Web Roundup: Links for September

Analogical Thinking: Concepts as Example Bundles

Analogy is our best guide in all philosophical investigations; and all discoveries, which were not made by mere accident, have been made by the help of it.
—Joseph Priestley

Words are not the stuff of thought.

This is straightforward to demonstrate. Present someone with a quote — it can be anything, but for concreteness let’s say you go with a bit of Thoreau: “I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

So, you present this line to someone, and then you let some time pass, say an hour. Then, ask them to repeat the quote back to you. What do they tell you?

I’d wager that you don’t get the exact quote back, but the gist of the thing. Sort of like when reading this, you will come away not with an exact memory of each word and every comma, but instead a general idea of what it is that I’m talking about — a summary. Almost as if your mind were a lossy compression algorithm.

If words were the stuff of thought, or at least of memory, you’d expect the mind to store words as, well, words. If words were the stuff of thought, when presented with a quote, on recall you’d repeat the exact quote back.

But, instead, there seems to be some kind of mental translation that goes on. You don’t remember the exact quote but, instead, it gets stored as a “gist,” as if your mind translated it to meaningness.

So, words are not the stuff of thought.

Let me put it another way. What I’m saying is that, when you are offered some concept in words, you store that concept in meaning-nese. And, then, when you communicate it with someone, you translate that meaning-nese back into words.

This explains why the quotes are not exact, but become garbled — the words have to undergo translation: first, from words to meaning-nese to be stored, and then from meaning-nese back into words during recall. It’s like taking English, translating it into Chinese, and then translating it back into English.

You won’t end up with the original English.

How this relates to metaphor

Analogy is anything but a bitty blip — rather, it’s the very blue that fills the whole sky of cognition — analogy is everything, or very nearly so, in my view.
—Doug Hofstadter

Now, with this in mind, let’s consider the problem of communication. To make this easier, let’s restrict ourselves to idealized communication — comminucation where the goal really is communication. This is different from communication “in the wild”, where a lot of talking is not about substance, but about expressing friendliness or (perhaps unconsciously!) furthering one’s agenda.

So, idealized communication, where discussion really is about the transfer of ideas. Given this idea of meaningness translation, what can we say about this transfer?

Well, the goal of communication is for the speaker to translate some useful structure she has in her mind, encoded in meaning-nese, and to re-encode it in some other form — typically language, but it could also be art, or movement, whatever.

Then, the task of the listener, is to take this language-encoded structure and to decode it back into the original meaning-nese — or, at least, some dialect of meaning-nese compatible with the listener’s mind.

Thus, communication is really about the transfer of useful mind structures between speakers — but, since we can’t directly transfer from one brain to another via an uplink ala The Matrix, there’s an intermediate encoding and decoding step.



What labels imply

Okay, let’s take a step back then and consider the implications. What does it mean when you encounter a word or a phrase that you don’t understand? What does that indicate?

If we take the encode-decode dance literally, it’s an indication that the speaker has some useful cognitive structure in her head, with which you’re unfamiliar. So, concretely, I recently learned the word “ostensibly” which means “as it seems on the surface, but perhaps not actually.”

I have found this a gratifying label to have in my head, now that I’ve gone through the effort of re-building the cognitive structure that it represents. I can say something like, “Big business is ostensibly pro-immigration reform because they care about the welfare of would-be immigrants.” And “ostensibly” here acts as a sort of wink that says, yeah, that’s one explanation, but maybe there’s something more to it. In this example, this something more would be that maybe business just cares about cheap labor.

So, what am I trying to say here? What’s the practical interpretation? When you come across some equation, word, phrase, or whatever, that strikes you as foreign, this signals that the person has some useful cognitive structure that you don’t.

What does this have to do with analogy

Now, in a section that is about analogical thinking, you are maybe wondering why I’ve taken you through this detour into communication and cognitive structures. The idea is that, in some sense, all language acts as a metaphor.

This notion has recently been making the rounds with the endorsement of Doug Hofstadter, of Gödel, Escher, Bach (very recommended) fame, but the idea is at least as old as Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (and, no doubt, older still than that.)

Here is what I mean when I say that all communication is analogy. Consider again the encode-decode theory I just told you about: it’s about taking meaning-nese, mapping it into words, and then unmapping it back into meaning-nese.

What do you call a mapping between two different things? An analogy. So, in a sense, all communication is about constructing an analogy between cognitive structures and words, and then the task of the listeners is to decode that analogy into their own mental model.

Essentially, that’s what’s happening right now: I’m encoding my ideas here, as words, and you, the reader, are decoding them. And, if everything is going as planned, you’re building a cognitive structure in your head right now which is similar to the one that I have in mind.

This is what separates a good exposition from a bad one: with a good one, it’s easy to decode and build up the writer’s cognitive structures in your own mind. With bad exposition, you either end up with no structure or a damaged one, a misunderstanding.

Concepts as analogical bundles

In fact, we can go even a little further than this, and say, what is a concept, really? That is, what are these cognitive structures that I have in my mind?

As a concrete example, let’s consider the number three. What is the idea of three-ness?

Well, with the concept, if you wanted to transfer it to a young child, you’d give concrete examples. A group of three rocks, three bananas, and so on, except of course you wouldn’t say “three” — you would show them three rocks, three bananas, and you’d ask them, so, what do these things have in common?

With enough examples, they would catch on, or at least so I suspect. I’ve been unable to acquire the necessary funding to experiment on young children.

The idea, though, is that with any concept, when you start unbundling it, you find that it’s really just a bunch of examples with some common core — some hidden structure, that isn’t immediately obvious when you consider just one thing in isolation, but becomes apparent with the study of tangible examples.

That is, a concept is a bundle of examples. The process of abstraction, of obtaining a useful cognitive structure, is ultimately one of comparing and contrasting these examples, until have built up this structure in your mind.

Some evidence regarding analogical thinking

So, let’s recap for a moment:

  • Communication is the process of translating a cognitive structure into words, and then from words back into a cognitive structure.
  • This mapping and unmapping is an analogy: setting up an isomorphism between cognitive structures and words.
  • A concept is a bundle of concrete examples. Each example contains some common core, with is captured in the concept. Thus, every concept is itself an analogy.

So, really, here we have two different uses of analogy: a concept/cognitive
structure is an analogy, and we use a process of analogy to transfer them
between people.

If this is really true, if I’m not just spinning you a nice story, we ought to expect that the study of concrete examples is the best way to go about learning a new concept. Really, it’s probably the only way to build a new cognitive castle in your head.

Is there any evidence to support this view? Well, yes. There’s significant evidence suggesting that comparing and contrasting examples is a powerful technique when it comes to understanding something new.

Consider the inert knowledge problem. This is when you’re in a situation, and you have relevant, applicable knowledge, but you fail to apply that knowledge. So, concretely, say you’ve taken a basic calculus class, and you’re arguing with someone about population growth. You get in this heated disagreement. They say that our current growth is unsustainable, and we’re headed towards an inevitable collapse because there is not enough food to go around — a Malthusian catastrophe.

You take a contrary position, and point out that, as nations develop, birth rates fall, such that population growth is below the replacement rate in some developed nations, like Japan and Germany. At a certain tipping point of prosperity, population plateaus and then actually begins to fall.

If your calculus knowledge transferred, here you might realize that this is an argument about the shape of the derivative of population growth. And, if you so realized, you might both draw out curves of what you think it looks like, and then compare that to real-world data.

The inert knowledge problem would be 1) knowing calculus, 2) having this argument, and 3) not realizing that you’re actually arguing about derivatives.

Now, depending on the amount of learning you’ve done in the past, you may or may not have noticed that inert knowledge is the devil. Why learn something if you fail to apply it? What can be done about this?

Well, okay, learning something is about the acquisition of concepts, right? So calculus knowledge is about building up calculus structures in your head.

If, as I’ve argued, this is the case, we might expect that comparing and contrasting examples (and thusly promoting concept acquisition) would help us overcome the inert knowledge problem.

Is this the case?

Yes. There’s even some evidence that comparing and contrasting examples, “analogical encoding”, is potentially the only effective technique at dealing with this inert knowledge plague. One review put it this way: “The best-established way of promoting relational transfer is for the learner to compare analogous examples during learning (Catrambone & Holyoak, 1989; Gentner, Loewenstein, & Thompson, 2003; Gick & Holyoak, 1983; Reeves & Weisberg, 1994; Ross & Kennedy, 1990; Seifert et al., 1986, Experiments 1 and 2).”

The quoted study further finds that analogical encoding — comparing and contrasting examples — not only promotes future transfer, but actually works backwards, too.

What do I mean by this? I mean that, if you sit down and compare and contrast examples, you’re going to be much more effective at coming up with past, relevant experiences of the principle in question. You can use this to transform inert knowledge into animated knowledge. To piece together the once dead into a new Frankenstein’s monster.

To use our calculus example again, if you’re reading about the jerk (the rate of change in acceleration), and you compare and contrast real-world examples, you’re more likely to spontaneously realize that, when learning to drive, the jerk you felt when stopping too quickly was an example of, you know, the jerk in physics.

Benefits for the acquisition of expertise

So, at this point, I hope you’re convinced that comparing and contrasting examples is the way to go about acquiring a new concept — it’s how to absorb a bundle of concrete examples and distill them into a useful cognitive structure.

But that’s not all! This is not the only benefit. Consider what it means to be an expert at something. One of the most cited studies on expertise compared how graduate students in physics categorized physics problems, versus how novices did.

The finding? Physics experts were more likely to pick out the underlying physical principle, while novices tended to focus on irrelevant surface characteristics. Presumably, physics experts had built up a cognitive structure that they recognized in the problem. The novices, lacking this mental structure, were unable to spot it.

If the theory I have sketched here is correct, then we ought to expect that comparing and contrasting examples will accelerate the acquisition of concepts and therefore expertise. Analogical encoding allows one to swim out from shallow seas and into the depths — “comparison between two analogous examples acts to make their common relational structure more salient (Gentner & Medina, 1998; Gentner & Namy, 1999; Markman & Gentner, 1993).”

Practical implications

Okay, then, we’ve just breezed through the core ideas of analogical thinking. To sum it up:

  • Words are not the stuff of thought. Our minds translate words into something else (meaning-nese).
  • Communication is essentially about analogy: it’s about mapping a cognitive structure (“meaning-nese”) into words, and then the listener unpacks that back into a cognitive structure.
  • Thus, successful communication is about setting up understandable analogies.

Then, I covered the relationship between concepts and analogy:

  • A concept is a bundle of concrete examples that illustrate some core relationship between those examples. The concept of three-ness can be understood as the relation between concrete instances of three things (bananas, rocks, years).
  • Given that a concept is a bundle of examples, we should expect that the best way to acquire a useful cognitive structure is to compare and contrast examples (“analogical encoding”).
  • There is a significant body of evidence that suggests that this is the case: comparing and contrasting examples is a powerful way to acquire a concept.

I also touched on the inert knowledge problem, and how analogical encoding
allows us to overcome it:

  • The inert knowledge problem is when you have relevant knowledge but fail to take advantage of it. Example: failing to realize that an argument about population growth is an argument about the shape of a derivative.
  • The only consistently supported method of overcoming the inert knowledge problem, and promoting the application of a concept in new situations (“transfer”), is analogical encoding — by comparing and contrasting examples. “When subjects explicitly compared the analogs and then immediately attempted to solve the target problem in the context of a single experiment, transfer was obtained with significant frequency even without a hint that the analogs and target were related. (Holyoak and Catrambone)”

Finally, I mentioned how this relates to expertise:

  • Experts are distinguished by better developed cognitive structures. Physics experts, for example, are able to pick up on the underlying structure of physics problem, while novices focus on surface characteristics.
  • How can we acquire such a cognitive structure? By analogical encoding — comparing and contrasting examples. Contrasting examples fosters a focus on deeper structures.
  • Thus, to accelerate the acquisition of expertise, one should take advantage of analogical encoding.

So, practically speaking, how can you, as an individual put this into practice? This method, analogical encoding, is both simple and powerful. To acquire a new cognitive structure, gather together a bunch of examples of the concept, and then compare and contrast those examples.

If you would like to improve your calculus skill, you should Google for real-world examples of derivatives or integrals or any concept that you’d like to acquire. Then, write them down, and then list how each is similar and each is different.

You can also use these principles to improve your communication and teaching skills. If you want someone to obtain a cognitive structure that you have, illustrate the principle with examples, and then bring their attention to the underlying similarity connecting the examples. In the case of this section, the principle behind all of these examples has been that learning and communication is about the transfer of concepts, which are bundles of examples, and can be acquired by contrasting concrete examples.

Now, what was that Thoreau quote, again?

Further Reading

Book Review: A Random Walk Down Wall Street

a-random-walk-down-wall-street-review(Note: this review originally appeared on a sister-site I’m building out, Top Financial Advisor, but I’m cross-posting it for readers here, as part of my ongoing book reviews. The last post in this series was the Advertising Secrets of the Written Word review and summary.)

Ah, money. It doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t smell good. It can’t keep you warm at night, and it won’t love you back.

But you can trade it for something that does.

And the most remarkable thing that you can buy with money? More money. Like some sort of broken genie that allows you to wish for more wishes.

Guy at counter: Yeah, uh, I’d like to buy three dollars.
Cashier: Okay, sir, your total comes to two dollars.

Except there’s a catch, and that’s time — you can put in money and get more money out, but you’ll have to wait a while. Like growing a chia pet, instead of water, just add time.

Today’s book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street is about investing: how to find the best risk-reward tradeoff to turn your money into more money. How to buy three dollars with two.

What the book is about

The book is about random walk theory. The author defines a random walk this way: “A random walk is one in which future steps or directions cannot be predicted on the basis of past history.”

Here’s another way to think about it: imagine that you flip a coin 10,000 times. Starting from zero, with each heads, you add 1. For tails, subtract 1.

Then, plot this number against the number of flips.

Except this is 2014 and I definitely do not have the wherewithal to flip a coin 10,000 times, so I wrote a program to simulate it, and here’s what it produced:


Remind you of anything?

It looks like a stock market chart, and it sure looks like there is a trend there — you should get in on this when it starts to go up, because there is some momentum. When it goes up, it keeps going up.

Or, at least, that’s the lie your mind constructs. At any point, the next point is decided at random, by a coin flip. There’s no tradeable information in this chart at any time, by construction.

The stock market, the author argues, works in the same way. Whenever you buy an individual stock, you’re betting that the coin will land on heads.

The implication, then, is that an investor ought to buy index funds, because they allow to an investor to gain broad diversification for very cheap. (An index fund is like buying a small slice of each stock.) This diversification increases returns and decreases risk — a point which I plan on addressing in the future, because it’s sorta neat.

In theory, one could gain that diversification by constructing a portfolio from scratch — out of individual stocks, bonds, etc but, in practice, you’ll end up paying a huge premium in fees. This premium compounds over time (less money is initially invested) and can add up to staggering amounts in the long run.

Like I calculated before, a 1% increase in portfolio returns (by avoiding unnecessary costs) could be worth a quarter or a million dollars or more.

The book also has a history of speculation, discusses the correlation between risk and reward, the benefits of diversification, and how you ought to invest at different ages and under varying circumstances. Plus some example portfolios.

My opinion of the book

Price is what you pay; value is what you get. —Warren Buffet

First, I’ll tell you what I didn’t like. Then, I’ll tell you what I did.


So, the most annoying bit of the book is the lack of technical details. I’ve seen some reviews that have described the book as either 1) too technical or 2) having enough technical meat to satisfy engineers.

Nope. Graphs were seen but, in general, little technical explanation beyond the standard economic just-so stories. (If anyone has ever told you that raising minimum wage is bad “because supply and demand,” you’ve encountered an economic just-so story. In reality, economists are split on the issue.)

Further, the book uses what is the most annoying rhetorical trick of all time. It goes like this. The author has a theory. They say something like, “There is a moon-sized pile of evidence that supports my theory.”

And then they cite none of it.

Here is a real example: Billionaire Seth Klarman has written a paper, in which he argues that markets are like so inefficient, duh, and that “armchair academics … cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong. ”

Annnnnd, the paper continues and no strong evidence is seen. WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE, KLARMAN? SHOW ME THIS STRONG EVIDENCE.

To prove that the moon exists, just point.

This is probably not a big deal to most readers but, as disgruntled blogger planning on digging deeper into the available literature, it was pretty fucking annoying.

Beyond this, I would describe the prose as good for an economist but nothing that impressive. An unmotivated reader may have trouble getting through it.

The humor is also pretty weak.


Okay, with that unpleasantness out of the way, on the whole, I thought the book was very impressive. Indeed, I was most taken with the just how reasonable the author’s opinions and statements were.

I’d expected an ideological barrage about market efficiency, but instead I found a very measured message — along the lines of, “Markets are weakly efficient, such that it’s unlikely that an individual investor can beat the market. But I understand the urge, and if you want to pick individual stocks, here are some guidelines.”

The book doesn’t even argue for the strong or semi-strong versions of the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), instead conceding that it’s not a perfect random walk, and that there is some momentum — just not enough that someone can trade on it and still beat the market after taking into account fees, and taxes, and all the things that make people say, “Life forever? I don’t want to live forever.”

All the weak EMH requires is that “market participants not be able to systematically profit from market ‘inefficiencies’.” This doesn’t seem absurd to me, but I’m not yet convinced of. There certainly seems to be at least one person who’s returns are not explained by chance. (Spoilers: it’s Warren Buffet.)

And it seems a little galling that aggregating the bets of irrational market participants (ala behavioral finance) should result in rational prices, and don’t give me that law of large numbers “explanation.”

But I’m planning on surveying a lot more related evidence, so I haven’t come to any strong opinions either way yet.

Beyond that, the book is an absurd value (as are a lot of resources when it comes to money.) You can buy a copy for like 11 bucks off of Amazon and, by using the advice contained therein, realize probably an extra 1% in annual returns, which adds up to tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

So it’s sorta like trading 11 dollars for 250,000 dollars in the future.

What I’m saying is: this book on investing is a good investment. You should buy a copy.

Web Roundup: Links For August

  • Useful Science is a super cool website, aimed at summarizing instrumentally useful science. Example from the site: “Thirty minutes of sunlight exposure in the morning makes it easier to wake up early the next day.” Bonus: my software tools to improve writing post is referenced in the site’s style guide.




Health, Exercise, Sports


  • “The idea that men are naturally more interested in sex than women is [so] ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine that people ever believed differently. And yet for most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day.”

  • Telegony is the ancient and medieval idea that a woman’s children could inherit characteristics not only from their father, but from all the woman’s previous sexual partners. It was seriously defended right up until the real mechanisms of genetics were pinned down in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” (via SlateStarCodex)


Review and Summary: Advertising Secrets of the Written Word

411V8V5A7MLI made you a promise. I promised that book reviews were going to become a regular thing around here — you know, in my Born to Run review and summary, where I said: “I plan for this to be the first in a very long tradition of reviewing books, so stay tuned for more.”

Well, now that I’ve published reflections on one month vegan, it’s time to stop procrastinating and make good on my word. Today, I’m reviewing Joe Sugarman’s Advertising Secrets.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m going to call it.

The actual title is Advertising Secrets of the Written Word: The Ultimate Resource on How to Write Powerful Advertising Copy from One of America’s Top Copywriters and Mail Order Entrepreneurs.

To which I’d like to give the award longest title ever. Except it’s not. There’s a book by Nigel Tomm that has a 670 word title. 644 words longer than the title of this book.

So Nigel Tomm has Joe Sugarman beat. Handily.

But back to the review. What’d I think? — wait, wait, more on that later. First I have to tell you what the book is about.

Summary of Advertising Secrets of the Written Word

Joe Sugarman is, ostensibly, a legend. At least according to KISSmetrics, American Writers and Artists, Inc., and creativepublic.com.

In what is, I’m sure, an unrelated, complete coincidence, this is also how the endorsements printed on Joe Sugarman’s books describe Joe Sugarman.

Which is to imply that, if you write a book and describe yourself as a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler on the jacket, well, blogs everywhere will report that you’re a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler.

At which point, you sorta will be a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler, and you didn’t even have to wrestle any Gorillas.

And, if you think that’s bad, just remember: Wikipedia is a collection of facts, some cited, some not, and the good ones, the cited ones, are referring to the equivalent of you calling yourself a Gorilla wrestler on the book jacket.

So there’s that.

But I’m off topic. Joe Sugarman is a legend because he’s convinced people to buy a lot of junk that they don’t need.

I mean, that’s not what people say. They say he’s a “legendary copywriter who started a mail-order business, JS&A Group, through the power of his pen.”

Which translates to him selling people junk. Via magazines, newspapers, mail, you know, via writing. Junk like sunglasses that block the color blue.

The book, then, is about teaching you to write in such a way that you, too, can sell people junk. Or, at least, further your agenda with text, whatever that agenda may be — which is the reason that I picked up the book. I’d like to be able to convince people to do stuff, to take action with the power of ephemeral words.

And, I figure, if you can convince someone to read about sunglasses, you can get them to read about anything.

So how do you write great copy?

The Structure of Compelling Copy

The book itself is organized into three sections — the creative process, understanding what works, and ad examples. These sections are then structured around axioms — the author’s main ideas about what sells. Each axiom has about a chapter of text written around it, which is more than enough.

You can probably get most of the value of the book just by reading the axioms.

Joe Sugarman’s Axioms

Joe has 17 axioms, but I’ve deleted the boring ones, and renumbered them. So now it’s extra confusing.

  • Axiom 1: All the elements in an advertisement are primarily designed to do one thing and one thing only: get you to read the first sentence of the copy.
  • Axiom 2: The sole purpose of the first sentence in an advertisement is to get you to read the second sentence.
  • Axiom 3: Your ad layout and the first few paragraphs of your ad must create the buying environment most conducive to the sale of your product or service.
  • Axiom 4: Get the reader to say yes and harmonize with your accurate and truthful statements while reading your copy.
  • Axiom 5: Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slide.
  • Axiom 6: Never sell a product or service. Always sell a concept.
  • Axiom 7: Copy should be long enough to cause the reader to take the action you request.
  • Axiom 8: Every communication should be a personal one, from the writer to
    the recipient, regardless of the medium used.
  • Axiom 9: The ideas presented in your copy should flow in a logical fashion, anticipating your prospect’s questions and answering them as if the questions were asked face-to-face.
  • Axiom 10: In the editing process, you refine your copy to express exactly what you want to express with the fewest words.
  • Axiom 11: The more the mind must work to reach a conclusion successfully, the more positive, enjoyable or stimulating the experience.
  • Axiom 12: Selling a cure is a lot easier than selling a preventative, unless the preventative is perceived as a cure or the curative aspects of the preventative are emphasized.

If any of these don’t make sense, they’re expanded on in the book, but they’re really the meat of the content — the rest of the exposition is overkill.

There’s also a bit on the psychology of why people buy, but I think this is much better covered by Cialdini’s Influence: The Power of Persuasion, which I recommend so highly that I bought my mother a copy for Christmas, but that’s a separate blog post.

Review of Advertising Secrets of the Written Word

I thought the text was decent. Not five stars, but not three, either. A solid four star work.

My main complaint is that the prose is sometimes too straightforward. Like when I read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography a year or so ago, I was… disturbed.

There was no introspection, no reflection, nothing. Like it was written by someone who doesn’t share the painful self-awareness and neuroticism that are endemic in author-and-author-leaning-populations.

Like the non-conscious-yet-intelligent aliens in Peter Watt’s Blindsight except here, now, real, and writing books.

Prime example: Joe is, throughout the text, speaking about selling people stuff, and it’s not great stuff. It’s not stuff anyone needs. It’s junk, really.

Hell, he even speaks about selling a product that promised to reverse aging. A product that he himself used…

— and at no point does he say, “Well, heh, heh, maybe I shouldn’t have sold that one to people, huh? Can’t win ‘em all, can I?” There was nothing like that — which was troubling. Like there wasn’t a real person behind the curtain.

But the book isn’t really about that.

But it was still creepy.

So four stars.

Changes to my own writing

What did I actually take away from the book? That’s the question, right? The point of all information is to change one’s actions so, if I read a book on writing, it should change my writing.

Post-reading, there have been two big shifts in my thinking about writing.

The first main take-away: I’ve revised my thinking about on-page elements. Why do we have bold text? To emphasize stuff, right? To tell the reader that this is important. The HTML tags are “em” tags, after all.

It has to be true.

Except, no. The only point of headlines, text, sub-headings, bold, etc. is to make the copy look like an attractive read. Lists? For listing stuff?


  • The point of a list is to make this look like something you should read.
  • Don’t these look readable, these pointless bullet points?

And if I put this in bold, doesn’t it look like something you could scan? That was something I didn’t expect. Even the company logo on a page, Joe says, has one purpose: to convince someone to read the first line.

And it makes sense. I buy it. But I didn’t see it coming.

The second main take-away: writing is too damn effective. Think about it: right now, you’re allowing me to take over the voice inside of your head.

Which is a very intimate sort of thing we have going on.

Even with Warren-Buffet-level-resources, I couldn’t invent of a better way to jam a message into your sense of self than this one: your mental monologue mouthing the message.

And, of course, here, on this website, I’m using this power for good, but in an ad? It’s broken: if someone has a concern about your product, just answer it in your ad. They read along, think of the problem, then read the solution in the ad — repeating the words in their private headspace — and then trust that you have it covered.

But what did you give them, really? Words on paper. But since you anticipated that problem, they’re like n times more likely to do whatever it is that you want.

I don’t know. It’s weird. Do you really just want anyone in your head? Some anonymous internet commenter’s dashed-off thoughts?

Maybe the reason for so many an author’s mental illness is that he-or-she let too many conflicting voices in. They read too much, and with too little discretion.

The final thing I took away from it, which isn’t as compelling as the last two, but maybe more important because it’s the easiest to implement: I’ve been making the first sentence short.

Because the first sentence of your copy needs to grab. You need to convince someone to put their mind in gear and read. You need to get the attention train moving.

And the easiest way to write a compelling sentence? According to Advertising Secrets, make it short — like five words. Short like opening a book review with, “I made you a promise.”

Spinach, unhealthy? Reflections on one month vegan


Rewind. It’s August of last year. I’ve just published a post on the reasoning behind certain “strange” beliefs. It covers veganism, cryonics, existential risk, simulationism, polyamory, and singularitarianism.

Then, in September, I write about the curious gender imbalance among vegans — that there are 3 woman-vegans for every man-vegan.

If we take those as indicative of the feelings of past-me, I’ve been open to the idea of veganism for about 10 months now. Sort of admiring vegans from afar, while the ideas have percolated somewhere in the recesses of my mind, far from the light of day.

It wasn’t until exactly a month ago, though, that I received the push necessary for dietary change.

My mother and sister are, like all women, perpetually dieting. And my sister has recently been on a Netflix documentary spree, with a teen-girl-level-emphasis on those about mistreated marine creatures. Dolphins in The Cove and killer whales in Blackfish, (both of which I recommend, if you’re into that sorta thing.)

So, right, my sister decides, well, she’s going to watch Vegucated next. I told her that, after watching it, if she wanted, I’d go vegan with her.

Not going to happen, she said.

And then I left to do something — maybe run. And she watched it. And then she was like, “Okay. Let’s be vegan now.” And my mom thought, hey, yeah, I’ll do this, too. And my father was like, wow-you’re-so-weird-how-could-I-ever-give-up-meat, playing into the whole women are vegans and men aren’t cliche — which I have a new theory about, but I’ll get into that later.


You know those ridiculous trigger warnings that everyone tangentially associated with Tumblr has been prefacing their writing with?

Maybe this post could use one, because there are a few topics that turn people into lunatics. Like politics, and religion, and racism, and gender, and anything that people absorb into their identity.

Like meat eating.

There is a significant subset of the male population who are really attached to eating meat. Or think that talking about eating right is low-status.

Maybe it is.

But I have a stronger preference for preventing heart disease than for not-talking-about-healthy-eating.

These people should maybe not read this post.

Definitions and whatever

A vegan is someone who refrains from consuming animal products. Here’s what vegetus.org says about veganism:

Unlike the word vegetarian, the word vegan specifically implies moral concern for animals, and this concern extends to all areas of life, not just diet. If you do not believe in animal equality, please consider referring to yourself as someone who doesn’t eat animal products, as one who follows a plant-based diet, or as one who follows a vegan diet. Or, continue to educate yourself about veganism, and perhaps you will choose to practice veganism.

Yeah-h-h, this chick can 100% go fuck herself.

Unless you’re Humpty Dumpty,1 you don’t get to put up a web page and decides what a word means. This would be as stupid as someone deciding that atheism doesn’t just mean disbelief in a God, and it instead requires dedication to “social justice, feminism, anti-racism, and combating homophobia and transphobia.”

Oh, wait, that already happened.

There are some connotations of veganism that I’d like to throw out, too: the woo around GMOs, sympathy for hippy-cluster stuff in belief space (crystal healing, homeopathy, etc.), tattoos. Too much reverence for animals. (Humans have greater moral weight than non-humans, speciesism be damned.)

Maybe I’ll start my own brand of veganism. Punk rock veganism. Where we eat vegetables because we’re mad as fuck at evolution for programming us to love fatty, sugary, animal protein-y foods and to also then die of heart disease.

Or self-interested veganism, for people who eat vegan only because of the health benefits. Ayn Rand veganism. I like the sound of that.

Stuff like that.

But… why?

Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.”

“And,” replied Diogenes, “If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”
Teachings of Diogenes

I’m not going to delve too deep into the different benefits of veganism, because I promised that I wouldn’t try to convert readers. But there seem to be three sort of pillars of veganism — the major justifications for avoiding animal products:

  • Creating a sustainable planet. Meat is a very inefficient source of calories — only about a quarter of the nutritional value of the grain fed to a cow is captured as meat. There’s also a new paper out in Climatic Change, which found that the dietary carbon footprint of vegans is about half that of meat eaters.
  • Reducing animal suffering. This one is pretty straightforward. I know there are a lot of non-vegans out there (men, generally) who claim that they don’t care about what happens to, say, a cow. I suspect these individuals are just confused about their own values, and actually would prefer a world without animal suffering to one with it.
  • Health. The China Study is probably the strongest evidence that we have for the efficacy of a plant-based diet on preventing heart disease and all the other problems that come with affluence. There are a lot of people who argue against this by setting up some straw argument, that veganism is not a perfect diet — I think this is asinine in the extreme. Not perfect? Okay: I still bet it’s better than yours.

Anyways, my general feeling is that if you took two diets, veganism and whatever your preferred diet is, and wrote down a list of pros and cons of each, veganism would be a no-brainer.


I have never been able to deny myself anything, not even a cup of coffee if I wanted it.

So, right, one of the, uh, concerns I hear echoed most about veganism from people is that it’s a very restrictive diet. No animal products! How can someone live like that?

I’ve not found that to be the case. There was a period of about two days where I had to get used to the fact that yes, now I’m not going to eat certain things anymore. There was a sort of profound, alienness to it at first.

I began to think about food in a different manner, too. I mean, before, I just had one real category for food: stuff that’s edible. When I was going through the transition, though, I had to start paying more attention to what foods aren’t animal products.

Which seems pretty basic, but it’s just not something that you pay attention to during your day-to-day life, so, yeah. It felt sorta strange at first.

But after a few days, that all went away, and eating is back to feeling normal.

As far as restrictiveness, it’s really only a problem if you want to eat out, or go to eat at someone’s place where they’re non-vegan. (I’m looking at you, Austin Walters.) Like, if want to eat not-animal products at McDonald’s, you’re limited to like apple wedges and coffee.

Really, this seems sorta messed up. Do we really need meat in every salad? I don’t think so.

So, eating out has been the only real difficulty in sticking with veganism. I’ve “solved” this problem by basically just eating whatever I want when I’m out, veganism be damned.

I figure I don’t want to get too radical about the whole thing and, hey, what’s one marginal burger?

Recreating meat with vegetables

Oh, and here’s one weird side effect of this diet: recreating meat with vegetables seems vaguely immoral — like it’s cheating or something.

I mean, a veggie burger can never be better than a normal burger, so long as it’s classed as an imitation. It will always be comparing to a normal burger — but if you create something on its own terms, then it’s not limited like that.

Or think of it this way: it’s sort of like, after being a painter your entire life, you discover the power of clay. And instead of sculpting, you recreate all your old paintings, but instead of your old paint, you use clay on the canvas.

Plus, faux meat just does not taste that great.

A world of questions

I have been tossed, with no small amount of violence, into a pit of questions that I never thought I’d have to answer.

…like, did you know that animal bones are sometimes used to refine sugar? So, sugar doesn’t technically contain animal products, but some of it is the product of animal suffering, and I’ve already professed a preference for non-animal suffering, so doesn’t that mean I ought to avoid sugar?

Or what about fair trade coffee: I have a preference for humans not to suffer — hence caring about the environment — so doesn’t this imply I should stop consuming products that are built on too-cheap labor?

On the other hand, if I can’t eat anything that causes some social harm, I’ll starve.

How about health? Many simple carbs (white bread, white rice, etc) are technically vegan, and delicious, but I also would like to not have diabetes, so I shouldn’t eat those either.

And if I’m avoiding carbs, where am I going to get my calories? Protein is out — it’d be difficult to live off vegetable protein. I could stick to fat, but isn’t that bad? At least the saturated sort.

Which brings me to my broader point about healthy eating, which is that there are no universally agreed upon healthy foods. Like bread? Well, that has gluten. Eating animal products? Yeah, they have been linked to all sorts of cancers. What about spinach? Google it — there are people claiming that spinach is unhealthy. Soy? Yeah, that’s bad for you. And so on, ad infinitum.

Why are women vegans? The helpless man model

Now, I’d like to update my old post on why women are more likely than men to be vegans with a new theory: the average man, when it comes to changing his diet, is helpless.

The idea is simple: to successfully transition to a vegan diet, you need above-average cooking skills — and most men don’t pass this test. I mean, you can cry and gnash your teeth all you want about stereotyping, but the median woman is still a more skilled cook than the median man.

It all fits together: why aren’t men vegans? They lack the prerequisite skills. If you can’t cook a variety of different vegetables, etc., you’re going to have a bad time. And it’s not like you can go out to McDonald’s and order off their vegan menu.

That’s my thinking right now: women are vegans not because of different values than men, but because they have lower barriers to veganism. They can already cook.

Not that the median woman is much of a cook — my sister watched Vegucated. Now I cook all the food.

1. “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'”

Fixing VirtIO Code 39

I’m recording this here in case anyone else is unfortunate enough to encounter this Code 39 message, and so that she can avoid wasting several hours of her life attempting to fix it, by instead Googling it and reading this.

Alas, it’s too late for me.

If you’re attempting to install Red Hat’s VirtIO drivers onto a virtualized Windows box, and the whole thing seems to go okay, but then you receive the message “Windows cannot load the device driver for this hardware. The driver may be corrupted or missing (Code 39),” at which point, the device doesn’t work, and you have to remove the driver and do the entire thing over again…

Well, it’s because you’re installing the wrong VirtIO version. If you’re on a Windows Server 2008 R2 box like me, and you’re thinking “Oh, I’ll use the drivers in the Win8 folder, because their aren’t any drivers explicitly for 2008 server,” you have gone astray. Windows Server 2008 R2 uses the Windows 7 drivers, not 8.

It would be nice if, you know, Windows would tell you this, instead of giving you this less-than-helpful-to-put-it-politely message, but it’s not like people pay them for this software or anything, so what do you really expect? Or, uh, wait.

Born to Run Book Review and Summary


I’m training for a half-marathon. As someone not terribly athletically gifted, it’s been slow-going. Since I was going to spend the 4th of July weekend on the beach, electronically-secluded, I picked up a dead-tree copy of the book, Born to Run.

I’ve seen a lot of people transformed into, well, the sort of runners that run with religious fervor after reading this book and I thought, hey, if it worked for them, maybe it’d work for me.

Long-time readers will note that this is far from my first post on reading, although I don’t have copious direct quotes, like I’ve had in the past. I plan for this to be the first in a very long tradition of reviewing books, so stay tuned for more.

A brief summary of Born to Run

Born to Run’s sub-heading is “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” and, as a rare example of truth in advertising, this is sorta what the book is about.

The book documents Christopher McDougall’s (the author) fascination with  ultramarathoning — you know, those, uh, eccentric individuals who aren’t  content to run marathons, and instead run 50 or even 100 mile races, the equivalent of four back to back marathons.

These are the superathletes mentioned in “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” — distinguished ultramarathoners like Micah True and Scott Jurek.

And then there’s the hidden tribe part. The author’s ultramarathoning fetish leads him to a semi-mystical people known as the Tarahumara, a Native American people who live in the sheltered depths of Northwestern Mexico. And they drink pinole, which is like water and toasted corn. Which the author thinks is oh-my-god-so-amazing. But I’m pretty sure there’s a reason it hasn’t caught on in the United States and that reason is that it tastes horrible.

What’s most notable about the Tarahumara is that they’ve developed a culture around ultrarunning, sometimes running more than 200 miles in one session. Or like 7.6 back to back marathons. Oh, and did I mention that hallucinations are extremely common among ultramarathons during a race? Yeah. The Tarahumara’s name for themselves, Rarámuri, even translates to “those who run fast.”

This tradition, plus the mysterious and insular nature of the Tarahumara, well,  it was Scarlett-Johansson-level-irresistible to Christopher McDougall, so he decided to track the people down.

Except they didn’t want anything to do with him.

So Chris hunts down this other dude, Caballo Blanco aka Micah True, who tells him that he’s trying to organize a race. And not just any race. He’s going to organize a race between these reclusive Native American runners and the best American ultrarunners.

Oh, and Chris is going to run it, too. Gonzo-style, he’s going to insert himself into the action and then write it up.

This is mostly what the book is about, plus:
* Descriptions of past races Tarahumara have run against outsiders
* Gratuitous ranting against “big footwear” and how barefoot running is divine truth
* And a chapter on persistence hunting — chasing something down until it collapses from exhaustion — and how humans were literally born to run (and our running ability explains our evolutionary success, and maybe even math, but prahhhhhhh-bably not, if you ask me)

Born to Run Book Review

Endurance running hypothesis


I found, and this is reveals more about me than about the book, the chapter on human evolution and the role that running played in our collective success to be the most interesting.

The author argues, fairly persuasively, that humans — you and me — were born to run. That running is our birthright. That humans are to running as rabbits are to hopping.

The basic idea is that humans are more efficient at cooling off than, say, antelope and even cheetahs. We may not be as fast as either, but we can maintain a fast enough pace for a long enough time that humans can run animals to death. They’re sprinters. We’re marathoners.

This is the reason, the author argues, that humans out-competed neanderthals and why leaving the trees and standing tall was an advantage. The book even makes the point that the only reason that marathon running is so popular is because it’s hardwired into humans — recreation reveals something about the ancestral environment, basically.

This notion that we humans succeeded because of our endurance has been dubbed “the endurance running hypothesis.”

Now, whether this is true, I have some doubts. Certainly humans are capable of persistence hunting but, as far as I can tell, very few extant primitive peoples actually do any persistence hunting, instead preferring to farm, forage, or hunt-without-running-stuff-to-death. Maybe this is a side-effect of modernity, I don’t know.

However, even if early humans didn’t race deer until the deer collapsed, it still sounds pretty reasonable to posit that humans would jog from place to place. This is what we see, as far as I know, in some African countries.

So, altogether, I suspect the notion that running is a human universal and core part of our shared identity is more true than false.

Barefoot running

Parts of the book read like an extended advertisement for barefoot running — except I’m not sure what there is to sell about barefoot running. Maybe the author is short Nike stock or something.

But, really, these are the most distracting and annoying bits of the book. The author has found religion, and it’s barefoot running. Okay. I got it the first time. Maybe he could have mentioned it twice. Twice is alright. Maybe someone missed it the first time.

Or, hell, just break the barefoot running bits into their own chapter. That might be okay, too, but, as it is, it’s just scattered throughout the text, and not very subtle either. Like if some star athlete enters the narrative, you know how you’re going to know that he doesn’t wear shoes? Or that he suffered literally worse than Hitler level injuries and then switched to barefoot and oh-my-god, they’ve disappeared? Don’t worry, ‘cos the author’s going to tell you.

But, I mean, maybe the guy has a point — shouldn’t we have a strong prior that evolution didn’t mess up something as basic as feet? It seems reasonable to me, except that now we walk on concrete, which isn’t present in the ancestral environment. But that’s not really strong counter-evidence because, as far as I know, we don’t have any evidence that shoes are that great. Plus I think we should have a pretty fucking serious barefoot prior.

So even if we did have evidence for shoes, we should still be like, “Yeah, but evolution. Checkmate, shoe-wearers.”

So maybe the author is right, but this is still the most annoying part of the book.

annoying-and-right### Positive stuff

The book is very well-written. I don’t know how much you can really say about a 100-mile race, but the author manages to make the sections describing ultra-marathons not only entertaining, but compelling — who’s going to win? Will they get injured, or not?

In fact, the author sometimes pushes too far in that direction, to the point where I have to expect exaggeration: was so-and-so really that attractive? Or is Mexico really that dangerous?

But, on the whole, the author’s enthusiasm for the sport is infectious, and I find myself with something new that I’d like to do before death takes me: run an ultramarathon. (But, given that I can barely run for 5 minutes without stopping, it’s going to be a while.)

Should you read this book?

There are a few groups of people that I feel confident recommending this to. You should read this book if:

  • You’re already someone who self-identifies as a runner.
  • You would like to be more enthusiastic about running.
  • You don’t have a regular exercise routine.

Originally, I was going to just recommend this to people in the first two groups but, on reflection, those in the last group have the most potential upside. Maybe you get hooked on running and, as a result, you don’t get heart disease. That seems like a pretty big win. Exercise in general is a big win, and maybe you’re just not inspired. Sounds reasonable. Maybe this book is the one that sets you on your Destined Path as an ultramarathoner.

Hell, the first time I realized that I could be an active person was while reading a biography of Bobby Fischer, of all people, who was apparently quite the sportsman, you know, physically, as well as on the chessboard.

Those are the people who will really benefit from reading this. Or maybe if you’re one of those people who enjoys the writing style that is best-selling non-fiction. I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re out there.

I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the book was a good purchase: the tips I picked up on proper running posture were worth the sticker price alone. The entertainment, additional enthusiasm for the sport, and interesting facts were really just surplus value after that.

So, if you want to pick up a copy, or read more reviews, check it out on Amazon.

Web Roundup: Links For July


Pareto Principle Examples and History

Economics consists of theoretical laws which nobody has verified and of empirical laws which nobody can explain.
—Michal Kalecki

For a very long time, the Pareto law has lumbered the economic scene like an erratic block on the landscape; an empirical law which nobody can explain.
—Josef Steindl

In the book that I’ve been writing on keeping up in the information age (subscribe via email to receive a copy when it’s finished), I’ve touched on both Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crap”) and the Pareto principle, as part of a section on filtering information. But I needed a good example. So here we are.

The main idea behind the Pareto principle, sometimes called the 80-20 rule, is that 80% of the effect of something comes from 20% of the cause. Or more broadly, it’s the principle of the “vital few and trivial many.” A few things make most of the difference.

example-of-pareto-principleOh, and, by the way, if this is the first time you’ve been exposed to this concept, the amount of value you’ll get out of having it in your cognitive toolkit is, well, to quote the Beastie Boys, “it’s wack,” yo. I suspect the Pareto principle obeys the Pareto principle — that is, you can get 80% cognitive value out of 20% of concepts, and the Pareto principle is one of those 20%.

So, consider dating, for instance. (Relevant given the continued popularity of my earlier post on prolonged eye contact.)

When it comes to dating, considering the Pareto principle, we should expect that 80% of the value of all dating advice, techniques, etc. can be had from only 20% of the tips. And I think this is true. In fact, I’m pretty confident that all dating wisdom can be boiled down to six words: approach more of the opposite sex, or maybe just two: approach more.

(In fact, I think you could model relationships satisfactorily via Markov processes, but that’s a separate post.)

Real Examples of the Pareto Principle

So, okay, right, now you know what the Pareto principle is all about, which brings me to my main motivation for writing this, which is: what’s a cool empirical example of the Pareto principle in action? The dating example is okay, but it’s also more-or-less fabricated from whatever imagination is made out of.

Empirical is perhaps the wrong word. What we want are examples with rigor. Maybe we actually live in some bizarre world where there’s a 1:1 correspondence between the value you get out of dating advice and the amount you read, such that 80% of the advice gives 80% of the value.

Or maybe we live in a world where the more you know about dating, the more valuable the next piece you learn becomes — since you have more context or something. In that case, the last 20% might be worth 80% of the value, via some clearly Satanic reverse Pareto principle.

So, real examples.

  • Wikipedia would have you believe that the Pareto principle was born during Vilfredo Pareto’s study of Italian landowners — 20% of them owned 80% of the land.

  • The article alternatively suggest that it stemmed out of the study of pea pods — that Pareto noticed 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas.

Which of these is true? Probably neither.

Looking past this deep seated and shocking inequality in the pea kingdom, the reality of the discovery of the Pareto principle is not so clear cut. The principle itself was not so much the discovery of Pareto, but Joseph Juran, who repurposed some of Pareto’s ideas. He writes about this in a 1975 paper, “The non-Pareto principle; mea culpa”:

The Pareto principle as a universal was not original with Pareto.

Where then did the universal originate? To my knowledge, the first exposition was by myself. Had I been structured along different lines, assuredly I would have called it the Juran principle. However, I was not structured that way. Yet I did need a shorthand designation, and I had no qualms about Pareto’s name. Hence the Pareto principle.

More examples:

Which makes me wonder: could you get 80% of the value of this article by reading 20% of the words?