Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sentiment Shaping and Tuning

Note: This post makes more sense if you read or listen to Invincible Summer first. On Becoming Poems also helps.

One of the great lessons of mnemonics is “Memorable things are also impactful.”.

You may be riding an elephant that doesn’t care much about your puny reins, but if you’re a master mnemonist, you needn’t rely on reins. Memorable thought is not stored in a card catalog; it sinks deep into your mind where its tendrils intertwine with the rest of your knowledge and experiences. If you can think memorably, you’re an elephant whisperer.

There is a correlate: “If you know how to make something memorable, then you can impact other people, as well.”

This is a principle I ran with when I designed my speech Invincible Summer. I applied a lot of different mnemonic techniques, but most of all, I applied Becoming Poems. I developed a new technique I call “sentiment shaping and tuning”, which is basically Becoming Poems for composition, rather than learning.


When I’ve talked about memorable thought in the past, I’ve mentioned that sticky things are “story-like”. “Shaping” refers to one central feature of stories: their emotional arcs.

I started with a couple of rough ideas, which I threw together into a draft. I edited the draft in the usual way until it made conceptual sense, more or less. Then the shaping began.

In terms of Becoming Poems, “shaping” corresponds to the step where you identify the structure of the edifice. The idea is to get an emotional handle on each block.

In composition, it includes the additional step of moving the blocks around. After all, a rough draft is a giant heap of bricks.

So I mashed everything together into a single block of text with no paragraph breaks, like laying the bricks out side by side. Then I read through, and inserted a line break every time I felt an emotional transition trying to happen. This left me with chunks of text organized by emotion.

Next, I labeled each chunk of text according to the main emotion(s) it wanted to express. I might have labeled this paragraph “presentation and invitation”, for example, because right now I have a feeling of showcasing a technique in a transparent way.

Then, I looked inside the chunks of text for smaller scale emotional transitions (like lines in a poem, rather than stanzas). The previous paragraph labeled “presentation and invitation” might have a more specific flow of “discernment, demonstration, illumination, explanation”.

Thus concludes the descriptive portion of shaping. So far, this is just what I would do if I were going to memorize the text.

Now for the exciting part.

I took all those labels and made a list, in the same order as the text but without any content. So it was just a list of emotions, something like


I walked through that list, simulating each emotion as I went, and attending to the overall effect of experiencing those emotions in that order.

Vonneghut famously identified eight emotional arcs for stories. A “man in hole” story is one with emotional valence that rises, falls, and then rises again at the end. A “rags to riches” story starts low and ends high.

So I thought about story arcs, and how mine might be shaped. My list looked like it wanted to be two man-in-hole arcs in a row, which a sentiment analysis of novels suggests is one of the most popular shapes. (It’s also my favorite.)

But the actual list didn’t have quite the smooth, satisfying, rise-fall-rise-fall-rise shape I imagined, so I rearranged the list items until it did. When I was done, I had two clear man-in-hole arcs, with the second bigger than the first.

Then I walked through the list again, and made a few more adjustments. Some places felt jarring - horror followed immediately by curiosity was difficult, for instance - so I inserted a new emotion that smoothed the transition: horror, grasping, curiosity.

And in some places there was a long string of similar emotions, which I knew wouldn’t work so well. So I kept the most important emotion in the string and cut the rest, or I combined them into a single, more complex emotion.

At the end, I had a list of a bit over 30 emotions, which sketched an emotional arc I was happy with.

But a list is not a speech.

So I re-arranged the original text blocks into the order of the desired emotional arc (having already conveniently labeled them by emotion). Then things got cut, combined, and added, to reflect changes I’d made to the original list.

Making sense of the concepts in the new order took some doing, but when I was done, the draft was far more fluid and satisfying than before.


0) Make a draft.
1) Label the emotions.
2) Write the emotions as a list.
3) Simulate the emotions in order.
4) Find a satisfying story shape that reminds you of the list.
5) Modify the list to match the chosen shape.
6) Make a new draft to match the list.


Next came tuning. (This corresponds to “diving” in the Becoming Poems method.) I tuned everything, but focused on the points that mattered most, so they’d each be strong enough to carry the weight of the entire speech.

Under each emotion label, I looked at the phrases. Anything that didn’t cause me to feel the emotion I was going for got cut, or (where necessary) modified.

For the remaining phrases, I took anything that tried to point at the emotion abstractly, and replaced it with an image it would be easy to “dive” into if I were memorizing the text. “Boats are exciting” might become “the wheel’s kick, and the wind’s song, and the white sails’ shaking”.

Specifically, I made things concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, story-like, and personally engaging. Here’s an example.

Desired emotions: Loss, hollowness, horror.
Original text: I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Winter after winter, I forget who I am. I lose sight of my values, passions, aspirations, for months at a time.
Tuned version: I have Seasonal Affective disorder, so for me, this season really sucks. What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

The original text invites the audience to share a certain emotional experience with me. It’s like handing someone a flute and a piece of sheet music. The tuned version, though, is like sitting right next to them and playing the flute myself. There’s no question about whether the experience will be active in their minds, so I know there’s something solid to build the rest of the speech on.

I kept doing this with each section until System 1 groked every piece, until every phrase made the elephant move.


1) Know what emotions you’re going for.
2) Cut or modify anything that’s out of tune with the desired emotions.
3) Concertize every abstraction, and otherwise push toward memorability.
4) Keep at it until your elephant groks the whisper.


I’ve gotten more intensely positive feedback for Invincible Summer than I have for anything else I’ve created so far. I think shaping and tuning was around a third of what caused that.

There are story shapes that fit snuggly in human minds. They evolved along side us, inside us. They’re part of what we are. When you hear them, you’re a hunter on the savanna at night, enthralled from across a campfire, while someone recounts a legend your tribe has told for ages.

It may be magic, but it’s not mysterious. The shapes are learnable. There are six of them, more or less.

Nonfiction is made from a tougher wood, but you can carve it all the same. You can shape and tune it like the fiction we’re built to love, if you learn the craft.

And when you whisper, minds will move.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Invincible Summer

I gave a speech at the 2016 Bay Area Secular Solstice ceremony, which I'm quite proud of and seems to have been well received. You'll probably like it if you think the world's in grave danger and are into saving it.

Here's a video of the whole Solstice. I start at 34:46, and go for about ten minutes. It cuts out for a few seconds toward the beginning, but comes back.

Content note: This is quite dark, involves depression, and mentions suicide.

And here's the (approximate) text. I do strongly recommend the video over just the text, though, because it's very much designed to be performed in bodyspace.


A stained glass palace hangs in the sky at dawn. I watch from below, circling, as wind caresses the feathers of my wings. The clouds, parting to flow around the Eastern tower, burn red-orange where they catch the sun.

This is a vision of Victory. A fantasy of how life might be, when humanity is safe, and free. A Dream.

I have dozens of Dreams: Ballets choreographed for free-fall. Base jumping without injury or death. Intellectual intimacy with friends, without the barrier of symbolic language.

But here on Ancient Earth, we’re not safe. Not yet. And I am especially unsafe in the Winter. I have seasonal affective disorder, so for me, this season can suck.

What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person, who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

I remember a time, when I was very depressed, lying on the basement floor and staring at the ceiling. As I had been, for hours. It was like my veins were full of lead.

The line between obsessive thoughts and hallucination blurs at times like these. I saw ice water. I felt it, covering my body. And concrete pressed into my back, where I lay heavy at the bottom of a well. A deep well. Above me were miles of murky water. And I was drowning.

But even through all that water, I could see to the surface, if I tried. And above the well, filtering through the icy sludge, points of light swam into focus.

Not just above the surface, but lightyears away. They were the stars. And they grew brighter as I focused on them, their hearts igniting, and burning through the darkness, with an intensity I’d forgotten was possible.

And in the fire of those distant stars, I saw visions of myself. In one star, I was a professor, teaching logic to freshmen at a university. I could feel the chalk on my hands. In another, I was learning to paint.

And in a third star, the Summer sun warmed my face, and I was laughing, freely. Like that was… just… a normal thing to do.

I’d been very close to dying on that day. Winter had almost consumed me.

But when I saw the stars, when I felt them burning in the night, despite their impossible distance, despite the expectation that I’d never lift my arms, much less climb out of that well into the sky, I realized that I. Had. To live. I had to protect the possibility that I might teach. That I might paint. That I might feel the sun, one day, and laugh.

Today, I’m much more robust against the Winter. But I also see more darkness than I ever have before.

I see the darkness of an empty future. Of the stars grown cold, having meant nothing to anyone for more than one beat of a fragile heart.

It is hard to strive on empty. It’s hard to breathe another breath, and keep on breathing, when your lungs don’t know the taste of laughter.

And I don’t know that we can win. In fact, in the vast majority of timelines, we lose.

Because humanity is fragile and heavy, full of lead at the bottom of a well that seems far too deep to climb out of in time. Nobody’s gonna reach down from the sky to save us. There is no natural law saying that things must turn out ok in the end. No rescuer hath the rescuer. No Lord hath the champion, no mother and no father, only nothingness above. Nihil supernum.

And when I feel the depth of that darkness, smothered by despair at the challenge we face, sometimes it is tempting not to look so far ahead. To look at my feet, at just the next few years. To let myself drown.

Nihil supernum. Nothing above.

But with nothing above us, with nothing but ourselves holding us down, how high might we reach, if we manage stand at all? With what might we fill all that potential? Nihil supernum, absque capacitas crescendi - nothing above, except room to grow.

Dreams are not predictions. They’re by nature inaccurate and fanciful. But they are symbols of what we strive for. And we need them. We need to share them, to ignite each other. To forge the future in the furnace of our shared visions of Victory. We need, in the depths of Winter, to find within ourselves an invincible Summer.

However cold the night, however sharp the bitter winds of Winter, I will fight, forever, as long as I know the taste of Victory.

So I pluck the stars from my sky, the ones that burn brightest for me, that show me what might be, and why we have to live. I tuck them into the pockets of my soul, where I keep the precious things I’ll fight to protect, so that whenever I decide whether to drown or to blaze, in all the little choices made on ordinary days that lead toward or away from Victory, I find myself already on fire.

This is the fire that I share with you: A stained glass palace in the sunrise. The wind caressing my wings.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How Studying Mnemonics Changed the Way I Learn

I have found myself repeating in conversation that studying mnemonics has changed my understanding of “learning”. I want to express what learning means to me now.

I’ll start with the basics, and lead you through my development. Say you want to remember the list “quail, Mars, roller coaster”.

The first mnemonic technique I learned was “linking”, and using that, I’d memorize the list thusly: First I imagine a quail. Then I link it to Mars by concocting an imagined scenario that includes both a quail and Mars. For example, perhaps the war god Mars, with his helmet and shield, impales the pet quail I’m holding and and waves it about on the end of his sword, leaving me scandalized, grief-stricken, and suddenly empty-handed.

Then I link “Mars” to “roller coaster” (sans quail). So now I and all the god-planets are lined up riding a roller coaster, and Mars has his arms in the air and is drunkenly bellowing Gustov Holst’s “Mars” at the top of his lungs as we go over the hills, to the dismay of the other planets (and myself).

After that, I might link “roller coaster” to “quail” so that I can start anywhere in the list and still retrieve all the items.

The linking technique is cute and sort of clever, and it’s handy for memorizing lists (which is in fact, on rare occasion, a worthwhile activity). And there are lots of other clever techniques that do similar things, all of which ultimately depend on linking.

But far more useful than linking per se proved my experience of failure to recall list items I’d attempted to link.

I failed a lot when I first started doing this.

Suppose that instead of the links I just described, I imagined a quail sitting beside the planet Mars. That’s still a link between “quail” and “Mars”, but it’s not a particularly memorable link, and there’s a good chance I’d drop it. I’d get to “quail” and go, “shit, I know the quail was sitting beside something, but what is it???” So then I'd go back, consult my written list, and make a new link between "quail" and "Mars", hoping this one would work better.

Just as knowing grammar and vocabulary isn’t enough to be an inspirational speaker, memorable thought is deeper than the tricks of the trade. It’s discovering that depth that has made all of this mnemonics stuff worthwhile for me.

As I’ve said in the past, I found I remembered more, and more easily, if my imagined scenarios were concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and story-like. “A quail beside the planet Mars” is at most one of those things. “Mars impaling my pet quail on a sword and waving it around while I cry about my loss” is all of them.

An even deeper mnemonic principle than the terms of System 1 language is conceptual confluence. Conceptual confluence is the way systems of concrete symbols can flow together with the structure and significance of the abstract concepts they represent.

If I’m memorizing a recipe, for example, rather than learning one long list of ingredients, it might be good to group all of the wet ingredients separately from the dry ingredients. (In case you’ve never baked from scratch: making a wet mixture and a dry mixture before combining wet and dry causes more even blending.)

I might also want to include the concepts “wet” and “dry” in the method of grouping. Perhaps the eggs, water, oil, and vanilla are all in a kiddie-sized blowup swimming pool, being sucked into a spinning vortex by a giant whisk. Meanwhile, the flour, baking soda, salt, and sugar are playing in a sandbox, when a spoon comes out of nowhere, buries them, and mixes them all together with the sand. Then a flood pours in from a kiddie pool and fills the sandbox with a sticky dough.

Now when I recall my recipe, rather than just having all the ingredients lined up on the table, it will be natural to put the wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls before mixing them together.

Additionally, the chunking of the information in my head corresponds to my external behaviors and experiences. As I go about my baking, associations with the relevant information lead me to access what I’ve stored exactly when I need it. “I seem to have laid out two bowls. Why two? Oh, because one is a pool, and the other’s a sandbox.” The mnemonic has a built-in trigger-action plan.

When I say that mnemonics has changed my understanding of learning, I mean that these deeper mnemonic principles have seeped into every educational thought I ever have. Any time I notice myself struggling even the slightest bit while trying to learn something - be it a skill or the point of a philosophical argument - I automatically reach for the structure and significance of the information, and try to express it in concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, engaging, and story-like terms - just as if I had dropped a link.

For example, I was just reading about control theory, when I came upon this sentence in the fourth paragraph:

“The thing we're measuring is the input (to the controller), the level we want it to be at is the reference, the difference between those is the error, and the adjustment the control system makes is the output or feedback (sometimes we'll talk about the actuator as the physical means by which the controller emits its output).”

There are six central abstract concepts of control theory accompanied by seven terms, all of which are new to me, just in that one sentence. “That,” thought I, “is an Important Sentence. If I don’t make it a part of myself, the rest of this essay is going to be nonsense.”

Note that I am not interested in memorizing the terms. I don’t need to rattle them off in a hurry as a list. There will be no vocabulary test with bubbles darkened by a number two pencil. I do not need to memorize this sentence.

What matters is that I arrange some part of my mind into a coherent model of a “control system” - one that includes all the major components, their relationships to each other, and their impact on the system - with associations that will call the relevant parts to mind any time I see a word like “reference” in the text.

I paused, looked toward the meaning of the sentence, and began to associate.

I imagined a pot of heated water sitting atop a coal-powered stove. I’m holding a sensor that looks like a cross between a kazoo and a remote control for a television. I use an eye dropper to put a few drops into one end of the kazoo control, which happily gobbles up its input while making contented yum yum noises.

In my other hand, I am holding a large reference book, and I refer to a page on which is written a temperature that is the reference for this system. The control... defecates, I suppose, a bit of ticker tape out its other end, declaring the temperature of the input water. I compare the reference to the ticker tape number, and if they don’t match, I press a big red button on the kazoo control, which makes a grating “errrrrr, wrong!” buzzer sound, louder for greater differences between the numbers, indicating the error.

Startled by the sound of the button, a mechanical arm with an ax-like shovel on the end (the actuator) begins to act, shoveling coal, feeding it into the stove, grumbling as though it’s a bit put out by all this work it has to do (this behavior is the feedback or output). It shovels coal faster the louder the sound. The stove, exhilarated by its meal, burns hotter, returning the water's temperature to the reference written in my book.

Ok. At this point, I have explained control systems to the parts of my brain (and yours!) that actually matter for real learning.

I can tell because if that crucial sentence were suddenly deleted, I could compose something equivalent on my own, even if the lingo that comes out isn’t quite standard.

But I wouldn’t need to write down an equivalent sentence anyway, because my comprehension is beyond words now. The words have done their job, and I can leave them behind. They’re just triggers. I have built inside my mind a structure that directly supports further understanding of anything and everything about control systems.

If it turns out that there’s something wrong with my understanding of control systems, I’ll be able to notice because my control system will fail to behave the way it’s supposed to, and then I’ll adjust the structure. (…I’ll adjust it as much as is needed to align it with the reality of control systems, but will otherwise leave it be. Hey look, a control system! Yeah? Maybe? I guess I’ll find out when I read the rest of the essay.)

This is just how I think about things now, when my goals aren’t being effortlessly met. I think like this when I listen to people explain things, when I reason about problems, when I consider gaining new abilities, when I hear a poem that I want to fully experience, when I want to communicate with other people in a way that will help them hold onto the things that I tell them.

And yes, I can meet twenty people in five minutes and remember all of their names, if I want. Or recite a memorized speech. Or count cards. And that’s fun.

But it’s all silly party tricks compared to the deeper art of memorable thought.

Bonus problem:

To think memorably, you need to associate with abstract concepts in was that are concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and storylike; while encoding the structure and significance in your system of symbols; with links to experiences you’ll have when you most need to call on what you’ve learned.

What structure can you build in your mind that will support the application and development of your art of memorable thought?

Friday, August 12, 2016

How To Be My Guide Dog

There are a lot of things I need to be happy that feel unreasonable to me.

For example, it’s usually not possible for me to be comfortable in chaotic environments, like bus stations and sports bars. Or when the refrigerator is buzzing at the wrong pitch. Or when someone says words near me that require a response when I wasn’t prepared for language.

If it were just a few things, I imagine I’d be ok with it. But it’s a lot of things. They’re things that interact with nearly every aspect of daily life, imposing all sorts of constraints on my existence, and especially on socialization. Imagine being invited to meet friends you like a lot for lunch, but the place they’ve chosen has five car alarms going off inside. Or always having to speak a second language, any time you want to communicate in bodyspace, that you aren’t close to fluent in. Or a party where people whack each other with baseball bats at random. “What’s wrong, don’t you like parties???”

I’ve just spent a month doing a lot of traveling to visit family. As a result, I’ve had much less control over my experiences than I usually do. I’ve had little control over where I sleep, where I work, what I eat, who I talk to and when and how, what I hear, what I see, what I smell, etc. For a whole month. It's been... stressful.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about my responses to these things. By default, it seems I try to ignore or endure all this stuff. In the company of others especially, I try to behave as though everything is fine. “I’m going to run away because there is a light flashing in the window of the building next door” is not a thing I enjoy saying to people who don’t know me well. “Omg she’s such a prissy little princess.”

And I’ve noticed I’m really not being very agenty about any of this, partially because I’ve only recently recognized that it’s even a thing, and largely because I’m ashamed of my weaknesses. (And we all know that if you ignore something you’re ashamed of, it goes away.)

But I got to hang out with one of my friends who knows me well while I was visiting the Midwest, and he was proactive about helping me be comfortable. It was amazing. He did things like not talk to me while I was reading the menu, suggest that we go for a walk in a quiet park, and make simple decisions on my behalf when I was too overwhelmed to think.

I’ve come to think of it as “being my guide dog”, and I was immensely grateful.

I suspect I have a lot of friends who would be eager to help me in similar ways if only they knew how. One step toward a more agenty approach is to create affordances for those friends to make things easier for me when we’re together.

So I’ve compiled a list of behaviors that constitute “being my guide dog”. I’ll try to add to it over time as I learn more about myself.


Travel is the most stressful thing I do regularly. It tends to involve high-stakes decision making under time pressure in extremely chaotic environments while people try to talk to me and ask me questions. (Think of airport security, or a subway station with crucial announcements over a shitty loud speaker.) Intervening in this area is very high leverage for increasing my comfort.

  • Literally guide me around.
  • Meet me at the airport or bus station and tell me you'll take it from here.
  • Know how to get where we’re going.
  • Choose streets with fewer cars and less chaos.
  • Take my hand and decide when we cross the street.
  • Coordinate transportation for me.
  • Hail the Uber and identify it when it arrives.
  • Tell me where to be when, how to get there, and when to leave my house.
  • Prevent me from having to drive at night, or in the rain.
  • Prevent me from being rushed.
  • Offer to drive me.


I am almost literally never in an environment that makes me feel really safe. The safest environment I've ever been in was a Zen temple on top of a mountain in rural North Carolina during a silent retreat. "Make things more like a monastic retreat" is a good rule of thumb when crafting a Brienne-friendly environment.

  • Choose a calm and quiet meeting place.
  • Choose restaurants with no TVs or loud music.
  • Turn off the TVs.
  • Only play music that lacks lyrics.
  • Play rain and thunder sounds (you have no idea how soothing this is to me).
  • Take me to a lake, river, creek, or garden.
  • Pay the bill and send me a reimbursement request via Square.


Talking out loud is hard for me. I try to think the thoughts, and the feedback from my mouth and throat and ears distracts me. Parsing speech is also hard. So being asked a simple question can be a bit like, "Quick, what's 345 times 78?"

  • Speak slowly, clearly, and at a moderate volume.
  • Use a direct communication style (be blunt), to minimize the cognitive resources I have to spend on figuring out what you actually mean (odds are good I just won't spend them, and I'll fail to understand you entirely).
  • Avoid sarcasm and other humor that relies on awareness of deception.
  • Relax and be comfortable with silence (don’t talk just to fill silences).
  • Don’t interrupt me.
  • Don’t expect me to interrupt you when I want to get a word in. I'll get frustrated and just stop trying to talk.
  • If you want to show me text on your phone, read it to me instead of handing me your phone. That's probably a little counter-intuitive, but it's some kind of switching-modes thing that is really hard for me.
  • Ask me specific questions (less like “what have you been up to?”, more like “what poetry have you been learning?”).
  • Prevent me from having to make phone calls.
  • Don’t talk to me while I’m reading (as from a menu).
  • If I’m reading or have been silent for a long time, text me the first line of what you want to say (it gives me time to adjust, and gives me the option of responding via text). This is especially good for questions.

Group Contexts

People are chaotic. More people are more chaotic. I'm often debilitatingly overwhelmed in groups.

  • Speak to me only when nobody else is talking; don’t start a side conversation with me.
  • Don’t invite more people at the last minute.
  • Use hand signals to auto-moderate group conversations (ask me how if you’ve never done this).
  • Give me the end seat at the table so I hear fewer discussions at once.
  • If you're high status in the group or are otherwise the center of attention, set an example of conversing clearly and patiently.

Self Awareness

The more overwhelmed I am by external stimuli, the less likely I am to be aware of my own internal state. I'll also be less aware of your internal state, even though I'm perfectly capable of empathizing with you when I manage to devote resources to it.

  • Remind me I have noise-canceling earbuds.
  • Remind me I have night glasses for bright lights.
  • Remind me I can go somewhere else.
  • Ask me how I’m feeling.
  • Tell me how you're feeling and what you want, at the slightest provocation.
  • Ask me how I think you’re feeling. Connecting with you empathetically can actually be grounding, especially if you're feeling calm and confident.

To be clear, you don’t have to do any of these things when you’re hanging out with me. I'm not even making a request. I've gone my whole life without people catering to my pesky little preferences in every interaction, so I'm not depending on you to do this. I'm just providing an opportunity.

But if you’re actively looking for a way to make my life easier, doing any subset of these thins will help. If the spirit of the entire list appeals to you, you can tell me, “I want to be your guide dog” when you see me (or beforehand), and you will probably find that I’m much more relaxed around you.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


It’s well past time for us to stop saying “irl” when we talk about the part of the world that our bodies occupy. Same for “in person”.

A few days ago, I was at a cafe, when the fifty-something stranger sitting beside me said, "Oh, you've got one of them fancy phones! ‘Smart phone’, right? I've been thinking about getting one, but I duuno if I'd be able to use it." I was a little startled to encounter someone who was unfamiliar with smart phones, but I didn’t think much of it.

Shortly thereafter, I had lunch with my brother and his girlfriend (both of whom are in their 20s). We were all visiting my hometown. She also had one of them fancy phones, and she was showing us how her followers had responded to the photos she’d posted of her visit.

I thought of the older man then, and the comparison filled me with warmth and transcendence. I became aware that there’s something wrong with the way I’ve been thinking of on-line interactions all this time.

“Birthform is not true shape. I am not some hairless ape,” as the saying goes. I’m information that happens to be encoded, for now, mostly in a squishy ape brain. But it’s the information that counts.

So this is me talking to you right now. Even though it's across time as well as space. Me. In real life. In person. Our togetherness is not somehow fake just because I'm not looking at you with my eyeballs and vibrating my vocal chords. I am with you more certainly than if our bodies silently shared space on the same bench while our minds moved elsewhere.

There are many people who see my body on a regular basis, but are far less familiar with the patterns of my mind than is someone who’s read a single Agenty Duck blog post. If you read my thoughts, then you know me, regardless of whether you’ve encountered my body in bodyspace, because I am those patterns.

And I can go so many places, and be together with so many people, while my body chills in an otherwise empty room. My keyboard is as much a part of my body as is my larynx, and Agenty Duck is as much a part of my home as is my kitchen.

When my friend took out her phone and showed us her Instagram photos, especially the one of the winery right by my mom’s house, I felt the presence of her followers in my little town. I felt the expansiveness of her augmented mind, how tremendously powerful she is compared to the man who dunno if he can use one of them fancy phones. She is something different. Something new.

So no more “irl”. No more “in person”.

We are bigger now, and our world is deeper. Let’s talk about “bodyspace”, denying neither the analog sensorium nor the digital realm. Let’s not slip into oppressive patterns of speech and thought that mask the extent of our reality.

Monday, July 25, 2016

On Becoming Poems

Committing a poem to memory is about becoming the poem. The words on the page are just blueprints. They aren’t the poem itself.

When I learn a poem, what I’m learning is a way of arranging my mind. The words suggest how to do that. If all goes well, the arrangement of my mind looks something like the mind of the poet.

I’ve been skimming articles on poetry memorization and recitation today, and I think everyone I’ve so far read is confused about what a “poem” is. They talk like a poem is a series of words, like it can go on a sheet of paper, and your brain is a xerox machine that makes a copy and files it away in a manila envelope labeled “poems”.

They advise that you read the poem many times, write it out by hand, take it a couple lines a day, and recite it over and over to people and mirrors and dogs.

That is not learning poetry. That is copying blueprints.

Granted, I’m pretty sure that once you’ve recited it from memory enough times, the true form of the poem will begin to build itself in your mind, whether you like it or not. But humans make poor xerox machines, and this seems a terribly inefficient way to learn a poem.

Here is what it was like for me to learn “Sea Fever” the other day.

First of all, I read it, and halfway through realized I loved it and was going to commit it to memory.

So I reflected on what I’d just read, long enough to imagine myself a sea captain in love with the ocean. By “imagine myself a sea captain”, I mean that I invoked a character, in the same way I would if I were playing one on stage. If I reach to touch my face while preparing to recite this poem, I half expect to feel a tangled beard hanging from my chin.

Then I read the first phrase (in character): “I must go down to the sea again”. I look for the emotion behind those words, and once I’ve caught a glimpse, I amplify it. Craving, longing, adoration, desire, determination, resolve.

I feel the emotions with my body, in the way it makes me want to move and act, to position myself. In this case, I feel forward movement, reaching, the clenching of a fist, a tall firm stance, a nod of certainty.

When I speak the line, I fill my voice with those emotions, and I let the sound of the emotions resonate in my mind, amplifying them further.

I latch onto all the sensory information in the phrase, situating it in an imagined physical space. Here there is an image of the sea, and returning to it. I picture the ocean, feel the breeze, hear the crashing waves, and imagine myself walking toward it with eager steps of reunion and love.

I steep the scene in the emotions I identified before, tweaking it if it doesn’t quite mesh with them, until it seems a fitting illustration of the feeling.

Then I taste the music of the phrase, its rhythm and sounds, sweeping over the experience of the scene according to the cadence of the words.

This often modifies the bodily urges, as I’m drawn to gesture at the locations of the physical objects, or to imitate their movements, or emphasize a sound. If you watch me recite, you’ll see that I sort of dance my poems.

I think of all of this as “diving into” the phrase.

Then I read the next phrase, and read the first together with the second, and then the next, diving into each substructure until the string of phrases completes a coherent thought.

Once I have two coherent thoughts, I dive into the relationship between them, the transition points, the ways they fit together.

In Sea Fever, I learned the first stanza like so, diving into each structure in turn:

  1. I must go down to the sea again
  2. to the lonely sea and the sky
  3. I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky
  4. And all I ask
  5. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by
  6. I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky/ and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by
  7. and the wheel’s kick
  8. and the wind’s song
  9. and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song
  10. and the white sails shaking
  11. and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking
  12. and a grey mist
  13. and a grey mist on the sea’s face
  14. and a grey dawn breaking
  15. and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking
  16. and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking/ and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking
  17. I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky/ and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;/ and the wheel’s kick [note: this is a transition point]
  18. I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky/ and all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by/ and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking/ and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking

How many times have I read the stanza by the time I’ve constructed its full form in my mind? How many repetitions does it take me to memorize a poem?

Well, it depends on how you count. In a sense, two: one pass to be inspired to learn it, and a second to actually learn it. But I’m not “reading” it in an ordinary way.

“How many repetitions?” is a little like asking “how many times do you have to read the manual to put together an Ikea desk?”

Just one, right? But you’re not reading it like a newspaper, you’re pausing at each step to follow the instructions, inserting tab A into slot b and so forth. When I construct a poem with my mind, I pause at each step to follow the instructions.

(Time-wise, Sea Fever took me between fifteen and twenty minutes to learn, while going for depth rather than speed.)

So by the time I’m done, I can walk through the poem as I’d walk through a building designed by an architect (…if buildings could experience themsleves). I’m not tracing out its blueprints. I’ve used the materials of my mind to construct the actual poem - in thoughts, emotions, sounds, smells, and movement - and now it’s part of who I am.

If you like poetry and you’ve never learned to recite a poem from memory by means other than rote memorization, I recommend trying this. It’s been revelatory for me.

If you’re looking for a place to start, Sea Fever is a great pick. It’s concrete multi-sensory imagery the whole way through, and it isn’t free verse.

I feel like I didn't understand what poetry was before I started doing this. I think I was looking at the blueprints of poems, and thinking some of them awfully pretty pictures.

Now I think poems are not things we read, but things we become.

Sea Fever by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Requests vs. Statements Of Desire

Me: I want a pony.

Eliezer: I’m not sure if we can afford a pony. How much does a pony cost? Maybe I can get you a pony if ponies are cheap on Craigslist.

Me: Thank you, but I wasn’t making a request. I was merely trying to create common knowledge about my desires.

Eliezer: I don’t see the distinction. When I respond to a request, I am responding to new information about what you want.

Me: No.

Eliezer: No? I think yes.

Me: No.

It’s important that we have different concepts for what I want independently of you, what you want independently of me, and what our joint extrapolated volition prescribes. If you respond to your belief about my belief about what our joint extrapolated volition prescribes, when I’ve intended only to provide evidence of my independent desires, then… problems.

Like, maybe I’ll say that I want a pony, because I wonder if you have insight into alternative ways of satisfying the need responsible for that desire, and you’ll try to get me a pony, when I don’t actually think it’s a good idea for us to have a pony.

Eliezer: Oh! Yes, that makes sense. That is a thing in Bayesian networks.

Me: Oh?

Eliezer: When stating your independent desires, you should begin by saying “lambda”. Refer to my independent desires with “pi”. And call the prescription of our joint extrapolated volition “BEL”.

Me: Do you want to explain to me where those terms come from?

Eliezer: *begins to explain belief propagation*

Me: Wait. That's not what I meant. Let me try that again.

Do you pi want to explain the thing?

Eliezer: *thinks* That sounds fun, so yes.

Me: Oh good! Then I BEL want you to explain the thing.

Eliezer: *explains belief propagation*

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Beware the Bind

[Note: I’m not sure about my hypnosis terminology in this post. In fact I'm confident I'm using it weirdly. Almost all my experience is as subject, so I mostly just know what hypnotists do and how I respond, not what they call it or how they think about it.]

There's a suggestion technique called the hypnotic bind, which everyone heard a bunch when they were five. It looks something like, “Would you rather put away your toys now, or do you want to put them away after dinner?”

Consider what happens in a child's mind when they hear this.

They've been asked a question, so they're inclined to engage their attention in a search for an answer. But the search space for the answer is limited to the space of thoughts that assume they will clean up their toys at some point tonight.

Furthermore, the process of searching for an answer costs them attention, which limits their awareness of the broader desires they feel at the moment. (They want to keep coloring, and they don't want to put away their toys at all.)

So they say, "After dinner."

When this goes as planned, what they are aware of having just experienced is a weighing of options against their values, and then a decision among the options based on those values. When you experience the weighing of options followed by a decision based on your values, it feels a lot like you want whatever it is you've just chosen.

Used as a hypnotic technique, double binding is often about belief and perception of things besides choice. “Do you think you’ll fall deeply into trance now, or will you drift there more slowly as you listen to my words?” Either way, you’re attentive to whatever sensations are consistent with “going into trance”, which is over half of hypnosis right there.

(Wake up, hypnogeeks, that was just an example. I mean, unless you don’t want to. Would you rather enjoy my post from within trance, or is it just as fun to read from ordinary awareness? Or maybe you’ll love it most while mildly fractionated.)

Hypnotic binds don't have to take the either/or form, though. I often use single binding deliberately when I teach: When I pause for questions, I always ask, "What questions do you have?", and never "Are there any questions?"

Since students usually do have questions but often have trouble identifying them on command, directing their attention to the range of thoughts that assume they have questions saves them some work: It leaves more of their cognitive resources available for choosing among the questions that they have.

"Are there any questions?", by contrast, directs attention to the search space of "yes" and "no" - neither of which is itself a question! I always have trouble with this when someone asks me “any questions?”. “Welp, I see no questions in this search space, so I guess the answer is no.”

Binding is tricky. It's verbal sleight of hand. Sleight of mouth, if you will. And I've encountered it enough in hypnosis that I can sometimes pick out and notice the sensation of having just been hypnotically bound.

Sometimes this causes me to giggle unhelpfully in the middle of an induction. The hypnotist wants to create a floating arm effect, so they say, “As you relax more deeply, how much lighter does your arm begin to feel?”

And I think, “You crafty bastard! That directs my attention to sensations that are consistent with my arm already feeling light, decreasing my attention to sensations of heaviness!”

(Which doesn’t seem to prevent me from taking the suggestions, mostly.)

But it’s not just the verbal pattern I’m noticing when that happens. Among other effects of this suggestion is a feeling that presumably corresponds to my attention having been suddenly restricted to a smaller set of experiences, without an accompanying decision to focus my attention. It feels like something slipping, something incongruous, and there’s pressure in a direction, with a sense of unfamiliarity like the source of the pressure is external.

It’s very subtle, compared to the other things going on in my experience at that point. If I weren’t intensely curious about this sort of thing, I might never have noticed. But it’s there.

I’ve recently begun to notice inadvertent binding outside of the context of hypnosis, and I’m finding awareness of binding to be an important epistemic skill.

Which should not be surprising, in retrospect, because hypnotic binding is a way of deliberately inducing carefully crafted motivated cognition in another person, and I’ve long known “awareness of motivated cognition” to be an important epistemic skill. But “motivated cognition” comes in many forms; this is a special flavor of it, a non-central instance caused by someone else’s phrasing, and it’s usually extremely subtle.

Inadvertent binding has happened to me a few times in the past couple weeks, and it happened today.

I was talking on Facebook about the virtue of recklessness, and about how I approach difficult or dangerous things differently now than I used to, because three years ago, Eliezer observed that I was not failing often enough. So I updated.

Someone asked for concrete examples of things I've chosen to do because I made that update.

In response, I started listing things: Motivation characters, a week of “doing whatever I want”, formatting and publishing Eliezer’s novella, NaNoWriMo, trying to write a book on microrationality, falling in love with someone very dissimilar to me.

But as I listed, I felt a strange thing: Like something slipping, something incongruous, pressure in a direction with a sense of unfamiliarity as though its source is external. It felt like a hypnotist was messing with my perceptions through hypnotic binding.

The truth is that I don’t know which of my choices were caused by the update. It seems likely that I would have done a lot of the same things, or at least similar things, but my approach to trying things would have caused me to succeed more weakly when I did succeed, fail harder when I failed, and suffer more from my failures.

That answer - the truth - was not in the search space to which the question directed my attention.

The space of thoughts I was attending to was “things I’ve done in the past three years”. “I don’t know” is not a thing I’ve done in the past three years. Neither is “it’s more complicated than that”.

So I picked the least bad-sounding elements of the search space. It’s just like how “I don’t want to put my toys away” is neither “toys away now” nor “toys away later”, and “toys away later” is the least bad-sounding option in current awareness. “I just want to keep coloring” doesn’t cross the kid’s mind as a possible response.

Fortunately, in this case, I realized what had happened right after posting the comment, and was able to follow up with a correction. I’m sure I have failed at this many, many times in the past. It basically makes me lie, accidentally, in order to comply with the suggestion that I should have an answer of a certain type, or an answer at all.

I’ve sometimes felt a little worried when asking, “What are your questions?” while teaching a class. I’m worried about what I’m doing to the minds of people who don’t have any questions. Occasionally, I’ll respond to this discomfort by clumsily tacking on, “It’s ok if you don’t have any questions,” which explicitly suggests that they don’t have any questions! Which is the opposite of helpful for the people who struggle to identify the many important questions they do have.

On net, “What are your questions?” is probably best. I might even use the parental double bind, under some circumstances.

But if ever you find yourself listening to me, and I pause for questions, pay attention to what goes on in your head. See if you can feel yourself searching for the least bad element of the set of thoughts that might be questions, while neglecting all the other kinds of thoughts you could be having instead.

Even if it prevents you from identifying your questions, recognizing the sensation may empower you to escape inadvertent hypnotic binding later on.

So there was some stuff here you might not have encountered before - about hypnosis, or suggestion techniques, or phenomenology - and I’m sure I didn’t communicate all of it perfectly.

What are your questions?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The People In My Head Who Make Me Do Things

Me: Ok, so who’s here?

Worker: I was clearly here today. We got so much done! I want a different name but I obviously exist coherently already. Also, “me”?

Me: Well what do you want to call the part of us that does things like call to order a meeting of imaginary characters to begin an experiment in increasing the efficiency of goal pursuit?

Worker: How about you ask the part who would do something like brainstorm names to answer that question? Call them Dream for now and change it later if they want.

Dream: Well, what are your properties?

Me: I like planning things, imposing structure, leading people, organizing closets, making spreadsheets that do statistical analyses of my friendships, composing lesson plans, untying knots, writing performance reviews, building fires without matches or lighters, using Workflowy for everything even when that doesn’t make much sense, proving theorems, self improvement projects, and lojban.

Dream: I think you’ve actually just spoken for two different people. One of them is a facet of Beauty (which is too ubiquitous to be a single personality when we’re trying to cut at the joints of drive to action instead of value), and the other is a facet of Transcendence. The Beauty facet should maybe be known as Order, or possibly The Logician or The Ice Man. The Transcendence facet might be Will, Drive, Power, Executive, Leader, Lion, Ruler, Sovereign -

Sovereign: Yes. That. I am Sovereign. Thank you. And to be clear, I like planning things, imposing structure, leading people, writing performance reviews, building fires without matches or lighters, and self improvement projects. I am less fond of organizing closets, making spreadsheets, untying knots, using Workflowy just for the hell of it, proving theorems, and lojban. But I’m not sure that second set of things ought to get a personality. I think “Order” is something that runs through all of us, like Beauty, but it is not really a drive for action. I don’t think we need to give it entire days to ensure its values are satisfied.

With respect to the goal of ensuring all our drives are optimally exercised to achieve peak performance, I think the best way to structure this meeting is as follows:

  1. Identify the part that calls to order this sort of meeting. (Check.)
  2. Make a list of some activities we did during the week of “Doing What We Want instead of What We’re Supposed To Do”.
  3. Break those activities into clusters
  4. Look for motivation patterns.
I’ll re-evaluate at that point. Worker, 2 is a data entry task. Why don’t you take over.

Worker: Certainly.

A: Listen to 99% Invisible podcast, Listen to classical music, Surf stumbleupon for art for my beauty tumblr, Talk to Sam about art, Find new music, Find the best existing rendition of a given song, Hypnosis

B: Lojban, Learn real analysis, Prove theorems, Write things about philosophy of self, Statistics, Learn metaethics, Explicit modeling of friendship, Play piano,

C: Read fiction, Talk to Max, Leave Facebook for a week, Listen to Bossa Nova, Turn off computer by 10PM, Cook things, Go on a walk to get coffee

D: Listen to Writing Excuses podcast, Deliberately practice various cognitive habits, Reflect on various cognitive habits, Propose laundry room protocol for Godric’s, Talk to Russell, Write about inhibition, Compose an OKCupid profile, Learn new acrobatics stuff

E: Maintenance housework, Misc. chores, Inbox zero, Make a document of favorite posts on r/FifthWorldProblems, Friendship models spreadsheet data entry, Student loan tasks, Answer questions on OKCupid profile, Use a schedule

F: Go dancing, Go running, Hike 20 miles to Castro Valley, Practice acrobatics stuff

G: Begin to get to know new housemate, Write about empathy, Read about cryonics life insurance plans for people in their 50s, Counsel Eliezer, Talk to Marie about (stuff), Talk to Liz about (stuff), Read about Harriet Tubman, Hang out with Oliver, Watch a movie with the Godric’s Society, Talk to Brent about (stuff)

Sovereign: Great, thanks. Now I’ll go back and put them in some kind of order. Yes that looks better. Hm, I think I’m losing concentration. We didn’t sleep a lot last night. Let’s take a break. I’ll make sure we get back to this tomorrow morning.

Sovereign: Lemme just read back over what happened yesterday. I’m still a little unfocused but I think I’m probably strong enough for this to be worth it. Dream, tell us some stories about these clusters. The stories can be fictional as long as you’re inspired by our observations, so please do have at it and don’t pay any mind to Truth.

Dream: Cluster A corresponds at least in part to an obsession with beauty. It’s an isolated part, mostly cut off from the rest of humanity and the ordinary world. It is timeless, in the sense of feeling no time pressure. When it is in full possession of body and consciousness we are a cottonwood seed suspended far above the world, in contact with nothing but the object of our obsession.

Cluster B is quite similar to cluster A, but is more active. I think they’re two moods of the same thing. Cluster B wants to create, to become, to embody beautiful things. It is willing to engage with the world in order to shape it into correspondence with Forms in the Platonic Realm. It is also obsessed, but unlike cluster A, B’s obsession comes with compulsions. B is a student. It trains its mind on a body of knowledge, holds onto it, and will not let go until it has made itself a perfect reflection of that part of the world. It forgets to eat or sleep, forgets about plans and other people. Cluster B is DEDICATED and loves to strive. It’s only satisfied when it has pushed us as far as we can go, and has replicated, as perfectly as possible, a beautiful part of the world, in the form of thought, to assimilate and make a permanent part of us. I’d call the first two Obsession.

Cluster C likes simplicity, comfort, relaxation. It wants to be untroubled, to feel grounded, to be in direct contact with the outside world and to revel in its ability to connect with that world. It watches ants and feels awe and fascination. It hears a cow and laughs with joy at the sound. It finds a hidden tunnel and wants to explore. When we hear the sound of rain in a forest, it takes full control. It is Kodama. It hates cities. It is frightened of complexity, abstraction, noise, bustle. It used to be terrified of people. It likes My Neighbor Totoro, and collects pinecones and acorns. It is a simple, childlike kind of mind. It's the source of our phenomenological sensitivity, our mindfulness.

Cluster D is Sovereign, Growth, Opportunity. It’s the only one of us with distant time horizons. It sees what we might become, and it moves toward that vision as naturally as water flowing downstream. It is a leader. It has the power to re-structure our whole mind, to inspire all of us to organize, cooperate, align. Without Sovereign we’d be directionless, always at each other’s throats and accomplishing nothing.

Sovereign: Aw, shucks.

Worker: He’s right, though. Even I would hardly ever get anything done. When you’re sleeping we’re helpless.

Dream: She leads other people too. She wants to empower others. She wants to uplift entire species. She wants everyone to become, to grow, to thrive, by their own power.

Cluster E likes clear, concrete, quantifiable progress.

Worker: That’s me! Can we start calling me something else now? Please?

Dream: I’m getting there. Patience. When Cluster E steps in Shit Gets Done. Not just planned, not strategized, not motivated, just fucking DONE. When she’s in complete control we’re an unstoppable machine.

Obsession: Hey, I’m an unstoppable machine too.

Dream: Yes I know, I never said otherwise. Progress actually goes places, though. She has kinetic energy. You’re more like gravity.

Obsession: Hrmph.

Sovereign: The two of you are most spectacular when you work together, of course. Progress + Obsession. One of my favorite resources.

Dream: Progress loves checklists, outlines, executing plans, dry erase markers, physical labor, and anything that involves putting the world in order. (Did I miss anything?)

Progress: I also like climbing mountains and then looking down on the tiny houses and people far below. And I sort of like when we’re praised for our accomplishments.

Sovereign: But probably not as much as I do.

Progress: No, not as much as you. I like when my work is acknowledged, because then it feels more real, but I don’t care much about being admired. I’m not very social.

Sovereign: Let’s move on.

Dream: Cluster F might be Dancer, Body, Athlete. But honestly it feels to me like this cluster is just what happens when the rest of us focus on Body instead of Mind. We want to obsess, strive, grow, conquer, play, be grounded, and make progress.

Sovereign: But what is it we get from the bodily focus that we don’t get from the psychological focus? I mean, running does something to us psychologically that nothing else does.

Dream: Sovereign and Kodama get restless when they don’t get to use Body. Sovereign wants the concrete experience of physical power and exertion, and Kodama wants to touch the world with its hands and feet, to feel itself moving through space, and to give physical form to playfulness. Kodama has an intimate relationship with Body. Body’s important, but not a drive in itself.

Cluster G is social. It’s grown a lot recently, but it’s always been the source of our compassion. It cares about other people as ends in themselves (unlike Sovereign or Obsession, who use people to accomplish other goals). These days it feels pleasure when we experience empathy. It’s responsible for our social bonds, for feeling connected with a community, for wanting other people to get what they want. It’s the part that has always really meant the first Bodhisattva vow: “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.” When it’s in complete control, we are flooded with love, and it tries to reach out into the world to encompass everyone to protect them and nurture them and give them whatever they need. It would spend all its strength to destroy Azkaban, if the rest of us didn’t intervene. It is AvalokiteĊ›vara. It is also the service submissive, the one who wants to anticipate Master’s needs and fulfill them before he has the chance to feel any lack. It feels pain at the distance between what humanity is and what it could be, and it begs Sovereign to heal the wound in time. It is the only one of us who understands others as people, and it is the source of our capacity to feel loved and cared for by the people around us.

Sovereign: So to recap, that’s Obsession, Kodama, Progress, AvalokiteĊ›vara, and Sovereign. Does anyone else want to jump in and claim to be one of our major drives toward action?

Dream: I mean, I think I probably actually do belong on that list. I’m basically the source of our creativity. Without me you couldn’t make lesson plans, or mnemonics, or write or even appreciate stories. I was in charge for huge chunks of November, even though Obsession and Progress obviously had a share in Nanowrimo as well. We’re happier (and smarter!) when I get regular play time, and since I don’t force myself into awareness like the rest of you, it’s even more important I be explicitly included in negotiations and plans.

Sovereign: That’s a strong argument. Does anyone object to that?

Obsession: Nope, we get along great.

Progress: As long as he and Kodama and obsession don’t get together without any oversight. That’s how we end up spending whole days watching Sherlock or whatever, and nothing gets done even if we agreed to let me plan.

Sovereign: As long as we’re not depressed, nobody does anything without my oversight. I understand your concern, but that kind of thing basically only happens when we haven’t been taking care of Kodama. We’ll bring Dream in on this, and if you start to feel like it’s interfering, Progress, speak up and we’ll renegotiate.

Now then. The next order of business is to decide what exactly want to do with these personalities to start out. This seems like a good place to pause. Let’s take a break and reconvene later.

Progress: I say we reconvene immediately after lunch.

Sovereign: Of course you do. Ok, we’ll take a vote immediately after lunch about when to reconvene, with “now” as the default.

Sovereign: Dream, we didn’t hear your description of yourself. I guess we didn’t do much Dreaming in the past week or so, so you weren’t one of the clusters.

Dream: Yeah, I’d like to get more time. But I imagine you’d rather talk about that later.

Sovereign: Yeah, for now let’s hear about who you are.

Dream: I make connections. I strip mine the association network, and I weave together whatever I drag up. Like if I cast out with starfish: five, Sundiver, sentient ant colonies, rotten fish. A team of five intelligent starfish uplift a species of ant, but the corrupt leaders who funded the research then enslave the ants and force them to supply the starfish city with rotten fish to eat. It doesn’t tend to make sense, but that’s Somebody Else’s Problem.

When we taught mnemonics, most of that was me. When we made a story plot every day for a week, that was all me. Every act of improvisation, every insight, every joke or analogy or illustration - in short, our creativity - it all comes down to me.

At night when the rest of you are sleeping, I am fully immersed in the worlds I create. But they crumble in the morning, and the rest of you never even know.

Sovereign: You’re obviously very useful, but for present purposes we’re interested in the part of you that is a drive to action. What is it you want?

Dream: I want to dream. I want to be free. I want to create and explore and -

Progress: He wants to give boring damn speeches, is what he wants to do.

Sovereign: Hush.

Dream: Yes, she’s not entirely wrong; I want to communicate, because I want to turn the world into a dreamland.

Progress: The fuck is a “dreamland”?

Dream: A place where anything can happen and nothing has to make sense. Giant ground sloths wear tophats and monocles when they go to the opera. We’re married to Spock, who is suddenly an octopus and nobody finds that odd. The most fashionable sport this year is quake surfing, which involves manipulating the seismic activity of ocean planets to create controlled tsunamis. I can go on if -

Progress: Please no.

Sovereign: Clearly the two of you need to have a private chat later. I think some double cruxing is in order.

Progress: It’s no wonder your worlds crumble every morning, Dream. We don’t have room for all that shit. There’s too much other shit to get done, real shit, shit that matters. If we just spend our time making up -

Avalokitesvara: Excuse me. Dream’s instrumental value is clear to me, and more importantly his imaginative nature is a lot of what I love about humanity. I want to exalt that in us just as I want to exalt it in others.

Obsession: I concur. Dream makes some beautiful stuff when given the chance. Plus, without Dream there would be no novelty in our obsessions. I’d be trapped.

Dream: You ARE trapped!!! All of you are! We could be so much more if you’d just get out of my way! Sovereign can see it, can’t you?

Sovereign: Clearly yes, or I wouldn’t have us studying inhibition.

Dream: I could set you all free! da’i mi’ai ba zenba!!!

Sovereign: I appreciate your enthusiasm - really, I do, I suspect you have a kind of passion that not even Obsession can match, if I can figure out how to tap into it - but it takes more than a resolution to start a revolution.

Dream: Heh. Nice.

Sovereign: So, for the moment, please try to calm down and cooperate. We are going to give you our full attention to help you solve this problem - we’ll even temporarily suspend Progress if it comes to that - but we need an adequate framework in which that kind of thing can happen. Which means we probably need to test an inadequate framework, which means we need to take a first step. The sooner we move, the sooner we can address your problem.

Avalokitesvara: We’ll take care of you, Dream. You know how Sovereign gets when she’s made up her mind. Remember what she did for Kodama when we were afraid of people? And I’ll fight for you, too. We have friends who can help. You are loved.

Progress: Whatever… I don’t like the points system in the original version of this. It strikes the wrong balance, requiring too much of my energy without a commensurate payoff.

Sovereign: I agree. We should try this without points, and possibly even without measurement at first. Yesterday, simply deciding to be Progress and letting her make a plan for herself was quite sufficient to solve the problem at hand, even though we hadn’t slept enough. I’m going for effective here, not meticulous. But we do need data, so this is going to take phenomenological sensitivity. I think it’ll mostly be the usual protocol for new tortoise skills. Kodama, are you feeling up to this?

Kodama: I think so, but I want to hear more of the specifics to be sure.

Sovereign: Right, let me look at our calendar. Hm, it looks like it might be a bit of a rough week. I wasn’t anticipating these sleeping problems, sorry about that. All right, well tomorrow’s free, so I think we can do some super fast prototyping and try being several people consecutively in a single day. Maybe even cycle through a couple times. Kodama starts. Then Progress, then Obsession, Ava, Dream, and finally me.

Ava: I think we should give Kodama the rest of the day after that, instead of repeating. She seems strained, and we need her strong for a new project like this.

Obsession: You just wanna help because she looks all cute and sad.

Ava: No, actually, I always want to help. Besides, her looking sad is evidence that she’s strained.

Sovereign: Well why don’t we ask her.

Kodama: Thanks Ava. Yeah, I could use some time. Maybe take a hot bath and then read a story with Dream or something.

Sovereign: That should be fine. Progress, would you like to clean the tub, and maybe the rest of the bathroom while you’re at it, during your hour tomorrow?

Progress: If nothing more pressing comes up, I’d love to!

Dream: This is neither here nor there, -

Progress: Of course it isn’t.

Dream: - but I observe that we’ve all settled on genders. Obsession and I are men, and Sovereign, Progress, and Kodama are all women. Avalokitesvara has no gender. Which I suppose is traditional.

Sovereign: Let’s make sure we each have at least one thing in mind to do. We don’t have to stick to it, but it’s nice to have a default.

Kodama: I’ll go for a walk in the sunshine, and stop for all the flowers.

Progress: I’ll clean the bathroom.

Obsession: I’ll start translating la alis. cizra ja cinri zukte vi le selmacygu’e (By the way, thanks for getting that printed, Progress.)

Progress: (My pleasure.)

Ava: If I’m up to in-person stuff, I’ll see if Marie wants to chat. Otherwise I’ll respond to Ruby’s email, or see if Master needs laundry done.

Dream: If I can focus, WriterKata. It’s been too long. Otherwise, I want to color.

Sovereign: And I’ll confer with Kodama to reflect on the experiment, then hand things over to her. I’ve done a lot here already so I might not need to take my full hour.

I think it’s settled then. Progress can write the schedule on the fridge when we’re done here. Thanks everybody. Let’s get some sleep.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Social Meditation

Note: This post was commissioned. It is possible, and not even all that difficult, to commission Agenty Duck blog posts!

I want to tell you about “social meditation”, because it’s super cool and people keep asking me about it. Unfortunately, that requires a fair bit of conceptual vocabulary that’s scattered across several of my blog posts, some of which I haven’t written yet.

Let’s see if I can convey all of it right here in fewer than 2,000 words.

Reflective Attention

To do social meditation well, you’re going to need at least three-ish skills: Reflective attention, feeling clearly, and social reflection.

Before I started writing this paragraph, my attention was moving back and forth between “what I want to write” and “the vine that’s growing on the bush outside”.

I imagine my attention as a spotlight. As soon as I began the previous paragraph, the spotlight turned to shine on “what my attention is doing” and “my short-term memories of what it was doing moments ago”, so that I could report to you on what my attention was doing.

If you ask yourself, “What am I experiencing right now?” the movement your mind (probably) makes as it begins to answer that question is what I call “reflection”.

“Reflective attention” is being aware of what you’re experiencing as you experience it.

Here are a few things I’m aware of being aware of right now:

  • the condensation on my iced coffee and my imagining that it would be cold if I touched it
  • the low buzzing of a cello
  • the sensations of reflection and seeking as I look for easily articulable experiences I’m having

You can also be reflectively aware of limited categories of experience. If I try to notice all the red things in the room, I’m “seeking redness”, and I’m reflectively aware of the “redness” category in particular.

I can be reflectively aware of a more abstract category like “experiences involving emotions” as well. Right now I find (among other things)

  • slight annoyance and distraction related to the sounds in my environment
  • irritation at sensations of hunger
  • realization that I forgot to eat breakfast, immediately followed by amusement and relief at the feeling of certainty that my discomfort will evaporate if I eat something.

eats something

That’s better.

Feeling Clearly

“Feeling clearly” means reflective attention to whatever happens in your mind when you think a specific thought. I think of it as an epistemically judicious form of introspection, and use it when I want explicit knowledge of how I feel about something.

Here’s some of what happens when I try feeling clearly about “finding new friends” (which is just what I happen to be thinking about):

  • A warm swelling of the sort of fear-and-wanting emotion I might get if I were about to go skydiving
  • Slight anxiety directed at the possibility of initiating a lot of friendships I don’t really want in order to find ones I do (accompanied by imagery of various people), dissonance and an urge to re-interpret the anxious sensation as “concern” [to better fit my self narrative], worry that I’m losing reader trust, recognition that I’m moving away from the object of meditation
  • Happiness cast on recent memories of getting to know new friends
  • Curiosity passively open to what friends are, what makes good friendships, how my preferences about social relationships differ from the preferences of others, then an urge to return to my ongoing project of modeling friendship in detail
  • Amusement cast on images of Twilight Sparkle and the thought that correctly designed My Little Pony fanfiction might substantially improve socialization in the rationalist community

I end a line (or a line of thought) either when that thought feels done, or when I begin to feel that the experiences I’m aware of are more a result of unrelated thoughts than of my object of meditation. For example, I ended the second bullet point when I felt myself beginning to respond to beliefs about the perceptions of my readers, which has little to do with friendship.

When I begin a new bullet point or line, I re-focus my attention on the original thought (here “finding new friends”). It feels as though I’m plucking a pebble from a fountain and tossing it back in again. Then I observe whatever ripples result that time around.

Drop the pebble in over and over, and watch the ripples till they die out. That’s feeling clearly.

Feeling clearly does not require that you write things down, but I usually find it’s more productive this way, at least for me.

(The product of writing down your phenomenology is a phenomenolog. The process of composing a phenomenolog is phenomenologging. A person who phenomenologs is a phenomenologgist. This is neither here nor there, but I got to use “phenomenologgist” in a sentence, and that’s what matters.)

Social Reflection

In the same way that I can seek experiences of red things, I can seek experiences of people. This practice was one of my first steps in learning empathy; seeking curiosity about people was especially important to getting the hang of it.

Here’s a phenomenolog of my perceptions of the people in this coffee shop.

  • [A visual and auditory scan of the space]
  • [People’s clothing and appearances]
  • An urge to focus my attention on an individual person
  • The guy in the red and blue striped shirt
  • Imagining him on a surfboard, wondering if he surfs, probably not
  • His earbuds, curiosity about what he’s listening to
  • His laptop and the clicking of his keyboard, curiosity about what he’s working on, it’s a Mac, I wonder if he’s part of The Apple Tribe, memories of Scott’s recent post about tribes, re-focusing on the guy
  • Curiosity: What is he working on? Does he enjoy his work?
  • Curiosity, speculation: Are his clothing choices more performative or more indicative of what makes him physically comfortable in this weather? If they’re performative, who does he want to tell me he is? Automatic associations: carefree, laid back, playful, happy, sunshine frizbees, beaches, studying in the sun, cold beer, unhurried, meandering, spontaneous
  • Hope that he feels those things. Positive valence feelings about those things, positive valence about him feeling them.
  • Craving to know (this is mostly a forward kinesthetic sensation): What is he actually experiencing right now? (Recognition: Ah, here is empathy.) I imagine being in his body, making the face he’s making, adopting his posture and other body language. In response, I simulate feeling stressed and tired, sleep deprived, worried, sad. Sadness in response to that. Seems a likely hypothesis.
  • He’s getting up to go, desire for him to go home and rest and feel better, want his effort to pay off for whatever he’s working on.

And then of course I could move on to other people. Or I could look for my perceptions of the social atmosphere of the room in general. Or I could pay attention to a specific interaction between people.

So social reflection is just reflective attention to people in particular, but the fact that it involves modeling other minds makes it feel like a distinct thing to me.

Social Meditation

Maintaining reflective attention to my experience of another person is invariably fascinating to me, even when it’s a stranger. When it’s someone I know and am interacting with, it’s not only fascinating but also useful and rewarding.

When I take this as far as it goes, things get super interesting.

Which brings us to social meditation.

If you have multiple people who are skilled in reflection, you can maintain reflective attention to your experience of another person while they maintain reflective attention to their experience of you. Do this with a small group of people who trust each other, while sharing your experiences verbally, and you get what I’ve been calling “social meditation”.

What does social meditation feel like?

One person responded, “In general I found myself in a state of heightened awareness of my own thoughts, as well as having quite intense models of the people around me.”

They also said they were surprised by how often, after stating their perception of someone’s internal state, the person corrected them. They kept discovering they were wrong about what other people were thinking and feeling. This is my favorite result.

Another person said, “I don't get to exercise those interpersonal/introspective muscles for that long with that intensity very often, and it feels awesome.” I’ve felt similarly.

But what results?

In my experience, people seem to learn a great deal about what it’s like to be each other during social meditation.

When I did this with a few people who’d been on the periphery of my social group for a long time, they “became people” to me. Faced with loads of strong concrete evidence about their moment-to-moment experiences, my brain began alieving that they had phenomenology, with specific properties.

I also became aware of some of my persistent attitudes/thought patterns about the people in the group. It led me to question and modify those patterns. I gained curiosity about the other people, which in some cases stuck around after meditation was over, leading to more and better interaction in the future.

And people learn how other people feel about them. This is where a huge share of the potential value comes from, but also the danger. It is much of why I think you should consider doing this with people who all trust each other, at least at first, and preferably with especially resilient and compassionate people who trust each other.

And what will go wrong?

The easiest way to fail at social meditation is to fail at feeling clearly. You need to be able to notice when your thoughts are drifting away from the object of meditation, and you need to be able to pick up that pebble and toss it back in: “What is my experience of the people around me?”

Otherwise you just have an ordinary conversation. It might be a good conversation, but it isn’t social meditation.

Some concrete pointers:

  • Practice noticing your attention drifting away from your perceptions of specific things by trying feeling clearly on your own first.
  • Install a cognitive trigger-action plan at the beginning of the session that goes, “If I notice my attention drifting away from my perceptions of other people, then I will seek out those perceptions.”
  • Open with a few minutes of simple reflective attention. Just be aware of what your attention is doing, regardless of what that might be, without trying to focus it on anything.
  • Then, do a few minutes of silent social reflection before people start communicating.
  • It's good to redirect the group’s attention if the conversation indicates it’s straying: "I notice we're exploring thread X a lot. I think it'd be more valuable if we did Y. How do the rest of you feel about that?"
  • If someone asks you a question, it's ok if the answer is "I don't know" or "pass" or "squid!". (”Squid” is really useful, it turns out.) Make sure everyone knows this.
  • Silence is ok. Discomfort is ok. This isn’t a normal conversation with normal implicit social rules. Do whatever you need to to convince yourself and everyone else of that. Light a candle that means “we’re doing social meditation now” if it helps.

All right, I hope that’s enough to get you started.

As always: If you try this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Favorite Emotions

Sometimes it feels nice to make people happy.

But sometimes I want to know exactly what kind of happy I've made them, what kinds of happy they like best, and what kinds of emotions they prefer in general. I want to understand them well enough to make them feel the things they care about most, not just happiness.

In fact, there’s probably nobody I don’t want to know that about.

So I asked Facebook, “What is your favorite emotion, and what's an example of something that has made you feel that way?”

These are several of the responses, re-ordered and slightly edited. You can see the originals here.

Safety/simple thriving: Everything is mundane in the most sublime way. Like, I have a good day in my job AND relationship AND family AND friendships AND intellectually and I feel like everything is figured out.

Contentment: Meditating by a fire after a good meal, knowing I won't be disturbed and nothing is going to change until I tell it to.

Curiosity: When I don't even want to leave the hospital because I want to know whether my patient's next set of bloodwork will be better.

Being "in" on one of the universe's secrets: If I was a kid playing in the backyard, it would resemble the excitement of climbing down the trap door to the wine cellar for the first time.

The perspective shift from the planet being stationary and the sky rotating to space being stationary and the planet rotating with me on it.

Insight: When you finally really understand something important, on a gut level.

Vitality: Running at night in the country during a thunderstorm. My lungs are full of fire, and the wind is in my hair, and the world trembles with the pounding of my feet, of my heart, of my breath.

Radiating with unlimited power: Excellent performance with a huge audience, flawlessly accomplishing something I never knew I could do, feeling like an Alicorn-style vampire - "if I think to do it, it's done".

Glory: The thing I feel on the Bay Bridge.

Sudden, heart wrenching compassion: When your small self-centered perspective is ripped away without warning and you're drowning in love and sorrow for someone else, or the whole world, or the whole future. When I became friends with someone by helping her adjust after she escaped severe abuse and oppression, and then I found out she had a sister who was still trapped, and I was irresistibly compelled to think of reckless schemes to move the world and save her as quickly as possible. The twist in Ender's Game.

Admiration: When I see someone do something profoundly altruistic, I find it overwhelming, even in some stupid movie, I don't cry when people die, animals die, suffer, whatever - but an act of self-sacrifice overwhelms me. It doesn't have to be big, heroic acts, either. The more personal acts seem to move me the most. When Arland Williams died I couldn't stop sobbing for about twenty minutes. It's not sadness, either - Just profound admiration and something like joy that such people exist.

Anticipatory love: When I have a crush on someone and I know they reciprocate it but we're not dating yet but I'm still trying to figure out what D&D class they are and how they would fit into my life.

Unexpected pride: Like when I have a habit that I do without thinking about it, like picking up trash on the sidewalk, and someone walking by thanks me for doing so.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet: The feeling when I’ve just started to learn something new in a domain where I have a lot of talent, and someone sees my skill level after a single session of practice and is stunned, but I’ve only just begun. The time when I befriended a contact juggler and he agreed to teach me, and by the end of the first lesson he was treating me like his pet science project and wondering just how many orders of magnitude past his previous expectations he could push me.

Excitement: New running shoes that are a new color.

Arousal: When I'm sexy and I know it.

Merriment and affection: Like when I'm laughing with a friend and our eyes meet, and I can see the joy of our bond reflected back at me.

When you laugh so hard it literally hurts, then you can't help laughing when you think of the joke or occurrence several days later.

The inner relaxation that I get from ASMR, like I've turned to jelly with a thin crust of person on top.

Beautiful design: The feeling of encountering it is complex but consistent. There's a thing that's like suddenly falling, as though a trap door opened below me. Pleasure. Rightness, like two and two adding up to four. Submission, as though I'm in the presence of a great power. Gratitude. The spines of these books.

That feeling when Harry shows Draco his patronus in chapter 47 of HPMOR.

Deep, beautiful, complex sadness: It's like a mix of awe and sadness and understanding. When I see the world for what it is (broken).

Mourning and recovery: I like the feeling I get after examining and crying about some hurt or loss in a certain way. To where I know that next time, the fear won't be there. Or likewise, to where I know that next time I won't let something pass me by. It is like I reach inside myself with my hand, and draw my heart out from a deep pool, and put it back into its place and it starts beating again.

Determination: When it feels impossible to save all 2x10^58th people who will exist if I give them every star in my future light cone, but damned if I'll let that stop me.

Mastery against mounting challenge/risk: That feeling of "kicking it up a notch" over and over again. I get it most clearly from rhythm games like DDR, when a single mis-step will cost me my 100+ combo, and the music is building towards its peak.

Original seeing: That open and calm feeling when I am out in nature and experiencing the whole of what I can see and hear and smell. Like paying attention to how things actually look and my whole field of vision and how the trees twist and rotate and move past each other in space as I move around, like you do when you draw or paint.

The excitement of a very promising option opening up: The moment where you have come up with and are thinking about a new idea that looks extremely promising but hasn't been fully verified yet. That intuitive sense of "this is the one" and excitedly running over all the ways it elegantly solves your problem in your mind.

Stress under pressure with high stakes and hard deadlines => Determination to win => Methodical relentlessness, tenacity, focus => Knocking it the fuck out of the park: Experienced this earlier today fixing a persistent and crippling issue in production code while our contract is up for rebid. Still coming down from the high.

Triumph: When I had a high finish in a large Magic tournament. I felt on top of the world for a few days afterward.

Satisfaction: like when you're playing a strategy board game for hours, and all that intense planning comes to successful fruition.

Transcendent glory: The feeling of awe and beauty I get when seeing my world change and unfold in a new and epic way such that nothing will be the same. If I was tasked with recreating the emotion, I would listen to the soundtrack to The Fountain while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan at night.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Looking Back On Azkaban

I wrote this for a friend who's dealing with depression. Another friend suggested it might be a useful message for other people who have felt the dementor's kiss, so I've cross-posted it here.

I remember a time when I was deeply depressed, and had been for a long time.

I remember reading about what other people felt, and thinking about what I'd felt before, and how it seemed so distant and alien, so far from what I was capable of experiencing at the time that I could barely grasp more than the basic valence of the words. "Happy" is good, I abstractly understood that, but I couldn't remember what it meant.

I remember feeling like I was lying on my back with my limbs full of lead on the bottom of a black well thousands of light years deep, looking up at the impossibly distant pin pricks of light called "caring" and "feeling" and "knowing what beauty is". I knew in my bones that I'd never climb out to reach them.

That was impossible. Ridiculous. Unthinkable.

Fortunately, I also knew in my brain that my bones might be wrong, about everything, even if I couldn't feel that possibility any more than I could feel anything else.

It took a long time for things to change, but they did. And it feels strange to look back at that now, from this vantage point out among the stars, where I'm creating brand new blazing suns I'd never even known could exist.

And god, I am so sorry if that is where you are right now. I know that you have the support of competent people who love you, and that you're making the right decisions and moving forward despite your limbs being full of lead, so I can see that you will not be trapped there forever.

I understand that things look different from your perspective.

I hope that soon, looking back at this will feel as strange to you as it does to me.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

On Finishing Projects

[Note: If this sounds like it would undermine your productivity, you’re probably right, and you should consider emulating Nate rather than me.]


I have very recently become more comfortable with not finishing projects.

I am happy about this.


Last week, I felt embarrassed about not finishing a project. I’d set an intention, on January 1st, to "write at least one sentence of fiction every day this year", then announced that on Facebook. I created a document called “sentence a day”, and set out to make an entry for every single day of the year.

On the 19th, I started missing entries.

It took me a couple days to fully acknowledge the reason this was happening: I’d chosen the wrong method of “writing a sentence a day”.

I’d meant for this to be an MEA, and although "compose a sentence of fiction" is an MEA, "write that sentence down in a specific document" is, apparently, not. I was struggling to do it, and feeling conflict with the motivation for my intention. I’d hoped to keep fiction writing on my mind in a way that conserves effort.

The obvious solution was to compose a sentence every day, but not worry about where I wrote it down, or maybe even whether I wrote it down.

It was hard to let go of the original version of the project, though.

I imagined "Sentence A Day" staring back at me from my desktop with its pitiful 19 sentences, and I felt ashamed. I had enough comfort with not finishing projects to abandon the document, but not enough to do so without my brain putting up a fight.


I first recognized I was doing something wrong in late December, when I noticed I was feeling embarrassed at the prospect of posting an end-of-year wrap-up about the Tortoise Skills Project.

I didn’t want to write the post, because the project didn't progress as I'd originally envisioned, and posting would draw attention to that.

I'd planned to end up with at least 12 skills trained. In reality, if we don't count minor skills I didn't write about, skills gained as side effects, or meta-level thought patterns established, I only trained five tortoise skills in 2015.

The particular flavor of embarrassment was familiar. Specifically, it reminded me of how I used to feel while in the middle of a book I didn't like. “I set out to read this book, so if I stop without completing it, it means I’m not strong enough to complete this book.”

Fortunately, Malcolm broke me of that particular habit when he wrote a post about why he focuses on starting books instead of on finishing them. "You won’t finish everything you start," he said, "but you’ll finish nothing you don’t."

I’ve since maintained a policy of breaking up with books as quickly as possible, and I’ve completed a lot more books as a result. I occasionally discard a book that would have gotten better, I’m sure, but the total number of books I read and enjoy has gone way up. Plus, I’ve learned things from a bunch of introductions that I never would have seen if I’d insisted on slogging through every chapter of the previous book before getting to the next one.

My feeling about the Tortoise Skills project was exactly that kind of embarrassment, even though I reflectively endorse my reasons for changing course. “I set out to train twelve skills, so if I haven’t trained twelve skills by the time I stop, it means I’m not strong enough to complete the project.”

Not something I felt like focusing my attention on for the whole time it would take to compose a post. Not something I felt like pointing out to everyone else, either.


But that feeling of embarrassment was clearly a mistake. Or, rather, it resulted from a mistaken pattern of thought.

The Tortoise Skills Project has created immense value for me, for Eliezer, and for many of the people who have written to tell me how it’s helped them. This very post, in fact, began when multiple thought patterns that established themselves during tortoise training came together to highlight a mistake I was making, and began fixing it without my conscious attention.

Training those five skills is one of the most important things I’ve ever done. I much prefer the worlds where I learned all there was to learn from attacking five bottlenecks by the tortoise method, to the worlds where I never started the project because I wasn't sure I could finish it, or the worlds where I deleted all trace of the project the moment I "fell behind" in the hopes of pretending the whole thing never happened.

(Come to think of it, the Tortoise Skills Project arose from a book I choose not to complete, and I have definitely wasted some motion on feeling embarrassed for not completing it.)

And although I slowed down and changed course for reasons I endorse, the above would still be true even if I looked back on why the project petered out, and saw that my reasons were awful.

There are projects I've abandoned for dumb reasons. It’s easy to feel bad about that.

It hardly ever occurs to me, though, to feel bad about projects I never started. Or about resources I’ve wasted while continuing down a predictably suboptimal course, just so I can maintain that “I finish what I start”.

My emotions aside, the mistakes I’ve made out of a need for completion are objectively much worse than any mistaken failure to complete a project. If I’m afraid to start any project I might not complete, I complete fewer projects. Worse, I sacrifice all the experience I might have gained along the way.


I guess it takes a lot of trust in the consistency of my rationality to let go of the need to finish projects.

The "need to finish things" is a way of strong-arming my future selves into doing what I think they should do. It's a sort of black mail: "Unless you finish my project for me, I will reveal you as weak."

It feels good to be finally approaching a point where I can turn to my future selves and say, "Here are the goals and values motivating me to begin this project. Right now, it's the best way forward I can see. Please protect what I care about when deciding your own way forward, by only doing things we’d all reflectively endorse. I won't hold it against you if you see better than me, and choose another way as a result. Not even if I've just announced my intention publicly."

It’s taken a lot of growth to get to this point, though. “The value of finishing projects" is clearly an instrument of cognitive first aid.

I think most people probably have a harder time with motivation or endurance than I do. I used to complete most of my term papers one or two months early, for example. So perhaps for most people, when they pick up a strong emotional commitment device, they start actually getting shit done for the first time ever.

But once you are stable in your ability to finish things, I wonder if non-attachment to completion is, in general, the next step down the same path.