Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Every Other Sentence Is a Lie

. . . but I won't tell whether the first statement is a truth or a falsehood.

On Tuesday of the second week, Louie and Kevin came by to teach us poker. They began by showing us a video of common errors in probability calculations that people might make during Poker. Then, we split into three tables to learn the rules and play a few rounds. We each bought in for five dollars, because several people said that it is hard to take poker seriously without real stakes.

Poker is a very silly game. It is based on the probabilities and likelihoods of certain hands coming up, with the strength of the hand correlating inversely with its likelihood. Except when the creators of the game didn't actually calculate the probabilities, resulting in some oddities. The "flush" (five cards of the same suit) is worth more than the "straight" (five consecutive numbers), even though the straight is less common. I threw a fit when this was first explained to me, demanding that we (rationalists and all) play them in the correct probability order. Everyone else promptly refused, explaining (very reasonably) that such a system would be useless almost everywhere. (Irrational people, they're ALMOST EVERYWHERE!)

Things got strange right away. Kevin went upstairs and returned with a great deal of alcohol. Arrogant as humans will be, I was all, oh, I'm just going to drink a little bit. It won't affect anything! So we drank, and played, and drank, and played, and very soon things weren't really making much sense at all, and everything was swimming about, and even though I was looking at my cards, I wasn't actually seeing them, so I'd have to look at them again a moment later, and things were generally frustrating. People kept saying things like "you should bet between half and twice the pot," or else things like "I'm sorry you lost that hand, but if it makes you feel any better, that probably was the correct way to play it =D," and everything was all very very confusing. I was being a n00b. I later learned not to spend forever and ever thinking over whether to call each time, because every bet seemed just high enough that I didn't want to take it, but just low enough that it might be worth my hand, and I would sit there wondering and wondering. As time wore on, I cached more of my previous decisions and didn't spend as much time deliberating anymore, or else I just got too drunk to do it. And then things were better.

I often hear from people, "it's like paying five dollars to become better calibrated" or something to that effect. Maybe it's true. But it also can't be that each time someone loses, they become better calibrated. I'm certain that people who have played a great deal are actually updating very little, and that their positive or negative experience of the night actually comes from the randomness in the cards.

The statements are no longer either true or false. Nearly everything at this point is a half-truth, including this statement itself.

In my very very limited experience, poker is a very unpleasant game to play. At a table with n people, one loses an average of (n-1)/n of one's hands, and this is at least half of the time. It is like getting little pings of defeat over and over again. Each time one is dealt a hand, one is hopeful, and most of the time, one is disappointed in one's hand. And therefore, even if one wins in the end, one is likely to spend a majority of the game being disappointed or unhappy. Meanwhile, every amount anyone wins is some amount someone else has lost. It is zero-sum. It is so zero-sum. Money is made and lost, yet no value is generated. The first night, I played for an hour and won a dollar. Yeesh, that's an hourly rate that's really not worthwhile at all. But that's all silly, because the expected hourly profit over a whole table is zero, unless you're a significantly better than average player. With rationalists, I generally assume that the people I play against are at least as skilled as myself.

(I'll take on any one of you on any instrument in Rock Band.)

So the value of the game, what is that? Some answers I've heard:
- thinking when there is money at stake
- estimating probabilities
- calibration of value estimates
- making difficult decisions
- the social aspect of manipulating other players

All good things to learn; all with a nontrivial likehood of being useful or necessary at some point in time. But then again, we would hardly be here if we couldn't do necessary but unpleasant things now, would we?

Since then, I've played somewhere between one and three other times, and some people have played many many more. It's always strange, because I'm always trying to guess at what they're thinking, and they're always trying to guess what I'm thinking, and then we base our actions on what our model of the other person is doing, including basing their action on their model of us acting, and it all spirals into a huge tangled DeathNote sort of mess. They don't trust me, nor I them. I'll admit here to having never yet bluffed a hand, but I'm fully open to bluffing hands in the future.

The element of randomness is scary. Knowing that there is a chance of things working out really well, I'm ever tempted to just play this hand and see what happens, and then I have to be all NO that's not decision with positive expected value! And it's scary, and it's tiring, but I trust that I'm learning really useful things about handling scary situations in the meanwhile, but it's not entertainment. It's like that giant game of diplomacy where we played for many hours and ended in a six-way tie, except that itself was pretty fun. And whenever I think "poker," I get a vague impression of that study done with pigeons, where rewards were given randomly and intermittently. My psychology textbook cited that even when rewards were removed, pigeons would continue to peck at a button hundreds of thousands of times, because "hope springs eternal."

Hope springs eternal. What a lovely thought, and what terrible things it makes people do! People lose vast amounts of time and money for their misplaced hopes. I think I'm just ranting on and on at this point, so it must be time to close off. I still owe you guys a completely positive post, so that will be the next thing after this, I promise. Therefore, another clip of song to sleep upon:
Please come with me,
See what I see.
Touch the stars for time will not flee.

Peace and happiness,

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Liveblogging Men's Fashion (with a Touch of Sarcasm)

Luke: Men's fashion I'm really excited about because there's only so much I can say about fashion in general, but the particulars. . . we get to be specific [about things that look good or bad on men].

Fashion signals high status, that you get the social world, high confidence, and being sexy. . . (this part is review) Clothes need to fit and accentuate the V-shape. . . (image of a fellow who looks like a DBZ character)

Clarification: consistency is mostly important at any one given time, but consistency across days is not so important.

/begin{new material}
You can jump to the 70th percentile of men's fashion just by avoiding things that you should not do. The same holds for dating as well.

Ten Things to Avoid
1. Pleats: pleats are where the fabric folds over itself, but Luke wouldn't recommend them because any extra fabric makes you look heavier, and you want a more streamlined look. The pleats look baggier and heavier, like there are folds of skin pushing them out.
2. Hawaiian floral prints: not anywhere
3. Socks with sandals
4. Sandals: Hugh and Luke don't like men's sandals because they are strictly Pareto suboptimal, unless you're actually walking on sand.
5. Athletic shoes (except when exercising): they are not made to be good for exercising, not for looking good.
6. Mismatched belts and shoes (comment: does anyone really look that closely at a man's belt and shoes?)
7. Too-short pants: operate on the heuristic that ankles are ugly, with lots of bulges and shapes and weird stuff
8. Dirty shoes and clothes: Luke says that women pay a lot of attention to shoes, but I honestly have never noticed dirt on anyone's shoes, or even the difference between athletic shoes and other types of shoes. . . .
9. Mismatched shoes and socks (what's with all this emphasis on shoes?)
10. Polo shirts and khaki pants: Luke says they attach you to a geek schema. He says that there is no use for khakis that is not either covered by jeans or black slacks. I'd veto this if possible. Khaki pants are very convenient, with huge pockets, and I frankly find them very relaxed. They say, I value utility more than appearance. Actually, I <3 geeks. Geeks are hot.

Blogger aside: I'm feeling pretty hostile towards this. It seems more and more about looking acceptable to the standards of the general masses. Presumably, people take you seriously when you dress well. Well that's obvious. If I'm giving a presentation, of course I will look very professional. But for general everyday outings, I'd much rather have baggy, large-pocketed clothes.

I think I'm objecting to this because it's telling me not to wear things that I do like, instead wearing things that I don't like, and distinguishing shoes that I didn't even know were different before right now.

Advice for heavy men:
1. vertical, patterns, not horizontal
2. avoid pleats and bulky things
3. no large prints
4. no loud things that break the vertical line
5. lose weight

Advice for tall men (6'2" or taller):
horizontal patterns (maybe avoid vertical patterns to avoid looking too tall)

Advice for tall and skinny men:
1. horizontal patterns
2. layering to avoid looking like a starving anorexic
3. fitted shirts

Advice for short men (shorter than 6'2") (includes most men)
1. avoid baggy clothes, pleats, cuffs
2. wear low-rise pants (to make legs look longer)
3. avoid large prints or things that break the vertical line

Hair (can of worms: open)
- if you are going bald, shave your head because that is the best look. And then do something cool with your beard so there's a neat trim on it. Luke says that male hair loss is a solved problem. There's a drug called something-or-other (fenasterid?) that can be bought generically from online pharmacies under brand names. Over 5-year study, caused 2/3 of men to regrow hair, 48% to have visible hair growth, caused 92% to stop losing hair (as compared to 100% of men on placebo who continued to lose hair).

pluck eyebrows to avoid unibrow
trim nose and ear hair
clean-shaven or neatly trimmed
clean teeth, clean skin, no body odor
subtle cologne (not too strong, because too strong scents drive some people away)

Wardrobe Essentials
- a pair of nice jeans, dark wash and minimal distressing (tears and stuff) so that they can be used kind-of formally (Aside: Luke is talking about costlier jeans generally being better than cheaper ones, as opposed to $100 t-shirts not necessarily being better than $40 ones or $30 ones. . . that's sounds pretty helluva expensive. . . it's still more expensive than any shirt I've ever had, t-shirt or no, except for really really formal professional-presentation shirts.)
- a pair of dress shoes (Ok, apparently Oxfords and loafers are different styles of shoes. Apparently, Oxfords are laced a certain way. Maybe a majority of girls really do worry about stuff like the differences between Oxfords and loafers. Do those words mean different things to you? I'm really curious how a center-of-the-fashion-bellcurve girl sees the world. But I'm also sufficiently scathing of the itteh-bitteh differences that if they really do look different, I'm inclined to think one is looking too closely at something that doesn't matter too much. Or maybe I'm wrong completely, and it actually matters a great deal. I don't know.) Consensus seems to be that the sizes of things on websites are pretty accurate, and that shoes can be ordered online.
- a pair of casual loafers (So much emphasis on shoes! I'm so bored.)
- one white button-up shirt, fitted, long sleeves, not too many pockets
- one charcoal graey suit (or black or navy) for formal wear, two buttons in front, two vents in back so it doesn't bunch up when one sits down, tailored
- one colored button-up shirt, fitted, long sleeves (burgundy is nice, but not office blue)
- one black silk tie (why silk?), thick ties for formal settings, skinnier ties for artsiness (
- a sweater (no sweater vests, plaid, argyle)
- some black v-neck t-shirts, fitted, for casual or layering
- underwear (not white!), no bikini briefs, no boxers, suggested boxer briefs (What do these words mean? I looked up a Google images search, still can't tell them apart D:)
- socks, matched to shoes or to pants
- one or more designer t-shirt(s), fitted, for casual or layering
- a belt that matches each shoe (wider belts are more casual)
- interesting belt buckle (some belts can detach their buckles)
- necklace, bracelets, and rings (Peter says accessories are important because you can dress up for more things with fewer articles of clothing by changing accessories)
- maybe sunglasses
- one swim suit (not speedos, not elastic), board shorts

- not heavy
- avoid similar patterns close together
- solid colors are safer because some patterns don't match very well
- can have one patterned thing with a bunch of solid-colored things

--- Intermission ---

Hugh: different strategies
red (dress normally): mainstream, higher mean, more medium responses
blue (dress distinctively): alternative, lower mean, more low responses but also more high responses

red: good for looking not offensively bad, good for making generally good impressions on groups
blue: good for dating, good for getting a few people to be really attracted to you

tradeoff: broadness of appeal to strength of appeal. Hard to appeal to everyone, because then everything is watered down. Optimum strategy depends on context.

Heuristics to find one's own style
- figure out goals, then work backwards
- find a subculture, adopt all or parts of its style (ex: hipster, punk, goth, cyber goth, steam punk, metal, industrial, rivetheads, visual kei (japanese goth), emo)
- decide what to signal, and then dress accordingly
- inspiration from the media, celebrities, bands, characters (ex: vampires)

Aside: I'm out of computer batteries now, so that's it for now. To be continued later, maybe.


We've done three days of drawing so far, and it is all very very strange. The very first thing we drew was Jasen's face, which came out for the most part fairly well. The second thing we drew was a (real life) person from memory. That came out fairly terribly. I was trying to remember a clear image of my intended person, and it was recognizable, but whenever I tried to see a particular feature, then the whole thing just slid around and didn't make sense at all. Then we drew our hand, which was a pretty standard exercise, I guess.

We were shown an image of the profile-vase image and asked to copy down a copy of it, drawing one side just looking at the lines, and drawing the other side while thinking of facial features. We copied a drawing of Stravinsky by Picasso twice: once rightside-up and once upside-down. I guess the intention is to draw lines instead of saying, oh, that's a head, Imma ignore Jasen now and just look at my paper and draw what I think a head looks like! But I don't think any of us were doing that anyways. I certainly wasn't doing that anyways.

The hardest thing for me is getting anywhere near finished, because each drawing was to be done in fifteen minutes. It's fairly difficult to draw things with any detail in fifteen minutes, unless it's done without studying a real world object very carefully.

I believe the mouth is the hardest part of the face to draw.

On Tuesday, we drew the lines of our left hands, while twisting our body and looking at our left hands so that we couldn't see the paper, and then we didn't look at the paper at all. Things came out pretty unrecognizable. After that, we looked at our hands through a viewfinder window thing, tracing the lines with markers. We shaded a page of sketchpad, copied the outline of a hand from the viewfinder, and then filled it in very very carefully. And shaded it. Those came out very very cool.

But that was before, and now it is today. Today was strange. We drew chairs. And then we drew the negative spaces around and through the chairs. I guess the idea was to get an outline in proportion, and it was supposed to help to look at shapes (of spaces) instead of features of chairs. Finally, we drew a corner of the classroom.

Drawing is still a lot of fun, three days in. I feel like some of the things are coming out very prettily, and some other things are coming out very funnily.

However, I've heard it said (I think it was Rahul who said so? But I forget.) that the drawing is a very good metaphor for seeing the real world, and exactly that, and no more than that. We're supposed to see evidence objectively, without our cognitive biases, and that's like drawing without some preconceived notion of how a chair ought to be put together, and it only looks anywhere close to accurate if I draw exactly what I see, and not what I expect to see. That's a near-perfect metaphor for deciding what is most likely to be true.

But I'm skeptical that it actually helps to decide what is most likely to be true. It seems that seeing lines does not map directly onto seeing evidence, or seeing arguments, or seeing information. I'm very fond of it because it is a lot of fun, but I do doubt how useful it is to thinking rationally.

I feel like a big bad naysayer. Skeptical about everything! But I promise I am trying everything from as neutral a starting position as I can manage.

A side note: last night, Lincoln very nearly convinced me that we are a cult! Which is to say, it's not immediately obvious to me that we are not a cult. Interesting hypothetical apostasy here.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Exercise at the Bootcamp

When I came to the Rationality Bootcamp I had resolved to make a few changes. I knew that I would actually meditate as often as I would like. I knew that I would spend time with friends who had moved out here. I knew that I would meet interesting, cool people. And I knew that I would start doing the four hour body to build muscle mass. I thought this would be hard. I would have to keep up with the routine while everyone else was playing games/getting other things done. I thought peer pressure would make this harder. I was wrong.

When I told people I was interested to do the Four Hour Body (1 boot camper) muscle-building techniques there were a people who expressed similar interest. Later on the first day when I went to get a local gym membership Cameron decided to go with me (2), he had already decided to go work out and was interested in working out and was eager to use the rigor of Tim Ferriss' method. We got a decent workout in.

The Tim Ferriss method from the Four Hour Body is based around two alternating workouts. The first is yates rows and overhead lifts. The second workout is bench press and squats. On the first of each workout you start with some weight you can lift easily and do five reps. Every time you succeed you add 10lbs or 10% (whichever is larger) and do a five rep set. Once you fail at that, you go down to 70% of the last set you completed and use that weight to failure. That's your starting weight. Every subsequent time you do the workout you add 10lbs or 10% and do reps to failure.

A couple days later we got a set of free weights. Rahul, John (our host), and Julian (5) started working out in a conventional regimen. They're working out three days a week. I assume John will post something here about their workouts if he chooses interesting.

When the free weights came Thomas, Blake and Jeremy (8) started doing the Tim Ferriss program. I walked them through the program, we looked up videos of the exercises to get the form right. Once those guys had been doing the workouts for a week, Jasen (the leader of the bootcamp) and Peter decided it was time to start. (10). Everyone's been doing a lot of work and keeping to the schedules has been a bit of a book keeping problem, but we powered through.

Last Friday we had a lecture from practitioner of Zhealth who showed us some things about joints and stretching, and KETTLEBELLS!! I had read about kettlebells in FHB and Tim Ferriss loves them. I never thought I would get a chance to try them, I never saw them at the gym. I played with them, and WOW. These things are fun. I'm not sure why, but they hold great entertainment value for me. And not only me, after playing with the kettlebell, Lincoln and Wendy decided they wanted to workout (12, all but one). The ones we saw were 16kg and I was able to do a full press with one. After some deliberation Jasen ordered a 16kg kettlebell and a 24kg kettlebell. Over the weekend I tried a 24kg kettlebell at the rock-climbing gym and couldn't get it up to my shoulder. I want to play with these things more!

So of the 12 people at the rationality bootcamp, a training center for our minds, 11 of us are doing serious physical exercise (I'm looking at you Sam). We're able to pick up the low hanging fruit that most out of shape programers and geeks don't bother with. It's awesome.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Tortuga (and Other Rants)

Hello, world! I wanted to begin by saying thank you! to John for creating this blog and inviting me to update here about the camp from time to time.

I'm wobster109, and I'm another hapless aspiring rationalist, out for a summer of terrifying adventure, profound reflection, and anime-sappy friendship. This sounds like the premise for some strange reality show. I like to make music and write code. Some nights, I stay up until the next morning just to watch the sun rise.

Last night (Thursday night) was the rationalists' meet-up in Tortuga. I hear that there are two really famous meet-ups, and they are in New York City and Tortuga. So after afternoon session, some nine of us crowded into two cars and made our way down to Mountain View.

The trouble started right away. The van's air conditioning did not turn on. Neither did the radio, nor would the windows open. We pulled over into a parking lot and checked the headlights. Those were fine, but the turn signals were out. Undaunted, we pressed on, seven of us in that one car with the air conditioner out and the windows all shut. There we were, trundling merrily down the highway with the sliding backseat doors held open. To Andrew's credit, he managed the hour-long drive without getting pulled over. We landed in Tortuga just a little bit late, settling into the room as Mr. Eliezer spoke about artificial intelligences.

He asked us, suppose that there was an artificial intelligence that was shown to be very well calibrated. Suppose it gave many 90% confidence intervals, and it turned out that it was correct nine times out of ten. You observe this many times. Suppose now that it tells you with 99.9% confidence that [something very surprising]. For instance, it might tell you that you have a tail you're programmed to not be able to see. Would you believe it?

What's the craziest thing it could get you to believe? What's the least crazy thing that it could not get you to believe?

So we counted off into eight disjoint groups, talking about crazy AIs, and then talking about each other. I met some very cool people who liked programming (why are we so dense in programmers?) and liked baking and worked to be more effective. As the night wore on, people began disappearing. I thought they were going home, until I realized that many of us, the Rationality MegaCamp people, were disappearing as well.

Suddenly, Sam bursts in through the door in a state of utter undress, saying, "I invite you all to join us in the hot tub!" Apparently, people were sitting naked in a hot tub. Apparently, that sort of thing happens here as well, but that would be a story better told by someone else.

I didn't feel quite ready to sit around naked with everyone quite yet. I was eating a jar of raspberry jam and trying hard to convince the rationalists that I'm actually an artificial intelligence. At one point, the one guy said he gave me a 99.9% chance of being human, and I felt all pleased with myself that he actually gave me a 1/1000 chance of actually being an AI. That's quite high, given the world we live in.

It was late. We piled back into the van, prepared for a long and hot ride home. This time, everything worked perfectly, which goes to show that the van just needs a reboot from time to time. We get home around 2:30. The other car gets home around 4:30.

Morning meditation was a rampaging beast today. Everything was a swirly, sleepy haze. We're told that we should experience "pleasurable sensations," but how vague is that, and how necessary that it be vague lest we get the mis-impression that it works the same way for all of us! So I'm always bothered by my own suggestibility. Each morning, I question everything I perceive, saying, is this actually being perceived, or is it a figment of my mind? (Had I been a scientist in 1904 at an N-rays demonstration, would I too have perceived the screen brighten?)

And then, the asymmetry floats into my thoughts. "Pleasurable sensations," presumably, refers to tactile sensations. Why? Why not sounds, or visions? Why are human senses not symmetric? And suddenly, I've lost count of my breaths, and I need to start over, and then an annoying song starts looping in my head, and I begin to see storylines, and suddenly I'm asleep.

Well. Subjectivity and all, I'm fairly confident that was a touch amiss. I'm 80% confident, in fact. (That's a very high degree of confidence.)

After meditation was the last session of. . . was it cognitive behavioral therapy? That's what I think it was. It was where a psychology fellow came and talked to us about something, but I honestly can't quite remember what. I really was listening, I really was! It all kind of blurred together in a haze of. . . something along the lines of thinking positively. Is that what it was? That's the entirety of my impression of it. He was very nice, and he tried very hard to engage us. Many of the speakers we've had are very nice, and they all try very hard to engage us. But then we give them our rationalists' flack, with our cries of that's not rigorously demonstrable! Your methodology is flawed! Citation needed! Yet that's exactly how I feel. People come telling us things, and it sounds familiar and unspecific, and I think to myself, this isn't making any specific predictions. Or else, they come telling us things, and it's very specific and surprising, and I think to myself, one could easily imagine to see such an effect. I have no doubt (very little doubt) that the speakers are genuine in what they say, that they truly believe what they are teaching us, and that they have a nontrivial likelihood of being right, but I'm annoyed nonetheless. Because we as people cannot distinguish the vague from the from the useful, the imagined from the real, the conjecture from the applause light, then real people living real lives suffer. People mistake stuff that sounds halfway plausible for real science, and in most cases, it's harmless, but they end up with a flawed algorithm for determining what to believe. That makes them vulnerable.

I've become spoiled by all this interacting with rationalists. Why is this so? Although we have interesting and intellectual discussions, that can't be the entire reason, because there are others with whom I have very nice conversations as well, and there are times where we simply play games or talk about nonsense. I'd guess that it has something to do with how very even-tempered everyone is, how my dear fellow MegaCampers are so unfazed about things. This sort of group is often called "non-judgemental," but Mr. Eliezer writes (to the best of my understanding) that we don't spring into indignation, and we don't launch emotional attacks on others for expressing beliefs. That's definitely true of these guys, for there is little, if anything, that they would refuse to think about. But I also feel that we tend towards being exceptionally emotionally stable. I have yet to see anyone get unreasonably upset or have unexplained moments of angst or sit around brooding over the state of things in general. They're just so reasonable about everything; I very nearly forget that there is a world out there to be dealt with.

So when Will and Divia explained "empathizing," which they use to mean understanding the other person's emotions, I was the tiniest touch skeptical. Use specific observations instead of sweeping generalizations. Ok. Cite my own emotions instead of laying blame. Fair enough. You want me to guess at their emotions? Didn't they just express their emotions? How is that going to help towards a solution? "Well," Divia patiently explained, "if you ask someone if they're worried because they aren't prepared for a presentation, they will be focused on the not-prepared instead of the freaking-out."

"But," I persisted, "if it were happening in real life, I'd say, here's piece of paper, quick write an outline." And then I realized that these would be real life people. Oh. Thomas had earlier expressed that he'd be very annoyed if someone spoke to him this way, and I imagined that I would be terribly impatient as well, but then there are lots of very commonplace things that frustrate me a great deal. Meanwhile, Thomas was looking at his handout, laughing and generating sentences such as "are you NERVOUS about the PREDATORY ANIMALS? Are you OVERWHELMED by the SEXUAL EXPRESSION?" And what's-his-face (sorry, dear visitor from Thursday! I've forgotten your name. But I do remember which high school you went to, and how you got into math in middle school!), in response to a hypothetical scenario, he generated the sentence "are you lonely because you are unloved?" We all burst into cackles. That sounded like an easy way to get a fist in the stomach.

I might be curious to try this naked hot tub truth-or-dare thing at some point in time. Lincoln said that he wouldn't ask anything or dare anything that would make one sad, but that he would also try to push at one's boundaries, so that even if they were every so slightly sad in the meantime, it would be worthwhile in retrospect. It was quite a friendly sentiment.

Phew, in retrospect, I do quite a bit of complaining. In that case, I'll go the whole of next post without saying a single unpleasant thing about anything or anyone. But only the next one though, or else it would be selectively filtered, and we can't have something as unscientific as that, can we? Anyways, to close off, here have a random snatch of a song that I'm quite fond of:

The good old days, the honest man;
The restless heart, the Promised Land
A subtle kiss that no one sees;
A broken wrist and a big trapeze. . . .

--- The Killers, "Read My Mind"

Peace and happiness,

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Week 3: IFS, NVC and CBT + 2 rationality sessions

This week was mostly self-therapy week. We have been learning about IFS and NVC. I wasn't overly interested in learning about either of these topics, and didn't pay much attention in the classes. If you want to know more, I've linked to the wikipedia pages above.

We have also been learning CBT. CBT is, insofar as I'm aware, the only talking therapy which actually has an evidence base. The basic principle is that thoughts are part of the chain that causes emotions, and that we are capable of controlling our thoughts, and thereby controlling emotions. CBT is well-tested as a treatment for depression, and it kind of feels like it should work for behaviour modification in non-depressed people - I have absolutely no idea if there's any evidence of this, and am slightly reluctant to check, for fear of destroying any useful placebo effect, although I'm sure my curiosity will get the better of me at some point.

The key tool is the Triple Column Technique, which is a fairly well-established method, which is explained better on websites dedicated to that sort of thing than I could ever do in a blog post. Basic idea, identify your common cognitive distortions, and write out rational responses to them.

There were also two "rationality" themed sessions. One on Wednesday, which was essentially a structured version of Nick Bostrom's "Write Your Hypothetical Apostasy" post from Overcoming Bias. We did a follow-up exercise, in which we tried to write our life-stories from as unflattering a point of view as possible. I did not find this exercise particularly challenging, as I don't have any particular story I tell myself of where my life is going, or how it got here. Apparently the old SingInst Summer Fellows found this exercise much more englightening than we did. I'm tempted to say that that's because they had decided to spend their summers trying to save the world, whereas we have decided to spend our summers generally having a good time with the possibility of becoming more awesome in the process... I'm sure there are other interpretations.

Finally, this afternoon there was an session with Eliezer, in which he tried to convince us that The World is Mad. Lincoln has already written a detailed summary of that exercise over at his blog, so I won't reproduce his work. However, I will emphasise one thing that stood out for me, and just about everyone else, as the biggest convincer that the world is mad: checklists. I have a half-written Less Wrong post on the sheer awesomeness of checklists, which is full of speculation as to why they have not been more widely adopted. Hopefully I will get around to posting it before the end of the summer. Summary: medical checklists could be saving thousands of lives a year, and aren't, and I, and a lot of other people who should know more about this sort of thing, have basically no no idea why. It seems likely that there are a lot of other areas in which checklists could be implemented to great effect (we actually have a few useful ones around the RBC house). More in the LW post, if and when I write it.

We also had a visit on Thursday afternoon from a local fitness trainer from Z-health. That was an interesting experience, but I will write more about it over the weekend, when I plan a post about the amount of exercise that's going on in the house... probably more than you would think.

Monday, 20 June 2011


Today was an "object-level project" day - nothing was taught, and we were all, instead, free to spend out time working some object-level project that we wanted to succeed in (i.e., something that we actually wanted for its own sake... these projects ranged from mine, writing chapter 1 of my thesis, through getting access to a bell-tower for Carilloning; to implementing Critch's algorithm to start loving email).

I had quite a bit of success writing my thesis - mostly by using the technique of rewarding myself every 15 minutes if when my (vaguely random) alarm went off I was actually working.

However, I've decided not to write a post about today's exercises, and instead to post about a game of Nomic that we've been playing for a while: part of my reason for this post is that I've had a few comments from people telling me that the blog so far comes across as exceedingly negative - I'm having a pretty good time, so I should probably change this.

Nomic, for the unitiated, is mostly a game about games. There are an initial set of 29 rules, which you can presumably get to from the wikipedia page. One of the rules is that a move consists of changing the rules. It is an incredibly meta game, and not one I ever expected to actually play in real life... I'm quite enjoying living in a house in which the suggestion "shall we play Nomic" is met with enthusiasm rather than with

We started playing about a week ago, and have been playing on and off ever since. So far, we have changed the game so that the only winning condition is now the one about breaking the game. We have changed the rules so that the game ends on August 15 (when RBC ends) and changed our scores to complex numbers which are based on our ages. The scores, incidentally, are not currently related to any of the winning conditions. However, we do expect that to change at the moment. So far, everyone has won once (we retroactively changed the rules so that we all had 1000 points when we started) and I think at least one person may have won twice. We have introduced rules which govern what happens when people want to go to bed, and rules which govern what happen when we lose (which so far isn't possible). We've changed the rule numbering system to allow arbitrary reals (we decided against having complex rules, as the current rule precedence system requires one to be able to say if one rule is bigger than another).

When we went for a hike in a nearby park (I can't remember the name...) recently, we discussed the topic of whether or not it would be possible for one of us to legally (within the rules of Nomic) become a dictator for Nomic. We decided that it was technically really rather easy (we've already changed the rule that bars rule-changes from applying retroactively, so you just declare yourself dictator, and retroactively declare that the rule stating that you are dictator is the most important rule). However this would suffer the same problem as playing the "obvious" winning strategy in Mornington Crescent... if you play that way, no-one wants to play with you again. One of the more amusing features of the game is that the win condition is not set in stone, and it's not even clear that winning is one of the aims of the game... it really isn't clear what one is optimising for when playing.

Incidentally, the hike in the park had an interesting interlude, in which we sat at the top of a hill in an ancient (1960s) stone circle and meditated for around 15 minutes while a Scout leader explained to her troupe various theories for how the geological features of the Bay were formed. That this does not seem even slightly odd to me probably says something about what I'm doing with my summer.

Anyway, that's Nomic so far, and we're still playing (according to the current rules, we'll still be playing until August 15, but that may not ever have been true by this time tomorrow: I'm hoping that we'll manage to contrive a rule change which allows us to use the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional at some point...). It has very few rationality lessons, other than the obvious parallels with the legal system, but it is quite a lot of fun, and I hope I've managed to get at least a little of that across in this post.

We are also having the odd poker lesson. This has led to some heated discussion among the RBCers, and raises some interesting questions about the playing of zero-sum games as well as the more obvious poker-related rationality lessons. I will attempt to blog about the poker at some point this week, possibly after tomorrow, when I think we are playing again.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

You are not as agenty as you think and Magic

Friday morning was taught by Luke Muehlhauser, who most people reading this probably know as lukeprog. I don't know why, and it probably means that I wasn't actually paying attention when I read his posts, but my image in my head of Luke before I got here was a 40-something academic-y type... this was probably entirely because he mentioned academic philosophy favourably once. This is not true, Luke is mid 20s 6' something (I'd guess not as tall as me, but he certainly carries himself taller) well-dressed and confident. If you are willing to believe his claims about how shy he was 6 years ago, then you really should pay attention whenever he gives advice on changing attitudes about things like that.

Incidentally, one of the things that has most surprised me since I got here (although maybe it shouldn't have) is the homogeneity of the SIAI crowd - pretty much everyone I've met who is involved with SingInst directly is 18-35, white, male and a programmer or some other technical type. Partly for the reasons I will discuss below under the section when I talk about my involvement with an Iraq War protest group, this is at least slightly worrying.

Anyway, the lesson was essentially a summary of some of Luke's blog posts. Luckily, he broke his presentation down into 7 nice, easy headings, which I can report most of here, as I was awake enough to take notes at the time.
Name causes of actions, not justifications!

This was something Anna had already talked to us about, and is an important idea that I've been trying to practise for a while. If you actually know why you did something, rather than telling yourself a nice story about why the person you want to be would do a thing like that, you are much more likely to be able to predict, and thus control, the things that you will do in the future.
Recognise that you have done dumb things for bad reasons. Resist rationalising!

This is an important step in the above process - remember that you have done stupid things, and try to learn to be ok with this. We came up with some ideas for techniques that might help with this idea, one of the key ideas was:

Try to think of reasons why people in your situation would do the thing that you just did. That is, do not introspectively try to figure out why you did them, just think of yourself as a character in a story. You are a person!

We tried to come up with examples for ourselves of situations in which our justifications for our actions were different from their actual causes. I have one classic example from my first year at college, which I think many people will have at least some identification with: I was a member of an Iraq war protest group. quite an active member - I was a steward on a bus trip to a large protest in London, and involved in several minor protests around Birmingham (including one in which we draped a 30m banner from the university's 100m tall clock tower). Had you asked me at the time why I was involved in the group, or even if you were to ask me at an off-guard moment now, I would probably say that it had something to do with caring about whether Britain went to war with Iraq. While I did feel something about that, it is now quite clear to me that my actual involvement in the group was guided much more by status concerns (I was bright, eloquent, often selected as a spokesperson for the group) and the simple desire to be around people who liked me. My guess: these sort of concerns actually govern most people's decisions to be involved in most groups they decide to be involved in.
Take your emotions as information and think about their causes.

This is, obviously, linked to all of the above. If you are feeling angry about something, this is information - you shouldn't refuse to update on this information, just because the anger is likely to make you make bad decisions. However, you should, if possible, attempt to avoid being controlled by the anger. This is an idea Luke will be talking more about later, and for which Academian's ideas from the first Friday session seem particularly useful.

Finally, there was one of Luke's points which rang particularly true with me, and which I think is worth writing a bit more about:
Respond to existential angst by fixing your daily life.

I exercise regularly. Particularly regularly for someone in the tech/maths/CS cluster, (incidentally, so does everyone else in the house - we have a squat rack in the yard, and there are only 3 RBCers who are not doing regular workouts... about half of those who are are doing Tim Ferris' 4 hour body, so we have a mini-experiment going on on that front...). I sometimes find myself lethargic and not thinking particularly well if I haven't exercised for a while. However, at the time, it is quite difficult for me to remember that this is the reason. On a similar note, when I was 21, I spent a year in France studying maths. One of my main goals for the year was to learn to speak French fluently. When I had not made progress in this goal for a while (ie, had spent a week or two speaking only English) I would start to get a general feeling of malaise. Again, it was hard for me to recognise the reason for this at the time, but remarkably easy to fix.

One of the Mini-campers, Michael Curzi, had taken this idea one step further: he and his business partner had actually written out a list of potential anger triggers... in Michael's words:
When we got irritable, we would run down the following list to root out the problem. It was effective in extinguishing conflict within 15 minutes, every time.


Something on mind?
Unclear objectives?
Relationship/outside issue?
Discomfort with recent decision?
No weekly review?

The afternoon was the first camper-taught lesson. Rahul, Julian and I tried to teach people magic tricks. This was quite difficult, as pretty much no-one at RBC is a good audience for a magician: they are all the sort of person who thinks of magic tricks as a puzzle, rather than enjoying the feeling of being mystified: these people are invariably unimpressed the first time they have tricks explained to them, as (and this was the lesson that I was hoping everyone would get from the session) just about every conjuring trick in the world has a depressingly simple explanation once you know how to do it...

Friday, 17 June 2011

Memory Palaces and Planning

In the morning, we learnt one of the few mental tricks I've ever learnt that has an extremely high effect in an extremely short amount of time, memory techniques. These are fairly standard techniques: associate an image with each number, then when you want to remember a numbered list of things, associate the thing you want to remember with the relevant image.... a very simple example, say I want to memorise the list:

1. Apple
2. Antelope
3. Bike lock
4. Camel-hump
5. Mercury thermometer.

Now, my image for the number "1" is "Ale" (for complicated reasons you'll understand if you read the wikipedia page on the Major Memory Sytem- I use some modified version of the Major System). I would imagine the man with an apple for his head from the Magritte painting quaffing ale from an extremely large glass. My image for number 2 is "knee", so I would imagine myself with antelopes replacing the lower parts of each of my legs (growing from my knees). Number 3 is a ham, so that would be someone attaching their bike to a lampost by putting both inside a giant ham. 4 is a hare, so I'd imagine a giant hair riding a camel. 5 is a bee-hive, so I would imagine a swarm of bees formed of mercury thermometers.

This technique sounds stupid, but it works: we began by having everyone try to memorise a list of 20 numbered items without using any technique, we then did the same at the end. I don't actually have the numbers, but I'm almost certain that the improvement was statistically significant - after learning the technique, I don't think there was anyone who managed to remember fewer than 15 items.

The afternoon was "planning". I didn't take too many notes in this session, and I didn't find it altogether too useful. My takeaway was, essentially, making plans is useful, and if you refine the plans, they will get better and more useful. The only exercise we did was making a plan for something we want to accomplish in the near future then gradually refining it, including by asking for feedback from others. Pretty basic, useful stuff about planning which is, admittedly, a thing that most people probably don't do enough of.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Mind Charting III & Eliezer's Exercises II

The third session of mind-charting: I'm starting to think I've gotten as much as I'm ever likely to out of this exercise: I really do feel that I'm making up explanations for some of my actions for the sake of making my diagram fit the theory. However, I am quite glad I did the exercise, as I seem to have discovered several things about my motivational system about which I was not previously fully aware.

The afternoon session was Eliezer teaching more rationality, and giving an impromptu talk on probability theory and, specifically, Bayes Theorem. The latter, I think, could have been better explained - Eliezer did not have much time to prepare - but did include one interesting idea I hadn't seen before, more on that later. The first section was entitled "How not to win an argument". We did the following exercises:

First, for avoiding motivated skepticism, practice setting a standard of proof for the position you want to maintain so high that you cannot be proved wrong:

e.g. "I don't need glasses unless... I can't distinguish red traffic lights from green... I notice a problem in my everyday life... I am unable to read...".

After you've practised this skill, DON'T DO IT.

We also played an updating game: starting by estimating our probability for the proposition "Sweden is the best country to live in in the world" and then updating our estimate for this probability based on slowly reading through the wikipedia article.

Then there was the probability, which included one useful trick, which was illustrated with the following example: consider three barrels with 10 balls in each. There are two with 9 green balls and one red, and one with 5 of each. Prior to picking a ball, you are equally likely to be in front of any barrel.

One way to think about this problem: imagine units of credibility assigned to each statement - we currently assign 2 units of credibility on the "I'm in front of a mostly green barrel" side of the scale and 1 on the other side. If we pick a red ball, this dilutes our support for "mostly green" by 1/10" and dilutes our support for "mostly red" by only 1/2, so our new odds ratio is 2*1/10:1*1/2= 1/5:1/2 = 2:5.

This is not exactly the way Eliezer presented it, but it is a useful way of thinking about Bayesian updating that I hadn't come across before.

Of course, if you're doing these problems in real life, you're probably still much better of with natural frequencies - I think this was clearly established by Eliezer's second example, which was a standard disease testing example, which I personally found quite a lot harder using odds ratios than natural frequencies, but that might be because I'm used to using the latter.

There were poker lessons in the evening, which mostly seemed to consist of a brief presentation on how humans have a tendency to see patterns in noise, followed by playing poker for the next 4 hours... I came out $2 up after 4 hours play.

There is now a fairly serious conversation going on in the kitchen over the question of whether, in the Marvel Universe, you need a PhD in order to be allowed to battle good or evil: this conversation includes several RBCers and the president of SingInst. It does seem like the sort of thing you could just look up (in fact, I just did... Magneto doesn't have a PhD), but it's pretty indicative of the sort of thing we tend to be talking about.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Mind Charting II & Eliezer's Exercises

Having described the problem yesterday, I made a concerted effort today to throw myself into the mindcharting. Harnessing some of the techniques Academian described last Friday, with some help from my girlfriend, who it seems has already mastered most of those techniques for herself, I was able to make a lot of progress on the development and classification of the chart. I'm hopeful it will be useful when we get to chart-surgery in the next few days.

There were two particular pieces of advice that I found useful - first, the idea of simply noticing when my brain wanted to argue with me about the theory behind the exercise and letting it know that I'd noticed, and would let it express it's qualms later: I have a piece of paper with 25 tally marks on it, and made quite a lot of progress on my chart.

The other useful exercise was trying to associate the work with more pleasant sensations, not too much progress so far, but I'm getting there.

The afternoon's session was mostly Eliezer abusing the RBCers for material for his book. I took a few notes, and here is what I remember: it's quite bullet-pointy, partly because the talk was quite bullet-pointy and partly because that's what happens when you try to take notes on half a side of A4.

The first pearl of wisdom I remember was the idea that, in real life, Munchkinism is a good thing: the basic principle is that we want to avoid the error committed by the pigeons in the experiment referred to in this experiment - the fact that something requires more work to achieve does not make it more valuable.

We then each spent 30 seconds trying our hardest to come up with an airtight argument proving that the sky is green (the point being that if know arguments can be used to argue that the sky is green, then we should be more suspicious of them). Arguments included:
The languages which have sensible colour words only have one word for the two concepts of "blue" and "green" - so there's clearly no difference, and the sky is green.
The sky must be green, because plants are green, and they would have evolved to camouflage against the sky.
The sky is green because somewhere in the multiverse there is something that more closely fits our definition of "sky" than the thing above our heads now does, and is green.
And finally...
We are in a room of intelligent people who have all come to the conlcusion that the sky is green, the sky must be green

We then spent another 5 minutes coming up with justifications for the policy that we should eat babies... reasons included "life is good, eating more babies would allow us to create more of them, so increase the total amount of life" and the Umeshism "If you've never eaten a baby, then you haven't been adventurous enough in your food choices".

Another random pearl of wisdom came up somewhere in the next part of the discussion: When choosing a job, try to choose in which your progress at any given point is easily measured, as that's more like World of Warcraft.

We then spent time coming up with some exercises for the upcoming book - a list of questions on which we should hold off on proposing solutions, which ended up looking a lot like a list of Microsoft Interview Questions, including "what would I do with an empty skyscraper in New York if someone gave me one and I couldn't just sell it?".

The other two types of exercises were: ways to abuse rationality techniques, in order to try and see where they can be misused. Example: ask yourself what your beliefs predict; abuse - if there were a Fifth Column then there would be no evidence of a Fifth Column and questions on which lack of self-honesty may well deceive us, ranging in difficulty from "should I eat carrots or dirt?" through "will I actually stop after two oreos?" to "Am I a more moral person than average?".

After this, the discussion became a lot more general: from why Atlas Shrugged is bettre than Das Kapital because it's more obviously wrong to whether or not we can visualise 5 dimensional solids. All in all, a fun afternoon, and at least a few good ideas for exercises to figure out what rationality failure modes feel like.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Mind Charting

We are spending this week "charting our minds". This seems like quite a useful exercise: essentially we are trying to draw causal diagrams of our actions and beliefs. It has been accompanied with what seems like an extremely shaky theory of psychology called "connection theory".

You can read about the theory here.
the following is a statement of the core of Connection Theory:
  1. Every mind is such that its beliefs at a moment are determined entirely by it updating its beliefs in the most elegant possible way, given the restriction that it believe that each of its intrinsic goods will be permanently achieved.
  2. Every mind is such that at every moment it exists, it acts exactly in the way it believes will lead to each of its intrinsic goods being permanently achieved
I find the theory entirely unconvincing for a variety of reasons: I won't go into them here, as they are not relevant to whether or not the exercise works, but it has made implementing the exercise perhaps more difficult than it should have.

I am trying my hardest to implement Anna's advice from her comment on my post yesterday:

buy your learning separately from your input into what's useful.

This is certainly a skill that I need to practice, and one that I haven't had too much practice with in the past. Luckily, I have a whole week to attempt to figure out how best to do it, and this was certainly my biggest challenge today. (I almost wonder if this entire week has been set up deliberately as an exercise in practising this skill...)

I've been trying hard to spend as much of my time as possible actually doing the exercise, which consists essentially of writing down an action that you take, then writing down all of the reasons for these actions, and eventually drawing something like a causal network containing beliefs. So far, not much has surprised me about the network (which, nevertheless, I am somewhat unwilling to share with the world), however, the exercise has been interesting if not illuminating, and I'm trying my hardest to give it a shot - there are four more days of this, and hopefully I will be able to report positive results at the end.

I am still struggling to convince myself to plunge into this exercise: one argument I keep giving myself is that if the claims Geoff makes are true then I have a lot to gain from trying the exercise properly. I have not much to lose, so it should be a pretty clear decision, but so far it seems that some part of me remains unconvinced. Hopefully I will manage to convince it over the next few days.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The first four days

This is a blog about the Rationality Boot Camp. For now I am the only contributor, but I intend to invite all of the other participants to contribute if and when they like. For now, I intend to restrict my entries mostly to the content of the classes and my reactions to them. I may post some other things if I find them amusing/enlightening.

In the future, I will try to write down my reactions at the time, and take more detailed notes on the actual content of the sessions. This first entry is being done on Sunday morning, about sessions that took place on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, so there is a good chance that I've already edited my memories of what happened to better fit the story I have in my head, and so that this reads better as a narrative. My apologies. I will, at least, attempt to get all of the facts that I report right.

Wednesday Session 1: Meditation

I was not optimistic about this. I have dabbled with meditation in the past and not had much success. However, we will be meditating for half an hour a day throughout RBC, so I have decided to at least attempt to enjoy it, and see if I can get any benefits. The session started with Jasen giving us roughly an hour-long talk about meditation. I find it very difficult to pay attention to people when they are talking to a group in that fashion, so cannot report much of what was said. The one thing I do remember is that he tried to specify the sort of meditation we will be doing, and objects to "meditation" as a particularly broad word.

The exercises, insofar as I remember, consisted of the following:

1. Note your breathing.
Spend five minutes in a comfortable position (key: it must be stable, ie, not require effort to maintain) paying attention to the feeling of your breath: either as it passes past your nostrils, or as your chest rises and falls.

2. Note your breathing: in or out.
Essentially the same, but this time note whether the breath you are currently taking is an inbreath or an outbreath.

3. Note physical sensations.
Notice any sensations anywhere in your body. Classify them as pleasant or unpleasant.

4. Note thoughts.
We were told to note our thoughts and classify them. I can't remember what the classifications were.

5. Note your emotions.
Exactly what it says.

I found the first exercise quite difficult, the second quite a lot easier. I've no good hypothesis for why this is. The fourth and 5th exercises were by far the most difficult for me - although I did notice some interesting things about how much more I was verbalising thoughts when I was "noting" them - if I could manage to avoid that, I think that exercise might well be useful. The easiest for me by far was exercise 3, although I'm still not sure I really understand the instructions.

Wednesday Session 2: non-violent communication

This was the first of the sessions which truly set of my woo detector. The Wikipedia article on NVC contains the following quote.
There are few published studies supporting the claims of effectiveness. While some people consider the development of an evidence base a high priority, NVC currently lacks any longitudinal research program, or significant research and analysis of the practice and its theoretical base.
Since the claims that the presenter was making were really quite strong, I find this particularly worrying. Again, I don't really remember too much of this session, so can't give details. As far as I remember, there wasn't a lot more than is contained in this wikihow article, plus a little bit of practice at making observations rather than evaluations, and distinguishing "feelings" without moral judgement.

I don't think I got a lot out of this session, and haven't really noticed anyone in the group mentioning any of the principles since. There is a whole week of it later in the course, so I will re-evaluate then.

Thursday Session 1: Rejection Therapy

There was essentially no motivation for this exercise, or explanation of how to do it. The idea behind it was to:
re-calibrate small-tribe based fears like fear of rejection or fear of making requests
Now, I am particularly bad at this: I often don't buy things I want from shops because I don't want to bother the shopkeeper. The most recent example I can think of is not wanting to ask a pharmacist for advice on mosquito bites: I have no really good idea why. However, I have very little trouble playing the game. I asked several people if they would swap t-shirts with me, and went into at least 3 ice cream shops to ask for free ice cream.

This is an exercise which is definitely fun, but I find it hard to believe it is useful. On the other hand, it is quite possible that I'm unusual in this regard, and suffering from the Typical Mind Fallacy.

Another problem I have with this exercise is that several people went around the streets of Berkeley asking strangers for money. I don't want to be the sort of person who can wander around the streets of Berkeley asking people for money, as I don't want other people to wander round the streets of Berkeley asking me for money.

Thursday Session 2: Rationality 1

This session consisted of two presentations from Anna Salamon, along with 2 games which we played. The games were both played with Wits and Wagers cards - cards with obscure trivia questions which one wouldn't expect anyone to be able to answer (along the lines of "how many people have been signed up to be barred for life from riverboat casinos in MIssouri?" and "in what year did a woman first orbit the Earth?")

The games were as follows:

The updating game

Everyone in the group makes a guess as to the answer to the question privately. You then share your guesses and whatever reasoning led you to the guess, and then make a second guess. Then check the answer.

The idea is to see what updating actually feels like. I did find that I was not updating enough - I think other people found the opposite. We didn't keep proper records, which was probably a mistake. There was also an element of "we're playing the updating game, I should try and update on other people's information going on, at least in my head".

The Rationalisation game

In pairs, you each make a guess, and then try very hard to defend your answer in a heated debate, to feel what "rationalisation" feels like (ie, to notice yourself justifying your beliefs, rather than giving reasons for them).

I was paired with Thomas for this exercise, and we found it completely impossible. Neither of us could manage to pretend to care about the answer to a question that we both knew we could just check on wikipedia within seconds. I have since, I think, managed to notice myself rationalising beliefs about other topics, so it's possible that just having the idea spelled out was useful.

My overall impression: these games were fun, but I didn't feel like I'd learned much. I guess this was the first session, and I have read all of Less Wrong from the beginning, so I probably shouldn't have expected to. Anna seems like she genuinely wants to teach people skills that she thinks she has found useful in her thinking - hopefully I will start to appreciate this in later lessons.

Friday Session 1: Eye Contact, Body Language, and Granularization of Social Skills

Taught by Luke, aka lukeprog from Less Wrong. Essentially nothing that one couldn't have read in pretty much any popular book on body language (eg, one that I've read is "What Every Body is Saying"), but with the advantage that he was, at least, there to demonstrate the skills he was demonstrating.

We started with the Scientology staring exercise which is described in this post. Essentially, try to stare into someone's eyes for 15 minutes to prove that you are capable of making eye contact with someone for 15 minutes. I was not particularly good at this exercise, looking away 5 times, however, Luke didn't manage to adequately explain to me why the skill of staring into someone's eyes for 15 minutes was useful, and I did remember David Gerard's warnings from that thread about the Scientology stare.

Friday Session 2: Rationality 2

Giving Reasons, not justifications, for beliefs

We practised this by doing exactly what you would expect: e.g., making statements, and then giving reasons for why we believed them (rather than justifications for why we thought they were true)

e.g., I believe that this text is Arial.

I believe this because I have seen previous text with similar features, and heard it referred to as Arial. I also believe it because I have a memory of earlier when I started typing and the font looked different to this, and I had a negative emotional reaction to it, I clicked the button at the top of the page and changed the font to "Arial".

Giving reasons rather than justifications for more contentious or deeply-held beliefs is, of course, harder. I found this exercise quite illuminating, and have been trying my hardest to practise this skill for a while - it was nice to have a reminder of it, and to get some more explicit practice at doing it.

Being Specific: giving examples

The skill to practice was that of having concrete examples in mind when making general statements. This is useful both for testing the general statements, and for helping one to think about them.

The game was: given a list of categories, try to list 5 examples of each. The categories ranged in difficulty from "colours" to "times you were surprised".

I found this somewhat unsatisfying. Played as a game, I didn't really think it was helping me to develop the relevant skill. However, we only played for half an hour, so I don't have very much evidence. Also, I don't really have a good idea of how good I was at this skill beforehand, so it is quite hard to measure. I will probably try something similar to this again, as it does seem like this is a useful skill I would like to develop.

Friday Session Three: Creating Dispositions

This was taught by Academian from Less Wrong. Quite a lot of what he told us is already contained in his Less Wrong posts, but I have to admit to not really having paid attention, and/or not really having understood it when he taught it. The talks were about self-modification, specifically about the ability to convince oneself to desire (the word we used for the sort of "want" one means when one "wants" to have some of the ice cream that is in the bowl in front of you) things that one wants to desire. I haven't yet had a chance to put these methods into practice, but they seemed quite plausible and Academian seemed like quite a normal guy, and was endorsing them enthusiastically, so I look forward to trying.

I don't think I can do the theory justice in this blog post, which is already probably overly long, so I will probably just leave it at that. I will say that one very interesting fact that I learned is one about human emotions, which, according to research cited in the talk, essentially break down along 7-9 axes: Fear, Anger, Sadness, Caring, Lust, Play and Seeking (with possibly Disgust and Surprise), and that this is fairly well-established science. Learning to recognise these 7 affects seems like it could be a useful skill.

Overall Impression

This post might give the impression that my overall experience so far has been negative. It really hasn't, and this is mostly because I've focussed on the core curriculum. I'm living in a house with 10 other bright, interesting people who are interesting in learning how to think, and learning quite a lot of other things. It is fun, and I expect to benefit from the experience. So far, I'm not convinced that I expect to benefit a great deal from the curriculum, but I'm hoping that that will change over the coming weeks. According to the timetable, we will learn about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (the only talking therapy proven to work - just about the only thing we know about psychology, as far as I can tell). More about NVC and something called Internal Family Systems, the wikipedia page for which doesn't seem overly reassuring, but which I'm sure will, at least, be interesting. The week after is drawing, which I look forward to quite a lot, and then more social skills from Luke.

Overall: I think the camp will be an awesome experience, and definitely expect to enjoy myself. I am slightly skeptical about learning much from the actual content of the lessons currently, but am hoping to, and intend to try my hardest to, get at least some useful techniques out of them.