Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Scarcity mindset

Here's a link to a nice review of a new book called "If you're so smart, why aren't you happy?", by Raj Raghunathan, in the form of an interview with the author:


If the review is to be believed, the book, while a self-help book, is rooted in some science, and cites some studies. But what I found particularly interesting is this quotation: they are talking about the "Scarcity mindset", and how humans have a tendency to value their goods, and food, and (sic!) time; and how actually it may be counterproductive. Raj says:

I think that as intelligent beings we need to recognize that some of the vestiges of our evolutionary tendencies might be holding us back. If I'm at an advertising agency, for example, or in software design, those are the kinds of fields where it is now being shown in quite a lot of studies that you actually perform better if you don't put yourself under the scarcity mindset, if you don’t worry about the outcomes and enjoy the process of doing something, rather than the goal.
What I find curious about this statement is how it resonates with another book I'm reading right now, called "The Slow Professor" by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. I'm not ready to tell yet whether this other book is good or not, but it's definitely provocative. The subtitle is "Challenging the culture of speed in the academy", and so the book is exactly about how modern academia inflicts the ultimate scarcity mindset upon its members - the one of scarcity of time. And then fosters it through seemingly "helpful" advice on the ultimate time management.

But so far I'm reading the descriptions of how everything is bad and sad, which is an easy part to write =) The ultimate test for the quality of the book is in its "self-help manifesto", which is still to come. We'll see. I'll keep you, invisible 10 or so readers, posted.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tay bot

The most interesting thing about the Tay bot (the chat-bot started by Microsoft, which was promptly seduced by trolls and trained to be a Nazi), or at least the aspect of this story that I find most interesting and troubling, is how people immediately started talking about it as about a person. If you google for "Miscrosoft Tay", you can find all kinds of titles, from "Microsoft kills its first sentient AI" to "Microsoft deletes a teen girl for racist tweets". And even when the title itself is more objective, it seems to me that the language tends to antropomorphize this programming experiment a lot.

Which is actually not that surprising. Humans are really good in ascribing agency to everything, from earthworms, to cars, to weather. No wonder an AI bot that was marketed as a model for a "teenage girl", and was given an avatar-like userpic, registered in the collective subconsciousness as a kind-of-sentient "somebody" rather than "something".

And I think it's both cool and troubling. Cool because it means that humans are, in a way, ready for AI: they are ready to interact with AI as with another being. Which is good, as it means that human-robot interfaces are really easy to build: humans like to be gullible; they jump at the opportunity. But it's also bad, as it means that the ethical nightmare may start much earlier than one could have expected. I may be overreacting, but from posts about Tay it seems that people may be opposed to "unplugging robots" years before any AI passes a Turing test.

And that's a fun thought. How do you even troubleshoot a sentient AI, from the ethical point of view? How do you troubleshoot an AI that learns and "develops" psychologically, similar to a human child? It does not have to be exactly like a human child, and the process may be much faster, but there almost bound to be some similarities. The only way to troubleshoot a program is to run it, look at its performance, kill it (stop it), change something, and then try again. Can this approach be applied to an AI? Or to a project like a "Blue Brain", where a human cortex will be modeled? Or to an "uploaded personality" (another recent fad)? At what point troubleshooting "virtual humans" will become unethical? Or, on a more practical note, at which point will the human community rebel against this troubleshooting?

And here is a really nice youtube video, also post-Tay, but with a twist. Still extremely relevant:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Strange compliments

Yesterday I got the most weird compliment in my entire life (so far). A nurse, who was about to draw some blood for a test, looked at my arm and said in an almost sultry voice: "Mmm, you are so nicely hydrated!"

Monday, January 25, 2016

"Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh

Over last few years I read a dozen books about doctors and hospitals; mostly neurology and psychiatry, with some other specialties thrown in. And for some time these books fit rather neatly into two distinct categories: "inspirational" books (like "Hot Lights Cold Steel" by M. Collins), or challenging books full of woes of disillusionment (like "The House of God" by S. Shem). Books that paint medicine in light colors and make you want to become a doctor immediately, and those that describe its underside, and encourage you to run.

I would tell putative premed students that they need to read "The House of God" before they start studying for MCAT, before they commit to the track, as if they still want to be a doctor after reading this book, they can probably be a doctor (a phrase stolen from some review on Goodreads; I obviously have no idea whether it is true, but it sounds good). And then, while studying, they can read "Hot Lights Cold Steel" every time they feel low and need some encouragement, because reading this book makes you want to take MCAT.

For many medical semi-non-fiction books these two large categories work surprisingly well. All Oliver Sacks for example counts as inspirational. Books by Atul Gawande (especially his "Better") mostly feel like "deterring books" that could warn a naive student about some issues ahead. And so on.

But anyways, all this long preamble is only to state that the relatively recent book "Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh really does not fit these two categories. It starts totally like an inspirational book would, with wonderful matter-of-fact descriptions of neurosurgery, where an experienced doctor invites you to the operating theater and makes you an awed spectator of their craft. But then it quickly plummets in a quagmire of dark meditations on two topics that clearly cause the author lots of pain: bureaucracy and paperwork that steal his vocation from him, and imperfection of his skill and knowledge as he faces inoperable tumors, untreatable conditions and medical mistakes. As he faces pain, death, and human suffering.

As I read the book, I kept mentally reassigning it from the "inspirational" shelf onto the "deterring" one, and then back to "inspirational". Moving it back and forth. Now as I finished it, it seems that overall the book has more questions than answers, and unanswerable questions at that, so I guess it belongs to the "read it before taking MCAT" shelf after all. But at the same time it is not dark, it is not disillusioned. The inspirational thread is also strong in this one. It really should be on the "must-read" list of any neuro-inspired premed student.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Internet disappointments

Every time I post an anti-Soviet comment on Reddit (like in "Soviet Union was a rather bad thing overall") I get downvoted to negative numbers in the morning, and then into positives again in the evening. Get it? When Russian users are active (around US late morning, early afternoon), any critical statement about, say, Stalin, or geopolitical role of the USSR is downvoted, but then it is upvoted again twofold once US users come back from work (or maybe rather get tired at work).

Which is kind of sad, as every time it reminds me that modern Russian users, even those who read and write in English, and routinely browse English-language forums (a tiny subset of the population), are on average to some degree mildly Stalinist. Not too strongly, but a tiny little bit, you know. Which is quite understandable psychologically, but still kind of sad.

But Internet is generally full of disappointments. Here's another one: many people got really riled up about Ted Cruz saying that he's a Christian first, and American second. There were statements about how he should now be disqualified as a candidate, and so on. Mind it, I don't sympathize to the dude at all, but, the interesting fact is that it's a normal statement for a Christian. Moreover, it is a required normative statement for a Christian (backed by several rather imperative passages from both the Gospels and the Epistles). So saying that it disqualifies somebody from the office is like claiming that all Christians should be disqualified, which would be somewhat weird. It's like saying that humanists should be disqualified because they could claim to be "humanists first and american second". There's an inevitable hypocrisy in Cruz's claim of course, but it's a more subtle, and because of that much more important hypocrisy, stemming from a de-facto special status of a majority religion. The context, in which this statement was made, ironically defies its literal meaning; but it is a nuanced contradiction, and it was lost on most sources.

Notably, Vladimir Putin is known for repeatedly saying that he is Russian first and Christian second (or something to this effect). For example, he is famous for claiming that St. Boris and Gleb (two spiritually respectable historical dudes from the 11th century who refused to preemptively kill their evil brother, thus letting him kill them) are not good Russian saints. Because, you see, in his opinion good Russian saints should be enemy-slayers (like St. Dimitry Donskoy, St. Alexander Nevsky and alike). They are patriotic, and are never into all this pacifist non-violence nonsense. In a way, proper saints (according to Putin) are Russian first, and Christian second. In this context I find it somewhat funny that /r/atheism is essentially advocating for Putinesque solutions on the issue of morality. But, oh well, that's really none of my business.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks

As I was sitting through job talks for several job searches in a row, and as I was writing my responses to these job talks, I realized that I was gradually converging on a rubric.

You know, in the very beginning, during the first talk, you just notice something that you like here and there, or something that you don't like. But at some point you start comparing candidates to each other, even if you don't really want to. Alice did something cool, and Bob did as well, but Caitlin did not. A point off from Caitlin! She was good in this other thing however, which Bob totally skipped. Extra point to Caitlin for that. After about 10 candidates I ended up looking for some specific clues: first question to the crowd, first use of humor, and so on. I developed a grading rubric.

Of course it is very much my personal opinion on what is good and what is bad, and what counts, and what does not. Also I guess in real life there would be weights attached to each of these points, and these weights would be very different for different people. Yet let me share my version with you. Maybe you'll find it interesting.

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks:

Each statement is either true (one point), or not true (no points). In some cases it is possible to get half a point (if there was an attempt, but it was not quite successful).

  • The talk is not pitched too high (ideally it should speak to 2-3 year undergrads)
  • The talk is not pitched too low (contains actual details, data, conclusions)
  • Starts from the beginning (good introduction, all special terms are introduced before they are used in the talk, and introduced well)
  • The motivation for the research is clear
  • Demonstrates the breadth of research interests (models, approaches, questions) - important for a small college
  • Advertises past work with undergraduates
  • Hints at future projects with undergraduates and makes them sound fun, meaningful, and possible
  • Good visuals
  • Makes the talk uniquely specific for our institution (alludes to some of our realities, be it campus location, some of the faculty, our history, or anything else)
  • Uses humor successfully
  • Asks questions to the students (full point if they are meaningful and if they are answered)
  • Invites questions from the students (full point if students ask questions)
  • Connects to other areas of science
  • Connects to topics outside of science (society, arts, philosophy etc.)
  • Helps listeners to summarize one message before transitioning to the next one
  • Uses emotion to communicate science; marks statements as emotionally charged (explains what is good and what is bad, what data we are happy to see, what data is sad or confusing, etc.)
  • Good language
  • Shares a bit of their personal story (shows the human side)
  • Feels more excited towards the end than in the beginning (it is my personal theory that good teachers accelerate through the talk as they are carried away by love to their subject)
  • Answers after-talk questions nicely
You sum all points up, and thus identify the best candidate =)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Things you don't have to do

I am trying to identify things I don't have to do.
Or at least I don't have to do that much, that well, or for that long.

Over the years I came to a conclusion that in a way it is the key to success: to figure out what things are not quite necessary; the things that can be cut out. The opposite - the important things - are usually quite obvious. Depending on the field, you need to sell more items per year, or secure better prices, or find customers, save money, raise money, publish papers, get better teaching evaluations, serve on committees. The list of things that look good is usually pretty clear from the very beginning.

But the trick to success is in realizing which of the sub-tasks and actions behind these glorious goals are not quite necessary. Because you always have more goals than you can possibly run for, and more battles than you can possibly fight. Something needs to be cut out, and the trick is in identifying the right corners to cut.

In the most wonderful book "Teaching What you Don't Know" by Therese Huston (in case I haven't mentioned it before, it's the best book on teaching ever) she has a chapter about how to properly plan a new course. And, I think, the first advice in this chapter is "Take one assignment out". Just remove it. Because you most certainly overplanned and overcommitted, so pick one assignment and take it out right now. It may sound silly, but after teaching 4 courses for the first time ever I can attest that it is certainly true. It is just one example, but a good one.

Here's another one: in the workshops for new professors we had last year we were thoroughly encouraged not to ever edit student's papers. Never ever. Moreover, we were encouraged not to mark all errors and mistakes in more than one paragraph of the text. Because it takes lots of time, and also students don't appreciate it. You have diminishing returns here, and in fact you have diminishing returns in any kind of "constructive feedback". A person can reasonably take and internalize one point of critique, maybe two. But if you give more then two, they just get despaired, give up, stop reading, open reddit - the details may vary, but they zone out one way or another. So even in grading, supposedly, there is no point in writing exhaustive feedbacks. If I find a way to identify and explain one single point a student should be working on right now, it would be enough, and in fact could even work better than a thoroughly filled rubric. Diminishing returns.

I know these things in theory, but it is so insanely hard to implement them in practice. And I need to identify more unnecessary things to cut out. Especially those that are unnecessary and unpleasant at the same time. Unnecessary pleasant things are actually fine, as long as you don't over-commit to them: they bring you up, and at the same time they are not completely useless. So when I improve the design of departmental web-page instead of playing a computer game in the evening, it's probably fine, as long as it provides similar levels of satisfaction (which it often does). But unnecessary unpleasant things need to go.

I need to hunt for them and take them down one by one =)