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The top six reasons why I am procrastinating

It’s helpful to know why I’m procrastinating. Sometimes the reason for procrastinating can be easily corrected. Probably the most well known version of this is not knowing what the next action is.

Here are some other things that I’ve noticed cause me to put off tasks I intended to do.

1) An inessential aspect of the task is aversive.

The Tale of the Egg Sandwich

One morning at work I had a craving for an egg sandwich from the fast food restaurant around the corner. I didn’t want to go get the sandwich because it would predictably cost me half an hour - maybe a lot more more if I started reading something there and didn’t feel like going back into the office which seemed likely based on the outside view. So I tried to diagnose what was wrong by dialoguing with the part of myself that wanted the sandwich.

Am I hungry? If I ate some peanuts, would it feel good to go back to work?
No, I still want to go get the egg sandwich.
Imagine that I snap my fingers, and magically, the egg sandwich appears in my hands. Would it feel good to go back to work after I ate it?
No, I want to GO GET the egg sandwich.
Huh, is that because it feels bad to stay here and work?
Would it feel good to do something else in the office, like look at Facebook, or write a blog post?
Would it feel good to read a book?
Huh, that’s surprising. I usually want to read a book. Would it feel good to go elsewhere and read a book?
Oh… So it feels bad to be in the office?
Because there are people around who might interrupt me and distract me.
Huh. Maybe getting out of the office is sufficient. If I walked over to the Ferry Building, bought a coffee, and sat at the table near Peet’s, would it feel good to work there?
OK, let’s go.

And I did, and got a three-hour work block done.

The Tale of the Shoes and the Headband

I used to procrastinate a lot in the mornings, before getting out of my apartment. I did a few mindful walkthrough of my morning routine, paying attention to the urge to do something other than get ready, and being curious about why. I realized that there were some concrete and avoidable things that I was flinching from. First, I didn’t want to shower. Part of that is unavoidable - I have to take off my glasses and hearing aids. But another thing I dislike is that after the shower, I get the floor wet, and water’s dripping down my face from my hair, which is a sensation I hate. So I resolved to towel myself off before walking onto the tile floor, and to get an athletic headband to catch water before it reached my face.

The other thing I hated was putting on my shoes, because it would remind me that a bunch of my shoes needed to be properly put away, and maybe even needed polishing. I organized the floor of my closet, and then it wasn’t painful to go get my shoes anymore.

2) My reward gradient is wrong

Even after I’d taken the little problems out of my morning, I found that it was sometimes unmotivating to get out of the apartment, just to get into the office and start doing some solitary work - or join a meeting that wasn’t going to be very fun. But what did sound like it might be good was meeting a friend for breakfast. So I asked a few friends whether they’d like to meet for breakfast before work. Some said yes, and I found that on the mornings when I had a breakfast scheduled, I’d not only be faster in getting out of the apartment, but go to sleep faster the night before so I wouldn’t oversleep and miss the appointment.

3) I do not know exactly what I am trying to do

Sometimes, when procrastinating on a writing task, I ask myself, “What does this have to communicate?”, and list out the things I need to say. Then once I have that list, I can just write sentences that do the bare minimum of saying what I want to say. Then it’s mostly written.

4) I am applying an inappropriate standard

I was procrastinating on writing an important email. I looked at the flinch and noticed that I was flinching from the possibility of sending an email that said the wrong thing, and damaging my relationship with the recipient in some way. So I decided that the task was not to write and send an email, but just to write it. I’d worry about whether it was OK to send after I’d written something. Framed this way, the action of writing the email no longer seemed likely to cause damage if I made a mistake, since I could just not sent it.
Then I wrote the email.
Then I looked at it.
It looked pretty good.
So I sent it.

I’ve also noticed myself reluctant to start writing fiction.

“Why don’t I want to write this?”
“Because it won’t be good.”
“I’m not asking you to write a good short story. I’m just asking you to write a short story at all.”
“Oh, I can do that!”

Then I put together the bare minimum that tells the story I want to tell, not worrying about how good it is - and get practice, and become better.

5) I am trying to do too many mutually exclusive things

When I was in DC trying to build up the Effective Altruism meetup group there, I had a bunch of plans for things to try - and noticed my motivation flagging after an initial burst of enthusiasm. When I turned my focus inwards and asked why, I got a clear unambiguous answer, straight from the gut:

“Because I can’t actually do all this.”
“How will these plans fail?"
“There’s not enough room in the day.”

So I prioritized, and instead of doing three projects with the DC EA group, I decided to prioritize one project and meetups - and actually executed my plans.

6) I believe that my plan will fail

I noticed that I was putting off completing this section because it overlapped strongly with another thing I'm writing, so I decided to publish this post without it.


Shortly after my grandmother's death, Leonard Nimoy offered to be the honorary grandfather of anyone who wanted. I took him up on the offer. It helped to have a grandparent again.

Sometimes the most amazing kindnesses are not the ones bought at great sacrifice, but the ones that cost little more than the work it took to become the sort of person who knows what will help.

The first Vulcan we met was a half-Vulcan. Spock was remarkable, not by mere privilege of who he was born as, but what he aspired to be. I remember him as someone who never accepted raw emotions as the answers, but held them in great awe as questions. Who could be relied on to master himself even in the most extreme and difficult circumstances, because of his powerful commitment to the good of the many. This one was called “unfeeling” and “cold,” and he embraced these words, but I saw someone who felt too deeply to function unless he learned to move against that powerful current.

I remember Spock as someone who stood by his friends, with the ferocity and dedication of someone who has decided with reason and emotion alike that a true friend is one of the few fully good things in this world, if you can find one - and who knew that, in their own way, Kirk and McCoy felt the same about him.

I remember Spock as someone who learned from his friends. As Ambassador Spock in The Next Generation, he took daring risks in the cause of reconciliation between Vulcans and Romulans. Risks that more resemble something his old friend Captain Kirk would have taken, that the Spock from The Original Series would have dismissed as illogically risky. Spock grew greater, wiser, more truly Vulcan and Human.

Leonard Nimoy both was and was not Spock. If we ever wake up from this terrible dream, where lives can blink out after a mere 83 years, we will have a Spock of sorts still with us, but Leonard Nimoy is yet one more person we will not have with us anymore. And Leonard Nimoy created Spock, shaped him to be the Spock we loved. Without a Leonard Nimoy to animate him, Spock will have nothing new to say, will not do anything surprising but yet essentially Spock-ish. So the living Spock is also lost to us forever.

Leonard Nimoy both was and was not Spock. I miss them both.


Elas, elas, that great city!

Let's say Starbucks is having a bad quarter, and wants to make more money. They decide that to do that, they will simply charge ten times as much per drink - for example, instead of charging about $2 for a simple cup of coffee, they charge about $20. Should you expect them to have ten times as much revenue?

No - people will buy less. They make buying decisions based, in part, on price. In economics this is measured as "the price elasticity of demand".

People will buy less if you raise prices for a couple of reasons:

The Substitution Effect

People like more than one thing. I like wine, and I like lemonade. Sometimes I strongly prefer wine, and sometimes I strongly prefer lemonade. But if wine cost $1,000 a bottle, then I'd sometimes prefer buying lemonade to buying wine; wine's not that much better, even with a nice dinner that goes better with wine. This is called the substitution effect.

The Income Effect

Let's take an extreme case and consider someone who is an absolute Starbucks fanatic. They drink coffee every day, and would prefer spending $20 on a Starbucks coffee to spending $2 on some other coffee and $18 on anything else. But even fanatically loyal customers aren't made of money. If someone's discretionary income after the necessities of life (pretending for a moment that coffee is not in this category) is $500 a month, and coffee costs $2, they can easily afford their Starbucks-a-day habit. If Starbucks coffee costs $20, then they can only buy 25 coffees a month, not enough to sustain their daily consumption. So even with perfectly loyal customers, after a point Starbucks isn't making any extra revenue, though they may make the same money on fewer coffees. This is called the income effect.

How Big Is This Effect?

Economics uses the term "elasticity" to describe how responsive one quantity is to changes in another quantity. So for example, the price elasticity of demand describes how much the amount people buy changes, for a given change in price.

Since there's no intrinsic meaning to the units you use to measure something - 100 centimeters is the same as one meter is the same as three feet (approximately) is the same as one yard - elasticity is measured in relative quantities. A good approximation of this is percentages. If you raise the price by 10%, by what percentage does demand go down?

Interpreting Elasticity

If elasticity is less than 1, that means that changes in demand are less than enough to offset changes in price - so if you raise prices, revenues go up. For example, last month a Starbucks branch was selling coffee for $2, and selling 1,000 coffees a day, for $2,000 in revenue. This month it raises prices by 10%, to $2.20 per coffee. If the price elasticity of demand is -0.5, that means that each 10% increase in price causes about a 5% decrease in the number of coffees bought, so people only buy 950 coffees, and this Starbucks gets $2,090 in revenue.  This is good news if you are trying to make more money by raising prices.

On the other hand, if elasticity is greater than 1, that means that you can't generate more revenue by raising prices - people will buy more than enough to offset the revenue loss. In the example above, let's say that the elasticity of demand is -1.5. That means that a 10% increase in price causes about a 15% decrease in the number of coffees bought, so people only bought 850 coffees, for total revenue of $1,870.

(Note: Raising prices can be profitable even with elasticity greater than 1, in cases where your per-unit costs are very high relative to the price. For example, if Starbucks were selling coffee for 1 cent, which is probably less than the cost of the materials, then it would benefit from raising prices at least until it was charging more than the cost of making an extra cup of coffee.)

Interpreting Elasticity

It turns out that it's easy to find websites telling people how to calculate elasticity, which is mainly useful for economics students doing their homework. But it's hard to find websites telling people how to use elasticity to make predictions. So I'll do that now. But to do that I need to define elasticity in a more mathematically precise way.

Let's say that you believe some good has a constant price elasticity of demand, so that the same percentage change in price always produces the same percentage change in quantity. Here, the "percentage" language is a little tricky. Let's look at the coffee example again, and say that economists have measured consumer behavior and determined that price elasticity is -0.5. If you hear that price has gone up by 10% to $2.20, you might think that demand would fall by 5%, to 950 coffees a day. And if price only went up by 1%, to $2.02, you might think that demand would fall by 0.5% to 995 coffees per day. So far, it's clear.

But let's say price goes up by 1%, ten times. How much does demand fall? One way to calculate this is to say that price increases to 101%^10=1.1046, about 10.46% higher than it was before, for a final price of $2.21, so demand should decrease by 5.23% to about 948 coffees. Another way to calculate it is to say that demand falls about 0.5% each time, so the final demand is 99.5%^10=95.11% of the original quantity, about a 4.89% reduction to a total quantity of 951 coffees. Why are these numbers different?

These numbers are slight different because we're just using a linear approximation, which is good for small numbers, but gets worse when we use bigger numbers.

Once More, With Calculus

We can write the percentage definition of elasticity like this:

E=((Q2-Q1)/Q1)/((P2-P1)/P1). If we call the difference in prices DP and the difference in quantities DQ, we can say, E=(DQ/Q)/(DP/P).

As DP gets bigger, E gets harder to measure - depending on what differences you take, in what directions, you get answers that diverge more and more, like in the example above. But as DP gets closer to 0, E gets easier to measure, becomes more consistent, and eventually converges on a single value. Here's how we'd express that in calculus:


We can rewrite this as:


And then integrate both sides to get:

E*ln(P)=C+ln(Q), where C is an additive constant. The next trick is to take the exponential function of both sides, to get



P^E=K*Q, where K is just a scaling constant. So if you want to calculate the ratio of quantities produced by a change in prices, you can take the equation for the first and second price-quantity pair:



And divide the second equation by the first to get:




So, for example, with elasticity of -0.5, if you double price, you get about 2^-0.5=.707 times the demand, a 29.3% reduction. This works on any scale you want, even for very big changes in price.

Provided, of course, that your elasticity figure is correct, and that your assumption that elasticity is constant is also correct. Which it may not be.

Orders of Doom

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Ant knew that food would be hard to come by in the winter, so one hot summer day, as the Grasshopper frittered away the day leaping and dancing and making merry, the ant thought of nothing but gathering food for the hive. It even hoped to save enough food for the Grasshopper, who was not responsible for an upbringing and genetic makeup that gave it insufficient Conscientiousness.

The Ant focused so completely on gathering food, making its route more efficient, carrying the most efficient load possible, that it missed the shadow that fell over it mid-afternoon. The Anteater's tongue sprung out to carry the Ant to a waiting, hungry mouth. The Ant was delicious.

Meanwhile, a Black Swan ate the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper was even more delicious, having feasted on a variety of treats during its short but pleasant life.

-Not Aesop's Fables

I'm trying to figure out what the important problems are in the world so that I can figure out what I should do about it. But there are a few very different ways the world could be. Depending on which is the case, I might want to do very different things to save the world. This is an enumeration of the cases I've thought of so far.

I'll start with existential risks, because they have the potential to affect the largest number of people.

Continue reading

An Appointment With Death

A few months ago, I had an appointment on my calendar marked "Death". A friend had asked me earlier for help figuring out why she was afraid of death. At first I thought that surely philosophers must have addressed this question, so with my education I ought to be able to provide something relevant and illuminating. But all I could think of was attempts to cure the fear of death, not attempts to explain it.

When I asked my former classmates, they had the same problem. Unless our memories are defective, or unless we simply aren't as widely read as we think, this is an embarrassment for philosophy, a failure to be curious about a fundamental question. I asked a librarian friend for help, and she turned up some resources, but these were mostly empirical in nature - descriptions of how fear of death is expressed in our and others' cultures, not a causal explanation of why we fear it.

So I used the last tool in my box. I offered to ask her some clarifying questions and engage in dialogue for an hour. By the end, my thinking on death was clearer too, and I realized that a true understanding of how to think about one's own death ought to involve answers to these questions:

  • Should I expect to die?
  • How should I compare being dead with being alive?

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The Meaning of Kol Nidre

Today is Yom Kippur, the last of the ten Days of Awe. The Days of Awe begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the day on which judgments are inscribed in to the Book of Life. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and the Day of Judgment, the last chance to repent for the sins of the prior year before the Book of Life is sealed and your judgment is finalized.

In Jewish law there's something called a Neder, which is a vow any Jew can swear, promising to do anything, that thereby becomes a divine law. This is important because it allows you to take a voluntary act of dedication and consecrate it into a commanded act. (In Judaism, fulfilling obligations gives you more points than doing superfluous stuff.)

In practice this can be disastrous. There's a carefully worked out legal framework to make sure the received commandments are not onerous, but you can say anything and make it a Neder. This is dramatized in the Book of Judges, with the story of Jephthah:

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Scott writes:

Okay, the Spiders Georg meme is now even more annoying than doge.

And since I KNOW THE WAY YOU PEOPLE THINK, I want to emphasize that I specifically mean that the median use of Spiders Georg is worse than the median use of doge, and so there is no way outliers could have affected this result.

“median use of Spiders Georg is worse than the median use of doge" factoid actualy just statistical error. median use of Spiders Georg is excellent. Georg Georg, a chatbot that adds the word "Georg" to posts and reposts them randomly 10,000 times each day, is an edge case adn should not have been counted