Generative Protection (aka. Graduate School in Midsight)

I feel like I should talk about grad school and how my fourth year has somehow crept up on me, but really what interests me is the idea of generative protection, so I'll talk about that and use examples from grad school to illustrate it.

I first came across the idea of generative protection - or more generally, generativity - while I was working in Web Communications back at Northwestern, in 2006. We handled the website redesign for Northwestern Magazine, and one article I had to check was Elizabeth Blackwell's Redemption. The article was about Dan McAdams, a Northwestern psychology professor doing research on how people tell their life stories. One trait he points out is generativity, which is a measure of how much people want to leave a legacy. At the time, the only thing I noticed was that generative people also tend to be narcissistic. About a year later, I came across an article in the New York Times, This is Your Life (and How You Tell It). That article focused more on telling life stories and how it is healthy, but one quote about generativity stuck with me: "Often, too, [generative adults] say they felt singled out from very early in life - protected, even as others nearby suffered."

That sentence put words to an idea I've had since high school. An episode from 2004-01-16 in my journal, when someone asked me how I did in my chemistry exam and it was better than the scores they've heard so far, I wrote, "I knew, and I kind of felt sorry, like survivor's guilt, since every did so poorly but I was unscathed." This feeling was touched on in an earlier blog post about grad school. A month later, a friend asked me why I think I'm not good at taking compliments, and I replied:

I think my reaction to compliments comes from not being able to return the compliment. This happened a lot in high school and early in college, when I would get really good grades without really trying. Inevitably someone would ask me what I got, and after telling them they would say good job or something similar. But I know intuitively that they didn't do as well, so I feel guilty about it. Kinda like survivor's guilt, I guess. I've gotten better at just saying thankyou though.

I used the word "guilt", but the feeling was never explicitly negative. If I had to explain it, I would say that it's a sort of puzzlement - about why other people didn't do as well as I did, about why people find things so difficult while I have barely exerted myself. It was only recently that the phrase "generative protection" came to mind, but it conveys how I feel very well. It was as though I am detached from the situation in some way, so hardships that affect other people only pass through me.

The idea of generative protection came back to me at the end of last year, after I worked to pass my prelim that summer. The previous post on grad school might suggest that this feeling of easy accomplishment would have completely disappeared by then (and more so now, another year of the PhD grind later); this is true with research, but not with grad school in general.

In research, even by the first semester, I was feeling the full force of the impostor syndrome. So named because people feel like they're merely faking it, grad school is an environment that pumps out these kinds of people. As a result, every grad student thinks everyone else is doing better than they are, and no one feels like they know what they're doing. In a lab with three senior students, who seem to talk knowledgeably about their research areas, I was understandably intimidated. The funny thing was, after knowing them a little better, I learned that they were also intimidated by me, as I was quiet and always seemed to be working. It took me another long while before I understood that I was as smart as other people in the lab, that we were good at different things, and that we all tend to only notice the times when other people were smarter than us but not vice versa. This depression and later rebound in confidence fixed my feeling of generative protection. I now have a healthy, and hopefully relatively objective, view of my abilities and my own research.

But being a grad student is more than about research; it is also about being able to strike that balance between work and everything else. There are, I think, three reasons why this balance comes easily to me. The first is that I'm not afraid to take time off. I spent three of the last four weekends away from Ann Arbor: the first was part of a week-long bouldering trip to Georgia, while two more weekends were spent in Kentucky. I do feel slightly ashamed that I'm not working, but not enough to stop me from going. I am, of course, writing this post when I could be reading papers. The second reason is that I find other non-research grad school activities to busy myself with. I am the secretary for the computer science graduate students group (CSEG), so I have a non-passive role organizing events for the department. This semester I'm also an engineering teaching consultant (ETC), so I spend time observing and giving suggestions to teaching assistants. Doing "work" for these roles gives me a break from research without inflicting too heavy a sense of guilt. The final reason work-life balance is easy is that, to be honest, work is fun. I enjoy separating theoretical confounds and laying down theory for my research, and to some extent am willing to spend "play" time doing so. I've previously mentioned the spars with my dad about the work-play distinction; my relative lack of such distinction greatly reduces how stressful I feel. Plus, as Larry Birnbaum said, one doesn't have to be brilliant all the time; if one is brilliant ten minutes a day, that's already pretty good.

In truth, the work-life balance issue isn't what makes me feel protected. I have yet to talk to a grad student who truly feels that their work is destroying their non-work life. I wrote the previous paragraph because I felt like humblebragging, but also because I promised I would talk about grad school. What makes me feel protected is that I am still in grad school at all. In the past year and a half, I know four people who left grad school without their (PhD) degrees. I only know two of them with any depth, but both of their reasons for leaving are the same: they are not sure whether grad school is right for them. Keep in mind that this is after three years into the program, after what most people consider the horrible second year; they have both passed their prelims (and will therefore likely get a Master's), and are capable of conducting independent research. For them, it wasn't a matter of ability, but a matter of desire. Neither of them have found a topic they are willing to invest time in, and they are not sure it's worth the time to continue banging their heads against the wall to figure it out. At least one of them is not sure whether it's the research topic (or lack thereof) or the research process that is putting them off, and feels it's better to try something new. Their stories made me realize how easily I have taken on the role of a grad student and how I feel grad school is, if not the right choice, at least not the wrong choice for me.

The descriptions I have given so far of why I might feel I am protected have been about events in my life. One could ask what it was that led me to excel in school and to be so sure that I want to teach at the university level. The only answers I have for these two questions are that "I am good at recognizing patterns" (which is something someone else said of me) and that "I am introspective". These answers do not provide any insight, at least not at this level, and I am not prepared to explore them at this time. Another path of questioning, one I am more interested in, is why I perceive myself as being protected. Equivalently, one might ask why I don't feel as though I have tried very hard in my accomplishments. After all, generative protection is a subjective feeling, not an objective fact; the same event of remaining in grad school could be interpreted as the result of hard work and perseverance. I spend a lot of weekends coding or writing papers, and evenings are often spent sitting at coffee shops exploring the theoretical foundations of my work. Given that I do invest time in research (or climbing), why do I still feel shielded from the difficulties of life - that, to quote from Atlas Shrugged, I've "never suffered"?

I don't have a clear answer to that question, but I do have two related hypotheses. The first is that, once I have accomplished something difficult, that task seems much easier in hindsight. The closest approximation to this idea is what education psychologists call the curse of knowledge. It describes the phenomenon where experts - people who are good at a particular task - find it difficult to explain how to perform that task to novices. The underlying reason for this curse is that expertise changes the neural pathways in the brain, making what previously required conscious thought into something that is automatic and instinctive. For me, the same mechanism may lead to a strong myopic bias, leading me think that the task was never difficult, despite the memory of how I struggled to accomplish it in the first place. I had tweeted this idea some months ago: "It turns out that - for someone with a pretty huge ego - I tend to trivialize my accomplishments."

The second theory is encapsulated by this quote from the climber Adam Ondra in the film Progression, when he compared himself to Chris Sharma: "I think I'm basically weak." Ondra was comparing their ability to do strength-based climbing moves, in which there might be a legitimate difference in their ability. Objectively, however, Ondra remains one of the strongest (if not the strongest) climber in the world; his accomplishments alone is strong evidence that he is not a weak climber. I have come to call this the weakness mindset: the idea that there is nothing special about our ability despite being extremely competent. The perception of weakness, together with my continued survival despite that weakness, leads to the conclusion that I am protected. A second implication of this belief is that I must not have worked very hard or trained very long, as otherwise I would not be weak. This elegantly explains both the feeling of protection and the feeling that no effort was exerted.

My suspicion is both the hindsight explanation and the weakness mindset are expressions of something deeper, a get-it-done-at-all-cost mentality that makes any effort worthwhile. That, however, is the subject of another post.

Postscript: There are at least two omissions in this essay, which were realized only in the process of writing (hence, an essay). First, I realized that there are two ways to define the lack of suffering: that of not having worked hard, and that of not having encountered difficult external circumstances. This ambiguity in the meaning of "suffer" is important, as it is the quote from Atlas Shrugged that first inspired this subject. Second, I acknowledge that there is no immediate connection between not exerting oneself and feeling protected. Their relationship will have to be cleared up at a later date.

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Technology and Society

I have been meaning to write about this for a while, but have always procrastinated on it because I didn't want to figure out the logic behind my intuition. But then today I was linked to an article about how computers are making a lot of people unemployed, so I thought it's time explain my idea:

I think we are taking the first steps towards the guarantee of food, shelter, and clothing for everyone in the world.

This seems crazy, but here are the trends I'm seeing:

  • As the article suggested, networked computers are very quickly replacing a number of jobs. Where before humans are necessary for communication between individuals and organizations (grocery stores, shopping malls, airlines), this can now all be done digitally. From the users' perspective, this is desirable, since it's generally faster and less hassle. But it does mean that most people in the communication pipeline will be out of a job.
  • A separate article suggests that the people out of a job will be forced to move either up or down the social hierarchy. There are three main classes of jobs that haven't been automated yet: jobs that require significant creative input, such as scientists, CEOs, etc; jobs that require non-information-based interaction with humans, such as actors, babysitters, etc.; and jobs that exist in a chaotic environment, such as janitors, plumbers, etc. These categories obviously overlap; surgeons, for example, fit all three categories. Back to the point, only a subset of these roles can be filled given the average education of workers. These jobs, in general, are lower-paying than information-exchange-based jobs in the service industry.
  • But that's not all - the bigger problem is that jobs are disappearing. This article says the same thing. It is not the case that technology is merely changing the distribution of jobs, but it is actively shrinking them. A system which allows people to buy things online replaces thousands of workers who would otherwise have to be in a brick-and-mortar store - while maybe creating a hundred jobs of mostly warehouse workers and a couple programmers. I think, for the first time in history, the sustenance of human civilization no longer requires the input of the majority of its population.
  • Which begs the question: are jobs necessary? This article has a great quote: "We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?" Taken to the extreme, which considering the growth of technology is very likely to happen, society will be automated to the extent that only a minority is needed to maintain the automation. By the law of supply and demand, these are the only people who will have jobs. Of course, the rest of the population will still have to eat, sleep, and fulfill other needs, but it's unclear how.
This is one of the reasons I've said to anyone who would listen that we live in interesting times. Technology is changing at a quick enough pace that governments can't keep up. Just look at the mess that surrounds every contact point between technology and law: software patents, internet censorship, net neutrality, social network privacy, online anonymity, and so on and so forth. There are also spill over effects from the massive userbase of the internet: WikiLeaks, dissemination of police brutality recordings, DDoS attacks, and so on and so forth.

While we're here, I want to bring up a rarely discussed facet of copyright, that of 3D printing. As material extruders become more popular, the fight over design of physical items is going to eclipse that of over music, films, and other pure information. This article gives more details.

What I find even more intriguing is that, while technology is disrupting the fabric of social by creating a jobless world, it may also be on the cutting edge of suggesting solutions to those problems. The main insight I had was that the digital world already has many of the properties of a jobless society. They include:

  • Zero marginal cost. Software, once written, can be copied at essentially no cost. This is already somewhat true of what has been automated - we are being charged very little for buying things online.
  • Universal access. Anyone can get online (assuming the minimum equipment of a computer and a connection), and without censorship, can access everything the internet has to offer.
  • Voluntary contribution. It used to be the case that most users of the internet are passive receptors, only receiving information but not contributing any. With the rise of social networks and online collaboration, many of the users are now also contributing - voluntarily.
It is not surprising that, giving these properties, we are still struggling with some of the implications:

  • Artificial scarcity. In other words, companies are trying to artificially increase the marginal cost. This is, ultimately, what DRM comes down to:  making people pay for something which otherwise costs nothing. This can also be seen in the (however small) charges we incur for making online transactions.
  • Competing with free. How does a company remain in business when other people are giving the same product away? I am writing this post in Firefox on Linux, neither of which I paid for. Ditto for most of the tools I use for research; in fact, our entire research project can be downloaded for free. Chris Anderson's book is all about this topic.
  • Attention-based economy. This is somewhat surprising to me, since I don't understand it. I rationally know that Google makes 40 billion USD each year, most of it from advertisements. I have personally never clicked on an ad, and have software which blocks them. But the plus side is that I have free access to a lot of things - including this very blog - because other people are clicking on the ads.
I think there are lessons that can be translated from the digital world to the physical world, which may give rough predictions of what will happen in the next century. At the risk of looking like an idiot when that time comes, here are some analogous societal changes I think might (and I hope will) occur:

  • Copyright holders will finally give it up as a lost cause. Beginning with software patents, it is becoming very hard to say when something is novel or not. There will still be patents, but their domain would be strictly limited. In the mean time, people will be sharing a majority of the creative output of the world, free of charge.
  • Work will be for the most part voluntary. It would be for pay if the final product is conducive to such; otherwise, attribution credit is all the creator will get. A lot of the results of "work" will fall into the public domain by default, which benefits the population as a whole.
  • Companies will be the main providers of social welfare, including food and shelter. They will do this because the economy is no longer focused on physical currency, but on something less separable from the individual, such as attention, time, and so on. Basically, the company will stand to gain more from you being well fed than from you starving. An interesting take on this is that people will start buying experiences.
I have been keeping an eye out on how technology - computers and the internet in particular - have changed society. It's astounding to think that even my childhood twenty years ago is very different from the childhoods of the people growing up now. I cannot begin to imagine the world in which children in another twenty years will be accustomed to. I wonder to what degree will the above problems be solved, and what new problems would have arisen as technology takes more unpredictable turns.

I guess there is one last question I haven't asked. Let's say all this becomes true. Is this a world we want to live in?

PS. A more speculative, transhumanist take on technological evolution.
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Maybe We Should Rethink Education

Sebastien Thrun on how his online AI class changed him:
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Thoughts on a Cognitive Sport

Note: this post contains a lot of rock climbing jargon and may be hard to comprehend for the uninitiated. Interested readers should refer to Wikipedia‘s glossary of climbing terms.

A description of rock climbing that I wish I had thought of is that it is a “cognitive sport”. I found this term used in two separate blog posts and found it intuitively apt, but it took me a little longer to understand why it is so. All sports contain cognitive elements: the psychological drive to perform better requires will power, any sport with opponents requires outsmarting them, many team sports require cooperation and strategy. But more so than other sports, climbing requires more deliberate thinking than most other sports.

For one, climbing requires participants to overcome their fears. I have long since accepted that a good portion of climbers are afraid of heights, and an even larger portion afraid of falling – despite rationally knowing that they are not going to die. From this perspective, climbing is akin to asserting control over irrational fears, which is very much a cognitive process.

Then there are the steps necessary to reduce the risk of climbing outdoors. Alpine climbers need to consider the weather, their supplies, and their physical condition before deciding whether to attempt a summit. For more routine climbers, there is a body of technical knowledge to be mastered before stepping on rock. The most mundane of these is knowing how to belay and tie knots, but climbers need to know more before going outside. Setting up a top-rope outdoors requires not only more specialized gear and more knots, but also an elementary understanding of physics involved so as not to overload a rope. More cautious climbers may also learn to rescue others and/or themselves, which may involve creating pulley systems – more physics – and creative use of the limited gear on hand. I admit that the application of this technical knowledge forms a large part of the appeal of rock climbing.

Another cognitive aspect of climbing – in my opinion, the most cognitive aspect of climbing – is the climbing itself. Bouldering routes are called problems for a reason, and that is because climbers often need to decipher how to use the holds before getting to the top. Brute strength can only get a climber so far, and technique will get them the rest of the way there, but only if the right technique is used at the right place. What this “right place” is depends on the climber; short climbers may be more comfortable with high foot placements, but may need to use more dynamic moves to reach the next hold, while taller climbers can easily skip through sequences, but suffer when the problem requires them to control their swing. Even on indoor walls the correct sequence may not be immediately obvious, and I’ve been stuck on routes until an “Aha!” moment led me to trying a different sequence, more often than not allowing me to finish the problem.

This problem-solving aspect is so salient in my mind that I sometimes think of it directly in psychological terms, specifically by describing a bouldering problem as a problem space over body positions. There are a number of start states (hands on the wall and feet off the ground), a number of goal states (both hands on the finish hold), intermediate states (the holds in the middle), actions to change states (movement), constraints on which actions to take (usually physiological constraints, but also strength, balance, technique, etc.), and finally control knowledge (the decision to take a particular action). I even map the progression of climbers onto the naivety of their search of this space. Novice climbers, not knowing what holds are good or how they should position their body, blindly try everything in reach and settle on the first good hold (a greedy, one-step lookahead search). As they gain experience, climbers internalize which holds are bad enough to ignore (heuristics), while also taking into account future holds before moving (multi-step lookahead). Eventually, climbers acquire the ability to read routes, deducing the best sequence by simply looking at the holds (global optimization). Interestingly, I think most climbers only do this through simulation, as even experts are often stuck on more cryptic problems. The “aha!” moment mentioned above came from considering the route as a mechanics problem and how the body might be balanced on the holds given. This is a completely different line of thought than mental simulations, and I wonder if it is unique to climbers with a physics background.

The last aspect I want to address is also the last one to occur to me. Although climbing is an individual sport, I realized that some amount of meta-cognition/opponent modeling is required – by the route setters. This is a role that I find myself increasingly attracted to, for several reasons. First among these is that it allows me to test my climbing prowess in any way I want. Having access to holds and a wall allows me to recreate the hard moves on an outdoor route or the inspiring sequences from climbing videos. Of course, anything I set will be far inferior in quality and difficulty to what athletes are filmed doing, but making the moves similar enough will require much of the same muscles. Although in theory setting my own problems should make me better-rounded as a climber, in reality I tend to set routes which I would enjoy climbing. Most of the time these are technical problems, ones which involve small crimps and precise balance and foot placement. Once in a while I will set something cryptic, introducing climbers to an unusual sequence. Only rarely will I use slopers, which I don’t enjoy climbing on and don’t understand how to place. Luckily, this shortcoming is fill by other setters, and part of the joy of setting is understanding how they incorporate slopers and, indirectly, how to better use them when climbing.

Which brings me to the mental side of setting. The main point of route setting is not for the setter to enjoy the route, but for other climbers to enjoy the route. This requires that the setter take into account how others approach climbing; after all, setting a cryptic problem requires knowing that the average climber will not immediately see the crux move. The setter must also prevent the climber from circumventing the move. This is often called “cheating” when done as a climber, although I don’t believe that using the easiest sequence should be discouraged. Rather, the onus is on the setter to design their route such that cheating is not possible – or at least, that it would be as difficult as doing the move in the first place. This is easier said than done, which is precisely why setting is cognitively challenge. A good route should not only force a climber to do the intended sequence, but to force every climber to do it. This requires placing holds such that climbers would be coming from the same direction, in the same body position with the same hand free. In the problem space analogy, this is equivalent to adding enough constraints such that there are only very few paths connecting the start to the finish. These constraints must work for climbers of different heights, and the setter must make sure that a bump and a foot chip for a short climber would not be useful for a tall climber. Juggling these constraints and thinking one level above the climber is why setting a route is as cerebral, if not more so, than climbing a route.

Let me end this essay with a brief exploration of what I think good routes should have. Not all routes are created equal, and inexplicable as it may be, there are such things as incoherent routes. These are the routes that climbers suspect were set by throwing random holds at the wall. A common result is an extremely difficult move in an otherwise easy problem, or perhaps a move which may easily injure the climber (like a dyno to a pocket). In contrast, well-set routes give a sense of movement. I suspect this has to do with balancing many dichotomies: dynamic moves that require precision and static moves that require balance and power, footwork that requires thinking and holds that require courage and commitment. A good route is one that flows – one that, when a climber is on it, they forget about everything else.

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