The Top 10 Things I Learned of at College [1~6]

I felt like doing something vaguely productive, “productive” being defined as “completing something off my to do list”, and I got bored doing the other things for the time being so here I am. Not entirely sure about this style as a general standard, but it certainly feels nice for a change. “Not sure” only because I feel vaguely lethargic and do enjoy high-tension situations – in a sense that summarizes what I look for in life, but I’ll get to that in a bit. In any case I’m not against doing things only when I feel like because I’ll become some hedonist that doesn’t contribute to society; it’s not like anyone has any delusions that that’s what college students are anyways. How many people actually contribute to society anyways? This is not to say that one shouldn’t try, but worrying about getting there is pointless. Thinking about it more certainly will reveal more possibilities and pathways, how much more who knows, and that’s the point at which this kind of thing needs to be weighed. But I’ll get to that too.

9 of these things are fairly direct and can be taken away easily. One is personal and directed towards myself in the future, though it can probably be extrapolated from with a bit of effort.

They are things I “learned of” “at” college; “learned of” as in started noticing that the concept was important, and “at” as in it happened with events related to that location. I make no claim that this is stuff college tries to teach, does teach, or successfully teaches. I think college is stupid. But other people don’t for some reason so I had to deal with it, and these are what I got out of it.

They are listed in no particular order.

You have margins, you’re fine; you don’t have margins, you’re fucked.

“Margins” being defined as material, energy, mental energy, man-hours, money to redistribute at a moment’s notice. My dad calls it “buffer zone”; in essence it is “being prepared”.

In middle school I pulled all-nighters, in high school I started doing stuff two days before it was due. At the start of college I went back to doing all-nighters, and then at the end I was pushing towards one or two weeks ahead. One of the reasons was because deadlines got more dead, as I no longer was able to spend enough time with teachers to befriend them and have leeway given if it was desired; another reason was because stuff started getting harder to understand or reasonably grasp in the period of time that it was taught in. Perhaps the candidate for the biggest reason of them all was because in K-12 the teachers accepted the margins while in college the professors forced them onto me. If teachers were for whatever reason unable to teach some material in time, they simply didn’t test on it. In college, however, even if the professor is going off doing their own thing at some conference or whatever, they’ll just send you a 50 page PDF instead and expect you to know all of it within 42 hours. I’m somewhat curious as to why professors do this kind of thing, perhaps that particular one could get away with it because he was black? In any case the environment shifts, and you can call it going from “hand-holding” to “self-study” or whatever floats your boat, but none of those analogies clicked for me.

People in general don’t really give a shit if you encountered some problems, you’re expected to deal with them. Short of having an amazing network, an unbelievable set of skills, or an inheritance, extra stuff has to be in place ready to be consumed. Having margins requires some other things, and leads to some changes in the mindset, the greatest of which is “luck” plays a significantly smaller role.

In many videogames I’ve played where the damage output is somehow influenced by RNG, lower-tier players will regularly complain about their deaths being “lucky”. The psychology of character defense/attack is obviously the purpose here but not the discussion at this time. The important thing is that the top-tier players will never complain about RNG, even if there are cases where that it’s a fairly significant problem. This is because they are planned around. In the case of damage being randomized, the simplest possible solution is to simply be in a position where you cannot be hit, as movement is generally left completely up to the player. There is also communicating with your team, watching a minimap, or simply keeping track of who’s alive and dead and where their last known locations were. The idea is to use the strengths available to you to mask the weaknesses you have. While the final shot may or may not be lucky, and surviving with single digit hit-points can always lead to a more intense and memorable game, the act of that is not really one of skill and thus not something to think about too much.

It is entirely possible that even with margins you can still be fucked, but that’s not the point. The idea is to take the opportunity the best way it can be handled. This is not something people who find those intense situations where someone’s barely scraping past, real life or not, as something that’s overcome due to luck or the favor of god or whatever can really see. Consider someone who complains about luck a lot and put them in an intense situation where they’re about to fail, and then give them one more chance. How much faith would you have that they’d be able to take that chance and use it in any optimal way?

They would’ve already relaxed and given up.

The margin here is of mental focus, and by extension, mental capacity.

For my JPN class I wrote two essays, one of which was reproduced here. The second one I did not post because it was of significantly poorer quality. While both of them got top marks, the second one did not have anywhere near the range or depth as the first. The prompts for both essays were the same, take at least one movie shown in the class and write some argument about it. The first essay I quoted from my favorite story of all time, used a handful of books, mentioned a few real world events, cited a 4chan post, and an anime I had watched recently. The second essay I used one movie, and mentioned two other movies in a single sentence. The first essay could’ve been 15 pages with no issue but was compressed down to 9 in interest of increasing meaning density, the second essay had to be stretched every step of the way to get it to reach the minimum.

The disparity in these two essays stemmed almost entirely from the fact that I had not been reading or watching or doing much anything other than engineering senior design since the first essay. I had no time to think about anything nor did I want to. I was basically living the productive adult life of waking up early in the morning, working all day on stuff I stopped caring about with people I hated, coming back to a dark empty home, stuffing something down my throat and then sleeping.

That I got a top tier grade on the second essay only reinforces the idea of margins. Put a different way,

If you want to reliably be an class A, your quality has to be SSS.

Everyone has good days and bad days, encounter fortunate and unfortunate circumstances. Everyone has a distribution, and that distribution filtered through with some randomness (i.e. tests in classroom or real life) is what the final publicized result is. To always be in the top group, you have to be better than those conceived of as the best.

It is vaguely amusing that the common idea of the top tier straight A student is someone who studies every single day as hard as the average student does their all-nighter before the final. The things said about hard work are either said wrong or interpreted wrong, my guess being both and that it’s not a mistake for a significant portion of the population. There’s a missing word there that people mean but don’t say, the full phrase being “hard work now“. Hard work now will get you where you want to be. The more obvious obverse of this hidden word is that it justifies laziness up through the last moment, wherever the user happens to arbitrarily decide is “the last moment”. “Dude I’ve been working on this essay that’s due tomorrow all day long, fuck this professor, assigning a fifteen page research paper” should really not be said by someone who goes partying every night during the main term, but people are pretty near-sighted.

The correct version is hard work always, which for anyone who haven’t caught on is a metaphor because you can’t always be slaving away at a single-minded goal. The idea should at least have some credence for anyone who’s ever pulled all-nighters or worked last minute for everything, because it’s clear that the quality of the rush work at the end is abysmal. Learning and understanding is generally not strictly linear, it’s usually a network of difficult-to-explain nonlinear chains, which is why experience is so valuable and good teachers are hard to find. To be good at something one must desire to take several different routes towards several different destinations, and to do that one must have the energy to do so. I don’t entirely understand the mechanics of physical or mental fatigue, but the simple answer is that it takes a lot of time, and 10,000 hours to master something probably is around the correct order of magnitude. At least 2,000 hours of those are guaranteed to be screwing around with random things – not in the “I stopped playing piano to read Yahoo Celebrity” sense, but in the “I stopped doing Hanon’s exercises to see if I can make up a random nice-sounding tune cause I got an idea”.

Training gives the mental margin for excellent performance during opportunities/crises. But free time/exploration in general is what produces the ideas that will be used in those crucial times.

The second half of the statement is fairly trivial. There are many things in the world you do not control, and if you do not shield or avoid yourself with more than you “need”, you are going to have a bad time.

Record everything.

1) History is a political tool, and 2) It’s stored experience.

1) I first heard about its strength when talking with my dad about my mini capstone project in the fall quarter. I was also team manager back then, and had some people who failed to do their parts on time. He told me about his experiences as the president of some Chinese organization, which he said shared the important characteristic of the group being a bunch of strangers with no strong incentives to link them all together. Can’t really give them money because there is no money, can’t really punish them because they can just leave. In this situation the strongest friend is history, which takes the form of recording minutes and keeping up-to-date agendas. In this way, if someone fails to do their part or keep their word, there is a public record of it. Conflicts change from “self-proclaimed leader against member(s)” to “people lied and are a burden to the team”. These can get so powerful that there have been incidents where the minutes/agenda book was tampered with or stolen.

I cannot say I entirely understand the internal workings of “history”. There are mirrors of this in major league politics so I am inclined to believe that if not his individual story is true then at least the principle in general is true. It certainly doesn’t always work; I wrote agendas every week this quarter in senior design and no one could care less if something wasn’t done on time. But it is certainly a strong tool in some situations, and it changes substance from “my word vs your word” to “evidence”. The cost of simply keeping track of things is low enough to be good to simply always do.

Even if it’s a record not made public until prosecution, the strength in detail of a log written ‘as events occurred’ seems to be much stronger than a testimony given at that point in time.

2) It’s probably not too good an idea to look into things too much and overdiagnose situations, but recording situations in high detail allows for future review. This is in part why I have been changing the format of entries in this blog. I neither like to write nor want to read entries that are aimed at trying to claim some universal principle, or some theory about what direction civilization should move in. Whatever I write will probably be discovered to be wrong in the future, and in the present it just sounds arrogant. I certainly enjoy arrogance and hard-headedness from time to time but as a staple or standard in writing I must disagree. What I am interested in, and what I think people would find most useful, is the story of how the conclusion was reached. Obviously how we think will filter out the details we remember and decide to talk about, and those who disagree with us more will find that more important parts are missing, but the idea remains the same.

This idea I also got from videogames, many of which have replay systems where you can watch from the player’s perspective (and sometimes also from others) what information they had and what decisions they made, as they were making them. Replays are significantly more informative to the player who wants to improve their skills than an article summarizing what occurred in the game and unnecessarily flourishing what are often the most pointless details, namely that such-and-such player of such-and-such team did some move and it had a greater-than-normal effect, which doesn’t say anything about the leadup, the execution, or the followup of what that player did, what the team did, and how the opponents responded in real time. There are limitations in writing and limitations in video that do not allow full replays of real life, but recording in a diary or blog every week or so of major events, even if it’s just a bullet point list, with your major thoughts on each of them, goes a long way in remembering in the future.

The purpose of remembering in the future is not to just learn or improve on the past, but to test the mindset at that point in time. If say at some point in the past you encountered a crisis and comfortably overcame it, but somewhere along the way you changed how you did things and notice that if you encountered it again today you would not like it at all, then some review is to be had. I believe this kind of thing is more common than people think. I randomly encountered the test for Machiavellian behavior the other day and got about the same score that I did previously, but some of the choices I made were the opposite, and for some which I gave the same answer I now have a completely different justification – which would be fine, but I also don’t remember changing my opinion on some things. Writing your thoughts down is a good way to get to know yourself: shifting introspection from a single deep sessions and then forgetting afterwards to smaller ones over time that are easier to remember.

Recording whats “actually” going on in general is also pretty helpful simply because the smallest bit more context can lead to significantly more extrapolation. Originally when I started my quotes collection blog I only planned on doing single lines or monologues. I’ve been doing more and more dialogues though, because this narrows the range of interpretation for the intended meat of the selection and therefore – at least for some – increases the quality and intensity of the message.

If you think you’ve met the worst piece of garbage, you will be shown wrong.

Things can always get worse. This one got its own line because I didn’t realize “people” were in the category of “things”, I didn’t realize it until college, and because it’s actually one of the top 10 things I learned in college. Of itself it’s not too special perhaps, but I’ve historically hated “selling out” and still don’t like writing resumes, cover letters, doing interviews, all the stuff most people don’t like in relation to job applications – and now I can at least justify their face value existence.

People are actually just fucking garbage. I have a vague idea of why there’s the idea that most people are born good or are “nice people once you get to know them”, and they certainly serve their PR purposes, but as actual moves you play out in your head and as actual expectations of the world, don’t expect things out of other people unless you can nail them for it. Most people you can’t nail, at least not to a wall or to the ground, which is what matters. And if you can’t do that, they can do whatever they want, and it’s usually not what you want. Keeping your enemies closer than your friends has a second meaning, namely, that your friends are probably less reliable than your enemies. Your enemies can be relied on to do what’s against your interests, and you know what those are more clearly than you know what your friends’ interests are. Additionally, the line between you and your enemy is clearly defined. The line between you and your friends usually is not. Having and finding a good friend has to deal with margins, namely that both parties do significantly more than is “necessary” for the other. People in general do not set enough or any margins, which leads to unreliability and what feels to the idealist (read: people who think they’ve met the worst piece of garbage) like exceptionally poor performance.

I’ve talked about the experiences relating to this in the previous two entries detailing senior design. There are also some experiences I have relating to the Right/Alt Right blogosphere, but I heard name dropping is bad so I won’t do that. Also because the probability of some no-name blogger name-dropping and actually being helpful to someone is low, and I believe the probability of them crashing and burning is high.

The reason why I specify “friend” in this point is because one of them is going to become the next worst piece of garbage. The lesson is that people are unreliable, but you wouldn’t rely on any random stranger anyways, so the problem shifts towards those you are likely to rely on. You are probably wrong with your reading of some people close to you, and every mistake you fix means that the next problem will be an order of magnitude more serious.

Thinking you have it all figured out “now” should not be a thought you have.

Scoping and rescoping.

Scoping is setting the border around your task, defining what it means. Rescoping is doing it again due to any change.

I wrote about it a bit here, but that was really only about how to think about starting tasks.

Scoping is something I learned in college because it happened to have a lot of things going on without enough information or help to determine what exactly it was I needed to do at what times with what people using how much energy. K-12 is really straightforward and simple so simple dumping energy whenever (“hard work now”) was enough, but at college, with academic jargon everywhere and professors that don’t care going too fast and treating you like you’re only taking their class, it gets too stressful to simply do everything last minute over and over again. Scoping is also required for any large project simply due to the higher requirement of man-hours; in K-12 where group projects could actually be done by any single member in one night the worry of someone flaking was easily negated simply by having mommy help. The capstone project required for the college of engineering here is on a timeline of five months to research, plan, and sometimes build a project, significantly larger than the two-three weeks to make a poster or presentation out of textbook/lecture material.

Talking with my little brother it’s clear that even though I still haven’t a clue on what’s going on in the real world, I have a better idea of how to approach things. I’ll need to look into this more later, but the way things are presented to children it’s very clear that they’re expected to already have an idea of what to do, or alternatively, not need to think about what they need to do in order to do it. Get good grades in school, go to college, find a job, get a wife, own a home, make a family, save for old age – these things sound like checklist items the way they’re talked about. This checklist mentality is reinforced by the way material is standardly taught, i.e. X textbook of Y chapter, see theory/law/lesson Z and practice problems 13-27.

When tied with an objective and a deadline, not knowing what is going on incentivizes attempting to define what is possible at the very beginning.

Rescoping is basically the same thing as scoping but coming from checklisting is a big enough step on its own to warrant mentioning. It’s not too hard to guess and set scope so that there’s plenty more margin than you need on all tasks and learning approximately what each one actually needs along the way, but do that too much and it’s basically another checklist. All plans going FUBAR somewhere along the way and requiring a change strengthens scoping ability, but any kind of rescoping is valuable because it is a reminder that the definition and perspective of what is going on is also a choice. This allows flexibility in thought, which can lead to more optimal results and less waste.

In senior design, an instrument fried at the last second before it was needed and the team member suggested we get some really fancy equipment. He gave some number of arguments, “this is really important”, “we need to get this right”, but I reminded him we actually needed to get that done that day and we had no clue how to get such equipment. We ended up using some “empirical” (read: “redneck”) method that gave us the details we needed without going through any fancy computer program, and the project was turned in on time in a significantly better form than it would’ve been otherwise. In JPN my friend watched something like ten hours of movies the day before the final because he hadn’t watched them. I hadn’t either but I skimmed google synopses for about 30 minutes and was done with it because the important things in my mind was being relaxed and getting up with no problems at 6AM. He ended up getting 6/100 points more on the final worth 30% of the overall grade, meaning he spent 20x more time for 1.8%.

If you have someone to show off to then perhaps that path makes sense; otherwise it’s a pointless endeavor.

Frame Control

Thinking the way you want to think. While redoing the Machiavellianism test I read a funny line on an article, saying that those with higher scores were “better at looking out for their self-interests”. As opposed to what, looking out for the good of society? Selfishness or arrogance, take your pick, I’ll go with “selfish”.

There’s a lot of things out there that are confusing, are deliberately confusing, are distractions or distracting, or otherwise make you forget or lose sight of your goal. It’s hard already because very few of us have a clear idea of what we want or how we plan to get there, but as that’s usually the most unclear we ever get, that’s where we are hit the hardest and most often. Friend says this, video says that, policeman and politician say the other thing, it’s pretty easy to get lost in ideas because there are people who are better at phrasing things than we are. There’s also the less human side of frame control i.e. eating and sleeping well, physical activity, and not doing drugs, but that’s the easy stuff.

If there is concise way to express what fully encompasses a mind which is strong at frame control I do not know what it is. I do have something which seems to cover what I find to be the larger part of what causes me to fail frame control, and is perhaps a candidate. From Mushashi Miyamoto’s The Book of Five Rings:

“People are naturally inclined to respond more powerfully to things happening to them than to things they are doing. This reflex must be overcome so it cannot be used against you.”

I believe frame control has a lot to do with initiative.

Recently I have been picking up Go, the ancient board game played with black and white stones. In a game of go fights usually don’t happen too directly, nor do most conflicts truly resolve until the end of a game. Groups of stones may appear to be dead, but actually making them dead means spending one or several more moves, and is usually not done as there are bigger or more urgent issues elsewhere. So long as they are not dead, however, they can be used as pressure to support other groups and influence the rest of the board. In this game that computers cannot yet beat the best humans at, the biggest problem is what ‘layer’ or ‘level’ you are looking at the game at. The goal is to surround the opponent (and territory), but it’s never really clear who’s surrounding who.

In my experience so far, having initiative (sente) is probably the most coveted thing. Staying alive, getting more territory, and having more influence is important, but having sente means you get to decide what’s going to happen, where it’s going to happen, and if you use it correctly, how it’s going to happen. Games are always “conversations” with the opponent, but having sente means you get to have more say, meaning things will go more favorably and probably end up more comfortably for you, leading to future scenarios where you not only already have a good support structure, but also are familiar with. This is reflected in public media, where whoever gets the first word in usually wins the definitional war. It is also why accusations are so powerful.

Not having initiative however isn’t the end of the world; failing to look for initiative is.

While doing work for senior design I had walked away for a couple of minutes and come back to find that my tool no longer worked. This was because someone had unplugged it from the extension cord I was using and after voicing this and walking towards the tool room to get another one, the guy who had took it said I could have it back. I asked him if he really was done with it, he said yes, and I said it’d be nice if next time he could let me know first. He decided to blow up and get angry, snatching it back right after it touched my hand, going on something about how I was using some student design team’s table, that if I didn’t like it I could move somewhere else, some other short list of things with a voice inflected to indicate high tension. I told him if he wanted me to clean off the table I could do that, if he wanted more space I could give him more space; he said what he wanted was for me to “stop giving him attitude”.

I’ve talked about frame control before but in the examples I gave I pissed people off more. Which is fine, probably not optimal, but in this case I didn’t care for this guy who clearly didn’t know me, didn’t know that I got permission from two of the team’s captains to use and work in the area, didn’t care that I got there first by more than two hours that Saturday morning, and hadn’t said anything at all prior to the conflict about me taking up too much space with the scrap material I had been carving out.

The first idea is that this guy is wrong. If I start believing that he’s right, that I’m out of bounds according to some social etiquette or whatever, then I’ve lost. No problem with losing if that’s what things turn out to be of course. But you need it to be on your terms. If it isn’t, when you’re shown wrong, you won’t understand how you’re wrong, and they’re not about to explain it to you on your terms because you accepted defeat on theirs. And obviously, you aren’t going to be winning anytime soon when it isn’t on your terms. If arguing against your mother on her terms hasn’t worked out, why would it work against anyone else?

The second idea is know your own goal. I wanted the conflict to end. Couldn’t give half a shit who this guy was or what he wanted, or even if I was kicked off the table with my tool taken back. It was clear no one but me cared in senior design at that point so I could just report that some guy had emotional instability and told me to not complete my project and call it a day, I felt overworked anyways. My “teammates” were nearby but they clearly weren’t doing anything to help, and there were other people nearby and they hadn’t done or said anything, so the only things I really had to deal with were what this neckbeard and I had said within the last minute. The total of which amounted to

  • Him taking my extension cord
  • Him getting mad
  • Him talking about me taking up too much of the table
  • Me offering to clean up the mess and shrink my workspace
  • Him saying I’m giving him “attitude”

I was fairly sure the first two items worked against him, and two following were pretty much in my favor, so all I had to do was respond to this “attitude” thing.

Which I responded to with a blank face and silence.

“Attitude” is a very poorly defined word, so as long as I look like I am awaiting an explanation from this kind samaritan who wants to make me a better person, there are no other moves he could make against me. It was not as if I had made any unreasonable statements. Anyone would be frustrated if something they were recently using got taken without confirmation. He hadn’t mentioned this problem he had with me before, that works against him; I offered right away to solve that problem, that works in my favor. All attacks against my character and position were neutralized or working in my favor except perhaps the remarks at the beginning, and everything else was making it look like he was on his period. Granted I didn’t have the samaritan angle in mind, but that’s how it must’ve appeared to at least a few people casually listening. I responded calmly and slowly to everything he said, and our ending positions after that exchange were me standing up holding an inoperable tool, looking slightly down at him without expression, and him hunched over the table, end of a cord in one hand, looking up at me, and angry. All that needed to be done was him continuing to blabber and dig himself into a grave – this I did get; I honestly wanted to know what the literal fucking fuck he meant by “attitude”, and I wanted to get as clear of a definition as he could manage. This would have served the triple purpose of 1) him being and appearing very invested in a personal emotional squabble instead of wanting to get back to work, 2) me actually getting an explanation of what “attitude” means for the first time in my life, and 3) significantly increasing my chances of victory since I had just offered to do what he wanted me to do.

Unfortunately he didn’t actually go down this route. He said something like “Do we have a problem?” To which I of course responded “I don’t have any problems.”

And then I got my thing back and the conflict ended, so I reached my goal.

Everyone I’ve talked to about this said they would’ve ‘taken it outside’, which is vaguely believable, though I’d imagine most of them on the spot would’ve argued directly back about how they weren’t giving any attitude. This move loses frame control, since you are denying something that has yet to be defined, and allows the other party to simply define after you have given your initial defense, making your followup look exceedingly weak. The motivation for this is character defense, namely that you don’t want to be seen as someone “with attitude”, but that’s the opponent’s goal, not the truth. Stopping them from achieving their goal by planting yourself on that goal generally isn’t the right idea. Since frame control is lost, any attempt to take it outside after that point would have looked like a poor move from someone trying to salvage what honor they have left, than someone who sees a random dweeb challenging them to a duel and entertaining the fool.

Control the larger picture of things, and the rest is much easier. The largest picture is how you see the situation.

Timing/Coordination

Most things to be done correctly have to be executed in a certain sequence, a certain configuration, and at a speed not too fast nor too slow.

I don’t know how to write about this in a way that doesn’t overly rehash what I’ve already talked about so I’ll give two quotes. The first is from Bruce Lee’s The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. The latter is from The Book of Five Rings.

“The fighter whose movements seem awkward, who never seems to find the proper distance, is always being timed, never “outguesses” his opponent, and always gives warning of his intentions before they become serious, is suffering chiefly from a lack of coordination.”

“It doesn’t matter what you know.

It matters what you can think of in time.”

And now I’m fatigued of writing so I will finish the rest at a later date.

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