Mathemeditation

[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.

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.

How To Be A Good Person If You Find Yourself in a Fascist Society

(Originally published on March 1, 2016 on Medium.com)

We have let this man ride a wave of fear, and whether or not he wins the presidency, his brand of fascism is here to stay for a generation. He may fail, but someone else will be elevated by his followers, and then another, and another.

It’s time to take an honest look at the future. Someday, you may find yourself living in a fascist society.

If you want to figure out how to fight, read someone else’s essay. I’m going to talk about how to cope.

Accept It.

If it happens, don’t waste time pretending it’s not happening. Don’t waste time wishing it didn’t happen. That’s how we got here in the first place.

It’s okay. You can face this without losing sleep or hair. Most people survive even the worst things, and all bad things present opportunities to do good.

Even now, you can think about the possibility of a fascist America, and plan for it, and still tell yourself at the end of the day: in either case, I’m going to be okay.

Organize.

Organize informal communities, underground communities, and public communities, now, while it’s still a viable option. Fascists tend to come after free speech quickly, and he already likes to say he’ll make it easier to sue the newspapers for libel. It will take a more conscientious effort than usual to keep the culture free and open.

Don’t stop communicating with people who disagree with you, but reserve a portion of your energy for underground discussions with people who do agree. If you continue to have discussions in a pressure free environment, you can continue the exploration of good ideas, planting seeds for the progressive movements of the future.

Organize pragmatically. There’s going to be a lot of premature, stupidly organized protest. There’s going to be a temptation to run out and be a freedom fighter in the first organization you can find. Be patient, and make friends with careful people. Read a lot of history with an eye towards distinguishing useful disobedience and rebellion from useless disobedience and rebellion.

Simplify.

Live with less stuff. Be less of a consumer. This makes you more flexible and less beholden to a system which may hurt you.

Figure out where to hide people.

All that stuff you got rid of leaves you with space to hide people! And yes, it could come to that. He wants to deport Mexicans and Muslims. If you’re not a target, possibly the best thing you can do is provide sanctuary and shelter to people who are.

Think about this: you probably take time to plan for major storms. You have insurance to plan for being sick or injured. You wear safety gear when you do even mildly dangerous things. It’s cheap to plan for hiding people, and the payoff is enormous if you actually have do it.

Take a little time to plan for this possibility.

Actively maintain your ties to other nations.

Do you remember how unpopular America was just a few years ago? Whether he wins or loses, we already look that bad again, and we will look a lot worse if we actually become a fascist nation.

If you have friends in other countries, realize that they may not like America for a while, but they still like you. Keep talking to them, as much as you can. They will need decent Americans to engage with when this wave passes.

Also, it makes us look better.

Humanize the fascists.

Humanize the fascists. Humanize the other. Humanize your family and friends even when they say unspeakable things. Humanize your enemies, humanize the awful people you see on television.

Imagine others complexly. These people are people. They have complex lives, like you. They didn’t sit down and decide to be evil, and they’re not at all evil in their own minds. They have a different perspective and different priorities, and good intentions, and those things still led them down a dark path. Let that be a caution to help you govern your own thoughts, and let it preserve a flame of empathy in you, for everyone.

Fascism is a movement of dehumanization, and you oppose it by doing the opposite, by humanizing.

Believe in something.

Connect to a greater story than your own, preferably one that lasts after your death. It keeps you going. It keeps you happy! It keeps you strong.

Don’t beat them now.

If the worst happens, and we really do find ourselves in a fascist society, do not try to beat the fascists right now. Or next year, or in your youth, or even necessarily in your lifetime.

Historically, fascist movements have tended to run for about a generation each. They rarely end in anything other than violence, whether it be riots or the fall of a horrible regime.

Planning to beat them now is planning to throw yourself away impatiently.

Instead, plan for your children and grandchildren to be the ones who finish this fight. Teach them to be decent people. Train them to fight, if you like, but definitely train them to pick up the pieces and build something better.

Love.

Fundamentally, fascism is a hate movement, a cresting wave of hate.

You’ll be tempted to fight it with hate.

Don’t.

It takes a lot longer but the result is better.

1000 Miles of Bike Statistics

At the beginning of the summer, my friend Keith challenged himself to bike 1000 miles before the end of the year. I signed on to do the same thing. His challenge had a natural deadline; he lives in Minnesota, and biking season cuts off some time in the early fall. I gave myself an artificial deadline: 1000 miles from June 9 through end of September.

Keith finished his challenge a couple of weeks ago. I finished mine today. Wheeee! 1000 miles!

This isn’t a big number to bike boffins, but it’s more than I’ve done over a sustained period.

Since the challenge was numbers based, I kept statistics. Here they are:

Total miles: 1015.3

Total days: 106

Miles per day: 9.578

Total time: 5661 minutes, or 94 hours and 21 minutes.

Total rides: 137

Rides between 0 and 2 miles (aka GROCERY RIDES): 28

Rides between 2 and 10 miles: 80

Rides between 10 and 20 miles: 23

Rides between 20 and 30 miles: 5

Rides over 30 miles: 1

Average ride distance: 7.41 miles

Median ride distance: 6.8 miles

Average ride duration: 41.32 minutes

Median ride duration: 37 minutes

Average speed: 10.76 mph

Fastest ride (7 miles or longer): 14.1 mph, 18.8 miles, 80 mins

Slowest ride (7 miles or longer): 7.7586 mph, 7.5 miles, 58 mins

Average speed in Sisters, Oregon (few lights, few stops): 13 mph

Average speed in Los Angeles, California (many lights, many stops): 10.7 mph

Days off: 25

Days on: 81

Interesting things that happened:

– One bike stolen at UCLA

– One bike hit by Porsche and destroyed

– Three flat tires

Of particular note is this: I think I have biked slightly more miles than I’ve driven since moving to Los Angeles. I average on the order of 2 ocean trips a week, each about 30 miles of driving. I didn’t keep accurate track, but the number of miles driven and the number of miles biked are certainly comparable.

My three favorite ride views:

Here are my daily totals. gmap denotes distance calculated by gmap pedometerodo denotes distance calculated by bike odometer. x denotes a day I didn’t bike. na denotes a day that didn’t count (the days when my bike was destroyed and I was waiting to get a new one).

6/9/14: gmap 15.5 miles, 71 mins

6/10/14: gmap 15.5 miles, 69 mins

6/11/14: gmap 11 miles, 52 mins

6/12/14: x

6/13/14: gmap 11 miles, 53 mins

6/14/14: x

6/15/14: gmap 8 miles, 43 mins

6/16/14: gmap 3 miles, 20 mins; gmap 3 miles, 22 mins

6/17/14: gmap 6 miles, 45 mins

6/18/14: gmap 9 miles, 54 mins

6/19/14: odo 10.6 miles, 62 mins

6/20/14: odo 3 miles, 16 mins; odo 9.2 miles, 48 mins

6/21/14: odo 2.1 miles, 12 mins; odo 6.4 miles, 34 mins

6/22/14: odo 16.2 miles, 78 mins; odo 2.2 miles, 9 mins; odo 6.8 miles, 34 mins

6/23/14: odo 8.7 miles, 49 mins; odo 8.7 miles, 48 mins

6/24/14: odo 6.3 miles, 35 mins; odo 4.4 miles, 26 mins; odo 4.2 miles, 29 mins

6/25/14: odo 8.2 miles, 44 mins; odo 8.3 miles, 45 mins; odo 3.8 miles, 23 mins

6/26/14: odo 6.4 miles, 36 mins

6/27/14: odo 6.4 miles, 35 mins

6/28/14: odo 7.6 miles, 42 mins

6/29/14: x

6/30/14: x

7/1/14: odo 3.5 miles, 15 mins

7/2/14: odo 3 miles, 15 mins

7/3/14: odo 8.2 miles, 43 mins; odo 8.2 miles, 37 mins

7/4/14: odo 0.9 miles, 4 mins; odo 1.1 miles, 5 mins

7/5/14: odo 9.6 miles, 55 mins; odo 11.8 miles, 56 mins

7/6/14: odo 1.5 miles, 5 mins

7/7/14: odo 8.2 miles, 46 mins; odo 8.2 miles, 35 mins

7/8/14: x

7/9/14: odo 3.2 miles, 15 mins

7/10/14: odo 5.1 miles, 20 mins; odo 9.4 miles, 53 mins

7/11/14: odo 6 miles, 38 mins; odo 5.2 miles, 28 mins

7/12/14: x

7/13/14: odo 4.2 miles, 20 mins; odo 23.7 miles, 165 mins

7/14/14: odo 8.2 miles, 48 mins; odo 8.2 miles, 37 mins

7/15/14: odo 7.7 miles, 48 mins; odo 8.4 miles, 40 mins

7/16/14: odo 8.5 miles, 50 mins; odo 9.5 miles, 45 mins

7/17/14: x

7/18/14: x

7/19/14: odo 8.4 miles, 45 mins; odo 5.7 miles, 25 mins

7/20/14: odo 18.8 miles, 80 mins

7/21/14: odo 8.2 miles, 48 mins; odo 7.5 miles, 35 mins

7/22/14: odo 11 miles, 63 mins; gmap 3.7 miles, 20 mins

7/23/14: gmap 4.2 miles, 20 mins

7/24/14: x

7/25/14: gmap 1.4 miles, 6 mins; gmap 9.7 miles, 50 mins

7/26/14: gmap 1.4 miles, 7 mins; gmap 1.2 miles, 6 mins; gmap 1.2 miles, 6 mins

7/27/14: gmap 1.4 miles, 7 mins

7/28/14: gmap 2.5 miles, 12 mins; gmap 3.6 miles, 15 mins

7/29/14: x

7/30/14: gmap 1.4 miles, 7 mins; gmap 3.8 miles, 15 mins; gmap 1.4 miles, 7 mins

7/31/14: gmap 1.2 miles, 5 mins

8/1/14: na

8/2/14: na

8/3/14: na

8/4/14: na

8/5/14: gmap 10.7 miles, 60 mins; gmap 0.8 miles, 5 mins

8/6/14: gmap 3.7 miles, 18 mins; gmap 18.3 miles, 109 mins

8/7/14: gmap 7.7 miles, 54 mins

8/8/14: gmap 1.6 miles, 10 mins

8/9/14: gmap 0.9 miles, 5 mins

8/10/14: gmap 0.9 miles, 5 mins

8/11/14: gmap 12.6 miles, 75 mins

8/12/14: gmap 10.2 miles, 57 mins

8/13/14: gmap 32.2 miles, 188 mins

8/14/14: gmap 6 miles, 35 mins

8/15/14: gmap 7.8 miles, 50 mins

8/16/14: x

8/17/14: x

8/18/14: gmap 9.3 miles, 54 mins; gmap 9.3 miles, 52 mins; gmap 7.5 miles, 58 mins

8/19/14: x

8/20/14: gmap 9.6 miles, 60 mins; gmap 9.7 miles, 60 mins

8/21/14: x

8/22/14: x

8/23/14: gmap 26.1 miles, 145 mins

8/24/14: x

8/25/14: gmap 12.9 miles, 73 mins

8/26/14: gmap 1.0 miles, 6 mins; gmap 12.8 miles, 69 mins

8/27/14: gmap 1.0 miles, 6 mins

8/28/14: gmap 10.2 miles, 50 mins; gmap 9.6 miles, 50 mins

8/29/14: x

8/30/14: x

8/31/14: gmap 26.3 miles, 139 mins; gmap 6 miles, 40 mins

9/1/14: gmap 15 miles, 83 mins

9/2/14: gmap 9.5 miles, 53 mins; gmap 6 miles, 37 mins; gmap 9.3 miles, 45 mins; gmap 3 miles, 15 mins; gmap 1.0 miles, 6 mins

9/3/14: gmap 12.7 miles, 72 mins

9/4/14: gmap 2.2 miles, 10 mins

9/5/14: gmap 10 miles, 65 mins

9/6/14: gmap 5.2 miles, 30 mins; gmap 5.2 miles, 30 mins; gmap 1.1 miles, 10 mins; gmap 25.5 miles, 155 mins; gmap 6.8 miles, 39 mins

9/7/14: gmap 14.5 miles, 87 mins

9/8/14: x

9/9/14: gmap 14 miles, 75 mins

9/10/14: gmap 11.1 miles, 75 mins

9/11/14: x

9/12/14: x

9/13/14: gmap 12.8 miles, 70 mins

9/14/14: gmap 6.7 miles, 38 mins

9/15/14: x

9/16/14: x

9/17/14: gmap 1.4 miles, 8 mins; gmap 5.1 miles, 27 mins

9/18/14: gmap 7.7 miles, 40 mins; gmap 0.9 miles, 5 mins

9/19/14: gmap 1.8 miles, 10 mins; gmap 5.3 miles, 30 mins

9/20/14: x

9/21/14: gmap 9 miles, 57 mins; gmap 4.7 miles, 30 mins

9/22/14: gmap 1.0 miles, 6 mins; gmap 10 miles, 63 mins; gmap 5.4 miles, 32 mins

9/23/14: x

9/24/14: gmap 0.9 miles, 6 mins; gmap 0.6 miles, 4 mins; gmap 0.8 miles, 6 mins; gmap 12.7 miles, 76 mins

9/25/14: gmap 0.9 miles, 8 mins; gmap 0.9 miles, 5 mins; gmap 3.2 miles, 24 mins

9/26/14: gmap 26 miles, 160 mins

Edit: And as I pulled up to the ocean to finish mile 1000, this is what started playing on my headphones:

I swear, it was on random.

Be Yourself / Make Yourself

There’s a lot of writing about how obviously sensible or obviously stupid it is to tell someone, “Be yourself.” Almost all of this writing starts with something like, “Be yourself. What does that even mean?”

Be yourself. What does that even mean?

When I was an academic, that was me, but it was a version of myself that I chose and built. When I left that world and built an identity as a reluctant engineer, that was also a version of myself that I chose and built. Even basic things about me are the results of choices. I am volatile and creative in part because I encouraged the volatile and creative parts of myself. I am lazy because I have allowed myself to be lazy, and happy because I have repeatedly made the choice to work on my happiness.

It’s evident that each of us is in the process of making ourselves, all the time, every day. If you are who you’ve made yourself to be by choice and effort, then by definition, whatever you choose is right, and you are always being yourself. “Be yourself” is a meaningless tautology, already and always true. Right?

Well, not exactly.

Making yourself by choice and effort is an art. You are practicing the art of making yourself. You’ve been practicing it for most of your life.

Paul Graham says this about making art:

At an art school where I once studied, the students wanted most of all to develop a personal style. But if you just try to make good things, you’ll inevitably do it in a distinctive way, just as each person walks in a distinctive way. Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn’t help painting like Michelangelo.

The only style worth having is the one you can’t help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it.

As you make yourself, you do it with a personal style. This style emerges without your even trying; you can’t help but have your style.

In my case, some key elements are: I’m very flighty, interested in everything and prone to change topics really quickly. I’m always in a fight with myself to be better; I wake up every day and want to be more than I am. I’m passive for long stretches, needing hours of recharge time just to take walks, and sometimes having difficulty summoning the activation energy for the next good thing. I’m conscientious; I’ve payed a lot of attention to the quality of what I’m doing, and flat out quit several really nice parts of my life because they felt wrong. I’m usually pathologically honest and struggle not to be too blunt. I love to talk and can do so for hours and hours without stopping. When I set about making myself, I do it thoughtfully, I do it in bursts, I talk about it a lot. These things are my style.

That style is the real me. Your style is the real you. You’re a businessman? A nice person? A runner? An educated person? A tough person? That’s not you. The idiosyncratic way you went about making yourself into those things, that’s the real you.

“Be yourself” means “don’t fight against your natural style”.

I’ve fought against most of the parts of my natural style at one point or another. In each case I fought because I wanted to be a particular type of person, and that person required the opposite traits. Every time I’ve done this, it’s made me miserable and ineffective.

For instance, I always wanted to be an astronaut. Astronauts are uncommonly, uncannily disciplined people. I’m really undisciplined by nature. This is a weakness that needs shoring up, for sure, but there were points in my childhood and my early teenage years where I pushed myself to become the most disciplined person. I was sailing against a headwind, and if I’d persisted, I’d be sailing against that headwind for the rest of my life.

Contrast that with the times I’ve let myself be a writer. Writers are good at disassembling and reassembling concepts. They’re good at wordplay. They like to talk (even if it’s just in text form). They like to make up stories. I’m naturally inclined to all of these things. I write a few thousand lines of gchat with my friends every day, not because I push myself, but because I want to write. When I write, I’m sailing with a natural tailwind.

Here’s Paul Graham again:

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!” (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.

Be yourself. Pay attention to the style that comes most naturally to you. Shore up real weaknesses, but accept that you can’t remake yourself into absolutely anything. Don’t spend your whole life struggling against your real natural style. Instead, find things you want to be that suit your style.

[An aside just for teenagers: This is why we’re always telling you to be yourself. You’re just starting to understand your own style, and you face more pressure than anyone else to fight against it. If you’re bookish and thoughtful, someone is telling you to be more impulsive. If you’re creative, someone is telling you to be more focused. If you’re shy, someone is telling you to fake it until you make it. No! Pay attention to your natural style and protect it. It will get easier. Last week, my friend went surfing dressed as Batman. Nobody told him he shouldn’t do this. He’s grown up, he can do what he wants!]

Being yourself in this sense is the difference between repression and self improvement. Repression violates your natural style, the parts you just can’t help. It diminishes you. Self improvement synchronizes with your natural style. It amplifies you.

Go make yourself. Go practice your art. Go be yourself.

There’s a whole album based on this concept.

 

Good Morning, Scotland

Good morning, Scotland.

The decision you make today is yours and yours alone. But we wanted to offer some words of encouragement.

They say your future will be uncertain. We want to let you know it mostly turns out well. Even those of us who are struggling would not soon rejoin the Union.

They say you don’t have it in you to govern yourselves. They said that about most of us, too.

They say you’ll be isolating yourself. We know you want to be part of the international community (more so than England does), and we will welcome you on your own terms.

They promise you new powers if you stay. By becoming independent, you gain the opportunity to forge a state as different from Westminster as you want it to be, with leaders you want to have. You gain whatever powers you see fit, on the timetable of your choosing.

They say you have had many wonderful years together, and in this they are right. Independence gave us the right to celebrate our shared history with Britain as much or as little as we each want, and the same will be true for you. Many of us remain close, and you can do the same.

We know this is not an easy choice. So many of us struggled for this same thing, for the right to self determination.

They often say you can’t go it alone. We know you can, Scotland. After all, we did.

Your siblings, the former British,

Antigua and Barbuda,

Australia,

The Bahamas,

Bahrain,

Barbados,

Belize,

Botswana,

Brunei,

Canada,

Cyprus,

Dominica ,

Egypt,

Fiji,

The Gambia,

Ghana,

Grenada,

Guyana,

India,

Israel,

Iraq,

The Republic of Ireland,

Jamaica,

Jordan,

Kenya,

Kiribati,

Kuwait,

Lesotho,

Malawi,

Malaysia,

Maldives,

Malta,

Mauritius,

Myanmar,

New Zealand,

Nigeria,

Pakistan,

Qatar,

Saint Lucia,

Saint Kitts and Nevis,

Seychelles,

Sierra Leone,

Solomon Islands,

South Africa,

Sri Lanka ,

Sudan,

Swaziland,

Tanzania,

Trinidad and Tobago,

Tuvalu,

Uganda,

The United Arab Emirates,

The United States of America,

Vanuatu,

Yemen,

Zambia,

and Zimbabwe.

Watching in a Trance

This story was written while listening to Shiny Toy Guns’ cover of “Major Tom” on loop. If you would like the full experience while reading it, the song is on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyFe5m2MU9Q) as is the original (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt-R5hj_lWM)

“Experiments require precisely controlled environments and must be repeated many times for significant results. In the time before replicators, our science was full of bad experiments.”

1

The scientist sits at his workstation, fresh coffee on the table beside him, and switches to a terminal.

cd ../ChimpCompiler
ls
gcc -c chimp_08464.cc chimp_template.cc chimp_template_utilities.cc -o chimp_08464
./chimp_08464 –mode=test –run_tests=all –test_iq=95

The machine hums and symbols spit down the screen in rapid succession. He takes a sip of coffee, frowns at it in surprise, and gets up to go brew another pot.

2

The test has gone well. The scientist sits at his workstation again, fresh coffee on the table beside him, and focuses on the terminal.

cd ..
cd ChimpReplicator
ls
python chimp_replicator.py –program=../ChimpReplicator/chimp_08464 –tolerance=6 –log_level=Error –test=True / 2>&1 | tee log_chimp_08464_060849.txt

The machine hums and symbols spit down the screen in rapid succession. The scientist sips his coffee and is satisfied. He switches tabs and watches a video to pass the time.

3

After a while, the scientist gets up and walks across the room to a video monitor. The monitor is split screen; each side shows a large floor mounted capsule in an otherwise empty room. Lights on the capsules blink a repeating sequence in perfect unison. After a minute, this sequence is interrupted by a short burst of blinks, and finally, silently, the lights switch off, and the capsule doors slowly open, still in perfect unison.

Fog settles to the floor from inside the doors, and from each capsule emerges a chimpanzee in a space suit. There are subtle, intentional differences; the scientist inspects these and smiles with satisfaction. This won’t be like the first pot of coffee.

4

The chimpanzees now stand idly on conveyor belts, each carried forward down a hallway.

They emerge through automatic doors, each in a room with a perfectly fitted transport pod, glass canopy raised open overhead.

Their training kicks in, and they waddle over to their craft and climb aboard. The chimps strap themselves in and put on helmets which have electrical cables running into the spaces behind their seats. They push buttons in perfect unison, and the glass canopies descend. After a moment, conveyor arms appear from the sides of each room, lowering to the floor, grabbing each pod from the underside, and raising it up and out of the room.

Now the monitor switches viewpoints. The podcraft are deposited in long tunnels. Lights blink in succession as structures are attached to the pods. The chimps sit quietly, occasionally fiddling with dials. Finally the main status light on each side shows steady green.

One chimp scratches himself.

The scientist nods to himself and returns to his terminal.

cd ../ChimpAccelerator
./run

5

A deep and audible thrum builds from the floor beneath the chimps. The pods levitate off ground, centered in the tunnels, and begin to accelerate under magnetic impulse power. The scientist reads the accelerator status from one tab as he watches video on another.

1.004 * 10^-8 * c

The acceleration process is slow. The scientist opens another window to do more work, refactoring some code, periodically checking the accelerator status window.

6.901 * 10^-6 * c

The chimps sit patiently. Already the speed is high enough to blur the tunnel through their viewports.

After an hour, the status window reads

0.84 * c
Approaching warp threshold in 2:57

The chimps remain patient. Another readout indicates they are continuing to pass physiological tests.

0.96 * c

Approaching warp threshold in 0:45

The scientist switches back to the accelerator terminal, where a prompt awaits the final commands.

0:30 WarpPrep, Align0:50 Warp, Collide

6

A curious thing happens during a Mori Inversion Warp. Acceleration is smooth at sub and super light speeds, but there is a jump discontinuity at the speed of light. Human subjects describe it as feeling “like time stops for an infinity”, and early instrumentation readings often (but not always) reflect this. Edwards and Tillman developed a method to partially shield instruments, allowing for readings at the singularity, but it doesn’t work on living brains; subjectively, humans continue to perceive an infinite stoppage of time.

7

The pods shift into the same tunnel and bear down on each other just as the warp discontinuity is reached.

Four

Three

Two

One

Time stops.

The chimps are frozen, pods just a few feet apart, separated by nothing but empty space. They stare at each other through their glass viewports.

They stare deeply into each other’s eyes. They can’t move.

They stare at each other for an age. Incomprehension turns to shock turns to rage. They hate each other for a long time.

After more than a century, one chimp unexpectedly softens. The second chimp recognizes this, sensitized after so long staring at his clone, and softens as well.

Hate turns to understanding turns to love.

They love each other with all the understanding of a nearly identical pair. He is the tragic lover of himself, forever.

But their differences are flaws in a perfect diamond, and over centuries, these flaws shatter under pressure. Each chimp hates the other, simply for being different.

They pass eons, divorcing, remarrying, divorcing, remarrying.

A million years have passed, and, exhausted, each accepts the flaws in the other. They will remain together forever.

Their love lasts more lifetimes than all the loves of all the beings that have ever lived on earth.

And still they know it will end. Even this infinity is subjective, and it will end.

Time doesn’t return all of a sudden. It returns gradually, agonizingly. The pods begin to move, just barely at the edge of perception. Then slowly, so slowly, the pods touch, and grind each other to pieces. Fire, slow beautiful painted fire engulfs the chimps, and they die still staring into each other’s eyes.

8

The scientist sips his coffee and watches the explosion on his desk monitor. He smiles with blearly eyed satisfaction as he switches to the terminal.

cd ../ChimpCompiler

He still has a long night of work ahead of him.

9

The Journal of Astrophysical Psychology publishes “Reactions of Chimpanzees at Relativistic Speeds” to widespread acclaim.

A 200 Year Plan for Bears

(Quick editor’s note: I’ve cancelled the Annoying Character March Madness tournament due to lack of interest)


So, today I’m going to write about an old idea of mine.

Bears are great.

They’re mostly endangered.

We have a long history of bestowing enormous genetic success on other living things that please us. Being loved by humans is much, much, much more effective than traditional conservation.

We kind of love bears, but we don’t get enough of them, because we have almost no way to interact with real bears. What we really love is an idealized, unthreatening form of bear.

We’re love the idea of the teddy bear, the tame bear. The domesticated bear.

Rest in peace, Knut

Mankind has had slow domestication for tens of thousands of years. But recently, we’ve developed the organizational prowess to practice much more rapid domestication [1].

Not a bear

Here’s what I think we should do: We should set aside a very large tract of wilderness as an enormous bear preserve.

We should populate it with as many bears as is safely possible (for the land, and for the bears themselves). We might start with the smaller black bears and sun bears.

Sorry, guy

We should take care of these bears, at first from a distance. But, each generation, we should select the smallest and most docile bears, and take much more personal care of these.

Handlers should raise these bears alongside humans, and breed them for neotenous characteristics.

Oh, right, neoteny. Neoteny is a term from biology, and means the retention of juvenile characteristics in adulthood. Grown dogs resemble wolf puppies. Grown humans resemble chimpanzee babies. We are both examples of neotenous evolution.

What if this were the end stage for domesticated bears?

 

I think that on a two hundred year time line, we can accomplish the same thing for bears, spinning off a sub species which essentially remain cub-like in adulthood.

We can domesticate bears. All we have to do is work them down to the big dog stage, in terms of size and docility.

This is about right

I think this will save the bear, genetically (admittedly at the cost of its dignity).

I think this could be done for around the cost of one personal fortune. I know I would do it if I had a spare billion dollars.

I think it’s a small price to pay for tens of thousands of future years of this:

What do you think?

[1] In fairness to myself, I had this idea long before I knew about the Russian Fox Domestication experiment.