The Stargazers

On this next world, the dominant animal phylum shared a remarkable sense organ: a forest of piezoelectric peptide nanotubes, sheltered in a front-facing cavity, to be subjected to deformation by the oscillating pressure front of a sound wave, producing an information-dense electrical signal carried to the brain and experienced as sound. In this the creatures were not so different from evolved humans, if superficially exotic.

But, remarkably, many species developed the ability to excite these tiny structures by an act of will. The reciprocity of the piezoelectric effect, aided by a fortuitous matching of acoustic and electric impedances, meant that the same electrical signal, when directly applied to the forest, produced the same oscillatory deformation, which in turn pushed the air from the aural/vocal cavity in acoustic waves. To the extent that the mechanical response faithfully preserved the information content of the oscillating pressure, the organ could produce that same sound. This was the only method of vocalization ever evolved on this planet.

The organ was not so versatile as even the microphones and speakers of our Earth’s twentieth century; we would hear in its song mostly an indistinct rasp and buzz. But to those properly equipped to listen—which is to say, those equipped as well to sing—the variety of shapes and textures was as rich as that of any orchestra.

At first I felt certain that this was the solution, the key development that would finally allow humane life to flourish. For how could misunderstanding occur, when to hear was to know the very impulses that shaped the words! What lies could propagate, when their promulgation was not merely ontologically but neurally reciprocal with their perception? Even the most adept liar knows the lie, and subtle cues slip into the voice. Every utterance would betray intent.

As I became habituated to the sounds, I marveled at the variance in voices. It was ages yet before the implications of this individuality fully dawned on me. Language did indeed develop and spread rapidly in the most intelligent species inhabiting this world, since neural commonalities played an even larger role than in communication among evolved humans.

But to my eventual dismay, I found vicious argument and deception prominent in the discourse of the budding civilization—perhaps, I was reluctant to admit, even more so than in familiar species! I studied these beings intently, searching for the source of the psychological defect that had overwhelmed their natural advantage of true communication.

It was not until a much later stage in their civilization that I found the answer to my confusion, in a place where I in my idealism had not thought to look. For all the lovely gradations of sonic texture, the distinctions among the sexes, the patterns of maturation of an individual’s vocal/aural forest and cavity: these served to drive individuals apart as strongly as the commonalities drew them together. The listener did not experience the very impulses that had driven the speech, as I had first assumed, but rather an analogue according to the listener’s own sense organ and neural circuitry.

This need not have been disastrous, had the individual differences been great enough that a layer of indirection between hearing and understanding was required, as in the vast majority of intelligent species. But for these beings, the vocal/aural system was deeply entangled with the rest of the brain, and the boundary between linguistic and abstract thought had vanished. Or, if there was a true distinction, then one invoked the other automatically.

Evolution had thus capped the individual variation: too far astray, and a mutant was unintelligible and itself heedless to the cries of its folk. This did cause some strife when long-separated branches of the species later made contact, but it was a bland and straightforward strife. The conflict in which each side sees the other as incomprehensible and monstrous is a morality play that you do not need me to repeat. The truly chilling folly arose from the barely-imperfect correspondence between minds within a society.

Imagine that, brimming with novel and nuanced insight, you made to convey your wisdom to me, but all that I heard was my own inner monology generating those thoughts. Without even a chance to notice the difference in inflection, I rounded down your nuance to my preconceptions. As to novelty, I either did it great violence in deforming it into the mold of my own worldview, or felt visceral disgust at the intrusion of an alien thought.

You imagine that you would be distressed at this misunderstanding. Now imagine it playing out across society, in every relationship, over all scales. Then realize that this is not the worst of it.

You see, there is a peculiar subtlety to this mode of communication. If you happen to come across a grand piano, try this experiment. Weight the damper pedal, so that all the strings are free to vibrate. Attack and release a key, any number of keys: hear how they are sustained as though the initial attack were held. But attend more closely, and notice the reverberation beyond the sustained tones. Now manually but slowly depress a number of keys, such that the dampers rise but the hammers do not sound the strings. Attack and release other keys, while holding these first strings open: listen to the sounds sustained on the open strings. You should not be surprised to find that harmonic overtones are sustained, the fifths and octaves with their small-whole-number frequency ratios. But keep in mind that these are not the tones as they sound on the attacked strings, but as resonances of the open strings. Finally, weight the damper pedal again, carry an ordinary conversation, and listen to the piano sing back to you. What of your voice remains? Is it sustained, or subverted? Magnified, or mocked?

Evolution had equipped the individual with protection from positive feedback, in which the reverberation of one’s own voice stimulated the very nerves modulating the voice. (Some interesting disorders involved the failure of this mechanism. An afflicted individual might be unable to speak without risking what you would call migraines, or might sing continuously, or might echo or amplify any sound they heard.) But our friends’ acoustic forests were exquisitely sensitive. Even in the act of speaking, a speaker could detect the reverberation of its audience. And because the feedback-eliminating circuitry filtered out exact echoes of the spoken sound, that reverberation was heard as a caricature, emphasizing almost exclusively the absence of some of the original sounds and the presence of extraneous sounds where mismatched structures were partially excited. And recall, please, that here “sound” is essentially synonymous with “thought.”

Ah! But this, you say, this must be a silver lining. Any misunderstanding is immediately and automatically communicated, and can be corrected at leisure! And indeed in the tribal stages of civilization the difference was often appropriately diagnosed and common ground was found. Pair-bonded individuals, whose sense organs were induced to become more similar over time (and were generally quite similar to begin with), could close an especially harmonious aural loop. Deliberate invocation of a feedback cycle became a ritual as intimate as intercourse.

But the discourse of broader society admitted little harmony, and a speaker could not help but mishear the reverberation itself. The visceral distress at misunderstanding was amplified in the discordant echoes between interlocutors, in a positive feedback loop that Nature had not prepared them for. The voice determined personal enmity or friendship in a few words. Politics was quite literally sloganeering. The best, most sensitive minds confined themselves to painful solitude.

The ultimate futility of their discourse lay in the thin experience of the individual, both Echo and Narcissus. The scientific and philosophic faculties were circumscribed, never to lift a mind from squalor, and thus the story ends. For how can you understand the fullness of a Universe which speaks to you only in your own voice? Every telescope is a mirror. Awe becomes onanism. The gaze of man casts a light; the eye of man sees it. The hand of God moves the stars, and not a man heeds it.

The Ladder of Abstraction

Even with my relatively strict link curation, I’d have been comfortable linking pretty much any of Bret Victor’s talks or essays here. All in due time, I suppose. I’d call him an interaction designer, if I wanted to embarrass myself. He’s very and diversely competent, and he’s ambitious. His goals, in his own words: “Revolutionize how people learn, understand, and create. Give scientists the tools to diagnose and cure the world’s ills, and artists the tools to create and share beauty in ways currently impossible.” And that’s just in the short term. Someone to watch, at the very least.

Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction: A Systematic Approach to Interactive Visualization looks kind of like it’s about the Manipulate[] function in Mathematica. It’s way more important, though. “To design” as the author uses it is arguably more “to think” than “to draw,” and “designer” is closer to “human” than to “one who professionally works with data visualizations.” (And the process he describes is especially important for scientists in both contexts.)

Book Review: How Learning Works

As promised, I review and point-by-point summarize How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman (2010), hereafter HLW as I scratch in futility at the sprawling length of this post. Cross-posted to Less Wrong.


The authors aim to provide “a bridge between research and practice” for teaching and learning, very much in the spirit of Practical Advice Backed by Deep Theories. They concentrate on widely-supported results that are independent of subject matter and environment, so while the discussion is directed towards instructors in K-12 and college classrooms, there are also implications for essentially anyone in a teaching or learning role.

Let me restate that a little more strongly: any student, autodidact or not, would be well-served by internalizing the models and recommendations presented here. Teachers have even less of an excuse not to read the book, which is written very clearly and without sinking to punchy popularization. This is basic stuff, in the best possible way.

Sure, there are more sophisticated ideas out there; there exist subgenres of domain-specific research (especially for math and physics education); you can find diverse perspectives in homeschooling communities or in philosophy of education. There’s even some controversy in the depths of the research on some of the points in this book (though for the most part the scope of disagreements is still contained within the boundaries drawn by the authors). But as far as most people need concern themselves, HLW is an earnest and accurate if not quite comprehensive account of What We Know about learning.

[I do wish there were a similar account of And How We Think We Know It, looking into common research techniques, metrics of learning outcomes, systematic errors to guard against, reliability of longitudinal studies, statistics about replicability and retractions, and so on, but this isn’t it. The book lightly describes methods when it sees fit, and my scattered checks of unfamiliar studies leave me fairly confident that the research does in fact bear the claims the book makes.]

The book organizes research on teaching and learning into seven principles in order to “provide instructors with an understanding of student learning that can help them (a) see why certain teaching approaches are or are not supporting students ’ learning, (b) generate or refine teaching approaches and strategies that more effectively foster student learning in specific contexts, and (c) transfer and apply these principles to new courses.”

The principles are

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and how they apply what they know.
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Hopefully these ideas are not surprising to you. They are not meant to be; they stand mostly to organize diverse research findings into a coherent model (see principle #2). And if many of those research findings are old news to you as well, I also take that to be a point in favor of the book, and I trust that you will understand why.

Each chapter begins with two stories meant to illustrate the principle, a discussion of the principle itself, a discussion of the research related to that principle, and recommendations that take the principle into account. The chapters are interconnected but stand on their own. If you don’t plan to teach, you might get most of your value from Chapters 4, 5, and 7. There’s some fluff to the book, but not much. My summary, though long, leaves out the stories and examples, useful repetitions and rephrasings, detailed explanations, and specific recommendations, not to mention descriptions and citations of the relevant studies. I do not consider it a substitute for reading the book, which isn’t really that long to begin with.

Before I summarize HLW, I’ll make a couple brief comparisons. Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham (2009) looks pretty similar, down to the format in which chapter titles ask questions which are then answered by Principles of Learning, followed by a discussion of the principle, followed by recommendations for the classroom. It’s written at a more popular level, with less discussion of actual research and lots more fluff. Only occasionally does it draw connections directly to a study, rather than use that as the chief mode of exposition (as in HLW). Each chapter does have a short annotated bibliography divided into less and more technical texts, which is nice. Willingham comes down strongly in favor of drilling and factual knowledge preceding skill. While that’s something I’ve approvingly polemicized about at some length, it needs a mountain of caveats. In general he optimizes (explicitly, in fact) for counterintuitive punchiness, and it’s not always clear how well-supported his advice really is. The organization and coverage feels haphazard to me, but where he hits on topics covered by HLW, he seems to agree.

The 25 Principles of Learning [pdf] from the University of Memphis learning group is a short document with a similar aim: a few sentences describing each principle, a couple sentences describing the implications, and a couple of references. It covers important points that HLW addresses only indirectly or that it inexplicably leaves out entirely (spaced repetition, testing, and generation effects, for example). It’s worth looking over to fill in those gaps. But it’s really “25 Important Findings on Learning”: it doesn’t give examples, offer very specific advice, or attempt to organize these principles into a causal model of learning. Consider them exercises for the reader.

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Hell Is the Absence of God

Another in my series of links to things that by rights you’ve seen long ago.

Some science fiction asks “what-if” questions about technology and society. Writers begin by imagining a world where the rich can afford to make themselves immortal, or where perfect surveillance becomes possible. Other works ask a different sort of question: how might an abstract concept manifest as physical reality? How can philosophy, mathematics, psychology, and relationships be shattered into pieces to be swept up and separately remade? If we call it “science” rather than “speculative” fiction, it is only because the author often invokes technology to illustrate an answer.

Ted Chiang is an author of short fiction largely of the second kind. And he’s one of the best. In a rare case of good things getting their deserved praise, his fourteen works have earned four Nebula awards, three Hugo awards, and many other accolades between them. Some of his choice abstractions: recursion, fatalism, entropy, parenthood, exponential growth. These might be shaped by lesser hands into clumsy, facile, or self-indulgent speculative reality. The better authors know that the answer to the “what-if” isn’t the point. Chiang uses the hypothetical more as scaffolding than as skeleton. Rather than take a didactic approach or stake out a side in a debate, he aims to portray nuanced conflict and explore human themes. Well, perhaps it’s faint praise to a non-genre reader, but these things combined with the freedom and imagination of good genre fiction are rare and effective.

I’ve revisited my favorite of his stories several times and felt a different response on each reading: Hell Is the Absence of God (audiobook), which succeeds on all of the above counts, and is additionally weird, dark, and uncomfortable to read.

It also reminds me that my above efforts to ascribe a method to his work mostly diminish it.

Exercise #2

An exercise in one aspect of the virtue of curiosity. Read Synopsis: Planting a Liquid Crystal Garden with the goal of generating as many questions as possible. Go to the previous/next synopsis and repeat. Default “What is X?” questions get full credit if they best address the gap in your understanding, but more specificity is often better. Better yet are questions that aim not to fill gaps but to reach beyond what is read and understood.

Notice what it feels like just before a question forms. Notice what it feels like to hold a question in your mind.

Extra credit: Let this feeling motivate you to seek answers to your questions, and do so.

Principled memorization

All else being equal, people tend to underestimate the value of drilling and memorization in learning.a It’s cheap and effective, and we should expect it to be undervalued due to the cultural forces acting on intellectuals across many domains. Below, I focus largely on the latter aspect, which is probably the most interesting and least important.

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  1. Equality here indicating that I’m not recommending real pedagogical practice, where motivation and engagement are also at stake. Also, my observation is directed largely towards otherwise proficient learners. There’s plenty to master before one gets to the point of worrying about things like this. Perhaps in another post, or several.  (back)

The Last Great Problem

I’d like to use your attention responsibly. To that end, I want to avoid spraying links to whatever’s recently hijacked my brain. When I share a link, I’ll do my best to make it a classic: a text I’ve had time to consider and appreciate, whose value has withstood the vagaries of the obsession du jour, my own forgetfulness and mental flux; something that changed my mind or (and) continues to inform my outlook; a joy to read and re-read. A piece of my personal Internet canon. Anyway, don’t get your hopes up.

If you’re anything like me, you might appreciate The Last Great Problem, an essay on mountains by mathematician Jordan Ellenberg.

Try more things.

Several months ago I began a list of “things to try,” which I share at the bottom of this post. It suggests many mundane, trivial-to-medium-cost changes to lifestyle and routine. Now that I’ve spent some time with most of them and pursued at least as many more personal items in the same spirit, I’ll suggest you do something similar. Why?

  • Raise the temperature in your optimization algorithm: avoid the trap of doing too much analysis on too little data and escape local optima.
  • You can think of this as a system for self-improvement; something that operates on a meta level, unlike an object-level goal or technique; something that helps you fail at almost everything but still win big.
  • Variety of experience is an intrinsic pleasure to many, and it may make you feel less that time has flown as you look back on your life.
  • Practice implementing small life changes, practice observing the effects of the changes, practice noticing further opportunities for changes, practice value of information calculations, and reinforce your self-image as an empiricist working to improve your life. Build small skills in the right order and you’ll have better chances at bigger wins in the future.
  • Advice often falls prey to the typical-mind (or typical-body) fallacy. That doesn’t mean you should dismiss it out of hand. Think about not just how likely it is to work for you, but how beneficial it would be if it worked, how much it would cost to try, and how likely it is that trying it would give you enough information to change your behavior. Then just try it anyway if it’s cheap enough, because you forgot to account for uncertainty in your model inputs.
  • Speaking of value of information: don’t ignore tweakable variables just because you don’t yet have a gwern-tier tracking and evaluation apparatus for the perfect self-experiment. Sometimes you can expect consciously noticeable non-placebo effects from a successful trial. You might do better picking the low hanging fruit to gain momentum before you invest in a Zeo and a statistics textbook.
  • You know what, if there’s an effect, it may not even need to be non-placebo. C.f. “Lampshading,” as well as the often-observed “honeymoon” period of success with new productivity systems.
  • It’s very tempting, especially in certain communities, to focus exclusively on shiny, counterintuitive, “rational,” tech-based, hackeresque, or otherwise clever interventions and grand personal development schemes. Some of these are even good, but one suspects that some are optimized for punchiness, not effectiveness. Conversely, mundane ideas may not propagate as well, despite being potentially equally or more likely to succeed.
  • If you were already convinced of all of the above, then great! I hope you have the agency to try stuff like this all the time. If not, you might find it useful, as I did, just to have a list like this available. It’s one less trivial inconvenience between thinking “I should try more things” and actually trying something. I’ve also found that I’m more likely to notice and remember optimization opportunities now that I have a place to capture them. And having spent the time to write them down and occasionally look over them, I’m more likely to notice when I’m in a position to enact something context-dependent on the list.

I removed the terribly personal items from my list, but what remains is still somewhat tailored to my own situation and habits. These are not recommendations; they are just things that struck me as having enough potential value to try for a week or two. The list isn’t not remotely comprehensive, even as far as mundane self-experiments are concerned, but it’s left as an exercise to the reader to find and fill the gaps. Take this list as an example or as a starting point, and brainstorm ideas of your own in the comments. The usual recommendation applies against going overboard in domains where you’re currently impulsive or unreflective.

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Origin Story

The first announced herself six years ago. In those days there was no cause for secret identities; the networks were the ones to advertise interviews with Emily Padilla as segments on “Miss Punctuality.” They would start by detailing their attempts to make her late to the studio–a phone call on Emily’s way out the door, a slow driver planted en route. The tension would build as the appointed hour approached, until invariably the host was notified of her arrival comfortably before the scheduled interview. Emily, of course, would always insist that there was nothing supernatural going on; just good planning, something anyone could do. The more she protested, the harder the media worked to instill a sense of mystery surrounding her “power,” as they came to call it.

Others soon came forward. They often withheld their true identities from the public from the start, picking up on the superhero analogy and doing their best to sell it (though always with a dose of irony), calling themselves things like The Runner, Praxis, Logorrhea. Some of them had limited success as highly specialized athletes, performers, or intellectuals: limited, because (as it soon became clear) their abilities lay in practicing well or following a strict regimen, not in any sort of physical or mental aptitude; highly specialized, because the abilities extended only to one particular skill, exactly as one should expect. (That is, if one skill arises with low probability, then the conjunction of two skills must be even rarer!)

None of these “powered” individuals got too much attention until Joseph Kurtzweil, nickname “Joe the Smile,” publicly endorsed Plackers floss picks in an interview. Thus began the gold rush. Where previously it had seemed these powers were mostly useful for jokes about how useless they were, suddenly sponsorships were on the table. Seagate Technology nabbed Backup for a rumored $100k/year. Those interested in trying (but, naturally, failing) to emulate his good habit would have to buy hard drives from somewhere.

Later came public service campaigns and speaking engagements featuring those whose abilities were less commercially relevant. Billboards with an intent Medic (a bystander who had saved a life in a soon-widely-publicized car accident): “You, too, can keep your CPR and First Aid certifications up to date.” The Giver started a consultancy. Eunomia, Taskmaster, Charger. Many emphasized that their powers were mere skills that could be learned–broken down into easy subskills and deliberately practiced–but such claims were widely understood to be mere marketing. Who’s really going to remember to plug in their phone every night, let alone keep a spare charger at work as a failsafe? No, but people would still pay to be inspired, or at least to have spent a lot of money on self-improvement for the sake of costly self-signaling, and would still get tangible benefits from the temporary boost in motivation following a self-help workshop. Thus these activities will proceed.

Meanwhile, a group of researchers has been working in the shadows, trying to understand the nature and origin of these powers. What principles could underlie both basically-superhumanly regular flossing and thoughtful gift-giving?  Was there a reason that Taskmaster had become so much successful than the others? It almost seemed as though he was absorbing others’ powers through some unknown mechanism. But one day he disappeared from the public eye, having reportedly gotten it into his head that he wanted to summit Mount Everest, and having hence begun taking the necessary steps to eventually do so.

But it was never our goal merely to understand the phenomena at work here, and rumors of our true research program have begun to spread. Some whisper, fearfully or scornfully, the project’s codename. Is it a hint? The origin, the mechanism, the individual? Or perhaps the elusive agency administrators were fond of the aquarium, and nothing more.