Monthly Archives: July 2013

Leveling Up

I've been thinking about two different dramatic approaches to leveling up, and how to apply them to real life. (This post came out of a conversation with a friend, a lot of it was copied from my comments, but I wanted to give myself "credit" for doing the writing, since it is in fact actual writing.)

One is the training montage, which I think is basically equivalent to grinding for levels. You have a skill you want to work on, so you practice that skill, and then you get better. Wax-on wax-off is a related trope. Everyone theoretically knows how to do that, at least when you've already successfully decomposed whatever you want to accomplish into a bunch of discrete, simple skills.

The other is "breaking stronger", when an impossible task motivates you to learn the skills you need to do it on the fly. It seems like the latter requires less willpower, or at least less sustained willpower, so I should be thinking about which skills I want to develop, that would be well-developed by it.

Examples of "breaking stronger":

In real life, a math professor at Georgetown assigned me very computationally intensive problems, so that I just plain couldn't get them done by the deadline unless I thought really carefully about how to solve them efficiently. It didn't feel like the practice or working hard. What it felt like was just being really terrible at something for a long time and desperately flailing for solutions, until I looked back at some past problems and realized they all seemed really easy now.

In fiction, when Frodo and Sam get back to the Shire, all of the sudden they are tremendous badasses by comparison to everyone else, even though they never explicitly tried to become badass. But even barely surviving Mordor, they had to build those skills.

To be fair to explicit practice, there are techniques like "deliberate practice" that make it somewhat better. I'm practicing "deliberate practice" by practicing piano, where I can tell very easily if I'm doing it wrong and need more work on something. And there are probably a bunch of skills I could get a lot better at if I could just decompose them into simple practiceable skills, and then apply deliberate practice to one at a time.

For example, to get better at social interaction with strangers, I could break that down into approaches, probing for a topic of mutual interest, reading body language and other nonverbal cues, sending body language and other nonverbal cues, etc., and practice one at a time - but it's not clear how to do that. The best concentrated practice I've had so far was a few consecutive hours of rejection therapy at the first CFAR Minicamp. I highly, highly recommend it. I am not a particularly smooth or charming person to strangers, but I came up with some "reach" requests that would have actually been quite cool, like getting a random passerby to do a dramatic reading from the book he was carrying (he turned out to be a literature professor and was happy to oblige), and getting a stranger to go have tea with me (the conversation turned out to be quite nice).

But on the other hand, I have finite willpower, and if I can set myself up to break stronger, that would be a low-willpower-cost dramatic improvement. Some workouts, for example, are like that, and it's for this reason that I'm going to invest in a personal trainer or some kind of intense fitness classes like CrossFit - so someone can push me to the outside of my limits - without pushing me in a way that's likely to injure me.

The trick is finding a task that's not literally impossible, but seems like it. And to ratchet up the intensity of what's required from you, not to raise the stakes. What are some things like that, that I can do to improve ordinary life skills?

Last night I dreamt I lost a tooth.

Last night I dreamt I lost a tooth. The fourth from the left on the top row, right behind the canine (i.e. right behind the pointy one). There was no pain, just "oops - something broke off! Oh, crap, that was a tooth." It crumbled like dried-out grout.

So naturally I went to the dentist to have it looked at.

Not my current dentist, whom I love, because he and his team of hygienists actually focus on preventive care. The first time I came in for a visit, he asked me how often I flossed, I said daily, and then he said, either you're lying or you're doing it wrong. And then he actually performed an experiment to distinguish between the two hypotheses, and asked me to show him how I floss! I was doing it wrong. He showed me how to do it right. The next time, the hygienist told me which mouthwash to use. The time after that, which toothbrush. Etc. I like that they are always thinking about how to reduce my need for future dental work, but parceling it out into bite-sized (sorry) advice that I'm likely to actually follow, instead of an overwhelming torrent of advice. And since I haven't had cavities yet, they let me go longer that usual between x-rays, which I like because who needs more cancer?

So, not my current dentist. Nor the previous one, whom I found through an anonymous tip posted on the wall of my office pantry. His office was in the building across the street from my office, so I figured I had to give it a shot. I visited once, but decided not to visit again after he "joked" that I should eat more candy so he can make money filling cavities.

Instead, my brain decided that I had had a dentist in between - one with a personality and appearance clearly modeled on one of my favorite math professors in grad school. He taught computational math. This professor was the kind who gives you assignments that keep you up and working the whole weekend, but absolutely no busywork. He assigned problems he didn't already know how to solve, just to give us practice doing something really hard. He took points off not only for code that wouldn't work correctly, but code that worked, inefficiently. At first I thought this was terrible and I'd get a B or something just because of stupid nitpicky code errors, but then it turned out that my code just got better in response instead. He was also the kind of lecturer who watched the students closely, and reacted immediately if someone's eyes glazed over - by reteaching us in 15 minutes a semester's worth of background material we needed a refresher in. I didn't really understand linear algebra until he explained it. In each course I took from him, I learned as much as in any other two courses in the program.

So this professor was my dream-dentist, with a dentist's chair in his living room in his home. It turned out that to operate on the tooth, he had to open up my skull (okay...) and stick a few pins into me just above my right eyebrow (Nooooo! Not near my eye!). I really don't like things stuck near my eye. But I figured, okay, whatever, as long as I'm out for the surgery, I don't care.

Tthe really awful part was next. According to dream-dentist, because I'm signed up for the DMO option (like an HMO for dental) through work, rather than the PPO option (pay per service, no referrals), general anaesthetic is not covered, only local anaesthetic. While dream-Ben is totally unconcerned with potentially extremely dangerous and unnecessary surgical procedures, he is still relatively frugal. So I seriously considered asking the dentist to do some kind of stopgap operation now, signing up for the PPO for the next benefit year, and then having the surgery done with general anaesthetic.

But dream-Ben also understands that dental problems can get really bad really quickly if they're not dealt with, and that there's a serious possibility that I could have the stopgap procedure, wait a couple of months, wake up one day in blinding pain, and still end up needing the surgery (after a few more days of extreme pain) before the next benefit year. So I decided to tough it out and go ahead with the surgery, under local anaesthetic only.

Then I woke up and checked my tooth. It was still there. Whew!

The whole ordeal reminded me of this SMBC comic:

Welcome to Tooth Fairy laaaaand! First you must navigate this insurance bureaaaaucracy!
SMBC Caterpillar Land

Bad at Math

Over at Slate Star Codex, YVain has a post about being bad at math. Being YVain, he keeps coming up with gems like this one:

It’s not that I don’t recognize that math is awesome. If there were “Pray the lack-of-interest-in-math away” camps, I would totally go to one.

It's things like this that make me glad I went to St. John's, which basically is "Pray the lack-of-interest-in-math away" camp (among other things).

Read the whole thing of course, but I'd like to respond directly to Deiseach's comment:

I don’t know how best to describe this; the only time I have ever shed tears in school (and this is not a metaphor or a fanciful example or hyperbole; I mean real tears running down my face and dripping on my copybook) was when I was aged eight, in Second Class, and trying to understand the maths problem we had just been given – and failing miserably.

The teacher was sympathetic but baffled; no matter how she tried to explain it, it Just. Did. Not. Click. With. Me.

Other subjects, I could feel my mind “wrapping around” them (think of an enzyme binding to a substrate) – it was like my brain ‘reached out’ and took hold of the concept.

Maths – no. It was like trying to jam a key into a lock where you couldn’t even get it in the hole, never mind force it to turn.

It still functions like that – I get so far and then – jammed up. No shape. No way this will fit. You may as well tell me “Just flip your left hand over and you’ll have two right hands!” when it comes to getting my head round maths.

Now, of course, I have to believe that Deiseach is telling the truth about her experience - that she just gets permanently stuck after a while and can't wrap her mind around something.

But if I were teaching a math class, and I had a student cry because she didn't understand the material - not because she couldn't get the right answer on the test, or because she couldn't perform the calculations, or memorize something, but because she didn't understand - then I would identify that student as special, and worth cultivating, and possibly unusually talented at math - because she knows the difference between getting the right answer and understanding the math!

Math is big and it has lots of parts. There are lots of different ways to get stuck. You can be stuck because you're just not familiar enough with some common identities or ways of solving equations, in which case the solution seems to be slogging through a bunch of problem sets or flashcards until you get it. But then there is another type of stuck, where even if you can follow each step, the whole thing makes no sense to you. Some people never even know that it's supposed to make sense. Others are bad at telling the difference between a proof they can recite, and one they really grasp intuitively. But knowing the difference - that's gold.

When you're stuck on a concept, you can't just slog through the way you can when you're stuck on vocabulary. You have to take a break. Sometimes your brain is tired. Sometimes you need to see something used in a few different ways. And sometimes you've gotten stuck because you're trying to understand it one way, and that doesn't work, and your mind needs time to reset before trying another approach.

And then, of course, if there's something basic you've missed, it can be really hard to notice that too. Unfortunately there don't seem to be good, readily available checklists to go through to see whether you've missed some simple identity or definition that a proof relies on. I've had a weird mathematical education, so it's happened many times that I've been stuck on a problem forever, only to find out that there's a well-known, easy to prove mathematical identity that makes the problem trivial, that I would have recognized the application of immediately, if only I had ever heard of it.

Why Buy Flowers

I used not to understand why so many women care about getting flowers from their boyfriends/husbands - or, really, to understand people at all - but here's what I've learned. Maybe someone else can learn it the easy way, by just being told the rules.

If you are socially adept at all, you are constantly looking for cues that someone likes or dislikes being around you, whether you notice it or not. Imagine you were having a conversation with someone and they didn't respond to your statements, and responded to your questions with the minimal possible semantically appropriate answer:

You: "How are you?"

Them: "Okay."

You: "Did you see the new Superman movie?"

Them: "Yes."

You: "I was disappointed at how they Batmanned it up."

Them: Silence

You: "I mean, Superman is supposed to be an optimistic story."

Them: Silence

You: "Looks like it might rain later."

Them: Silence.


Does it sound like this person wants to have a conversation with you? No, it does not. When someone is interested in conversing with you, they will riff off of what you're saying, respond to a conversational provocation with a new thought of their own, and take questions as an opening to talk about something they care about. When they're not interested, they will try to keep the conversation as short as possible, and give you no openings to extend it.

It's the same on the relationship level. If you want to be friends or romantic partners with someone, the normal thing to do is to suggest ways to spend time together, and either accept their invitations or suggest alternatives. You will accept some suggestions even if they're not things you'd normally do, because they are pretexts to hang out with the other person.

There is another type of conversational cue, non-verbal in nature. If someone is talking to you and you are interested in what they have to say - or if you want to get along with them and have a conversation even if they happen to be talking about something you don't particularly care about - the normal thing to do is to nod, possibly make affirming noises or gestures, and look at them. In romantic relationships, things like a man buying a woman flowers are equivalently socially normal signs that one is interested and wants to continue.

If you were having a conversation with someone, and they made no affirming gestures, but just looked at you with a blank face, you'd ask them what was wrong. And even if they assured you that they enjoyed your company and wanted to continue the conversation, it would still feel weird and unsatisfying.

If you are a man and you are dating a woman who has been taught that flowers are a normal way of expressing affection, and you don't give her flowers, it can feel every bit as weird and unsatisfying, even if you assure her that you enjoy her company and want to keep spending time with her. It doesn't really feel like someone likes you if they don't give you the normal social cues that they like you.

Of course, since there is more than one woman, not all women are the same or want or expect the same things. And of course you the reader might not be a man dating a woman - or might be trying to work on being a better friend instead of a better boyfriend. The concept of love languages is actually a really useful one here, and the gist of it is that different people expect affection to be shown in different ways. So what you actually have to do is pay attention.

If someone lights up when you give them a gift, but not when you hug them, then you need to get into the habit of giving them little gifts, even if you wouldn't feel good if you got them, because you naturally express your affection with touch - in that case, you have to figure out that what it feels like to you to get a hug, it feels like to them to get a physical object as a token of affection. The point is, your relationships will get a lot better if you start paying attention to what the other person cares about, and accept that as a fact about the world. It doesn't matter what seems like it should make the other person feel good, or what feels to you like a genuine expression of affection - the only thing that matters is what actually works. The thought doesn't count until you've learned the other person's language.

On the other hand, when you learn how someone else differs from you, you may also learn something about yourself, and be better able to articulate and express your own needs (which is also something a lot of people need to become more comfortable with - more on this in a future post). And you may start noticing that someone else is trying to express their affection for you much more than it seemed before - once you can understand which behaviors they personally find emotionally salient.