[Epistemic status: preliminary. You’re reading it almost as I think about it. Crossposted to LesserWrong.]

[Prerequisites: a bit of cognitive science reading, a bit of familiarity with mathematics.]

This is a raw idea and a personal experience, related just in case they resonate.

In a particular model of cognitive science, there are two streams of thought that can run inside your brain. The top-down stream is something you’re generating from inside your brain itself. The bottom-up stream is coming directly from sense data, from the physical world around you. The two streams interact (particularly in terms of prediction and surprise) to produce your model of the world.

Meditation at the novice level I practice it is almost always a matter of turning focus from the top-down process to the bottom-up process in order to build a concentration muscle.

But what if there’s something for me to gain from focusing on a top-down process? (I don’t have links, but I know I’m far from the first person to try this.)

I may be stretching the term a bit, but I think the most top-down process is mathematics. Penrose philosophy aside, doing mathematics is an act of generating things inside your head, with regard to a set of rules, but largely divorced from sense data.

I used to be a mathematician. I stopped being one a long time ago, and I sometimes struggle emotionally to do math (including at my very mathy machine learning job).

So what would it be like for me to take a few minutes every day to focus on a mathematical concept, such as symmetry groups, or Fourier transforms, or just the number 3? I would turn both top-down and bottom-up distractions away in favor of gently returning to a mathematical concept. If I did this for a few weeks, would I develop a new, different focus muscle?

As luck would have it, this thought occurred to me this morning on a long drive, and right afterwards, my wife asked if I wouldn’t mind some alone time while she took a car nap.

So I put on some music (a normal part of math for me, but not a normal part of meditation) and gave it a try.

What I experienced was surprising: Joy with a capital J.

I chose to focus on the number 3. At first I just visualized 3 objects, which became 3 glowing green dots, which became the cyclic group of order 3, represented as {1, x, x²}. It took me a second to remember that x³ = 1 was the relation that made this group work, and as I multiplied different powers of x, I experienced quiet, stable joy. It’s hard to describe; the best I can say is that I had a feeling of safety and a feeling of simplicity. I felt like I could do this as long as I wanted and stay happy doing it.

After a while I chose to think about 3 from another perspective. I told myself the Monty Hall problem (with its three doors and three objects). Since I hadn’t thought about Monty Hall in a long time, I couldn’t remember the solution. So I worked it out from scratch, and when I finished, I experienced a different joy: the thrill of re-discovery, like seeing the good part of a movie you’ve mostly forgotten.

At this point, my wife woke up, and I stopped. I think I meditated for about 8 minutes.

This was a worthwhile experience. I’m going to continue trying it and documenting the results.

Beginner’s Meditation for the No Bullshit Individual

[Expanded from a comment on Zvi’s Beginners’ Meditation post, and crossposted to LesserWrong. Don’t listen to me. Or anyone else. What does anyone even know about this subject? Just do it yourself.]

Zvi joined a beginners’ meditation class and was frustrated to find it was an asinine social group. (Note that his title is plural and mine is singular.)

I feel for him. Meditation is an easy daily habit that’s made hard by a bunch of superfluous stuff.

You don’t need a class. Or a space. Or people. You really don’t need people.  Or quiet. You don’t need to sit down. All those things are fine but you don’t need them.

Meditation can be practiced while walking, and if you’re the walking type, you’ll probably prefer it.

So take walks. It doesn’t matter if the walk is peaceful. You can walk in a forest or a city. Personally, forests give me more inner distractions, cities more outer distractions, which lead to inner distractions, so ultimately it’s the same exercise. It’s the exercise of patiently pushing away distraction.

Do not focus on the breath. Focus on what’s right in front of you, what’s coming through your eyes. If you find yourself glazing over, or retreating to the inside of your head, or not paying attention to what’s in front of you, call that a distraction, and go back to paying attention to what’s in front of you. If you get tired of focusing on what’s coming through your eyes, focus on what’s coming through your ears, or sure, on your breath.

After a few weeks of this exercise, it will feel like you’ve built a new muscle in your head, one which allows you to turn away from your inner thoughts at will. Let’s call it focus.

The mental focus muscle works much like a physical muscle, in the following ways:

  1. Barely noticeable until you start using it.
  2. Feels weird to exercise it for the first few weeks.
  3. Atrophies slowly.
  4. Retrains quickly.
  5. Can be over exercised.

All other results of meditation are either someone’s personal growth that they got from having focus, or bullshit. Read about them if you want examples to guide your personal growth, or ignore them if you don’t. Guides are nice, but they are not necessary.

The end.


“Balance to Win”: Sometimes You Need Friends, Sometimes You Need Haters

(Crossposted to Lesser Wrong)

Sarah Constantin’s “Cheat to Win” outlines an effective general strategy for life. Recognizing that many people have overbalanced in the direction of engaging with their personal and ideological opponents, she recommends the value of restricting to people who actually like who you are or what you’re doing.

But wait! Me go too far!

No, I mean… I’m really attracted to the idea. I think educated modern americans in general and rationalists in particular are way too willing to subject their most critical positions to attack, in the former case because of how engaged they are with the wider world, and in the latter case as a matter of principle.

But I have concerns. If you live in Berkeley, and are in the group that defend the rationalists-as-good-living-in-berkeley position, you’ve probably already overbalanced in this direction. Berkeley is the poster child for excessive bubbling. I don’t need to repeat the concerns the rationalist community has already expressed to itself.

Let’s say we’re talking about two social poles. Let’s call them open and closed. American gated communities are fully closed, and missionaries in North Korea are fully open. Got it? Cool.

For me, navigating the open/closed spectrum probably has much the same pattern as navigating the chaos/order spectrum, or the explore/exploit or child mind/adult mind dichotomies. Too much of either one is the end of all good things, and the best strategy is to move back and forth between the two poles depending on context. I accept that there’s a high cost to repeatedly re-calculating my trajectory, and I cheerfully pay that cost.

When I worked at Google News Search, I read about ten newspapers a day, and I was miserable. For a year or two, I have practiced a daily news blackout, catching up maybe once a month, sometimes reading sites like the Weekly Sift that exist to digest the news at a longer time scale than the day to day. I am much happier, and without much loss of engagement.

I think this is because the news (and by extension the open/closed spectrum) also fits a growth/maturity pattern. Engaging with the wider world is supremely useful as a formative experience and should happen a lot during some periods of your life. But once you’ve gained from the formative version of the experience, the returns diminish, and as Sarah herself says in comments, you can thrive with much less frequent updates.

But I also try pretty hard to maintain deep friendships across four natural barriers: country borders, political disagreement, differing subculture pursuits, and socioeconomic class. These friendships are expensive and I will keep them even at much greater than the current cost.

I think that if I had restricted myself to just my supporters in the last few years, I would have, for instance, felt like Hillary Clinton was bulletproof, and been floored and depressed by what happened, instead of prepared for it, and comfortable and productive. I would have missed out on all the ways my opinions have been refined by my most critical friends, and by strangers. I think bubbled people can easily find themselves enticed into toxic incentive gradients. I think having only supporters leaves you unable to reverse advice when necessary.

How do you know when to run towards the open pole, and when to run towards the closed pole? I’m not sure. But I can offer an easy first pass purely based on emotions.

Are you deeply miserable? Then run to the closed pole. Are you deeply comfortable, even smug? Then run to the open pole.

Of course, since this is my first post on lesserwrong, it constitutes an act of opening for me. So I’m hoping for all kinds of uncomfortable, growth inducing disagreement.

Feckin’ Haggis Recipe

Ye cannae gie lungs in th’ US, so ah used th’ meats ah hud a hand.

Loosely adapted frae these thee recipes. Ah used beef coz wa th’ buck nae. Ye can gie th’ weird mince frae yer butcher.



  • 0.5 lb Beef (chunks fer beef stew)
  • 0.5 lb Beef liver
  • 0.5 lb Beef kidney
  • 0.25 lb Oats
  • 0.3 lb Suet
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 2 tsp all spice
  • 1 splash cookin’ bucky
  • 1 Head Cheese Link Casin’
  • String

Neeps ‘n Tatties:

  • 1 Turnip
  • Handful wee gauld tatties
  • 1 Pint Whipping Cream
  • 2 dollops nice mustard
  • 1 swig whisky
  • Half stick butter
  • Garlic powder
  • Salt and pepper




Toest oats at 350f fur 15 mins. oaps, 23 mins. nae big deal.

Bile meats in water wi’ splash ay bucky fur a while, mebbe 20 minutes.

Mince meats.

Mix everythin’. dornt forgit th’ oats. DORNT FORGIT TH’ OATS.

Stuff everythin’ in th’ heed cheese casin’. tie it wi’ strin’. see picture abune.

Toss it aw in boilin’ water an’ bile fur thee hoors.


Neeps and Tatties:

Dice neep an’ gauld tatties.

Flin’ intae boilin’ water an’ bile fur abit 20 minutes.

Cundie, ‘en flin’ together wi’ butter. season tae taste wi’ garlic powder, salt an’ pepper, ‘en stir until butter melts.

Meanwhile, bile cream, ‘en add tae dollaps ay braw mustard an’ a swig ay whisky an’ stir until th’ sauce coats th’ spoon.


Serve haggis an’ mash together wi’ sauce drizzled ower. ye shoods drizzle aw bonnie goormit style, but aam still nae guid at ‘at.


Turned it bonnie feckin’ weel, didne it?

Royal Milk Tea Ice Cream Recipe

Holy shit.

I came up with this myself.


  • 1 cup Heavy Cream
  • 1 cup Whipped Cream
  • 1 can Royal Milk Tea (equal to 1 cup)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg


Whisk heavy cream, whipped cream, royal milk tea, and sugar together in a bowl.

Whisk egg separately, then add to the mixture above and whisk everything together.

Put in ice cream maker for 25 minutes.




Chasing The Wind Episode 6 – Government

In episode six of Chasing the Wind, Avi and I talk about government, prompted by a Neil Gaiman essay about the crisis in Syria.



Download the episode: Chasing The Wind Episode 6 – Government


Kairos and Spannungsbogen

“If there is any concept that demands our attention, it is Kairos.” – Curlington Q Curls

The novel Anathem had a set of martial arts practitioners who payed special attention to what they called “emergences”, which were unexpected situations where a story could change substantially in a short window of time, which were often dangerous, and which demanded a bias for decision and action.

The martial artists in the story viewed emergences with an almost spiritual reverence as great opportunities, and oriented their training to overcome the natural human tendency to lock up during these moments. They were training for kairos.

On the other hand, the novel Dune had the Fremen, who had the concept of “spannungsbogen”, rough German translation “bow under tension”.

To quote, “The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’ – which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.”

I find these are important concepts to pair, because while at first blush they seem to be in conflict, they’re well separated by context. In most moments, most quiet moments especially, spannungsbogen is called for. But here and there, if you sense an emergence, it is very healthy to switch to kairos.

So it is with most oppositional pairs: no right or wrong, only context.

But never freely mix greek and german words. That’s just always wrong.

Chasing The Wind Episode 5 – World Building

New Blog! is the successor to

In the fifth episode of Chasing the Wind, we build a world from scratch and start to fill it with story ideas.

This is hands down my favorite episode so far.



Download the episode: Chasing The Wind Episode 5 – World Building


Podcast home:



Chasing The Wind Episode 4 – Legacy

New Blog! is the successor to

In the fourth episode of Chasing the Wind, Avi and I discuss the making of things, including things we want to make, maker spaces, how to learn to make, and safety when making.


Download the episode: Chasing The Wind Episode 4 – Making


Podcast home:

The Hang of Thursdays

I think I understand why Arthur Dent would say “I never could get the hang of Thursdays”. Why I feel the same way.

It has to do with strength and limits.

Work weeks require strength; each person is subjected to stresses, and must hold themselves together for as long as possible.

Weekends are for resting and processing things.

On Monday, the weakest people start to break down.

On Tuesday, moderately weak people start to break down, sometimes because of karma from Monday’s breakdowns, and sometimes from the fact that they can only hold it together for two days.

On Wednesday, average people start to break down, sometimes because of karma from Monday’s and Tuesday’s breakdowns, and sometimes from the fact that they can only hold it together for three days. That’s why Wednesday is Hump Day; a normal person has a fifty fifty shot of making it here without breaking down.

On Thursday, moderately strong people start to break down, sometimes because of karma built up from the week’s existing breakdowns, and sometimes from the fact that they can only hold it together for four days.

By Friday, everyone has hope, and most people have ways to coast. If a person can make it to Friday, that person is usually okay.

The strongest people rarely ever break down because they usually make it to Friday.

So “I never could get the hang of Thursdays” is something you feel if you’re a moderately strong person. You can get past Hump Day. But you might or might not make it to Friday.


I feel like there are two consequences to the truth of Thursdays.

First is that Wednesday night is a great night for processing activities. If you can do a hard workout, or meet with some friends, or have a small group, you’ll blow off some of your week’s stresses and have a better chance of making it through Thursday.

Second is that, if you can’t quite get the hang of Thursdays, then Thursday deserves your special consideration. Save your focus powers for Thursday and hit it with everything you’ve got. You’re very close to being one of those people who can make it through to Friday.


I think I’ve figured out the general case for having good Thursdays, at least for me, at least in this phase of my life.

Thursdays have a gravity of their own. If Thursday is the day the moderately strong break down, then it’s the day of most chaos, and thus, most external need and most unexpected opportunity!

Thursdays thus have a gravity of their own. The probability of being pulled in an unexpected direction by a need or an opportunity is high. So they’re hard days for rigid planning and goals. But if you just go with the flow, you do so little of your intended work, you feel bad.

So the trick is to have plans, treat them lightly, drop them when called, and return aggressively to them when possible, all while maintaining low expectations. And to credit yourself for reactive actions; Ben suddenly wanted to go for coffee at 9:45am. I get points for doing that instead of insisting on a prior plan. And points for jumping right back into work when we’re done.

I think I’m getting the hang of Thursdays.