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Aliveness in Training

9 katydee 31 October 2013 01:17AM

Related: The Martial Art of Rationality

One principle in the martial arts is that arts that are practiced with aliveness tend to be more effective.

"Aliveness" in this case refers to a set of training principles focused on simulating conditions in an actual fight as closely as possible in training. Rather than train techniques in a vacuum or against a compliant opponent, alive training focuses on training with movement, timing, and energy under conditions that approximate those where the techniques will actually be used.[1]

A good example of training that isn't alive would be methods that focused entirely on practicing kata and forms without making contact with other practitioners; a good example of training that is alive would be methods that focused on verifying the efficacy of techniques through full-contact engagement with other practitioners.

Aliveness tends to create an environment free from epistemic viciousness-- if your technique doesn't work, you'll know because you won't be able to use it against an opponent. Further, if your technique does work, you'll know that it works because you will have applied it against people trying to prevent you from doing so, and the added confidence will help you better apply that technique when you need it.

Evidence from martial arts competitions indicates that those who practice with aliveness are more effective than others. One of the chief reasons that Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) practitioners were so successful in early mixed martial arts tournaments was that BJJ-- a martial art that relies primarily on grappling and the use of submission holds and locks to defeat the opponent-- can be trained safely with almost complete aliveness, whereas many other martial arts cannot.[2]

Now, this is not to say that one should only attempt to practice martial arts under completely realistic conditions. For instance, no martial arts school that I am aware of randomly ambushes or attempts to mug its students on the streets outside of class in order to test how they would respond under truly realistic conditions.[3]

Even in the age of sword duels, people would train with blunt weapons and protective armor rather than sharp weapons and ordinary clothes. Would training with sharp weapons and ordinary clothes be more alive than training with blunt weapons and protective armor? Certainly, but the trainees wouldn't be! And yet training with blunt weapons is still useful-- the fact that training does not fully approximate realistic conditions does not intrinsically mean it is bad.

That being said, generally speaking martial arts training that is more alive-- that better approximates realistic fighting conditions-- is more effective within reasonable safety margins. There is a growing consensus among students of martial arts who are looking for effective self-defense techniques that the specific martial art one practices is not hugely relevant, and that what matters more is the extent to which the training does or doesn't use aliveness.


Aliveness and Rationality

So, that's all well and good-- but how can we apply these principles to rationality practice?

While martial arts training has very clear methods of measuring whether or not skills work (can I apply this technique against a resisting opponent?), rationality training is much murkier-- measuring rationality skills is a nontrivial problem.

Further, under normal circumstances the opponent that you are resisting when applying rationality techniques is your own brain, not an external enemy.[4] This makes applying appropriate levels of resistance in training difficult, because it's very easy to cheat yourself. The best method that I have found thus far is lucid dreaming, as forcing your dreaming brain to recognize its true state through the various hallucinations and constructed memories associated with dreaming is no easy task.

That being said, I make no claims to special or unique knowledge in this area. If anyone has suggestions for useful methods of "live" rationality practice, I'd love to hear them.



[1] For further explanation, see Matt Thornton's classic video "Why Aliveness?"

[2] If your plan is to choke someone until they fall unconscious, it is possible to safely train for this with nearly complete aliveness by wrestling against an opponent and simply releasing the chokehold before they actually fall unconscious. By contrast, it is much harder to safely train to punch someone into unconsciousness, and harder still to safely train to break people's necks.

[3] The game of Assassins does do this, but usually follows rules that are constrained enough to make it a suboptimal method of training.

[4] There are some contexts in which rationality techniques are applied in order to overcome an external enemy. Competitive games and some sports are a good method of finding practice in this respect. For instance, in order to be a competitive Magic: The Gathering player, you need to engage many epistemic and instrumental rationality skills. Competitive poker can offer similar development.

How habits work and how you may control them

65 Kaj_Sotala 12 October 2013 12:17PM

Some highlights from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life And Business by Charles Duhigg, a book which seems like an invaluable resource for pretty much everyone who wants to improve their lives. The below summarizes the first three chapters of the book, as well as the appendix, for I found those to be the most valuable and generally applicable parts. These chapters discuss individual habits, while the rest of the book discusses the habits of companies and individuals. The later chapters also contain plenty of interesting content (some excerpts: [1 2 3]), and help explain the nature of e.g. some institutional failures.

(See also two previous LW discussions on an online article by the author of the book.)

Chapter One: The Habit Loop - How Habits Work

When a rat first navigates a foreign environment, such as a maze, its brain is full of activity as it works to process the new environment and to learn all the environmental cues. As the environment becomes more familiar, the rat's brain becomes less and less active, until even brain structures related to memory quiet down a week later. Navigating the maze no longer requires higher processing: it has become an automatic habit.

The process of converting a complicated sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as "chunking", and human brains carry out a similar process. They vary in complexity, from putting toothpaste on your toothbrush before putting it in your mouth, to getting dressed or preparing breakfast, to very complicated processes such as backing one's car out of the driveway. All of these actions initially required considerable effort to learn, but eventually they became so automatic as to be carried out without conscious attention. As soon as we identify the right cue, such as pulling out the car keys, our brain activates the stored habit and lets our conscious minds focus on something else. In order to conserve effort, the brain will attempt to turn almost any routine into a habit.

However, it can be dangerous to deactivate our brains at the wrong time, for there may be something unanticipated in the environment that will turn a previously-safe routine into something life-threatening. To help avoid such situations, our brains evaluate prospective habits using a three-stage habit loop:

continue reading »

Optimize Your Settings

14 katydee 29 July 2013 09:10PM

Related to: The Good News of Situationist Psychology

Perhaps the most significant teaching social psychology has to offer is that most of our behaviors are determined by situational factors inherent to our settings, not by our personal qualities.[1]

Some consider this depressing-- for instance, the Milgram experiments in obedience to authority and Stanford prison experiment are often cited as examples of how settings can cause otherwise-good people to participate in and even support unethical and dangerous behavior. However, as lukeprog points out in The Good News of Situationist Psychology, this principle can also be considered uplifting. After all, if our settings have such an effect on our behavior, they are thus a powerful tool that we can employ to make ourselves more effective.[2]


Changing Your Physical Settings

One relatively easy place to start making such changes is in your personal life. I have found that great productivity increases can be gained through relatively minor changes in lifestyle-- or even seemingly-trivial matters such as the position of physical (or sometimes digital) objects in your environment!

For instance, I recently noticed a tendency in myself to "wake up" and then waste the next twenty or thirty minutes aimlessly browsing the Internet on my laptop in bed before actually getting up and eating breakfast, showering, going to work, etc. Since I value time, especially morning time, substantially, I decided that action should be taken to avoid this.

At first, I figured that once I had noticed the problem I could simply apply willpower and avoid it, but this proved less than effective-- it turns out that my willpower is not at its strongest when I first wake up and am still a little groggy![3] I then decided to apply the principles of situational psychology to the situation. The most obvious setting contributing to the problem was that I was using an alarm app on my computer to wake up in the morning, and turning off this alarm caused me to interact with the computer.

So I picked up an IKEA alarm clock, turned off my alarm app, and moved my computer to the kitchen instead of my room-- problem solved. In my new settings, browsing in bed was outright ridiculous-- I'd have to wake up, go downstairs to the kitchen, pick up my computer, and bring it back up to my room with me. Not a likely course of events!


Changing Your Mental Settings

While physical environments can certainly produce changes in behavior,[4] social and intellectual environments can too.

For instance, one of my friends from undergrad took an interesting approach when choosing what major to take. He knew that he wanted a solid private-sector income that would allow him to support a family, but didn't particularly care what field it was in. Overall, he wanted to ensure that whatever major he chose would have the highest possible chance of getting him a good job without unusual effort or circumstances.

Therefore, during winter term of his sophomore year, prior to declaring, he went around to all the seniors he could get to talk to him and asked them what their major was, what they were doing post-graduation, and how much money they anticipated making. He found that the CS majors tended to have more private-sector job prospects and higher average starting salaries than students in other fields, so he decided to declare a CS major.[5]

While I don't think my friend's approach is necessarily the best possible option for determining what to do with your life, it certainly beats the sort of unstructured guessing that I've seen many others do. By considering academic majors as settings and examining what setting produced the best result on average, my friend managed to find a field and career that he's by all indications quite happy in-- and with a minimal amount of risk and stress involved.



Human psychology is greatly influenced by situational factors, and in more ways than a naive reasoner might expect. If you're looking to improve your life across any particular axis, one good way to start is by examining your current physical, social, and intellectual settings and paying close attention to how changes in those settings might help accomplish your goals.


[1] If you don't believe that this is true, I advise simulating that you do and going on anyway. I find this method effective enough for me and others and easy enough to implement that it seems well worth testing, even if you don't fully believe in the claims behind it. At worst, it might become a potential epistemic/instrumental tradeoff.

[2] See for instance Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, Procrastination and the Extended Will (2009).

[3] In the course of researching and writing this post, I encountered some objections to the resource expenditure theory of willpower (many of which have already been summarized here by Jess_Riedel). I believe my beliefs regarding willpower loss while tired/just awakening may be limiting in the same sense that believing willpower is a limited resource appears limiting, but have yet to test at the time of this writing.

[4] If you're interested in seeing other examples of ways in which we can structure the physical objects around us in order to become more productive, you may wish to check out Alicorn's How to Have Things Correctly and fowlertm's related How to Have Space Correctly. Several of Alyssa Vance's Random Life Tips also relate to this matter.

[5] The friend in question is now employed as a software engineer at a tech company and by all indications loves his job. Note though that this post isn't saying "you should be a CS major." Things change over time, and what was a good choice for one person and one time may not be a good choice for another person or another time.

Epistemic and Instrumental Tradeoffs

20 katydee 19 May 2013 07:49AM

Related: What Do We Mean By "Rationality?"

Epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality are both useful. However, some things may benefit one form of rationality yet detract from another. These tradeoffs are often not obvious, but can have serious consequences.

For instance, take the example of learning debate skills. While involved in debate in high school, I learned how to argue a position quite convincingly, muster strong supporting evidence, prepare rebuttals for counterarguments, prepare deflections for counterarguments that are difficult to rebut, and so on.

I also learned how to do so regardless of what side of a topic I was assigned to.

My debate experience has made me a more convincing and more charismatic person, improved my public speaking skills, and bolstered my ability to win arguments. Instrumentally speaking, this can be a very useful skillset. Epistemically speaking, this sort of preparation is very dangerous, and I later had to unlearn many of these thought patterns in order to become better at finding the truth.

For example, when writing research papers, the type of motivated cognition used when searching for evidence to bolster a position in a debate is often counterproductive. Similarly, when discussing what the best move for my business to make is, the ability to argue convincingly for a position regardless of whether it is right is outright dangerous, and lessons learned from debate may actually decrease the odds of making the correct decision-- if I'm wrong but convincing and my colleagues are right but unconvincing, we could very well end up going down the wrong path!

Epistemic and instrumental goals may also conflict in other ways. For instance, Kelly (2003)[1] points out that, from an epistemic rationality perspective, learning movie spoilers is desirable, since they will improve your model of the world. Nevertheless, many people consider spoilers to be instrumentally negative, since they prefer the tension of not knowing what will happen while they watch a movie.

Bostrom (2011)[2] describes many more situations where having a more accurate model of the world can be hazardous to various instrumental objectives. For instance, knowing where the best parties are held on campus can be a very useful piece of knowledge to have in many contexts, but can become a distracting temptation when you're writing your thesis. Knowing that one of your best friends has just died can be very relevant to your model of the world, but can also cause you to become dangerously depressed. Knowing that Stalin's wife didn't die from appendicitis can be useful for understanding certain motivations, but can be extraordinarily dangerous to know if the secret police come calling.

Thus, epistemic and instrumental rationality can in some cases come into conflict. Some instrumental skillsets might be better off neglected for reasons of epistemic hygeine; similarly, some epistemic ventures might yield information that it would be instrumentally better not to know. When developing rationality practices and honing one's skills, we should take care to acknowledge these tradeoffs and plan accordingly.


[1] Kelly, T., (2003). Epistemic Rationality as Instrumental Rationality: A Critique. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 66(3), pp. 612-640.

[2] Bostrom, N., (2011). Information Hazards: A Typology of Harms from Knowledge. Review of Contemporary Philosophy, 10, pp. 44-79.

Spend Money on Ergonomics

43 Kevin 23 December 2011 06:40AM

Warning: This is an applied rationality post, about rationality applied to a specific area of life, not a generalized rationality post.

Ergonomics is incredibly important. Sadly, so many of us in the techno-geek cluster ignore well-defined best practices of ergonomics and develop the infamous hunched back of late night computer toiling.

Seriously, ergonomics is basically a solved problem. The mathematics of anthropometry in relation to body mechanics and repetive stressors on the body are quite well understood.

I am here to offer you a basic, incredibly important, yet widely ignored lesson of rationality.

Spend money on ergonomics!

I really can't emphasize this enough. It's such low hanging fruit, yet I know way too many master aspiring rationalists with egregious ergonomic setups.

It is accepted wisdom on Less Wrong that optimizing your career is important, because you'll spend 80,000 hours working on your career. Strikingly, ergonomics presents an even larger time-based optimization opportunity. With straightforward monetary investment, you can dramatically improve the next hundreds of thousands of hours of your life. The effect size here is just enormous. Spend money on ergonomics, and you will be less fatigued, more energetic, more productive, and healthier into the later years of your life.


If you must do your computing while sitting (and do consider alternative standing deskstreadmill desks, or a desk suited to computing while lying in bed), then a good chair is a stunningly good investment. If you make your living while sitting in a chair and computing, what is a $500 investment in your comfort and good health and productivity while sitting? A used Aeron from Craigslist costs around $500 and is the gold standard of ergonomic chair design. 

At the low end of ergnomic chairs, the Ikea TORBJÖRN gets a hearty recommendation. It's only $39. Buy some extras for your visitors? That's what I did but then they all ended up in the rooms of my roommates. At the midrange, I have recommended the Ikea Verksam, but it appears to be discontinued. I think the current model Volmar is similar enough though I have not personally sat in it.

The important thing when getting your chair is to make sure it actually fits your body enough to let you sit in a proper ergonomic position. Note that the model in these OSHA images is committing an ergonomics no-no by using arm rests. Yes, I know they feel good to rest your arms on, but they're a crutch. Most all of the positions where you are resting your arms on your armrest are really bad for typing 8 hours a day. Just take the armrests off of your chair and start building up your arm strength. Similarly, avoid chairs with head rests.



Unsurprisingly at this point, I will declare that ergonomic keyboards are just better. They used to be a premium product, but now Microsoft's entry level ergonomic keyboard is only $25. Also, DVORAK is strictly better than QWERTY, ignoring the inconvenience of being forced to switch back and forth between keysets.



Ironically, given that it is the default environment for computing, sitting is not very good for the body compared to standing or lying. This makes sense in an evolutionary biology sense -- the human body was definitely designed for working while sitting up, and sleeping while lying down. We can hack this a little by working while lying down, though many people have trouble focusing given the implied lack of focus of a lying down position.

So, a good mattress can be an investment in both your sleeping comfort and your working comfort. I think a good mattress is even more important than a good chair. You spent 1/4-1/3 of your life asleep! I can accomplish no useful work without a good night's sleep.

If you sleep with (or ever plan on sleeping with) a partner, get a queen size bed. A US full size bed is equal to 1.5 twin beds, which doesn't fit two full size adults. My parents sleep on a full size bed (along with a small dog!) and are plagued by insomnia, not enough space, and bouts of blanket stealing. Apparently, it was not uncommon among their generation to prefer the forced physical closeness of a smaller bed. This is ok sometimes, of course, but when we're talking every night, you'll sleep better when not forced to be crushed up against your partner. 

A king size bed is even better, of course, if your room can fit it. I got a king size bed because my partner and I both like to compute while lying down in bed, and two people plus computers fit much better on a king size bed than a queen size bed.

I like memory foam mattresses. A minority of people really don't. My heuristic on this is that if you think you'll like a memory foam mattress, you will. One nice thing about memory foam is that it doesn't transmit vibrations from one side to the other. This means that you could probably sleep while someone else is jumping on the other side of the bed. That would not work on a conventional spring mattress. I've heard latex mattresses are even better but I'm too cheap to take my own advice to the full logical conclusion. 

Feel free to skip the box spring, unless your bed requires one. 



This is an area where my own ergonomics falls short. I'm 5' 11'' and I just can't quite fit in my Hyundai Elantra. No matter how I adjust the seat, I can't get in a perfectly ergonomic driving position. I refuse to buy another car until I can get one that drives itself, so for now, it seems like I am stuck with a somewhat unergonomic driving experience. 

On hand positioning, note that the 10-2 advocated by some DMV and then driver's ed is basically wrong. Whatever slight advantage it might offer is offset by the risk that your arms are between the airbag and your body during a crash. 9-3 is a new conservative choice. I drive 8 and 4. The California DMV manual now supports this.


Fidget more often

One of the most important points of ergonomics is that injury comes from sustained stress. The body can handle a little bit of a stress for a short period of time without much in the way of problems. People often walk into a room and see me scrunched up in the most awkward seeming, obviously unergonomic and uncomfortable looking positions. Why do I do it? Well, it turns out that your body can tolerate almost any position at all for short periods of time. The important part is to notice when your body is experiencing too much stress and shift positions.

Take a step back from this article and note how your body feels, as you are situated. Do you notice any discomfort or stress in your neck, shoulders, back, or lower body? Try fidgeting into a more comfortable position. Next time you notice stress, fidget again. Repeat for the rest of your life.

The science of fidgeting is still surprisingly undeveloped, though more evidence is coming out in favor of it. Fidgeters are much less likely to be obese than non-fidgeters. Fidgeting also works as a technique to help with focus -- it's well documented for ADHD people, but fidgeting doesn't just help ADHD people focus.

Try barefoot shoes

Vibram Fivefingers are popular enough among aspiring rationalists that I frequently joke about the cult of the toe shoe. The evidence behind barefoot running as strictly superior to conventional running shoes at this point seems overwhelming. The evidence for barefoot walking as superior to shoe'd walking is less so, but it seems intuitive to me -- when you actually get tactile feedback from your feet painfully thudding against the ground, you're more likely to walk in such a way as to minimize stress on your body.

I really like Fivefingers, but got annoyed with random passerbys asking me about them everytime I leave my house. Also, they have a tendency to fall apart after heavy use and repeated washings. 

The cult of the toe shoes seems to be moving onto Ninja Zemgears. They're also much, much cheaper than Fivefingers, so it's not as big of a deal when they inevitably fall apart. They are also much less intrusive as footwear than Vibrams. People notice them less, and when they do, they think you are wearing comfortable Japanese slippers (Tabi shoes) rather than monstrous toe forms. 


I've offered a lot of suggestions here for how to actually improve your life. If you do this sort of life-hacking, you will be able to actually notice that you are happier, less fatigued, more energetic, and more productive. Just try it. No one ever regrets improving their ergonomic well-being. You'll get to spend more of your day at your peak level of performance instead of in a tense, fatigued, or uncomfortable state.

I'm happy to answer specific questions or give product recommendations in the comments.

Let Your Workers Gather Food

22 D_Malik 24 October 2011 07:51PM

Crocker's rules apply to this post, and to everything I post.

Also, after writing this post and googling LW for links I came up with this post, which presents the same ideas. #!@$%

When I was younger, I often played real-time strategy (RTS) computer games. These usually involve running an empire successfully enough to conquer all the other empires. To win, you would have to gather resources like food, stone, wood and gold for use in research, construction and recruitment. Gathering resources is done by worker units. To construct worker units you need food. 
Do you see the hack?


I know, the title gives it away. You can construct a bunch of workers and tell them all to gather food. Use the food they gather to make more workers, and put those on food as well. You set up a positive feedback loop and quickly have vast numbers of workers. When you have crazy amounts of food, then you can get to the business of putting lots of workers on each other resource, and using all your resources to take over the world.


Of course, among RTS players this isn't a new idea, and various forces have arisen to counterbalance it. For instance, players build up small soldier squads and attack right at the start of the game, destroying any player who has only defenceless worker units. Marginal costs of worker recruitment increase with the number of workers you have. There are population limits. But the initial development boom still plays an important role, and the key to winning is often to balance those actions which help directly (building an army) with those actions which help with actions which help directly (making more workers).


Now consider this. If you want to, say, ensure we're not all dead in 100 years, what do you do? You could become a fireman and save a few lives. Or you could donate to some worthy organization. Or you could get other people to donate to said organization. Or convince people to convince people to donate to the organization. And so on. That's one orbit under the meta function, but it's not the one I want to talk about.


Say you decide to throw money at a worthy organization. To do that you need to get money, and to get money you need time.  How much buck-for-the-time you get depends on how efficient you are at converting time into money. But time isn't just useful for conversion into money. It can also be used to increase your efficiency of converting time into money. Or it can be used to increase your efficiency at converting time into [efficiency of converting time into money]. And so on. Do you see the hack?


Use the time you have to get better at using the time you have. You set up a positive feedback loop and end up crazy awesome. Human go FOOM. You might spend some time learning to efficiently manage your time, giving you more free time to work at your goals. You might spend some time thinking about how to manage akrasia and thereby create more quality work-time. You might research how best to learn, and chance upon SRSs. You might learn about nootropics. You might even stumble upon this very site, where you might pick up pointers to things you can do to get better at using your time. Now, of course, you can't just spend your time becoming more and more awesome. At some point you need to actually use that awesomeness to do what you originally wanted to. As in the RTSs, you need to balance actions which accomplish stuff directly against those which accomplish stuff indirectly.


In other words, you need to balance the various levels of action. To summarize, level 0 actions are those which directly accomplish your goals. Level k+1 actions are those which help make level k actions easier or more effective. As the linked post observes, lower levels tend to be additive while higher levels are often multiplicative or better. Level 0 is useful. Level 1,2 and 3 are much more useful. Level 123 is pretty useless. Sure, travelling by horse gets you places, but having one person invent a plane which a billion people use will cut travel times significantly. Observe that this very site is about going meta, about thinking about thinking, and often about thinking about thinking about thinking, or even more. Also, work can be on many levels at once, and it's not always easy to figure out the level of an action. For instance, what's the level of you reading this paragraph?


So we want awesomeness explosions, and to help bring about awesomeness explosions we need to know a bit about them. How can we act to make ourselves explode? What determines the speed of an awesomeness explosion? Is awesomeness capped, and, if so, what's capping it?


To start, what limits awesomeness? We might ask whether we can extend the analogy with worker recruitment in RTS games, and indeed we can. In RTS games, worker explosions can't go on forever because:

          Marginal worker costs increase with the number of workers built.

         There are population limits.

         Sooner or later, other players will rudely just up and attack you, and your defenceless workers will die.


In a serendipitous confluence of circumstance, these three limitations on RTS fooms map nicely to human fooms. Respectively:

         Different fruit hangs at different heights, so picking low-hanging fruit makes the average fruit higher. In addition, as you become saner you become less neurotypical (Not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is a change.), so it's harder to use established human knowledge about self-improvement to improve yourself.

         There are limits to human knowledge. There are built-in limits on brain hardware. Note that both these can be overcome by the sufficiently awesome. They're also both special cases of the above bullet-point. Just as population limits are a special case of increasing marginal worker costs, in yet another serendipitous confluence of circumstance.

         Your levels of work must be grounded. If you work on level k+1, make sure you do enough work on level k to justify it. (There's an analogy with Truly Part Of You.)

With all these factors limiting human fooms, there's no guarantee human fooms will be, well, FOOMs. They might fizzle out too quickly, due to increasing marginal costs of awesomeness. But my mental intuitive estimation machinery says that, while taking over the world might be pushing it a bit, a lot more is possible than we've achieved so far.


Now for some ideas on making yourself go FOOM.

         Do useful stuff! People aren't automatically strategic. I think this is the second-most important reason we haven't all foomed yet (after akrasia). Remember that compound interest isn't magic – just improving yourself isn't enough. You have to actually assign higher priority to things which are more important. This is a really important point, and all the rest of these bullet-points are special cases of it. I think those in the LW mindspacecluster are particularly prone to seek knowledge without first applying some ruthless pragmatism. I know I am.

         Do stuff which helps you do stuff. In other words: work on higher levels, as long as you're still grounded. Go meta, like this sentence (whose metaness is too great for even the ordinals). Trying to learn from that physiology book isn't very useful when you haven't learnt how to learn. Again, this is a really important point and all the rest of these bullet-points are special cases of it.

         Write down your thoughts (Darwin), and preferably ensure you remember them with an SRS. Record your time use every now and then. This is an important.

         Explore new mindstates. Trying to come up with ideas seems like mining for diamonds, and often you can get more, bigger diamonds by mining in different places. One reason this is a good idea (and a reason why you should write down your thoughts) is that people (or me, at least) often seem to retread the same thoughtpatterns over and over, day after day. It's like you have a 'reset' button that gets pushed every evening when you go to sleep. I have directly observed this, when I wrote down my thoughts for a few weeks without memorizing them with an SRS. When I write down my thoughts, I've taken to calling this Every Day The Same Dream (EDTSD) syndrome.

         Look at what other really smart people do, then consider doing that. Look at really smart people and ask yourself why they haven't taken over the world yet. (David Bennett: If you want to beat the market, you have to do something different from what everyone else is doing, and you have to be right.)

         Think a lot, and think in efficient ways. Most people seem to just hope good ideas will tap them on t he shoulder. I've been like that for most of my life. Ideas often do tap you on the shoulder, but I get better results by sitting down with a piece of paper and a pen and thinking really hard, vomiting anything that comes to me out onto the page. I call this the Thinking Really Hard (TRH) technique, and I Think it was inspired by Eliezer's exhortation to sit down and Think for 5 minutes before concluding a problem is unsolvable.

         Related to the previous bullet-point: Ensure you focus mental energy wisely. If you really spent all your mental energy where it's optimal, how much more would get done? Perhaps actively stop yourself thinking about things you don't care about. Go meta: think about how to improve your thought-focussing abilities.

         As a special case of the previous bullet-point: Think long and hard about how to get more time. I really mean that. Perhaps you should add a reminder to regularly do that to your SRS, if you're awesome enough to use one. Remember the Pareto principle.

         As a summary of all these bullet-points: Figure out ways to work faster and smarter and harder. I have lots of ideas about overcoming akrasia which are pretty weird and which I've never seen described anywhere else, but which work spectacularly for me. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll work for everyone else, but they're bound to work for some of you. I might write a post.

         A few links, which most LWers are probably already familiar with:

         The Science of Winning at Life

         SRSs: Gwern Branwen, Piotr Wozniak

         Nootropics: ImmInst 1, 2

         Humans Aren't Automatically Strategic

         All the posts about akrasia



What determines the speed of human recursive self-improvement? The main factor, I think, is how much new awesome you get from a given amount of awesome – the rate of compound interest on awesome. If being awesome causes you to become much more awesome, you will foom quickly, whereas if you get only a bit more awesome for each unit of awesome you have, you will foom slowly. If there's a set-point of awesomeness towards which you are attached like a spring, it will be very hard to foom. Each of these three situations often occurs in real life, for different types of awesome.


I'm pretty sure that several people here on LW have had these human fooms, since, well, they've found LW. I've had a miniature human foom, and it's still ongoing. But it seems to me that this is nothing compared to what's out there.

As with those of fooming AIs, the actions of fooming humans are hard to predict, and for the same reason: if you could predict what they'd do, you could probably do it yourself. Nevertheless, here are some ideas of what people far on in the fooming process might do:

         They would practise extremely fine-tuned control of their own thought-processes; they would waste no thought-time. They could just sit and go into a thought trance, coming up with a brilliant new insight in seconds. When most people think, they're just executing adaptations, not optimizing utility.

         They would be free of cognitive bias.

         They would have the ability to flat-out ignore pain. They would do everything the way cold, hard logic says is most efficient. They wouldn't ever sit, they would stand or run. They would run on a treadmill on one leg while listening to a French audiobook (despite not knowing French) while juggling 5 tennis balls with one hand while doing SRS reviews.

         To restate the previous bullet-point, they would have no akrasia. They would find those little voices at the backs of their heads that keep whispering for them to fail. They would drag out those little voices and kill them.


Now, these things look unrealistic. But I think they' d all be achievable by any average LWer who committed themselves to this, and only this, for a year. I really mean that. And I have a feeling that more, much more, is possible.


The whole universe sat there, open to the man who could make the right decisions.
Frank Herbert, Dune, as quoted by Nick_Roy

Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge

138 lukeprog 20 January 2011 08:44PM
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life

Some have suggested that the Less Wrong community could improve readers' instrumental rationality more effectively if it first caught up with the scientific literature on productivity and self-help, and then enabled readers to deliberately practice self-help skills and apply what they've learned in real life.

I think that's a good idea. My contribution today is a quick overview of scientific self-help: what professionals call "the psychology of adjustment." First I'll review the state of the industry and the scientific literature, and then I'll briefly summarize the scientific data available on three topics in self-help: study methods, productivity, and happiness.

The industry and the literature

As you probably know, much of the self-help industry is a sham, ripe for parody. Most self-help books are written to sell, not to help. Pop psychology may be more myth than fact. As Christopher Buckley (1999) writes, "The more people read [self-help books], the more they think they need them... [it's] more like an addiction than an alliance."

Where can you turn for reliable, empirically-based self-help advice? A few leading therapeutic psychologists (e.g., Albert Ellis, Arnold Lazarus, Martin Seligman) have written self-help books based on decades of research, but even these works tend to give recommendations that are still debated, because they aren't yet part of settled science.

Lifelong self-help researcher Clayton Tucker-Ladd wrote and updated Psychological Self-Help (pdf) over several decades. It's a summary of what scientists do and don't know about self-help methods (as of about 2003), but it's also more than 2,000 pages long, and much of it surveys scientific opinion rather than experimental results, because on many subjects there aren't any experimental results yet. The book is associated with an internet community of people sharing what does and doesn't work for them.

More immediately useful is Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds. Wiseman is an experimental psychologist and paranormal investigator who gathered together what little self-help research is part of settled science, and put it into a short, fun, and useful Malcolm Gladwell-ish book. The next best popular-level general self-help book is perhaps Martin Seligman's What You Can Change and What You Can't.

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How to always have interesting conversations

46 Kaj_Sotala 14 June 2010 12:35AM

One of the things that makes Michael Vassar an interesting person to be around is that he has an opinion about everything. If you locked him up in an empty room with grey walls, it would probably take the man about thirty seconds before he'd start analyzing the historical influence of the Enlightenment on the tradition of locking people up in empty rooms with grey walls.

Likewise, in the recent LW meetup, I noticed that I was naturally drawn to the people who most easily ended up talking about interesting things. I spent a while just listening to HughRistik's theories on the differences between men and women, for instance. There were a few occasions when I engaged in some small talk with new people, but not all of them took very long, as I failed to lead the conversation into territory where one of us would have plenty of opinions.

I have two major deficiencies in trying to mimic this behavior. One, I'm by nature more of a listener than speaker. I usually prefer to let other people talk so that I can just soak up the information being offered. Second, my native way of thought is closer to text than speech. At best, I can generate thoughts as fast as I can type. But in speech, I often have difficulty formulating my thoughts into coherent sentences fast enough and frequently hesitate.

Both of these problems are solvable by having a sufficiently well built-up storage of cached thoughts that I don't need to generate everything in real time. On the occasions when a conversations happens to drift into a topic I'm sufficiently familiar with, I'm often able to overcome the limitations and contribute meaningfully to the discussion. This implies two things. First, that I need to generate cached thoughts in more subjects than I currently have. Seconds, that I need an ability to more reliably steer conversation into subjects that I actually do have cached thoughts about.

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On Enjoying Disagreeable Company

50 Alicorn 26 May 2010 01:47AM

Bears resemblance to: Ureshiku Naritai; A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations In Favor of Niceness

In this comment, I mentioned that I can like people on purpose.  At the behest of the recipients of my presentation on how to do so, I've written up in post form my tips on the subject.  I have not included, and will not include, any specific real-life examples (everything below is made up), because I am concerned that people who I like on purpose will be upset to find that this is the case, in spite of the fact that the liking (once generated) is entirely sincere.  If anyone would find more concreteness helpful, I'm willing to come up with brief fictional stories to cover this gap.

It is useful to like people.  For one thing, if you have to be around them, liking them makes this far more pleasant.  For another, well, they can often tell, and if they know you to like them this will often be instrumentally useful to you.  As such, it's very handy to be able to like someone you want to like deliberately when it doesn't happen by itself.  There are three basic components to liking someone on purpose.  First, reduce salience of the disliked traits by separating, recasting, and downplaying them; second, increase salience of positive traits by identifying, investigating, and admiring them; and third, behave in such a way as to reap consistency effects.

1. Reduce salience of disliked traits.

Identify the traits you don't like about the person - this might be a handful of irksome habits or a list as long as your arm of deep character flaws, but make sure you know what they are.  Notice that however immense a set of characteristics you generate, it's not the entire person.  ("Everything!!!!" is not an acceptable entry in this step.)  No person can be fully described by a list of things you have noticed about them.  Note, accordingly, that you dislike these things about the person; but that this does not logically entail disliking the person.  Put the list in a "box" - separate from how you will eventually evaluate the person.

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Brute-force Music Composition

13 HughRistik 22 May 2009 06:02AM

Follow-up to: Heuristic is not a bad word

When I was in high school, I wanted to compose music. I wanted to write the music that I wanted to hear. There was only one problem: I have good aural imagination, but I don't have world-class aural imagination. I can look at sheet music and hear it in my head. I can hear chords. I can hear two-part harmony. Yet my aural imagination wasn't developed enough to generate novel music, except when I was in certain moods or about to fall asleep. And most of what I could hear in my head I found impossible to transcribe.

Nevertheless, I wanted to write cool music. I know what I like when I hear it. I had the ability to critique music; the only problem was creating it. So I developed my own technique for writing music: I composed using brute force. Before I describe how this worked, and how successful it was, I would like to talk more generally about brute force as a method for problem-solving.

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