Mar 27

How to act like you’re bright

This blog post is brought to you by a recent bad experience I had watching a 5-minute clip from Big Bang Theory on the recommendation of a friend who thought I might find it amusing.

Bleagh. This is supposed to be a show about geniuses? It’s not. It’s a show about a dimwit’s idea of what bright people are like. The slowest person in my peer group could out-think and out-create any of these sad-sack imitations of “smart” on any day of the week.

These actors are not bright, and don’t know how to fake it on screen. It occurred to me that I have seen this pulled off occasionally; the example that leaps to mind was Jennifer Love-Hewitt playing a bright scientist opposite Jackie Chan in Tuxedo (2003). She did a good enough job that I was later quite surprised at how relatively free of the ravages of intelligence she sounds in propria persona.

Ms. Love-Hewitt must have been at least smart enough to know that she should emulate the mannerisms of very bright people, and then set about doing it. After thinking about this, I thought it would be entertaining (and possibly useful) to compile some actionable advice for actors finding themselves in a similar situation.

Here goes a list of bright-person behavior signals which, while not universal, are very common…

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Mar 08

How to change the world in Zen easy lessons

This morning I stumbled over a comment from last September that I somehow missed replying to at the time. I suspect it’s something more than one of my readers has wondered about, so here goes…

Edward Cree wrote:

If I’m really smart enough to impress esr, I feel like I ought to be doing more with myself than toy projects, games, and an obscure driver. It’s not that I’m failing to change the world, it’s that I’m not even trying. (Not for want of causes, either; there are plenty of things I’d change about the world if I could, and I suspect esr would approve of most of them.)

Obviously without Eric’s extroversion I won’t be as influential as him, but… dangit, Eric, what’s your trick? You make having a disproportionate effect on the course of history look easy! Why can I never find anything important to hack on?

There are several reasons people get stuck this way. I’ve experienced some of them myself. I’ve seen others.

If this sounds like you, dear reader, the first question to ask yourself is whether you are so attached to having a lot of potential that you fear failing in actuality. I don’t know Edward’s age, but I’ve seen this pattern in a lot of bright young people; it manifests as a lot of project starts that are potentially brilliant but a failure to follow through to the point where you ship something that has to meet a reality test. Or in an opposite way: as self-constraining to toy projects where the risk of failure is low.

So my first piece of advice is this: if you want to have “a disproportionate effect on the course of history”, the first thing you need to do is give yourself permission to fail – as long as you learn something from every failure, and are ready to keep scaling up your bets after success.

The second thing you need to do is finish something and ship it. No, more than that. You need to make finishing and shipping things a habit, something you do routinely. There are things that can be made to look easy only by cultivating a lot of self-discipline and persistence. This is one of them.

(The good news is that once you get your self-discipline to the required level it won’t feel like you have to flog yourself any more. It’ll just be habit. It’ll be you.)

Another thing you need to do is actually pay attention to what’s going on around you, at every scale. 99% of the time, you find important things to hack on by noticing possibilities other people have missed. The hard part here is seeing past the blinding assumptions you don’t know you have, and the hard part of that is being conscious of your assumptions.

Here’s my favorite example of this from my own life. After I described the many-eyeballs-make-bugs-shallow effect, I worried for years at the problem of why nobody in the hacker culture had noticed it sooner. After all, I was describing what was already a decades-old folk practice in a culture not undersupplied with bright people – why didn’t I or anybody else clue in faster?

I remember vividly the moment I got it. I was pulling on my pants in a hotel in Trondheim, Norway, idly chewing over this question yet again. It was because we all thought we knew why we were simultaneously innovating and achieving low error rates – we had an unexamined, unconscious explanation that suited us and we never looked past it.

That assumption was this: hackers write better software because we are geniuses, or at least an exceptionally gifted and dedicated elite among programmers. Our culture successfully recruits and selects for this.

The insidious thing about this explanation is that it’s not actually false. We really are an exceptionally gifted elite. But as long as you don’t know that you’re carrying this assumption, or know it and fail to look past it because it makes you feel so good, it will be nearly impossible to notice that something else is going on – that the gearing of our social machine matters a lot, and is an evolved instrument to maximize those gifts.

There’s an old saw that it’s not the things you don’t know that hurt you, it’s the things you think you know that ain’t so. I’m amplifying that: it’s the things you don’t know you think that hurt you the most.

It’s not enough to be rigorous about questioning your assumptions once you’ve identified them. The subtler work is noticing you have them. So when you’re looking for something important to hack on, the question to learn to ask is: what important problems are everybody, including you, seeing right past? Pre-categorizing and dismissing?

There’s a kind of relaxed openness to what is, a seeing past preconceptions, that is essential to creativity. We all half-know this; it’s why hackers resonate so strongly with Zen humor. It’s in that state that you will notice the problems that are really worth your effort. Learn to go there.

As for making it look easy…it’s only easy in the same way that mastery always looks a skill easier than it is. When someone like John Petrucci or Andy Timmons plays a guitar lick with what looks like simple, effortless grace, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort they put into getting to where that fluency and efficiency is natural to them.

Similarly, when you see me doing things with historical-scale consequences and making it look easy, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort I put in on the component skills (chopping wood, drawing water). Learning to write well. Learning to speak well. Getting enough grasp on what makes people tick that you know how to lead them. Learning enough about your culture that you can be a prophet, speak its deepest yearnings and its highest aspirations to it, bringing to consciousness what was unconscious before. These are learnable skills – almost certainly anyone reading this is bright enough to acquire them – but they’re not easy at all.

Want to change the world? It’s doable. It’s not magic. Be aware. Be courageous. And will it – want it enough that you accept your failures, learn from them, and never stop pushing.

Mar 14

Autism, genius, and the power of obliviousness

There’s a link between autism and genius says a popular-press summary of recent research.

If you follow this sort of thing (and I do) most of what follows doesn’t come as much of a surprise. We get the usual thumbnail case studies about autistic savants. There’s an interesting thread about how child prodigies who are not autists rely on autism-like facilities for pattern recognition and hyperconcentration. There’s a sketch of research suggesting that non-autistic child-prodigies, like autists, tend to have exceptionally large working memories. Often, they have autistic relatives. Money quote: “Recent study led by a University of Edinburgh researcher found that in non-autistic adults, having more autism-linked genetic variants was associated with better cognitive function.”

But then I got to this: “In a way, this link to autism only deepens the prodigy mystery.” And my instant reaction was: “Mystery? There’s a mystery here? What?” Rereading, it seems that the authors (and other researchers) are mystified by the question of exactly how autism-like traits promote genius-level capabilities.

At which point I blinked and thought: “Eh? It’s right in front of you! How obvious does it have to get before you’ll see it?”

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Mar 09

Bravery and biology

I just read a very well-intentioned, heartwarming talk about girls who code that, sadly, I think, is missing the biological forest for the cultural trees.

It’s this: Teach girls bravery, not perfection. Read it, It’s short

I like the woman who voiced those thoughts in that way. Well, except for the part about growing up to be Hillary Clinton; do we really want to encourage girls to sleep their way to power and then cover up for their husband’s serial rapes?

That’s not the big problem with teaching girls to be brave rather than seeking perfection, though. That’d be nice if it could be done, but I think it will run smack into an evo-bio buzzsaw.

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Feb 29

In defense of calendrical irregularity

I’ve been getting deeper into timekeeping and calendar-related software the last few years. Besides my work on GPSD, I’m now the tech lead of NTPsec. Accordingly, I have learned a great deal about time mensuration and the many odd problems that beset calendricists. I could tell you more about the flakiness of timezones, leap seconds, and the error budget of UTC than you probably want to know.

Paradoxically, I find that studying the glitches in the system (some of which are quite maddening from a software engineer’s point of view) has left me more opposed to efforts to simplify them out of existence. I am against, as a major example, the efforts to abolish leap seconds.

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Jan 15

Love is the simplest thing

There’s an idea circulating that two people who want to be in romantic love can get there by performing a simple procedure that steps them through asking and answring 35 questions and ends with staring into each others’ eyes for 4 minutes.

I don’t know if these reports are true or not. But I’m writing to oppose the gut reaction I think most people have on hearing them, which is that it can’t possibly be that easy because romantic love is this tremendously complex mysterious mystery thing. And if it is that simple, it’s wrong.

I don’t think so. Even if this procedure doesn’t actually have a high success rate, there will be one that does, given certain basics. The basics are: the participants must be of mutually compatible sexual orientations and must smell good to each other.

Why do I believe this? Because of what romantic love is for.

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Jan 05

How do we explain the nonstandard nerd?

I spent parts of the the last couple of days reading the archives of the very thought-provoking blog Slate Star Codex. Two posts on it, Untitled and Why No Science Of Nerds? have reawakened my interest in the question of what exactly we mean when we describe someone as a “nerd” or a “geek”.

I’ve been applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork to hackers and various allied subcultures such as SF fandom for more than a quarter century now. I think I can fairly claim to know a geek or nerd when I meet one. I’ve written before about Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries. Yet what Slate Star Codex reminds me of is that all we have to explain about why this population and its cluster of linked subculture exists is a cloud of not-very-well-confirmed folk theory.
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Which is maybe a problem, because geeks and nerds matter. Modern civilization couldn’t function without them – its tech infrastructure would collapse. Might be nice if we could optimize these people – help them be happier and more productive.

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Oct 31

Cognitive disinhibition: not the whole story of genius

Here’s an interesting article with a stupid and misleading title on the role of what the author calls “cognitive disinhibition” – a fancy term for “allowing oneself to notice what others miss” – in enabling creative genius.

While in many ways I could be a poster child for Simonton’s thesis (and I’ll get to those) I also think there are some important things missing from his discussion, which is why I’m blogging about it. The most crucial problem is that his category of “madness” is not sharp enough. I know how to fine it down in a way that I think sheds considerable light on what he is trying to analyze.

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Mar 13

Country-music hell and fake accents

A few months back I had to do a two-hour road trip with A&D regular Susan Sons, aka HedgeMage, who is an interesting and estimable person in almost all ways except that she actually … likes … country music.

I tried to be stoic when stupid syrupy goo began pouring out of the car radio, but I didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my discomfort to prevent her from noticing within three minutes flat. “If I leave this on,” she observed accurately to the 11-year-old in the back seat, “Eric is going to go insane.”

Since said 11-year more or less required music to prevent him from becoming hideously bored and restive, all three of us were caught between two fires. Susan, ever the pragmatist, went looking through her repertoire for pieces I would find relatively inoffensive.

After a while this turned into a sort of calibration exercise – she’d put something on, assay my reaction to see where in the range it fell between mere spasmodic twitching and piteous pleas to make it stop, and try to figure what the actual drive-Eric-insane factors in the piece were.

After a while a curious and interesting pattern emerged…

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Feb 03

How…does this even work?

Here is a curious fact.

My wife Cathy is using Duolingo to learn German; she wants to be able to read sources on Iron Age and Viking costume in the original.

Duolingo takes her through a lot of pronunciation drills.

I’ve learned something by listening to her – which is that somehow, somewhere, I have internalized a very precise understanding of German phonology and phonotactics. As in, I not only know right pronunciation from wrong, I give her detailed advice on how to match Duolingo’s model speaker that we can both tell is correct.

What makes this weird is that I don’t speak German. At all. Nor have I ever lived where it’s spoken; I’ve visited Germany once, German-speaking Switzerland once, and that’s it.

This raises questions in my mind:

1. How the fuck? I mean, I suppose it’s related to my knack for generating names in the style of any specified language, and I could handwave about Markov-chain models, but…how the fuck?

2. What dialect of German have I templated on? Could there be any way to tell?

3. What other entire language phonologies have I swallowed … without … me … actually … noticing …

4. Does this happen to other people?

The human brain is a very odd thing.

Jan 07

Tackling subjectivity head on

In a response to my previous post, on Acausality and the Scientific Mind, a commenter said: “The computationalist position necessarily entails that subjectivity does not really exist, and what looks like subjectivity is a mere illusion without causal force.”

There are, I’m sure, many vulgar and stupid versions of computationalism that have this as a dogma. But it is not at all difficult to construct a computationalist model in which there are features that map to “subjectivity” and have causal force. Here is a sketch:

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Oct 06

Sometimes I hear voices

I had a very curious experience recently. I discovered that I know what it’s like to be insane. No, save the obvious jokes; this is interesting.

This came about because I read a magazine article somewhere which I cannot now identify – recent, online, a relatively prestigious publication with a tradition of think pieces – about patterns in delusional schizophrenia. [UPDATE: the article was How reality caught up with paranoid delusions.] The thesis of the article was simple: though the content of schizophrenic delusions changes wildly in different cultural contexts, there’s an underlying motivation for them that never varies and produces a fundamental sameness.

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Aug 24

Questioning transsexuality

In Bradley Manning Is Not a Woman, Kevin Willamson makes a case that feeling like a transsexual – that is, that one is either a man in the body of a woman or vice-versa – should be regarded as a mental illness to be treated by therapy rather than with sex-reassignment surgery.

The article surprised me by presenting a coherent case for this position that I cannot dismiss as garden-variety social-conservative chuntering. I found the parallel with what Willamson calls BIID particularly troubling. If we treat people who desire to electively amputate their own arms and legs as mentally ill, why do we judge people who want to amputate the genitals they were born with any differently? What makes one an illness and the other a lifestyle choice?

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Jul 26

Preventing visceral racism

I’ve been writing about race and politics a lot recently. Now I’m going to reveal the reason: in the relatively recent past I had a very disturbing, novel, and unwelcome educational experience. For the first time in the fifty-five years of my life I found out what it was like to feel racist, from the inside.

I think I now understand the pathology behind racism better than I did before, and have some ideas about what is required to prevent and cure it. And no, my prescription won’t be any of the idiotic nostrums normally peddled by self-described “anti-racists”; in fact what I have to say is likely to offend most of them – which I don’t mind a bit.

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Apr 09

What if it really was like that?

If you read any amount of history, you will discover that people of various times and places have matter-of-factly believed things that today we find incredible (in the original sense of “not credible”). I have found, however, that one of the most interesting questions one can ask is “What if it really was like that?”

That is, what if our ancestors weren’t entirely lying or fantasizing when they believed in…say…the existence of vampires? If you’re willing to ask this question with an open mind, you might discover that there is a rare genetic defect called “erythropoietic porphyrinuria” that can mimic some of the classical stigmata of vampirism. Victims’ gums may be drawn back on the teeth, making said teeth appear fanglike; they are likely to be photophobic, shunning bright light; and, being anemic, they may develop a craving for blood…

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Jan 24

Charisma: a how-to

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me how he could become more charismatic.

Because the term “charismatic” has unhelpful religious connotations, let’s begin by being clear what he was actually asking. A person is “charismatic” when he or she has the ability to communicate a vision to others in a way that makes them sign up for making it real. Sometimes the vision is large (“Change the world!”) sometimes it is relatively small (“Become as cool as me!”).

My friend asked me how he could become more charismatic because he has seen me do the charisma thing a lot. This relates to my previous blogging on practical prophecy. A prophet has to be charismatic, it’s a requirement to get people to actually move.

Before he asked me about it, I would not have thought charisma was something that could be explained in detail. But questions properly posed sometimes elicit knowledge the person answering was not consciously aware of holding. That happened in this case; I found myself explaining four modes of charisma.

Here is what I told him.

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Jan 08

How do you bait a trap for the soul?

You bait a trap for a mouse with tasty food. How do you bait a soul-trap for people too smart to fall for conventional religion? With half-truths, of course.

I bailed out of an attempt to induct me into a cult tonight. The cult is called Landmark Forum or Landmark Education, and is descended from est, the Erhard Seminars Training. The induction attempt was mediated by a friend of mine who shall remain nameless. He has attended several Landmark events, praises the program to the skies, and probably does not realize even now that he has begun to exhibit classic cult-follower symptoms (albeit so far only in a quite a mild form – trying as hard as he did to to recruit me is the main one so far).

“But Eric. How did you know it was a cult?”

Oh, I dunno. Maybe it was all the shiny happy Stepford people with the huge smiles and the nameplates and the identical slightly glassy-eyed affect greeting us several times on the way to the auditorium. Maybe it was the folksy presenter with the vaguely Southern accent spewing pseudo-profundities about “living into your future” and “you will get Nothing from this training” (yes, you could hear the capital N). Maybe it was the parade of people telling stories about how broken they were until they found Landmark.

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Mar 12

The moral equivalent of witchcraft

The New York Times is carrying an unusually in-depth story “What Happened to the Girls in Leroy? on an epidemic of twitching, stuttering, and tics among the high-school girls of a small town in upstate New York.

The reporter didn’t go there, but I couldn’t help noticing strong parallels to what we know about the run-up to the Salem witch trials. The symptoms reported from LeRoy are very like the “sickness of astonishment” which, in the belief context of Puritan Massachusetts in the 1690s, led to accusations of witchcraft and the torture and hanging of twenty people.

Today’s verdict on the epidemic in LeRoy matches what historians generally believe about the causes of the Salem witch trials. Mass hysteria – or, in more modern clinical language, an epidemic of “conversion disorder” in which psychological stressors turn into physical symptoms through unconscious neurological mechanisms that are not yet well understood.

What is yet more interesting, but not as closely examined by the reporter as it should have been, is the secondary illness the girls induced in the community around them. Parents reaching for explanations in Salem in 1692, living within a strongly religious world-view, seized on Satan and hostile witchcraft to explain the twitching, stuttering, and tics. The parents of Leroy, in a more secular world, instantly invented an equally unfalsifiable explanation – one which tells us a great deal about the native insanities of our own time.

Yes, it’s 2012, and trace chemical pollutants have become the new witchcraft.

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Aug 05

Android development pulls hot chicks. Who knew?

There I was, within earshot of the smoker’s bench outside the front entrance of the hotel hosting the World Boardgaming Championships, when I overheard the word “Android” from the three college students sitting on and around it, who I mentally tagged the Guy, the Gamer-Girl, and the Hottie. I moved a bit closer, to polite conversational distance for a stranger, and when they noticed me asked if they were talking about smartphones.

One of them (I think Gamer-Girl) said “Yes” and within about ten seconds I learned that they all had Androids and were huge fans, and had been discussing apps and fun things to do with the device. I smiled and told them I’d written some of the code in their phones.

The Hottie, a slender but pleasantly curved redhead in a tight black dress and fishnets, sat up a bit straighter and asked me what parts I’d written. I settled as usual for explaining that I wrote significant pieces of the code Android uses to throw image bits on its display. The hottie did a silent “Oooh!” and gave me dilated pupils and a flash of rather nice cleavage.

So yes, geeky guys, Android development can pull hot chicks. Well, it was either that or my rugged masculine charm; you get to choose your theory.

I had to run off to lunch, but I did learn one other interesting thing during this interlude. When I said that I was pleased that Android is attracting such loyalty from people who aren’t techies, they assured me that all their friends either have Androids or are planning to get them.

This being WBC, my sample was probably a bit above average in IQ and likely to lean towards early adoption. Still, it makes me suspect the iPhone is losing its grip on one of its core markets.