was a young boy. Apprentices both brought on and suffered in the Massacre of 1770, and pushed their way into the Tea Party of 1773. How did those children interpret the political conflict, and what motivated many of them to participate?

Children in Colonial America (Children and Youth in America) (p. 204). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.

 

When war finally came, the little boys who marched against the Stamp Act in 1765 were of prime age to be soldiers. Some younger boys took war as a chance to assume adult freedoms. On April 19, thirteen-year-old Benjamin Russell and several friends left their Writing School and followed the redcoat reinforcements out of town, attaching themselves to the provincial camp by the end of the day. Teenagers enlisted with and without their parents’ consent. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Granger of Andover was so small that when he was singled out for praise, his captain “sat me down on his Knees.”37 These boys took on men’s roles in the fight for liberty, leaving the symbolic battles of childhood behind.

Children in Colonial America (Children and Youth in America) (pp. 213-214). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.

Those opening and closing paragraphs clearly fail at the goals of orienting and summarizing the work. But a lot of my posts are kind of crap at that too. I’m writing about ideas in their preliminary stages in a way that forces a lot of the work onto the reader. I’m doing it right now, although I have spiffed up the opening and closing to avoid embarrassment. Maybe this author is doing that.  It’s not like having a good introduction and summary are a guarantee of quality. Chapter 11 of the same book does a great job telling you what it’s going to tell you and what it’s told you, but I am pretty dissatisfied with it in ways I am even less able to articulate.

Back on the first hand, maybe factual chapters in professionally edited books should be help to a different standard than blog posts describing bursts of an in-progress project. Maybe my scattered opening and closing paragraphs should cause you to downgrade your assessment of these post (although if you could keep in mind what I’m capable of when I’m prioritizing idea transmission, that would be cool).

I don’t think books/chapters/blog posts should be held to a single unifying narrative. But facts and models are a lot more useful connected to other facts and models than they are in isolation. The author making no attempt to do so makes my job harder- perhaps impossibly so given how little I know about the chapter’s topic.

Yeah, that feels quite fair-  this chapter might be very useful to people more familiar with the field, but that doesn’t mean it’s very helpful to me, a non-expert trying to bootstrap her way up.

A thing I would normally praise Children chapter 12 for, and did praise other chapters of the same book for, is providing a lot of concrete examples to shore up general assertions (e.g. “A large number of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was children” was followed by references to demographic counts from a large number of ships). But the information doesn’t feel quite right. For example, when describing the youth of men who enlisted in the American army, the chapter uses an anecdote about a 13 year old sitting on his commander’s knee. That doesn’t address the paragraph’s stated concern of “how did the Revolutionary War affect teenage boys’ options?” and it’s also a really terrible way of assessing the prevalence of 13 year olds enlisting. That’s one of those questions best answered by counting. And neither really belongs in the final paragraph of a chapter, which chapter 3 knew and chapter 12 didn’t.

Ah, this is a thing: tallies of thousands of people across dozens of ships is not really comparable to an anecdote about one 13 year old. The anecdote just isn’t useful data, except maybe as a pointer to where to find more data. Anecdotes have their place, but the bare minimum to make a compilation of anecdotes useful is knowing how they were generated. Are they representative? Slanted towards some group or ideology?

I’ll look like a real ass here if I don’t have a summary, but I’m still not sure what I’ve learned. I still think How to Read a Book is wrong to insist every book have a clearly defined Unity. I think Children in Colonial America Chapter 12’s opening and especially closing paragraphs signal failure on some level, although I am not absolutely certain what signal I’m picking up on. I’ve spent longer writing this and skimming the chapter than it would have taken to read it deeply, but that’s okay because it was a better use of my time.

 

The Purpose of Lectures

How to Take Smart Notes (affiliate link) posits that students who handwrite lecture notes gain as many facts and more conceptual understanding than students who type notes to the same lecture, because the slowness of handwriting forces you to compress ideas down to their core, whereas typing lets you transcribe a lecture without reflection. While I agree that translating things in your own words and compressing ideas is better than rote transcription, I have two problems with this.

One, it preemptively gives up on a practical question of which side of a trade-off is better without examining either the conditions or ways to improve the trade off. Given the enormous benefits of electronic storage of notes, maybe we should spend 45 seconds thinking about how to port the benefits of handwritten notes over, or under what circumstances the benefits of quick and high-fidelity transcription outweighs the push to engage more deeply with data.

Two, and this is harder to articulate… there is a reason students are defaulting to transcriptions of lectures, and it’s not because they’re bad or lazy or don’t like thinking. If lecturers actually wanted you to think conceptually about a topic, they would, I don’t know, leave any time at all for that in a lecture (my STEM background may be showing here. Movies tell me English class has more of this). As it is, conceptual understanding and translation requires that you stop listening to the professor- the dreaded multitasking thing that luddites are always going on about.

This is really a college student issue. On the rare occasion I’m trying to learning something from a live lecture, it’s still a non-mandatory event where the speaker cares about either actually teaching something or being entertaining, which solves a lot of these problems. But I’m angry that blame is being placed on students for acquiescing to what the system very strongly pushes them towards.

 

Signs a Craigslist Apartment Listing is a Scam

Some things I noticed while apartment hunting that tend to indicate a scam:

  • logo in a corner of a page- this is often done to overwrite another logo from the site they stole the pictures from. E.g.,
    1
  • search for the address- it may come up with a recent for sale listing with the same photos. In fact just having the exact address listed seemed to be a moderate flag for a scam, real places often didn’t list their address but scammers always did.
  • right click an image in the posting and select “search google for image”. Coming up anywhere else is a bad sign.
  • the phrase “sleeps X” in an ad for a long-term lease- a sign they’ve copied from airbnb
  • furnished or has E/V charging- these are really rare, but scammers just check every box. In fact when I wanted to find a photo to illustrate point 1, I searched for “has E/V charging”
  • obviously a low price is a bad sign, but there are big costs to ignoring those. A much worse sign is a low price with very nice photos. That requires someone willing to put in the effort for beautiful photos but not make the place nicer to charge more rent.
  • Elaborate explanations for why they can’t show the place.
  • Allows immediate month-to-month leases.

For information on a more sophisticated scam, check out my friend Jefferey’s post.

Epistemic Spot Check: Spare the Child (Philip Greven)

Introduction

Once upon a time I started fact checking books I read, to see if they were trustworthy. I called this epistemic spot checking because it was not a rigorous or thorough investigation; just following up on things I thought were interesting, likely to be wrong, or easy to check. Eventually I became dissatisfied with this. It placed too much emphasis on a binary decision about a particular book’s trustworthiness, and not enough on building models. So I started working on something better. Something that used multiple sources to build robust models of the world. This book is part of that attempt

Spare the Child (affiliate link) is a history with the thesis that Protestantism engenders corporal punishment, that this flows from their doctrine rather than being a cultural artifact, and that this punishment damages children. It fails to prove any of these.

Claims

 

Claim: A bunch of first-person accounts of corporal punishment

Verdict: Accurately quoted, but hard to draw conclusions from.

I’m going to spare you the repetition of all of these: section 2 of the book is just a bunch of quotes of famous Protestants talking about corporal punishment they either received or doled out. You can see them in my notes if you’re really curious.

That said, I have no way of knowing how representative these quotes are and Greven makes no attempt to tell me.

 

Claim: “For centuries, Protestant Christians have been among the most ardent advocates of corporal punishment” (p46)

This is one of numerous points at which the author asserts or implies Protestant Christians hit their kids more than other groups.

Verdict: He’s not wrong, he’s just an asshole.

First, the book constantly equivocates between Protestant and Evangelical/Conservative Protestant. Some of that is that he’s often talking about the time before Evangelical and “Mainline” split off from each other, but the lack of precision really grates on me.

Second, the book provides zero evidence for this claim. It can’t, because it doesn’t provide any information on other demographic groups*. Rule one of doing comparative analysis is you have to present data on at least two parties.

[*The words Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu don’t appear in the index at all, “Jews” appears only 3 times, “Catholics”  6)

That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. A moderate amount of searching found surveys that, among Americans, Evangelical/Conservative Christians were indeed more likely to use spanking or other corporal punishments (notes). But I’m not confident by how much, or if these are the same populations Greven is referring to, whether this is a recent development or has always been true. The studies are also restricted to Americans, which Greven may be doing as well, but never declares such. This lack of precision really grates on me.

 

Claim: Corporal punishment leads to worse outcomes for children subjected to it (repeated, implicit).

Verdict: Surprisingly controversial.

Again, despite a whole section on the consequences of abuse (which, to be fair, I only skimmed), Greven provides no evidence of his claims. I think everyone, including parents who accidentally beat their children to death, agree that there is a line past which punishment is damaging. But where it is is surprisingly hard to pin down and perhaps dependent on context- there’s research that e.g. spanking is leads to worse outcomes in children in social classes where spanking is frowned upon, but not where it’s viewed as a sign of love (I read this in Nurtureshock and saw it referred to in some of my research for this piece but haven’t dug into it yet). Could those studies be wrong, or missing subtler problems? Definitely. But “what amount of what punishment leads to what outcomes?” isn’t something Spare the Child even tries to address.

This is especially on my mind because as I read the book I couldn’t shut up my inner Alfie Kohn saying “it’s not the nature of the punishment, it’s the concept of punishment in the first place.” Greven repeatedly talks about how the Bible gives Protestant parents the goal of “breaking their child’s will” to save them; I don’t think there’s a method of achieving that goal that I would approve of.

Claim: “Love is natural; hate is created” (p 123)

Image result for citation needed

More seriously; this is a major assumption with major implications. And I disagree with it. If he’d provided citations or even an explanation I might have been able to grapple with and learn from his assertion, but he didn’t, so I’m at a loss.

Conclusion

As psychology research gets hammered I become more interested in history as a way to investigate questions like “What kind of outcomes do different child rearing practices produce?”. Spare the Child makes me more pessimistic about that strategy. It’s not equipped to answer the questions it’s asking, and its most interesting claims are asserted without justification, and sometimes not even explicitly made. I have no reason to doubt its presentation of primary sources and facts, but don’t trust its interpretations at all.

 

 

Thanks to my Patreon patrons and the Long Term Future Fund for support of this research.

Review: How to Read a Book (Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren)

As part of my research on how to bootstrap understanding in a field, I’m reading books that attempt to answer that question. You might think I should have started with that, but it was useful to get a sense of what problems I needed to solve before I looked for the solution. How to Read a Book (affiliate link) is generally very well regarded in this area and came with a strong recommendation from the CEO of Roam, who I would expect to have pretty good thoughts on learning structure. Nonetheless, I was quite disappointed. It took me a long time to put my disappointment into words, but with the help of someone on Facebook I finally figured it out: How to Read a Book is aimed at a narrower subset of books than it acknowledges. What subset, you might ask? I don’t have a great answer, because the authors clearly consider the subset to be the only books, or the only books worth reading, so they didn’t leave a lot of clues. 

What I can say is that it expects books to follow a rigid structure, and to have a single unifying point (what they call “the unity”). This seems to me to be setting up both the author and the reader to throw out a lot of information because they weren’t expecting to see it or couldn’t fit it into their existing frameworks- reading like a state, in essence. This is not the only thing that makes me think HtRaB is more about being able to understand a book than understand the world, although it’s the only one I can articulate.

How to Read a Book didn’t even attempt to answer my current most important question in reading: How do I know what to save or pay attention to? More attentive reading (including but not limited to note-taking) takes more time and more mental effort. Even if it was free, every additional memory or note eats up space in my brain or exobrain and makes it harder to find other thoughts when I look for them. But I don’t necessarily know how important a piece of information is when I read it. Good pre-reading might help me know how important it is to that particular work, but never to my life as a whole.

HtRaB acknowledges that different works have vastly different returns to attention and you should allocate your reading effort accordingly, but I don’t feel like it gave me guidance for choosing what to pay attention to, and I have a suspicion that if I pressed the point the authors’ answer would be extremely in line with the literary and scientific canon of the 1940s-1970s.

My favorite section of How to Read a Book is also the most mechanically detailed: the algorithm for pre-processing a book (explained in detail here). I don’t know if this was the most useful to me because it was the most detailed or because a teacher once told me skimming was immoral and I needed that to be challenged.

For the meat of reading, How to Read a Book suggests questions to ask but not how to determine the answer. To be fair, this is hard. As I work on my own guide to reading I’m intensely aware of how difficult it is to translate the intentions and external appearance of what I’m doing to inner workings comprehensible to many, or even to other people very similar to myself.  I suspect there are people for whom reading these questions causes something to click in their brain and they suddenly start reading better, and that’s great, but it makes the book lucky, not good. Which is nothing to be ashamed of: sometimes a stab at a hard problem is worth more than a perfect solution to an easy one.  But HtRaB’s stab did not happen to hit my particular problem, nor contain enough deep models to let me make the stab myself.

My overall impression is that this is one of those books that is helpful if you read it at the right time and pretty meh otherwise, and it was the wrong time for me. I also predicted it would be one of those books that’s notable for founding a genre but goes on to be surpassed by later books that learned from it, but when I looked at Amazon I found very little. There’s lots on speedreading, confusing memorization with learning, and  “how to study to pass a test designed by someone else”, and I may end up reading some of those because the field is that sparse, but they’re not what I actually want. So if there’s a work you or someone you trust likes that attempts to answer any of the following questions, please share it:

  1. How do you find the most likely sources of relevant or useful information?
  2. How do you get the most (useful) information out of a sources?
  3. How do you decide what information to save?
  4. How do you save it in a maximally useful way?

I’m also interested if you have opinions on any of the following:

  • Mind Mapping: Improve Memory, Concentration, Communication, Organization, Creativity, and Time Management
    • Kindle Unlimited
  • The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning
  • Extend Your Mind: Praxis Volume 2
  • How to Take Smart Notes
  • Accelerated Learning for Expertise: Rapid Knowledge Acquisition Skills to Learn Faster, Comprehend Deeper, and Reach a World-Class Level (Learning how to Learn Book 6) Kindle Edition
  • The Self-Learning Blueprint: A Strategic Plan to Break Down Complex Topics, Comprehend Deeply, and Teach Yourself Anything (Learning how to Learn Book 3)
  • Writing to Learn
  • Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive
  • The Art of Reading

 

So many thanks to my Patreon supporters and the Long Term Future Fund for their support of this research.