Spontaneous Decision Making


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.)

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


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


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


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


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.



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.


This is a review of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012).


Being an introvert in almost every way, I wasn’t expecting to learn too much about my own behavior from the book. Indeed, the personality descriptions and key features of introversion are mentioned in the book. There was, however, still much to learn about introversion vs extroversion from a societal perspective.

What got me interested in the book was a line from Amazon’s interview:

Q: Why did you write the book?
A: For the same reason that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Introverts are to extroverts what women were to men at that time–second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent. Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to “pass” as extroverts. The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and, ultimately, happiness.

I had never thought about this before. After all, introversion is almost a societal taboo: from the first day of school to the last day of one’s job, there are boundless social encouragements to be an extrovert—or at least to pretend to be an extrovert. I’ll go through some of the book’s main results.

The Team Environment

One of the most interesting points of the book is that extroverts are overrated in teamwork skills. Cain relates a game called the Subarctic Survival Situation, given to incoming students at the Harvard Business School. Individuals within a team are supposed to rank the items in a list of tools based on which would be the most important for survival in a freezing condition. Then the team can collaborate and come up with a team ranking. If the team ranking is better than every individual’s ranking, the team is said to have synergy and be successful. Otherwise, if one person on the team had a better individual ranking than the team ranking, it means the team did not cooperate well enough.

In this game, those who were the most assertive (i.e. the extroverts) dominated the discussions. As a result, sometimes when one person who may have had tons of wilderness experience speaks too softly, they are ignored and the team fails. An interview with a participant in the game:

“Our action plan hinged on what the most vocal people suggested,” recalls the classmate. “When the less vocal people put out ideals, those ideas were discarded. The ideas that were rejected would have kept us alive and out of trouble, but they were dismissed because of the conviction with which the more vocal people suggested their ideas. Afterwards they played us back the videotape, and it was so embarrassing.” (50)

Here are more unsurprising results:

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed. Yet studies in group dynamics suggest that this is exactly what happens. We perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types—even though grade-point averages and SAT and intelligence test scores reveal this perception to be inaccurate. In one experiment in which two strangers met over the phone, those who spoke more were considered more intelligent, better looking, and more likable. (51)

And yet more:

All of this would be fine if more talking were correlated with greater insight, but research suggests that there’s no such link. In one study, groups of college students were asked to solve math problems together and then to rate one another’s intelligence and judgment. The students who spoke first and most often were consistently given the highest ratings, even though their suggestions (and math SAT scores) were no better than those of the less talkative students. These same students were given similarly high ratings for their creativity and analytical powers during a separate exercise to develop a business strategy for a start-up company.  (51)

In addition, Cain cites studies which show that extroverts and introverts both make good leaders, but of different people. Extroverts were more effective when leading passive types, that is, those who did their job without exercising initiative. However, introverts were more effective when leading those who did actively try to improve work performance. This makes sense. Those who are more passive may need extra guidance, while those who take initiative don’t need to be bogged down by micromanagement.

The style of “groupthink” took its own chapter: “When Collaboration Kills Creativity.” Study after study show that ideas might be better if extroverts weren’t so overvalued.

Physiological Differences

Cain cites the work of Jerome Kagan, a developmental psychologist, who was able to successfully predict whether babies would turn into extroverts or introverts based on reactiveness.  Counterintuitively, it was the high-reactive who became introverts. It makes sense though, as the high-reactive are more moved by external stimuli, while the low-reactive are unfazed. Hence the low-reactives are the extroverts: they handle unfamiliar social situations with calm, while the high-reactives tend to stay away from such situations.

Some of the evolutionary principles behind the different behaviors are also explored.

In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system. One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye. (107)

The difference can be detected even in something as innocuous as noise sensitivity:

In another famous study, introverts and extroverts were asked to play a challenging word game in which they had to learn, through trial and error, the governing principle of the game.  While playing, they wore headphones that emitted random bursts of noise.  They were asked to adjust the volume of their headsets up or down to the level that was “just right.”  On average, the extroverts chose a noise level of 72 decibels, while the introverts selected only 55 decibels.  When working at the volume that they had selected—loud for the extroverts, quiet for the introverts—the two types were about equally aroused (as measured by their heart rates and other indicators).  They also played equally well.

When the introverts were asked to work at the noise level preferred by the extroverts, and vice versa, everything changed.  Not only were the introverts over-aroused by the loud noise, but they also underperformed—taking an average of 9.1 trials rather than 5.8 to learn the game.  The opposite was true for the extroverts—they were under-aroused (and possibly bored) by the quieter conditions, and took an average of 7.3 trials, compared with the 5.4 they’d averaged under noisier conditions. (124)


How do introverts and extroverts compare on academic tasks?

Introverts’ disinclination to charge ahead is not only a hedge against risk; it also pays off on intellectual tasks. Here are some of the things we know about the relative performance of introverts and extroverts at complex problem-solving. Extroverts get better grades than introverts during elementary school, but introverts outperform extroverts in high school and college. At the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability. One study tested 141 college students’ knowledge of twenty different subjects, from art to astronomy to statistics, and found that introverts knew more than the extroverts about every single one of them. Introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees, National Merit Scholarship finalist positions, and Phi Beta Kappa keys. (167)

The following contains what I found to be perhaps the most significant result:

Introverts are not smarter than extroverts. According to IQ scores, the two types are equally intelligent. And on many kinds of tasks, particularly those performed under time or social pressure or involving multitasking, extroverts do better. Extroverts are better than introverts at handling information overload. Introverts’ reflectiveness uses up a lot of cognitive capacity, according to Joseph Newman. On any given task, he says, “if we have 100 percent cognitive capacity, an introvert may have only 75 percent on task and 25 percent off task, whereas an extrovert may have 90 percent on task.” This is because most tasks are goal-directed. Extroverts appear to allocate most of their cognitive capacity to the goal at hand, while introverts use up capacity by monitoring how the task is going.

This speaks very true for me.



I stumbled upon the Myers-Briggs type indicator a long time ago, obtaining the result INTP. At the time I thought it was just another personality test on the Internet, but last week I heard one of my apartment-mates using his INTJ result to explain his views on a particular topic. After researching it for a bit, I learned that the Myers-Briggs type is actually widely used.

Of course, there are many caveats to the result, and there is much variation. In fact, just to confirm it, I tried different unofficial websites and ended up with INTP on all of them except one, which gave ENTP.

The way the type indicator works is that each letter represents a particular preference. The preferences, given as dichotomies, are given below:

  • (E) Extraversion – (I) Introversion
  • (S) Sensing – (N) Intuition
  • (T) Thinking – (F) Feeling
  • (J) Judgment – (P) Perception

After reading through some articles on INTP, I found that the predictions fit almost perfectly. Just to make sure, I checked some of the other types to make sure I would not fit those, and indeed it was the case.


(Credits to a friend at Cornell for finding this behavior on Wolfram.)

Here are some interesting or funny quotes on INTPs from various websites, some of which particularly applied.

[Site 1]

  • “INTPs live in the world of theoretical possibilities. They see everything in terms of how it could be improved, or what it could be turned into.”
  • “They are the ‘absent-minded professors’, who highly value intelligence and the ability to apply logic to theories to find solutions.”
  • “Sometimes, their well thought-out understanding of an idea is not easily understandable by others, but the INTP is not naturally likely to tailor the truth so as to explain it in an understandable way to others.”

[Site 2]

  • “They may venture so deeply into thought as to seem detached, and often actually are oblivious to the world around them.”
  • “They spend considerable time second-guessing themselves.”
  • “One of the tipoffs that a person is an INTP is her obsession with logical correctness.”

[Site 3]

  • “It is a bad idea to lie to an INTP.”
  • “INTPs cannot stand routine work – they would much rather tackle a difficult theoretical problem.”
  • “They absolutely love new ideas and theories and would never miss an opportunity to discuss them with other people – however, this never-ending thinking process also makes them look somewhat pensive and detached, as INTPs are perfectly able to conduct full-fledged debates in their own heads.”

This last point is interestingly worded and strikingly true. I debate myself all the time. I even play myself at chess. And the best part—at least once, I have played an entire chess game in a dream. Just a couple weeks ago, I also logically corrected some statement, while in a dream. (Well, technically I was talking to a person who corrected me, but given that this was in my dream, this meant I basically corrected myself in a dream.) I wonder what Freud would say about that.

The first site that introduced me to Myers-Briggs was actually this one, which lists celebrities by type, celebrities including academics, scientists, philosophers, writers, politicians, social activists, etc. In addition, the INTP page has a link to a comparison between Richard Dawkins (INTP) and Christopher Hitchens (INTJ). The comparison is pretty interesting (click to expand). [Edit: The site has a free MBTI test. With a sample size of 1, it seems pretty accurate as I did get INTP.]

Finally, I want to talk about the one ENTP result. Perhaps INTP and ENTP are close enough? On one of the tests where I scored INTP, a test that gave percentage breakdowns, the NTP were each 70-90%, while the I vs E was only 60%. I suppose this makes sense as for some situations, especially during time pressure, I forgo logic and use intuition instead (apparently one of the differences is dominance on thinking for INTP versus on intuition for ENTP). In speed chess, I basically play solely using intuition, unless my intuition tells me I actually need to calculate. Of course there are many other differences between the two. Overall it seems I may be both INTP and ENTP, but with INTP more active.

Is the Virtual World Really An Escape from Reality?

Or are they on a collision course?

Google Glass

The Role-Creating World

One of the most popular and successful genres of gaming is the role-playing game (RPG). In an RPG, the player is a character in a usually fantasy world, and is able to develop skills and abilities within that world to progress as a character. In the virtual world, one could grow more powerful or more wise, and take on more difficult obstacles.

Traditionally, these role-playing games—and in fact, all commercial video games—were played as an escape from reality. One could escape the loud, busy, modern world and live instead in a quiet, simple, and perhaps peaceful world.

WoW Screenshot 4
Screenshot from the game World of Warcraft.

One of the strongest effects of these games was to cause players to disregard socioeconomic stratification that existed in the real world. In the virtual worlds of RPG’s, everyone starts equal and has the same opportunities.

From an extensive CNN report on gaming:

A professor: “…people do not feel they have the freedom and kind of  their own power to change their own social roes and their own identities. But in cyberspace, people do not remember… your wealth.”

From a gamer interviewee, in the same report about the RPG known as Maple Story:

“It’s a game where you can make people grow and develop within a certain line of work.  …you get a feeling that you are improving.”

The anonymity of online gaming meant that players could ignore social and economic barriers in real life, and feel accomplished by themselves.

The Facebook Conundrum

The face of gaming was forever changed by Facebook. Instead of playing with anonymous players from all around the country, and even all around the world, players of Facebook games play with their real-life friends.

Screenshot from Farmville. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Moreover, many Facebook games have microtransactions, where players can pay real money to gaming companies in exchange for virtual goods or virtual currencies. In “older” style RPG’s, on the other hand, all currencies are in-game only and there is no legal exchange between virtual money and real money.

These are two big factors:

  • The veil of anonymity has lifted; and,
  • Real money is now able to affect your character’s position in the virtual world.

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is headed: into socioeconomic stratification in the virtual world, which was supposed to be the one place where players could escape from real world problems.

That is, in classic RPG’s, more successful players could attribute their victories to skill, knowledge, and effort. But in microtransaction-based games, the more successful players could be attributed to just being wealthier in the real world.

Diablo 3 and Marxism

Even in these microtransaction-based games on Facebook, the microtransactions can be thought of in terms of a state-controlled economy. Almost always, the company itself determines the prices of all virtual goods or currencies, and the company itself is the seller of goods. Zynga and Nexon are two examples of this.

Activision Blizzard took the idea of microtransactions one step further, and created a capitalist economy, where the players themselves sell goods to each other, while the company obtains a 15% tax on each virtual good sold.

Screenshot of the Real Money Auction House in Diablo 3. The $250 buyout is the max limit.

In the classic microtransaction models where every player who buys a particular item pays the same amount, no player feels ripped off or feels that the system is unfair.

But in the Real Money Auction House model, one player might buy a near identical good for half the price that another player paid, perhaps because the first player had carefully studied the market and compared options more carefully. The second player ends up feeling ripped off.

In this free market virtual economy, the stratification arising from unregulated capitalism has taken effect. Again, one doesn’t need to read Karl Marx to see what is going on in this virtual economy. The rich are getting richer by buying goods cheap and then reselling them for higher values, while the poor find it very difficult to start off. The poor have essentially turned into a working class. The Diablo 3 economy is very much akin to that of Industrial Revolution Britain.

The Future of the Virtual World

The virtual world began as an escape from reality, then transformed into a mirror of current reality, and then mutated again to a history of human reality.

If it continues down this path, then the virtual world of the future is not going to be the virtual world we saw in our dreams.

What we imagined virtual reality to be.

It will not be a place where we can set aside our real world and escape our problems for a few hours. It will not be a place where we have fun or meet people we would never see otherwise and talk about the little things in life without worrying about our financial position.

Instead, it will be an extension of the real world and everything in it. Those who are wealthier in the real world will have more options in the virtual world, and those who are poorer will remain poor. Ultimately, if virtual reality does not return to its roots as an escape from reality, people will end up escaping the virtual world as well.

White Moves First, and Other Deeply Ingrained Facts

You really want to 'check' out this alt text, right?

In my Math 2240 discussion section last week, I played my first game of chess in nearly two months. It felt like it had been forever since I last played chess. But considering how much I used to play it, I thought I’d slide back in easily. It turned out I did not.

There was one slight variation we added to the game. Instead of white moving first, we had black move first. This probably doesn’t seem like much. You would think that it is the exact same thing as a normal chess game, just that black acts as white and white acts as black.

But to me, I looked at the board and felt that something was eerily wrong. As someone who had spent a great deal of time memorizing openings, I am used to seeing certain patterns and positions on the board. This time I wasn’t seeing any of them. The piece colors and left-right orientation were messed up.

Because of the first-move switch, the game did not feel like chess. It felt alien, it felt like I was playing the game for the first time in my life.

Logically speaking, black moving first is not a different game. It is exactly the same as normal chess but with colors and left-right reversed. A computer AI would never know the difference. But for a human, there’s something odd when something you take for granted suddenly changes. It’s like you wake up one day and the Sun appears green. It’s still giving off plenty of light for everyone to go about their daily life. But it would still be odd. Odd enough that people would behave differently, even if they don’t have to.

When a fact as deeply ingrained as “White moves first” is violated, it sends a hell of a confusing message to our minds.

Does this apply to anything in real life? Other than for annoying or disorienting people, it seems not. It’s just something quite strange to think about.

Sleep Deprivation Is Totally Not a New Phenomenon

“If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be a live. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

—Henry David Thoreau, in Walden (1854)

Thoreau’s figures have an uncannily prophetic ring in today’s crazy (and sleepless) world. Maybe it is an exaggeration that only one in a million awake enough for effective intellectual activity, for after all, we all know a handful of awake and alert people. But it is not an exaggeration by much. How many people like Thoreau do you know? Probably not that many, if at all.

In the surrounding section, Thoreau blames sleep deprivation on clocks, schedules, and “factory bells.” O, how simple their lives were, you might say. For in today’s society, we must also contend with the TV, the Internet, and the iPhone. (And my econ professor.)

I made the argument over a year ago that several things can make us resist sleep. They rest in broad categories:

  • Chemistry: Consuming caffeine or other sleep-altering substances
  • Danger: Being threatened or in some state of physical danger
  • Interaction: A two-way interaction with other people or with a computer
  • Ambition: Wanting to achieve something and sacrificing sleep in order to do it

But only a few of these things can sleep-deprive us day after day, month after month. And these things as can be seen in the categories (besides Danger, which is short-term), nearly all come from conscious habit. Since habits are difficult to get rid of, this presents a big problem for sleep deprived people. Oh well. You can always just live with it.

(I’m super sleep-deprived right now, which may explain the incoherency of this post.)