Turning the dial to eleven

I have a local lesswronger, he likes to use the phrase, “turning the dial to eleven”.

I think XKCD emphasises it well:

There’s something sweetly satisfying about turning the dial TO THE MAX just to see what it does. The really beautiful thing about this idea is that you can apply it to any goal seeking, more specifically any behaviour that can be done can be done in an extremely studious way.

Do all the things!


This is not always applicable, we know things like, working yourself ragged is not a virtue, as well as Systems not goals which preaches framing plans in terms of systems, not in terms of the finish line.

There are also some domains where this is a really bad idea.  For example: exercise – if you decide to exercise constantly you will discover that you can’t actually do that;  or if you decide that exercising every 3-4 days is not enough, and you want to cut out the rest days, and instead exercise every day, you will have made a beginners mistake and not realised that exercise is a process of using muscles and days off repair the damage caused by the use of muscles on the active days.  So simply turning the dial up to 11 on exercise without doing your research first will be a detrimental idea.

Nevertheless there is still some satisfaction to be gained from turning the dial to 11.  Specifically, the question:

“If I were to go all out on this goal, what would that look like?”

Followed by

“What is stopping me?”


There is a certain joy that comes from trying to turn the dial up to eleven just to see what happens.  Pursue your goal with all means necessary just to see what comes of it.  This ties into Nate Soares’ half assing it with everything you’ve got.

If you are still reading;  put this down on the list of experiments (post coming soon) to try “next time I have a goal” to test it on.

Try turn the dial up to eleven you won’t believe what happens next.


meta: This took 1.5hrs to write.

Written as a tribute to Tim.

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Exploration-Exploitation problems

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?


I have been working on the assumption that exploration-exploitation knowledge was just common.  Unfortunately I did the smart thing of learning about them from a mathematician at a dojo in Melbourne, which means that no.  Not everyone knows about it.  I discovered that again today when I searched for a good quick explanation of the puzzle.  With that in mind this is about Exploration Exploitation.


The classic Exploration-Exploitation problem in mathematics is the multi-armed bandit.  Which is a slang term for a bank of slot machines.  Where the player knows that each machine has a variable payoff and you have a limit number of attempts before you run out of money.  You want to balance trying out new machines with unknown payoffs against exploiting the knowledge you already have from the earlier machines you tried.

When you first start on new bandits, you really don’t know which will pay out and at what rates.  So some exploration is necessary to know what your reward ratio in the territory will be.  As your knowledge grows, you get to know which bandits are likely to pay, and which are not, and this later informs your choices as to where to place your dollars.

Mathematicians love a well specified problem like this because it allows us to make algorithm models of patterns that will return rewards or guarantee rewards given certain circumstances.  (see also – the secretary problem which does similar.  Where I showed how it applied to real life dating)

Some of the mathematical solutions to this problem look like:

Epsilon greedy – The best lever is selected for a proportion 1-ε of the trials, and a lever is selected at random (with uniform probability) for a proportion ε. A typical parameter value might be ε =0.1 but this can vary widely depending on circumstances.

Epsilon-decreasing strategy: Similar to the epsilon-greedy strategy, except that the value of ε decreases as the experiment progresses, resulting in highly exploratory behaviour at the start and highly exploitative behaviour at the finish.

Of course there are more strategies, and the context and nature of the problem matters.  If the machines suddenly one day in the future all change, you might have a strategy that would prepare for potential scenarios like that.  As you start shifting away from the hypothetical and towards real life your models need to increase complexity to cater to the details of the real world.

If this problem is more like real life (where we live and breathe), the possible variability of reality starts coming in to play more and more.  In talking about this – I want to emphasise not the problem as interesting, but the solution of <sometimes explore> and <sometimes exploit> in specific ratios or for specific reasons.  The mathematical solutions the the multi-armed bandit problem are used in such a way to take advantage of the balance between not knowing enough and taking advantage of what you do know.

What supercharges this solution and how it can be applied to real life is value of information.

Value of Information says that in relation to making a decision, what informs that decision is worth something.  With expensive decisions, risky decisions, dangerous decisions, highly lucrative decisions, or particularly unknown decisions being more sure is important to think about.

VoI suggests that any decision that is worth money (or worth something) can have information that informs that decision.  The value of information can add up to the value of the reward on correctly making the decision.  Of course if you spend all the potential gains from the decision on getting the perfect information you lose the chance to make a profit.  However usually a cheap (relative to the decision) piece of information exists that will inform the decision and assist.

How does this apply to exploration-exploitation?

The idea of VoI is well covered in the book, how to measure anything.  While the book goes into detail and is really really excellent for applying to big decisions, the ideas can also be applied to our simple every day problems as well.  With this in mind I propose a heuristic:

You want to explore as much as to increase your information with regard to both the quality of the rest of the exploration and possible results and the expected returns on the existing knowledge.


The next thing to supercharge our exploration-exploitation and VoI knowledge is Diminishing returns.

Diminishing returns on VoI is when you start out not knowing anything at all, and adding a little bit of knowledge goes a long way.  As you keep adding more and more information the return on the extra knowledge has a diminishing value.

Worked example:  Knowing the colour of the sky.

So you are blind and no one has ever told you what colour the sky is.  You can’t really be sure what colour the sky is but generally if you ask enough people the consensus should be a good enough way to conclude the answer.

So one guy gave you your first inkling of what the answer is.  But can you really trust him?

Yea cool.  Ten people.  Probably getting sure of yourself now.

Really, what good is Two Thousand people after the first fifty?  Especially if they all agree.  There’s got to be less value of the 2001st person telling you than there was the 3rd person telling you.


Going back to VoI, how valuable was the knowledge that the sky is blue?  Probably not very valuable, and this isn’t a great way to gather knowledge in the long run.

The great flaw with this is also if I asked you the question – “what colour is the sky?” you could probably hint as to a confident guess.  If you are a well calibrated human, you already know a little bit of everything and the good news is that calibration is trainable.

With that in mind; if you want to play a calibration game there are plenty available on google.

The great thing about calibration is that it seems to apply across all your life, and all things that you estimate.  Which is to say that once you are calibrated, you are calibrated across domains.  This means that if you become good at it in one area, you become better at it in other areas.  We’re not quite talking about hitting the bullseye every time, but we are talking about being confident that the bullseye is over there in that direction.  Which is essentially the ability to predict the future within a reasonable set of likelihoods.


Once you are calibrated, you can take calibration, use it to apply diminishing returns through VoI to supercharge your exploration exploitation.  But we’re not done.  What if we add in Bayesian statistics?  What if we can shape our predicted future and gradually update our beliefs based on tiny snippits of data that we gather over time and purposefully by thinking about VoI, and the diminishing returns of information.

I don’t want to cover Bayes because people far smarter than me have covered it very well.  If you are interested in learning bayes I would suggest heading to Arbital for their excellent guides.

But we’re not done at bayes.  This all comes down to the idea of trade-offs.  Exploration VS exploitation is a trade off of {time/energy} vs expected reward.


A classic example of a trade-off is a story of Sharpening the Saw (from the book 7 habits of highly effective people)

A woodcutter strained to saw down a tree.  A young man who was watching asked “What are you doing?”

“Are you blind?” the woodcutter replied. “I’m cutting down this tree.”

The young man was unabashed. “You look exhausted! Take a break. Sharpen your saw.”

The woodcutter explained to the young man that he had been sawing for hours and did not have time to take a break.

The young man pushed back… “If you sharpen the saw, you would cut down the tree much faster.”

The woodcutter said “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?”

The thing about life and trade offs is that all of life is trade-offs between things you want to do and other things you want to do.

Exploration and exploitation is a trade off between the value of what you know and the value of what you might know if you find out.


Try this:

  • Make a list of all the things you have done over the last 7 days.  (Use your diary and rough time chunking)
  • Sort them into exploration activities and exploitation activities.
    Answer this:
  • Am I exploring enough? (on a scale of 1-10)
    • Is this all there is to life?  I already know enough?
  • Am I exploiting enough? (on a scale of 1-10)
    • Have I banked on the gains I have already made?
  • Have I turned down any exploring opportunities recently?
  • Have I turned down any exploitation opportunities recently?
  • How could I expand any exploring I am already doing?
  • How could I expand any exploiting I am already doing?
  • How could I do more exploring?  How could I do less exploring?
  • How could I do more exploiting?  How could I do less exploiting?

There are two really important things to take away from the Exploration-Exploitation dichotomy:

  1. You probably make the most measurable and ongoing gains in the Exploitation phase.  I mean – lets face it, these are long running goal-seeking behaviours like sticking to an exercise routine.
  2. The exploration might be seem more fun (find exciting and new hobbies) but are you sure that’s what you want to be doing in regard to 1?

Meta: This is part 1 of a 4 part series.

This took in the order of 10-15 hours to finish because I was doing silly things like trying to fit 4 posts into 1 and stumbling over myself.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/odg/

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

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Empirically assess your time use

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

168 hours

You and me both buddy.  We both have equal access to our 168 hours.  We have different demands on our hours like the need for sleep or how demanding our job is, but fundamentally we all start with the same 168 hours (24*7=168).  That means we all have an opportunity to look at these hours and figure out how to get the most out of them by doing the things we want to do in the limited hours we have.

This process is about looking at your hours and discovering where they go.


Make a list of all the things you have done over the last 7 days.  As a time management technique, this is a procedure to follow that will be useful for other times.

This might take 30 minutes to do, and might take 10 minutes.

  1. Acquire writing implements
  2. Write down the day and time.
  3. Subtract 7 days from now, and figure out where you were at the beginning of that day.
  4. Go through your diary, your phone call log, your sms history, your messenger histories and work out what you did, in rough chunks, from when you woke up on that day until now.
  5. Start with sleep – You probably have a regular enough wake up time, and a regular enough time that you go to sleep.  This will put upper bounds on the number of hours in your life.
  6. Identify Routines and how long they take – regular meals, lunch breaks, shower processes.
  7. Identify regular commitments – meetings, clubs, events.
  8. Identify any social time.
  9. Identify time spent deeply working, studying, reading, planning
  10. Identify exercise.
  11. Identify dual purpose time, i.e. I play on facebook on the bus.

Here is an example

Monday
7 wake up
7-7:30 shower and get ready (30mins)
7:30-8 drive to work (30mins)
8-10 check emails and respond to people (1hour)
10-10:20 coffee break (20mins)
10:20-1 work meeting (1hr40mins)
1-1:30 lunch (30mins)
1:30-3:30 computer work (2hrs)
3:30-3:40 distraction food break (10mins)
3:40-4:30 work (50mins)
4:30-5 drive home (30mins)
5-6 make and eat dinner (1hr)
6-7:30 netflix (1.5hrs)
7:30-11:30 play on computer (3.5hrs)
11:30-11:45 get ready and head to bed. (15mins)

Another option might be to simplify this to:

Monday
7am wake up
7-7:30 shower and breakfast (30mins)
7:30-8 drive to work (30mins)
8-1 work(5hrs)
1-1:30 lunch (30mins)
1:30-4:30 work (3hrs)
4:30-5 drive home (30mins)
5-6 dinner (1hr)
6-11:30 relax and entertain myself (5.5hrs)
11:30-11:45 get ready and go to bed (15mins)

Now repeat for the rest of the days.


Why?

Time management is about knowing where your time is going.  it might be interesting to know that you spend an hour commuting, or 8 hours working or two hours dealing with food each day.  Or maybe that’s just Mondays.  And when you go out for dinner you spend more time with food.

If you are trying to work out the value of your time it helps to know what you do with your time.  Doing this exercise for 2-4 weeks in a row can help you establish a baseline of your 168 hours.  And where efficiency or inefficiencies lie.  If you want to grow; it starts with evidence and observation.

Yea but why did I do that? And what comes next?

Nothing, just think about what you uncovered.  Do as I do and revel in the joy of the merely real, knowing what you actually do with your time.  This is your life.  Do with it what you will.  Know that how you spend your time are your revealed preferences (post coming soon).


Meta: This took 45mins to write.  This is an exercise that I invented for myself years ago, this is the first time I have written it up.  You can’t get the most out of the exercise without trying it out to see what it’s like.  Good luck!

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/r/lw/odd/empirically_assess_your_time_use/


Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

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book me!

I finally set this up!

https://bearlamp.youcanbook.me/

I think I would still prefer that you get in touch with me to plan something, but in lieu of that I am provisioning for my future where I need to book people like this.

anyway, it’s going on my contact page here too.  This is just a post to say – I am excited and keen to have this thing going.  Also you should set one up because it’s easy.

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Should you share your goals?

It’s complicated. And depends on the environment in which you share your goals.


Scenario 1: you post on facebook “This month I want to lose 1kg, I am worried I can’t do it – you guys should show me support”. Your friends; being the best of aspiring rationalist friends; believe your instructions are thought out and planned, After all your goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely (SMART). In the interest of complying with your request you get 17 likes and 10 comments of “wow awesome” and “you go man” and “that’s the way to do it”. Even longer ones of, “good planning will help you achieve your goals”, and some guy saying how he lost 2 kilos in a month, so 1kg should be easy as cake.

When you read all the posts your brain goes “wow, lost weight like that”, “earn’t the adoration of my friends for doing the thing”, and rewards you dopamine for your social support.  I feel great! So you have a party, eat what you like, relax and enjoy that feeling. One month later you managed to gain a kilo not lose one.


Scenario 2: You post on facebook, “This month I want to lose 2kg (since last month wasn’t so great). So all of you better hold me to that, and help me get there”. In the interest of complying with you, all your aspiring rationalist friends post things like, “Yea right”, “I’ll believe it when I see it”. “you couldn’t do 1kg last month, what makes you think you can do it now?”, “I predict he will lose one kilo but then put it back on again. haha”, “you’re so full of it. You want to lose weight; I expect to see you running with me at 8am 3 times a week”. two weeks later someone posts to your wall, “hows the weight loss going? I think you failed already”, and two people comment, “I bet he did”, and “actually he did come running in the morning”.

When you read all the posts your brain goes; “looks like I gotta prove it to them that I can do this, and hey this could be easy if they help me exercise”, no dopamine reward because I didn’t get the acclaim. After two weeks you are starting to lose track of the initial momentum, the chocolate is starting to move to the front of the cupboard again. When you see the post on your wall you double down; throw out the chocolate so it’s not in your temptation, and message the runner that you will be there tomorrow. After a month you actually did it, reporting back to your friends they actually congratulate you for your work; “my predictions were wrong; updating my beliefs”, “congratulations”, “teach me how you did it”..


Those scenarios were made up, but its designed to show that it depends entirely on the circumstances of your sharing your goals and the atmosphere in which you do it as well as how you treat the events surrounding sharing your goals.

Given that in scenario 2 asking for help yielded an exercise partner, and scenario 1 only yielded encouragement – there is a clear distinction between useful goal-sharing and less-useful goal sharing.

Yes; some goal sharing is ineffective; but some can be effective. Up to you whether you take the effective pathways or not.


Addendum: Treat people’s goals the right way; not the wrong way. Make a prediction on what you think will happen then ask them critical questions. If something sounds unrealistic – gently prod them in the direction of being more realistic (emphasis on gentle). (relevant example) “what happens over the xmas silly season when there is going to be lots of food around – how will you avoid putting on weight?”, “do you plan to exercise?”, “what do you plan to do differently from last month?”. DO NOT reward people for not achieving their goals.


Meta: this is a repost from when I wrote it here. Because I otherwise have difficulty finding it.

Also posted on lesswrong

related on lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/l5y/link_the_problem_with_positive_thinking/

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2016: a year in review in science

As another year comes around, and our solstice plans come to a head I want to review this year’s great progress in science to follow on from last year’s great review.

The general criteria is: World changing science, not politics.  That means a lot of space discoveries, a lot of technology, some groundbreaking biology, and sometimes new chemical materials.  There really are too many to list briefly.

With that in mind, below is the list:


Things that spring to mind when you ask people:

  • T3d printing organs and skin tissue http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35581454
  • Baby born with 3 parents. link
  • AlphaGo VS Lee Sedol
  • Cryopreservation of a rabbit brain – Link
  • Majorana fermions discovered (possibly quantum computing applications)
  • SpaceX landed Falcon 9 at sea – Link
  • Gravitational waves deteced by LIGO
  • Quantum logic gate with 99% accuracy at Oxford
  • TensorFlow has been out just over a year now.  An open source neural net project.

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_in_science

Note: the whole thing is worth reading – I cherry picked a few really cool ones.

  • Astronomers identify IDCS 1426 as the most distant massive galaxy cluster yet discovered, at 10 billion light years from Earth.[4]
  • Mathematicians, as part of the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, report the discovery of a new prime number: “274,207,281 − 1”
  • The world’s first 13 TB solid state drive (SSD) is announced, doubling the previous record for a commercially available SSD. link
  • A successful head transplant on a monkey by scientists in China is reported.
  • The University of New South Wales announces that it will begin human trials of the Phoenix99, a fully implantable bionic eye. Link
  • Scientists in the United Kingdom are given the go-ahead by regulators to genetically modify human embryos by using CRISPR-Cas9 and related techniques. Link
  • Scientists announce Breakthrough Starshot, a Breakthrough Initiatives program, to develop a proof-of-concept fleet of small centimeter-sized light sail spacecraft, named StarChip, capable of making the journey to Alpha Centauri, the nearest extrasolar star system, at speeds of 20% and 15% of the speed of light, taking between 20 and 30 years to reach the star system, respectively, and about 4 years to notify Earth of a successful arrival. Link
  • A new paper in Astrobiology suggests there could be a way to simplify the Drake equation, based on observations of exoplanets discovered in the last two decades. link
  • A detailed report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds no risk to human health from genetic modifications of food. Link
  • Researchers from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, and the University of Queensland jointly report that the Bramble Cay melomys is likely extinct, adding: “Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change.” Link
  • Scientists announce detecting a second gravitational wave event (GW151226) resulting from the collision of black holes.   Link
  • The first known death caused by a self-driving car is disclosed by Tesla Motors. Link
  • A team at the University of Oxford achieves a quantum logic gate with record-breaking 99.9% precision, reaching the benchmark required to build a quantum computer. Link
  • The world’s first baby born through a controversial new “three parent” technique is reported. Link
  • A team at Australia’s University of New South Wales create a new quantum bit that remains in a stable superposition for 10 times longer than previously achieved. Link
  • Scientists at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry officially recognizes names for four new chemical elements: Nihonium, Nh, 113; Moscovium, Mc, 115; Tennessine, Ts, 117 and Oganesson, Og, 118. Link

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016:


Notable deaths:


Nobel prizes:

  • The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was awarded jointly to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”
  • The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 was divided, one half awarded to David J. Thouless, the other half jointly to F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.
  • The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2016 was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy”.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
  • The Nobel Peace Prize 2016 was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.
  • The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2016 was awarded jointly to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström “for their contributions to contract theory”

100 years ago (1916):

Nobel Prizes in 1916:

  • Physics – not awarded
  • Chemistry – not awarded
  • Medicine – not awarded
  • Literature – Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam
  • Peace – not awarded

Other:

  • Pokemon go
  • Brexit – Britain secedes from the EU
  • Donald trump US president
  • SpaceX making more launches, and had a major explosion setback
  • Internet.org project delayed by SpaceX expolosion.

Meta: this took in the order of 3+ hours to write over several weeks.

Cross posted to Lesswrong here.

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Cholesterol in the body

I measured my cholesterol.  It’s a bit high at 5.5mmol/L.  But I was wondering what that means…

So I figured I would run the numbers.

I weigh 73.2kg today.  If you make the assumption that humans are a homogeneous blob and have uniform cholesterol through the body… (which is wrong because we are made up of lots of bones and organs and bits that really don’t have cholesterol) BUT.  If you make that assumption.

And assume that we can just multiply 5.5*73.2 = 402.6mmol of cholesterol in my body.

A quick google, and making some assumptions about the uniformity of the cholesterol molecules in my body; the molecular weight of cholesterol is 386.65 g/mol

A mmol is a millimol or a thousandth of a mol.  So I have 0.4026mols of cholesterol, and simply:

386.65grams per 1 mol, and we have 0.4026 mols, we do some simple rearranging and

386.65/1= X/0.4026  —->  386.65/1  * 0.4026 = X

X = 155.66529g of cholesterol in my body.


The density of cholesterol is 1.05g/cm^3 which means that this amount of cholesterol could fit into…  (155.6529/1.05 = 148.24cm^3)

5^3 = 125 so a 5cm cube, or say – two eggs in size, or maybe a bar of soap.


This also means that if my cholesterol were an ordinary (and probably more healthy) 3mmol/L

3*73.2 = 219.600mmol/1000=0.2196mol *386.65 = 84.908g of cholesterol, or probably a bit closer to one large chicken egg instead of two.


It’s interesting to keep this in mind, in wanting to make progress on chipping away at the bar of soap until I am carrying around a healthy amount of cholesterol.

This also means that an unhealthily high cholesterol.  Of say 13.9mmol/L and a chance of more than 1/5 of a heart attack over the next 10 years, is equivalent to (depending on your body weight – for me – (13.9*73.2 = 1017.48mmol/1000 = 1.01745*386.65 = 393.39g of cholesterol, or the equivalent of a not tiny but also not large sized bible.  Or maybe a large steak.  Maybe two sticks or one tub of butter (depending on the brand).  more than a can of soft drink but less than two cans.


Meta: this took 1.5 hours to write.  I didn’t realise how hard heuristics for certain weights are to find.  No one has ever written a table of them up.  I might get on that shortly.

 

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Learning to sing

I wanted to test out the skills of learning that I have gathered over time.  I wanted to be better at singing.  What better way to see if I know what I am talking about when I say “here’s how to learn a new area X that you have no idea about

This is part one of me following my own advice.

But I also failed. I did things in the wrong order. That was more fun. So I did step 3, then I did step 5ish because talking to friends about what I am doing is fun. Then I started again from step 1 because actually making progress on goals is important to me.


(skipping step zero – have a growth mindset because I am fairly sure I have one)

This is the process again from step 1:

step 1: Make sure your chosen X is aligned with your actual goals (are you doing it because you want to?). When you want to learn a thing; is X that thing?

I want to be able to hear a song and sing along in tune. For the purpose of once I have that skill I can gradually get better and better at singing along to songs that I know. That seems like fun, it’s a thing I have never been able to do.

step 2: Check that you want to learn X and that will be progress towards a goal (or is a terminal goal.

this goes along with my goal of being a spectacle/interesting person.

step 3: Make a list of what you think that X is. Break it down. Followed by what you know about X, and if possible what you think you are missing about X.

parts:
1. achieve volume control
how loud or soft the sound is that comes from you.
<can already do a bit>
2. hit a note accurately
start at the note, and hold the right note for as long as needed
<cannot do>
3. maintain duration
have enough breath and vocal cord exercise to sing for as long as needed
<cannot do>
4. ability to switch between notes as required
accurately change from note to note.
<cannot do>
5. have a range of high to low pitch of notes.
be able to hit all notes in at least one and preferably more octaves. (accuracy elsewhere)
<can do a bit>
6. clarity of sound
sharp, clear, not wavering sounding and one note, not several.
<bad at it>
7. good breathing
be able to take in lots of air, and sing from the lungs not the neck.
<not sure>
8. accuracy at volume, high notes at volume,
advanced skill
<not yet>

step 4: Do some research to confirm that your rough definition of X is actually correct. Confirm that what you know already is true, if not – replace that existing knowledge with true things about X. Do not jump into everything yet.
https://www.reddit.com/r/singing/comments/2cdd0l/article_day_one_whats_the_very_first_thing_i_can/

Pitch matching. (hear a sound and sing it)
Interval training. (jump between two notes accurately)
Short melody – 3 notes or more.
Scales – can be done at the same time as short melody.

more step 3 from me:
Be able to follow sheet music and sing to it. (optional if I want to)

step 5: Figure out what experts in the area know (by topic area name), try to find what strategies experts in the area use to go about improving themselves.

I have two good friends who are excellent musicians, N has been teaching piano for 10+ years. and Y is a world class choir master and singer. That means I lucked out on the skilled friends. I don’t want to be an idiot who says the equivalent of “teach me everything while I stand on one leg”, but I can reasonably ask a few questions and get guidance.

Bearing in mind that while talking to Y they mentioned that their two year old daughter can sing in tune because there is a genetic factor to ability, and while moving around the house she makes up tunes and sings them. They can sing a melody and she can copy even when she can’t talk yet.

When talking to N, they would routinely be surprised that I can’t just “do this”. and “you just hear it”. Which is just a funny way to show the difference between experts and people with marginally more than zero skill. I have an ego that’s far too big to be discouraged by these things, but I can definitely see how that would make people who didn’t “have it” give up early.

At this point, often experts don’t know how to teach the very very basics because they are well into knowing how it’s done. It would be like asking a normal person how you walk up stairs. “you just do it”, how do you breathe? “I dunno you just do”. I am not complaining, just remarking on the phenomenon of the competence cycle:

Unconscious incompetence
conscious incometence
conscious competence
unconscious competence.


At this point I already found a phone app called “pitch lab lite” which visualises which note on a scale you are currently making. Y almost sneered at the app and insisted he learnt by ear. I am sure that the feedback helps, so I am not putting it down. Y gave me exercises of singing 1, 1-2-1, 1-2-3-2-1, 1-2-3-4-3-2-1, and so on but keeping in tune. I did a few in person and got minor corrections, and using the app on my own I can improve gradually.

N was not sure what to offer and suggested interval training.

step 6: common mistakes people make.

<not sure that this is necessary at the current stage>

further steps: at this point I am not sure that I need to do the further steps, because they are mostly about getting amazing resources. Something I don’t need until I am at least a little better at singing. I am going to try the exercise each day, a few times a day for practice, using the app for feedback I am trying to keep on the right note. I expect that I will lack the ability to get better beyond a certain point where the feedback basically looks much the same no matter what you do.


I want to bring up 14 because I think it’s now extraordinarily relevant.

try to find experiments you can conduct on yourself to confirm you are on the right track towards X. Or ways to measure yourself (measurement or testing is one of the most effective ways to learn) (1hour per experiment, 10-20 experiments)

I have been practicing daily for a few weeks now, and I am not entirely sure I am getting better.  I am going to have to figure out how to design a feedback loop.  Probably with Audacity, visualisation apps and some YouTube videos that I can sing along to.

Any time I am in a place with music playing I try to have the visualisation app going so that I can get used to seeing the feedback of what I am listening to.

unfortunately it looks like my next step is going to involve some deliberate practice (with a computer setup) and be harder to do while passive, i.e. singing along to things when I drive.  This will likely slow my progress down.


meta: this took about 1.5hrs to write and I wrote it up for myself, to keep track of my progress.

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Mistakes bad enough you learn, but not bad enough they kill you

When we suggest to learn by doing, what we tend to mean is learn by making mistakes.  Or teach your system 1 to be better calibrated by making mistakes and adjusting.  Which is fine for the little mistakes: you learn which brand of cereal you like by buying the wrong one, trying it and then writing a note on your shopping list for yourself to buy the right one next time.

When you get to big mistakes it’s a bit harder to learn by doing because you don’t always get a second chance.  Some examples include:

  • Losing a million dollars on a sure bet.
  • Breaking your neck in a recklessly fun car accident
  • Committing suicide instead of asking for help from your peers when you just went through a relationship ending
  • Injuring yourself with industrial machinery

These all carry a pattern in them.  It doesn’t take a genius to say; well if I die – I can’t sit around and say – well next time I won’t be so careless or reckless or risk taking or next time I will be more careful or conservative…


So how is it?  Why is is that we care about learning by trial and error yet that looks like a terrible idea, leading to death and bad decisions over and over.  I propose a maxim:

You want to make mistakes that are bad enough that you learn from them, but not bad enough that they kill you.

To look back at the early examples while applying this maxim.  Examples that might teach you to be careful without killing you:

  • Losing a few hundred dollars on a sure bet.
  • Breaking your leg in a recklessly fun car accident
  • Getting piss-blind drunk and making a fool of yourself when you just went through a relationship ending
  • injuring yourself with hand tools (that don’t nearly spin as fast as industrial ones)

So how do we have the right kind of mistakes and not the wrong ones?  I don’t really know, but for starters I would say doing less dangerous behaviours and more safe-risk behaviours


It’s very hard to know what it feels like from the inside of a bad risk taking behaviour VS an okay risk taking behaviour.  It might be hard but I suggest classifying risks into multiple categories, and permitting yourself to go through risks that are safe, while restricting risks that are dangerous.  Risks that are safe:

  • low bets, in the few dollars, less than a handful of times a week
  • running late
  • trying new foods
  • trying new hobbies
  • doing activities slightly outside of your comfort zone
  • asking difficult questions
  • trying tasks that are a little difficult or new
  • working hard
  • sleeping a bit less

Dangerous risks might include:

  • big bets
  • signing up for dangerous activities
  • extreme sports
  • changing your entire diet, or fasting without planning or warning or knowing what you are doing.
  • having unprotected sex
  • taking drugs without experience or knowledge about what they will do
  • not sleeping
  • getting into fights with strangers
  • using powerful tools or equipment (industrial anything, or anything that spins very fast)
  • getting very very drunk
  • doing anything at high speeds – i.e. speeding in a car, boat or plane.
  • Using sharp objects while not concentrating

Near miss

Also in this category of risky things is near-misses.  We don’t always have accidents bad enough to register as “dangerous” or “deadly”, but we still want to learn from them.  This might involve being extra attentive to anything that might be noticed as a near miss.  I can’t tell you how to do that (not today in this post, but maybe in the future).


As a reminder again:

You want to make mistakes that are bad enough that you learn from them, but not bad enough that they kill you.


Meta: this took less than an hour to write.

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Good and bad ways to do Comfort Zone Expansion (CoZE)

From the CFAR syallabus, (which may in time change) is a suggestion to take actions that put you outside of your comfort zone even though you might not want to.  Their rational is something along the lines of encouraging you to not settle on a local maxima (your current comfort zone) but instead strive for the true greater and more awesome maxima of other experiences you are currently avoiding because they are outside your comfort zone.

Without giving away their full process, it looks something like:

  • Choose an experience that you’d like to explore
  • Devise an experiment
  • Actually try it
  • Digest the experience

I have previously disagreed with leaving your comfort zone, and advised that there is a way to stay in your comfort zone but still make it larger.  I said:


I would start with evaluating and defining/understanding your comfort zone. I think the best way to explain this is to use a worked example: “going to a bar”

Things about bars that put me outside my comfort zone:

  • Alcohol
  • loud noises
  • strangers
  • uncomfortable seats
  • public places
  • dim lights
  • not able to have valuable conversations with people
  • bad public transport so getting home is difficult
  • messes with my sleep cycle
  • being alone (not having friends there)
  • talking to strangers
  • pubs are expensive
  • fear of having bad conversations
  • fear of getting in a bar fight
  • don’t care for sport on tv’s around bars
  • don’t like being near gambling machines in bars
  • don’t like bar food
  • don’t know what to wear
  • don’t feel comfortable dancing
  • people smoking

This^ is a long list; not all of these apply to me, but each problem may have various solutions:

  • loud noises – wear earplugs, find a bar without loud music playing,
  • don’t like bar food – eat elsewhere first
  • messes with sleep cycle – set alarms or systems that you follow, pre-committing to the decision to leave in time for your normal sleep schedule. Go to lunch-time bars, not lat night bars.
  • talking to strangers – take friends, make sure to go with them, ask friends to help you make more friends. etc.

Eventually most of these have a solution. At the end of running through your list of things, if you can’t solve enough of them, or the solutions are not good enough, you can consider attacking the goal you set out to do.

Why do I want to go to a bar? Is there a better way to achieve that desire?

Reasons to go to a bar:

  • all my friends seem to like it
  • meet new people
  • my favourite band is playing
  • I like pub trivia etc.

These reasons have solutions of their own.

  • favourite band – see if they are playing at other venues.
  • meet new people – try meetups, try local groups.
  • friends like it – do other things with friends, i.e. dinner, board games evening. (get better friends/friends you share mutual interests with)

at the end of the thought exercise you should either be happy to do the thing, or happy preferring not doing the thing. These are the win-states of considering setting out to do X.

And further:

Depends on what is limiting your comfort zone and whether that limit is reasonable or unreasonable. I can’t say for your life whether a limit is reasonable or unreasonable, and to do so yourself might involve comparing your life to the lives of other people and evaluating whether you are fulfilled, happy or missing out on something that other people have.

For example – I am definitely missing out on sky-diving by not sky-diving, but I don’t really feel like I want to do it. Personal choice and all; not really missing out on something by not being comfortable doing it.

A comfort zone has a purpose, as does stereotypes, social structures, religion, fear, disgust, pain, monogamy, straw man arguments, and many more.

To blindly fight existing systems is as bad as to follow them to the letter. I believe in questioning and evaluating before stepping forward. (System 2 over system 1 in this case – thinking over automated)

To take the bar example again: If the reason why I don’t like bars is they are too loud; going to more bars may do several things:

  • cause hearing loss
  • cause me to be even more annoyed by loud bars
  • cause me to get used to it
  • cause me to be more often in an uncomfortable state of being possibly all at once.

If on the other hand I go in search of non-loud bars I can maintain a comfort zone of not too loud things while doing the task (going to a bar) its also a win-state, and I avoid the uncomfortable experience of gradually getting used to it.


The above exercise essentially does a goal-factoring (also a CFAR technique) on what you want to do that is outside your comfort zone, why you want to do it – is there a better way to achieve those same goals? etc.  I find comfort zone to usually be a good thing.  And exist for a reason.  But YMMV, remember Applicable advice and it’s addendum as well as this addon to Scott’s piece on the same topic.  If you find yourself with a restrictive comfort zone that does not yield to analysis, then perhaps overcoming the activation energy and using willpower to push yourself into that new situation will be a better idea than doing the classic think-then-act behaviour.  I know that in game and Pick up, there is a piece of advice along the lines of the 3 second rule, if you see someone, and you want to approach – you have to approach and say something to them within 3 seconds.  This advice works on a very specific type of approach anxiety where your barrier of “what will they think of me?” can be overcome by approaching them before you have time to have that thought.  You might also call it a no johns rule.  But using that advice severely depends on exactly what the nature of your problem is.

And finally have you tried solving the problem.


Meta: this took under an hour to write, and I mostly needed it so I could refer to it in another post about making mistakes.

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