Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blog the Cut Parts of Your Book

I like to write books. I expect I will also like to publish books; I'll let you know when it happens.

One of the tough things about any kind of writing is having to remove things from your book that you love but just don't belong. It's hard.

In my non-fiction books, I have ideas that I think are new, exciting. I want people to know about them. But sometimes they make the book worse, and I have to cut them.

I write non-fiction using a typesetting program called LaTeX (pronounced LAH-teck). It's a wonderful thing, and one of my favourite things about it is that you can make "comments." Here is a screenshot of my working environment:

Working with LaTeX is not a "what you see is what you get" interface. Writing is a bit like coding HTML. I'll explain what is going on in this snippet.  Rather than numbering sections, you can code them with the "\section{section name}" tag. You cite things using citep (a separate file contains the citation information). All of the stuff in orange are comments. You make comments by starting the line with a "%". What this means is that when you run LaTeX, these things are ignored, and you get a gorgeous PDF. You only see them when you look at the source. This is really wonderful. The bit "% --gossip" means to me that I'm starting a section on gossip-- I can find it quickly because the preceding double hyphen is my signal for the discussion for a topic. So if I want to jump to the gossip section, I just search for "--gossip".

I use the comments for making annotations for myself. The complete reference, what page it's on, the website from which I originally found out about the paper, my reservations about where in the book it should be, a note to myself to change something, etc.

When I cut something from my book, it's often not because it's a bad idea, but because it just doesn't belong. So I comment out that section. I can still see it, but it does not show up in the final document. It shows up, unobtrusively, in orange. As the book evolves, that commented section might suddenly fit elsewhere. It's still there, waiting to be un-commented.

Now I know Microsoft Word has something called "comments," but it's nothing like this. They do not remain in line with the text, it's not easy to turn text into a comment, and worst of all, comments are printed by default which drives me crazy. The unspoken intention is that when the document is done, you would have no comments, that comments are for the editing stage only.

My book is going through drafts right now, and my colleague Jeanette Bicknell is reading through it and giving me great comments. She's smart, interesting, and writes a great blog on the psychological effects of music for Psychology Today. Check it out at

In one of her recent comments, she told me that my section arguing that tabletop role-playing games should be looked at as a form of art is contentious, and really not necessary for the point I'm making. She's absolutely right. So I cut it. More specifically, I commented out the section.

However, it's still an interesting topic. If I were using a word processor, I'd have to cut it out completely and maybe stick it in another file of fragments that I could mine later (this is exactly what I do when I use Word). That's ungainly. There's no record of where it was in case I want to put it back in, and I'm not reminded of it when I read through my book.

Commenting is easier on the writer than deleting because, to the writer, it still looks a bit like it's in the book. That's the psychological benefit: you're not as hesitant to comment as you are to delete; there's less at stake. Instead of having to kill your darlings, you're putting them in a cryonic stasis, ready to thaw out and live again.

But what to do with these cut sections? I just figured it out:

Blog Your Darlings

After the book gets published, it's good to comment on the book on your blog, for promotional purposes.  You don't want to repeat too much of what's in the book, but you want to write interesting things that make people want to read it. So my plan is, after the book is published, to go through the commented sections and expand on them in blog postings.

This way, the blog has content that is novel and interesting, but still relates to and gets people interested in reading the book. The two support each other. Readers of the book get to learn more through the blog, which can then be used to get people interested in your next book.

And those ideas that were hard to me to remove from the book get to see the light of day in the end.

 Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 12, 2011

Giving Up On Understanding

I have spoken to religious leaders who express how beautiful mystery is. They see the appreciation of mystery as being humble in the face of a complicated universe. They want us to love mystery like we might love the smell of apple pie.

It’s a lovely idea. And what could be wrong with appreciation? It turns out that appreciation of mystery for its own sake has a dark side.

Keith Stanovich makes an excellent point in his book The Robot’s Rebellion. It concerns people’s love of mystery. His point is that appreciating mystery is an intellectual surrender. It signals the end of critical inquiry.  

In the religious case, often the request to appreciate mystery is a request to stop asking why.

Let’s take the common phrase “God moves in mysterious ways.” This statement is used when it appears that God has done something counter to the values we ascribe to him. I see the phrase as a tactic to combat the devastating problem of evil.

The problem of evil is from the philosophy of religion. It is the apparent contradiction between the fact that there is preventable awful things in this world, along with the idea that there is a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. If God knows about horrendous suffering, and has the power to stop it, how could he not if he is all good? That is the essence of the problem of evil. It’s a tough one for theists.

You can see how the love of mystery encourages people from looking too closely at instances of this problem. Why would a good person, doing great things, die early of a painful disease? A common religious reply is that God either caused it (or did not intervene) because of some greater good that we don’t know. It’s a mystery why it happened that way; trust in God.

Note that we hold our own doctors accountable to higher standards. If a doctor knew of a patient that was sick, and had the power to cure him, then, if she was indeed good, then she would be morally obligated to help. But because of our love of mystery, God gets a pass.
When you’re watching a magic show, sure, go ahead and enjoy the mystery. But when people are telling you to appreciate mystery, they are often trying to hide a problem with their own worldview, and protect it by disabling your critical thinking. 

Pictured: An angel sculpture at a flea market. From Wikimedia Commons.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What Is Intuition?

Intuition is when we get a feeling about something, but that feeling does not come immediately with a justification. The essence is that you have some value judgement or decision, but you don't know where it came from.

It's an everyday word for something that is scientifically legitimate. Most of what goes on in our minds is unconscious. We're aware of only a tiny bit of it. Intuitive thoughts are churned up by your unconscious. Then it's up to your deliberate, conscious mind to decide what to do with them. Often, we get a feeling about something and then quickly construct a rationalization for it. We'll often believe that the rationalization is the cause of the belief or feeling, but often it's an afterthought-- a justification created by our conscious mind to explain the behaviour of our unconscious.

Okay, so intuitions come from unconscious processes. But where did these processes come from? What makes them be the way they are? Here's where things get interesting. The simplistic answer is that they are either innate or learned. It's not that black and white (for example, sometimes innate processes can be triggered by experience), but it's a good first-order approximation.

Innate Intuitions

There are some things we didn't need to learn. A baby knows to suck at her mother's breast, and we naturally tend to dislike bitter tastes and peering over from great heights.

Long before psychology and cognitive science even existed, there was a debate between nature and nurture in the philosophical tradition (in parallel with the rationalist and empiricist debate in epistemology). And even today there is a debate, but now it's more nuanced. The question is no longer (or should no longer be) what is innate and what is learned, but rather what is the contribution of innateness and what is the contribution of our environment for a particular behaviour? For example, for how happy people are, 60% of it is innate, and 40% is your history and current situation.

So when you look over a cliff, or watch this video of a tower repair worker climbing a tower to get to work:

You might get a sense of the fear of heights. People I talk to about this video report a queasy, uncomfortable feeling in their guts and, interestingly, a tingly feeling in their feet. They didn't have to fall from a great height to learn this reaction. It evolved.

How do you know that great heights are dangerous? You can reason it out, but you also have a strong intuitive feeling that's hard to shake. For example, take this video. You know you're only watching a video, yet a part of your mind reacts as though you were really there. Knowing it's a video doesn't shake the feeling.  I have friends who report that they can't even watch the whole thing. It's too harrowing.

Learned Intuitions

Not all intuitive processes are innate. Many are learned.

Processes turn from conscious to unconscious all the time. In cognitive science we call this automatization. Things become automatic. It's very easy to understand with physical action. For example, the first time you tried to drive, you probably were overwhelmed with all of the things you needed to keep track of. After driving for years, however, the act of driving becomes completely automatized. First, you can stop thinking about which way to turn the wheel and start paying more attention to where you want to go. As routes get automatized, you might drive yourself all the way home without even realizing it happened- it is so automatic that you were able to think about completely different things the entire time.

Typing is another good example. When you get good at typing, you no longer think about where to put your fingers. Your attention is dedicated to thinking about what to write.

When things are automatized they get faster and more efficient. At that point, actually thinking about what you are doing consciously can mess you up. For example, if I try to think about where to put my feet when I'm running down stairs, I am more likely to make a mistake. It's better to just go for it.

So it is with physical actions. However, we also have many learned preferences that come with culture. Let's take table manners. In Britain, it's fine to eat with the fork in the left hand, tines down, and to push peas on to it with your knife. In America, this is not permissible. In Germany, you may hold the fork in your left hand, but with the tines up, even as you cut with the knife in your right hand.*

When you see someone using inappropriate table manners (by the standards of your culture), it evokes a mild disgust feeling. You also get a mild disgust feeling when smelling food that has gone bad. However, the former came from cultural conditioning, and the later is innate.

The main point I want to make with this post is that you can't tell just by feeling whether your intuition was learned or innate.

Why does this matter?

It matters for a few reasons.
1) We judge other people based on our intuitions.
Cultural practices become so ingrained that we mistakenly feel that they are "natural" in some normative sense, and that people from other cultures should abide by them. I'm not saying that every culture is equally good. I think there sometimes are objective reasons to think one way is better than another-- I'm American and I have my quibbles with American culture, for example. However I think we all would agree that many cultural practices are rather arbitrary traditions that have no objective right or wrong about them. Yet we have the same intuitive feelings about the arbitrary ones as we do about the objectively sensible ones.

2) We have to decide how to act in the world, and sometimes innate intuitions should be trusted more than learned ones.
Child-rearing is my favourite example. We learn child-rearing practices and grow up thinking that they are sacrosanct. For example, there is a belief in my own culture that pornography and nudity is bad for children to watch.  I've looked, and I can find no research to support this. I've also found no research to disprove this-- I've found nothing at all. But we feel strongly about such things, and the feeling is not different from the feelings that are innate and evolved to protect and nurture the child. Some have intuitive notions that violence is a good way to discipline a child. They feel very strongly in favour of this, but in this case it's been shown that this is a pretty bad way to discipline a child (it makes the child more violent in the long term).

We have innate drives to breastfeed and to be affectionate with babies. Indeed, these things are good for babies. The innate feelings should be trusted (in most cases**) and the learned feelings should be questioned.

Unfortunately, we cannot tell the difference by simply looking into ourselves and examining the intuition and how it feels to us. It's a problem.

* When I go out to dinner at international conferences I like to try to guess where everyone at the table is from based on how they hold their knife and fork.

** Not all of our innate drives are good either, which complicates the problem. For an excellent book on the topic, I recommend Keith Stanovich's The Robot's Rebellion.

Stanovich, K. E. (2004). The Robot's Rebellion. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London.

Pictured: A water droplet. From Wikimedia Commons. For some reason it turned up when I searched for "intuition."

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Do People Turn Selfish When Disaster Strikes?

There's a common idea in our society that when there is a disaster, people will get scared and turn into selfish, looting animals. That without a strong government, without something to keep people in check, they will ignore the law and the ethics that they tend to abide by in more stable times. In Neil Strauss's entertaining non-fiction book Emergency, he refers to himself as a "fliesian," meaning that the world is like The Lord of the Flies, where people will turn on each other when the going gets tough. Survival blogs and books talk of "The Golden Horde," which is supposed to represent the unprepared masses who will run across the land, taking whatever they can. How realistic is this?

The answer, based on some things I've been reading lately, is a bit complicated.

When People Get Better
The first part of the answer is shocking and unintuitive to anyone who has not lived through a disaster. Often, when a disaster strikes, people seem to instinctively form communities and help each other out. People will step outside and talk to their neighbours, share food, etc. This interesting reaction, as described in the interesting book A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the goodwill that follows a tragic event, such as 9/11 or the huge earthquake in Mexico city, is astonishing. In fact, people reminisce about the community spirit they felt even years later.

The author of the book laments that the word "anarchy," which historically just meant "without government," now has come to be synonymous with the burning and rioting behaviour we see in movies. Not only can anarchy be peaceful, it can be better than normal times.

However, the government is made up of people who assume that people will turn into criminals. Often, as described in the book, the government's reaction to a disaster is a second disaster, shooting people who come near grocery stores (apparently there's no difference between going to an abandoned grocery store for food and using the disaster as an opportunity to steal a new television set.)

Sounds promising, doesn't it?

When People Get Worse
On the other hand, without any government at all, people sometimes appear to be quite savage. I have been reading Steven Pinker's great book on the decline of violence over the centuries The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In general, without police, people will prey on each other. Maybe not everybody, but enough to make society very dangerous.

Here is a great TED talk about organized crime. In Misha Glenny's theory, organized crime can take root especially well when a government collapses and there is a period of time in which the normal functions of government are not working and people need to turn to "privatized law enforcement," or organized crime. Even if a government is established afterward, just a bit of time without police infrastructure can result in a crime world that is hard to shake. The whole talk is great, but start watching at 4:00 if you're pressed for time.

Montreal is a relatively safe city, but a few hours into the police strike of 1969, there were six bank robberies, twelve arsons, one hundred lootings, and two homicides before emergency powers were called in (from Pinker's book). Pinker also makes a convincing case that the poor engage in more violence because the police tend to ignore violent crimes that poor commit against other poor. If people can't trust police to make things right, they resort to vigilante justice (violent crime).

What Sense Can We Make of This?
I am not an expert in history or disaster studies nor even the psychology of violence. That said, I will tell you my belief based on what I've been reading.

People will spontaneously help each other in a disaster for a short period of time (up to a few months, maybe?). In prolonged war, or failed government, however, there are enough people who will do bad things to make life pretty miserable for everybody.

If you live in a failed state, or in a prolonged war zone, be careful with other people.

But if there is an earthquake in your city, you don't need to sit on your stoop and shoot anyone who approaches.

They might be stopping by to see if you need any food.

A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life

Pictured: G20 London protest riot police. From Wikimedia Commons.

Bookmark and Share