Weekly I/O #49

Deep Boredom, Inspection Paradox, Relative Age Effect, Happy Poker with Loss Aversion, Skill Transfer

Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.

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The below is extracted from the email sent on Oct 16, 2022

1. If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It only reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Book: The Burnout Society

In the chapter “Profound Boredom”, the Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han said the cultural achievements of humanity, including philosophy, should be attributed to deep and contemplative attention. Deep attention makes culture possible. However, such attention is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyper-attention.

In his word:

“A rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this scattered mode of awareness. Since it also has a low tolerance for boredom, it does not admit the profound idleness that benefits the creative process. Walter Benjamin calls this deep boredom a “dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available. Benjamin laments that the dream bird’s nests of tranquillity and time are vanishing in the modern world.”

To get to the creative process and escape the trap of hyper-attention, we have to have a higher tolerance for boredom.

“If a person experiences boredom while walking and has no tolerance for this state, he will move restlessly in fits and starts or go this way and that. However, someone with greater tolerance for boredom will recognize, after a while, that walking as such is what bores him. Consequently, he will be impelled to find a kind of movement that is entirely different. Running, or racing, does not yield a new gait. It is just accelerated walking. Dancing or gliding, however, represent entirely new forms of motion.”

Thanks to Sun Yimeng for recommending this podcast episode referencing The Burnout Society. This episode introduces Justin Vernon’s story and makes me obsessed with Bon Iver again.

2. Why is my bus always late? Inspection paradox: Averaging final results can be different than averaging individual responses.

Article: The Inspection Paradox is Everywhere

If 10 buses come every 60 minutes, how long do we have to wait on average? An educated guess could be 3 minutes because we have to wait half of the average time between two buses (think about we can arrive anytime between two buses), and 1 bus comes every 6 minutes on average. However, we typically must wait longer than 3 minutes and sometimes even longer than 6 minutes. This phenomenon is called Waiting-Time Paradox or Inspection Paradox.

Think about another example first. If you ask college students how big their classes are, the average result might be 100 students. But if you ask the college what’s their average class size, it might be only 30. If no one lies, what causes this strange difference? When you survey students and average individual responses, you will overestimate. Because if there are 100 students in one class, you will have a higher chance to sample that class compared to a 10 students class. More specifically, a class with size x will be overrepresented in the whole sample by a factor of x.

Here’s another example called the friendship paradox. Why do most people have fewer friends than their friends have? If you choose a random Facebook user and then choose one of their friends randomly, the chance is about 80% that the friend has more friends. This is because when we choose a random user, every user is equally likely to be selected. However, when we pick their friend, people with more friends are more likely to be in this random user’s friend group. In other words, one is less likely to be friends with someone who has fewer friends.

Now, can you guess why the bus is always late? Buses should come at constant intervals theoretically. However, in practice, some intervals are longer, and some are shorter. Therefore, similar to the two examples above, we are more likely to arrive at the bus stop during a longer interval because, unsurprisingly, a random arrival is more likely to fall in a long interval.

Inspection paradox (or other Sampling bias) is counterintuitive but ubiquitous. This also reminds me of a joke Bill Burr used in You People Are All The Same.

“Stats are so fucking stupid, you know? Not that they’re stupid. It’s the way people apply ’em. You already have your mind made up, and then you go to i’mright.com, you start memorizing a bunch of shit, then you just… blaaah! Just throw it up at people. This guy tried to get me to go scuba diving. I go, “I’m not going. I don’t wanna get eaten by a shark.” He’s like, “Well, actually, 90% of shark attacks actually happen in shallow water.” It’s like, no shit. That’s where the people are. You know? It’s called the beach. 90% of people are frolicking along the coastline. It’s not like there are people swimming to Europe. “Let’s go to Iceland, you pussies!” Right?”

3. What’s the most significant privilege a student can experience? Born in the right month.

Podcast: Outliers, Revisited — Malcolm Gladwell | Revisionist History

One of the most intriguing things I learned from the book Outliers a few years ago was the Relative Age Effect (RAE). Malcolm Gladwell observed that most (40%) of the best hockey players in Canada are born between January and March.

Because the cut-off date for hockey in Canada is January 1, kids born on January 1 will play with those born on December 31 in the same year. However, the earlier-born kids will have an extra year of growth and development. Players with January birthdays are likely stronger, taller, and more coordinated. Therefore, they are more likely to be selected for talented programs with better training due to this slight advantage. Better training will make them play better. Consequently, they are more likely to be chosen for talented programs again at the next level. This accumulated advantage (Matthew effect) leads to the phenomenon that most of the best hockey players are born in the year’s first quarter.

Over ten years later, Malcolm Gladwell experimented in the classroom of Wharton Business School to evaluate the same effect on education. What’s the privilege that gets those students in this super competitive ivy league school? Through a survey, Malcolm found that the Relative Age Effect also applied to education. The birth months of the students also follow an odd distribution, and most students in the class have birth months close to the cut-off date. You can watch the whole experiment here.

We can also find RAE in graduations from the University of Oxford (as shown in the graph) and the UK Nobel Prize winner’s distribution.

By Steve Lawrence — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44416666

4. Losses hurt much more than the happiness gained from winning. Therefore, we must focus on the process to overcome this asymmetry (loss aversion) in zero-sum games.

Podcast: Annie Duke on Poker, Probabilities, and How We Make Decisions (Ep. 99) | Conversations with Tyler

Annie Duke is a professional poker player with a Ph.D. in psychology. In this episode, Tyler Cowen asked Annie: “If you enjoy risk for its own sake, you’ll go broke. But if you don’t enjoy risk for its own sake, what are you doing playing these zero-sum games?”

Losses hurt much more than the happiness gained from winning. This asymmetry between how sad people are when they lose versus how happy they are when they win is known as loss aversion. Because poker is a zero-sum game (one’s gain is equivalent to the other’s loss), it’s generally hard to be a happy poker player.

Therefore, it will be hard to be a happy poker player unless we focus on something other than just the result. For Annie, the way to happiness is to focus on the process. From a cognitive science background studying learning, Annie took poker as a different way to study learning. In this way, the poker game becomes a powerful laboratory for thinking about human decision-making.

We can apply this perspective to many places. We cannot always win. If we hook our happiness only with the result, we are doomed to have a hard time when we are out of luck. Therefore, we have to be able to find other sources of happiness.

5. Poker teaches us that just because people are skillful in one domain doesn’t mean they can transfer the skill to another.

Podcast: Annie Duke on Poker, Probabilities, and How We Make Decisions (Ep. 99) | Conversations with Tyler

Do outstanding poker players make better decisions than average in the other parts of their lives? Annie thinks there’s not always a transfer of learning. It does transfer for some very process-driven players. However, it is also easy to find examples of people without any transfer whatsoever.

We can see a good poker player in the casino dumping money at the craps table or the baccarat table. It can be very confusing because good poker players should know those casino games obviously have negative expectancy.

Just because people are skillful in one domain doesn’t mean they can transfer the skill to another. I also think that if one person can’t demonstrate one skill or attribute in one field, it doesn’t mean they cannot prove that skill or attribute in another.

That’s it. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy it. If you would like to receive the content every Sunday, sign up below 😎

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