Tuesday, November 30, 2010

tell me a story

Thinking more about cognitive bias today and how our brains run in some directions time and again.  Earlier, I touched on the survivor bias and on confirmation bias; today I want to talk about the way people's minds seem to like a good story.  Taleb calls it the "narrative fallacy".  Terry Pratchett makes use of a similar idea in his Discworld novels.  The basic idea here is that people* like for sequences of events to "fit", to "make sense", and to conform to a clean line of causality.  When trying to explain how something happened, we look back at the available data and essentially pick those bits that fit into a story.  Taleb mainly focuses on our attempts to apply a causal trail to explain unexpected "Black Swan"-style events, but it applies more generally as well.  I'm going to suggest that this bias has it's root in humanity's basic need for cosmology.

For example, say you are tasked with writing an essay explaining the causes of the US Civil War (or WW2, or the migration of the Irish in the early 1900s, or anything else).  If you are starting with zero preconceptions about the answer, you might read some other people's explanations (this can lead to clustering, a phenomenon I'll address in a later post), but at some point you will look at the mountain of data available and start picking some. In the Civil War example, it's likely that slavery, economics, taxes, and regional differences in the evolution of industrial capacity will come to play a role in your explanation.  The effect of the bias towards a narrative will influence your essay to come to conclusions that fit together nicely; the run is that reality as experienced in forward progressing real-time rarely follows a clean narrative.  "Some people kept slaves; other people felt that slavery was incompatible with a basic view of human rights; the two parties fought over the issue."  All of the steps in the preceding are true enough in their own right, and in some sort of macro view of one part of the bundle of issues present in the years preceding the US Civil War these data points create a compelling narrative.  The problem is that the story may be the one true explanation of the cause of the Civil War; it may be a true piece of the portfolio of causes; or it may not have figured in the actual sequence of events in any straightforward way at all.  Life, lived in real time and in forward progression, is often more nuanced (and conversely, sometimes much less nuanced!) and more "random" than any narrative we are able to construct afterwards.

Back to Pratchett - several of his books refer to the tendency for people to respond strongly to known stories.  For example, in the book Witches Abroad, the protagonists are fighting against the power of fairy tale stories that are sweeping events along per the fairy tale pattern (princess meets prince, events conspire against their joyful union, prince and princess overcome obstacles and live happily ever after).  The "story" resonates with people and overrides their ability to be critical or skeptical; "everyone knows" that the witch in the story is an evil hag from the woods and will be overcome; "everyone knows" that kissing the frog results in the princess having a handsome prince on hand to marry.

The power of the story and our desire for an apparent narrative also plays into creation of conspiracy theorists.  For some people, when looking back at the events of September 11, 2001, it just seemed to "make sense" that the US government had to have prior knowledge, that our president and Congress must have played some role.  Adding the government's involvement to the events around 9/11 helps to "make sense" of it all, for some people, by filling in some gaps in "the story."

As with other instances of innate bias in our thinking, half the battle is just being aware of the existence of the bias.  Conclusions derived under the influence of a bias are not necessarily wrong or flawed, but have to be evaluated with consideration given to that influence.

*I always hesitate when writing something general like this, expecting that some in the audience will challenge me to explain who "people" are (or "they" or "most of us", etc).  I hope in the space of this blog to keep generalities to a minimum and to only use them when it seems safe to do so.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The essence of the theory is essentially theoretical

So getting back to this post from earlier in November...

The premise that lays the foundation for my grand unifying theory is that: No Two Things Are The Same.

I'm working on a catchier set of words that capture the basic idea (you know, for the book title!) but NTTATS more or less communicates the idea.

(used with permission)
People say snowflakes are unique...I'm suggesting that everything is unique.

I also suspect that this idea will resonate with some people as common sense and will strike others as silly.  Isn't that how it's supposed to go with philosophy?

Consider these examples:

Friday, November 26, 2010

pregnancy is a gas

something they don't tell you to expect - when a woman is pregnant and...taut?...laughing apparently hurts. unfortunately, farts are funny to all people, pregnant or not.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

the domain of the competent

a few days ago I referenced the Ribbon Farm blog post about workplace actors and these basic categories: sociopaths, losers, and clueless. A very brief as I understand the categories(read the Ribbon Farm for full explication) :
  • the sociopaths typically embody a drive and vision to succeed, and will manipulate others in order to achieve a set of goals
  • losers exhibit little workplace ambition beyond "keeping their head down" and retaining employment with the least amount of effort
  • the clueless are the "team players" who believe in the mission and goodwill of the company and see these things as ends in themselves; perpetual "middle managers" tend to be among the clueless.
There are many things about this framework that I appreciate and can recognize from my exposure to the professional world, but I found it difficult to derive practical applications should one wish to construct or evolve a better functioning office.  With that in mind, I've been formulating my own take on the types of workplace actors and the dynamics among them.

a tale of customer service

After much research on safety and aesthetics (and a worthwhile detour into exploring a possible custom built option), the wife chose a crib from Land of Nod for our coming bundle of baby-boy joy.

So it got here yesterday, delivered by a private courier since we are now out of reach for Land Of Nod's "local" delivery.
The crib is made by El Greco (I personally think this will bias our boy towards a taste for ouzo as an adult).  The build seems very nice, and the assembly was pretty straightforward.  The fit and finish where the pieces join are clean and the tolerances are pretty tight.  Of course, all of this factored in to the original suggestion of safety (the wife did her homework!), but it was nice to see it come together as expected.
But then...there were no bolts in the kit to attach the bed spring frame to the crib itself.  And this is where the story could have turned very sour...but it didn't!  A call to LoN's customer service number was answered by a PERSON!  One option selected got us a PERSON!  (press one for orders, two for customer service..."hello, thanks for calling Land of Nod").  The rep immediately recognized the issue, noted that the standard policy is to send out an entirely new crib, but that didn't make sense to her...so they would just expedite us the needed bolts.  Now, none of the above should seem strange or out of the ordinary, but if you have ever had to call customer service anywhere about anything then the odds are high that you had an experience that defied all common sense, any measure of logic, and probably left you feeling "serviced" in an entirely unpleasurable way.
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All of this to say that both Land of Nod (a Crate and Barrel company) and El Greco (who we also called on to inquire about crib parts) showed an exceptional level of positive customer service, at least per my current standards.

And now I guess I have to say that we are in no way compensated directly by the retailer or manufacturer for this post.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Knights in White Satin

This is how I heard the Moody Blues song when I was a kid - a kid obsessed with all things "medieval" and spent my nights in Star Wars print cotton, reading about knights and dragons and fair ladies waiting to be courted.

It's pretty much a non-sequitur for you guys, but a friend asked me to write about "moods and productivity".  I guess the inspiration for the request comes from the fact that he (and I!) can both be moody bastards and tend to bounce from periods of excited insight and desire to produce to somewhat more subdued periods when we are convinced that our labors are for naught and our ideas are unworthy.

In my experience, the environment strongly affects my productivity.  The scene above was the site of a frenetic writing spell I went through over a course of 2 days when I hand wrote a couple of chapters of a lovely story in the tradition of Carl Hiassen or Christopher Moore...the relative ability to not think about anything more pressing than when I was going to get my next Balashi somehow freed me up to think about interesting characters involved in a whacky plot.  Of course, I didn't finish that novel, which may be fodder for a future blog post dealing with unfinished projects...

But back to moodiness and productivity!  I also have anecdotal evidence to offer that a nice walk (alone or in company) or a long run often sets my mind onto tracks of Ideas, and Plans, and Lists of Things to Do.  But a funny thing about (my) human nature is that tiny little setbacks to the implementation of the Ideas/Plans/LoTtD can absolutely blow me up.  Why is it, in that moment of setback (just prior to the blowing up) is it so hard to remember that original inspiration, that feeling of possibility that infused the moment of inspiration...and why is it so hard to remember to go for a walk when you're feeling down?

I have a heuristic I apply to my friends that seem stymied or "down" but that I often fail to apply to myself.  I ask:

Have you had enough water today?
Have you done any stretching /yoga?
When did you last eat and/or have a poop?
Have you tried going for a walk?

It's amazing how often this works and I don't have to resort to next level heuristics (which involve standing on a chair, lying in the floor, and possible doing a handstand.

Monday, November 22, 2010

If it keeps on rainin', levee's gonna break

I had the opportunity to air out the 5F this weekend for a 5 mile run along the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway, which lies along the top of the levee:

View Larger Map

The trail is paved, with narrow strips of gravel to either side and flat expanses of grass beyond those, so a runner has a choice of surface.  This was my first 5 mile run in a few weeks, and it felt pretty nice.

I passed a few solitary fellow travelers, including two separate folks who apparently found the top of the levee the best place to have extended cell phone conversations and a Jane Goodall looking lady with a camera snapping pics of the marshy areas to the west.

It was a beautiful day and a nice run, and the best part is that after running among the green and the glimpses of water, you are greeted by a Fed Ex depot at one end and a super WalMart at the other!

hello darkness my old friend

Kottke brings to our attention a recent BBC aired performance of John Cage's 4'33"

The reviews on this Amazon.com listing for an $18 import version of the song are a fine example of internet-awesome.


I've been told I need to add some visual interest to my fledgling blog. We'll just see about that!

This is a shot I snapped in Tuscany a year or so ago. Go ahead and marvel over the composition, balance, and texture with my blessings.
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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Words Words Words

Intellectual honesty is rare, and is difficult both to achieve and to maintain.  Or so I was told by somebody who had been there and gotten the T-Shirt.

If you care about ideas, and want to share ideas with others and learn about new things from others, you will invariably come on a situation where word choice, and word meanings become crucial.  I've often wished that any discussion that is flirting with transitioning into an argument or debate could have a break to Establish Premise, Define Terms, and Agree to Rules of Procedure.  Of course, this is where most debates of anything contentious would go off the rails.

Defining Terms is a thoroughly scary proposition in itself for anyone on the hunt for intellectual honesty and discovery.  Pick a contentious debate:  abortion?  existence of god?  Republican or Democrat?

If you don't take the time to agree on a basic set of terms, the debate quickly becomes meaningless; for two or more intellectual curious people, the debate on setting the terms can be more contentious than the subject of the "main" debate...

Here's an example, and whether you find this annoying or interesting is probably a good indication as to whether you are reading the right blog or not:

Are natural foods (or a natural diet) better for you?  Discuss and Debate.
So if I'm party to this debate, this is how I imagine this goes (we'll use a hypothetical fellow debater named John):
me -  what do you mean by "natural"?

John - oh, you know, not man made or synthetic

me - so, like, "corn" for example?

John - exactly!  corn is natural; corn chips are not

me - uh oh...i meant corn as an example of something man made, since what corn eat now is arguably                                                                 the first genetically modified crop in the history of man...it wouldn't exist if man had not interfered with the "natural" precursors blah blah blah

John -  you are a pretentious wannabe-Socratic ass!

But, still, I maintain that one of the shortcomings of our language (and therefore our language based human brain operating system) is the lack of precision in words.  And precisely because of that failing of language, intellectual dishonesty is easier to cultivate; when called out or held to account for something we have said, one of the easiest defenses is to claim "that's not what I meant when I said "_____"".

POLONIUS:  ...What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET:  Words, words, words.

performance review

Have you read the Ribbon Farm blog, in particular the explication of the categories of actors in the workplace, using the sitcom "The Office" as a reference?  Check it out, and get comfortable with the specialized meanings of "sociopaths, losers, and the clueless".  It's really very interesting stuff, whether you buy in wholesale or not.

I was reminded of this blog post (really a series of posts if you dig in) when considering my annual performance review.  On the off chance my reviewer reads my blog (hi there!) let me here carefully and sincerely qualify that I don't consider him a sociopath, loser, or clueless in any pejorative sense (believe me, there are non-pejorative ways to be called a loser - read the other blog!)

Allowing for the possibility that other, non-American, cultures may differ from us in this regard, I suspect that one of the least comfortable experiences of the modern office place is the performance review.  I'm going out on a generalizing limb, but people do not enjoy being judged.  And for all but the most boneheaded and/or ego-maniacal folks, being the judge is tough too.

I have strong memories of the first few reviews I had in my first real "professional" job, and how I felt like a jumble of anxious, emotional, volatile, and contradictory reactions were all jostling for the opportunity to be expressed.  Going into the review knowing that I had checked off all the boxes, had acquitted myself well against any reasonable set of expectations, etc did nothing to quell that feeling that I was somehow going to be called out...and the managerial masochism that informs how a review must go always snuck up on me and pulled the carpet from under my feet.

If you've been there, on either side of the desk, you know what I mean.  If the scale is 1 - 5 or 1 - 10, or A - F the rule is the same:  managers can't give out 5/5 scores (or can't give out many).  The rationale goes something like this:  Nobody's perfect, and if an employee gets too many ratings of "strongly exceeds expectations" then one of two things will happen, and both of them are bad.  1. the employee doesn't think there's room for improvement; or 2. the employee will ask for a raise

The trap for most managers is that there is no room for secret choice number 3: some employees really are competent, self-motivated, conscientious, and will not take all 5s as an allowance to coast for a while, but will take it as a challenge to figure out what lies on the other side of a 5.

And this segues to a future post (coming soon to a small screen near you!): my version of the Ribbon Farm study, slightly different in its calibration, and based on a scale of relative competencies.

Barefoot Bible, Chapter 1, verse 1

For my barefoot running buddy, who sometimes needs a little inspiration:

In the beginning was the foot, and it was good.  In fact, there were two
and they were where Runner met the road.

And behold!  the road stretched away from Runner
and down that road lay all the wonder the exploding universe could hold.

Runner looked along the road, looked within himself, and began.
Falling forward in space: light! quick! smooth! the feet fell in rhythm

Runner flowed forward, like the water over the riverbed stone;
the road did not push back, but carried Runner forward.

And so, Runner loved the road, and the road loved Runner,
each step a caress, and the wonders of the distance drew near.

(see, poetry doesn't have to be embarrassing! or kooky!  OK OK, I promise no more poetry.  Until my son is born...and then there may some lyrical gushing that would make Creed look like Bob Dylan.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

tell me I'm right

Another quick hit on the cognitive bias topic; let's talk "confirmation bias", because it's everywhere.

But first, this deck of slides was an early (and robust!) source of inspiration and education for me about cognitive biases.  Be warned, it is a wide and deep resource, and can be a major timesuck for the curious.

So, "confirmation bias".  The wife says that its like the opposite of "buyer's remorse" (if you are unfamiliar with buyer's remorse, go find a few of your friends that spent $500+ on an iPad and ask them how they feel about it now).

The thumbnail is that people commonly seek out "confirmation" of a thesis they hold.  The thesis could be that buying something was a good idea (and so the opposite of buyer's remorse, per my wife), or the thesis could be an idea: "Coldplay is the bestest band EVER".  The way this proceeds, for example:

  1. person hears "Yellow", a single from Coldplay's first album Parachutes
  2. person is overwhelmed by the awesomeness of a ringing D chord
  3. person calls their buddy: "have you heard "Yellow"?  It's awesome, you have to hear it"
  4. if the buddy agrees, everyone relaxes in a warm glow of "Yellow" together
  5. if the buddy doesn't agree, person likely calls a second buddy: "hey, have you heard..."
Confirmation bias afflicts people in every profession and in so many different kinds of situations that once you become aware of the risk of this bias, you will start to see it everywhere.  You may even try to get other people to confirm the presence of this bias...  =)

Don't try to fit the data to the thesis.  If you care about the data, let it say what it says.

Defense wins championships - I know it!  And I can prove it:
just look at the '85 Bears, or the Steelers in the 70s!
What?  The '99 Rams?  The '06 Colts?  Um...exceptions that prove the rule?

the way your thinker leans

I've become increasingly interested in the way that people think.  One of my friends back in college, RD, wrote a capstone paper on the epistemology of thought and it freaked me out.  Since then, I've occasionally sought out, and occasionally been sneaked up on by, reminders that the way people think and the reasons they think that way is complicated and interesting and freaky.

So I hope to explore, over time and in this space, several different kinds of "cognitive bias"; for me talking through things, trying to explain them in plain language, or just describing them again and again but with different words is helpful in my own understanding.

So let's start with "survivor bias".  The basic idea here is that when studying something, anything, you have to pick a data set to work with; choosing your data set from too slim a portion can strongly bias the outcome of the study.

Real world example?  Say a high school is concerned with their success with the AP History test; they want more students to score 4s and 5s (is that still the scale?  sorry of this example is dated!) in order to get the college credits for the class and raise the high school's status relative to its peer group.  So they start a study: when the scores come in for a given year's test, the find that there were 10 students (out of a group of 40 taking the test) that scored a 4 or better - pretty decent results!  So they complete an in-depth of these 10 kids, learning about their diets, study habits, elementary school grades, the marital status of their parents...  Ultimately the school comes up with a lot of data, but they want to be careful before coming to conclusions, so they decide to do the same study the next year, and so get a second set of data from the high scorers (this time, 12 of 39 students scored 4 or better!).  So let's say the school continues this pattern until they have a pretty large sample of students to study, maybe 100+ over 8 or so years.

With all this data in hand, the school runs the numbers and comes up with some insights on "what kinds of students" score 4s and 5s.  What's the problem with the study at this point?  What if the qualities observed in the "winner" group are also present in a significant number of the "losers" as well?  The data set was too narrow and biased to the "survivors" of the process being studied.

Much shorter example: say you want to discover the average time it takes a male aged 22-26 to finish the NY Marathon in 2010.  The race organizers provide you with raw data of finish times and start times for all the guys of that age range.  Simple, right?  But what about those guys that start but never finish?  Pulled hamstring, stopped to chat up a cutie at the water station, decided that running is for cheetahs...whatever the reason, some guys just don't finish the race.  If the data of all starters of the appropriate age range are not considered, there is a "survivor bias" in the results of the study.

At this point, I feel it's important to point out that a study can intend to study only survivor's; so long as the study presents the findings as biased towards the survivors, there's nothing inherently wrong with studying a subset of the available data.  But a persistent problem with statistics and sound bite "findings" of studies is that people tend to misunderstand and/or abuse the findings.

Through careful analysis it has been found that 100% of the survivor's of the Titanic's sinking had urinated at least once during the 24 hours preceding the iceberg incident...if only those poor drowning bastards had thought to go pee!


my 5F, version 1.1
These are the shoes I bought in ~ July 2009.  Just a couple of months ago I took some kitchen shears to the shoes (the wife had bought me a new pair for my birthday, so I had a safety net!).  I've put a few hundred miles on these shoes, and they are hanging in there fine.  Removing the cinch cord and notching the uppers there at my achilles has made them more comfortable, for me.  Your mileage may vary.

Check them out on the manufacturer's website, or at Amazon.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

These Two Things Are Not The Same

It's egomaniacal , bombastic, and most likely misguided, but I think I'm on the trail of an actual Grand Unifying Theory.  If I get much closer, it may turn into a book.  In fact, I think I'll write a book anyway, exploring the relationships between knowledge, risk, wisdom, common sense, experience, randomness...and I'm sure that 3 or 4 people will actually read (most) of it and enjoy it!

And if it turns out to all be bunk, I'm sure we will all be better off for finding out yet another thing that does not work as a Grand Unifying Theory!

CFA Level 2

I'm a candidate for level 2, scheduled to take the test in June 2011.  It's been so long since I passed the level 1 exam that I would have to think on it for a while to recall exactly when that was.  I intend to chart some of my progress through the studying process; as of now I'm limiting my study material to the official readings provided by the CFA Institute: 6 workbooks covering the various topics that inform the exam questions.

My blog is in no way related to the CFA Institute beyond the fact that I am a candidate to sit for the level 2 exam.

Run Like A [insert awesome reference of your own choosing]

I'm no athlete.  I wish I could say that I make up for that with other socially valuable qualities, but I'm not always sure about those either.

Don't get me wrong - I can throw a football in a tight spiral, I can hit a decent free throw percentage, and I started water skiing when I was barely old enough to walk - but I was never one of those kids that people wanted on their ball team.  One of my chief struggles was with a skill so central to sport that a relative lack of ability is a huge obstacle to enjoying sport; in a nutshell, I couldn't run.

In high school there was this program or challenge to get the Presidential Physical Fitness award, and to qualify you had to hit so many targets: some number of pull-ups, a jump rope challenge, etc.  One of the targets was to run a mile, maybe in 9 minutes?  What I remember for sure was that I completely flubbed the mile, and it was the only category that was keeping me from the award...I ultimately ran for it again and just barely made the mark.  I wasn't overweight, I was a reasonably active kid, but something just did not work for me in the running department.

Fast forward 15 or so years, and I was still no runner.  The wife and I would bike for miles, I could swim a half mile in the pool, but when I laced up the sneakers and went for a run it always felt TERRIBLE.  I don't recall why, in this context, I thought reading a book about running would be interesting, but I bought a copy of McDougall's Born to Run and absolutely fell for it.

Read it for yourself, if you like, but the thumbnail summary from me to you: people evolved to run, and to run with the equipment god gave us.  I started over, learning to run in a "minimalist"s style and I haven't looked back.

The first weeks of my adult running life I got up to a couple of miles without a walk break; a year later I ran an unofficial half marathon along Chicago's lake front.  Running is now my primary form of weight control and physical conditioning.

At this point in my life I have decided to leave evangelism behind, so I won't be knocking on anyone's door to spread the love of barefoot running, but if you want to chat about it and ask some questions, feel free to comment on this post.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Daddy Prep

The first child is going to be here in January, and I'm supposed to be prepared, or at least preparing...

The wife and I took a class at the birthing center of our choice this week, and in brief I would like to say that the state of modern maternity medicine in the United States leaves much to be desired.

I will likely be posting more about the experience of being pregnant (well, the daddy's experience) as well as the challenging choices facing parents in the birth plan process.

This is the blog you were looking for

you were here before, and you liked it, and then there was a long, long break.  But brace yourself - we're back together and things are about to get very interesting.  Or so I've convinced myself.