How to Find Sources in an Unreliable World

I spent a long time stalling on this post because I was framing the problem as “how to choose a book (or paper. Whatever)?”. The point of my project is to be able to get to correct models even from bad starting places, and part of the reason for that goal is that assessing a work often requires the same skills/knowledge you were hoping to get from said work. You can’t identify a good book in a field until you’ve read several. But improving your starting place does save time, so I should talk about how to choose a starting place.

One difficulty is that this process is heavily adversarial. A lot of people want you to believe a particular thing, and a larger set don’t care what you believe as long as you find your truth via their amazon affiliate link (full disclosure: I use amazon affiliate links on this blog). The latter group fills me with anger and sadness; at least the people trying to convert you believe in something (maybe even the thing they’re trying to convince you of). The link farmers are just polluting the commons.

With those difficulties in mind, here are some heuristics for finding good starting places.

  • Search “best book TOPIC” on google
    • Most of what you find will be useless listicles. If you want to save time, ignore everything on a dedicated recommendation site that isn’t five books.
    • If you want to evaluate a list, look for a list author with deep models on both the problem they are trying to address, and why each book in particular helps educate on that problem.  Examples:
    • A bad list will typically have a topic rather than a question they are trying to answer, and will talk about why books they recommend are generically good, rather than how they address a particular issue. Quoting consumer reviews is an extremely bad sign and I’ve never seen it done without being content farming.
  • Search for your topic on Google Scholar
    • Look at highly cited papers. Even if they’re wrong, they’re probably important for understanding what else you read.
    • Look at what they cite or are cited by
    • Especially keep an eye out for review articles
  • Search for web forums on your topic (easy mode: just check reddit). Sometimes these will have intro guides with recommendations, sometimes they will have where-to-start posts, and sometimes you can ask them directly for recommendations. Examples:
  • Search Amazon for books on your topic. Check related books as well.
  • Ask your followers on social media. Better, announce what you are going to read and wait for people to tell you why you are wrong (appreciate it, Ian). Admittedly there’s a lot of prep work that goes into having friends/a following that makes this work, but it has a lot of other benefits so if it sounds fun to you I do recommend it. Example:
  • Ask an expert. If you already know an expert, great. If you don’t, this won’t necessarily save you any time, because you have to search for and assess the quality of the expert.
  • Follow interesting people on social media and squirrel away their recommendations as they make them, whether they’re relevant to your current projects or not.

Types of Knowledge

This is a system for sorting types of knowledge. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

First, there is knowledge you could regurgitate on a test. In any sane world this wouldn’t be called knowledge, but the school system sure looks enthusiastic about it, so I had to mention it. Examples:

  • Reciting the symptoms of childbed fever on command 
  • Reciting Newton’s first law of motion
  • Reciting a list of medications’ scientific and brand names
  • Reciting historical growth rate of the stock market
  • Reciting that acceleration due to gravity on Earth is 9.807 m/s²

 

Second, there is engineering knowledge- something you can repeat and get reasonably consistent results. It also lets you hill climb to local improvements. Examples:

  • Knowing how to wash your hands to prevent childbed fever and doing so
  • Driving without crashing
  • Making bread from a memorized recipe.
  • What are the average benefits and side effects from this antidepressant?
  • Knowing how much a mask will limit covid’s spread
  • Investing in index funds
  • Knowing that if you shoot a cannon ball of a certain weight at a certain speed, it will go X far.
  • Knowing people are nicer to me when I say “please” and “thank you”

 

Third, there is scientific knowledge. This is knowledge that lets you generate predictions for how a new thing will work, or how an old thing will work in a new environment, without any empirical knowledge.

Examples: 

  • Understanding germ theory of disease so you can take procedures that prevent gangrene and apply them to childbed fever.
  • Knowing the science of baking so you can create novel edible creations on your first try.
  • Knowing enough about engines and batteries to invent hybrid cars.
  • Actually understanding why any of those antidepressants works, in a mechanistic way, such that you can predict who they will and won’t work for.
  • A model of how covid is spread through aerosols, and how that is affected by properties of covid and the environment.
  • Having a model of economic change that allows you to make money off the stock market in excess of its growth rate, or know when to pull out of stocks and into crypto.
  • A model of gravity that lets you shoot a rocket into orbit on the first try.
  • A deep understanding of why certain people’s “please”s and “thank you”s get better results than others.

 

Engineering knowledge is a lot cheaper to get and maintain than scientific knowledge, and most of the time it works out. Maybe I pay more than I needed to for a car repair; I’ll live (although for some people the difference is very significant). You need scientific knowledge to do new things, which either means you’re trying something genuinely new, or you’re trying to maintain an existing system in a new environment.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our environment was changing pretty rapidly before a highly contagious, somewhat deadly virus was released on the entire world, and while that had made things simpler in certain ways (such as my daily wardrobe), it has ultimately made it harder to maintain existing systems. This requires scientific knowledge to fix; engineering won’t cut it.

And it requires a lot of scientific knowledge at that- far more than I have time to generate. I could trust other people’s answers, but credentials and authority have never looked more useless, and identifying people I trust on any given subject is almost as time consuming as generating the answers myself.  And I don’t know what to do about that.

 

Where to Start Research?

When I began what I called the knowledge bootstrapping project, my ultimate goal was “Learn how to learn a subject from scratch, without deference to credentialed authorities”. That was too large and unpredictable for a single grant, so when I applied to LTFF, my stated goal was “learn how to study a single book”, on the theory that books are the natural subcomponents of learning (discounting papers because they’re too small). This turned out to have a flawed assumption baked into it.

As will be described in a forthcoming post, the method I eventually landed upon involves starting with a question, not a book. If I start with a book and investigate the questions it brings up (you know, like I’ve been doing for the last 3-6 years), the book is controlling which questions get brought up. That’s a lot of power to give to something I have explicitly decided not to trust yet. 

Examples:

  • When reading The Unbound Prometheus, I took the book’s word that a lower European birth rate would prove Europeans were more rational than Asians and focused on determining whether Europe’s birth rates were in fact lower (answer: it’s complicated), when on reflection it’s not at all clear to me that lower birth rates are evidence of rationality.
  • “Do humans have exactly 4 hours of work per day in them?” is not actually a very useful question. What I really wanted to know is “when can I stop beating myself up for not working?“, and the answer to the former doesn’t really help me with the latter. Even if humans on average have 4 hours, that doesn’t mean I do, and of course it varies by circumstances and type of work… and even “when can I stop beating myself up?” has some pretty problematic assumptions built into it, such as “beating myself up will produce more work, which is good.” The real question is something like “how can I approach my day to get the most out of it?”, and the research I did on verifying a paper on average daily work capacity didn’t inform the real question one way or the other.

 

What would have been better is if I’d started with the actual question I wanted to answer, and then looked for books that had information bearing on that question (including indirectly, including very indirectly). This is what I’ve started doing.

This can look very different depending on what type of research I’m doing. When I started doing covid research, I generated a long list of  fairly shallow questions.  Most of these questions were designed to inform specific choices, like “when should I wear what kind of mask?” and “how paranoid should I be about people without current symptoms?”, but some of them were broader and designed to inform multiple more specific questions, such as “what is the basic science of coronavirus?”. These broader, more basic questions helped me judge the information I used to inform the more specific, actionable questions (e.g., I saw a claim that covid lasted forever in your body the same way HIV does, which I could immediately dismiss because I knew HIV inserted itself your DNA and coronaviruses never enter the nucleus).

 


 

I used to read a lot of nonfiction for leisure. Then I started doing epistemic spot checks– taking selected claims from a book and investigating them for truth value, to assess the book’s overall credibility- and stopped being able to read nonfiction without doing that, unless it was one of a very short list of authors who’d made it onto my trust list. I couldn’t take the risk that I was reading something false and would absorb it as if it were true (or true but unrepresentative, and absorb it as representative). My time spent reading nonfiction went way down.

About 9 months ago I started taking really rigorous notes when I read nonfiction. The gap in quality of learning between rigorous notes and my previous mediocre notes was about the same as the gap between doing an epistemic spot check and not. My time spent reading nonfiction went way up (in part because I was studying the process of doing so), but my volume of words read dropped precipitously.

And then three months ago I shifted from my unit of inquiry being “a book”, to being “a question”. I’m sure you can guess where this is going- I read fewer words, but gained more understanding per word, and especially more core (as opposed to shell or test) understanding. 

The first two shifts happened naturally, and while I missed reading nonfiction for fun and with less effort, I didn’t feel any pull towards the old way after I discovered the new way. Giving up book-centered reading has been hard. Especially after five weeks of frantic covid research, all I wanted to do was to be sat down and told what questions were important, and perhaps be walked through some plausible answers. I labeled this a desire to learn, but when I compared it to question-centered research, it became clear that’s not what it was. Or maybe it was a desire to go through the act of learning something, but it was not a desire to answer a question I had and was not prioritized by the importance of a question. It was best classified as leisure in the form of learning, not resolving a curiosity I had.  And if I wanted leisure, better to consume something easier and less likely to lead me astray, so I started reading more fiction, and the rare non-fiction of a type that did not risk polluting my pool of data. And honestly I’m not sure that’s so safe: humans are built to extract lessons from fiction too.

Put another way: I goal factored (figured out what I actually wanted from) reading a nonfiction book, and the goal was almost never best served by using a nonfiction book as a starting point. Investigating a question I cared about was almost always better for learning (even if it did eventually cash out in reading a book), and fiction was almost always better for leisure, in part because it was less tiring, and thus left more energy for question-centered learning when that was what I wanted.

 

Turns Out Interruptions Are Bad, Who Knew?

I’ve been known to accuse people who say open offices are “fine with a few mitigations” of not paying attention to the cost of their mitigations. I believed they shrunk their thoughts down to the point that not much was lost from an interruption, at the cost of only being able to think the thoughts that fit in that interval. Any thought that would take too long to process could not be conceived of.

I’ve also been known to accuse people who advocate for deep, uninterrupted work without the distractions of social media of “not understanding how valuable social media is to me”. And  besides, my workflow works best with frequent breaks (that I choose the timing of) because I “background process”.

*Cough*

I maintained this illusion until, inspired by a stupidly expensive device that only does one thing, I taped my old phone to a bluetooth keyboard* and began to write in offline mode. It was immediately a magical experience. It was so *quiet*. I could go on my porch and write and it was quiet. My thoughts got much larger because I wasn’t subconsciously afraid I’d interrupt them. I began to feel angry at my laptop. Why did it insist on hurting me so much? Why couldn’t it be pure like the offline phone/keyboard experience? Why couldn’t I just create things?

[* I only found two bluetooth keyboards with an inlay for phones/tablets. The other one lacks a built in battery, and shipped with a broken key]

Locally, this lasted for about 10 minutes before the social media cravings kicked in. But that was enough. I deeply resented work for taking me away from my magic writing device and making everything so noisy

Since I started, my desire for using the quiet device has waxed and waned. At first I thought this was reflective of some deep pathology, but after two weeks it looks a lot more like “sometimes the benefits of quiet outweighs the benefits of being able to look stuff up, sometimes they don’t’”.  I’ve also changed how I interact on a connected device- I’m more likely to close Signal, less likely to open Twitter. This is less due to a utilitarian calculation of the costs and benefits of Twitter, and more that once I’m in a good state, I can notice how switching to Twitter is almost physically painful.

The problem is that I wasn’t wrong that social media was genuinely very valuable to me, and that was before we were all locked inside. But I definitely was wrong that getting those benefits were costless, in a way very analogous to mistakes I accused others of making. I’m glad I have the information now, but I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet.

The Oil Crisis of 1973

Last month I investigated commonalities between recessions of the last 50 years or so. But of course this recession will be different, because (among other things) we will simultaneously have a labor shortage and a lot of people out of work. That’s really weird, and there’s almost no historical precedent- the 1918 pandemic took place during a war, and neither 1957 nor 1968 left enough of an impression to have a single book dedicated to them.

So I expanded out from pandemics, and started looking for recessions that were caused by any kind of exogenous shock. The best one I found was the 1973 Oil Crisis. That was kicked off by Arab nations refusing to ship oil to allies who had assisted Israel during the Yom Kippur war- as close as you can get to an economic impact without an economic cause. I started to investigate the 1973 crisis as the one example I could find of a recession caused by a sudden decrease in a basic component of production, for reasons other than economic games.

Spoiler alert: that recession was not caused by a sudden decrease in a basic component of production either.

Why am I so sure of this? Here’s a short list of little things,

 

But here’s the big one: we measure the price of oil in USD. That’s understandable, since oil sales are legally required to be denominated in dollars. But the US dollar underwent a massive overhaul in 1971, when America decided it was tired of some parts of the Bretton Woods Agreement. Previously, the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and many European countries maintained peg (set exchange rate)  between all other currencies and USD, which was itself pegged to gold. In 1971 the US decided not to bother with the gold part anymore, causing other countries to break their peg. I’m sure why we did this is also an interesting story, but I haven’t dug into it yet, because what came after 1971 is interesting enough.  The currency of several countries appreciated noticeably (Germany, Switzerland, Japan, France, Belgium, Holland, and Sweden)…

 

(I apologize for the inconsistent axes, they’re the best I could do)

 

 

…but as I keep harping on, oil prices were denominated in dollars. This meant that oil producing countries, from their own perspective, were constantly taking a pay cut. Denominated in USD, 1/1/74 saw a huge increase in the price of oil. Denominated in gold, 1/1/74 saw a return to the historic average after an unprecedented low.

 

 

 

(apologies for these axes too- the spike in this graph means oil was was worth less, because you could buy more with the same amount of gold)

 

This is a little confusing, so here’s a timeline:

  • 1956: Failed attempt at oil embargo
  • 1967: Failed attempt at oil embargo
  • 1971, August: US leaves the gold standard
  • 1972: Oil prices begin to fall, relative to gold
  • 1972, December: US food prices begin to increase the rate of price increases.
  • 1973, January: US Stock market begins 2-year crash
  • 1973, August: US food prices begin to go up *really* fast
  • 1973, October, 6: Several nearby countries invade Israel
  • 1973, October, 17: Several Arab oil producing countries declare an embargo against Israeli allies, and a production decrease. Price of oil goes up a little (in USD).
  • 1974, January, 1: Effective date of declared price increase from $5.12 to $11.65/barrel. Oil returns to historically normal price measured in gold.

This is not the timeline you’d expect to see if the Yom Kippur war caused a supply shock in oil, leading to a recession.

My best guess is that something was going wrong in the US and world economy well before 1971, but the market was not being allowed to adjust. Breaking Bretton Woods took the finger out of the dyke and everything fluctuated wildly for a few years until the world reached a new equilibrium (including some new and different economic games).The Yom Kippur war was a catalyst or excuse for raising the price of oil, but not the cause.

 

Thanks to my Patreon subscribers for funding this research, and several reviewers for checking my research and writing.

 

Negative Feedback and Simulacra

Part 1: Examples

There’s a thing I want to talk about but it’s pretty nebulous so I’m going to start with examples. Feel free to skip ahead to part 2 if you prefer.

Example 1: Hot sauce

In this r/AmITheAsshole post, a person tries some food their their girlfriend cooked, likes it, but tries another bite with hot sauce. Girlfriend says this “…insults her cooking and insinuates that she doesn’t know how to cook”. 

As objective people not in this fight, we can notice that her cooking is exactly as good as it is whether or not he adds hot sauce. Adding hot sauce reveals information (maybe about him, maybe about the food), but cannot change the facts on the ground. Yet she is treating him like he retroactively made her cooking worse in a way that somehow reflects on her, or made a deliberate attempt to hurt her.

 

Example 2: Giving a CD back to the library

Back when I would get books on CD I would sometimes forget the last one in my drive or car. Since I didn’t use CDs that often, I would find the last CD sometimes months later. To solve this, I would drop the CD in the library book return slot, which, uh, no longer looks like a good solution to me, in part because of the time I did this in front of a friend and she questioned it. Not rudely or anything, just “are you sure that’s safe? Couldn’t the CD snap if something lands wrong?.” I got pretty angry about this, but couldn’t actually deny she had a point, so settled for thinking that if she had violated a friend code by not pretending my action was harmless. I was not dumb enough to say this out loud, but I radiated the vibe and she dropped it.

 

Example 3: Elizabeth fails to fit in at martial arts 

A long time ago I went to a martial arts studio. The general classes (as opposed to specialized classes like grappling) were preceded by an optional 45 minute warm up class. Missing the warm up was fine, even if you took a class before and after. Showing up 10 minutes before the general class and doing your own warm ups on the adjacent mats was fine too. What was not fine was doing the specialized class, doing your own warm ups on adjacent maps for the full 45 minutes while the instructor led regular warm ups, and then rejoining for the general class. That was “very insulting to the instructor”.

This was a problem for me because the regular warm ups hurt, in ways that clearly meant they were bad for me (and this is at a place I regularly let people hit me in the head). Theoretically I could have asked the instructor to give me something different, but that is not free and the replacements wouldn’t have been any better, which is not surprising because no one there had the slightest qualification to do personal training or physical therapy. So basically the school wanted me to pretend I was in a world where they were competent to create exercise routines, more competent than I despite having no feedback from my body, and considered not pretending disrespectful to the person leading warm ups.

Like the hot sauce example, the warm ups were as good as they were regardless of my participation – and they knew that, because they didn’t demand I participate. But me doing my own warm ups broke the illusion of competence they were trying to maintain.

 

Example 4: Imaginary Self-Help Guru

I listened to an interview where the guest was a former self-help guru who had recently shut down his school. Well, I say listened, but I’ve only done the first 25% so far. For that reason this should be viewed less as “this specific real person believes these specific things” and more like  “a character Elizabeth made up in her head inspired by things a real person said…” and. For that reason, I won’t be using his name or linking to the podcast.

Anyways, the actual person talked about how being a leader put a target on his back and his followers were never happy.  There are indeed a lot of burdens of leadership that are worthy of empathy, but there was an… entitled… vibe to the complaint. Like his work as a leader gave him a right to a life free of criticism.

If I was going to steel- man him, I’d say that there are lots of demands people place on leaders that they shouldn’t, such as “Stop reminding me of my abusive father” or “I’m sad that trade offs exist, fix it”. But I got a vibe that the imaginary guru was going farther than that; he felt like he was entitled to have his advice work, and people telling him it didn’t was taking that away from him, which made it an attack.

 

Example 5: Do I owe MAPLE space for their response?

A friend of mine (who has some skin in the meditation game) said things I interpreted as feeling very strongly that:

  1. My post on MAPLE was important and great and should be widely shared.
  2. I owed MAPLE an opportunity to read my post ahead of time and give me a response to publish alongside it (although I could have declined to publish it if I felt it was sufficiently bad).

Their argument, as I understood it at the time, was that even if I linked to a response MAPLE made later, N days worth of people would have read the post and not the response, and that was unfair.

I think this is sometimes correct- I took an example out of this post even though it required substantial rewrites, because I checked in with the people in question, found they had a different view, and that I didn’t feel sure enough of mine to defend it (full disclosure: I also have more social and financial ties to the group in question than I do to MAPLE).

I had in fact already reached out to my original contact there to let him know the post was coming and would be negative, and he passed my comment on to the head of the monastery. I didn’t offer to let him see it or respond, but he had an opportunity to ask (what he did suggest is a post in and of itself). This wasn’t enough for my friend- what if my contact was misrepresenting me to the head, or vice versa? I had an obligation to reach out directly to the head (which I had no way of doing beyond the info@ e-mail on their website) and explicitly offer him a pre-read and to read his response.

[Note: I’m compressing timelines a little. Some of this argument and clarification came in arguments about the principle of the matter after I had already published the post. I did share this with my friend, and changed some things based on their requests. On others I decided to leave it as my impression at the time we argued, on the theory that “if I didn’t understand it after 10 hours of arguing, the chances this correction actually improves my accuracy are slim”. I showed them a near-final draft and they were happy with it]

I thought about this very seriously. I even tentatively agreed (to my friend) that I would do it. But I sat with it for a day, and it just didn’t feel right. What I eventually identified as the problem was this: MAPLE wasn’t going to be appending my criticism to any of their promotional material. I would be shocked if they linked to me at all. And even if they did it wouldn’t be the equivalent, because my friend was insisting that I proactively seek out their response, where they had never sought out mine, or to the best of my knowledge any of their critics. As far as I know they’ve never included anything negative in their public facing material, despite at least one person making criticism extremely available to them. 

If my friend were being consistent (which is not a synonym for “good”) they would insist that MAPLE seek out people’s feedback and post a representative sample somewhere, at a minimum. The good news is: my friend says they’re going to do that next time they’re in touch. What they describe wanting MAPLE to create sounds acceptable to me. Hurray! Balance is restored to The Force! Except… assuming it does happen, why was my post necessary to kickstart this conversation?  My friend could have noticed the absence of critical content on MAPLE’s website at any time. The fact that negative reports trigger a reflex to look for a response and positive self-reports do not is itself a product of treating negative reports as overt antagonism and positive reports as neutral information.

[If MAPLE does link to my experience in a findable way on their website, I will append whatever they want to my post (clearly marked as coming from them). If they share a link on Twitter or something else transient, I will do the same] 

 

Part 2: Simulacrum

My friend Ben Hoffman talks about simulacra a lot, with this rough definition:

1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.

2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity – people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there’s a lion over somewhere where I know there’s food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.

3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren’t even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. “There’s food over there” is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or “aboutness.” For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.

4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

If that doesn’t make sense, try this anonymous comment on the post

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

In all five of my examples, people were given information (I like this better with hot sauce, you might break the library’s CD, these exercises hurt me and you are not qualified to fix it, your advice did not fix my problem, I had a miserable time at your retreat), and treated it as a social attack. This is most obvious in the first four, where someone literally says some version of “I feel under attack”, but is equally true in the last one, even though the enforcer was different than the ~victim and was attempting merely to tax criticism, not suppress it entirely. All five have the effect that there is either more conflict or less information in the world.

 

Part 3: But…

When I started thinking about this, I wanted a button I could push to make everyone go to level one all the time. It’s not clear that that’s actually a good idea, but even if it was, there is no button, and choosing/pretending to cut off your awareness of higher levels in order to maintain moral purity does you no good. If you refuse to conceive of why someone would tell you things other than to give you information, you leave yourself open to “I’m only telling you this to make you better” abuse. If you refuse to believe that people would lie except out of ignorance, you’ll trust when you shouldn’t. If you refuse to notice how people are communicating with others, you will be blindsided when they coordinate on levels you don’t see. 

But beating them at their own game doesn’t work either, because the enemy was never them, it was the game, which you are still playing. You can’t socially maneuver your way into a less political world. In particular, it’s a recent development that I would have noticed my friend’s unilateral demand for fairness as in fact tilted towards MAPLE. In a world where no one notices things like that, positive reviews of programs become overrepresented.

I don’t have a solution to this.  The best I can do right now is try to feed systems where level one is valued and higher levels are discussed openly.  “How do I find those?” you might ask. I don’t know. If you do, my email address is elizabeth – at – this domain name and I’d love to hear from you. You can also book a time to talk to me for an hour. What I have are a handful of 1:1 relationships where we have spent years building trust to get to the point where “I think you’re being a coward” is treated as genuine information, not a social threat, and mostly the other person has made the first move. 

The pieces of advice I do have are:

  1. If someone says they want honest feedback, err on the side of giving it to them. They are probably lying, but that’s their problem (unless they’re in a position to make it yours, in which case think harder about this).
  2. Figure out what you need to feel secure as someone confirms your worst fears about yourself and ask for it, even if it’s weird, even if it seems like an impossibly big ask. People you are compatible with will want to build towards that (not everyone who doesn’t is abusive or even operating in bad faith- but if you can’t start negotiations on this I’d be very surprised if you’re compatible).
  3. Be prepared for some sacrifices, especially in the congeniality department. People who are good at honesty under a climate that punishes it are not going to come out unscathed.

Draft: Models of Risks of Delivery Under Coronavirus

I’ve never considered prophylactically quarantining myself before, but now that I’m considering it I find it contains many more choices than I would have imagined. Let’s take my need to eat- I could go to a supermarket, but that’s full of people. I could get delivery, but that still has a human touch. I could eat my stores, but then I won’t have them later. This makes “when do I stop ordering delivery?” an important question. To attempt a more informed answer, I made a guesstimate model. As of writing this (2/27) the numbers are completely made up: I just wanted to get comments on the underlying model. I’m working to fill in the variables with actual answers. If you want to follow along you can do so at my Roam page. I am exceedingly grateful for comments on either the abstract model or information that could help me fill in variables.

Here are some general factors going into my thinking:

  1. COVID-19 seems to have a long dormant period during which people are contagious but not symptomatic
  2. Some additional portion of people have only mild symptoms
  3. The economics of pink-collar work are such that a lot of people will go to work until they are on death’s door.
  4. 1+2+3 = if the virus is prevalent in the population, there will be a lot of contagious people handling stuff I order.
  5. The American government’s monitoring provides, at best, an extremely lagging indicator of prevalence, and is at worst made up.

 

Here are images of the model and Roam page now, for posterity

Screen Shot 2020-02-27 at 8.05.58 PM

Note that this shows food delivery as less risky than package delivery, which is clearly wrong.

 

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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.

 

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.

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.