Tag Archives: quora

Judging Strangers

Everything I do depends on other members of our species… And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species.
-the inspiring Steve Jobs


I can be pretty judgmental. I believe I also change my mind as I get new information but I don’t know how true that is. In any case, after reading Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, I thought Jobs was an awesome visionary, a self-made hero who transformed, revolutionized and created several unique industries.

Isaacson’s book made me tear up- the drama of Jobs’ creative dreams was so inspiring to an enterprising young person like myself, plus he’s an orphan who grew up to enslave a meek, unambitious, gentle giant genius and force tons of people smarter than him to work harder and smarter than they would’ve asked of themselves. And he wore the same clothes all the time like a dorky superhero. What a courageous star!

Then I read Jobs’ favorite book, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Apparently Steve Jobs read this book every single year. He made it the first iBook. Has anyone else read this?

My reaction to this book was, “I love Steve Jobs but I have no idea what this yogi is talking about. Am I insane?”

Midway through this book I concluded I had no idea what this yogi was talking about and Steve Jobs was insane.

I actually liked the book and found its preachings of spirituality over materialism inspiring. There were interesting parts about Bose’s plant and radio discoveries that I hadn’t known about (I used to be a Tesla fan (before it was cool!) but now I think Bose might be even cooler, plus I’m nicer to my plants and even my objects (Guys, it’s science. Seriously)) (Also I am really good at yoga, probably a prodigy). But most of the “autobiography” didn’t make any sense. Are we supposed to believe that yogis can levitate or are we supposed to view this whole book as some kind of metaphor? I got the impression it was NOT supposed to be read as fiction- the yogi seemed to believe all this stuff. Did he have the power to bend reality, or was he hallucinating, or was he deliberately lying, or was this some kind of meta art, or is none of it meant to be taken literally?

I still love Steve Jobs. What these books made me realize is how a relatively small new piece of information can really change one’s judgment of a stranger, and how weird that is relative to the slack I give to people I actually know, and the slack I wish for them to bestow me in return.

My best friends could (and do) say anything- no matter how offensive- and I still don’t think they’re bigots because it’s just one drop in the ocean of information we have on one another. In contrast if a total stranger said something evil, I’d probably just never talk to them again because now the only thing I know about them is that they say weird things. Even though I know the likelihood of someone being evil is low, when 100% of my information about someone is negative, maybe I can be justified in judging them for it.

The thing that happened with my judgment of Jobs is not like the complete stranger scenario because I knew a lot about Jobs- I’d read 700+ pages of writing about him, and yet this single new piece of information about this yogi book easily changed the way I viewed him. Maybe it’s because everything I know about Jobs is second hand, so this new piece of information is given the same weight as “founded Apple”- they’re both random facts that took me 30 seconds to learn and my brain doesn’t realize that “favorite book: Autobiography of a Yogi” maybe shouldn’t have the same weight as “founded the most valuable company ever and ran it for decades.”

People are complicated and have lots of inconsistencies because we’re all crazy. Public figures and strangers are not people the way people who we actually know are people. No matter how much you know about a stranger, you still don’t think of them as a real person. Our brains naturally assign stereotypes to people- we map stuff onto other stuff and when we don’t know someone, we make assumptions about them. Maybe a 30 second sound bite can undo 30 years of patriotism and civil service and professional excellence and loving parenthood because the time it took us to process the soundbite is the same as the amount of time it took us to learn they were war heroes or human rights advocates or whatever. We only know our own experiences so when we don’t have personal experience with someone, our judgment can be totally off.

People can be really mean to each other on the internet. The only Internet places I’ve participated in public discourse are Quora, Hacker News, and this blog, all places populated by nerds who are probably more intelligent and educated than 90% of humans. But many responses are either “This person agrees with me, except more so. This person is a genius” or “This person disagrees with me and is an idiot who’s also a jerk and probably hates me and begrudges my happiness and is trying to steal my freedom by annoying me with his crazy comments.”

I think in general people are actually really nice to me on the internet because I don’t hide my identity as a lovable Chinese girl. But whenever I do something anonymously, I see what many Internet men have to deal with. People will completely misread whatever you were saying! They assume you’re a stupid, disagreeable, male jerk and accuse you of all manner of nonsense. For a time this was very annoying because how could someone be so totally wrong! In response I’d either make some joke, present some data that proved their idiocy, or ignore them.

But now whenever I feel the urge to accuse the commenter of being a mean, illiterate troll and basically becoming a troll myself, I now do this trick of pretending the commenter is a particular friend of mine who disagrees with me about everything. I’m not going to say who this person is, but s/he knows who s/he is. And I find I’m way nicer to everyone on the internet when I do this because now my map of “disagreeable person” is no longer “anonymous jerk” but “annoyingly argumentative friend who doesn’t read the correct news sources but is still cool.” I can still get annoyed when a friend obstinately disagrees with me but I’m more open to changing my mind and don’t assume they’re being intentionally stupid or difficult.

Maybe I’ll also try this trick with public figures. Because most public figures are generally not that stupid or evil. They’re strangers, and strangers are not like real people.

Any thoughts to offer a 24 yr old who feels that time is passing at an ever accelerating pace?

Answer by Nancy Hua:

I heard that the brain mainly records new events and your perception of time is based on the number of memories. This makes sense to me because I’m not likely to remember every time I go scuba diving but I’ll probably remember the first time. If I have no memory of last night it’ll feel like last night didn’t happen, like time skipped from yesterday to today, whereas if I stayed up all night talking with a new person it’ll feel like a really long day. This could explain the phenomena you’re describing and prescribe a solution.

When you’re a kid, everything is new, nothing has ever happened to you before (which is part of why kids are lured by strangers into cars, etc: they don’t know what’s normal). Thus your first summer at camp might feel like it’s lasted a million years- you feel yourself changing because your brain is experiencing and recording a lot of new events, meeting new people, and learning new ideas. The fraction of stuff that’s newly recorded in your brain is high, and you feel like time has passed slowly.

As our lives progress, the rate of learning and new experiences tends to slow. As you age and begin a career, you don’t learn new things as frequently. You’re gaining expertise and your community is not changing as much. Furthermore the probability of some event being new to your brain is lower- a monotonically increasing fraction of experiences will map to an existing memory. Because your brain doesn’t record as many new memories, time feels like it’s passing more quickly.

Maybe if you want to make time seem like it’s passing more slowly, you have to get your brain to form a lot of new connections. To do this, you can try to learn a lot of new things, go to new environments, and gain new experiences, which is going to be harder as time passes for obvious reasons, but should be getting easier as technology advances. The amount of information accessible to any person is always increasing, connections between people are always increasing, and travel frictions are constantly decreasing.

The model of getting good at one occupation and doing it repeatedly might make time seem to fly by unless you’re deliberate about it. You could deliberately choose to keep a level of failure in your work and life so that your’e always pushing yourself to become more of an expert and learning new things. Your brain will form new connections every time you go to a sufficiently different environment, so changing locations will make you feel like time is slower and that more stuff is happening to you because you’re forming new memories. Engaging with sufficiently different types of people will also stimulate you.

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What is Nancy Hua going to do next?

Someone asked What is Nancy Hua going to do next? on Quora and then people offered me credits to answer. Who can resist Quora credits? This question has been on my mind a lot. Whenever I dwell on something, it tends to degenerate to the terminal question, “What is the meaning of life?” How often do people think about this? Talking about my weird thoughts caused someone to tell me not to have a midlife crisis. I haven’t even said all the most outlandish things I think. But here’s another taste:

I don’t think I’ve achieved very much in life yet. Looking at people who’ve changed the world and helped so many others, relative to them I haven’t accomplished anything. However, I don’t feel like they’re fundamentally better than me because they’re not superhuman- they’re people just like us, and many of them were born in vastly inferior circumstances, often simply because the past sucks compared to the present. A person born in modern times can impact billions of people with a few years of work, which wasn’t true for anyone even 100 years ago. Newton’s knowledge of science and math is nothing compared to mine, and forget women born even a few decades before me. By virtue of birth, I understand the nature of reality better than Benjamin Franklin- isn’t that awesome? I don’t idealize any past golden age because it’s obvious that now is the best time to have been born. I’d rather be me, right now, than an 18th century king.

The suggestion that our species may have peaked 50 years ago is terrifying and sad. If anyone believed our species were degenerating, it’d be their top priority to try to reverse this trend. Wouldn’t it be tragic if our children looked back and wished they’d been born 100 years ago, or that things became so bad they would even prefer to have been born in Victorian England?

Similarly, there shouldn’t be a golden age of my life either- I want to always want to be what I am, to never look back and wish to be a previous version of myself. I think so far that trend has held- whenever I remember previous Nancy’s, their stupidity mortifies me and I feel thankful current Nancy is so superior in comparison, and I happily anticipate my future self dismantling my current self. I want to always feel that way, just as I always want to feel that human beings are getting better and better.

This trend of progress doesn’t arise without deliberate work. If many people hadn’t dedicated their lives to advancing our race, if Nelson Mandela hadn’t been courageous and self sacrificing, if Turing hadn’t been patriotic and determined, it’s quite possible that I wouldn’t feel blessed to have been born in this age, that our species could’ve peaked decades ago and all that would await us would be pollution and mutual annihilation. We must choose to continuously improve, both as a species and as individuals. When I think about what I want to work on, it’s with both humbleness and boldness. Why not reach for greatness? What do I have to lose- I haven’t achieved anything yet!

In general I’m looking for enormous growth. Our world has several areas offering exponential growth so there’s a lot to learn and consider. Due to my noncompete period, I can’t discuss work with non prospective partners, so ask me in 2013.

Current projects include
1) fundraising for PGSS, a nerd camp I attended in high school, http://pgssalumni.org,
2) blogging at http://nancyhua.com (this blog will probably exist until December),
3) writing screenplays,
4) trading my personal account (allowed iff I manually enter every trade),
5) researching startups.

Batman vs. Charles Dickens

Quora posted my answer to the Huffington Post! The nancyhua.com version below has a longer ending than the Huffington/Quora because I feel more free to ramble on my own site (perhaps you’re surprised to discover I show restraint when writing on other sites, or at all. Here’s a way for you to contrast the difference between me writing haphazardly and even more haphazardly). This answer is rife with spoilers of Dickens, Dark Knight, and the meaning of life, so if you don’t want to be initiated into the mysteries of the universe, resist the urge to read on:

What Do You Think of Christopher Nolan Using A Tale of Two Cities for Inspiration for the Script to The Dark Knight Rises?

I didn’t notice Nolan was using A Tale of Two Cities until the Act 5 (or 7?…) burial scene where Gordon quotes directly from it, “‘Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done,” at which point the incongruous stuff such as the scenes of blue collar people tearing fur coats off trophy wives suddenly had an explanation. Those scenes otherwise make zero sense to me: how are the middle class citizens of Gotham suddenly villains staging executions and mock trials?

Anyway, after realizing Nolan was drawing from Dickens, upon closer examination the parallels are pretty tight, right down to the twist ending of A Tale of Two Cities where Madame Defarge turns out to be the daughter of that murdered family paralleling Nolan’s reveal of that billionaire lady turning out to be the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul. I guess even though Nolan tries to beat you over the head with it, you can’t be heavy handed enough these days, especially with old stuff like Dickens.

Aside from the big reveal in both works turning out to be that the orphaned girl grows up to be the mastermind killer seeking to avenge her family through mass murder, other parallels include:
1. Secret backstory: Batman, billionaire woman, Catwoman vs. Dickens’ Darnay, the DeFarges, the prisoner doctor dad.
2. Secret societies: Legion of shadows and conspiracy among the commoners such as the cement truck people vs. Dickens’ Jacques peasants conspiracy that began the French revolution.
3. “Recalled to life” and inventing a new name from prison: the child, Bane, and Batman escaping from the prison and Catwoman wanting a new identity vs Dickens’ doctor and Darnay each separately escaping the Bastille.
4. Twin or mirror identities in which one dies for the other: Batman and Wayne faking deaths vs Darnay and that drunk guy switching places in the final scene.
5. Faithful, bachelor servant: Alfred vs. Lorry.
6. Incompetent, oblivious leaders or the leaders being lecherous scumbags: that rich guy Catwoman seduces and uses as her cover or the mayor at his football game vs. the monsigniere.
7. Using the rich’s own weapons against them: using Wayne’s armory against Gotham vs imprisoning the rich in the Bastille.
8. The courtroom mock trial scene.
9. Hero returning to save the commoners who cry out for his help: Batman becomes Batman again and somehow goes from the Asiatic prison to Gotham because he can’t stand the sufferings of his citizens on TV. Similarly, Darnay returns to Paris because his old servant writes him pleading for help against injustice.
10. Misunderstood nobleman hero: Wayne and Darnay, both donate their entire fortunes to the poor before the works even begin (Wayne turns out to have invested everything in his nuclear energy project and Darnay forsakes his entire estate and changes his name, hoping the commoners will appreciate taking over his lands).
11. Baleful, brutish servant who executes mastermind mistress’s bidding: Bane and Madame Defarge’s husband.

Both Nolan and Dickens are firmly in the top 1%. Like Nolan, Dickens was a wildly successful celebrity writer in his times, widely acknowledged as a genius. However, Dickens was born into poverty, so while A Tale of Two Cities is strongly critical of the chaos and popular uprising, he was passionately empathetic with the poor and also condemned their abuse and the decadence of the rich. The donation of Wayne Manor to orphan boys would probably be something Dickens would admire.

The chaos and violence against the rich is something criticized in both Dickens and The Dark Knight Rises- even Catwoman repents and decides that maybe it wasn’t what she wanted after all. A Tale of Two Cities struck me as being about karma and breaking the cycle of evil: Madame Defarge allows vengeance to consume her life so that she’s indifferent between good and evil. As long as you allow this to happen, you’re doomed no matter what your original victimization was because despite coming from a family victimized by the rich, Defarge is clearly the villain in Dickens’ book who ends up pitilessly killing many innocent people. In contrast to Madame Defarge, Darnay tries to break the cycle of careless decadence by forsaking his lands and title. After assuming a new name and occupation, he achieves happiness and love. Darnay’s twin/mirror, the drunk dude whose name I forget, also breaks his cycle of wastrel drunkenness by taking Darnay’s place at the guillotine, finally redeeming himself and gaining a tragic yet noble sort of dignity and heroism.

Like A Tale of Two Cities, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of ideas about rebirth. The billionaire lady is stuck in the past and loses all likeability- I don’t understand her obsession with her weird quest to redeem her dad to the point that she commits a mass murder-suicide. Alfred is continuously bugging Wayne to finally break out from the past which he ends up successfully doing, which I guess is supposed to be a positive ending. Catwoman is also all about breaking from her past and also finally succeeds, which is supposed to be a victorious note in the movie.

Thematically Nolan and Dickens are both saying that even if stuff sucked a lot in the past (like Mom dying in prison and everyone getting the plague and having to climb out of the pit you were born in with a weird, deformed, masked dude as your only friend), you have to somehow get over it! Life is unfair and it sucks! But there can be heroes (ranging from vigilante billionaires/ French noblemen to petty thieves/ drunken lawyers ) who are self sacrificing enough to try to rescue the community from the injustice they’ve been suffering under for ages. And instead of chaotically turning against said heroes and vilifying them for sticking their necks out, the community should be noble and self sacrificing in turn, the way those policemen finally got out of their homes and senselessly/ admirably rushed into a mob of criminals shooting machine guns… And unlike how Madame Defarge convinced the French Revolutionaries to guillotine Darnay anyway despite first acquitting him- don’t do that.

Even if you got dumped by Maggie Gyllenhaal, or had your family murdered by rich men, or had your family and childhood crush murdered by criminal men, or were forced into a life of crime, or the woman you love will never love you back even though you explicitly told her you LOVED her (she can’t love you bc you’re Batman/ an alcoholic/ not as cool as some blue-eyed, blond politician), or you were wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille or some horrible pit for 17 years, if you don’t get over it, change, and move on with life, you’ll become a joyless jerk who even the aged family servant finds unbearable and escapes from. Despite initially seeming cool, principled, and focused while you’re menacingly and impassively knitting the names of your enemies into shrouds, eventually everyone will decide you’re actually a relentless psycho that they’re scared to hang out with, chalking up the regrettable night they spent with you to meaningless rainy, dark, mansion sex and living happily ever after with the ex-thief turned do-gooder.

Sure, you killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of wealth. But after everything your enemies are happy and you end up dead! (Spoiler: Madame Defarge gets shot by a maid. (Other spoiler: Gotham is actually Pittsburgh by the sea! Wow! Go Steelers!)) So even if you have a really good reason and suffered a lot unjustly due to people who don’t deserve the love or money they’re swimming in, don’t turn evil. Instead, be awesome and help others because there are always impoverished orphans who are way worse off. Orphans like Oliver Twist or Josh Gordan-Levitt remind you life is not all about you, and your suffering, and your revengenda. And if you do become really powerful one day, don’t act like those jerks who hurt you. Even though they suck and annoyingly always seem to avoid punishment, just let it go, work on using science or getting rich so you can solve the energy crisis (hopefully in a less obviously WMD way to the extent that Morgan Freeman put a timer on the thing), and enjoy life by falling in love, vacationing in Florence, becoming the celebrity author of David Copperfield whose works inspire blockbusters by celebrity writer-directors like Nolan, etc.

It’s a positive message saying everyone should have some compassion and that any individual can be a hero as long as there’s love. I think the message came out more naturally in A Tale of Two Cities than in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s there in both.