Language: A Cluster Analysis of Reality

Cluster analysis is the process of quantitatively grouping data in such a way that observations in the same group are more similar to each other than to those in other groups. This image should clear it up.

Whenever you do a cluster analysis, you do it on a specific set of variables: for example, I could cluster a set of customers against the two variables of satisfaction and brand loyalty. In that analysis, I might identify four clusters: (loyalty:high, satisfaction:low), (loyalty:low, satisfaction:low), (loyalty:high, satisfaction:high), and (loyalty:low, satisfaction:high). I might then label these four clusters to identify their characteristics for easy reference: “supporters”, “alienated”, “fans” and “roamers”, respectively.

What does that have to do with language?

Let’s take a word, “human”. If I define “human” as “featherless biped”, I’m effectively doing three things. One, I’m clustering an n-dimensional “reality-space”, which contains all the things in the universe graphed according to their properties, against the two variables ‘feathered’ and ‘bipedal’. Two, I’m pointing to the cluster of things which are (feathered:false, bipedal:true). Three, I’m labeling that cluster “human”.

This, the Aristotelian definition of “human”, isn’t very specific. It’s only clustering reality-space on two variables, so it ends up including some things that shouldn’t actually belong in the cluster, like apes and plucked chickens. Still, it’s good enough for most practical purposes, and assuming there aren’t any apes or plucked chickens around, it’ll help you to identify humans as separate from other things, like houses, vases, sandwiches, cats, colors, and mathematical theorems.

If we wanted to be more specific with our “human” definition, we could add a few more dimensions to our cluster analysis—add a few more attributes to our definition—and remove those outliers. For example, we might define “human” as “featherless bipedal mammals with red blood and 23 pairs of chromosomes, who reproduce sexually and use syntactical combinatorial language”. Now, we’re clustering reality-space against seven dimensions, instead of just two, and we get a more accurate analysis.

Despite this, we really can’t create a complete list of all the things that most real categories have in common. Our generalizations are leaky in some way, around the edges: our analyses aren’t perfect. (This is absolutely the case with every other cluster analysis, too.) There are always observations at the edges that might be in any number of clusters. Take a look at the graph above in this post. Those blue points at the top left edge, should they really be blue, or red or green instead? Are there really three clusters, or would it be more useful to say there are two, or four, or seven?

We make these decisions when we define words, too. Deciding which cluster to place an observation happens all the time with colors: is it red or orange, blue or green? Splitting one cluster into many happens when we need to split a word in order to convey more specific meaning: for example, “person” trisects into “human”, “alien”, and “AI”. Maybe you could split the “person” cluster even further than that. On the other end, you combine two categories into one when sub-cluster distinctions don’t matter for a certain purpose. The base-level category “table” substitutes more specific terms like “dining table” and “kotatsu” when the specifics don’t matter.

You can do a cluster analysis objectively wrong. There is math, and if the math says you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If your WCSS is so high that you have a cluster that you can’t label more distinctly than “everything else”, or if it’s so low you’ve segregated your clusters beyond the point of usefulness, then you’ve done it wrong.

Many people think “you can define a word any way you like”, but this doesn’t make sense. Words are cluster analyses of reality-space, and if cluster analyses can be wrong, words can also be wrong.

This post is a summary of / is based on Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay sequence, “A Human’s Guide to Words“.

I Want To Cure Mortality.

Do you want to live forever?

No? Okay, let me phrase it another way. Do you want to live tomorrow?

Most people answer yes to this second question, even if they said no to the first. (If you didn’t say yes to the second, that’s typically called suicidal ideation, and there are hotlines for that.)

This doesn’t quite make sense to me. If I came to you tomorrow, and I asked the same question, “Do you want to live tomorrow?”, you’d probably still say yes; likewise with the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. Under normal circumstances, you’ll probably keep saying yes to that question forever. So why don’t you want to live forever?

Maybe, you think that the question “do you want to live forever” implies “do you want to be completely incapable of dying, and also, do you want to be the only immortal person around”. Not being able to die, ever, could be kind of sucky, especially if you continued to age. (There was a Greek myth about that.) Further, being the only person among those you care about who can’t die would also suck, since you’d witness the inevitable end of every meaningful relationship you had.

But these sorts of arbitrary constraints are the realm of fiction. First, if a scientist invented immortality, there would be no justifiable reason that it wouldn’t be as available to those you care about as it would be to you. Second, it’s a heck of a lot easier to just stop people from aging than it is to altogether make a human completely impervious to anything which might be lethal.

Even after I’ve made sure we’re on the same page as to what exactly real immortality might look like, some people still aren’t convinced it would be a good idea. A decent amount of the arguments are some variant on “death gives meaning to life”.

To this, I’ll borrow Eliezer Yudkowsky’s allegory: if everybody got hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, soon enough people would start coming up with all sorts of benefits associated with it, like, it makes your head stronger, or it makes you appreciate the days you’re not getting hit with a truncheon. But if I took a given person who was not being hit on the head with a truncheon every week, and asked them if they’d like to start, for all these amazing benefits, I think they’d say no.

People make a virtue of necessity. They’d accept getting hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, just as they now accept the gradual process of becoming more and more unable to do things they enjoy, being in pain more often than not, and eventually ceasing to exist entirely. That doesn’t make it a good thing, it just demonstrates peoples’ capacity for cognitive dissonance.

These are the reasons I’ve made it my goal to cure mortality. The motivation is extremely similar to anyone’s motivation to cure any deadly disease. Senescence is a terminal illness, which I would like to cure.

It disrupts the natural order, but so does curing any other disease. Cholera was the natural order for thousands of years, but we’ve since decided it’s bad and nowadays nobody is considering the idea of mixing sewage with drinking water to bring it back. There were tons of diseases that were part of the natural order right up until we eradicated them. We don’t seem to have any trouble, as a society, deciding that cancer is bad. But death itself—the very thing we’re trying to prevent by curing all these diseases—is somehow not okay to attack directly.

Here’s the bottom line. I know for a fact I’m not the only one with this goal. Some of the people at MIRI come to mind, as well as João Pedro de Magalhães. I’d personally love to contribute to any of these causes. If you know someone, or are someone, who’s working towards this goal, I’d love to join you.

Intuition Is Adaptable

Or, why “X is counterintuitive” is just a way of saying “I haven’t seen any sufficiently intuitive explanations of X”.

As a kid, I was a huge science nerd. In particular, I loved Stephen Hawking’s work. He had a TV show at some point, which I watched whenever I got the chance. One of the first books I remember reading was “A Brief History of Time”.

The main reason I loved reading his writing is that it didn’t seem very complicated to me. Not in the way Richard Feynman’s work seems un-complicated—Feynman just seems like he’s dicking around all the time and happens to love dicking around in physics specifically, so much so that he got a Nobel Prize in it. (I’m aware this isn’t remotely what happened, but that’s the sense you get from reading his writing.) Instead, I found Stephen Hawking’s writing to be un-complicated in the way that I later found Eliezer Yudkowsky’s and Daniel Kahneman’s writings to be un-complicated: it just makes sense.

The best physical example of Stephen Hawking’s influence on kid-me is a sheet of sticky paper that’s still stuck to the wall of the library in my parents’ house, on which I wrote an explanation of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

You’d think I was joking, but…

The easy way to explain this is just to say that I was a genius, or if you don’t feel like giving me that much credit, you can say that I was able to do a lot of book-learning because I had no social life. (This assessment isn’t wrong, by the way.)

But I’m actually going to give myself even less credit than that. I don’t think I’m a genius, and I also don’t think that the extra time I gained by skipping recess to read the encyclopedia (I already told you I was a nerd, get off my back) actually contributed in any meaningful way to my comprehension of “A Brief History of Time”. I don’t think it had anything to do with me at all; rather, it was almost entirely a property of the authors.

Which authors are particularly poignant to you has a decent amount to do with you: I know a girl who thinks that Jen Sincero’s book You Are A Badass is the best book on the planet; I read the first paragraph and immediately put it back down again. But all other things being equal, a human brain is a human brain, and an intuitive explanation is an intuitive explanation.

Assuming you’ve got some very basic algebra, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’s Theorem will almost certainly make sense to you. (Whether or not you care is a function of your preferences in reading material, separate from whether or not you could understand it if you did care.) Even if you suck at math. I know, because I suck at math. There are books in every discipline that make things make sense to people, that clarify cloudy issues, that provide intuitive explanations.

This is very good news for those of us who think we are just bad at something, and we have no way to get better. I grew up thinking I was bad at math, since I hate algebra and I hate trig and I’d always give up before I finished a problem and it was generally just the dullest drek on the planet. And yet, I have no difficulty calculating conditional probabilities with Bayes Theorem. All I had to do was read a good enough explanation. If you think you’re irreparably bad at something, don’t give up on it, just keep reading.

This is moderately poor news for those of us who are in the habit of writing explanations, though, because we can’t blame our readers’ lack of comprehension on the difficulty of the subject matter. It may partially be about the subject matter—neither all subjects nor all readers are created equal—but there is always some way that we could be better writers, better explainers, and thus have our explanations make more sense.

Personally, I choose to take this as a challenge. If no subject is imperceptibly counterintuitive, no subject is outside my domain, if I’m good enough. I just need to get stronger.

Book Review: Methods of Rationality

It’s high time I did a real review of my favorite book in the universe. I read it for the first time at the age of 13, and it triggered an utter obsession with cognitive science, rationality, and artificial intelligence that has not disappeared to this day. (It has, however, become more mature: I no longer write shitty romantic poetry about cognitive science.)

I will attempt to describe this masterpiece of literature; more than once since I will absolutely fail several times.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a 122-chapter parallel-universe Harry Potter fanfic in which Lily Evans married an Oxford professor, Michael Verres, and Harry was adopted and raised in a loving home filled to the brim with books. It is written by one Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, who writes frequently for the blog Less Wrong, which I’ve cited here before, and is best known for popularizing the idea of Friendly AI.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book about an eleven-year-old who knows both magic and calculus and wants to take over the world using Science so he can get more books.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book that successfully taught a 13-year-old girl—who wasn’t and still isn’t a genius—the underlying fundamentals of cognitive psychology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and Bayesian probability theory. If you read it, you will also learn these things, without ever realizing you have learned them. It will simply make sense, in a way that makes you wonder how you ever didn’t understand it.

While reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, you will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Harry is the villain or the hero. You will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Draco Malfoy is the villain or the hero, either. This goes for most of the characters, with the exception of Hermione and McGonagall. It does not exclude Voldemort.

This book will make you laugh, cry, learn, and question human existence. It will make you very aware of the sound of snapping fingers, and the shape of the night sky. It will show you the best and worst of humanity, and make both understandable. If you let it, it will teach you some of the most valuable life lessons you might ever learn.

Find the completed book at You can read it in however much time you like, but given the length, it takes a fast reader about three or four days to binge straight through, so you probably can’t read it any faster than that. In any case, when you do finish it, please leave a comment telling me what you thought! And of course, give the author some feedback and leave reviews on however many chapters you like.

As an end note, in case you might not have believed me, here is only one of the shitty romantic poems I wrote about rationality. Please be nice to the author, she was a little girl who fell in love with science, not a poet, and she was doing her best.

Be skeptical, not cynical;
be open, but not gullible.
Be curious, not clever;
no rationalization, ever.

Accept the truth for what it is;
and look for contradictions
in all arguments, yours included;
you’re more confused by fiction.

A word is just a label
before you know the referent;
a lie gets told a long time,
if someone’s to protect it.

Certain kinds of people
truth they wrongly construe,
but they’ll do it in the name of
who they think is watching you.

Humans tend to think
they could predict things in advance
but that’s some hindsight bias
when really there’s low chance.

Don’t explain all this all at once,
mind inferential distance,
plus the illusion of transparency,
and all peoples’ heuristics.

People don’t like weird ideas,
or saying they don’t know;
but even with our biases,
There’s a long way we shall go.

How To Bake Industrially

Got a big baking spree coming up? Be it a Christmas dinner, a local bake sale, or anything else, if you need to do a lot of baking in a short amount of time, this post will tell you how to do it. Even if you have a more moderate amount of baking to do, following these tips will make the entire process that much more effortless, so you can make perfect, delicious cookies every single time.

Here are my baking credentials. First, I worked in a restaurant for three years, and during that time, I baked more pies, cakes, and cookies than most people will probably ever bake in their lives. Furthermore, every year, my family bakes an absolutely absurd number of cookies for Christmas. I’m taking 12+ batches, each of which makes multiple dozen cookies. We give bags of assorted cookies to coaches, teachers, and instructors of all varieties, then have enough left over to feed our household of seven for over a week.

To start you off, here’s your minimally adequate amount of equipment for any industrial baking spree. You can always have more than this, but here’s what you need to get started.

  • Electric mixer
  • Two sets of beaters for it, optionally also a whisk but you can whisk almost anything except meringue by hand without much difficulty
  • Four cookie sheets: at any given time, there should be two in the oven and two out of the oven being prepped with more cookies
  • At least two of each measuring implement (cups, spoons, etc.)
  • Sifter
  • Large bowls, a few of which are microwaveable
  • Other miscellaneous kitchen necessities: plastic and rubber spatulas, wooden spoons, oven mitts, cookie sheets, etc etc.

For any large baking spree, preparation is of the utmost importance. You need to make sure you have enough of all the ingredients, preferably on only one grocery store run. In order to do this preparation efficiently, run through every recipe you’re making (being sure to double, triple, quadruple, etc. the recipe as you’re planning on making it), note down every ingredient in its correct amount, and create a comprehensive tally. Then, take that list and check it against what you have in your house. Making conservative estimates, subtract the amount you have from the amount you need, and note down the delta. Create a shopping list from all those deltas for the ingredients, then shop from that list.

Great! You’ve prepared your ingredients, now prepare yourself.

First, make sure you have the right attire. You’ll want a short-sleeved shirt, a decently sized apron, and close-toed shoes. Here’s why, in order. You don’t want batter on your sleeves and you don’t want sleeves in your batter. Flour always makes a gigantic mess and there’s nothing you can do about that, also, it’s more convenient to have a place to dust off your hands. You will absolutely spill something or other on the floor and you don’t want to have the impulse to wipe off your feet, thus dirtying your hands.

After you’re wearing the right stuff and you’ve washed your hands, consider putting on some kitchen gloves. If you’re making multiple hands-on recipes (that’s any recipe that requires you mould dough with your hands), it’s way easier to change pairs of gloves than to wash your hands thoroughly.

Finally, set out all the ingredients for your first recipe. Organize primarily by the order the ingredients are used in the recipe and by what tools are required to complete that portion of the recipe. For example, all the ingredients which need to be sifted together should sit together next to the sifter itself; all the ingredients which need to be directly mixed together using the electric mixer should sit next to the mixer and the outlet it plugs into, and all the ingredients for the icing should sit off to the side with the piping bags.

I’m not being so anal about all of this for no reason. You’re going to run out of both time and counter space really fast, so it’s important to be hyper-efficient with both while you still have the mental bandwidth.

We’re ready to start baking now! Here are a few tips for preparing your recipe, before it goes in the oven.

When I worked as a prep cook in a restaurant, I had a tiny room—about the size of a home kitchen—to prepare nearly every dish that went through the restaurant. This is what I had. A counter along two walls with a sink and a gigantic electric mixer, a shelf containing dishes and measuring implements, and two 1.5*2.5 foot tables. I got really good at space efficiency. The biggest thing I learned, in addition to what I said earlier about grouping ingredients together, was that no matter how many recipes you have going at the same time, whether it’s one or ten, organization matters. If you’re not using an ingredient, put it away. I don’t care if you’re getting it right back out in an hour for your next set of recipes. Put it away.

Make sure you follow the recipe exactly. If it says to put the eggs in one at a time and mix well after each addition, you had better do that. The recipe isn’t telling you to do it for no reason. Note that I’m not trying to say you can’t experiment yourself and change the recipe—actually, you should absolutely do that, because what works for everyone else might not work for you, and further, the person who made the recipe might have some kind of an agenda (the recipe for chocolate chip cookies that you find on bags of Nestle chocolate chips requires far more chocolate chips than you should justifiably put in, because that’s what they’re trying to sell you). I’m trying to say that your reason for changing the recipe should be something better than “eh, it can’t be that important”. I make the best chocolate chip cookies anyone I know has ever had and the only reason is because I follow the damn recipe.

To conserve measuring implements, measure out dry ingredients before wet ones. Measure baking soda before vanilla extract, flour before milk, etc. As a special rule, if you’re measuring molasses for your recipe (ex. if you’re making ginger snaps), swish a bit of vegetable oil around in the cup measure before you put the molasses in. It will make the molasses stick to the cup measure less.

Here’s my final prep tip: take a sizable swath of counter space and lay out some parchment paper. If you’re like most normal people, you have nowhere near enough counter space for even a few dozen cookies on cookie sheets. Further, you probably don’t have enough available cookie sheets for that. However, if you snug the cookies up next to each other once they’re cool enough to scoop off the cookie sheet, you can fit a ton more in the same amount of space, and you don’t use up your cookie sheets.

While the first batch of cookies are in the oven, prep the next two sheets. I promise, the bake time is long enough for you to be able to do this. I’ve made two sheets of cookies in less than six minutes before. See, nobody cares what the cookies look like so long as they’re tasty, so you can be fast. Your literal only constraint is to make sure all the cookies in the oven at any given time are roughly uniform in size.

When you take a batch out of the oven, cool them on the racks for only a few minutes, then scoop them off and stick em on that parchment paper you laid out earlier. They’ll cool the rest of the way there, and you’ll have the trays freed back up to put more cookies on.

The baking is always the hectic part, since the perpetual cycle of bake-cool-transfer-prepare takes up every available moment. If you’ve done the previous organizational and preparation steps correctly, though, you can minimize the hecticness.

That’s it! My comprehensive list of steps for industrial baking. May your endeavors be successful, and your cookies be sweet. Good luck!

Value Proposition: Innovu

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m participating in the Praxis internship program. As a part of that, I’m creating value propositions for potential employers, under the theory that they’re not hiring me because of some vague skills list I have, they’re hiring me for what specific things I can do for them.

The first company I chose to do a value proposition for is Innovu. Essentially, they collect and analyze data related to benefits and risk programs (such as employee healthcare and workers’ compensation), so that businesses can make sure that they can create the best possible programs for their employees and avoid fines from accidental non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulations. Here’s where they talk about that.

As I was sifting through their website initially, though, I had a difficult time figuring out what exactly it was that they did. The first thing you see on their homepage is a giant picture of something unrelated to their product coupled with some words about benefits and risk programs, and a link. The link took me to a page that presumed I already knew what they were doing. Overall, their marketing copy was very vague everywhere, and my basic understanding after I’d been on their site for half an hour was “something involving healthcare?” Now, this is at least partially because I don’t know their industry, but still: I decided their marketing copy could be improved, not only to better pitch their product, but to better explain it.

The best explanation I found was on the page linked above, which you find if you get onto their homepage and, instead of clicking either of the links in their neat little scroll bar, you actually scroll down past the screen-filling image, then scroll even further past the three links to their different solutions (which will all take you to pages filled with vague copy), then click on the “Read More” link after the heading “Data Transparency In Benefit And Retirement Plans”.

On top of the unintelligible marketing copy, there were a large swath of images on the website which, though they had been recolored to match the color scheme, didn’t reflect the product at all. There were random pictures of strangely-cropped bar charts, blurred streetlights, collections of hazy colored dots and lines, and one picture of some peoples’ arms. They didn’t help explain what problem their business was solving, they didn’t complement the already-unclear text they were associated with. They basically existed for no reason other than to make the website look modern, because modern websites are supposed to include lots of images.

As I explored further into the site, I started finding some genuinely good marketing copy, but it was buried in strange places. Further, on their careers page (where I also happened to find out that they were looking for a JavaScript developer, a skill I have, though not to the level they want: they wanted two years’ professional experience and knowledge of full stack development), I noticed a very nice slideshow with that explained its points will and contained images that worked well with the text. This stood in stark contrast to the rest of the website, what with its vague text and mostly-unrelated images.

All of this brought me to the realization that they probably had an awesome web developer who had just been given very little in the way of images or marketing copy to go on, and thus had done the best they could with what they had. After that, I presumed, they had continued to build the site, around what they already had. It was probably on somebody’s to-do list to fix the marketing copy and images on the main parts of the site.

Taking things off businesses’ to-do lists is always a great thing to do, so I decided to use that as the meat of my value prop. I wouldn’t have a terribly strong case as a JavaScript developer alone, but if I combined it with a demonstration of my ability to diagnose business problems and my drive to fix those problems, I could have a unique and nice value prop where I could create value for them from day 1.

Here’s my current value prop. I’m planning on adding some images and doing some nice formatting in InDesign so it’s more visually appealing!

How I Accidentally Ran a Small Business For Six Months

Every year since I was very young, I’ve volunteered at the Schenley Park Learn-to-Skate program that my skating club runs. Even for the four years I wasn’t skating, if purely because the entire rest of my family did it.

Nearly every year, the program has had an experienced coach take on the role of program director. The program director’s job is to organize just about everything to do with the program, from creating name tags for students and coaches to tracking the finances to organizing everyone physically on the ice sheet during classes, and much more. Fortunately, just as in any business, the director delegates some of these responsibilities, but even so, it’s a very big job.

This year, almost by accident, I was the one to take it on. 

My mother, who organizes how Schenley Park runs as a subsidiary of the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club (our home club), couldn’t find anyone to be this year’s program director. Since she was swamped with other work, she managed only to delegate the marketing responsibilities. With two days until the first class, we were freaking out: we still didn’t have a program director, and fortunately for the club’s coffers but unfortunately for our sanity, our marketing person had done an astounding job, and we had literally twice our usual number of students signed up. 

Faced with this situation—twice the standard signup numbers, no program director in sight, and two days to deadline—my siblings and I were all given a prompt order to get everything ready. At first, it seemed it might be working, but eventually, between the sheer amount of work, the stress of trying to coordinate multiple people as efficiently as possible, and other miscellaneous factors, it became apparent to me that this wasn’t working.

I evaluated the situation and decided the most reasonable plan would be for me to simply take everything over. I had the most experience with the system overall; and primarily because of my good handwriting, I was always the first choice for the largest task, namely, creating student name tags. Because of the color-coded system we used to group name tags by level, the process went something like this. First, large quantities of colored card-stock had to be precisely cut via guillotine and sorted. Then, the names of all hundred and twenty some-odd students had to be written with Sharpie onto the cards, and the cards had to be put into name badge holders. Finally, the cards had to be put into gallon plastic bags, sorted by level, and organized cohesively into large bins so that the volunteers could hand them out to the students on class day.

For two days, I did nearly nothing else. Not only did I do the name tags, but I also organized the student names and other information into a database, deposited all their checks, acquired cash for the concessions stand, and organized our volunteer instructors. 

Honestly, I’m very happy with how it all turned out. Everything was ready for the first class, my siblings and my mom didn’t have to worry about it, the kids and instructors got organized well, and the rest of the year ran pretty smoothly. On the day of class, since I knew everything about how everything had been organized, I also became kind of the go-to for volunteers with questions.

After a few weeks of this, on the drive home from class, my mom asked me, “So, you kinda seem to be running Schenley this year. Do you want to be program director?”

And I said, “Meh, sure. Seems like I already am.”

How To Make A Resolution

I have never once made a New Year’s resolution. I have never decided to change something significant about my life, starting on January 1st.

That isn’t to say that I’ve never decided to change something significant about my life. I decided I was sick of being overweight and out of shape, and I started hitting the gym. But I did that in April. I decided that I wanted to learn how to speak Japanese. But I did that in September. I’ve resolved to do a lot of things, but I never hung around twiddling my thumbs until January to start actually doing them.

This seems, at least to me, to be the reasonable course of action. If something about your life needs changing, it makes sense to start changing it as soon as possible. If you decide you want to quit smoking, program in Python, speak Mandarin Chinese, lose thirty pounds… start right now, not at year’s end.

Now, perhaps people make resolutions on New Year’s because the start of a new year prompts people to look over their life and actually make the decision that they want to change their lives. This seems like a reasonable argument at first, but then you have to consider that the culture of making resolutions on New Year’s is really more a method of putting people under the gun and demanding that they find a Grand Way To Change™, rather than a way of sparking consideration or discussion on the possible ways one’s life could change direction.

Furthermore, a lot of people don’t even keep their New Year’s resolutions. Actually, a frankly huge number of people don’t keep them, to the extent that I frequently wonder whey people even bother setting them. (I read a statistic around 8%, which seems likely, but I can’t find the original research, so I won’t tout that as fact.)

What’s wrong with people? Why do we have a societal expectation where, once a year, people will set goals, then fail to follow through with them? Why do we harbor a culture of annual disappointment?

Part of the reason people don’t keep resolutions is that there is no actual change happening between December 31st and January 1st. They’re two days which are right next to each other, just like March 18th and March 19th. The only significance to that particular collection of days is the cultural expectation we’ve attached to them: that is, a new year should be a quantum shift of progress.

The cultural expectation of some kind of quantum shift, coupled with the fact that no such quantum shift actually happens, leads otherwise reasonable people to set incredibly unrealistic goals for no good reason. People who, if they made this kind of goal in mid-March, would say “I’m going to try and start hitting the gym once a week on Sunday afternoons”, suddenly go off on ridiculous moonshots like “I’m going to start hitting the gym every single day as soon as I get home from work, and I’m also going to cut my carbs in half and become a vegan” as soon as December 31st rolls around.

As such, my best recommendation for how to set resolutions and then follow through on them is to not set them on New Year’s. Any other time of year will have much less pressure attached to it.

Actually, I amend that statement. Don’t set resolutions at all. Just decide that you want to improve in an area, and get started with the baby steps right away.

A big goal like “I want to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese”, even if you have a pretty good idea what ‘conversationally fluent’ means, can be incredibly daunting. That kind of thing will absolutely take you years, maybe decades, and looking at the whole thing at once can just make you want to quit outright. On the other hand, googling “beginner Chinese lessons” and watching a handful of funny animated Youtube videos on the subject is easy.

This works with every big goal. “I want to lose thirty pounds”. Okay, how about we start with keeping track of what you’re eating? “I want to find a life partner.” Okay, how about we start with making a list of qualities you find attractive in another human? Break it down until you’ve found a thing you can do right now. Then do it. Right now.

These kinds of “resolutions”—goals with no particular time limit that you’re setting purely for self-improvement—should theoretically be the easiest kinds of goals you set. Whereas in the work world, you have specific deadlines and deliverables, you don’t have any of those in your personal life. You don’t need to learn Chinese in five years. Maybe you want to, but that’s not actually the same thing. Personally, I’d like to learn Japanese in less than a decade. But I’m not going to be fired from my job if I don’t achieve that goal on schedule.

A resolution should be a matter of fun, personal self-improvement, not of disappointing annual self-loathing. So, even and especially if you’re not reading this on New Year’s – what’s your new resolution?

Something Hurts. What Now?

Our educational system does a pretty terrible job at teaching the majority of important life skills. The general retort seems to be “those things are the parents’ job to teach”, but that doesn’t generalize: what if the kid’s parent doesn’t know? What if the kid doesn’t have parents? It’s a silly argument.

One of the most basic things that our education system fails to teach is how to take care of yourself. If you have an ache or pain, is it serious or not? If it isn’t, what palliatives should you use to mitigate the pain?

Today, I’ll be discussing all those things, and also some easy remedies you can use to prevent potentially costly problems.

Diagnosing Problems

  1. What hurts?
  2. What kind of pain is it? (i.e., is it aching, shooting, stabbing, etc, and how bad is it)
  3. How long has it been going on? (this includes whether it’s constant or intermittent)

That’s it. Three-step system to help you diagnose your pain. Here are some illustrative examples of how it works.

What hurts? The back of my head. What kind of pain? Moderate ache and stiffness. How long? Pretty constantly all day. This would be a tension headache, caused by knotting of the muscles in your neck. When you use muscles, the muscle fibers get torn apart a bit. If you don’t stretch properly after a workout, or if you stay in a position that uses a muscle for too long, that muscle doesn’t mend correctly after it’s torn. This causes the muscle fibers to get tangled, or “knotted”.

What hurts? My ankle. What kind of pain? Severe stabbing when I move my foot in a particular way or try to stand on it. How long? Since I fell a few minutes ago. This would probably be a sprain. You can distinguish a sprain from a broken bone with two factors: 1, a sprain is much less painful. My skating coach fell and broke her ankle, and described it as so painful she couldn’t stop screaming. 2, a sprain will only hurt when you try to move it, whereas a broken bone will hurt constantly. Still, there are very minor breaks (called ‘fractures’) that can feel more like a sprain; fortunately, there’s an easy test. A sprain will feel better after a few days using the RICE method (see the next section); if a fracture isn’t mending easily, it will take longer, and in that case you can see a doctor for an X-ray.

What hurts? My eyes. What kind of pain? A moderate ache, like there’s pressure inside my head. How long? Constant for a few hours. This is a sinus headache, likely caused by a minor head cold or some environmental irritant. Your sinuses run from your nostrils up through your forehead and around your eyes, such that sinus pressure can result in headaches.

So you see, first you match your symptoms up to a cause. If you don’t know what something means, ask people. Look stuff up and do research online (using reliable sources of course). This way, you can build your own library of pains and causes for them.

The next step is to match up the cause with the way to heal it.

How to Heal

Muscle pains, as characterized above by aching and stiffness, can be remedied in four ways. You can do all of these or just some of them.

  1. Take two 200mg tablets of ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory, which means it reduces swelling. Knotted muscles tend to get swollen since blood can’t move through them normally. Ibuprofen is also an analgesic, so it helps relieve pain.
  2. Stretch the muscle out. If you don’t know how to stretch it, look up “muscles in the [body part that hurts]”, find the specific muscle or group you need to stretch, then look up stretches for it. The internet is a wonderful thing.
  3. Give yourself a massage. This will not feel nice, but it will ease your pain. First, get into a position such that you’re not using the muscle. Some muscles are easier to not-use than others: for your leg you can just sit on the ground, but for your neck you’ll have to rest your head on a steady surface (your knees, a countertop, etc) in such a way that you can still breathe. Then, press into the muscle, starting at one end and working toward the other steadily. If you feel a lump, that’s a knot. Put a little more pressure on it. Keep pushing on it harder until it starts to give way. If it slips out from under your fingers, don’t worry, just find it again and push on it some more. If it starts to feel like you’re going to get a bruise, stop with that knot and keep moving. After you’ve either rubbed out the knots or can’t work on them any longer, you’re done.
  4. Put a heating pad on the muscle. This is best used in combination with stretching and/or massage, because heat relaxes the muscle, but doesn’t inherently remove any knots by itself.

For sprains (i.e. knee, ankle, etc) or other kinds of strain, use the RICE method. For this, it is important that you do all the steps.

  1. Rest. Stop using that part of your body. Sit down, lay down, generally use it as little as possible. Rest will help it to heal. If you’ve sprained your ankle, say, use crutches to get around if you need to. (Crutches are not expensive, they’re like $10-20. I own a pair, and I’m young and broke.)
  2. Ice. Grab an ice pack, or simply a bag of frozen veggies in a pinch, and put it on the affected area. Leave it there for about 10-20 minutes, then take it off for the same amount of time. Repeat for the first day or two after your injury. When you injure something, your body sends lots of blood to the area to try and mend it, but your body does not know the meaning of the word “moderation”, so it frequently sends too much blood and the area swells up, making it actually harder to heal. Ice works to fix this because your body doesn’t want its blood getting cold, so if the area is cold, it takes the blood back to a warmer part of you so that your core temperature will stay the same. It’s the same reason the blood drains from your hands and feet when you’re outdoors in the winter. Important Note: ice hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. Don’t put thick towels under your ice pack until it doesn’t hurt anymore, because then it’s not doing any good. You need nothing more than a thin sheet to prevent frostbite.
  3. Compress. If you have Ace bandages, use them to wrap the affected area. If you have a compression sock, that’s even better. If you have neither of those things, buy some Ace bandages. It will serve you very well. Compression works for pretty much the same reason ice does: it helps stop inflammation. Be careful not to make your bandages too tight; it should feel like a necktie, not like a noose.
  4. Elevate. This is yet another method to remove excess blood from the area. (Yes, all of this is necessary. I told you your body has no idea what moderation is.) As a rule of thumb, you should elevate the injured body part in such a way that it’s above your heart. Do this as often as you can manage it, but unlike rest, you don’t need a great reason to stop: “I’m sick of this for now” is enough.

Middle and outer ear infections are the least problematic types of ear infections. You can treat them by disinfecting them.

Middle ear infections are characterized by aching pain in the ears and/or difficulty hearing, and are remedied by doing something to disinfect the ears. Use either isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide solution: you can find both at your local drugstore. Just stick some in your ear, leave it there for a few minutes, then drain it. Repeat 3 times daily till it goes away.

Outer ear infections are characterized by an itching or redness on the external, visible bit of the ear. You can fix them with antibiotic ointments.

If either of these things doesn’t go away within a few days, you probably have a more serious infection and need prescription antibiotics. Further, if you’ve got symptoms like fever and nausea, that’s probably an inner ear infection, which is very bad, see a doctor. (I sound like a warning label on a pill bottle, sheesh.)

Ingrown toenails are best treated early on. If you notice a stabbing pain in your toe when you walk, employ this remedy straight away. If you let it get bad, the surgery to get the nail removed is $150-200, but on the other hand, you can buy all the supplies to fix it early on for less than $10.

  1. Grab some toilet paper or tissues. You’ll need less than one piece. Get a pair of tweezers, a pencil, or some other relatively pointy object. Finally, get some epsom salts, and a container big enough to fit your foot in (you should probably buy one specially for this purpose, since you don’t want to use the container for anything else afterward; epsom salts are toxic).
  2. Fill the container with very hot water (slightly hotter than you can stand to stick your hand in) and mix in the appropriate amount of epsom salts (it’ll say on the box, but it’s probably about a quarter cup of salt to a gallon of water or something). The mixing process will cool the water down slightly such that it’s now about as hot as you can stand. Stick your whole foot in and soak it for half an hour or something like that. Your foot should get super wrinkly.
  3. When you’re done with that, take your foot out. Rip off a tiny corner of your toilet paper or tissue, wad it up, and shove it under the offending ingrown toenail. Shove as much as you can under there, then wait. The pressure from the wadded-up tissue should push the nail up, and since the epsom salts have softened everything up, this is an easy enough job.

Go through this process in full every day until your toenail pokes right out where it belongs, and in the future, don’t clip your toenails too short.

Sinus headaches and sinus problems in general (including a stuffed-up nose as a result of a cold) can be remedied with a very strange but simple method: neti potting.

A neti pot is a small piece of plastic or pottery shaped like a squashed teapot. There are two holes: a big one in the top that you put the saline water into, and a little one at the end of the elongated spout that you stick up one nostril. Here’s a modern one with a fancy soft tip that comes with saline packets.

Basically, what you do is you fill it with saline solution (I know the exact formula for this one since I do it so often, I’m very susceptible to sinus problems)—1/4 teaspoon salt to 1 cup water—and stick the spout in one nostril, doesn’t matter which. Tilt your head to the side and tilt the neti pot up such that it’s pouring the saline into your nose. Since your nose and sinuses are actually just one long tube, the water will wash out all the gunk and come out the other side.

Make sure you tilt your head forward and lean such that the water isn’t coming down your throat and out of your mouth. (Oh yeah, those are connected too. Basically the whole human body is one long meat hose.) It might take some work to get right, but it’s not difficult. If I was able to get it right at age six, you can do it.

Also, if the saline doesn’t come out the other side the first time, don’t worry. That’s just because your sinuses are too blocked for the saline to flow through. Just drain the saline from that side (lean over a sink, then wipe your nose) and switch to the other side. Pouring saline in from both sides will help to loosen and eventually dislodge the gunk that’s causing the congestion and also probably the headache/infection/post-nasal drip/whatever else. It’s weird, but it works.

As with the pain to cause relationship, you can do research regarding the cause to remedy relationship. Just understand that companies want to not get sued, so they’ll tell you to go to a doctor if anything even potentially bad might happen. Look up “home remedies” before you go hit the UrgentCare.

Questions, comments? Any good remedy you’d like people to know? Add it to the comments section below!

Why You Should Learn a Living Language

The benefits of learning a language are numerous. Bilingualism in general has many mental benefits. The research that demonstrates these things, though, doesn’t tell you a crucial point: all languages are not created equal. Specifically, living languages are very different from dead ones.

I spent, depending on how intensively you define the word “studying”, between four and ten years studying a dead language. I started around age seven with Rosetta Stone Latin (yes, that exists), and studied intermittently through elementary and middle school before taking four years of intensive high school Latin, culminating in the AP test. With the exception of two brief classes in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, the vast majority of my experience in learning languages has been with a dead one.

Last year was my final one taking Latin. After a little while, I detoxed myself of the apathy I’d acquired for anything resembling school, and I kind of missed it. Silly, right? Missing studying vocabulary lists? And maybe it is silly, but it happened anyway. So, intermittently in accordance with a busy schedule, I took up Japanese.

Immediately I was shocked by the differences in learning methods. First, a living language necessitates pronunciation. My proficiency with Latin was orders of magnitude greater than my current proficiency with Japanese: circa last spring, I could read and understand complicated books written in Latin. I read the Aeneid and the Gallic Wars in the original, which is immensely difficult: they’re huge, thick books with tiny type and long, complicated sentences. By contrast, I can hardly form simple sentences in Japanese.

But you can get to where I was in Latin without ever speaking a single word out loud.

Seriously! I learned nearly everything from written words on a page. I read silently, studied flashcards silently, translated silently. I only ever spoke a word of Latin aloud under two circumstances: I was in my one-hour once-a-week online class and I was reading a passage aloud to the class; or my linguistically-inclined brother had asked me the Latin word for something.

By contrast, the veritable instant that I began my study of Japanese I was talking. To an empty room as a pronunciation exercise, but still. The pronunciation actually mattered. I watched Japanese cartoons (commonly called anime) and repeated what the characters were saying under my breath. “Nan desu ka?” a character on the screen would say, and I’d mutter under my breath, “nan desu ka”. I learned so much vocabulary this way, and I learned it painlessly.

That brings me to another point. With a living language, there is media in that language. It’s possible to learn words and phrases purely from watching and reading content. With a dead language, this method of “learning by input” is impossible: there is no content to consume. There is no anime in Latin. I learned exclusively through exhaustive memorization of grammar. It was boring and uninteresting, and now, six months or so after finishing my studies, I’m hard-pressed to remember most of it.

The combination of these two factors—lack of pronunciation and lack of auditory input—made me feel less like I was actually fluent in Latin, and more like I was simply knowledgeable enough about its inner workings that I could basically deconstruct it like a puzzle. I think that, even at the height of my Latin knowledge, if I’d been teleported back to Ancient Rome and met with a native speaker, I could not hold a conversation.

In other words, I didn’t speak the language, I could only deconstruct it.

To hammer in this distinction, let me ask you a question: do you know what a pluperfect is? No? Here’s an example: “We had arrived.” I guarantee you use the pluperfect all the time, but you never knew what it was – and you never needed to. But with Latin, I was backwards. I knew the grammar and all its terms inside and out – if you asked me what the pluperfect subjunctive ending in the third conjugation was, not only would I have understood you, but I’d also have been able to supply the answer. However, I had literally never used any of those words in an actual conversation.

This is the most important difference between learning a living language and learning a dead one. If you learn a living language, you will come out of your studies with an ability that is practically useful: the ability to have conversations. You don’t come out of studying a dead language with that. You only come out of studying a dead language with the ability to deconstruct it.

What does all this mean for you? Take a closer look at the article I linked at the top. The reason bilingualism is helpful for improving mental acuity is that “both languages of a bilingual speaker are constantly active to some degree, even in strongly monolingual contexts”. Aka, the auditory and visual processing for both languages is always online. This makes the biggest difference in conversation, where the bilingual person’s brain has to continuously figure out which language it should use to process information: “this difficult selection is made in constant online linguistic processing by bilinguals is that the general-purpose executive control system is recruited into linguistic processing, a configuration not found for monolinguals.”

But wait, didn’t I just get done saying that one of the chief differences between living and dead languages is that you can learn a dead language completely without ever having a conversation?

Yes. That is exactly my point.

If you’re planning on learning a language for purposes of improving your mental abilities, I highly recommend learning a living one. Looking at the reasons behind the statement that “bilingualism improves your brain”, it seems to me that learning a dead language is much less likely to benefit you than a living one.

Plus, we shouldn’t deny the benefit of having conversations with others in their native tongues. To quote Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”