This is the public group instrumental rationality diary for January 16-31.  

It's a place to record and chat about it if you have done, or are actively doing, things like:

  • Established a useful new habit
  • Obtained new evidence that made you change your mind about some belief
  • Decided to behave in a different way in some set of situations
  • Optimized some part of a common routine or cached behavior
  • Consciously changed your emotions or affect with respect to something
  • Consciously pursued new valuable information about something that could make a big difference in your life
  • Learned something new about your beliefs, behavior, or life that surprised you
  • Tried doing any of the above and failed

Or anything else interesting which you want to share, so that other people can think about it, and perhaps be inspired to take action themselves.  Try to include enough details so that everyone can use each other's experiences to learn about what tends to work out, and what doesn't tend to work out.

Thanks to cata for starting the Group Rationality Diary posts, and to commenters for participating.

Immediate past diary:  January 1-15

Rationality diaries archive

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28 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:29 AM

I've only just realised this one, but both people I've subsequently mentioned it to have told me it's a common experience.

I'm currently learning about ARIMA time series modelling. I've been on time series forecasting for about a month now, and it's starting to get a bit tiresome. Last night, after a couple of hours of study, I found myself trying to explain what I'd been studying to my (moderately-but-not-highly-mathematical) partner. I didn't explain it very well, and probably failed to make much sense at all, but almost immediately afterwards I felt a lot more positive and enthused about the whole subject.

In retrospect, I can think of several stand-out examples of "I had to explain this subject to someone, and then got really interested in it", but have only just made the connection. There's an obvious selection bias in play, but the stand-out examples also seem to be subjects I've retained more readily. Having now noticed this effect, I'm thinking about (a) how real it is, and (b) how exploitable it might be.

I've noticed this as well. My theory on the phenomenon is that putting something in your own words is a big step in understanding. If you've read so8res' recent posts, his studying method involved reading, doing the exercises, then explaining it in his own words, even if only to a text file.

I think explaining something really solidifies the knowledge in your mind and gives you a better understanding. That itself could make you more enthusiastic, as it provides validation that your hard work has paid off and that you finally understand it.

I find it similar to the way that once you tell a story, you tend to tell it the same way every subsequent time, even if it's fairly long. I have no proof, but I suspect that the act of giving an explanation (or telling a story) forms some kind of very solid and available memory.

I also feel better when I can talk with other people about what I am doing. It's probably a social instinct -- we like to do things that people in our tribe respect.

How to exploit it? Create situations when you report to other people what you did today, or this week. In person it will probably be more powerful, online it will be easier to organize. If you do daily reports, make them short (1 or 2 minutes in person, 1 or 2 paragraphs online), if you do weekly reports, they can be somewhat longer (5 minutes / 5 paragraphs). You could make it a ritual; e.g. every evening to review the good parts of your day, both you and your partner; or once a week meet with your colleagues for progress report. Maybe setup a collaborative blog for this purpose.

I have a self-image of having badly sub-par social skills, and have a fair amount of evidence to back up that image. On the other hand, I note that I currently have 95% positive karma. If I lacked the capability to avoid alienating people, I would expect much more negative karma.

I am unsure whether I need to update my self-model.

I'd say "social skills" is not a homogenous set, but a combination of various skills, some of them more or less used in different contexts; depending on with whom you communicate (LW members? educated person? friend? average person? child? teenager? adult?) and how you communicate (in person? in writing? one to one? in a group? at a goal-oriented task? at a social event?).

Maybe you should update more about some of these contexts than about others. Split the "social skills" into individual skills, and evaluate each one separately. Recall specific situations where you have recently succeeded or failed.

  1. What it takes to alienate a typical LWer may differ from what it takes to alienate a typical member of the population at large.

  2. Upvotes and downvotes on LW may be less about (non-)alienation than acceptance and rejection in the "normal" world.

  3. Your behaviour on a non-real-time internet forum dedicated to rationality may be drastically different from your behaviour in "real life".

  4. Social skills are not just about what topics you choose to discuss and what words you use, but also about things like tone of voice, physical appearance, etc., that are completely invisible in the LW context.

It is (for all I know) entirely possible that your social skills are far better than you think they are, or for that matter far worse. (In particular, my making the above observations is not intended as any kind of suggestion that your social skills are in fact bad.) But I don't think having a good LW karma balance is any evidence either way.

What do you consider to be "evidence"?

I recently played a little game with some friends where we each came up with three positive adjectives to characterize each of the other members of the group. Nearly everyone in the group used some synonym for the word "likable" or "charming" for me. I do not see myself this way - I do not think my social skills are "sub-par" but I think they are maybe ... "par." Apparently I am just totally wrong about this.

Maybe be open to the possibility that you are also wrong about this? I don't know if you have friends who you could directly ask a question like this?

Did each member of the group get to see or hear the others' adjectives before choosing their own?

No, it was all mutually blind.

Edited to add: it was a remarkable exercise in that the chosen words tended to be so coherent. In two different cases people chose identical words to describe the same person. In zero cases were anyone's assessments in wild disagreement with anyone else's. Apparently "pick 3 adjectives" is a robust characterization technique.

I have a self-image of having badly sub-par social skills, and have a fair amount of evidence to back up that image.

Like what? BTW, have you heard of the impostor syndrome?

On the other hand, I note that I currently have 95% positive karma. If I lacked the capability to avoid alienating people, I would expect much more negative karma.

Alienating people may be easier in meatspace than in writing, depending on lots of things.

Perhaps people on Less Wrong are less attuned to the nuances of social norms, and rather upvote/downvote based only on the content of the post in question?

The ideal of upvoting/downvoting based only on value is one that has appeal to many of the sort of people who hang around here. We are all still human, but I would not be surprised to be told that many or most Less Wrongers are atypical in this way. (Pay less attention to social contexts, and more to content.)

Let's not pat ourselves on the back too much. Voters here absolutely respond to social cues (albeit unusual ones from the perspective of the wider culture) and to local status; the vote record on a post is not a totally dispassionate estimate of its quality.

That said, pure social awkwardness might limit a post's potential upvotes, but it usually isn't enough to get a post downvoted: that takes obvious bias, factual error, egregiously bad English, a perception of bad faith, or -- exceptionally -- attracting the ire of a serial downvoter. The truly clueless may risk pattern-matching to "bad faith", but that's fairly rare; the rest are more or less orthogonal to social skills.

Let's not pat ourselves on the back too much.

That was never my intention. I actually initially meant to stress this more, but I cut it as it didn't really fit.

The most important note that it is not necessarily a good thing to ignore social cues. They exist for good reasons. Discourse flows a lot better when it is polite and well presented. Those who ignore that do so at their own peril.

Some do, however. Including us, to some exten. You cannot deny that the population of Less Wrongers is weighted heavily towards the type of people that might be known as nerds, who dismiss the social glue, and prefer more bluntness in their discourse than is usual. Again, this is not necessarily good: See Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate.

In some ways it is good, though: It encourages the virtues of truth-seeking and of not responding to tone, and in general is an attitude that is conductive to the types of things discussed around here. (This is why Less Wrong is neuroatypical in specifically this direction.)

I recently started to learn Python. I'm using Anki for this, with a deck of small programming... "puzzles", I guess. Basically, the questions are small programs and the answer is the output, with an explanation. I add new cards as I progress through various topics. Seems to work so far, but I'd like to hear suggestions for further improvement. Check it out:


I've used CodeAcademy to learn Python, and I highly recommend their interactive tutorials. You may want to look into it. Getting feedback as you code can be very useful.

That's great. Good luck and stick with it. I'm on mobile so I can't look it up, but I read something about a method for using spaced repetition to speed up learning programming. I believe it was called the "janki" method. I remember it having some good things to say.

I've been experimenting with a new schedule, where days of the week are assigned to topics (mostly for stuff to do in the evening after work and after the kid is in bed):

  • Monday is for drawing and art
  • Tuesday is for studying psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, motivation, learning...
  • Wednesday is for writing
  • Thursday is for programming
  • Friday is for relaxing
  • Saturday is for studying statistics and machine learning
  • Sunday is for strategy, reviewing the week, evaluating my current plans and coming up with new ones

So far I find it's an improvement, and is better at making sure I'm working on all of those (it also gives me a system in which I can dump "interesting things" without feeling the need to spend hours reading up on them right away ... when tuesday (psychology) comes around, I have a little list of the interesting-looking topics or links that I ran accross since last time, and choose which one to read, study, and enter in Anki).

Also, in my daily routine:

  • Get up as soon as the alarm rings (solid habit now, I used to loaf in bed for some time several months ago)
  • Exercise in the morning (I use some android apps by Rittr Labs to keep track of how much I should do, as recommended by hyporational; I cycle between squats, situps, pushups and superman)
  • Study my Anki decks (usually in public transit or when waiting in line)
  • Review HabitRPG (which I use to structure most of the rest)
  • Write in a gratitude journal (I may drop / tone it down, I'm not sure it's very useful)

I have started doing pomodoros, but not very regularly yet.

I have just started a routine which consists of two parts: (1) Go to sleep each day by around 10pm (I usually stay up really late). (2) Workout at home for 18mins each day. Very simple exercises (pushups, plank, squats etc.), but the idea is to be consistent.

I've done this for 4 days now and already feel a significant improvement in energy levels.

Does the workout happen at a consistent time / with a consistent trigger?

Yes. Right after I wake up, hit the can and brush my teeth. After that I take a shower and make breakfast.

After the workout, the shower and breakfast feel much more rewarding.

I noticed that my most productive years were those where my computer time was divided into 40 minute chunks for technical reasons. I almost posted about just that, then I remembered that I had always been thinking about various other patterns over those same time periods, so I made myself a survey and filled it out for each period.

I only have 5 datapoints (each period is roughly 2 years long, other than the last two, which are closer to 3; I probably should have broken those into 3 periods), each with 8 variables. I gave each a value between 1 and 5, other than one boolean (the afore-mentioned forced pomodoro-like situation).

Without running any formal analysis, and just going by my impressions when copying the numbers, I found that productivity, in-person socializing, and overall mood are all positively correlated. Amount of sun was surprisingly correlated with nothing (other than air quality, because they're both easier to get outside). My two worst phases, in terms of productivity and mood, are the two phases where I did not have the forced pseudo-pomodoros. Exercise and diet appear to be weakly correlated with productivity/mood, but I also suspect I'm starting to show symptoms of diabetes and am getting less tolerant of foods that had no noticeable negative effects in the first phase, and to a lesser extent, the second. And finally, ease of internet access was inversely correlated to productivity/mood.

This tells me that, the next time my computer situation resets, I should go for the forced reboot situation, and avoid having internet within 10 meters of everything else I need (so not at home; go to a Starbucks when necessary). Optimizing the others is not quite so straightforward, but they can certainly inform future decisions.

I noticed that my most productive years were those where my computer time was divided into 40 minute chunks for technical reasons.

You mean like: "40 minutes, a short break, another 40 minutes, etc."?

Someone could make an application that would disable your computer after 40 minutes of usage, until you take a 5 minutes break. Or maybe just use Workrave.

Someone could make an application that would disable your computer after 40 minutes of usage

Like Cold Turkey?

I'm planning on switching careers. Currently, I do IT support (desktop administration) and have a pretty nice job. I'd like to move into programming for the increase in flexibility and salary, as well as long-term job stability -- I'm pretty sure my current career will be automated away well before I'm capable of financial independence. To further that end, I'm fairly close to finishing my BS, and changing majors to Computer Science would greatly aid my transition.

Current options:

  • Quit the job and go back to school full time. I'll have enough money saved to do this in December 2014, and will graduate in May 2016. I'll need to take on about $15,000 of student loan debt to accomplish this, and I'll be without an income during that period, so this represents a big hit to my finances justified by a much better paying job.

  • Go to school part time while working. One free class per semester is a benefit of my job, and I'll graduate in August 2019. This puts off my ability to get a programming job for quite some time, but it avoids any student loan debt, and it allows me to keep my income.

The first option will break even financially with the second option if my beginning programming job pays $60k and I get one immediately after graduation. Both of these conditions seem unlikely, so I'm inclined to think that staying in my job and getting the computer science degree slowly is a better choice. However, I imagine that there are benefits to getting into the programmer career sooner rather than later, though I'm unable to quantify these and am not sure how to incorporate them into my decision making.


This website seems to suggest that the average CS major makes about $58k for a starting salary. So, if you do reasonably well in school, then getting a $60k starting salary doesn't seem unlikely.

Why do you think getting a job right after graduation is unlikely? Can you find out from the school how likely it is for a CS major to get a job right after graduation? If the probability of getting a job right after school is low, then can you consider attending a different school?

Also, programming competency can be signaled without a degree: contribute to open source code, build something, participate in programming contests. But the degree would definitely help.

Also, I think you overestimate how easily your current job will be automated away. Support---for humans by humans---seems to me to be one of the hardest problems to automate away. Consider how many different skills you need: natural language processing; understanding emotional, cultural, person-specific and historical contexts; empathy; specific technical knowledge; the ability to communicate that knowledge effectively and so on. I don't think the AI community is even remotely close to nailing this (Am I wrong here? Someone care to correct me?). Which is why we positively hate voice-prompt hell.

Is getting a job in programming really contingent on your getting the degree, or rather on you being capable of doing the job?

Getting a programming job is not contingent on getting a degree. There's an easy test for competence at programming in a job interview: ask the candidate to write code on a whiteboard. I am aware of at least one Silicon Valley company that does that and have observed them to hire people who never finished their BS in CS. (I'd rather ask candidates to write code and debug on a laptop, but the HR department won't permit it.)

Getting a degree doesn't hurt. It might push up your salary -- even if one company has enough sense to evaluate the competence of a programmer directly, the other companies offering jobs to that programmer are probably looking at credentials, so it's rational for a company to base salaries on credentials even if they are willing to hire someone who doesn't have them. Last I checked, a BS in CS made sense financially, a MS made some sense too, and a PhD was not worth the time unless you want a career writing research papers. I got a PhD apparently to postpone coming into contact with the real world. Do not do that.

If you can't demonstrate competent programming in a job interview (either due to stage fright or due to not being all that competent), getting a degree is very important. I interview a lot of people and see a lot of stage fright. I have had people I worked with and knew to be competent not get hired because of how they responded emotionally to the interview situation. What I'm calling "stage fright" is really cognitive impairment due to the emotional situation; it is usually less intense than the troubles of a thespian trying to perform on stage. Until you've done some interviews, you don't know how much the interview situation will impair you.

Does anyone know if ex-military people get stage fright at job interviews? You'd think that being trained to kill people would fix the stage fright when there's only one other person in the room and that person is reasonably polite, but I have not had the opportunity to observe both the interview of an ex-military person and their performance as a programmer in a realistic work environment.

Having a degree seems like a good way to signal capability of doing the job. I will be studying, learning, and practicing as I go, and if I'm capable of getting a programming job without the degree, that would be ideal.