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Collecting and hoarding crap, useless information

18 Post author: lionhearted 10 October 2010 09:05PM

I am realizing something that many, many intelligent people are guilty of - collecting and hoarding and accumulating crap, useless information. This is dangerous, because it feels like you're doing something useful, but you're not.

However, speaking personally - once I decide to start focusing and researching something systematically to get better at it, it gets harder to do. For instance, I taught myself statistics mostly using baseball stats. It was a fun, easy, harmless context to learn statistics.

I read lots of history and historical fiction. I read up lots on business and entrepreneurship. This is easy and fun and enjoyable.

But then, when I decide to really hone in, it becomes much harder. For instance, I'm doing some casual research on the history of insurgencies and asymmetrical warfare. This is the kind of thing I'd read all the time for fun, but now that I'm working on it systematically, it becomes a lot harder.

Likewise business and entrepreneurship - I read lots and lots on technology, financing, market research, marketing, etc. But now that I'm really nailing down one aspect for my next business, it becomes almost strenuous to work on that.

It's like... collecting and hoarding useless, unfocused information is for us what collecting and hoarding a bunch of useless consumer shit is for most people. I'd reckon that people that hang out here are smarter with money and less into buying junk, but, at least for me, I'm spending a lot of my time buying junk information.

Alright, back to reading about Tienanmen Square and Rome/Carthage and the Tet Offensive, and nailing down the buying criteria and budgets of the market I want to be in. Why it is so much easier to focus and collect crap mentally than to do it systematically on meaningful topics? Do you do this? I seriously doubt I'm the only one...

Comments (21)

Comment author: RichardKennaway 11 October 2010 01:03:27PM *  7 points [-]

This is what it is to be serious about something. Suddenly, you are doing the work instead of going for a pleasant stroll. There's nothing wrong with the pleasant stroll in itself, but some purposes require a different attitude, what I am calling seriousness and the work.

Likewise business and entrepreneurship - I read lots and lots on technology, financing, market research, marketing, etc. But now that I'm really nailing down one aspect for my next business, it becomes almost strenuous to work on that.

It is strenuous. That's what makes it work -- in both readings of that sentence. If someone is unaccustomed to doing the work, it can look like nothing but a burden, or a wall of Ugh.

A few examples.

One of my colleagues served as head of department for a few years, and in that capacity he would have to see students who were failing in their studies and give them a talking to. He developed a routine for this. He would see them in batches of a dozen at a time, and he would ask them, "How many hours of studying did you do last week?" Already to say "hours", plural, was optimistic. Some of them weren't doing anything at all but turning up for lectures, and some not even that. So then he would ask if any of them did something like playing in a band that got gigs, or in a competitive football team. In a group of that size there would usually be one or two, and he would ask how much practice they put in. And the answer would be something like, "we've a training session on Tuesdays, and a practice game on Thursdays, and then league games on the weekends--" they were, in other words, doing the work on these things, because they were serious. And that, he would tell them, is what they needed to be doing in their studies.

I've had an amateur interest in artificial languages for a long time, and then a few years ago I was invited to write the article on artificial languages for a linguistics encyclopedia. And there were all these things that I sort of generally knew about, but now I had to seriously read up on and think about and get critiqued by contacts in the conlang community, in order to write a professionally informed exposition in an academic book. So, after getting over my initial reaction of "What? Who? Me?" I started on the work.

My brother is a professional classical musician, as was my father, and they've both said that the biggest difference between amateur musicians and professionals is not that one does it for love and the other money, but the seriousness that the professional brings to it that most amateurs don't (with rare and wonderful exceptions). Of course, the professional must have a certain level of seriousness, because it's the food on his plate and the roof over his head, but to be an outstanding musician takes even more than that, or he's just "digging his daily trench of Mozart" (as James Galway once put it in an interview), or doing the job instead of the work (Seth Godin).

Another concept in the area of being serious about something is being a geek about it (as long as it's not just intensely focussed work on trivia).

Or cargo cult planes versus the real thing.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 11 October 2010 02:39:27PM 12 points [-]

Effort Shock:

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at their job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s ten or twenty times harder.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 October 2010 09:38:44PM *  10 points [-]

I do this a lot. It's probably because gaining a broad understanding of a topic feels a lot more like "fun" than it does "work," while gaining a systematic and deeper understanding feels a lot more like "work" than "fun." Also, gaining a systematic understanding of a subject involves a lot more memorization and mental effort, so it is more cognitively taxing than just reading introductory books for enjoyment. Lastly, systematic research and learning often involves studying the parts of a particular subject that you find boring (which you would skip over when doing cursory reading).

Comment author: Zetetic 11 October 2010 08:14:53AM 0 points [-]

I agree with this, I find it much easier and probably more fun to browse a subject at the top level, but I also experience a sort of pleasure in obtaining a complex formalization of an idea that wraps it up in a neat package. I think that it is for this reason that I can pleasurably read a mathematics text in say, Model Theory or Set Theory or Lambda Calculus (to a somewhat lesser degree).

I do notice that my pleasure in learning a subject increases with respect to two variables: the apparent breadth of it's implications and the applicability it has to my general understanding of the world. Together these seem to amount to how much stuff I can conceptually organize in to a formal framework with the information.

Maybe if you have an over arching goal in mind it could help you out. My broadest goal is to be able to consider as many objects and events as possible in formal frameworks so that I have a clear picture of how things interrelate. I immensely enjoy being able to break down what I might be mulling over or what I have experienced in novel ways to try to get insight in to the subject. So, when I research something related to history, it is because I am worried about modern politics, possible misinformation and about why I might take a certain stance on an issue rather than an obsessive desire to pick up neat little nuggets of information.

I have found that cycling through a specific spectrum of ebooks gives me a good result. What I do is I read a text on a subject I find interesting until it becomes difficult to follow, and then I switch to learning something else, and break it up with diversions whether it's watching a video of some sort or playing a game of Go etc. I generally find that when I come back to the subject (I don't have a good time frame for this) I have a much more intuitive grasp of the material I had previously learned, and can often anticipate certain things that appear in the new material. I then can easily go further along in the book than I could before. This allows me to maintain my level of fun while going deeper in to a subject without burning out. A caveat: I enjoy working problems, so if you don't (depending on the subject), you probably will hit a ceiling as far as learning and maintaining your fun level goes.

On the other hand, you might just find yourself meandering ebooks (if you have a collection as large as mine and you are like me, you will). However; I have generally found that I meandering through technical ebooks can often lead to new insights and new areas to explore and can often lead to a better understanding of previously explored subjects. It is like wikicrawling on steroids.

Comment author: steven0461 11 October 2010 08:46:28AM 1 point [-]

In the one case you're constraining yourself to look at info that's useful to the task at hand, in the other not. It stands to reason that when you have more freedom to look at whatever is appealing at the time and skip over what would otherwise be necessary difficult steps, you'll have an easier and more fun time of it. But you pay for that by not having a systematic analysis.

Comment author: nickernst 11 October 2010 02:42:47AM 3 points [-]

I wouldn't have thought to use that analogy, but I'm all too familiar with Ugh Fields. What's a shift in context for the same task? You re-weight the value of success and failure. When the activity was for fun, there was no real way to fail! Even naming the value of success can be hazardous - sometimes a person focusing on the "prize" of success will notice the other positive aspects of the activity less.

Personally, I've often found myself focusing on the prize most associated with the greatest potential losses. I went so far at the end of college as to identify success as the negative of failing. Perhaps it's something that happens when you fail a lot in sequence, and don't have time to re-evaluate goals. Making a desperate effort is not the best way for every person to be motivated. You build up negative affect for the activity or topic, if you don't get a good reward fast enough. Easier to think about the things that matter less - no loss, no stress.

If this rings true, then I hope you find an optimal strategy for dealing with it! I mentioned narrowing down the prize. When it's "work", I often find that I stop thinking about means as ends - the finish line is stuck in my mind, and the beautiful mountain trail is defined only by how inconvenient or hard it is. This might sound crazy, but I'd recommend making a solid plan that's much more ambitious than you need for your end goal, and then think about the end goal less often than you would normally.

Comment author: CronoDAS 10 October 2010 10:44:58PM 6 points [-]

You might want to include the Second Boer War, the Philippine-American War, and the 1991 uprisings in Iraq in your study of asymmetrical warfare. All three are modern-day examples of insurgencies that were successfully and dramatically defeated by a conventional army.

Asymmetrical warfare is a lot harder when your enemy is willing to "make a wasteland and call it peace". Guerrillas can't hide among civilians if all the civilians are dead, enslaved, or in internment camps.

Comment author: lionhearted 10 October 2010 11:07:17PM *  3 points [-]

You might want to include the Second Boer War, the Philippine-American War, and the 1991 uprisings in Iraq in your study of asymmetrical warfare. All three are modern-day examples of insurgencies that were successfully and dramatically defeated by a conventional army.

Philippine-American is actually one of my key examples - the ideas for this came together when I read a description of the Philippine-American war and some key conflicts, and how Mao's rural countryside recruiting and tactics enabled him to take over China. Looking at the two together, I started realizing that a lot of guerrilla warfare is about symbolic victories for recruiting purposes, and about shaking the will of the opposing side. I'll check into 1991 and the Second Boer War as examples too, thanks for that.

Asymmetrical warfare is a lot harder when your enemy is willing to "make a wasteland and call it peace". Guerrillas can't hide among civilians if all the civilians are dead, enslaved, or in internment camps.

Indeed, but I'd phrase it a little differently. "If one side fights much more honorably than the other, they lose."

Thanks for the feedback. Great stuff.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 11 October 2010 01:16:09PM *  4 points [-]

"If one side fights much more honorably than the other, they lose."

That's one factor, but there are many others.

I recall something that someone who knows some military history once said in conversation: The most dangerous weapon in the hands of a terrorist gang is not a nuclear bomb, or a truckload of Semtex and Armalites, but an officer. Because when a rabble goes up against an army, the rabble loses every time, and the difference between a rabble and an army is military discipline, training, organisation, and experience. That's one reason that parts of Eastern Europe became so violent after the collapse of the USSR. They'd had conscription for years, and there were a lot of disaffected young men with the military experience to organise fighting bands.

Comment author: taw 27 October 2010 04:09:45AM 1 point [-]

That's one reason that parts of Eastern Europe became so violent after the collapse of the USSR.

It never happened.

Even the bloodiest Bosnian War killed barely 100k people, and most were little more than tiny border skirmishes. In a region where half billion people live - in historically the most bloodthirsty continent of history Europe - after total political and economic collapse - it is just ridiculous to call it "so violent". It was easily the least violent fall of a major empire in history of the world.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 27 October 2010 04:17:21PM *  1 point [-]

I don't follow the logic there. You link to a page describing a war, and say that refutes the assertion that ex-conscripts were a factor in the violence, on the grounds that some other historical upheavals were more violent.

"Malaria transmitted by mosquitos? Nonsense, smallpox is far worse!"

Comment author: Cyan 27 October 2010 04:31:01PM 2 points [-]

Your post seems to make an implicit claim not just for violence but for unusually intense violence (plus a causal explanation based on the availability of ex-military men). taw claims that the violence was not unusually intense.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 27 October 2010 05:07:45PM 0 points [-]

With respect to what reference class? taw took "falls of empires" and dismisses 100k casualties out of half a billion people (half a billion? [1]) as tantamount to "never happened". I took "the state of things before the USSR went away" and rate 100k casualties and 2M refugees out of the population in the region where this happened as "going to hell in a handbasket".

But if you look at anything from far enough away, you won't see it.

[1] Half a billion in Eastern Europe? Eastern Europe here means that part of Europe which was under the control of the USSR. Estimating this to be all the non-EU European countries, plus all former subject states of the USSR that joined the EU since 1989, minus Switzerland, I get less than 200M (source: various Wikipedia pages). Adding Ukraine (which I don't classify as part of Europe, though some might; certainly nowhere farther east counts) gets another 45M. Maybe taw is including the entire population of the USSR and its subject states in his reference class for "where this happened"?

Comment author: Cyan 28 October 2010 12:11:52AM 0 points [-]

Just in case it wasn't clear, I'm not taking a stand on either side; I'm not well-informed enough.

Comment author: taw 27 October 2010 06:36:26PM -1 points [-]

Adding Ukraine (which I don't classify as part of Europe, though some might; certainly nowhere farther east counts)

What the fuck????? Check what "Europe" means in any reference material. If you mean something else, use another word.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 28 October 2010 08:47:59PM *  0 points [-]

"Figures for the population of Europe vary according to which definition of European boundaries is used."

But then, if Ukraine is already in Europe, that means I was double-counting when I added Ukraine, and the lower figure of under 200M applies. The "non-EU European population" component of that is from here: 94M. You can look up for yourself which definition of "Europe" that uses. If you're going to include Russia as far as Kamchatka in "Europe", well, why not include the whole world. Bosnia was a mere speck compared with six billion. "Never happened."

Comment author: blogospheroid 11 October 2010 04:29:14AM 1 point [-]

Hi,

My name is Prakash, I post as blogospheroid, and I am a useless information addict.

On a more serious note, I face huge ugh fields when I try to systematically set aside some time to marshall my thoughts into a letter to the editor or a blog post. I never even went ahead and created my own blog.

But Tsuyoku Naritai. I want to get better here and am slowly applying anti-akrasia techniques and am starting a course of meditation.

Comment author: Hurt 11 October 2010 02:13:56AM *  1 point [-]

I suffer from this ailment, I don't have much physical "stuff" (well I do have a fairly decent number of books, but they don't take a lot of space). I do have a large collection of very useful, but not-yet-studied/read electronic material. Mostly I find it a clever form of work avoidance. I go out and find something shiny and new rather than focus on what I need/feel obligated to work on.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 02 April 2011 01:23:02PM *  0 points [-]

Any progress or changes to report, lionhearted, over the 6 months since you posted this?

Comment author: AnlamK 11 October 2010 03:00:12AM *  -3 points [-]

I agree with caveats. I mean I just looked up what the hell is a 'g6' - it turns out it's a twin-engine airplane manufactured by Gulf Stream. (They will finish production in 2012 - it's said. Price tag is $58M.)

Now I surely for hell didn't need to know that but I couldn't help myself... like a g6... so fly like a g6...

My caveat is that it may be good to accumulate seemingly useless information. You can't after all predict when it'll be handy.

Comment author: DSimon 11 October 2010 04:04:18PM 4 points [-]

You can't after all predict when it'll be handy.

I can make very reasonable guesses that some information is more likely to be handy than other information, and research accordingly.