Archive for April, 2012

Conservation theory.


The idea that I’m putting forth today represents the crux of my perception and philosophy over the past year or so. Everything I think about is driven in some way by the following idea. I think it’s time I get it down in writing so that I can develop it and make the idea more robust and comprehensive.


As an engineering student, I am deeply familiar with the laws of conservation. If you have taken any sort of science class, or just happen to be a well-reasoned individual, you are probably familiar with this concept as well. The concept is that energy and matter cannot come from nowhere – every scenario has to have an input and an output, a cause and effect. Flow of matter must obey conservation of mass, heat transfer must obey conservation of energy, movement must obey conservation of momentum. We as a species don’t quite know how the Universe began, but we DO know that ever since it began, it has obeyed these laws, and we observe them to hold true throughout everything we do.


Here is a very concrete example of conservation of mass (bear with me, please): Water is flowing through a pipe at 10 liters / second. The pipe has cross-sectional area A. Now let’s say this pipe branches off into 10 equally sized pipes, each of cross-sectional area 0.1A. Now each of these pipes will have water flowing through them at 1 liter/second. This way, mass is conserved, because the total amount of water going into the system (10 liters/second) is exactly balanced out by the amount of water going out (1 liter/second * 10 tubes = 10 liters/second), even though the streams of water take different paths. This is pretty obvious and intuitive to us.


Now, I’m going to preface this next point by saying that I am not an expert in neuroscience. Everything I’m about to say is based on my own empirical observations, and not on scientific research. I’m far too lazy to do that when I can just sit around and reason about things.


I like to call my idea the Law of Conservation of Thought. It’s very simple in principle. There are only so many things that anyone can think about at any given time. I believe that each person has some capacity to think, some amount of brain power that they can devote to any task, sort of like a computer has processing power. In fact, the processor analogy is a rather good one, although possibly lost on those who are not familiar with computer architecture. Anyways, this is my main unifying idea, that thought is conserved – just as the water is conserved as it flows through the pipe, so is thought conserved as our minds process it. We cannot think beyond what our minds allow us to, there is only so much thought that can be used at any given time. Like the physical conservation laws, it is a simple concept but the implications are wide-ranging.


This idea makes sense on the surface – there is some limit to the amount we can think about, which is why we cannot simultaneously do all of our different homework problems in our head, or read a book while carrying on a conversation with someone, and so on. The exception to this is that sometimes, if we get good enough at something, we can learn to multitask – this is mostly true with activities that are partially mental and partially physical, such as sports, music, and art. In these cases it is possible to perform complex mental computations in parallel by using other parts of the brain than those that deal with higher-level thinking, for instance by transforming forced motion into muscle-memory. In this way, you can do something complicated like playing a piano piece while also solving a math problem. However, at levels of thinking which are more abstract, it is a lot harder to multitask in this way. For these types of thought, you cannot think in parallel, because you only have one part of your brain working on the problem. Which is, again, why normal people can’t solve a math problem while also reading a book (this idea does NOT take into account people with exceptional mental capabilities, rainman-style).


That all sounds very nice, but what does that mean for us in the real world? The reason I was thinking about it is because, being at Berkeley (well, being in a competitive intellectual environment in general), I start to question my own mental capacity. Observing the intellectual successes and failures of others and of myself, it behooves me to think about how my brain thinks and how others think. Through this I hope to figure out what thought organization schemes lead to the most success. The most important thing I have learned is that nobody is god – no matter how smart someone is, their accomplishments can be explained by a combination of preparation, dedication, and some latent intelligence. In other words, optimization of thought. As I said above, I think everyone has some certain thought capacity – maybe it can increase or decrease based on body health, sleep schedule, emotional state, general well-being etc, but on average it is relatively constant for individuals. However, it is very unlikely for any person to be using their thought capacity optimally; thoughts can be scattered, unfocused, or focused on things that are not useful. The smartest people are able to take full advantage of their thought capacity, so that all of their thought is used towards some constructive goal. This is very different from having the highest capacity. I used to think that having the highest capacity was important. I thought that having a high intellectual potential was what defined “smartness.” However, I no longer believe that. There are many people who take full advantage of their intellectual capacity even if it is not exceptionally high, and those are the people who become truly successful. They do this through having a very strong ability to focus.


This concept of focus is very important, and is what brings this whole idea together for me. Focus is a measure of how much of your thought capacity you can devote to a particular problem or task. Pure focus means directing all of your available thought to one thing; anything less means that your attention is divided, or else that some thought is completely going to waste, ie “leaking”, by thinking about something trivial. I’ve simplified this model of thought conservation such that all thought exists on a spectrum, with focus on one end and perspective on the other. What this means is that you can either devote all of your thought capacity to just one subject (thus achieving focus), or else devote a small amount of your thought capacity to a variety of different subjects (thus achieving perspective). In other words, this is a way of defining of depth vs breadth of thought. You can either think about one subject very deeply, or many subjects shallowly, or anywhere in between. This ties into my water tube analogy from above – if you want to divide the water so that it flows in different directions, then each tube is going to have a weaker flow. Likewise, if you want to think about different things, then your capacity to think about each of them individually will be severely weakened.


I don’t want to say here that focus is necessarily better than perspective, just that they are on opposite ends of a spectrum. You cannot be very focused while also having a wide perspective – if you achieve this, it simply means that you have a very high thought capacity such that if you otherwise narrowed your perspective, you could focus even more powerfully on one thing. It is often good to be focused – switching between different thoughts is inefficient and causes a lot of “leakage” where you waste time thinking about unimportant things. So, when you are doing homework, it is generally beneficial to be focused on that homework rather than thinking about other things on and off. However, sometimes it is bad to be too focused. This can happen if you get wrapped up in a task without thinking about the context of what you are doing. For instance, you might work very hard on a project, only to realize afterwards that the goal of the project was not very good and that it would have been better to devote your time working on something else. Generally, perspective is useful for making choices of what you want to do, because it gives you a diversity of choice – focus is useful because it allows you to stick to a decision and excel at a task. The way to optimize thought, then, is to be able to readily switch between having focus and having perspective, so that when you need to be creative you can think about a lot of different things, but when you need to get something done quickly and efficiently you have the power to sit down and do it.


Once I started thinking about this idea, I couldn’t stop. I started thinking about everyone’s behavior in terms of this model. Does this person have better focus or better perspective? Is this person optimizing his/her thought capacity? Do the people who I admire succeed because they have better focus, or better perspective, or both?


As many of you know, I have a problem with focus. It is difficult for me to choose one thing to do and stick to it, and devote a significant amount of my thought to it for an extended period of time. However, it is relatively easy for me to consider a wide range of possibilities, including ones that other people might not think of. I need to become better at balancing these things such that I can make myself be focused when I need it, but still be open minded enough to know when I need to pursue another course of action.


That’s all for today. Please leave criticisms in the comments, as I’m sure there are plenty of holes in my analysis.


Here’s some inspirational music, blast from the past. Been thinking about Disney a lot lately…


It’s that time of year again. School is over in a matter of weeks, and I’m fairly screwed in most of my classes.

A typical pattern, to be sure, although unfortunately this semester has been harsher on me than past ones. My performance is going down, while averages are going up. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good. At the end of this semester I’ll need to take some time to think about the decisions I’ve made and where I might have done better. This is all academically speaking, of course – my friends here at Berkeley continue to be awesome and I’m so grateful that I have them.

It is true crunch time now. Extreme catch up work is necessary if I’d like to escape my classes with halfway decent grades. This has the potential to be my worst semester at Cal – hopefully I can keep my head above the water.

On a lighter note, here’s my new favorite song. What can I say. It’s just so damn catchy.

Humanities vs STEM

Is this a confused science student, or a humanities student trying to do science? Or is it a dog?


First and foremost I’d like to say that I’m posting this on Monday night on purpose. I’ve decided to post every Monday night instead of Sunday. This works a lot better with my schedule.


If you have been to college (or perhaps even if you just know people who go to college), you probably have a sense that there is some sort of divide between those who study fields in the humanities and those who study STEM fields. “Humanities” encompasses fields such as classics, history, art, literature, languages, philosophy, etc. On the other hand, STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering Math) include things like…. science, engineering, and math. Surprise. There are some other fields which sort of skirt the boundary, such as economics and psychology (known as “soft sciences”), but we’ll just ignore them here. Who are we kidding – I’m an engineer! Throw them in with humanities too!


Within these two general groups of humanities and STEM fields, there of course exist truckloads of diversity. So, this begs the question – why would we even care about the differences between them if they are already diverse themselves? Why don’t we care about the differences between science and math, for instance? Or between history and art? Well, perhaps I do care about those, but it makes sense that I would care most about the differences which are most significant and most generalized, because getting more specific would mean putting in more time and effort into the analysis. So we’ll stick to the big sweeping generalizations here, and just look at the two biggest groups, humanities and STEM.


Before I add my own opinion, I’m going to talk about what I have observed and experienced at UC Berkeley / also through my friends who attend other universities. These are the big stereotypes:

– Humanities majors are stupider than STEM majors

– Humanities majors have less work to do, and therefore have more time to “party”

– STEM majors are nerds and are antisocial

– STEM majors are elitists and look down on humanities majors

– Humanities majors are more attractive than STEM majors

– Everyone except for engineers (which comprise a good deal of STEM demographics) will have a hard time getting a job and making money

There are of course others, but this list will do for now. I think everyone who has gone to college  is pretty familiar with this general concept.


Are these stereotypes wrong? Are they right? Why should we care about them?


It is hard to say what is really right and wrong. There are some who would denounce stereotypes – we were often taught in school or by parents that stereotypes are wrong, and that you shouldn’t judge people based on them. For the most part I agree with this, in the sense that I recognize that generalizations should not be applied to individuals if you want any shot of evaluating those individuals accurately. However, people who oppose generalizations in this way miss the point of them entirely. They are to be used when more specific information is either unavailable or difficult to obtain, and when the decision made about the individual is not particularly important. If you are hiring someone for a job, dismissing them based on a stereotype is probably a bad idea. If you are looking around a classroom wondering who will get the highest grade in the class, then stereotype the fuck out of them for all I care, because your judgement will make no difference to their success.


Personally, I love to judge people. I love to take incomplete information and form conclusions from it. Isn’t that what we do all of the time, anyways? When do we ever have complete information? At some point, you have to start making assumptions. Plus, judging people can be very fun and lead to great jokes and conversations.


With that, I return to my point. Stereotypes can never really be “right”, by definition, because they are meant to be wrong some of the time. If they were not wrong sometimes they would not be stereotypes, they would be facts. It is not a fact that asians get better grades than white people, it is a stereotype. This is because there exist some white people who get better grades than some asian people. However, if you could show that on average asians get better grades than white people, the stereotype is confirmed. In this way, stereotypes have the potential to be useful. 90% of the time, if I have a friend who is an engineer and a friend who studies psychology, I can tell you that the engineer has to work harder for his grade than the psychologist does for hers (see what I did there? Stereotypes are great). I can also tell you with confidence that the engineer will make more money in the future. Will this always be true? No. Does my judgement make any real difference? No.


The bottom line for me is not about how hard students have to work for their grade or how much money they make after college anyways. So what if engineers study more and make more money on average? Since none of these stereotypes are true in absolutes, they can always be broken one way or another. Let me be very deliberate about what this means because I think it’s important. For every characteristic, there is a general sense of whether it is a bad or good characteristic to have. I think we can safely say that being smart, hard working, sociable, attractive, successful, fun, kind, etc. are all positive characteristics. These things can be associated with stereotypes – you can say that STEM majors are smarter and harder working, and that humanities majors are more sociable, attractive, and kind. But, even if these stereotypes were true, even if on average you could predict what someone was like by sorting their field of study into one of two buckets, how useful is that to you, really? The fact that exceptions to the stereotype exist mean that you can have a friend who is extremely hot and successful who studies math, or a linguistics major roommate who is smarter than your engineer friends. A philosophy major might end up being a millionaire. Ok just kidding about that last one.


My point is that individuals are not so easily generalized as populations, and evaluations of individuals are probably going to be the most important to you. Generalizations and stereotypes ARE useful for some things, so as long as you understand when it makes sense to generalize and when it makes sense to evaluate based on other information, then you should be fine. Saying that stereotypes are wrong and should never be used is equally as close-minded as claiming that they are always correct.


I can say from personal experience at Berkeley that stereotypes are actually useful. They are real and can tell you a lot about a student body as a whole. No one will doubt you if you say that there are not many attractive female computer science students, because it’s true. Do they exist? Of course they do. Here’s my take on all of it: no matter what you study or what you choose to do with your life, you can earn my respect. I respect all of my friends for a lot of different reasons. I respect my engineer friends and my philosopher friends. My mathmetician friends and my businessmen friends. My biologist friends and my art historian friends. This is because they have distinguishing characteristics and admirable qualities that transcend (or even complement) their fields of study. And there’s nothing wrong with that – in fact I think it’s beautiful. Don’t ever decide that you don’t respect someone because of one aspect of them. People are not one dimensional.


This post was partially inspired by one Andrew Kooker, a student government candidate at UC Berkeley who made the fairly stupid decision to trash talk about his constituency in some poorly written facebook posts. I can’t say myself that I totally disagree with him – I agree, for instance, with his point that you should not complain about having an indeterminate financial future if you chose a field of study which is known to have few employment opportunities and low average starting salary. I’ve known people to do this and frankly I find their sense of entitlement annoying. However, there are many aspects of his posts that I disagree with (there were several others which appeared to lack coherence entirely), so many in fact that I’d rather not elaborate, and it is clear that this person has a very linear style of thinking and that he does not consider other perspectives. Whether or not you choose to use stereotypes is one thing – being close minded is another entirely. Be always open minded, always questioning. Never deal in absolutes. (see what I did there?)


Disclaimer: None of this means that I won’t make fun of you for being an ethnic studies major, regardless of how cool of a person you are. I reserve the right to make fun of you for anything I deem appropriate.