Cryonics

Cryonics means freezing someone when they die, so they can be revived with better medical technology in the future.

Another way of saying this is that cryonicists disagree with the legal definition of death. Someone is not dead when their heart has stopped beating, for example. Rather, they are dead when it is impossible – even in principle – to revive someone in their current form. This is known as the ‘information-theoretic criterion of death‘.1 You cannot rearrange a pile of bones into the person they once were, but you can, in principle, revive someone whose heart stopped beating two minutes ago.

Cryonics seems like an obviously good bet. If you don’t sign up to it, you are certainly dead, whether or not cryonics works. If you sign up for cryonics, there are two possibilities: either cryonics doesn’t work, in which case you die, but that would’ve happened if you didn’t sign up to it anyway. Or cryonics does work, then you live. So the only way you could live beyond your natural lifespan is if you sign up to cryonics: by not signing up for it, you are guaranteed permanent death. If you value life, the only rational course of action, therefore, is to sign up to cryonics.

If the above is correct, it is rational to not sign up for cryonics only if:

  1. You believe that P = 0, i.e. cryonics will never work;
  2. You prefer being dead to being alive.

Cryonics will probably work

Freezing biological matter to preserve it (so that when rewarmed, it functions again) has worked already, in smaller cases. It has worked with a rabbit kidney2, which was frozen, rewarmed, transplanted into a new rabbit and functioned normally. It has also worked with, according to Ralph Merkle, “very early human embryos, sperm, skin, bone, red and white blood cells, bone marrow, and others”. There are also well-known cases where people who have been dead for a long period of time were revived, e.g. because they fell into a frozen lake.3 This implies that cryonic freezing has a prima facie chance of working.

Nonetheless, if you talk to the average person – even doctors – about cryonics, they are sceptical. The most common reason for doctors to be sceptical is that cryonics hasn’t been validated using clinical trials, and doctors are, rightly, sceptical of things that haven’t been validated in that way. But cryonics requires a longer time horizon than most clinical trials. We won’t know whether it works for at least 50 years.

We are faced with a bet: will medical technologies in the future will become advanced enough to repair damage to human bodies that we don’t currently know how to deal with? And will cryopreservation keep us in a treatable state until then?

I don’t know of an exact value for P, the probability that cryonics works, but we can confidently state that it’s non-zero. Highly intelligent people are choosing to be cryonically preserved, freezing seems prima facie a good way to preserve people, and medical technology is advancing fast at an accelerating rate.

We should value life

Preferring death to life seems absurd, but it is the source of most people’s distaste for cryonics. People say things like:

  • Death is part of the natural order. It’s a good thing. We shouldn’t fight it.4
  • Life wouldn’t be beautiful if we lived forever. Death makes things beautiful.
  • Living forever would suck: you’d get old, and demented, and weak, but have to go on living in this miserable state.

The third point seems like the most reasonable one. It’d be no fun to be alive and decrepit, because you couldn’t enjoy anything. I’m not worried about this, though: if medical science becomes advanced enough to revive frozen humans, it’s likely good enough to reverse the bad effects of aging too. And if it isn’t, we should remain frozen until it is.

More generally, I find the pro-death arguments baffling. If people really believed that death was good, they wouldn’t cry at funerals, or be sad when their friends died. Nobody wants their family and friends to die. All the cliches about death making life beautiful are just advanced rationalisations for something that’s awful, and bad, and should be stopped.

Paying for a cryonic insurance policy seems like a sane thing to do. It may seem a little crazy, but so did flying across continents in a giant metal container once.

Further reading

Merkle on cryonics

LessWrong’s cryonics wiki

Robin Hanson on cryonics

What is your life worth?’, John Broome

——–

  1. “A person is dead according to the information-theoretic criterion if their memories, personality, hopes, dreams, etc. have been destroyed in the information-theoretic sense. That is, if the structures in the brain that encode memory and personality have been so disrupted that it is no longer possible in principle to restore them to an appropriate functional state, then the person is dead. If the structures that encode memory and personality are sufficiently intact that inference of the memory and personality are feasible in principle, and therefore restoration to an appropriate functional state is likewise feasible in principle, then the person is not dead.” – Ralph Merkle, from here
  2. “ We report here the detailed case history of a rabbit kidney that survived vitrification and subsequent transplantation, a case that demonstrates both the fundamental feasibility of complex system vitrification and the obstacles that must still be overcome, of which the chief one in the case of the kidney is adequate distribution of cryoprotectant to the renal medulla.”
  3. Example 1. Example 2.
  4. Steve Jobs: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” (from here.) Jobs was a brilliant man, but he also believed that a fruit-only diet would get rid of his cancer, so we shouldn’t believe everything he said.
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Status

One hack taught to actors and politicians is to say lines while keeping their head perfectly still. It makes them seem more impressive.

This trick works because of status. Status is an invaluable concept for talking about human interaction. A book about acting and improvisation (Impro by Keith Johnstone) convinced me of this.

If you divide a group of people in a room into As and Bs, get them to talk in pairs, and ask the As to blink as little as possible and ask the Bs to blink much more frequently, something funny happens: the As begin to speak much slower, tend to stand straighter, and so on, whereas the Bs constrict their posture, look distinctly uncomfortable, tend to point their toes inward. In short, the ‘A’s are playing high status and ‘B’s are playing low.

In this sense, ‘status’ describes a set of behaviours. So a servant could play higher status than a king. (“Your Highness, that was rather stupid of you.” “But Jeeves, I thought it would make him go away!” “Nonsense, your Majesty…” etc.) High status behaviours include: blinking less frequently, speaking with a fixed rather than a moving head, open postures, pointing toes outwards rather than inwards, resonant voice, straight spine, slower movements, smiling baring both sets of teeth rather than just the top, qualifying one’s sentences less often, and many more. Try saying Clint Eastwood’s line ‘Feeling lucky, punk?’ while moving your head, then saying it with a perfectly fixed head and unblinking stare. The line doesn’t work unless you behave a certain way.

Status also relates to space. Servants bow, kneel, prostrate themselves, shutting off themselves from the space around them. A common way of humiliating someone is to attack them while refusing to let them ‘switch off’: drill sergeants will yell an inch away from a soldier’s face.

Grabbing the head or touching the face of someone, and not being rebuffed, is a sign of high status. Watch the behaviour of generals before a battle in movies, e.g. Aragorn. They’ll often grab the back of the head, or the neck, of a soldier when bolstering their courage.

You have friendlier feelings towards people who you can safely play status games with, i.e. whose status you can lower, and who can lower yours, without recrimination. Good friends can spend hours which consist of hardly anything except joking insults. Whereas you could know someone for a long time and still behave relatively formally, which means being careful to maintain roughly equal status.

One could see tragedy as the expulsion of the high-status animal out of the pack. It works far better if the lead is high status – notice how many heroes of tragic drama were kings/princes/generals.

Observe people at work and how their physical behaviours change when talking to managers/seniors compared to how they talk to subordinates. When talking to subordinates, people tend to make more eye contact, blink less, make more expansive gestures, talk with more resonant voices. This is reversed when talking to ‘superiors’. You can create tension by playing high status to ‘superiors’, which, if they are insecure, will make them ‘put you in your place’ by displays of domination. To make people like you, play roughly equal status to them.

What you end up realising, after reading Impro, is that no human interaction is without status transactions, even of the most minute sort. A common drama exercise is to have two people doing an exercise where they have to minimize the status difference between themselves. The acting suddenly looks ‘real’: the actors focus on each other, and the command ‘minimize status differences’ captures a whole lot of complex behaviours that the actors can perform without consciously thinking about – because they do it in real life anyway.

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Heuristics

One thing I have noticed about interesting people is that they have short, pithy rules for making decisions. The rules are short because they need to be memorable. And yet they often yield the right decision.

I collect such rules here. This is mostly selfish: these rules seem to work, so it pays to remember and apply them. Thus, if I think a heuristic is wrong, it isn’t included here.

It’s also important to note that none of these rules are perfect. For example, you don’t always need to work on stuff that would make your friends say ‘wow’. It’s just a good way of focussing on impact.

I’d love to collect more of these. If you know any good ones, please leave a comment.

The list is here: http://nabeelqu.com/heuristics/

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Ethics & Animal Rights

“The question is not, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

- Jeremy Bentham

Imagine growing up in 18th century America. Your family might own slaves, your friends’ families might own slaves, and it would be entirely normal to grow up around slaves. Most people did not worry about the ethics of slavery, until the Abolitionists came along and made it an issue.1

It’s probable that you and I wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss about it. Protesting would have risked social ostracisation.

In the same way that people didn’t think of black people as people until somebody else forced them to look at what was right in front of them, most people didn’t think of animals as worthy of moral consideration until Peter Singer came along and sparked the animal liberation movement in the West. It’s still a minority view. I grew up eating meat; my friends all eat meat; my parents grew up eating meat; and so on. Eating meat is normal.

This will eventually change.

The more you examine it, the more our attitude to animals seems logically inconsistent.2 Most people would be outraged if they were out in the park walking their dog, and some random stranger came up to them and shot the dog dead. But when it’s someone else killing an animal after putting it up in living conditions that amount to torture, we look the other way.

Perhaps, however, you would kill an animal yourself for the sole purpose of eating it. If this is true, I’m still willing to bet that you wouldn’t kill and eat a human. So there must be some important distinction between humans and animals, such that eating animals is OK but eating humans isn’t.

But what is that distinction? It can’t be intelligence, because otherwise eating infant babies would be OK. The obvious answer is that we don’t want to harm things that feel pain, and humans feel pain. But so do animals. If harming one is wrong, then harming the other is wrong too.

‘The circle of empathy’ has widened over time. Society went from only valuing the preferences of certain classes of people, and ignoring the preferences of other classes of people (brown people, black people, gay people etc.), to treating all humans equally. I think eventually we’ll come to realize that animals, too, should be included in that circle. There is no good reason to exclude them.

Further Reading

  • I highly recommend Peter Singer’s work. All of the above is basically an informal statement of his philosophically rigorous case.
  • A great exploration using the medium of short fiction is done by JM Coetzee in his Tanner Lecture ‘The Lives of Animals’.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer explores the broader questions nicely in his book Eating Animals.

—–

  1. A few weeks after writing this, I came across the late Aaron Swartz’s essay, ‘Against Reflective Equilibrium‘, which takes a similar line of argument. It’s a common manuever, so the similarity isn’t that surprising, but it’s still striking.
  2. Amusing example from David Foster Wallace (pdf):

    “It occurs to me that I had bacon yesterday and am even now looking forward to my first corn dog of the fair. I’m standing here wringing my hands over a distressed swine and then I’m going to go pound down a corn dog(…) I can imagine what (the swineherders) think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materializes at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon…”

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The Smears Against Edward Snowden Have Begun

David Brooks, writing for the NYT, informs us that:

he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school

and that:

he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years.

Jeffrey Toobin, of the New Yorker, writes that Snowden is:

a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.

In a really marvelous piece called ‘10 Things to Know About Edward Snowden’, Politico decided that the most important thing you need know is that “He doesn’t have a high school diploma”. No. 3 is “He wasn’t a friendly neighbour”.

These smears would be laughable, if they weren’t sad. When people have nothing intelligent to say, they resort to name-calling and ad hominem attacks. Snowden’s relationship with his mother has nothing to do with, well, anything.

This isn’t new. Whenever revelations like these appear, the media launches a coordinated effort to smear the character of the revealer.

Back in the 70s, a guy named Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the government had lied about Vietnam & dragged the US into a war that it knew:

  • It couldn’t win
  • Would kill many more people than they said it would

After the leak, the government went into full attack mode. They even broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. They investigated dozens of his family, friends, & colleagues, to find anything damaging, that could distract from what he was saying.

Another whistleblower, Julian Assange, received even more brutal treatment. Here’s another hit piece on him, again run by the NYT, filled with subtly negative phrases like “dwindling number of loyalists”, “notoriety”, “erratic and imperious behavior”, “delusional grandeur” et al.

The sad thing is, this stuff works. A lot of my friends are incredibly smart people, but when you ask most of them about Julian Assange, I hear comments like “oh, he’s a bit creepy” or “he seems really narcissistic”. People largely stopped talking about what Wikileaks revealed years ago, & now discussion of Assange is dominated by the usual cliches about him being arrogant, a rapist, etc. That’s when you know the character assassination has worked: when even smart people have forgotten about the real point.

As Assange himself said to CNN: “Do you want to talk about deaths of 104,000 people or my personal life?”.

We can’t expect the mainstream media to do a great job on this. Perhaps we should step up and do something ourselves.

Update: good discussion on HN here.

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Why I Run Marathons

A lot of people are mystified as to why I run marathons. So I thought I’d write about it.

It’s ‘endurance practice’. Getting through a marathon requires an extraordinary mental effort not to stop when your entire body is screaming at you to stop.

Why? The body can only store about 20 miles’ worth of glycogen (an easily accessible form of energy derived from carbs) before turning to other sources of fuel such as fat. So the last six miles of a marathon are agony. (Known as ‘hitting the wall’).

But once you’ve pushed through those last six miles, your mind internalizes the fact that it can do more or less what it wants, even if the body complains. That lesson applies to all sorts of areas.

(Related: By endurance we conquer.)

It’s joyful. Maybe this is just because I’m desk-bound at work all the time, but the sheer pleasure of moving outside compels me to run. I get restless if I haven’t done it in a few days. Most of us don’t experience this anymore: I only discovered it after a few months’ running. Discovering a new, reliable source of joy is valuable.

It’s a form of meditation. My mind quietens down after running for 20-30 minutes. Our minds need quiet time just to wander, generate ideas, etc: running distances is one way of doing that. (Paul Graham recommends taking hikes.) I don’t take any electronic stuff with me when running.

Emotional stability. You could think of your life as a ‘portfolio’ of different things: work, relationships, etc. The more things in your portfolio, the less impact each has on your overall ‘position’. So maybe you had a bad week at work, but you also reached a personal best while running. Result: stability.

It’s healthy. Everyone knows that exercise is healthy. Running, in particular, makes me feel great afterwards: I’m clear-headed and can think quicker, I feel more energetic, I sleep better, food tastes better, colours are brighter, etc.

It’s communal. I train alone, but the race itself is a communal experience. Thousands of you wait together before the event starts while music & trumpets play, announcers blare into their mics, crowds cheer, etc. It feels exactly like what I imagine going into battle to feel like, minus the fear – like your heart’s swelling. It sounds absurd, but is actually great fun.

Runners tend to be pretty nice to each other, too, since the marathon isn’t really a competitive sport except at the elite level. You’re only racing against yourself.

It’s an excuse to go outside. Related to the ‘joy’ thing: I feel terrible if I spend too much time indoors. I refuse to run on treadmills, because it’s boring and sterile. But being outside is awesome: there’s value in just observing things, whether it’s trees in a park or the architecture of houses in different parts of London.

It’s a massive ‘f you’ to mortality. I’m not going to be able to do this when I’m older and disintegrating. It seems worth enjoying now.

You can probably get most of these from other forms of exercise as well. I picked running because all I needed were some shoes to do it. It worked out pretty well, though.

The main thing to remember is that you won’t like it straightaway: it takes 4-6 weeks of regular running before your body/mind adjust and you start enjoying it. So push through.

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Good Ideas And Beliefs

My favourite thing about Peter Thiel’s lectures (via BlakeMasters), was Thiel’s question: “What do you believe that almost no one else believes?”

This is basically the efficient market hypothesis applied to ideas.

Think of the set of all money-making ideas, and assume that you have a market full of entrepreneurs who want to make money. All of the obvious valuable ideas are grabbed and those markets become saturated. Only non-obvious ideas remain, and many of those are grabbed, too.

The bar of difficulty is high: most things have been taken already. Only the ideas that lie in unexpected directions are left, and most people don’t take those directions, because they don’t look like they could work to the average person.

Think of it as a treasure hunt, where all the areas of the map that are:

  1. Obviously promising for treasure
  2. Not dangerous

are exhausted. The only areas that remain are the ones that either seem non-promising, or dangerous. The business versions of these obstacles are: “that will never work, what a crazy idea”, and “that’s way too difficult, you’ll never manage that without getting eaten” respectively.

And yet, some opportunities will always exist. The map is never exhausted.

You just have to be either fearless (to get over the danger) or unconventional (to go to the areas that seem unpromising).

A nice illustration of the ‘non-promising’ argument is from Paul Buchheit inventing AdSense on his blog. It fits the pattern: people thought it was an obviously bad idea and, in any case, probably too hard.

The great thing about this process was that I didn’t need to sell anyone on my ideas. I would just write the code, release the feature, and watch the response. Usually, everyone (including me) would end up hating whatever it was (especially my ideas), but we always learned something from the experience, and we were able to quickly move on to other ideas.

The most dramatic example of this process was the creation of content targeted ads (now known as “AdSense”, or maybe “AdSense for Content”). The idea of targeting our keyword based ads to arbitrary content on the web had been floating around the company for a long time – it was “obvious”. However, it was also “obviously bad”. Most people believed that it would require some kind of fancy artificial intelligence to understand the content well enough to target ads, and even if we had that, nobody would click on the ads. I thought they were probably right.

However, we needed a way for Gmail to make money, and Sanjeev Singh kept talking about using relevant ads, even though it was obviously a “bad idea”. I remained skeptical, but thought that it might be a fun experiment, so I connected to that ads database (I assure you, random engineers can no longer do this!), copied out all of the ads+keywords, and did a little bit of sorting and filtering with some unix shell commands. I then hacked up the “adult content” classifier that Matt Cutts and I had written for safe-search, linked that into the Gmail prototype, and then loaded the ads data into the classifier. My change to the classifier (which completely broke its original functionality, but this was a separate code branch) changed it from classifying pages as “adult”, to classifying them according to which ad was most relevant. The resulting ad was then displayed in a little box on our Gmail prototype ui. The code was rather ugly and hackish, but more importantly, it only took a few hours to write!

I then released the feature on our unsuspecting userbase of about 100 Googlers, and then went home and went to sleep. The response when I returned the next day was not what I would classify as “positive”. Someone may have used the word “blasphemous”. I liked the ads though – they were amusing and often relevant. An email from someone looking for their lost sunglasses got an ad for new sunglasses. The lunch menu had an ad for balsamic vinegar.

AdSense is now worth 28% of Google’s revenue, or almost $10 billion.

Finding ideas in areas that don’t seem promising seems pretty hard. One trick is to ask the question: will things still be that way in 100 years? If not, how should they change?

Google may seem like it will exist forever, but are you really telling me that people will still be using Google for search in 100 years? Probably not. If that’s the case, then something will displace Google – sooner or later. Why not now?

I said at the start of this post that the business logic mirrors the idea logic. What about ideas?

Well, think of a set of beliefs. Actually, think of the set of all sets of beliefs, i.e. a load of ‘belief-packages’. What era you are born in, and where, determines where you land in this set. (Being born in ancient Greece means that I most likely have a very different set of beliefs to someone born in the UK today.)

We know that every era in the past had belief-sets that had mixed proportions of true/false factual beliefs, or right/wrong moral beliefs. No society thus far has had fully-true-on-average belief-sets, or fully ‘right’ belief-sets.

It is improbable that our society has got there. So there must be some factual beliefs that we hold that are untrue, or moral beliefs that are wrong.

It’s worth thinking about what those are. After all, at some point in the future someone is going to prove some of our beliefs wrong. Which ones do we think those will be?

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What It’s Like To Be Racially Profiled

I’m a British citizen, and have grown up here most of my life. My parents are from Pakistan.

Every time I’ve been to the US, I’ve been pulled aside from all the other people going through passport control, and ordered into a waiting room. Once it was both me and my little brother, who was 14 at the time. (This hasn’t happened to me anywhere other than the US.)

After a long flight, I’m usually in a semi-comatose state, my ears buzzing slightly. I don’t sleep well on planes, so I’m very tired. I trudge slowly along in the queues. Finally, I get to the gate and hand the officer my passport.

Since you know what’s coming, you try and look as ‘normal’ as possible: smile a bit and otherwise maintain a neutral expression. The usual routine, of course, is that they stamp your passport and hand it back, at which point you gladly reclaim your stuff and head out to meet whoever you’re meeting.

Instead, he (it’s usually a he) looks at you. You look back evenly. He then gets out, walks over to an officer standing behind the booth, hands over your passport to him, mutters a few things, comes back, and tells you to follow the officer.

The people behind you in the queue notice, which is annoying, because now you feel like you’ve done something wrong, even though you haven’t. Your heart sinks. You’re really tired and just want to go to bed, but instead you’ve got the prospect of a 3 hour wait ahead of you.

You follow the officer. If you’re feeling particularly annoyed, you ask where you’re being taken. The reply: ‘Just follow me, sir.’

The officers wherever I’ve been in the US have been pretty rude and unfriendly.

He takes you to a large-ish waiting room with a bunch of black seats in rows, tells you sit down, and hands your passport to the officers behind the desk. There are some other people in the waiting room, all identifiably ‘foreign’. Some mother in a headscarf with her kid.

There’s usually someone looking upset while an officer examines the contents of their suitcase in great detail, before taking it out and putting it aside, or just throwing the thing to the floor. They’re gonna have to repack all of that.

You wait awhile, looking expectant. Presumably you’ve been brought here for a reason.

If you’re lucky, you kept a book on you, so you read. Otherwise, you watch the people, and hope your name gets called.

An hour passes. You are seriously annoyed. No one has told you why you’re here. Summoning up some courage, you stand up and walk over to the desk (the others look at you). You ask the officer why you’re here. She orders you – loudly enough for everyone to hear – to sit down and they’ll be with you shortly, sir.

You’re tired as hell. You’re also really angry. A little embarrassed, too. Part of you wants to argue, but it’d be pointless, so you don’t.

You wait, and you wait, and you wait. You think about everything. You go over memories. You smile at the kid a few seats away playing on a Nintendo DS. You wait some more. Your ears are buzzing. It’s indescribably monotonous and stuffy. You wish you hadn’t come.

3 hours later (meanwhile, your phone is out of battery and your aunt is waiting outside for you, convinced you’re dead because your plane landed 4 hours ago and she’s a worrier), someone behind the desk says your name. You go over.

They ask you a few questions. Sometimes they take you into a bare side room with only a table and two chairs, and sometimes it’s just standing at the main desk.

Why are you here? What’s your business here? Who are you seeing? How long have you known them? Where do you work? Did you go to university? What did you study? Why that? Have you ever been to Pakistan? Were you in the military over there? Have you been to the US before?

I’ve been asked all of the above.

You answer in a monotone, trying to sound as English as possible. You keep the sarcasm out of your voice.

Eventually, they stamp your passport and you are escorted out.

Welcome to America.

(Originally on Quora.)

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Near-Far Bias

Apparently:

  • People display stronger preferences for eating an apple over a candy bar if this takes place in a week’s time, compared to today;
  • People tend to explain their own actions situationally, and others’ actions by dispositionsHe tripped over a rock because he’s careless, I tripped over a rock because it was placed really stupidly
  • Employees are less likely to see the same policy as desirable if it’s going to be implemented tomorrow, as opposed to the distant future;
  • People negotiate better if the outcome of the negotiation isn’t going to take effect for several months, compared to if it will take effect tomorrow.

These are all examples of near-far bias, or , as the psychologists call it, ‘construal level theory’.

The idea is that humans process things that are ‘near’ differently from things that are further away. The farther away an experience is in time, for example, the more abstractly we tend to think of it. Whereas the nearer something is in time, the more concrete and local our reasoning is. The same goes for ‘nearness’ in space.

It’s a powerful idea. Correspondence bias, for example, becomes a special case: my beliefs are ‘near’ (I see them in great detail), whereas someone else’s beliefs are ‘far’. I explain my beliefs by detailed context, argumentation and reasoning, whereas someone else’s beliefs are seen as instances of cruder, higher-level traits such as social background, ‘conservatism’ and so on.

This heuristic can be manipulated for signalling purposes.

Why should smoking be ‘artistic’? Why do religions sometimes mandate growing beards?

I’ve noticed that the really great religious leaders I’ve met have usually been very funny, happy people. Whereas the foot soldiers are, more often than not, solemn and not much fun. There’s nothing in the scriptures to say that you have to be that way, so it’s probably signalling behaviour. Which explains why the leaders don’t have to do it – because they know the essence of their religion.

The ideals most major religions profess are similar, but the behaviours each encourage can sometimes seem arbitrary, e.g not eating with your left hand, resting on the 7th day, and so forth.

Ideals are ‘far’, i.e. abstract. Actions, on the other hand, are concrete and therefore ‘near’.

That is how religious hypocrites seem religious – they’re following certain observable behaviours, e.g. only eating with their right hands.

This also explains why so many wannabe writers are pretentious, wear large glasses, and so on, whereas real writers are far more interesting and diverse. The wannabes need to signal their writer-status, and, moreover, are more likely not to really want to be writers so much as they want to be perceived as writers. Whereas the good writers prefer writing, as evidenced by the fact that we consider them good writers.

If you want to be a good writer, leave the beret in the closet and just write.

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Things I Despised About My Education

I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all!…

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorised everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant…Everything was entirely memorised, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water”, nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

- Richard Feynman

I’m not a teacher by profession, but I had the chance to volunteer recently. It reminded me why I hated school so much.

I was teaching Maths to 16-17 years olds. The material was so sterile and boring; it made me want to yawn. But when I do Maths on my own, it feels like playing, exploration!

One time, for example, we were finding the stationary points on a curve.

It was reduced to a recipe you had to remember. If you were good, you remembered the recipe & could recognize when you had to use it: ‘OK, it’s this type of question. For this type of question, I have to use this formula, and this formula… OK, great. Now let me put the numbers in. OK, got the answer. Next question.’

You remember the formulae, pass the exam, forget everything, but get the credentials you need to go on to university. That’s what I hated about school – it felt like such a waste of time, learning stuff that I was probably going to forget.

My education taught me to value getting the right answer. (It also taught me to value prestige, prizes, etc.) So I worked hard at memorizing things, and anytime I wasn’t sure I’d get the right answer the first time, I’d be scared to try, in case I failed or made myself look stupid.

But I later learned that to get anything of real value done, you’ve got to be prepared to do stuff badly the first time – purely because you’ll be doing so many things that are new to you, and failing is just a natural part of the learning process.

A book I read recently, ‘How Children Fail’, by John Holt, articulates the idiocy of this very well.

Kids in school seem to use a fairly consistent strategy…it is answer-centred rather than problem-centred…

The problem-centred person see s a problem as a statement about a situation, from which something has been left out. In other words, there is in this situation a relationship or consequence that has not been stated and that must be found…The answer to any problem, school problem, is in the problem, only momentarily hidden from view.

But most children in school are answer-centred rather than problem-centred. They see a problem as a kind of announcement that, far off in some mysterious Answerland, there is an answer, which they are supposed to go out and find. Some children begin right away to try to pry this answer out of the mind of the teacher…the problem is an answer-getting recipe, a set of hints or clues telling them what to do, like instructions for finding buried pirate treasure…

Practically everything we do in school tends to make children answer-centred…right answers pay off. Schools are a kind of temple of worship for ‘right answers’…

I was a huge tinkerer as a teenager & taught myself to play several musical instruments. I used to be obsessed with Gould’s rendering of the Goldberg Variations and wanted to learn the piano, so I could play those. So I taught myself the piano and the whole thing was fun - no external expectations or answers I had to get, no ‘doing things the right way’, just listening to myself and figuring out whether what I was playing sounded good or not.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been going through a process of un-education: removing all the bad habits that school somehow implanted in me:

  • Being afraid of failure or embarrassment
  • Going after prizes and prestigious awards
  • Avoiding stuff I didn’t know how to do
  • Trying to get answers before fully considering the problem
  • Being uncomfortable with not knowing

One of the signal qualities of children at play is their fearlessness. They’ll experiment. Falling over is fine.

Our system should be producing more adults with this same fearlessness, who go after what they really want from the start in rational, systematic ways. Right now, we tend to produce ‘answer-centred’ people who are terrified of doing things wrong.

Some of them eventually figure things out and become happier people. But I know so many who’ve just given up. They end up becoming the middle managers in big corporates.

We need to find a better way to teach children, one that doesn’t kill their innate sense of curiosity and play.

Update: some good discussion on HN here.

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