A very good letter from reader Gavin Miller, reposted with his permission -
Based on your recommendation I recently started reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and I wanted to share a situation where I was able to apply the book back to my work.
There was a passage that caught my attention; when Harry is hearing his parents argue over something that could be resolved via an experiment (emphasis mine):
Hoping against hope that this time, just this once, they would listen to him. "If it's true, we can just get a Hogwarts professor here and see the magic for ourselves, and Dad will admit that it's true. And if not, then Mum will admit that it's false. That's what the experimental method is for, so that we don't have to resolve things just by arguing."
A similar situation came up during a meeting where we were talking about hardware requirements for a project. The debate went back and forth over whether the latest gen iPod hardware was equivalent to the iPhone 4. Back and forth, back and forth. Everyone had an opinion on the matter. We were bike shedding to the nth degree (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_Law_of_Triviality this is one of my favorite laws, and occurs so often in programming.)
And of course I was gunned up, and ready to jump into the debate when I recalled the above passage from the Methods of Rationality. And it dawned on me that the entire debate was pointless; that the entire conversation could be resolved with someone checking for the answer online. I sat back and I thought about this, and realized there was nothing that I could add to the conversation. So I shut up. This is something I wouldn't have normally done, and I'm glad I did because I felt like I was applying some new learning - That's a good feeling.
We get to the end of the debate and no one had the answer, and so someone got assigned to look it up online. 5 - 10 minutes wasted. It makes me wonder how many other "problems" could be resolved with a simple data check, instead of engaging in posturing like this to demonstrate our wealth of knowledge?
My favorite line is the last one - "It makes me wonder how many other "problems" could be resolved with a simple data check, instead of engaging in posturing like this to demonstrate our wealth of knowledge?"
Great stuff. Gavin's website is http://www.thepursuitofquality.com/
The largest mental gains I made in the shortest period of time were from studying rationality.
I was amazed to discover a couple years ago that there were people who regularly studied and discussed how to think, how to get correct and accurate beliefs about how the world works, how to understand how your mind works, and to get at the real reasons people make decisions.
The whole rationality thing is as addictive as crack-cocaine for me. I love it. The difference from crack, though, is you grow stronger and smarter the more you dive in.
Our minds are funny. We humans, we're "adaptation exercisers, not fitness maximizers" -
Fifty thousand years ago, the taste buds of Homo sapiens directed their bearers to the scarcest, most critical food resources - sugar and fat. Calories, in a word. Today, the context of a taste bud's function has changed, but the taste buds themselves have not. Calories, far from being scarce (in First World countries), are actively harmful. Micronutrients that were reliably abundant in leaves and nuts are absent from bread, but our taste buds don't complain. A scoop of ice cream is a superstimulus, containing more sugar, fat, and salt than anything in the ancestral environment.
As the day of departure arrived, it was just as eventful as the days preceding this trip to Maine. Getting the boat prepared, and the man prepared, was as every bit as challenging of a task that I thought it would be. And then some.
Jason was due to depart this same morning in his Eastward Ho "Low Compression" which interestingly enough, he had found years ago in a field with a tree growing out of it after having sunk. Amazingly to his credit, he had managed to rebuild it into a go-anywhere boat. He had made this trip last year, and like me was scrambling to finish all of his projects before doing it again.
Now, Jason usually wakes up around 4:30-5:00am, so when 9:00 came and went on the morning of the trip, I knew something was up. Sure enough he was asked the night before to deliver a big Freedom yacht from Cove Haven in Barrington to the Warren River. This took a few hours and added to the pit surely growing in both of our stomachs. You see it was already July 29th, and since we had intended on leaving around the 10th; we were anxious to get going. Boat projects and delays had set us back and I think we both got a little tired of trying to answer the question "so when you leaving?"
Finally, about 11:30am the diesels grumbled to life, and we headed out of the Warren River, a place that had become home.