Getting a good overview of your thoughts can be very beneficial. Especially for yourself. And sometimes also for others.

Some thoughts that went through my mind over the years

Every now and then you get hit by a thought that makes you stop walking. At that point you're like, "Wow, that's interesting. I just learned something new." And at that point you face the choice: either trust that you'll remember your newfound wisdom (and subsequently possibly forget about it) or write it down (and possibly share it with the world). I chose to do the latter. Right here.

The two things that we now need to improve education

2018/02/01 - The past decade has seen an explosion in online technologies. Especially through YouTube, there is now a multitude of videos that can teach you anything you may want to learn. But if all of that is available, why aren't we seeing free teaching methods replacing paid ones? Why do people still pay thousands (or outside of Europe tens of thousands) of Euros/dollars for university tuition? I was thinking about that today, and I've come up with two important reasons.

The first one is a lack of structure. If I want to learn something new, I have to know where to start, what to learn next, and so on. For example, when I want to improve my Javascript skills, I have to look very carefully for articles/videos that don't repeat the ton of stuff that I know, but also don't have a ton of stuff that I've never seen before. For me that hassle is still somewhat manageable - I know enough about it to figure out what's a good level for me - but for beginners it may be more than what they bargained for. And this doesn't just hold for Javascript; it's the case for pretty much any subject that I can think of.

So how can we solve this? The solution is a huge knowledge tree, of the entire subject. It shows all the tiny bits of data/skills (called modules) that can be learned, and how they are related. Want to know what to start with when learning? Take any module without prerequisites. Want to know what to study to be able to do [some awesome skill]? Walk down the tree and plan your path accordingly. We need such a tree. Subsequently, people should write educational materials for a set of modules that are a part of the tree, and actively link it to it. If we do, acquiring new skills becomes a lot easier!

Having such a tree would be an enormous advantage. And even better: it's technologically possible already! It is not enough to get us good education though. The reason is that videos/articles/books are very static. They don't actively involve you. But people don't learn by seeing. They learn by doing. That's why we also need a second thing: interactive books.

Imagine a (digital) book in which every picture is not just a picture, but a full-fledged interactive application. It's something you can play around with, experiment through and learn from. It allows you to intuitively grasp the subject matter that is discussed, and learn from it. Then people can actually learn by doing! This is the second leap in automating education that I have in mind.

You may wonder: why don't you take this further? Instead of just a book, make interactive videos, or full game-like educative computer programs. Wouldn't that work better? The answer here is: yes and no. Yes, it would improve learning. But I've already developed interactive videos, and they didn't really catch on. At least, they did with students but not with teachers/management. It was so different from what people these days are used to see in education, that they didn't know how to use them. In addition, these videos also required more time to make than I could get money for. Hence, we need smaller steps, and the next step is interactive books.

What's the plan now, you may ask? Simple: develop them. I'm working on an interactive book about my thesis. I'm having regular brainstorm sessions with friends about an educational knowledge tree. These ideas will come to fruition.

Gamification is just a buzz word to make teachers do better

2018/01/17 - I visited an educational conference today. Most of the talks were not very inspired, but one stood out: a presentation about gamification in education. The idea is to make classes more like games. This would be beneficial both for the motivation and learning experience of students. Naturally I was skeptical, so let's look at the details.

What are some elements of gamifications? The presentation (if I remember correctly) mentioned the following.

  • Set clear goals: inform students what they need to do to accomplish a "quest".
  • Activate students: ensure that students are actually doing the tasks that you want them to learn, instead of having them only read about them.
  • Direct feedback: immediately let the students know how well they did the task.
  • Give rewards: when a student completes a task, reward him/her in some way. (Like badges, or by unlocking extra content.)
  • An overview of progress: through a progress tree, students can see how far along the learning path they are.
  • A leaderboard: show students how they rank with respect to their fellow students. (At least for the students who care about that.)
  • Individualization: set up challenges specified to every specific student, for example based on his/her level or on prior activities.

There were three important thoughts I got when hearing this. The first thought was: awesome! Those things are indeed present in games, and they work very well there. They motivate players and help them play better. Then I got my second thought: am I doing this in my own classes? The answer: for as much as I can. After all, my time is limited, and there's only so much direct feedback I can give to students.

However, the most interesting thought was the third one: if I didn't know a single bit about games, or gamification for that matter, and I wanted to improve my course, how would I do it? The answer was simple: by doing exactly these things.

  • Set clear goals: this is a must for any course. You must let students know what you expect from them, up to any detail they may desire.
  • Activate students: if you want students to acquire skills, you should have them practicing these skills as quickly as possible, and not just have them read about them in books.
  • Direct feedback: a must for any student. If you want them to learn a skill, and they're doing it wrong, you should immediately let them know. (And equivalently if they're doing it right!)
  • Give rewards: when students are doing things well, it's helpful if you show this. Be enthusiastic. Offer extra content. Help them with any further ambitions they may have.
  • An overview of progress: this is insanely useful to any student. How far along are they at passing the course? The clearer this overview is, the better.
  • A leaderboard: it can help students to know where they stand with respect to their peers. So they know who to ask questions to, or work together with.
  • Individualization: letting students practice on their own level is very valuable.

So all these game elements are also part of any decent educational system. If I wanted to improve my courses, I don't even need to look at games. I should simply use basic common sense.

That leads to the most important conclusion that I drew from the educational conference. "Gamification" is not a magical idea that leads to more motivation among students. Instead, it's merely a buzzword that motivates teachers to provide good education. And it's a marketing term that allows said teachers to get more money from managers to actually improve education accordingly.

On fairness, vengeance, and how one causes the other

2017/06/06 - Spirals of violence. You often see them in conflict areas. One person hurts the other. The other person wants to take revenge and hurts the first. From a desire for vengeance, the first hurts the second even more. This continues, until it's an all out fight. In the end, everyone ends up badly hurt. If people desire to get the best for themselves, this behavior is totally illogical. So why do we so often do it?

Before we look at this, let's study fairness. Or at least, the feeling of fairness. Somehow this is ingrained in not only humans, but also animals. There are experiments where monkeys have to perform a simple task. When a monkey does the task and is rewarded with a piece of cucumber, he is totally fine with it. But when he sees that another monkey is rewarded with a grape for the same task, there is a conflict. Suddenly the cucumber - otherwise a decent reward - is not appreciated, because someone else is getting something more valuable. So fairness is not about getting enough, but getting enough compared to others. It's the relative fairness that matters.

This relative fairness is an important concept. It's why, if others get something that we do not, we want an explanation for this. (Like when a refugee family gets to rent a house and you don't.) If no valid explanation exists, we get this massive feeling of discomfort from it. "It's outrageous! That they get all that, and I am stuck with this." And even when there is a valid explanation (they get a lot less on other matters) there's still a lingering unease.

Now, let's get back to the subject of vengeance. Imagine a situation where you felt vengeful: you wanted to take revenge on a person. It could be for a large variety of reasons, up to something as simple as "He was mean to me." So let's consider that case. Suppose someone was mean to you, and you wanted to get back at him, perhaps with an even meaner comment, or a punch to the face. Why did you get that desire?

My theory is that it's because of this relative fairness. Someone hurt you, and now you are feeling less happy, while he is still feeling happy enough. (Equivalently, instead of him having more happiness, it could be he's having more of something else; more money, more spare time, more status, or something else.) You feel that this is unfair. Why is he better off? Why do you get to be sad while he is happy? Equality would be more fair. Or, since he made a mistake, or was even purposefully cruel, he should have less than you! That would be fair too. But the current situation simply isn't fair. It feels very uncomfortable, and it has to change.

So how can we make the situation more fair? Well, either you have to get more (be recompensed), or he has to get less (be punished). With limited resources, the first isn't always possible; far from it. So if we want to obtain relative fairness, we must apply the second. We only feel like things are fair again, when the other is brought down. This is what vengeance is all about. In fact, this is what nearly all punishment is about. It's not about solving the problem. It's hardly about scaring people away from doing bad things either. It's plain and simple vengeance, to ease our feeling of unfairness.

I close this post off with one thing to wonder about: what if we didn't care about this relative fairness? What if we got over it, and only occupied ourselves with making sure people themselves have enough, not necessarily compared with others? Would that work better? Or worse? And if it would work better, how could we apply it in our society? What would change?

On privacy, transparency and power

2017/05/06 - Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the key to prevent this is to hold people responsible for their actions. That requires transparency, which is exactly why free media is essential at limiting corruption. It's also why the first thing that corrupt leaders do is attack the media. This is all known. It's nothing new. But here's the funny thing: we're not really using this knowledge.

Let's talk about something else: the distinction between privacy and transparency. In a way they're opposites, yet still people see both as positive, while a lack of either privacy or transparency is seen as negative. But if they are so contradictive, what exactly is the difference? Some people say that "privacy is what applies to you, while transparency is what applies to others." I don't like this explanation much. I'd rather go for "privacy is about personal things, that only affect the person involved, while transparency is about non-personal things, that generally affect others."

So how can we achieve both privacy and transparency? Should we be fully open about everything that affects others (at least towards the affected people) and can be as secretive as we like about stuff that affects only ourselves? How does that work? Well, exactly like that. I would propose a new law: if you have the power to affect people, and you are actually using that power to affect people, you have to be transparent about how you do that, up to a reasonable degree.

This is partly already done. If you make food, you have to inform buyers about it. You don't have to inform them about the recipe, but you definitely should tell people what's in it. (The list of ingredients.) That's obligatory by law, and no one is surprised by it. But what if there's research about how healthy the respective food is? Are you then, as manufacturer, also obliged to share this research? At the moment you're not, but I would say that you should. And you should definitely not try to surpress it, because that would go against transparency. I'd say it's a good idea to at least make the latter illegal. A similar set-up then also holds for medicine.

But there's so much more. What about the effects of the choice of road type on the accident rate? The health risks of playing sports on artificial grass? The risk of a coffee machine setting fire to your building? These are also subjects of which data should be available. Whenever a design choice is made, at least tell people about it, so people know whether they are taking any unnecessary risks. This also includes choices like how to deal with tests on the fuel efficiency of the car you build? (Yes, I'm referring to the Dieselgate scandal of Volkswagen.) If people are always transparent about such things, we're less likely to get such scandals.

But where this really comes into play is the world of advertising. More specifically, how companies like Google and Facebook implement advertising. They have complicated algorithms, and sometimes these algorithms even seem to influence elections. There's definitely a lot of power. How do they set them up then? Is it to improve the profit of the advertiser, even if it's at the cost of the people? Or is it to give people the most relevant ads, for their own benefit? There's a lot of secrecy about this, but I'm quite sure it's the first, while if there would be full transparency, it would more likely be the second.

What should we do then? I'd say that, as a culture, we should demand that companies are transparent about how they influence people. And while we're at it, set up laws that force them to do so too. It might take some getting used to, but in the end it will prevent a lot of problems.

What about temporary citizenships?

2017/04/18 - As you travel between countries, your rights change. If you go on vacation somewhere, you're bound to the laws of that country. If you're actually staying somewhere longer, you can register at a municipality. This gives you yet more rights and obligations, depending on where you are. As you stay longer, you can become a resident citizen, and possibly eventually a full citizen. You can even get a passport of the given country then. You're likely to get more rights to benefits and such, and more elections you can vote in. Everything steadily increases as you stay longer.

The funny thing is that countries are massively different. In some countries people pay more taxes, but also get more benefits. In other countries citizens pay less taxes and get less benefits. At the same time living costs may be higher or lower, wages may be higher and lower, and so on. Within a country, all these things are usually quite well-balanced, but if you travel between countries, this gets rather skewed. I know for instance people that live in Vietnam, work online for a Dutch salary, pay partly Dutch taxes and partly Vietnamese taxes, get Dutch healthcare benefits, and get the insanely low Vietnamese living expenses. It's a pretty decent set-up for them.

I started wondering: what if we ever introduce a universal basic income in The Netherlands (or any other country)? The issue here is that the introduction of a basic income significantly changes the whole financial set-up of a country. More specifically, when there's a basic income, the amount of volunteer work will probably skyrocket. Many people will think, "I've got a basic income. I just want to do something that matters, and I don't care much about what I earn." If there's an abundancy of workers, people do not get paid but simply work for something that means something to them.

Overall such a system work well enough, once everything is balanced out again. Except again when it mixes with other systems. First of all, when foreigners go to The Netherlands, they both don't get a well-paying job and they don't get a basic income, so they cannot sustain themselves. At the same time, Dutch people might be tempted to take their basic income and move to Vietnam where, given the lower living costs there, they can use the same money to live in luxury. The whole set-up isn't sustainable like this!

What's the solution then? Only give a basic income to residents? What about people only staying here for a few months, like students doing a minor? It's a difficult conundrum, but I think I've got a solution. The idea is a temporary transfer of citizenship. To me, being a citizen of a country feels like a pledge from that country. "We, as a country, will take care of this individual, like we do with every other citizen. In return, we also expect this person to contribute." You get benefits (possibly a basic income) from that country, and you pay taxes for that country.

Now suppose that I then want to live for a year in some other country (say, Vietnam). In that case I can request a temporary change of citizenship. The countries can then agree that, for a period of a year, I will be a Vietnamese citizen. Vietnam will provide me with their benefits, and I will forego of the Dutch ones. But automatically, when the term transpires, the situation is reversed. I will be a Dutch citizen again. (Based on this, either country may require me to move back.)

Naturally, having this pledge from two countries - both providing benefits to the same person - will not work out. So in my eyes dual citizenships will be a thing of the past. Now you may wonder, "What about persons with parents from two countries, who often move in-between the two countries?" Don't get me wrong here. I'm not against a person having two passports. I'm not against a country allowing a particular citizen from another country to travel freely in and out. It's just that there should be at most one country providing for you. And if this switches every now and then, that's fine. As long as it's clear which country needs to provide for this particular person, and to which country this person has obligations. Because trying to serve two masters (countries) can be problematic.

I realize that this change of citizenship is a rather new idea. There's bound to be lots of twists in the idea which I haven't thought of yet. Still, I would really like to see a country not just give a "residence permit" for a certain duration, but actually a "full citizenship" for a duration, with all rights and obligations attached to it. Because currently people on a residence permit still have far fewer rights than actual citizens, which is a waste in my eyes.

On the problems of current-day discussions

2017/03/18 - I often see posts on Facebook with small riddles. It always starts with some bullshit teaser "Only for geniuuses!!!" (Yes, there's always a spelling error, and the irrational use of too many exclamation marks, like a five-year-old wrote it. But the consistency of this shows that it wasn't a five-year-old.) And then there's a picture which anyone with a basic mathematical background can solve, but if you don't have a mathematical background, then you're missing out on some parts. Like, "Calculate 5 + 1*10 + 2". Easy if you know that multiplication takes precedence over addition, but impossible to solve otherwise.

For some surprising reason, such posts have a lot of popularity and reach. But what's more interesting is to see the discussion below them. Or well, "discussion" ... it's mainly people posting their answers. And surprisingly, there are dozens of different answers! The obviously correct answer would be 17 here, but there's people posting 62, 72, 25, and more. When I see this, I'm always curious what the people posting this are actually thinking. Because all previous answers from other people are visible. Don't they look at them, when posting such replies?!

The way I was taught was that, if you say something, you better make sure that it's true. Or at least, that you're pretty sure it's true. And if you're doubting, you indicate this, or at least explain your thoughts as to how you got to the belief. But here, there's people saying total bullshit answers as if they're the most true thing in the universe. And even if everyone else says something different, they're still shouting out their bullshit answer, seemingly without the slightest care in the world.

But it gets worse. Pretty much no one even bothers to explain their answer! When I notice some disagreement about a riddle, I always get excited. "Maybe there's multiple ways to look at it. And if there's not, then maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I can learn from this. There's more to discover! I've got to figure this out." I want to know what's going on! But here, people generally don't care. They're thinking something like, "I'm believing something entirely different from everyone else. Well, that's my right." Or at least, I can only guess what they're thinking.

To me, this is indicative of how discussions are being held these days, and not just on the internet, but everywhere. People can just spout out random comments. They don't even bother explaining themselves. If they notice everyone else beliefs something differently, which probably means they're wrong, they still don't care. And most importantly: no one bothers to figure out the other side's point of view anymore. No one bothers to even consider learning about things that might change their mind. And that's problematic.

I think it's high time that people once more learn to know how certain they are about their beliefs. To know what's the truth and what's only a guess or estimate. To be critical of their own knowledge. To be open to the thoughts of others. And most importantly: to take responsibility for the things they say, and when they said something which turned out to be false, to take responsibility for it. To not only admit the mistake, but also take a look at their own thought processes, to figure out how that mistake could have come to be, and to adjust those ways of thinking. It's the only way in which we can ever have sensible discussions again.

The future of learning: the knowledge/skill tree

2017/02/18 - I've often thought about what the future of learning will look like. Of course it's hard to predict exactly how students will learn a hundred year from now. It depends on the technology that will be developed during the next century. But there is one question which I think I have an answer to. Will educational materials be provided centrally, by a state or some other governing body? Or will it be provided by teaching organizations (or even individuals) competing with each other?

Throughout history, this has varied a lot. In the Greek and Roman eras, young men from richer families were taught by private tutors. Each of these tutors was different, and some of them were really sought-after. It encouraged these tutors to be the best they could be. But starting with the industrial era, centralized school systems became more and more common. These schools were often set up and paid for by the government, which also set its curriculum. But they did more. They even wrote the books which the schools used. It meant that everyone had exactly the same educational materials!

How is that now? To be honest, I'd say we're somewhere in-between. The government still sets the curriculum for elementary and high schools, and these schools have to use a set of books approved by the government. Yes, there are multiple options for these schools, but not too many, with only few publishers providing the educational resources. And the hardest part is that departments within a school fully have to choose for one method, or for another, because combining multiple methods requires extra administration and extra costs; two resources which schools already don't have a lot of.

It made me wonder: what will this be like in the future? I expect that new learning technologies will be quite sophisticated, so I doubt lone people will be able to develop large amounts of high-quality educational materials, as does seem to be possible these days. As a result, only a few large organizations (like universities, although I expect they will be private companies) will provide educational resources. Some will focus on some subjects while others focus on other subjects, with potentially a bit of overlap, of course.

In other words, it will be an oligarchical system, kind of like what the situation is now with social media websites. And just like with social media websites, I doubt that the products of these different educational resource providers will match well with each other. It's not like Diaspora can just import posts from Facebook, or you can react through your Facebook account on something that was posted on Diaspora. Similarly, I don't think that in the future, when you're following a course from one teaching organization, you can then always flawlessly follow it up (or replace it) with a course from another teaching organization. And that's a shame, as it messes up a proper learning experience.

How can we solve this dilemma? One option is to fix this centrally. We let one organization (say, the government) provide all educational resources. This ensures that it all fits together in a central plan, which is a good thing. So this idea has some definite merit. There is also a significant downside though. If this central organization (the government) doesn't teach a specific subject in a proper way, then no one is about to take over and fix things. While in a fully free market, when one person messes things up, a competitor will take over his business.

The key to getting the best of both worlds, is to mix the best of both ideas. What we need is one so-called "knowledge/skill tree". It defines small pieces of knowledge and small skills; let's call these "modules". For example, think of "Knowing how to recognize a quadratic equation", "Being able to solve a quadratic equation", or "Being able to apply [this] and [that] presentation trick". This tree describes what constitutes each skill or piece of knowledge, and how each one depends on another. We need one such knowledge/skill tree in the world, and not a single one more.

The second step is to then have a variety of companies, individuals and such teach these modules. Because they are properly defined, it's easier to be taught one module from one company, and the follow-up module from another company. We could even have separate companies test whether you obtained the related skills to complete the module, although that can also be done by the organization teaching you in the first place.

The most important question is: who is going to define this knowledge tree then? That is something that should be done in collaboration with everyone involved. Just like the internet has the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (yes, I'm a fan of them) with stakeholders from major internet firms, setting up specifications for the web, so should there be a World Educational Consortium (WEC) which defines a knowledge/skill tree, constantly updated to incorporate the ever-expanding knowledge and skills developed by mankind throughout history.

Once a clear and widely used knowledge/skill tree is present, I think it will change the world. People can get a more clear overview of their current skills, as well as plot where they want to get. Companies can ask prospective employees to learn certain skills. Universities and other teaching organizations can describe more clearly what they're teaching and/or testing. And most importantly, it becomes easier for these universities or teaching organizations to compete with each other on teaching specific subjects. Because with well-defined modules, you can guarantee that certain courses can replace each other. As a result, we get more evolution in teaching, better education, and hence a better world, or so I'd say.

The need for short-term gratification

2016/12/11 - Imagine you've been working hard on a deadline. There's a lot of pressure. All the while you're eager to get a break, but there's no time. All you want is just some short-term gratification: to do whatever you want that gives you instant satisfaction. What that is differs per person - playing computer games, watching series, getting drunk, having bullshit conversations with friends, or whatever - but everyone has something. Some succumb to it before the deadline, and others hold up until after the deadline, but we all have that desire.

The interesting part is that you don't have that desire so much when you have plenty of time on your hands. When things are calm, and there's little pressure, you are more in the mood for long-term projects. You think ahead. Your vision is more focused on the future instead of what's immediately ahead of you. I call this "having a long-term mindset" instead of "having a short-term mindset". But what exactly affects whether people think long-term or short-term? Is it the amount of pressure they're under? Well, this week I found that it's slightly different that that.

A few months ago I was under a lot of pressure - I had to finish my thesis - and so I was constantly in a short-term mindset. I didn't do anything long-term fun, like writing my book. Afterwards the pressure was gone, and slowly I got in the mood for writing again, which I do a lot more now. I also do other long-term stuff like learning new programming languages which might be useful later on.

However, next week I will get feedback on my thesis. I had expected the feedback to be positive, so I wasn't worried much. I was still in the long-term mindset. However, I got an email from my promotor, warning me that the feedback would not be so positive, and that I'd need to make some changes. The funny thing is: I'll only get this feedback next week. I can't do anything about my thesis at the moment. But immediately, as soon as I read that email, my long-term mindset was gone, and I was thrown back into a desire for short-term gratification. Why is that?

It's when I started to realize that it's not just "pressure" - the need to work hard on something right now - that causes this short-term mindset. It's the mere risk of pressure. If there's a chance that you may get into some problem, which will require you to work hard, you'll already start hungering for instant gratification. The reason is actually quite obvious. When you do get that gratification, you are "gratified". While if the opposite is true - if you've just been working hard on some long-term fun but intense project - then you may be more tired. So in the first situation you are more capable of coping with unexpected pressure than in the second. And that's interesting.

It is interesting because this teaches us how we can prevent this urge of short-term thinking. Short-term thinking is not just caused by pressure. It's caused by the risk that pressure might come. So the main way to encourage long-term thinking is to provide security to people's lives. Make sure that they have faith that nothing bad will happen in the coming months/years. When you do that, you will enable people to think more long-term. Whether they will is then up to them - this also requires practice - but if people are constantly worried, having them think long-term is nearly impossible. That lesson is very important to keep in mind.

Why everyone is amazing at probability theory

2016/11/20 - A moment ago my phone buzzed. Instinctively, I asked myself why. It's probably a message. Maybe WhatsApp, maybe FB Messenger, maybe an email, or maybe something else? Probably not an email, because the buzz of that is slightly longer. Or was it a long buzz that I heard? Possibly. And if it's a message, who is it from? Who would message me at this time? Those were some (far from all) of the thoughts that flashed through my mind in a split second. And it's fascinating to analyze this further, to see what's really happening in my mind, and probably in your mind in such situations too.

To make it easy, let's go back to the moment when I just got my smartphone, and my phone buzzed. I had only installed WhatsApp so far, because that's pretty much what I got the phone for. So when the buzzing started, I knew which app caused it. Then the question was, "Who?" I had only sent messages to my brother and my mother. So who sent me a message now?

Naturally, there are three options. (A) my brother, (B) my mother and (C) someone else that spontaneously found out I got WhatsApp. Probably you're already thinking, "The third case is possible but unlikely." Okay, fine. What about the other two cases? Which is more likely? I'm guessing you'll say something like, "Probably your brother, because he's more tech-savvy than your mother." I had the same thought. So in our calculations, we take into account what we know about someone.

But there's more. I also realized I'd sent my brother a message when I just received the phone. That was two days ago. I'd sent my mother a message only ten minutes ago. Realizing this, my whole probability distribution changed. All of a sudden, my mother seemed to be the obvious candidate for having sent the messages. Is it still possible to be someone else? Yes, but it's far less likely now.

The fascinating thing about this story is that the calculations that I subconsciously did, in a split second, as soon as my phone started buzzing, are pretty advanced from a mathematical point of view. They are probability theory calculations taking into account a ton of variables. If I'd have to do them analytically, I'd have a hard time figuring out where to start, and I'm doing a Ph.D. related to this sort of stuff. Yet pretty much every human being does countless of calculations like this every day, and in a split second too!

The first conclusion that we can draw from this is that everyone is really amazing at probability theory. They just don't know it yet, which is a fault of the sub-optimal way in we teach mathematics across this planet. But the second conclusion is that, should we get any closer to real artificial intelligence (intelligence that's more like us than what we have now) then we need to do more probability theory like this. Because apparently it's at the basis of human thinking.

On the stability of wealth

2016/11/06 - I work in the field of control theory, and key in this field is the concept of stability. What does it mean? Roughly put, suppose that we have some "quantity". It can be anything, like the roll angle of an airplane, or the amount of immigrants entering the country, or the number of apples on your fruit tray. There's usually some "default", "average" or "neutral" value for this quantity. The main question in stability is: what happens when the quantity deviates from this default value?

There are two options: either it goes further away from the default value, or it does not. In the latter case, you often (but not always) see that the quantity returns to its default value. But in the former case something else happens. The deviation grows over time, and keeps doing so until it's restored by some (often) outside effect. In this case, the quantity is unstable.

I got thinking about this when calculating the finances related to houses. After all, I'm looking for a new place to stay in. The nice part is that I have some money, and a decent income, so I can buy a house. But I started wondering what would've happened if I didn't. And there's a variety of differences. I'll list a few.

  • Because of the low interest rates, the monthly expenses of buying a house are smaller than the monthly expenses when you'd rent. This even holds if you borrow all the money for the house (which I won't).
  • When I buy a house I get a tax break, because I am allowed to deduct the interest I pay from my income before it's being taxed. If I would've rented a house, this wouldn't be possible.
  • Since I have family whom I can borrow money from, instead of the bank, I can set up a creative deal which gives me an even larger tax break. Once more, this is totally legal.
  • The houses that are for sale are generally bigger than the houses that can be rented. As a result, I can even sublet a room to a student, and up to a fairly decent amount this can still be done tax-free, further reducing my monthly expenses.
  • Speaking of monthly expenses: a part of the expenses I'll have to pay each month is for paying off my loan. So although I pay that money, I don't actually "lose" it. I use it to reduce my debt such that, after quite some time, I actually fully own the house myself.
  • And speaking of that house: house prices have (over longer periods of time) always risen, meaning that by owning a house whose price rizes, I again earn more money.

The conclusion? In all cases, just because I have money and am able to buy a house, I save more money, up to the point where I can nearly live for free. But coming back to the stability discussion: this means that people that have slightly more wealth than average save money. Similarly, people with slightly less wealth than average lose money, because they need to go for the more expensive renting option. As a result, all these rules and laws cause an unstable system. It guarantees that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

The main question now is: how long can this continue? Pretty long, I'd say, but not indefinitely. In the past, such instabilities have sooner or later always resulted in some kind of revolution. So my guess is something like that will happen some time in the next half century. It may be quiet and peaceful, or it may be large and violent, but it will happen. The rules will change. Eventually we must obtain a stable system, encouraging both the rich and the poor to slowly return to the average. Because if we don't, we only set ourselves up for another instability, and hence another revolution.

The relation between privacy and transparency

2016/10/30 - A common subject in online discussions these days is that of privacy. It's also a very interesting subject, considering this is the only issue at which I have very different opinions than nearly all of my liberal progressive left-wing friends. More on that later in this post though, because I also want to pay attention to another buzzword: transparency. People are all for transparency too. But the funny thing is: they're rather contradictive. Privacy means you're allowed to hide stuff. Transparency means you have to be open. How can someone both be for privacy and transparency?

The resolution of this inconsistency appears when you look at how these words are applied. Privacy is only a word used related to individual people, and transparency is only used for large organizations like corporations and governments. In the current day, big corporations like Google and Facebook, as well as various government departments like the IRS (US)/belastingdienst (NL) and the CIA (US)/AIVD (NL), are gathering enormous amounts of data about every individual person. Privacy (of individuals) is disappearing. At the same time, it's not clear what information is collected and what they do with it. Transparency (in corporations) is missing too.

The result is one in which the information of individual people is openly available, and that of corporations is not. This is not a desirable situation, as many books (like 1984, The Circle and others) have shown. Most people are afraid of the idea that corporations have all their data, and would rather fix that. I'm not so sure if this is the best approach though. So let's consider a few situations. We already know the current situation where individuals "share" (willingly or unwillingly) their information but corporations (including government departments) do not. So let's consider the remaining three possibilities.

We start considering the situation where neither individuals nor companies share any data. Pretty much everything is secret. This is how things used to be before any advanced technology, like in the industrial era. I agree that this is a better situation than any 1984-like scenario, but at the same time it is far from ideal too. When a big corporation causes an environmental catastrophe, they can mostly cover it up. When an individual decides to be a mass murderer and goes on a killing spree, he's hard to track down. When the population of an entire country knows nothing about the population of a neighbouring country, and doesn't feel connected with them, we're more likely to get into wars. I don't think this is in any way ideal.

What if when individuals hide all their data and corporations are all fully transparent? Well, then we prevent corporations going rogue, but the other points still stand. So although I'd say it's better than the earlier situations, it's still not ideal. And in addition, given how connected people are in current day's world, I also don't think it's possible in the first place.

That leaves only one alternative: both individuals and corporations are fully transparent. Yes, big companies like Google and Facebook have all your data, but at the same time they need to be open with how they use it, and when they do malicious things with it, the world would instantly know. Instead of having these companies use your data to get the highest ad revenue, we could instead encourage them to use your data to do things which would be best for you. At the same time, because data about population is more freely available, we learn more about each other. We can detect wrong behavior (like starting extremism for people, or a misuse of power by large corporations/governments) more quickly. I'd say this is a better situation in every way.

To summarize, the worst situation is where corporations hide their data and the population does not. Second comes the situation where both hide their data. Then there's the situation where corporations are transparent but the population is not. But the best situation is where everyone is fully open. (For the math geeks: yes, this is like a (multi-player) prisoner's dilemma.) So in my eyes this whole fight for privacy brings us in the wrong direction. We should aspire to be open, but even more, we should demand corporations and the government to be more open and transparent too. I'm still looking forward to such organizations setting up departments whose goal is to make everything happening there transparent. Let's strive for that. Ignore the fight for privacy. Let's obtain full transparency in the world.

On a true democracy

2016/10/23 - I don't often change my mind. After all, I like thinking a lot, and when all ideas are thought through dozens of times, they're probably pretty solid. Still, every now and then I change my mind. It means that I must admit I was wrong, but I don't mind, because it also means something far more important: I learned something new. And the past week was a moment like that.

It started when I watched a video about the origins of democracy. Most people know democracy first came into the spotlights in ancient Greece. What few people know is that it often wasn't a case of "everyone can vote". Instead, people got randomly selected to represent the population in public offices. The actual process of the "entire" population voting only got introduced near the French revolution around 1800.

I started comparing the effects of both systems, wondering which would represent the population better. At first, I subconsciously started looking for reasons why our current system would be better. After all, our politicians now are volunteers who educated themselves on politics. Surely they're better suited to represent people on such complicated matters as state issues than random people, often without any higher education?

But then I thought about the problems in our current society. I thought about the rise of politicians like Donald Trump. The main reason why he got popular in the US is because people in mostly rural areas, often people with a more traditional lifestyle and with less education, don't feel represented. Life is slowly but steadily becoming worse for them. So why don't current-day politicians represent them? The answer was obvious. Because they're all from bigger cities. They're all highly educated. How can they ever represent people from the more rural areas, whom they've probably never even seen in their lives, let alone understood?

That insight showed me how democracy as we have it now isn't so democratic at all. Many voices aren't heard, and for a lot of people none of the politicians are any good. It feels more and more like all options are bad, and you have to vote for the lesser evil. Whenever you see something like this happening, you have to realize that the system as you have it doesn't work so well. Indeed, our current-day democracy isn't a system in which everyone is represented. It's a system where some complicated and untransparent system of parties spews out politicians, and we just have to vote on the one we dislike the least. That is not the way to represent all people.

The alternative? Randomly selecting people to represent the population. Of course there are still thousands of details on how to exactly implement this system. You still want to have expert knowledge flowing into the laws that are created. But the idea is a start to come up with a new system. For an example system (in Dutch), see this page. I don't fully agree with that system either, so the coming time I'll try to come up with a system of my own, involving the random selection of people from the population, that does adequately work at governing a country. To be continued.

A thought-provoking parable, related to Dutch culture

2016/10/16 - In high school (roughly age 13) I had a group of friends, and we used to make a lot of jokes about each other. One of the more persistent ones was that, every time someone did something silly, like tripping over his own feet, or accidentally knocking something off the table, or walking into a door, we called it "gay". So for example, when someone scored an own goal during gym class, we'd all be laughing, "Dude, you're such a gay." It was just our internal joke. It's just what we did. We didn't really think much about it.

With the start of the next school year, we also got a new boy in our class: Brian. His parents had recently moved here. Since he was part of the class, we tried to involve him in our revelries, but he never seemed very happy with us. He was always a bit distant, like he didn't enjoy being around us. Still, he did always join, but he was often also the first to leave, and we didn't have a clue why.

That changed near the end of the year, when we heard Brian was gay. And we slowly started to realize that, every time we called someone "gay" after doing something stupid, we didn't so much hurt that person's feelings. Instead, we hurt Brian's, whose sense of selfworth plummeted every time it happened. And none of us had known. Until now.

Naturally we had a big discussion about it with the group (without Brian). How should we deal with this? Personally, I wasn't sure at the time. I liked the jokes, but I also didn't want to hurt people. Other friends were on both extremes of the spectrum though. "The jokes aren't about him! He shouldn't feel hurt." "Yes, but he does!" "But we've always made these jokes! Why should we change them?" "Because they hurt him!" "Well, they didn't before he got here! Why doesn't he go back?" "It's not his fault. His parents moved here!" "But come on, it's only one person that's affected. Most of us are having fun! It's like when people make a joke about you. You take it as a man, laugh and move on." "Those cases can't be compared. When you make jokes, you vary your targets. People accept being made fun of once. If you always pick the same target, it's not called making jokes. It's called bullying!" Yes, it was a heated discussion.

In the end we grudgingly decided to try and use the word less. We tried to come up with an alternative, but nothing felt right. You couldn't just decide on a "fun" word to use, could you? It had to come spontaneously. And finally it did, two weeks later. A friend of mine called someone "slacker", which was a word he had heard in some TV show. I liked it, so I joined in on it. It felt strange at first, because we weren't familiar with this word yet. Sometimes we had to explain it to others, but eventually it caught. Now, every time someone did something silly, we'd call him a "slacker" and laugh hard about it.

I still remember the first time we heard Brian call someone a slacker. People were silent for a second, thinking "What just happened?" And then everyone burst out laughing, including Brian. It finally felt like he was part of the group. And he was. In fact, a few months later he dared to tell us that, before we'd made our change, he was actually considering suicide, because he felt so left out. We'd never known, and shuddered to think of what might have happened if we stubbornly continued doing what we'd always done. And we all apologized for not seeing things from his point of view back then, even the ones (especially the ones) who had most vehemently been against changing our joke.

Okay, this is just a story from the past. But when thinking about the eternal discussion we have in the Netherlands, about Black Pete, I see a lot of similarities. And the strength of this parable is that we can reason through it with the gift of hindsight. In this story, things have been resolved. So for every Black-Pete-argument, we can translate it to this story, and see if it makes sense. In that case, the solution seems obvious, right?

Understanding your opponents

2016/10/10 - Donald Trump is on the rise in the United States. Surprising? Not so much, considering every country in Europe also has some far-right-wing politician who is preaching hate towards foreigners and is earning a ton of popularity. Many people (often including me) make fun of the people voting for these right-wing politicians, as if they're the most stupid people on earth, who don't understand anything about the world. The problem is, if that's what we think, then we obviously don't understand why they vote the way they vote. (Stupidity can never explain all of it.) And so we can never expect it to change.

Let's ignore for now what they vote on. Voting is a "yes or no" thing, which does not contain much information. Let's instead focus on what they're saying. In general they're disgruntled. They think the entire world is going down the drain. They think everything is worse than it used to be. But why?

We often refute these claims by throwing statistics at them. Crime is lower than ever. The average income is higher than ever. Due to new technologies, health care is better than ever. We are living in unprecedented times. Life has never been better before! Then why all the disgruntled faces? That is the key to understanding this, and until we do, we do not have the right to claim that their opinions are somehow wrong or irrelevant.

The main cause, I believe, based on listening to stories from lots of different sides, is that these improvements don't reach everyone anymore. In the 1950s and 1960s it was all about "everyone in this together". After the war, no one was rich. People were more equal. And now inequality is rising. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Statistics also clearly show this. The inequality situation now is as bad as it was at the end of the 18th century, before the French revolution! In that time there were "nobel" people who didn't have to work at all, and the best way to get rich was to marry one of them. A lifetime of working would only get you up to 20% of their wealth, if lucky. Statistics show we have that inequality again right now.

What about variations between countries? If you look at these, you will see that inequality is worse in the US than in Europe. Unemployment rates are similar, but Europe has more social welfare programs. So whereas most Europeans can still benefit from the technological improvements to healthcare, at least up to some degree, many Americans cannot. Also, the housing crisis was more severe in the US than in Europe. So guess what: the far-right-wing sentiment in the US is bigger than in Europe. A coincidence? I doubt it.

To me this seems like an important cause behind the disgruntled people. If I was having the same trouble to find a job, as a result didn't get a proper income, could not get a house (also due to the housing crisis) and could not pay for proper medical care, I would be disgruntled too. I'd be against anything the government, which let this happen, came up with. I'd vote against everything too. I would hardly even care what these referendums were for. They were an opportunity for me to show I want things to improve for me too. Not just for the others. And show them I would.

So the key to solving this problem is not so much to hold discussions about referendums. This is not about the contents of these referendums at all. This is about making sure everyone gets a share from the evergrowing pie. And more importantly: it's about understanding your political opponents well enough to admit that, if you were in their situation, you would be just as disgruntled as they are. Because until you do, you do not have any right to claim that they might be wrong.

What does a compliment mean?

2016/10/04 - Let's talk about skills. How good is someone at something? We can model this. (Hey, I'm a theoretical engineer. I model stuff.) The way in which this is usually done in video games is through levels. You may be a "level 2" soccer player (really bad) or a "level 30" musician (really good). And, just like in video games, experience causes you to level up.

So how do we learn what someone's level is? Simple: we just let that person do the corresponding task, so play a football game, or have a musical performance, or hold a presentation in front of a group, and check how well they did. We may say, "That was a level 5 performance" which is another way of saying "That was bad" or we may say, "That was a level 30 performance" which means "You were awesome!"

The problem with this approach is that there is a natural variability in skills. A level 15 musician may have a bad day and have a level 10 performance, or he may have a good day and play on level 20. It's kind of like there's this internal 11-sided die, with the numbers (-5, -4, -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and at every performance we throw that die and adjust the performance level accordingly, for only that performance. Practice does not affect this die. Nothing can. (Well, there may be exceptions, but for now ignore those.)

Now let's go back to the comments "That was bad" or "You were awesome!" The first is often considered an insult and the second a compliment. In fact, when hearing the second, you're nearly obliged to say "Thank you" while saying the first is an invitation to get punched in the face. But why is that? To see that, we have to understand how people think. There are actually a few possibilities here.

  • Many people think someone's level is fixed, and there's not such a thing as variability either. You're either talented or not. You either were born as a level 5 musician or as a level 25 musician, and that's how you will always perform. This is called a "fixed mindset". It's like someone's level is still unknown, but must be discovered. And when another person says "I think you're a level 25 player" then that's some very good news. You'd be very happy and heartily thank the person who said it. While if someone said "You were level 5" you feel like your entire selfworth (and sometimes even your hopes and dreams) were shot down.
  • Then there are the people that understand that their level is something they can improve through practice, but who still don't understand variability. This is called a "growth mindset". People with such a mindset will work hard to move their level up from level 10 to level 15. Whenever someone then says "I think you played as a level 20" they'll think "Wow, this practice worked better than I thought. This is great! I'm already on 20!" But when a person says "I think you played as a level 10" then they'll think "Geez, after all that practice I hardly improved. This sucks." These evaluations (which we call compliments and insults) do make them happy or sad, albeit not as much as for the previous group of people whose entire sense of selfworth was coupled to it.
  • And finally there are the people who understand both that they can improve their level and that there's variability in their performances. When they've worked hard to improve their skills from level 10 to level 15, and hear "That was a level 10 performance", they'll be only mildly disappointed. Similarly, if they hear "That was a level 20 performance", they'll only be mildly happy. After all, they know the result can be partly caused by variability.
  • So what do they think instead then? Well, they know that the only way to find out their true skill level, is to understand why their performance was good (level 20) or bad (level 10). To do so, they need to know whether the good things that happened were because of random stuff (having a lucky hit in a football match) or whether that was because of actual skill (good play that can be repeated next time). As a result, these people don't care much about compliments. Instead, they will care about people who tell them why things were bad or good. And even better: they will care about people who can help them improve on such things, so their level can go up.

The conclusion? Seeing how someone deals with compliments gives a reasonable indication of someone's mindset. If a compliment makes someone the happiest person ever, they probably have a fixed mindset, and they don't understand how people learn. But if someone doesn't much care for compliments, but asks for specific feedback, they know how people learn. And interestingly enough, if you know how this whole "learning process" works, you're also much more likely to actually level up. So figuring out this whole process until compliments (and insults) don't really affect you so much anymore may just be worthwhile.

Comparing variations within groups to differences between groups

2016/09/28 - I have two random (Dutch) persons in mind. One is male. The other is female. Who is taller? You would probably say the male is taller than the female, because on average men or taller than women. So you would have a larger than 50% chance to be correct.

Let's consider the numbers here. In the Netherlands, men have an average height of 181 cm, with a standard deviation of about 6 cm. Women have an average height of 169 cm, with a standard deviation of about 5 cm. Do the math, and you'll find a roughly 6% chance that the woman is taller than the man.

So the claim "Men are taller than women" holds on average, but not in general, and this is a crucial difference. For example for something as simple as making clothing. Should we only make men's clothing in large sizes? And women's clothing in small sizes? If so, we will get the incorrect size for a large chunk of the population. For every gender, there should be large, medium and small clothing. And only making large clothes for men and small clothes for women would be horrifically stupid.

But now let's apply this rationale to other properties. What about "The desire to care for children"? On average, women are more eager to care for children than men do. (Whether that's because of biological reasons or cultural reasons is something I don't want to go into here.) However, there are men that like caring for children and women that don't. So any policy that is based on women caring for children is just as stupid.

We don't only have to consider differences between genders though. What about differences between nationalities? On average, in the Netherlands, people from a Turkish origin have a higher chance of getting into trouble with the law than for originally Dutch people. (Whether that's because of differences in culture, wealth or perception by the policemen actually arresting them is again something which I don't want to go into here.) But there are plenty of lawful people from Turkish origins, and plenty of criminal Dutchmen. We could base our policy on the assumption that Turkish people are more criminal than Dutch people. Like who the police checks for in the street, who the media portrays as bad guy, and so on. But that would be just as stupid as only making large clothes for men.

Although actually that's not correct. It's worse. To see why, we need to compare the "variations within groups" to the "differences between groups". What do I mean with this? Well, consider the spread of the "height" of men. The standard deviation of this height is 6 cm. This is the variation within the group. The difference between male height and female height is 12 cm. That's the difference between the groups. In this case, the difference between the groups is actually quite large, compared to the variations within the groups. This means that someone's gender really does tells us something about someone's length.

However, what about the spread of criminality between nationalities? Well, I know that every nationality has very law-abiding citizens and very criminal ones. So we could compare the "mean criminality" of various nationalities. And there will be differences. However, we should compare the differences between these groups to the variations within these groups. And here we see that the differences within the groups are actually insignificant. It's kind of like when men are on average 181 cm and women are on average 180 cm. (As if we'd made every woman 11 cm taller.) Yes, in this case men are on average taller, but the difference is nearly meaningless.

So judging people based on their nationality is even more pointless than only making large clothes for men and small clothes for women. And as long as we make differently sized clothing for both men and women, we most certainly should just ignore things like race and nationality in our daily life and just judge people by what kind of people they are. Why? Because the variations of people within nationality/race groups are far bigger than the differences between these groups.

Should everyone's opinion count equally?

2016/09/21 - In recent debates people often say that we must have freedom of expression. Everyone may have their opinion, and all opinions should count as equal. Whenever I hear this, I tend to disagree with the latter part. And I know that this leads to a very dangerous discussion: many dark chapters in our history took place when the opinions of a group of people were stopped being taken into account. But that's all the more reason to figure out what we mean with "opinions". You see, there is a very important distinction. An opinion is either a "preference" or an "estimate" (or some sort of hybrid, but let's ignore the complicated cases). The problem is that most people don't have a clue about the difference. So let's explain them with an example.

Let's suppose that my girlfriend and I (okay, I don't have one, but suppose that I have) are shopping for a new couch for in our appartment. There are two options: a red and a blue one. She may find the red one more beautiful. I may prefer the looks of the blue one. Those are preferences. We can both have our own preferences and both can be equally correct. But now suppose that the price tag of the blue couch is missing, and we are discussing what we think he price is. She claims it's 450 euros and I claim it's 600 euros. Those are estimates. And only one of them (or even neither) can be right. We may or may not be able to figure out which is correct, but we know they cannot both be true.

The first question we should ask is: should the preferences of every person count as equal? I would say, "It depends." Suppose that I have a mild preference for the blue couch and my girlfriend has a strong preference for the red couch. It seems obvious which one we would go for then, right? So here we see that not all preferences should be counted as equally. However, the strength of a preference should depend on how strong the person claims his/her preference is, and not on who the person itself is or why he/she has that preference. This is a very important moral conviction which luckily most people have.

Why is this so important? Well, otherwise democracy turns from a "system that takes everyone into account" into "the oppression of the minority". Suppose that there is a plan where 90% of the population will by law be allowed to steal from the remaining 10% of the population. If people didn't have any morality, then 90% of the people will have a minor preference for this proposal. It's a minor advantage for them. However, for the remaining 10% it will turn life into a hell. Luckily most politicians do have the same moral convictions and we don't set up laws like this. But every now and then this goes awry, which is exactly why being aware of this morality is so very important.

Now what about estimates? Should the estimates of every person count as equal? Is my girlfriend's claim that the couch costs 450 euros equally valid as my claim that it costs 600 euros? The crucial point here is that the strength of an estimate depends on how we obtained that estimate. Suppose that I tell her, "I found the price tag. It was on the back, and it says 600 euros." In that case my estimate has a lot stronger weight. Until she claims that she also saw the price tag, but in addition spoke with a salesman, who told her there was an extra 25% discount. In that case, because she has more thorough data, her estimate would hold more weight and I would be smart to acknowledge this. So that is the lesson: to determine the weight of someone's estimate, look at how he/she got to it.

All this understanding has a fundamental effect on how we should look at democracy, and especially at referendums. The whole system of democracy is based on that everyone's vote counts equally. But for that to be sensible, these referendums should be about preferences. Like, "Would you rather have more money or more safety?" This is a preference, and the preference of every person should count equally. (At least, up to the strength of their own preference.) So such a referendum makes sense. But when we set up a referendum about an estimate, then we are just being horrifically stupid. Asking the population a question like, "What do you think is better for the economy?" and taking the mean of their replies is likely to give you a worse answer than simply asking an expert.

What we can do about this? Whenever someone suggests to hold a referendum on an estimate-based question, tell them about estimates and preferences. Make them understand the difference. Because a better understanding of things is the only path that consistently leads to better decisions.

On developing mathematical intuition

2016/09/17 - Probability theory is known as a complicated mathematical subject. Many basic games are full of it though. For example Yahtzee, a game of dice. If there ever was a game of applied probability theory, then it's this game. There are many probabilities you can calculate. "If you have a 2, 3, 4 and 5, and two rolls left for the last die, what's the chance to get a large straight?" (56%) Or, "If you have two sixes, and two rolls left for the other three dice, what's the chance to get at least three sixes?" (67%)

There are many ways to calculate things like these, but also many ways in which not to calculate them. And when I'm discussing such calculations with someone not into math, these other methods come up aplenty. (If I manage to discuss it anyway. Somehow people not into math don't even want to talk about it. The fear runs deep?) When they go off into such a tangent, I immediately realize, "Oh, you cannot calculate it like that. You have to use another method."

Things get interesting when I start asking myself, "How do I know that?" It's a feeling. People call it intuition. The problem is, it's still knowledge. It's a matter of knowing which methods work and which ones do not. And like any other knowledge we may have, we must have obtained it at some point in our lives. The question then is, how did I obtain this knowledge?

When I was young, I was fond of calculating stuff, and doing so in lots of ways. So when I first encountered the subject of probability theory, I started calculating probabilities, exactly like the ones related to Yahtzee. And most importantly, I started doing so in different ways. Often I wound up with different outcomes for the same problem. So then I started wondering which one was correct, mainly by trying yet another way of finding the same answer. All these thought experiments gave me a ton of experience on which ways of thinking work and which ones do not. It's what gave me a feeling for the subject. So by experimenting with numbers, and trying different ways to calculate the same thing, I developed mathematical intuition!

The whole problem with this is that this method of "developing" intuition is not understood well. People who have this intuition often don't really understand where they got it from, and people who don't have it comprehend it even less. Sadly this is reflected in the way we teach maths too our children.

How do we do this? Simple. We teach them the method of calculating something, and then tell them to apply it. Everyone does it in the same way, and more importantly, everyone only does it in only a single way. By sticking with the known procedure, we are preventing children from coming up with their own methods, figuring out which ones work and (more importantly) figuring out which ones do not. We are preventing them from developing their own intuition! It's no wonder that children who think they're bad at math turn out to be right.

Instead, we should let children figure things out for themselves, and encourage them to do so in different ways. I remember from my own time in school that I always wound up with a different method of finding the solution than the answer sheet gave, but my method was not any less correct. We should encourage kids to do so even more. In fact, any decent answer sheet should have at least three different methods of finding any answer, and we should make children discover at least two different methods, preferably ones that aren't in the answer sheet already. It's only by having children do that, and by letting them figure out for themselves which methods work and which ones do not, that they develop mathematical intuition. And developing that should be the goal of every mathematics curriculum.

On first and second impressions

2016/09/12 - I know a lot of people that are adamant on looking presentable. They claim that first impressions are crucial, and say that I'm foolish that I don't spend as much time on it as I could. But are they right? To be honest, I don't know. But I do have a few thoughts on it.

First, let's distinguish first and second impressions. I count everything within the first three minutes of meeting someone as "first impression". It's how you judge someone's looks, but also someone's ability to make smalltalk and whatever else happens during these first few minutes. Afterwards, when you potentially get into deeper conversation, you get into "second impressions". For simplicity I count everything after the first three minutes as "second impression".

The key difference is how you can work on these impressions. First impressions are mainly about looks. So improving your first impressions is about making sure you look better. That can be through applying make-up, getting fancy clothing or something similar. Also smalltalk plays a role, which often comes down to chatting about recent stuff like weather, viral news and such. So it helps if you follow stuff like this. Naturally you can do a bit of training in it, like improving your smalltalk abilities, but most investments in first impressions are short-term.

Things are very different for second impressions. A second impression is based on who you are deep inside. This may involve your life ethics, or whatever stuff you are passionate about, or have experience in, or like discussing in-depth. Whereas first impressions can be improved relatively easily, changing your second impression is very difficult. It takes a lot of work to really get more insights into life, or gain more experience in certain fascinating subjects. But once you get it, you pretty much cannot get rid of it. While improvements to first impressions are easy to get and easy to lose, improvements to second impressions are hard to get and even harder to lose.

But which of these two impressions is more important? To figure that out, here's a question: who would you rather be around? Someone who makes a good first impression but a bad second one, or someone who makes a bad first impression and a good second one? The answer seems obvious, right? A good second impression overrides a bad first one. It's more important. The problem, as many people have argued with me, is that if you make a bad first impression, you might not get the chance to make a second impression.

This may be partly true. However, I think that most people who are smart enough to make a good second impression on me also know that first impressions can be wrong. As such, I (nearly) always find it worthwhile to let people that want to make a second impression on me have the chance to make one. And then I judge them based on that.

In addition, I expect other people do the same. If there are people that only take a first impression of someone and, based on that, decide they don't want to talk with that person at all, even when that he/she does want to talk with them, then I find that not only rude, but also plain stupid. Okay, with people like that, if your first impression is bad, you will not get through. But being ignored like that is enough of a second impression for me to know what kind of person I'm dealing with.

How to react to girls posting pretty pictures of themselves

2016/09/06 - I regularly see these types of pictures appear on social media: girls (often teenagers) posting pictures of themselves looking pretty. Whether it's a fancy new dress, a big layer of make-up, or just pulling a duck face, the message is the same: "Look at how pretty I am." And based on the reactions they get from friends/family, it works. "You're stunning!", "Beautiful!", "Breathtaking!" The list is endless. But to be honest, it's mostly these reactions that give me the creeps. Later on I'll explain why.

First let's analyze what's behind this, starting off with the question, "Why do girls post such pictures?" I am not an expert on the female psyche, so do correct me if you think I'm wrong. But it feels like these girls are trying to increase their self-confidence; their sense of self-worth. By getting reactions like "You're beautiful", they feel like they are worth more. Do you still agree with me?

If so, let's continue to the direct implication: that the sense of self-worth of these girls mainly depends on how well others think they look. So subconsciously, these girls mainly believe that, as long as others think they are pretty, that they will be accepted by the world around them. As a result, their main goal/aspiration is to come across as pretty.

How different is that from the mindset of most guys? Guys mainly want to show off through actions. About being amazing in football. About being that awesome guitar player. About being great at video games. Okay, sometimes it's also about material possessions: about owning an amazing car. But usually guys try to impress through actions. As a result, they strive to improve their actions. They do things. They practice. They get better. They learn.

Of course there are caveats with this "guy mindset" too. But in general, the mindset of these teenage girls - that their worth depends on their looks - is much more detrimental for their development. They don't experiment as much at actually "doing things" as guys. Now, I'm not blaming the teenage girls. I guess every teenager (myself included) has once wondered, "Are my looks important to the world around me?" To figure it out, you post a picture of yourself - a pretty version anyway - on social media, and see what reactions you get. You experiment. Kids do those things. I know I did.

Now imagine what would happen if you get reactions like the ones I often see. "You're stunning!", "Beautiful!", "Breathtaking!" These reactions shout out very loudly, "Looks are important! You look good and that is the reason why we accept you. We value this!" It reinforces this belief of teenage girls that their self-worth depends - and should depend - on how well others think they look. And that is not what we want!

So what would be the best way to react to such pictures then? Of course not with "You're ugly!" That would also confirm that looks matter. No, the best response would be very different. Whenever you see a girl posting a pretty picture of themselves on social media, I would recommend you to reply like this. "Hi [name]! What have you been doing the past few days? Can you show a picture of that too?"

It's time we teach people that they are defined not by their looks, but by the things that they do.

Why discrimination sometimes should be accepted and sometimes should not

2016/01/23 - People often talk about discrimination, and how it should not be accepted by society as a whole. It got me thinking: why not? And what is discrimination anyway?

Suppose that all you know is that someone is fifteen years old. What can you then say about this person? Some people might say "not much" but when we look at statistics, we can already deduce quite a lot. Probably this person does not earn a lot of money, is not very highly educated (most likely does not even have a high school diploma) and does not have many useful skills. If I was browsing through applications for a job interview, and I can only accept a limited number, I would not accept this person.

Now suppose that all you know is that someone is black. What can you then say about this person? Some people might say "absolutely nothing!" but again statistics provide us some information. This person is expected to have a lower than average income (since black people generally earn less money than white people) and is likely to have a lower-than-average education. So if I was selecting job applicants, and I could only select a limited number, I would go for other candidates first.

People do not consider the first example discrimination, while they do consider the second example as such. What is the difference? For that, we need to know what discrimination actually is. Basically, it is an estimate based on only very limited prior knowledge, and then acting on this. But there is more to it. We can actually distinguish four important kinds of discrimination.

The first category is "wrong discrimination". This occurs when you have the wrong estimate. For example, when you think that war refugees are more likely to participate in criminal activities, then statistics simply show you are wrong. Wrong discrimination is always bad, both for the person applying it and the person being judged.

The second category is "correct discrimination". Like not inviting that fifteen year old person to the job interview. He/she is most likely not suitable, and we cannot invite everyone to the job interview anyway. This person will get his/her chance in years to come.

The third category is a very important one. It is "correct but self-perpetuating discrimination". It is our second example. Suppose that you do not invite the black person to the job interview. And suppose that every job interviewer acts like this. In this case, just because black people on average earn less money and have a lower education, they have more trouble getting a job, and as a result will in the future still earn less money and hence get less educational opportunities. It is a self-perpetuating problem. As a society, we say that we do not want this. We want to give everyone equal opportunities, and hence we say that we should avoid self-perpetuating discrimination. It may be sensible for the person making the respective decision, but it is not good for our society in the long run.

The fourth category is a tricky one. It is "posterior wrong discrimination". Suppose that you know that a person is black. As a result, he is likely to have less education than the average person. But then we see the CV of this person and discover that he is in fact highly educated. In this case, still arguing that the person is black and hence is expected to have less education is purely wrong. It comes down to ignoring data that is right in front of you. You know better now. Just like wrong discrimination, this is plainly stupid and should be avoided whenever possible.

So the next time someone is judged only based on limited data, ask yourself which kind of discrimination is going on. Is it a type which is justified? One which is absolutely stupid? Or one which we, as a society, just don't want to happen?

Why criticizing headscarves makes you a hypocrite

2016/01/16 - I regularly hear heated debates about headscarves. People criticize them, stating that they're meant to suppress women. They say they stand against an equal society. Do I disagree with that? Not necessarily. But on the flip side, I do believe anyone who so blatantly claims that is an enormous hypocrite.

Why? Because we have plenty of similar examples in our western culture. For instance: skirts. I often see even small girls wearing them. Some have been "forced" into them by their parents. Others eagerly choose to wear them, inspired by our culture. But what are possible consequences of this?

I remember a family gathering a few months ago, where I was playing with my nieces and nephews. (They're aged between 6 and 10.) I regularly lifted one of them up, to carry around on my shoulder. When I did this with the nephews, no one thought it was a problem. But when I threw one of my nieces over my shoulder, I got replies from people, "Hildo, be careful. She's wearing a skirts. It's showing." The conclusion? When girls wear a skirt, they can play less.

And this holds for similar things too. Girls are generally dressed up in a more pretty way. They're told - often not directly, but indirectly - to be more careful not to spoil that. While boys are accepted to just get dirty. As a result, boys can experiment more, grow up to be more inquisitive, try more things and generally learn more skills. We wonder why our society is unequal? This is one of the causes.

So when people criticize headscarves, stating that they're suppressing women, what I'm thinking is "Really? I think we've got plenty of subconsciously suppressing things in our society too." In fact, in my view of the ideal society, gender doesn't matter. Everyone is considered equal. So any way of dressing/behaving which is considered either a female trait (like making yourself up) or a male trait (like being eager to show your muscles) is in my eyes a bad thing.

Does this mean I'm defending headscarves? Only mindly. I think they're pointless. A frivolity. If people find them pretty, or comfortable, they're free to wear them. But I think it would help society if we got rid of them. But then again, I hold the same opinion about high heels, skirts/fancy dresses, make-up and much, much more. So if you use those, but still criticize headscarves, know that I will consider you a hypocrite.

Why debates are the ideal tool of causing conflicts

2016/01/09 - I remember back in high school we had to learn how to debate. The teacher posed a statement. He basically told us, "You three are arguing in favor. You three are arguing against. This is the structure. Let's begin." It was a statement which I didn't really care much about. But I was supposed to argue in favor, and so I did. What surprised me most, though, was that by the end of the debate I was strongly in favor of the statement. It made me wonder why?

So I looked back to what I was doing in my mind, during the debate. I remembered searching for arguments of why the statement would hold. And when the opponents would tell something, I was already looking for arguments of why they were wrong. I didn't even stop to consider their argument carefully. So basically, the only argument that really passed through the deeper parts of my mind were the ones in favor of the statement. Is it any surprise then, when I gave my mind such a one-sided set of arguments, that it started to agree with the statement?

But is that what we want? Personally, I think it can be wonderful when two people disagree. It means at least one (but often both) can learn something from the other. To do so, they have to learn to understand each other's points of view, and then try to bring them together, until they share that point of view. Then they've learned something new. But with debates exactly the opposite is happening. People just dig themselves in, never even seriously considering whether the other side might say something truthful.

So when I see any debate going on, either in politics, between friends or online, I just roll my eyes. I know that the two sides will never come together. They have different opinions, and all their efforts of trying to get the other to come over to their side, will only drive them further apart. So that's why, when someone starts flinging arguments at me, I often immediately stop the discussion.

What should we do instead? Every time you find you disagree with someone, you need to start working together. More specifically, together you need to come up with a plan through which you can objectively evaluate your disagreement. "You think foreigners are bad for the economy? Well, I think they're good for the economy. I could tell you why I think that, but I think it's more useful if we come up with some objective measure with which we can evaluate our claims. What kind of objective measure would you have in mind?"

If you do this, you prevent people from digging themselves in. You prevent hourly long discussions which lead to nowhere. And that's also why I would suggest high schools not to practice debating. Instead, it would be much more valuable if students learned to work together with people that disagree with them. To jointly set up a research plan which can resolve their differences. If everyone would be able to do that, this world would look a whole lot different.

Why riots against refugees should be considered terrorism

2016/01/02 - It's been in the news everywhere. People rioting against refugees. There have been groups of people attacking immigratns, vandalizing their houses and there have even been attacks on city halls where mayors were considering opening a refugee center. I started to think about what these rioting people hope to accomplish with this?

Of course there's multiple reasons. People want to vent their anger. People want their voice to be heard. And in this case: people want to make a change. Particularly, they want to instill fear among foreigners (which not only includes refugees but also current immigrants); that they're not safe in the Netherlands. Because if they're not safe, then they don't want to come. Right? At least, I think that's what these rioting people think. So the purpose is to spread fear.

Now let's consider something entirely different: terrorists from Syria and Iraq. These people have been living in fear for a while, after all the wars waged in their countries. For the last 13 years in Iraq, people were afraid of attacks and bombs from the invading US. And now the west is similarly bombing in Syria. I can imagine some people living there would be angry about that. People there feel they aren't being heard. The only way to be heard is by making a statement. And if possible, it would be nice if that statement would prevent the west from coming to Syria/Iraq again. Make them afraid of coming. To strike into their hearts.

If you look at the underlying patterns, then the motivation and reasoning behind these two cases - riots against refugees and the terrorist strikes in for instance France - are virtually equal! So my point is this: if there is no fundamental difference, then why aren't they both considered terrorism?

Does this mean they should be treated equally? Well, no. Because there are still important differences. The terrorist attacks in France were (mass) murders, meant to instill fear. The riots we have in the Netherlands (and in many other countries) against refugees did not kill anyone. They're just attacks to instill fear. So there's an important difference. But terrorism murders are generally treated a lot more severe than regular murders, exactly because of their motive. And for the same reason, I would say that these terrorism riots (which I would call them) should be treated more severely than regular riots which don't have an ulterior motive. (Like football riots or such.)

But the most important thing is not even what convictions are given to these strikes. It's about the image. Attacks and vandalization meant to instill fear in a population group should be considered terrorism by everyone. And the fastest way to achieve that is not by having our legal system treat them as such (though it's a good start) but by portraying them in the media as such. When the media calls any attack meant to instill fear "terrorism", and not just attacks by foreign people, then I think we're one step closer to preventing terrorism. Of any kind.

How a mathematical example can show us whose judgement we should trust

2015/12/27 - Let's suppose we have three dice: A, B and C. Normally, the chance that each dice throws a 1 is 1/6, and similarly for 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. In other words, the probabilities for each of the numbers are (1/6,1/6,1/6,1/6,1/6,1/6). But now let's load the dice a bit. We'll add weights to dice A such that the numbers 1 and 2 or twice as likely as each of the other numbers. So the probabilities are (2/8,2/8,1/8,1/8,1/8,1/8). For dice B we make 3 and 4 more likely, giving us probabilities (1/8,1/8,2/8,2/8,1/8,1/8). Finally, dice C will get (1/8,1/8,1/8,1/8,2/8,2/8).

Next, we blindly pick one of the three dice and throw it. And out comes the results: it's 1. The first question which we ask ourselves is: which dice did we use? This can be calculated through conditional probabilities. I'll spare you the details here but just give the outcome. The chance that we picked dice A is twice as likely as the chance we picked each of the other dice. So with 50% chance we picked dice A, with 25% chance we picked B and with 25% chance we picked C.

The next question is: what is the chance that, with the same dice, we throw a 2 next? And what is the chance for a 3? And here I do want to look into the method to calculate this. Let's start with the chance for throwing a 2. To calculate this, we need to consider each possible scenario (each possible dice). We have a 50% (or 1/2) chance we are using dice A, which would give us a 2/8 chance for throwing a 2. Similarly, we have a 25% (or 1/4) chance we are using dice B, which would give us a 1/8 chance for throwing 2. And the same holds for dice C. Multiplying the probabilities for each case, and adding up all the results, gives us our answer.

You can try to calculate the answer for yourself. You should find that the chance to throw 2 (or 1) is 6/32 or 18.75%. In a similar way can we calculate that the chance to throw 3 (or 4 or 5 or 6) is 5/32 or 15.625%. Interesting? A bit. But things get more interesting when we compare this example with how the human mind works. You see, the human mind works with probabilities in exactly the same way. We see something (make an observation, like "the dice landed on 1"). Then we try to explain this observation by certain "models" or "explanations". (For instance: we threw dice A.) Finally we try to make predictions of future events (what is likely to happen next) based on these models.

There's only one problem. In real life things are far more complicated. There are not just three dice (three explanations) but far more. As a result, all calculations in our brain (which we know as "subconscious intuitions/feelings") are much more difficult to do. And the result is that we must simplify things. In our minds, we don't just consider all thousands of possible explanations (all possible dice). We generally only pick the most likely. That's subsequently the "explanation" that we will "believe" in. And then we use that to make predictions.

So what happens when we use that method for our dice? We know that dice A is the most likely to have been picked. So we "believe" we chose dice A, and subsequently the chance that we will throw a 2 next (or a 1) is predicted to be 2/8 or 25%. Similarly, the chance we will throw a 3 (or 4 or 5 or 6) is 1/8 or 12.5%. So the large chances are actually overestimated and the small chances are underestimated. This explains why human beings are generally always overconfident in their predictions of the future! They fail to take into account what we call "model variations"! When they do, their predictions would be more evened out.

The interesting thing is that, with training/education, you learn to take into account more models. Uneducated people often pick a single explanation to believe in. (They say "It must be dice A!") More educated people take into account more possible explanations. (They say, "It's probably A, but could also be B.") And if someone has even better training, then more explanations will be considered, and predictions will become more accurate. More accurate, but also more nuanced. It's not just "We are very likely to throw 2!" but "Throwing a 2 is more likely than throwing a 3, but not by much, because we also have other dice."

The lesson here is that people who use nuances like this are generally better trained to take into account all possibilities. They are better thinkers, and as a result we should trust their judgement much more than someone who talks in extremes. Someone who says "This must clearly be the case!" for something which is actually far more complicated has generally only considered a single explanation of observed events, and his/her judgement should in most cases not be deemed accurate. Sadly, only few people know this, and most people will want to go for a simple explanation themselves, which is exactly why people who talk in extremes are so often still heard. But in a world where everyone is well-educated, such people wouldn't be believed, and actually wouldn't even exist in the first place.

The morale? Don't trust the judgement of people who always talk in extremes, and encourage others to do the same.

Why deadlines and fixed budgets reduce quality

2015/12/20 - Things have been busy lately. Why? I wanted to finish a script before the holidays. I had a deadline. And to my surprise, this deadline changed my whole working method in many different ways.

Normally I set up rather clean scripts. Well-documented, with little clutter. But time was tight now, so I reduced the amount of time I spent cleaning up my scripts. Cleaning up script wasn't urgent. Normally, I also spend quite some time playing around with my scripts. You know, trying stuff and seeing how things work. By doing so, I often manage to find a few errors in my code which I otherwise never would've found. Important errors. But these days I was short on time, so there was no time to play around.

The result? My scripts were a mess, they didn't work, finding errors was hard, and worst of all, I couldn't guarantee to myself that my code worked the way I wanted it to. It did something, but I really wasn't sure whether things were done in the way I wanted them done. It was here that I realized that I just don't work well with deadlines. I want to increase the quality of my work until I'm satisfied and then deliver it. I don't want to just spend time increasing the quality of my work until some specified semi-random time at which, satisfied or not, I have to deliver.

And when I started thinking, I realized similar problems were taking place everywhere. You often hear how construction projects, reorganization projects and IT projects have a fixed time and money budget but, when this time/money budget runs out, things aren't satisfactory yet. So again people are faced the choice of dealing with a low-quality result or expanding the deadlines. Both choices are not desirable.

But things can be different. An example is the gaming industry. Normally, when a company announces a release date, they have to deliver the game by that date, or fans will get angry. But one company, Blizzard, does things differently. They have regularly said, "We're not satisfied yet. We'll postpone the release date." And fans accept this. Grudgingly, of course, but they accept it. Because they know that, when the game comes out, it'll be really good. And so they wait for it. And I think this is something that should be applied much more often.

So, what should we do then? Just get rid of all deadlines and let things run until they're done? Well, ideally yes, but there are two problems with this idea. First of all, if all projects would run without any constraints on money/time, then some projects would take up way too much time. So first of all, we should be very critical on which projects we actually start. But once we start a project, we commit to spending time/money on it until we're satisfied with the result.

The second problem? That's "knowing when you're satisfied." It's a skill which almost no one learns. Especially not in school. In schools there are always deadlines. I'm lucky that I went to a special school without deadlines. We were just told, "You can do the test whenever you think you're ready for it." So I needed to ask myself, "Have I studied sufficiently?" Other kids never had to ask themselves whether their work was sufficient. And so they never learned to judge this.

So my advice? Change the school system, so that children learn to judge their own work. When is it sufficient? Don't give them deadlines on schools but teach them to work without. And once we have a generation of people that can work without deadlines, scrap the deadlines from industry too. We'll get a much higher quality of work done in return.

On achieving a high work efficiency using the right amount of pressure

2015/12/13 - Deadlines. Most people need them to get work done. Without them, they'd just do other stuff. They wouldn't be focused. They need the pressure. And I can agree that having a lot of pressure can really motivate you to work hard.

So the more pressure, the better? No, there's a lot more to it. I remember a few busy exam periods. There was lots of pressure. I got a lot of work done. But afterward, when the vacation started, I kind of crashed. The pressure was off. I couldn't get anything done. I needed to recover. Basically, I just played computer games all day long to recover, though the exact method of recovery is different for everyone.

But after a couple of days, when there was still absolutely no pressure, and I really had a true genuine vacation (which didn't happen too often) something magical happened. I got eager to set up stuff. To try new things. To build projects. To create. Without any pressure whatsoever! And in that time I could work as hard as I could when faced with tons of pressure. But the beauty of it was that there was no backlash! No recovery time! It was pure work efficiency.

And this ended as soon as the minor things appeared again. Minor assignment deadlines of courses. Minor tasks to occupy my mind. It didn't just start at the end of the vacation. It started a few days before it, when my mind started worrying about these things. And efficiency dropped. Every time, at the end of the day, when I looked back to what I had achieved, it was just small stuff. Stuff that I could do in a few hours if I was working efficiently. I wasn't satisfied.

This is what taught me something truly important. When you plot work efficiency versus pressure, you don't just get a rising line. You get a U-shape! And most people often find themselves in the bottom of the U. Every now and then, when the pressure gets high, they go to the high-pressure end of the U, where the efficiency rises. But the bad news is: this part of the U-shape has a backlash. You always need to recover from a period of high pressure.

However, the truly motivated people, they spend most of their time on the other side of the U-shape: on the low-pressure side. When you have the freedom to do whatever you want, and in the way that you want it, you can do so much more. There's a few requirements, of course. Your mind needs to be free of worries and pressure. (So no pressing financial issues, life issues, family issues, etcetera, and certainly no pressing deadlines.) You need to have an inspiring environment giving you something fascinating to do. And you need to have some experience with doing things you love. (If you've never pursued a passion, you won't spontaneously be able to.)

When you have these conditions in order, you can achieve a work efficiency you can be more than satisfied with. You can look back on your day and say, "Wow, I really got a lot done today. Today was pretty sweet." It's this pressure region which I believe all effective people find themselves in most of the time, either consciously or without knowing it. And I believe it's a way of living worth striving for.

Why we need an independent instance that monitors the political process

2015/12/06 - I've been chairing way too many meetings these last few weeks. But that's OK. It's a good experience. It teaches me more and more what a good chairman is supposed to do. He's certainly not the person who steers the content (often the opinions) within the meeting. In fact, ideally a chairman is someone external with no opinion of his own on the in-depth matters discussed in the meeting.

So what does a good chairman do then? Simply said: guard the process. Make sure that decisions are reached fairly. That everyone gets the time to speak. That no one pushes their opinion through. That claims are made in the correct way: truthful and with a proper base in fact.

In fact, when these guidelines are not followed by an attendee, the chairman should call this out and fix it. When an attendee takes more speaking time than is reasonable, the chair should interrupt him/her. When an attendee uses logical fallacies, like for instance an ad hominem argument, the chairman should note this and keep the discussion proper. That's how it ideally works.

This is very difficult though, because there are many grey areas. For instance, what would you consider "more speaking time than is reasonable"? And when determining this, can you prevent yourself from being affected from your own judgement? Or do you sooner cut someone off saying things you don't agree with than someone saying things you do agree with?

But then an interesting thing struck me. In national politics, who fulfills this role of chairman? Who guards the process? When a politician gives a press conference and in his arguments uses tons of logical fallacies, who will stand up and take action? Who is impartial enough to do so to take this action not based on the contents but on the way in which it is brought? No one really fits these criteria.

And so I've gotten the impression that national politics more and more resembles a meeting without a good chairman. Decisions are reached in sneaky ways, by cleverly affecting public opinion. Discussion time limits are not followed properly. Not everyone gets a fair amount of speaking time. It's chaos.

So my conclusion is: we need an instance which supervises the political process. It's an instance which has almost no power whatsoever. But it should be independent. It should get its funding directly from the government, with almost no strings attached. And it should supervise that some government. Whenever proper procedures are not followed, it should call it out. Such an instance would be a safeguard on our democracy. It would make it more effective, and more fair.

Why newspaper stories saying "90% of the people think that ... " are completely useless

2015/12/01 - Whenever I see a newspaper headline, "90% of the people think that ... ", I always immediately facepalm. Because a newsitem like that is generally totally irrelevant. Why? That has to do with how people form their beliefs.

So how do people form their beliefs; the things they think are true? That's a complicated question which one blog post is far from enough for. So I don't want to go into depth. I just want to state that it can be a large variety of reasons. People might start believing some tidbit or fact because they hear it from a person they somehow trust or look up to. Maybe it's an uncle. Maybe it's a famous celebrity on TV. Maybe it's written in some magazine they often read.

But it could also have another reason. Maybe they just read something, accepted it as truth, didn't think further about it, and only later realized there were conflicting thoughts. In this case, funny or not, it's often the first thought that people continue to believe, whether it's the truth or not. Because changing your mind takes a mental effort, which our mind is by default opposed to (unless there's a more urgent reason to change your mind).

Of course things are different for experts. But that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about ordinary people. For example, an expert would know whether a high inflation has a positive or negative effect on reducing inequality. (It's complicated, but in most cases negative.) A regular person wouldn't know, and would most likely believe something random. And still be more certain in their belief than is warranted.

Is this a problem? It depends. It just shows that, if we want to know what's going on for a given subject, asking regular people isn't the best idea. You'd most likely get a mostly random answer. It mainly depends on what's been in the media lately, or what is culturally "acceptable" to believe. It has virtually no connection to the truth whatsoever. Especially when it's about a complicated subject.

Sure, when it's about opinions, such a statement might make sense. A statement saying "90% of the people find blue chairs more pretty than red chairs" is totally fine with me. It's nice. It tells me about preferences of people. But if I read "90% of the people think inflation will distribute wealth more evenly," then this tells me absolutely nothing on how inflation affects wealth distribution whatsoever. So why publish a newsitem like it in the first place?

A recommendation: become more aware of the choices that you unwittingly make

2015/11/25 - There are thousands of decisions we make every day. The problem is: we make most of them without even realizing it. Without even being aware of it. And I think that's unwise. I want to be aware of the decisions that I make, so that I can make them in the right way.

An example? When you receive a message (email, chat, something else), you can choose to reply to it or not. But many people read the message, think "I'll reply later" and subsequently forget. Without realizing it, they actually "chose" not to reply. And sometimes that's the wrong decision. Personally, I don't like this, and that's why I've set up my own system that keeps messages around until I've replied to them. With email? They keep floating in the inbox until I'm done with them. With chat messages? Reply right away, or make a note to reply later. If I don't reply, it's because I consciously chose to. (Which still happens often enough.)

A more serious example would be on what you would like to learn from your grandparents (or later on parents) before they pass away. Some people say they value the enormous set of experiences and wisdom their grandparents accumulated in their lifetime. But still they never visit, and when they die, so do their memories. And then comes the grief. I made a conscious choice. I do not see my grandparents a lot. But it's enough for me to learn from them what I value. And it's enough for me to feel like I do my "duty" as grandson. I know that there are many stories that my grandparents take with them in their graves. Stories that they will never tell. But I consciously chose for that, so I'm OK with that.

Similar things happen concerning the amount of contact you have with certain friends. Let me explain that. Suppose you have a friend you speak with every day. And at some point in time you notice that this contact frequency becomes less. Some people don't even realize it. Only later do they think, "Hey, I talk a lot less with him/her." But I generally realize. And I always ask myself, "Is this a development I'm OK with?" Sometimes I do, and I consciously choose to indeed have less contact with that friend. Sometimes I liked the contact and I take effort to pick it up more. Possibly I can discuss it with that friend, and if we both want more contact, we can together make a plan on how to achieve it.

This can even go as far as how often you tidy up your room. You can simply choose not to tidy up your room so often, because you don't feel like it. But that's a decision made with very little awareness. If I see something messy in my room which is costing me time, and it's something which I will have to deal with eventually, I am aware that dealing with it later just costs time. I mean, I have to deal with it anyway, and until I deal with it, it costs me extra time. So I can either choose that my time later is less valuable than my time now. (That sometimes happens, but not too often.) Or I can choose to sort things out right away. Once more, it's a conscious choice between two alternatives I'm aware of.

I think I've given enough examples. Being aware of the choices that you have, and being aware of the consequences of each choice, gives you so much more control over your life. It prevents unwitting mistakes. It prevents a feeling of regret. It saves you time. So I would definitely recommend everyone to become more aware of the choices that they make every day and how these choices affect them.

Why I lose faith in politicians pushing for privatizations

2015/11/19 - Why do some fields of business have big companies, while others are dominated by small companies? For example, postal services, railway companies and professional football clubs all have one big player per country/city, while branches like bicycle shops, plumbers and computer repair shops are mostly dominated by tiny companies.

The reason is actually simple. Some companies have to be of a large scale to exist in the first place. A postal company that only delivers in a particular part of the country is a bit pointless. And a professional football club with only ten employees will never be able to field a full team. There needs to be some minimum size. On the other hand, the amount of such companies which the market (in that particular country/city) can support is also limited. As a result, for some branches there is only one player involved. (Or naturally for some branches two or three players.)

The problem is that this company has a monopoly position. And such a position can always be abused. So there are two solutions. Either make sure that the government regulates the company, setting up strict rules which it should follow, or simply have the government own the company and make sure it does its job well. For many companies it used to be the latter. But with the recent trend of privatizations, it's more and more the former.

And this really makes me wonder: why? It seems much simpler to affect a company if you own it, then when you don't and all you can do is set up regulations. Because the latter kind of comes down to making decisions for the company, but then with much more lobbying, administrative hassle and more. So why are people so much in favor of privatization then? Well, that's because some of those state companies screwed up. They didn't do so well. And some people thought, "If there was competition, then the whole free market would solve the problem. They'd have to do well, or they'd be replaced."

The problem is: this thought is wrong. The whole reason why there is only one company is also the reason why another company cannot pop up so easily. There's no room within the market! As such, privatization of such companies only makes it harder to affect them. So why go through all the hassle in the first place? To be honest, I don't see a single reason why such companies should not continue to be owned by the government. So when any politician suggests to privatize companies (or have other countries, like Greece, do so), he/she has immediately lost a bit of my trust in his/her abilities.

Why we should all stop bringing up religion as a reason, for anything

2015/11/14 - Yesterday there were terrorist attacks in Paris again. More than a hundred people died. The terrorists were heard to say the words "Praise Allah." As a result, a large part of the world cried out against islam, blaming the religion. And that is, in my eyes, pretty much the worst thing you can do. In fact, I'd say the whole thing has almost nothing to do with religion, and by blaming it on religion anyway, we are actually causing problems like this ourselves. I'll explain why.

The first thing to realize is: religious people very often claim religion is a cause of things. When the weather is nice during some big outdoor event, religious people often say "Thank god/allah for the good weather." When someone dies in a car accident, people say "Allah/god probably had reasons for taking away her/him." When someone in Africa helps a thousand orphans, he/she often claims to do so because a higher being inspired him/her. Yet when a person in Africa kills a thousand people, he often claims the same thing. When you look more closely though, there's actually always something else going on.

History has shown us countless examples of this. In 1209 the entire population of Béziers, including woman and children, was brutally murdered in the name of Catholicism. Was it caused by Christianity? Not really. The Pope just set it up because he didn't like that the people there had stopped listening to him. Currently, in Myanmar, Buddhist people are killing Rohingya Muslims. Many of them say religion inspired this too. But in reality, it's just a convenient political choice, just like Apartheid used to be a convenient political choice in South Africa.

And now Islamic State (IS) is killing people in Syria and Iraq. (I expect IS to also be behind the attack in Paris.) They claim to do so in the name of religion. But what caused IS to exist? Well, it mostly had to do with a group of Sunni people in Iraq feeling oppressed after the US took control and changed the whole system there back in 2003. (Though the exact situation is far more complex.) It was hence mainly because a group of people felt systematically oppressed, like they didn't have a future. It has nothing to do with religion.

So religion isn't really a reason for anything. But is it bad to give it as a reason? To claim religion as a cause for something? I would say: most definitely! My main point is, by giving religion as a reason for a person's actions, you stop looking for the real reason. And as a result, you will never learn what's really going on. That's exactly what so many people are doing. And that's exactly why so many bad decisions are being made and problems are being caused. Because we don't fully grasp what's behind the actions of people. What people really feel and think.

We would be one step closer to a better world if everyone would stop giving religion as a reason for anything. That means for your own actions, but even more for the actions of others. Don't say that the terrorist attacks were because of the Islam. Instead, look at what's really behind them. And encourage others to do so too.

Who should reap the benefits of success?

2015/11/11 - Today my thoughts drifted towards success, and particularly that of social media. About how Facebook grew to dominate the whole social media world, and how as a result Mark Zuckerberg became ridicuslously rich. (His wealth is nearing 50 billion dollars.)

When you ask economists how much a person should earn, many of them answer with "their marginal productivity." What this means? You compare the situation in which this person actually does work, with the situation in which the person does not do the work. The resulting difference in earnings/profits is the contribution of this worker. So his salary should also be related to that. (Okay, taking into account some other factors, like expenses and such.) Kind of makes sense, right?

So let's apply that here. To be specific, let's wonder what the world would be like if Mark Zuckerberg hadn't been there. At the time Facebook started up, social media websites were popping up everywhere. There were many others, most notably MySpace. But in the end Facebook came out as the winner. Why? Well, some would argue it's because of minor differences in quality. Facebook started out as being "exclusive" which made it attractive. It also didn't allow users to customize too much, which turned MySpace into a mess. Stuff like that. But I'd say something else is more important.

I would say that in the end there had to be a winner of the social media contest. The reason is that it's inherently an unstable system. If there would be two social media websites, one with 60% of the users and one with 40% of the users, then people would naturally gravitate more towards the former, because more of their friends are on there. As a result, we will always wind up with one dominant social media website. Maybe Facebook was slightly better than its competititors, but if Facebook wouldn't have been successful, another would have been. We just think Facebook is good because it turned out to be the winner. (Yes, this is reminiscent of the Anthropic Principle.)

And this is important. It means that if Facebook wasn't there, some other website (possibly MySpace, possibly something else) would have grown to dominate the social media world. And we would still have social media. So how much change is there in the world, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg? Possibly a slightly better social media website. But definitely not enough to warrant 50 billion dollars.

At this time you may wonder, "Why didn't social media rise up sooner then? Why did initiatives 5-10 years earlier fail?" That's because the society wasn't ready for them. 10 years earlier the population didn't have sufficient (stable and cheap) internet connections. They didn't have smartphones and such either. When Facebook started, the time was right - we as a society were ready - for a massive social media website. And one came. And here's the main point. If we as a society caused the circumstances for a huge social media website to appear, why would the massive earnings go to one person, and not to society? Shouldn't it?

By the way, this isn't a rant against Facebook. Facebook is just an example. This is about every person earning enormous sums of money. Not only in IT but also in music, movies, business, etcetera. In 99% of the cases, it holds that "If that specific person wasn't there, someone else would've taken the lead. Because society was ready for it." As such, I believe that money should mostly go to society. And the easiest way to do that? Taxes. Having a massive tax (in the order of 90%) on personal income above a million dollars seems more than sensible to me.

The common counter-argument is, "If you do that, then people wouldn't be motivated anymore. Then no one would set up stuff like Facebook and such." To those people I would ask, "Do you seriously think a person like Mark Zuckerberg set up Facebook only to earn billions of dollars? And that he wouldn't do it if he only earned 5 billion instead of 50 billion?" I'd say that's bullshit. He did it because it was an awesome project. And even if he'd "only" earned a few million, he still would have done it. So there goes that argument. Instead, remember that many of the huge earnings of our era are made possible by society. So let's reward society for that too.

Stores blatantly try to trick you and no one cares

2015/11/07 - I just came back from the grocery store, and once more my thoughts got stuck on the prices of products. They are all (without exception) of the form X.X9. Like 2.99, 3.79, 0.59, and so on.

As a kid I was already wondering why that was. Back then I theorized it had to do with the 19% VAT, which made it hard to get exact numbers. (For instance, with a VAT of 19%, a net price of 12.60 will result in a (rounded) gross price of 14.99, while a net price of 12.61 will result in a gross price of 15.01. It's impossible to get exactly 15.00.) But as I grew older I realized that reason was bullshit.

Instead, the pricing was because of a psychological trick. A price of "2.99" looks more like 2 euros than like 3 euros, and hence people think it's cheaper than 3 euros, while in reality the difference is negligible. The funny thing is, pretty much all adults know this is the reason for the prices. The other funny thing: research has shown that, even if you are aware of this effect, you are still susceptible to it. So it still works.

And at that point I realized: basically all adults know that stores use psychological tricks to cloud their judgement. And no one cares about it! The problem basically is that everyone has gotten used to it, and so no one is offended by it.

Personally, I'm still waiting for a grocery store that openly says, "We are not going to use psychological tricks to cloud your judgement. We are just going to offer our wares and price our products in a more natural way." I'd applaud this idea. The problem is: I doubt many others will. And so this grocery store would go bankrupt because it can't compete with other grocery stores. (By the way, some other stores like shoe stores do have rounded prizes. So it's not true that no store does. But it is true for all bigger grocery stores I've seen.)

And here's the last funny thing I realized: so many people are afraid of stores keeping track of what they bought. They're worried about what they may do with that data. "Maybe they'll find ways to trick us into buying more stuff." When I hear people talking like that, I always roll my eyes. I'm tempted to say, "They're already tricking you. And you know that as well as I do. Yet you don't care about that. So shut up about this." But I never say these things. After all, people never like it when you blatantly point their flaws out to them. And so the problem persists.

You can't improve on your own flaws of character, until you accept that you must have them

2015/11/03 - Today I was speaking with an old classmate of mine, from Turkey. We were talking about how people look at different nationalities. And she was especially annoyed by many Italian people. Here's just a gist of what I remember from a conversation.

"There was this one Italian who asked why I wasn't wearing a headscarf. Like he thought all Turkish people do that. He didn't really get that Turkish people are different." - "You mean that he generalizes Turkish people." "Yes! They shouldn't generalize. But every Italian person I met did that. All Italians think strange things about Turkish people." - "All Italians?" - "Yes, all Italians!" - "Sounds like you're generalizing."

And here comes the crucial bit. She replied, "No, I'm not generalizing!" with an offended look, almost saying Why would you even think that? And I just said, "You just said that all Italians do something. That's generalizing." But somehow she didn't want to accept that. And this is what taught me something interesting. What it taught me was that people totally don't see their own errors.

In fact, let's do a thought experiment. Let's take any random person and ask him (or her) to evaluate other people, like famous politicians, or simply random people they get a brief impression of. "What are the character flaws of person A? And of person B? And so on?" Our test person would probably be able to give quite a couple. And generally, they're a certain kind of flaws. "Dishonesty, not really looking at the bigger picture, biased," and so on. But then we ask the test person to name their own character flaws. What will happen?

What will happen is usually either of two options. Either (for the more certain/arrogant people) the test person cannot think of errors, or (for the more uncertain people) the test person thinks of errors that are from a totally different category. "Not smart enough, doesn't know enough, cannot do certain things," and so on. But if you compare this answer to their evaluations of people, then the answers cannot both be correct. We just picked two random people (a test person and an evaluated person). They are likely to have different character flaws, of course. But the type of character flaws they have should not be different.

The only conclusion? People judge others in a very different way than themselves. So something must be wrong with either the way people judge others or the way they judge themselves. My own experience has told me it's mainly (though not fully) the latter. In fact, people don't even realize they may have character flaws like that. They don't realize they may be biased, dishonest, and so on. But they think almost all other persons have character flaws from this category. So that's rather inconsistent, isn't it? The only logical conclusion for people would be to accept they may also have a similar type of character flaws as the ones they often prescribe to others. Yet somehow people are pretty much never willing to accept this.

Yet the most important thing here is this: it's only when we accept that we have character flaws, that we can actually start to look for them. And once we do, we can actually study them in-depth. Where did they come from? Why do we have them? What effect do we have? And it's only then that we can really start to improve on them and reduce them. We'll never be fully rid of all flaws, but through this way, we can at least become a lot closer. But the start is the hardest: accept that you must have some sort of flaws, even though you don't see them. And then to objectively find them.

How our society has become more equal, and why it'll become again less so

2015/10/31 - Recently I've been looking a bit at the way society was set up in the early 20th century. It wasn't a very equal society. Roughly said, there was an upper class (like factory owners) who had the power and a lower class (the factory workers) who didn't. And this was a system which kept itself intact.

Why? Well, if you were a child of the upper class, you would get all the advantages: good nutrition, better education, being well-nursed, and having access to higher education. For the lower class things were different. Food was often scarce, leading to less development of the brain of a child. The schools were worse. Often at home there wasn't so much attention for children, and even if there was, these lower-educated parents could teach their children a lot less than their well-educated higher-class counterparts. And money for university was of course non-existent.

In the decades after the second world war, things changed. Because of minimum salaries, more children were getting better nutrition. Because of open government-organized schools, up to the age of 16-18, people were getting similar education. And because of relatively low costs for higher education, including study subsidies (studiefinanciering), more people could attent higher education. As a result, more people had a decent education, leading to the fact that children also grew up among better-educated people, which had its own beneficial effect.

These are all positive effect, right? There's more equality. People have the possibility to do the things they're good at, and learn to become even better at them. There's also more mixing of the society. There aren't any set "boxes" anymore, but people are for a large part free to decide their own destiny. This is something to strive for. To encourage. To try and get even more of this. But let's take a look at some recent trends.

In one word: budget cuts. Education is becoming more expensive these days. There are growing problems with the welfare system, where some people have trouble getting sufficiently by. And the problem is: all these problems are focused around the same group of people. The lower-educated are more often unemployed, are more often having financial trouble (leading to an inability to always get the appropriate vitamines on the table) and are more often unable to attend higher education because of the same financial reasons.

So my prediction? Inequality will be growing again in the future. There will be more of a division between rich and poor, and between educated and not-so-educated. As an educated person, I can consider myself lucky. But I would consider myself to be more lucky to live in a more equal world, where everyone is given equal opportunities. So let's do the things which will make that happen. Let's consciously strive for equality, by making sure that all children get as much as possible the same opportunities in life.

Why we should not strive to improve a single thing, but to just do things well

2015/10/27 - The past couple of days I spent travelling around in China. And one thing which amazed me so much was the state of their traffic. Roads were old and not so well maintained, and in general way too small for the insane amount of cars that crossed it. In addition, there was hardly any system in place. The main rule seemed to be, "Don't drive into anyone," which luckily everyone followed. But given that rule, everything seemed to be allowed. Yes, it kind of sounds like the Dutch bicycle traffic system, but then it's different.

Why? Because bicycles are a lot more mobile than cars. Cyclists can easily weave between pedestrians and other cyclists. Cars? Not so much. Driving a car in China is a nightmare. Starting, driving a bit, until the next chaotic thing happens and you come to a full stop again. Pulling up, and stopping again. And sometimes you're entirely stuck for five minutes in a row.

If you think about it, the costs of this whole problem are enormous. For one, it costs a lot of time of people being stuck in traffic. (Okay, the wages in China are relatively low, but still.) Secondly, though I didn't see any accidents, I'm quite sure the accident rate is relatively high in a traffic system in which cars continuously pass within inches of each other. And finally, this whole way of driving is insanely inefficient. That is, it has much more fuel consumption, which in turn also leads to more pollution (and they already have such a huge smog problem) which then also leads to more health problems and hence health costs.

But then I started wondering: in our current political system, that of pretty much any country, would something like this be solved? Our current system is very focused on the problem/solution structure. "Hey, we have a problem. Let's come up with a solution and implement it." (Also see the blog post of 2015/10/16.) So what kind of problem would lead to the solution "Improve the traffic system?"

Perhaps the problem that Chinese workers don't have enough time? Unlikely. There's better solutions available, like improving work efficiency through automatization or something similar. Perhaps the problem that there's many accidents? Unlikely as well. Most accidents that are caused in this (insanely slow) traffic only cause material damage. Changing a whole infrastructure is still more expensive, and hence economically not worth-while. But perhaps the health system then? Again, not really. The smog is not just caused by cars but also by industry. And if you want to battle smog, tackling industrial pollution would be easier.

But if you take everything together, it would most definitely be worthwhile. And still it's not being done! Now, this is just one example from China, but similar (though less obvious) examples will most certainly also be present in the Netherlands and any other country. And they won't be solved either. It's because in politics we only want to solve problems. But instead, the whole focus should be on something else: on just organizing things well. Because if we do, the benefits will be enormous. And often in ways which we initially don't see, don't even expect, but in the end will most certainly appreciate.

On the horror that is called our mathematical education

2015/10/22 - This week my thoughts drifted once more to the way we teach mathematics to children. You may wonder: what's so bad about this? Well, there isn't a single other course in which kids are so systematically traumatized as mathematics. Is that inherent to mathematics? Or just about the way we teach it? I'd say it's almost fully the latter.

Plenty of stuff has already been written online about this. A well-known and very decent (though slightly long-winded) piece is Lockhart's Lament. His main point? That the beauty of mathematics is coming up with new theorems yourself. Trying to discover them and then to prove them.

It's like making music yourself; trying which key of the piano plays which tone and then combining tones to create a tune. At first you play existing tunes, but you're of course free to experiment with your own tunes yourself, which makes it all the more fun. And it's certainly not about remembering which notes constitute a tune without ever having heard the tune. Similarly, in mathematics, it's about seeing why certain theories hold, and then trying to come up with your own proofs. It's certainly not about remembering equations without ever having seen a reason of why they hold.

I fully agree with this, but I think there's even more of a problem. People are constantly arguing, "Kids don't see the reason why mathematics could ever be useful for them. So they don't like it. We need more practical examples." And I feel like, every time someone says that, things just got worse. And the best way to see this, is to apply this to other courses.

Sports, for instance. "Students just don't see why training to run is useful. So, instead of letting them run through a beautiful forest, or letting them run in a sports match, we should let them run to the train. If you arrive at the train station before the train leaves, you pass the course." Do you think PE (physical education) will be liked by more children this way? Do you think students now suddenly appreciate running more? Heck no! Playing sports is fun! Trying to make it "useful" just ruins this.

Or take biology? "Students don't see why studying biology is useful. So, instead of letting them disect plants to figure out for themselves how they're made up and how they work, we should only let them study which symptoms of their own body might indicate which disease, and what they need to do next." Do you think that kids (apart from becoming overly paranoid) would appreciate biology then?

Or what about history. "Students don't see why learning historical stories is useful. So, instead of telling them amazing stories about how the entire society we live in came to be, we should only let them memorize facts which they might one day be asked in trivia quizes." Do you think kids would suddenly be enthusiastic to study history?

My point is this: children are by nature curious. They like to figure stuff out. To experiment. To research. To think. To play around with those things they consider "cool," which is just another word for "believing it's relevant to my life now." They don't care about how all pieces will fall together much later in life. In fact, the whole concept "Much later in life" is highly unknown at that time. Using that as a motivator is just pure bullshit. Let them do things for the pure sake of that it's fun. The only thing we need to show kids, to make them appreciate mathematics, is that juggling with numbers and abstract concepts is a delight. Show them that, preferably by example, and they'll like mathematics a lot more for it.

Why the scientific system is inefficient and will remain so

2015/10/20 - Yesterday I gave a conference presentation on a new mathematical method I've developed and published a paper about. Afterwards one of the attendees came to me and asked, "Hey, have you seen this paper? I think he does something similar." So I downloaded the paper and took a look at it. Which was actually harder than you might think.

Why? Well, first of all, it used a totally different terminology than my paper. The terminology I use is the one that's most often used in the field, but there are a few different branches which use a different language for almost the same thing. Secondly, the paper also used a very different mathematical notation than me. But after making a whole dictionary of which term corresponds to which term, I finally figured it out: the paper (written in 2013) did exactly the same thing as my paper.

Naturally, I was annoyed. But not for the reason you might think. It wasn't so much that someone had "beaten me to it". It was more about me losing faith in the system. (For as much as I had any faith left in it at all.) Because you would wish that, in science, you would have researchers working as efficiently as possible to tackle problems, not doing double work and such. And I was mainly annoyed because I realized (once more) that this is far from the case.

I thought back to the conference introduction, where the chairman of the organizing committee proudly announced that several hundred more papers had now been published. I thought back to the introduction of the first plenary speaker, where it was proudly mentioned that this person had "published well over a hundred papers in his field". The focus is fully on quantity! And people apparently don't seem to care if there's a lot of double work in it (which there undoubtedly is).

So what should we change? First of all, we should make sure that a field has a common notation/terminology. There are a few fields which have a very uniform terminology, and this is often caused because they have a very good book introducing new people to the field. Everyone reads the book, so everyone speaks the same language: the one used by that book. That is insanely helpful for a field. It's like there's this "knowledge base", established by this book, which people can then try to expand on with new research.

So what we need to do is introduce this in every field. Every field should have a "knowledge base", perhaps as a Wiki, which shows the current state of knowledge in the field. A part of the researchers (say, a third) should then be fully involved with keeping this knowledge base up to date, making sure it's the best introduction for new people in the field, and explaining all the intricacies as clearly as possible. Then the other researchers can write papers, and now finally with a clear goal: to expand on this knowledge base. If knowledge from your paper gets added to the knowledge base, you've done something well.

The advantages are aplenty. New researchers are introduced more easily into the field, which saves them tons of time. And everyone speaks the same language, making communication much easier. So why isn't something like this set up? Well, two reasons actually. First, because preventing problems isn't as appreciated as solving them. (See the previous post.) And secondly, because the people in charge are still dumb enough to only look at the number of papers published. (See the blog post of 2015/10/09.) And since these problems won't change any time soon, I predict the scientific system will remain as inefficient as it is for several decades more.

On preventing problems instead of solving them

2015/10/16 - Human beings are very reactive beings. When a problem arises, they go and fix it. They like to solve problems and make their lives better in that way. The tricky part is that preventing a problem is often cheaper/more efficient than solving a problem. So why don't we do that more often? The reason is that we don't see a prevented problem, and as a result don't learn to appreciate it.

I like to analyze stuff. Systems and such. So I often see things that others don't. For instance with the weekly sports trainings that are given at my Ultimate club. The roster on who gives these trainings often switches. So sometimes, in the confusion, there's a mistake in the roster and no one is scheduled to give a training. And when I see that, what do I do?

If I do nothing, then what will happen is that there's no trainer. (Unless someone else sees it to, which happens occasionally, but not too often.) On the "training" someone then starts asking who's giving the training. No one knows, and last-minute stuff has to be improvised. It causes some frustrations and is far from ideal. So what I usually do, the moment I see this coming, is very subtly ask the coordinator, curiously, "Who's giving training on that day?" After some checking, he realizes the error and rosters someone. Problem not fixed, but prevented.

The tricky thing is that no one realizes exactly what I've prevented. A similar thing happens in matches. When the opponent is about to score and I do some miraculous dive to prevent them from doing so, everyone's excited and happy about what I did. But if I see the situation coming a few seconds in advance, and just move into the right position to prevent the scoring opportunity in the first place, then no one notices what I've just prevented.

Of course these are small cases, but we can scale up. Let's consider a large scale problem in the world, like the many "civil wars" in Syria, Birma, Sudan, etcetera. These wars cost tons of money, not just from these countries, but also from the western world. After all, the western countries are also bombing in Syria, taking in refugees, and so on. Billions of dollars go into this. So let's think about this. How could these wars be prevented?

Wars like these generally start because a group of people feels like they're in a hopeless situation. For instance they cannot get any work. In Syria, the problems started with a draught, and because the country had so many farmers, who couldn't do many other jobs, their situation became hopeless. But what would have happened if these people would have been better educated, improving their prospects? Would the problems then still been severe enough to start a war? I doubt it.

So the way in which wars like these could be prevented (one of the many ways anyway) is to invest in education. If people across the world have better education, then so many wars can be prevented. (As well as many other problems.) In addition, sending over teachers is a lot cheaper than sending over soldiers. So this preventive solution is much better. Yet why aren't we applying it? Because no one recognizes that this actually solves problems. So it's about time we started doing that.

How to best deal with incidents?

2015/10/13 - Incidents and accidents happen. But what's the best way to react to it? Basically, there's two options.

First, there is the compensating reaction. When a couple of months ago in Paris terrorists shot about 10 people (cartoon artists), the reaction of the government was to add security to hundreds (if not thousands) of public places, and for several months. After these months, security reduced again. (Ready for the next strike.) The costs of the operation? Several tens of millions of euros. The amount of lives saved? Debatable.

Let's think about this amount for a minute. There is research that says that, if we spend (roughly) two million euros extra on health care in a developed country, or on traffic accident prevention, another (healthy young) life is saved. Based on this, you could say that the value of a life in a western country is roughly two million euros. (In developing countries this value is far lower.) Based on this, the whole security operation prevented several dozens of lifes from being saved. Basically, it killed several dozens of people!

What's the second option? I remember a case in which a Dutch student walked into a high school with a knife and stabbed a fellow student. The country was shocked. People shouted out, "We should do something about this! Add security! Add psychological screening of all students! Do something!" But what did the instance in charge of this matter do?

They simply shrugged and said "We already have a system in place which detects most of the extreme cases. This system has proven to work quite effectively, preventing about 99% of these incidents. But every now and then the 1% seeps through the cracks. No system is perfect. No system reaches a 100% detection rate. Trying to get it anyway is insanely expensive and not worth it. We just have to accept the 1% that takes place."

I couldn't have said it better. If you have a good system in place, then there will still be incidents. (Just not so many.) So when such an incident does happen, ask yourself, "Is this part of the 1% of the cases that seeps through?" If so, you just have to accept it and move on.

Of course there are exceptions. If students run into schools and start shooting people on a nearly monthly basis (like in the US), then evidently your system has too many "exceptions". In other words, your system is crap. You'd better fix it. Or if you don't have any system at all in place to prevent incidents like these from happening, you'd better set one up. But if you already have a system in place, making incidents very rare, then the best way to react to a new incident is to deal with the loss and subsequently change exactly nothing.

Why people have (unjustly) lost faith in quality measures

2015/10/11 - A common question of any manager is: how good is the system I control working? And the general solution is to come up with a simple quality measure. For scientists the number of citations. For teachers the pass rate of students. For economy the GDP. After all, any good scientist will have a high number of citations. Right?

The way I see this situation is best explained with an analogy. Suppose you throw three dice: a blue, a red and a green one. What you want to do is maximize the sum of these dice. (This is your "real quality".) However, it's very hard to see what these dice actually land on. In fact, you usually only know what the blue dice lands on. (This is your "measured quality".) Not what the other dice land on.

After doing multiple rolls, how do you know which rolls are good? Well, you only see the blue dice. So rolls in which the blue dice is high are likely to be good. (But you're not sure. After all, you can't see the green and red dice.) Still, if you want to select the best rolls, it's wise to go for the ones with the highest blue dice. Makes sense, right?

But now things get tricky. Because what happens in real life is that people start to overly focus on this "measured quality" (the blue dice). They want to improve it at all costs. And if someone offers you the deal, "Hey, I can increase the blue dice for you by one digit," you're certain to accept. But what if someone says, "I can increase the blue dice by one, if I subsequently also decrease the other two dice by one." Would you accept?

The problem is that, in the real world, we all too often accept deals like this. It's because we only focus on the measured quality. We improve this measured quality above all else. The effect (and this is very important) is that after all these "adjustments" the value of the blue dice (the measured quality) is totally not indicative anymore of the true value of the roll (the real quality).

The conclusion: because you made adjustments with specific goal to improve your quality measure, your quality measure has become worthless! Most people now (unjustly) say we shouldn't use quality measures. I disagree. I think it's very worth while to look at the value of the blue dice. It's valuable information. However, when making adjustments, we should make these adjustments irrespective of which dice we change. And we should always realize that the blue dice doesn't tell us the full story.

What someone's handwriting style says about his/her personality

2015/10/08 - I think everyone knows some people that always do things exactly "by the book". They always follow the rules. If there's a red traffic light, but it's in the middle of the night and there's not a car anywhere in sight, these people still stop. If the teacher (or pretty much anyone higher up the ladder) tells them that something is not allowed, they'll never disobey. They won't even consider it or wonder why.

This reminded me of learning to write. On elementary school, all children learn to write. They all learn so in the same way. The teacher tells them that's how they have to write. But this handwriting still changes in the years after, and for some this goes faster than for others.

Some quickly start to experiment, and within a few years their handwriting is already significantly different than what they were taught. Others only get the idea later on, after a few years and often only subconsciously, to experiment a bit with other possibly faster ways of writing. Yet a couple of people never have this experiment phase. They never even considered that the way their teachers taught them to write might not be the only way. That they can disobey the instructions. And so they're "stuck" with this very elementary-school-like handwriting.

Is this bad? No, not necessarily. It's a fine way to write; otherwise we wouldn't be teaching it. But it does tell something about the character of these people. People with a school-like way of writing are often types that do not spontaneously experiment with not following the rules. They don't expand boundaries. They may be the best at what they do within boundaries, and might surprise you with stellar quality, but they'll hardly ever surprise you with doing something entirely novel.

Of course this rule doesn't always have to hold. I know someone who always follows the rules, but was inspired to try different writing styles by a valued (and older) friend and hence doesn't have a school-way of writing. And on the flip side, I know someone who was challenged by friends on lots of other fields and so is very adventurous, but never experimented with handwriting. It's not a general rule. But it is a trend. And trends can still give interesting information on people.

So the next time I see someone write, I'll study the handwriting and wonder how this person got it. How much experimentation went into it? How much following the rules? And how much "I don't care about the rules but do whatever seems best to me"? Then I wonder what that says about that person's mindset during those moments. And then I wonder what kind of other things this person will have tried, using that mindset. It's not a 100% way of judging people, but it does give some information. Now I just need to figure out how accurate this information would be.

Why making standards for browsers is so very valuable

2015/10/04 - Today was another day of programming. Building web applications, that is. But pretty much all of the day was taken up by making my applications cross-browser compatible. Because every browser does things differently, and your application has to work no matter which browser the user uses, right?

Luckily there are standards for browsers. These standards are generally followed, which is very nice. For most things, making the application cross-browser compatible turned out to be easy. But not so for Audio. That's different in every browser. Internet Explorer does not support AudioContext, Firefox does not support MP3 and mobile browsers do not support loading audio while the page is still loading. Standards are still being made here, and probably in a few years this will be fine, but not today.

But it did get me thinking. It took me a whole day to fix these things, and I'm still not there. Far from it. It's taking up tons of valuable time. And given all the discussions on the internet, I'm far from the only one with this problem. So much valuable programmer time is wasted. (There's a huge shortage of programmers in this world.) But, thanks to the standards that already do exist, I cannot even imagine how much of that valuable time has been saved.

But who made those standards? It's the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This organization is actually a community of member organizations who are involved in using the web. They don't have any competition, but they just work as hard as possible for their stakeholders, and as a result do an amazing job. (Although there's still lots of work to do.)

And it's at that point I have to think about capitalism. Many people think that people only work if there's a profit to be gained. This organization (and probably many like it) shows that that is fundamentally wrong. Having an organization work "for the greater good", which is regularly being checked on by people having a stake in the company (and not necessarily the one that earns the most money), is something that works. That is very valuable. And very overlooked.

So this example showed me two things. First, making standards for browsers is very valuable for the world. And secondly, it's important that the organization that makes these standards does not have any competition. Just being supervised by the right stakeholders is enough.

Forcing people to use titles more often decreases than increases the respect given

2015/09/29 - Today was the PhD defense of a colleague of mine. A PhD defense in the Netherlands is more ceremony than anything that has any effect whatsoever. It's people in suits. It's formalities. And what struck me most this time: it's a forced usage of titles.

What do I mean with that? Well, every time the defendant addresses a member of the committee, he has to start with "Hooggeleerde opponent" (Dutch for "Highly learned opponent"). What's even more crazy: this has to be said in Dutch, even though the defense is in English and neither the defendant nor the opponent is necessarily Dutch.

So why is this? Well, the short answer is, "It's a rule," but that's the answer of a short-sighted person. Every rule was installed with the aim to reach a certain goal. So the "why" question comes down to: what goal did people have in mind when they installed this rule? And the obvious answer is: to encourage respect. After all, if people respect each other, they address each other in a nice way, like with kind titles.

But addressing each other in a nice way is the result, a "symptom", of people respecting each other. Enforcing this symptom doesn't ensure respect. Okay, in this particular case the respect was present, so today it wasn't a problem. But if the respect isn't present, there's a lot of malice you can put into a title. Enforcing this rule does not result in extra respect.

So what does it result in? Usually an uncomfortable situation, where people are forced to do something in a way which they're not used to; which they're uncomfortable with. And making people communicate in a way which they're uncomfortable with reduces communication. Less communication results in less understanding, and less understanding eventually causes less respect. Often this effect is small, but at times it may be big. But regardless, in the long run, indirectly, this rule actually reduces the respect between people. And that makes it defeat its purpose.

But there's more that strikes me as wrong. In your PhD, you learn to achieve results. How do you do this? That is up to you. People don't tell you how to achieve results. They just tell you the outcome, leaving the rest for you to fill in. That's how it should work. So, if we want to get more respect during the PhD defense, we should encourage people to achieve this, in their own way. And not prescribe to every single participant exactly what to do. So that's how the PhD defense ceremony goes against everything the PhD has learned during his studies.

Why it's especially valuable for people doing mental work to have something valuable in their life

2015/09/22 - This past week there were a lot of useless things I had to do. Adjust a paper only to satisfy a reviewer, while not making the paper any clearer or more valuable. Give a scientific presentation to the sponsors of my project, even though they ultimately wouldn't understand what my project really was about, nor would ever apply that knowledge themselves. Stuff like that.

It's stuff in which, if everyone would be like, "Okay, I'm good with this. You don't have to do it," and I wouldn't do it, then the world wouldn't look any different. Except it would save me large amounts of time. The problem is, these things don't just cost time. They also cost a lot of motivation, exactly because they feel pointless. It's really difficult to continuously work hard on it. This is different with some of my more interesting projects, which I can work on straight for hours. But not here.

I started to ask myself, "Why not?" It reminded me of working in a greenhouse when I was 14 years old. I hated it. It was boring and tiring. (But in hindsight a very valuable experience.) Still, I could force myself to do it, pulling flowers out of the earth one by one. I gave my muscles the order and they obeyed. Not with delight, but still they did. But here I couldn't give my mind the order to work on the presentation and have it obey. Why not?

It's because the mind is a lot more complex than a basic muscle. It has similarities to muscles - you can train it just like a muscle - but it's very different in other ways. One of them is its constant urge to ask, "Can't we do this any better?" This constant urge to ask yourself if what you're doing is making sense. This is an efficient urge - you want the stuff you do to make sense, or you might as well stop doing it - until you actually need to do stuff which doesn't make sense.

And because the creative parts of the brain (which are the parts that have to make the presentation) and the evaluative part of the brain (which asks these tricky questions) are strongly linked, like everything in the brain is, this causes a problem. It means that, right after getting the order to work, your creative part already shuts down because the evaluative part already tells it it's doing something pointless. And so you never get things done.

It's why, when you are a person that regularly does work with your mind, it is always crucial to keep your mind happy; to have an ulterior motive for something. If you have nothing in your life to strive for, then any mental work you do will break down, because in the end everything will seem pointless. And as a result, I would say that having/getting things in your life to strive for is actually part of any kind of mental work. And that only raises the question: shouldn't that officially be part of the job too then? I'd say it definitely should, up to a certain degree.

The only reason we like to keep secrets, is because other people would blow them out of proportion

2015/09/16 - These days I was wondering, why do people like privacy so much? Why the secrecy? Suppose I have a girlfriend. If I'd tell people I have a girlfriend, people wouldn't be surprised. Many people do. If I'd tell them I slept with my girlfriend, people still would shrug and be like, "So what?" Most people that have a girlfriend actually sleep with her. But if I actually release a video of me having sex with my girlfriend, people go wild. Why is that?

It seems strange. They pretty much know it's going on. But the fact that they can see it is suddenly something to go crazy about. A more sensible reaction would be to just shrug and say, "So what?" And I believe that, if everyone would have this sensible approach, people would be a lot less afraid of having sensitive data becoming public.

So the reason why we are afraid of having our private data becoming publically available is mainly this: because they're afraid that people will go crazy about them. And I get that. There are so many things that are being blown out of proportion these days. So many media witch hunts, online crucifications of people, and more. People don't want to be the next target. And so they refrain from attracting attention.

But what if we all just stopped doing that? What if everyone said, to any new interesting fact that is released online, "Okay, that's interesting, but there's no reason to go crazy about it." What then? Then people could (and would, over time) be a lot less careful with their private data. People would share more. A similar thing would hold for politicians, company CEOs, celebrities and more. There would be less privacy. The whole world would be more open.

Is that a bad thing? No, on the contrary! If everyone would be more open, mistakes would be noticed sooner, and their effects could be prevented instead of having to be fixed. People could correct each other's bad habits more. (For instance, when a person starts having extremist ideas, he usually isn't even aware of the fact that 99% of the people around him don't support these ideas. If he did, would he then still have them? Sadly he never finds out, because he doesn't dare to share his ideas.)

In general, I think we would get a society in which people can voice their doubts more easily, and resolve them in a better way, ultimately becoming much more comfortable with him/herself. And if everyone would be more comfortable with him/herself, there would be a lot less problems in this world. Wouldn't that be something to aspire to? I think it is. So everyone, please stop blowing random pieces of news out of proportion. Over time, you'll improve the world through it.

What are the truths that we cannot accept but our children can?

2015/09/12 - In my previous blog post I studied patterns in history: beliefs which people slowly started agreeing with over time, until eventually nearly everyone considers it as normal. From condemning slavery to applying equal rights independent of gender, to applying equal rights independent of race. It made me wonder: what's next? Which ideas are rising, and have now only about 20% support among the population, but will have nearly a 100% support one or two centuries down the road?

There are several ideas here. The first one is to treat people equally independent of nationality. Whether a baby is born on one side of the fence in the US, or on the other side of the fence in Mexico, makes a huge different for the rights of a baby. But why does it? What makes that one baby different from that other one?

We have similar problems in the Netherlands, especially with the current refugee crisis. Why does one person, who happens to have been born in the Netherlands, have access to free high-quality (relatively) education, good healthcare and most of all a safe existence, without doing anything for it, while other people, who are doing everything they can to improve their lives, are simply sent back into a war, simply because it happens to rage around the place they grew up in? I think in a hundred years, we will do things differently there. So why not start now?

Another idea is raising children. Currently we all accept that everyone should be allowed to get children and raise them. But isn't it funny that, to become a teacher, you need to go through a rigorous training program, spanning several years, to get a diploma, while to become a parent, which is actually a far more important position in the life of a child, you require no qualifications whatsoever?

I think in the future there will be more and more requirements set to parenthood. First, things like basic trainings for new parents will be encouraged. (This is actually already partly taking place.) Then, after a few bad cases of child mistreatment that will be blown up by media, these trainings become mandatory. As time goes on, the requirements become more involved, while at the same time the support for actual parents (who passed the rigorous training) increases, resulting in parents becoming paid. And from there it's only a small step to professional parents raising children, even when they haven't conceived them themselves.

Probably this latter idea will take two centuries to take root. But, being the progress-focused person that I am, still wonder, "Why not implement it now and take a two century jump in progress of humankind?" The answer to this question is sadly given by the previous blog post: because most people are simply incapable of accepting things they're not used to.

To make progress, we often have to accept things we're uncomfortable with

2015/09/10 - Recently I was thinking about history. How did the big changes in our world come about? And I mainly mean the big changes in how we, as people, view the world and each other?

In the nineteenth century, slavery was still common in many places. The American civil war proves this. Still, some people thought slavery shouldn't be around in this world. This number steadily increased. Wars were fought over it. But in the twentieth century, we reached a time in which almost everyone (definitely more than 99% in western countries) agrees that slavery isn't needed. That it's actually a bad thing.

What about gender equality? It was only in the start of the twentieth century that women got voting rights in many countries. Many people thought it crazy. "Women, they're not interested in anything else than cleaning and raising children, right?" But they were wrong. And what started as a small movement has now become common as well. Definitely more than 80% of the people (I estimate) think that men and women should be equal in as many ways as possible. Sadly, there's still some way to go.

A similar thing can be said about racism. Even in 1955 in the US, public places were still segregated by race (as the Rosa Parks story shows). But by now, most people (at least 60%) believe that we should treat people equally, despite race. Still, this doesn't happen in our actual lives, where black people are often mistreated while white people usually get the benefit of the doubt.

The trend in all these cases is similar. So first of all I wondered, why don't we just step ahead a few decades and really strive for equality, both for gender and race? It's because people are very bad at changing their ways. If we, for instance, have always disadvantaged black people, why should we stop now? It's working, right? Let's stick with habits, right? Well, I don't think so. But subconciously, without realizing it, many people do. (And subconciously I also partly do, as do you.)

To really get change, and for people to do things differently, we often have to wait, not for people to change their ways, but to actually get new people. It's only after nearly a century, when an entirely new set of people walks across our Earth, that new beliefs and habits can start to take root.

Still I imagine: what if we just see these trends developing and think, "Okay, in fifty years people will have accepted this idea anyway. Why don't we just accept it now and continue with humanity's progress?" It would make us progress so much faster.

The more questions a conversation has, the more you learn from it

2015/09/02 - I have conversation in a fundamentally different way than pretty much anyone. Most people really enjoy big group conversations, in which everyone shares anekdotes and tells stories about some events in which they did something really stupid. They find it "gezellig" (a Dutch word with no translation). It gives them a group experience. Like they belong. Like it confirms for them that everyone does stupid things, making them feel at ease.

Me? I just find conversations like that pointless. I never really like big group conversations, because there's no way to steer the subject. The subject is bouncing all over the place, based on whatever the next person wants to chip in about, and so you can never get to the bottom of something. I prefer one-on-one conversations. But even then there are many different ways to hold a conversation.

You could go back to the usual format: have both persons just tell whatever they want to tell. But I personally find that, most of the time, you don't really learn anything new. That is, you don't get a better understanding of whatever subject you're talking about. Usually, if you want to understand something, there are certain holes (or borders) in your field of comprehension. And to fill them, the conversation has to be specifically about them. And if your conversation partner just talks about whatever he/she wants, that never happens.

The solution? Ask questions. It's only by asking questions that you can steer the conversation towards things that you don't know yet, but are exactly on the edge of your current knowledge base. It's how you can gain more understanding of whatever subject you're talking about; be it something personal about your conversation partner, or just something fascinating about the world.

Many people find asking questions hard. Won't they come across as too curious? As too inquisitive? As infringing on your privacy? I have a different opinion. If people ask questions about me, it means they're interested in me. They want to know more about me. They care about me. And that's valuable. That's why I highly prefer people that ask questions in a conversation. They're the only ones that really try to understand something, making the conversation much more valuable.

Sadly, such people are very, very rare. People that really know how to ask question after question. People that can really get to the bottom of something. In fact, I found that, the more questions a conversation has, the more in-depth it will be. So, if I ever want to judge a conversation partner, I just look at how many questions he/she asks, and how easily I can ask questions to him/her. Just count the questions and you'll know a lot about that person. Usually it's zero, but every now and then someone manages to surprise me.

Why is it sometimes surprisingly easy to take up new challenges?

2015/08/27 - This week I'm on vacation! With a somewhat inactive group. I'm used to going on three activities per day. With this group I go on at most one. (Yes, at most.) It means a lot of spare time, while being stuck in a cabin on an island. In other words: it's the ideal situation to think up a sequel to my previous novel!

Let me tell you something about setting up storylines. During the process, you often run into "challenges". Basically, there's some inconsistency in the storyline which you need to overcome. For example, you want a person to travel from place A to place B in exactly three days, but these places are actually really close together.

Sometimes solving inconsistencies is easy and you only need to change a small thing. (Set places A and B further apart, add a storm which causes the trip to take longer, or add some other delay.) But sometimes the inconsistency is really complicated and you need to throw away a lot of great ideas, rethinking half the storyline.

The main thing is: tackling inconsistencies is, just like any challenge, a risky thing. When you start, you never know what you're getting yourself into. Maybe you'll find that all the hard work done over several days has been pointless. It's frightening. And because of it, simply starting this whole process of looking at inconsistencies can be very difficult.

But this vacation, starting the process of tackling inconsistencies went effortlessly. (Tackling the inconsistencies itself was naturally a bit harder, but not more than average.) And I wondered why? The result was interesting. It was because, somewhere deep down, I had the faith that, even if I found something really bad, I knew I could deal with it. I knew I had the time, the opportunity, to solve whatever problem would appear on my path. And that made beginning the journey so much easier. I didn't have to be on edge all the time, afraid I would run into something I couldn't cope with.

The main lesson I learned is the following. Taking up a new challenge is hard, mainly because you don't know what you're getting yourself into. But if you are in a situation in which you know that, whatever the challenge may throw at you, you can cope with it, taking up the challenge is so much easier.

Very soon I realized the importance of this lesson. It explains why people often paralyze when faced with a challenge, instead of facing it head-on like they should. In such a case, their life just doesn't have the stability required for it. But the lesson also showed me what I need to do myself to keep up taking on challenge after challenge. Take the pressure off. Bring order into my life. Then any challenge will suddenly seem a lot less challenging.

On telling someone something that annoys you

2015/08/24 - This week I'm on vacation! So I'm getting up late. But not really too late, or there's no time to do anything anymore. So I still need an alarm clock to make sure I don't oversleep.

I always put an alarm clock. And on vacation I always set it quite late. It's never annoyed anyone as far as I know. But today apparently it annoyed two of my fellow-travelers a lot. So they told me about it, and I showed my (honest) surprise, telling them I never found anyone being troubled by my rather late alarm before, on any vacation I've gone on. Naturally, feeling guilty, I promised them to not put the alarm anymore (or really insanely nearly-lunch-time late).

But it didn't end there. They kept continuing to badger me about the alarm clock. They mentioned it every time the subject got near anything related to sleeping or an alarm clock, and made (more malicious than funny) jokes about it when it didn't. All the time I was wondering, "I told them I got the message and would fix it. What more can I do?" Apparently it had been really bothering them. And that's what taught me another lesson.

Suppose that some behavior/action of someone else really annoys you. What do you do about this? Step one is to check if the other person knows about this. In 99% of the cases, this person is totally not aware of your annoyance. All it takes to solve the problem then is to inform him/her of this. If the person is in any way well-willing, he/she will fix the problem as soon as possible. (And pretty much everyone is well-willing and eager to help others. If someone isn't, get as far away from him/her as possible.)

Now suppose that the cause of your annoyance takes place again. And assume that the other knows about this. Then probably he/she didn't know it annoyed you as much, so you can show a bit more annoyance. But only as much as can be expected, after someone made a mistake for the first time. The second time, you can show your annoyance a bit more, but again only as much as can be expected, after making a mistake for the second time.

The general rule is that the annoyance you show doesn't depend on how annoyed you feel. It depends on how much the other person can reasonably expect you to be annoyed. If you show much more annoyance than the other person anticipated, it'll only make him understand less why you're blowing up so much. It doesn't help. What does help is to simply say it really annoyes you. And leave it at that. Until the next time it happens. Which it probably doesn't.

How do you judge people?

2015/08/20 - Regularly I hear these stories about how people went to a party, got partly drunk, and hooked up with a cute guy/girl. And when I do, it gives me an eerie feeling of reminiscence.

There are often times in which I'm really busy, perhaps with organizing Ultimate tournaments or coaching teams, perhaps with helping students with their studies, perhaps with coming up with ways of improving the world around me in other ways, or perhaps with all of the previous things. There's hardly time (or motivation) to party.

And when I then hear about people - who said they were too busy to help me out helping people - people I'm actually trying to help too - go to parties and wind up in a romantic story, while I'm at home toiling away to help people live their dreams in an easy way, I first wonder why I do all these things. But luckily I know the answers to those questions, so that's not the point here.

What is the point is that somehow I don't seem to wind up in a romantic story of my own. Finding girls that are interested enough is just nearly impossible. (There are rather few exceptions through the decades.) And that leads to the conclusion that many girls still prefer a semi-drunk guy in a bar, instead of someone who is (boring, perhaps) sitting at home behind his computer, trying to help a few thousand people.

So what do we judge people by? It seems to me that most people judge others by simple things. How spontaneous they come across. How funny their jokes are. Anything you can see during the first ten seconds in a bar. But what do I want people to judge others by? By what skills they've learned. By how much they try to help others. By what they want to accomplish in life, mainly for others. That's what I want people to judge others by.

And so, giving a good example, these criteria are what I judge others by. And these criteria are also what I showcase to others. So that, when I finally meet a girl (or any person in general) that judges people in that way, she'll be interested. Still, given the amount of interest so far, I guess there are very few girls around judging people in this way. And so I wait, hoping to finally run into someone who will vindicate my faith in humanity.

Would I even want to be famous?

2015/08/15 - Over the years, I've occasionally gotten an inkling of what it's like to be famous. Like when my website got popular in the faculty and random people started greeting me in the hallway. Or when I was coordinating Ultimate Frisbee nationwide and suddenly everyone knew who I was. It was an interesting experience.

Up to this degree, being famous was nice. People greeting you. But any more? More people staring after me, conversing in whispered tones behing me, in which only my name was audible? I wouldn't want that. So being famous? No, that's rather something for other people.

But this weekend I gave some guest clinics at a tournament in Belgium. They had brought me in as "High level coach" and introduced me as such too, giving me a hell of a reputation to live up to. Naturally the clinics were lots of fun to do. But what struck me most was the attitude of people after the clinics.

I always like mingling with random people and teams on tournaments. It's a nice way of getting to know different people and different team atmospheres. But often it's a bit hard. Some teams are open to new friends, while others are very hard to hang out with. But this time things were different.

Normally when I walk up to someone, their whole demeanor makes it clear they're not sure they want to talk with me. "Who's this random guy talking to me now?" This time it was different. Their demeanor pretty much shouted they were nervous. They really wanted to talk with me, but at the same time were desperately hoping they would make a good impression. The most important thing though? They were actually listening, which people in general hardly ever do to random people.

Once more I had a period in which I felt famous. But this weekend I saw mostly the advantages of it. If you're famous - in the right way, so that people respect you - then you actually have an advantage. People listen to you. And that is a very crucial thing if you want to make a difference.

So do I want to be famous? Not really. But if I want to make a difference, then I do need the advantages of being famous, at least up to a certain degree, within a certain community. So by now I see fame less as something to be avoided and more as a very useful tool to strive for. Guess I should act accordingly.

Why scientific journals should ignore the results section of papers

2015/08/11 - When writing a scientific paper, you want to get it accepted and published by a journal. And the way to achieve this, is to come up with some result which is more spectacular and novel than earlier results. In my field, it's setting up an algorithm that performs better than other algorithms, at least in certain cases. So basically, when writing a paper, it's all about presenting your algorithm as nicely as possible.

Of course you have to evaluate your algorithm too. You have to be critical, mention the downsides, note weaknesses and such. But in practice, this is not done all too enthusiastically. Similarly, out of many random test cases, it's easy to simply take the test case which had the most positive results for your algorithm. It's not how it should be. But it is what happens a lot in scientific papers.

The downsides? Well, every bullshit algorithm can be presented in a positive way in this way. (Unless you're a scientist with impeccable ethical standards, in which case you pretty much never get published.) And in addition, if you research a very interesting idea which doesn't turn out to work, you cannot publish about it, meaning the next researcher (and the next, and the next) will waste time trying to figure it out too.

Here's how I envision it. When you have a great research question, "What would happen if we tried this?..." then you research it. It may result in something really awesome. It may result in nothing. But both cases can be worth publishing. (For as much as the world needs more publications in the first place, but that's another story.)

How then should we determine which papers to accept and which papers to reject? Mainly based on two things. First of all, is the research question interesting and novel? (Someone looking into more efficient ways of calculating 1+1 could be doing more useful things.) And secondly, is the research done properly and thoroughly?

Of course there are many benefits to doing it in this way. But the most useful one is that researchers aren't tempted (okay, virtually required) to present whatever they came up with in the most positive (and unobjective) way possible. If we ignore the results section in our review system, we can finally get back to doing honest science.

Why children learn languages more quickly

2015/08/09 - This afternoon I went slacklining in the park. It was a new experience for me, and I learned a lot. But what I learned most of all was people's reactions when seeing it.

Some people see it and their eyes go wide with interest. Still, they cycle on to wherever it is they're going. Some people frown, resulting in a look of "What on earth is he doing?" Some people shout encouragement. And some people stop cycling and, filled with curiosity, watch what's going on. However, the only people that did that (and that overwhelmingly did that too) were children.

It reminded me of when I lived in Sweden for a few months. I gave myself the challenge: can I learn Swedish in such a brief time frame? I got really far, being able to read books and hold basic conversations. It's by no means fluent, but further than others (including me) expected. I learned about as fast as a child learned.

But what was the secret? The secret was that, whenever I saw something interesting, be it a traffic sign, a streetside poster or a commercial at a store, I stopped and tried to make sense out of it. This boundless curiosity is something children innately have. It's also something which I adopted, for my time in Sweden. And it opened up my world.

So why don't others have it? Because when you're very busy reaching a goal, you can't just stop doing what you're doing whenever something catches your eye. And reaching your goals is important too. I get that. And sometimes it comes at a cost. But it's important to make that trade-off.

So the lesson learned is this one. If you want to keep on expanding your worldview, you should never be so goal-focused that you cannot drop whatever it is you're doing when something really interesting catches your eye.

Do you have opinions about any of these posts? I'd always love to hear them. You can find links/discussions for most of these posts on my Facebook and Twitter pages. Or you can find some other way to contact me.