The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

What if a Lunar colony rebelled against Earth?

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (1966) is really a book about revolutions, colonialism and alternative family structures. There is some science fiction like the setting and the fact that one of the characters is an AI but they feel secondary to the main topics.

**WARNING: Spoilers alert**

The plot centers around a human Lunar colony that decides to rebel against Earth because it’s exploiting all of its resources. Earth sent riff-raff to the Moon generations ago and now, the second or third generation settlers, with the help of an almost omniscient AI, figure out that if they don’t do anything they will run out of food and resources very quickly so they decide to revolt. The rest of the book explains how to do it and why (all from how to conduct negotiations to how much force to apply and how to establish secure communication networks in an insecure environment).

I would have toned down the didacticism a bit but I liked some of the ideas that the book explored like how a society with 10:1 women would work (answer: women have the power and have multiple husbands) or whether settlers in a new land are allowed to become a nation or should be a colony of the nation that sent them.

Some quotes follow.

On human psychology:

Prof set us straight: easier to get people to hate than to get them to love.

On revolution:

Revolution is a science only a few are competent to practice. It depends on correct organization and, above all, on communications. Then, at the proper moment in history, they strike. Correctly organized and properly timed it is a bloodless coup. Done clumsily or prematurely and the result is civil war, mob violence, purges and terror.

On Mike, the AI:

I got annoyed and had to remind myself than from Mike’s viewpoint analyzing jokes was just as important as freeing Luna — and you don’t break promises to a child.

Ancilliary Justice

What if an entity whose consciousness spans thousands of bodies suddenly gets restricted to a single body? And what if we lived in a world with only one gender?

Ancilliary Justice by Ann Leckie is a sci-fi story about spaceships, AIs, colonization and the moral struggle between doing what you know is right and face death or follow unjust orders. The story felt more like sitting on the Assembly of Ancient Greece than an adventure because of so much philosophical dialogue but I found the exercise of imagining myself owning multiple bodies very interesting.

If you are going to do something crazy, save it for when it will make a difference.

ancilliary_justice

Living with a SEAL

Jesse Itzler, a 40 years old entrepreneur marathon runner, invites a US Navy SEAL to live with him for a month in order to get out of his routine, get more fit and shake things up.

I started reading Living with a SEAL because I found the freely available first chapter funny, I came out with more than I had imagined: inspired and motivated to try harder at developing mental toughness.

One of the funny scenes:

People at the park are starting to stare. They want to know what the fuck is wrong with me. They also want to know what the fuck two grown men in weight vests are doing pushing a baby stroller in -6°C

A couple of interesting excerpts:

The only way you gain mental toughness is doing things you’re not happy doing.

When you think you’re done, you’re only at 40% of what your body is capable. That’s just the limit that we put on ourselves.

The Enchiridion

The Enchiridion of Epictetus is a compilation of 51 tips on how to live a happy life based on stoic ideas. Here are two of the tips:

Upon every accident, remember to turn toward yourself and inquire what faculty you have for its use. If you encounter a handsome person, you will find continence the faculty needed; if pain, then fortitude; if reviling, then patience. And when thus habituated, the phenomena of existence will not overwhelm you.

It’s hard work but I can’t think of a faster way of improving your character.

Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly; and you will never entertain an abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.

First-world problems and their associated emotional impact become largely irrelevant with exercises like this.

The advice is highly practical and after several weeks of applying some of the tips I can say my inner peace is increasing. I find it telling that the most useful advice I’ve come across lately comes from people dead for millennia.

If you don’t have enough with The Enchiridion check out Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Simple rules for learning more effectively

In How we Learn journalist Benedict Carey presents us with a collection of research-backed findings to help us learn better. Here are some of the ideas that I found most interesting:

1. If you vary your practice you will appear to progress more slowly in each practice session but you will actually improve your performance faster.

Transfer is what learning is all about: it’s the ability to extract the essence of a skill or formula or word problem and apply it in another context, to another problem that may not look the same, at least superficially.

Why is this? It’s harder for our brains to find general rules (eg: how to hit a tennis ball in all sorts of situations) instead of more focused rules (eg: how to hit the ball when it comes always in this direction at this angle).

How to apply this?

  • If you’re studying a language don’t just practice learning new words, mix in reading comprehension, listening comprehension, pronunciation, writing short texts, etc.
  • If you’re practicing sports like basketball don’t just do free throws from the same place, change your position every time, switch to cardio or weights after 15 or 30 minutes, add in studying of recorded games, etc.

 

2. Distractions during study help the brain create stronger associations with the material resulting in increased storage and retrieval strength. It turns out that having a bland and aseptic desk environment, a perfect description of my own study room, is not really a good idea.

How to apply this? Change your study location (bedroom, living room, toilet, school, cafe, library, park), the time of day, the background music or TV, the way you take notes (longhand, writing on your laptop, drawing), the medium (switch between video lectures, books, articles, physical book, ipad) and source (same idea explained by different authors, etc).

 

3. Spaced repetitions are uncontested in terms of maintaining retrieval strength for material that you already understand.

 

4. Testing not only points out how much we understand or remember, it also alters our memories and changes how we organize that information in ways that greatly improve performance. Even pre-testing, testing yourself before starting a new lesson increases recall. Why? We are making our brain work extra hard and we prime it to look for the important bits of information. How can you pre-test yourself?

  • Test yourself how much you know about topic before studying it (be it a lesson, video lecture, book, article, etc).
  • If your material has exercises or test exams (eg: physics, math, algorithms) try to solve the problems before learning how to do it.
  • After consuming new material put it aside and try to explain in your own words the main points.

 

5. The best way to solve hard creative problems is to work on them for hours, days or weeks until you get completely stuck and then stop thinking about it. For this “incubation” effect to work you need to not just be slowed down but completely stuck. At that point your subconscious will keep toiling at the problem in the background and, if it has all the material it needs, will give you an answer whenever it finds it.

Risk Savvy or how to make decisions in an uncertain world

I started reading Risk Savvy this book because I noticed that I have become more and more averse to making decisions for fear of not finding the optimal choice. This was either because I felt that I didn’t have enough information or because I didn’t have the mental energy to follow my adopted ten steps way to making smart decisions.

Enter Gerd Gigerenzer, author of Risk Savvy.

Most of the decisions we face in the real world are full of uncertainty which our brains have been conditioned to rebel against. Two ways in which we try to get rid of this uncertainty are 1) by coming up with increasingly complex models that do more harm than good and 2) by postponing decisions in order to gather more information with the hope of knowing all the unknowns. However we have better options:

  • Use simple rules (heuristics). They won’t give us optimal solutions and they don’t always work but they are generally good enough and it’s easy to remember the cases in which they don’t work.
  • Trust our intuition or the intuition of an expert with no conflicts of interest. In many environments we have been trained to be rational and to ditch intuition because it can’t be explained rationally. However an expert’s intuition represents years of accumulated experience and hundreds or thousands of patterns encoded in our subconscious and that our consciousness simply isn’t designed to handle.

Risk Savvy is full of examples in all domains of life (health, finances, work, relationships) where these two tools give clear advantages over complex solutions.

Other useful ideas from the book that I found interesting:

Humans appear to have a need for certainty, a motivation to hold on to something rather than to question it. […] The quest for certainty is the biggest obstacle to becoming risk savvy. While there are things we can now, we must also be able to recognize when we cannot know something.

Risk is knowing all the alternatives and probabilities but not knowing which one will happen (eg: a slot machine). Uncertainty is when you don’t know all that can happen (stock market, choosing a partner, etc).

Research on high performing individuals and deliberate practice suggests that experts encode information more efficiently. Gigerenzer’s take on this is that experts’ brains have learned, either consciously or unconsciously, which information is essential and discard everything else.

An environment that considers errors bad and penalizes whoever makes them encourages defensive decision making: choosing the option that minimizes risk despite opportunity costs (think about U.S. airport security or, if you’re at a typical big company, the decisions that are routinely made).

How to read more when you have no time

For a long time I have shunned audiobooks. I considered them a lazy and inefficient way of going through a book. My mom suggested them to me months ago but my mind objected: “it’s inefficient and this is the digital domain, don’t listen Juan”. Then I recently came across another recommendation, this time from a 34 year old US Army four stars general with a love of reading but no time who listened to audiobooks during his workouts and morning routines.

Reluctantly but somewhat more open I replaced my ipod epic songs compilation with audiobooks and gave them a try. Three or four weeks later I’m happy to report that this approach works for me. Since then I’ve gone through:

  • Metamorphosis
  • I, Robot
  • Starship Troopers
  • Speaker of the Dead
  • 7 1-2h long podcasts

I’ve listened to more books than I’ve read in the same period which means that I have effectively doubled my “reading” speed while still working out and still commuting to the office (my total commute + workout time per day is between 60 min and 75min.

Things I have observed:

  • I don’t waste time with details because I can’t, the audio goes on regardless of whether I get lost in thought, car horns or gym distractions.
  • I remember enough to do the analysis I usually do after reading a book and I still am able to jog my imagination with new characters and settings. I don’t observe a significant loss compared to reading.

If you want a good quality free source of audiobooks my recommendation is librivox.org.