The Less You Know

December 5, 2011

The more you learn, the less you know.

What? How can this be? Some sort of weird paradox? No — the more you learn, the vastness of what you do not know becomes more apparent, and hence, you become increasingly aware of how little you know. The ignorant are unusually blessed for they know not what they do not know.

I think it is true to say that knowing what you don’t know is even more important than what you know. So many mishaps have occurred because we assumed we knew, when we deep down we knew we didn’t. You should not make a virtue of trusting in your ignorance. Instead, admit that you don’t know, because it is the first step in knowing deeply.

Half-knowing is just as bad. But not knowing and assuming that it’s okay is worse. I’d feel much safer with a doctor who would tell me he did not know what was wrong with me than with one who said he did when he didn’t. Or a lawyer for that matter who gave me false hope or advice. Because in the end, the truth is most important, and someone who leads you on as if he/she knows pushes the truth further away, and in some cases, such as medicine, it can be quite dangerous.

Admitting one’s ignorance to one’s self is very hard, and often our egos won’t allow it. But letting in the admission is winning the battle. It marks the beginning of the learning process. Sometimes you have to learn it the hard way. I remember the first few months of my graduate education at Berkeley when I was studying computer science. I was the only one in class with no background in engineering or computers, so was pretty lost in those early weeks. I was floundering and not sure what to do as jargon and terminology, as well as math, kept whizzing by. Having had plenty of experience with continuous math, I found discrete math hard, but failed to admit it, so I just assumed I should know, and that I did know. Yet, I didn’t and nothing would change the facts. I was stuck and not learning.

In the end my frustration got me to admit to myself that I did not know a lot. I began to carry a little notebook around to jot down every word and concept that I had no clue about and that I needed to know. I would return to my cubicle after class and then bug whoever was around to tell me about the new unknowns in my notebook. This little book was my confession of how little I knew. It was also my salvation. I went home every day enlightened by answers to the ever-growing list in the little notebook. It became the symbol of my salvation, my new found knowledge. I began to feel good about how little I knew, because it was gratification wrapped up in humility. The less I realized I knew, the happier I became.

Make a list of stuff you don’t know (see http://swanson.github.com/blog/2011/12/04/whats-on-your-learning-list.html )– it is your gateway to knowledge. Of course, it is impossible to make an exhaustive list, it would take forever. So make a list of things you do not know, and are interested in. Keep it short. Even if there is just one thing on that list but you spend time to get to know it well, it will be exhilarating.


xPhone

June 20, 2009

Everyone remembers the Matrix movie where the phone is one’s connection into the grid and you can hyper-transport to anywhere you want to go. It seems great till you realize that the phone is why the grid has its tentacles into you all the time. The iPhone is the umbilical cord that has insidiously eaten away your freedom. Brothers and Sisters, Big and Small, are always watching. How horrible is that?

It gets worse. The cell phone will drive us all to distraction. Of course, driving distracted with a phone is a leading vehicular problem, but more than that, the phone disrupts your life tremendously, and not just when driving. The cell phone is the leading cause of interruption in one’s daily routine. Why do we allow it to be so? If a person interrupted you ever so often while you were reading, talking or just trying to get things done, you would consider it rude. Yet we are infinitely forgiving of this inanimate object, showering it with gratitude for making a mess of our day!

The segment of the population most impacted are teens to young adults, who have been raised by a cell phone. They spend more time interacting with it than with humans, books, or nature. Being raised on a steady diet of information driblets, much of it vacuous talk, is the most unhealthy foundation on which to grow one’s mind.

It is a parasite that is destroying young minds. It sucks away useful time and destroys concentration. My casual empiricism suggests that even if there are two five minute calls each hour, each of which lead to a further loss of five minutes each in terms of interruption of some other tasks, we lose one-third of our waking hours to this scourge. For students, in terms of study time and quality of life, this is a humungous cost. In terms of mental development, the long term costs are catastrophic.

A recent study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that excessive cell phone usage results in a 25% drop in a student’s grades. So a student with a 4.0 GPA falls off to a 3.0 GPA. Its become that easy to depreciate an A-student to a B-level one.

The study also showed that interruptions from a cell phone not only impacted the receiver’s performance, but it also distracted others and impacted them negatively too. Its become as bad as second-hand smoking! Maybe even worse, because while the number of smokers is declining, the number of young cell-phone addicts is climbing exponentially.

The parallels with smoking hardly end there. Have you noticed how funny it is that the orbital region of 20 feet from the entrance to a building is mostly populated by smokers or cell phone users? Sometimes the poor victim has succumbed to both scourges. Have you noticed that the way people walk when smoking or cell-phoning seems strangely similar? Self-absorption with a glazed-over look. Blissfully and self-importantly unaware of impending doom. The only problem is that we have not yet invented a “patch” for cell phone quitters.

Cell phones are of course lawful. There is no legal age before one can get a cell phone. I’d like to propose disallowing it for anyone below the age of 25. It would save an entire generation from academic deterioration and lay the groundwork for a better society. My advice to all you college undergrads is this: make the cell phone the xPhone.


Teenage Lessons

December 28, 2007

I have long been disabused of making New Year’s resolutions, yet I have not stopped experimenting in other ways in which to make life more interesting. I recently decided to try living my life in the manner of my teenage son. What does this entail? Simply put, my generation grew up with the simple attitude that we should be responsible, and take care of work. On the other hand, my son’s generation thinks that they should be responsible and take care of play. I am beginning to see the subtle wisdom in this.

Over the past week, I decided to plan a few things to do, keeping items that did not have immediate deadlines strictly off the list. Then I decided that I would finish these things off very quickly so as to make sure the more important “play time” could be accessed as soon as possible. I have been getting my day’s work done in about half the time it usually would have taken me. And I am greatly enjoying my “hard-earned” play time. In short, by not finishing one job, and then feeling guilty and finding another one and so on, thereby immersing myself in work all day, I am getting things done, and then stepping away from the computer and enjoying quality time reading and writing in a manner that is more focused and far less frenetic than skipping from one window to another, in a mad rush to chase down all the “interesting” things that one can do when one is tethered to a device that is tethered to a modem of some sort. And more than that, I am also being able to get outside a lot more, and enjoy the beautiful outdoors with a great sense of satisfaction of having put my day’s work behind me. More than that, the stuff that is urgent and needs to be done gets done, and I don’t revisit and waste time on it making cosmetic changes and corrections. Anyway, what did I learn? Lets see if I can make more sense of these lessons than the stream of consciousness you just read.


  1. Make a do-able list, stick to it, and when done, stay away from work very strictly. Don’t bother with it at all, and go about doing something else that is not “work”. Of course, the other way is to only get to work at the end of the day, and then you have already limited the time for it. This is the teenage approach and I am using it – and yes, it works quite well, I am pleased to admit.
  2. It helps to walk away from the computer. I am a pack rat and when I read a magazine and want to look something up that strikes me as I read I would usually go to the computer and make a note of something there, or look up the item being referred to in the magazine. I don’t do this anymore. I just dog ear the page in the magazine and then keep it on the desk for when I am next going to be on the computer. Which is probably the next day. Just so you know, teenagers don’t even really bother with email. They know its inefficient.
  3. By staying away from work you are also staying away from email. Email is fast becoming the greatest time sink of most working people. Just yesterday, the Chronicle released a study where employers were all commenting on the amount of time being wasted in trivial email tasks and various protocols have been suggested to people so as to avoid clutter in in-boxes, for example, we should not copy people more than absolutely necessary. Teenagers do not copy people – I notice they usually send messages to one person only most of the time.
  4. Read and delete stuff, and only respond to the absolutely essential. When responding, keep it to two to three lines maximum. A teenager would not go more than a line.
  5. Make email the last thing you do in the time set aside for work. Once you have done your chosen work tasks, you are ready to play, so opening email then will force you to be efficient with it, because its what’s standing between you and the good times. Teenagers don’t even make email something that needs to get done. I rarely get a response from a teen on emails that I send. There’s a reason that email arrangements for my son’s scout troop are sent to parents and not the kids.
  6. Texting, phoning, and instant messaging are all more efficient than email. Yes, this is true. Teens already know this. I find it incredibly efficient now that I am getting away from email. The big advantage of email is that it is totally asynchronous, whereas all the others are completely or somewhat synchronous. However, this is also email’s major source of inefficiency, it rewards delay and lack of brevity, both of which teens have eliminated already.
  7. Time away from the computer is time that gets used thinking better. I find that since I am now spending at least 2/3 of my day not working, much of it goes into thinking, some of that about the next day’s work. I find that I am much better “prepped” to get my planned work done the following day, as I have run it through my mind many times, turning it round and round, so that when I sit down to write, it flows smoothly, and takes half the time it normally would otherwise. This was an epiphany to me when I saw what was happening. (This blog post has been running in my head for a week now so much so that it took very little time to write out just now). Teens seem to know this already, and they talk through things a lot more before getting down to work them out – it seems to really work well. Of course playing several hours of video games must definitely keep help in background processing all those important tasks for the following day! (Thats a joke).
  8. I have learnt that trying to organize all the information that we get (and I do try very hard to do so) is a waste of time. I spend a lot of time filing things into folders, keeping PDFs and so on, and really, this is unnecessary. When needed these things may be accessed. My generation spends so much time organizing things that the time left for processing information is too low. Teenagers on the other hand, just dont bother, they process what they need and let the rest go, relieving themselves of lots of overhead, and keeping their minds clear for information analysis and not organization. Better to carry a few things in one’s head than use one’s head to store many things on a hard drive. Just ignore much of what flows across one’s computer, it surely improves the signal to noise ratio of what we digest. Otherwise, information overload will become the cancer of our minds. The great secret of mastering digital media is letting go.

I am also learning to stay awake all night enjoying both consuming digital media, as well as generating my own content. There always needs to be a good balance between consumption and production of content, preferably more to the latter. But to dissipate some of those activities toward organization is wasteful. Keep that to a bare minimum and you will see what our teenagers already seem to know only too well.


Email Intrusions

December 9, 2007

There is this general notion that every email deserves a response. This idea seems to be present in the minds of senders and receivers of email. Why this should be so for solicitous email has me baffled. And I dont mean spam – solicitous email is not mass-mailed.

Is this also the case for snail mail? When we send someone a letter, do we unreasonably expect a guaranteed response? I am sure this is not so. Even when we write to family and close friends, we would love to get a nice letter back, but are not greatly offended when none transpires, nor do we really feel guilty about not replying. So then why have we developed this strange guilt that drives us to respond to all mail, even if just to say “thanks”?

I get a lot of email where someone tries to get me to do something I am not really interested in based on the recommendation of someone who knows me. Does such email deserve a response? I am very often guilted into responding because of the one-removed personal connection that has been invoked through the connection with the recommending friend. Lets call this the “personal ” hook.

Many times we respond because its Pavlovian. We are so used to reading and replying as if they are one and the same thing. With snail mail these two functions were never melded together into the same neurological response. But with email, we are progressively trained to do so. As the number of messages arriving rises with time (as all of us know it does), the urge to respond reaches a suffocating crescendo, and we just end up committing to something we would never have agreed to when faced with the calmer reading of a written letter. No other activity I can think of lulls us into a feeling of being productive while wasting time than replying to email. And the number of people trying to help you stay far away from what you really want to do appears to be growing.

Solicitous email is like the vicious dog that latches on to your ankle and does not let go until you do what it demands. Even when you possess that will power needed to put unresponded emails aside and get back to other things, you will eventually re-open email, only to be instantly reminded of all those emails you failed to deal with the first time around. Like ghosts of minutes ago, they rear their ugly heads, demanding your mind share like a petulant child in a tumult of tantrums. No wonder it evokes a response very different from snail mail. which when put aside, doesnt actively intrude, unless you remind yourself of it.

I have written in the past about how the only solution is vast rejections of email by reducing the frequency of attention to less than once a day. But that does not change the fact that solicitous email remains in one’s inbox and taunts you repeatedly. It will have its pound of flesh, no matter what. Here are some ideas for dealing with the problem.


  1. If you dont want to respond immediately or ever, and dont have to (this should cover more than 3/4 of the email I get), then move the solicitous email out of the Inbox. I usually forward the email to another email account that I check only very infrequently. You can use a folder also. I’d name it “black hole”. Seems appropriate. You can even move it to a folder called “Urgent” – trust me, it will feel less urgent than the Inbox.
  2. I get more than my fair share of “please help” emails. I have been burned trying to help too many times. One feels bad and guilty, despite knowing full well that you cannot do anything. Yet, I end up trying, thus wasting other people’s time in the process, and only prolonging the time it takes to respond in the negative, usually hours later and after many back-and-forth emails. Barring the rare exception, such emails are best euthanized.
  3. Remember that solicitous emails are often mis-directed. Based on hearsay that you are the “one” most knowledgeable about the subject. Should you even reply explaining that you are a misfit, and completely unfit for the request? Probably not. Half the time when I write explaining a negative reply, I get another message in return completely changing the request to account for the reason for not engaging in the requested activity. So its best to lie low. Any response sets off a chain reaction that then eats up much more time than we can ever forecast. The best response is not “no”, it is no response.
  4. But sometimes one should not just ignore messages, especially when you are aware that a non-response will be interpreted by the sender as a failure of transmission, resulting in new deluge of messages that you already deemed fit to expunge. Therefore, one might want to acknowledge the message in a non-committal manner. Then, ignore the repeat or follow-up requests.

Unsolicited email is like someone walking into your house to ask you for a favor without bothering to knock first. I believe the best response is not to lock one’s house, but to refuse to engage in dialogue.


Communication Compactness

June 18, 2007

Languages support communication. Hence, mathematics is a language, just as much as English is. Languages may be ordered in terms of their “compactness”, that is, how many characters/words are required to convey a single idea in the given language. In general mathematics is more compact than English. A single idea can often be transmitted in one formula, or theorem. This is very unlikely in the communication of non-mathematical ideas in English. You will no doubt point out various exceptions, and I will say that they only serve to prove my point. I am in short, being a little loose. I am speaking generally.

Compactness explains why journal articles in law and literature tend to run fifty to hundred pages, whereas those in social sciences such as economics are about 30 on average. And many in physics, mathematics and computer science run just 10. This is by no means a value judgment, all I am doing is trying to elucidate this idea of compactness. Compactification of intellectual communication does not mean its all good. When communication becomes too compact, the quality and clarity of the communication suffers, resulting in lowering the value of the communication.

On the other hand, compact communication reduces the sheer physical size of the communique, meaning that it more likely to be read fully. I suspect that fewer people read the longer journal articles properly, and more people read the short ones. One way to test this hypothesis is to do so indirectly – see whether shorter articles tend to have more citations than longer ones, after controlling for quality somehow. I suspect someone will eventually run this research idea through the data.

Should academics in the field of literature seek to make communication more compact? Should they write fewer books and more short articles? I think not. In their case, the message is the medium, and many times, longer communiques are far more aesthetic. Likewise, in mathematics, artful compactification of theorem and proof is also highly aesthetic. In the end, depending on field, one has different trade-offs of clarity, size of communique, and aesthetics.

Compactness is obviously not a new idea, it is an obvious relative of the ideas in Information Theory (Claude Shannon) and Algorithmic Information Theory (Gregory Chaitin).

In my own field of finance, the size of journal articles appears to be growing. We are generating immense bloat in many journals. So, is there some way to determine what an optimal compactness is for research communication in any field? This may be a useful question because the answer enables us to ascertain what page limits might be imposed by journals in the field. But more important, readers will be able to get the most from the journals they read, by not reading too much or too little. I am going to leave this thought out there, just in case someone does come up with some way to determine what on average, optimal compactness should be. And in the name of compactness, I will stop here.


One Thing at a Time

March 1, 2007

Successful academics (in terms of quality and quantity of output) fall into two categories, those that work on one thing at a time, and those that are seasoned multi-taskers. Many academics are neither – many check out from active research after burn out. Then there are some that are simply awesome, and are able to keep churning out great work with little effort, in seemingly no time at all.

After a decade of casual observation, totally uninformed by any framework whatsoever, I believe that the “one-thingers” do, by and large, generate higher quality work. This seems somewhat obvious I suppose. Sadly though, I remain in the set of struggling “multi-taskers” who on average, do well on quantity, but may produce less seminal work. Given that there is a wide range of styles, my polarized classification is surely dissatisfactory. But like any taxonomy, it supports analysis.

Doing one thing at a time is a luxury, but an important one (I am in the camp that sort of feels that most luxuries are frivolous, and am told frequently by my spouse that I am wrong many times over on this; usually I am wrong only slightly!). So when I use the words Important Luxury, it is not to be taken lightly. Doing one thing at a time is a societal plus. I used to get up every morning and make a longish to-do list, planning to get more than one research project worked on, along with a plethora of little admin things. I am now experimenting with just doing one research related activity all morning, nothing else. Only when this is done do I stop and make a list for the rest of the day, when I plan no tasks that really need quiet and focus. So far, this has been working like a charm. There are two reasons for this. One, it keeps me away from debilitating and fruitless administrative chores and detail, which one can easily lapse into in the multi-tasking mode, and then suddenly find that the day is gone, and nothing really valuable was done. Two, by not making The List, there is nothing in my mind calling me to rush through my research writing, which needs complete absorption in a timeless manner. I feel already that the quality of work has been much better, and the satisfaction from it at a different level altogether.

Less is more. Multi-tasking actually causes me to pollute the environment with a lot of rushed output that the world can do well without. Hence, doing one thing at a time directly helps in filtering out bad work in two ways. One, it calls up the needed patience to greatly improve rough work. I call this “sculpting time”. Two, having time to look carefully at irredeemably low quality work brings forth the resolve to euthanize it. Lets call this “killing time”. Never mind what happens, its all good.

In the end, its a zen approach. Devote exclusive time to one single thing, and be immersed in it. Be one with it. Thus, it is never painful – all time is well spent. The undivided mind works miracles, and academic work demands it. There is no other way. Singularity wins.


Loving Writing

February 14, 2007

What makes writing a labor of love? Appropriate to discuss this on Valentine’s day I suppose! Following up on my writer’s block article, here are eleven things that keep me writing:


  1. Read a lot of books, mainly non-fiction.
  2. Write a little bit every day, stay in touch, stay in form. Its an imperative, not a choice.
  3. If you get stuck, handwrite first, it usually releases word-processing block.
  4. Keep a chunk of time free for writing, free from people and email.
  5. Write at a time of the day that ensures emotional calm for you, usually before doing anything else.
  6. Always have two to three favorite writing places, such that at least one is always accessible.
  7. Use good writing instruments, they make a bigger difference than one would perceive.
  8. When word processing, make the pages look aesthetically pleasing, and if this means ignoring journal guidelines, go right ahead!
  9. Make outlines before word-processing – sometimes very detailed, at other times sketchy, as required.
  10. Beware of administrative work – it is the disease that impedes writing, while making you feel like you are justifying your existence. Administration is anathema to academia. If you find yourself doing too much, start worrying deeply about your writing.
  11. Be creative and have fun in the process.