Long term impact of technology

Bookstaber is on point as usual in his post about the impact of technology on our lives. His conclusion is obvious to most technologists and futurists, I would bet, and its refreshing to see a policy maker having this in mind. He is far from the first person to note the massive collapse in lifestyle difference between the extremely rich, merely well off and even the middle class. We spend most of our time with the same cheap gadgets and electronic toys (well, most people do). Wealth doesn’t buy you the enormous conveniences and life improvements that it did 100 or even 40 years ago.

As simulation and brain stimulation technology improves exponentially over the next 20-40 years, we will have the ability to cheaply simulate any stimulus we like directly into our brains; the sci-fi dream machine. This is wireheading in a pretty pure form, and most people will eat it up. Just as Africa jumped from lack of electricity directly to cell phones, the emerging middle classes will likely be able to skip Playstations and cocaine directly to total immersion pleasure machines.

The real thing will take a long time to flesh out and come down in price enough for the masses, but here’s an example of where we’re headed in the interim. Not much different in practice.

Self

I definitely agree with Justin on sense of self. There is no real self. We think and act as a function of our past experiences and current real-time stimulus. We are constantly in a state of change, and present a different side of ourselves in different environments (with friends, acquaintances, strangers).

A life strategy of self-improvement (which is essentially just changing our ‘self’ to correspond to something we aspire to) appears to be highly correlated with happiness and even health. While the ideal situation seems to be to become content with what we currently have and who we are (to disassociate from a sense of self altogether), the human brain is very easily pleased — and perhaps thats the problem, it’s easy but a short term fix — with incremental improvements and successes. So, if you’re not willing to invest time in meditation and aren’t willing to hone your abilities in self control, you should find parts of yourself that you want to change, enter a strict regimen of incremental improvement, and enjoy the thrills of the small successes.

Habits Pt. 2

The only thing better than conditioning a response using a reward is to randomize the delivery of the reward. Anyone who has played an RPG or a slot machine can confirm this. Monkey studies show dopamine spike is maximized when the reward delivery odds in response to an action are 50%. HabitJudo is an interesting concept and a very simple system for habit formation along these lines.

Beware experts in everything

Laziness accounts for most of the reason why I don’t read many books, especially not old non-fiction ones by famous smart people. A lot of really intelligent people have really wrong beliefs (Nobelists promote homeopathyNewton was first and foremost an Alchemist). Unless you take the time to become an expert in a field, or are reading just for curiosity and poorly formed ideas, it can be hard to differentiate where someone else’s expertise ends and nonsense begins.

As FX Ron once said, “only listen to Gary when it comes to trading and computers.”

Habits

After not writing anything for like 3 weeks, I think I have some thoughts on habits. I’ve been trying to start a few habits and stop a few others, with varying success. I haven’t read any literature on the topic other than common sense stuff which relates, so do let me know if there’s something I’m missing.

Humans, and most creatures (mammals at least), are creatures of habit. We get into patterns and repeat them. This appears to be mostly an evolved adaptation to preserve resources expended by trying new things and figuring out things from scratch; instead we just record what worked in the past and replay the actions. In a similar vein, when we don’t know how we should act (such as, in response to something happening in front of us), the first reaction of most people is to see what others are doing. It is pretty expensive to do the necessary cognitive calculations and overrides in order to do something not necessarily obvious or normal.

So, it seems that if we can only get something sufficiently embedded into our daily routine it will maintain itself. An object in motion remains in motion, and all that jazz. I have seen a couple methods which are pretty successful at doing just this, such as setting up a reminder or having a calendar where you mark off every day that you perform your desired habit. After a month or two it should be sufficiently ingrained if performed daily. Just beware vacations and other exogenous prolonged breaks which could disrupt your rhythm before it’s truly a part of your life. Also, if something is truly just a chore that you see little/no tangible benefit from, it appears one will have a tendency to lose the habit. You can probably force yourself to eat oatmeal every morning instead of regular cereal, but if you absolutely hate oatmeal you will not keep this up since there is almost no visible or tangible health or other benefit of oatmeal over cereal. Or a more direct example I tried; doing pushups every morning. I was able to maintain it for about 3 weeks. Interestingly, this is right around where I hit a wall and couldn’t increase my number much, if at all (I think it was around 60; yea I’m ripped). More on this later.

There appears to be a direct correlation between visible/tangible results from an action (or attempted new habit) and your ability to maintain it. As long as you perform the action regularly and you are able to shortly recognize the benefits the action is likely to remain ingrained. When I first started flossing (less than a year ago!) the first few days I was shocked at how good it felt and how clean my teeth felt after. This habit took no effort at all to maintain and right away it felt weird when I skipped flossing.

How about exercise? It seems to come easily for some and harder for others. I do get that “good feeling” from exercising, its just my laziness seems to overwhelm it in most cases. That’s obviously not the case for other people. A potential solution could be to give yourself some kind of direct feedback to encourage the behavior. Tracking performance might work, as long as you don’t get discouraged and are knowledgeable enough to change up your routine when you stop progressing. The best thing I can think of here would be doing a set of random lifts and cardio exercises and recording your initial performance (X reps at N weight, Z minute mile, etc.). Then going forward you start to focus on individual areas and record your performance over time. You will see considerable improvement for a short period until you plateau out. Instead of quitting, you could then switch to another area and go right back into improvement. It’s not ideal for building muscle, etc. but its much better than nothing.

Some things are obviously harder to track. I’ve tried to meditate daily for the past 5 months. I have managed to keep it up relatively well; I average 15 minutes per session about 3-4 days a week. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tangible benefits here although I have been pleasantly surprised with interesting thoughts that come into my head pretty well developed already (like this one), as well as a general feeling of clarity and energy following a session (like now). Another habit which I’ve been hoping to start but haven’t yet is the idea of a personal review. I write down a lot of ideas and thoughts that I start developing but quickly abandon as I run into resistance. I think there is definite value in going over everything I’ve left aside to see if fresh eyes can find a solution to previous road blocks, but its hard to find time when I could be looking at or thinking about new things. Part of this process could be reviewing habits that were attempted and monitor how well they have been maintained, and why or why not.

A major problem with science is that we’re largely spoon fed the process by way of others’ results. It is important to learn to perform science on oneself; perform experiments in your life and try to understand the underlying processes. Record results and form new hypotheses, which again must be tested.

How to sleep

Since apparently none of my friends know how to sleep, and sleep happens to be my favorite thing in the whole wide world, here are some non-scientific guidelines.

– Make your room as dark as possible and block out as much noise as you can. You may think that it’s not bothering you but it reduces quality of sleep (you will sleep lighter and you may be waking up a bunch of times during the night without you realizing it)

– 8.5 to 9 hours seems to be the peak efficiency amount. If you sleep more you will be sluggish the next day. If you sleep less you will be stupider (from my experience and from anecdotal evidence of watching other people try to solve complex problems on less sleep, if your work is very repetitive then you’ll be fine with closer to 7 hours).

– Catching up on sleep works, it tends to be a little better than 1:1 efficiency (i.e. if you sleep 3 hours less the day before, you will feel fine after catching up on a little more than half that; of course that doesn’t change the fact that you felt like shit the whole previous day)

– You need to tell your mind to shut off. Ideally you clear your mind of everything — no thoughts whatsoever, just focus on your breathing and how your body feels. If you can’t do that, then try to turn off the verbal area of your brain and think only in images. Play back events that happened during the day or just try to imagine different places and things, but don’t use words and don’t replay conversations.

– Coffee takes like 8 hours to get out of your system, do the math

– One or two drinks is fine, if you go any more than that your sleep onset latency will fall but quality and duration will also and it’s not worth it

– Marijuana is good in all ways

SWEET DREAMS

Two kinds of smart

Meditating on knowledge, I think it’s fair to say that there are two ways to ‘know’ something. It can either be reasoned/figured out in real time, or it can be looked up from previous experience (Cached Thoughts). The vast majority of our life experiences are repeats of previous ones (sometimes with slight modification) and our understanding of and responses to these experiences is usually recalled from memory without any thought.

True intelligence, however, is not the recall but the ability to create knowledge where it does not exist yet within your mind. It is reasoning, logic, etc. This takes longer to do than a simple cache lookup, so it may be fair to say that if someone is quick to come up with a response to a difficult problem or situation they are not necessarily smart but merely experienced.

One can improve their intelligence with practice; by trying to manipulate objects, situations and problems in their mind, to test and try new assumptions and view the situation from those alternative realities/perspectives. Being aware of logical fallacies and biases can save you time by avoiding most branches of thought when analyzing a problem.

Finally, as underscored in the post linked to in the first paragraph, be wary of cached thoughts. They are many times planted without much analysis and can effect your thought process in ways that are hard to spot. It is helpful to frequently reconsider cached thoughts that you rely on heavily, no matter how popular they appear with other thinkers or how effective they may be at predicting the specific phenomena you have been leveraging them for (it may not generalize!); false confidence is the enemy of a true thinker.

The Self-modifying light bulb

In response to Falkenstein’s Parable of a Light Bulb, I would just say that throughout our lives we have quite a bit of influence over how our neural connections are weighted. In other words, we have significant control over not only what we are good at throughout our lives but even more so what we enjoy (or trick ourselves into thinking so, no difference). For most people it takes practice to consciously take control, but that’s a separate matter.

I always wondered how much of the enjoyment from doing something (work, hobbies, etc — lighting up the room in the case of the lightbulb) can be explained by the selfish desire to have an impact on other people’s lives. There comes a certain pleasure from mastering a task or skill, no matter how simple and irrelevant. This certainly contributes to one’s enjoyment of life.

Lotteries are hard

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/01/ff_lottery/all/1

The man in the article didn’t strike me as particularly brilliant but rather helped underscore the difficulty of the problem at hand: creating a game with sufficiently close to zero but negative expectancy that still incorporates elements which trick the player into thinking the game is predictable. People are drawn to casino games like slots because it unfolds over time, they can see the potential of winning more often than it is possible (slots will have near-wins a far greater percentage of time than randomness would suggest — this drives the addiction and profitability of the game).

Either that, or the games makers are lazy and stupid. Why not use the techniques they have applied on the visible parts of the game and randomly distribute them over a set of already created results-cards rather than having the visible aspect some function of the results?

A good lottery could use stock market data (such as a historical chart, predict the next move!). This would be full-proof as long as the makers were able to collect a large enough set of independent and high resolution samples — maybe even splice samples from different stocks and time periods in a random fashion.