Tag Archives: learn

How to ride a skrode

Now that it’s been a few weeks since my posts on phoenixes and skroderiders, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some responses:

  • Doesn't skroderider virtue require an unreasonable amount of effort?
  • Aren’t crises objectively the best times to help someone?
  • I’m a phoenix. Is that bad?
  • I’m a phoenix. Can I do skroderider things?

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Null Results

Humans tend to look for evidence that reinforces our beliefs, not evidence that contradicts them. This is called confirmation bias. A related problem is that people tend to publish results that show various treatments or interventions working, but not results that show them failing to work, because the latter is less interesting. This is called publication bias.

In the spirit of combating those things, I'm going to share some things that didn't work for me.


Rolfing is basically a kind of massage (though Rolfers insist there's a difference) with a slight amount of evidence that it produces feelings of relaxation over longer periods of time than other massage methods. Rolfers are certified by the Rolfing Institute, and put you through a series of ten sessions. Then you're done, permanently. They say it takes a few months for the changes to become manifest, and it's been a few months, so I'm now ready to talk about what it did for me.

Rolfing is famously uncomfortable. During sessions I was asked to give lots of feedback about how intense the pressure was on a scale from 1 to 10 (the target was something like 6 or 7), and since I am a tough guy idiot I was reluctant to actually say "hey, that's an 8," so I probably got some unnecessary pain. Some of the parts of the massage are also kind of weird-feeling, like the session that focused on my chest - I'm not used to strong pressure on my ribs or sternum, but ultimately it was bearable and I felt very good after the sessions.

During the sessions, when the pressure was particularly intense and a little painful I turned it into kind of a mindfulness practice. I would focus on the sensation, in detail, and to some extent that defused the distress. This should be familiar to many people who have meditated. And it's positive evidence for the effectiveness of meditation in teaching a certain kind of mental control.

The really nice thing about Rolfing was that I finally got a massage with a sufficient amount of pressure. Even though it was sometimes painful, it was a satisfying experience. I think this preference for massages with a lot of pressure might be hereditary. When I was a kid I'd give my mom shoulder massages so hard my hands hurt, and that was just barely enough pressure for her. I'm totally the same way - I've never gotten a shoulder massage that had too much pressure - although I have had just barely enough, during Rolfing. If you don't like lots of pressure you probably won't like Rolfing.

Some minor aspects of my posture seemed to be improved, and I got unsolicited compliments on my posture from people who didn't know I was going through a course of Rolfing, but now several months later I seem to have backslid significantly. For example, my feet, which used to point outwards but after Rolfing pointed straight ahead, point outwards again. I haven't experienced the kind of enhanced bodily awareness that I heard about anecdotally that initially interested me in Rolfing.

On the whole it wasn't a huge win, but might have just barely been worth the time and money for me. If you don't have or make much money, and don't have reasons other than general well-being to try it, I can't recommend it; it's too costly an experiment.

Anonymous Feedback Form

On Less Wrong, Gwern wrote about putting up a personal anonymous feedback form. I thought the idea was really cool, so I put one up myself January 16th. There are links on my about page on Twitter, Facebook, and here. Aside from my own tests, I have received zero responses.


1) I'm not doing anything wrong, so nobody needs to get in touch with me.

2) Nobody really cares what I do so they're not motivated to provide feedback.

3) The feedback form is insufficiently visible.

4) Somehow the link or form is broken. (I had a friend test it out and it seemed to work.)

5) I'm so much less popular than Gwern that zero results over two months is not very far statistically from the expected results


"Has your kind really evolved separate information-processing mechanisms for deoxyribose nucleic acid versus electrochemical transmission of synaptic spikes?"

"I don't really understand the question's purpose," Akon said.  "Our genes are made of deoxyribose nucleic acid.  Our brains are made of neurons that transmit impulses through electrical and chemical -"

The fake man's head collapsed to his hands, and he began to bawl like a baby.


The fake man suddenly unfolded his head from his hands.  His cheeks were depicted as streaked with tears, but the face itself had stopped crying.  "To wait so long," the voice said in a tone of absolute tragedy.  "To wait so long, and come so far, only to discover that nowhere among the stars is any trace of love."

"Love?" Akon repeated.  "Caring for someone else?  Wanting to protect them, to be with them?  If that translated correctly, then 'love' is a very important thing to us."

"But!" cried the figure in agony, at a volume that made Akon jump.  "But when you have sex, you do not untranslatable 2!  A fake, a fake, these are only imitation words -"

"What is 'untranslatable 2'?" Akon said; and then, as the figure once again collapsed in inconsolable weeping, wished he hadn't.

"They asked if our neurons and DNA were separate," said the Ship's Engineer.  "So maybe they have only one system. [...]"

"They share each other's thoughts when they have sex," the Master of Fandom completed.  "Now there's an old dream.  And they would develop emotions around that, whole patterns of feeling we don't have ourselves...  Huh.  I guess we do lack their analogue of love."

-Three Worlds Collide

I used to think that traditional literary descriptions of the emotion of sexual love were just hyperbole for dramatic or comic effect, and really people just felt caring or lust or both. Recently I found out that some people say they actually have those sensations in that way, though I still can't quite alieve it yet.

Here's an interesting take on the emotion of love. Read the whole thing. It's good.

What I want to know about this is - do you recognize this emotion? Forget the author's opinions about what you should do about love, and what love means, for a moment - forget it's even called love. Does the author's description of how the emotion manifests physically ring true? Is this one specific recognizable feeling that you have actually experienced?

I don't recognize this sensation at all:

Love is a feeling. It's hot and fluttery and tingly. I get it in my guts and chest and face. The feeling is accompanied by a series of enthusiastic thoughts, such as "This person is the greatest person ever", "I wonder how I can make this person feel good", and/or "I want to climb onto this person and put my face close to their face and smoosh my body onto their body."

I know what feeling goes along with the first thought. And I know what feeling goes along with the third. (The second is ambiguous.) They're completely different feelings. I don't think my experience is vanishingly rare, either - but I'm not sure, which is why I want to hear from you, whether or not you've experienced the emotion described in the linked article.

I've had deep feelings of caring toward some people. I've experienced admiration. I've experienced lust. I've had all these feelings toward some people. But for me they are totally different feelings: they feel completely different. And I never thought of using the word "love" to describe any of them, alone.

Generally, when I say I love someone, I am talking about a more permanent disposition, over a longer period of time than a single emotion. I mean that I generally feel caring toward them, and don't expect that disposition to change in the foreseeable future.

I think there's a specific emotion or combination of feelings that some people experience, and mean when they talk about love, that other people never experience. It's hard for me to write this, because even thinking about this makes me worry that I'm defective, that I'll never love the people I care about the way they would want to be loved.

I think people who talk about love often talk past each other because of the typical mind fallacy, and the illusion of transparency. People who have that "love" emotion see other people who don't bonding romantically and talking about love, and assume that they feel the same thing inside. People who don't have that emotion see people who do making long-term commitments and talking about love, and assume that it's just a word for the behavior.

I don't like summarizing anything from Wittenstein's Philosophical Investigations because unlike some other books, an adequate summary would be nearly as long as the whole thing. But in one place Wittgenstein gives an analogy for purely personal subjective experience.

Imagine that everyone carries around a small box. And no one looks into any box aside from their own. But people say "there is a beetle in my box", and refer to the thing in their box as a beetle. Now, is it meaningful to ask whether someone else's box really has a beetle? It's not a falsifiable statement - after all, you're not going to look inside someone else's box to find out whether their "beetle" looks like yours. The subjective experience of love is very similar to this beetle in a box.

Not quite, though - the description in the linked article is specific enough that I can tell whether I've had that experience. It would be nice to have a more precise vocabulary of emotions and sensations, to avoid this type of confusion. I wonder what other confusions are caused by a large number of people missing out on some "universal human experiences."

Of course I have the alternate hypothesis that people who describe love as an emotion are the mistaken ones. That they're just giving another name to lust, or to caring, when experienced under special circumstances. But limerence is apparently a real thing, and if that's real, then the milder feelings of romantic love are less improbable, so they're likely real as well.

Words and Techniques

How do you learn a behavior? How do you teach it?

Well, let's say you want someone to, when in potentially dangerous situations, scan their environment for threats. You could just tell them that. But what happens? If you tell them once, it's just thing someone told them. If you tell them many times, they'll get a little voice in their head that says, occasionally, "when you're in a potentially dangerous situation, scan your environment for likely threats." That's the behavior you've taught - to rehearse the admonition. At most, if "potentially dangerous" is really understood, they might remember your admonition when they're already scared, and look around one more time.

So the problem with general verbal admonitions is that they aren't very good at producing helpful behavior. What you really need to do is tell them, "before you cross the street, look both ways."

Why is that better? Because it prescribes a specific action, and a specific situational cue to execute the behavior. That's how people actually learn to do things. Concepts like "potentially dangerous" are too abstract to trigger a stereotyped response, though maybe "feeling scared" is specific enough. But even in that case, it's not actually the same thing - if I'm scared of the dark, should I look around my dark hallway at night for threats? No.

Here are some more examples:

Too general: My car is broken -> fix it

Better: A light on the dashboard turned on -> go to the mechanic

Too general: Eat healthier

Better: It it's not mealtime, I don't eat anything but fresh vegetables. At mealtime, I always start with a small amount protein-heavy and some vegetables, and then wait a few minutes to determine whether I'm still hungry.

Notice that the first example obviously doesn't cover all cases, and the second one has a very specific behavior that won't be appropriate for everyone. So you might want to think about how to teach more generalized good behaviors.

I can think of two ways to train more generalized behavior. You can teach a behavior-generating behavior or an explicit diagnostic tool.

What's a behavior-generating behavior? Well, you could teach someone how to use a map when they need to figure out how to get somewhere. Then every time they have the situational cue "I don't know how to get there," they can pull out their map and design a new route that they've never done before.

What's a diagnostic tool? You could learn to recognize feeling frustrated, and train the habit of asking what you can do in the future to fix the problem instead of trying to assign blame.

This has helped me understand a lot of the changes in the curriculum at CFAR since the 2011 Minicamp.

Rationality is often divided up into "epistemic" and "instrumental" rationality, where epistemic rationality is about having explicit verbal beliefs that are accurate, and instrumental rationality is about taking actions that accomplish your goals.

At Minicamp, we spent a lot of time on "epistemic rationality," but most of it didn't really rise above the level of verbal admonitions. I spent a while figuring out how to put these into Anki cards so I'd at least have the cached thoughts in my head. Here are a few of them (I've omitted the cloze-deletion):

  • When I notice defensiveness/pride/positive affect about a belief, I reward myself for noticing, and ask myself what new evidence would change my mind.
  • When I notice that I am considering changing my mind, I reward myself for noticing, and write it down.
  • Once I have decided whether to change my mind, I write down the outcome.
  • When I avoid thinking about what happens if I am wrong, I might be overconfident.
  • If I am not asking experts what they think, I might not be curious enough.
  • My beliefs should predict some outcomes and prohibit others.
  • When I think of or ask for an example, I reward myself.
  • When I can't think of any examples, I consider changing my mind.
  • When I keep finding different reasons to avoid thinking about or doing something, but do not feel a salient negative affect, I notice that I have a strong aversion.
  • When I notice an opportunity to make a prediction in advance, I make a prediction and reward myself for noticing.
  • When someone whose opinion I respect disagrees with me , I consider changing my mind.

I now have these cached thoughts, but I'm not sure they've affected my behavior much. There were also some things that were so general I didn't even know how to write an Anki card that I expected might work.

There was basically none of this at this past weekend's CFAR workshop. Instead, we had techniques that applied some of these principles, in specific well-described situation.

For example, a big part of epistemic rationality is the idea that beliefs should cash out to anticipated experiences, and you should test your beliefs. We didn't cover this at a high level anywhere, but we did talk about using the "inner simulator" to troubleshoot plans in advance. Basically, imagine that someone tells you your plan failed, after the fact. How surprised do you feel? That's just a special case of noticing your subjective anticipation beforehand, to give you the opportunity to reconcile it with your explicit belief.

"Inner simulator" also gives you an opportunity to make excuses in advance, by asking your imagined future self why the plan failed.

The sad thing about this technique is that my brain didn't connect it automatically with the admonition "test your beliefs!" The nice thing about this technique is:

I might actually use it.

In my "first impression" review of the CFAR workshop I spent a lot of time talking about the things that were missing. Well, aside from the fact that it was less than half the length of the Minicamp, the workshop had another good reason to drop that stuff: the actually existing epistemic rationality training just didn't work yet. The folks at CFAR did a lot of testing, and it turned out that people basically don't change their lives in response to high-level epistemic rationality admonitions. So they had to choose between two options:

1) Do what works

2) Fix the broken thing

This is a pretty common decision to have to make, and it's often not obvious which is the right one. The advantage to "Do what works" is it doesn't take much extra effort once you've identified where the problems are - you just stay away from them!

The upside to "Fix the broken thing" is that it is often the only way to get extraordinary results. Chances are, someone else has already tried "do what works," though that's not so likely that it's not worth testing. It's an uphill climb to fix something that doesn't work, you'll have to try a lot of things, most of them won't work, you'll be really frustrated and want to pull your hair out, and then you'll stumble on something so obvious in hindsight that you'll feel like an idiot. You'll have to give up a whole bunch of beautiful ideas that all seemed like just the insight you needed, because they didn't actually work.

So why put up with all that? It depends on what you think the world needs. If the world needs a bunch of people who are all just a little more effective, then by all means stick with the things that work.

But it the world has big important problems that must be solved, but can only be solved by going against the grain, by reaching into solution space for something far away from our local maximum - then only the hard way can save the world. Not just making people who have power over their own emotions, habits, and behaviors, which makes them more effective, but people whose explicit verbal reasoning is correct as well, so they can notice the alternative that's 10 or 1,000 times as good as the default action.