Open thread, 14-20 July 2014

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Request for advice:

Like many people on lesswrong, I probably lie towards the smart end of the bell curve in terms of intelligence, but I'm starting to suspect that I lie somewhere below the mean in terms of ability to focus, concentrate, and direct my attention.

I only recently became concerned about this because it wasn't much of a problem when I was in school. There, I was able to do acceptably well overall by doing well in the subjects that came easily to me without working hard (science, maths... you know the score) and mediocrely in those that didn't. Ditto my undergrad/bachelor's degree.

But I'm currently struggling rather with the thesis project for my master's degree in computer science. The specifics of the thesis itself don't matter, other than that it's a piece of empirical/numerical research involving a lot of coding and a prose write-up. None of the technical aspects of it are beyond me, and yet I feel like in some way it's the first very difficult thing I've ever tried, really tried, at. The hard part is sustaining interest over the whole length of the thing, planning and organizing the overarching, erm, arc of the project as a whole, and forming a 'narrative' out of all the hard-won bits and pieces of data. (I suppose the fact that I feel fairly sure that the project is likely to find a negative result (i.e. that the method under inspection doesn't offer any gains over simpler methods) also doesn't help my motivation.) Luckily, I did well enough in the taught part of my course that I only need to get a mediocre mark in this part in order to get a 'merit' overall.

But I'm also concerned about how this bodes for my future career. I'd like to do well in work, but I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm deficient in a skill which would allow me to do much better.

To convey what I'm talking about: often when I'm trying to work at home I flit between coding for work, reading, coding for fun, listening to music, etc., etc., etc., and consequent don't engage with any of them very deeply, or get much done. Also, I have almost always taken a very long time to get to sleep, often an hour or more, because I find it hard to 'switch off' my brain when I'm in bed and have decided it's time to go to sleep. (I've recently been making the paradoxical attempt to try very hard to switch my brain off and stop thinking in bed, with, surprisingly, some limited success.)

I feel like I lack the five-second level skill to suppress (or at least, to decline to pursue) any old interesting thought which appears while I'm doing something else.

Things I've attempted:

  • Meditation. It seems plausible that meditating could help to 'train' deliberate attention direction in other aspects of life. Does anyone have any experience with this? I tried checking the literature, and found only one weak-ish study supporting such a hypothesis, but I'd be open to anecdotal evidence. I've tried to meditate a few times (less than ten), for about half an hour each time. The first couple of times I became weirdly aggravated and agitated at how bad at it I was: I was frustrated by the realization that something as simple as focusing on one thing and avoiding other thoughts was beyond me. After the first couple of times, I no longer find it aggravating, but I have yet to find it rewarding, either. I haven't yet managed to obtain the focused, quiet state which I understand is the aim, at least for more than a handful of seconds a couple of times. (Is this normal beginner-level performance?)
  • Pomodoros. I've had some success with doing pomodoros of work, including beeminding them, but I find that they're best suited to well-defined, discrete tasks. Tasks which are more nebulous seem less suited to it. Also, I find it hard to do pomodoros unless I'm feeling high-willpower, but perhaps this is fixable with, erm, the application of more willpower.

Things I've considered but haven't attempted:

  • Medication, self-. Is this the sort of thing which would be amenable to a course of Modafinil, or some other nootropic? I could be open to trying this, if it were likely to work.
  • Medication, other. I could try seeing a doctor to see if what I'm talking about warrants a diagnosis of ADD, and a prescription of Ritalin or a similar drug. I have no idea whether what I'm describing would be considered drastic enough to warrant either of those, though.

Any experience with any of the above, speculation on which of them might bear fruit, or suggestions of completely different ideas welcome.

Is this the sort of thing that can be 'trained' through willpower? It seems like a fairly 'deep', even a fundamental, aspect of brain function, so I wonder how plastic such a thing is. Any thoughts on this welcome also.

Finally, am I just worrying too much about this? I was recently heartened to come across this Nassim Nicholas Taleb quote:

If you get easily bored, it means that your BS detector is functioning properly; if you forget (some) things, it means that your mind knows how to filter; and if you feel sadness, it means that you are human.

Perhaps I just have a very stringent bullshit detector. Evidence in favour of this proposal: I think I am able to focus extremely well on personal projects (typically things that I code for fun and find intrinsically rewarding). In fact, when I stop those, it's less often from boredom and more by guiltily tearing myself away in order to get back to my "real" work. (On the other hand, perhaps there's such a thing as a too-stringent bullshit detector - one so stringent as to give false positives.)

Summary: I'm concerned that my focus/concentration skills are significantly worse than average, and that this could be detrimental to my outcomes in life. How can I improve them?

I just want to say that this is extremely similar to my struggles with a Master's degree. Mine is in geology, so your username continues the parallels amusingly. I'm a bit further along, with some marginal successes in efficiency. Here are some of the tactics that I have tried:

*Excercise. My diet is pretty terrible, but regular exercise to offset that has been invaluable. I used weight lifting (if I have a high-calorie diet, then I might as well put the energy to use)- the 5x5 schedule is a good way to gamify things a bit without introducing more complexity than its mindshare allows. This is probably the most useful habit that I have been able to maintain.

*Nootropics. Cautiously. 500mg Choline and about 1600mg Piracetam per day. These are cheap and extremely safe, with moderate-to-questionable benefits. Under this regimen, I have seen quantifiable improvements, including competitive game performance and concentration length. The placebo effect is a strong contender, but rationality means winning, so why not? Previously, I relied on caffeine as my performance enhancer, but the addictive downsides became distracting at the volumes I was using. I don't know much about Modafinil, however.

*Pens. This one may be very specific to me and my response to tactile stimuli, but the consequences are good enough to be worth a shot. For the prose sections of your thesis, write in pen on paper. The paper doesn't matter, but make sure to use a very comfortable pen (the Pilot G2 is my brand). This has three benefits- one, it adds a physicality to the process of writing, which helps to fight distraction with a range of physical inputs that a computer doesn't provide. (Roughly similar to the process of reading or writing in a public place with white noise and background activity, I think.) Two, it is very hard to delete everything you just wrote and start over. This increases the volume of writing your produce in any given time interval, although it will need considerable editing after the fact. Three, it means that you can write in a room without computer or internet access. Leave your phone elsewhere, and you've taken away a large majority of potential distractions. If your brain is missing a detail, it is often possible to just bracket the [thing you don't remember] and keep writing, rather than stopping to look it up and risking an infinite Wikipedia loop.

*Meditation. I tried this also, with some success- that is, I can achieve the mental state usually described as the desired goal. Detachment, hyper-awareness, etc. Philosophically, it has been extremely interesting to see the consequences of this achievement, but it didn't improve productivity any. In fact, the results may have been negative (see 'detachment'). Piercing the veil of the self is not a particularly efficient way to accumulate utils, but it does lower stress.

*Natural light patterns. Try to find a workspace with large windows and plenty of sunlight. Then, avoid turning on room lights except during 'daylight' hours. If you live in high latitudes, you may prefer to artificially extend your light periods to a full twelve hours during the winter. After the sun/'sun' goes down, dim your monitor significantly. This will regulate your sleeping schedule (and thus help build other habits). It will also keep you connected to other humans a bit better, which can stave off loneliness and increase happiness in subtle ways. And of course, this is also a good way to keep up your vitamins and so on.

*Accountability. I am much more productive when I am making regular status updates, with explicit expectations, to the people around me. My proposal was rapidly completed as soon as I began weekly meetings with my advisor, for example. But interested friends can be just as useful, as long as they're reasonably competent to understand what you have achieved, and willing to spend a few minutes at regular intervals discussing your accomplishments. This is up there with my lifting routines in terms of importance, but your mileage may vary depending on your relationship with social power structures.

To emphasize, none of these were a magic bullet that changed my overall lifestyle. There's still a very obvious pattern of procrastination, distraction, and last-minute binge work, and like you, I'm getting really nervous about how this will manifest itself in my career.

It's also the case that a master's degree is really, really hard to get, and the ability to summon an entire thesis from the ether is a part of that difficulty. Most people probably could not achieve such a degree at all; framing your struggles in terms of a deficiency relative to some loosely-defined average is unrealistic and unhelpful. This is true for your colleagues as well- each is an outlier, and the motivating factors that got them to this point are not likely to be directly comparable to your own. You are awesome enough that the bell-curve is not a useful self-assessment, so focus on tactics and not on placing yourself along a continuum.

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

Exercise: I recently started a regime of 2 x 1 hour bodyweight sessions / week with a friend of mine, but we haven't had a session in a while because he recently took an injury boxing. I think I'll start running on my own so I'm not so tied to that one activity (and in accordance with the advice in Optimal Exercise).

Pens: I actually like this advice. On the other hand, I use vim, a programmer's editor, to write everything (including my prose), and I love love love it. (I'm even writing this reply in it.) The 'feel' (not only tactile) of being able to shunt text around so effortlessly (at the paragraph, sentence, clause, word level) is so pleasant that it's hard to give up. On the other hand, there is some sense to what you say about working without a computer.

Natural light patterns: Good thinking. I work in a room with great sunlight during the day; so far so good. But a while ago my monitor broke, and I was able to fix it only by jettisoning its buttons. (Long story.) End result: my monitor is stuck on full brightness all the time. I just checked, though, and I found a linux program (Redshift) capable of adjusting the monitor brightness and colour temperature based on the time of day. I installed it and it seems to work; perhaps it will help. The lamp I use for reading at night also has a slightly harsh, blue-ish hue to it, though it isn't excessively bright. I'll see if I can do something about that, too.

Accountability: Hmmm. I'll think about this. It's certainly the case that periods of poor work correlate with seeing my tutor less. The causation isn't just one-way, though: I'm also less likely to want to see him when things are going slowly. (Perhaps there's something of a nasty positive feedback loop going on here.)

It's also the case that a master's degree is really, really hard to get, and the ability to summon an entire thesis from the ether is a part of that difficulty. Most people probably could not achieve such a degree at all; framing your struggles in terms of a deficiency relative to some loosely-defined average is unrealistic and unhelpful. This is true for your colleagues as well- each is an outlier, and the motivating factors that got them to this point are not likely to be directly comparable to your own. You are awesome enough that the bell-curve is not a useful self-assessment, so focus on tactics and not on placing yourself along a continuum.

Thanks. This actually did help.

You also might wish to consider the ways in which you learn or like to take on large projects. Personally, I am a list maker. I like to have a map a plan if you will. When I'm working on a novel I do the same thing and it may get revised several times before the work is completed. When I was in my Master's program I had my system down so that I could wrote a 25 page paper on International Relations and associated topics in 3 days starting from research to final completion. To do that required caffeine, medication, and no sleep but it was what I had to do at the time to get the job done. You have to create a system, a habit, to do this. If you can find a reliable way of working rather than working ad hoc then you will be able to do more easily and tackle large projects in the future.

But I'm also concerned about how this bodes for my future career.

Then get a job where you will have a boss who keeps you on track by monitoring your short-term progress. For many people college is the only time when they have neither a parent nor boss who pushes them to succeed.

Warning: such high-overhead jobs are often less well paid. And a lucrative and low stress path for you, programming, often has hard-to-measure short-term progress and are usually not closely monitored.

If you work somewhere they do pair programming that can help with a lot of the issues though.

Some things I tried:

Compassion meditation. It doesn't seem as cool as attention-focusing meditation, but it associates pleasant feelings with meditating. Such associations can be useful when you later need to calm yourself down while doing the attention-focusing meditation.

My problem with work is often that I try to avoid even thinking about the work. When I should be doing the work, it is difficult to focus, but when I don't have to work, I completely avoid it in my mind. The problem is, with the things I am successful at, this doesn't happen. It's the other way round: even when I'm not doing them, I keep thinking about them. And I suspect that this thinking is a critical component. So now I sometimes try to think about the work when not working. It's emotionally easier, because it is without the pressure of having to do it right now. And sometimes I have a good idea, which I can use later. Maybe a good strategy would be to go away from the work physically, for a few minutes, but stay with the work mentally. Not typing on the keyboard isn't the problem; not thinking about the project is.

Also, organizing my thoughts is easier when I keep notes on paper. It is easier to split a big problem to smaller parts, when I write them down. Especially when my mind tries to not think about the topic. I mean, if in my mind I realize this problem has a subproblem, and the subproblem has a subsubproblem... that feels like the right moment to run away from everything. However, if I write the subproblem and the subsubproblem on the paper, then I can decide to just focus on the subsubproblem, and temporarily ignore the rest. The algorithm is: "Either it's easy, and I solve it immediately, or it is difficult, and then I write down why specifically it is difficult, what needs to be solved first... and then I resursively focus on the subproblems. At some moment the subproblem is so easy there is just no excuse not to do it. (And if you have an excuse not to do the task, you don't have an excuse not to write down why specifically the task is so difficult.)"

The usual disclaimer: what works for me doesn't have to work for other people.

Did you try lukepros Algorithm for Beating Procrastination?

From your description I take it that the expectancy of the task is moderate (you reliably gain a degree), but its value is partly low: Personally you gain a degree but the thesis itself provides little value on which you could build and which might be intrinsically important for you.

The main problems seem to be delay as is often the case with thesis work. I'd think that your experience with pomodoros should help here: You could break down the thesis into parts, espl. the prose parts.

I'm not clear about your impulsiveness. It appears that you never had to work hard and were able to follow your interests. I can relate to that as it was the same for me. It is kind of a flaw of our society to make some things too easy (not that I'd cry about it). It can hurt us in the long run though. I got out easy: I found a motivation to work hard: Family, esp. my children.

You have to make your mind up on this. I'm not even entirely clear whther procrastination is a bad thing: It's our sobconscious way of telling us that the work has no or may not have long-term potential.

Huh -- I've found that pomodoros help me stay on task tremendously. I generally keep a timer tab open, and my brain seems to think "Oh, I can avoid facebook for another five minutes... let's keep working!"

The life hygiene issues of exercise, sunshine, good sleep, social support are all helpful in getting stuff done.

Beyond that, don't rely exclusively on your working memory for keeping track of all of the things you need to do. You are already taxing that with learning, and offloading everything you can to external aids is helpful (todo lists, experimental journals, daily 3 page mind-dump journaling). A regular review cycle of what you have written can give you a sense of accomplishment, which can be lacking in multi-year projects with few intermediate wins. Count volume of output as a goal, and use beeminder or something similar to remind you to track it, and show you what you have accomplished (pages written, commits made, hours worked...).

Not a medical professional and so on.

Difficulty focusing and difficulty to sleep can be symptoms of underlying emotional issues like depression. In countries with universal health care a consultation with a psychologist is usually free for a number of sessions to rule out something like this. Though the symptoms are quite similar to "being tired and having a headache" w.r.t. somatical issues as they appear with nearly every syndrome.

First of course check if you do the bare minimum: Eating healthy and exercising at least two times a week. Then you should worry about underlying issues.

Thanks. I had actually already wondered about whether I was depressed. I don't think I am, though this was not at all obvious to me, and I had to consider the possibility for some time before rejecting it. I perhaps have a slightly flat affect compared to some, but I think I enjoy life and have a basically happy disposition.

I recently starting a bodyweight exercise regime with a friend (2 x 1 hour sessions / week), but we haven't had a session in a while because he recently took an injury boxing. I think I'll start running on my own so I'm not so tied to that one activity (and in accordance with the advice in Optimal Exercise).

I think my diet is decent.

Regarding the mediation, I had a professor of Eastern Philosophy speak at one of my clubs, and he led us in a meditation. When I asked him how long it took before he saw results from his meditation practice, he said about six months, so it's not maximally effective immediately. Anecdotally, I can say that I I have noticed my ability to focus during the meditation to have improved, though I haven't maintained it for six months yet.

Thanks. Do you feel like it's had much impact on your mental state when not meditating?

It's hard to say, since there are confounds to changes in my mental state, but it does seem like I'm calmer and more self-aware, and if I make the connection to meditation I can quickly focus on my breath and change my focus.

Be careful what you argue for.

For the longest time I was opposing nationalism and the concept of citizenship. I researched the issue, read and crafted arguments in favour of my position and convinced myself that this is a rational opinion to have. Then some things happened that made me feel more connected to the soil I was born on. Still I feel that my identity is not determined by my passport but my previous arguments seem a whole lot less convincing and the arguments I dismissed as unreasonable seem more convincing.

The quest to be more rational is one of the more humbling things I ever did with the hardest lesson to learn being that I am wrong very often and my beliefs are largely not rational.

Maybe the risk is in trying to argue for our positions more strongly than we actually feel them. More extreme positions feel higher-status... but then comes the moment when one realizes "oops, I actually don't feel this", and the pendulum swings to the opposite direction.

Sometimes we are pushed to an extreme position by people who argue for the opposite extreme position. They keep giving arguments for one side... and to argue with them, we focus on the arguments for the other side.

Of course we shouldn't underestimate the impact of peer pressure. But that's a bad reason to change opinions. On the other hand, realizing that one's position isn't truly as extreme as it seemed originally, and updating towards the true position, that is a good reason.

As a fervent anti-nationalist, I'm very curious as to what arguments and/or evidence made you change your mind.

The term "nationalism" is used in at least two very different ways. The particularist use is more accurately termed "national chauvinism", usually but not always ethnically-based, is the idea that one's own nation is in some way better than all the others, and the interests of its people should be accorded disproportionate weight. Note that this kind of nationalist doesn't necessarily care about political organization outside of his own country; he has an ideology about his nation, not necessarily about nations in general.

I would agree that used in this sense, "nationalism" is basically indefensible.

There is a different, generalist use of the term "nationalism," however, which traces academically to people like Ernest Gellner, and philosophically, arguably back to people like Friedrich List. Nationalism in this sense, is merely the proposition, "National boundaries should coincide with state boundaries." Importantly, it doesn't require ethnically-defined nations, merely people who self-identify as being part of a common national community, whether that be based on blood, culture, or something else. A natural corollary of this view of nations and nationalism is that, at least in the world as it actually exists now, everyone is either a nationalist or an imperialist (one could carve out a small exception for anarchists).

In this generalist sense of "nationalism," which makes claims not about "my nation" but about "all nations," I think there are tradeoffs on both sides. I identify as an somewhat ambivalent nationalist. But unlike the the first sense, I don't think you can argue that the nationalist position is prima facie inferior from a consequentialist standpoint.

The particularist use is more accurately termed "national chauvinism", usually but not always ethnically-based, is the idea that one's own nation is in some way better than all the others, and the interests of its people should be accorded disproportionate weight.

The "in some way better than all others" bit isn't a very charitable reading of that position; if a Frenchman wants the french government to further the interests of France and Frenchmen (even at the expense of other countries), then it's a form of nationalism but doesn't include a belief that "France is better than the rest"; it's only that he cares more about France than about the rest.

Having diminishing "circles of empathy" for others depending on whether they're in your family, your city, your country, your religion or race etc. is pretty normal, but there's variance about what levels are considered as more important; (pretty much) everybody cares more about their family, but some may see religion or political affiliation or their city as a "more important" identity than one's country (this is assuming country = nation, which as you say is usually the case in the West now); "national chauvinists" would be the ones who put their country above other identities.

The term "nationalism" is used in at least two very different ways.

This BTW is my beef with Mencius Moldbug when he points out that German nationalism is considered bad and Czech nationalism is considered good.

Neither arguments nor evidence. That is the exact point of my post.

But to answer a more lenient reading of your request: After making an effort to be less hostile to group celebrations, people in general and local cultures and traditions I could relax enough to take part in those and/or enjoy them. As a result I both feel more belonging to the country I live in and also I appreciate other cultures and cultural traditions more.

Does that answer your question?

From your description it appears you have gained a stronger connection with your local culture and empathy for those of other cultures who strive to preserve theirs, but I don't see the line linking that with political support for nation-states.

Apparently you don´t need a argument to be a nationalist. Guess this is just system 1 working.

Now you made me want to make a rational argument for nationalism. Uhm... let's try this:

Imagine that some cultures do things that you consider horrible (e.g. genital mutilation, "honor" killing, killing people for blasphemy or sexual orientation, etc.). Your culture doesn't do that. However, for some reasons, the populations in the other cultures are growing, the population in your culture is not, people immigrate to your country and bring their horrible behavior with them. You are afraid that unless something is done against this, the repulsive behavior will become a norm in your country, too. Maybe not the majority norm, but still something that is more or less tolerated, because no mainstream politician would risk making too many voters angry. How to stop this?

Appealing to national feelings may be a realistic strategy. (The point is not to invent something that intellectuals would agree with, but something that has a realistic chance to get a popular support.) You can try to make people more proud of your local culture, and emphasise that not doing X is an important part of what makes this country great. Thus you get a strong political force against X.

Related: "Use Your Identity Carefully". -- My analogy is that nationalism is identity on the mass level (identity for NPCs?). It is a tool to preserve a group of memes, both good and bad. Instead of throwing away the tool, you can try to increase the proportion of the good memes in the mix.

Having a strong national identity, and norms around self-sacrifice in favor of "The Fatherland" seems like pretty good instrumental rationality, in terms of coordination, enforcing cooperation, economies of scale, etc. "Identity for NPCs" sounds a bit dismissive for a mechanism that works pretty well (to me it sounds close to "cooperating is for suckers, rationalists should defect").

I don't think "rejecting weird foreign norms" has much to do with the historical causes of nationalist sentiment; I'd say it had more to do with enforcing strong norms over weak norms (for example, speaking the same language, not engaging in nepotism, obeying the law, sending your children to school, taking up arms to defend the country), and putting the primary focus of loyalty on the country (and not the king, the church, your family or your village). Foreigners from far away with different norms is a more recent phenomenon.

"Identity for NPCs" sounds a bit dismissive for a mechanism that works pretty well (to me it sounds close to "cooperating is for suckers, rationalists should defect").

Oh. Uhm, if we put it to the Prisonner's Dilemma language, I'd rather say -- rational people can analyze the situation and choose with whom to cooperate even if the other person is different, but stupid people need some simple and safe algorithm, such as: "cooperate with identical copies of myself, defect against everyone else".

Which works decently, if you have many identical copies at the same place, interacting mostly with each other. You cannot be exploited by someone using a smart algorithm. That's a relatively impressive outcome for such a simple algorithm.

The disadvantage is that you can't cooperate even with people using functionally identical algorithms with different group markers (e.g. using a different language, or dressing differently). And you have to suppress your deviations from the official norm (e.g. a minority sexual orientation). And you have a barrier to self-improvement, because the improved version is by definition different than the original one. -- On the other hand, if you manage to somehow artificially impose some positive change on everyone at the same time (or very slowly during a long time period), then the positive change will be preserved. Unfortunately, it works the same way with negative changes.

Oh. Uhm, if we put it to the Prisonner's Dilemma language, I'd rather say -- rational people can analyze the situation and choose with whom to cooperate even if the other person is different, but stupid people need some simple and safe algorithm, such as: "cooperate with identical copies of myself, defect against everyone else".

It's not clear that someone analyzing the situation will choose to cooperate - plenty of smart people have argued that the rational behavior in prisoner's dilemma is to defect.

And I would argue that even for smart people, a simple algorithm is more likely to get everyone on board; a complicated but "better" solution which no one else follows (and that would only count as "better" if everybody was following it) is not worth following.

That's certainly one, but there's an even easier argument to make - Burkean conservatism. Your nation's identity is built around stuff that's probably worked pretty well for it in past(or else it probably wouldn't be a nation today). As such, it's got a higher prior probability of working out in your local circumstances. It's not a large effect, of course, but it's a real one, particularly for successful nations.

Imagine that some cultures do things that you consider horrible (e.g. genital mutilation, "honor" killing, killing people for blasphemy or sexual orientation, etc.). Your culture doesn't do that.

But my culture also does things that I consider horrible that other cultures don't do! (SCNR.)

Also, the bad things my culture does are "near" (both metaphorically and geographically), and the bad things other cultures do are "far".

Which I guess is why I am not a nationalist.

But I can imagine a situation that could change it, such as seeing a foreign minority doing their horrible stuff in my neigborhood.

I think your thought process is indicative of our modern age. It is hard to concept of nations in the online environment that, at least for the time being, remains borderless. Nationalism has produced 2 world wars and several smaller conflicts and given its impetus in 1648 as a way of allowing kingdoms and countries to decide their religion without outside influence I think the 21st century will see fewer borders rather than more borders. That being said a quick read of any news site would make that statement hard to believe as nations get more nationalistic. However, advances in communication, transportation, and the movement of good, services, capital, and people will make borders less and less meaningless. What is a nation? What is geographical area? What is a political border? Our economy and our way of working is reducing that meaning. 30 years ago your country was the sum total of your upbringing, language, culture, shared values, and chances in life. Movement was long and hard and fraught with difficulty. That is becoming far less in our modern age. I think we all will feel tied to where we were born and grew up because its comfortable, its homey, we know the back routes, we know the cultural rules and being tribal as humans are we generally fit into that tribe. Those are all important things. Your personal identity is never, nor has it ever been tied to a passport. It is just a little book that tells other countries where you are coming from and some information about you. It is not you, it a part of you that is on paper for movement purposes. The lesson in life that you are more often than not wrong is nothing to be afraid of or anything to cause you distress but rather you are finding the juicy part of the human existence.

That being said a quick read of any news site would make that statement hard to believe as nations get more nationalistic.

News sites don't provide much evidence of increase of nationalist sentiment, unless you take into account the usual spin anytime something bad is reported: "This bad thing happened! Things are getting worse!"

Yes, however the desire for Colorado to split into two states for California to split into 6 and for the ukraine to split into 2 I think shows that there is a identity/policy crisis going on that is compelling political entities to split. Although one does have to dig past the hype these news sites have their use.

Part of it is that different parts of the states have different ideas about how the state should be governed.

Right! Therefore I think its helpful to think about the institution of the nation state and how to govern ourselves as a political entity rather than forfeiting that right to others. Does the nation state concept still have meaning or is it time for a change?

Haidt calls this pushing your "hive-switch" (humans are "90% chimp, 10% bee").You can reliably increase your groupishness by simulating your in-group being under attack or by taking certain kinds of drugs.

Note that Haidt's theory relies on group selection, which many people on LW disagree with. From reading this essay by Pinker and the replies by Haidt and others, the whole thing seems complicated.

Scott Aaronson has a post on the computational power of digicomps. While the post itself is interesting, it is also worth noting here because it is part of a new experiment he is doing. He writes:

Right now, I have a painfully-large stack of unwritten research papers. Many of these are “paperlets”: cool things I noticed that I want to tell people about, but that would require a lot more development before they became competitive for any major theoretical computer science conference. And what with the baby, I simply don’t have time anymore for the kind of obsessive, single-minded, all-nighter-filled effort needed to bulk my paperlets up. So starting today, I’m going to try turning some of my paperlets into blog posts. I don’t mean advertisements or sneak previews for papers, but replacements for papers: blog posts that constitute the entirety of what I have to say for now about some research topic. “Peer reviewing” (whether signed or anonymous) can take place in the comments section, and “citation” can be done by URL. The hope is that, much like with 17th-century scientists who communicated results by letter, this will make it easier to get my paperlets done: after all, I’m not writing Official Papers, just blogging for colleagues and friends.

Richard Bornat, one of the authors of The camel has two humps (about a supposed bimodal distribution of programming ability) recently wrote:

I did a number of very silly things whilst on the SSRI and some more in the immediate aftermath, amongst them writing "The camel has two humps". I'm fairly sure that I believed, at the time, that there were people who couldn't learn to program and that Dehnadi had proved it. Perhaps I wanted to believe it because it would explain why I'd so often failed to teach them.

Read the rest: Camels and humps: a retraction.

Title and excerpt aside, this isn't really a retraction of the actual test, just of the author's overly-aggressive interpretation thereof. Basically he says that the test does have some predictive power but not enough to prove anything about who can or can't pass a programming class.

Did someone actually use an ad-hominem argument against themselves to destroy the credibility of their own paper?

Fascinating.

Will this start a new wave of "sorry, I was high when writing the paper, please don't take it seriously" retractions?

:D

LessWrong meetup question:

Are there any meetups that allow for Skyped in guests? It seems to me setting up a way for guests to Skype or otherwise pop in from long distance would be very useful, especially those who cannot find or start up a meetup otherwise.

There were some purely virtual meetups, but there are technical problems when connecting too many people. Like, ten or more.

You could just go ahead and announce your own virtual meetup. Create a public google document where participants can write their names, and set a limit to, say, maximum seven participants per meetup. (If someone realizes they will not be able to come, they should remove their name from the list, to allow other people to join.)

If you want, you could make it a recurring event, e.g. once in a week.

I am weighing my options on trying to start a meetup myself. I've considered the possiblity of starting an Alabama LW meet up. But when the nearest city with a population over 50,000 is 55 miles away, I feel the density of LWers in the area would be too small to sustain it. Or start it at all. I certainly know of no one personally who would be interested, though I could still use it as an excuse to sit in a coffee shop and read.

Who are some of the groups that do virtual meetups? If nothing else, I'd like to see how others have tried this. Could give me some ideas for a set up of my own.

Who are some of the groups that do virtual meetups?

Participants of the European meetup in Berlin. They coordinate on Facebook.

We've done this a couple of times in Melbourne. It works as a way to say hi, but not so much as a way to participate more generally.

Bob Nelson, of the failed Cryonics Society of California, has written a book. Anyone read the book yet?

I'm an EA and interested in signing up for cryonics. After cryocrastinating for a few years (ok I guess I don't get to say "after" until I actually sign up), I've realized that I should definitely sign up for life insurance, because of the ability to change the beneficiary. I place a low probability on cryonics working right now, but I can claim a charity or a Donor Advised Fund as the beneficiary until I place a sufficient probability on suspension technology working. In the future, I can change it back if I change my mind, etc.

Any issues that might come into this? If no one sees any flaws, I'm committing to sign up for life insurance with this plan in mind by or during the next open thread, and making a more prominent post about this strategy for any EA+Cryonics people.

The main flaw I can think of is that insurance is a money-loser on average - otherwise the people selling it wouldn't make any money, so they wouldn't offer it at that price. I can't immediately find average ratios for life insurance, but typical payouts for medical insurance are 80% of premiums while the figure for property insurance is more like 50%.

In other words, the expected net cost of taking out the insurance policy, if you never decide to redirect it to cryonics or loved ones, is going to be somewhere between 20% and 50% of the premiums. Is that worth it for the extra flexibility it gives you? That's something only you can decide.

Remember that life insurance, in most jurisdictions, is tax-exempt. As such, the amount of cash your heirs get to put into their pocket may well be higher than with traditional low-risk investments, even if the top-line return is lower.

I sell life insurance as a big part of my day job, and you should be aware that buying a big life insurance policy for charity is the sort of thing life insurance underwriters tend to be a touch suspicious of. It can be done, but they'll ask for things like your donation history to that charity and why you suddenly feel the need to shower hundreds of thousands of dollars upon them. Insurance applications can be turned down for financial reasons too, not just medical.

It might be worth looking into which life insurance companies are friendly to cryonics.

Presumably, it would be more efficient to donate the cost of life insurance directly to the beneficiary. People often fund cryonics with insurance because they can't afford it otherwise, but if you could pay upfront without significantly damaging your quality of life, I'd expect that to be a good idea too.

Well it still costs money, so it will be a constant drain on resources as long as you have life insurance. Which I suppose is fine if the payoff to the charity is worth it as a terminal goal, but I personally feel very weird betting on my own death. (At least in the absence of children or other dependents).

Three weeks ago I came up with a simple productivity technique that I've been using with great results, and thought I should share it here in case it is of help to others. I could write a couple of paragraphs describing how it works, but I think that by taking a look at this spreadsheet you can very quickly understand the idea. In short, I list everything I want to do each day (using a rather fine-grained criterion of act individuation) and motivate myself to do those things by a combination of points and streaks. (Many of my dailies relate to nutrition or health, but this is just contingent on my own goals and interests.) The system grew out of my dissatisfaction with some of the best existing tools I had tried, like Beeminder and HabitRPG, and I find it works better than those.

I'm happy to answer questions or incorporate suggestions.

(Note that the spreadsheet I link here is a copy of the one I actually use; it is not updated and does not, therefore, reflect my current progress.)

Looks like in a month or so, your easy-to-keep items will outstrip all others. Maybe the value should grow logarithmically over time, not linearly?

The streak count is not incorporated into the value associated to a task; it is an independent metric. But I'm not sure if this is what you were referring to. If not, can you elaborate? Thanks.

Yes, that was what I was refering to and I really should have thought of seeing whether the realized values match up with what I was thinking. I thought it was a neat idea to give yourself some incentive to keep a habit running once you've kept the streak up for a while.

A couple of questions about your individual situation -- just curious:

1.) What are your morning and night routines like?

2.) Do you think it's valuable to break your don't eat up by food, or just have one junk food category?

3.) Why not sleep during the day? I had previously been in a habit of napping and found it useful, and it's generally regarded as healthy. The only reason I don't nap now is because I have a standard 9-to-5 (well, more like 10-to-7) job.

4.) Why so much caffeine in the coffee and tea? It seems like this would just promote tolerance, which seems bad.

5.) What are the benefits of eating dark chocolate? Olive oil?

Hi Peter,

  1. Here are my morning and night routines. I try to be quite detailed; don't underestimate the value of checklists.

  2. I originally had a single generic junk food category, but the problem was that when I ate one type of junk food on a given day, I had no extra incentive to abstain from eating other types of junk food for the rest of the day. Individuating dailies with a more fine-grained criterion provides an effective way of dealing with this problem.

  3. I have sleep problems and wanted to see whether sleeping only at night would help. In addition, I read studies suggesting that people who sleep during the day, esp. those who take long naps, tend to die earlier, though these are correlational studies and it's unclear what causal inferences we can draw from them.

  4. I once estimated that my total caffeine intake from drinking two cups of coffee and six cups of green tea was about 300 mg, which I believe is within safe and normal levels. I drink green tea primarily for its health benefits, though, so perhaps I should switch to decaf. As for coffee, there are studies suggesting that low to medium doses have neuroprotective properties, though I'm not sure this is due to the caffeine itself or other properties of coffee.

  5. Olive oil is a very good source of monounsaturated fatty acids. The benefits of dark chocolate are, I think, modest and not that well documented; see here. I eat it primarily because I find it delicious.

I originally had a single generic junk food category, but the problem was that when I ate one type of junk food on a given day, I had no extra incentive to abstain from eating other types of junk food for the rest of the day.

I solved that problem by tracking how many pieces of junk food I ate rather than a binary of whether or not I ate junk food on that particular day.

Yes, I considered that approach. But the vagueness involved in the notion of a "piece of junk food" was such that I found I had considerable latitude in determining how many pieces of junk food I ate on a particular day. By contrast, deciding whether I ate a certain type of junk food at all is usually quite straightforward, and not subject to rationalization. As Jon Elster wrote:

Kant’s rule of smoking only one pipe after breakfast was not unambiguous enough to give him full protection, since as time passed he bought himself bigger and bigger pipes. When feasible, the rule ‘‘Never do it’’ may be the only one that can be stably upheld.

(Of course, you may not have a problem if you are sufficiently self-disciplined, as you seem to be.)

(Of course, you may not be a problem if you are sufficiently self-disciplined, as you seem to be.)

Yeah, that seems right.

But the vagueness involved in the notion of a "piece of junk food" was such that I found I had considerable latitude in determining how many pieces of junk food I ate on a particular day.

I tend to define it roughly as "250 calories of something that is devoid of nutritional value and consumed primarily for taste".

I actually find a slight caffeine dependency useful in reminding me to put the kettle on and make a proper breakfast in the morning.

Looks like a cool system. Curious what you count as being a slip-up in your "sugar" category, since you have a day that's red for cake but green for sugar. Presumably the cake contains sugar (and probably your 10g of dark chocolate does too?) - do you just mean sugar by itself?

By sugar I mean "added sugar", as used to sweeten drinks. I have control over whether I put sugar on my coffee, but not on the sugar present in most other foods, including cakes, so it makes sense for me to deal with the two separately. If on a give day I eat cake but don't add sugar to drinks, I would mark the 'cake' daily as a failure and the 'sugar' daily as a success.

Incidentally, I eat 100% dark chocolate, which doesn't contain any sugar.

As a cheaper alternative to 100% dark chocolate, I drink unsweetened* cocoa made as follows:

  1. Fill kettle, start boiling water
  2. Add 2 teaspoons cocoa powder to mug, stir in a small trickle of cold water to make a paste
  3. Stir in boiling water, filling mug about 2/3rd full
  4. Top up with cold milk (*milk contains sugars so this isn't technically zero sugar. You could skip the milk if you think it matters, at the cost of worse taste).

Best tasting cocoa powder I've found in the UK is Cadbury Bournville. Some supposedly premium brands (eg. Green & Blacks) taste much worse, bland with a slight burnt taste. Color seems to be a good indication of taste - lighter color generally tastes better.

I like drinking cocoa made as follows:

  1. 1 mug milk (heated in microwave
  2. ~1.75 spoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
  3. 1-2 dashes of cinnamon
  4. (sometimes) cayenne powder

Isn't this exactly how cocoa is normally made? Either like that or with hot milk instead of boiling water. What would anyone do differently with that sort of cocoa?

Ah, makes sense! The chocolate sounds cool.

Have you always enjoyed 100% dark chocolate, or did you have to train yourself to do so, and if so how? I'm not particularly interested in eating less sugar, but somewhere around 95% it goes from tasting rich and bitter and fragrant and wonderful to tasting bitter in a way that just doesn't register as food, and I want to know if there's a way to overcome this. I have a similar situation with unsugared black tea, with a single exception that involved LSD.

I have a similar situation with unsugared black tea

You should brew tea properly. The bitterness in black tea comes from tannins and you can easily control their extraction during brewing.

For black tea:

  • Use good quality loose-leaf tea, preferably the orange pekoe cut. The tea dust in teabags oversteeps (and becomes bitter) very quickly.

  • Time the steeping of the tea leaves in boiling water. The usually recommended five minutes is often too long (if you'll be drinking your tea without milk). Try three and a half minutes to start, then adjust as desired. The less time you steep, the less bitter will the tea be (while caffeine generally extracts in the first 30 seconds or so).

  • Once the tea has steeped for the proper time, pour the tea off the leaves into another teapot (or a cup, etc.). Do not let tea sit on the leaves.

  • Experiment with different teas as well. Tea from Assam (often sold as Irish Breakfast) is the most tannic. Tea from Darjeeling, for example, is much less so.

Good advice that I'm already following. I do enjoy Darjeeling with hardly any sugar, but it just doesn't satisfy my "wake you up in the morning" desires the way Assam does. Even with Darjeeling, though, unless I add at least a small amount of sugar (maybe 1/4 of what I'd put in Assam) it's just fragrant water and I don't perceive it as having flavor.

No, I haven't always enjoyed 100% dark chocolate. For a long time I ate chocolate with 85% concentration of cocoa, and then gradually moved upwards. I haven't met many people who like pure chocolate, though, and there doesn't seem to be a big market for it, judging from the difficulty of finding it. So my experience may be atypical.

I like it! But when I eat it, I want much less of it than I would eat of 80-90% in a sitting. (not necessarily a drawback)

More people, by several orders of magnitude, like unsweetened black tea than unsweetened chocolate. And probably another order of magnitude for coffee.

Does this mean that you should ask people about tea rather than chocolate? There are a lot more of them. And maybe it's easier with tea. If it's easier with tea, maybe you should do tea first. But if it's easier, maybe the masses of people who do it did it without planning or introspection, while the hard task may be a better source of information.

I've asked more people about tea than about chocolate. But I haven't asked anyone about coffee, because I don't drink it, and I think that's worth trying.

What is the outcome of asking people about tea? Do they say useful things? specific to tea, or things that might generalize to chocolate?

With tea, a few people like unsweetened black tea and have always experienced it as having flavor (though there's still the usual acquired-taste aspect of bitter/tannic things). Others, like me, find that without sugar it's just fragrant water that doesn't get experienced as having taste, but they like it that way. I haven't found anyone who's actively learned to enjoy sugarless black tea in the way I would like to.

I enjoy sugarless black tea. I didn't use to. I got into through green tea (which I admittedly still prefer in the general). I think drinking a lot of green tea and getting pretty into it (trying lots of different loose leaf types, learning about ideal steeping temperatures and times) got me used to the basic form of tea, after which it's a lot easier to get into black tea.

Yes, it is similar, and it grew out from my experience with that website. However, I found HabitRPG problematic for a number of reasons. First, the rules are such that I "died" even if I failed to complete a small proportion of dailies. Second, I had little freedom to assign different value points to different tasks. Finally, my system allows me to manipulate the data in all sorts of ways, and create progress graphs that are more informative and motivating than those in HabitRPG.

Are you on a gluten-free and/or starch-free diet?

No, I just try to avoid foods that are carb-dense or nutrient-light. I'm a vegetarian.

Now I'm more curious. Potatoes are vitamin and mineral cornucopias, and peanuts are protein powerhouses. Why avoid those two?

Peanuts are not 'protein powerhouses' unless you are trying to measure protein/volume instead of protein/calorie. They give 7g protein per 164 calories. Compare that to tofu which provides 20g protein per 176 calories or salmon which provides about 20g for 183 calories.

Potatoes are not nutrient-dense relative to the food I eat. 100 Calories of e.g. spinach contain many times the minerals and vitamins contained in 100 grams of potatoes.

Peanuts are not very bad per se, but the opportunity costs of eating them are too high for me, since they substitute other, better nuts from my "nuts" budget (e.g. walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts).

Idea: The Great Filter as a self-imposed measure by sentient life to mitigate inevitable early thought experiment blunders in their histories.

I don't understand. Can you explain that more?

There exist certain ideas that are very dangerous to think. They make you vulnerable to harm at the hands of future super-intelligences. Such ideas aren't hard to come by, most civilizations stumble upon them. One of the ways to render them inner is to end your existence.

You mean like the basilisk?

Getting rid of your species seems like going overboard. If you saved the children and raised them by robots, you'd be able to remove whatever dangerous memes you made.

Also, if that is a common reaction to the basilisk, then a fundamental assumption in it is the opposite of true. If your response is ignoring it or less, you have nothing to worry about.

You mean like the basilisk?

Like a basilisk yes.

Idea: The concept of a great filter is a collective failure of imagination on the part of humanity, amplified by a severe lack of data.

Yeah, I (and others) have been saying this here and elsewhere.

My sense is that the LW wiki has the potential to be a good alternative for someone who wants to learn the ideas of rationality but does not have the time / patience to read through the Sequences. However, the Sequences have the major advantage that they have an order to them (actually several alternative orders - my favorite being Benito's) where someone can start at the beginning and work their way through in an organized way. To my knowledge there is nothing comparable for the wiki.

Anyone out there willing to put together an organized guide to the wiki aimed at a newcomer who wants to quickly learn through the material?

Politics is not about policy: "Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology", Hibbing et al 2014 (excerpts; media coverage); abstract:

Disputes between those holding differing political views are ubiquitous and deep-seated, and they often follow common, recognizable lines. The supporters of tradition and stability, sometimes referred to as conservatives, do battle with the supporters of innovation and reform, sometimes referred to as liberals. Understanding the correlates of those distinct political orientations is probably a prerequisite for managing political disputes, which are a source of social conflict that can lead to frustration and even bloodshed. A rapidly growing body of empirical evidence documents a multitude of ways in which liberals and conservatives differ from each other in purviews of life with little direct connection to politics, from tastes in art to desire for closure and from disgust sensitivity to the tendency to pursue new information, but the central theme of the differences is a matter of debate. In this article, we argue that one organizing element of the many differences between liberals and conservatives is the nature of their physiological and psychological responses to features of the environment that are negative. Compared with liberals, conservatives tend to register greater physiological responses to such stimuli and also to devote more psychological resources to them. Operating from this point of departure, we suggest approaches for refining understanding of the broad relationship between political views and response to the negative. We conclude with a discussion of normative implications, stressing that identifying differences across ideological groups is not tantamount to declaring one ideology superior to another.

This is juicy and oh-so-obvious. The people arguing for stability and for things generally staying the same (in the US mostly for their collective benefit) are going to perceive any change as bad unless it directly benefits them. This is rational acting at work: does it or does it not benefit me? Lets remember humans care at a fundamental level three things: reproduction, eating, and life-survival (Can I make with it? Can I eat it? Will it kill me?). Therefore, if something in the environment changes that threatens those fundamental things then it can be perceived as negative. Those on the reform side have a different send of answers to those survival questions and look at those stimuli differently while also having stimuli they view as negative. Ultimately, within this dichotomy the good of "the people" is at debate. Sadly, political systems only work when all parties have at least a partial agreed upon premise. Here in the US the agreed upon premise has gone away and gridlock is the new rule. In Europe things are different post austerity and a new set of shared presumptions is being formed (How involved should countries be in the EU?) It is not often in these charged days that people are willing to stand up and make the hard and often unpopular decisions to do what is expedient for the greatest number of people rather than being beholden to interest groups. Such is politics and you are right, politics has little to do with policy and more to do with reptile mind survival of systems that benefit the people involved rather than what moves society forward or backward to a certain agreed upon ideal.

Request for advice: I'm looking to improve my social ability. specifically my ability to 'read' people and social situations. In addition I would like to be able to apply these insights to be more persuasive and socially effective. I feel like I am below average in these areas. In addition I would like to improve the quality of my relationships. Someone mentioned a social psychology course online. I probably won't take the course , but I'd like a textbook recommendation if possible. What would be ideal and really helpful would be something like Lukeprog's summaries of research in cognitive science. Or something like the book "59 seconds" that summarises research in psychology of adjustment and how to apply it. Something that summarises social psychology and the aspects I need to understand to improve my relations with people . Any recommendations for books or articles? Googling brought up some books like "Emotional Intelligence 2.0" but I don't know the quality of the work.

The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane is a evidence-based book that summarizes advice about dealing with social situations. I'm not sure whether it helps in the reading department but it provides practical tips that improve social ability and multiple people on LW recommended the book in the past.

When it comes to reading people in my own experience reading other people has a lot to do with being able to read yourself. Developing my own bodily awareness helped me a lot with reading other people. It gave me awareness of things like when a partner of a conversation tenses up when I say something.

Paul Ekman sells an online course for detecting microexpression to detect emotional states of other people. Paul Ekman is a serious academic psychologist but it's not 100% clear whether all his claims are true in the strong form in which he makes them. If you have money to spend doing his course seem like a good investment.

Creating an Anki deck for Ekman style detection of emotions also seems like a good project from my own perspective. I think a lot of people on LW and in general would appreciate such a deck.

All that said, don't think that you will improve social skills by sitting in front of a book. Improvement comes from actually practicing and doing exercises.

Thanks for the recommendations! Definitely looking into it. Some of the 'theory' stuff is interesting too. Things like the posts on lesswrong that conceptualize offense as a grab for status. Any recommendatons on that front? On 'theory' of social interaction.

If you have to much theory in your head but bad social skills you are likely to analyse the situation in which you are intellectually. As a result your body language might give off signs that you aren't present. Reactions in your face are slightly delayed.

As far as I'm aware ideas like "conceptualize offense as a grab for status" are not strongly evidence based. Of course that doesn't mean that it has to be wrong. There probably some writing in the pickup field that slashes out ideas like that in more detail.

Yeah. I've always found (in other areas) , having a good handle on the theory and concepts involved allows me to grasp it intuitively and apply my knowledge better. I guess in soft science , the theory might be a bit more conjectural. Any writings in particular you think of? Thanks in advance.

When it comes to social situations, normal people have certain emotional reactions to specific stimuli and react based on those stimula. Having theories in your head can reduce you from having natural reactions and acting them out.

I generally think that Friedemann Schulz von Thun model of communication is underappreciated in the Anglo-American discourse.

We covered the model in school in Germany and later when I went to Toastmasters two separate people hold speeches on it. At my university I had a course about personal development by a computer science professor that also covered the model of Schulz von Thun.

Apart from that there isn't specific writing that I would recommend, but other might have recommendations.

Anyone in Oslo interested in being part of a Less Wrong meetup group? I have started a Doodle poll at http://doodle.com/9mg6f3qcya34wciu4kf6kuze/admin#table

Did anyone here learned to do lipreading? If so, how did you learn it? Can you recommend resources on the topic?

Heads up to fellow autodidiacts. Amazon's kindle Unlimited allows you to get a number of select titles for a monthly fee. They have a free 30 day trial on now.

As a little side project, I entertain myself with the idea of writing fiction that blends fantasy and mega-structures engineering.
The first step will be to ideate a consistent magic system, but of course, to make the story interesting, I'll have to come up with interesting characters and their conflicts. Do you know about any good story, long or short, that revolves around or has as background mega-structures, that I can be inspired from? Fantasy or extreme science-fiction would be the best.

"Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang. It's a novelette that's part of his compilation "Stories of Your Life and Others". To quote Wikipedia, "the story follows a young miner from the town of Elam who ascends the tower of Babylon to help break through the vault of heaven. Along the way he sees many wonderous sights, uncovers mysteries of heaven and earth, and in the end finds them as inscrutable as ever."

Also the books of Karl Schroeder (Sun of Suns series, other standalones)

The Culture series by Iain M. Banks has a lot of different examples of mega-structures, and they tend to feature somewhat prominently in his stories. The books themselves are on the hard-SF side of things, but a few of them delve closer to fantasy when they pull a Star Trek, and have an encounter with a less-developed race.

Ah, I love the culture series. Too bad Iain Banks has left the building :( Anyway I read almost all of them, but I'm reluctant to crack open the Hydrogen Sonata, knowing too well that's going to be my last Culture novel...

The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke. (space elevator)

Entoverse, by James P. Hogan. (planet-sized computer)

The Ringworld saga, by Larry Niven. (über-massive artificial planet)

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross. (god-like AI controlling us from the future)