Experiments 1: Learning triviapost by casebash · 2014-07-20T10:31:38.377Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 15 comments
There has been some talk of a lack of content being posted to Less Wrong, so I decided to start a series on various experiments that I've tried and what I've learned from them as I believe that experimentation is key to being a rationalist. My first few posts will be adapted from content I've written for /r/socialskills, but as Less Wrong has a broader scope I plan to post some original content too. I hope that this post will encourage other people to share detailed descriptions of the experiments that they have tried as I believe that this is much more valuable than a list of lessons posted outside of the context in which they were learned. If anyone has already posted any similar posts, then I would really appreciate any links.
I used to have a lot of trouble in conversation thinking of things to say. I wanted to be a more interesting person and I noticed that my brother uses his knowledge of a broad range of topics to engage people in conversations, so I wanted to do the same.
I was drawn quite quickly towards facts because of how quickly they can be read. If a piece of trivia takes 10 seconds to read, then you can read 360 in an hour. If only 5% are good, then that's still 18 usable facts per hour. Articles are longer, but have significantly higher chances of teaching you something. It seemed like you should be able to prevent ever running out of things to talk about with a reasonable investment of time. It didn't quite work out this way, but this was the idea.d
Another motivation was that I have always valued intelligence and learning more information made me feel good about myself.
Today I learned: #1 recommended source
The straight dope: Many articles in the archive are quite interesting, but I unsubscribed because I found the more recent ones boring
Cracked: Not the most reliable source and can be a huge time sink, but occasionally there are articles there that will give you 6 or 7 interesting facts in one go
Dr Karl: Science blog
I read through the top 1000 links on Today I learned, the entire archive of the straight dope, maybe half of damn interesting and now I know, half of Karl and all the mythbusters results up to about a year or two ago. We are pretty much talking about months of solid reading.
You probably guessed it, but my return on investment wasn't actually that great. I tended to consume this trivia in ridiculously huge batches because by reading all this information I at least felt like I was doing something. If someone came up to me and asked me for a random piece of trivia - I actually don't have that much that I can pull out. It's actually much easier if someone asks about a specific topic, but there's still not that much I can access.
To test my knowledge I decided to pick the first three topics that came into my head and see how much random trivia I could remember about each. As you can see, the results were rather disappointing:
- Cats can survive falls from a higher number of floors better than a lower number of falls because they have a low terminal velocity and more time to orient themselves to ensure they land on their feet
- House cats can run faster than Ursain bolt
- If you are attacked by a dog the best strategy is to shove your hand down its mouth and attack the neck with your other hand
- Dogs can be trained to drive cars (slowly)
- There is such a thing as the world's ugliest dog competition
- Cheese is poisonous to rats
- The existence of rat kings - rats who got their tails stuck together
Knowing these facts does occasionally help me by giving me something interesting to say when I wouldn't have otherwise had it, but quite often I want to quote one of these facts, but I can't quite remember the details. It's hard to quantify how much this helps me though. There have been a few times when I've been able to get someone interested in a conversation that they wouldn't have otherwise been interested in, but I can also go a dozen conversations without quoting any of these facts. No-one has ever gone "Wow, you know so many facts!". Another motivation I had was that being knowledgeable makes me feel good about myself. I don't believe that there was any significant impact in this regard either - I don't have a strong self-concept of myself as someone who is particularly knowledgeable about random facts. Overall this experiment was quite disappointing given the high time investment.
While the social benefits have been extremely minimal, learning all of these facts has expanded my world view.
- I had no idea how crazy nature was: most surprising fact I've learned is that Bluebottles are multiple organisms
- Some of the stuff that the CIA got up to is unbelievable - you'd almost think it came from a conspiracy theorist
- There are many things that you take for granted, but when you think about it, are actually amazing coincidences - moon and sun appearing around the same size
- You don't want to get on the wrong side of the law as it can be horribly unjust
- The government is pretty careless with nuclear weapons. If we can't trust the government can't look after nukes, what can we trust them to look after?
While this technique worked poorly for me, there are many changes that I could have made that might have improved effectiveness.
- Lower batch sizes: when you read too many facts in one go you get tired and it all tends to blur together
- Notes: I started making notes of the most interesting facts I was finding using Evernote. I regularly add new facts, but only very occasionally go back and actually look them up. I was trying to review the new facts that I learned regularly, but I got busy and just fell out of the habit. Perhaps I could have a separate list for the most important facts I learn every week and this would be less effort?
- Rereading saved facts: I did a complete reread through my saved notes once. I still don't think that I have a very good recall - probably related to batch size!
- Spaced repetition: Many people claim that this make memorisation easy
- Thoughtback: This is a lighter alternative to spaced repetition - it gives you notifications on your phone of random facts - about one per day
- Talking to other people: This is a very effective method for remembering facts. That vast majority of facts that I've shared with other people, I still remember. Perhaps I should create a list of facts that I want to remember and then pick one or two at a time to share with people. Once I've shared them a few times, I could move on to the next fact
- Blog posts - perhaps if I collected some of my related facts into blog posts, having to decide which to include and which to not include my help me remember these facts more
- Pausing: I find that I am more likely to remember things if I pause and think that this is something that I want to remember. I was trying to build that habit, but I didn't succeed in this
- Other memory techniques: brains are better at remembering things if you process them. So if you want to remember the story where thieves stole a whole beach in one night, try to picture the beach and then the shock when some surfer turns up and all the sand is gone. Try to imagine what you'd need to pull that off.
I believe that if I had spread my reading out over a greater period of time, then the cost would have been justified. Part of this would have been improved retention and part of this would have been having a new interesting fact to use in conversation every week that I know I hadn't told anyone else before.
The social benefits are rather minimal, so it would be difficult to get them to match up with the time invested. I believe that with enough refinement, someone could improve their effectiveness to the stage where the benefits matched up with the effort invested, but broadening one's knowledge will always be the primary advantage gained.
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