December 1, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 45: Complexity reduction in communication, overfitting, and using patience to dispel anger

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  Complexity reduction in communication

"Keysar and Henly tested the calibration of speakers: Would speakers underestimate, overestimate, or correctly estimate how often listeners understood them? Speakers were given ambiguous sentences ('The man is chasing a woman on a bicycle.') and disambiguating pictures (a man running after a cycling woman), then asked the speakers to utter the words in front of addressees, then asked speakers to estimate how many addressees understood the intended meaning. Speakers thought that they were understood in 72% of cases and were actually understood in 61% of cases. When addressees did not understand, speakers thought they did in 46% of cases; when addressees did understand, speakers thought they did not in only 12% of cases. Additional subjects who overheard the explanation showed no such bias, expecting listeners to understand in only 56% of cases. As Keysar and Barr note, two days before Germany’s attack on Poland, Chamberlain sent a letter intended to make it clear that Britain would fight if any invasion occurred. The letter, phrased in polite diplomatese, was heard by Hitler as conciliatory—and the tanks rolled. Be not too quick to blame those who misunderstand your perfectly clear sentences, spoken or written. Chances are, your words are more ambiguous than you think." — From Map and Territory by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

It gets worse when we consider how much information is now communicated through text, sometimes with arbitrary limits on how much one can send. Twitter purposely limits characters to 280, but emails and texts are often just as short. In addition to removing the complexity of thought, short text statements remove nearly all the communication cues we use for understanding one another. In A World Without Email, Cal Newport documents the detrimental effects this vague communication style has on businesses, some of which include:

  • Email offers almost no friction, which leads to more work. Researchers have found that increasing friction (like holding office hours) results in fewer requests.
  • Knowing that unread messages are in our inboxes increases stress and anxiety.
  • The context-switching workflow required to keep up to date with communication channels impedes cognitive performance and destroys our ability to focus for extended periods.

Perhaps the biggest issue though, is the ambiguous nature of email due to the lack of communication cues. With an apt analogy, Newport captures this vagueness in a study:

“In a now classic experiment that appeared in her 1990 doctoral dissertation, a Stanford psychology student named Elizabeth Newton paired up research subjects, who sat across from each other at a table. She asked one person to tap out a well-known song using their knuckles on the table, while the other subject had to guess the song. The tappers estimated that about 50 percent of the listeners would figure out the song. In reality, fewer than 3 percent succeeded in naming the rhythmic tune. As Newton argued, when the tapper is knocking on the table, they hear in their head all the accompaniment for the song—the singing, the instruments—and have a hard time putting themselves into the mental state of the listener, who has access to none of that information and is instead left grappling with a puzzling jumble of sporadic knocks.”

View my three takeaways from A World Without Email

II. Overfitting

"Overfitting is a kind of idolatry of data, a consequence of focusing on what we’ve been able to measure rather than what matters.

"Perhaps nowhere, however, is overfitting as powerful and troublesome as in the world of business. 'Incentive structures work,' as Steve Jobs put it. 'So you have to be very careful of what you incentivize people to do, because various incentive structures create all sorts of consequences that you can’t anticipate.' Sam Altman, president of the startup incubator Y Combinator, echoes Jobs’s words of caution: 'It really is true that the company will build whatever the CEO decides to measure.' In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to come up with incentives or measurements that do not have some kind of perverse effect.

"In the 1950s, Cornell management professor V. F. Ridgway cataloged a host of such 'Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Measurements.' At a job-placement firm, staffers were evaluated on the number of interviews they conducted, which motivated them to run through the meetings as quickly as possible, without spending much time actually helping their clients find jobs. At a federal law enforcement agency, investigators given monthly performance quotas were found to pick easy cases at the end of the month rather than the most urgent ones. And at a factory, focusing on production metrics led supervisors to neglect maintenance and repairs, setting up future catastrophe. Such problems can’t simply be dismissed as a failure to achieve management goals. Rather, they are the opposite: the ruthless and clever optimization of the wrong thing.

"In some cases, the difference between a model and the real world is literally a matter of life and death. In the military and in law enforcement, for example, repetitive, rote training is considered a key means for instilling line-of-fire skills. The goal is to drill certain motions and tactics to the point that they become totally automatic. But when overfitting creeps in, it can prove disastrous. There are stories of police officers who find themselves, for instance, taking time out during a gunfight to put their spent casings in their pockets—good etiquette on a firing range. As former Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman writes, 'After the smoke had settled in many real gunfights, officers were shocked to discover empty brass in their pockets with no memory of how it got there. On several occasions, dead cops were found with brass in their hands, dying in the middle of an administrative procedure that had been drilled into them.' Similarly, the FBI was forced to change its training after agents were found reflexively firing two shots and then holstering their weapon—a standard cadence in training—regardless of whether their shots had hit the target and whether there was still a threat. Mistakes like these are known in law enforcement and the military as 'training scars,' and they reflect the fact that it’s possible to overfit one’s own preparation. In one particularly dramatic case, an officer instinctively grabbed the gun out of the hands of an assailant and then instinctively handed it right back—just as he had done time and time again with his trainers in practice." —  From Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (view my three takeaways).  

Measuring the wrong metrics leads to inadvertent optimizations.

A goal-oriented culture thrives on numerical targets since they're easy to measure. We'll refer to numerical goals as outcome goals and non-numerical goals as value goals. Reading 52 books in a year is an outcome goal. Deepening our knowledge of a subject is a value goal.

Let's say the number '52' was suggested by Goodreads as our reading challenge this year.

As August rolls around, we are over ten books behind schedule. Goodreads, by the way, reminds us of being '10 books behind schedule' every time we open the app. How do we proceed? We can't change our goal, as we'd be broadcasting our inadequacy and failure to our Goodreads friends. The solution? Simple. Ask Google what the shortest non-fiction books are, allowing us to artificially inflate our score for the year by selecting short titles.

The number of 'books read' does not indicate quality nor knowledge gained, but is easy to measure, which leads many to optimize for it.

Picking ten or so of the best books across subjects and reading them twice, or thrice, with copious notes for future study is more effective. We explored Hermann Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve in Mind Macros 12, showing that after 30 days of reading a book, we retain only 20% of the material. After just a single day, as much as 70% of the information has been forgotten. Retention is the primary metric we should measure if learning is our goal. Combining spaced repetition with flashcards is the best and most accessible method to integrate information into long-term memory.

The reading goals on Goodreads are a less insidious form of gamification that is spreading throughout society. In his book, You've Been Played, Adrian Hon describes gamification as taking normal activities and applying game mechanics to them, such as points, badges, levels, and so on. Learning about gamification mechanics is fascinating, and once you do, you'll start noticing them everywhere.

View my three takeaways from You've Been Played

Quotes to Ponder

I. Thomas Jefferson on performing virtuous acts.

"Whenever you do a thing, though it can be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly. Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual."

II. Seneca on using patience to dispel anger.

"The greatest remedy for anger is delay: beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it - if it delays, it will come to an end. Do not attempt to quell it all at once, for its first impulses are fierce; by plucking away its parts we shall remove the whole."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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