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The Hierarchy of Requests


This is something that's been stewing in me for a while, and I hope I can present it fairly.

Different people have different levels of social skills. In particular, different levels of fluency or dexterity at getting people to satisfy their wants. (And of course, your dexterity varies based on context.) I think of these in four stages.

Stage 1: Paralysis.
You don't dare make the request. Or you've gotten to the point where you need the thing so badly that you're too overwhelmed to communicate clearly at all. You may not even be consciously aware that you need the thing, you're just suffering for the lack of it.

Stage 2: Rude request.
You make it clear that you want something, but you express it inappropriately. You come across as boorish, pushy, childish, or desperate.

Stage 3: Polite request.
You express your desire calmly, pleasantly, and in an appropriate context. You come across as reasonable and respectful.

Stage 4: Automatic abundance.
You don't even have to ask. Either through luck, planning, subtly guiding the social situation, or very high status, you automatically get what you desire without ever having to make it explicitly known.

For example, let's say you're exhausted; you want to excuse yourself from the group and take a nap.

In stage 1, you don't dare ask. Or you don't understand why you feel shitty, you don't recognize it as fatigue. You just get more and more upset until you collapse in a heap. In stage 2, you rudely interrupt people in the middle of something important and announce that you're tired and you're leaving. In stage 3, you find a convenient moment, apologize for cutting things short, but explain that you've got to get some rest. In stage 4, you manage to subtly wrap things up so you can get some rest, without making anyone feel rushed.

Or let's say you're a straight man and you want to have sex. Stage 1 are the people who seem, to their friends, to be utterly sexless; they never show romantic interest in anyone. They're cripplingly shy. They may not even be aware that the reason they feel lousy is that they're psychologically damaged from want of a sex life. Stage 2 are the boors, the people who tell dirty jokes and hit on girls crudely or awkwardly. The lower end of Stage 2 is the madman shouting 'Voglio una donna!" in Amarcord. The upper end is, say, the sleazier type of PUA. Stage 3 are the men who ask "Would you like to go for coffee sometime?" They're reasonable, or even charming, romantic prospects. And Stage 4 are the rockstars or politicians who have women throwing themselves at them. They don't even have to ask.

The first thing to note is that Stage 1 and Stage 4 are mostly invisible and not talked about. When people talk about communication and needs, we contrast communicating inappropriately (Stage 2) with communicating appropriately (Stage 3). Advice about social skills is always "Be Stage 3, not Stage 2." Which is fine, as far as it goes. Stage 3 really is better than Stage 2. It's more considerate, more empathetic. And it works better.

But sometimes Stage 2 is better than Stage 1. The person who can only ask rudely is often perceived as having worse social skills, worse manners, than the person who can't ask at all. But the stage 1 person is paralyzed, not polite. Her 'social skills' only go as far as acquiescence. She can't use them to steer.

The mild-mannered people-pleaser may only be "likable" as long as she isn't challenging anybody; the blunt jerk may actually be more persuasive in a tough negotiation. So who really has better 'social skills'?

The second thing is that the stages relate quite directly to urgency of need. If you aren't hungry, or you know you can get food any time, you're in Stage 4. If you're getting hungry, you may interrupt your friends to ask if you can stop for lunch, putting you in Stage 3. If you're famished, you begin losing self-control and becoming pushy and demanding about food, which puts you in Stage 2. And if you're literally ill with hunger, you may lose the ability to be coherent, which puts you in Stage 1. So people who are more prone to sudden urgent needs are more likely to drop into earlier stages. (Disability blogs talk a lot about the danger of falling into Stage 1, and how rudeness is better than paralysis if those are the only choices.)

Tribal Leadership is sort of about this, in a business context. Its taxonomy is different, but the main problem the book illustrates is the phenomenon of managers who are high achievers individually, but bad at getting cooperation from co-workers. From the perspective of their subordinates, they're 'mean' or 'dictatorial' or 'bitchy.' From their own perspective, they're overworked, and saddled with an incompetent and mutinous team.

The point of the book is that such people fail to get cooperation because they're making demands. They're constantly giving instructions, making requests. The frame is "You should do X for me." Which is a Stage 2/Stage 3 behavior, and results in resistance. The goal is to get to Stage 4. To cause people to do X by making them feel it's their own idea, or part of a democratic/tribal decisionmaking process, or emerges naturally from the noble purpose of the organization. In other words, getting to the point where you subtly shape outcomes but never have to explicitly request them.

Need is ugly. "Gimme" is ugly. It causes discomfort in the people around you. Even "May I please" causes a mild degree of discomfort and a mild inclination to answer "No, you may not."

The highest-status thing is not to need, not to demand, but to be automatically given. Rich people get lots of free stuff. Iron Man doesn't ask for much. Nor does Fred Astaire.

And from a Stage 4 vantage point, all asking is unpleasantly needy and pushy. Stage 4 people have a tendency to denigrate both Stage 2 behavior and Stage 3 behavior. (In more or less the way that upper-class people see seeking money as vulgar.) Stage 3 people will protest vehemently, "Hey, I'm not Stage 2, I was polite/respectful/etc!" Which misses the point. Compared to Stage 4, even a polite request looks a little awkward, a little gauche.

Is Stage 2 necessary? Need one be rude at all? Or can you just graduate from 'inhibited' to 'respectfully assertive' without passing through a 'pushy' phase? I do think it's possible, but with the nuance that people can easily blur the line between 2 and 3 -- that is, accuse you of asking rudely because you were low-status enough to have to ask at all. You have to be willing to accept some risk of being accused of rudeness, and balance that with the good-faith attempt to not actually be rude.

But in the absence of formal standards of behavior, "rude" and "polite" will always be subjective. Only when there are some general accepted etiquette standards does it even make sense to believe "I will do my best not to be rude, but I'm not afraid of people falsely accusing me of rudeness."

Moving Parts: the Aesthetic of Intricacy


Veil after veil have we lifted, and ever the face is more lovely.
--Apuleius

I've noticed a while back that there are some interesting taste overlaps among "people like me." 

Bach is a big one.  Math people, with eerie consistency, really like Bach.  Even the ones who've never heard of the math/Bach connection.  When I was about eleven, the Bach bug hit me -- all of a sudden I had to listen to fugues, right now.  I remember my dad saying "Of course you like Bach, you have a mathematical mind."  I thought "Are you kidding?  I'm not mathematical, math contests stress me out!  I like Bach because polyphony is awesome."

Except that thinking polyphony is awesome only seems to be a feature of a certain group of people's brains.  "Geeks" isn't exactly the right word, because it gets conflated with a section of pop culture.  I'm talking more or less about people who are highly analytical but also really high in Openness.  My model of our tribe overlaps a little with Sister Y's, but is slightly different; where she's focused on our impulse to "go meta," I think the common theme has more to do with an impulse towards intricacy, play, and pattern-recognition.

I'm going to give a bunch of examples from my own file, things that have this quality of intricacy.  (If some of these are unfamiliar to you, and you're in the same cluster as me, you might like them -- consider it a recommendation list.)

Visual Art
Medieval and early Renaissance art with intricate surface detail
Gentile da Fabriano
Hieronymous Bosch
Persian miniatures
Moorish patterns
Edit from Nancy: The Book of Kells
***
19th century decorative art and illustration
Arts and Crafts Style patterns
Art Nouveau
Jugendstil
Aubrey Beardsley
Ernst Haeckel scientific illustrations
Gustave Moreau
Pamela Colman Smith
***
Psychedelic and visionary art
OZ magazine
Wilfred Saetty
Brigid Marlin
Luis Toledo
Alex Grey 
William Blake

Themes:
pattern
intricate symmetry
surface detail emphasized over depth perspective
decorative aesthetic
"low" art (posters, album covers, illustrations)
visual references to the fantastic, mythological, and occult

[Jonathan Coulthart has done a great job tracing the history of this "counter-tradition" against the grain of Western fine art.  The 19th century illustrators were inspired by the medieval aesthetic, and the 1960's psychedelic artists looked back to the 19th century.  There's a whole world here that gets overlooked by the textbook view that representational art is dead and decorative/illustrative works aren't art.  Seriously, check out the blog, there is so much coolness there.]

Music
Bach, especially fugues
classical Indian music

Themes:
polyphony
"moving parts"
multiplicity, intricacy

Books & Authors
Goedel, Escher, Bach
James Joyce
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Alan Moore
Infinite Jest
Neal Stephenson
Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire more than Lolita)
Jorge Luis Borges
Italo Calvino
Richard Powers
Robert Graves
Thomas Pynchon
Herman Melville
The Saskiad [an underrated book that nobody but me seems to have read]
Griffin and Sabine
Kids' books: Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, Madeleine L'Engle
Edit from Dave: Tom Stoppard.

Themes:
Big, sprawling, discursive novels (often with footnotes)
Formalism, mythological or symbolic patterns (e.g. the chapters of Ulysses; the Eye in the Pyramid; Graves' calendar stuff; etc.)
Speculative riffs
Intellectual play
The notion of "pulling back the veil," magic behind the mundane

Miscellaneous
interests related to perception, language, thought, e.g.:
mathematics
computer science (esp. AI and related fields)
neuroscience
meditatiom
lucid dreaming
law, Talmud, RPG's, intricately structured rule-systems.
Edit from Nancy: Catholic theology.
formal paradigms (there are N kinds of people in the world; you can organize things on a 2-axis grid; etc.)

[Mage: The Ascension is one of the best examples of formalism-porn in the world.  It's got the complex game rules and also the elaborately patterned system of archetypes and also the fantastic elements and also the "waking from the dream of the mundane" meme.]

It looks like there are two overarching patterns here:

1. Attraction to the bizarre or fantastic
2. Attraction to sufficiently complex patterns, structures, rules

Both seem to have to do with curiosity.  Interestingness.  The pattern-recognition impulse. 

You can short-circuit that impulse with low-quality stuff.  You can get locked into mysticism, fandom, gaming, drugs, literary criticism, etc.  Local optima, closed systems that you can obsess about endlessly, but which are disconnected from reality and keep you from learning more about the world.   But if you're careful, the impulse towards intricacy and pattern leads you to really revelatory art and science.

Opinions on college education


 The extremes on this debate are absurd.  College is not useless; it has many benefits to students. On the other hand, it would be surprising if the most efficient way to provide those benefits was exactly the social institution of college in America as it exists today.

The signaling function of college works pretty damn well.  Yale/Princeton/MIT students are, on average, brighter and more conscientious than students at less elite schools, who are, in turn, brighter and more conscientious than people who never went to college.  (It's not just signaling, I think; it's also secondary socialization and developing an identity from your peers.  Princetonians learn to behave like Princetonians.)  You don't want to casually destroy a functioning social institution without thinking about the consequences.  

Any scientist will tell you that one of the best ways to improve the quality of your work is to surround yourself with smart people.  Any employer will tell you that finding smart, conscientious employees is a leading challenge of running a business.  If you want to claim that you have a filter for smart people that works better than college, my question is, "Why ain't you rich?"  If such a thing existed, it would singlehandedly replace the recruiting industry.  I'm interested in experiments in new ways to evaluate people's competence, but so far I think that field is in its infancy.  Employers won't really read your Github any more than they'll read all the publications on your CV.

Online education can democratize only a small part of what people get out of college.  I can see Stanford-style lectures being very useful for informal self-teaching, potentially a major boon to homeschooled children or people in developing countries without access to world-class universities.  But how much more valuable is a video lecture course than a textbook at the public library?  Both are merely formats for displaying information.  (I'd learn more from a textbook than a video lecture, myself.)  There have always been autodidacts whose "college" was a public library, but most people have never taken full advantage of libraries to replace education, and I don't think most people would take full advantage of online lectures.  One of the problems with tech people is the assumption that "innovation" means "consumer internet" -- it's a temptation for all of us to think that way, but it's inaccurate.

The real problem with college education, of course, is that it's very bad at educating.  The teachers are professors and graduate students -- for them, teaching is a speed bump, a hassle they're required to get through on the way to doing research.  (Those who actually like teaching get a status hit.) So teaching is done in the lowest-bandwidth form possible.  Lectures, a midterm, and a final.  Two data points of feedback. People don't learn that way, unless they're independent enough learners that they didn't need the teacher in the first place.  

One-on-one tutoring is vastly more effective.  So some people imagine apprenticeship replacing college.  Want to be a biologist?  Be Craig Venter's apprentice.  But this is problematic in itself...you'd need many years of courses to be knowledgeable enough to be any use to Craig Venter as an apprentice.  

If you separated signaling, consumption, and learning, and optimized a "school" around each of them, I could imagine three separate stages of young life.

Learning: something like a "cram school."  Intensive tutoring, extremely frequent tests.  Sophisticated data analysis provides a very fine-grained profile of the student's strengths and weaknesses.  This would be a focused, boot-camp-like, time of life; all studying, all the time.  The only thing you do is acquire competence in a subject and come out demonstrating exactly how good you are at it.  I think it would naturally be a single subject only, and works best for quantitative subjects: two or three years spent getting up to B.A.-level competence in math or chemical engineering or whatever.  It's meant to get you up to speed.

Consumption: young people, if they have the chance, do need time to relax, to learn who they are, to explore identities, to enjoy intellectual stimulation and the proverbial late-night dorm-room discussion.  It's part of growing up.  But because this is an experience valued for what it means to an individual personally, there's no reason it has to be the same for everyone.  I actually think the Grand Tour or Great American Road Trip serve this function.  A stint at a low-effort job, with lots of time to shoot the breeze and try to write your novel, also works.  Some people really want the dreaming spires of academia, and classes you take just for the fun of it.  If our society bit the bullet, and admitted that periods of idleness, if you can afford them, are good for self-discovery and lifelong happiness, then we wouldn't have to shoehorn everybody into the same model.

Signaling: this is, more or less, an apprenticeship.  Or graduate school, or an internship. Find your role model, and work under him or her.  If this requires specialized knowledge, you've already gone to a cram school by now.  If you wanted to take some time off and find yourself, you've done that.  You might be 30 when you're ready for an apprenticeship; you might be 16.  All you have to do is demonstrate to your mentor that you're worth his or her time, and you can do useful work while you learn the business.

I think the modern American college education has elements of all three types of "schools," but shortchanges the learning part. We'd probably learn more if we had a separate institution that was just for learning, and just for learning the specific things you need to know.

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Errors vs. Bugs and the End of Stupidity


"A pianist has to believe in telekinesis.  You have to believe you have the power to move your fingers with your mind."

I learned that from Phil Cohn, my piano teacher's piano teacher.  Once in a while, when I was in high school, she'd arrange for me to have a master class with him.  He was a diminutive man who looked exactly like Dr. Strangelove, and had a gentle way of guiding your hands and body while you played.  He was very interested in the physicality of piano; he liked to tell stories about students of his who could play any piece upside down, or cross-handed, or one-fingered like Chico Marx.  He had a lot of theories about the process by which we can learn to control our muscle movements.

I wasn't an exceptional pianist, and when I'd play my nocturne for him, there would be a few clinkers.  I apologized -- I was embarrassed to be wasting his time.  But he never seem to judge me for my mistakes.  Instead, he'd try to fix them with me: repeating a three-note phrase, differently each time, trying to get me to unlearn a hand position or habitual movement pattern that was systematically sending my fingers to wrong notes.

I had never thought about wrong notes that way.  I had thought that wrong notes came from being "bad at piano" or "not practicing hard enough," and if you practiced harder the clinkers would go away.  But that's a myth.

In fact, wrong notes always have a cause. An immediate physical cause.   Just before you play a wrong note, your fingers were in a position that made that wrong note inevitable. Fixing wrong notes isn't about "practicing harder" but about trying to unkink those systematically error-causing fingerings and hand motions.  That's where the "telekinesis" comes in: pretending you can move your fingers with your mind is a kind of mindfulness meditation that can make it easier to unlearn the calcified patterns of movement that cause mistakes.

Remembering that experience, I realized that we really tend to think about mistakes wrong, in the context of music performance but also in the context of academic performance.

A common mental model for performance is what I'll call the "error model."  In the error model, a person's performance of a musical piece (or performance on a test) is a perfect performance plus some random error.  You can literally think of each note, or each answer, as x + c*epsilon_i, where x is the correct note/answer, and epsilon_i is a random variable, iid Gaussian or something.  Better performers have a lower error rate c.  Improvement is a matter of lowering your error rate.  This, or something like it, is the model that underlies school grades and test scores. Your grade is based on the percent you get correct.  Your performance is defined by a single continuous parameter, your accuracy.

But we could also consider the "bug model" of errors.  A person taking a test or playing a piece of music is executing a program, a deterministic procedure.  If your program has a bug, then you'll get a whole class of problems wrong, consistently.  Bugs, unlike error rates, can't be quantified along a single axis as less or more severe.  A bug gets everything that it affects wrong.  And fixing bugs doesn't improve your performance in a continuous fashion; you can fix a "little" bug and immediately go from getting everything wrong to everything right.  You can't really describe the accuracy of a buggy program by the percent of questions it gets right; if you ask it to do something different, it could suddenly go from 99% right to 0% right.  You can only define its behavior by isolating what the bug does.

Often, I think mistakes are more like bugs than errors.  My clinkers weren't random; they were in specific places, because I had sub-optimal fingerings in those places.  A kid who gets arithmetic questions wrong usually isn't getting them wrong at random; there's something missing in their understanding, like not getting the difference between multiplication and addition.  Working generically "harder" doesn't fix bugs (though fixing bugs does require work). 

Once you start to think of mistakes as deterministic rather than random, as caused by "bugs" (incorrect understanding or incorrect procedures) rather than random inaccuracy, a curious thing happens.

You stop thinking of people as "stupid."

Tags like "stupid," "bad at ____", "sloppy," and so on, are ways of saying "You're performing badly and I don't know why."  Once you move it to "you're performing badly because you have the wrong fingerings," or "you're performing badly because you don't understand what a limit is," it's no longer a vague personal failing but a causal necessity.  Anyone who never understood limits will flunk calculus.  It's not you, it's the bug.

This also applies to "lazy."  Lazy just means "you're not meeting your obligations and I don't know why."  If it turns out that you've been missing appointments because you don't keep a calendar, then you're not intrinsically "lazy," you were just executing the wrong procedure.  And suddenly you stop wanting to call the person "lazy" when it makes more sense to say they need organizational tools.

"Lazy" and "stupid" and "bad at ____" are terms about the map, not the territory.  Once you understand what causes mistakes, those terms are far less informative than actually describing what's happening. 

These days, learning disabilities are far more highly diagnosed than they used to be. And sometimes I hear the complaint about rich parents, "Suddenly if your kid's getting B's, you have to believe it's a learning disability.  Nobody can accept that their kid is just plain mediocre.  Are there no stupid people left?"  And maybe there's something to the notion that the kid who used to be just "stupid" or "not a great student" is now often labeled "learning disabled." But I want to complicate that a little bit.

Thing is, I've worked with learning disabled kids.  There were kids who had trouble reading, kids who had trouble with math, kids with poor fine motor skills, ADD and autistic kids, you name it.  And these were mostly pretty mild disabilities.  These were the kids who, in decades past, might just have been C students, but whose anxious modern-day parents were sending them to special programs for the learning disabled. 

But what we did with them was nothing especially mysterious or medical.  We just focused, carefully and non-judgmentally, on improving their areas of weakness.  The dyslexics got reading practice.  The math-disabled got worksheets and blocks to count.  Hyperactive kids were taught to ask themselves "How's my motor running today?" and be mindful of their own energy levels and behavior.  The only difference between us and a "regular" school is that when someone was struggling, we tried to figure out why she was struggling and fix the underlying problem, instead of slapping her a bad report card and leaving it at that.

And I have to wonder: is that "special education" or is it just education?

Maybe nobody's actually stupid.  Maybe the distinction between "He's got a learning disability" and "He's just lousy at math" is a false one.  Maybe everybody should think of themselves as having learning disabilities, in the sense that our areas of weakness need to be acknowledged, investigated, paid special attention, and debugged.

This is part of why I think tools like Knewton, while they can be more effective than typical classroom instruction, aren't the whole story.  The data they gather (at least so far) is statistical: how many questions did you get right, in which subjects, with what learning curve over time?  That's important.  It allows them to do things that classroom teachers can't always do, like estimate when it's optimal to review old material to minimize forgetting.  But it's still designed on the error model. It's not approaching the most important job of teachers, which is to figure out why you're getting things wrong -- what conceptual misunderstanding, or what bad study habit, is behind your problems.  (Sometimes that can be a very hard and interesting problem.  For example: one teacher over many years figured out that the grammar of Black English was causing her students to make conceptual errors in math.)

As a matter of self-improvement, I think it can make sense not to think in terms of "getting better" ("better at piano", "better at math," "better at organizing my time").  How are you going to get better until you figure out what's wrong with what you're already doing?  It's really more an exploratory process -- where is the bug, and what can be done to dislodge it?  Dislodging bugs doesn't look like competition, and sometimes it doesn't even look like work.  Mr. Cohn was gentle and playful -- he wasn't trying to get me to "work harder," but to relax enough to change the mistaken patterns I'd drilled into myself. 



Why finance jobs are popular


Ezra Klein just made an argument I've been making since sophomore year of college.

Finance and consulting jobs are popular among elite college students because they give a predictable path to professional life for liberal arts students who have no idea what to do with their educations.  Top banks and consulting firms come to colleges and offer a structured, competitive application process, not too different from the process of applying to college.  They offer on-the-job training.  They present themselves as a "a low-risk, high-return opportunity that they can try for a few years and, whether they like it or hate it, use to acquire real skills to build careers ... a practical graduate school that pays students handsomely to attend."  It's these reasons, more than just the high salaries, that attract college students to finance -- they also flock to Teach For America, which doesn't pay well but has the same kind of structured application process and promise of on-the-job training.

Ezra Klein sees this as a lesson for schools -- if you don't want all your students going into finance (and college administrations often don't) you need to do a better job of preparing students for employment.  Wall Street is taking advantage of a crop of bright, conscientious kids with absolutely no plans for the future.

I would draw a few other lessons, in other directions.

First, for students.  It's easy for young people, especially if we're bright and sheltered, to fall into the trap of only doing things that are pre-prepared for us. In high school, we took honors classes and did math team or debate, and we applied to the best schools -- but most of us didn't get a part-time job at a real newspaper or start a lawn-mowing business.  In other words, we did things designed for high-schoolers and didn't step out of that box.  In college, we did things designed for college students, and didn't think to socialize with "adults" or do "adult" things.  (The exceptions -- college kids who ran for town council, or got on the executive committee of a nonprofit -- are memorable).  So when it's time to get a job, it's easy to just unthinkingly apply for the job that seems "designed" for Princeton kids, the one whose recruiters show up to campus.  If you practice having more imagination and initiative early on, you can counteract that bias -- if finance is the right choice for you after all, that's great, but you shouldn't be living your life on default settings.

Second, for employers.  Take a leaf out of Teach For America's book -- you can attract young people not with higher salaries, but with highly visible on-campus recruitment, and the promise of prestige through a competitive application process.  If you can find a way to train liberal arts students with no work experience, and convince them that you're giving them a valuable resume item, you can get grueling labor out of some very smart, energetic people.

Third, for my personal obsession, job search.  Ivy League students don't find jobs on Monster.com because that's a leap into the unknown.  They often have no idea what they want to do for a living; they just want to be in the professional class, and the obvious way to do that is to apply to the handful of finance and consulting firms that recruit on campus.  But if there were a job search tool that had more of an exploratory function -- that gave you, not just a list of local jobs, but match results that took into account your interests, skills, and personality -- and (crucially) if there was adequate filtering for prestige to counteract the fear of taking "some random" job -- then my demographic might actually use it.  The concentration of college grads in finance seems like a symptom of lack of exploratory tools.  It's choosing the familiar over the unknown. 

And recommendations technology is largely about making the "unknown" accessible.  A restaurant you've never been to, or a book you've never read, is a risk -- but Yelp reviews or Amazon recommendations make it a lot less risky.  A stranger is a mystery -- unless he has a Facebook profile, a blog, and an OkCupid account, in which case he's a lot less mysterious.  When we're uninformed, we stick to the tried and true; given more information, we can afford to be more adventurous.  I don't think we've yet created the tools that will let job seekers be more adventurous.