This is the public group instrumental rationality diary for May 1-15.

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!

Next diary:  May 16-31

Immediate past diary:  April 15-30

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40 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:03 PM

I've made a moderately bold decision that I haven't started to regret yet: I'm going to read an undergrad textbook on every subject I claim to be interested in. My main hope for this is mapping out my own ignorance. It's extremely annoying when armchair-experts talk erroneously about subjects from a position of imaginary authority, and I don't wish to be one of those people. It should produce a useful line of demarcation: if I haven't read an undergrad textbook in a subject, I'm definitely unqualified to say what that subject does and does not contain.

If nothing else, it will at least teach me what I'm genuinely interested in, and what I only claim to be interested in.

(Also, yes, I've seen Luke's best-textbooks-on-every-subject post from two years ago.)

if I haven't read an undergrad textbook in a subject, I'm definitely unqualified to say what that subject does and does not contain.

Admirable. Please consider including "successfully finished most of the exercises" in the definition of "read".

I tend to do enough of the exercises to satisfy myself that I understand the concepts behind them. The exact amount varies from subject to subject.

I've achieved that mostly by reducing the number of fields I claim to be interested in, rather than by increasing the number of textbooks that I read.

I'm going to read an undergrad textbook on every subject I claim to be interested in.

You've inspired me to do the same. :)

The quickest solution is probably to not speak from a position of authority, or to practice adjusting our style of speech to match our actual level of authority.

Also, usually the annoying part about people who "speak with authority" is the arrogance, not the confidence. One can be confident without being arrogant, and one can (surprisingly) be arrogant without being confident.

You speak with a suspicious quantity of authority on this subject...

I was accepted to CFAR's May workshop, which means I'm flying to California soon. I mentioned that I probably wasn't going to get to see much of the area, and someone asked why I wasn't staying around for a few days afterwards. I said something like, I'd rather visit with friends.

Later I realised that that's not at all the reason. As far as I can tell, the reason is that when I was buying plane tickets, I was having a tired and stressful week, the idea of finding accomodation didn't appeal, and I just didn't want to think about the issue.

I've now payed £120 to change my booking so that I do get a few days before flying back.

I recently considered leaving graduate school to get a job. I talked to a number of friends who had jobs, revamped my CV into a resume, created a linkedin profile, and learned a lot about what the job market is like in my area, and about the interview process, and about what sorts of jobs I was interested in. I also talked to people in my department about it for the first time, though it had been on my mind for a while.

I decided that the remaining time that I have (probably two years) is a worthy investment for a number of reasons; including the experience itself, the value of having a PhD, and contingent circumstances about my social life.

After that I've been incredibly productive in my program, scheduling my qualifying exam and constructing a committee and preparing material much faster and more easily than I'd been working before, and I feel a lot less self-doubt about doing school work.

I passed my qualifying exam Monday, and it was much easier than I expected. I hope this trend continues.

After reading The Motivation Hacker, I decided I desperately needed some success spirals to build upon. I picked out four things that sounded simple enough, and planned on doing them within 48 hours of completing the book (the two hours following that period were precommitted to preparing for my interview for App Academy).

I failed miserably at all but one of those 4 tasks, and was feeling absolutely awful by the morning of the last day. I felt like I wanted to get to the point where I could truthfully say whether or not the techniques in the book work for me (and, well, I really want to stop failing at everything), so I gathered what will I had left and started planning out that day, based on the time of the interview.

By some rationalist voodoo, I rebounded so spectacularly that I'm still riding the ensuing success spiral almost a full week later. I started monitoring my happiness levels with an hourly prompt; I disconnected the internet and started coding for an hour and a half, then made a call to Radioshack (I still didn't have enough information to determine if they had the battery I needed, but this was still pretty significant for me). The interview itself fell apart on a professional level--my screen reader and computer really did not like the tools the interviewer preferred for the coding challenge, and verbal backspacing while talking through code does not make one sound all that great, but I did fine on the challenges themselves.

I'll also add that I've been applying every antiakrasia technique I could think of during the past week--this includes working outside with a braille display, monitoring diet and moving around and thinking aloud whenever there are no social costs, playing music while working. (The braille display is pretty much necessary to program with music playing!).

The weather has not been cooperative on every day, and the day that I felt the worst was the one when I was unable to work with music and braille, yet I've still kept up that coding block in the morning, and have been adding new blocks in the past couple days.

Something I noticed on the first day, thanks to a combination of The Motivation Hacker and comments I read on LW, was the point where I hit mental resistance in coding. In the past, it was typical that I could start a project and hammer out the class structure, variables, and some of the simpler methods, but when things got slightly more complicated, I hit a lot of mental resistance and could not willpower my way through it. This particular incident was a different sort of more complicated (in this case, it was basically copy-editing my notes into code, after I'd been defining lots and lots of variables), so I took the advice of mentally rewarding the fact that I noticed this happening, and realized that my brain was functioning in "super easy" mode, and I needed to get up to "kinda easy" mode (I've been using a gear-shift analogy). Explicitly pausing, noticing, and deciding to shift into a higher gear helped tremendously.

Also, I cannot stress enough how insanely little music I was listening to compared to the average productive person, simply due to the inconvenience of setting up and using a braille display with a laptop. Productivity and happiness both improve dramatically with music.

The greatest source of suffering in my life in recent times has been the anxiety of waiting. Pretty objectively stressful things have happened to me over the last ~2 years but what causes far more suffering than anything else is the anxiety of anticipating the outcome of some uncertain event, where one of the possible outcomes is negative.

Earlier this year, I was job hunting. This involved at least the following periods of anxious waiting:

  • after receiving interest from a company I really liked, waiting to see if I would get an interview

  • after taking the interview, waiting for the hiring decision

  • after receiving the news that I would be hired, waiting for the right time to tell my current boss I'm quitting

The whole process has been a highly unpleasant roller coaster. To reiterate: the week leading up to telling my boss I'm quitting (which I just did an hour ago) was subjectively worse for me than the week my daughter barely survived an emergency c-section to be born two months premature.

I wonder if I am atypical in this regard. I do not think that I am, necessarily. The unpleasantness of an unpleasant event which is not anticipated is experienced, and then it is over. Anticipating a potentially unpleasant event, or unpleasant news, drags on and on, amplifying itself over time, draining one's mental stamina, dominating one's thoughts, depressing one's mood, and making it very difficult to concentrate on day-to-day matters.

I believe these remarks to be apropos of a rationality discussion because I've made really irrational decisions lately as a consequence of this anxiety. Specific examples:

  • dragged my feet looking for a job because I didn't want to be rejected

  • once I secured an interview, stopped looking for any other opportunities in order to shield myself from further anxiety about further interviews

  • told nearly all my co-workers that I would be leaving before telling my boss

Besides these major ones, I'm certain there were many more minor instances of doing the stupid thing because the intelligent thing was connected to the anxiety-inducing issue. This is basically an Ugh Field, but the concept of an Ugh Field is very general - I'm specifically concerned with Ugh Fields generated by uncertain future events.

( On a related note, I noticed a peculiar human tendency. Whenever I informed someone that I would be leaving my job but hadn't yet informed my boss, they took it as an opportunity to dispense detailed advice on how to break it to him, often down to describing a rough script for me to follow. This was true whether or not the individual with whom I was sharing this information even knew my boss. My hand-waving evo psych explanation is that in the ancestral environment, when you know that two tribe members are going to have a critical conversation which affects the future of both parties, it is automatically an issue for the whole tribe. Hearing "Bob is going break some bad news to Bill" very quickly activates and brings to bear all available social circuitry, because everybody wants to make sure that you break the news correctly, presumably so that Bill doesn't take some rash tribe-dooming action in response to the news.

At a certain point in this process I started reminding my friends and acquaintances that the content of my message, i.e. "I am quitting," remains the same regardless of how I deliver it, and it is the content itself which is life-altering, so spending energy polishing the delivery of the message doesn't really accomplish much. People would agree with me completely, and then continue giving advice on what I should say as if I hadn't spoken. )

My question to LessWrong is, does anyone have generalized mental tools for dealing with the anxiety of anticipating uncertain future events? Techniques like Cog B comes to mind, but I don't see how to implement such techniques in a generalized fashion.

Also, does anyone else share this problem, or am I actually odd?

Whenever I informed someone that I would be leaving my job but hadn't yet informed my boss, they took it as an opportunity to dispense detailed advice on how to break it to him, often down to describing a rough script for me to follow.

Simpler explanation: many people will assume that if you tell them about something that sounds like a problem, you are looking for a solution. I think this is particularly true of men and engineers. It didn't occur to me that people could be looking for anything else (e.g. emotional comfort) until I had this explicitly pointed out to me by my first female friend.

so spending energy polishing the delivery of the message doesn't really accomplish much.

I think this is probably not true. Don't doctors spend energy polishing the delivery of life-changing messages? In my experience, the content of what people say is usually the least important part, and I think this is still a useful heuristic even in situations where it seems like the content ought to be the dominant concern.

they took it as an opportunity to dispense detailed advice on how to break it to him, often down to describing a rough script for me to follow.

This kind of reaction would actually be helpful for me. Most of my anxieties (e.g., about talking to people) can be defused by thinking concretely (e.g., about how to phrase things, or about what their reactions might be). It's possible your acquaintances who frustrated you with their advice were assuming your mind works like theirs, and were misguidedly but well-intentionedly trying to help.

does anyone have generalized mental tools for dealing with the anxiety of anticipating uncertain future events?

The first things that spring to mind are cognitive behavioral therapy with a competent trained professional, and medication. My understanding is that both of these have a statistically solid record of helping with this sort of problem. (The evidence for CBT without a professional is much less robust, but still looks goodish.)

Also, does anyone else share this problem, or am I actually odd?

My sister is similar. She's had moderate success with CBT + medication, come to think of it.

Congrats on finding the job, by the way. That's not easy, even without horrible anxiety problems.

does anyone have generalized mental tools for dealing with the anxiety of anticipating uncertain future events?

I'm trying to celebrate Rationalist Lent continuously by periodically denying myself things I think are ultimately bad or at least that are unnecessary. So far I've given up porn, shampoo, and Tumblr.

I've come to realize that I am very bad at noticing I am confused and am not sure what to do about this.

Why have you given up shampoo?

I've been told that it's unnecessary for having clean hair and possibly unhealthy. So not using it saves me time and money with basically no effort, and possibly I gain some health benefits (I haven't looked into this, but see the Wikipedia article).

Note: NASA and the Soviet union both did studies on this, and it failed to replicate.

Cite? The Wikipedia article doesn't mention anything about those studies.

NASA and Soviet studies on hygiene in preparation for space station missions do not support this conclusion,[28] and no mechanism of action for how the sebaceous glands below the skin detect sebum levels in hair has been proposed.

The given reference #28 seems to be chapter 10 of Packing for Mars... I can't find anything in that book chapter which matches the claim made in the Wikipedia article that no poo and specifically the reduction in sebum has been debunked by both NASA & Russia. The closest passage seems to be

The head in general is a problem. The majority of our sebaceous glands are attached to hair follicles, thus the unwashed scalp quickly becomes a greasy thing. So much so that the bathphobic hordes of the sixteenth century would rub powder or bran into their scalps before retiring for the night, much as homeowners today sprinkle kitty litter on motor oil spills. Like sweat, sebum develops a distinctive aroma as bacteria break it down. “At least two of the Skylab astronauts reported that their heads developed offensive odors,” noted space psychologist Jack Stuster in a 1986 NASA report on space station habitability.

But it also gives a study which suggests no poo could work:

Commander Borman did not wish to discuss skin care. But later, in his memoir, he would write about “our scalps” and about the case of “terminal dandruff” he had. Though it probably wasn’t, technically speaking, dandruff. Dandruff is caused by an inflammatory skin response to oleic acid, which the scalp fungus Malassezia globosa excretes after dining on your scalp oils. Either you’re sensitive to oleic acid or you’re not. If Borman didn’t have dandruff before he went into space, he didn’t have it afterward, says dermatologist Jim Leyden. Leyden once paid prisoners to not wash their hair for a month, specifically to see if they developed dandruff. They did not. The flakes on Borman’s head and skin were most likely the accumulation of millions of shed skin particles—particles normally washed away in the shower—mixing with sebum and clumping together.

And the chapter confirms the 'adjustment' claim for regular hair (although does not specifically claim it applies to the scalp):

Once a set of clothes becomes saturated and oil starts to build up on the skin, what’s the end point? Does uncleansed skin grow ever greasier as the days pass? It does not. According to the Soviet research, the skin halts its production of sebum* after five to seven days of not bathing and not changing one’s increasingly well-greased clothing. Only when the person changes his shirt or takes a shower do the sebaceous glands get back to work. Skin seems happiest with a five-day buildup of oils. Listen to Professor Elaine Larson, editor of the American Journal of Infection Control, talking about the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of human skin: “This horny layer has been compared to a wall of bricks (corneocytes) and mortar (lipids)” and helps “maintain the hydration, pliability, and barrier effectiveness of the skin.”

I have pointed out this discrepancy on the talk page:

The studies seem to be on a more specific claim than the claim I'm making. I observe subjectively that my hair now feels as clean as it did when I was shampooing every day. I'm not making a claim about why.

Perhaps if your hair is particularly dry, this won't pose you problems, but if I go too long without cleaning my hair with anything other than water, it becomes visibly oily. Humans secrete waterproof substances through glands particularly concentrated in the scalp, so a buildup should not readily be cleaned through water alone.

This is temporary. My hairy was quite oily for about two weeks but now it's about as oily as it was when I was shampooing every day.

That's interesting-- Curly Girl claimed that shampoo was unnecessary, but a brief experiment seemed to imply that not using shampoo left my hair feeling nasty. It's possible I didn't run the experiment long enough.


I think the gland output varies from person to person. I think some people have glands that will back off if you stop shampooing, but some people's don't.

This is consistent with what I've heard and personally experienced. I gave up shampoo about 1.5 years ago, but then some time later switched, at the recommendation of my mum who has very similar hair to mine, to a product that's actually called No Poo. It does some sort of cleansing thing but doesn't actually lather/foam like soap. I use it once every 1-2 weeks and my hair is absolutely wonderful. It's nearly a foot long when straight, fwiw.

saves me time and money

C'mon. Showering and shampooing takes me maybe half a minute longer than showering without shampooing, and a half-litre bottle of the shampoo I use costs around three euros (around four dollars) IIRC and lasts about half a year.

Yeah, so it's not a lot of time and money. I get that. Enough money to pay for RTM, maybe. But it's basically free time and money, so why not pick it up?

I'm curious now how the time saved by not-shampooing compares to the time spent discussing not-shampooing on LW, and the relative payoffs of both. Of course, that's not to suggest that the former necessarily entails the latter.

The most worrying cost of time spent discussing not-shampooing on LW is the opportunity cost, since it funges against talking about more important things. There's a smallish chance someone could've given me useful information (e.g. "actually if you don't shampoo all your hair will fall out") but that currently seems unlikely, so maybe we should just stop talking about it.

Do you just rinse your hair, or do you use soap on it?

Just rinse. I started about three weeks ago and now it's about as clean as it always was.

In January, I mentioned that I had decided to try to keep a journal every night. As a commitment mechanism, I offered my girlfriend $5 for each night that she reminded me to keep a journal but I failed to do so.

Results are as follows:

She has not reminded me once, resulting in $0 lost Out of 117 days since I started, I kept a journal 102 days, consciously chose not to write anything 2 days and forgot 13 days I have read very little of what I have written; while I did not explicitly mention that as a goal, I think keeping a journal would be a lot more useful to me if I did I don't feel like I've made any particular insights while writing in my journal

Overall I would say I met my stated aim but not the real goal behind it. I think my next steps are: Read through everything I've written so far; take notes Schedule a regular time to read through recent entries and see if I learn anything useful that way

Any other suggestions?

Have you articulated the real goal behind keeping a journal more precisely than "learn something useful"?

Using fungibility, in real life:

When I go to lunch from work, there are two places. One of them is closer to the work, the waiters are fast, and the cost of lunch is € 3,50. The other one is a bit further, the waiters are slow, and the cost of lunch is € 3,30. The quality of food is the same.

I prefer the former one, but some of my colleagues reminded me that I should not ignore the small difference in costs, because it accumulates during the year. Or, as a LW reader would say, when I am making a timeless decision, my costs are not just costs of one lunch, but of all lunches that I will choose by that decision.

The only problem with this argument is that not only the costs of lunch accumulate by the timeless decision. The wasted time accumulates too. Actually, deciding it from the timeless point of view, it seems to me even more important that I should choose the former restaurant.

Some numbers: Lunch in the former restaurant takes 20-30 minutes in total (walking from work to restaurant, waiting for the meal, eating, paying, walking from restaurant to work). Lunch in the latter restaurant takes 40-50 minutes (walking is longer, but mostly it is longer waiting for the meal and for paying). So we are talking about 20 minutes of time in exchange for € 0,20. Or about € 0,60 for an hour of my time spent waiting in the restaurant, which means that I come home from the work later.

Multiply it by 20 working days in a month, that means 6 hours 40 minutes in exchange for € 4. In 24 working days, the difference would be 8 hours (one full day) for € 4,80.

Seriously, would any of my colleagues accept an offer to work more than 8 hours overtime (to be fair, let's assume that the overtime is not work, they just have to sit there) in exchange for € 4,80 (let's make it cca €8 pre-tax)? Or, to fight the status quo, wouldn't any of them accept an offer to take a day off when there is nothing to do, in exchange for € 4,80 (€ 8 pre-tax) deduction from their salary? To me the answer is obvious. My colleagues seem happy to trade their time for less than 1/10 of what they make at work.

Time you spend sitting at a table need not be wasted.

Personally, I have a nonfiction book out of the library at all times. If I have to spend 20 minutes sitting at a table, then it's going to be 20 minutes spent reading, not just waiting.

There are other things you can take with you which can be used to increase the baseline value of the time you spend between other activities.

Completed the final round of coding challenges for App Academy roughly an hour ago. I noticed that, on two separate problems, my first plan was way more complicated than it needed to be, and I only caught myself just before the point when it would have required a great deal of backspacing. I can't help but wonder if this tendency goes uncaught elsewhere in my decision-making.