caro thinks

learning, intelligence, wrongness, 2008/06/08:14:16

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Notes for an essay tentatively entitled "How to be Wrong".

Problem: You say something moderately or fantastically wrong. Then someone challenges you or reality proves that you are wrong. What do you do?

I run into a lot of people who cannot stand to be wrong, either about a particular topic, or about anything at all. Then they don't know what to do: defend their wrong opinion? Yell? Stop talking to the challenger? Stomp away? Avoid the challenger henceforth? Gossip about the challenger?

My solution? Just be wrong. It's ok! Simpler than it sounds. Some subsidiary skills and preparations are required, to be ok with being wrong. That is the intended focus of this essay. It is not currently in essay form. It is a collection of random thoughts that come to me now and then when confronted with people who can't stand to be wrong. They are not necessarily in a particularly good ordering. Some of these notes may even be wrong! I'm fine with this. I will correct them as I think about them. See? That's not so hard, is it?

* Don't get angry. Emotional outbursts suggest that you realize that you are wrong but don't know what to do about it. It's like when parents have no clue what to do with their misbehaving children, so they hit them. Further, being angry, whether it shows on your face or in your voice or not, prevents you from thinking clearly; not thinking clearly is one of the surest paths to saying things that are wrong.

* Listen more. People who are the most wrong most of the time, are the people who never stop talking. They are spouting opinions left and right.

It's not that people who talk alot can't be right. Of course they can! However, these people willlingly take on the risk that they will be wrong. People who think carefully, form and follow principles, use good logic, reason from experience--these people can talk all day long, and not be wrong. The risk of being wrong is very slight, because they arrived at their opinions by sound means. And generally, their skulls can be penetrated by reason coming in from the outside. They tend to welcome argument and correction, new evidence or the discovery of the falsehood of one of their premises, because that is the kind of people they are. These people are rather rare. I don't run across them very often.

If you are not (yet) one of these people, then your risk of being wrong is much, much greater. Until you learn how to be wrong, you will need to conceal your wrongness. To conceal your wrongness, talk less, and listen more. This will result in your (1) making fewer observable mistakes that someone might challenge, (2) your being embarrassed less often and hence in less danger of being more wrong due to emotional outbursts, and (3) your learning more and thus supporting your glorious future of being right.

* Ask questions before you criticize. When you feel that you disagree with someone else's opinion, statement, argument, theory, etc., your first mission is to look for little bits of agreement to grab onto. This is your connection with the other person. From here, you can begin to put yourself in the other person's place; and putting yourself in the other person's place is how you are going to come to an understanding of her position. You simply cannot criticize something that you don't understand, so make sure that you understand. Ask very simple, general questions that will reveal points of agreement and connection; in doing so, you will also reveal possible points of contention. It is these little points of contention that are the real reason for disagreement in most cases. They make the discussion interesting, and sometimes, when they are resolved, the entire disagreement can be resolved, with very little bloodshed. The currently-relevant advantage of proceeding in this manner is that it gives you ever so little room to be wrong! A person asking a question is not wrong; questions are not right or wrong, they are neutral. Any misunderstanding of the other person's position remains inside your head where you can fix it quickly upon receiving his answer, rather than being blurted out to hover over your head like a big fat "FAIL!" sign.

* If you don't yet know how to ask useful questions, then ask if the person will kindly repeat the argument, perhaps in different words, perhaps using less jargon and more of the vernacular. It sometimes happens that people will condescend to you, upon being asked for a simpler repetition. Do not be sensitive about this. They have not yet said that you are wrong (how could they? You haven't made any claims yet.). They *might* be implying that you are stupid, uneducated, or not very good at reasoning. But guess what? That is an instance of THEM being WRONG! No need to point this out; it will be stunningly clear to them when you finally get the gist and begin engaging with them.

Use your discretion. If you are out playing with the big dogs, and you can't quite follow their rapidfire discussion, don't interrupt to ask for a repetition. It's very difficult to recover from that sort of thing. People begin to think of you as a pest and an impediment rather than someone who is earnest and interested. Just listen, and try to grasp whatever you can. Or go join another discussion, and later sneak home and look up key words on the web.

* Never point out that someone has been WRONG IN A BIG WAY. Not everyone minds being told that they are wrong, but you do. The problem, for you, as a person who doesn't know how to be wrong yet, is that you are encouraging others to treat you the same way. You might think that swaggeringly telling people that they are wrong is a good strategy for intimidating them. It does work sometimes! Problem is, one day, you will run into me. I have no problem at all being wrong. If I have been hypothesizing freely, or repeating something that I read without a deep understanding, I will say, "Oh, really? What is the truth, then?" And I will mean it, because I am curious, and the interesting part to me is not appearing to others as though I am right, but getting information. If I have been talking about a topic I know intimately, I will say, "Oh really. Explain where I am wrong." And then you will be in big trouble. Not from me, of course, but from you. Now you are stuck in the position of having to defend your claim. You probably won't be able to, and then you'll be angry with me for pointing it out to you (even though all I did was ask you to elaborate). So the easiest way to avoid getting into this situation that you will find horribly uncomfortable, is to not go around telling people that they are flat out wrong.

* Stop saying "No, but..." Sometimes this is a habit of speech, as meaningless as saying "Um". Even as a habit of speech, it makes you seem disagreeable. To me, it sounds like you are now engaging me in a dispute. Why? Because the word 'no' tends to imply that the speaker disagrees with something. I have a friend who says 'no' no matter what the topic, even if it is clearly a matter of personal taste rather than universal, intersubjective truth. If I say, "Tomatoes are really good in omelettes!" she will say, "No no, peppers are good in omelettes". Upon probing her opinions further, it turns out that she also likes tomatoes in omelettes. What she really meant was "Yes, tomatoes are good in omelettes, AND so are peppers." So there was a dispute for absolutely no good reason at all, and the worst part, in her mind, is that she ends up being wrong. This is just completely avoidable.

That was a trivial example of how habitually saying 'No' gets one into wrongness trouble. Here is a less trivial example. I say, "It's important to mulch your soil if you want to conserve moisture in your garden." You say, "No, but, I thought fertilizer is the really important thing." So it is, so it is! Plants do need food, yes! If I were you, I would have said something like, "Yes, mulch is important; perhaps as important as food, wouldn't you agree?" Why are you saying 'No, but'? Is it because you disagree that mulch is important to conserving moisture? It had better not be. Because, if you disagree with that, now you are wrong--perfectly avoidably wrong. And, given that I have great knowledge in this area, I am sure to engage with you in the dispute, and you will lose; and the longer you argue with me, the harder you will go down. What a waste of your time and pride!

* Don't say anything unless you know that it is true, you have a good argument for thinking it is true, or you qualify your statement by saying something like, "I have no idea whether this is true, but...". If none of these apply, then either say nothing, or ask questions.

Now, let's say that you haven't yet read the above, or you slip back into your old ways and start criticizing people before you have good evidence or hypothesizing wildly without qualification. And it happens that someone in your "audience" knows what you are talking about much better than you do. And it turns out that you are so incredibly wrong that you can't recover. What do you do now? Here are some of the things that you should say, so that you don't look like a complete idiot:

1. Oh, really? I didn't know that! How interesting!

2. Do you suggest a web site or a paper that I could read on this topic?

3. Wow, tell me more!

4. I had no idea!

5. Hunh, I guess I have to look up my source again; maybe I misunderstood something.

6. What does the word 'x' mean?

The question about word meaning is extremely important. Sometimes, the person who is telling you that you are wrong, is giving you useful information about an alleged interest of yours. Get as much as you can.

But sometimes, the person telling you that you are wrong, is wrong. She thinks she knows what you mean, but she doesn't. And a telltale sign of this is that she uses either very different words (the meaning of which you do know) or she uses words in a way that doesn't sound quite right to you. The most expedient method for determining which part of what either of you is saying is right, is to come to an agreement on word meaning.

Many people are exceedingly uncomfortable with the blatant question, "What does the word 'x' mean?" If that's you, try an inquiry worded more like this: "Let us make sure that we are talking about the same thing. When you use the word 'x' in this context, what do you mean by it? I am happy to grant you your usage for the sake of discussion."

Poultry Seasoning

In several entries I talk about using poultry seasoning for every poultry dish, no matter what the nationality of the dish. I made an allusion to the Simon and Garfunkel song, "Scarborough Fair", but maybe you didn't get it:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

I've been shopping for spices a few times in the last couple of weeks. Poultry seasoning was on my list. It's been harder to find than usual. I like to buy it bulk, but I'll settle for large bottles at a good price. Instead I've had to settle for tiny boxes for big prices.

Anyway, that's all beside the point. I bring it up only because I noticed several other items called "poultry seasoning" or "chicken rub" or "grilling spices" or whatever. They are lumpy and red, usually.

Since I recommend using my kind of poultry seasoning for every dish, I thought I'd better clarify what I mean by it.

First, if you can see into the bottle, the mixture should be green. If it isn't green, it isn't what I'm talking about, so continue to look. Also, you will not see leaves or chunks of anything. It should look like a very fine powder. This is important, because the bigger the lumps of stuff, (1) the less likely the mixture is to adhere to the chicken, and (2) the harder it is to get the flavor out of the mixture and into the chicken.

Second, not every ingredient is required by law to be listed. But at a bare minimum, you should see listed:


May also contain:

black pepper

You might like the taste of other poultry blends. That's fine. Just keep in mind that, when I write a recipe, those are not what I have in mind.

Eric makes this blend from scratch, with mortar and pestle. That's too much work for me. But he likes more control over the exact ingredients and proportions than I seem to need. It's an option for you, but only if you aren't a lazy cook like me.

Finally, as a lazy cook, follow the lead of another lazy cook: Don't rub spices into your raw chicken. There's no point, and it's a gross process. Just sprinkle it on from a safe distance. If you find that your dinner doesn't have much flavor, it's because you didn't sprinkle enough on, not because you didn't massage the raw chicken. Next time, put the spices on thicker.
Misu decided that it was time to learn a new trick. I sit on the floor to have breakfast and tea with them. They have a bad habit of pulling on my sleeves and my hands to see if I have anything that I am not giving them. Yesterday, I was pouring a cup of tea with one hand, while absentmindedly turning my other palm up to show Misu that my hand was empty. To my surprise, he hopped into my palm. This was simply too cute, so I gave him a piece of cat food, then put him down to see if I could get him to do it again. We repeated the trick several times. The other rats wandered over one by one to see what I was so excited about. They watched for a bit, then began to participate. Truffle, of course, tried to get away with the least calorie-expenditure possible, for as long as possible--couldn't he just put his front paws on my hand and crane his neck a bit? There were varying levels of hesitation and mistakes. But within 10 minutes, all six rats had learned to jump into my hand on command, even Truffle. We tried it again at breakfast today. Parfait and Strawberry, the two biggest pigs, decided that it was too much trouble, and they went back to bed instead. But the others were happy to do it. I have to think of another trick to teach them now. Perhaps jumping through rings of fire, or mind-reading, or spelling-forgiveness.
artificial intelligence
One toy problem I worked on to great success recently was what I call "spelling forgiveness". The idea is that, if you give a literate human being a paragraph full of spelling errors, she will still be able to read it, and in many cases may not even notice that there are errors. How is this possible? What is it about the intelligent mind that would enable it to ignore fairly large differences in the configuration of an observable object and recognize it?

One thing I know for sure is that I don't have a list of misspellings in my mind with pointers to the correct spellings. What if someone misspells a word in a way in which I have never seen it misspelled before? How do I read that, if I don't already have that error memorized? I also don't have a list of possible transformations in my mind (ie for ei, rt for tr, ou for uo, ee for ei, that sort of thing); I've never had any affinity for memorizing such things, and again, people can transpose letters in all sorts of unexpected ways. When spellcheckers rely on these methods, they have very limited success.

I was inspired to work on this problem for three main reasons: One, I know a very bright teenager who is so severely dislexic and disgraphic that he spells almost every word in his home assignments incorrectly; he doesn't usually misspell them the same way more than once or twice, and there is no discernible pattern to his mistakes: sometimes he leaves out all the vowels, sometimes only some vowels, sometimes he puts extra letters in, sometimes he spells them phonetically and sometimes not. The upshot is great frustration, because there is no spell-checker that can even guess at what he means. However, his parents and teachers can read the paragraphs. So obviously it is not impossible.

Two, there are games (Scrabble, Boggle, wordfind puzzles) where all the correct letters are there but there may be additional letters confusing the mix and whatever letters are there may be scrambled. Add to this the Cambridge study that shows that people have no problem reading paragraphs wherein the first and last letters of the words are in the correct place, but the internal letters are not; here is a paragraph for your convenience:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. (from

See criticisms of this example, same url, that say that there are groups of letters within the word that remain in together, but I think this is simply an accident. If you scramble them up quite thoroughly, people can still read the words, if with more difficulty; and Silhouette can still read them. Further, I don't consider it a criticism of the experiment or the interpretation, but a clue as to how we do this: we do it through recognition, not through incremental searching or by means of the "edit distance" algorithm (always the computer scientist's kneejerk reactions!).

And, finally, three, there are implications for all perception, all knowledge, all thinking. I use words in the toy example, because it is a way to approach and understand the problem that is simple as well as interesting. But this is not about spelling! Spelling words is merely one example of the animal ability to recognize that which is not exactly like what has been seen before. If you see an accident on the road, with parts of a car strewn about, you can recognize that it was a car that was involved in the accident, not an elephant or an airplane. How do you do this? This is the interesting question; questions about language and spelling are, frankly, simply irrelevant, as far as spelling-forgiveness in an intelligent being are concerned.

It is difficult to talk to people about AI. No matter what I tell them Silhouette does, it is not interesting to them. They want to know why she doesn't do this other thing instead. People who are invited to interact with her typically try to "fool" her. For example, if I tell people that she can "forgive" just about any spelling error, they give her made up words that she couldn't possibly know. One wonders whether they thought I had said, "Silhouette can read your mind!" I might even warn the person that she learns language by reading alone and cannot yet hear at all; yet one of their first efforts to fool her will come in the form of phonetic misspellings. (Interestingly, she can get a great number of phonetic misspellings even without the advantage of hearing; but of course the testers will always focus on the ones that they think she won't be able to get without hearing. Why?) I told someone yesterday about the spelling forgiveness, and he wanted to know how she would distinguish typoes from spelling errors. I said that they are essentially the same thing. He said that they weren't, and he gave the example 'commuter' vs 'computer'--how does she know which was meant? I noted that context would be required for this, and she doesn't have that capacity yet. He was not deterred: surely there should be some probabilistic algorithm for determining which was correct. I pointed out that, on the basis of a single word, he couldn't tell which word was meant either. Somehow this answer did not seem to satisfy him.

I am sure that this reaction tells us something important about animal intelligence, but I'm not sure yet what it is. Eric thinks that it is due to my using the now-deprecated expression 'artificial intelligence', which has fallen out of fashion in part because it conjures up such high and unreasonable expectation in people's minds in a world where a Microsoft spell-checker still can't help my friend with his highschool homework. But I think these incidents happen all over the place, and may be nothing more than the exemplification of the principle that one should always take the path of least resistence and say the first thing that comes to mind. Or perhaps they simply have the urge, in the case of AI, to demonstrate that they are in fact much smarter than this stupid machine, so there, ha! It's like competing with a two-year-old.
Riding down Rose Canyon trail about 3 weeks ago, I spotted a snake stretched very straight across my path. It took up at least half of the pavement, but there was room for me to swerve around it. As I did so, some search routine in my brain managed to retrieve an image and a name: rattlesnake? But I didn't really know. I continued on for a few seconds, and then thought I should go back and chase the snake into the brush; other riders might not see it in time. I looked over my shoulder, and saw the most enormous police truck coming down the trail. I slowed down, even more worried for the snake now: if it was hard for me to see and slow down, how would this truck avoid it? I finally gave in to my overresponsibility and turned around. But just then, the truck stopped and the officer got out. I assumed sadly that this was because he had run over the snake. So I turned away and reminded myself that I can't save every beast and I have to accept that. A little way down the road, I heard the truck coming. For the first time in my life, I waved down the police: this was important! He already knew what I had to say. "Don't worry, I didn't run over the snake." I was so relieved! He confirmed that it was a rattlesnake, which he had nudged into the grass with his foot! "It didn't try to bite you?!" "Oh, no, we have them in our yard all the time. They are harmless unless you corner or attack them." I guess that explains why I was able to pass within a foot of its head without its bothering to move.

Last week while riding along the San Diego River trail, I was, as usual, looking at the birds in the river instead of at the road. Both tires bounced over something. I turned around just in time to see another rattlesnake winding off into the brush. Only the second rattlesnake I've seen in my life, and I had to run over the poor thing. I hope it's ok.
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