The STEMpunk Project: Introduction and Motivations

As of yesterday I have officially begun “The STEMpunk project”, in which I will endeavor to shore up my techie credentials by completing a series of projects chunked into four large categories: Computing, Electronics, Mechanics, and Robotics.

I have many reasons for wanting to do this: I love computers and programming; I read an almost unhealthy amount of science fiction, to the exclusion of nearly every other kind of fiction; the idea of investing in tech startups is appealing, and I think I might be good at it; the world still has a dire shortage of people doing long-term, sensible analyses of emerging technologies, and maybe I can help with some small part of that.

Plus, I’ve been fascinated by technology as far back as I can remember, but for various reasons have failed to nurture or explore that fascination.

Well, that changes now.

Thinking Inside the (Black) Box.

Viewed one way, civilization can be thought of as the proliferation of black boxes, i.e. things whose internal workings are more or less a mystery to anyone who isn’t either a specialist or a person who has made a special effort to learn how the black box works.

Let’s take an example: what is a refrigerator?

Well, it’s a device that keeps food cold. I know that it doesn’t work if I leave the door open, which implies that some amount of sealing is required. I don’t know what freon is or what it does, but I have heard it mentioned in connection with air conditioners and other cooling apparatuses, so I assume it is involved somehow.

An entire segment of the economy exists to manufacture, distribute, repair, and improve upon refrigerators and related technologies, and they get along perfectly well without me. I can cheerfully write computer code without having to also invent refrigeration, and when I get hungry I can just open the refrigerator, pull something out, and eat it without having to go hunting.

If you don’t know anymore about refrigerators than what I’ve written above then they qualify as a black box. For the most part the proliferation of black boxes  is a good thing, and our ignorance is usually harmless. Still, though, I don’t think it’s good to have too many things I rely on every day be mysterious. As an adult male with a growing degree of responsibility I should probably have some idea of how to do basic car repairs, what an electrical panel is and the rudiments of how to wire one, what a computer is and how to build one, etc.

And besides that, as I grow older I find myself increasingly fascinated by how awe-inspiringly awesome this stuff is.

How many eons did men cower in fear under rock ledges because some vicious electrical storm or forest fire was raging just beyond their shelter? How many gods were invented and placated because those same men not only didn’t know what they were looking at, but hadn’t yet even conceived of a general method for understanding what they were looking at?

These days, however, lightning is channeled through hidden conduits in my walls so that I can keep my living room a comfortable 75 degrees year round, and I use fire to propel a metal cage sitting on four inflated rubber donuts down a ribbon of asphalt at twice the top galloping speed of a horse. These miracles are called electricity and driving, and they’re so common as to be almost boring.

That fact amazes me.

Not Just About the Technology

While this year’s project is about cultivating a richer set of models for understanding mechanical, electrical, and computational systems, on a deeper level it’s about developing two macro-abilities which will allow me to begin playing at the level of the men and women I most admire:

1) Building the strength of focus to make rapid progress and produce large quantities of value.

2) Conceiving of, planning, and executing large-scale learning projects with many degrees of uncertainty;

To that end I’ll probably spend most of my blogging energies on issues related to motivation, practice, attention, and so on. And I plan on covering the structure of The STEMpunk project, including ways it deviates from similar large-scale undertakings like Scott Young’s “MIT Project”, how to make changes along with an expanding knowledge base, how to iterate between theory and practice when you don’t know much of either, etc.

I’ve been planning this for a while and I’m frankly pretty excited about seeing how far I can get. Stay tuned.

Profundis: “Deep Work”

I just finished “Deep Work“, Cal Newport’s ode to sustained, high-octane focus. The short version of my review is that you should give him your money and do what he tells you to do.

The longer version begins by noting that there are at least two kinds of scholars:

Some scholars traffic in insights which change your mental landscape with all the ferocity and permanence of an asteroid impact. Perhaps Mencius Moldbug has convinced you that democracy isn’t that great, Roissy has you looking out for the subtle game-theoretic dynamics beneath human sexual interaction, or Thomas Metzinger has demonstrated that the subjective experience you call “I” doesn’t really exist.

Newport is not this kind of scholar. He belongs to a different, in some ways even rarer class of thinkers that tells you things you already kind of, sort of, halfway knew, but in a way that makes it all completely obvious and with clear, concise instructions in place for how to better act on this knowledge.

A brief summary of “Deep Work” might go like this: “Some work, like responding to emails and attending planning meetings, is shallow and easily automated. Other work, like proving new results in a field of math, is deep, and very difficult to automate. You should do more deep work because it’s more valuable, but it’s kind of hard, so here are some rules to help you quell distraction and build concentration, all of which you could probably implement before you finish this chapter”.

This is not a towering intellectual edifice that inspires fear and awe, it’s a carefully built retaining wall that keeps the rain from eroding a hillside; not a white-hot beacon of truth, but a flash light showing you a staircase that you overlooked in your haste.

The chances are good that you’re not getting as much out of your brain as you could be.

This book can help fix that.

Gnostic Creep

A while back I asked famed autodidact Eric Raymond about how he learns things, and he told me that he tends to study multiple subjects at a time with little to no structure involved. I tried this, and noticed that what usually happens is that each field I study suggests additional fields to study, and when I begin to look into those fields still further fields pique my interest, until I’m reading 10 books and 35 papers all at once and making only the most incremental of progress. Eventually the whole thing collapses on itself and I feel depressed for a couple of days.

I call this gnostic creep, a deliberate nod to the concept of “scope creep“.

You might be tempted to advocate for studying only one subject or one book at a time; this is pretty good advice, but easier said than done. For one thing, the front and back cover of a book are often fairly arbitrary beginning and ending points. You may get halfway through a book about the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, only to realize that you can’t make sense of these events until you stop and learn a little about the intellectual history of Fascism in pre-war Europe. But even when this isn’t the case, poor wording or explanations which assume too much background knowledge may force you to look elsewhere.

Example: I’m studying set theory right now in a bid to assemble the tools necessary to understand the research on Friendliness in Superintelligent AIs. One of the recommended books is “Naive Set Theory” by Paul Halmos. It’s very concise, but often utilizes archaic notation and proofs that are so informal that it’s difficult for a novice mathematician to find intellectual purchase on them. To compensate, I piece the ideas together by referencing other books, but I eventually find myself with too much on my plate and no clear strategy for proceeding.

So far, the only thing that has worked is taking a day or two off when the pressure of gnostic creep reaches a certain threshold. I also have a friend who is tutoring me in mathematics, so I’m going to try breaking my learning up into smaller chunks by meeting with him for 20-30 minutes several times a week rather than for 90 minutes once a week.

I’m inclined think that intelligence isn’t a significant factor here; a person who is smarter than me but who lacks a mechanism for temporarily erecting a boundary around a given gnostic enterprise would simply have gnostic creep set in a lot more quickly than in does for me. Presumably the gnostic creep for a genius like John Conway would result in their head exploding.

I seems most likely that those among my heroes who are world-class auhodidacts are doing something which makes them more effective, and which they probably aren’t even aware of.

What I Learned From Two Years in South Korea.

It’s cold outside, around three in the morning, and I’m staring up at the apartment building I’ve been living in.  Friends have passed in and out of my life there, relationships have begun and ended there.  

My gaze drifts higher and I notice that an unusual number of stars are visible.  This seems fitting, as I’ve often lamented how few stars one can normally see, but such is not the case on my last night in Korea.  My plane leaves in just a few hours, and I know that sleep will not come for many more.  But I don’t mind so much just now, as I’m lost in a particularly intense train of thought.   Beneath the jeweled sky, in the pre-dawn chill, I reflect quietly, and with a hint of sadness, on all that has changed for me these last two years.  

If I could sum this long post up in a few words, I’d say that living and working in South Korea has been every bit as rewarding and life changing as I thought it would be.  If you relish challenges and are looking for a change of scenery, then I would heartily recommend giving the Land of the Morning Calm a try.

But I won’t bullshit you.  There have been real problems, loneliness, and cultural mishaps of the tragic and hilarious variety. When you live in a place where most people don’t speak your language and you are very obviously a foreigner, a thousand little sources of friction are created that will wear on you.

On a good day everything is an adventure, even mundane tasks are tinged with a sense of novelty, and people’s enthusiastic questions will make you feel like a celebrity.

But some days are bad.  Some days you don’t want an adventure, you don’t want to struggle to complete even simple tasks like mailing a letter, you don’t want to feel like a zoo animal with kids pointing at you and whispering.  All I can say is that learning to deal gracefully with the bad days is part of the value.  That, and, in my experience, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

My hope is that if I detail my experiences then I can both encourage people to go for it while also preparing them for the inevitable difficulties that will arise.

Ending Up Far Away From Home

I came to Korea in February of 2012, partly as an act of desperation.  There were no jobs to be had in America at the time, you see, and I was tired of working multiple jobs while still having my savings dwindle.  A friend of mine from college lived on the beautiful Korean island of Jeju-do, and she had almost nothing but good things to say about it. So, lacking a better plan, I began the process of filling out applications and getting my paperwork in order.

Since numerous factors shape my conclusions, I’ll tell you that I’m a 25-year-old white heterosexual male, fairly introverted, college-educated, with an adventurous streak. Though I’ve traveled widely in Korea I’ve lived and worked in a small town at an after-school private academy teaching kids aged 7 to 15.

Gyeryong, South Korea.  My home for nearly two years.

Gyeryong, South Korea. Home for nearly two years.

I’ve made my best effort throughout the past two years to be as objective and observant as I possibly could be, but still, this is all just one guy’s opinion.  People of different ages, races, and sexual orientations, as well as people who live in big cities or work at public schools, often have somewhat different stories to tell.  Nevertheless I think what I’ve written here will prove useful to most everyone.  At any rate, if you decide to take the plunge you’ll get to learn about all of this stuff yourself 🙂

Korea

The Korean peninsula is basically a group of mountains and foothills, hanging off the eastern part of Russia and jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.  It occupies approximately 100,000 square kilometers, or roughly the same amount of land as two Nova Scotias, Scotland and Wales together, three Lesothos, or Kentucky.  Most of the foreigners I’ve met have been from Canada, the U.K., South Africa, or America, so I chose my geographic comparisons appropriately.

There are four clearly defined seasons. The vibrant, humid summers, colorful autumns, and springs filled with wildflowers and rain offer outdoorsy types plenty of chances to lay on the beach or hike.  Winter, however, is not a gown that Korea wears well.  Some places have a sparse, desolate beauty which can make the colder months almost electrifying. In Korea it’s just frigid and grey, with winds screaming across the landscape cramming fistfuls of cold air down people’s shirts. Be sure to bring some heavy winter clothing.

Population-wise there are about 50 million people, fully half of which live in the sprawling capital, Seoul.  The cities are big, skyscraper-studded affairs offering just about any pleasure or convenience you could ask for.  In the towns and the countryside the old and new are rather dramatically juxtaposed; temples and mountain-top pagodas are sometimes visible from supermarkets, the chanting of monks can be heard a minute’s walk from a cafe. This can be very captivating, and is a primary source of what I call “holy shit I’m in Korea” moments.

Food

The cuisine is one of my favorite things about Korea.  It’s typically rice- and vegetable-based, with small amounts of protein and few fruits.  That may not sound like much raw material, but a staggering variety is produced by combining and seasoning the food in different ways.  To give an example, consider Kimchi, the ubiquitous cabbage dish that is one of the only Korean foods a lot of non-Koreans know about.  It is served at pretty much every meal, but it can come as whole leaves or diced-up cubes, nearly raw or extremely fermented, salty, sour, spicy, or completely plain.

For the most part eating in Korea won’t blow your mind, but a few things may take some getting used to. Of course the most obvious is eating with chopsticks, but you’ll get the hang of it before too long, and there are usually forks and spoons available. Also, Koreans like their food hot, in both ways: many of their dishes are spicy and soups are served still boiling.

If you enjoy sea food you’re in luck, as fish, squid, and octopus show up quite a bit at Korean tables, and in some places you can eat octopus while it’s still alive. This is apparently pretty dangerous because the octopus can stick to the inside of your throat and choke you to death.  I haven’t done it.

The only Korean food I think I have genuinely not liked has been silk-worm larva, or ‘bondeggi’. It’s not usually served at restaurants but they sell it as a snack on the streets in most places, and it’s extremely tart.

I especially like the way Korean restaurants work.  Before the main course you always get a smattering of different side dishes, usually something along the lines of kimchi, fish cakes, or bean sprouts. This is fun because you can sample a wide variety of foods at every meal and every restaurant makes their side dishes slightly differently.  In restaurants where the specialty is meat there is usually a grill built into the table where you cook whatever you ordered.  This makes going to a restaurant sort of a communal, participatory experience.

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A pretty typical spread at a Korean restaurant

As far as costs go, eating in Korea is generally pretty cheap, and it can be extremely cheap if you want it to be.   Since I exercise a lot I also tend to eat a lot, and I consume a good bit of meat, so for me eating here has been more expensive than it is for most other foreigners I know.   Still, I’m usually able to save money by waiting until there is a sale on something like chicken breasts, buying a whole bunch of it, then cooking and freezing it, unthawing as needed. Non-meat items like fruits and vegetables are comparable in price to what they are in America

Eating at restaurants costs about the same as cooking and eating at home.  I verified this by carefully tracking what I spent at the store and what I ate at each meal, calculating the cost of the average meal eaten at home, and comparing that to what I usually spend at restaurants.  My figures aren’t in front of me just now, but eating at home cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 when I got many of the items on discount.  The cheapest meals at a restaurant are about $6, usually more like $8 or $10.  But consider that’s only when I wait to find deals on the most expensive items, and it doesn’t include the time spent cooking and cleaning.

I eat out five or six times, go shopping once or twice a week, and spend around $500 a month on food.

Koreans

My impressions of Korean people have been overwhelmingly positive.  Koreans are for the most part extremely generous and accommodating, more than willing to aid the lost and weary foreigner looking for a place to bed down for the night.

I will never forget trying to buy fabric softener within the first few weeks of arriving, and asking one of the store employees if a particular item was what I was looking for.  Our attempts at communication failed, so she asked someone else, who asked someone else, which began a chain reaction that ended with six or seven Korean people standing around my friend and I and talking to each other.  Finally one of them pointed to the thing I was holding and said ‘soft’.  Problem solved.

This generosity can have a down side.  I will also never forget the many times I’ve been in the gym, headphones in, music going full blast, literally in the middle of doing bench press, only to have someone wander up and insist I eat a sweet potato.  Turning down food that has been offered to you is considered rude in Korea, so when this happens I find myself either having to force something down in the middle of exercise, rudely refuse it, or effusively promise to eat it later.

For myself and my circle of friends about the worst that’s ever happened is cab drivers charging us more than they would a Korean, but one does occasionally hear of abuses much more serious than this.   Apparently other teachers have worked at schools which have stolen money from them or fired them over completely trivial issues, have had coworkers that treated them with indifference or even disrespect, or have had to live in really sub-par housing.

The truth is, there is a chance you will end up in this situation.  It’s a bit disconcerting, but that’s the reality.  As far as I can tell it’s exceedingly rare; I’ve never known anyone to whom this has happened, and I’ve never known anyone whose known someone to whom this has happened.  If you go through a recruitment agency like Reach To Teach (whom I cannot recommend enough) or contact the other people working at your school ahead of time you stand a good chance of being happy with where you end up.

Foreigners in Korea

By and large I’ve gotten along with the non-Koreans I’ve met.  You might be thinking that the foreigners here are exceptionally adventurous or outgoing or enthusiastic about novel experiences. After all, wouldn’t it take just such a person to uproot their whole life and move to a new continent?

Surprisingly, no.   The foreigners I’ve met have mostly been pretty average on all of these traits, with some extreme personalities in both directions.  Note that this isn’t me making a value judgment; there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert who likes routine.  I’m just saying that my expectations were incorrect.

There are plenty of foreigners here who like to party, though, and in the bigger cities there are establishments which have sprung up to cater just to us.  This is great, and Science knows I’ve had my fair share of shenanigans while I’ve been here.  But it seems to me like a lot of foreigners get stuck in this trap where they make a bunch of foreign friends, give up their initial attempts to learn Korean and integrate into Korea, and begin a cycle of boozing and partying all the time which leaves them complacent, takes a chunk out of their savings, and prevents them from experiencing Korea in a more authentic way.  No one is going to stop you if you piss away your paychecks drinking four nights a week, but ask yourself if that’s really the best way you could be spending your time.

Ultimately, like most other opportunities, this one is going to be what you make it.  It could be one of the more intense and fertile periods of learning you’ve had up to this point, like it was for me, or it could be a drunken haze you barely remember and from which you learn very little.

Learning Korean 

There is one place where I am absolutely going to make a value judgment, though, and that’s the pitifully small number of foreigners who make an effort to learn Korean.  Make no mistake, it is a pretty tough language, but that’s no excuse for not learning how to carry out basic tasks in the language that everyone else speaks.   Most Koreans are going to accommodate you, and a lot of them are happy to practice their English, but most of them can’t speak English well and shouldn’t be expected to.  If you live in Korea then you should learn Korean, and though you can probably get by without it, you should feel a pang of guilt every time you point and grunt your way through an interaction like a Neanderthal.

I’ve met people who claim that they have ‘survival Korean’ and don’t care to study beyond that.  Fair enough, maybe you aren’t interested in reading Korean literature or holding forth on philosophical topics in Korean, but I think a lot of people are kidding themselves as to what constitutes the minimum Korean they need.

My Korean is at about survival level.  I can hold basic conversations, give and receive directions, figure out what most signs and print means without pictures, and get the gist of what’s being said around me.  A bit less than half of my communication with friends has been in Korean, mostly texting, and I have managed English-free interactions for a few hours at a time with only minimal referencing of the dictionary.

Here is a video I made speaking Korean right before I came back to the States:

I’m not tooting my own horn here.  My Korean isn’t as good as I’d wanted it to be before I left, and I’m still embarrassed every time I can’t get a point across or understand someone who is trying to talk to me.   Getting this modest level took a lot of effort and study, but it has been absolutely, without a doubt, worth it.  In addition to all the little things that have become easier, my experience here has been significantly deepened as a result.

Let me give you an example: the secretary that works at our school is in her early thirties and has two kids I’ve taught. We’ve become good friends, and we always use Korean because she doesn’t know more than a few words in English. Though she maintains professionalism at work I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with her many times during off hours, and have discovered she has a really quirky and dirty sense of humor.  She’s taught me Korean slang and Korean swear words and I’ve returned the favor in English, and she gets a kick out of hearing about my adventures and exploits. I hope to keep in touch with her, but even if I don’t I’ll remember her for the rest of my life.

If you’ve been in Korea for years and still can’t speak Korean, that’s a problem and you should fix it.  Assuming you want to learn, let me give you some advice: there are free classes offered in various places, and these might be a good place to start, but  I recommend transitioning to private tutoring as fast as possible.  Seriously, it costs all of $10 a lesson and you can do them over skype.  Beyond that, use Korean every chance you get.  I talk to people at bus stops, in the gym, between classes at school, through texting, on the internet, etc.

There is no substite for speaking to new people as often as possible.  If you interact with the same group of native speakers, they are going to get used to your quirks and mistakes.  They’ll learn how to tell what you’re trying to say and they’ll figure out how to hear through your accent.  The only way to be sure you’re improving is by testing yourself with new people who have no idea who you are and have never spoken to you before.

Dating

Romantic interactions have been a pretty big part of my stay in Korea; they have helped me get to know the language and culture better, and have contributed massively to my positive feelings on Korea overall.  As such it’s only appropriate that I say a few (tactful) words about dating here.  As I mentioned before I am straight, so I can’t tell you anything about dating Korean men or what it’s like to be gay in Korea, though these subjects have been broached elsewhere.

As others have noted, there are some unique rewards and challenges associated with dating women outside your language or culture.  Miscommunications are commonplace, even when the other person speaks your language pretty well, and you will almost certainly end up either being a little offended or offending them at least once because of something culturally insensitive one of you did.

That said, one of the lessons I’ve learned living in Korea is that an amazing amount of non-linguistic or barely-linguistic communication can happen when two or more people are motivated to get a point across.  This goes for people who just want to be friends as well as for people who want to rip each other’s clothes off.  If you’re into her and she’s into you, then I doubt either of you will have too much trouble figuring that out.

Which brings me to another point, one I think it is important to stress: in my experience, Korean women are just sexually normal people with sexually normal appetites.  You may have had your expectations molded by…erm…certain videos that can be found on various corners of the internet.  If so, then you may imagine Korean women will be either completely submissive in the face of sexual advances or, in the memorable words of a friend, “sex-crazed dragon-ladies”.  They are neither, and if I could pass on a pro tip here, I’d say it’s usually not a good idea to take your cues from porn.

The bottom line is that there are few surprises waiting for you behind closed doors.  Like anywhere else every person is different, and I have been involved with girls who range from very conservative and deferential all the way to career-driven-alpha-female types.  I recommend dating Koreans not because it’s some extremely exotic new experience, but because Korean women are attractive and affectionate and fun to interact with.  You know, pretty much the same reasons you date anyone.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you're trying to achieve transcendence through your guitar.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you’re trying to achieve musical transcendence.

If you do choose to date outside the group of foreigners, though, you’ll see a side of Korean culture that’s hard to get any other way.  Plus, as a bonus, you’ll most likely become very motivated to practice Korean.

Teaching

As a teacher your job is to build structures of information in the brain of another person.  When it comes to language education you will need a special set of communication skills, the ability to direct attention, and ocean’s worth of patience.

Let’s start with re-learning how to use English.  This is far, far more than simply speaking more slowly, and involves changes in vocabulary choice and sentence structure as well.  Repeated interactions with students at different levels will start to give you an intuitive sense of the kinds of words and phrases someone is likely to be able to understand, and time spent in Korean culture will teach you which words have been imported from English.

Many Koreans, even ones who for all intents and purposes speak no English, know common words like ‘cheap’, ‘famous’,  or ‘early’, as well as unusual ones like ‘casanova’ (referring to guys who have a lot of girlfriends).  I couldn’t tell you why these particular words have been absorbed, but that’s been my experience.

You’ll also figure out how to phrase complex ideas in terms of simpler ones by choosing which subtleties and nuances can be smoothed away without losing too much of the meaning.  One of my favorite examples of this was when a pretty competent student asked me what ‘engineering’ meant.  Before I tell you my reply let’s look at one way I could have responded:

“The process of using scientific knowledge to create new technologies.”

This is a nice dictionary definition, but no one outside of the best one or two students would have understood it.  Why? Well despite the fact that ‘process’  and ‘create’ are common English words most students aren’t going to know them because the ideas behind them are actually fairly complex.  Further, most of my students would know what ‘science’ is but would have difficulty with the adjective ‘scientific’.  My actual response was this:

“Using science to make things.”

Now, engineering is a sprawling human enterprise which involves both using and creating new scientific knowledge and new technology.  Does my definition appropriately capture all that?  No it doesn’t, but you will have to learn to live with this kind of partial communication as it’s often the best you can do.  Importantly, though, my definition does capture a significant portion of the first definition’s meaning, and it does it with words almost all of my students will know.

Second, you’ll have to learn how to keep the attention of a large number of kids.  Attention is a pretty fickle thing, even in adults, and the best ways I’ve found to keep it are by being funny and using a lot of pictures and props.  Humans are by nature visual animals, so most any concept that can be communicated with the aid of pictures should be, and big, exaggerated, silly actions are easier to focus on than detailed verbal explanations.  None of this is a guarantee, unfortunately; there will be days when every effort fails, and you’ll go home emotionally exhausted.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Finally, you’ll need a healthy dose of patience.  If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language very well you know it can be an exhausting experience.  If you’ve ever spent much time interacting with kids, even teenage ones, you know it can be an exhausting experience.  Well, as a teacher your whole job all day is going to be interacting with kids who don’t speak your language well.

Does that sound exhausting?  It is.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think me age and position entitle me to.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think my age and position entitle me to.

Now, I really like kids, and I think I like them even more after having taught them for a while. But let me tell you: sometimes they’re going to frustrate you, disappoint you, and do things that are downright bizarre.  Other times they will be funny, affectionate, and surprise you with their insight and competence. You’d better just steel yourself for the roller coaster ahead of time. If you teach English for any length of time in Korea, you absolutely will learn to be more patient.

All Good Things…

Now I’m back in the States, and the experience has of course been bitter sweet.  I miss speaking Korean, and I’ve found out that my driving skills have atrophied considerably.  But I’m a lot more outgoing than I once was, I have many more interesting stories to tell, and I’m more confident.

Looking back, there were so many days in Korea when I was tired and stressed and wanted to quit.  If you choose to take the leap, you’ll have them too.  But I can’t remember any stretch of time during which I made more positive changes and learned more about myself and about life.

It was worth it.  It really, really was.

Excellence, Warped Incentives, and Mutually Assured Destruction: Edge 2013 Questions, III

33) Michael Norton worries that the spread of science news through social media will have two adverse effects.  The first is that much of what gets passed around in social media is not the highest-quality science being done.  The second is that the source of research gets incorporated by people into their judgement of its quality.  If you were watching Fox News, would you be more likely to trust the reporting on a study that was anti-gun or one that was pro-gun?  Probably the former, as it runs counter to the bias people associate with that media outlet.

Science, Culture, Social Media

34) Jessica Tracy looks at the high-profile deception cases of Jonah Lehrer, Lance Armstrong, and Dietrich Stapel to examine a deeper problem which is fundamental to human nature — that of hubristic pride.  Hubristic pride is different from triumph because it is not earned and instead acts as a cover for other emotional issues.  She thinks the solution might lie in developing technology that is better able to catch liars and in more rigorously fact-checking stories — especially feel good success stories — which seem too good to be true.  They just might be.

Culture, Psychology

35) Haim Harari lays out seven areas in which mismatches between science and democracy give us enormous cause for worry.  These include the fact that technology is shortening attention spans while problems are spanning longer time periods, that skills which make one electable are not skills which make one an effective leader, that many senior decision makers have not the slightest understanding of current technology, and so on.

Science, Politics

36) Bruce Sterling thinks that one thing we should not be worried about is the Singularity.  Many are familiar with those who predict a coming age of self-improving machines which rapidly catapult into superhuman stratospheres of intelligence, greatly exceeding our ability to predict and control them.  Sterling is not concerned, however, as there are no major signs that we’re any closer to self aware machines or nonbiological minds than we were in the ‘60’s.

Singularity, Technology

37) Vernor Vinge is worried about good old-fashioned Mutually Assured Destruction, which he thinks is distinguished by the fact that it is relatively likely in the next few decades and capable of destroying civilization.  To be as prepared as possible, we should plan carefully around the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction and study the early dynamics of the 20th centuries most destructive conflicts.  There are parallels to our current situation, he contends, in the tangle of alliances for example, and by better understanding what leads to global conflict we can try to avoid it.

Destruction, politics

38) Frank Wilczek is worried that many opportunities are not being seized upon, and cautions us to protect ourselves from the distractions of never-ending geopolitical conflicts and fundamentalism in its various guises.

Science

39) Sam Harris begins by describing the perverse set of incentives which face a hypothetical young man who has just been sentenced to serve time in prison.  He believes that misaligned incentives underlie many of the failures of businessmen, politicians, and humans generally.  One titanic challenge for this and future generations is building cultural norms, institutions, and laws which are saner and better than we are.

Culture, Policy, Economics

40) Lee Smolin is worried that many of his fellow physicists trying to solve open cosmological problems within the framework of quantum mechanics are barking up the wrong tree.  While quantum physics remains our most powerful explanatory theory, there are aspects of it which Smolin finds deeply dissatisfying.  He believes that making the next leap forward in our knowledge will require building a quantum physics which accounts for space and time.

Quantum Physics

41) P. Murali Doraiswamy notes that the American model of diagnosing and treating mental illness is being exported far and wide, and that this might not be a good thing.  A variety of studies have illustrated the immense difficulty in correctly identifying psychiatric disorders, and many are aware of how pill-happy America has become.  Given how different mental illness is in its manifestation, identification, and treatment across cultures, we should be worried about the global trend of using American (but still highly subjective) criteria and pharmaceuticals to treat illness.

Mental health, Psychology, Culture

42) Marco Iacaboni sees a real problem in how science publishing happens.  For the most part, the only studies that get published are the ones that show unexpected results.  What is not published as often are studies replicating other studies, or studies which fail to find any effect at all.  This makes the scientific literature a difficult basis upon which to draw conclusions, which is a big problem for those involved in the day-to-day of research science.

Science

43) Andrew Lih applauds the social-media fueled rise of the digital public square, in which billions of people have conversations with each and share content on a massive scale.  For a variety of legal and technical reasons, however, many people, both creators of content and those interested in studying it, are simply unable to access the treasure trove of information being generated.  The fact that such a potential goldmine will remain a sprawling wilderness for the foreseeable future should worry us.

Social Media, the internet

44) Erik R. Weinstein thinks too much has been made out of the pursuit of excellence, and that what has been lost in the process is a place for the sort of free-wheeling unmanageable genius which has lead to many of our biggest breakthroughs.

Excellence, Psychology

45) Richard Foreman believes that the act of picking problems to worry about is problematic because it focuses human thinking too much.  If we defocus for a moment then perhaps our minds will be able to generate a solution.

Art, Culture

46) Arianna Huffington is afraid that people are suffering from too much stress.  She makes the case that stress is a major contributor to long-term health problems and is expensive to boot.  Luckily, the cheapest solutions treat the causes of stress rather than its effects.  Practices like meditation and yoga, along with good sleeping habits, can go a long way in treating stress.

Psychology

47) Xeni Jardin finds the fact that more progress hasn’t been made in the war on cancer distressing, particularly because a lot of attention and effort has been devoted to the problem.

Cancer, Health

48) Christine Finn believes that enhances in technology might cause us to lose touch – literally.  In a world filled with touch-screen smartphones, there is less and less for the hand to do.  But she notes that there are many activities, like cooking, which are still widely done by hand and which provide tactile stimulation.

Fundamental Science and Myths about Men: Edge 2013 Questions, II

Every year John Brockman tries to reach the Edge of human knowledge by asking lots of the world’s best minds the same question and then compiling their answers.  This year the question is ‘what should really worry us’, and I’m reading through them, writing summaries as I go.  Here are essays 17- 32.

17) Nicholas Carr notes that technology is becoming faster and faster and that humans are consequently becoming accustomed to less and less time waiting — especially now that our phones are powerful computers as well.  He speculates that this could have a negative impact on both the cultural and social level, because many deep human experiences require time to cultivate, understand, and appreciate.  A deficit in patience could rob many of us of some of the most profound aspects of life.


Psychology, Technology, Culture

18) Kevin Kelly  says that we are not worried enough about what will happen when underpopulation becomes a problem.  Everyone has heard about the dangers of having too many people and not enough resources, but the prospect of not having enough people to drive an economy and help the aging is also a scary, and less well-understood, problem.  Statistics from many countries, both in the developing and developed worlds, shows that fertility rates are dropping, and we should be concerned.

Fertility, Economics

17) Lisa Randall is worried that we’ll stop doing the kinds of experiments which require long-term planning and big funds but which also probe the deepest mysteries of the universe.  She passionately argues that knowing how things really are is a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

Physics, Science

18) Evgeny Morozov thinks that we may craft technology that’s too smart for our own good.  He reminds us that not all problems need a “smart” solution, and asks us to consider what might be lost in a world where smartphone apps and games ensured that everyone recycled, but at the expense of reaching these same people through the moral force of arguments.

Psychology, Technology

19) J. Craig Venter believes that a combination of poor sanitation, improper use of antibiotics, and growing numbers of unvaccinated people (among other things) could lead to an outbreak of novel strains of infectious diseases against which there are no current defenses.

Medicine, Biology

20) Adrian Kreye thinks that a desire for catharsis — hardwired into us and at the foundation of our enjoyment of art, music, literature — is also antithetical to rational thought.  While we probably can’t change something as deeply wired as the near-ecstatic release of tension, if we understand what’s happening, we can avoid falling into a trap of escapism.

Art, Culture, Literature, Psychology

21) Terry Gilliam claims to have stopped asking questions, choosing instead to ‘marvel stupidly’ at the world.

Uncategorized

22) Jennifer Jacquet fears what she calls the “anthropocebo affect”.  Two seemingly unrelated facts are drawn upon for insight: one, that pain and illness can sometimes be relieved when the patient merely believes they’ve been given medicine; and two, humans have recently become a global geologic force.  She believes that knowledge of human influence in global climate will engender apathy, a perception of the destruction we cause as somehow inevitable.

Psychology, Climate Change, Culture

24) Hans Ulrich Obrist is concerned about extinction on two different levels.  The first is more well-known, and is simply the good-’ol-fashioned annihilation of humans.  The second is more subtle cultural extinction resulting from global homogenization.  He discusses a number of different artists who are fighting against these two types of extinction through their work.

Art, Culture

25) Robert Sapolsky believes that free will is a myth and that some combination of genetics, environment, randomness, and unknown-but-not-free-will variables completely decide what a person is and does.  But it’s really hard to feel like free will doesn’t exist, even armed with this knowledge, and thus our attitudes are still subtly out of alignment with the facts.  It is this difficulty that should worry us.

Neuroscience, Philosophy

26) Katy Jeffrey is not as excited about the prospect of ending death as many others are.  She believes that death is there for a reason and that it has served us well.  It is an integral part of the process by which humans improve from one generation to the next, and she asks us to consider a world in which ten generations (or more) of humans were competing for the same resources, and in which attitudes/mindsets might be half a millennia old.

Death, Aging, Science,

27) Lawrence Krauss discusses two possible reasons we may never be able to answer certain fundamental questions in physics.  The first is that modern physical theory predicts an infinite number of universes beyond our ability to explore.  Should the laws of physics be probabilistic, we stand little chance of finding this out if we can only explore one universe (our own) out of the many.  The second is that, because the universe is expanding away from us, the amount of universe we can explore is shrinking all the time.  The longer we wait, the less of nature’s secrets we’ll be able to discover.  He isn’t too worried though; there’s plenty to keep us chewing on for a long while.

Physics, Science

28) Tim O’reilly draws on his classics background to apply lessons from the fall of Rome to the modern world.  He sees in certain parts of American religion and politics the same sort of superstitious thinking that lead to the dark ages.  Should anti-science win the day, what might the consequences be?  Today’s world is different in a key respect from the world in Roman times, in that we very nearly have a global civilization.  If one falls, we all fall.

Politics, Religion, Science

29) Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran draws on philosophy and specific examples to argue that crime is more fundamental to the operation of many governments than is commonly realized, and that the ways in which political scientists examine modern governments is outdated.

Politics, Crime

30) Bart Kosko fears that, like the drunk looking for his keys in the lamplight because that’s where he can see, we restrict ourselves to just five probabilistic models because they are easier to teach and calculate.  The result is that we’re not modeling the world as well as we could be, and the negative effects may especially hamper the Bayesian revolution in probabilistic computing.

Statistics, computing

31) Timo Hannay believes that consciousness is the origin of suffering and joy, but that we have absolutely no way of telling what things are conscious and what things are not.  Though we know much about the brain as a physical system, and though we have powerful intuitions about the degrees of consciousness which different animals possess, neither is a very strong basis for analyzing subjectivity.  That we are so in the dark about such an important matter should worry us.

Consciousness, Philosophy,

32) Helen Fisher
thinks that not enough time has been spent dispelling myths about men.  After conducting a staggeringly comprehensive survey of 5,000 single people, she found that men compared to women were just as eager to marry, faster to fall in love, less picky in their mate choice, more likely to have very personal conversations with their partner, and much more likely to kill themselves following a break-up.  This differs markedly from the typical stereotypes American culture associates with men.

Sex, Psychology

Data Discrimination and Monsters In Our Brains: Edge 2013 Questions, I

It’s that time of the year again, when John Brockman attempts to “arrive at the edge of human knowledge” by asking some of the world’s most unique thinkers a single big-picture question.  Reading the Edge contributions is always a pleasure, but this year’s question is especially pertinent to me, because I’ve become very interested in a relatively new field called existential risk.  Scholars in xrisk, as it’s also called, try to bring all the modern tools of philosophy, mathematics, and science to bear on addressing issues which threaten the survival of humanity.  Extinction-level scenarios range from thermonuclear war to alien invasion to runaway-AI to out-of-control climate change.  I hardly think I need to stress this research’s importance; it comforts me a great deal that minds like Nick Bostrom’s are devoted full-time to making sure that we don’t all die.

I’m working my way through these essays one-by-one, and writing short summaries in the process. Here is the first round:

1) Geoffrey Miller worries that the West will have a poor response to what he sees as effective eugenics on the part of China.  To him it seems plausible that a combination of public policy, culture, and research will see the average IQ of Chinese people creeping up from generation to generation, leaving the West behind.  He endorses the sort effort that would allow us to follow suit (though, of course, he never sanctions anything like the murder of ‘genetically unfit’ people).

Science, genetics, culture

2) Nassim Nicholas Taleb builds on his previous work by making the case that many of our statistical tools are pretty well useless, especially when applied to finance and economics.  He concludes that the only thing which can prevent further financial disasters like the one the world is still reeling from is for investors to have ‘skin in the game’.  People make very different decisions when they will be directly harmed by misunderstanding risk.

Economics, Risk

3) William McEwan’s essay is extremely specific and centers on virus mutation rates.  He fears that we will not learn how to push viruses over the “error catastrophe threshold”.  Remember that DNA replication is not error-free, a fact which is part of what allows evolution and diversity.  Compared to mammals viruses have many more errors in replication which, coupled with their short life cycles, enables them to evolve much more quickly than humans.  But at the error catastrophe threshold there are enough errors that an organism simply can’t replicate.  We need to design drugs which get viruses there without harming us in the process.

Biology, Evolution, Medicine

4) Helena Cronin is troubled by the public reception of evolutionary psychology, particularly when it has ‘politically incorrect’ things to say about sex differences between men and women.  She writes with force that humans have an evolved nature but that, in the public marketplace of ideas, dubious opinions to the contrary are juxtaposed with empirical facts and little distinction is made between them.  Science is science and fact is fact, she reminds us, and these are not matters to be decided by public opinion.

Culture, Science, Evolutionary Psychology

5) Dan Sperber begins by pointing out that worrying is an investment of emotional and cognitive resources.  There are therefore good investments of worry (where the next meal will come from) and bad ones (whether or not the gods will kill you for wearing your hair a certain way).  In a fast-changing world of staggering complexity, he fears that humans will get worse and worse at picking the right things to worry about.

Culture, Technology

6) Martin Rees believes that people are simply not worried enough by existential risk; that is, but extremely low probability, high impact events.  These include things like nanotechnology, global warming, system-wide internet failures, and the like.  He notes that most people didn’t realize until after the fact how close nuclear war came to erupting during the Cold War, and that a host of new threats just as dangerous faces us in the next century.

Technology, Risk

7) Barbara Strauch is worried about a great — and growing — disconnect in culture surrounding the communication of science.  There is simultaneously a decrease in science coverage in general-interest newspapers, an increase in scientific ignorance in many places (most conspicuously in political figures), mountains of misinformation, but also an insatiable appetite for science news from a significant number of people.  The ramifications for science funding, science education, and public understanding of science is cause for worry.

Science, Culture

8) John Tooby’s sweeping contribution covers two vast sources of worry: the world outside our heads and the world inside it.  On the one hand, civilization has flourished within a wildly improbable bubble of safety, which could at any moment be popped by a gamma ray burst or a coronal mass ejection.  Meeting these threats will require forging a far more technologically advanced civilization that the one we have now.  Unfortunately, standing in the way of this project are the myriad evolved biases –groupthink, status-seeking, etc — which plague human thinking.  We must deepen our understanding of the human mind’s many failure modes before it is too late.

Evolutionary Psychology, Evolution, Physics

9) David Gelertner thinks that the internet has devalued the written word.  Because so many people can write and publish their opinions, the market has essentially been flooded with words, with each one getting less attention from both writers and readers.  Consequently the quality of much writing has dropped.

Culture, Writing, The Internet

10) Brian Eno notes that lots of smart people steer clear of politics, and as a result less intelligent people end up being the ones who do politics.  The result is the geopolitical mess which we see today.

Politics

11) Seth Lloyd compares huge financial institutions to stars and the fiscal meltdown to the formation of a black hole.  We should be worried anytime we see enormous institutions leveraging themselves to the hilt.

Physics, Finance, Economics

12) Danny Hillis says that more sophisticated search engines should worry us because they will increasingly be not a reflection of statistics but rather a conceptual model of the world.  Searching for ‘dictators’ will return a list which reflects the assumptions built into the search engine about what constitutes a ‘dictator’.  This could be very powerful, but it puts a greater share of the the task of deciding what’s true into the hands of machines; this could increase the insulation of echo chambers or serve to expose us to unfamiliar points of view.

Internet, Technology

13) David Buss thinks we should be more aware of the evolutionary logic behind the people we choose to pair up with.  In his view, a significant chunk of infidelity, marital dissatisfaction, stalking, and domestic violence can be explained by looking at the dynamics of dating up and dating down.  Men are more likely to stalk women when they sense that they may not be able to attract as high-caliber a mate again.  Extremely attractive women are beset on all sides by ‘mate poachers’ seeking to lure them away from current relationships.  None of this excuses lying, cheating, or abuse, but with understanding comes the ability to modify our own behavior accordingly.

Evolutionary Psychology, Biology

14)David Bodanis is worried about the confluence of two things: the long-term consequences of extreme wealth inequality and the emotional wiring that make fascism an attractive choice for the oppressed.  He invites us to imagine what might happen when only the rich can afford the kind of medical treatments that make them young, beautiful, and long-lived while the vast majority of people go on suffering illness and death.  The result might be Fascism-fueled retribution, but that would be disastrous for technological progress.

Politics, Psychology

15) Benjamin Bergen thinks everyone should calm the fuck down over the use of bad words, particularly when ‘protecting children’ is used as a justification.  There is nothing in the sound or idea behind words which makes them inherently bad; indeed, swear words derive their power exclusively from out reaction to them.  We should not be so worried about the possibility of children hearing foul language.   Language, Culture, Censorship 16) David Rowan acknowledges the power of Big Data, but worries that a ‘data underclass’ will not benefit from it.  Those without access to massive stores of information are at a disadvantage in a variety of markets.  Further, many of us are in danger of being unable to escape the crude portrait drawn by our online data, and this portrait is fast becoming what matters in deciding our prospects, even when it’s mistaken or outdated.  Something should be done to empower individuals in the yottabyte age.

Technology, Data, The Internet  

16) David Rowan acknowledges the power of Big Data, but worries that a ‘data underclass’ will not benefit from it.  Those without access to massive stores of information are at a disadvantage in a variety of markets.  Further, many of us are in danger of being unable to escape the crude portrait drawn by our online data, and this portrait is fast becoming what matters in deciding our prospects, even when it’s mistaken or outdated.  Something should be done to empower individuals in the yottabyte age.

Technology, Data, The Internet

Preceding The Meatless

“To realize dream of announcer I am preceding the meatless.”

You may be scratching your head at that, I know I was when I read it.  As an English teacher in Korea, I come across a fair bit of total gibberish when I’m grading essays, but this sentence doesn’t fit that pattern.  Instead there is something almost comprehensible about it.  The student is a bit advanced, so it’s unlikely that she just completely missed the mark, and from context clues it was obvious that she was trying to communicate that she wanted to be a T.V. personality.  But when it came to this line, nobody in the office could make heads or tails of it.

The confusion rests almost entirely on “meatless”.  What the hell does that mean?  We asked some of the native Korean speakers if there was a construction in Korean that would shed light on it, maybe a turn of phrase or a word that had several meanings that might get mistranslated.  Alas, to no avail.

The interesting thing is what my response to this sentence was, as it’s something I’ve been more aware of doing since I got to Korea.  After a few minutes of puzzling I began trying to model the student’s state of mind, asking myself questions like “what might she have been trying to say here?”  I was running a simulation in my head of a non-native English speaker with limited knowledge of the vocabulary she was trying to use.  What thought was in her head which, when translated into a language she didn’t know well, would’ve come out as “preceding the meatless”?

Humans perform this sort of mind reading all the time, there is a whole fascinating psychology behind it.  That I was doing it isn’t noteworthy, but that I’ve become so much more aware of it is.   Experiences like reading this student’s essay are further supplemented by my day-to-day encounters outside the classroom.  My Korean is passable but I’m far from fluent, so in many of my interactions I’m forced to piece the message together from both nonverbal and environmental clues.

As a fairly articulate person who has been surrounded by other articulate people for most of my life, this is a skill that needed to be sharpened a little bit.  These days I feel like my awareness of subtext has heightened and I have a richer vocabulary for modeling other people’s mental states.  The trick will be holding on to what I’ve learned when I’m in a situation where everyone speaks English, especially if they are also articulate.  Bonus points if I can smoothly integrate it with my preexisting verbal agility.

Leaving aside the linguistic consideration, there is also the more general point that teaching requires a lot of metacognitive sensitivity.  That my students are non-native English speakers adds an interesting twist, but I think all teachers have to do this to a certain extent.

If you’re a math genius turned engineer, your job is to take your high-octane math knowledge and build a bridge or a space shuttle.  But if you’re a math teacher, your job is to take knowledge structures in your brain and transfer them to another brain.  Not only do you have to understand math, you need a secondary knowledge of where the sticking points might be for someone else.  It isn’t enough to know what an integral is, you need to know why someone else might not be able to make sense of it.  This is something about the profession I didn’t appreciate until I became a teacher.

While I don’t have any empirical evidence for it, I’d be astounded if teaching didn’t beef up a person’s empathy and ability to model mental states just a wee bit.  At any rate it’s taught me a lot about how my own mind works.

Skillshare: The What’s And Why’s

I recently decided to enroll in a class on skillshare called “Learn Anything on Your Own”.  Skillshare is an online learning platform that connects would-be teachers with would-be students via the internet.  I’ve perused MIT’s OpenCourseWare and digested huge amounts of information via blogs and websites, but this will be my first experience learning with an online teacher.

My plan is to write about the experience as I go along, but for now here are the motivations behind my decision to enroll:

1) I’ve been interested in self-directed learning for a while.  Since I’m now done with college, out on my own, and suffering from a terminal case of perpetual curiosity, investing some time in developing the skill of learning will no doubt pay dividends.

2) Many of my role-models, like Eric Raymond and Luke Muehlhauser, are autodidacts of high caliber.  If I’m to follow in their footsteps, I’ll have to go through the same crucible of self-education.

3) The revolution in online learning is something I’m interested in and encouraged  by.  This class will give me a little bit more experience in one way that this development is unfolding.

4) I know the teacher, Dale Stephens, and I know that self-learning is something he is very good at.  I’m eager to soak up information from someone who is more skilled than me.

I have chosen to study philosophy of science during the month-long course.  There isn’t any profound reason for this.  Philsci is where my studies were when I enrolled, and because my interests are mostly in fields of knowledge as opposed to hands-on skills, philsci is as good a place to learn how to learn as anywhere else.

Additionally, I’ve long been interested in science and have often touted it as the best way of knowing things, period.  Given this, it’s only prudent that I spend some time learning about the macrostructure of the scientific process, the various descriptive/normative perspectives on science, and of course the myriad criticisms which have been aimed at scientific knowledge.