Snippets #1

In which I steal an idea from Venkatesh Rao and publish a series of thoughts that are too short, and perhaps not logical enough, to be full posts.


Making SAT Prep Useful

It is difficult to get people to agree on things, let alone work together to accomplish things.

But there are exceptions — causes that bring us together, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, all pursuing the same goal.

Two unifying causes that come to mind right away: World War II and the SAT exam.

SAT and ACT prep is a four-billion-dollar industry. If we assume that 3/4 of this spending is on live tutoring rather than books, and that the average cost of a prep class is $40/hour, that means 75 million hours of SAT/ACT tutoring per year, or roughly 25 hours for each of the three million students who take these tests. And that’s not counting the hours students spend studying by themselves, or actually taking the tests.

And while you might expect that tutoring numbers are weighted heavily towards rich kids, this doesn’t seem to be the case: family income barely has any effect on the amount of tutoring students receive. In addition, black and Hispanic students are more likely than white students to use SAT classes and tutors (though test prep is still quite common among whites and Asians).

In my time as a test-prep tutor — about 400 hours spent with 30 different students — I’ve tried to emphasize life skills alongside SAT skills. I teach students how to think clearly about questions when they don’t remember the steps to the right answer (since life doesn’t have many right answers). I recommend good books as a path to getting a good score on the essay section. I make sure they have basic knowledge of the other parts of the college admissions process.

But all of this feels frustratingly oblique, since I’m morally obliged to spend almost all of my time with students practicing SAT gibberish: math techniques they’ll never need after high school, or the useless skill of writing a five-paragraph essay in 25 minutes.

What could we do with America’s youth if we traded the SAT for some other rite of passage? Something more likely to have a positive influence on their character, abilities, and general outlook?

Give me $4 billion a year and 25 hours per kid, and I could, at the very least, come up with something more interesting than a multiple-choice test. Or maybe I’d just copy Scandinavia. 


The Random Person Generator

Web application I’d like to build:

A “random person generator” that gives you the demographic information (age, race, income, country, education, languages, hobbies) of a randomly selected human being. Storing data from 7.1 billion people would be expensive, but you could approximate things pretty well if you divide every number by 10,000, or generated information in some other way.

Ideally, this would help people get some perspective on their lives. For example: Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are richer than at least 95% of all people on Earth. It is also very easy for Americans to overestimate the proportion of people who live in the United States, and I’m sure this also happens to people in other countries.

Another example: Something that still surprises me when I think about it is that a third of all people live in China or India, and that the setup of governments and education systems in those nations will have an outsize effect on the progress of humanity over the next 50 years. Also surprising is the fact that more than half of all Africans are younger than I am, which will also have many effects on the world of the future.

By giving us another way to grasp these kinds of statistics, a random person generator could help us slowly get used to the world in all its actual diversity, and to build mental maps of what life is like for humans everywhere.


Mildly Interesting Content

The most-liked post I’ve ever seen on Facebook, in proportion to the number of people who had seen it, was probably a picture of a Yale student’s funny Halloween costume. I enjoyed the photo, and liked it myself. But I can think of many other posts that were more interesting than the costume, and should by all rights have been more popular. None of them were.

When you consider the incentives in play, it seems obvious that social networks encourage the spread of mildly interesting, inoffensive content. Whatever gets liked, gets seen.

I used to think that this was a peril of the modern age. Then again, the mass culture of any place or time is likely to be mildly interesting and inoffensive, rather than groundbreaking and controversial. It is rare that popular art also happens to be great art, and we generally rely on the passage of time to filter out the chaff, so that we only see the actual great art of a given era.

(Most oral fictions of 700 BC were not The Odyssey, and most Victorian romantic novels were not Jane Eyre.)

Will this always be the case? Must we always wait for time to do its work? Or could someone design a content distribution system that puts controversial, groundbreaking material in front of as many people as possible? “Controversial” and “groundbreaking” are already high-status adjectives in American culture — all we’d have to do is align our habits with our values.

The best way to create this kind of atmosphere for oneself seems to involve reading both sides of whatever arguments concern you, with an eye towards the extremes of the debate and/or people who hold unusual positions incorporating parts of both extremes.

Sadly, there is no single website that devotes itself to presenting this kind of content (though Slate Star Codex and come pretty close).


Scary Words

What is the single scariest spoken word in the English language? The one that makes you most nervous to hear it when you don’t know the context?

“Boo” isn’t scary by itself, without the context of someone jumping at you and shouting.  “Cancer” isn’t especially scary to most people, as long as they don’t  know who it refers to.

My guess is that it’s a toss-up between several obscene personal insults and the word “spider!” But maybe that’s just me.


Against Images

I am a man of many words, and few pictures. I like looking at things just fine; still, I don’t need a photo of a beautiful island or smiling fashion model hovering over every blog post I read.

This is just an aesthetic preference, and I can accept that I’m out of step with the times. But the soaring popularity of image-driven content makes me nervous.

A picture might be worth a thousand words if you stop to think about the context underlying the picture. But what often happens is that a picture instead evokes a mishmash of emotions in the viewer, without really presenting an argument or adding nuance to their understanding of the words around the picture.

Post an essay about carbon taxation with a picture of an oil-covered pelican, and you gain what seems like an unfair advantage. There is no picture that works as an argument against a picture of an oil-covered pelican.

Oil pelican

I dare you to think about this pelican in context.

At their worst, image-driven arguments trade away logical discourse to grab hold of emotions. Because they rely on the viewer’s contributing context from zir own mind, pictures aren’t good at convincing people who oppose your position — but they are good at bolstering the feelings of those who support you.

It is often said that our society is becoming more polarized, and that people are increasingly unlikely to change their minds about political issues. I don’t know if that is true. But if it is, might the internet’s photo-driven style of communication be partly to blame?


Accurate Beliefs

The Litany of Tarski, a rationalist credo, reinforces the value of accurate beliefs:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

I think this is a very good litany. I try to follow it.

But my brain found a useful exception the other day, and I think it might be best to keep it around.

The Litany of Aaron Gertler:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
But if my bedroom contains a big spider that may or may not be near my bed, and I can’t see the spider,
I desire to believe that my bedroom does not contain a big spider,
Because I need to go to sleep.
Let me not have nightmares about spiders tonight.

It will be nice to move back into my third-floor, spider-free dormitory when September comes.

One thought on “Snippets #1

  1. Pingback: Snippets #2 - Alpha Gamma

Leave a Reply