What is a problem?

I originally posed this idea in my list of short stubs.  Under that heading I briefly outlined:

What is a problem – On the path of problem solving, understanding what a problem is will help you to understand how to attack it.  Nothing more complicated than this picture to explain it.  The barrier is a problem.  This doesn’t seem important on it’s own but as a foundation for thinking about problems it’s good to have  sitting around somewhere.


I want to expand on that a bit more. I have labelled some states in this picture:

  • Present state
  • Goal state
  • Barrier to the goal
  • Path to the goal

Present state

All things being unchanged; prior to actions in pursuit of a goal, this is where you are.  Sitting at home in my chair at my computer I have not yet decided I want to go get ice-cream.  If I do nothing, I might eventually end up getting ice-cream by happenstance.  I may casually interact with friends who encourage me to get ice-cream with them this evening.  Nothing entirely stops me from getting ice-cream but also nothing propels me to do it either.  Without goals, without paths, you can live a lot of life, casually random-walking your way through the galaxy, encountering what you encounter, and responding at will to those stimuli.  We might describe a specimen who only cares about the present state, as having low agency.

Goal state

Let’s pretend that we duplicated the universe, with the slight modification that I am now eating ice-cream.  That might be my goal.  Or as close as possible as I can get to that goal-state.  There are lots of things that are not ice-cream-goal state and lots of things that come close.  I could eat my toes, I could eat some cheese I have in my fridge which is a bit cold.  I could eat an apple, I could eat some ice cubes, I could drink a glass of milk, I could make my own ice-cream, I could give ice-cream to other people.  All of these things are not quite the goal, but are quite close.  Notice that this goal doesn’t currently include my path to ice-cream.  Just that I have a goal now.


We can visualise a path in many ways.  This should be unsurprising.  The fact is that if I want ice-cream, I need to get up out of my chair and look in my freezer for the ice-cream.  If I want to be eating it I probably also need a spoon and some way to open the lid of the container.  But actually when I get to the freezer I remember I don’t keep ice-cream in my house because I am on a diet and that slows me down from eating ice-cream.  (Thanks past-me)  With that in mind my corrected path is actually to find my money, exit my house, and go to the store where I can buy more ice-cream.  (or make my own ice-cream) or any number of other pathways to ice-cream.

System 2 is very good at paths.  So good that in fact that it forgets about what can go wrong, and the barriers.  It’s the part of my brain that will tell me that the nearest ice-cream is in the store and I can walk right up to the freezer section and shove the ice-cream into my face (Disregarding the need for spoons, the need for money to pay for the ice-cream, and the need to be wearing a shirt when I leave my house).

If this seems obvious; it is only obvious because it already all makes sense to you.  For someone without an understanding of states or paths or goals this might be a solid learning step.


A barrier is what gets in the way of the path.  There are always barriers and most of them are overcome without a second though.  As you think deeper and harder about barriers they get more complicated, and start encompassing more details.  The barriers to me getting my ice-cream include knowing how to walk (which I know) and knowing how to use my eyeballs.  The simple barriers get overlooked because we already have them down.

The more complicated barriers start to pop up as you think more about the goal, or set up more complicated goals, or goals that are further away (geographically, mentally, metaphorically, some measure of hardness of goal).

I have to go to the store to get ice-cream.  I need social convention down pat, so I remember to put a shirt on.  And I need money to pay for ice-cream. Hey, I probably need a functional democracy, not to mention electricity, production lines, hygiene and a whole lot more built on top just so I can do that.  Assuming all those great things are there, what if I don’t have money.  Well I would have to work, which means I need a functional economy, some way to trade my abilities for currency (another thing I need) which I can later exchange for ice-cream.

There’s another type of barrier that doesn’t quite fit with the rest, and that’s the barrier inside my own head.  The barrier that says, “ice-cream, but I would have to get up out of my chair for that” and decides against it.  Ice-cream as a goal, is not so desperate that I would die if I didn’t get it, but maybe there are goals that are more serious.  Having enough money, friends, family, what are your goals?  Have you seen the list of common human goals?  Each goal has barriers to completing it.  And each barrier is able to be stared at intently and questioned.

Is this barrier going to stop you?  Or are you making excuses?

Next post: On excuses and validity

Meta: This took an hour to write and will be a foundation for a few posts that follow.

If this doesn’t seem all that big a deal, well. It’s not.  Unless your problem solving, solution seeking barrier facing system is not functioning at optimum.  In that case: knowing how it works, knowing what is or is not functioning, being able to debug this process.  That’s breaking down the meta barriers.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/oq3

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2015: a year in science

This post is duplicated in full.  (and from December 2015)

Original post: This year’s biggest scientific achievements

For our solstice event I tried to put together a list of this year’s biggest scientific achievements.  They can likely all be looked up with a bit of searching and each one is worthy of a celebration in their own right.  But mostly I want to say; we have come a long way this year.  And we have a long way to go.

I tried to include science and magic in this list, but really anything world-scale (non-terrorism or natural disaster) is worthy of celebrating.

  • Rosetta mission lands on a comet


  • using young blood to fight old age (rats)


  • kinghorn human sequencing machines (Sydney relevant)
  • 100,000 genomes project


  • the world’s oldest cave art @ 40,000 years old


  • tesla battery//released their patents on their electric engines for use by anyone.


  • Virtual reality (cardboard)


  • Astronauts growing their own food


  • Uncontrollably swerving cars


  • cubesats


  • Lab grown kidneys successfully implanted into animals


  • synthetic DNA
  • Chicken with a reptile face


  • nearly an altzeimers cure (ultrasound techniques)


  • DAWN orbits Ceres


  • Deepdreaming machine learning (and twitch-deepdream)
  • Prosthetic limbs that transmit feeling back to the user
  • Autonomous rocket landing pointy end up
  • Lightsail project
  • Ion spaaace travel engine
  • Anti – aging virus injected into the patient 0
  • Super black substance made
  • Q-carbon
  • High temperature superconductor (-70c)
  • 23&me were allowed to open back up
  • Enchroma colourblindness adjusting glasses
  • Google releases “Tensor Flow” which whilst its not very good at the moment has the potential to centralize the Deep Learning libraries.
  • CRISPR’s ability to change the germ line.
  • Deep Dreaming, but also image generation.  Faces generated, bedrooms generated and even a toilet in a field. Its clear that within the next few years you will have pictures entirely generated by Neural Nets. (Code: https://github.com/soumith/dcgan.torch).

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015

April 29 – The World Health Organization (WHO) declares that rubella has been eradicated from the ‘Muricas.

July 14 – NASA’s New Horizons spaaacecraft performs a close flyby of Pluto, becoming the first spaaacecraft in history to visit the distant world.

September 10 – Scientists announce the discovery of Homo naledi, a previously unknown species of early human in South Africa.

September 28 – NASA announces that liquid water has been found on Mars.

Recommendations from the slack:

china makes a genetically modified micropig and sells it: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/03/micropig-animal-rights-genetics-china-pets-outrage

psyc studies can’t be reproduced: http://www.theverge.com/2015/8/27/9216565/psychology-studies-reproducability-issues

zoom contact lenses


room temperature synthetic diamonds


Notable deaths

terry pratchett passed away

malcolm fraser

John Forbes Nash Jr

Oliver Sacks

Christopher lee

Nobel medals this year

Chemistry – Paul L. Modrich; Aziz Sancar and Tomas Lindahl (“for mechanistic studies of DNA repair”)

Economics – Angus Deaton (“for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare”)

Literature – Svetlana Alexievich (“for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time” )

Peace – Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet (“for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011”)

Physics – Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald (“for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass”)

Physiology or Medicine – William C Campbell, Satoshi ĹŒmura (“for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites”) and Tu Youyou (“for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria”[116])



The dress

Ebola outbreak

Polio came back

(also this year) – upcoming spaaaceX return flight on the 19th dec

runner up: vat meat is almost ready.

runner up: soylent got a lot better this year

runner up: quantum computing having progressive developments but nothing specific


Things that happened 100 years ago (from wikipedia):

  • March 19 – Pluto is photographed for the first time
  • September 11 – The Pennsylvania Railroad begins electrified commuter rail service between Paoli and Philadelphia, using overhead AC trolley wires for power. This type of system is later used in long-distance passenger trains between New York City, Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
  • November 25 – Einstein’s theory of general relativity is formulated.
  • Alfred Wegener publishes his theory of Pangaea.
  • Thomas Huckle Weller, ‘Murican virologist, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (d. 2008)
  • Charles Townes, ‘Murican physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2015)
  • August 27 – Norman F. Ramsey, ‘Murican physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2011)
  • Clifford Shull, ‘Murican physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2001)
  • November 19 – Earl Wilbur Sutherland Jr., ‘Murican physiologist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1974)
  • Henry Taube, Canadian-born chemist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2005)
  • Paul Ehrlich, German scientist, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (b. 1854)
  • December 19 – Alois Alzheimer, German psychiatrist and neuropathologist (b. 1864)
Nobel Prizes:
  • Chemistry – Richard Willstätter
  • Literature – Romain Rolland
  • Medicine – not awarded
  • Peace – not awarded
  • Physics – William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg

Meta – This list was compiled for Sydney’s Solstice event; I figured I would share this because it’s pretty neat.

Time to compose: 3-4hrs

With comments from the IRC and slack

To see more of my posts visit my Table of contents

As usual; any suggestions welcome below.

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New year’s resolutions: Things worth considering for next year

Original post: New year’s resolutions: Things worth considering for next year

This post is duplicated in full from the original.

The beginning of the new year is a natural Schelling Point and swiftly approaching. With that in mind I have created a handy go-to list of things worth considering for next year.

Alongside this process; another thing you might like to do is conduct a review of this year, confirming your progress on major goals; double checking that you are on track.  and conduct any last-minute summaries of potential failures or learning-cases.

This list is designed to be used for imagination, opportunity, and potential planning purposes.  If you find yourself having the feelings of (disappointment, failure, fear, regret, burdens, guilt and others) reconsider looking at this list and instead do something that will not lead to negative feelings about the future.  If you are not getting something positive out of doing this exercise, don’t.  That’s a silly idea.  I am banking on the fact that it will be more helpful than not; for most people.  If you are in the category of people that it does not help – I am sorry; I assume you know your priorities and are working on them as reasonably effectively as possible – good luck with that task.

This list is going to look a bit like my List of common human goals because it was written concurrenlty with the ideas listed there (and by the same person).

You might want a pen and paper; and 10 minutes to go through this list and consider what things you want to do over the next year that fall into these categories.  This time is not for you to plan out an entire year, but something of a chance to consider the playing field of “a year of time”.  After you have a list of things you want to do; there are lots of things you can do with them.  i.e. time planning, research, goal factoring, task-generating.

without further ado; the list:

1. things I might want to study or learn next year

Often people like learning.  Are you thinking of higher level study?  Or keen to upskill?  Thinking of picking up a textbook (our list of best textbooks on every subject) on a topic.  Or joining a learning group for a skill

2. life goals I would like to have completed by next year

Do you already have a list of life goals?  Should you review them and do you want to particularly work on one over the next year?  Is something overdue?  Is there something you have been putting off starting?

3. health goals

Are there health targets that you let get away from you this year?  Are you looking to set future health targets?  Start new habits for the year?  beeminder suggests setting actionable goals as beeminding tasks, i.e. “eat carrots today” rather than targets “lose 1kg this month”.

4. savings I want to achieve by next year.

Do you want to save money towards something?  You need a budget has a free course on getting ahead of the paycheck cycle, pocketbook can also help you manage your money.  The best advice seems to be to open a savings account and initiate automatic transactions each week of $n.  After several weeks (provided you don’t pull money out) you will have accrued several*n dollars of savings.  (relevant to people who have a tendency to spend any money in their account at any given time.  It’s a bit harder to spend money not in your spending-account) In any case; having savings and putting it towards owning a passive income stream is a good goal to have or consider getting in on.

This post may also be of use.

5. job/earning goals

Are you planning to get a new job?  Hoping to get a raise?  transfer to a new department?  work less hours?  work more hours?  land a few big gigs? While I can’t tell you what is worthwhile; it’s worth knowing that in the process of interviewing for a new job – you should ask for more pay.  for that 5-10 uncomfortable minutes of your life (asking for a raise) you have the potential to earn $5-10 thousand dollars more (or more) for the exact same work.

6. relationship goals + family goals

Married; Kids; Poly; single->not transition; break-up? Divorce? moving away from your parents?  Getting better Friends?  Thanking your current friends for being so awesome?  Doing something different to previously – now is the chance to give it a few minutes thought.  There’s never a good time to stage a break-up but also living in a bad state of affairs is also not a good thing to prolong.  (Disclaimer: before quitting a relationship; first improve communication, if needed contact a professional counsellor)

About families and friends – A lot of people feel like their family holds a stronger bond than their friends by default.  For an excellent family that is supportive in your darkest hour that is an excellent situation to be in.  However for a burdensome family that drags you down; often it can be hard to get away.  In contrast to friends; where good ones can be better than family and bad ones can be walked away from.  Specifically what’s worth considering is that friends OR family can be a result of how you choose to treat them.  in the sense that if you have a preference that your friends be stronger than the strongest family ties then you can carry that into reality and achieve friendships to the envy of most families, and the same goes for a strong supportive family.  Your choice of what shape of reality you want to make for yourself will influence (on some levels) what sort of mess you get yourself into, and what sort of support network you have around.  Make that consideration over the next year of what sort of friendships and families you want to make for yourself and keep for yourself.

7. lifestyle goals

Start exercising daily (do you even lift)? Quitting smoking?  Do you go clubbing too often?  maybe you want to get out more? Addicted to curry puffs?  Hate hanging out with that group of friends?  Don’t like going to pub trivia but do it anyway?  Too many doughnuts?  Go hiking?  Thinking of trying out a new hobby? holding out for “the right time”. take that leap, sign up for a class.  Now is the time to make lifestyle changes.  (fair warning: most new year’s resolutions fail, look into SMART goals)

8. holiday goals/ travelling goals

looking at doing a month-long holiday?  Visiting someone in another place?  Maybe consider planning from now.  Studies have shown that anticipation and putting energy towards planning positive things leads to happiness (in the journey) the ability to look forward to your next holiday is going to have positive impacts on the way you live.

9. donations 

Have you had intention to make donations but haven’t made the plunge?  Maybe put some thought into how much you might like to donate and when/where to?  Many LW’ers are also EA’s and have interests in motivated and purposeful giving for maximising possible outcomes.  This could be an opportunity to join the group of EA’s that are actively giving.

10. volunteering

Have you always wanted to volunteer but never looked into it?  Maybe next year is the year to try.  Put some research in and find a group in need of volunteers.  Volunteering has the potential to give you a lot of positive feelings as well as a sense of community; being part of something bigger, and more.

You could stop here but there are a few more.  Out of the more general List of common human goals comes the following list of other areas to consider.  They are shorter in description and left open to imagination than those above.

11. Revenge

Is next year your chance to exact revenge on your foes?

12. Virtual reality success

Is next year the chance to harvest your gemstones?

13. Addiction

Is next year the year to get addicted (to something healthy or good for you, like exercise), or un-addicted (to something unhealthy for you)?

14. Ambassador

Are there things you want to do next year which will leave you as a representative of a group?  Is there a way to push that forward?  Or better prepare for that event?

15. Help others?

Do you know how you might go about helping others next year?

16. Keeping up with the joneses

Are you competing with anyone?  Is there something you are likely to need to prepare for throught the year?

17. Feedback

Are you looking for feedback from others?  Are you looking to give feedback to others?  Is this the year for new feedback?

18. Influence

Do you want to influence the public?

19. fame

Do you want to achieve some level of fame?  We live in a realm of the internet!  You wouldn’t believe how easy that is these days…

20. being part of something greater

Joining a movement?  Helping to create a revolution?  This could be the year…

21. Improve the tools available

As scientists we stand on the shoulders of the knowledge before us in order to grow.  We need sharp tools to make accurate cuts and finely tuned instruments to make exact measurements.  Can you help the world by pushing that requirement forward?

22. create something new

Is there something new that you want to do; is next year appropriate for doing it?

23. Break a record

Have your eye on a record?  How are you going to make it happen?

24. free yourself of your shackles

Are there things holding you back or tying you down?  Can you release those burdens?

25. experience

hoping to have a new experience, can you make it happen with thinking about it in advance?

26. Art

Want to have developed a creation?  Can you put wheels into motion?

27. Spirituality

Anything from a religion based spiritual appreciation to a general appreciation of the universe.  Revel in the “merely real” of our universe.

28. community

Looking to make a community, looking to be part of an existing community.  Looking to start a lesswrong branch?  Do it!


about 2.5 hours of writing plus feedback from the https://complice.co/room/lesswrong room and the Slack channel

If you are looking for some common ways to work on these possible goals?  That sounds like a great title for the next post in a matching series (one I have not written yet).  If you want to be a munchkin and start compiling thoughts on the idea, feel free to send me a message with a link to a google doc, otherwise you might have to wait.  This post was written out of necessity for the new-year, and wasn’t on my to-do list so the next one might take time to create.

Feel free to comment on goals; plans; progress or post your plans for the next year below.

If you can see improvements to this post – don’t be afraid to mention them!

To see more posts I have written see my Table of contents

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A strategy against the call of the void.

I wrote before about The call of the void.  That uncomfortable feeling where a voice in your head seems to ask you:

What would happen if I jumped off the balcony here…

Previously I quoted the one paper that exists on the topic:

…we propose that at its core, the experience of the high place phenomenon stems from the misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal. (e.g., “back up, you might fall”)

Now I wonder; if that were the case, which is to say that the hypothesis were true; how could we go about using this knowledge to relieve the feeling.  I came across an idea that I have tried out the few times that I have been struck with a call since writing about it above.  My idea is this:

Focus wholly and completely and loudly on the concept.  Let it take your full attention and acknowledge that yes; this is in fact a present danger.  Of course don’t jump, or do anything drastic, just acknowledge the feeling, boldly, sharply, ugly.  Then return as you were to the other tasks at hand.

I have tried this, and it seems to work, almost like clockwork the feeling of The Call drifts away.  Any intrusion is no longer intrusive.

I once heard the story of Dr. Morton Doran who is a surgeon but also has tourette syndrome.  How might that be possible?  Tourette syndrome is known for it’s involuntary tics:

A tic is a sudden, repetitive, nonrhythmic motor movement or vocalization involving discrete muscle groups. Tics can be invisible to the observer, such as abdominal tensing or toe crunching. Common motor and phonic tics are, respectively, eye blinking and throat clearing.

Well the interesting thing about Tourette syndrome is that it comes with a feeling of an involuntary urge or need to release the tics, which can be supressed from time to time, but a release is needed.  So all he has to do is go into another room, release the tics and return to concentrating on the surgery at hand.

This solution feels like the same solution; there is some kind of build up of urge in the brain; that warns you to DO THIS and to relieve it you need to give it a certain amount of focus.  This gives that part of the brain that is urging you to DO a feeling of acknowledgement that yes; it’s definitely been acknowledged.  It’s certainly really a ledge to jump off.

If you recognise it; this strategy might look familiar because it overlaps with Acceptance Commitment therapy (ACT).  A process of accepting thoughts, being mindful of the present, observing yourself and moving forward towards your values.

Act seems powerful overall, and is worth looking into to add to your toolbox of ideas.

Meta: this took an hour to write.  It’s been a while but I hope to write more over the coming weeks.

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Worked example of a mnemonic Memory technique

In 2015 I wrote a list of techniques to help you remember names.

Today I was working through trying to remember a specific theory and I noticed a pattern I have been using for a few days now.  When trying to remember theories or ideas.  The inspiration for this concept came to me because I have been using an app called FBreader, and a Text-to-speech plugin.  Using the two I now listen to ebooks in robot-voice while I drive or concentrate on other tasks.  The trouble is that sometimes a book will present (verbally because it’s being read out to me) some model or list of ideas that I need to hold in my head for the book to make any sense over the next few minutes or pages.  So I needed a way to generate a picture (possibly a system 1 visceral image) of the ideas so that I could play around with them as the chapter continued or also just; as I needed to recall the information a few days later.

I hope this post describes what it feels like from the inside to be performing this skill.

The process

This is what I have been doing in my head:

0. (regular check on the trigger: this seems like useful information/this list seems important) Do I feel like I will remember it?  If yes, end here.  (if unknown – practice via trial and error, intuitively knowing what you are likely to forget is powerful and useful information to hold)

1. Think about the concept and how I am going to remember it.

2. Build a visual/spatial/sensory model that feels right to me about the model.

  • What does it sound like?  (words sound like other words)
  • What does it remind me of? (other theories or systems that are similar)
  • Do I have any memories of experiences that seem to relate? (people who acted in ways that fit the model)
  • What does it line up to? (if it’s a list of 9 items, maybe 3 of them line up to some of the 9 circles of hell, which is convenient)
  • Can I play with it a bit in my head?

3. double check that it feels right, hone it till it does.  (Maybe it only has 5 pieces but 3 of them are already circles of hell. Can I make a new version of hell for my purposes of remembering these details – and why not?)


example 1:  reading models of therapy around extramarital affairs.  (from the paper – an intergrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarial affairs (paywalled))

This model has 3 stages:

  1. Dealing with impact
  2. Exploring context and finding meaning
  3. Moving on.

my visual/spatial model (because it works for me) is like this:

  1. An asteroid hits the earth (impact)
  2. There is general rubble everywhere and people start to explore the damage (exploring and finding things)
  3. People begin to rebuild (moving on)

My model tells a story, and all I need to do is remember parts of the story and the rest comes back.  I have checked with myself that it sounds like I will recall the model, so I am safe to hold onto it in this way.

Example 2: From the book Difficult conversations.

There are 4 types of conversations, the important take away from the book is to square with the participants what type of conversation this is, so as to lay the grounds of understanding what will happen next.  The 4 types are:

  1. communicating an existing decision
  2. collaborative on a decision to be made together
  3. consulting on a decision you will make
  4. delegation of a decision to someone else

To remember these on the fly the best I could do (which works better than the names) is to imagine a circle, an arrow and a dot.  For each of the above, the picture of the type of conversation looks like:

  1. A circle with an arrow leading through a dot to the east. (a decision was made and is being communicated to the dot)
  2. A circle and a dot each with an arrow leading out from them to the east.
  3. A dot with an arrow leading north to a circle, then an arrow leading east from the circle
  4. A circle with an arrow leading south to a dot with an arrow leading east.
I am not sure that my description makes sense, but they strongly visually represent the information for me, so much so that I accidentally had a hard time explaining the 4 types of conversations to someone when I tried to repeat back my knowledge (because I forgot the names of them and only held the pictures)
In contrast, information also from that book – the 3 major conversations that go on in a difficult conversation are:
  1. The recount of what happened (Observation)
  2. The feeling surrounding the events (Feelings)
  3. The implications on people’s identities (Identity)

For this set of information I have recently also been looking into Non-Violent Communication (NVC) (see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4tUVqsjQ2I watch in double speed), Which has a 4 step model of communicating needs in a non-judgemental way (Observation, Feeling, Need, Request) – the 3 major conversations are so similar that I have no need to build a picture to recall this information.

At the top of this post I mentioned my post about how to remember names.  One of the strongest techniques for names is the mnemonic technique.  Where you build a sensory model of this person which connects them to their name (like the name Rose, imagine a rose on their head).  I mentioned it in 2015; as it’s basically the accepted strong model of how to remember people’s names like a champion.  What really hit me across the face like a wet fish today was that the mnemonic system is exactly what I was doing here.  But I never used it on names, I adamantly swear by the fact that I just did everything else on the list to remember names and didn’t need the mnemonics, I only just started using this technique now as I was needing it – as I was encountering information that was not staying in my head, I had to set up a system 2 loop in my head to remind me to check if I am likely to remember it.  And work out how to remember it.  Mnemonics are how to remember things.

I can’t tell you how to use this system exactly, nor can I make up the models that work for your memory.  But hopefully this description helps with feeling out the need and ability to build pictures of recalling information you need to store in your head.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write and sprung up accidentally as I realised what was going on in my head.

Feedback appreciated.

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

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The time you have

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

There is a process called The Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan.  The process is designed to deal with personal problems that are stubborn.  The first step in the process is to make a list of all the things that you are doing or not doing that does not contribute to the goal.  As you go through the process you analyse why you do these things based on what it feels like to do them.

The process is meant to be done with structure but can be done simply by asking.  Yesterday I asked someone who said he ate sugar, ate carbs, and didn’t exercise.  Knowing this alone doesn’t solve the problem but it helps.

The ITC process was generated by observing patients and therapists for thousands of hours and thousands of cases.  Kegan observed what seems to be effective to bring about change, in people and generated this process to assist in doing so.  The ITC hits on a fundamental universal.  If you read my brief guide on Empirical time management, as well as part 1 – exploration-exploitation of this series it speaks to this universal.  Namely what we are doing with our time is everything we are choosing not to do with our time.  It’s a trade off between our values and it’s counter-commitments in ITC that’s often discovering the hidden counter commitments to the goals.

The interesting thing about what you end up doing with your time is that these are the things that form your revealed preferences.  Revealed preference theory is an economic theory that differentiates between people’s stated preferences and their actions and behaviours.  It’s all good and well to say that your preferences are a “this”, but if you never end up doing “this“; your revealed preferences are in fact something entirely different to your stated preferences.

For example – if you say you want to be a healthy person, and yet you never find yourself doing the things that you say you want to do in order to be healthy; your revealed preferences suggest that you are in fact not revealing the actions of a healthy person.  If you live to the ripe old age of 55 and the heavy weight of 130kg and you never end up exercising several times a week or eating healthy food; that means your health goals were a rather weak preference over the things you actually ended up doing (eating plenty and not keeping fit).

It’s important to note that revealed preferences are different to preferences, they are in fact distinctly different.  They are their own subset.  Revealed preferences are just another description that informs the map of, “me as a person”.  In many ways, a revealed preference is much much more real than a simple preference that does not actually come about.

As a human with goals we ideally want our considered preferences (the ones we talk about, think about, and generally believe to be our preferences) to line up with our revealed preferences.  Which is to say that our actions match our intents.  Less fooling ourselves about how much we want to exercise and actually exercising that much.  Consider this in the context of intellectual truth seeking:

The litany of truth.

If the sky is blue

I desire to believe that the sky is blue,

If the sky is not blue

I desire to believe that the sky is not blue.

Or for this case; a litany of objectivity,

If my revealed preferences show that I desire this goal

I desire to know that is my goal,

If my revealed preferences show that I do not desire this goal

I desire to know that is not my goal.

Irrespective of what is said, you want to be revealing your preferences by your actions.

Revealed preferences work in two directions.  On the one hand you can introspect your previous revealed preferences and use that to inform your future judgements and future actions.  On the other hand you can declare the past a lost wasteland of haphazard preference and turn to the future making all your revealed preferences show that they line up with your goals.

  1. Past actions ===> inform revealed preference
  2. Ongoing revealed preferences ===> cause future actions

I get asked from time to time – how do you find your purpose?  Easier said than done right? That’s why I suggest an exercise that does the first of the two.  In contrast if you already know your goals you want to take stock of what you are doing then align what you are doing with your desired goals.


I already covered how to empirically assess your time, That would be the first step of how you take stock of what you are doing.

The second step is to consider and figure out your desired goals.  Unfortunately the process as to how to do that is not always obvious.  For some people they can literally just take 5 minutes and a piece of paper and list off their goals.  For everyone else I have some clues in the form of the list of common human goals.  By going down the list of goals that people commonly obtain you can cue your sense of what are some of the things that you care about, and figure out which ones matter to you.  There are other exercises, but I take it as read that “knowing what your goals are” is important.  After you have your list of goals you might like to consider estimating what fraction of your time you want to offer to each of your goals.

The third step is one that I am yet to write about.  Your job is to compare the list of your goals and the list of your time use and consider which object level tasks would bring you towards your goals and which actions that you are doing are not enabling you to move towards your goals.

Everything that you do will take time.  Any goal you want to head towards will take time, if you are spending your time on one task towards one goal and not on another task towards another goal; you are preferencing the task you are doing over the other task.  (like how the Immunity to Change talks about above)

If these are your revealed preferences, what do you reveal that you care about?

I believe that each of us has potential.  That word is an applause light.  Potential doesn’t really have a meaning yet.  I believe that each of us could:

  1. Define what we really care about.
  2. Define what results we think we can aim for within what we really care about
  3. Define what actions we can take to yield a trajectory towards those results
  4. Stick to it because it’s what we really want to do.

That’s what’s important right?  Doing the work you value because it leads towards your goals (which are the things you care about).

If you are not doing that, then your revealed preferences are showing that you are not a very strategic.  If you find parts of your brain doing what they want at the detriment of other parts of your goals, you need to reason with them.  Use the powers of VoI, treat this problem as an exploration-exploitation problem, and run some experiments (post coming soon).

This whole; define what you really care about and then head towards it, you should know that it needs doing ASAP, or you are already making bad trade offs with your time.

Meta: this is part 3 of 4 of this series.

Meta: this took 5 hours to piece together.  I am not yet very good at staying on task when I don’t know how to put the right words in the right order yet.  I guess I need more practice.  What I usually do is take small breaks and come back to it.

Cross posted to Lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/oeq

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

Posted in models of thinking, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A purpose finding exercise

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

I had a friend confused and come to me asking for suggestions on how to find her purpose.  I love these questions because it’s a journey I have also been on.  There is no solid answer to that but there are often clues.  Here is an exercise that helps:

0: sit down with pen and paper and remove distractions for 30mins.

  1. make a list of your biggest accomplishments over the past 5 years.
  2. make a list of other achievements that you have seen other people achieve that you liked in the past 5 years.
    1. If this seems hard; make a list of people who you like, and write out some of the things that those people achieved that you cared about or that matter to you or mattered to them.
  3. decide which ones you are interested in for the future, or similar things for the future.
  4. Make a list of idea of which of those to pursue for the future.
  5. Make a list (or several) of how to go about doing those things, then start implementing!  for example – putting reminders in your diary, doing research and generally doing the things you want to do!

Q: I’m stuck?

Great! contact me for help!

Meta: Thank you Anna for the request, now I hope that more people can benefit from this exercise.

Meta: this took 30mins to write.

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

Posted in life maintenance, self-improvement | Leave a comment

Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

A friend came to me with a startup as her main goal.  I am keen on my coaching skills so I would from time to time ask her what the top 3 most important things she could be doing today would be.  She would proceed to come back with a list.  A few days later I would check back and ask her what she got done.  She would very excitedly tell me all about the other things she was doing that weren’t the top 3 things.

I watched this behaviour for a while before commenting.  Eventually I asked her about it and she conceded she was doing tasks that seem easier than the important things because they feel like progress, say by doing four small 15 minute tasks you got four things done right?  Whereas if you work on an important task for an hour you only got one thing done.

Our brains like to use Rule of thumb type judgements to know what pathways to follow.  In this case, Am I making progress towards my goal was replaced by, have I completed things which was easily gamified by, How do I do the most little things I can.

The same thing happens when people pay attention to their health.  Get healthy turns into, Lose weight, which turns into unhealthy body images and great confusion.  Although this is probably more related to us not being clear and specific on what the health goal was in the first place.

So what say you have a lost purpose.  You want to do X but you find yourself doing the remarkably similar Y.  How do you fix that?

1. Be specific

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

It’s not going to work 100% of the time, but it does help.

Imagine you told a monkey to go collect coconuts, every coconut the monkey brings back you will give him one reward.  You mean the large useful ones that you might find in a supermarket.  Knowing how important coconuts are but not really understanding the task, while collecting large coconuts he finds some smaller ones, realising he can carry two half-size coconuts instead of one large one, he goes to find more smaller coconuts, until he is collecting teeny coconuts about the size of a coin.  Strictly speaking he is collecting coconuts, but you can easily say that’s not the coconut you want.

We don’t actually work with monkeys (despite what you might think).  Your own brain as well as the brain of other people will get a good return on specific instructions.

2. Goal factoring (CFAR technique)

Goal factoring is about working out the purpose of a task that you do.  For example I used to attend a group that was often hit and miss about whether I liked it.  I broke down my intentions of going to the group as:

  • meet new people
  • learn cool things
  • hang out with friends

I didn’t notice so easily, but as soon as I had this list it was easy to see that the group was waxing and waning in such a way that there were (for a more than 6month period) no new people.  Along with this I had been there long enough that learning new things was hard simply because I knew everything that everyone else knew, so there was less “new” to learn.  The third thing that happened is that a culture shift happened and the friends I liked hanging out with were less often there than the friends I was not super thrilled about hanging with.

Consequently I left that group and rescued my weeknight.

3. Applause lights in the territory

The concept of Applause lights were not invented by me:

“…it means that you have said the word “democracy”, so the audience is supposed to cheer.  It’s not so much a propositional statement, as the equivalent of the “Applause” light that tells a studio audience when to clap.”

Applause lights are often things that sound good but are not of any substance.  We need these because sometimes we need to climb ladders of abstraction and very quickly explain what we mean without being specific.

But we also need to climb back down those ladders and get specific if we ever want to make progress towards the goal.  What is actually going to lead us to Health, or Coconuts or A successful startup or Progress towards that goal?

And how can we pursue it with the ferocity of someone who knows exactly how much time they have left.

Meta: this post is a true story.  Thanks to Sarah for the inspiration and I hope she moves swiftly towards the important tasks from here on.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write

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

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

Posted in life maintenance, models of thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bargaining trade-offs in your brain

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

So you are now at the point where you are thinking about your exploration and exploitation behaviours.  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.

Remember the 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.

You know they are trade-offs between different types of things you want to do, specifically I want to address this:

  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?

What’s going on here?  If you know you know where to get the most reward, say exercising but you don’t find yourself doing the action you seem to know is the right thing, what’s going on?

I covered increasing complexity of models, and in aid of that I propose the idea of Bargaining trade-offs to your own brain.

As long as you take it with a grain of All models are wrong.

“The most that can be expected from any model is that it can supply a useful approximation to reality: All models are wrong; some models are useful” – George Box

Bargaining with your own brain

We take the model of Daniel Kanemann, in Thinking, fast and slow, that the brain is made of up System 1 and System 2.  System 1 feels like the automatic intuitive process, the process that can catch things thrown at it, or know what an apple looks like, just as  *it is this thing*.  System 2 is the part of you that can do complicated stepwise tasks, like multiplication of long numbers, following a recipe.

Going back to our example, it seems like we have an intellectual understanding that exercise is a good thing.  Yea; pretty important for health and long term well-being.  But why is that not automatically an easy thing to do.

I propose that the understanding of exercise being good is a System 2 activity, where the motivation to actually do exercise (or in this case – not do exercise), can be in System 1.  Of course you can still use system 2 to force yourself to get up and go exercise, but if you can make your System 1 believe that exercise is a good idea, life will be so much easier.

Intellectually understanding the importance of exercise is one step.  Negotiating it to System 1 is a lot less intuitive.

I want to cover a major bug in just trying to commit to exploration and exploitation automatically.  And that is where you feel like you want to exploit more but your system 1 still wants to explore.  It’s that voice in your head that sometimes says, “maybe I should go to the bar with my friends” or maybe it’s the other way around, all you want to do is go home, but you feel like you have to stay at the bar with your friends.

What do?

It’s an internal disagreement, (CFAR calls it a double crux.) and it has a solution.  While I can’t objectively solve every single internal disagreement you have ever; I have a few pieces of machinery to offer.

“How could I resolve this disagreement in my head?”
Or more specifically:
“what information could I use as evidence to make my decision of what to do next?”

Obviously there are reasons on each side.  To continue the bar example; we are trading off social friend opportunity with going home and doing other things.  However social friend opportunity comes only at opportune times for other people.  It’s not something that guarantee-ably happens on your schedule.  In weighing up these options we find ourselves sitting in the middle both not able to go home right away and not able to stay in the bar with our friends (kind of like a Buridan’s ass situation, except you probably won’t starve to death and have powers to resolve the puzzle).

It’s an all too common pattern to get in this position.  The process of solving the bug is a matter of signalling to either system (the one that disagrees with your choice) that you are doing some disagreeing with it for reasons that it supports.

Example 1:
In an internal dialog you can say okay System 1.  I am going to stay in the bar.  I feel the urge to “go do work”  that you are giving me (I clearly acknowledge the stimuli, including focusing on the other option for a moment), and this isn’t the most productive thing I could be doing right now, yes.  I know I also like to enjoy the company of my friends.  And tomorrow when I do want to enjoy their company more after I have done my two hours of work, I will be unable to, so to best take advantage of the company of my friends while they are available, I am going to stay in the bar.

Example 2:
In an internal dialog you can say, okay I know on a System 2 level that I should be working but being here in the bar is worthwhile to my system 1, because it likes my friends.  I value my friends as important right now compared to my other goals.

Some creative example of a discussion between s1 and s2 doesn’t need to be sensical, it just needs to be acceptable to you at the time so that you can finish deliberating and continue on with the task at hand.

The meta question being:

How will I resolve my indecision at this time?

It’s important to note that this is not, “how do I decide?” but what should be the easier version of, “what would inform my decision?”, “how can I help myself decide?”

Which is really – “what evidence do I need to convince my other indecision of my choice in this decision?” Or, “How do I go about gathering evidence for better making this decision?”  (You may notice this is becoming a lot like the VoI process from Exploration exploitation.


One big part of this process is noticing that you are indecisive.  That’s a really important and exciting event!

Oh great!  The opportunity to resolves an indecision, I always feel better after my indecision is resolved.

If you are the kind of person who is with limited anxieties; the positive reinforcement of the correct attitude may be irrelevant, but if you are in need of the affirmation this is a step that cannot be left out.  Leaving it out will give you ugh fields, and holding plenty of stress and confusion of indecision.

Communication and being honest with yourself

Emirically assessing your time use is a process I designed to help defeat a s1/s2 incongruity.  You can System2!know that these are all the tasks you spend your time on, so in order to System1!change your mind on what you want to do in your time you need to inform/convince/bargain/wrangle the monkey of your system 1 that there is no time that has sneakily “escaped” your view, fallen down the back of the couch, or somehow there is “more time” other than what you already have.  This is what I consider the most powerful insight of this process.

What this whole meta-process of asking yourself questions and untangling really entails is establishing strong and confident pathways of communication between different parts of yourself.  And that really comes down to being honest amongst those different parts.  People take actions based on their desires and goals.  That’s fine.  Sometimes we do things for bad, dumb, silly, irrational, frustrating, self-defeating, or irrelevant reasons.  That’s okay.  As long as you are okay with it.  If you are not okay with it, that’s when you have the choice to do something else.

Humans are complicated, they have many motivations and goals and reasons why they may or may not do any given action.  That’s fine.  Sometimes the possible actions in front of us take competing paths.  Whichever path you end up going down you need to be okay with that.

Meta: this took 2 hours to write.

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

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 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1 In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2 Yak shaving 2
Part 4c Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1 Scientific method
Part 4d.2 Quantified self
Part 5: Call to action

Posted in exercise, lesswrong, models of thinking, self-improvement | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in exercise, life maintenance, self-improvement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment