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The mechanics of my recent productivity

77 Post author: So8res 09 January 2014 02:30AM

A decade ago, I decided to save the world. I was fourteen, and the world certainly wasn't going to save itself.

I fumbled around for nine years; it's surprising how long one can fumble around. I somehow managed to miss the whole idea of existential risk and the whole concept of an intelligence explosion. I had plenty of other ideas in my head, and while I spent a lot of time honing them, I wasn't particularly looking for new ones.

A year ago, I finally read the LessWrong sequences. My road here was roundabout, almost comical. It took me a while to come to terms with the implications of what I'd read.

Five months ago, after resolving a few internal crises, I started donating to MIRI and studying math.

Three weeks ago, I attended the December MIRI workshop on logic, probability, and reflection. I was invited to visit for the first two days and stay longer if things went well. They did: I was able to make some meaningful contributions.

On Saturday I was invited to become a MIRI research associate.

It's been an exciting year, to say the least.

(ETA: Note that being a research associate gives me access to a number of MIRI resources, but is not a full time position. I will be doing FAI research, but it will be done outside of work. I will be retaining my day job and continuing to donate.)

(ETA: As of April 1, I am a full-time researcher at MIRI.)

To commemorate the occasion — and because a few people have expressed interest in my efforts — I'll be writing a series of posts about my experience, about what I did and how I did it. This is the first post in the series.


First and foremost, know that I am not done with my aggressive autodidacting. I have a long way to go yet before I'm anywhere near as productive as others who do research with MIRI. I find myself at a checkpoint of sorts, collecting my thoughts in the wake of my first workshop, but next week I will be back to business.

One goal of this post is to give you a feel for how much effort is required to become good at MIRI-relevant mathematics in a short time, and perhaps inspire others to follow my path. It was difficult, but not as difficult as you might think.

Another goal is to provide data for fellow autodidacts. At the least I can provide you with an anchor point, a single datum about how much effort is required to learn at this pace. As always, remember that I am only one person and that what worked for me may not work for you.

In order to understand what I achieved it's important to know where I started from. Thus, allow me to briefly discuss my relevant prior experience.

Background

I was born in 1989. I have bachelor's degrees of science in both computer science and economics. I started programming TI-83 calculators in late 2002. I've been programming professionally since 2008. I currently work for Google and live in Seattle.

In high school I had a knack for math. I was placed two years ahead of my classmates. I aced some AP tests, I won some regional math competitions, nothing much came of it. I explicitly decided not to pursue mathematics: I reasoned that in order to save the world I would need charisma, knowledge of how the world economy works, and a reliable source of cash. This (and my love of programming) drove my choice of majors.

During college I soaked up computer science like a sponge. (Economics, too, but that's not as relevant here.) I came out of college with a strong understanding of the foundations of computing: algorithms, data structures, discrete math, etcetera. I cultivated a love for information theory. Outside of the computer science department I took two math classes: multi variable calculus and real analysis.

I was careful not to let schooling get in the way of my education. On my own time I learned Haskell  in 2008 and started flirting with type theory and category theory. I read Gödel, Escher, Bach early in 2011.

This should paint a rough picture of my background: I never explicitly studied mathematical logic, but my interests never strayed too far from it. While I didn't have much formal training in this particular subject area, I certainly wasn't starting from a blank slate.

Accomplishments

In broad strokes, I'm writing this because I was able to learn a lot very quickly. In the space of eighteen weeks I went from being a professional programmer to helping Benja discover Fallenstein's Monster, a result concerning tiling agents (in the field of mathematical logic).

I studied math at a fervent pace from August 11th to December 12th and gained enough knowledge to contribute at a MIRI workshop. In that timeframe I read seven textbooks, five of which I finished:

  1. Heuristics and Biases
  2. Cognitive Science
  3. Basic Category Theory for Computer Scientists
  4. Naïve Set Theory
  5. Model Theory (first half)
  6. Computability and Logic
  7. The Logic of Provability (first half, unreviewed)

In retrospect, the first two were not particularly relevant to MIRI's current research. Regardless, Heuristics and Biases was quite useful on a personal level.

I also studied a number of MIRI research papers, two of which I summarized:

I made use of a number of other minor resources as well, mostly papers found via web search. I successfully signaled my competence and my drive to the right people. While this played a part in my success, it is not the focus of this post.

I estimate my total study time to be slightly less than 500 hours. I achieved high retention and validated my understanding against other participants of the December workshop. I did this without seriously impacting my job or my social life. I retained enough spare time to participate in NaNoWriMo during November.

In sum, I achieved a high level of productivity for an extended period. In the remainder of this post I'll discuss the mechanics of how I did this: my study schedule, my study techniques, and so on. The psychological aspects — where I found my drive, how I avoid akrasia — will be covered in later posts.

Schedule

I estimate I studied 30-40 hours per week except in November, when I studied 5-15 hours per week. On average, I studied six days a week.

On the normal weekday I studied for an hour and a half in the morning, a half hour during lunch, and three to four hours in the evening. On the average weekend day I studied 8 to 12 hours on and off throughout the day.

Believe it or not, I didn't have to alter my schedule much to achieve this pace. I've been following roughly the same schedule for a number of years: I aim to spend one evening per workweek and one day per weekend on social endeavors and the rest of my time toying with something interesting. This is a loose target, I don't sweat deviations.

There were some changes to my routines, but they were minimal:

  • I have many side projects, most were dropped as studying took precedence.
  • The number of weeknights I took off per week fell from a little more than one to a little less than one.
  • Before this endeavor I traveled for leisure about once every two months. In the past five months I traveled for leisure once.

While my studying did not affect my schedule much, it definitely affected my pacing. Don't get me wrong; this sprint was not easy. I suspended many other projects and drastically increased my intensity and my pace. I spent roughly the same amount of time per day studying as I used to spend on side projects, but there is a vast difference between spending three hours casually tinkering on open source code and spending three hours learning logic as fast as possible.

The point here is that aggressive autodidacting certainly takes quite a bit of time and effort, but it need not be all consuming: you can do this sort of thing and maintain a social life.

Study Technique

My methods were simple: read textbooks, do exercises, rephrase and write down the hard parts.

I had a number of techniques for handling difficult exercises. First, I'd put them aside and come back to them later. If that failed, I'd restate the problem (and all relevant material) in my own words. If this didn't work, it at least helped me identify the point of confusion, which set me up for a question math.stackexchange.com.

I wasn't above skipping exercises when I was convinced that the exercise was tedious and that I know the underlying material.

This sounds cleaner than it was: I made a lot of stupid mistakes and experienced my fair share of frustration. For more details on my study methods refer to On Learning Difficult Things, a post I wrote while in the midst of my struggles.

Upon finishing a book, I would immediately start the next one. Concurrently, I would start writing a review of the book I'd finished. I generally wrote the first draft of my book reviews on the Sunday after completing the book, alternating between studying the new and summarizing the old. On subsequent weekdays I'd edit in the morning and study in the evening until I was ready to post my review.

It's worth noting that summarizing content, especially the research papers, went a long way towards solidifying my knowledge and ensuring that I wasn't glossing over anything.

Impact on Social Life

The impact on my social life was minimal. I decreased contact with some periphery friend groups but maintained healthy relationships within my core circles. That I was able to do this is due in part to my circumstances:

  • I live with two close friends. This meant that social contact was never out of reach. Even when spending an entire day sequestered in my room pouring over a textbook I was able to maintain a small amount of social interaction. If ever I had a spare hour and a thirst for company, I found it readily available.
  • My primary partner was, up until early 2014, going to school full time while holding down a full time job. Thus, her schedule was more restrictive than my own and we had been working around it for some time. Our relationship was not further constrained by my efforts.
  • My core friend groups knew and respected what I was doing. I was more tense and exhausted than usual, but I had warned my friends to expect this and no friendships suffered as a result.

Impact on Work Life

The additional cognitive load did have an impact on my day job. I had less focus and willpower to dedicate to work. Fortunately, I was exceeding expectations before this endeavor. During this sprint, with my cognitive reserves significantly depleted, I had to settle for merely meeting expectations. My performance at work was not poor, by any means: rather, it fell from "exemplary" to "good".

I'd rather not settle for merely good performance at work for any extended period of time. Going forward, I'll be reducing my pace somewhat, in large part to ensure that I can dedicate appropriate resources to my day job.

Mental Health

It's not like I was working from dawn till dusk every day. There was ample time for other activities: I had a few hours of downtime on the average day to read books or surf the web. I participated in a biweekly Pathfinder campaign and spent the occasional Sunday playing Twilight Imperium. In September I went camping in the Olympic mountain range. I spent four days in October visiting friends in Cape Cod. I spent a day in December hiking to some hot springs. I entertained guests, went to birthday parties, and so on. There were ample opportunities to get away from math textbooks.

Most important of all, I had friends I could call on when I needed a mental health day. I could rely on them to find time where we could just sit around, play with LEGO bricks, and shoot the breeze. This went a long way towards keeping me sane.

All that said, this stint was rough. I experienced far more stress than my norm. I lost a little weight and twice caught myself grinding my teeth in my sleep (a new experience). There were days that I became mentally exhausted, growing obstinate and stubborn as if sleep- or food-deprived. This tended to happen immediately before planned breaks in the routine, as if my mind was rebelling when it thought it could get away with it.

The stress was manageable, but built up over time. It's hard to tell whether the stress was cumulative or whether the increase was due to circumstance. Doing NaNoWriMo in November while continuing studying didn't particularly help matters. The weeks leading up to the workshop were particularly stressful due to a lack of information: I worried that I would not know nearly enough to be useful, that I would make a fool of myself, and so on. So while the stress surely mounted as time wore on, I can't tell how much of that was cumulative versus circumstantial.

I tentatively believe that someone could sustain my pace for significantly longer than I did, so long as they were willing to live with the strain. I don't plan to test this myself: I'll be slowing down both to improve performance at work and to reduce my general stress levels. Five months of fervent studying is no walk in the park.

Advice

So you want to follow in my footsteps? Awesome. I commend your enthusiasm. My next post will delve into my mindset and a few of the quirks of my behavior that helped me be productive. For now, I will leave you with this advice:

  • There is no magic to it. If you study the right material, do the exercises, and write what you've learned in your own words, then you can indeed learn MIRI-relevant math in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Learning fast does not need to dominate your life. There can be time for social activities and even significant side projects. You will have to work really hard, but that work does not have to consume your life.
  • If you're going to do something like this, let people know what you're doing. This is much easier if you have people you can turn to for support who don't mind you being extra snappy, people who can drag you away for a day every week or two. Also, stating your goals publicly helps to stop you from giving up.
The difficult part is making a commitment and sticking to it. Akrasia is a formidable enemy, here. If you can avoid it, the actual autodidacting is not overly difficult.

As for specific advice, if your background is similar to mine then I recommend reading Naïve Set Theory, Computability and Logic, and the first two chapters of Model Theory in that order, these will get you off to a good start. Feel free to PM me if you get stuck or if you want more recommendations.

Following posts will cover the other sides of my experience: how I got interested in this field, where I draw my motivation from, and the dark arts that I use to maintain productivity. In the meantime, questions are welcome.

Comments (43)

Comment author: KnaveOfAllTrades 08 January 2014 02:28:12AM *  33 points [-]

I've been ever-more-excitedly watching you post your training and head off to workshop over these past few months. I teared up a little when I got to that standalone sentence, "On Saturday I was invited to become a MIRI research associate," because now I know your origin story, I understand how much that invitation must have meant to you.

I haven't really felt qualified to comment on many of your other posts (sometimes the level of the material, sometimes feeling too shy to commend your efforts), so I shall say now:

Thank you. We're rooting for you. Keep on saving the world!

'It goes without saying' that I'm hella looking forward to your next posts.

Salute

Comment author: lukeprog 10 January 2014 12:04:35AM *  11 points [-]

In case you're confused by the terminology like Peter Hurford was: "research associate" at places like FHI and MIRI means "unpaid research collaborator" not "full-time staff member." It does, however, indicate a strong level of interest in a researcher, and I expect researchers eventually hired by MIRI will first spend some time as MIRI research associates. MIRI's current research associates are listed here.

Comment author: Swimmer963 08 January 2014 03:17:03AM 27 points [-]

You deserve and have earned many yays for this! I am looking forwards to future posts with a more specific breakdown of how you accomplished it.

A decade ago, I decided to save the world. I was fourteen, and the world certainly wasn't going to save itself.

It's interesting how different this is from my 14-year-old mindset. I remember reading a lot about peak oil and climate change and other mundane civilizational (not necessarily existential) risks, and concluding that the world had a good chance of getting a lot worse (or a lot better; I was also reading Ray Kurzweil's writing on the Singularity at around the same time) and that, realistically speaking, I wasn't going to be able to do anything about it. I didn't exactly lie down in despair; I decided to learn as many generally useful skills as possible, so that I'd have a place and be ale to survive in either future. This is a big reason why I chose nursing as a career.

To a large extent, my monkey brain still believes that the world is too big and the forces are too strong and I don't have the power to affect the future or save the world. Of course, after absorbing some of the LW hero memes, my monkey brain also thinks that I ought to want to save the world.

Comment author: somervta 09 January 2014 01:16:15AM 8 points [-]

To a large extent, my monkey brain still believes that the world is too big and the forces are too strong and I don't have the power to affect the future or save the world. Of course, after absorbing some of the LW hero memes, my monkey brain also thinks that I ought to want to save the world.

This. It creates some interesting conflict when these two attitudes arise simultaneously

Comment author: wuncidunci 08 January 2014 05:27:03PM *  10 points [-]

and the dark arts that I use to maintain productivity.

Yes! Please tell us more about these!

Comment author: So8res 16 January 2014 02:22:16AM 4 points [-]
Comment author: henryaj 09 January 2014 10:23:54AM 8 points [-]

Argh - just had a little twinge when I saw that you were born in 1989. You're the same age as me, but have done so much more!

Congratulations on reaching your goals. Reading this has reminded me that I ought to do the same.

Comment author: somervta 08 January 2014 01:00:37AM 8 points [-]

It's awesome that you're doing this, thank you very much for writing this stuff up.

Comment author: peter_hurford 08 January 2014 11:51:18PM 7 points [-]

How much time did you spend on sleep?

Comment author: So8res 09 January 2014 12:16:56AM *  5 points [-]

7.5h, my sleep schedule is quite regular. I tend to wake up naturally, and use a wake up light in the winter to wake up to a well-lit room.

Comment author: chairbender 09 January 2014 06:41:47PM *  3 points [-]

Everything I've read suggests that that is not a sufficient amount of sleep to achieve peak performance. I would think that, if you're interested in learning as effectively as possible (especially such difficult material), it would be more effective to get more sleep. Is there some reason you decided that this was enough sleep?

EDIT: Looks like I may be wrong about this not being enough sleep, after doing some more searching.

Comment author: So8res 09 January 2014 07:15:26PM 6 points [-]

I play it by feel. I tend to wake up feeling refreshed after 7.5h. If I grow tired during the day, I take a nap. In my experience, napping during the day leads to less need for sleep on the following night. I avoid alarms and I trust my body to know what it's doing. Perhaps I will do more experimentation in the future.

Comment author: chairbender 09 January 2014 08:22:00PM 5 points [-]

You should be cautious of that sort of self-evaluation. There's a sleep study that showed that people are very bad at evaluating how they are affected by not getting enough sleep.:

after just a few days, the four- and six-hour group reported that, yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.

But, in that same study, the group that showed little or no cognitive decline slept for 8 hours, and I'm finding recommendations that say 7.5 hours is enough elsewhere, so I'm updating towards 7.5 hours of sleep and naps being all that's needed (as long as you have good sleep hygeine).

Thanks for indirectly prompting me to re-evaluate my sleep habits. I'm doing the same thing as you, basically (learning on my own), so it makes me very happy to discover that I could get more done each day!

Comment author: Lumifer 09 January 2014 08:34:29PM 1 point [-]

people are very bad at evaluating how they are affected by not getting enough sleep

Average people, maybe, but my sleep hours tend to vary and by now I have a pretty good idea how much sleep will leave me a zombie, how much will make me OK but not really in the top form, and how much is enough so that any more is just lazying in bed :-)

It's easy to self-experiment with sleep.

By the way, keep in mind that there is seasonal variation and weather effects.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 January 2014 07:04:06PM 5 points [-]

it would be more effective to get more sleep.

If you are sleep-deprived getting more sleep is very effective at raising your performance. If you already get enough sleep, sleeping more won't help and might even decrease it.

Comment author: chairbender 09 January 2014 08:00:03PM *  0 points [-]

I think you may have misread what I wrote. I pointed out in my original comment that, from what I've read, 7.5 hours seems to be not enough sleep. So it would follow that getting more sleep would increase performance. I know that excessive sleep also causes problems, but that's clearly not relevant here.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 January 2014 08:11:20PM *  9 points [-]

from what I've read, 7.5 hours seems to be not enough sleep

Sleep requirements are individual and vary widely. The 7.5 hours is just the mean of a fairly wide distribution.

As a data point, I live in a house with someone who requires about two hours of more sleep per night than I do.

Comment author: fowlertm 08 January 2014 03:14:48AM 7 points [-]

Thanks so much for typing all this. It encourages me that I can manage it as well :)

Comment author: fowlertm 08 January 2014 09:05:33PM *  6 points [-]

I also wanted to say that your recommendations on which chapters of which books to read in which order (personal communication) are something that many other people would be interested in hearing about.

Comment author: So8res 08 January 2014 09:33:55PM 2 points [-]

Thanks. I've added these to the bottom of the "advice" section.

Comment author: peter_hurford 09 January 2014 07:18:21PM *  5 points [-]

This is an unrelated question, but I think it's important. You mention:

On Saturday I was invited to become a MIRI research associate. [...]

I currently work for Google and live in Seattle.

Presumably, you have a pretty high salary if you're working for Google and presumably you're giving that up to go work for MIRI directly. Not that I think you're wrong, but how did you come to the decision that working for MIRI directly was preferable to working for Google and donating large portions of your salary to MIRI?

Comment author: So8res 09 January 2014 07:27:48PM 12 points [-]

Research associateship isn't a full time MIRI position -- I'll be doing research in addition to my day job.

Comment author: brazil84 10 January 2014 09:17:06AM 3 points [-]

By the way, what exactly is your position at Google?

Also, will you agree to update this post in a year or two to add some perspective?

Comment author: So8res 10 January 2014 04:17:20PM 1 point [-]

Software Engineer. I'm happy to post an update in a year or two, but you may need to remind me then.

Comment author: brazil84 10 January 2014 04:36:19PM 1 point [-]

Thank you. I will try to remember.

Comment author: PECOS-9 11 January 2014 02:26:30AM 9 points [-]

If you send an email to "1year@followupthen.com" with a reminder for yourself, you'll get an email reminder in 1 year.

Comment author: brazil84 11 January 2014 05:57:29AM 1 point [-]

Cool, thanks. I should have known that someone had devised a simple electronic solution to the problem :)

Comment author: adamzerner 11 January 2014 12:02:38AM *  0 points [-]

There's still an opportunity cost to working at Google - you could be spending more time working for MIRI. Why work at Google when you could be spending that time working for MIRI?

Comment author: So8res 11 January 2014 12:36:51AM *  10 points [-]

Google subsidizes that particular opportunity cost (by paying me), and that I donate a fair portion of my salary to MIRI. I haven't been at this long enough to be confident I can produce more value via research than donation.

Furthermore, there's a significant cost to not working elsewhere: I need money to live. MIRI has limited resources with which to support full time researchers, and if/when they do start supporting new full time researchers I should certainly not be at the top of the list. I have recently demonstrated some skill and drive, but I have a long way to go before I can match the productivity of others who are just as driven and far more knowledgable.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 08 January 2014 05:53:38AM 4 points [-]

Impressive!

Regarding stress, did you experiment with techniques for relaxing optimally? (Relaxation hypnosis, meditation, things that make you laugh, power naps, etc.) I've heard this book recommended: http://www.amazon.com/The-Relaxation-Response-Herbert-Benson/dp/0380006766

Comment author: Curiouskid 17 January 2014 08:35:36PM 0 points [-]

That book has also been recommended to me by multiple sources.

Comment author: AnlamK 09 January 2014 08:08:29PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for sharing your experience. It was inspiring indeed.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 08 January 2014 09:30:42PM 2 points [-]

Five months ago, after resolving a few internal crises

I wonder what your crises were? And where the dark arts has anything to do with it. And with your motivation.

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 January 2014 03:09:17AM 2 points [-]

the world certainly wasn't going to save itself

Whatever gave you that idea? (Sayeth the self-proclaimed NPC, who is content to watch from the sidelines while others do the hard work of actually hero-ing)

Comment author: Vulture 08 January 2014 04:33:45AM *  10 points [-]

If it does "save itself", from your perspective, it will likely be because of So8res and/or people like him.

Comment author: itaibn0 08 January 2014 01:47:07PM 5 points [-]

Moreover, even the world's greatest hero only does a minority of all human achievements, so from their perspective the world still mostly saves itself, it just needs a really big push.

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 January 2014 04:58:51AM 2 points [-]

Yep! Free rider, that's me! ;)

Comment author: So8res 08 January 2014 04:44:13AM 7 points [-]

Stay tuned -- I'll touch on this subject when discussing the source of my motivation.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 21 August 2014 06:45:24AM 1 point [-]

Huh. I'm reading this because I'm attempting to at least partially walk your path right now, although with a different set of math subjects (starting off with my lacking foundations in probability theory and Bayesian statistics, moving towards algebra and category theory, and also algorithmic information theory, and also wanting to work on my foundations in logic to accompany my healthy knowledge of computability theory).

Mostly I'm just finding that bashing my dopaminergic circuits with reward signals when studying helps to overcome the akrasia -- to the point that I now find myself regularly tempted to study my unofficial material rather than work on my official research and coursework!

Also, I've discovered the CoqIDE theorem-proving assistant is about as addictive to me now as Legend of Zelda games used to be.

Comment author: chairbender 10 January 2014 03:03:31AM 1 point [-]

Thanks very much for this. My primary motivation to be productive seems to come from seeing the stories of inspirational, productive people, so this is a big motivator to continue to work hard.

Comment author: SeventhNadir 04 February 2014 09:24:00AM 0 points [-]

What are the prerequisites math domains someone should be proficient in if they were interested in making this career? I'm a long way off currently (just started learning calculus) and some kind of reference point would be very helpful! Congratulations by the way.

Comment author: So8res 04 February 2014 03:58:30PM 1 point [-]

Check out the MIRI course list.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 04 February 2014 04:25:21PM 0 points [-]

I still have yet to understand the emphasis on model theory and model checking over other branches of semantics. -- type theory weenie