Advice, Model

Context Windows

When you’re noticing that you’re talking past someone, what does it look like? Do you feel like they’re ignoring all the implications of the topic at hand (“yes, I know the invasion of Iraq is causing a lot of pain, but I think the important question is, ‘did they have WMDs?'”)? Or do you feel like they’re avoiding talking about the object-level point in favour of other considerations (“factory farmed animals might suffer, but before we can consider whether that’s justified or not, shouldn’t we decide whether we have any obligation to maximize the number of living creatures?”)?

I’m beginning to suspect that many tense disagreements and confused, fruitless conversations are caused by differences in how people conceive of and process the truth. More, I think I have a model that explains why some people can productively disagree with anyone and everyone, while others get frustrated very easily with even their closest friends.

The basics of this model come from a piece that Jacob Falkovich wrote for Quillette. He uses two categories, “contextualizers” and “decouplers”, to analyze an incredibly unproductive debate (about race and IQ) between Vox’s Ezra Klein and Dr. Sam Harris.

Klein is the contextualizer, a worldview that comes naturally to a political journalist. Contextualizers see ideas as embedded in a context. Questions of “who does this effect?”, “how is this rooted in society?”, and “what are the (group) identities of people pushing this idea?” are the bread and butter of contextualizers. One of the first things Klein says in his debate with Harris is:

Here is my view: I think you have a deep empathy for Charles Murray’s side of this conversation, because you see yourself in it [because you also feel attacked by “politically correct” criticism]. I don’t think you have as deep an empathy for the other side of this conversation. For the people being told once again that they are genetically and environmentally and at any rate immutably less intelligent and that our social policy should reflect that. I think part of the absence of that empathy is it doesn’t threaten you. I don’t think you see a threat to you in that, in the way you see a threat to you in what’s happened to Murray. In some cases, I’m not even quite sure you heard what Murray was saying on social policy either in The Bell Curve and a lot of his later work, or on the podcast. I think that led to a blind spot, and this is worth discussing.

Klein is highlighting what he thinks is the context that probably informs Harris’s views. He’s suggesting that Harris believes Charles Murray’s points about race and IQ because they have a common enemy. He’s aware of the human tendency to like ideas that come from people we feel close to (myside bias) – or that put a stick in the eye of people we don’t like.

There are other characteristics of contextualizers. They often think thought experiments are pointless, given that they try and strip away all the complex ways that society affects our morality and our circumstances. When they make mistakes, it is often because they fall victim to the “ought-is” fallacy; they assume that truths with bad outcomes are not truths at all.

Harris, on the other hand, is a decoupler. Decoupling involves separating ideas from context, from personal experience, from consequences, from anything but questions of truth or falsehood and using this skill to consider them in the abstract. Decoupling is necessary for science because it’s impossible to accurately check a theory when you hope it to be true. Harris’s response to Klein’s opening salvo is:

I think your argument is, even where it pretends to be factual, or wherever you think it is factual, it is highly biased by political considerations. These are political considerations that I share. The fact that you think I don’t have empathy for people who suffer just the starkest inequalities of wealth and politics and luck is just, it’s telling and it’s untrue. I think it’s even untrue of Murray. The fact that you’re conflating the social policies he endorses — like the fact that he’s against affirmative action and he’s for universal basic income, I know you don’t happen agree with those policies, you think that would be disastrous — there’s a good-faith argument to be had on both sides of that conversation. That conversation is quite distinct from the science and even that conversation about social policy can be had without any allegation that a person is racist, or that a person lacks empathy for people who are at the bottom of society. That’s one distinction I want to make.

Harris is pointing out that questions of whether his beliefs will have good or bad consequences or who they’ll hurt have nothing to do with the question of if they are true. He might care deeply about the answers of those questions, but he believes that it’s a dangerous mistake to let that guide how you evaluate an idea. Scientists who fail to do that tend to get caught up in the replication crisis.

When decouplers err, it is often because of the is-ought fallacy. They fail to consider how empirical truths can have real world consequences and fail to consider how labels that might be true in the aggregate can hurt individuals.

When you’re arguing with someone who doesn’t contextualize as much as you do, it can feel like arguing about useless hypotheticals. I once had someone start a point about police shootings and gun violence with “well, ignoring all of society…”. This prompted immediate groans.

When arguing with someone who doesn’t decouple as much as you do, it can feel useless and mushy. A co-worker once said to me “we shouldn’t even try and know the truth there – because it might lead people to act badly”. I bit my tongue, but internally I wondered how, absent the truth, we can ground disagreements in anything other than naked power.

Throughout the debate between Harris and Klein, both of them get frustrated at the other for failing to think like they do – which is why it provided such a clear example for Falkovich. If you read the transcripts, you’ll see a clear pattern: Klein ignores questions of truth or falsehood and Harris ignores questions of right and wrong. Neither one is willing to give an inch here, so there’s no real engagement between them.

This doesn’t have to be the case whenever people who prefer context or prefer to deal with the direct substance of an issue interact.

My theory is that everyone has a window that stretches from the minimum amount of context they like in conversations to the minimum amount of substance. Theoretically, this window could stretch from 100% context and no substance to 100% substance and no context.

But practically no one has tastes that broad. Most people accept a narrower range of arguments. Here’s what three well compatible friends might look like:

We should expect to see some correlation between the minimum and maximum amount of context people want to get. Windows may vary in size, but in general, feeling put-off by lots of decoupling should correlate with enjoying context.


 Here we see people with varyingly sized strike zones, but with their dislike of context correlated with their appreciation for substance.

Klein and Harris disagreed so unproductively not just because they give first billing to different things, but because their world views are different enough that there is absolutely no overlap between how they think and talk about things.

One plausible graph of how Klein and Harris like to think about problems (quotes come from the transcript of their podcast). From this, it makes sense that they couldn’t have a productive conversation. There’s no overlap in how they model the world.

I’ve found thinking about windows of context and substance, rather than just the dichotomous categories, very useful for analyzing how me and my friends tend to agree and disagree.

Some people I know can hold very controversial views without ever being disagreeable. They are good at picking up on which sorts of arguments will work with their interlocutors and sticking to those. These people are no doubt aided by rather wide context windows. They can productively think and argue with varying amounts of context and substance.

Other people feel incredibly difficult to argue with. These are the people who are very picky about what arguments they’ll entertain. If I sort someone into this internal category, it’s because I’ve found that one day they’ll dismiss what I say as too nitty-gritty, while the next day they criticize me for not being focused enough on the issue at hand.

What I’ve started to realize is that people I find particularly finicky to argue with may just have a fairly narrow strike zone. For them, it’s simultaneously easy for arguments to feel devoid of substance or devoid of context.

I think one way that you can make arguments with friends more productive is explicitly lay out the window in which you like to be convinced. Sentences like: “I understand what you just said might convince many people, but I find arguments about the effects of beliefs intensely unsatisfying” or “I understand that you’re focused on what studies say, but I think it’s important to talk about the process of knowledge creation and I’m very unlikely to believe something without first analyzing what power hierarchies created it” are the guideposts by which you can show people your context window.

Advice, All About Me, Biology

Not Making That Mistake Again: A Quick Dive Into Vegetarian Nutrition

[Content Note: Discussion of diet]

The first time I tried vegetarianism, I ended up deficient in B12. Since then, I’ve realized just how bad vitamin B12 deficiency is (hint: it can cause irreversible neural damage) and resolved to get it right this time.

I’m currently eating no meat, very little milk, almost no eggs, and a fair amount of cheese. I consider clams, oysters, and mussels to be morally (if not taxonomically) vegetables, but am too lazy to eat them regularly. To figure out what this diet put me at risk for, I trolled PubMed [1] until I found a recent article arguing for a vegan diet, then independently checked their nutritional recommendations.

Based on this, I’ve made a number of changes to my diet. I now take two vitamins in the morning and a slew of supplements in sugar-free fruit juice when I get home from work [2]. I hope the combined effect of this will be to protect me from any nutritional problems.

Pictured: the slew. Next: The science!

Once I went to all the work of collecting information and reading through paper abstracts, I realized that other people the same situation might find this research helpful. I’ve chosen to present everything as my diet, not my recommendations. This is what is currently working for me, not necessarily what is “correct” or what would work for anyone else. Diet is very personal and I’m no expert, so I’ve taken great pains to avoid the word “should” here.

That caveat out of the way, let’s get into the details!

Protein

Eating cheese gives a relatively easy (and low suffering) source of complete protein, but I didn’t want all of my protein to come from cheese. Therefore, it was heartening to find there are many easy ways to get complete protein from plants. These include combinations (like hummus + pitas or rice + beans) or quinoa.

I try to make some of my lunches revolve around these sources, rather than just cheese.

I’ve decided to supplement my protein intake with protein powder, because I found it hard to get enough protein (I’m aiming for 1g/kg daily, to be on the safe side, estimates of the minimum daily requirements range from at least 0.83g/kg/d to 0.93kg/day and I’m rather more active than the average North American, especially in the summer) with my limited appetite even when I was eating meat. I first tried whey, but found this incredibly hard on my stomach, so I’ve shifted to an unflavoured multiple source vegetable protein that I find not at all unpleasant when mixed with fruit juice.

Iron

It seems to be kind of hard to become iron deficient; the closer anyone gets to deficiency, the more effective their body becomes at pulling in iron and holding onto what it already has. This is good for vegetarians, because iron from plants is generally not very bioavailable and it’s harder to get iron when consuming significant calcium at the same time (e.g. a spinach salad with cheese or tofu isn’t that great a source of iron, until your body gets desperate for it).

Even better than this is the fact that iron is one of the rare things that is actually subject to “one weird trick”, namely, iron absorption is greatly aided by vitamin C, even in the presence of calcium. I expect to meet my iron needs via a combination of leafy greens salads + orange slices, protein powder + fruit juice, and oatmeal.

Vitamin B12

As far as I can tell, my diet doesn’t include adequate B12 on its own, so I’m supplementing with 1000mcg sublingually each morning. If I did more of my own cooking, I’d consider nutritional yeast grown in B12 rich media, which seem to be effective in small scale trials and anecdotally among people I know. I can’t figure out if probiotics work or not; the study above says no. Another study I found said yes, but they were giving out the probiotics in yoghurt, which is naturally a good source of vitamin B12. This baffling decision makes me consider the study hopelessly confounded and has me overall pessimistic about probiotics.

I was frightened when I learned that folic acid fortification is very effective at preventing B12 deficiency driven anemia, but not effective against B12 deficiency driven neural damage (so the neural damage can sneak up with no warning). The NIH recommends keeping folic acid consumption below 1g/day, which can be difficult to do when many fortified foods contain much more folic acid than they claim to. If I was eating more breads or cereals I’d be worried about this. For now, I’m just filing it away as a thing to remember; if I ever start eating more bread and cereal, I’m going to want to be very careful to ensure I’m consuming enough B12.

I take B12 especially seriously because I take proton pump inhibitors, which have been associated with an increased risk of B12 deficiency.

Calcium

Calcium is a mess.

Here are studies I’ve found about calcium:

One explanation for this is that the meta-analysis that finds no significant relationship between fracture risk and calcium intake didn’t find anyone with calcium levels low enough to observe significant effects. That would mean that the study that found vegans broke bones more often found the effect because the vegans they studied were so low on calcium.

Except that study is barely significant (the relative risk lower bound includes 1.02). Barely significant study + meta-analysis that turns up nothing points pretty strongly at “this was only significant because of P-hacking”.

Since yoghurt is apparently an ideal protein source for cycling recovery and three small containers of yoghurt provides an ideal amount of protein for cycling recovery (and Walmart gives a deal if you buy three cases of 4 of these, which makes it cheap to mix and match flavours), I will probably continue to have significant amounts of yoghurt (and therefore lots of extra calcium) whenever I’m cycling. This will make me feel a bit better about my mountain biking related fracture risk. Otherwise, I’m not going to worry about calcium intake (remember: I am eating plenty of cheese).

I am glad I looked into calcium though, because I found something really cool: Chinese vegetables (like Bok Choi, Chinese cabbage flower leaves, Chinese mustard greens, and Chinese spinach) provide calcium that is much more bioavailable than many western vegetables. I wonder if this is related to prevalence of milk drinking across cultures?

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for increasing absorption of calcium. Since Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin in response to light and I live in Canada, I’m pretty likely to be deficient in it, at least in the winter (something like 1 in 35 Canadians are). There was a story going around that the government wouldn’t pay for most vitamin D testing because Canadians are assumed to be deficient in it, but according to the Toronto Star article above, the real reason is that so many charlatans have claimed it can do everything under the sun that demand for tests was becoming a wasteful drain on funds.

My plan is to take a D3 supplement in the months where I don’t regularly wear shorts and a t-shirt. Given that I cycle to work and frequently walk around town, I expect to get more than enough D3 when my skin is actually being exposed to sunlight.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

From what I read, the absolute level of these is less important that the ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids to Omega-6 fatty acids. An ideal ratio is close to 1:1. The average westerner has a ratio closer to 16:1. While it is clear that this isn’t just a vegetarian problem, it seems like omnivores who eat a lot of fish have a healthier ratio. Given that a good ratio is associated with pretty much every good thing under the sun (is this why Japan has such high life expectancies?), I’m pretty motivated to get my ratio to the sweet spot.

As far as I could tell, there was once controversy as to whether non-animal sources of Omega-3 fatty acids could be adequate, but that looks to be cleared up in favour of the vegetarian sources. This is good, because it means that I can follow the recommendations in this paper and consume about 6g of unheated flaxseed oil daily to meet my Omega-3 needs. This goes pretty easily into my fruit juice mixture with my protein powder and creatine.

Creatine

There’s some evidence (although no meta-analyses that I could find) that creatine improves cognitive performance in vegetarians (although not in omnivores, probably because it is present in meat [3]). I’ve decided to take 5g a day because it seems to be largely risk free and it also makes exercise feel somewhat easier.


That’s everything I was able to dig up in a few hours of research. If I’ve made any horrible mistakes, I’d very much like to hear about them.

Footnotes:

[1] I like PubMed because it doesn’t index journals unless they meet certain standards of quality. This doesn’t ensure anything, but it does mean I don’t have to constantly check the impact factor and editorial board of anything I read. ^

[2] The timing is based on convenience, not science. The fruit juice is actually important, because the vitamin C in it makes the iron in my protein powder more bio-available. It also makes the whole mixture palatable, which is what I originally chose it for. ^

[3] Although people I know have also speculated that this might just be the effect of poor diet. That is to say, if you’re studying university vegetarians, you might be primarily studying people who recently adopted vegetarianism and (like I was the first time I tried it) are deficient in a few important things because they’re restricting what already tends to be a somewhat poor student diet. A definitive mechanism will probably have to wait for many more studies. ^

Advice

An Apology is a Surrender

[Content Warning: Discussion of the men who have recently been implicated in sexual harassment and assault]

Why do so many people undermine their apologies with defensiveness?

When celebrity chef Mario Batali apologized for sexually harassing his employees, he included a link to a recipe at the end of the email.

This fits into the pattern we’ve seen in many of the recently named abusers. When (if) they apologize, they’re sure to lace it with a few face saving measures:

  • “[I apologize if I’ve hurt anyone], but I remember the incident differently” (Al Franken)
  • “[It’s] not reflective of who I am.” (Dustin Hoffman)
  • “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it”, followed by “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances” via a spokesperson. (Harvey Weinstein)

Amazingly, and for the first time I can remember, (most) people aren’t buying it.

Ignoring most of these apologies is almost certainly the correct response. In fact, I wouldn’t even call them apologies. An apology is a surrender. These statements are rearguards.

What I mean is: as long as you’re defending yourself, you aren’t internalizing the consequences of your actions. For as long as you keep fighting, you get to keep believing that maybe consequences won’t materialize. Maybe you’ll say the right thing; maybe the consequences will disappear.

An apology accepts consequences.

Imagine yourself arguing with someone you’ve hurt. Imagine the wiggle words and excuses you might use. Imagine the fear you feel, the fear of failure, or the fear of hurting someone you love. Imagine how easy it is to give into that fear. Imagine how hard it is to ignore it, to be quiet, to listen when someone tells you that you’ve hurt them.

Doing that, despite the voice inside you telling you to fight, telling you to try and get away clean, that’s scary; that’s difficult. That’s a surrender.

(This is probably a good place to mention the law of equal and opposite advice; some people reading this probably need to surrender more and some people probably need to surrender less. This advice is aimed at the people who need to surrender more. Hopefully you know who you are? If you need to surrender less and you’ve wasted time reading this, sorry. Have some photos of a delightful owl/dog friendship as recompense.)


Of course, surrendering is just the first step. It’s best if you back it up with something of substance. My four-step algorithm for a proper surrender-apology goes:

1. How did I hurt them?

Sometimes people will tell you straight up how you hurt them. Others won’t. And when you’re proactively apologizing, you may know that you did something likely to hurt someone, but not exactly how you hurt them.

To figure out how you hurt someone, consult your mental model of them. Try and remember what makes them sad or insecure. How did your action intersect with that? Don’t assume they’ll be hurt in the same way as you would. Let’s say you played a prank on a co-worker involving paint that ruined their outfit and made them really mad. You might be mad if someone played a similar prank on you because of the ruined clothes. But maybe they’re mad because they’re quiet and anxious and you put them on the spot in an embarrassing situation in front of a lot of people. If that was the case, the clothes might barely even register for them. Therefore, it’s best if you don’t focus your apology on the clothes, but on the embarrassment.

If you don’t know how you hurt someone, or you want to check if you guessed correctly, you can ask:

  • Did <my action X> make you feel <Y>?
  • It seems like <my action X> made you really sad. Can you help me understand how I hurt you?
  • I suspect you might be feeling <Y>, is that correct?
  • If someone did <my action X> to me, I’d be feeling <Y>. Is that what you feel right now?

When asking these questions, be careful to keep your tone neutral and not accusatory and to back off if whoever you’re apologizing to doesn’t seem keen on answering. Also note that there’s always some risk in asking questions; some people believe that you should just know how you hurt them. I don’t endorse this as a social norm, but I understand where the feeling comes from and want to make note of it.

2. Validate and Apologize

Here’s a good script for the start of an apology:

“I am really sorry that I did X. It seems like the kind of thing that would make you feel Y, which makes a lot sense. It’s crappy that I did that to you. You are an important person in my life and I want to work to avoid doing this again.”

Being able to articulate how you hurt someone shows empathy. It also shows that you aren’t horribly self-centred. The focus is on their pain, not your need to have an apology accepted.

Above all other things, avoid the passive voice here. There’s no point being sorry that someone “was hurt”. Nothing says “I am apologizing only because it socially expected” like the passive voice.

Notice also that this script validates what the person is feeling. It proactively assures them that there isn’t something wrong with them for feeling hurt. It makes it clear that their response is reasonable, expected, and that you’re the one who did something wrong.

This is one opportunity to surrender. It is excruciatingly difficult to accept full responsibility for your actions without giving any excuses. But it’s important that you do that first. It shows how serious you are and really helps to validate the emotions of the person you’re apologizing to.

3. (If desired) Explain yourself

After you’ve made a mistake, people often want to be assured that you are a fundamentally reasonable person who doesn’t go around hurting friends for fun. If someone asks you “why?”, you should be prepared to explain yourself.

I think it is best to be brutally honest here, which means you first have to be prepared to be brutally honest with yourself. “I just don’t know what came over me” is a comforting excuse; it implies that this was sudden, incomprehensible, and unlikely to happen again – so don’t allow yourself to believe it! Cop-outs like that allow you to avoid your failings. In almost all cases, “I just don’t know what came over me” (or its ilk) can be replaced with something like:

  • “Our relationship made me feel undesirable and they made me feel sexy again”
  • “I thought it would be fun and that I could convince you to feel okay about it later”
  • “I was so fixated on how funny it would be that I didn’t want to think about whether it was right or wrong”
  • “I’m so used to doing things for other people. I thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to do this just for me'”

Here you must surrender any belief you have that what you did “just happened”. There’s almost certainly a reason for it and the reason is probably uncomfortable – and probably points to some other problem with you or your relationship.

I have a bad habit of leaving this step out, even when asked. Part of this is that I’m personally against excusing myself and part of this is that being “against excuses” is a great cop-out when you aren’t very proud of your actual reasons. But I’m trying to get better, because I think people do find it discomfiting to have their request for explanation ignored.

Apologies aren’t magic. Sometimes even the most sincere and heartfelt apology won’t change someone’s mind if they’ve decided they don’t want to be around you anymore. If that’s the case, take your leave as gracefully as you can and try and figure out how you can do better in similar situations in the future. A sincere apology definitionally cannot be contingent on getting something in return.

4. (If desired) Discuss how to avoid this in the future

This is another step that it’s tempting to jump to, perhaps before you’ve even finished apologizing. It’s nice to believe that if you convince someone that you’ll avoid something in the future, you don’t really have to apologize for it now. This is part of the fast-talking school of apology, where you overwhelm someone with excuses, plans for the future, and rushed sorries so that you don’t ever have to surrender, admit you’re in the wrong, or fundamentally change anything about yourself.

Instead of rushing into this, you should wait until the person you’re apologizing to has had time to digest your apology and thought about what they want. Maybe they don’t want to talk about it at all. Maybe they have specific things they want from you and don’t want to feel like they’re fighting against your plans for the future.

What I’m saying is that while this can be useful, it can also hurt. Make sure whoever you’re apologizing to is ready to hear this part of the apology and wants to hear this part of the apology.

How you plan to avoid your mistakes in the future will probably be unique to your circumstances. That said, one piece of advice I have is to avoid the outcome bias. If you would do the same things again in the same situation because you expect it on average to be positive, you aren’t doing anyone a favour by lying about it. Address the ways in which your decision making was suspect. Don’t weasel out of anything by promising not to do specific actions when you know full well you’d do the same general thing again.

And if you’ve hurt someone in the same way a bunch of times, you may find that plans no longer cut it. Them forgiving you can become contingent on results, not words.

Ultimately, an apology is an acknowledgement that you would have acted differently in the situation if you were better at acting the way you want to act. An apology indicates a willingness to change. If you instead endorse the actions you took and have no intent of deciding differently in the future, you shouldn’t apologize at all. If this is the case, you can tell whoever you hurt that you regret hurting them. You can tell them that you wish they hadn’t been hurt. But you cannot truthfully tell them you wouldn’t hurt them that same way again if you have any choice in the matter. So, don’t walk down the road that ends that way.

It isn’t worth it.


In the examples at the start, it seemed the only thing anyone regretted was getting caught. Remember that these are the examples that our culture provides; it’s no wonder that it’s easy to learn the wrong lessons about apologies! When apologizing to our loved ones, it’s natural to let these lessons seep in and make us defensive when we should be open. Apologizing better requires a conscious act, one that I’m still learning how to do. This post is my attempt to chronicle these tentative efforts in a way that might be useful to others who are also struggling.

Advice, Model

Improvement Without Superstition

[7 minute read]

When you make continuous, incremental improvements to something, one of two things can happen. You can improve it a lot, or you can fall into superstition. I’m not talking about black cats or broken mirrors, but rather humans becoming addicted to whichever steps were last seen to work, instead of whichever steps produce their goal.

I’ve seen superstition develop first hand. It happened in one of the places you might least expect it – in a biochemistry lab. In the summer of 2015, I found myself trying to understand which mutants of a certain protein were more stable than the wildtype. Because science is perpetually underfunded, the computer that drove the equipment we were using was ancient and frequently crashed. Each crash wiped out an hour or two of painstaking, hurried labour and meant we had less time to use the instrument to collect actual data. We really wanted to avoid crashes! Therefore, over the course of that summer, we came up with about 12 different things to do before each experiment (in sequence) to prevent them from happening.

We were sure that 10 out of the 12 things were probably useless, we just didn’t know which ten. There may have been no good reason that opening the instrument, closing, it, then opening it again to load our sample would prevent computer crashes, but as far as we could tell when we did that, the machine crashed far less. It was the same for the other eleven. More self-aware than I, the graduate student I worked with joked to me: “this is how superstitions get started” and I laughed along. Until I read two articles in The New Yorker.

In The Score (How Childbirth Went Industrial), Dr. Atul Gawande talks about the influence of the Apgar score on childbirth. Through a process of continuous competition and optimization, doctors have found out ways to increase the Apgar scores of infants in their first five minutes of life – and how to deal with difficult births in ways that maximize their Apgar scores. The result of this has been a shocking (six-fold) decrease in infant mortality. And all of this is despite the fact that according to Gawande, “[in] a ranking of medical specialties according to their use of hard evidence from randomized clinical trials, obstetrics came in last. Obstetricians did few randomized trials, and when they did they ignored the results.”

Similarly, in The Bell Curve (What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are), Gawande found that the differences between the best CF (cystic fibrosis) treatment centres and the rest turned out to hinge on how rigorously each centre followed the guidelines established by big clinical trials. That is to say, those that followed the accepted standard of care to the letter had much lower survival rates than those that hared off after any potentially lifesaving idea.

It seems that obstetricians and CF specialists were able to get incredible results without too much in the way of superstitions. Even things that look at first glance to be minor superstitions often turned out not to be. For example, when Gawande looked deeper into a series of studies that showed forceps were as good as or better than Caesarian sections, he was told by an experienced obstetrician (who was himself quite skilled with forceps) that these trials probably benefitted from serious selection effects (in general, only doctors particularly confident in their forceps skills volunteer for studies of them). If forceps were used on the same industrial scale as Caesarian sections, that doctor suspected that they’d end up worse.

But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s something about medicine as a field that allows doctors to make these sorts of improvements without superstition. In The Emperor of all Maladies, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee spends some time talking about the now discontinued practices of “super-radical” mastectomy and “radical” chemotherapy. In both treatments, doctors believed that if some amount of a treatment was good, more must be better. And for a while, it seemed better. Cancer survival rates improved after these procedures were introduced.

But randomized controlled trials showed that there was no benefit to those invasive, destructive procedures beyond that offered by their less-radical equivalents. Despite this evidence, surgeons and oncologists clung to these treatments with an almost religious zeal, long after they should have given up and abandoned them. Perhaps they couldn’t bear to believe that they had needlessly poisoned or maimed their patients. Or perhaps the superstition was so strong that they felt they were courting doom by doing anything else.

The simplest way to avoid superstition is to wait for large scale trials. But from both Gawande articles, I get a sense that matches with anecdotal evidence from my own life and that of my friends. It’s the sense that if you want to do something, anything, important – if you want to increase your productivity or manage your depression/anxiety, or keep CF patients alive – you’re likely to do much better if you take the large scale empirical results and use them as a springboard (or ignore them entirely if they don’t seem to work for you).

For people interested in nootropics, melatonin, or vitamins, there’s self-blinding trials, which provide many of the benefits of larger trials without the wait.  But for other interventions, it’s very hard to effectively blind yourself. If you want to see if meditation improves your focus, for example, then you can’t really hide the fact that you meditated on certain days from yourself [1].

When I think about how far from the established evidence I’ve gone to increase my productivity, I worry about the chance I could become superstitious.

For example, trigger-action plans (TAPs) have a lot of evidence behind them. They’re also entirely useless to me (I think because I lack a visual imagination with which to prepare a trigger) and I haven’t tried to make one in years. The Pomodoro method is widely used to increase productivity, but I find I work much better when I cut out the breaks entirely – or work through them and later take an equivalent amount of time off whenever I please. I use pomos only as a convenient, easy to Beemind measure of how long I worked on something.

I know modest epistemologies are supposed to be out of favour now, but I think it can be useful to pause, reflect, and wonder: when is one like the doctors saving CF patients and when is one like the doctors doing super-radical mastectomies? I’ve written at length about the productivity regime I’ve developed. How much of it is chaff?

It is undeniable that I am better at things. I’ve rigorously tracked the outputs on Beeminder and the graphs don’t lie. Last year I averaged 20,000 words per month. This year, it’s 30,000. When I started my blog more than a year ago, I thought I’d be happy if I could publish something once per month. This year, I’ve published 1.1 times per week.

But people get better over time. The uselessness of super-radical mastectomies was masked by other cancer treatments getting better. Survival rates went up, but when the accounting was finished, none of that was to the credit of those surgeries.

And it’s not just uselessness that I’m worried about, but also harm; it’s possible that my habits have constrained my natural development, rather than promoting it. This has happened in the past, when poorly chosen metrics made me fall victim to Campbell’s Law.

From the perspective of avoiding superstition: even if you believe that medicine cannot wait for placebo controlled trials to try new, potentially life-saving treatments, surely you must admit that placebo controlled trials are good for determining which things aren’t worth it (take as an example the very common knee surgery, arthroscopic partial meniscectomy, which has repeatedly performed no better than sham surgery when subjected to controlled trials).

Scott Alexander recently wrote about an exciting new antidepressant failing in Stage I trials. When the drug was first announced, a few brave souls managed to synthesize some. When they tried it, they reported amazing results, results that we now know to have been placebo. Look. You aren’t getting an experimental drug synthesized and trying it unless you’re pretty familiar with nootropics. Is the state of self-experimentation really that poor among the nootropics community? Or is it really hard to figure out if something works on you or not [2]?

Still, reflection isn’t the same thing as abandoning the inside view entirely. I’ve been thinking up heuristics since I read Dr. Gawande’s articles; armed with these, I expect to have a reasonable shot at knowing when I’m at risk of becoming superstitious. They are:

  • If you genuinely care only about the outcome, not the techniques you use to attain it, you’re less likely to mislead yourself (beware the person with a favourite technique or a vested interest!).
  • If the thing you’re trying to improve doesn’t tend to get better on its own and you’re only trying one potentially successful intervention at a time, fewer of your interventions will turn out to be superstitions and you’ll need to prune less often (much can be masked by a steady rate of change!).
  • If you regularly abandon sunk costs (“You abandon a sunk cost. You didn’t want to. It’s crying.”), superstitions do less damage, so you can afford to spend less mental effort on avoid them.

Finally, it might be that you don’t care that some effects are placebo, so long as you get them and get them repeatedly. That’s what happened with the experiment I worked on that summer. We knew we were superstitious, but we didn’t care. We just needed enough data to publish. And eventually, we got it.

[Special thanks go to Tessa Alexanian, who provided incisive comments on an earlier draft. Without them, this would be very much an incoherent mess. This was cross-posted on Less Wrong 2.0 and as of the time of posting it here, there’s at least one comment over there.]

Footnotes:

[1] Even so, there are things you can do here to get useful information. For example, you could get in the habit of collecting information on yourself for a month or so (like happiness, focus, etc.), then try several combinations of interventions you think might work (e.g. A, B, C, AB, BC, CA, ABC, then back to baseline) for a few weeks each. Assuming that at least one of the interventions doesn’t work, you’ll have a placebo to compare against. Although be sure to correct any results for multiple comparisons. ^

[2] That people still buy anything from HVMN (after they rebranded themselves in what might have been an attempt to avoid a study showing their product did no better than coffee) actually makes me suspect the latter explanation is true, but still. ^

Advice, Model

A Practical Guide to Splitting The Housework

[15-minute read]

Note: This blog post is about housework and chores. If disability or mental illness makes chores difficult for you to do and having someone breezily describe it as “easy” will be bad for you, I recommend skipping it. This meant to help people who are able split chores with a partner – but historically haven’t – begin to do so. It isn’t meant to be a cudgel with which to beat people who have difficulty with chores due to ability status. If this describes you, you are not lazy or broken and your difficulties are real and valid.

So, you’ve seen the comic by Emma, or read The Second Shift (which also happens to be my favourite term for the chores and childcare that happens after or before work), or maybe someone has linked you here with a pointed note. In any case, I’m going to assume you’re reading this because you’ve realized that you don’t help your partner with much around the house, don’t share much of the management of household chores with your partner, or aren’t very good at household chores and want to get better.

This is what you’re trying to avoid. Image Copyright: Emmaclit [SOURCE], used here with the permission of the artist.
There are three main things you need to work on if you want to be able to split both the act of doing chores and the mental load of keeping track of them with your partner [1]. These are: general skills, noticing things, and keeping track of what needs to happen. It’s difficult to work on any of these in isolation. Getting better at chores will help you feel empowered to notice when they need to be done or keep track of the schedule of doing them. Doing chores whenever you notice they need to be done will give you the practice you need to get better at them.

I think it would be a confusing guide if I laid it all out as holistically as you’ll be working on everything. In the interest of making this digestible, I’ve given each of the key areas their own subsection, with an additional final section the talks about dealing with some of the issues that may arise as you and your partner negotiate and re-negotiate the second shift.

General Skills

If you honestly don’t have any housework skills at all (either because you lacked an adult to model them for you, or adults refused to model them for you because of your gender, or any other reason) you’re going to need to start by building them up. It may seem like a good idea to ask your partner for help with this task.

It might not be. If your partner is frustrated with you because they feel you aren’t pulling your weight around the house, asking them to teach you will only increase the short-term stress on them. You’ll probably expect them to respond really positively to your change of heart, but you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re instead grumbly. Teaching someone how to do something is work. Teaching you chores would mean that for a while, all chores will take them longer.

It’s possible that your expectation that your partner be thrilled that you’re helping out will clash with any annoyance they have at doing chores more slowly in order to teach you and leave both of you feeling out of sorts. You’ll be hurt that your partner isn’t appreciating your “gift” [2], while your partner might feel like it’s taken you long too long to even offer. It’s also possible that seeing you learn might convince your partner that you can’t do chores correctly, which will make them reluctant to delegate chores to you and ruin your whole enterprise before it really begins.

If it turns out your partner is a bad choice, cadge lessons from your closest friends. They don’t have to live with you and they aren’t starting from a place of frustration. For many friends, it’s definitely worth a few pointers to have someone else do the grunt-work of their chores for them. And that’s exactly the deal I suggest you make.

That said, if your relationship with your partner is one where you can talk honestly and openly (and if it isn’t, um, what are you doing?) you can cut out the guessing and just ask them what they’d prefer. Talking with your partner has a further advantage: you can ask them what chores they’d most like you to learn. I have some samples here, but if these are the chores your partner minds least (while I know at least one person who hates each of these, they also just happen to be the chores I find most tolerable), you may want to substitute them for chores your partner especially hates (like fucking sweeping, the objectively worst chore).

Cooking

Think about the type of food you (and your friends or your partner) like to eat, then go looking online for recipes that match. I’m very partial to the President’s Choice recipes website, as well as the blog Cookie and Kate, but Google is your friend here. Once you have a recipe in mind, contact your chosen teacher and ask if you can buy the ingredients [3] and make it for them. Make it clear that the meal will only happen if they teach you things like basic knife skills and how to boil water.

Repeat this process with several different friends until you can make 2-3 recipes unaided. Ideally these shouldn’t have much overlap in technique (e.g. one soup, one stir fry with rice, and one pasta dish). Once you have the basics under your belt, you should be able to pick the rest up as you go along, assuming you end up doing at least some of the cooking in your household.

Doing Dishes

There are four good reasons to learn to do the dishes:

  1. It’s easy to learn and hard to get wrong
  2. It’s an excellent way to train your ability to notice things
  3. Doing the dishes doesn’t preclude talking with people
  4. Which means that you can get a reputation as helpful simply by doing the dishes whenever someone invites you over for a meal, without sacrificing any time hanging out with your friends

You can learn to do the dishes the same way as cooking. Just ask a friend if you can come over, hangout, and do their dishes. Basically no one will say no to this. It can also be combined with learning to make food if you want to save some time.

Whenever you do dishes at home, especially if it’s part of your set of chores, you should remember that the dishes aren’t truly done until you’ve put them away. Don’t leave them in the dishwasher or drying rack for days!

Laundry

Laundry is a chore that has to be scheduled (unless you like running out of underwear), so learning it will allow you to practice that aspect of the second shift. You can learn laundry the same as you would dishes or cooking, or maybe even at the same time if are picking recipes with lots of dead time.

There are two important things to note about laundry:

  1. If you don’t want everything to be horribly wrinkled, you need to take it out of the dryer as soon as it’s done.
  2. If you are doing laundry for someone else (and especially if that person wears feminine clothes), you must ask them “is there anything in this load that can’t go in the dryer or needs to go in on delicate?”. Many things (especially hosiery) can be ruined by the wrong dryer setting, or by going in the dryer at all.

Cleaning the washroom

I’ve found that people give me an inordinate amount of credit (relative to the work involved) whenever I clean a washroom. I think this is because (oddly) most people hate cleaning the washroom. These people are mistaken. In all households where the washroom has been cleaned in the last year or so, this is one of the least gross rooms to clean.

(That said, this is one chore I wouldn’t recommend learning at the same time as you cook!)

People are very cavalier about food. Food spills rarely get cleaned up properly, leading to stickiness or mold in the kitchen. Kitchen sinks are often a disaster of old food, soggy vegetables, and clogged drains. I find it impossible to clean a kitchen without retching at least once from some food that’s gone off.

In all likelihood, this smells worse than the 3rd Circle of Hell. Image Credit: Steven Depolo on Flickr

Bathrooms, on the other hand, rarely smell all that bad (and when they do, it’s more of a faint lingering odour, as opposed to the concentrated wretchedness you might find at the back of the fridge). People are incredibly embarrassed by any spills they cause in the bathroom and try to completely clean them up. If you wear gloves and wash your hands regularly, you should rarely be grossed out cleaning the bathroom (with the exception of the shower drain, which becomes a yawning abyss as soon as anyone in the house has hair past shoulder length).

Pictured: Actually just dust; one good wipe and this will be squeaky clean. Image credit: Bart Everson on Flickr

Most people (especially people in their twenties) don’t realize all this and treat cleaning the bathroom as only marginally less heroic than cleaning up nuclear waste.

Take advantage of this fact and offer to clean your friend’s washroom if they show how to do it. You really only need to do this once or twice to get the hang of it. Then you’ll be all set to take over what’s probably your partner’s least favourite chore.

Once you’ve learned some things

You can show off your skills to your partner. If you started learning before your inability to do chores became a problem in the relationship, you were probably having your partner teach you, in which case you can skip this step. If you instead learned from friends, you need to make your partner aware that you can now do things around the home.

Ideally, you would clean a room or make a dinner and then have your partner make non-judgemental suggestions about how you could do it better. Be prepared to spot genuine conflicts of values; you might view things as clean after a quick wipe, when your partner considers them clean only after a thorough scrub. I suggest that you and your partner put some time into negotiating a combined standard if your preferences aren’t already congruent. Remember that if you haven’t been doing the chores much, you aren’t really negotiating from a position of strength. Also remember that diverging cleanliness preferences aren’t really a good reason to go back to doing nothing.

Within a month or so of starting your journey towards chores competence, you should be ready to take stuff off your partner’s plate. Note that the chores I’ve outlined above don’t represent half the housework for a typical couple (unless you do a significant amount of yard work or take over all of the cooking), so you’ll probably have to learn a few more things. Once you’ve built up goodwill from actually doing some chores, it should be fine to have your partner teach you how to do the remaining ones.

I actually recommend learning how to do every chore that gets regularly done. This allows you to do it if your partner is gone or sick (or if you ever break up). It also helps you discover which chores you don’t mind and which you despise (I’m looking at you, cleaning the kitchen). It’s probably best to split up the housework such that you and your partner spend a similar amount of time on the chores you don’t mind, in addition to trying to balance the overall amount of work.

Noticing Things

Being able to do some chores means you’ve graduated from Chores 101. In Chores 202, you should develop the ability to do chores without prompting. It’s one thing to clean the washroom when asked, or make dinner when your partner loudly declares “I’m hungry”. It’s quite another to say to your partner “hey, I think this is as messy as I ever want the bathroom to get, will it disrupt your routine if I clean it tonight?” or “hey dear, does cauliflower mac and cheese sound good for dinner at six?” and then follow through.

When you take ownership of a chore and follow through on it, your partner can begin to drop the chore from their mind. Instead of looking around the washroom every so often, thinking about when they need to tell you to clean it, they can enjoy their shits in peace; instead of reminding you to go grocery shopping as a subtle way of telling you it’s your night to cook, they can relax and assume you’ll cook something delicious.

To build up your ability to notice things, you should pick a handful of chores and internally declare them MY RESPONSIBILITY. For chores that are your responsibility, you are forbidden to think “somebody should do that”. Whenever this thought happens, replace it with “I should do that!”.

With dishes this is especially easy. Look at the sink whenever you’re in the kitchen. If you don’t have anything urgent to do and there are some dishes in the sink, immediately do them (this is especially useful while waiting for the microwave, coffee maker, or toaster). On nights when your partner is cooking, head into the kitchen midway through their meal prep and start doing any dishes they’re done with. If you time this right, almost all the dishes can be done by the time you start eating and you can keep your partner company to boot [4].

You should aim to never be asked about something that is your responsibility (outside of extenuating circumstances, like “finals week”).

It’s obviously unfair to expect one person to notice everything wrong with the house (especially if people in the house have different cleanliness preferences). Note that this applies to your partner just as much as it applies to you. Neither of you should have to notice everything! This probably requires you and your partner to talk about what wrong means to you and come to a clear consensus. You should judge the state of the house off of this consensus, not off of how it feels to you personally [5].

There’s one final step to noticing things. When your partner asks you to do something (like get out a specific dish from the dishwasher), notice what else could be done and assume that the ask was as expansive as possible. Don’t just get out a single dish. Empty the whole dishwasher. When asked to take the laundry out of the dryer, fold it and put it away too. When you do the bare minimum, you push all the rest of the work onto your partner.

Keeping Track of What Needs to Happen

This is the last thing you need to get good at if you really want to share the mental load of chores with your partner.

Almost all chores spawn meta-chores. Cooking provides a simple example; you can’t cook if you don’t pay the power bill, buy groceries, and keep your cooking surfaces relatively clean. Even less involved chores probably require the occasional shopping trip, while children spawn a truly staggering amount of secondary work (like doctor’s appointments, vaccinations, permission slips, pre-school applications, birthday party invitations to sort, and homework to look over).

You can’t truly have ownership of a chore without taking responsibility for the chores it spawns. If your partner has to ask you every week if they need to pick up more cleaning supplies at the store, you’ve done a poor job managing the meta-chores. Your partner can only really banish a chore from their head once you’ve shown a clear track record of managing the meta-chores too.

If your memory isn’t great, assistive technology can really help. Apparently virtual assistants are now good enough that saying “Okay Google, remind me to buy dryer sheets next time I’m at a store” actually works. If you don’t want to share everything you ever do with Google or Apple, a pen and paper or notes to yourself on a calendar can work just as well.

You don’t need to do everything here yourself. If your partner regularly shops or is on their way to the grocery store for something they need, it’s totally fine to ask them to grab something you need on the way. The thing you want to avoid is the sort of cascading failure (e.g. a lack of soap means that laundry isn’t done for two weeks) that promotes chores they thought would be safely done to the top of their attention.

Ultimately, responsibility for your chores means that you should be able to do it even if no one else comes and saves you. In the same way that you want to train yourself to replace “someone should do that” with “I should do that” for the physical act of the chore, you need to replace things like “someone should buy more soap” with “I need to make sure we get more soap”.

Problems Sharing the Second Shift

I got the idea to write this after a friend shared Emma’s comic on their Facebook wall. Seeing the sense of hopelessness or anxiety it gave people who hadn’t been raised to know how to do chores or recognize when they had to be done was very eye-opening for me. One common complaint among people unused to chores was that it would be very stressful for them to try and notice every time something wasn’t perfect in order to swoop in and fix it.

I think this is a very reasonable thing to worry about if you and your partner are incapable of talking about things like “what does good enough look like?” and “how can we split these up, so that neither of us has to constantly ensure absolutely everything is perfect?”. In mainstream society, there’s a tendency for couples not to talk about their preferences and instead believe that true love necessarily provides intuition into everything your partner could want.

This becomes a real disaster when everyone assumes that their own way of doing things is the only reasonable way people would want to do it. In this case, genuinely different standards end up being misinterpreted as incompetence or subtle resistance.

All this is to say: if you’re worried that you can’t do anything to your partner’s nebulous standards, the root cause of this problem might be that you have no clue what those standards are and don’t know how to talk about them, not that noticing things is inherently very stressful [6]. You should also make sure that you haven’t just ignored ten years of requests to do things to a certain standard, maybe because it was more convenient for you to ignore them?

I will say that if it feels impossible or very stressful to try and keep track of everything, this should be taken as evidence of how your partner might feel about it too. Foisting all that work onto them is a step of last resort that should only be undertaken after you’ve talked with them and made sure it isn’t just as costly for them to do all the management as it would be for you to do it.

Once you’ve overcome (or renegotiated) the stressful aspects of the second shift and taken on your share of it, it’s pretty natural to expect your partner to express a lot of gratitude. This may not necessarily happen or may not happen right away, especially if it’s taken you a very long time to start caring. “What took them so long?” is probably a more realistic response than “my hero!”.

If you feel underpraised, stop and consider how often you praise your partner for doing housework. If you already do, that’s awesome. Tell them that while this isn’t a quid pro quo, you’d be more motivated to do chores if they praised you too. If you don’t praise them, perhaps ye should give as ye expect to receive? Positive reinforcement probably will help you continue to do chores, but you and your partner may have to work through some lingering feelings before they’re quite willing to take that final step.

Footnotes:

[1] Or partners. Or roommates. Or family. Endlessly caveating for all potential relationships that can occur in shared spaces is inimical to good flow and I’m vain enough about my writing that I’m going to sacrifice some nuance in the name of readability. ^

[2] For more about how the “economy of gratitude” can intersect with chores, see pages 54, 147, and 308 of The Second Shift by Professor Arlie Russel Hochschild (eBook version).  ^

[3] Make sure to do the grocery shopping yourself, as grocery shopping is a skill all on its own. You haven’t fully appreciated just how taxing it can be until you’ve found yourself in the produce aisle, futilely scanning for an obscure vegetable and frantically Googling things like “can you use green onions instead of shallots?” or “what is the difference between scallions and shallots?”. (Learning to cook was full of onion related trauma for me) ^

[4] There is a big difference between your partner doing a chore while you relax and do other things and your partner doing a chore while you keep them company and help them with little things. If there are chores you are genuinely hopeless at that you still want to be a part of, you can help your partner out by making their life less boring and providing some company. Even people who can’t boil water without burning down the kitchen can fetch things from the fridge. ^

[5] It’s deeply unfair for people to be held to standards that they don’t know about. Having a clear conversation about chore expectations allows you and your partner to avoid the feeling that you’re being judged by capricious and mysterious standards. ^

[6] I am a bona fide expert at stressing out over little things and found a ten-minute conversation codifying the implicit assumptions my partner and I had around chores eliminated basically all of the stress I had. I now know that they find disorder much more stressful than lack of cleanliness and really appreciate me keeping things organized (I’m the opposite, so gave little thought to order), while they now know my esophageal problems make it very hard for me to eat food that is weirdly prepared (my partner is a very proficient cook with an iron gut, which sometimes leads to culinary experiments that are a bit beyond my ability to choke down; I stick to recipes).

Still, if this is very stressful for you even after a conversation, there is nothing wrong or broken about you! Be prepared to challenge your assumption that this will necessarily be stressful, but if your assumption is borne out, you should probably try something else. Maybe you can compensate for not managing the chores in other ways (perhaps by doing more of the actual work of chores)? I think splitting all aspects of chores evenly is a useful default, but each partnership needs to figure out for themselves what feels fair and achievable to them! ^

Advice, Literature

Six Steps to a Daily Writing Habit

I identify so strongly as a person who writes daily that I sometimes find myself bowled over by the fact that I haven’t always done it.

Since my first attempt to write a novel (at age 13), I’ve known that I really enjoy writing. The problem was that I could never really get myself to write. I managed the occasional short story for a contest and I pulled off NaNoWriMo when I was 20, but even after that, writing remained something that happened almost at random. Even when I had something I really wanted to write it was a toss-up as to whether I would be able to sit down and get it on a page.

This continued for a while. Up until January 1st, 2015, I had written maybe 100,000 words. Since then, I’ve written something like 650,000. If your first million words suck – as is commonly claimed – then I’m ¾ of the way to writing non-sucking words.

What changed in 2015? I made a New Year’s Resolution to write more. And then, when that began to fall apart a few months later (as almost all New Year’s Resolutions do), I sought out better commitment devices.

Did you read my first paragraph and feel like it describes you? Do you want to stop trying to write and start actually writing? If your brain works like mine, you can use what I’ve learned to skip over (some of) the failing part and go right to the writing every single day part [1].

Step 1: Cultivate Love

I like having completed writing projects to show off as much as the next person, but I also enjoy the act of writing. If you don’t actually enjoy writing, you may have a problem. My techniques are designed to help people (like me) who genuinely enjoy writing once they get going but have trouble forcing themselves to even start.

If you find writing to be a grim chore, but want to enjoy writing so that you can have the social or financial benefits (heh) of writing, then it will be much harder for you to write regularly. If you aren’t sure if this describes you or not, pause and ask yourself: would writing every day still be worth it if no one ever read what I wrote and I never made a single cent off of it? There’s nothing wrong with preferring that people read what you write and preferring to make money off of writing if possible, but it is very helpful if you’re willing to write even without external validation.

Writing (at least partially) for the sake of writing means that you won’t become discouraged if your writing never “takes off”. Almost no one sees success (measured in book deals, blog traffic, or Amazon downloads) right away. So being able to keep going in the face of the world’s utter indifference is a key determinant of how robust your writing habit will be.

If you don’t like writing for its own sake, don’t despair completely. It’s possible you might come to love it if you spend more time on it. As you start to write regularly, try out lots of things and figure out what you like and dislike. It can be hard to tell the difference between not liking writing and not liking the types of writing you’ve done.

For example, I’m a really exploratory writer. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy writing if there’s a strict outline I’m trying to follow or if I’m constrained by something someone else has written. Fanfiction is one of the common ways that new writers develop their skills, but I really dislike writing fanfiction. Realizing this has allowed me to avoid a bunch of writing that I’d find tedious. Tedious writing is a big risk to your ability to write daily, so if you can reasonably avoid it, you should.

Step 2: Start Small

When learning a new skill or acquiring a new habit, it’s really tempting to try and dive right in and do everything at once. I’d like to strongly discourage this sort of thing. If you get overwhelmed right at the start you’re unlikely to keep with it. Sometimes jumping right into the deep end teaches you to swim, sure. But sometimes you drown. Or develop a fear of water.

It isn’t enough to set things up so that you’ll be fine if everything goes as planned. A good starting level is something that won’t be hard even if life gets in the way. Is your starting goal achievable even if you had to work overtime for the next two weeks? If not, consider toning it down a bit.

You should set a measurable, achievable, and atomic goal. In practice, measurable means numeric, so I’d recommend committing to a specific number of words each day or a specific amount of daily time writing. Here Beeminder will be your best friend [2].

Beeminder is a service that helps you bind your future self to your current goals. You set up a goal (like writing 100,000 words) and a desired daily progress (say, 200 words each day) towards that goal. Each day, Beeminder will make sure you’ve made enough progress towards your desired end-state. If you haven’t, Beeminder charges your credit card (you can choose to pay anywhere from $5 to $2430). Fail again and it charges you more (up to a point; you can set your own maximum). In this way, Beeminder can “sting” you into completing your goals.

For the first few months of my writing habit, I tracked my daily words in a notebook. This fell apart during my final exams. I brought in Beeminder at the start of the next month to salvage the habit and it worked like a charm. Beeminder provided me a daily kick in the pants to get writing; it made me unlikely to skip writing out of laziness, tiredness, or lack of a good idea.

Beeminder only works for numeric goals, so there’s the first of the triad I mentioned covered.

Next, your goal should be achievable; something you have no doubt you can do. Not something some idealized, better, or perfect version of you could do. Something you, with all your constraints and flaws are sure you can achieve. Don’t worry about making this too small. Fifty or one hundred words per day is a perfectly adequate starter goal.

Lastly, atomic. Atomic goals can’t be broken down any further. Don’t start by Beeminding blog posts or gods forfend, novels! Pick the smallest unit of writing you can, probably either time or word count, and make your goal about this. When you’re Beeminding words or time, you can’t fail and get discouraged for lack of ideas or “writer’s block” [3]. It’s much better to spend a week writing detailed journals of every day (or even a detailed description of your bedroom) than it is to spend a week not writing because you can’t think of what to write.

My recommended starter goals are either: write 150 words each day or write 15 minutes each day. Both of these are easy to Beeminder and should be easy for most people to achieve.

Step 3: Acquire Confidence

Even with goals that easy, your first few days or weeks may very well be spent just barely meeting them, perhaps as Beeminder breaths down your neck. Writing is like exercise. It’s surprising how hard it can be to do it every day if you’re starting from nothing.

Here’s the start of my very first Beeminder writing goal. You’ll notice that I started slowly, panicked and wrote a lot, then ran into trouble and realized that I needed to tone things down a bit. It wasn’t until almost four months in that I finally hit my stride and started to regularly exceed my goal.

Dip below the yellow and orange line and you pay up. Green data points mean I had at least three safe days before paying Beeminder. Blue data points are two days. Orange is one.

You can see a similar pattern when I started Beeminding fiction:

The trouble at the beginning is growing pains. The trouble around the end of October came from dropping out of graduate school, moving back home, and beginning a job search.

And when I started Beeminding time spent writing:

Those little spurs three data points into the time graph and seven into the fiction one? That’s where I failed to keep up and ended up giving Beeminder money. They call this “derailing”.

It may take a few derailments, but you should eventually find yourself routinely exceeding your starting goal (if you don’t, either this advice doesn’t work well for you, or you set your original goal too high). Be careful of allowing success to ruin your habit; try and write at least X words each day, not X words each day on average over the course of a week.

The number of days before you derail on a goal in Beeminder is called “safety buffer”. For outputs you intend to Beemind daily, I recommend setting yourself up so that you can have no more than two days of safety buffer. This lets you save up some writing for a busy day or two, but doesn’t let you skip a whole week. If you have a premium plan, Beeminder allows you to automatically cap your safety buffer, but you can also do it manually if you’re disciplined (I did this for many months until I could afford a premium plan).

The set-up on my daily writing time goal.

When you get to the point of regularly trimming your safety buffer you’re almost ready to move on up. Once you’re really, really sure you can handle more (i.e. exceeded your minimum every day for two weeks), slowly increase your commitment. You don’t want to get too cocky here. If you’re currently aiming for 150 words/day and 9 days out of 10 you write 250, set your new goal to 200, not 250. You want to feel like you’re successfully and competently meeting your goal, not like you’re scrapping by by the skin of your teeth.

Step 4: Make Molecules

Once you become comfortable with your atomic goals and find stable long term resting spots for them, you can start to Beemind more complex outputs. This is using Beeminder to directly push you towards your goals. Want to work on your blog? Beemind blog posts. Want to work on a book? Beemind pages or chapters or scenes. Want to keep a record of your life? Beemind weekly journals.

These are all complicated outputs made up of many words or minutes of writing. You won’t finish them as regularly. It’s easy to sit down and crank out enough words in an hour to hit most word count goals. But these larger outputs might not be achievable in a single day, especially if you have work or family commitments. That’s why you want your writing habit well established and predictable by the time you take them on.

Remember, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure if it’s at all avoidable. Don’t take on a more complex output as a Beeminder goal until you have a sense of how long it will take you to produce each unit of it and always start at a rate where you’re sure you can deliver. Had a few weeks of finishing one chapter a week? Start your Beeminder goal at one chapter every ten days.

It’s easy to up your Beeminder goal when you find it’s too lenient. It’s really hard to get back into writing after a string of discouragements caused by setting your goals too aggressive.

Even when you manage to meet overambitious goals, you might suffer for it in other ways. I’m not even talking about your social life or general happiness taking a hit (even though those are both very possible). Stretching yourself too thin can make your writing worse!

I had a period where I was Beeminding regularly publishing writing at a rate faster than I was really capable of. I managed to make my goal anyway, but I did it by writing simple, low-risk posts. I shoved aside some of the more complex and rewarding things I was looking forward to writing because I was too stubborn to ease back on my goal. It took me months to realize that I’d messed up and get rid of the over-ambitious goal.

It was only after I dialed everything back and gave myself more space to work that I started producing things I was really proud of again. That period with the overambitious goal stands out as one of the few times since I started writing again where I produced nothing I’m particularly proud of.

Tuning down the publishing goal didn’t even cause me to write less. I didn’t dial back my atomic goals, just my more complicated one, so I was still writing the same amount. When I was ready to begin publishing things I’d written again, I started the goal at a much lower rate. After a few months of consistently exceeding it, I raised the rate.

Here’s what my original goal looked like:

It’s hard to see, but I derailed five times between the end of December 2015 and the start of May 2016. I wasn’t derailing much in March in April, but I also wasn’t writing anything I was proud of. It was a terrible dilemma. Do I write thoughtful posts and lose money? Or do I churn out work I’m not proud of to save me the costs of a derailment? I think now I’d rather the derailments. At least I liked what I was writing when I was derailing.

Here’s my new blogging goal:

No derailments here! I started this at the rate of one post per month and only increased the slope at the end of March after I’d proved to myself that I wouldn’t have any problems keeping up the pace. It was a near thing at the start of May after two weeks of vacation where I’d had less chance to write than I hoped, but it turned out okay. In retrospect, it probably would have been smarter to increase the rate after my vacation, not before.

As you can see, I learned my lesson about over-ambition.

Step 5: Vanquish Guilt

At the same time as you work on Beeminding more complex outputs, you will want to be examining and replacing the guilt based motivation structure you may have built to get there.

Guilt can be a useful motivator to do the bare minimum on a project; guilt (and terror) is largely what got me through university. But guilt is a terrible way to build a long-term habit. If writing is something you do to avoid a creeping guilt, you may start to associate negative feelings with writing; if you started a writing habit because you love writing, then you’re risking that very love if you motivate yourself solely with guilt.

I recommend looking at Beeminder not as a tool to effectively guilt yourself into writing, but as a reminder of what writing is worth to you. You value consistently writing at $X. You know that every time you skip writing for a day or a week, there is a Y% chance that you might lose the habit. Multiply those two together and you get your ideal maximum Beeminder pledge.

$0 pledges are another fancy premium Beeminder feature. It’s only $0 once though. Every time I derail, it goes up to the next highest pledge level. It takes a full week to lower your pledge by one level, so bee careful.

It’s entirely rational to choose to derail on Beeminder if you value something else more than you value writing just then Here Beeminder is helping you make this trade-off explicit. You may know that not writing tonight costs you $Z of estimated future utility (this doesn’t necessarily mean future earnings; it could also represent the how much writing is worth to you as an entertainment), but without Beeminder you wouldn’t be facing it head on. When you can directly compare the utility of two ways to spend your time, you can make better decisions and trade-offs.

That said, it rarely comes to mutual exclusion. Often Beeminder prompts me to find a way to write, even if there’s something else I really want to do that partially conflicts. Things that I might lazily view as mutually exclusive often turn out not to be, once there’s money on the line.

It may seem hard to make this leap, especially when you start out with Beeminder. But after two years of regularly Beeminder use, I can honestly say that it doesn’t guilt me into anything. Even when it forces me to write, the emotional tone isn’t quite guilt. Beeminder is an effective goad because it helps me see the causal chain between writing tonight and having a robust writing habit. I write because I’m proud of the amount I write and I want to keep being proud of it. I’m not spurring myself with guilt and using that negativity to move forward. I’m latching onto the pride I want to be able to feel and navigating towards that.

Mere reminders to write are the least of what I get out Beeminder though. Beeminder became so much more effective for me once I started to regularly surpass my goals. Slowly, I began to be motivated mostly by exceeding them and that motivation led me to exceed them by ever greater margins and enjoy every minute of it.

For more about the perils of guilt as a motivational tool (and some suggestions on how to replace it), check out the replacing guilt sequence on Nate Soare’s blog, Minding Our Way. For a TL;DR, try “Don’t steer with guilt“.

Step 6: Success Spiral

This is the part where everything starts to come together. When you get here, guilt based motivation is but a dim memory. You write because you want to. Beeminder helps keep you on track, but you’re more likely to spend a bit of extra time writing to see the spike in your graphs than you are because you’ll derail otherwise.

When you get to this point (or earlier, depending on how you like to work), something like Complice can really help you make the most of all your motivation. Complice helps you tie your daily actions into the set long- and medium-term goals you’ve set. It has a kickass Beeminder integration that makes Beeminding as easy checking off a box. It has integrated Pomodoro timers for tracking how much time you work (and can send the results to Beeminder). It allows you and a friend to sign up as accountability buddies and see what each other get done [4]. And it shows you how much work you’ve done in the past, allowing you to use the “don’t break the chain” productivity hack if it works for you (it works for me).

The last few weeks of my writing goal in Complice. For two of the days in the pictured period, I only wrote because I couldn’t bear to lose my streak of days where I’d hit my writing goal.

As I finish off this piece, I find myself tired and lethargic. It’s not that I particularly want to be writing (although some of the tiredness fell away as soon as I started to type). It’s that writing every night feels like the default option of my life. As weird as it sounds, it feels like it would take me more effort to skip writing than to do it.

This is really good, because any grumpiness about writing I might start with is often gone in under five minutes. The end result of me writing – even on a day when starting was hard – is improved mood for the whole day. I love the sense of accomplishment that creating something brings.

The road here wasn’t exactly easy. It’s taken more than two and a half years, hundreds of thousands of words, incipient carpal tunnel, and many false starts. It’s the false starts that inspired me to write this. I doubt, dear reader, that you are exactly like me. Likely some of this advice won’t work for you. It is, however, my hope that it can point you in the right direction. Perhaps my false starts can save you some of your own.

I would feel deeply uncomfortable giving anyone advice on how to be a better writer; I don’t feel confident enough in my craft for that [5]. But I do feel like I know how to develop a kickass writing habit, the sort of habit that gives you the practice you need to get better. If you too want to write regularly, how about you give this a try?

Postscript

I think the steps outlined here could be used to help build a variety of durable habits across disciplines. Want to program, cook, draw, or learn a new language? Think that in any of those cases a daily habit would be helpful? This advice is probably transferable to some degree. That said, I haven’t tried to repeat this process for any of those things, so I don’t know what the caveats are or where it will break down. If you adapt this post for anything else, let me know and I’ll link to it here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the kind folks at Beeminder for helping me create some of the graphs used in this post. In addition, thanks are due for fielding my semi-panicked support requests when the graph generation caused some problems with my account.

Thanks to Malcolm Ocean of Complice for pointing me towards Beeminder in the first place and for the year in review post that spurred me to make writing my New Year’s Resolution in 2015.

Disclaimer

I genuinely like the people whose products I recommend in this blog post. I genuinely like their creations. They aren’t giving me anything to recommend their stuff.

True story: Beeminder sent out a survey about referral links and I told them they could set up a referral system, but I’d never use it. I think Beeminder and Complice are incredibly valuable tools that are tragically under-used and I don’t want to risk even the appearance of a conflict of interest that might make people less likely to follow my recommendations to use them. For me, they’ve been literally life-changing.

I’ve linked to my specific Beeminder writing goals (there are four of them) at various points throughout this post, but if you want the proof that I’m not talking out of my ass all nicely collected in one place, you can check out my progress towards all of my Beeminder goals at: https://www.beeminder.com/zacharyjacobi.

Footnotes:

[1] If this advice doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. I’m just a dude on the internet. This isn’t the bible. What works for me may not work for you and there’s nothing wrong with you if it doesn’t. You’ll just have to find your own way, is all. ^

[2] If Beeminder doesn’t work for you, I recommend a human accountability buddy (who will check up on your writing progress each day and maybe take your money if you aren’t hitting your goals). ^

[3] The best advice about writer’s block I’ve ever seen came from Cory Doctorow. He said that some days he feels like he’s inspired and a heavenly chorus is writing for him and other days he feels like he can’t write worth shit and has no clue what’s he’s supposed to be doing. He goes on to say that no matter how strong these feelings are, a month later he can’t tell the which words were written in which state. ^

[4] I cannot recommend this feature highly enough for people in long-distance relationships. ^

[5] For non-fiction writing advice, try the Slate Star Codex post of the same name. For more general advice, here’s tips from 23 different authors. ^

Advice, Software

A Dialogue on Lateral Thinking

Cast: The Hare (interviewer #1), The Coyote (interviewer #2), and The Tortoise (interviewee).

Hare: Okay, that wraps up the technical portion of the interview. Now we want to ask you some lateral thinking questions.
Tortoise: Lateral thinking questions?
Coyote: You know, questions that challenge your ability to come up with non-obvious solutions? Or when you find a solution by throwing out all your assumptions? Here at Acme Corp., we pride ourselves in coming up creative solutions to problems.
Tortoise: Okay…
Hare: We’ll start off easy [1]. Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house. The police bust in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of any kind, they immediately arrest the fireman. How do they know they’ve got their man?
Tortoise: Hmmm… Well, if they can immediately tell the profession of everyone in the room without saying anything, presumably everyone is dressed in clothes emblematic of their profession. I think the jumpsuits firefighters…

The Hare snorts in amusement.

Image Credit: MaxPixel

Tortoise: As I was saying, the jumpsuits that firefighters wear often have nametags on them. So they arrest him because he’s wearing a jumpsuit that says “John”?
Coyote: Not quite right, I’m afraid. You see, all the other poker players were women.
Tortoise: I don’t really see how… You aren’t next going to ask me the one about the surgeon operating on her son are you? This isn’t secretly the HR section of the interview?
Hare: No, you’re already through that.
Tortoise: Because I assure you, I do think women can do anything men can.
Coyote: We weren’t questioning that at all.
Tortoise: It just seems weird to have a problem that hinges on interpreting fireman in an archaic way. I’m given to understand that it’s essentially gender neutral now, although I thought firefighter was preferred… Sorry, this is a tangent. You said you had more questions.
Hare: How about you ask the next one Coyote.
Coyote: A man lives in the penthouse of an apartment building. Every morning he takes the elevator down to the lobby and leaves the building. Upon his return, however, he can only travel halfway up in the lift and has to walk the rest of the way – unless it’s raining. What is the explanation for this?
Tortoise: That’s a really odd way for an elevator to work. What time period is this?
Coyote: That isn’t important to the question.
Tortoise: Okay, I know this is a digression, but how can more information not be important to the question? Like this is basic scientific method. You formulate a hypothesis that is capable of being falsified by the world. Then you see if the world falsifies it. And you keep doing it until you have a hypothesis that doesn’t get proven false. It’s basically the same as test-driven development, come to think of it. Didn’t you just ask me if I did TDD?
Hare: We do TDD. We also write code on computers, not whiteboards. The interview doesn’t map quite perfectly to the job, but we have found how candidates perform on these questions often correlates well with their later performance.
Tortoise: Okay, if you say so. Um… maybe the elevator uses water as a counterweight, but the counterweight leaks a lot and only really works properly when it rains? I really don’t have a better answer.
Coyote: Nope. The man is a little person. He can only reach the button for his penthouse when he has an umbrella with him.
Tortoise: Couldn’t he just carry an extendable pointer with him and use that?
Hare: If it’s any consolation, I got this one wrong too. Now I like to visualize the guy as the kind of person who is so lazy he won’t do anything he doesn’t absolutely have to, even if doing it would save him time.
Coyote: Hare keeps insisting that getting this one wrong is a badge of pride, because it proves that you have a huge inferential gap to that kind of laziness.
Tortoise: That’s the most reasonable thing I’ve heard in the last five minutes.

Coyote snickers nervously.

Image Credit: Jitze Couperus

Coyote: Um… Well, one last question: Assume there are approximately 7,000,000,000 (7 billion) people on Earth. What would you estimate to be the result, if you multiply together the number of fingers on every person’s left-hands?
Tortoise: Oh wow, that’s… oh, I see! Zero. There’s plenty of people with no fingers, so the result has to be zero.
Coyote: I’m glad you got that one. When people try and write out a solution the whole thing gets out of hand.

Tortoise groans.

Image Credit: Eric Kilby

Hare: Actually, that brings up an interesting point. Are puns a form of lateral thinking?
Coyote: I don’t think so. I think puns are more of a brute force thing. You know roughly what you want to say and what you’re punning off of, so you can do a brute force search in your head for likely combinations.
Tortoise: Puns feel closer than those questions. When I think of lateral thinking, I think of a much less constrained solution space. I felt like those problems just tested my ability to be clever in the exact right way on command.
Coyote: What does having one answer have to do with it?
Tortoise: Well look at your first question. A priori, I don’t think any reasonable person would consider my hypothesis less likely than the “correct” answer. If I was in the room with the police, then obviously my answer would reflect reality less closely than the answer that John is the only man in the room. But without that information, it really is just luck if you stumble onto the one right answer. Anchoring effects mean it’s hard to generate multiple plausible answers. And because you’re anchored onto the “right” answer, you view my answer as obviously incorrect.
Hare: You honestly did fine on this section. You really don’t have to argue about your score.
Tortoise: It’s not about score, it’s about the principle of the thing! Even if lateral thinking is a useful quality in a software developer–
Hare: What makes you think it isn’t?
Tortoise: Lateral thinking, by definition, involves unexpected solutions. Answer me honestly: do you like reading code where someone did the unexpected thing? I’d rather an ugly but conventional solution to an unexpected one that’s “elegant”. I mean, there’s a reason no one uses Perl any more, right? “More than one way to do it” is a horrible philosophy for code that has to be read by many people!
Coyote: Tortoise has a point there, Hare. I remember when Perl programmers used to brag to me that they could write a web server in one line of code. It made me think of the scientists in Jurassic Park. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you immediately have to go out and do it.
Hare: I don’t think programmers need to use lateral thinking all the time. But aren’t there often places where an unconventional solution saves a lot of time?
Tortoise: Name one.
Hare: What?
Tortoise: Name one unconventional solution you’ve implemented that saves time. Bonus points if you don’t need five lines of comments to keep everyone else on the team from being confused by it.
Coyote: I actually have one! I had to round to the nearest half to enable functionality that the designer wanted. I considered this horrible concept with recursive if-statements. But then I found out there was a much better way to do it. You just multiply your number by two, round, then divide by two. It’s one line and perfectly clear if you think about it for a second.
Tortoise: So why didn’t you ask me about that?
Hare: We have an interview script. We can’t just change whenever one of us comes up with a clever solution to a problem.
Tortoise: Then pick a few examples in your code where you actually had to think laterally and give them out as worksheets. At least that has a chance of accurately measuring our lateral thinking. And if we get it right, you have a convenient baseline in Hare here.
Coyote: Actually, I didn’t come up with the solution.
Hare and Tortoise: Stack Overflow?
Coyote: Stack Overflow [2].
All pause to consider this.
Coyote: Huh. So if I understand you correctly Tortoise, your point is twofold. One, lateral thinking isn’t a very important quality in a programmer. Doing things conventionally is actually more useful, because as Guido van Rossum pointed out when he designed Python, code is read more than it’s written.
Tortoise: That’s a really good way of phrasing it. How would you phrase my second point?
Hare: Actually, can I try this one?
Tortoise: Certainly!
Hare: The way we’re testing candidates on lateral thinking is pretty much invalid because there’s only one right answer and it’s the one we’ve already decided on. A better test of lateral thinking would be to give candidates some of the problems where lateral thinking was actually useful to us. And if we do this, we should be open to solutions that are different (or even better) than ours. Like your jumpsuit solution of the John problem.
Tortoise blushes
Tortoise: I think that sums it up well. And thanks.
Coyote: One thing I still feel weird about is treating lateral thinking as not that important.
Tortoise: I may have overstated my opposition a bit. I don’t think it’s unimportant. But I think there are many other skills that are more important and easier to test. Technical writing is a good example. It’s actually pretty easy to test someone’s technical writing and documentation abilities in an interview and that’s a skill a good programmer will use every day.
Hare: Or time estimation! I bet we could incorporate that really easily into the blackboard task.
Tortoise: Oh, that’s a really good one. I’m definitely stealing that for interviews I conduct in the future.
Coyote: I’ve got it!
The Tortoise and the Hare stare at him blankly.
Coyote: I’ve realized why I felt so bad about us not being enthusiastic about lateral thinking. I read a lot of science fiction and a lot of my heroes (like Ender, Breq, and Miles Vorkosigan) use lateral thinking to win. And you know how it is… when you read books like that, you want to imagine you’re like the hero. Admitting that lateral thinking isn’t that important to programmers feels like admitting I’m not like them.
Tortoise: Actually, I think Ender is the best example of convention being useful. A lot of what Ender did with Dragon army didn’t involve lateral thinking so much as it involved taking what Ender already knew worked from all of his experiments with his launch group practice sessions and putting it into systems where others could easily use it. This is the sort of thing you see really great programmers do. They make everyone else’s job easier by designing really good systems that transfer well. It was systems that let Ender win all of his battles but the last
Coyote: That’s a different way of looking at it.
Hare: It seems like in a lot of fields, lateral thinking is what makes people great, instead of really good. I’m think scientists and pro athletes, for example. And maybe that’s true in ours as well. But it also might be that what makes a really great programmer is their ability to build up systems that other members of their team can use.
Tortoise: And lateral thinking does help! Whoever it was on StackOverflow that came up with that answer, or whoever taught it to them, that person had to do some lateral thinking. And they’ve ended up saving a lot of programmers a lot of time with it.
Hare: But if we’re counting up total time saved, I guess Stack Overflow takes the cake, doesn’t it?
Tortoise: Yeah, Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood definitely showed how systems are incredibly useful to programmers.
Hare: Well now that that’s all cleared up, we’re actually out of questions. So do you have any questions for us?
Tortoise: So about your benefits package…


Footnotes:

[1] All puzzles in this dialogue taken from http://www.folj.com/lateral/ ^

[2] Specifically this question: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/6137986/javascript-roundoff-number-to-nearest-0-5 ^

Advice, Ethics, Politics

Why I Don’t Want Kellie Leitch to Lead the Conservative Party (and how to Stop her)

Note: A previous version of this post referred to Kellie Leitch as “Ms. Leitch” instead of “Dr. Leitch”. I don’t know how I forgot she was a doctor, but I’m deeply sorry that I did. 

Why I Don’t Want Kellie Leitch to Lead the Conservative Party

A couple months ago, I wrote of Kellie Leitch:

I remain genuinely unsure what Kellie Leitch’s goal is. I went into this blog convinced she was another hypocrite who was only using queer Canadians when it suited her racists agenda. And yet, she voted yea to Bill 279 (to treat gender identity as a protected class) despite almost every single one of her cabinet colleagues opposing it. She does appear to have a principled and reasonably long standing support for queer rights. She voted the party line on whipped bills (as does basically every MP in Canada), but when she’s allowed to vote her conscience, we see that it is rather different than many of the other Conservatives. She may be a political opportunist who can sense which way the wind blows. Or she may be trying to change the conservatives from within.

I spent weeks wondering: is Dr. Leitch just a political opportunist, or is she driven by real (albeit misguided) principles? This week, she provided me with an answer [1]:

“Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president. It’s an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well. It’s the message I’m bringing with my campaign to be the next Prime Minister of Canada.”

So political opportunist it is then.

Let’s be clear, Kellie Leitch isn’t Donald Trump. She’s calculating and clever. She isn’t going to get embroiled in pointless feuds. People are genuinely worried that Trump might declare a literal shooting war if a foreign leader tweets the wrong thing at him. No one is seriously concerned Kellie Leitch would do the same.

And yet.

Donald Trump hasn’t even taken office, but already his election has changed America. His supporters, emboldened at the thought of no longer being held accountable for bigotry are chomping at the bit. Real people, vulnerable people, are being hurt because of this.

Even if (hypothetical) Prime Minister Kellie Leitch governs soundly and sensibly, even if she never enacts a tip-line for “barbaric cultural practices” and never sets up screening for “anti-Canadian values” [2], her candidacy or victory represents a real risk to black, indigenous, southeast Asian, and Muslim Canadians. As much as we’d love to believe otherwise, there are dangerous racists in Canada. A win for Kellie Leitch on a platform of “Canadian Values” and coded anti-Muslim rhetoric would give this small minority social license to harass, attack, and intimidate. A win by Michael Chong or Eric O’Toole would not.

Unfortunately, there is a real risk that Kellie Leitch could become the next leader of the Conservative party (and from there, possibly PM). It’s a crowded field and she’s learned the correct lessons from Donald Trump. Milk every controversy for as much media attention as possible and strongly appeal to the parts of your base most concerned with the changing appearance of Canada.

It’s rich that Kellie Leitch, who received her bachelor’s at Queens, holds an MD and an MBA, and has worked as a surgeon, professor, MP, and cabinet minister, can campaign on a message that the “elites” need to go. A politics without elites would by necessity be a politics without Dr. Leitch.

But this only scratches the surface of my disagreements with Dr. Leitch; I oppose every policy in her platform. I think her plan to put an absolute cap on government spending is silly. The government needs the flexibility to meet any obstacles it faces. Prime ministers from Pierre Elliot Trudeau to Brian Mulroney to Steven Harper all understood this. I oppose her stance on marijuana – I think prohibition doesn’t work and most Canadians agree with me. Myself and others think that her proposed screening for anti-Canadian values in immigrants is easily subverted and a solution in search of a problem.

I encourage everyone else who opposes Dr. Leitch to focus on her policies and why they’re bad for Canada. Insofar as our values differ from those of Dr. Leitch, we should take the time to explain why. We should seek dialogue with her supporters and seek to allay their fears. We should be proud defenders of globalization and immigration and all the benefits they have brought. We should not retreat into our filter bubbles and dismiss the rest of Canada as the wrong kind of people. That kind of retrenchment doesn’t have the best track record right now.

I think there are much better candidates in the conservative leadership race. Michael Chong, for example, has an excellent record on social issues and supports carbon pricing. He and I have policy disagreements, but a Conservative Party of Canada led by Michael Chong would be a contender for my vote in the next election. Given that the NDP has abandoned me, I would dearly like to be able to make a choice between two parties with sound policy proposals and positive plans for Canada going forward. I could not do that with Kellie Leitch at the head of the Conservative Party.

4 Things You Can Do To Help

Kellie Leitch is relying on free media attention to differentiate her from a crowded field. Under no circumstances should we advocate for deliberate suppression of stories about Dr. Leitch. And yet, outrage generates clicks. As long as Kellie Leitch can profit from her simple algorithm – say something objectionable, but not so objectionable that the party kicks you out, wait for the media to write a hundred stories about it, profit from the increased name recognition – she’ll continue to use it.

We can attempt to complicate her algorithm by removing the financial incentive to focus most of the media coverage that the CPC leadership race is getting on her. There are a few ways you can do this.

  1. Promise yourself that you won’t share any news stories about her electronically. By all means, tell you friends. But don’t share it on your Facebook wall where it will generate clicks.
  2. If you must visit a news article about Kellie Leitch (say to research for a blog post about her), visit with an ad-blocker. You’ll notice that I’ve used [N] style references throughout this post. Those are all links to recent stories about Kellie Leitch. I’d ask that anyone who cares about her not winning the leadership race not visit them without an ad-blocker.
  3. Share this information with your friends. If they post a story about Kellie Leitch, gently tell them why this is a bad idea. Don’t get angry. Your friend is doing nothing morally wrong. But they are contributing to the outrage cycle and if you can stop it, that’s great. If they don’t understand the threat Kellie Leitch poses, show them some of the hate crimes that have been committed in America since Trump was elected and explain to them that Kellie Leitch winning an election would possibly have the same consequences. You can link them to this post if you’d like (I don’t have ads on my website and make no money if you do). Or you can show them how Trump’s win has already emboldened the alt-right in Canada.
  4. If you’re a member of the Conservative Party of Canada or plan to become a member before the leadership race membership cut-off of March 28, 2017, you can act more directly to ensure that Kellie Leitch does not win the vote. It doesn’t matter how you rank the candidates, as long as Kellie Leitch is ranked last (although if you care at all about climate change, you may want Brad Trost ranked low on your ballot as well).

Kellie Leitch has gained name recognition and a measure of popularity with her stances. But she’s also made a lot of enemies. She leads the field in both favourability and unfavourability ratings. The next leader of the Conservative Party will be picked using instant run-off with ranked ballots. If Kellie Leitch is at the bottom of most people’s ballots, she can’t win.

Let the next Canadian election be about which policies will bring us peace, order, and good government. Let’s not bring race and belonging into it.

Kellie Leitch related links (don’t visit without an ad-blocker):

[1] http://globalnews.ca/news/3057503/kellie-leitch-wants-to-bring-donald-trumps-exciting-message-to-canada/

[2] http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/leitch-responds-survey-question-1.3746470

Epistemic Status: Ethics?

Advice, Software

Resume Tips For Students

I graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in Honours Nanotechnology Engineering in 2015. Like all engineering programs at UW, this is a coop program. Over the course of four coop terms, I submitted over a hundred resumes and did about 20 interviews.

After I dropped out of graduate school, moved back to Waterloo, and got a job at Alert Labs I suddenly found myself on the other side of equations. I’ve now had a chance to interview students and look at resumes. Hundreds of resumes. Do you know what looking at 200 resumes in a day does to a person? It’s not pretty.

Looking through all these resumes, I was struck by a bunch of self-defeating things that students did. Some of them I remembered doing myself. The double vision was… enlightening. I considered posting an angry anonymous rant on the UW subreddit, but with some helpful prodding, I decided to make a list of advice instead.

Note that all advice is context specific. These are tips that are guaranteed to work if you’re applying for a job and I’m looking at your resume. They’ll quite possibly work well for jobs reviewed by other UW alumni, who also understand the process from both sides. They’re also tips optimized for software jobs, because that’s what I’m hiring for and that’s what I have the most experience applying for. Follow my advice at your own peril.

As always, the views expressed here are my own.

Overall Strategy

Scientists used to partition animals into r-selected species and K-selected species (it refers to the constants the species ostensibly maximized in a population dynamics equation). K-selected species (like humans) have relatively few offspring, but put a lot of effort into each of these offspring. On the other hand, r-selected species (like rats) have a ton of offspring but give each of these offspring very little care.

Which strategy is superior depends a lot on environment.

In coop, it’s the same way. When you’re in 1A or 1B, it actually makes a lot of sense to have a few general resumes (that you still proof-read like mad) and send these out to as many companies as CECA will let you. As you gain experience and figure out what you want, it can pay dividends to become picky about which jobs you apply for and spend a lot of time crafting each resume to maximize the chances that you’ll get an interview.

r-Selection: Apply for all the jobs

If you’re in an early term and using r-selection, you should still spend some time looking at each job. You can send out a lot of resumes, but not an infinite number of resumes and a few heuristics can maximize your chances of being hired. You should probably avoid applying to intermediate and senior positions (the hiring manager may just ignore all first years).

If your resume is sparse, focus on QA jobs, or jobs in early stage companies that can’t afford to pay you very much; they’ll be the most likely to hire you if you lack some (or even most) of the requirements for the positions. Start-ups that are remunerating competitively because they need someone to hit the ground running will be much less likely to extend you an interview if you lack some of the skills they’ve listed.

In most cases, you won’t want to use a cover letter. The person reading it can tell instantly if you’re sending the same one to everyone (yes, even if you change the names), at which point it becomes mostly useless. If you’re using a form letter, the only reason to send one is if you want to prove to the employer that your writing skills are up to scratch. This means that your cover letter must be perfect. Reading it over a few times isn’t enough. Read it out loud twice, then pass it off to a friend to read. Then incorporate their edits and read it out loud twice more. If you don’t trust your own writing, bring it to the writing centre and have them help you.

Don’t be too married to r-selection though. If there’s a job that you’re really interested in, follow the K-selection advice and put together a really solid package.

K-Selection: Optimize your Resume

When you’re in your later terms, it can pay to be picky. Interviews are a huge time commitment and you don’t want to have to do 20 of them (I know people who’ve been in this situation and they did not enjoy it). Look through job postings carefully. From the information you have, imagine yourself working there. Are you happy? Fulfilled? Excited to go to work? If no, then pass.

In addition to optimizing your resume, you should write a unique cover letter for each job. How unique? My rule of thumb is that approximately half of the cover letter should be specific to the job. Be sure to mention whatever it was you imagined would make you happy at the job. Tell the hiring manager that you expect to be able to do your best job there because of _________. Highlight a skill from your resume that the employer is looking for and tell them (in one paragraph) how you used it in a previous coop term or personal project. Tell them the benefits that that company got from you applying that skill there. You want to sell them the idea that their life will be better if you’re working for them, doing that thing.

If you have any blemishes on your record (a failed coop term or low ranking), you can ignore it. This is easy mode and probably the safest bet. But if you’re feeling adventurous or think your dream job has high standards explain what happened. A reasonable explanation can move a resume from the reject pile to the interview pile. Owning up to failures shows maturity. Introspecting and planning on how to do better shows even more maturity. Trust me when I say most employers are looking to work with mature adults.

On your resume, judiciously prune references to skills that the company doesn’t care about. If there’s something you’re so proud of or skilled in that you don’t want to cut it even though it wasn’t in the posting, move it to the end of the skills list. Make it easy for them to see that you have framework X or language Y. When discussing your past coop terms, reference these skills/languages/frameworks. Give them confidence that you really know it.

If you have hard numbers on improvements that you’ve made, let people know. On my resume, I talk about a script that used to take six weeks to run and can now be run in two hours. Like I said above, you want them to believe that things at their company will be X% better with you working there.

Specific Nitpicks

Here I’ve collected every single resume “feature” that has made me groan over the past week. Please don’t do these things!

Microsoft Office

If I am interviewing you for a programming job, I expect you to know how to use Microsoft Office. Because you got into UW, I can safely assume that you know how to use Microsoft Office. Unless I specifically mention in my posting that I want you to know how to use Microsoft Office, you can use the real estate that mentioning it on your resume would have used to tell me about a skill I will actually care about. Save us both some time here.

I don’t care what CECA says, you are not helping yourself if you apply to a job at a software start-up (or Google, or Facebook, etc.) and take up valuable resume space talking about Microsoft Office. Not even Microsoft cares. Just don’t do it.

Familiar With…

Look, I too was a coop student. And sometimes I would see a really cool job with a technology I didn’t know much about. And I would write on my resume: “Familiar with Technology X”. I never did this with something I’d never used. But I stretched the definition of “familiar” pretty darn far.

I would formally apologize to every employer I did this to, except I’m now 98% sure they all knew exactly what I meant with “familiar with”. When I see your resume says “familiar with node.js”, I know right away that I can’t leave you unsupervised working on a node.js project. Familiar with really means “I used this for a week in class” or “I started to work on a project using this but got pulled off of it a day later”.

The worst part comes when you get to the interview. The most common beginning to a question about anything a student is “familiar with” is “well, to be honest with you…” followed by an explanation of why they only sort of know the language/technology and can’t give me a decent answer to the question. It’s frustrating and disappointing, especially when (against all logic) I trust that you’re actually familiar with it and you crash and burn in the interview.

I don’t have a great solution to this one, because the resume arms race makes it hard not to try and inflate what you know. I think the thing I tried to do (when I resisted the temptation to use “familiar with”) is to give context around a technology. Instead of “familiar with Perl”, I’d write “read and rewrote a Perl application”. Instead of “familiar with Angular.js”, I’d write “created a prototype application in Angular.js”.

Anyway, I guess all I really have to say is that you’re fooling no one with “familiar with” and you’re shooting yourself in the foot for interviews when you use it. If you have a foolproof solution to this problem, let me know!

Nitty Gritty Details

This is similar to and complementary with the previous point.

Anything you put on your resume is fair game for an interview question. Be prepared to expand and explain any acronym you use. Read over your resume and make sure you can do this. Actually do it. Don’t just think to yourself oh yeah, AFM, got that, no problem. Explain atomic force microscopy out loud. Notice how many times you say “um”. Ask yourself if the explanation was clear. If you aren’t satisfied with the answer, practice until you are. Remember that this is easy mode. There’s currently no pressure on you. If you’re struggling now, you’re going to crash and burn during an interview.

If you don’t have time to brush up, then remove the acronym or accept that if you get asked about it you’ll probably lose your shot at an offer (and have no one to blame but yourself). If you can’t explain one thing on your resume, I immediately lose faith in your ability to explain anything else on it. You don’t want me to start doubting your general competence, do you?

Machine Learning

This deserves a heading of its own, because it’s extremely irritating.

When you put down machine learning, you are telling me that you can name a couple machine learning algorithms and speak briefly about the advantages or disadvantages of each. You’re telling me you understand sensitivity and specificity and the receiver operating curve. You’re telling me that you understand overfitting and understand strategies to mitigate it.

If you’ve used someone else’s machine learning algorithm with no thought given to hyperparameter optimization, you don’t know machine learning. This is akin to saying “experience in word processor development” because you’ve used Microsoft Word. Please don’t do it.

I solemnly swear I will never hire someone who puts experience with machine learning on their resume and can’t answer basic questions about it and I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way.

Bullet Point Tense

It’s fairly standard to list your responsibilities at a previous job using bullet points.  I have no issues with this per se. But if you’re going to do this, please (for the love of all that is holy) make sure that you read over your bullet points afterwards.

The most common mistake I see students making here is mismatching tenses. Each bullet point should be in the same tense as the others. Ideally they should all be past tense, but present tense is acceptable as long as you’re consistent with it. If your first bullet point is “collaborate with stakeholders…”, your second cannot be “researched key customer requirements”.

If this doesn’t make sense to you, go talk to the fine people at the writing centre. They’ll be able to explain it better than this blog post can.

Also be careful about how you end bullet points. If one has punctuation, all the others need it too. They’re either sentences or stand-alone thoughts. Either is fine, but don’t use both. This is the sort of thing that 95% of people won’t notice and then the hiring manager for your dream job will and then they’ll start assuming that you don’t really care about details.

These seem like minor nitpicks. And they are! But your resume is more than a list of your skills. It’s a reflection on you. How can you expect me to trust that you’ll care about all the fine details of the job I have for you if you don’t care about them on your resume? How do you expect to convince me that you really do have the “excellent written communication skills” you just listed if you’re messing up basic grammar rules? If I hire you, I want to do it confident that I’ll be able to understand the documentation you write or the panicked 3AM messages you send me about taking the server down. In today’s increasingly text-based world, good written communication isn’t optional.

Bold and Italics

How many times have I used bold and italics so far? Not very many. If I suddenly use it, I’ll get your attention right away. This point is very important! See?

If you bold every skill on your resume, you’ve bolded no skills on your resume. Do this and all I see is this bad looking blur of bold text at the top. You’ve made me less interested in hunting for important skills, not more. Honestly, you can skip bold altogether if you just rearrange your skills so the ones I care about are right at the front. Even if I don’t consciously notice that you’ve helped me out (I probably will notice after slogging through 50 resumes that obstinately refused to do this, but still) I’ll subconsciously register that your skills seem to be a lot better suited for the position than everyone else’s.

If you’re going to use bold, use it only for the technologies that are listed in the job description or to highlight notable achievements. Bold the percentage you decreased outages by or the percentage you outperformed the typical coop by. If you have more than 8 or so words bolded on your whole resume, seriously consider removing some of the bold formatting.

Past Compensation

When we go to interview you, CECA gives us a handy dandy print-out that tells us how much students make (on average). We know roughly what your past compensation is. We know what we’re planning on paying you. Don’t bother telling us what you made during past coop terms. It’s wasted space and isn’t going to influence what we pay you. Just don’t.

School Projects

If you’re in first or second year and really need something to put on your resume, you can put school projects on it. But remember that we’re going to see resumes from your classmates. We’re very quickly going to catch on to the fact that you did that programming project you’ve dressed up as cool because the school made you, not because you wanted to. This makes it of limited value to us, except as a marker of some experience in a specific technology.

Try and write these sections to highlight the technology and what you learned about it. Or if you went above and beyond the project and added to it in your own time, tell us that. Otherwise use this section mainly for plugging white space in your layout and delete it as soon as you have enough work experience to fill a page. If you ever comes down to writing about a work term or writing about a project, do the work term unless the project lets you highlight a language that the job requires that you couldn’t otherwise highlight.

Hobbies

I swear that almost every student in Waterloo has three hobbies picked from a list of ten socially acceptable and academically interesting hobbies. Badminton, Martial Arts, Piano, Hockey, Soccer, Reading, Violin, Archery, Photography, and Video Game Design (which somewhat improbably seems to show up far more often than playing video games).

I have nothing against these hobbies. They’re all (except for soccer) perfectly fine ways to spend time. They also do absolutely nothing to differentiate you. If everyone else has the same hobbies as you, on some level I’m going to believe that you’re faceless and replaceable. Sure, I’ll intellectually know that you’re an individual with something unique to bring to my team. But after 200 resumes, I’m going to have trouble really believing it.

So tell me about the hobby that you’re really excited about but scared put on your resume. Make me remember you as “the student who was brave enough to put Magic: The Gathering on their resume”. Tell me about how you’ve done statistical analysis and stayed up all night trawling Wikipedia to make sure that you’d have the best fantasy hockey team in your league.

If your favourite thing to do genuinely is something really popular and you know that if you simply list it you’ll fade into the background, give me a deeper window into it. Don’t write me a novel, just give me one or two really genuine sentences that convince me that you can get excited about something. Then you’ll no longer be faceless coop applicant #43. You’ll be a person who I’m invested in and interested in hiring.

There’s one last advantage of doing a good job on the hobbies section of your resume. You might be asked about it in the interview. If you play this right, you can talk for a minute or two about a subject you’re extremely confident in and comfortable with. Interviews last a fixed time and those minutes might otherwise be spent grilling you about the nitty gritty details of your technical stack. This is a trade that will almost always come out in your favour, so make sure you can talk about any hobbies you list for at least one minute and make sure you can do it while being visibly excited.

Closing Thoughts

When I was in debate, we learned about the argument tree. It has leaves (these are your opponent’s facts), branches (these are your opponent’s points), and a trunk (this is the viewpoint that underlies your opponent’s whole argument). You have an axe and need to get rid of the tree.

It’s really safe but also fairly ineffective to cut at the leaves. You’ll probably end up doing nothing, in the end. It’s more effective (but riskier) to attack the branches, you may actually even get somewhere that way, but it’s slow going. It’s most effective to hack at the trunk. If you can pull this off (and you won’t always be able to) then you’re guaranteed a win (and you’ll have won with style).

(Incidentally, I recommend debate for anyone who wants to improve their interview skills – it really forces you to think on your feet and improvise and many debaters will be willing to work with you to cut down on verbal tics like “um” and “like”)

Trying to get a coop job has a similar risk/reward curve to debating. You can throw out a lot of acronyms and skills and try and convince the hiring manager that you meet the minimum requirements for the job. This doesn’t really backfire, but it also isn’t going to make the hiring manager excited about you; good enough might be enough to get you a job, but only if someone more interesting doesn’t come along.

You can point out all the ways you made life better at your past coop. This is riskier – maybe you pick metrics that the job you’re applying to doesn’t care about or they decide that you didn’t have the requisite number of three letter acronyms. But it can pay off big time. You can make the hiring manager start to be invested in the idea of a coop with your qualifications and abilities and less willing to settle for just good enough.

Or you can take the time to really craft your resume and cover letter into a story about how you – your skills, experience and personality will make life better and more fun if you’re hired. Now the hiring manager is invested in the idea of having you there. They won’t settle for anyone else, no matter how many acronyms are on their resume. They’ll fight their bosses to get you.

This won’t work everywhere. Some people will find you grating and that sucks. I mean, it’s probably better to find that out before you commit to working with them, but it still sucks. But when this works, it works. I’ve had friends offered extra salary if they ditch other offers. I’ve seen new coop positions created just for people who’ve pulled this off. If you can do this, you’re golden.

On Failure and Second Chances

I read through 200 resumes this week and 185 of them annoyed me in some way. Maybe they applied without any of the qualifications I was looking for. Maybe they said “familiar with” one too many times. Maybe they used a form cover letter, or addressed the cover letter to the wrong person. Whatever they did, I closed their resume in annoyance or disgust.

I don’t remember the name of a single person who annoyed me. If they were to take all this advice and apply again next year, they’d get an interview. In order to screw up memorably, you have to try. Like seriously try. Threaten to hurt us if we don’t interview you. Try and bribe us. Talk about how much smarter you are than us and how you could run our company better. Do one of those things and we’d remember you. But garden variety screw-ups just don’t cut it, not when I have 200 resumes to go through.

I remembered one name at the end of the process. Want to know why? They wrote an excellent cover letter that was clearly targeted right at us. They showed a sense of humour. They didn’t pad their resume at all. They mostly listed relevant skills. They did everything right, but it looked like I wouldn’t be able to interview them anyway, because they didn’t quite have the experience we were looking for.

That was the name I remembered.

Anyway, the point of this story is that if you make a good impression you’ll probably be remembered, but if you screw up a resume in a way that feels horrible to you, don’t worry. It’s a disaster to you, but to us it’s pretty routine. We’re not going to blacklist you.