Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Miscellaneous Noise

There are several things that I wanted to blog about but didn't, because none of these topics deserved an entire post. So, well, here are all the miscellaneous things that are on my mind.

Twitter. In the end I decided to try twitter. Doing so without letting it consume me is pretty difficult. While I try to keep my signal-noise ratio high, it's easy to retort to the "show everyone your shit" theme. It's worth it, though, because twitter makes me read more: many people post links through tweets, and I've caught on to that trend. In the end, your twitter experience all dependents on who you follow.

Cognitive Science Essay. I was hoping to publish it, as a summary of what I learned outside of class. Unfortunately, I grossly underestimated the amount of reading required to produce something good. I had to trade more reading for less writing, and settle for unsound arguments and butchered English. So instead of publishing the original essay, I'll probably convert its contents into one or two blog posts. Stay tuned.

Steve Pavlina. I was first introduced to Steve Pavlina's personal development blog about 6 months ago, and had since then learned that he is quite well-known. Indeed some of his articles really resonate with what I never quite put into words. They are quite rewarding to read. On the other hand, there's something really fishy about his site. The amount of product-endorsements on there is unbelievable -- some are questionable (like his recent post about "eliminating a limiting belief"), others are known to be scam (like PhotoReading). I think that if he really was serious about helping people grow, he wouldn't try to make people dependent on products, even his own. So, check out his blog, you might find it helpful, but please be careful and ... please don't worship him.

Failing Work Report. As I mentioned, this failure felt like pure freedom. It was relieving to know that I don't have to be one of those blind losers, that I won't have to worry about maintaining a clean record, and that I've taken yet another step to focus on what's important. This was one of my few academic failures, so naturally I was apprehensive about the mandatory tutorial session that followed. It would help me learn to fail, I thought. But no... the marker spent the entire tutorial session being impressed by the fact that I actually prepared for it! So I'm still too diligent to fail... -sigh-. (Oh, and all I need to do is make the edits they told me to make and resubmit to pass...)

End of Entry

Saturday, November 21, 2009

using affirmations for dreaming

Some of you have expressed the desire to experience interesting dream phenomena (lucid dreaming and possibly more). Though I am a rather inexperienced amateur in this field, there's one tip that I found helpful, and that is -- to state an affirmation just before going to sleeping.

The Monroe Institute uses the following one,
I am more than my physical body. Because I am more than physical matter, I can perceive that which is greater than the physical world. Therefore, I deeply desire to Expand, to Experience; to Know, to Understand; to Control, to Use such greater energies and energy systems as may be beneficial and constructive to me and to those who follow me. Also, I deeply desire the help and cooperation, the assistance, the understanding of those individuals whose wisdom, development and experience are equal or greater than my own. I ask their guidance and protection from any influence or any source that might provide me with less than my stated desires.
The important points here are (1) stating your open-ness to experiences that might contradict pure materialism, (2) stating your desire for these experiences, and (3) asking other entities for help. Monroe suggests that the last point is actually very important.

Of course, it's much better to use your own affirmation than a canned one. Here's one that I started using. I don't repeat it verbatim, so it comes out differently every night.
I know that there is more to the physical world, and I wish to expand my knowledge, understanding, and experience of it. I desire and appreciate all the help and assistance from entities whose wisdom and experience are greater or equal to that of mine, so that I can achieve those stated goals.
I was also told to ask for help in doing something specific. The specific thing you want will change over time, which is again why the affirmation will probably change from night to night. You may or may not get instant results, but either way, let me know about it if you're comfortable enough =).

(Confirmation bias? Self-fulfilling prophecies? Sure, it could very well be. But could it be a pattern that might open the door to something else? Maybe. We won't know unless we keep our minds open.)

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Life as an entity

Reading "Ant Fugue" in GEB made me think of a way to defend my talking about "life" as a conscious, intelligent entity that I interact with, as I did in my previous entries (e.g. here and here).

Holism is the idea that the whole is more than a sum of its parts. The relations and interactions between the parts can give the whole characteristics not found in any of the parts. This is why an ant colony can be seen as an entity, with perhaps intelligent behaviour, while each individual ant is not very intelligent. In the dialogue "Ant Fugue" in GEB, the characters talk about their conversations with an ant colony -- one that is intelligent and seemingly conscious. This "intelligence" and "consciousness" come not from any particular ant, but the interactions between the ants. Hopfstadter describes how the concentration of the cast distribution can contain information, which when grouped into higher and higher levels can lead to intelligent behaviour. The ants themselves are not very important - they are constantly being replaced, without really affecting the colony. Incidentally, this is very much like how our brains supposedly work. We are conscious, but this consciousness doesn't come from an individual neuron -- it's more likely to come from the way the neurons interact. As before, normal neuron deaths and replacements do not affect us.

You can begin to see where this is going - "life" is like the ant colony, and every object in my vicinity (perhaps also everything in my past and future) is like an individual ant. These objects, taken together and allowed to interact, display a kind of behaviour that seems intelligent. The actual objects in my vicinity will change, but that doesn't destroy the integrity of the entity. By living my life and in doing so making certain decisions, I am in effect communicating with this being. It seems to be helping me, teaching me, and prompting me with interesting experiences. Maybe it really is intelligent and conscious. Maybe I'll know one day.

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the "common sense" view of life

Professors seem to love to point out how the "common sense" view about life is a dualist view: that there's a mind and a body, two separate things, with the mind capable of existing without the body. They say that this is the view of life that most people grow up with, but that it does not make as much sense as materialism. Funny thing is that I (and some of you) have got it all reversed! We grew up with the opposite view, an atheist and materialist view. Only later are we introduced to the idea that there might be a God, a soul, and a distinction between the material and - perhaps - the spiritual.

Then comes the myriad of oddities about life: OBE's, NDE's, certain lucid dreams, strange psychic-like experiences. What do we make of it? The explanations from my professors are that these are illusions, hallucinations, pseudo-science, folktale... but wouldn't it be so much harder for them to say that if they themselves had similar experiences? Perhaps they are stuck in sleep paralysis and met a ghost who helped them wake up. Perhaps they have a friend who consistently sees ghosts, or a friend who talks about having psychic experiences. It's so much harder to discount those experiences when they're close to you. I think that difficulty comes from an intuitive knowledge that these individual experiences, though not scientifically testable or reproducible, does give us legitimate information about this strange, strange world.

It does complicate things when many people lie about their experiences. Yes, there are lots of people who are willing to deceive, lots of people waiting to drain the pocket of the gullible by falsely claiming that they have "special powers". They're horrible people, but they don't change the fact that the universe might be much more complicated than we give it credit for. I really want to know whether this experience is real. I want to know whether there are any critics of Robert Monroe, and whether they found anything wrong with his institute, or with the Stargate Project.

I think that the typical materialist should open their eyes to a new set of observations. Sticking to objective, repeatable, and "scientific" knowledge got us pretty far, but it might also restrict us. Maybe this is just one of those things that you can't rely on other people to tell you. Maybe there are things that we just have to discover for ourselves to know.

End of Entry

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Way to improve Jobmine's matching process

Yes, yes, there are tons of ways to improve jobmine. Googling "jobmine sucks" returns tons of reasons why Jobmine lacks usability. I won't go into it here, because though important, they don't directly affect the core functionality of jobmine. Inefficient job matching process, however, does.

The matching process is as follows: during round one interviews, employers have three weeks to interview students and assign a rank between 1 and 9 (not necessarily distinct) to each qualified candidate. After the three weeks deadline, students see the jobs that they are ranked for. A rank of 1 shows up as an "Offer", and a rank >1 shows up as "Ranked". Now, students are given a weekend to rank each of the positions from 1 to 9 (not necessarily distinct). Jobmine then matches students and jobs by minimizing the combined rankings of students and employers. (More details here.)

Sounds good in theory. In practice, students have difficult choices when faced with "Ranked" for a job they want, and "Offer" for a job they don't like as much. Students know that if they rank an "offer" job a 1, they will get the job for sure. This security makes offers attractive. The situation actually happened to me once, and like many students I took the offer. Imagine my delight as I found out that my first choice job was left unfilled.

I think that the problem lies in the lack of information flow. Students don't know how other students will behave. Incidentally, there have been facebook groups set up to facilitate information flow, allowing students to share their ranking results and preferences. There were people who emailed all candidates to ask whether anyone is taking this job. Unfortunately, Jobmine's interface makes it seems as though we should be as secretive as possible. But why shouldn't we share information to achieve a collectively better result?

One solution that would work well is a rolling ranking process: accept student ranking submissions that result in an offer being taken any time throughout the weekend. The system can then update the other jobs that the student was offered/ranked for to indicate their unavailability. This change can then be reflected on other students' ranking pages: e.g. if John is offered for job X, and Mary is ranked 2nd, and John takes a different job, then Mary would see "Offer" on her rankings page.

At least one advantage of this method should be clear: non-econ majors wouldn't have to study game theory to find the optimal rating strategy, and everyone will have better chances in choosing the jobs they want the most. This is done while preserving employer's ranking privacy -- more so than the facebook group and emailing!

A less obvious advantage is that the number of jobs filled should increase. We can expect that a small percentage of students will have a large number of offers from high-profile companies, usually ones that take in a flexible amount of students. These students must reject all but one offer. I assume that many of these positions are left unfilled, as people who are ranked for these positions settle for offers, which are safer. These companies would be left with no matches, and may be disinclined to continue into second round, reducing the number of total jobs. This is clearly avoidable in a rolling process. Offers not yet taken can go to a second group of students. Offers not taken by this group would again be trickled downwards. More jobs will be filled, which is a plus for both employers and students.

You might note one potential disadvantage: employers will be more likely to be matched with students further down on their priority list. With the employers I know, it's not a problem. Students think that the difference between an "offer" and a "rank" is huge, and feel awkward working for an employer who preferred someone else. The employers, on the other hand, highlight the difficulty in choosing students. To them, everyone they ranked is good. Employers, unlike students, have the ability to not rank a student (and rightly so).

Incidentally, I think that students should be able to reject an employer as well, and in this case, a more elegant matching method exists. Currently, students can be matched with a job they don't want even if they rank it 9. They then face the choice of wasting 4 months or failing the term.

Currently, to prevent being matched with a job, you must initiate a tedious sign-off process involving the student, the CECS, and the employer. The student must show that the position is sufficiently different from the stated job description. CECS seems to think that this is the only legitimate reason a student might reject a job, but there are other reasons: You might not like your future boss. You might not like the culture, bureaucracy, or disorganization of the company. You might not like the salary. There's a reason that an interview is a two-way street, and the mere fact that CECS wants to be so strict about this shows that there are jobs students don't like. The employer has the opportunity to not rank a student, so why shouldn't it be the other way around? CECS might say that taking a job is better than being unemployed, but that should be the student's decision, not anyone else's.

CECS might also suggest that an easy sign-off process would encourage students to apply to jobs without the intent of accepting it, and prevent student accountability. This is a legitimate concern, however we should note that an application is just as much a cost to the students as it is to the employer, and students don't normally have an incentive to pay this cost. Of course there are people who apply to jobs for "practice" or other reasons - but these people are already doing it! It's easy for a serious person to figure out how to avoid being ranked. CECS is really penalizing the honest students: first years who panicked under the stress of the economy and other students who genuinely wanted the job at first.

The other problem that CECS might want to prevent is employer disappointment. It's a legitimate concern in a shrinking economy, but wasting 4 months of a student's time just comfort an employer's hurt feelings? I don't know about that. I think it's fair game to let law of demand and supply dictate which jobs will be filled. Besides, job rejection is actually a norm in society, and employers should understand that as well.

(Some people may be disinclined to make the distinction between"good jobs" vs "bad jobs". There is no dichotomy here, I agree, but I'd also invite them to just look at some jobs titles in Jobmine - "Algorithmic Trading Developer", "Parking Attendant", "Student Marketing Analyst", "Head Cook", "Chemistry Research Assistant", "Brine Maker"....)

So, with this rejection ability in place, we have a second solution to the initial problem: to make job ranking and job rejection asynchronous: let job rejection happen any time in the weekend, and keep job ranking at the end. Every time a job is rejected, update everything as before (as in John and Mary). Like before, a student who is certain that he wants to take a particular job offer can reject all the other positions except one (and in doing so passes this information to other people). But this time, a student who is still deciding between two of his offers can pass down the rest of his offers, without having reached a decision.

Of course, I haven't modeled/tested these claims, and if there's something wrong with my reasoning, please let me know.

End of Entry