Deriving techniques on the fly

Last year Lachlan Cannon came back from a CFAR reunion and commented that instead of just having the CFAR skills we need the derivative skills.  The skills that say, “I need a technique for this problem” and let you derive a technique, system, strategy, plan, idea for solving the problem on the spot.

By analogy to an old classic,

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he never go hungry again.

This concept always felt off to me until I met Anna.  An american who used to live in Alaska where they have enough fish in a river that any time you go fishing you catch a fish, and a big enough one to eat.  In contrast, I had been fishing several times when I was little (in Australia) and never caught things, or only caught fish that were too small to feed one person, let alone many people.

Silly fishing misunderstandings aside I think the old classic speaks to something interesting but misses a point.  to that effect I want to add something.

Teach a man to derive the skill of fishing when he needs it. and he will never stop growing.

We need to go more meta than that?  I am afraid it’s turtles all the way down.


To help you derive you need to start by noticing when there is a need.  There are two parts to noticing:

  1. triggers
  2. introspection
  3. What next

But before I fail to do it justice, agentyduck has written about this. Art of noticing, What it’s like to notice things, How to train noticing.

The Art Of Noticing goes like this:

  1. Answer the question, “What’s my first possible clue that I’m about to encounter the problem?” If your problem is “I don’t respond productively to being confused,” then the first sign a crucial moment is coming might be “a fleeting twinge of surprise”. Whatever that feels like in real time from the inside of your mind, that’s your trigger.
  2. Whenever you notice your trigger, make a precise physical gesture. Snap your fingers, tap your foot, touch your pinky finger with your thumb – whatever feels comfortable. Do it every time you notice that fleeting twinge of surprise.

How To Train Noticing

  1. I guess. I remember or imagine a few specific instances of encountering weak contrary evidence (such as when I thought my friend wasn’t attracted to me, but when I made eye contact with him across the room at a party he smiled widely). On the basis of those simulations, I make a prediction about what it will feel like, in terms of immediate subjective experience, to encounter weak contrary evidence in the future. The prediction is a tentative trigger. For me, this would be “I feel a sort of matching up with one of my beliefs, there’s a bit of dissonance, a tiny bit of fear, and maybe a small impulse to direct my attention away from these sensations and away from thoughts about the observation causing all of this”.

  2. I test my guess. I keep a search going on in the background for anything in the neighborhood of the experience I predicted. Odds are good I’ll miss several instances of weak contrary evidence, but as soon as I realize I’ve encountered one, I go into reflective attention so I’m aware of as many details of my immediate subjective experience as possible. I pay attention to what’s going on in my mind right now, and also what’s still looping in my very short-term memory of a few moments before I noticed. Then I compare those results to my prediction, noting anything I got wrong, and I feed that information into a new prediction for next time. (I might have gotten something wrong that caused the trigger to go off at the wrong time, which probably means I need to narrow my prediction.) The new prediction is the new trigger.

  3. I repeat the test until my trigger seems to be accurate and precise. Now I’ve got a good trigger to match a good action.

Derivations (as above) are a “what next” action.

My derivations come from asking myself that question or other similar questions, then attempting to answer them:

  • What should I do next?
  • How do I solve this problem?
  • Why don’t other people have this problem?
  • Can I make this problem go away?
  • How do I design a system to make this not matter any more?

(you may notice this is stimulating introspection – this is what it is)


The post that led me to post on derivations is this post on How to present a problem hopefully to be published tomorrow.

This post took ~1 hour to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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Some notes from “Turn the ship around” By L. David Marquet

The premise of the book is that to be a good leader is to get people to follow you.  which means you can be a leader by doing ridiculous things and have people just follow to see what will happen, or by doing great things and have people want to copy.  He gives the example of a football coach of his that gave a ridiculous speech on the first day about being serious with the training, “turn up late, take your shit home.  Skip training, take your shit home…”, and how he wanted to follow this guy just to see what would happen next.  Great story but that’s not what the rest of the book is about.

The book sets out examples and questions to ask yourself to implement a model called the Leader-Leader model (they can be found at the end of each chapter).  The model is about empowering all members of a company to be making intelligent decisions and effectively be a leader.  The whole book is about a navy submarine (which is not a bad place to learn about leadership).  The author implemented new leadership models and turned the sub from awful and an embarrassment to the navy to an award winning vessel.

He recommends a few books along the way:

  • 7 habits of highly effective people.  (also the 8th habit)
  • Simon Sinek’s Start with Why
  • Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’s book Built to Last
  • Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
  • Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming

The concepts include:

  • Eliminate oversight, instead get people to want to do a good job for the sake of getting it right, rather than satisfying oversight systems.  And actively report errors, rather than having to “find” them.
  • Ask everyone what they are secretly hoping you change, and secretly hoping you don’t change.
  • Be curious when asking about what people are doing and why
  • Change the language so that people report what they are about to do, “I intend to…” and the top tier replies, (with questions if relevant), “Very well”.  This way both the thinking process gets shared around and the people making decisions get to feel empowered, rather than decisions coming from above.
  • 3 name rule, “<greeting> <name> welcome to <name of ship>, my name is <name>” to boost support and respect for each other and the ship and caring about the culture around the place.
  • delegate everything, the top structure is to only oversee, not to make judgement calls.  Plenty of “why this?” but none of, “now do this”.
  • Fire drill example.  They had a fire drill and the nearest people to the hose didn’t grab it, because “it wasn’t their job”.  Fix that.  when there is a fire the objective is to put it out, not to make sure that the procedures are followed.  Make everyone clear on the objective.  This also applies to dodgy orders.
  • Empower everyone to report mistakes, embarrassing or not.  Reward that.  (it’s all about the incentives.)  They had problems with transient noises on the sub where if someone drops a wrench the whole boat echos and could give away their position.  Old procedure was that the sonar room would relay over the ship and ask people what it was.  New procedure was people report to the sonar room if they make a transient.  Resulted in more reports, even ones that didn’t get noticed by sonar.  Helped people own the problem.
  • Deliberate actions:  They had a mistake where someone did something unsafe and things were “accidentally okay”, but could have been dangerous.  They did a debrief and the person who made the mistake said, “I didn’t think”.  After letting him leave they had a long management meeting about how they want people to be making deliberate moves on a nuclear submarine, especially when dangerous things can happen.  So they set about making a culture of, “pause, then act”, and “verbalise as you go”
  • Legacy for inspiration – look at the history and celebrate and remember great things that happened, and get people to share the culture of doing actions that are going to be remembered by future company members.
  • Development and smart goals – make sure to engage each other to be working on improving personal goals as well as bringing the group forward.  Get people to write up what they want to see on their end-of-year reviews, or 3-year reviews.  Then generate goals that smartly act as stepping stones towards that review.
  • Immediate recognition (right now, not in 5 minutes, 5 days or 5 weeks)  as soon as it happens.  Be careful to make people compete against the rest of the world and not internally with each other.  Collaborate against the outside world.
  • “how would we know if we were successful?” work backwards from the goal, set targets based on the – how would we know.

There are more concepts, the book tells it better than I do (obviously) but it really is helpful about what it has to offer.

The books own summary:


  • Find the genetic code for control and rewrite it.
  • Act your way to new thinking.
  • Short, early conversations make efficient work.
  • Use “I intend to . . .” to turn passive followers into active leaders.
  • Resist the urge to provide solutions.
  • Eliminate top-down monitoring systems.
  • Think out loud (both superiors and subordinates).
  • Embrace the inspectors.


  • Take deliberate action.
  • We learn (everywhere, all the time).
  • Don’t brief, certify.
  • Continually and consistently repeat the message.
  • Specify goals, not methods.


  • Achieve excellence, don’t just avoid errors.
  • Build trust and take care of your people.
  • Use your legacy for inspiration.
  • Use guiding principles for decision criteria.
  • Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors.
  • Begin with the end in mind.
  • Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience.

The guy’s website:

includes some worksheets or cards.

Meta: this was written as an email to a friend.  Figured I should publish it online.  I would recommend this book if you are in a leadership position where you are living in a system that is broken and change is needed.

You won’t need this book if you are surrounded by people who are already engaged in a good culture and there is a way to go over the top with “making good culture” and not actually get the real work done.

This took 45mins to write.  I read this book via Text to Speech from the ebook using FBreader.  I would recommend this method of reading to everyone.  Pick a book and try it for that book, I was stubborn and didn’t want to try it for more than two years.  Then I experimented with it once, and now I power through books.

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Lesswrong potential changes

This post duplicates the original.

Original post:

I have compiled many suggestions about the future of lesswrong into a document here:

It’s long and best formatted there.

In case you hate leaving this website here’s the summary:


There are 3 main areas that are going to change.


  • Technical/Direct Site Changes
      1. new home page
      2. new forum style with subdivisions
        1. new sub for “friends of lesswrong” (rationality in the diaspora)
      3. New tagging system
      4. New karma system
      5. Better RSS


  • Social and cultural changes
    1. Positive culture; a good place to be.
    2. Welcoming process
    3. Pillars of good behaviours (the ones we want to encourage)
    4. Demonstrate by example
    5. 3 levels of social strategies (new, advanced and longtimers)
  • Content (emphasis on producing more rationality material)
    1. For up-and-coming people to write more
      1. for the community to improve their contributions to create a stronger collection of rationality.
    2. For known existing writers
      1. To encourage them to keep contributing
      2. To encourage them to work together with each other to contribute


Less Wrong Potential Changes


Why change LW?

How will we know we have done well (the feel of things)

How will we know we have done well (KPI – technical)

Technical/Direct Site Changes




Karma system



RSS magic

Not breaking things

Funding support

Logistical changes


Done (or Don’t do it):


General initiatives

Welcoming initiatives

Initiatives for moderates

Initiatives for long-time users

Rationality Content

Target: a good 3 times a week for a year.

Approach formerly prominent writers

Explicitly invite

Place to talk with other rationalists

Pillars of purpose
(with certain sub-reddits for different ideas)

Encourage a declaration of intent to post

Specific posts

Other notes

Why change LW?

Lesswrong has gone through great times of growth and seen a lot of people share a lot of positive and brilliant ideas.  It was hailed as a launchpad for MIRI, in that purpose it was a success.  At this point it’s not needed as a launchpad any longer.  While in the process of becoming a launchpad it became a nice garden to hang out in on the internet.  A place of reasonably intelligent people to discuss reasonable ideas and challenge each other to update their beliefs in light of new evidence.  In retiring from its “launchpad” purpose, various people have felt the garden has wilted and decayed and weeds have grown over.  In light of this; and having enough personal motivation to decide I really like the garden, and I can bring it back!  I just need a little help, a little magic, and some little changes.  If possible I hope for the garden that we all want it to be.  A great place for amazing ideas and life-changing discussions to happen.

How will we know we have done well (the feel of things)

Success is going to have to be estimated by changes to the feel of the site.  Unfortunately that is hard to do.  As we know outrage generates more volume than positive growth.  Which is going to work against us when we try and quantify by measurable metrics.  Assuming the technical changes are made; there is still going to be progress needed on the task of socially improving things.  There are many “seasoned active users” – as well as “seasoned lurkers” who have strong opinions on the state of lesswrong and the discussion.  Some would say that we risk dying of niceness, others would say that the weeds that need pulling are the rudeness.  

Honestly we risk over-policing and under-policing at the same time.  There will be some not-niceness that goes unchecked and discourages the growth of future posters (potentially our future bloggers), and at the same time some other niceness that motivates trolling behaviour as well as failing to weed out potential bad content which would leave us as fluffy as the next forum.  there is no easy solution to tempering both sides of this challenge.  I welcome all suggestions (it looks like a karma system is our best bet).

In the meantime I believe being on the general niceness, steelman side should be the motivated direction of movement.  I hope to enlist some members as essentially coaches in healthy forum growth behaviour.  Good steelmanning, positive encouragement, critical feedback as well as encouragement, a welcoming committee and an environment of content improvement and growth.

While at the same time I want everyone to keep up the heavy dance off; I also want to see the best versions of ourselves coming out onto the publishing pages (and sometimes that can be the second draft versions).

So how will we know?  By trying to reduce the ugh fields to people participating in LW, by seeing more content that enough people care about, by making lesswrong awesome.

The full document is just over 11 pages long.  Please go read it, this is a chance to comment on potential changes before they happen.

Meta: This post took a very long time to pull together.  I read over 1000 comments and considered the ideas contained there.  I don’t have an accurate account of how long this took to write; but I would estimate over 65 hours of work has gone into putting it together.  It’s been literally weeks in the making, I really can’t stress how long I have been trying to put this together.

If you want to help, please speak up so we can help you help us.  If you want to complain; keep it to yourself.

Thanks to the slack for keeping up with my progress and Vanvier, Mack, Leif, matt and others for reviewing this document.

As usual – My table of contents

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Purposeful anti-rush

This post is duplicated from the original.

Original post:

Why do we rush?

Things happen; Life gets in the way, and suddenly we find ourselves trying to get to somewhere with less time than it’s possible to actually get there in.  So in the intention to get there sooner; to somehow compensate ourselves for not being on time; we rush.  We run; we get clumsy, we drop things; we forget things; we make mistakes; we scribble instead of writing, we scramble and we slip up.

I am today telling you to stop that.  Don’t do that.  It’s literally the opposite of what you want to do.  This is a bug I have.

Rushing has a tendency to do the opposite of what I want it to do.  I rush with the key in the lock; I rush on slippery surfaces and I fall over, I rush with coins and I drop them.  NO!  BAD!  Stop that.  This is one of my bugs.

What you (or I) really want when we are rushing is to get there sooner, to get things done faster.

Instrumental experiment: Next time you are rushing I want you to experiment and pay attention; try to figure out what you end up doing that takes longer than it otherwise would if you weren’t rushing.

The time after that when you are rushing; instead try slowing down, and this time observe to see if you get there faster.

Run as many experiments as you like.

Experimenter’s note: Maybe you are really good at rushing and really bad at slowing down.  Maybe you don’t need to try this.  Maybe slowing down and being nervous about being late together are entirely unhelpful for you.  Report back.

When you are rushing, purposefully slow down. (or at least try it)

Meta: Time to write 20mins

My Table of contents contains other things I have written.

Feedback welcome.

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Announcing: The great bridge between communities

In the deep dark lurks of the internet, several proactive lesswrong and diaspora leaders have been meeting each day.  If we could have cloaks and silly hats; we would.

We have been discussing the great diversification, and noticed some major hubs starting to pop up.  The ones that have been working together include:

  • Lesswrong slack
  • SlateStarCodex Discord
  • Reddit/Rational Discord
  • Lesswrong Discord
  • Exegesis (unofficial rationalist tumblr)

The ones that we hope to bring together in the future include (on the willingness of those servers):

  • Lesswrong IRC (led by Gwern)
  • Slate Star Codex IRC
  • AGI slack
  • Transhumanism Discord
  • Artificial Intelligence Discord

How will this work?

About a year ago, the lesswrong slack tried to bridge across to the lesswrong IRC.  That was bad.  From that experience we learnt a lot that can go wrong, and have worked out how to avoid those mistakes.  So here is the general setup.

Each server currently has it’s own set of channels, each with their own style of talking and addressing problems, and sharing details and engaging with each other.  We definitely don’t want to do anything that will harm those existing cultures.  In light of this, taking the main channel from one server and mashing it into the main channel of another server is going to reincarnate into HELL ON EARTH.  and generally leave both sides with the sentiment that “<the other side> is wrecking up <our> beautiful paradise”.  Some servers may have a low volume buzz at all times, other servers may become active for bursts, it’s not good to try to marry those things.


Room: Lesswrong-Slack-Open

Bridged to:

  • exegesis#lwslack_bridge
  • Discord-Lesswrong#lw_slack_main
  • R/rational#lw_slack_open
  • SSC#bridge_slack

I am in <exegesis, D/LW, R/R, SSC> what does this mean?

If you want to peek into the lesswrong slack and see what happens in their #open channel.  You can join or unmute your respective channel and listen in, or contribute (two way relay) to their chat.  Obviously if everyone does this at once we end up spamming the other chat and probably after a week we cut the bridge off because it didn’t work.  So while it’s favourable to increase the community; be mindful of what goes on across the divide and try not to anger our friends.

I am in Lesswrong-Slack, what does this mean?

We have new friends!  Posts in #open will be relayed to all 4 children rooms where others can contribute if they choose.  Mostly they have their own servers to chat on, and if they are not on an info-diet already, then maybe they should be.  We don’t anticipate invasion or noise.

Why do they get to see our server and we don’t get to see them?

So glad you asked – we do.  There is an identical set up for their server into our bridge channels.  in fact the whole diagram looks something like this:

Server Main channel Slack-Lesswrong Discord-Exegesis Discord-Lesswrong Discord-r/rational Discord-SSC
Slack-Lesswrong Open lwslack_open lw_slack_main lw_slack_open bridge_slack
Discord-Exegesis Main #bridge_rat_tumblr exegesis_main exegesis_rattumb_main bridge_exegesis
Discord-Lesswrong Main #Bridge_discord_lw lwdiscord_main lw_discord_main bridge_lw_disc
Discord-r/rational General #bridge_r-rational_dis redditratdiscord_general reddirati_main bridge_r_rational
Discord-SSC General #bridge_ssc_discord sscdiscord_general ssc_main ssc_discord_gen

Pretty right? No it’s not.  But that’s in the backend.

For extra clarification, the rows are the channels that are linked.  Which is to say that Discord-SSC, is linked to a child channel in each of the other servers.  The last thing we want to do is impact this existing channels in a negative way.

But what if we don’t want to share our open and we just want to see the other side’s open?  (/our talk is private, what about confidential and security?)

Oh you mean like the prisoners dilemma?  Where you can defect (not share) and still be rewarded (get to see other servers).  Yea it’s a problem.  Tends to be when one group defects, that others also defect.  There is a chance that the bridge doesn’t work.  That this all slides, and we do spam each other, and we end up giving up on the whole project.  If it weren’t worth taking the risk we wouldn’t have tried.

We have not rushed into this bridge thing, we have been talking about it calmly and slowly and patiently for what seems like forever.  We are all excited to be taking a leap, and keen to see it take off.

Yes, security is a valid concern, walled gardens being bridged into is a valid concern, we are trying our best.  We are just as hesitant as you, and being very careful about the process.  We want to get it right.

So if I am in <server1> and I want to talk to <server3> I can just post in the <bridge-to-server2> room and have the message relayed around to server 3 right?

Whilst that is correct, please don’t do that.  You wouldn’t like people relaying through your main to talk to other people.  Also it’s pretty silly, you can just post in your <servers1> main and let other people see it if they want to.

This seems complicated, why not just have one room where everyone can go and hang out?

  1. How do you think we ended up with so many separate rooms
  2. Why don’t we all just leave <your-favourite server> and go to <that other server>?  It’s not going to happen

Why don’t all you kids get off my lawn and stay in your own damn servers?

Thank’s grandpa.  No one is coming to invade, we all have our own servers and stuff to do, we don’t NEED to be on your lawn, but sometimes it’s nice to know we have friends.

<server2> shitposted our server, what do we do now?

This is why we have mods, why we have mute and why we have ban.  It might happen but here’s a deal; don’t shit on other people and they won’t shit on you.  Also if asked nicely to leave people alone, please leave people alone.  Remember anyone can tap out of any discussion at any time.

I need a picture to understand all this.

Great!  Friends on exegesis made one for us.

Who are our new friends:

Lesswrong Slack

Lesswrong slack has been active since 2015, and has a core community. The slack has 50 channels for various conversations on specific topics, the #open channel is for general topics and has all kinds of interesting discoveries shared here.

Discord-Exegesis (private, entry via tumblr)

Exegesis is a discord set up by a tumblr rationalist for all his friends (not just rats). It took off so well and became such a hive in such a short time that it’s now a regular hub.


Following Exegesis’s growth, a discord was set up for lesswrong, it’s not as active yet, but has the advantage of a low barrier to entry and it’s filled with lesswrongers.


Scott posted a link on an open thread to the SSC discord and now it holds activity from users that hail from the SSC comment section. it probably has more conversation about politics than other servers but also has every topic relevant to his subscribers.


reddit rational discord grew from the rationality and rational fiction subreddit, it’s quite busy and covers all topics.

As at the publishing of this post; the bridge is not live, but will go live when we flip the switch.

Meta: this took 1 hour to write (actualy time writing) and half way through I had to stop and have a voice conference about it to the channels we were bridging.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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Cultivate the desire to X

This post is duplicated from the original.

Original post:

Recently I have found myself encouraging people to cultivate the desire to X.

Examples that you might want to cultivate interest in include:

  • Diet
  • Organise ones self
  • Plan for the future
  • be a goal-oriented thinker
  • build the tools
  • Anything else in the list of common human goals
  • Getting healthy sleep
  • Being less wrong
  • Trusting people more
  • Trusting people less
  • exercise
  • interest in a topic (cars, fashion, psychology etc.)

Why do we need to cultivate?

We don’t.  But sometimes we can’t just “do”.  Lot’s of reasons are reasonable reasons to not be able to just “do” the thing:

  • Some things are scary
  • Some things need planning
  • Some things need research
  • Some things are hard
  • Some things are a leap of faith
  • Some things can be frustrating to accept
  • Some things seem stupid (well if exercising is so great why don’t I already automatically want to do it)
  • Other excuses exist.

On some level you have decided you want to do X; on some other level you have not yet committed to doing it.  Easy tasks can get done quickly.  More complicated tasks are not so easy to do right away.

Well if it were easy enough to just successfully do the thing – you can go ahead and do the thing (TTYL flying to the moon tomorrow – yea nope).

  1. your system 1 wants to do the thing and your system 2 is not sure how.
  2. your system 2 wants to do the thing and your system 1 is not sure it wants to do the thing.
  • The healthy part of you wants to diet; the social part of you is worried about the impact on your social life.

(now borrowing from Common human goals)

  • Your desire to live forever wants you to take a medication every morning to increase your longevity; your desire for freedom does not want to be tied down to a bottle of pills every morning.
  • Your desire for a legacy wants you to stay late at work; your desire for quality family time wants you to leave the office early.

The solution:

The solution is to cultivate the interest; or the desire to do the thing. From the initial point of interest or desire – you can move forward; do some research to either convince your system 2 of the benefits, or work out how to do the thing to convince your system 1 that it is possible/viable/easy enough.  Or maybe after some research the thing seems impossible.  I offer Cultivating the desire as a step along the way to working it out.

Not all X goals are automatically easy to do.  Give yourself some time; count the stepping stones and see how you go.

Short post for today; Cultivate the desire to do X.

Meta: time to write 1.5 hours.

My table of contents contains my other writing

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In support of Yak Shaving

Yak shaving is heralded as pretty much “the devil” of trying to get things done.  The anti-yak shaving movement will identify this problem as being one of focus.  The moral of the story they give is “don’t yak shave“.

Originally posted in MIT’s media lab with the description:

Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.

But I prefer the story by Seth Godin:

“I want to wax the car today.”

“Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I’ll need to buy a new one at Home Depot.”

“But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls.”

“But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor’s EZPass…”

“Bob won’t lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though.”

“And we haven’t returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it.”

And the next thing you know, you’re at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

I disagree with the conclusion to not yak shave, and here’s why.

The problem here is that you didn’t wax the car because you spent all day shaving yaks (see also “there’s a hole in my bucket“).  In a startup that translates to not doing the tasks that get customers – the tasks which get money and actually make an impact, say “playing with the UI”.  It’s easy to see why such anti-yak shaving sentiment would exist (see also: bikeshedding, rearranging deck chairs on the titanic, hamming questions).  You can spend a whole day doing a whole lot of nothings; getting to bed and wonder what you actually accomplished that day (hint: a whole lot of running in circles).

Or at least that’s what it looks like on the surface.  But let’s look a little deeper into what the problems and barriers are in the classic scenario.

  1. Want to wax car
  2. Broken hose
  3. Hardware store is far away
  4. No EZpass for tolls
  5. Neighbour won’t lend the pass until pillow is returned
  6. Broken mooshi pillow
  7. Have to go get yak hair.

So it’s not just one problem, but a series of problems that come up in a sequence.  Hopefully by the end of the list you can turn around and walk all the way straight back up the list.  But in the real world there might even be other problems like, you get to the hardware store and realise you don’t know the hose-fitting size of your house so you need to call someone at home to check…

On closer inspection; this sort of behaviour is not like bikeshedding at all.  Nor is it doing insignificant things under the guise of “real work”.  Instead this is about tackling what stands in the way of your problem.  In problem solving in the real world, Don’t yak shave” is not what I have found to be the solution.  In experiencing this the first time it feels like a sequence of discoveries.  For example, first you discover the hose.  Then you discover the EZpass problem, then you discover the pillow problem, at which point you are pretty sick of trying to wax your car and want a break or to work on something else.

I propose that classic yak shaving presents a very important sign that things are broken.  In order to get to the classic scenario we had to

  1. have borrowed a pillow from our neighbour,
  2. have it break and not get fixed,
  3. not own our own EZpass,
  4. live far from a hardware store,
  5. have a broken hose, and
  6. want to wax a car.

Each open problem in this scenario presents an open problem or an open loop.  Yak shaving presents a warning sign that you are in a Swiss-cheese model scenario of problems.  This might sound familiar because it’s the kind of situation which leads to the Fukushima reactor meltdown.  It’s the kind of scenario when you try to work out why the handyman fell off your roof and died, and you notice that:

  1. he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
  2. He wasn’t tied on safely
  3. His ladder wasn’t tied down
  4. It was a windy day
  5. His harness was old and worn out
  6. He was on his phone while on the roof…

And you realise that any five of those things could have gone wrong and not caused much of a problem.  But you put all six of those mistakes together and line the wind up in just the right way, everything comes tumbling down.

Yak shaving is a sign that you are living with problems waiting to crash down.  And living in a situation where you don’t have time to do the sort of maintenance that would fix things and keep smoulders from bursting into flames.

I can almost guaranteed that when your house of cards all come falling down, it happens on a day that you don’t have the spare time to waste on ridiculous seeming problems.

What should you do if you are in this situation?

Yak shave.  The best thing you can do if half your projects are unfinished and spread around the room is to tidy up.  Get things together; organise things, initiate the GTD system (or any system), wrap up old bugs, close the open loops (advice from GTD) and as many times as you can; YAK SHAVE for all you are worth!

If something is broken, and you are living with it, that’s not acceptable.  You need a system in your life to regularly get around to fixing it.  Notepads, reviews, list keeping, set time aside for doing it and plan to fix things.

So I say, Yak Shave, as much, as long, and as many times as it takes till there are no more yaks to shave.

Something not mentioned often enough is a late addition to my list of common human goals.

Improve the tools available – sharpen the axe, write a new app that can do the thing you want, invent systems that work for you.  prepare for when the rest of the work comes along.

People often ask how you can plan for lucky breaks in your life.  How do you cultivate opportunity?  I can tell you right here and now, this is how.

Keep a toolkit at the ready, a work-space (post coming soon) at the ready, spare time for things to go wrong and things to go right.  And don’t forget to play.  Why do we sharpen the axe?  Clear Epistemics, or clear Instrumental Rationality.  Be prepared for the situation that will come up.

Yak Shave like your life depends on it.  Because your life might one day depend on it.  Your creativity certainly does.

Meta: this took 2.5 hrs to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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Preference over preference

With edits in blue.  This post duplicates the original.

Original post: Preference over preference

Each individual person has a preference.  Some preferences are strong, others are weak.  For many preferences it’s more complicated than that; they aren’t static, and we change our preferences all the time.  Some days we don’t like certain foods, sometimes we may strongly dislike a certain song then another time we may not care so much. Our preferences can change in scope, as well as intensity.  Some very brilliant economists tried to write theories about how we can predict market behaviour based on the revealed preferences of the people in the market, (which is the preferences that people have shown to have taken.  More on that in another post).

Sometimes people can have preferences over other people’s preferences.

  • Example 1: I prefer to be surrounded by people who enjoy exercise, that way I will be motivated to exercise more.
  • Example 2: I prefer to be surrounded by people who don’t care how they look, that way I look prettier than everyone else.
  • Example 3: I prefer when other people like my clothes.
  • Example 4: I prefer my partners to be polyamorous.
  • Example 5: I prefer people around me to not smoke.

The interesting thing about example 3; is that there are multiple pathways to achieve that preference:

  1. Find out what clothes people like and acquire those clothes, then wear them regularly.
  2. Find people who already like the clothes that you have, then hang around those people regularly.
  3. Change the preference of the people around you so that they like your clothes.

Changing someone’s preference over clothing seems pretty harmless, and that way you get to wear clothes you like, they get to like the clothes you wear, and you get to be around people who like the clothes you wear without finding new people. The scary and maybe uncomfortable thing is that the other examples can be also achieved through these means.

Example 4:

  1. Find out where poly people are, and hang out with them. (and ask to be their partners – etc)
  2. Find out which of the people you know are already poly and hang out with them  (and ask to be their partners – etc)
  3. Change the preferences of your existing partner/s.

Example 1:

  1. Find out where people who enjoy exercise hang out, and join them.
  2. Find out which of your friends already enjoy exercise and hang out with them.
  3. Change the preferences of those around you to also enjoy exercise.

Example 5:

  1. Find out where people don’t smoke, hang out in those places.
  2. Figure out who already doesn’t smoke and hang out with them.
  3. Encourage people you know to not smoke.

(I think that’s enough examples)

Is it wrong?

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a preference. Having a preference over another person’s preference is also not inherently wrong.  Such is the nature of having a preference (usually a strong one by the time you are dictating it to your surroundings).  What really matters is what you do about it.

In this day and age; no one would be discouraged from figuring out where people are not smoking and being in those places instead of the smoking places.  In this day and age you wouldn’t be criticised for finding out which of your friends don’t smoke and only hanging out with them either – but maybe it makes some people uncomfortable to do it, or to feel that the reciprocal might happen if someone strongly didn’t like their preferences.  In this day and age; encouraging those around you to not smoke can come across as an action with questionable motives.

So let’s look at some of the motives:

  1. I prefer it when people don’t smoke around me because then I don’t get second hand smoke.
  2. I prefer it when my friends don’t smoke because I don’t like chemical dependency in my environment.
  3. I prefer it when my friends don’t smoke so that we look better than that other group of people who do smoke.
  4. I prefer it when my friends don’t smoke because I don’t want them to get cancer and die (and not be around to be my friends any more).

Before launching into noble excuse territory…  Motive 1 seems very much about self-preservation.  We can’t really fault an entity for trying to self-preserve.

Motive 2 is a more broad example of self-preservation – the idea that having dependency in your environment might negatively impact you enough to warrant the need to maintain an environment without it – it’s a stretch, but not an unreasonable self-preservation drive.

Motive 3 appears to be a superficial drive to be better than other people.  We often don’t like admitting that this is the reason we do things; but I don’t mind it either.  If it were me; I’d get pretty tired of being motivated by *keeping up with the Joneses* type attitudes but some people care greatly about that.

Motive 4 seems like a potentially altruistic desire to protect your friends; but then it seems less so once you include the bracketed sub-motive.

Herein lies the problem.  If a preference looks like it is designed to improve someone else’s life like “others shouldn’t smoke” (remember that “looks like to me” is equivalent to “I believe it looks like…”), and we believe that having a preference over their preference would improve their life – should we enforce that preference?  Do we have a right or even a burden to encourage those around us to quit smoking? To take up exercise?  To become poly?  To like us (or our clothes)?

The idea of preference over preference is a big one.  What if my preference is that people eat my birthday cake? and Bob’s preference is that he sticks to his diet today?  Who should win?  It’s My Birthday. On Bob’s birthday he doesn’t have to eat cake, but on My Birthday he does.  Or does he?

The truth is neither way is the best way.  Sometimes hypothetical bob should eat the birthday cake and sometimes hypothetical birthday-kid should respect other people’s dietary choices.  What we really have control over is our own preference for ourselves.  My only advice it to tread delicately when having preferences over other people’s preferences.

If we think we know better (and we might but also might not) and are trying to uphold a preference over a preference (p/p), then what happens?

Either we are right, we are wrong, or something else happens.  And depends on whether the other party conformed or not (or did something else).  Then what happens when things resolve.


  1. A is smoking
  2. B says not to because it’s bad for you
  3. A doesn’t stop
  4. It turns out to be bad for you
  5. A gets sick

B was right, tried to push a p/p and lost.  (either by not pushing hard enough or by A being stubborn). Did the p/p serve any good here?  Should it have happened?  What if an alternative 5 exists; “A keeps smoking, never gets sick and lives to 90”.  Then was the p/p useful?

  1. A is monogamous
  2. B says to be poly
  3. A does
  4. It goes badly
  5. A is hurt

B was wrong, tried to push a p/p and won.  But was wrong and shouldn’t have pushed it? Or maybe A shouldn’t have conformed.

This can be represented in a table:

  B prefers to maintain P/P B does not maintain P/P
A is susceptible to pressure A gives in A does not change (because there is no pressure)
A is not susceptible A does not change (stubborn) A does not change (because there is no pressure)

And a second table of results:

change was negative (or caused a negative result)

change was positive (or caused a positive result)

A is susceptible

A loses.

A wins!

A is not susceptible

A wins!

A loses.

Assuming also that if A loses; B takes a hit as well.  Ideally we want everyone to win all the time. But just showing these things in a table is not enough.  We should be assigning estimated probability to these choices as well.

For example (my made up numbers of whether I think smoking will lead to a bad result):


98% smoking causes problems

2% smoking does not cause problems.

If we edit the earlier table:


B prefers to maintain P/P

B does not maintain P/P

A is susceptible to pressure

A gives in (2% estimate that the change was pointless)

A does not change (because there is no pressure) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)

A is not susceptible to pressure

A does not change (stubborn) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)

A does not change (because there is no pressure) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)

To an aspiring rationalist; seeing your p/p table with estimates should help to understand whether they should take you up on fulfilling your preference or not.  Assuming of course that rationalists never lie; and can accurately estimate the confidence of their beliefs.

If you meet someone with a 98% belief they should be able to produce evidence that will also reasonably convince you of similar ideas and encourage you to update your beliefs.  So maybe in the smoking case A should be listening to B; or checking the evidence very seriously.

What should you do when you hold a strong p/p that will be to your benefit at the same time as being to someone else’s detriment.  (and part 2: what if you are unsure of the benefit or detriment)


B want’s A to try a new street drug “splice”.  B says it’s lots of fun and encourages A to do it.  B is unsure of the risks; but sure of the benefits (lots of fun).  Should B encourage A? (what more do we need to know to make that sort of judgement call?)

B has a sexual interest that is specific, and A’s are indifferent B could easily encourage A to “try out this”.  should B?

B has an old crappy car that B doesn’t like very much.  B prefers to make friends with shady A’s who will steal the car.  then B can claim on insurance that it was stolen. and get a nicer care with the payout.  Should B?

B wants A to pay for the two of them to go on a carnival ride.  the cost is simple (several dollars) the benefit is not.  Should B pressure A?  (what more do we need to know in order to answer that question?)

A always crosses the street dangerously because they are often running late.  B believes that A should be more safe – walk a distance to the nearest crossing before crossing the road; B knows that this will make A late.  Should B pressure A? (will more information help us answer?)

It was suggested that the Veil of ignorance might help to create a rule in this situation.  However the bounds of this situation dictate that you know which party you are; and that you have a preference over a preference.  So the Veil of ignorance does not so much apply to give us insight.

  1. It is possible to be a selfish entity, hold p/p and encourage others to fulfil your preference
  2. it is also possible to be a non-influential entity, and never push a preference over others.
  3. it is possible to be a stubborn entity and never conform to someone else’s p/p.
  4. It is also possible to be a conforming entity and always conform.

It is also possible to be a mix of these 4 in different situations and/or different preferences.

Partial Solution

Know your preferences, know your p/p’s and think very carefully about pushing your p/p’s, hiding your p/p’s; changing your preferences to conform, or being needlessly stubborn about your preferences.  (warning: this is hard; don’t think it’s easy just because it fits into one sentence)

Knowing what your strong preferences are; knowing which of your preferences are potentially not beneficial for others and understanding whether you have a tendency to push your p/p on other people will possibly help you to be more careful when handling p/p and avoid manipulating people (to their detriment).  In addition to this; knowing what culture you come from and what culture others come from will help to know how weak p/p might be misinterpreted as strong p/p (see “ask culture”, “guess culture” and “tell culture”). (some cultures aim to please when asked, and ask little of each other; some cultures are stubborn, vocal and demanding.  In the middle of the two cultures is the crazy-confused zone.  Of course these are the obvious cases.  Sometimes cultural taboo will come up around some topics and not others; i.e. dinner etiquette might be something you never ask about – because it would be bad etiquette; but expressing a strong preference over what you want to drink is expected)

In conclusion there are no rules to be drawn around p/p other than – Try to understand it; and how it can go wrong and be careful.

Meta: 4.5 hours to write, 30mins to take feedback and edit.  Thanks to the slack for being patient while I asked tricky example questions.

My Table of contents – contains links to the other things I have written.

Further comments adjustments and suggestions welcome.

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Black box knowledge

This post is a duplicate of the original.

Original post: Black box knowledge

When we want to censor an image we put a black box over it.  Over the area we want to censor.  In a similar sense we can purposely censor our knowledge.  This comes in particular handiness when thinking about things that might be complicated but we don’t need to know.

A deliberate black box around how toasters work would look like this:

bread -> black box -> toast

Not all processes need knowing, for now a black box can be a placeholder for the future.

With the power provided to us by a black box, we can identify what we don’t know.  We can say; Hey!  I don’t know what a toaster is but it would be about 2 hours to work it out.  if I ever did want to work it out, I could just spend two hours to do it.  Until then; I saved myself two hours.  If we take other more time-burdensome fields it works even better.  Say tax.

Need to file tax -> black box accountant -> don’t need to file my tax because I got the accountant to do it for me.

I know I can file my own tax, but that might be 100-200 hours of knowing everything an accountant knows about tax.  (It also might be 10 hours depending on your country and their tax system).  For now I can assume that hiring an accountant saved me a number of hours in doing it myself.  So – Winning!

Take car repairs.  On the one hand; you could do it yourself and unpack the black box, or you could trade your existing currency  $$ (which you already traded your time to earn) for someone else’s skills and time to repair the car.  The system looks like this:

Broken car -> black box mechanic -> working car

By deliberately not knowing how it works; we can tap out of even trying to figure it out for now.  The other advantage is that we can look at; not just what we know in terms of black boxes but more importantly what we don’t know.  We can build better maps by knowing what we don’t know.


Logic gates -> Black box computeryness ->

Or maybe it’s like this: (for more advanced users)


Logic gates -> flip flops -> Black box CPU -> black box GPU ->

The black-box system happens to also have a meme about it:

Step 1. Get out of bed

Step 2. Build AGI

Step 3. ?????

Step 4. Profit

Only now we have a name for deliberately skipping finding out how step 3 works.

Another useful system:


Food in (weight goes up) -> black box human body -> energy out (weight goes down)

Make your own black box systems in the comments.

Meta: short post, 1.5 hour to write, edit and publish. Felt it was an idea that provides useful ways to talk about things.  Needed it to explain something to someone, now all can enjoy!

My Table of contents has my other writings in it.

All suggestions and improvements welcome!

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Noble excuses

I was talking to a lady in her 60s who was losing weight, and exercising.  She said to me; “All my life, my husband was an iron man.  I felt terribly embarrassed, like everyone in the room was looking at me and thinking – how could he be with her”.  She confided that she wanted to lose weight for completely superficial reasons, really dumb reasons of caring what people thought about what she looked like.  She asked me if this made her a bad person, that she was doing things for the wrong reasons.  We just covered Valid and invalid excuses, the territory of excuses overlaps quite heavily with the territory of goals.  We make excuses and decisions to do some things and not other things because of our goals.  Earlier in the conversation, my friend also shared the usual “get fit, be healthy” attitude that is the more noble reason to be getting fit.

I wouldn’t be the first to name this concept.  There is a class of excuse that is known as the noble excuse.  A noble excuse is the excuse for the action that you are making that sounds the most noble of the possible excuse space.  Which is to say; there are often reasons for doing something that extend beyond one or two reasons, and beyond the reason you want to tell people right away.

When I tell my friends I didn’t go for a run this morning because I “Don’t want to be late for work”. That’s so noble.  It had nothing to do with me being out late the night before, it’s raining, the grass is wet, I have hayfever, I didn’t get enough sleep, missed my alarm and woke up late.  No it’s all for caring about being late for work.

Also coming in the form of Noble justifications, a noble excuse is tricky because it acts as an applause light.  It tells the guilty brain, “okay you can stop looking now we found out why”, it’s safe to say that they don’t really help us, so much as save face among others or even to ourselves.

Speaking of a noble excuse

“Is that the real reason or is that just a noble excuse”

“Let’s not settle on the first noble excuse, what other reasons could there be for these events”

“I wish I could give a noble excuse for being late, but the truth is that I have a bad habit of leaving home late and missing the bus.  Next week I will be trying out setting my watch to a few minutes faster to try to counteract my bad habit.”

“That’s a pretty embarrassing mistake, is there a noble excuse that we can pass on to the client?”

Dealing with a noble excuse

Not all noble excuses are bad.  If you notice someone making a noble excuse, it usually doesn’t hurt to double check if there isn’t another reason behind those actions.  There’s not a lot to understanding noble excuses.  It’s about being aware of your excuses and connecting them back to their underlying goals.

Think carefully about the excuses you are making.

Meta: this took an hour to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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