Two kinds of smart

Meditating on knowledge, I think it’s fair to say that there are two ways to ‘know’ something. It can either be reasoned/figured out in real time, or it can be looked up from previous experience (Cached Thoughts). The vast majority of our life experiences are repeats of previous ones (sometimes with slight modification) and our understanding of and responses to these experiences is usually recalled from memory without any thought.

True intelligence, however, is not the recall but the ability to create knowledge where it does not exist yet within your mind. It is reasoning, logic, etc. This takes longer to do than a simple cache lookup, so it may be fair to say that if someone is quick to come up with a response to a difficult problem or situation they are not necessarily smart but merely experienced.

One can improve their intelligence with practice; by trying to manipulate objects, situations and problems in their mind, to test and try new assumptions and view the situation from those alternative realities/perspectives. Being aware of logical fallacies and biases can save you time by avoiding most branches of thought when analyzing a problem.

Finally, as underscored in the post linked to in the first paragraph, be wary of cached thoughts. They are many times planted without much analysis and can effect your thought process in ways that are hard to spot. It is helpful to frequently reconsider cached thoughts that you rely on heavily, no matter how popular they appear with other thinkers or how effective they may be at predicting the specific phenomena you have been leveraging them for (it may not generalize!); false confidence is the enemy of a true thinker.

The Self-modifying light bulb

In response to Falkenstein’s Parable of a Light Bulb, I would just say that throughout our lives we have quite a bit of influence over how our neural connections are weighted. In other words, we have significant control over not only what we are good at throughout our lives but even more so what we enjoy (or trick ourselves into thinking so, no difference). For most people it takes practice to consciously take control, but that’s a separate matter.

I always wondered how much of the enjoyment from doing something (work, hobbies, etc — lighting up the room in the case of the lightbulb) can be explained by the selfish desire to have an impact on other people’s lives. There comes a certain pleasure from mastering a task or skill, no matter how simple and irrelevant. This certainly contributes to one’s enjoyment of life.

Lotteries are hard

The man in the article didn’t strike me as particularly brilliant but rather helped underscore the difficulty of the problem at hand: creating a game with sufficiently close to zero but negative expectancy that still incorporates elements which trick the player into thinking the game is predictable. People are drawn to casino games like slots because it unfolds over time, they can see the potential of winning more often than it is possible (slots will have near-wins a far greater percentage of time than randomness would suggest — this drives the addiction and profitability of the game).

Either that, or the games makers are lazy and stupid. Why not use the techniques they have applied on the visible parts of the game and randomly distribute them over a set of already created results-cards rather than having the visible aspect some function of the results?

A good lottery could use stock market data (such as a historical chart, predict the next move!). This would be full-proof as long as the makers were able to collect a large enough set of independent and high resolution samples — maybe even splice samples from different stocks and time periods in a random fashion.

Experts suck

Simple linear models outperform experts in making predictions. Notice that the examples are mostly from the social sciences; it seems they have yet to learn a lesson that hard sciences learned over a hundred years ago. Potential root causes include misguided ethical ideals (a cultural aversion to discrimination by race/gender/income/etc), cognitive biases of the experts, and a fear of irrelevance on the part of the experts. Trust the numbers; science!

Humans walk in circles

I learned about this before from the Herzog film Encounters at the End of the World (recommended) where they show how in a blizzard it is very difficult to navigate since without visual cues humans will walk in circles.

This doesn’t appear as a big mystery to me. It’s very difficult to move in a straight line; one has to maintain a very delicate balance, either between the amount of force exerted by the left vs right foot or the position of the steering wheel in the case of driving the car. Humans (and from what I can tell any system based off of a neural network) have a very hard time with “absolutes” but rather think and act in relative terms. Neurons fire due to changes in stimulus; a sustained stimulus results in neuron firing rates that die down over time. My hypothesis is that people make one tiny mis-calibration in pressure while trying to move in a straight line and after a few seconds any sense that such a mis-calibration occurred has been ignored by the brain since the change in force itself was so small and short-lived. The human then goes on unknowingly at the new level of force (slightly longer right food stride, steering wheel tiled 2 degrees to the left, etc) resulting in slow and gentle curvature over time.

A major piece of evidence for this seems to be that while the studies constantly show that humans will travel in circles, there’s no consistency regarding how tightly or quickly the circles appear. This would be explained by the fact that in such an experiment, each person (and even in each separate trial by that person) the deviation from “absolutely perfect” force exertion occurs at a pseudo random time and for a pseudo random amount.

No More Bananas and GMO

From the New Yorker 1/10/2011:

The banana variety known as the Cavendish makes up 97% of exports and is pretty much the only one consumed in the US and Europe. Until the 60s, the hardier, sweeter and larger Gros Michel was the strain of choice until it was wiped out worldwide by a soil-borne fungus. The Cavendish is currently undergoing the same process; it has been wiped out in Asia and it is only a matter of time before the fungus spreads to South America.

There are currently no viable alternatives — the thousands of other strains available worldwide are some combination of worse tasting, smaller (more expensive to grow), or less hardy (more difficult to transport and maintain freshness). We have downgraded our banana-eating in the past and it is likely we will be doing so again shortly.

There are two efforts to breed a fungus resistant Cavendish at the moment. In Australia (and likely there are many similar efforts), there are attempts to splice different varieties of genes from other plants and animals into the Cavendish genome which could combat the effects of the fungus. Since GMO food is frowned upon in the US and Europe, any fruits of this labor are likely not going to be commercializable there and our hopes are currently pinned on the painstakingly slow process of trying to cross-breed different varieties one generation at a time (each cycle takes several years) by South American plant breeders.

In practice, there is no difference between breeding plants/animals and GMO other than GMO allows faster and more precise outcomes. Could we create some kind of crazy carcinogenic mutant food? Yes, but that can be created just as easily through regular breeding. Due to the speed of GMO strain creation, we do however increase the probability of such outcomes. I think there needs to be a utility calculation performed to decide on a case-by-case basis whether GMO is the optimal approach for different foods/target markets. Engineering vitamin and mineral-rich rice for Africa is probably a much better idea than trying to make the bananas a little tastier for countries that already have access to a wide variety of dietary substitutes.

Being Present

Let me make a prediction about you. You are always thinking about something. When you’re eating, walking, exercising and partying, your mind is constantly racing as you replay the past and plan for the future. Tell me I’m wrong. Seriously, I would love to know about people with a naturally calm mind. I only recently realized that this appears to be the default case, with the exception of strongly emotional moments, for the vast majority of people. And being in a modern stimulative environment certainly does not help.

The problem is that we are spending our lives focusing on things we have no control over. Learning/re-experiencing from the past and planning for the future are both very important tasks, but they are certainly no more important than actually living and experiencing life; being in the present. While we spend our time imagining past and future scenarios, our lives are going by before our eyes.

Being present is about focusing on your immediate existence and clearing your mind of anything but immediate stimulus. It is easiest to do when you are doing one thing at a time; try eating and just experiencing the food, or running and listening to yourself breath. Just like any skill, being present takes practice and you can improve over time. You can achieve a sensation similar to the effects of THC where your mind is completely focused on a simple, routine and surprisingly novel stimulus. Give it a try, experiencing the present is a very relaxing state of mind.


While meditating yesterday it occurred to me that it’s illogical to make fun of Scientology and not throw even more condescension at mainstream religions. A creation story involving a divine being is far less likely than intelligent aliens visiting the Earth and planting the seeds of our existence. The existence of extra-terrestrial life has a significantly high probability, and the probability of one of them making contact with the Earth with the capabilities of manipulating and engineering life is far higher than the probability of existence of a divine being.