On reading novels and living the life you cannot live

I’m an avid reader, but have grown up reading almost exclusively non-fiction.

Not because I don’t enjoy them, or think any less of fiction than I do non-fiction; it’s mostly because I can never remember the names of all the characters! (Especially in novels…)

In non-fiction, the cast of characters tend to be ideas. And ideas I can deal with – most of them already exist in some shape or form in my head, so it’s a matter of associating or hooking these new ideas to existing ideas.

For example, the first time I read about machine learning, I hooked it onto existing ideas in my head related to data mining, as well as ideas related to probability. When I first read about baseline happiness (did you know our happiness tends to be somewhat set regardless of circumstance? And that the happiest among us tend to be those who have won the predisposed-to-happiness genetic lottery?), I hooked it onto ideas related to Buddhism, psychology, and biology.

And since I’m writing about this already… to me, it’s true: I find that the more I know, the easier it is learn. How about you?

On the flip side, it’s also true that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Which can make you sad.

Back to the names of characters though…

I remembered once reading through a novel and thinking it didn’t really make any sense. I just couldn’t understand why the main character was treating his wife (ex-wife?) in some way, and his mistress in another, while it many other parts of the story it seemed to be the other way around.

Frustrated, at about the halfway point I googled the plot summary and realised I got both characters mixed up; and they weren’t the only ones.

I decided to re-read the book, armed with the plot summary and the full cast of characters.

This time the book made all the sense in the world, and was an intensely satisfying read.

Armed with the newfound power of the internet (newfound for me), I’ve recently taken up reading novels again. Remembering who’s who is no longer a problem!

And that has added a wonderful dimension to my life. Novels really create this “mind space” unlike anything else. Well, sort of like movies, but one in which you’re much more involved. When you’re spending hours upon hours with a book, it’s hard not to be.

What I especially like about about novels is that it gives me a chance to live a life I never/cannot live; or lives I choose not to live.

Novels have given me a chance to feel what it’s like to:

They break the mundanity of everyday life.

Used to be: to work; back from work; to work; back from work; into weekend; out of weekend; etc.

Now it’s: to work; back from work; become POW working on the Death Railway; get flashback committing adultery; to work; back from work; get transformed into insect; into weekend; work on Death Railway; out of weekend; etc.

It’s quite a varied life now.

Rreading novels is not just the “escapism” part of it, though.

It’s also about learning how your mind reacts to different circumstances.

“What would I do? What would I feel?” are two questions that constantly pop up when I’m reading, and answering those two questions makes me far more aware of who I am, and the kind of life I would like to live.

Just to end on a rather depressing note, this time courtesy of the non-fiction that I’m reading: The problem with being more aware of who I am is that who I am may well be a bunch of algorithms.

My being more aware may just be a feeling of being more aware, which despite sending a hit of dopamine does little else.

Why do I run?

When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act out their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place. Why does Polly want a cracker rather than a cucumber? Why do I decide to kill my annoying neighbour instead of burning the other cheek? Why do I want to buy the red car rather than the black? Why do I prefer voting for the Conservatives rather than the Labour Party? I don’t choose any of these wishes. I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free.

The above taken from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I thought I’d not enjoy, but which gets better with every page.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, as God and dice have determined, I have a run to go for.

Deciphering Fake

This was supposed to be a post on radical transparency.

But an article bashing radical transparency just left me feeling so outraged with its lies and misleading statements that I just spent the last four hours of my life writing this warning to all of us media-consumers out there: Don’t trust all you see, even if it says “research”, links to academic papers, and cites its sources!

The first time I heard about radical transparency was from G.

And though I hadn’t heard the term before then, it was something I felt that I could really relate to; something I already did.

Not because I thought that it brought the best outcomes, but because my mind was just wired that way.

I’ll tell you why in the post on radical transparency I eventually do write (maybe next week?), but hint: it’s got to do with having an awful brain for lies.

For today, let’s talk about the article that enraged me.

I found it while reading up on radical transparency for the post I had intended to write: Radical transparency sounds great until you consider the research.

I looked forward to reading it just based on its title, as it was perhaps a warning I needed to heed: maybe I ought to be a little less transparent with my dealings with people?

The word “research” also appealed very much to the scientist in me, giving it more weight than it would have had without.

Almost immediately though, within the first paragraph, a red flag was raised.

Here’s what it said:

Radical transparency is an old management approach with new branding. Previously called micromanagement or snooping, this approach supposedly creates higher performance and trust by letting everyone know what’s on the table.

You see, I’m an amateur rhetorician (well, not really, but I am currently reading Jay Heinrichs‘ book Thank You for Arguing) and smelt a rat: I knew radical transparency wasn’t synonymous with “micromanagement” or “snooping”, or even remotely analogous.

My rhetoricsense tingled. Something was up but I didn’t quite know what. So I did a quick search on logical fallacies, and identified what was wrong: the author was guilty of a false comparison!

Snooping, micromanagement, and radical transparency were qualitatively very different things, and there was no “new branding” apparent to me whatsoever.

  • Snooping to me implies trying to find out information others deem to be private and not expect to share;
  • Micromanagement to me implies a person in authority dictating to a worker how to do a job without giving the worker much or any degree of autonomy;
  • Radical transparency to me implies making what may sometimes be deemed private open to everyone, but making sure everyone knows it is no longer private.

I could live with micromanagement, to a certain extent. I could live with radical transparency (I think). But I would probably not be able to take snooping very well.

You can’t really club them together.

Was the author trying to mislead his readers by saying they were the same except for rebranding?

Whatever the case, I continued, albeit with caution.

Then I came across this paragraph, which appeared filled with juicy insights:

But research about human judgement suggests that relying on such data is a mistake. People are terrible at assessing trustworthiness and most skills. Assessments are driven not by real actions, but by appearance and personal situation. On top of these potential inaccuracies, labeling someone as untrustworthy or poor in certain skills has a corrosive effect on collaboration and morale, perhaps one of the reasons why Bridgewater has in the past had very low retention rates that costed the company tens of millions of dollars a year.

The links in the quote above were found on the original article. I clicked on every single one of them to learn more.

(And boy did I learn. I learned that if you take an author’s word for it at face value, despite the authoritative-looking links you’d be hoodwinked quicker than you can say “radical transparency”.)

Here’s my commentary on each of the links in the paragraph shared above:

  • “terrible at assessing trustworthiness”
    • This link brings you to a paper talking about assessing trustworthiness from facial cues. The experiment involved asking strangers to play a game to see if people would invest more money in faces that appeared more trustworthy. If radical transparency involved asking you to rate your colleagues, an hour after you got to know them, on trustworthiness based on how their face looked, then yes, this is relevant.
  • “most skills”
    • This link brings you to a paper talking about the JDS or Job Diagnostic Survey tool, which basically assesses the fit between workers and their jobs. The paper surmises that the tool works, though warns that it is easily faked. But for it to support the premise that “people are terrible at assessing most skills” is ridiculous, because the paper actually doesn’t say that.
  • “appearance” and “personal situation”
    • These two links are paywalled, but based on the abstracts these are related to people assessing people in TV commercials (for the first link) and strangers (for the second). Like the experiment in the “assessing trustworthiness” link above, this is about assessments of people whom you know very little about. Radical transparency isn’t about assessing strangers one-off. Again, I don’t see the relevance.
  • “has a corrosive effect on collaboration and morale”
    • Paywalled. The first sentence of the abstract? “Four studies examined the relation between trust and loneliness.” I’m curious to know what the article is about, but given I don’t know enough I’m not going to judge on this one.
  • “very low retention rates”
    • This link brings you to an interview with an author who wrote about Bridgewater’s radical transparency. The author actually praised its implementation at Bridgewater and was extremely supportive of it. Though it was mentioned that there was a 25% turnover rate, there was no mention of it costing “the company tens of millions of dollars a year”. Also, assuming that it does cost the company tens of millions of dollars a year, could the benefits outweigh the costs? If being radically transparent brings in more than the “tens of millions of dollars a year” that it  hypothetically costs, it’d still be worth it.

I’d always been extremely curious as to the effect of knowing my peer’s salary, and them knowing mine.

I’d even considered moving to a company that did just that for just this reason because I personally thought it was a great idea.

So when I came across the following that the author wrote, it came as quite a surprise:

Publishing individual salaries has negative consequences. While companies should never prevent people from sharing their compensation (and in many states it’s illegal to do so), publishing these numbers for all to see psychologically harms people who are not at the top of the pay scale. Research shows that this directly reduces productivity by over 50% and increases absenteeism among lower paid employees by 13.5%, even when their pay is based exclusively on output.

The first link talks about income disparity and its negative effect on happiness, a common finding in psychological research.

That the author worded it in this way (i.e. “top of the pay scale”) seems deliberately misleading. There’s a lot of dependence on the “reference group” – e.g. a junior employee, despite earning far less than the CEO, would generally not be too concerned. Also, full individual salary disclosure isn’t necessary for radical transparency; compressed payscales and other forms of salary disclosure could be used instead.

The second link was the one that I was more interested in: could salary disclosure really lower productivity and increase absenteeism, even when pay was based on output?

The author said yes.

I read the paper and found otherwise.

What the study found was that it was perceived fairness that had the greatest negative effects, not the disclosure of salary information per se. Where there was wage disparity and output was not easily observable (i.e. there was no way to tell which worker “deserved” the most), those who were paid less than their peers were the most negatively affected, as they would have perceived it as unfair.

And in a world of radical transparency, I’d think that “output” information would also be something that would be freely shared, reducing any perceived unfairness.

I don’t know what led the author to write what he wrote. I was very close to just taking what he wrote at face value, and if it wasn’t for me being a little perplexed and curious at some of the claims that were cited I’d never have uncovered the deceits.

To be clear, I’d just like to add that there is a chance that there was no malice involved, just sloppy research and misinformed conclusions.

But whatever the case, it made me realise how much we take good, honest writing for granted.

We shouldn’t.

And for me, not any more.

Doing what’s right – pasta and the lizard brain

I cooked pasta for lunch today.

Though it turned out pretty good, the pasta was a little soft, far from the al dente I was aiming for.

This despite me checking every couple of minutes or so to see how it was doing, and taking it off the stove the moment I found it to be oh just right.

But you know what? When I had found that perfect al dente, it was already too late; the pasta was destined to be overdone.

Because even away from the flames, the pasta was still being cooked.

The funny thing? I knew this was going to happen, I just lacked the courage to stop cooking before it was done.

The lizard brain won.

Taking the pasta off the stove long before it was properly cooked just felt wrong, regardless of what my head was telling me.

Sometimes we just gotta do what we know what’s right, despite what it feels like.

Do not give me a gift of which I desire

A little note about happiness, from the book Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari:

If I identify happiness with fleeting pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but to pursue them constantly. When I finally get them, they quickly disappear, and because the mere memory of past pleasures will not satisfy me, I have to start all over again. Even if I continue this pursuit for decades, it will never bring me any lasting achievement; on the contrary, the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I will become. To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.

When I read the passage above, it reminded me of something I told my wife not too long ago, that “the more I have, the more I want.”

If I feel happy just thinking of purchasing something I long for, especially one that I can easily afford, why would I spoil it with an actual purchase?

You see, the moment I make that purchase, the want is taken care of; the moment that want is taken care of, something else would take its place; and if that something is not something I can easily afford, the “more stressed and dissatisfied I will become.”

So, my dear, no, I do not want you to give me a gift of which I desire (and which money can buy).

I’m happy to stick to the simple joys of your company; our son; and our daughter.

Supposedly Irrelevant Factors

I’m halfway through reading one of the best books I’ve read in a long while: Misbehaving, by Richard H. Thaler.

One of the things that most stuck with me was that of “supposedly irrelevant factors“, which refers to something that, in theory, should not affect or influence the thinking of a rational person but does.

Thaler has also written about this in an article for the New York Times. The example that Thaler shared in the article is that of the grading of the notoriously difficult midterm exam that he gives, which he uses to separate his really good students from the rest.

As per the usual practice in academia, the maximum marks you could get in that exam was a hundred. But this posed a problem. Because of the difficulty of the exam, his students were averaging only 72 out of a possible hundred.

Though it didn’t affect the overall grades the students got, since their relative scores were more important than their absolutes (see: bell curve), they didn’t quite like getting such low marks and many complained.

Thaler got worried that the complaints might eventually lead to the loss of his job. So he made a change: instead of having the exam be out of a hundred marks, he made out of 137.

This change had a couple of things going for it: firstly, it made it more difficult to calculate a percentage score; at the same time, it allowed him to give students higher marks, closer to what they would have got on the usual, less challenging exams.

Students were on average now scoring 96 instead of 72, with some delightfully achieving scores above a hundred. Despite the lower percentage scores his students were getting (70 now instead of 72!) his students were happier.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did.

To him, test scores were a supposedly irrelevant factor. To his students, they were anything but.

The concept of supposedly irrational factors really appeals to me because it’s something we tend to forget, especially in a work setting (because everyone’s somehow less human!) and yet something that may have large consequences.

Imagine this conversation between you and your boss:

Boss: Run this report for them every day by noon.

You: Why? They shouldn’t need to see the numbers at that high frequency – no actions can be taken at this late stage that will change anything anyway.

Boss: Just do it.

How would you feel? Would it make you a little more likely to be unhappy? To consider quitting and doing work that feels more worthwhile?

The knowledge of why could be seen as a supposedly irrelevant factor.

Knowing why you’re doing it wouldn’t really change anything – doing what your boss tells you is part of your job. Maybe she knows something you don’t.

But still, it just doesn’t feel right and the knowledge that there might be a purpose that isn’t shared doesn’t make you any less unhappy.

But what if your boss said this instead after you’d asked “why?”:

Boss: Maybe it won’t change anything. And I know it seems pointless from an actionable point of view. But what I know is that it helps calm their nerves; it helps calm their boss’ nerves. It’s not easy being in their shoes – they’re currently under immense pressure, and I’m hoping to support them in whatever way we can.

How would you feel now? If it were me, I’d actually feel even more empowered than before, and that I was making a positive difference in people’s lives.

The simple knowledge of why changes things quite a bit, though it really shouldn’t.

We’re not quite the uber-rationals we think we are.

Some interesting “supposedly irrelevant factors” examples that I’ve come across:

  • Choice architecture, and the default option – we go for default options more often than would be expected, even if the default’s the worst option available
  • Decoy pricing – Classic experiment done by The Economist where the introduction of a third, obviously poor subscription option made the most expensive option much more appealing
  • The Endowment Effect – Owning an item makes it seem much more valuable than it was before ownership came about

Anticipation, proactivity, and the Invisibles

Just read an article via Slashdot on this thing called “Tab Warming” that the Mozilla team is testing for the Firefox Web Browser.

I won’t go into the details, but in essence what Tab Warming does is that it anticipates whether or not you’ll click on a link, and if it does it “paints” the page in the background saving you milliseconds of loading time when you eventually click on it.

Despite the seemingly very small difference in absolute time, (I mean, really, milliseconds?) it has the potential to be the difference between somebody thinking about the page loading versus somebody not thinking about the page loading at all and purely on the content of the page.

And that’s huge. Isn’t the ultimate aim of interface usability to become invisible, after all?

This reminded me of how the best people I’ve worked with are those who pretty much do this all the time: they anticipate what I may need, and even before I’d mentioned it they’re bringing it up and telling me it’s already done.

And to me, despite my never thinking about them (because I don’t have to!), they’re the ultimate stars in our work lives.

To the invisibles: Thank you.