These won’t be particularly well-formatted, and I don’t have any pretty pictures to go with them at the moment, but I’ve had a few requests over the years for the Indian recipes I regularly cook, so here they are!
If I had to give the Most Underrated Professor Award to anyone I studied under, it would easily have to be Professor Meir Kohn. His work falls squarely outside the paradigm of mainstream economics, which (coming from me anyway) could not be a higher compliment – yet also makes it difficult to get traction inside the field. Kohn himself wrote a great essay contrasting the mainstream paradigm of Samuelson and Hicks with the lineage of more qualitative thinking descended from Adam Smith, including fields like economic history and new institutional economics and public choice theory among others.
He has been working on a theory of economic development for two decades now, and in my opinion it appears to be substantially correct. He first composed an unpublishable opus about European economic development from 1000-1600, which I read in its entirety. Then he wrote a more condensed version, where he applied the theory to China as well as Europe, which is likely going to be published in the next couple of years. In private correspondence, he has indicated that he and his students are now applying the model quite successfully to analyzing other economies throughout history.
The first chapter of his first opus contains the best description of his overall model I have yet read. Because I hold it in high regard, believe it to be fundamentally true, and I refer to it often, I am posting my summary of it below. All errors and omissions are mine.
Adam Smith is best known for being the father of modern economics with the publishing of his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. Far fewer people know about his second most famous book A Theory of Moral Sentiments (which, incidentally, is where the term “invisible hand” actually comes from). While the book is nominally about moral philosophy, I think it would be more accurately described as a work of psychology: Smith is trying to explain how morality arises from the workings of our minds. Much in the same way that The Wealth of Nations still seems surprisingly insightful today, I posit that A Theory of Moral Sentiments accurately described aspects of human psychology that were not appreciated until much later. I enjoyed listening to the EconTalk book club on ToMS as well, if you want to have a lively discussion with lots of background and historical context.
I did some IFS with a friend last night around his nail-biting, an area where he hadn’t gotten much traction working on his own.
Early in the process, when he expressed some judgements about the nail biting, I clarified that I wasn’t interested in getting him to stop biting his nails if we couldn’t first find a better way to meet whatever need was currently being met by nail biting.
I assumed the nail biting was serving an important purpose.
Assuming that neurotic-seeming behaviors may be serving important purposes is part of the IFS instructions, so I’ve been saying stuff like that since I’ve started doing IFS. But saying it used to feel more like going through the motions. I’m not quite sure what I mean, because I really didn’t want to get rid of or change parts without their consent. It feels different now, though.
I trust that people’s internal ecosystems make quite a lot of sense.
On a related note, I haven’t had much desire to do IFS on myself recently. Or to have others do it on me. Mostly because I assume that I’ve internalized these processes enough that if things haven’t found a way to shift on their own in IFS-y ways, there’s a good reason they haven’t.
I’m still very open to conversations where I explore my psychology around a thing, but I want them to feel more organic.
I’m also more inclined to just try to give myself what I want instead of changing what I want, even if I sense that I want it in part because I’m hurt in some way. The example that came up most recently was thinking about how I often get angry after we hire cleaners, since they don’t do it exactly how I’d want them to. I think the getting angry is a bit of my own craziness, but these days I’m somewhat more inclined to actually get what I want anyway, instead of “healing” it.
This shift fits pretty well with the idea that paradigms work best as scaffolds instead of permanent structures. So, my IFS scaffold is pretty dismantled by now.
Probably not my clearest post ever, but I’ll leave it at that.
A year ago and a couple of days ago, we got our dog, Argos!
Around then, I dived pretty deeply into learning about operant and classical conditioning, especially with respect to animal training. I read many books and blogs, attended ClickerExpo, and chatted with the trainers at our puppy socials. And after living with a puppy and a toddler for a year, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to experiment with ways to get behaviors I wanted from them.
My very broad brush summary is that a lot of the technical points actually cache out in just being patient, caring, and creative. And, to me anyway, this is excellent news! I want to get better at those things anyway, and it (usually) feels good to practice them.
The most useful distinction in this area that I hadn’t really been making was between skill building and behavior choices.
I’ll call something a choice if it would respond to Szasz’s “Gun-to-the-Head Test”. My dog wouldn’t eat butter off the counter if he knew it would be really costly, so I’ll count that as a choice. But he can only roll one way (I’ll call it to the left), so teaching him to roll on his back to the right counts as skill building.
I summarized my heuristics for skill building in a Memocracy talk at Ephemerisle, and finally just put the notes from my talk into a blog post of its own because it seems like a separable topic.
Okay, so assuming you aren’t trying to help someone learn something new (like how to walk, talk, or give you a high five). Assume you have strong enough preferences over the behaviors the other person is already offering to try to influence their frequencies.
Plan A: Meet the Underlying Need
My first, best lever is still trying to meet an underlying need (or want?) that will get me the behavior I’m looking for. It actually did help Lydia ignore other kids’ water bottles to buy her a variety and let her play with them at home. It very clearly helps me get Argos to lie around calmly more of the time when I take him on long walks and run around the yard with him. Giving him stuff to chew helps him not chew Lydia’s toys.
In order to meet needs, I have to notice them, and one of the biggest things that help me do this is not blaming the subject OR myself. Either one takes the focus elsewhere. It also takes some experimentation to be pretty confident that you know what the underlying need is.
More than anything else, maybe, meeting needs usually takes an absence of learned helplessness about meeting the need.
A lot of my recent thoughts about how to best meet needs have come from this unschooling website.
I don’t in any way consider myself an expert on figuring out how to meet people’s needs, though I do recommend a meta/intrapersonal approach. (Basically, meet your own needs too. Avoid unfunded behavioral mandates (HT: Mike Blume) by making it the job of the part of you that wants something to happen to figure out a way to meet the needs of parts that are blocking it. Or something kind of like that. I have a post building up in my head about my thoughts in this domain.)
Plan B: Assume New Tank Syndrome
My second lever actually covers quite a lot of the situations that aren’t solved by (straightforwardly) meeting needs, and that is helping the learner become more comfortable with an environment or stimulus. I covered already in this post, but I think it bears repeating and elaborating on. Very frequently, if it seems like Lydia and Argos aren’t processing what I’m saying, they’re are very focused on the environment, and spending lots of cycles processing that.
The Behavior Adjustment Training framework helped me get clear on what to do to help a learner feel more comfortable with a stimulus. She tried a bunch of different approaches that I won’t summarize here, but what seemed to work the best and fastest was letting the animal explore the stressful stimulus at its own pace in an environment with other cool distractions for when it wants a break, only intervening to stop the animal from getting stressfully close to the thing.
In retrospect, this strikes me as being extremely commonsensical, but I think I now have a better model of why and how it works. This model results in greater confidence that, over time, behavior around a specific thing will get more conscious and flexible, with more room for input from other interested parties.
Karen Pryor mentions “new tank syndrome” in Don’t Shoot the Dog:
What is once learned is not forgotten, but under the pressure of assimilating new skill levels, old well- learned behavior sometimes falls apart temporarily. I once saw a conductor, during the first dress rehearsal of an opera, having a tantrum because the singers in the chorus were making one musical mistake after another; they seemed virtually to have forgotten all their hard-learned vocal accomplishment. But they were, for the first time, wearing heavy costumes, standing on ladders, being required to move about as they sang: Getting used to new requirements temporarily interfered with previously learned behavior. By the end of the rehearsal, the musical learning reappeared, without coaching. Dolphin trainers call this the “new tank syndrome.” When you move a dolphin to a new tank, you have to expect that it will “forget” all it knows until the new stimuli are assimilated. It is important to realize that berating yourself or others for mistakes in past- learned behavior under new circumstances is bad training. The mistakes will usually clear up by themselves shortly, but reprimands cause upset and sometimes tend to draw attention to the mistakes so they don’t go away.
Mindy has been in public a lot, but mostly in the suburbs, in shopping areas, in hotels and malls and such buildings. She hadn’t seen the press of a typical urban street during crowded times. So many people, so close together, with so much traffic, was a lot!When one criterion is raised, another drops! so I didn’t worry about leash manners. She pulled, a lot, because she was so busy looking around and taking things in. I wasn’t worried about this; leash manners will come back when she’s able to think about them again. Fussing at her would only have frustrated us both and both kept her from processing all this new scenario and established a bad association with it.
Miscellaneous Other Stuff
If I hadn’t been reading about operant conditioning, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to reward behaviors I was looking for even when they were totally accidental and out of context. Baby signing was the relevant use case. I made a point of getting super excited WHENEVER Lydia made a motion that was kinda like a sign, since then she became conscious of what she just did with her body. She could hook the skill of doing the movement on purpose up to the actual meaning later, and she routinely did.
Similarly, if there’s a particular thing I’m looking for from another person, like being really attentive to what I’m saying, or empathizing, or not being defensive, these days I’m more on the lookout for opportunities to comment appreciatively on the thing even when it’s not happening at the time I feel like I need it. Because then, the person is more aware of the thing as a conscious skill they can choose.
On a slightly different note, Argos is actually pretty great about trying to be careful with his body even when he’s moving very quickly… except that he doesn’t get that his tail is part of his body. I think lots of dogs don’t understand this. My plan is to try to teach him to intentionally knock balls off the table with his tail, in hopes that it will improve his awareness in this area. I don’t have super high hopes for the approach, but I’ll probably report back if it works.
If you consistently do something a few seconds BEFORE something else happens, the learner will connect the dots and start anticipating the second thing after the first thing. This won’t be as reliably true if they happen too close together, simultaneously or in the other order. Knowing this made me more inclined to announce my intentions with Lydia verbally before showing body language that I was going to do the thing. (Saying “Can I pick you up?” before putting my arms out.) I know she would have figured everything out anyway, but verbal communication is a big enough convenience factor for me that I’m willing to invest in optimizing my behavior to help her understand me more quickly.
It’s worth worrying about poisoned cues. Basically, if something good OR bad might happen when you ask someone to do something (you’ll get mad if they don’t do it or do it wrong), then they’ll easily come to dread hearing you ask. Fear is terrible for learning. Avoiding poisoned cues falls under being nice, but I thought I’d mention it specifically.
After I gave a talk at Ephemerisle, some months ago, I got some requests for a summary in writing. Here it finally is!
My intuitive model of learned spits out that I learn best when I’m “challenged”. I’ve come to believe that a feeling of accomplishment and a desire to “consolidate” what I’ve learned (by taking a nap or some other sort of break) are good signs. I’ve also come to believe that frustration and failure are suboptimal. Sure, it’s virtuous on my part to be able to learn from situations that aren’t designed for my learning experience (most of them), and that means learning strategies to cope with frustration and failure. But when I’m the one designing the learning experience, for myself or someone else, I now see it as my job to minimize frustration and failure in the learner.
Errorless learning is a thing, and it seems to me to be a good thing. (At least in certain cases. I was going to say it was great for people, like amnesiacs, who relied on implicit memory more since I had remembered reading that theory, but while looking up citations, I also found this, which says that for memory, errorless learning can trade off against effortful recall, which seems to be important. Interesting. For memory, I think spaced repetition is quite optimized.)
An unfortunate side effect of learning that does involve failure and frustration is that you can end up getting misplaced aggression in the learner. I’ve definitely observed this in my dog, my daughter, and myself, though not to any serious degree.
I think TAGteach is a pretty good methodology. Here are my main takeaways:
- Work on one criterion at a time. (Practice either speed or accuracy, for example.)
- After giving whatever longer instructions you want, describe what the learner should do in at most five word.
- Easily verifiable criteria are the best. (“Arms above head” beats “hold your arms up high”.)
- If the learner can’t do what you’re asking in three (or so) tries, make it easier!
- If you can use a marker sound (like a clicker, or saying “Yes!”) to point out the exact moment the learner got it right, this can speed things up quite a bit.
- If you’re increasingly the criteria in one area, expect performance in other areas to degrade. This is normal and expected and will go away once you get the thing you’re working on straight. (If you’re trying to jump straighter and you’re not jumping as high as you were, that’s fine.)
- Being in a new location (or with new equipment etc.) is an increase in criteria.
- To best get fluency, work on precision before speed.
- For learners who want to learn the thing, getting the information that they’re learning it is potent reinforcement. But if anything is making the experience unpleasant, it can be nice to additional actual treats when they get stuff right.
Punishment is very problematic for building skills. It has advantages, and can be very effective, sometimes resulting in one-trail learning. It also seems to generalize well, but threat kills curiosity and experimentation, which I very much want to preserve in any learners I work with. Here’s a Karen Pryor quote from Reaching the Animal Mind:
Clicker trainers have a strong gut reaction against punishment; and the more experienced we are, the stronger the feeling. Well, thanks to Panksepp, we have a scientific rationale for why mixing correction and reinforcement is harmful rather than helpful to the learning. It’s not just a moral issue; it’s common sense. Correction or rebuke switches the learner from the hypothalamus and its SEEKING mode to the amygdala’s path of avoidance and fear.
And even punishment that seems mild to the one administering it can be very bad for relationships.
I will emphasize that, since learning more about learning, it’s become increasingly obvious to me how much people, including me, tend to assume that teaching means telling people they’re wrong and “correcting” them. As a tutor, I’ve found it especially hard not to fall into this pattern. My narrative has historically been that I’m providing maximum value to people when I’m showing them something they don’t know yet, and that equates to giving them problems they can’t do yet. These days, I’m changing my approach to something friendlier and more success-based :-).
I’ve also largely moved away from “teaching” as a paradigm recently, since I’ve been working on grokking unschooling, and that’s something I’ll try to write more about as my thoughts feel ready to be put into blog posts.
A couple of years ago, Will and I attended an event where someone asked us all to consider which emotion we had the hardest time owning and were most likely to resist and push away. We both gave the same answer: contempt.
At the time I remember thinking that contempt seemed mean and not that useful. I talked to some people about contempt, and don’t remember anyone at the event giving me a compelling reason to embrace it, though it’s possible I did hear good advice, but wasn’t in a place to process it.
And I’m happy to say that I’ve finally made some progress on appreciating contempt!
In particular, I noticed that a lot of my internal dialogue was actually pretty self-contemptuous. I seemed to be using self-contempt to notice when my own positions didn’t make any sense and straw man them.
Noticing when my own positions don’t make sense is awesome!
Using self-contempt to do that seems pretty efficient. If you’ve never asked yourself, “what would my enemy think about what I was doing,” I recommend trying it. It’s been eye-opening for me in the pass, and my worldview makes the claim that most people assume most people are more virtuous than is actually the case.
But then, viewing myself with contempt is also costly. It’s easy for me to miss how costly it is, because these thoughts are tinged with the cold kind of contempt contempt, and that tone can slip under my radar pretty easily. But I end up feeling small and not very confident as a result :-(.
And even though my thoughts aren’t perfect, they’re usually a better guess than than my best arguments against them.
Here’s an example of my contemptuous voice being mean:
“I think it worked out okay that I didn’t obsess about not having the dog jump on people. He’s naturally doing it less as he gets more comfortable.”
“OR you’ve created a behavior pattern that he didn’t have to have that makes everyone like him a little less and a generally pushy attitude that doesn’t serve him or anyone else very well.”
Sometimes, it says things that imply that I’m doing something more right than not.
“Meh, Argos (same dog) gets so frustrated when I try to teach him stuff. It didn’t seem as bad before, so maybe I’ve poisoned the process somehow.”
“OR you just thinking that because you’ve accidentally reinforced frustrated barking a few times in a row, that factor is very salient for you, and nothing else is all that different. You weren’t sure he’d ever learn the other stuff either, but he did.”
The self-contempt thing isn’t about me being a bad person, or about me having done the wrong thing. It’s M.O. is telling me that my thoughts, flattering or unflattering, are generally crappy and not to be trusted.
Kinda costly, but also useful and overall truer than not. Thanks contempt!
One of the biggest problems that I commonly hear from my friends is that processing email is completely unmanageable. The most important thing to remember is that your attention is the most precious resource that you have, and you need to guard it jealously. All of the following principles flow from this fundamental insight. The following seven steps will get you most of the way towards inbox sanity.
Turn Off Email Notifications
The very first step you need to take to reclaim your valuable and limited attention is to turn off any form of email notification. If your phone vibrates, knock that off immediately. If your mail client gives you a popup or rings or displays a red badge, change the settings. If you are keeping your inbox open in another tab and see new emails coming in, close it. By having your devices constantly pushing email on you, you will be constantly tempted by email and switching between tasks repeatedly, which is a disaster for productivity.
The most common pushback I get on this point is that sometimes there are legitimately urgent messages that need to be answered. In some cases this may be true, but for the vast majority of people what is the worst case scenario? We have a different method of dealing with urgent concerns, and that is called a telephone—call or text will do. If you need to respond to emails for work, go to the people who need you urgently and explain the situation. You are very busy and constant emails are distracting you from important tasks, ask them to give you a quick call when they urgently need your attention.
Unsubscribe from Everything Immediately
By this point, it has probably become habitual to scan over your inbox and either ignore (or preferably archive) specific sources of messages — maybe this is a company that keeps emailing you about its latest deals or products, for instance, or maybe this is some noisy Facebook group that a distant acquaintance thought you would enjoy. Regardless of how quick and easy you think it is to get rid of these things, you are incurring a small penalty of time and attention again and again to even glance at the email. So from now on, you have a new habit: unsubscribe from everything the first time you no longer want to read it. This takes a little bit of upfront time — usually one or two clicks, maybe typing your email or unchecking boxes—but it saves you precious seconds every time you look at your inbox. You would be shocked how quickly you recoup that particular investment.
Some lists are worth staying on—maybe you’re on the mailing list of your favorite author because you actually want to be notified when he’s in town, or maybe you’ve signed up for an email course or some daily tips that you actually read. Maybe your favorite fanfic is constantly being updated, and being notified when the new chapter is up prevents you from obsessively refreshing your browser. Pay attention to your behavior. Once your eyes start preemptively glazing over when you see an address, you know it’s time to unsubscribe.
There is an intermediate step between emails you want to know about immediately and ones that you never want to read, and for this purpose some brilliant software engineers created filters. Any emails that you receive on a regular basis are extremely good candidates for filtering.
For some personal examples, I have a filter that sends all emails originating from Meetup to their own special folder. Any time I am wondering what is going on in town, or if I have a free evening to kill, I have a host of events available to me at the click of a button. I do something similar for mailing lists, which routinely contain interesting information that I do intend to read — at my leisure, that is.
Batch Process Email
Now that you’ve greatly reduced the number of incoming emails, you are in a much better position to deal with your inbox. You have also stopped your devices from constantly distracting you, so you’re not constantly processing emails — from here on out, processing email is a deliberate choice on your part. You will pick exactly when and where you want to deal with emails, and not a moment before. When you have an unbroken block of time — and this may even be worth explicitly scheduling — you should sit down and continue processing emails until you run out of time or are finished. (What does ”finishing” email even mean? Keep reading!)
By the way, in case this is not abundantly clear, you should always do batch processing of replies from a computer with a full keyboard. Mobile keyboards are simply not designed for rapid typing in the same way. The kind of batch processing that you can do on a mobile phone is that of reading and archiving emails — which allows you to focus immediately on responding when you get to a computer. Leave anything that requires a non-urgent response for later.
The first principle I introduced was about reducing the number of incoming emails, and now it is time to look at the other side of the equation. Writing emails takes even more time than reading them, so if anything this step is even more critical! You can follow one very simple heuristic here: shorter is better, and replies that never get written are the shortest ones of all. And that’s it!
Ironically, I didn’t learn this lesson for myself until I finally caved in and got myself a smartphone. I am the king of verbose emails, I love to write paragraph after paragraph in response to just about anything. Ask me a question and I will go on at great length. Well, I very quickly gave up on the idea of composing long emails using the smartphone’s keyboard. In fact, I learned to become as parsimonious with my words as possible, because it was so aggravating. And you know what? Nothing changed. If anything, I got faster responses from shorter emails! No one was upset I didn’t provide them with reams of information. This was so striking that I changed my email signature to say: ”Sent from my smartphone, enjoy the unusual brevity.” And I never looked back.
There is one situation where I believe that a quick reply is better than no reply, and those are the emails sitting at the bottom of your inbox the longest, the ones you have been putting off indefinitely because you really want to do them right This was one of my biggest personal challenges in dealing with my own inbox, especially given my propensity towards long emails. It still hurts me that I put off the most important emails for weeks, or months, or sometimes even forever, because I wanted to write a long reply and simply never had the time or motivation. I failed to congratulate people on major life events, or catch up with old friends, or follow up important leads, because I didn’t think I could get away with a quick response. But the truth is, a quick response to an important email is better than no response at all. Please don’t leave the most important parts of your life to ferment at the bottom of your inbox.
Your colleague sees a funny video and emails it to your group, or an old friend of yours sees an article and thinks of you. While these are kind and even important gestures, there are simply only so many hours in the day. There is already more content out there than we could consume in our entire lives, so we need to prioritize where we direct our attention. One type of email that I tend to keep around is something that seems like it could be really interesting, but never quite get around to looking at. So what is my solution? I collect all of these links and I put them in a separate file or bookmark folder. When I have a spare moment and think about it, I go back and look at them. Some of them you will probably never get around to, and that’s okay. Be realistic about how you are going to spend your time, and don’t waste any of it agonizing over whether or not to consume content.
So what is the end result of all of this advice? Quite simply, to have zero emails left in your inbox at the end of processing. This should be the default resting state of your inbox: you are either ignoring email entirely, or your inbox is empty, end of story.
The archive button is your best friend. Every time you finish reading something, archive it. Every time you send a reply, archive it. (Note that Google Labs has a ”Send and Archive” button that seriously comes in handy here.) Every time you add another link to your ”eventually” list, archive it. When you get an email about coordination or scheduling, enter it into your calendar immediate and then archive it.
After your initial quick pass over the inbox to clear out most of the items, everything remaining should be something that is awaiting either immediate reply or action. After you do what is necessary, archive it. If something is sitting in your inbox that you don’t intend to do until later, then add it to your to-do list, flag the email or send it to a special folder, and then archive it.
…and there you have it: a pristine inbox. Doesn’t that feel relaxing? Your inbox induces no cognitive load whatsoever! You are never left feeling guilty, or wondering if something slipped through the cracks, or worrying about replying to important emails. Everything is exactly where you put it, and you know just where to look to find it.