Spontaneous Decision Making

Decision

This post is about my own decision-making habits. In particular, I don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths. Perhaps an interesting case is from a 2011 post:

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.

This example involved physical paths, but it is true for figurative paths as well. I can’t stand any repetitive task for a long time, including for things that I might like.

Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking:

  • World of Warcraft: 8 (out of 11) classes at level 85+; raided as tank, dps, and heal.
  • Diablo 3: all 5 classes at level 60.
  • Path of Exile: all 6 classes at level 60+.
  • DotA: every hero played (up to a certain version).
  • Starcraft 2: all 3 races to level 30.

In WoW, the game I have definitely spent the most time on, my two main characters when I raided were a Priest (disc/shadow) and Paladin (prot/holy), having all 3 roles covered. Even within one specialization, I switched out strategies all the time: one day I would stack haste, the next day I would stack crit, and so on. Even so, I was usually very indecisive about what to do until the last moment.

My blogging follows a similar pattern. I find it hard to focus on one topic to write about in consecutive posts, and I generally cover whatever topic comes to mind. Yes, I set a schedule of one post per week. However, I usually don’t come up with a topic until the last day. The topic for this post did not arise until yesterday, from the suggestion of a friend (whom we were visiting also as a result of a spontaneous decision).

Being too spontaneous, however, also didn’t work well. In 2011 I decided to blog spontaneously (see the first link). Largely due to indecision, I ended up writing only 33 posts the entire year, 20 of which were written in the first two months. By contrast, in the December of 2010, I wrote 38 posts. The current system of sticking with a posting schedule but not a topic schedule is working much better, as every once in a while it forces me to make a decision and choose some topic to write about. This removes indecision from the equation.

(Edit: Due to an inordinate amount of spam on this page, the the comments are disabled.)

The End of Faith

“What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”

the-end-of-faith

These are the bold words of Sam Harris, in his 2005 book The End of Faith, which may be better remembered by the nickname, Out of Context. Not that the material is out of context, but the style is direct enough such that certain quotes such as the above can be (and apparently has been) perceived in a completely wrong way if an attacker chooses to strip passages of their context. Apparently this very passage above has sparked controversy, primarily because someone quotes just the bad-sounding part (that we are justified in carrying out a nuclear first strike), and nothing before or after it.

Here is the full paragraph (p. 128):

“It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.”

This is indeed a troubling thought.

Overall, Harris’s book is far more direct than even Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which for the most part has a detached, academic tone. Harris’s tone is more dire.

More than Dawkins, Harris emphasizes the problem with the Western tolerance of intolerance in religion. Dawkins pointed out that there is an undeserved respect for religion. Any discussion of religion in current society can be dismissed as rude or offensive if the religious person deems it so. However, Harris goes further and calls out Western intellectuals who are religious moderates or even nonreligious for going along with and appeasing religion.

Also, since the passage above was about Islam, let’s be a little politically correct here and include something about Christianity (p. 73):

“Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily to the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who could have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”

This echoes a Robert Pirsig quote: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

Unlike Dawkins, who strongly cares about the intellectual dishonesty or delusion imposed by religion, Harris seems to exert all of his effort on the practical consequences (31):

“As I have said, people of faith tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man’s baser nature that inspires such violence. But I take it to be self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe. Because most religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors. If we would speak of the baseness of our natures, our willingness to live, kill, and die on account of propositions for which we have no evidence should be among the first topics of discussion.”

Even more on violence (27):

“Mothers were skewered on swords as their children watched, Young women were stripped and raped in broad daylight, then… set on fire. A pregnant woman’s belly was slit open, her fetus raised skyward on the tip of sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed across the city.

This is not an account of the Middle Ages, nor is it a tale from Middle Earth. This is our world. The cause of this behavior was not economic, it was not racial, and it was not political. The above passage describes the violence that erupted between Hindus and Muslims in India in the winter of 2002. The only difference between these groups consists in what they believe about God. Over one thousand people died in this monthlong series of riots—nearly half as many as have died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than a decade. And these are tiny numbers, considering the possibilities.”

The “possibilities” most likely refer to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

And let’s not forget:

“All pretensions to theological knowledge should now be seen from the perspective of a man who was just beginning his day on the one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, only to find his meandering thoughts—of family and friends, of errands run and unrun, of coffee in need of sweetener—inexplicably usurped by a choice of terrible starkness and simplicity: between being burned alive by jet fuel or leaping one thousand feet to the concrete below. In fact, we should take the perspective of thousands of such men, women, and children who were robbed of life, far sooner than they imagined possible, in absolute terror and confusion. The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not “cowards,” as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”

Addressing the claim that suicide bombing is caused by economics and not faith, Harris writes:

“The speciousness of this claim is best glimpsed by the bright light of bomb blasts. Where are the Palestinian Christian suicide bombers? They, too, suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more cynical and repressive than any that the United States or Israel has ever imposed upon the Muslim world. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam. This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim.

Recent events in Iraq offer further corroboration on this point. It is true, of course, that the Iraqi people have been traumatized by decades of war and repression. But war and repression do not account for suicidal violence directed against the Red Cross, the Untied Nations, foreign workers, and Iraqi innocents. War and repression would not have attracted an influx of foreign fighters willing to sacrifice their lives merely to sow chaos. The Iraqi insurgents have not been motivated principally by political or economic grievances. They have such grievances, of course, but politics and economics do not get a man to intentionally blow himself up in a crowd of children, or to get his mother to sing his praises for it. Miracles of this order generally require religious faith.

And finally, another great passage is the first paragraph of the epilogue:

“My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. Forsaking all valid sources of information about this world (both spiritual and mundane), our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance. Books that embrace the narrowest spectrum of political, moral, scientific, and spiritual understanding—books that, by their antiquity alone, offer us the most dilute wisdom with respect to the present—are still dogmatically thrust upon us as the final word on matters of great significance. In the best case, faith leaves the otherwise well-intentioned incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence. Even now, many of us are motivated not by what we know but by what we are content merely to imagine. Many are still eager to sacrifice happiness, compassion, and justice in this world, for a fantasy world to come. These and other degradations await us along the well-worn path of piety. Whatever our religious differences may mean for the next life, they have only one terminus in this one—a future of ignorance and slaughter.”

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the next century of world history. We are nearing a point where the progress of civilization can be abruptly reversed by a group of irrational agents, and our chances for survival will depend ever increasingly on the ability to not get ourselves destroyed.

Thinking, Fast and Slow; and Other Summer Readings

This summer’s reading list was a bit unusual, and the following books all have something in common:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
  • The Stuff of Thought, by Steven Pinker
  • When Genius Failed, by Roger Lowenstein
  • Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer
  • Against the Gods, by Peter Bernstein
  • Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes

Positive expectancy to whoever can state it first in the comments below (also, the people who would be able to state this know I mean).

Thinking, Fast and Slow

thinking-fast-and-slow

Very good book, recommended for anyone. It presents the existence of two modes of thinking: one that is fast and intuitive, and the other which is slow and methodical. It then goes through many cognitive biases that can affect making rational decisions.

The Stuff of Thought

See this post.

When Genius Failed

when-genius-failed

A fascinating tale of how a company went from riches to rags, based on miscalculated risk. I think it is worth reading even for a non finance fan.

Moonwalking With Einstein

moonwalking-with-einstein

A book on memory. I actually read this one in the spirit of the book: I would go through some pages on the subway and then, without using a bookmark, remember the page I was on. This probably doesn’t sound impressive, but without bookmarks I am terrible at remembering how far into a book I am. The experiment worked out pretty well: I often remembered exactly the sentence on which I left off. Recommended for those interested in remembering things.

Against the Gods

against-the-gods

This was my least favorite among the least, though perhaps it has to do with my previous knowledge of mathematical history. It felt too much like a history textbook most of the time, and when it attempted to do math, the explanation was very rudimentary. I think one is better off reading the wikipedia page on the history of math.

Coolidge

coolidge

It was a surprisingly interesting book, at least for the first half or so. Learning about Calvin’s struggles earlier on in life was awesome, but once it got to real politics, it became much again like a history textbook.

There are a few more books that I am going through (by Pinker, Harris, and Dennett), and I will post about these once I am done.

The Swinging Pendulum: Talent vs Hard Work

Last week we had as guest speakers IS 318 chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel and other interesting people from the documentary Brooklyn Castle. This was a highly relevant talk as we had a great number of amateur chess players in the audience, incidentally in time for the finishing days of our summer chess tournament. (In addition, Elizabeth and IS 318 students had visited JS before.) In the Q&A, there was an interesting section about the roles of talent and hard work. At dinner we discussed it more in depth, with respect to both chess and skills in general.

Elizabeth had some interesting things to say. A particular student played chess in a very creative and original fashion, a telltale sign of talent. For most players, however, hard work is far more important.

By far the most interesting point was about the amount of time dedicated to chess by some of the students: up to 20-30 hours a week. In turn, the fact that IS 318 was a relatively economically disadvantaged school was in some ways an advantage, as many of the students had nothing else to do. Thus they had an incredible amount of time to study chess. Their competitors from wealthier areas often had other extracurricular activities, and thus did not spend as much time on chess.

At one point the documentary went to the 2009 National Scholastic Grades tournament (I was there!), where IS 318 had a stellar performance:

The first place in the 8th grade section was Canyon Vista Middle School. Funny how life works, isn’t it?

It was also interesting to think about the distinction between areas where talent seems to play more of an effect. For example, child prodigies thrive in chess, math, and music, but not so much in literature, art, and finance. Perhaps the extra layers of complexity make it more difficult to do without specialized knowledge coming from long hours of study or experience.

My view was that hard work is far more significant, though I used to have a more mixed view. Last December I wrote a post on Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, a book which is in the same camp as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. These have probably influenced my views greatly.

Finally, an undisclosed party member gets credit for the name of this post. He compared the general consensus on hard work vs talent to a pendulum: It used to be too far in the talent side, but now it has swung a bit too much in the hard work side. So the question now is, is talent underrated?