My Favorite Gifts This Year

Preface

This year I upgraded my phone (Thanks Mom and Dad), which necessitated a whole bunch of other purchases. Technology has reached that stage where upgrading is not an unmitigated good, and despite the fact that my new phone is way better, I kept being annoyed by small things.

The phone loads google maps in less than 40 seconds, but doesn’t have a windows button (which I adapted to in a week). The volume buttons are on the correct side, but auto-adjusting brightness wasn’t enabled by default (which took 60 seconds to fix). The new phone was USB-C instead of micro-USB, so all my old chargers were useless for it but still had to be kept around for all my other devices. And my existing bluetooth headphones didn’t work with the phone (and have never worked with my laptop) so I had to buy new ones (and by “I”, I mean “they were also gifts from my parents”).

The headphones themselves not Pareto improvements over the old ones. Their lowest minimum volume is not too loud, but the sound quality isn’t as good (which I stopped noticing after a week). The controls are better, but at first I misread the instructions and thought they were worse.

My aunt got me Hamilton tickets for Christmas, which was incredibly generous and thoughtful, but the new Aaron Burr wasn’t as good as Leslie Odom, Jr. in ways that weakened his performance of my favorite song.

My point is, I am surrounded by generous people giving me expensive, useful things, but none of them gave me that feeling of sheer delight gifts gave me when I was a child. The small flaws loomed too large.

There were four exceptions, which I believe escaped this trap by only being expected to do at most two things.

Gifts That Succeeded At One Thing

Links are affiliate links when possible

Sleep-compatible headphones ($20)

I sometimes like to fall asleep to podcasts. Despite being critical to my process, my boyfriend objected to playing Welcome to Night Vale loud enough for me to hear over the fan and ear plugs I also consider critical.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I solved this with a pair of headphones designed to be worn during sleep. You do have to fiddle with them sometimes and I wouldn’t want to sleep in the exact same position for hours with them in the wrong spot, but they get the job done, and the audio is astonishingly high quality for $20. You get exactly what you paid for with the mic, to the point I wish they hadn’t included it, but that is fine because I didn’t get these to take phone calls on. The top volume is pretty quiet, as I discovered when I tried to use them on an airplane, but again, $20. These have succeeded far beyond what I thought was possible at letting me fall asleep to podcasts while sharing a bed.

I’ve had this since August and am still delighted with it.

Dual Charger/Battery  ($35)

As mentioned above I now need to keep both micro-USB and USB-C charger on hand. I also managed to lose my two tiny portable chargers, not that they would have helped because they only had micro-USB and iPhone out.

Enter the Dual PowerCore Fusion 5000, which:

  1. Has USB ports instead of built in cords, so I can change the output
  2. Has multiple ports, so I can charge multiple thing at once.
  3. Can charge itself and devices at the same time, removing the need to juggle.
  4. By combining two devices gives me one less thing to lose track of.

I’ve only had this one for a month, so it’s still possible it will catch fire or otherwise turn out to be inadequate, but I’m very pleased right now.

Bombas Classic Marl Socks ($12)

To be fair, I am made unusually happy by well thick, fitting socks. My previous favorite was Smartwool Saturnsphere, on which I have spent low-hundreds of dollars, but after two years my old ones can no longer meet my standards and the model is no longer produced in acceptable colors. I got a pair of these Bombas socks for Christmas and was delighted: they’re incredibly…what’s a word that means “tight” but has only positive connotation? Like having your feet hugged all day, without being restrictive. I’m only waiting to see how they age before ordering a dozen and tossing my old socks.

Super Comfy Sweater ($40)

This had two jobs: be comfy, and don’t show cat hair. It succeeds at both admirably, except that sometimes it is so comfy I can’t take it off when I leave the house and thus leave the house covered in cat hair, when the whole point of having indoor sweaters is to not do that.

I suspect this level softness won’t survive the first washing, but I’m enjoying the hell out of it right now.

 

Cassette Tape Thoughts

“The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements-all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics-to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.”

Excerpt From: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren. “How To Read A Book- A Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.” (affiliate link).

This really stuck with me. More properly, it stuck with me the second time I read it. This turns out to be really important, and meta.

The difference between the first time I read it and the second was that I had four more months of reading books while specifically thinking about how to get the most out of them. My attitude towards How to Read a Book when I first read it was kind of like a cassette tape.* It would teach me Good Reading and then I could do it and Read Better. I didn’t have an idea of what problems I wanted it to solve- neither what axes I wanted to improve on, nor what my blocks were. If I’d succeeded at reading the book at this time, it would have given me the ability to parrot its ideas, but not actually apply them.

[*I fear a cassette tape really is a better metaphor than modern music playing equipment, which is pretty defined by its flexibility and adaptation to the user. Younger readers: imagine something heavily DRMed so you have to sit through all the commercials and can’t skip around within it]

Four months later, I know what my biggest problem is: how to identify what information to record and what to let go of. I am really excited for any insights HTRAB has into that.  And because I know that, whatever I learn from HTRAB won’t be something I parrot back on a test, it will be incorporated into my own models, and I’ll be able to explain every part of them, adjust plans and outputs to accommodate changes in inputs, etc.

I previously talked about how both detail-focused and detail-entwined books were harder to extract value from. Over on LessWrong, John Wentworth suggested this was a gears based problem: books that were just lists of details were like describing gears without detailing how they worked together. Books that entwined their details too much were mashing multiple gears together without disambiguating them. The latter corresponds to what  Adler and Van Doren describe as cassette tapes.

What epistemic spot checks were previously doing could be described as “determining if the cassette tape is good”, and what I am aiming for now (more after conceiving of it this way) is understanding and investigating a book’s gears. This involves both seeing how the gears fit together, and verifying that the gears are “real”, meaning they reflect actual reality.

Call for Volunteers

3.5 years ago I started semi-methodically checking the claims of books I read, to assess truthiness. A few months ago I identified flaws in the system and started working to find/create solutions. This should be old hat to regular readers.

What I haven’t talked about yet is how the project has grown: I’m now trying to create a research method that enables you to bootstrap from zero knowledge in a field to competence, without trusted experts. I’m further trying to teach this method to others. I’m fortunate enough to have received funding for this from the Long Term Future Fund that will cover most although probably not all of my expenses, so many thanks to them.

Finding a research method that dramatically improved on my old one went much faster than I thought- within a week of starting to use Roam, certain obfuscated problems became obvious and then solved. That’s great for me, but the lack of struggle actually makes it harder to identify flaws in the method or teach it to others, because I don’t know what needs explaining.

What I am looking for now is test subjects to teach this research method to, with the understanding that early subjects will be helping me more than I am helping them, as they teach me where my research or teaching methods fall flat. If this calls to you, please fill out this form.

What’s in it for you? Some combination of:

  1. Contributing to the creation of a method that lets people learn more with less time and effort
  2. Learning that method for yourself.

Early students will get more of 1, late students more of 2. You can indicate your preference on the form.

The most useful test subjects will be those who already have research projects (including their own epistemic spot checks) ready to go or in progress. It is something of a time commitment to actually use these methods and introspect on the experience, so I’d be surprised if people were willing to put in the time purely as a favor to me. But I also expect a fairly high drop out rate and especially early on, time teaching is valuable even if it doesn’t get used. So if you’re not sure what kind of commitment you can make, please just be honest on the form and I’ll prioritize as I can.

Criticism as Entertainment

Media Reviews

There is a popular genre of video that consist of shitting on other people’s work without any generative content. Let me provide some examples.

First, Cinema Sins. This is the first video I selected when looking for a movie I’d seen with a Cinema Sins I hadn’t (i.e. it’s not random, but it wasn’t selected for being particularly good or bad).

The first ten sins are:

  1. Use of a consistent brand for props in the movie they’d have to have anyway, unobtrusively enough that I never noticed until Cinema Sins pointed it out.
  2. A character being mildly unreasonable to provoke exposition.
  3. The logo
  4. Exposition that wasn’t perfectly justified in-story
  5. A convenience about what was shown on screen
  6. A font choice (from an entity that in-universe would plausibly make bad font choices)
  7. An omission that will nag at you if you think about it long enough or expect the MCU to be a completely different thing, with some information about why it happened.
  8. In-character choices that would be concerning in the real world and I would argue are treated appropriately by the movie, although reasonable people could disagree
  9. Error by character that was extremely obviously intentional on the part of the film makers. There is no reasonable disagreement on this point.
  10. An error perfectly in keeping with what we know about the character.

Of those, three to four could even plausibly be called sins of the movie- and if those bother you, maybe the MCU is not for you. The rest are deliberate choices by filmmakers to have characters do imperfect things. Everyone gets to draw their own line on characters being dumb- mine is after this movie but before 90s sitcoms running on miscommunication- but that’s irrelevant to this post because Cinema Sins is not helping you determine where a particular movie is relative to your line. Every video makes the movie sound exactly as bad as the last, regardless of the quality of the underlying movie. It’s like they analyze the dialogue sentence by sentence and look to see if there’s anything that could be criticized about it.

Pitch Meeting is roughly as useful, but instead of reacting to sentences, it’s reading the plot summary in a sarcastic tone of voice.

Pitch Meeting is at least bringing up actual problems with Game of Thrones season 8. But I dare you to tell if early Game of Thrones was better or worse than season 8, based on the Pitch Meeting.

I keep harping on “You can’t judge movie quality by the review”, but I don’t actually think that’s the biggest problem. Or rather, it’s a subset of the problem, which is you don’t learn anything from the review: not whether the reviewer considered the movie “good” or not, and not what could be changed to do make it better. Contrast with Zero Punctuation, a video game review series notorious for being criticism-as-entertainment, that nonetheless occasionally likes things, and at least once per episode displays a deep understanding of the problems of a game and what might be done to fix it.

Why Are You Talking About This?

It’s really, really easy to make something look bad, and the short-term rewards to doing so are high. You never risk looking stupid or having to issue a correction. It’s easier to make criticism funny. You get to feel superior. Not to mention the sheer joy in punishing bad things. But it’s corrosive. I’ve already covered (harped on) how useless shitting-on videos are for learning or improvement, but it goes deeper than that. Going in with those intentions changes how you watch the movie. It makes flaws more salient and good parts less so. You become literally less able to enjoy or learn from the original work.

Maybe this isn’t universal, but for me there is definitely a trade off between “groking the author’s concepts” and “interrogating the author’s concepts and evidence”. Groking is a good word here: it mostly means understand, but includes playing with the idea and applying it what I know.  That’s very difficult to do while simultaneously looking for flaws.

Should it be, though? Generating testable hypotheses should lead to greater understanding and trust or less trust, depending on the correctness of the book. So at least one of my investigation or groking procedures are wrong.

 

What we Know vs. How we Know it?

Two weeks ago I said:

The other concept I’m playing with is that “what we know” is inextricable from “how we know it”. This is dangerously close to logical positivism, which I disagree with my limited understanding of. And yet it’s really improved my thinking when doing historical research.

I have some more clarify on what I meant now. Let’s say you’re considering my ex-roommate, person P, as a roommate, and ask me for information. I have a couple of options.

Scenario 1: I turn over chat logs and video recordings of my interactions with the P. 

E.g., recordings of P playing music loudly and chat logs showing I’d asked them to stop.

Trust required: that the evidence is representative and not an elaborate deep fake.

Scenario 2: I report representative examples of my interactions with P.

E.g., “On these dates P played music really loudly even when I asked them to stop.”

Trust required: that from scenario 1, plus that I’m not making up the examples.

Scenario 3: I report summaries of patterns with P

E.g., “P often played loud music, even when I asked them to stop”

Trust required: that from scenario 2, plus my ability to accurately infer and report patterns from data.

Scenario 4: I report what a third party told me

E.g. “Mark told me they played loud music a lot”

Trust required: that from scenario 3, plus my ability to evaluate other people’s evidence

Scenario 5: I give a flat “yes good” or “no bad” answer.

E.g., “P was a bad roommate.”

Trust required: that from scenario 3 and perhaps 4, plus that I have the same heuristics for roommate goodness that you do.

 

 

The earlier the scenario, the more you can draw your own conclusions and the less trust you need to have in me. Maybe you don’t care about loud music, and a flat yes/no would drive you away from a roommate that would be fine for you. Maybe I thought I was clear about asking for music to stop but my chat logs reveal I was merely hinting, and you are confident you’ll be able to ask more directly. The more specifics I give you, the better an assessment you’ll be able to make.

Here’s what this looks like applied to recent reading:

Scenario 5: Rome fell in the 500s AD.

Even if I trust your judgement, I have no idea why you think this or what it means to you.

Scenario 4: In Rome: The Book, Bob Loblaw says Rome Fell in the 500s AD.

At least I can look up why Bob thinks this.

Scenario 3: Pottery says Rome fell between 300 and 500 AD.

Useful to experts who already know the power of pottery, but leaves newbies lost.

Scenario 2: Here are 20 dig sites in England. Those dated before 323 (via METHOD) contain pottery made in Greece (which we can identify by METHOD), those after 500 AD show cruder pottery made locally.

Great. Now my questions are “Can pottery evidence give that much precision?” and “Are you interpreting it correctly?”

Scenario 1: Please enjoy this pile of 3 million pottery shards.

Too far, too far.

 

In this particular example (from The Fall of Rome), 2-3 was the sweet spot. It allowed me to learn as much as possible with a minimum of trust. But there’s definitely room in life for 4; you can’t prove everything in every paper and sometimes it’s more efficient to offload it.

I don’t view 5 as acceptable for anything that’s trying to claim to be evidenced based, or at least, any basis besides “Try this and see if it helps you.” (which is a perfectly fine basis if it’s cheap).

 

ESC Process Notes: Detail-Focused Books

When I started doing epistemic spot checks, I would pick focal claims and work to verify them. That meant finding other sources and skimming them as quickly as possible to get their judgement on the particular claim. This was not great for my overall learning, but it’s not even really good for claim evaluation: it flattens complexity and focuses me on claims with obvious binary answers that can be evaluated without context. It also privileges the hypothesis by focusing on “is this claim right?” rather than “what is the truth?”.

So I moved towards reading all of my sources deeply, even if my selection was inspired by a particular book’s particular claim. But this has its own problems.

In both The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Ancient World and Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, my notes sometimes degenerate into “and then a bunch of specifics”. “Specifics” might mean a bunch of individual art pieces, or a list of books that subtly changed a field’s framing.  This happens because I’m not sure what’s important and get overwhelmed.

Knowledge of importance comes from having a model I’m trying to test. The model can be external to the focal book (either from me, or another book), or from it. E.g. I didn’t have a a particular frame on the evolution of states before starting Against the Grain, but James C. Scott is very clear on what he believes, so I can assess how relevant various facts he presents are to evaluating that claim.

[I’m not perfect at this- e.g., in The Unbound Prometheus, the author claims that Europeans were more rational than Asians, and that their lower birth rate was evidence of this. I went along with that at the time because of the frame I was in, but looking back, I think that even assuming Europe did have a lower birth rate, it wouldn’t have proved Europeans were more rational or scientifically minded. This is a post in itself.]

If I’d come into The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Ancient World or Children and Childhood in Roman Italy with a hypothesis to test, it would have been obvious information was relevant and what wasn’t. But I didn’t, so it wasn’t, and that was very tiring.

The obvious answer is “just write down everything”, and I think that would work with certain books. In particular, it would work with books that could be rewritten in Workflowy: those with crisp points that can be encapsulated in a sentence or two and stored linearly or hierarchically. There’s a particular thing both books did that necessitated copying entire paragraphs because I couldn’t break it down into individual points.

Here’s an example from Oxford Handbook…

“Pietas was the term that encompassed the dutiful respect shown by the Romans towards their gods, the state, and members of their family (Cicero Nat. Deor. 1.116; Rep. 6.16; O . 2.46; Saller 1991: 146–51; 1998). is was a concept that children would have been socialized to understand and respect from a young age. Between parent and child pietas functioned as a form of reciprocal dutiful affection (Saller 1994: 102–53; Bradley 2000: 297–8; Evans Grubbs 2011), and this combination of “duty” and “affection” helps us to understand how the Roman elite viewed and expressed their relationship with their children.”

And from Children and Childhood…

“No doubt families often welcomed new babies and cherished their children, but Roman society was still struggling to establish itself even in the second century and many military, political, and economic problems preoccupied the thoughts and activities of adult Romans”

I summarized that second one as “Families were distracted by war and such up through 0000 BC”, which is losing a lot of nuance. It’s not impossible to break these paragraphs down into constituent thoughts, but it’s ugly and messy and would involve a lot of repetition. The first mixing up what pietas is with how and who it was expressed to. The second is combining a claim about the state of Rome with the state’s effects.

This reveals that calling the two books “lists of facts” was incomplete. Lists of facts would be easier to take notes on.  These authors clearly have some concepts they are trying to convey, but because they’re not cleanly encapsulated in the author’s own mind it’s hard for me to encapsulate them. It’s like trying to lay the threads of a gordian knot in an organized fashion.

So we have two problems: books which have laid out all their facts in a row but not connected them, and books which have entwined their facts too roughly for them to be disentangled. These feel very similar to me but when I write it out the descriptions sure sound like two completely different problems.

Let me know how much sense this makes, I can’t tell if I’ve written something terribly unpolished-but-deep or screamingly shallow.

Epistemic Spot Check: Children and Childhood Education in the Classical World

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.

The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Classical World (editors Judith Evan Grubbs and Tim Parkins) (affiliate link) is part of that attempt, but not a very big part, because it failed to be the kind of book I wanted. It was not as bad as Children and Childhood in Roman Italy at being just a bunch of facts with no organizing thesis, but it’s on that scale. And honestly it might be just as bad, I just find literature more interesting than visual arts. Like Children and Childhood… I’m going to write it up anyway, because learning from this kind of book is important.

Typically I read a book in order, but this was a collection of papers from different authors, so one chapter’s epistemics didn’t have much predictive value for the next and they didn’t build on each other the way a single-author book might.  I started with chapter 15 (Children and Childhood in Roman Commemorative Art) because I was checking Children and Childhood…and then chapter 13 (The Socialization of Roman Citizens) because it looked the most interesting.

You can see the entirety of my notes here.

Claims

Claim: Soranus advised swaddling is good for babies because it keeps them from rubbing their eyes (bad for eyesight) and leads to a healthy strong body (p290)
Verdict: Directly confirmed by a translation of Soranus’s Gynecology.

Claim: Seneca’s de Ira (On Anger) recommended:

  • Guiding young children to avoid high-anger personalities in adulthood
  • Not crushing children’s spirits
  • Not spoiling children

(p290)
Verdict: Directly confirmed by a translation of On Anger or as they call it, Of Anger.

Claim: Beryl Rawson called children the explicit aim of marriage in Rome.
Verdict: Yup, I remember that from last week.

Claim: Soranus, Laes, and Rawson all say a typical Roman birth would be witnessed by women from outside the home (p290-291)
Verdict: The report on Rawson is clearly true, and I believe she was quoting Soranus.

Claim: “Juvenal suggests that celebrations were held in the narrow streets outside dwellings ”
Verdict: True (see translation).

Claim:  “Although Cicero did not want to govern the province for an extended period of time, he would have stressed to [his son and nephew] that this was an important duty and that his own dedication to the task was an excellent example of his virtue and self-control (Cic. Att. 5.10.2–3, 5.14.2, 5.15.1).” (p296)
Verdict: Cicero’s letters make it abundantly clear he did not want to be there, but if the author has evidence of his motives for doing so, she doesn’t share it.

Claim: When Cicero went off to war he left his son and nephew with King Deiotarus of Galatia (p296).
Verdict: Confirmed in Cicero’s letters.

Claim: Most Roman girls experienced their first marriage in their mid-to-late teens (p298).
Verdict: Likely but not proven. You can see everything I’ve gathered on this question here. The summary is: the usual view was that Roman girls got married in early-to-mid teens, then someone went through and checked tombstones looking to see who died when and if they mentioned a surviving spouse, and found that Roman women married in their late teens (excellent summary of both sides). Tombstone demographics have their own issues so I don’t consider this proven, but it is suggestive.

ClaimIn 000s, the representation of children in art increased substantially, through the early 200s
Verdict: Rawson says the same thing, with some quibbling about dates.

Claim: The toga was a mark of Roman citizenship and forbidden to slaves. (p329)
Verdict: Confirmed by Wikipedia.

Claim: Quintus Sulpicius Maximus was an 11 year old boy who performed well in a poetry competition and got a nice funerary altar. (p336)
Verdict: Exact same data was in Children and Childhood in Ancient Rome (Beryl Rawson)

Claim: “Funerary reliefs as well as altars were most frequently commissioned by freedmen. To them a freeborn child, especially a son, was a mark of success. It was of particular importance to demonstrate the existence of a freeborn child, even one who had not lived to adulthood, and to show the family’s financial capacity to raise a memorial to a deceased child.” (p343)
Verdict: Likely but I haven’t seen a census. When I was reading Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, enough of the funeral art was about the freeborn children of ex-slaves that I noticed and wondered about it. But that could have been Rawson cherrypicking examples, or that freed couples chose more durable forms of art for their children than citizens.

 

Verdict

Like Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Classical World isn’t really interesting or ambitious enough to get things wrong. It is nonetheless useful as a repository of facts with which to check more ambitious books (which is in fact why I’m reading it) or generate your own theses.