Evidence, Credibility, and the Homunculus Courtroom

We should think of our beliefs and the evidence we engage with as if we had a little homunculus tv courtroom in our brain adjudicating whether to admit evidence into the record. Obviously, this is incredibly difficult to pull off in real time, but it’s a nice thought experiment to pause and consider the weight of a claim being made.

This idea came to me while watching a YouTube video covering the recent downfall of a famous hustle influencer, where the presenter made an observation that she (the presenter) would normally not take people’s personal lives into consideration when judging their professional work, but the case that the influencer sold conferences and products marketed as relationship coaching courses under the pretenses of having a great marriage was swiftly undermined by her (the influencer) getting a divorce approximately two years later.

I was impressed with this statement by the presenter – she was right! Under normal circumstances, the personal life of a person shouldn’t bear weight on something like this, but given the fact that the evidence under consideration was whether someone was misleading about their personal life and getting others to pay for her “expertise,” it would be grounds to consider this piece of evidence as relevant or bearing weight. My homunculus courtroom judge ruled that the testimony was admissible.

This is a silly thought experiment to anthropomorphize cognitive thought-processes that are otherwise just a black box to me. I suppose it’s a little farfetched to think that we have this much control over our beliefs, but maybe the next time I listen to a claim (or gossip, or something that doesn’t jive with my experience… or claims that I want to be true…), I will remember my homunculus courtroom and think twice about the claim’s believability.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Last Person to Know Everything

On a recent CBC podcast episode about Leibniz and Voltaire’s thoughts about evil and God, one of the interviewees referred to Leibniz as “the last man to know everything.” I find this notion utterly fascinating. Upon hearing that title, I jumped online to search for the “best biography on Leibniz” and found a highly acclaimed book detailing an intellectual biography of the 17th-century thinker. Once I clear some books on my current reading list, I’ll dive into this hefty book.

“Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography” by Maria Rosa Antognazz

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the moniker of “the last person who knew everything.” In fact, that was the title of a biography I read back in late 2018 on Enrico Fermi.

I’ve been drawn to this idea for a long time, probably originating with the first time I saw the 1994 film Renaissance Man starring Danny DeVito. That was where I first learned of the term renaissance man, or more commonly known as a polymath – a person with considerable knowledge and expertise across a wide variety of domains. While I wouldn’t quite call it a goal, this is an aspiration of mine since I was a child.

I suppose as the sciences progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to lay claim to being “the last person who knew everything.” Each field grows increasingly complex as we push the boundaries of the known world, which raises the threshold higher of what counts as expertise.

It would seem we need to seriously consider the observation recently made by Professor Adam Grant on the differences between experience and expertise:

Instead of seeking to always have depth of knowledge, perhaps we should give equal consideration to wisdom and how we can apply our experiences and expertise to solve interesting problems. While more nebulous as a goal, I think it steers us in the right direction. At the very least, it’s a good vision to aspire towards.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

PS – an unexhaustive list of the traits that distinguishes a “last person who knew everything:”

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Intellectual humility
  • Interests spanning a variety of domains, both sciences and arts
  • A grasp of the methods and tools of science
  • Generating novel insights
  • The ability to see problems in terms of first principles
  • Engaging in idea arbitrage
  • Focus and flow in work – liking what you do

Parenting Lessons One Year On

We recently celebrated our son’s first birthday, so naturally I’ve been reflecting on the last year of being a first-time parent. If I were to summarize the most important lesson (beyond any of the technical skills you need to keep your kid alive), it’s that parenting is the largely an illusion of control. Your child is a chaos engine that you will try to wrangle, understand, and predict, but from moment to moment, day to day, week to week, things change wildly without discernable reason. Things that worked suddenly stop working.

The tighter you try to hold onto control, the more frustrated you’ll be.

As a corollorary, in accepting that your child is pure id, you must also come to terms that your child (at least for the first year) carries little intentionality behind what they do, and so you must not attribute your frustration to them. Instead, recognize that your frustration is a product of your own unrealistic expectations. If you align your expectations to this reality, I find it’s much easier to weather the physically and mentally taxing moments.

This isn’t to say that you won’t feel anger or frustrations directed toward your child. I’ve accepted that I will feel these feelings and there isn’t anything wrong with them so long as you don’t act on those impulses (physically or verbally). As the adult, you are expected to have learned to understand your physiological signals and adjust accordingly. As your child grows, and as they experience new feelings in themselves – feelings that they won’t have the context to understand – it’s your job to guide them through the experience so that they can learn as well.

In sum:

  • You are not in control of anything.
  • The frustration you feel is usually a product of having misaligned expectations for how you think your child ought to act.
  • Your child doesn’t understand the signals their body is giving them. You, having learned to understand your body, will be key to guiding your child through this period of discovery.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Nicola McDermott’s Notebook

As my wife and I were watching some of the Olympic coverage, we caught a recap of the finals for the women’s high jump event. I was always terrible at high jump as a child, but I stand at around 191cm (over 6-feet tall), so watching the athletes jumping heights that would clear my head instils a lot of awe in me. One jumper in particular caught my eye – silver-medalist Nicola McDermott from Australia. After each of her jumps, the camera would catch her diligently writing in a notebook.

Screencap from video: https://youtu.be/tYFV02xldbE

I have heard of athletes who meticulously journal to help with performance psychology, but this was the first time I caught it live. You can learn a bit more about what she records after each jump in this Guardian piece. One quote from the piece caught my eye:

“The 2.04m – I gave myself a 10/10 for that jump, the execution,” McDermott explained. “I felt the clearance in the air. But the lack of experience with the timing meant that it just didn’t happen today.”

I like that she framed it not as a failure of her abilities, but instead a lack of experience with the execution. Instead of seeing it as “I can’t do this,” it’s “I haven’t done this yet.” The productivity sphere labels this as an example of growth mindset, and given the stakes of the Olympics it’s inspiring to see an athlete have such an upbeat, positive attitude that would likely cause me to beat myself down in defeat.

While mere mortals like myself typically go through the motions of any given action, Nicola’s journaling habit and mindset is worth modelling as a method of providing yourself with immediate feedback and a view from without – one that gets you out of your own head. It also takes ownership over the process, because it forces you to break the activity down into discrete parts that you can focus on and improve.

Congratulations to Nicola on her personal best, and the example she sets in performance excellence.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Shrinking the Change

In recent weeks, I’ve built reading time intentionally into my work day. I’ve had it “in my calendar” for quite a while as an intention, but I haven’t meaningfully engaged with that blocked-off time since I first put it into my calendar. The intention was to recognize that my skills and career path would require me to commit time to learning and personal development, but I quickly got lazy and found other less productive things to occupy that time with.

I was annoyed with how I’d allow the whole day to slip by without getting a good start to my tasks (my vice being YouTube’s algorithm), so I thought I’d redirect my attention a bit. I reasoned that if my brain wanted to fight engaging with work (because it’s hard), then I could use that time to read. I set the timer and once I finish the sprint, I would start on some task for the day.

Surprisingly, I’m having some success with the process. It’s not perfect, but on the days I start with reading, I’m more likely to resist temptation and tackle items on my to do list.

Coincidentally I’m reading the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. One of the chapters discusses the concept of shrinking the change, which is just a fancy way of expressing the idea that we should break big scary tasks into smaller, more manageable bites. Committing to something that is long and ill-defined is hard for my lazy brain to comply with, but it will comply with an easy edict, like “read for the next 25-minutes,” or “spend the next 25-minutes downloading course information files to be processed.”

These tips and hacks are not new – everyone has some flavour of it as part of their productivity system. But like losing weight, it’s not a knowledge problem. Learning and reading about how to lose weight won’t make you shed the fat, nor will it help you amp up productivity.

The challenge for me is tricking myself into not being lazy. If the only way I can do that is making an Odysseus pact, or treating myself like a child, setting a timer, and promising to do a little bit before I get a reward, then so be it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

1,111 Days of Practice

I hit a new milestone on Sunday with learning German on Duolingo. I hit 1,111 consecutive days of practice.

I’ve discussed before how I’m a little skeptical of the learning process, especially with how easy it is for me to mindlessly snap off a quick lesson by repeating modules so that I preserve my momentum. Still, I am pleased to hit this milestone after 3 years of consistency. While we can question whether I’m gaining true fluency in the language, we should at least acknowledge when we stick with learning habits.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Editing with Rapt Attention

Last week I discussed how I created a video training series for one of the ethics boards I serve on. All told, I’d estimate it took me around twenty hours to sketch, film, edit, and publish the series (this is an ad hoc estimate; sadly I didn’t do any time tracking to appreciate the effort). While I’m comfortable with the filming, I noticed a particular period of the work that created a bit of a flow state for me.

On the last day of editing, I was up against a bit of a deadline to finish the videos and push them out to the trainees. I admit that the deadline helped me to focus more (or at least resist the temptation to get distracted), but I noticed that when I was editing the videos, I hit a bit of a flow state. It’s not that I found the tasks particularly challenging, but there was something about the rote, somewhat monotonous task of watching and cutting footage that helped me move through the videos fairly quickly. It was almost 4-hours of editing before I felt like I should take a break to stretch and shift my mind to something else – the time seemed to go quickly. Then, after my break, I returned for another multi-hour stretch to finish off the last of the videos for the rendering queue.

It’s not often that I feel myself working in this state, where time gets away from me for hours at a time. In fact, most of the time I feel somewhat disengaged with my work, and I have to apply discipline in order to work on tasks. This was a rare example of working on something that felt right.

I joked with my wife that I wish I found a job as an editor, but I was only half joking. The lesson I take from this is to be mindful with how I engage with activities that trigger flow, and find a way to go back to that state in other areas of my work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Intersecting Skill Sets

Last week, I created a video training series for the ethics board I’m on to help with onboarding new board members. Prior to COVID (the “before-times”), I would book out a meeting space on a Saturday morning to train new board members for 4-5 hours at a stretch. However, since we have been unable to meet face-to-face for the last year (we moved to remote in March 2020), it’s been difficult to help new members get up to speed. On the one hand, we could have accomplished the same training agenda using a video conferencing platform, however on the other hand, sitting on a training call for 4-5 hours is not a great experience for anyone involved.

We decided to go about the problem differently and embraced a flipped classroom format. By having training videos available, members can go through the lecture material at their own pace, then we can have a shortened video call to answer questions and do practice scenarios. Once I make the videos, they are always available, so there is no further cost to my time, except when we want to update content.

I was able to marry my experiences on the board reviewing ethics applications with my experiences vlogging over the last 7 years. Side note – our first podcast episode was released 7(!) years ago, on March 10th, 2014. Time flies!

Thanks to the time spent filming, editing, and publishing video content, I was able to put together an hour and a half series of short videos to go through the main points of being on the board and reviewing ethics applications. I had done something similar when I created a short onboarding video for my work at the college a few years back, but this was the first time I plotted out a multi-video series to create something resembling a course.

Admittedly, the fact that I did it myself shows in the quality. I don’t have the hardware to easily read scripts naturally, so I spoke extemporaneously with a set of notes, which shows in the final versions. Also, I don’t have a lot of experience with graphic design and after effects, so the shots can be a bit static. Nevertheless, it’s hardest to go from zero-to-one, from nothing to something. Everything after this point can be incremental improvements.

It was an interesting experience to marry these two different parts of my life. Vlogs, even the podcasts that I did with Jim, are more personal, with little actual expectation that people will see it. The videos Jim and I made were more for myself as a creative exercise. But these videos I’ve created are intended to help pass on some of what I learned while on the board and prepare them for the work we do.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

1000 Days of Language Learning

On the weekend, I hit my 1,000th consecutive day of language lessons in Duolingo for German.

One hundred days ago, I gave an update and reflection on my experiences at the 900th consecutive day of learning German. I noted that a large part of the competency I felt was attributable to pattern-matching, and I feel that is largely still the case. I am reasonably adept at visual pattern-matching based on context when reading the language prompts. I am less adept at auditory matching due to me often using the app with the sound off. I can’t comment on my skill at writing, though I pair that with my skills in speaking, which is hard to judge because I’ve had so little practice at speed. There are a few prompts from the app to attempt speech, but outside of my trip to Germany in 2019, I’ve had no practical exposure to speaking German in a way that provides immediate feedback.

There is one other note in my use of the app over the last few hundred days that I would like to share. Once I reached the end of the new lessons in the app (that is, I completed all language levels and earned a level ranking at least once) I stopped most of the novel practice and switched goals to improve my ranking on the weekly language league board. This changed my interaction with the app dramatically – I optimized for experience point accumulation rather than language mastery in order to earn a high enough ranking on the language board to progress through the various levels until I sat in the diamond league for a few weeks. I will fully admit that this was not language learning but instead gaming the system. I would only practice low-level lessons where I maxed out my level to earn experience point (XP) bonuses for the lesson. When the app was updated and new (more difficult) lessons were rolled out, I switched to completing the same language story each day to reliably hit my XP requirements. Eventually, after sitting in the diamond league for many weeks, I felt no motivation to maximize my weekly XP grind, and so I allowed my league ranking to fall, and instead focused on the bare minimum maintenance of maintaining my streak.

Obviously, this is not language learning as was intended by the development of the app. Thus remains a question: if I’m not intending on using the platform as it was intended, is there any reason to keep the streak? The short answer is yes – I’ve built up enough of a pride in the raw number that to break the streak I’ve built over the last 1000 days (almost three years of consistent work) would make me feel terrible. So I plan to keep plugging away at the streak for the time being.

But I do feel it’s important to return to the intent of the app – to practice the skills and develop better fluency in the German language. I’ll keep with German for now so I can continue to impress my wife’s family overseas, though I should probably also devote time to learning French as it’s an official language of my country.

If my streak were to end today, I would feel happy with what I’ve accomplished. Even if I haven’t reached a point of truly feeling conversational, I had learned enough through the app to be able to contribute somewhat meaningfully when I was speaking with family overseas. That alone justified the investment of time I made.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan