Committing to choices

In Resolving to Create a New You Ruth Chang argues that in making choices between alternatives that are on par (have much the same value to us) we should favor the choice that we can most fully commit to.

Instead of being led by the nose by what we imagine to be facts of the world, we should instead recognize that sometimes the world is silent about what we should do. In those cases, we can create value for ourselves by committing to an option. By doing so, we not only create value for ourselves but we also (re)create ourselves.

Memorization and Repetition Still Needed for Learning

I believe in learning for understanding, critical thinking, and inquiry-based learning. But even so, real fluency still requires some drill-and-kill.

The problem with focusing relentlessly on understanding is that math and science students can often grasp essentials of an important idea, but this understanding can quickly slip away without consolidation through practice and repetition. Worse, students often believe they understand something when, in fact, they don’t.

via How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math – Issue 17: Big Bangs – Nautilus.

Time after time, professors in mathematics and the sciences have told me that building well-ingrained chunks of expertise through practice and repetition was absolutely vital to their success. Understanding doesn’t build fluency; instead, fluency builds understanding. In fact, I believe that true understanding of a complex subject comes only from fluency.

Managing WordPress via git

I reorganized my self-hosted WordPress system to use git to manage the WordPress code and to move the content outside of the WordPress directory. That way I should be able to do a simple git pull and git checkout $newversion to update my WordPress. I’m also keeping my content directory under change management (separately) so that I can update plugins through the web and be able to roll back.

  • $HOME/blog/wordpress is a git clone of I make no local changes in this. In particular, all of wp-content is unchanged (I make it unwriteable by Apache to be sure).
  • $HOME/blog/content is a copy of the wp-content of my site (prior to moving it outside the wordpress code). It contains the usual: plugins, themes, uploads. It’s all writeable by Apache so that I can update plugins and themes through the web.
  • $HOME/blog/wp-config.php is the usual config file (WordPress looks in the parent directory for it). It’s standard except for two settings:

    define('WP_CONTENT_DIR', '/home/fred/blog/content');  
    define('WP_CONTENT_URL', '');
  • /etc/apache2/conf.d/wordpress.conf defines the VirtualHost for the wordpress site. It has an alias to support special location of the content. (It also has the mod_rewrite rules for permalinks so that I don’t need an .htaccess file in the wordpress code).

    DocumentRoot /home/fred/blog/wordpress
    Alias /content /home/fred/blog/content

Can’t be understated

According to FirstRead,

the Iraq war’s effect on American politics can’t be understated, even 10 years later

So, according to that, anything that can be said is overstating the effect. One can’t state anything less about the effect.

Of course, they mean “should not be understated” rather than “can’t be understated”. But they could probably care less.

Perfect health diet

For the last month I’ve been trying the Perfect Health Diet and I’m pleased. My weight has remained low where it had dropped when I was sick. My strength is mostly back to where it was before I fell ill. It feels like my energy level is improved and my attention span is perhaps better than it was.

At first the name of the diet seemed pretentious but I get that it’s a play on how the authors, a husband and wife team, both have PhDs. Their book is clearly written and presents a convincing case for the benefits of their diet plan. I came to it via the Paleo book by Rob Wolf, which also makes a good case but puts me off with its sophomoric writing.

Making better decisions

New Scientist mag has a May 2007 article on “Top 10 ways to make better decisions“. Here is what I got from it.

  1. Don’t fear the consequences

    Rather than looking inwards and imagining how a given outcome might make you feel, try to find someone who has made the same decision or choice, and see how they felt. Remember also that whatever the future holds, it will probably hurt or please you less than you imagine. Finally, don’t always play it safe. The worst might never happen – and if it does you have the psychological resilience to cope.

  2. Go with your gut instincts

    faced with a simple choice, subjects picked better cars if they could think things through. When confronted by a complex decision, however, they became bamboozled and actually made the best choices when they did not consciously analyse the options.

  3. Consider your emotions
    This is a difficult one. Experiments show that people disconnected from their emotions due to neural damage have trouble making even basic decisions. On the other hand, anger and disgust can affect choices where the situation is unrelated to what triggered the emotion.
  4. Play the devil’s advocate
    Work against the “confirmation bias”, our tendency to ignore evidence that goes against our opinions. Or at least recognize that the bias exists.
  5. Keep your eye on the ball

    Our decisions and judgements have a strange and disconcerting habit of becoming attached to arbitrary or irrelevant facts and figures.

    Buying something because of a discounted “sale price” is an example. Only the price should really matter, not how much it is supposedly discounted.

  6. Don’t cry over spilt milk
    This is about the sunk cost fallacy: “the more we invest in something, the more commitment we feel towards it.”.
  7. Look at it another way
    This concerns the framing effect: “the choices we make are irrationally coloured by the way the alternatives are presented. In particular, we have a strong bias towards options that seem to involve gains, and an aversion to ones that seem to involve losses.”
    This leads to taking more risks to avoid losses than to obtain gains. Reframing the problem to look at it from the other side of the gain/loss perspective might help. [Not sure I understand this.]
  8. Beware social pressure

    How can you avoid the malign influence of social pressure? First, if you suspect you are making a choice because you think it is what your boss would want, think again. If you are a member of a group or committee, never assume that the group knows best, and if you find everyone agreeing, play the contrarian. Finally, beware situations in which you feel you have little individual responsibility – that is when you are most likely to make irresponsible choices.

  9. Limit your options
    Trying to maximize the best outcome by deliberating over all possible options, as opposed to being satisfied with “good enough”, can lead to less satisfaction.
  10. Have someone else choose
    When there is little information to go on, or the decision is trivial or has only distasteful options, it can be more satisfying to let someone (or even something) else choose.

(Via a blog post by Kol Tregaskes.)

Predicting happiness when making choices

From “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth” by Diener and Biswas-Diener, 2008:

There are several predictable thinking errors people commonly make that lead them to incorrectly predict their own future emotions in general, and future happiness in particular:

  1. Focusing on a single salient feature or period of time in a choice, rather than looking at the big picture.
  2. Overestimating the long-term impact of our choices.
  3. Forgetting that happiness is an ongoing process, not a destination
  4. Paying too much attention to external information while overlooking personal preferences and experience.
  5. Trying to maximize decisions rather than focusing on personal satisfaction.
  6. Confusing wanting something for liking it later, and forgetting to evaluate whether we will enjoy the choice once its novelty wears off.

The good news is that by identifying these errors and learning about why they occur, we can guard against them. We may never be able to overcome them entirely, but we certainly can reduce their impact on our lives. By considering a wide range of information, by remembering our ability to cope and adapt, by tapping personal experience, and by remembering that happiness is an ongoing process, you will be far more likely to make decisions that will make you optimally happy. To make good happiness forecasts, get some experience when you can, and check with others who have had similar experiences to the one you will have. Focus on the entire picture, not just on some salient aspect of it, and think what it will be like after a year, not just during the initial period when things may be either more stressful or more exciting. By becoming a good happiness forecaster, through practice and experience, you will substantially increase your psychological wealth.