Forever Learning

Forever learning and helping machines do the same.

Archive for October 2010

a Coccyx in the Brain

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You might not realize it, but your brain is running some pretty wonky legacy code. Stuff that worked fine back in the day, but is not very well suited for the challenges of modern life. Let me give you an example.

Leonard Mlodinow writes in The Drunkard’s Walk:

Which is greater: the number of six-letter English words having n as their fifth letter or the number of six-letter English words ending in ing? Most people choose the group of words ending in ing. Why? Because words ending in ing are easier to think of than generic six-letter words having n as their fifth letter.

If you have no difficulty coming up with six-letter English words that have an n as their fifth letter, then you’ve probably been playing too much Words with Friends (I am certainly guilty as charged on that count). Anyway, Mlodinow continues:

But you don’t have to survey the Oxford English Dictionary—or even know how to count—to prove that guess wrong: the group of six-letter words having n as their fifth letter includes all six-letter words ending in ing.

Just like the “Linda is a bank teller” example, one answer encompasses the whole of the other answer.

[Note that Mlodinow implicitly (and correctly) assumes that there exist six-letter English words that have an n as their fifth letter but do not end in ing. Otherwise the two groups would have been equal in size.]

Mlodinow explains why we guessed wrong:

Psychologists call that type of mistake the availability bias because in reconstructing the past, we give unwarranted importance to memories that are most vivid and hence most available for retrieval.

In other words: if it’s easy to think of an example, we assume it’s pretty probable.

Good approximation heuristic for a caveman, maybe not so great for modern man. A coccyx in the brain.

In his book The Science of Fear author Daniel Gardner talks about this availability bias (he calls it the ‘example rule’ and Kahneman and Tversky called it the ‘availability heuristic’, but they all mean the same thing) in the context of (perceived) security.

But car crashed aren’t like terrorist hijackings. They aren’t covered live on CNN. They aren’t discussed endlessly by pundits. They don’t inpsire Hollywood movies and television shows. They aren’t fodder for campaigning politicians.

As a consequence of all this public attention, we have no trouble at all thinking of examples of terrorism. Conversely, we have more difficulty thinking of examples of car crashes. Our prehistoric wetware falsely intuits that the former is more likely than the latter; even when we know this to be untrue.

Caveman fears ending with a bang more than the end of the road, because bangs make better stories.

I think it’s about time for a patch. Caveman needs an upgrade. Until then, please be wary of the bugs in your brain.

[Just so you know, the word ‘coccyx‘ is worth a whopping 4+1+4+4+3+8 = 24 points (excluding bonuses) in Words with Friends. However, as there are only two c’s available in each game, you would need both c’s and a joker (or two jokers and a c) in order to be able to play it for twenty points (sixteen with double jokers).]


Written by Lukas Vermeer

October 27, 2010 at 18:57

Blogging with the Stars

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I started a blog because I wanted to improve my writing skills; and thought I had something to say. You, as a reader can help me figure out how I am doing by rating each post (preferably after you’ve actually read it) on a five star scale.

To give you some guidance I’ve compiled a summary of how I interpret each star rating.

  1. Fail.
  2. tl;dr.
  3. I like turtles! (meh)
  4. Orly? Om nom nom!
  5. Double Rainbow / Over 9000!!!1111one

Please take the time to consider how you feel about my past and future posts and use the star ratings to let me know. Thanks!

Also, feel free to come up with your own interpretation of the five star scale and share it in the comments.

Written by Lukas Vermeer

October 17, 2010 at 15:27

Posted in Meta, Statistics

The Curse of Getting Things Done

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I consider myself to be well organized. Both in my professional and personal life I use Remember the Milk for keeping track of almost everything I do using some of the techniques described in Getting Things Done and practice Inbox Zero almost religiously.

If I ever actually forget to do something, it’s probably because I forgot to write it down.

Adding an Idea to the List

Adding an Idea to the List

But being super-organized does not make one super-human (sadly), so the fact that I do not forget does not mean I can actually do everything I intend to. At the end of the day many of the things I want to get done are not; they get postponed, put off, perhaps indefinitely.

I have a repeating weekly task that reminds me to write a post for this blog every Friday. As you might have noticed, that does not result in weekly posts. I didn’t forget, but as much as I want to write, I had other things to do.

Each day I actively and consciously decide to not do many things that I would really, really, really like to. This, for me, is the Curse of Getting Things Done. I am fully aware of my own shortcomings; completely knowledgeable of me failing to do That One Thing that was So Important; explicitly confronted with Not Getting Everything Done.

In general this is probably a good thing. I can consider the pros and cons of completing a task versus postponing it and get to decide what to do, and what not to do, with my time; while still being able to work towards long-term goals. But the physical act of postponing a task comes at a mental price. It’s one thing to simply forget to do something, but it is something else entirely to explicitly decide not to do something simply because it is not important enough to you.*

I understand that I am only human, but I still feel guilty every time I postpone a task.

Perhaps it would be better not to know. Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss.

[* “It’s not that I can’t do it today, but just that I consider sleep to be more important right now.”]

Written by Lukas Vermeer

October 15, 2010 at 23:40

Posted in Meta, Psychology

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