Open thread, October 2011

This thread is for discussing anything that doesn't seem to deserve its own post.

If the resulting discussion becomes impractical to continue here, it means the topic is a promising candidate for its own thread.

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Some time ago, I had a simple insight that seems crucial and really important, and has been on my mind a lot. Yet at the same time, I'm unable to really share it, because on the surface it seems so obvious as to not be worth stating, and very few people would probably get much out of me just stating it. I presume that this an instance of the Burrito Phenomenon:

While working on an article for the Monad.Reader, I’ve had the opportunity to think about how people learn and gain intuition for abstraction, and the implications for pedagogy. The heart of the matter is that people begin with the concrete, and move to the abstract. Humans are very good at pattern recognition, so this is a natural progression. By examining concrete objects in detail, one begins to notice similarities and patterns, until one comes to understand on a more abstract, intuitive level. This is why it’s such good pedagogical practice to demonstrate examples of concepts you are trying to teach. It’s particularly important to note that this process doesn’t change even when one is presented with the abstraction up front! For example, when presented with a mathematical definition for the first time, most people (me included) don’t “get it” immediately: it is only after examining some specific instances of the definition, and working through the implications of the definition in detail, that one begins to appreciate the definition and gain an understanding of what it “really says.”

Unfortunately, there is a whole cottage industry of monad tutorials that get this wrong. To see what I mean, imagine the following scenario: Joe Haskeller is trying to learn about monads. After struggling to understand them for a week, looking at examples, writing code, reading things other people have written, he finally has an “aha!” moment: everything is suddenly clear, and Joe Understands Monads! What has really happened, of course, is that Joe’s brain has fit all the details together into a higher-level abstraction, a metaphor which Joe can use to get an intuitive grasp of monads; let us suppose that Joe’s metaphor is that Monads are Like Burritos. Here is where Joe badly misinterprets his own thought process: “Of course!” Joe thinks. “It’s all so simple now. The key to understanding monads is that they are Like Burritos. If only I had thought of this before!” The problem, of course, is that if Joe HAD thought of this before, it wouldn’t have helped: the week of struggling through details was a necessary and integral part of forming Joe’s Burrito intuition, not a sad consequence of his failure to hit upon the idea sooner.

I'm curious: do others commonly get this feeling of having finally internalized something really crucial, which you at the same time know you can't communicate without spending so much time as to make it not worth the effort? I seem to get one such feeling maybe once a year or a couple.

To clarify, I don't mean simply the feeling of having an intuition which you can't explain because of overwhelming inferential distance. That happens all the time. I mean the feeling of something clicking, and then occupying your thoughts a large part of the time, which you can't explain because you can't state it without it seeming entirely obvious.

(And for those curious - what clicked for me this time around was basically the point Eliezer was making in No Universally Compelling Arguments and Created Already in Motion, but as applied to humans, not hypothetical AIs. In other words, if a person's brain is not evaluating beliefs on the basis of their truth-value, then it doesn't matter how good or right or reasonable your argument is - or for that matter, any piece of information that they might receive. And brains can never evaluate a claim on the basis of the claim's truth value, for a claim's truth value is not a simple attribute that could just be extracted directly. This doesn't just mean that people might (consciously or subconsciously) engage in motivated cognition - that, I already knew. It also means that we ourselves can never know for certain whether hearing the argument that should convince us if we were perfect reasoners will in fact convince us, or whether we'll just dismiss it as flawed for basically no good reason. )

Yes, I think I know what you mean. I hit that roadblock just about every time I try to explain math concepts to my little brother. It's not so much that he doesn't have enough background knowledge to get what I'm saying, as that I already have a very specific understanding of math built up in my head in which half of algebra is too self-evident to break down any further.

I propose a thread in which people practice saying they were wrong and possibly also saying they were surprised.

For the passed year or two I've felt like there are literally no avenues open to me towards social, romantic, or professional advancement, up from my current position of zero. On reflection, it seems highly unlikely that this is actually true, so it follows that I'm rather egregiously missing something. Are there any rationalist techniques designed to make one better at noticing opportunities (ones that come along and ones that have always been there) in general?

I was about to explain why nobody has an answer to the question you asked, when it turned out you already figured it out :) As for what you should actually do, here's my suggestion:

  1. Explain your actual situation and ask for advice.

  2. For each piece of advice given, notice that you have immediately come up with at least one reason why you can't follow it.

  3. Your natural reaction will be to post those reasons, thereby getting into an argument with the advice givers. You will win this argument, thereby establishing that there is indeed nothing you can do.

  4. This is the important bit: don't do step 3! Instead, work on defeating or bypassing those reasons. If you can't do this by yourself, go ahead and post the reasons, but always in a frame of "I know this reason can be defeated or bypassed, help me figure out how," that aligns you with instead of against the advice givers.

  5. You are allowed to reject some of the given advice, as long as you don't reject all of it.

That's actually exactly what I usually try to do. Unfortunately, most advice-givers in my experience tend to mistake #4 for #3. I point out that they've made an incorrect assumption when formulating their advice, and I immediately get yelled at for making excuses. I do actually have a tendency to seek excuses for non-action, but I've been aware of that tendency in myself for a long time and counter it as vigorously as I am able to.

I suppose it couldn't hurt to explain my actual situation, though. Gooey details incoming.


I live in the southwestern suburbs of Fairfield, California, on a fixed income that's just enough to pay the bills and buy food, with a little left over. (Look the town over in Google Maps to get a sense of what kind of place it is.)

Most critically, i suffer from Non-24, which, in the past, was responsible for deteriorating health and suicidal depression during high school, for forcing me to drop even the just-for-fun classes I was taking at the community college, as well as causing me to completely lose touch with my high school acquaintances before I figured out what I had and that there was a pattern to it and not just random bouts of hypersomnia and insomnia. It rules out doing anything that involves regularly scheduled activities; I even had to quit my World of Warcraft guild because of it.

Before I lost touch with my high school acquaintances, I did get to experience some normal social gatherings, though to me there was never anything particularly fun about being pelted with straw-wrappers at Denny's or dancing to Nirvana under a strobe-light or watching them play BeerPong. None of those people were ever my friends or even much of a support structure, and I don't actually miss any of them. I've been on several dates through OkCupid and my brief time in college, but they were all failures of emotional connection and in each case I was relieved when the girl told me she didn't want to go out with me anymore. I mention this to show that I'm not just assuming certain generic solutions won't work for me; I've confirmed it by experiment.

So, I'm living without much disposable income, with a sleep disorder that precludes regularly scheduled activities of any kind, in a highway-tumor town, with no friends or contacts of any kind. Oh, and I have a mild photosensitivity condition which means I'm slaved to my sunglasses during the day and even with them can't do anything that involves exposure to direct sunlight for more than a few minutes at a time, just for the sake of thoroughness.

That's the summary of the situation.


My career goals aren't actually precluded by any of this, though becoming a successful graphic artist, or writer, or independent filmmaker or webcomic author or whatever I end up succeeding at, is made more difficult. I only included the professional category because my social goals mostly pertain to my career goals: I'd like to have a useful social network. It'd be nice to have friends just for the sake of having friends, but that's of low value to me. My only high value purely-social goal is meeting and befriending a woman with whom I can have a meaningful and lasting intimate relationship, which dissolves away the romantic category as well.

Unfortunately, most advice-givers in my experience tend to mistake #4 for #3. I point out that they've made an incorrect assumption when formulating their advice, and I immediately get yelled at for making excuses.

If this conversation is representative, 'making excuses' might not be entirely accurate, though I can see why people would pattern-match to that as the nearest cached thing of relevance. But to be more accurate, it's more like you're asking "what car is best for driving to the moon" and then rejecting any replies that talk about rockets, since that's not an answer to the actual question you asked. It could even be that the advice about building rockets is entirely useless to you, if you're in a situation where you can't go on a rocket for whatever reason, and they need to introduce you to the idea of space elevators or something, but staying focused on cars isn't going to get you what you want and people are likely to get frustrated with that pretty quickly.

it's more like you're asking "what car is best for driving to the moon" and then rejecting any replies that talk about rockets, since that's not an answer to the actual question you asked. It could even be that the advice about building rockets is entirely useless to you, if you're in a situation where you can't go on a rocket for whatever reason, and they need to introduce you to the idea of space elevators or something,

Wow... that may just be the most apt analogy I've ever heard anyone make about this. I'm having a "whoa" moment here.

'kay. So, my first thought is, how does my actual goal fit into the analogy? If my terminal goal fits as finding the right car then the problem lies in everyone hearing a different question than the one asked. If, on the other hand, my terminal goal fits into the analogy as getting to the moon then the problem is a gap of understanding that causes me to persist with the wrong question. Which sounds like exactly the sort of flaw-in-thinking that I was talking about in the first place!

I am vaguely disturbed that I don't actually know which part of the analogy my terminal goal fits into. It seems like its something I should know. I would guess it is the latter, though, due to there actually being a cognitive flaw that remains elusive.

It could be that you want both. Human values do tend to be complex, after all. (Also, I'd map 'wanting the best possible mind' to 'wanting the best car', and 'wanting to get your life moving in a good direction' as 'wanting to go to the moon', if that was a source of confusion.)

Getting to the moon (ie. getting your life moving) is quite clearly one of your terminal goals.

Whether or not you've enshrined the car (ie. a general solution) as a newer terminal goal, I can't tell you.

A hint however: The car may not take the form you expect. It may be a taxi, or a bus, where you don't own it but rather ride in it. (ie. the best general solution for you might actually be "go on the internet and look for a specific solution")

How does your Non-24 function? Is it completely unpredictable, or would you be able to maintain a regular N-hour cycle for some value of N? Best if N could be something like 33.6, 28, 21, 18.7, because then you could maintain a week cycle, which would allow you a part-time job. But any predictable schedule allows you to plan things.

If your sunglasses are not very helpful in day, could you try some darker sunglasses? You could have a set of sunglasses with different levels of darkness, for inside and outside.

As a general strategy, I would suggest this: If you cannot find one perfect solution, focus on small improvements you can do.

It is generally good to have a "big picture", so your actions are coordinated towards a goal. But even if you don't have it, don't stop. If you do nothing, you receive no information, and that does not make your future planning any better. Even doing random (non-dangerous) things is good, because you gain information.

For example, I don't think that buying darker sunglasses is going to fix all your problems. But still, if darker sunglasses would be an improvement, you should get them. It is better than waiting until you find a pefect strategy for everything.

Most critically, i suffer from Non-24

Have you seen doctors about this or tried any treatments? I did a quick Wikipedia search and the 'Treatment' section suggested light therapy or melatonin therapy. It said they don't always work well and may be completely ineffective for some people, and it sounds like a lot of work for not much gain, but if you haven't tested it out, it might be worth at try.

for forcing me to drop even the just-for-fun classes I was taking at the community college.

Are online classes perhaps a better option? I don't know how flexible they are in terms of what time of day you can view the lectures and stuff, and I don't know whether you've already tried that.

Actually, there may be online work opportunities as well. I've never investigated this personally, but it might be worth hunting around or asking some other LWers.

RE: writing, that's something that fits pretty well into an irregular schedule. You can do it at home at whatever time of day. What sort of material are you interested in writing? I've been working on writing fiction for a number of years now, and I would happily do an email exchange and read/edit your work. I can't offer to do the same thing for graphic art, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are other people on LW who can.

though to me there was never anything particularly fun about being pelted with straw-wrappers at Denny's or dancing to Nirvana under a strobe-light or watching them play BeerPong.

I can understand that. Those things are pretty boring. Feeling emotionally connected to the people you're doing them with is what makes it worthwhile, and if you don't, you just don't.

As for your original comment about having some cognitive flaw, it might boil down to the fact that you just aren't interested in the same life experience as, say, your high school acquaintances were. Having a group of acquaintances and doing regular social activities with them is a conventional solution for a lot of people, but it if doesn't work for you, it just doesn't work. And when your reward structure isn't the same as everyone else's, there will be fewer "opportunities to be rewarded" that automatically presen themselves.

What will work for you is another question. Finding a job that would self-select for coworkers who had similar interests to yours could help. Also, learning how to steer a conversation from something banal towards something interesting to you is a skill that can help deepen your social connections. (Although the first step is to have enough practice with conversations that you know how to make yourself interesting to the other person. This took me a long time and a lot of conscious effort to acquire.)

Also, depression is its own form of cognitive bias that might make you more likely to see opportunities negatively or as a "waste of time", when otherwise you might think "why not?" If you were depressed for several years, these kind of thoughts or more subtle versions might have become habits.

My only high value purely-social goal is meeting and befriending a woman with whom I can have a meaningful and lasting intimate relationship, which dissolves away the romantic category as well.

I wish you the best of luck with this. It does make a huge difference once you can find that person.

Have you seen doctors about this or tried any treatments?

I've made some inquiries. According to all the information I've seen, success of treatment seems to correlate with undersensitivity to light or outright blindness. Since I'm oversensitive to light, that places me on the extreme end of Untreatable.

Are online classes perhaps a better option?

Not really; I was taking those classes for social reasons, not educational reasons.

Also, learning how to steer a conversation from something banal towards something interesting to you is a skill that can help deepen your social connections.

I'm actually reasonably good at this, but it has usually just accelerated the exposure of lack of common ground with whoever I was talking to.

I think meeting the right people is a much bigger problem for me than interacting successfully with those people.

I've made some inquiries.

If you haven't given several potential treatments serious attempts, I think you should. Improving this issue seems like it would be worth a lot to you, so even smallish probabilities of success are worth investigating.

I'd say that your statement:

It rules out doing anything that involves regularly scheduled activities

Is inaccurate. It rules out regularly scheduled activities where you have to attend every single one.

The majority of meetups are perfectly happy with someone who attends 1/2 or 1/3 of the meetings; which non-24 shouldn't prevent.

Meetups also have a more structured feel than the social gatherings you mention, and tend to be more useful for networking.

A deeper problem is your location. I'm assuming given your sunlight issue that you can't really drive very far on sunny days?

What is this thing called "Meetup" that everyone keeps talking about? Does it have some meaning beyond the obvious that I'm unaware of? Because the way its used around here makes it seem like it refers to something more specific than the literal definition.

I'm assuming given your sunlight issue that you can't really drive very far on sunny days?

I have a very good pair of sunglasses, which combined with a modern car windshield are enough that I can drive without being too limited by that(though I still prefer to make long trips at night when I can), plus cars have roofs which means there are a lot of relative positions the sun can be in which does not put the driver in direct sunlight. The bigger limitation is paying for gas. Occasional long trips are no problem. ~weekly long trips would break the bank. (Long > 25 miles )

There is also a website, meetup.com, that is used to organize many such events in a variety of areas. It's difficult to say how well any particular one will yield people you click with since the site merely facilitates someone creating a specific group with a specific place-and-time scheduled meet, but it's a good way to keep track of what's going on in your area that might be relevant to your interests.

Ah.

I was completely unaware of meetup.com existing. (Took one look and am already registered) It seems like kind of a Big Thing; I am somewhat baffled that I'd never heard of it before.

Um.

Useful answers will probably be along the lines of either 'try meeetup.com/okcupid/your local LW meetup/etc', or 'here's how you find out about things like meetup.com/okcupid/LW meetups/etc'.

From earlier in this conversation.

This isn't a piece of advice so much as a friendly invitation: The Berkeley Less Wrong meetup meets Wednesdays at 7pm and also monthly on Saturday evenings. It looks like it would take you 90 minutes and two train/bus tickets to get there, and the same going back. You're welcome to join us.

(Mailing list.)

Does your town have Greyhound bus service? This could be a cheaper alternative, possibly, if you find bus trips bearable. Also you can sleep on the bus, which would help if the time you needed to make the trip correlated with a 'sleeping' phase of your schedule.

What is this thing called "Meetup" that everyone keeps talking about? Does it have some meaning beyond the obvious that I'm unaware of?

It's mostly what it sounds like, once you take into account that it's short for "LessWrong meetup" ('meetup for LessWrong users'). The possibly non-obvious bit is that meetups are often recurring things with people who consistently come to most instances of them in a particular area, so they're more about ongoing socialization/skillbuilding/etc than literally meeting people.

By a "meetup" I mean a regular, or semi-regular, event whereby a group of people with common interests meet in order to discuss things, including [but not limited to] the common interest.

These meetups come in many forms; some occur in pubs, some in meeting halls, some in coffee shops. Some feature speeches, which tend to be on the issue of the common interest, but most do not.

By attending a meetup two events running, or three events out of six, you'll tend to get to know many of the regulars, and become part of their social network.

One type of meetup that would obviously be relevant to your interests is a lesswrong one, but meetups of skeptic societies, societies associated with your particular sexual kinks/relationship preferences (poly meets, munches, rope meets, furmeets etc.), humanist meetups, etc. would all likely be useful to you.

Okay, as Swimmer observes, writing can easily be done from home on a random sleep schedule; so can graphics work, so can creating web comics. There's plenty of relevant educational material for all of these that doesn't require attending scheduled classes. And if you don't bond well with random people, probably the best way to improve your social life is to look for people with whom you have shared interest; which means you might be better off getting the career stuff up and running first; once you do that, it will probably lead to encounters with people with whom you have something in common.

See, that actually suggests that a big part of your problem is related to your situation. The most obvious long-term fix is meeting your career goals, if you think they're otherwise in reach -- but presumably (given you seem to have a solid sense of yourself and appear to be working on things already) you're doing this at a manageable rate. It might be worthwhile to see if you can speed that along, however -- more money is probably going to make the single biggest difference, as it'll give you more freedom of location and disposable income with which to pursue things.

That's kinda stating the obvious, but it also sounds from your explanation that there aren't any obvious "magic bullets" you've been missing. I don't say that to sound discouraging, just, it seems like there's not a lot of low-hanging fruit for improving your situation.

Okay, I've read through the other responses and I think I understand what you're asking for, but correct me if I'm wrong.

A technique I've found useful for noticing opportunities once I've decided on a goal is thinking and asking about the strategies that other people who have succeeded at the goal used, and seeing if any of them are possible from my situation. This obviously doesn't work so well for goals sufficiently narrow or unique that no one has done them before, but that doesn't seem to be what you're talking about.

Social advancement: how do people who have a lot of friends and are highly respected make friends and instill respect? Romantic advancement: How did the people in stable, committed relationships (or who get all the one-night stands they want, whichever) meet each other and become close? Professional advancement: How did my boss (or mentor) get their position?

Edit: Essentially I'm saying the first step to noticing more opportunities is becoming more familiar with what an opportunity looks like.

This is useful, actually. I think I've been kind of doing that indirectly, but not with a direct conscious effort. It doesn't do me much good right now, since I'm still completely isolated and don't know of anyone who got out of a situation like mine, but I think it could still be helpful.

Then first, change your situation to NOT completely isolated.

If you're in a town or city that's easy, just go to a meetup of a society of some sort that sounds vaguely interesting. If you can't find such a society, wonder from pub to coffee shop to restaurant, looking for any relevant posters.

Or just go online and look up a meetup website.

Looking for a general solution is all well and good, but you have a very specific problem. And so, rather than spending years working on a general solution while in the wrong environment, perhaps you'd be better off using the specific solution, and working on a general one later?

You might be interested in The Luck Factor-- it's based on research about lucky and unlucky people, and the author says that lucky people are high on extroversion, have a relaxed attitude toward life (so that they're willing to take advantage of opportunities as they appear (in other words, they don't try to force particular outcomes, and they haven't given up on paying attention to what might be available), and openness to new experiences.

The book claims that all these qualities can be cultivated.

Alright, since no one seems to be understanding my question here, I'll try to reframe it.

(First, to be clear, I'm not having a problem with motivation. I'm not having a problem with indecision. I'm not having a problem with identifying my terminal goal(s).)

To use an analogy, imagine you're playing a video game, and at some point you come to a room where the door shuts behind you and there's no other way out. There's nothing in the room you can interact with, nothing in your inventory that does anything; you poor over every detail of the room, and find there is no way to progress further; the game has glitched, you are stuck. There is literally no way beyond that room and no way out of it except reseting to an earlier save point.

That is how my life feels from the inside: no available paths. (In the glitched video game, it is plausible that there really is no action that will lead to progression beyond the current situation. In real life, not so much.)

Given that it is highly unlikely that this is an accurate Map of the Territory that is the real world, clearly there is a flaw in how I generate my Map in regards to potential paths of advancement in the Territory. It is that cognitive flaw that I wish to correct.

I am asking only for a way to identify and correct that flaw.

I rather doubt there is a fully-generalizable theory of the sort you seem to be looking for. Some territories are better left than explored in more detail, if it be within your power to do so; others can be meaningfully understood and manipulated.

If you are in a dead-end job in a small town where you are socially isolated and clash culturally with the locals, do not have professional credentials sufficient to make a lateral move plausible (ie, working retail as opposed to something that requires a degree), the advice will necessarily be different than if you are in a major city and have a career of some kind.

What works in New York may not work so well in Lake Wobegon.