Posted on June 17, 2014

You are capable of figuring shit out

There is a mindset out there that learning is something other people help (or make) you do. That you need a teacher/course/training/certification/degree to tell you how and what to learn. Or that if you don’t know how to do something, you better take a class or pay someone who has. Like you need your hand held through the whole process. “This is how learning happens. Learning isn’t something you do for yourself or for fun. It costs money, it’s hard, and because it takes work, it should be done only when you have to.” Or so people think.

That’s all just so damn untrue that I want to beat sense into people with my biggest textbook shed some light on a few things.

This mindset contributes to the problem of graduates thinking they’re owed a career because they paid for a degree. 

It’s also contributes to people thinking they need to “go back to school” to learn about something they’re interested in.

Showing up doesn’t count. Taking classes doesn’t mean a teacher can inject knowledge into your brain. This ain’t the Matrix. 

I’m here, shoot me with the knowledge serum plzkthnx.

In fact, you can learn most things without teachers or classes. (Although personally, I don’t want a purely self-taught surgeon. But a self-taught plumber/programmer/writer/graphic designer/researcher/etc.? Sure! That’s a motivated person and I respect that.) And this might sound really radical, but you can probably do a better job of teaching yourself than, say, your high school teachers (or even most university professors).

The internet is a beautiful thing. Thanks to it, so much knowledge is available. Free. At your finger tips.

It isn’t necessary to master everything you want to learn about. Dabbling in an interest will still expand your horizons.

But if you’re actually determined to do so, you could even learn the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science without taking any classes.

You could learn to be a data scientist.

You could become an artificial intelligence researcher.

You can even pick up that high school geometry or grammar you wish you’d paid more attention to.

The possibilities for what to learn and what qualifies as a topic to learn about are endless. Pick anything.

Even if the learning society wanted you to do in school doesn’t appeal to you, smart people still want to learn what does interest them. I know someone who went to school for graphic design, but insists they don’t understand css and html, so they can’t branch out to working on the web.

TRY ACTUALLY LEARNING IT! (*deep breaths self, it’s not that big of a deal)

The reason this kind of thing can bother me so much is because when you try, you will learn. It might be slow. It might feel hard. You’ll feel stupid and make mistakes, but that’s what the process is like for everyone. What people who declare they can’t do something that they wish they could do don’t understand is that they’ve chosen not to learn. 

Oh I know you’re busy with your full-time job, ten children, three wives, sick Dingo, car that was broken into last month, and insane neighbor who takes a dump in your yard and blames stray dogs even though you caught him on camera. Guess what? You’ve still chosen to put other priorities above learning whatever thing you say you wish you could do if you were smart enough. That’s fine, but own up to it. Say, “That hasn’t been a priority for me,” because blaming excuses is lame.

It takes about 20 hours of dedicated effort to get good enough at something.

If it’s important to you, do it already.

Photo credit: maths by Sean MacEntee

Locked Door
Posted on May 4, 2014

What does it take to feel secure?

Security and privacy have been heavily on my mind lately. From buying a safe for storing anything with my private data printed on it to taking a course on cryptography, I’ve been taking action to understand what security means to me and how to feel more secure.

You could say I’ve been conducting a personal security audit. And while physical safety and security are very important, I happen to have found myself to be most exposed by technology.

There’s a high probability that you’re even more exposed than me. I say this because I happen to program computers, so for the most part, I tend to be more comfortable and aware of the technical aspects of computer use than the average user.

(Programming may sometimes suck, but at least it helps you know why a kid in Russia could have your social security number five minutes after you open a web browser for the first time.)

So what are some ways that you and I are exposed?

Facebook has data about me. At first I didn’t realize how much because I fall way short of the average Facebook user’s time spent on the site.

So if you’re a member of Facebook at all, you might want to download your Facebook data archive to check out some of what this company has on you. Investigate your activity log too. You might be shocked when you actually see the stuff in there. You should probably know by now that they’re tracking everything, but this fact doesn’t feel real until you see (some of) the data with your own eyes.

Personally, I didn’t expect my archive to have the phone numbers and email addresses of every single contact from my phone. I did click accept on the phone app permissions when I installed it, but I somehow didn’t think of exactly how those permissions could be used. Every event I’ve ever been invited to was in there, even if I didn’t attend or ever acknowledge the invite. Every name I’ve ever searched for. Every message. And much more. You get the idea.

One more tiny thing I didn’t expect was for all the things I’ve “liked” to be organized under a category titled “ads.” This is a perspective shift: Facebook views your likes as advertisements. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It makes sense that what you’re really doing every time you click a like button is participating in advertising; advertising a movie, book, or business to your friends. Advertising to all future people who see the growing number next to that thing/person/business’s “Likes.” Telling Facebook exactly what you like enough to make you click on an ad…

That’s exactly why companies everywhere are gathering data about our behavior; they hope to sell you, and people their algorithms judge to be like you, more shit.

I consider myself to be very resistant to the typical manipulation techniques used by most ads. I’m not their target audience. So it could be tempting for me to say, “Collect whatever you want about me. I’m doing nothing wrong, so why should I worry? Privacy is dead anyway. ”

And I did adopt this attitude for a bit. That’s why Facebook has as much on me as they do. But I felt strange and uneasy whenever I reflected on the state of things. A web of information about us is generated and stored by every digital action we take. Assuming you trust the collecting companies themselves (I don’t), do you trust every single employee who can access your data? (The leading cause of data breaches is employees.)

Can you say you trust any criminal who may ever break their security?

You go about your life unaware of the Digital Shadow you cast. You are not a person to these companies. You are a data cluster. You are $$$.

Who else is tracking the daylights out of you online? Well, Google.

A lot of people treat Google like a friend or therapist, searching for revealing things about themselves becausethey want advice? I don’t know. A webmaster of any moderate sized site gets a tiny window into the collective crazy being entered in Google search-boxes. Google, obviously, gets it all. And reads your email too.

And since Google’s policy is to hand over user records requested by the government, you maybe shouldn’t ask Google to help plan your criminal activities.

“Google already knows everything about you.”
– a coworker

Using Google’s Web History page, you can see every single Google search you’ve run while signed into your Google account. Dating back years.

Here’s what I was searching for in 2010:

Google Knows Your Past

My current total Google searches to date: 15436

I would say almost no one knows me as well as Google does. It knows what kind of person is doing this on a Friday night:

Google Knows You

It’s true that you won’t be able to see this aggregated data if you don’t activate Web History. But they’re still collecting it. They just aren’t showing you. The other search engines are collecting too.

But enough about Google for now.

One day, I found an online marketing list that gave the location of the building I work in. The only place online where I’ve ever listed my workplace is LinkedIn.

Surprise, surprise, another social network exposes information about me. Well it turns out there is no way to make your LinkedIn profile information private. Your LinkedIn profile provides a location based network of the individuals and companies you’ve professionally interacted with.

You could delete your profile, but that could also be a link (get it? LinkedIn?) to career opportunities that you’re flushing. It was LinkedIn that gave me a way of contacting a former boss who I wanted to ask to be a reference for me. It was a recruiter contacting me on LinkedIn that led to my current job. In fact the site is crawling with tech recruiters I could use to find a new job at a moment’s notice. Recruiters love programmers.

Even outside of the internet, you’re still being tracked. Every store loyalty card tracks what you purchase. Credit card companies know a lot about you.

You can try to “hide,” but trying to hide from Big Data makes you feel like a criminal, even if you’re just trying to hide a pregnancy. You’ll be buying everything in cash and using the same technology as drug dealers who sell online.

It takes serious, inconvenient effort to avoid being tracked. You can block ads, block trackers, surf anonymously, replace email, and hide your browsing behind encryption. You can even stop using Google search. But “opting-out” is far from the simple, easy act that companies pretend it is.

For example, if you want to watch Emma Stone lip sync on Wired you’ll have 24 trackers watching what you do. How long you stay. What you click. Your OS. Your browser. Your physical location. What social networks you’re logged into. Where you came from. Where you go. Where they’ve seen you before online. All without you logging in or being given the chance to opt-out of anything.

24 trackers! That’s more eyeballs than I want watching my 2 am internet browsing.

I’m not really comfortable with surveillance being normal.

It happens to be my opinion that internal NSA documents bragging about hunting system administrators to gain access to more networks should concern people.


Potato? Potato.

“We haven’t seen yet what a truly bad government is capable of doing with modern information technology. What the good ones get up to is terrifying enough.”
– Maciej Cegłowski

You know what’s scary? I haven’t even mentioned what someone with bad intentions could do with some of this data you’re leaving all over the place.

I don’t know how far I’ll need to go to feel secure again. I’m still figuring it out. But this deep dive into my own personal exposure has left me reconsidering and cleaning up from my past blasé attitude towards being digitally tracked.

You might want to start taking this stuff seriously too.

Photo credit: locked door by rohit gowaikar

Posted on April 13, 2014

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

This is something everyone should know about. The idea of a “sunk cost” comes from economics. I first learned it in a college econ course about seven years ago. Nowadays, I see it mentioned all the time, but I’m not sure if general knowledge of it has spread or I’m just more prone to noticing something I’m familiar with (that would be an example of availability bias).

A simple explanation of sunk costs is that there are certain kinds of costs that have no way of being recouped or recovered. In these cases, decision theory holds that it’s best to ignore the sunk costs when deciding what future action you should take. Read More

Broken Pillars
Posted on February 21, 2014

Pay Attention to Life Basics

Long ago, when we as a species first learned to farm, professional specialization began. Later the industrial revolution made us specialize even more.

Few of us could now survive by relying only on our own strength. What does that mean? If the infrastructure we depend on disappeared, many of us would die. Unpleasantly.

I’m not talking about prepping for an apocalypse or anything like that. At this point in our development, going back to surviving purely on what you can remember, make, harvest, and kill yourself isn’t even a good idea. Read More

Pirate Flag
Posted on January 19, 2014

The Gray of Book Piracy

Before the Internet came along, people had some behaviors strangely similar to digital pirates. And they didn’t have the slightest notion that what they were doing was wrong.

Have you ever loaned a book to a friend? Used a cassette tape to record a song from the radio? Made a mix tape for a crush? Borrowed a movie? Borrowed a CD? Copied a CD? Read a book from the library? Read a book or a magazine in a bookstore without buying anything? Read More

Silhouettes of people
Posted on December 2, 2013

The Error You Make When Judging the Actions of Others

When someone cuts you off in traffic, you think they’re an asshole. If you cut someone off in traffic, you think you’re in a hurry or there was plenty of room. You aren’t trying to be rude.

When someone is late to meet you, you think they’re inconsiderate and irresponsible. When you’re late to meet someone, you think about the alarm that didn’t go off, how your keys weren’t where you left them, and how all the traffic lights were red on the way over. Really, it’s not your fault. Anyone would have been late in your situation.

We think of our own negative actions as a result of circumstances that make what we do understandable. Meanwhile, we tend to attribute the actions of others to deficiencies of their character, disposition, or personality. This is known as the fundamental attribution error (also called the correspondence bias). Read More

Wrong way traffic sign
Posted on November 11, 2013

7 Reasons We Are Afraid to be Wrong

Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about the possibility that we are wrong.

We know “being wrong” is something that can and has happened to us in the past, but it’s mostly just a possibility we abstractly acknowledge. For instance, at this exact moment, I can’t personally think of anything I know I’m wrong about. That might sound arrogant, but can you think of something you think is right, but you’re actually wrong about? Probably not or you wouldn’t think it.

Being wrong feels like being right.

And we are very, very scared of being wrong. Here are some reasons why: Read More

Family Memory Photo
Posted on October 15, 2013

Your Memory is Completely Unreliable

I used to think of human memory as an organic computer hard drive. In that view memories are stored as they happen, and the act of remembering any particular memory would bring it up from your hard drive.

I found it comforting to think that all the things that happened to me were stored away and could be retrieved if I was just able to dig deep enough. That who I was was a product of all the memories I had ever accumulated.

Others have described their memory like a filing cabinet. I guess my view was influenced by growing up with a computer, but the two ideas are similar.

And it turns out they’re both horribly flawed representations of how our brains store memories. Read More

Posted on October 2, 2013

Why People Hate Vegans

I confess: I’ve never thought highly of vegans. You could say I’ve had a prejudice.

I’ve never interacted negatively with a vegan though, so where did my prejudice come from, and why on earth have I found the term ‘vegan’ repulsive in the past?

It’s time for a bit of self-reflection.

According to Wikipedia, being a strict vegetarian (someone who doesn’t eat any animals or animal byproducts) qualifies you as a ‘dietary’ vegan.

I’ve seen comments online like, “I don’t preach and I’m not judgmental of meat eaters. I just choose to eat vegan for health reasons. I own leather belts/shoes/clothes.”

I guess that means that to be a vegan without ‘dietary’ as a prefix, you need a philosophy that goes beyond diet choices. And as is typical with any philosophy, it’s followers believe that spreading their ideals will ultimately improve the world. Read More

Posted on September 19, 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

This is a book review of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (also known as HPMoR for short). HPMoR is a fanfiction.

But wait! Don’t pass judgment yet. This is the most mature and well written fanfiction I’ve ever come across. Not only that, but it’s better than any real books that I’ve read in a long time.

The most interesting thing about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is that it can change how you think. In a good way. And I’m serious about that.

Read More

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