Trade Doublethink

Q: How do you impoverish a country as punishment for their actions
A: You declare sanctions to prevent then from importing

Q: If you are at war how to cripple your enemy?
A: A naval blockade to prevent them from importing.

Q: How do you make yourself rich?
A: You place large tariffs to prevent imports….?

Placing tariffs is a lot like blockading your own ports and declaring sanctions on yourself. It is amazing just how many logical contradictions am individual mind contains, while we all know that if there are two apples and two apples there are four apples, but we can at the same time know that 2+2=5. The contradiction is resolved by the fact your mind need not confront it in the first place.

Meditation Full Interview

Wendy: Would you please briefly introduce yourself?

Rush: So I am Mr. Rush. I teach AP Economics and Advanced Economics. I have really wide set of interests, and I try to cultivate new interests all the time. Oh, and, if you don’t know who I am, I’m the guy who walks around with a cane.

Wendy: In Advanced Economics class, you talked about human consciousness and how meditation can help change the default mode network.

Rush: So there’s actually a lot lot lot of stuff there. You know, meditation is a thing that sounds kind of hippyish. It is kind of hippyish in a way, but it’s way, way more than just that. There’s actually a lot of research that’s been done on people who meditate a lot versus people who don’t meditate. A lot of the findings were introduced, I’d say quite nicely in a book called Why Buddhism is True, so for anyone who’s really, really interested in this, I really suggest them to check it out. It’s written by an evolutionary psychologist at Princeton, and it’s not talking why reincarnation and that kind of stuff is true. What it’s talking about is why a lot of the kind of fundamental tenants of Buddhism seem true from the perspective of what we now know about how the brain works, that kind of stuff. So one of the things talked about is the default mode network.

The default mode network is the thing that activates anytime your mind is not on the specific task. So you’re not trying to add or subtract. You’re, you know, not watching TV intently. You’re not doing anything like that. You’re just kind of doing nothing. And what happens then?  We can actually see from self-reporting and also from brain imaging that about fifty percent of that ends up being taken up by people thinking about things like, what’s my relative position? How did somebody harm me? Why is that thing that I did today that was wrong? Why was it not wrong? Why do I have such a good explanation for that thing that I did today and everything like that? So really it’s about this sort of social rank, social position stuff.

And that is really important for humans. You know, we are a social species. Any human by themselves is basically worthless. Okay? But the problem is, especially in the modern world, that doesn’t work so well, because a lot of our interactions are not face-to-face. We’re not actually always around other people and all kinds of different things can be happening with which we worry about. And there’s some pretty good evidence that all of these sorts of things are actually leading to people to being anxious people, to being depressed people, to not being able to really live their life as well as it could be.

One thing that’s really, really interesting is you can look at this literally on brain scans, fMRIs.  If you have somebody who meditates a lot, that kind of default state is a totally different thing. And if you ask them their thoughts on that kind of stuff they’re gonna have a lot less “me” “my” sort of thoughts. They’re gonna have a lot less thoughts about their relative position in that kind of stuff. You could call it a calmer mind. What Robert Wright, the author of that book, says is a more truthful way of looking at the world.
Wendy: Can you talk about how, maybe more specifically, through your observation, meditation can help current students?  What advice you can give to them?

Rush: Well, I think a lot of students tend to be really stressed. And I’ve noticed how, in a way, it’s really good to be pro-social, but I know in my classes, I ask students like hey, who here likes computer science? You know, because I talk about computer science. I talk about all kinds of different stuff in my course.  So maybe one kid will enthusiastically raise his hand because, man, computer science is his favorite thing in the world, and he looks around he’ll find nobody else raises their hand and puts his hand back down and look really afraid and embarrassed when nobody’s gonna really care. Right? People don’t actually care that much. People don’t actually think that much you know. Take the stuff you post in moments. You know you need to realize that the amount of effort and thought you put into looking other people’s Moments posts are exactly the same amount of effort and thought that people are putting into your Moments posts. Right?  But I see this happen actually a lot where people are getting this sort of hyperized thing that I think sort of fed by social media where it certainly can’t be helpful for them to be able to think, you know, clearly and directly.

And I think if you’re approaching things from a clearer, calmer mind, you’re actually going to be able to get a lot more done. And you’re also going to be able to just not worry about things as much. Right? And you’ll be more honest to yourself. And I think you’ll lead a better life. And honestly, I think meditation is a really important tool for separating yourself from some of your thoughts.

To get into that a little bit further, that has to be a whole lecture about split brain experiments and that kind of stuff.  If you want to, I can get into that, but I don’t know how far you’re going to go in this article. [link?] Yeah. I think that it’s something that could be really helpful for basically anyone. There’s really no use case where I think that somebody would completely waste their time trying to start meditating or trying to start living a more mindful life.

Okay. Remember we spent a lot of time talking about that in the advanced class. Especially in the first semester when you guys were thinking about colleges and stuff. And I really focused on just the general idea of mindfulness, because meditation isn’t just about the act of meditation itself. It’s also about learning to see things more presently and to actually really experience them and think about your experiences rather than just mindlessly doing things one after another without a great thought as to what any of the things were.

Actually, a really great example of this was they found one of the most effective ways of getting people to stop smoking or to smoke significantly less was to just think about cigarettes. Like, they were just told, “think about a cigarette when you smoke it. Every time you smoke a cigarette, smoke it. Don’t just put in your mouth and light it up. Like actually think, how does it taste? How does it feel? Focus on all little details. And once you focus in all the little details, a lot of that, you know, kind of chemical dependency, a lot of that compulsion loses its power.

 

Wendy: Oh, I remember years ago, I was reading a book about how I can stop my bad habits and it just told me to just keep a notebook in the pocket. Every time I do it (for me is maybe biting my nails), I just take out the paper and draw a line and then I can see how many lines I’ve drawn.

Rush: I mean that can definitely help you be more mindful of it. Like, you know what I would say is you know this sort of mindfulness approaches on chewing your nails is, you know, when you catch yourself chewing your nails, think about it. Think why am I chewing my nails? What am I getting out of chewing my nails? How does it actually feel like? And then a lot of the times what it will do is when we start to really analyze our feelings when we’re doing a compulsive behavior or say you’re playing a phone game and you find yourself thinking “oh god” or you’re in a Youtube rabbit hole. You in your head just start being mindful about the experience and go, okay, what am I getting out of this? How am I feeling right now? And a lot of times, as soon as you start investigating something, if it’s sort of hollow, it’ll feel very hollow, and it’ll lose a lot of its power over you.

 

Wendy: So how would you suggest people to do the meditation or say stay mindful? Because in my own experience before,  I tried to force myself to do twenty minutes a day, but sometimes I just have more urgent thing that I have to do. Or I’m just really way too tired especially during my junior or near the beginning of senior years. So I don’t know if doing it regularly is a good idea, then how do you think people can keep doing it? Or maybe you don’t have to do it on a daily basis, but you do it when you’re angry or feel irrational?

Rush: So actually,  I would like to preface that by talking about if somebody’s just for starting off to meditate, they’re probably going to run into a lot of issues that I’d to probably bring up first, if you don’t mind, rather than like, okay, you know, I’m having trouble meditating twenty minutes everyday, everyone does. Hey, unless that’s your job meditating twenty minutes every day. It is hard to make time in your life. And for myself, as I have said, I sort of micro-meditate throughout the day. (大概一半了)

Or, I just try to take what I learned from when I used to do a lot more meditation, much more seriously,  and those changes to my brain and stuff.  so one of the main things that’s gonna happen is, ok, you’re gonna start trying to meditate. And the first thing that’s gonna happen to you is a couple deep breaths in, you’re gonna get a random thought pop in your head, and then you’re gonna try to chase that random thought away. And by choosing at random sort of way you’re chasing out with more thoughts, and then you can try to chase out the more thoughts with more thoughts, you can try to chase it with more thoughts with more thoughts and more thoughts and then it’s gonna feel like totally hopeless. Right? You’re gonna feel like, ah, I wasn’t able to keep my mind clear. I wasn’t able to keep my mind calm.

And so while you’re meditating and a thought comes up, once again, it’s just, you know, I was talking about mindfulness with smoking. You’re mindful of what that thought was. You’re like, why did this thought pop into my mind? Why this thought? You try to feel with the feeling behind that thought. You try to feel the reason behind why that thought was. As you start to understand that thought that pops in your head, it just kind of fades away. And as you keep doing that and keep doing that and keep doing that, you know, it takes time, but you’ll notice that your brain gets quieter and quieter and quieter, and then when you’re left alone your brain isn’t racing around thinking about all of the relative status ruminations that aren’t necessarily going to really help you.

But yeah, it’s hard. I would say that you need to probably do it, quite a few times for a little bit. So you need to at least get that first feeling, that first experience of meditation, where you get kind of like that. It’s really hard to describe because there aren’t words for it, but there’s just a certain feeling that you’ll get, like it’s a certain feeling of oneness with the world, you know, sorta like ego dissolution, where you don’t feel that strong of a sense of self and there’s just such a relaxation to that.

And I think it is important to try to get there, and so then you know what the carrot at the end of the stick is, I think that’s always good. Because if you never get to the carrot at the end of the stick, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to keep going. And I would say if you’re a kind of really schedule-oriented person, and you’re good at keeping that kind of stuff, [which I know you’re not. And you’re my student. I know you’re not], then try to keep schedules of how you do it.  If not, try to be honest with yourself about when you really have time, because we always tell ourselves we don’t have time, we don’t have time, we don’t have time and it’s nonsense. Right? We always have the time for the things you really want to do. Okay? So if you say I didn’t have time to meditate, you gotta realize that’s an excuse. You had the time to meditate. Instead, you watched Youku; instead, you chatted with your friends; instead, you played a phone game; instead, you did something else …And it’s fine! It’s not saying that you have to do this thing. You’re doing it for your own personal advancement. But be honest with yourself. Don’t make too many excuses and try to look for good opportunities when it would just be a good chance to do it is what I would say.

 

Wendy: So personally, when did you start meditating? What made you decide to start?

Rush: So I started getting into eastern philosophy when I was in middle school, probably just because I liked to always be different.

And I remember I read the Dao De Jing (道德经) when I was in middle school, and I wrote a couple of papers about it that my English teacher could not super get. But it was my first kind of doing that, and then I feel like reading the Dao De Jing and really thinking about it, that’s sort of a form of meditation because you have this contradiction and then you’re trying, in your head, resolve the contradiction. And so I was originally brought into, from the Dao De Jing, I was brought into Zen Buddhism, and I read a bunch of books on that. And of course, a big part of Zen practice is meditation. A lot of the books that I read back then, though they were very much about form, I now am a lot less about form. Because I use to follow a very very strict meditational form. But over time I realized, I think in a way it’s really useful because you’re kind of putting yourself in an uncomfortable position, and that helps you disassociate yourself from your body because you have to. Otherwise, you can’t stay in that position for very long.

But, I’ve become much more agnostic about a lot of these sorts of features of this stuff. So I got into it through, you know, mostly Zen Buddhism. And then, later on, I started reading other sorts of things. And, you know, now most of the stuff I’ve read has been largely secular things. I’ve gone a pretty long time where I sort of stopped meditating. And when I got back into it, I could really just tell the difference, which is just for me, it’s just how calm my mind is.

And so most of the time I have nothing, nothing goes through my mind. Most of the time I don’t really think thoughts. So if somebody asked me a question, I’m not thinking through thoughts. I just kind of respond with the black box in my brain. You have to realize that you’re mostly that black box. And so now, especially when I don’t meditate, I can just feel that I’m disturbed, I can feel I’m thinking way too much. and I just don’t feel peaceful.

 

Wendy: Is there any particular example of how meditation helped you with emotion control like controlling your anger?

Rush: How about I just tell you some of the different ways meditations really helped. And also the research shows not just me, you know, I’m an anecdote, but the data also supports this. So one is I think it helps you be more of an observer and less of a judger, and that actually really helped me to understand other people a lot better. Because instead of thinking from your own kind of selfish, narrow perspective about stuff, you can just observe things from a more detached and therefore more logical perspective, and you don’t get as many feelings of snap judgment. You observe something, you kind of just think through it, and I think that really helped me not get carried away with the kind of emotional contamination that happens especially in the world of a social media. I’m not saying I have completely. You know, certainly, there have been some political things that have happened lately that truly tested my ability to remain calm.

So that’s one I said, another one is just really the calmness of the mind. It’s like once you get that feeling of not constantly worrying about where you are, without constantly thinking about how you can get more, how you can do this more, how you can do that more. Once you have that feeling of just how wonderful that peace is, there’s really nothing else. There’s no material thing that anyone could ever give you that comes anywhere close to being as good as just the feeling of just being you, not worrying about all of those little things. And also, when you spend all day thinking, worrying about your social position, most of the thoughts aren’t useful. Anyway. You know what I mean? And actually being able to distance yourself a lot from those thoughts, I think it is a really useful way of handling them rather than just going off of your thing. So that’s another thing. That’s just really. Another thing that’s gonna do though, is it’s going to make you start acting like a better person.

So if you do something, it makes you feel bad, and you’re gonna in your head, all of a sudden, you have thoughts in your head, these thoughts about some specific things. They’re just all like, oh it’s OKAY that I did this, really, it’s OKAY that I’m doing this, it’s okay that I did this, it’s okay that I did this because this has this reason. Okay? I have a good reason, a good justification.  And if you know the literature on consciousness, basically you have to realize that a big job of your human consciousness and the reason why you’re thinking in words even though you don’t really need to think in words is because it’s about convincing other people that you’re right, convincing other people that you’re good, which is a lot of times you deceiving yourself. So here you are with this quiet mind, and then all of a sudden there’s a flood of you trying to convince yourself that everything is okay. You’re doing everything right. It’s always fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. Then you just think about everything and be like, no, I’m not doing the right thing. That’s not a good excuse. I know in my head I’m just preparing an excuse in case I get caught doing this thing. But I much prefer to going back to having a quiet mind, so I’ll just do the right thing.

So I think that’s another way that it’s really useful. And yeah, it also just helps with a general focus and concentration. So, I know at a young age I was diagnosed with ADHD. I probably still have it because that’s how brains work and stuff. And I know, for instance, that I do have inefficient dopamine receptors. So I know that I’m the type of person, but you know, through meditation and mindfulness, I have been able to be much much more productive and to be able to stay focused on doing things for much longer periods of time.

And also it used to be the case that if I didn’t have something to do, that instant I’d be bored. The instant I had nothing to do, I would, you know, you just reach in your pocket for your phone or you’re just doing something, right? Because you gotta do something. But once you spend a lot of time in your own head like that, you can be pretty comfortable just doing nothing, because you can always just go in. I just experience things rather than just always feeling like you need to try to consume more and more and more stuff.

So that’s another thing I’d say.

Things I Wish Everyone Understood About Macroeconomics

Given some recent nonsense I have seen bandied about I thought I would do a quick write up of what I think is important for normal people to know about macro.

-More spending is not some magic expand the economy juice. More money does not equal more significantly more production under normal conditions, or else Zimbabwe would have become a paradise. More spending is really only useful if the economy is demand constrained which occurs when current prices are too high for the amount of money circulating. This leads to many resources(like labor) going unused, so the extra spending instead of diverting resources instead brings unused resources back on line. If all the resources are currently being employed than extra spending can only divert resources from some uses towards others.

-Price level is determined in long run by the money to stuff ratio, that is how much money is circulating next to how many real things are produced.

-Monetary policy should be judged by its output (inflation or NGDP growth take your pick) if these numbers don’t change enough, monetary policy is being too tight, if these numbers are changing too much change and it is being too loose period. Monetary policy is functionally infinite in power, unless your country has a fixed exchange rate or an incompetent central bank anything else that might affect the amount of spending doesn’t really matter. If your central bank is incompetent it probably also won’t matter what else you do anyway. Standard monetary policy runs out of steam when interest rates hit zero(liquidity trap), but there are many many other non standard tools that look scary and are hard for a layman to comprehend. Keep calm and look at projected inflation/NGDP growth.

-The typical nominal recession is a dumb thing which is really just an artifact of the fact we use money and prices are sticky, not some great judgment from above to repent for our sinful ways. The solution is to try to bring spending back to what will allow for full employment of resources. Recessions that occur for structural reasons are a different story. But your typical recession is best understood with the following story, you go to the grocery store with $100 picture the basket of goods you could buy, now go back to the same store with roughly the same prices but only $80, it is impossible to buy the same basket. It is impossible to buy the same output with similar prices and less spending. Since wages are especially hard to lower in nominal terms, labor tends to be hit disproportionality hard. But it doesn’t really matter what your price level is, only that the amount of spending can facilitate full employment of resources at whatever the current price level.

-All government spending is the result of a tax, current taxes are obvious, borrowing and spending is a tax on the future, printing money and spending is an inflationary tax on money holders, defaulting on the debt is a tax on holders of the debt(also an insane idea). Government spending is important, but it isn’t magic, those resources need to come from somewhere so they are going to come from other uses of those resources. Treat anyone who claims otherwise as someone who claims to actually be a wizard.

About Diet

So I follow a pretty crazy diet that moves between low carb, keto, and extended fasting, would I recommend it to others? No I follow the diet because I have found that it works the best for me given my various medical problems, but it is unlikely that it is the right diet for most other people. The diet world seems full of all or nothing thinking, as well as a fundamental supposition that is just untrue which is that we are all the same and there is a “best diet”. Now there are probably diets that are universally not the best, ones with lots of fat mixed with processed carbs and sugars in a delicious and convenient package. (What do Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Donald Trump have in common? A genuine love of McDonalds, let’s not pretend the food doesn’t taste good to most when some of the richest men in the world still eat it, plus it is easy and cheap).
So while there are some near universals(not everyone eating a “bad diet” will face negative health consequences) the truth about diet science is that it is very very complicated and very very over simplified.

-Individual Variations

Genetically we are all pretty similar, but we are far from the same. There are all kinds of differences in how our leptin (a hormone that has much to do with fat and hunger, mice bred without leptin will be fat, if you underfeed them they will be fat with underdeveloped organs) glucose metabolism, and well everything else that relates to food and diet. So it stands to reason that even though some advice might be universal (sugar is, at best, probably not great for you) the best diet should vary by person.  So long as it is safe, try out a diet measure your results see how you feel (blood work is a plus) and if you find success good for you, but remember the same might not be true of everyone else so there is no need to become an evangelist. If it doesn’t work, keep looking.

-Calories in calories out

To lose weight you need to take in fewer calories than you expend, to gain it you must take in more calories than you expend. This is just thermodynamically true, but that doesn’t necessarily make it useful when discussing diet. If you eat less then you expend you will lose weight, you breath in oxygen you breath out CO2 that carbon came from the stuff you ate, don’t eat stuff and bam by definition you have to be exhaling carbon that came from you. So if I fast for 10 days I might lose 15 lbs (I exercise a lot when I do long fasts) but within a month of unrestricted eating I will be right to my steady state weight with my current diet which is about 150lbs. My steady state weight back when I could eat anything, and anything turned out to largely consist of pasta my steady state weight was around 185 lbs. It makes much more sense to look at things from the perspective of why someone is taking in more or less calories then they are expending, and seems to have a lot to do with the composition not just caloric quantity of the diet.

-Morality

Lets also try to not moralize so much about weight and fat. People who are skinny are very unlikely to be exerting intense willpower everyday to maintain a state of hunger, that isn’t how it works, that isn’t how anything works. People have a much easier time staying skinny usually when they are younger, is it that as you get older you lose willpower? Not to say that no willpower is ever involved as avoiding the stuff you really want to eat isn’t always easy, and some have more cravings than others. But in all likelihood fatter people probably exert more willpower and feel more hunger when it comes to attempts at caloric restriction than do thin people.

-Low Carb/Keto

Low carb works for a lot of people, certainly if you have problems with glucose regulation (or you know don’t produce insulin and have to rely on slow external insulin) it might be a really good idea to try to see if it works for you to help you regulate blood sugars. It can also help many lose weight. But I highly doubt given ancestral diets and all the different variations there exist in glucose metabolism that it is the best for everyone.

I promise you that if you went on an all you can eat potato diet you would most likely lose weight despite your diet being almost all fairly rapid carbs. Just plain potatoes mind you, no salt, no pepper, no butter, just boiled. By the end of a week or two your brain will be so utterly bored of food that you will naturally eat less. That is what a good diet really needs to do at the end of the day, nourish you while at the same time naturally making you want to eat around the right amount of calories for your body. Insulin spikes certainly can play a role in this, as can many other factors.

Diet and human metabolism are complex. Simple solutions sell but they never tell the whole picture. The obesity crisis is quite recent, carbs are essentially what has been the foundation of the human diet for the last ten thousand or so years.

The goal is finding a diet where you can
A. Stick to it
B. Feel good
C. Naturally have the desire to eat calories consistent with a healthy weight for you (please know in terms of healthy weight, being underweight is actually worse than being overweight!)

Five Ways to Be More Productive

  1. First one! (Disclaimer many of these are not easy and none of us are perfect me included, the goal is to just try to be better)

-Don’t do work around your cell phone. Humans are awful multitaskers, all of us. The research is really clear on this (I used to think I was great at it…). When you work around your cell phone your brain is constantly going “ohh did I get a message, did people like my post ohh… let me just check” turn it off and preferably have it away from you(I lock mine in a drawer in another room and put the key in hard to reach area of another room, or just work outside and not bring it).  Just try it for one hour, put yourself into a minimalist workspace without any distractions and see how much work you get done.

2. Don’t wallow in guilt if you mess up. Often wallowing in guilt is a very self indulgent thing, you torture yourself which in a twisted way is easier than what you should do. But while you are feeling guilty you are not doing something productive, and since you don’t want to feel guilt, this often leads you to actively avoiding the thing that made you feel guilty, which is very likely to make things worse. Acknowledge your failures, but don’t think it means you are terrible if you don’t meet your expectations or miss a deadline. I know it isn’t easy, I know better than most about the temptation to take the easy way out that just makes things worse in the long run. But do your best to fight against it.

Don’t give yourself excuses either, it is a lie that you are in total control of your situation, but since it is far too easy to always find excuses for yourself it is a dangerous road. So my best advice is approach life with the idea you are in control of your fate, knowing it isn’t actually always true. Don’t excuse yourself, don’t guilt yourself, instead try to be better every day, try to do better every day, the question you should always ask is, “how can I avoid making the same mistakes in the future”. You are human, you will make mistakes, try to improve from them rather than get sucked into a vicious cycle of guilt and procrastination.

 

3. Take breaks, make sure it is a break you can do in short spurts, like take a walk(I mostly play violin). While it might sound like a good idea to play a game or watch a video, these too often turn from short breaks to… very long ones. When you relax try to relax efficiently, try to block off plenty of time to do something you genuinely enjoy. If you try to just work every day your productivity will fall overtime, and you will likely seek little guilty enjoyments that don’t actually leave you feeling very relaxed. The key to being productive is efficient work, efficient play.

Empirical work on the matter is very surprising, overwork and sleep deprivation actually cause working too much to have negative marginal returns in the long run. This is sometimes hard because in the short run they usually have positive returns, but doing it over and over makes the total amount you produce less. One experiment in construction found that over the course of a long time frame crews that worked 40 hours a week out produced their 50 and 60 hour counterparts. This is because working 25% extra hours a week doesn’t add if the per hour productivity falls by 33%. The reason Henry Ford started the 5 day forty hour workweek was not because he was “nice” but instead internal experimentation showed that in the long run it led to the highest per week output, it should be noted that taking other jobs was strictly forbidden. Software firms that put their employees under permanent crunch usually fair badly, as any gain in work is destroyed by lower per hour productivity and more mistakes. Other research shows many people take too few breaks to maximize their total productivity. I am guilty of violating this all the time, but just keep it in mind.

4. Focus on efficiency. How often have you waited until the last minute, wasting your time beforehand for hours or even days trying to avoid the anxiety of not doing your work, only to bang it out quickly the night before? Guess what that means? You could have saved yourself all that anxiety and focused on things you really wanted to do. Try to do this a few times and then try to remember just how much better it feels next time you are stuck in the cycle. Alternatively you can also just be honest with yourself about what you will realistically do and create a plan from that so you can keep the project in the back of your mind and genuinely enjoy your downtime.

Be honest! How many times have you told yourself I am going to do *insert giant list* and everyday do *big list* and then maybe you do a little and give up? Be honest with yourselves! It is the only path to freedom. Making lofty goals that you can’t actually complete just makes things worse, try chunking things into small manageable tasks instead of standing at the foot of a giant task mountain. (If I really want to do something hard, I write myself binding contracts, but since I treat these so seriously I will only write hard but possible things, if I created one I could not fulfill it would make these contracts lose their power). Spending time “working” when you are not accomplishing something is pointless, always try to work on keep your per hour efficiency in mind.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to who you were yesterday. You are not in control of other people, you are not other people, all you have control over is you, don’t worry about being the best, there is one spot for that, but every single person can make significant improvements. Taking this at heart and always trying to improve and always trying to be your best will allow you to be a much better version of yourself than if you just constantly compare yourself to others. The students I have that do the best aren’t even the ones that act with the goal of trying to be the best, but instead the ones that are genuinely interested.

Another reason why you shouldn’t compare yourself with others is that we are not the same. Each person has their own unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Many of our differences can be changed to some extent and others can’t. The trick is working on the parts of yourself you can change and finding ways of dealing with the problems that stem from those things that you cannot (for instance I am very forgetful so I build a lot of redundancy into my life). The other trick is figuring out what you really want, just keep in mind you don’t have to want to the same things as everyone else, try to set goals and aim for things that work well with your talents and special preferences.

Country vs People

Would people in Germany today be better off if the Nazis won?
Would people in Japan be better off if Imperial Japan had won?
In both cases I think it very unlikely.
It is an easy mental shorthand to think of what a country “wants” by the actions of their government, or what is good for the country as being what the will of the current government is. But it is important to keep the people seperate from the country, of course the government has a large part to play in the lives of the people, but the desires of the elite in control are not the same thing as what makes life for the average citizen good, and certainly not the will of all of the people in a country.
国家是国家人还是人
What people anywhere need to flourish is safety and freedom, there are cultural differences, group differences, differences of all kinds, but in the end we are so much more the same than we are different.

Some Thoughts on Teaching

The longer I have taught, the more I agree with the sentiments of Socrates, that it is impossible to truly teach. If by teaching, one means the direct transference of knowledge from one person to another, it is an endeavor that is at best fruitless.

Knowledge cannot be transferred for two reasons. First, true learning comes from the inside. It must occur within the minds of the students themselves, as they gradually learn to make connections and wield theories in appropriate contexts, driven not just by extrinsic incentives but, more importantly, by curiosity. Second, true learning does not occur by plain duplication. If students memorize the definition of what a chair is, it does not allow them to understand the concept of the chair right away. Instead, to truly learn what a chair is, they have to see a thousand chairs in different shapes and forms, touch them, and then sit on them. The reasoning appears obvious for a chair example, but it works the same for all subjects. Direct transference of knowledge through memorization of facts and definitions may work well in the short term for exams, but only true learning benefits students for their whole lives.

Guiding true learning versus transferring knowledge is like training a chef versus a cook. A chef knows all the taste profiles of various ingredients, how to balance tastes, can improvise, can invent, can explain why they make the decisions they make. A cook follows recipes and orders, doesn’t understand the reason behind them, can under familiar circumstances produce good results, but if things change would be at a loss. A chef can always create no matter what situation they are in, while with powerful search engines and advancements in robotics and AI, a cook can be easily replaced.

It is of educators’ job to promote the chef-way of learning among students, although this is not nearly as easy as it seems. A common mistake is to interpret good test results as being good results for learning. To illustrate the difference, there is a thought experiment in computer science called the Chinese Room I start the school year with. In the experiment, a monolingual English speaker is placed in a room full of Chinese and English translation guidelines, Chinese writing is then slipped under his door to translate. Theoretically, with the help of the instructions, the English speaker would make the Chinese person believe him as a native Chinese speaker, while only algorithmically following instructions with no real understanding of the language. In the same way, it is possible on many assessments for students to get do well following simple memorized heuristics with close to zero actual understanding.

So what recipe have I found to try to make my students more like chefs than cooks? A combination of novelty, difficulty, iteration, and feedback.

Can you feel your teeth? Research shows that humans actively tune out things that remain the same for too long, which is the exact reason why you didn’t feel your teeth until it was brought up. We ignore things that don’t change, things that are boring to us, so a class design needs to have frequent novelty to keep the students engaged and intrinsically curious.

From novelty, difficulty naturally stems, but it is also essential in order to change the way students approach learning. Students are like water–they tend to follow whatever path that has the least resistance. In a game, you can build all the fancy systems you want, but players will never realize any of them if simple, familiar strategies can lead to success. At a school, if students can easily pass all tests with their strategy of memorization, most of them will just keep repeating it, no matter how hard you say “understanding is important.” It is not up to what educators say that change students’ behaviors, but to what methods of evaluation are designed. To encourage real understanding, educators need to create assessments that are difficult for students who use the default study mode. Only when students feel enough resistance using their old method, they may switch to a new one.

Difficulties, however, can be frustrating. In fact, the transition from old to the new way of learning is often tough for my students, and it is very tempting just to give up. One key to helping them is to let them understand that you do not wish to torture them arbitrarily, but instead, want them to improve and to reach their best potential. The best way of doing this is to care for the students genuinely, and your attitude will show through your actions. Another key is to provide enough resources for your students. This often means making yourself available to students, there is no short cut, training chefs is hard work for both the educator and the students. Despite the hardship of the process, I have found that any of those who try can become successful, and they almost universally look back at the experience as positive and transformative. Former students who visit me years later consistently surprise me with the degree to which they still understand.

Not just difficult, learning is also a long and slow process. It takes place with direction, trial, and error. No matter it is to learn painting, cooking, writing, coding, or anything else, there are general theories as a guide, but no one can read a book or hear a lecture and become a master. Instead, what is required is many trials and errors, where each time you get a little bit better, even if in the end you cannot explain why. Feedback during this process is critical because otherwise, you won’t learn from practice and just reinforce mistakes.

While a teacher can be a fount of knowledge, an educator can be more like a guide: illuminating the path, encouraging weary travelers to continue on, and perhaps most importantly, keeping them from the shortcuts that seem expedient, but ultimately rob the journey of its usefulness.