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Probability Over Certainty, Or: Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Immersion, I Learned from the Miller-Rabin Primality Test

August 15, 2010
By

“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.
Do what you can.”
~ Sydney Smith

When I first came to Japan, I hated how people wouldn’t take a stand. In the West, you’re taught that you have to have an opinion and it has to be a strong one, and if you don’t have strong opinions, you’re weak, stupid or both. In my first few weeks and months here, I was shocked at how often people simply wouldn’t take sides on an issue; they wouldn’t take a stand. They were neither apathetic nor passionate. They were simply…impartial.

And it bugged the heck out of me. I’m all for being undecided, but not for being decidedly impartial. That just seems wishy-washy. I mean, people in the West love to say ridiculous things like: “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”; that used to mean something to me…now it feels more like a hollow, idiotic threat (“Oh, crap! I’d better hurry up stand for something!”).

As time has gone on, I’ve come to love Japanese impartiality (plus, I mean, it’s not like people are impartial on everything — I am being a bit simplistic here). And I’ve come to dislike opinionated people who think they know everything. Even when they’re right. Ironically, though, that itself as a form of…opinionatedness. So it’s not like I’ve become toadly acculturated. Because if I were toadly acculturated, if I really did 「以和為貴」 (value harmony), I’d be all: 「人それぞれですね」(“well, everybody’s different, and that’s mmm kay”)。

Anyway, back on topic. The point is: we plan and (attempt to) act with too much certaintynot in ourselves, but in the environment. We act as if the environment were full of certainty, as if we were cogs in a giant machine in which everything has already been decided. And that’s stifling. In many ways, we humans don’t like certainty. Boring jokes, boring people and boring movies are all called “predictable” – too certain.

We’ve all written to-do lists before…
…And then proceeded to do nothing that’s on the list.
Why?
Because we’re dumb?
No, because we’re smart.

Those lists of things to do (or, more accurately, the way we use them), rob us of the freedom to exercise our creativity. There’s too much certainty. Certainty of having to be stuck doing a specific thing in a specific place in a specific (read: boring) way. There’s this idea that there’s this One True Best Optimal Correct Method of Doing X, and our only job is to find it and then execute. If we find it, we succeed, if not, we just kind of suck.

But let’s take a step back here. You have to realize that your certainty is false. It feels real, but it doesn’t exist. Are you freaking Nostradamus? Can you tell the future? How do you even know – when you write the list – that those things actually need doing? I mean they probably need doing, but there’s no certainty. Heck, most of the time, you don’t even do the things on the list after about the second item, so why do you even bother write them in the first place?

We are oppressed by a false certainty – a false certainty of method, boredom and location.

So the first thing to do is free yourself of the notion that you know how, where or when anything should or will happen. Because you don’t.

Now we’re having fun. We’re unpredictable now. We’re like an early M. Night Shymylan movie, or a good-looking but mentally unstable woman, or homemade cookies. No one knows what the heck’s going to happen next.

But a part of you counter-rebels against this rebellion: “Isn’t that just irresponsible? I mean, we simply throw our hands up and let things go to the wind?! Isn’t the goal for us to work like clockwork, acting with perfect reliability and precision? OK, maybe not perfect, but isn’t it at least our goal to be somewhat reliable?”

There you go pulling words out of my mouth again.

The keyword is, indeed, “somewhat”.

So, that false certainty we discussed earlier might be described as a deterministic action model. A part of us knows that this model is flawed, but we still try to force it to work, and the result is usually analysis paralysis – we just don’t do…anything. We procrastinate; we spin our wheels; we stare into space; we go to Facebook; we check our email. Anything but deal with the lunacy of trying to make a deterministic action model work in a world where we can’t even predict next Tuesday’s weather with certainty.

Think about this for a moment – we can look into deep space, but we don’t know for sure whether or not your picnic next weekend is a go.

What I’m suggesting is that we embrace the holes in our knowledge, embrace our flaws, embrace our imperfect human nature (even as we strive to continuously improve), and adopt a more probabilistic action model.

Don’t try to get things done. That’s too hard. Too painful. Too annoying. Too prone to failure.

Don’t try to get things done.

But…

Do try to increase the probability that they will get done.

Don’t try to get things done. Do try to increase the probability that they will get done.
Don’t ask if you’re doing the right thing.
Do ask if what you’re doing increases the probability of having what you want to happen, happen.
Do ask if what you’re doing increases the probability of you getting what you want.

Don’t work with the certainties; it hurts too much; it’s too painful. Work on pushing up those probabilities.

Next time you feel so overwhelmed in your quest to become fluent in Japanese, that you just sit there and do nothing, sit there and watch English-language shows on Hulu to try to drown out the guilt you’re tripping on (just like Maddie used to), stop yourself, wake up and smell the probabilistic coffee.

Watching a Japanese anime instead of running off to Hulu may not be as “perfect” as doing your SRS reps, but it demm </SouthAfricanAccent> well increases the probability of your actually learning Japanese, more than some English escapism ever could.

Doing just one SRS rep may not make it so that all your SRS reps get done, but it demm sure raises the probability that that will happen, more than sitting there doing nothing does. (The wording on this blog is getting weirder and weirder).

Ditto for listening to Japanese music while you read English-language documents..

Or doing your Japanese SRS reps on your iPad while you sit in on an English-language meeting.

It’s not perfect; it’s not certain. But the probability that you will (1) learn some Japanese now and (2) get back into doing more Japanese later is infinitely higher than it would be if you were doing nothing.

You catch my drift? If you can’t do the so-called right/perfect/correct thing, whatever you fantasize that thing to be, at least do something that helps. Something that moves you forward. Something that gets you in the ballpark. Something that’s somewhat right. Size doesn’t matter. Details don’t matter. Only ballpark. General direction. General area. All up in there (literally waving my right hand in vaguely circular, kinda conical way). That’s the basic idea. That’s AJATT immersion. It’s also what the situational goals thing is about.

Maybe you can’t do the 100% certain, perfect, ideal, Platonic thing that gets you The Desired Outcome. But if you do so many fun, easy, simple, short, quick, little things that The Desired Outcome has a 97% probability of happening, then, well…call it a win. It’s the difference between a deterministic algorithm that you don’t have the time or energy to execute, versus, small, short, simple, easy, lazy, ad hoc (=random) methods – probabilistic algorithms – that, while imperfect, will actually get done, because they’re so easy to run repeatedly.

100% * 0 action is still 0%.
0.485% * 200 tiny actions is 97%.
An action that has a 50% chance of not helping you with your Japanese (i.e. that has only half a chance of helping you with your Japanese), repeated enough times can still give you a 99.99% probability of success in Japanese.

OK, I’m getting a bit carried away here. Fake math facts, real math truth. You get the idea. You know who you are. Make your choice.

“Nothing” is the only too little; “not now” is the only too late.

EOF

PS: Paradoxically enough, I am finding that it’s important that you (1) abandon certainty in the environment, while simultaneously (2) embracing certainty in yourself. But we’ll leave the details of that for another time…

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26 Responses to Probability Over Certainty, Or: Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Immersion, I Learned from the Miller-Rabin Primality Test

  1. hugh on August 16, 2010 at 03:02

    this is genius… crystallizing some of my own thoughts on productivity.

    to carry on with the abuse of probabilistic metaphors

    -If you can make japanese the mean of your probability density function and then progressively minimize kurtosis, i.e. reducing non-japanese tail behavior you will approach the limit of lingual awesomeness faster (almost surely ;)

    -alternatively, if you condition everything on japanese, in expectation you will achieve fluency

  2. weiguoren on August 16, 2010 at 05:30

    1. THIS is your best post ever!
    Why?
    Now I know why I’m not able to take decisions.. it’s called Analysis paralysis… WOW.

    2. You suggested how to overcome my GND – Getting Nothing Done.

    Thank you so much!

  3. Jaybot7 on August 16, 2010 at 07:07

    Demm straight.

  4. Igordesu on August 16, 2010 at 08:01

    “We act as if the environment were full of certainty, as if we were cogs in a giant machine in which everything has already been decided. And that’s stifling. In many ways, we humans don’t like certainty. Boring jokes, boring people and boring movies are all called “predictable” – too certain.”

    This is the concept behind the metaphor for the title of “A Clockwork Orange.” People are not simplistic, one-dimensional beings. If people are oranges…yeah. You get it.

  5. Tyler on August 16, 2010 at 11:45

    There’s no way I could logically describe (at this moment) why this post is so good, but only one real sentence could describe it emotionally: Your writings complete me. It’s almost as if your articles are perfectly attuned to dancing with my neural frameworks.

    I’m absolutely sure that the principles *will* be in “The Little Red Dao of AJATT” (which I will buy, the first chance I get), and I’m sure (I’ve seen it) others have said it before (even though, on your own personal level you must feel its all written in “LARD” and “QRG”), but I will say it again.

    Publish something; Write a book; Do something! Or I’ll never forgive you. You’re a great writer, if you believe it or not. You’ve got the emotional writing energy (have you read some of Steve Pavlina’s latest posts on subjective reality? It’s very… connecting). And most importantly, you have established your own unique writing voice. You have a tribe (audience, nod to Godin). That’s all anyone could really ask for.

    Keep on writing, either way. Sometimes I wonder if you effect lives immensely more than you think.

  6. Tony on August 16, 2010 at 15:58

    Well.. you’ve done it again Khatz – you increased my motivation and desire to get things done. I really appreciate your work. Your posts help people beyond learning languages.

  7. あんど on August 16, 2010 at 22:53

    The core idea of the post (“don’t try to get things done; try to increase the odds of them being done”; along the same lines as the situational goals and such) have seriously increased my immersion and overall fun level. Saying “Alright, I’m gonna read this book that I still can’t understand” typically doesn’t happen… but saying “I’m gonna pull this book off of the shelf and put it in front of me” is easy enough. And more often than not it leads to me opening the book. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.
    I do this with SRSing, too, when I really don’t wanna do it. “Well, my SRS is already open and there’s already a timer set in front of me. Might as well, yeah?”

  8. Thomas on August 17, 2010 at 07:16

    I wish I could remember the post you wrote in this massive blook of a website about expecting yourself to be perfect and treating yourself like this automaton but this post seems to be very much the same type of thing.

    Knowing that your plans, no matter how perfect are going to go wrong at some point is a huge step towards actually achieving your goals. It’s the reason why we timebox and it’s the reason why Kaizen works. When you break the tasks up into seemingly meaninglessly small tasks you actually end up achieving your goal much faster than you thought you would.

    Really learning Japanese is more about getting into the habit of doing something in Japanese every day and doing at least one rep every day than it is about the perfect plan, or the perfect methedology or even the perfect immersion environment. Like you’re always saying: As long as you’re progressing, *you’re progressing.* You are constantly moving more and more towards fluency.

    Persistence is king.

  9. アンソニー on August 17, 2010 at 08:03

    “100% * 0 action is still 0%. 0.485% * 200 tiny actions is 97%. ”

    I’ve heard you say this in a gajillion different posts, a gajillion different tweets, in a gajillion different ways. But this time, this little mathematical analogy it really struck a chord.
    Thank you ^-^

    OL2L: A Japanese website on “tricking”

  10. Ken on August 17, 2010 at 12:32

    Sadly, I have the opposite ‘problem’, if it can be called that. I’d do Japanese all day, if I didn’t have to work. I am fantastic at slacking, in any language! ja.wikipedia.org + Japanese(-dubbed) TV shows will be my downfall. At least, until I land a job that consists of reading ja.wikipedia.org all day.

    This weekend I went to a talk in Japanese and I understood about *half* of it, which is kind of amazing considering I haven’t even touched my SRS in a month or two (and I’m only through about 1000 kanji, and about 0 sentences). I’m really only reliable at watching TV.

    I think listening works so well because once you get used to the ‘flow’ of how Japanese sounds, you can split up the continuous stream of sound into words, and that plus a *very* little vocabulary is like 80% of the way to comprehension. If you can pick out 3 words in a sentence, you pretty much know what they’re saying.

    I used to be suspicious that someone could pick up any amount of a language in 18 months, but now I wholly believe it: in college I studied another language but only maybe an hour a day — it’s easy to put in far more than that, if you’re having fun.

  11. [...] mindset where you can see the intrinsic value of 60 seconds. And what mindset is that? It’s this one. It’s the probabilistic algorithm mindset: it’s the mindset that says: [...]

  12. KENTOSI on August 19, 2010 at 16:21

    Greetings from Australia.

    I loved this post. You wouldn’t believe how timely this is.

    I just spent the last 4 hours fighting procrastination and analysis-paralysis over a holiday trip i’m planning. Oh, and I’m at work, so I’m meant to be working too !

    This post was exactly what I needed.

    My only problem – and I’m sure you face this too – is that even through I learn this lesson over and over again, I keep making this same mistake of seeking the perfect to-do list for things. If only there was a way of … I dunno … automatically recalling these lessons whenever I find myself stressed/depressed with a million self-imposed things to do and not doing a single thing. Life would be so sweeeet if that was the case.

    Gav

    • 我我我普通 on November 20, 2010 at 23:59

      you could try to make an srs deck with stressfull/depressing situations on the front of the card and advice on the back. So, this way you can practice recalling the kind of advice Khatsumoto gives when you find yourself in a stressfull situation.

  13. khatzumoto on August 19, 2010 at 16:33

    @KENTOSI

    >If only there was a way of … I dunno … automatically recalling these lessons whenever I find myself stressed/depressed with a million self-imposed things to do and not doing a single thing.

    Check this out: Why The Way We Read Sucks and How to Fix It: Part 4 — Why SRS Personal Development Books? | AJATT | All Japanese All The Time bit.ly/7OGxvO

    It’s not perfect, but…it’s a step in that direction.

  14. Seguridad y probabilidad | El Blog de Pancen on December 5, 2010 at 09:57

    [...] y probabilidad Publicado el Sábado, Diciembre 4, 2010 por pancen La entrada de Khatzumoto es muy [...]

  15. [...] ■Probability Not Certainty [...]

  16. [...] ■Probability Not Certainty [...]

  17. [...] ■Probability Not Certainty [...]

  18. Maomi on May 30, 2011 at 19:27

    Thank you for this article…I have to say I especially love the simple, down-to-earth – you know, colloquial – way you put things. It’s like… listening to a friend sitting beside me on the couch. ;-) Somehow this makes the message go in all the easier.
    Analysis Paralysis… f***. This is exactly the reason why I’m constantly stuck with my thesis. Thank you for realizing this. Now I have to overcome my drive to think on this instead of doing a little something that will acutally propell me forward…

    • Maomi on May 30, 2011 at 19:30

      *for making me realize this.
      :>

  19. Es2Kay on December 4, 2011 at 09:34

    “There’s no certainty – only opportunity.”

  20. [...] ■Probability Not Certainty [...]

  21. Oosaka Ayumu on March 2, 2013 at 08:59

    100% * 0 action is still 0%.
    Thank you! ^_^

  22. Aspiring on May 22, 2013 at 15:14

    “As time has gone on, I’ve come to love Japanese impartiality (plus, I mean, it’s not like people are impartial on everything — I am being a bit simplistic here). And I’ve come to dislike opinionated people who think they know everything.”

    +1

  23. […] article at the slightly irreverent “All Japanese All The Time” blog. The post, “Probability Over Certainty, Or: Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Immersion, I Learned from the…“, rambles a bit till he gets to his point that much of our procrastination is due to focusing […]

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