Rulers To The Sky

A market for law?

Most people I’ve spoken to don’t believe that reliable courts could emerge from free markets, and I admit to being pretty unsure about the prospect myself despite being a libertarian.

But an Economist piece on international law provides at least weak evidence that a society with no State, or a severely weakened State, could still come up with legal services.

Apparently huge amounts of international law is handled by the legal systems of just two countries: America and Britain. This is partly because both of these countries have centuries of common law and strong legal precedents, meaning the rulings produced are relatively secure. Adding to the mix are centers of arbitration for international parties with cross-border disputes that have emerged in Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

Bear in mind that there is no supranational governmental body determining which countries’ laws will be held as the international standard. Rather, over time certain legal systems have been judged superior, and when India has legal issues to settle with China, both countries opt for an American court or an arbitrator in Singapore.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but I don’t see why the same thing couldn’t happen on a smaller scale, in individual countries, as a result of market processes.

Reverse engineer your favorite writing.

I don’t in any way think of myself as a master of the written word, but I have gotten pretty good at penning nonfiction. There are a million ways to create better prose, but the one I am going to talk about is a species of very active, almost meditative reading.

Basically, I zoom in on any sentence or passage that captures my attention and try to figure out why, then I try to generate the sentence using contents from my own mind.

For example, one of my favorite authors is Sam Harris, whose writing is often sprinkled with gems like this:

” Topics like torture, recreational drug use, and wealth inequality can provoke outrage and misunderstanding in many audiences. But discussing them online sets your reputation wandering like a child across a battlefield—perpetually. “

Now he could’ve just said “talking about stuff online is bad for your reputation”. But instead his phrasing planted a vivid image in my mind of a little girl traversing a minefield, surrounded by smoke and ruin and silence. Even though he’s only talking about how people perceive him on the internet, it’s nuances like this that breathe life into writing that would otherwise be dry and of little interest to most people.

So I opened a word document and typed these two sentences from memory. Then I erased them, trying to imagine what mental state I would’ve had to have been in just prior to having composed them. What thoughts and images would I have needed to have penned those words myself?

Of course, Sam would’ve most likely been in a totally different state of mind, and I can’t ever know. But the point is not to mimic his mind, but to engage in a bit of mental ventriloquism, in effect casting my pen in his voice. How can I arrange the contents of my own mind such that the output is of as high a quality as his?

Put another way, it’s the opposite of paraphrasing; rather than taking thoughts and putting them in different words, I’m starting with different thoughts and trying to make the same words.

I did this with about half of his blog one night while drinking wine, and in one of my own essays I  wrote:

“The first step in navigating a path between the twin rocks of nihilism and absurdity is to remember that it’s always now”.

It’s safe to say that my writing has absorbed some of the style and strength of Harris’s.

 

In Memorium

I’ve had the poor fortune of being surrounded by a fair bit of death recently.

The first was that of my great-grandmother, a truly and thoroughly decent human being who had suffered the ravages of Alzheimers for nearly the past decade. As seems to often be true in these cases, she was a completely different person by the time the end came. I was very sad to hear of her passing, but we had all known the day was coming, and given the advanced state of her condition, I took some small relief knowing that her pain was over.

Another was that of Alexander Boutilier, or ‘Lex’ as he was usually known. Lex’s death came like a bolt out of the blue, and affected me deeply for reasons I couldn’t say. He was just so….alive, right up until I found out that he wasn’t. We weren’t particularly close, but he was a ferociously intelligent, exceptionally generous man who somehow seemed to have read every book ever written. Being a nerd was something he was proud of, and he had a penchant for spirited and far-ranging discussions.

Needless to say, we immediately liked each other.

In the wake of these tragedies, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for some time: I donated a non-trivial amount of money to a number of charities whose purpose is to put a stop to this ridiculous, needless suffering. The charities, in order of increasing abstractness, were the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Foundation, the Brain Preservation Foundation, the SENS Research Foundation, and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

Now, I’m not disclosing all of this for sympathy or to brag, and I know plenty of people would dispute my choice of donations. But what I want to encourage everyone to do is to bloody well take action when you see a part of the world you don’t like. I’m not in a position to stop Alzheimers or to expand the healthy human lifespan; but there are smart people out there who might be able to, and I’ll happily pay them to do it.

Additionally, I am publicly coming out as an anti-deathist. The fact that sentient beings are extinguished, forever and against their will, is a hideous blight on the world. Some day, I think, advanced civilizations will look back with inexpressible sadness that it took us so long to turn the gears and levers of our minds towards the problem of Death. So many little lights, gone, for no other reason then that we didn’t work quickly enough.

How inexcusably wasteful.

There are a few standard responses to this line of thinking:

1) Death is a natural part of life, and has been from the beginning.

Yes, well, being hunted by large carnivores and having your children die during birth were pretty commonplace for most of history, but at least in this part of the world that rarely happens anymore. A few generations ago everyone lived in fear of getting polio, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what polio is.

There’s no use pretending that there isn’t a lengthy precedent for doing away with sickness and discomfort, and I see no reason why it should be any different for Death.

2) Death gives meaning to life.

No, life gives meaning to life. Passion, novelty, sadness, the gritty texture of day-to-day living, the inevitable ebb and flow of a thousands shards of experience, these are the things of which meaning is made.

3) You’d get bored with immortality.

Maybe, but ending my life is a decision I should be able to make while I’m watching the sun burn down, or watching the Andromeda Galaxy collide with our own, when I’m as old as a planet, preferably with my family and a billion friends with me.

4) Death is far too inexplicable to ever be solved.

Everything was a mystery right up until the point that someone figured it out. Stars, the beating of the human heart, the origins of the continents… long is the list of things people once thought would never be understood which are now routinely taught to high school students.

Death is an engineering problem, and it should be approached as such.

5) Overpopulation!

Every material advance ever made, starting with fire and going right up to smart phones, has contributed to rising population levels. Unless you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and start dismantling civilization, then I don’t see how your argument holds water.

I’ll miss my great-grandmother’s indefatigable spirits and simple, earthy charm; I’ll miss Lex’s sharp wit and boundless enthusiasm. The pain is made all the more acute by the knowledge that it didn’t have to end this way.

To paraphrase the oft-quoted and immortal Dylan Thomas poem, I do not intend to go gently into that good night.

May there some day be things besides words that live forever.

 

 

 

Luck I: Finding White Swans

Quoth the Master, great in Wisdom, to the Novice: “Ye, carry with thee all thy days a cheque folded up in your wallet.  For there may be many situations in which thou shalt have need of it.”

And the Novice, of high intelligence but lesser wisdom, replied, saying unto the Master: “Of what situations dost thou speak?”  

To which the Master replied: “imagine that thou dost come upon a nice piece of land, and wish to make a down payment on it. The real estate market moveth quickly in these troubled economic times, and you may soon find your opportunity dried up like dead leaves in summer.  What would you do?”  The Master, you see, did dabble in real estate development a little, and his knowledge was deep in these matters.  

The Novice thought for a moment, saying: “But always I carry with me a credit card.  Surely this is sufficient for my purposes.”

And the Master replied: “Thou knoweth not the ways of commerce.  Thinketh thee that all dealings are conducted within feet of a machine that can read credit cards?!”

The Novice knew the ways of Traditional Rationality and Skepticism, and felt it his duty to take the opposite stance to the Master, lest he unthinkingly obey an authority figure.  Undeterred, he replied, saying unto the Master: “But always I carry with me cash. Surely this is sufficient for my purposes.”

Upon hearing this, the Master did reply, incredulously: “Would thee carry with thee always an amount of cash equal to the reasonable asking price of a down payment for a piece of land?!”   

And lo, the Novice did understand, though he could not put it into these words, that the Master did speak of a certain stance with respect to the unknown.  The swirling chaos of reality may be impossible to predict, but there are things an aspiring empirimancer can do to make it more likely that ve will have good fortune.

Verily, know that that which people call ‘luck’ is not the smile of a beneficent god, but the outcome of how some people interact with chance.  

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Consider for a moment two real people, whom we will call ”Martin” and “Brenda”, that considers themselves lucky and unlucky, respectively. Both are part of the group of exceptionally lucky/unlucky people which Dr. Richard Wiseman has assembled to try and scientifically study the phenomenon of luck.

As part of the study, both people were placed in identical, fortuitous circumstances, but both handled the situation very differently. The setting: a small coffee shop, arranged so that there were four tables with a confederate (someone who knows about the experiment) sitting at each table. One of these confederates was a wealthy businessman, the kind of person that, should you happen to meet him in real life and make a good impression, could set you up with a well-paying job. All the confederates were told to act the same way for both Brenda and Martin. On the street right outside the coffee shop, the researchers placed a £5 note.

Brenda and Martin were told to go to the coffee shop at different times, and their behavior was covertly filmed. Martin noticed the money sitting on the street and picked it up. When he went into the coffee shop he sat down next to the businessman and struck up a conversation, even offering to buy him a coffee.  Brenda walked past the money, never noticing it, and sat quietly in the shop without talking to anyone.

Fortune favors the…?

There are obvious differences in Brenda and Martin’s behavior, but are they indicative of more far-reaching differences in how lucky and unlucky people live their lives? First, let’s discuss what doesn’t differentiate lucky from unlucky people. Wiseman, having assembled his initial group of subjects, tested them on two traits which could have an impact on luck: intelligence and psychic ability. Determining that intelligence wasn’t a factor was as easy as administering an intelligence test. Psychic ability was ruled out by having both lucky and unlucky people pick lottery numbers, with the result being that neither group was more successful than the other.

Wiseman further tested for differences in personality using the Five Factor Model of Personality, which you will recall breaks personality up into Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (the acronym OCEAN makes for easy recall) . Lucky and unlucky people showed no differences in Conscientiousness or Agreeableness, but did show differences in Openness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism.  It is here that an interesting picture began to emerge.

Ultimately, Wiseman was able to break luck down into four overarching principles and twelve subprinciples, summarized here:

Principle One: Maximize the number of chance opportunities you have in life.

  subprinciple one: lucky people maintain a network of contacts with other people.

  subprinciple two: lucky people are more relaxed and less neurotic than unlucky people

  subprinciple three: lucky people introduce variety into their routines.

Principle Two: Use your intuition to make important decisions.

  subprinciple one: pay attention to your hunches.

  subprinciple two: lucky people try to make their intuition more accurate.

Principle Three: Expect good fortune.  

  subprinciple one: lucky people believe their luck will continue.

  subprinciple two: lucky people attempt to achieve their goals and persist through difficulty.

  subprinciple three: lucky people think their interactions will be successful.

Principle Four: Turn bad luck into good.

  subprinciple one: lucky people see the silver lining in bad situations.

  subprinciple two:lucky people believe that things will work out for them 

  subprinciple three: lucky people spend less time brooding over bad luck.

  subprinciple four: lucky people try to prevent further bad luck.  

I suspect that LWers will have a unique set of reactions to and problems with each of these principles, so let’s take them one at a time.  In this essay, I will examine the first two.

Facing up to randomness

First, how would you go about increasing the likelihood of positive chance encounters? Well, you could start spending more time talking to strangers and making friends with people.  Indeed, one of the important differences between unlucky and lucky people is that lucky people are more outgoing, more friendly and open in their body language (lucky people smiled and made eye contact far, far more often), and keep in touch with people they meet longer. The age-old adage ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ has more than a grain of truth in it, and a great way to get to know the right people is by simply getting to know more people, period. The chances of any given person being the contact you need are pretty slim, but the odds improve with every person you get to know.

This actually works on several levels. Since the complexity of the world greatly exceeds the cognitive abilities of any one person, cultivating a strong social network positions you to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of others. Even if you are so much smarter than person X that they can’t compete with you along any dimension, they may still have information you don’t, or they may know somebody who knows somebody who can help you out.

Moreover, I’m sure everyone is familiar with the experience of struggling with a problem, only to have a random conversation (with a stranger or a friend) shake loose a key insight. This can happen locally inside your own head when you have the necessary raw material laying around but haven’t seen a certain connection. In this situation you would have eventually hit upon the insight but the process has been expedited.  More valuable still is when two or more people enter a conversation that produces an insight that nobody had the necessary components to produce for themselves; I think this is part of what Matt Ridley means when he talks about ideas having sex.

So you’re doing your best to meet more people and flex your extroversion muscles. Next, you might try and be more spontaneous and random in your life. Wiseman notes that many lucky people have a strong orientation towards variety and novel experiences.  Some of them, facing an important decision like which car to buy, will do something like list their options on a piece of paper and then roll a die.

You don’t need to go quite this far; it’s also acceptable to shop different places, take different routes to work, or pick a new part of the city to explore every month. The takeaway here is that it’s difficult to have positive chance encounters if you always do the same thing.

One of my favorite examples of someone positioning themselves to benefit from chance comes from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, when Harry and Hermione first read all the titles of the books in the library and then read all the tables of contents.  From their point of view the books in the library are a vast store of unknown information, any bit of which they might need at a given time. Since reading every single book isn’t an option, familiarizing themselves with the information in a systematic way means creating many potential sources of insight while simultaneously reducing the cost of doing future research. Hacker Eric Raymond made related point in the context of winning table-top board games:

I made chance work for me. Pay attention, because I am about to reveal why there is a large class of games (notably pick-up-and-carry games like Empire Builder, network-building games like Power Grid, and more generally games with a large variety of paths to the win condition) at which I am extremely difficult to beat. The technique is replicable.

I have a rule: when in doubt, play to maximize the breadth of your option tree. Actually, you should often choose option-maximizing moves over moves with a slightly higher immediate payoff, especially early in the game and most especially if the effect of investing in options is cumulative.

What’s the common thread between extroversion, skimming the library shelves, and beating your friends at boardgames? Certain actions and certain states of mind make it more likely you’ll benefit from white swans.

(Clever readers may be saying to themselves: “okay, but doesn’t all this also make the chances of encountering black swans higher as well?” We will address these concerns when we talk about principles three and four.)

Attitude matters

We’ve covered extraversion and openness, but the lucky people Dr. Wiseman interviewed were also more relaxed and less neurotic than the unlucky ones. This has obvious consequences for when you are trying to meet new people, but research also hints that being less anxious may make you more likely to notice things you aren’t specifically looking for. This is probably why several of Dr. Wiseman’s lucky participants remarked on how often they found money on the street, found great opportunities while listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, and in general stumbled over opportunities in places where other people simply failed to notice them.

This attitude undergirds and complements much of what I discussed in the previous section; while you are trying to maximize your pathways to victory, don’t forget that constantly worrying and mentally spinning your tires will make you less likely to see a chance opportunity.

Pump your intuition

Lucky people tend to have strong intuitions, and they have a habit of paying careful attention to them.  I’m sure you’re skeptical of this advice, as I was when I first started reading this section. Given present company I don’t think I need to reiterate all the billion ways intuition can be derailed and misleading. That said, placing intuition and rationality as orthogonal to one another is a good example of the straw vulcan of rationality. Intuitions are of course not always wrong, and in some cases may be the only source of information a person has to go off of.

Two things put a little nuance on the proposition that you should listen to your intuitions. The first is that, as far as I can tell, lucky people don’t trust their intuitions immediately and absolutely. They don’t stand at a busy intersection, blindfolded, and trust their gut to tell them when it’s safe to cross. Rather, their hunches act more like yellow traffic lights, telling them that they should proceed with caution here or do a bit more research there. In other words, it sounds to me like lucky people treat their intuitions in a pretty rational manner, as data points, to be used but not relied upon in isolation unless there is just nothing else available.

The other thing is that many lucky people take steps to sharpen their intuitions, utilizing quiet solitude or meditation. Dr. Wiseman goes into precious little detail about this, including just a few anecdotal descriptions of people’s efforts to clear their mind. The rationalist community will be familiar with more quantitative methods like predictionbook, and googling for ‘improving your intuitions’ turned up about as much garbage as you’d probably expect.  If anyone has leads to legitimate research on improving intuition, I’d be happy to add an addendum.

Suggested exercises

Throughout the book Dr. Wiseman includes exercises which are meant to help people utilize the principles uncovered in his research to become luckier. Here are the suggested exercises for the topics discussed in this post:

-To enhance your extraversion, strike up a conversation with four people you either don’t know or don’t know well. Do this each week for a month. Additionally, every week make contact with a person you haven’t spoken to in a while.

-To relax, find a quiet place and picture yourself in a beautiful, calming scene. Make sure to visualize each and every detail of the location, including whatever sounds and smells are around you. When you’ve got the scene in place, visualize the tension leaving your body in the form of a liquid flowing out of you, starting with your head. once you feel sufficiently relaxed, slowly open your eyes.

-Inject some randomness in your life by making a list of 6 new experiences. These can be anything from trying a new type of food to taking a class on a subject you’ve always been interested in.  Number them 1 to 6, roll a die, and then do whatever corresponds to the number you rolled.

To be continued…

What I Learned From Two Years in South Korea.

It’s cold outside, around three in the morning, and I’m staring up at the apartment building I’ve been living in.  Friends have passed in and out of my life there, relationships have begun and ended there.  

My gaze drifts higher and I notice that an unusual number of stars are visible.  This seems fitting, as I’ve often lamented how few stars one can normally see, but such is not the case on my last night in Korea.  My plane leaves in just a few hours, and I know that sleep will not come for many more.  But I don’t mind so much just now, as I’m lost in a particularly intense train of thought.   Beneath the jeweled sky, in the pre-dawn chill, I reflect quietly, and with a hint of sadness, on all that has changed for me these last two years.  

If I could sum this long post up in a few words, I’d say that living and working in South Korea has been every bit as rewarding and life changing as I thought it would be.  If you relish challenges and are looking for a change of scenery, then I would heartily recommend giving the Land of the Morning Calm a try.

But I won’t bullshit you.  There have been real problems, loneliness, and cultural mishaps of the tragic and hilarious variety. When you live in a place where most people don’t speak your language and you are very obviously a foreigner, a thousand little sources of friction are created that will wear on you.

On a good day everything is an adventure, even mundane tasks are tinged with a sense of novelty, and people’s enthusiastic questions will make you feel like a celebrity.

But some days are bad.  Some days you don’t want an adventure, you don’t want to struggle to complete even simple tasks like mailing a letter, you don’t want to feel like a zoo animal with kids pointing at you and whispering.  All I can say is that learning to deal gracefully with the bad days is part of the value.  That, and, in my experience, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

My hope is that if I detail my experiences then I can both encourage people to go for it while also preparing them for the inevitable difficulties that will arise.

Ending Up Far Away From Home

I came to Korea in February of 2012, partly as an act of desperation.  There were no jobs to be had in America at the time, you see, and I was tired of working multiple jobs while still having my savings dwindle.  A friend of mine from college lived on the beautiful Korean island of Jeju-do, and she had almost nothing but good things to say about it. So, lacking a better plan, I began the process of filling out applications and getting my paperwork in order.

Since numerous factors shape my conclusions, I’ll tell you that I’m a 25-year-old white heterosexual male, fairly introverted, college-educated, with an adventurous streak. Though I’ve traveled widely in Korea I’ve lived and worked in a small town at an after-school private academy teaching kids aged 7 to 15.

Gyeryong, South Korea.  My home for nearly two years.

Gyeryong, South Korea. Home for nearly two years.

I’ve made my best effort throughout the past two years to be as objective and observant as I possibly could be, but still, this is all just one guy’s opinion.  People of different ages, races, and sexual orientations, as well as people who live in big cities or work at public schools, often have somewhat different stories to tell.  Nevertheless I think what I’ve written here will prove useful to most everyone.  At any rate, if you decide to take the plunge you’ll get to learn about all of this stuff yourself :)

Korea

The Korean peninsula is basically a group of mountains and foothills, hanging off the eastern part of Russia and jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.  It occupies approximately 100,000 square kilometers, or roughly the same amount of land as two Nova Scotias, Scotland and Wales together, three Lesothos, or Kentucky.  Most of the foreigners I’ve met have been from Canada, the U.K., South Africa, or America, so I chose my geographic comparisons appropriately.

There are four clearly defined seasons. The vibrant, humid summers, colorful autumns, and springs filled with wildflowers and rain offer outdoorsy types plenty of chances to lay on the beach or hike.  Winter, however, is not a gown that Korea wears well.  Some places have a sparse, desolate beauty which can make the colder months almost electrifying. In Korea it’s just frigid and grey, with winds screaming across the landscape cramming fistfuls of cold air down people’s shirts. Be sure to bring some heavy winter clothing.

Population-wise there are about 50 million people, fully half of which live in the sprawling capital, Seoul.  The cities are big, skyscraper-studded affairs offering just about any pleasure or convenience you could ask for.  In the towns and the countryside the old and new are rather dramatically juxtaposed; temples and mountain-top pagodas are sometimes visible from supermarkets, the chanting of monks can be heard a minute’s walk from a cafe. This can be very captivating, and is a primary source of what I call “holy shit I’m in Korea” moments.

Food

The cuisine is one of my favorite things about Korea.  It’s typically rice- and vegetable-based, with small amounts of protein and few fruits.  That may not sound like much raw material, but a staggering variety is produced by combining and seasoning the food in different ways.  To give an example, consider Kimchi, the ubiquitous cabbage dish that is one of the only Korean foods a lot of non-Koreans know about.  It is served at pretty much every meal, but it can come as whole leaves or diced-up cubes, nearly raw or extremely fermented, salty, sour, spicy, or completely plain.

For the most part eating in Korea won’t blow your mind, but a few things may take some getting used to. Of course the most obvious is eating with chopsticks, but you’ll get the hang of it before too long, and there are usually forks and spoons available. Also, Koreans like their food hot, in both ways: many of their dishes are spicy and soups are served still boiling.

If you enjoy sea food you’re in luck, as fish, squid, and octopus show up quite a bit at Korean tables, and in some places you can eat octopus while it’s still alive. This is apparently pretty dangerous because the octopus can stick to the inside of your throat and choke you to death.  I haven’t done it.

The only Korean food I think I have genuinely not liked has been silk-worm larva, or ‘bondeggi’. It’s not usually served at restaurants but they sell it as a snack on the streets in most places, and it’s extremely tart.

I especially like the way Korean restaurants work.  Before the main course you always get a smattering of different side dishes, usually something along the lines of kimchi, fish cakes, or bean sprouts. This is fun because you can sample a wide variety of foods at every meal and every restaurant makes their side dishes slightly differently.  In restaurants where the specialty is meat there is usually a grill built into the table where you cook whatever you ordered.  This makes going to a restaurant sort of a communal, participatory experience.

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A pretty typical spread at a Korean restaurant

As far as costs go, eating in Korea is generally pretty cheap, and it can be extremely cheap if you want it to be.   Since I exercise a lot I also tend to eat a lot, and I consume a good bit of meat, so for me eating here has been more expensive than it is for most other foreigners I know.   Still, I’m usually able to save money by waiting until there is a sale on something like chicken breasts, buying a whole bunch of it, then cooking and freezing it, unthawing as needed. Non-meat items like fruits and vegetables are comparable in price to what they are in America

Eating at restaurants costs about the same as cooking and eating at home.  I verified this by carefully tracking what I spent at the store and what I ate at each meal, calculating the cost of the average meal eaten at home, and comparing that to what I usually spend at restaurants.  My figures aren’t in front of me just now, but eating at home cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 when I got many of the items on discount.  The cheapest meals at a restaurant are about $6, usually more like $8 or $10.  But consider that’s only when I wait to find deals on the most expensive items, and it doesn’t include the time spent cooking and cleaning.

I eat out five or six times, go shopping once or twice a week, and spend around $500 a month on food.

Koreans

My impressions of Korean people have been overwhelmingly positive.  Koreans are for the most part extremely generous and accommodating, more than willing to aid the lost and weary foreigner looking for a place to bed down for the night.

I will never forget trying to buy fabric softener within the first few weeks of arriving, and asking one of the store employees if a particular item was what I was looking for.  Our attempts at communication failed, so she asked someone else, who asked someone else, which began a chain reaction that ended with six or seven Korean people standing around my friend and I and talking to each other.  Finally one of them pointed to the thing I was holding and said ‘soft’.  Problem solved.

This generosity can have a down side.  I will also never forget the many times I’ve been in the gym, headphones in, music going full blast, literally in the middle of doing bench press, only to have someone wander up and insist I eat a sweet potato.  Turning down food that has been offered to you is considered rude in Korea, so when this happens I find myself either having to force something down in the middle of exercise, rudely refuse it, or effusively promise to eat it later.

For myself and my circle of friends about the worst that’s ever happened is cab drivers charging us more than they would a Korean, but one does occasionally hear of abuses much more serious than this.   Apparently other teachers have worked at schools which have stolen money from them or fired them over completely trivial issues, have had coworkers that treated them with indifference or even disrespect, or have had to live in really sub-par housing.

The truth is, there is a chance you will end up in this situation.  It’s a bit disconcerting, but that’s the reality.  As far as I can tell it’s exceedingly rare; I’ve never known anyone to whom this has happened, and I’ve never known anyone whose known someone to whom this has happened.  If you go through a recruitment agency like Reach To Teach (whom I cannot recommend enough) or contact the other people working at your school ahead of time you stand a good chance of being happy with where you end up.

Foreigners in Korea

By and large I’ve gotten along with the non-Koreans I’ve met.  You might be thinking that the foreigners here are exceptionally adventurous or outgoing or enthusiastic about novel experiences. After all, wouldn’t it take just such a person to uproot their whole life and move to a new continent?

Surprisingly, no.   The foreigners I’ve met have mostly been pretty average on all of these traits, with some extreme personalities in both directions.  Note that this isn’t me making a value judgment; there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert who likes routine.  I’m just saying that my expectations were incorrect.

There are plenty of foreigners here who like to party, though, and in the bigger cities there are establishments which have sprung up to cater just to us.  This is great, and Science knows I’ve had my fair share of shenanigans while I’ve been here.  But it seems to me like a lot of foreigners get stuck in this trap where they make a bunch of foreign friends, give up their initial attempts to learn Korean and integrate into Korea, and begin a cycle of boozing and partying all the time which leaves them complacent, takes a chunk out of their savings, and prevents them from experiencing Korea in a more authentic way.  No one is going to stop you if you piss away your paychecks drinking four nights a week, but ask yourself if that’s really the best way you could be spending your time.

Ultimately, like most other opportunities, this one is going to be what you make it.  It could be one of the more intense and fertile periods of learning you’ve had up to this point, like it was for me, or it could be a drunken haze you barely remember and from which you learn very little.

Learning Korean 

There is one place where I am absolutely going to make a value judgment, though, and that’s the pitifully small number of foreigners who make an effort to learn Korean.  Make no mistake, it is a pretty tough language, but that’s no excuse for not learning how to carry out basic tasks in the language that everyone else speaks.   Most Koreans are going to accommodate you, and a lot of them are happy to practice their English, but most of them can’t speak English well and shouldn’t be expected to.  If you live in Korea then you should learn Korean, and though you can probably get by without it, you should feel a pang of guilt every time you point and grunt your way through an interaction like a Neanderthal.

I’ve met people who claim that they have ‘survival Korean’ and don’t care to study beyond that.  Fair enough, maybe you aren’t interested in reading Korean literature or holding forth on philosophical topics in Korean, but I think a lot of people are kidding themselves as to what constitutes the minimum Korean they need.

My Korean is at about survival level.  I can hold basic conversations, give and receive directions, figure out what most signs and print means without pictures, and get the gist of what’s being said around me.  A bit less than half of my communication with friends has been in Korean, mostly texting, and I have managed English-free interactions for a few hours at a time with only minimal referencing of the dictionary.

Here is a video I made speaking Korean right before I came back to the States:

I’m not tooting my own horn here.  My Korean isn’t as good as I’d wanted it to be before I left, and I’m still embarrassed every time I can’t get a point across or understand someone who is trying to talk to me.   Getting this modest level took a lot of effort and study, but it has been absolutely, without a doubt, worth it.  In addition to all the little things that have become easier, my experience here has been significantly deepened as a result.

Let me give you an example: the secretary that works at our school is in her early thirties and has two kids I’ve taught. We’ve become good friends, and we always use Korean because she doesn’t know more than a few words in English. Though she maintains professionalism at work I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with her many times during off hours, and have discovered she has a really quirky and dirty sense of humor.  She’s taught me Korean slang and Korean swear words and I’ve returned the favor in English, and she gets a kick out of hearing about my adventures and exploits. I hope to keep in touch with her, but even if I don’t I’ll remember her for the rest of my life.

If you’ve been in Korea for years and still can’t speak Korean, that’s a problem and you should fix it.  Assuming you want to learn, let me give you some advice: there are free classes offered in various places, and these might be a good place to start, but  I recommend transitioning to private tutoring as fast as possible.  Seriously, it costs all of $10 a lesson and you can do them over skype.  Beyond that, use Korean every chance you get.  I talk to people at bus stops, in the gym, between classes at school, through texting, on the internet, etc.

There is no substite for speaking to new people as often as possible.  If you interact with the same group of native speakers, they are going to get used to your quirks and mistakes.  They’ll learn how to tell what you’re trying to say and they’ll figure out how to hear through your accent.  The only way to be sure you’re improving is by testing yourself with new people who have no idea who you are and have never spoken to you before.

Dating

Romantic interactions have been a pretty big part of my stay in Korea; they have helped me get to know the language and culture better, and have contributed massively to my positive feelings on Korea overall.  As such it’s only appropriate that I say a few (tactful) words about dating here.  As I mentioned before I am straight, so I can’t tell you anything about dating Korean men or what it’s like to be gay in Korea, though these subjects have been broached elsewhere.

As others have noted, there are some unique rewards and challenges associated with dating women outside your language or culture.  Miscommunications are commonplace, even when the other person speaks your language pretty well, and you will almost certainly end up either being a little offended or offending them at least once because of something culturally insensitive one of you did.

That said, one of the lessons I’ve learned living in Korea is that an amazing amount of non-linguistic or barely-linguistic communication can happen when two or more people are motivated to get a point across.  This goes for people who just want to be friends as well as for people who want to rip each other’s clothes off.  If you’re into her and she’s into you, then I doubt either of you will have too much trouble figuring that out.

Which brings me to another point, one I think it is important to stress: in my experience, Korean women are just sexually normal people with sexually normal appetites.  You may have had your expectations molded by…erm…certain videos that can be found on various corners of the internet.  If so, then you may imagine Korean women will be either completely submissive in the face of sexual advances or, in the memorable words of a friend, “sex-crazed dragon-ladies”.  They are neither, and if I could pass on a pro tip here, I’d say it’s usually not a good idea to take your cues from porn.

The bottom line is that there are few surprises waiting for you behind closed doors.  Like anywhere else every person is different, and I have been involved with girls who range from very conservative and deferential all the way to career-driven-alpha-female types.  I recommend dating Koreans not because it’s some extremely exotic new experience, but because Korean women are attractive and affectionate and fun to interact with.  You know, pretty much the same reasons you date anyone.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you're trying to achieve transcendence through your guitar.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you’re trying to achieve musical transcendence.

If you do choose to date outside the group of foreigners, though, you’ll see a side of Korean culture that’s hard to get any other way.  Plus, as a bonus, you’ll most likely become very motivated to practice Korean.

Teaching

As a teacher your job is to build structures of information in the brain of another person.  When it comes to language education you will need a special set of communication skills, the ability to direct attention, and ocean’s worth of patience.

Let’s start with re-learning how to use English.  This is far, far more than simply speaking more slowly, and involves changes in vocabulary choice and sentence structure as well.  Repeated interactions with students at different levels will start to give you an intuitive sense of the kinds of words and phrases someone is likely to be able to understand, and time spent in Korean culture will teach you which words have been imported from English.

Many Koreans, even ones who for all intents and purposes speak no English, know common words like ‘cheap’, ‘famous’,  or ‘early’, as well as unusual ones like ‘casanova’ (referring to guys who have a lot of girlfriends).  I couldn’t tell you why these particular words have been absorbed, but that’s been my experience.

You’ll also figure out how to phrase complex ideas in terms of simpler ones by choosing which subtleties and nuances can be smoothed away without losing too much of the meaning.  One of my favorite examples of this was when a pretty competent student asked me what ‘engineering’ meant.  Before I tell you my reply let’s look at one way I could have responded:

“The process of using scientific knowledge to create new technologies.”

This is a nice dictionary definition, but no one outside of the best one or two students would have understood it.  Why? Well despite the fact that ‘process’  and ‘create’ are common English words most students aren’t going to know them because the ideas behind them are actually fairly complex.  Further, most of my students would know what ‘science’ is but would have difficulty with the adjective ‘scientific’.  My actual response was this:

“Using science to make things.”

Now, engineering is a sprawling human enterprise which involves both using and creating new scientific knowledge and new technology.  Does my definition appropriately capture all that?  No it doesn’t, but you will have to learn to live with this kind of partial communication as it’s often the best you can do.  Importantly, though, my definition does capture a significant portion of the first definition’s meaning, and it does it with words almost all of my students will know.

Second, you’ll have to learn how to keep the attention of a large number of kids.  Attention is a pretty fickle thing, even in adults, and the best ways I’ve found to keep it are by being funny and using a lot of pictures and props.  Humans are by nature visual animals, so most any concept that can be communicated with the aid of pictures should be, and big, exaggerated, silly actions are easier to focus on than detailed verbal explanations.  None of this is a guarantee, unfortunately; there will be days when every effort fails, and you’ll go home emotionally exhausted.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Finally, you’ll need a healthy dose of patience.  If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language very well you know it can be an exhausting experience.  If you’ve ever spent much time interacting with kids, even teenage ones, you know it can be an exhausting experience.  Well, as a teacher your whole job all day is going to be interacting with kids who don’t speak your language well.

Does that sound exhausting?  It is.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think me age and position entitle me to.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think my age and position entitle me to.

Now, I really like kids, and I think I like them even more after having taught them for a while. But let me tell you: sometimes they’re going to frustrate you, disappoint you, and do things that are downright bizarre.  Other times they will be funny, affectionate, and surprise you with their insight and competence. You’d better just steel yourself for the roller coaster ahead of time. If you teach English for any length of time in Korea, you absolutely will learn to be more patient.

All Good Things…

Now I’m back in the States, and the experience has of course been bitter sweet.  I miss speaking Korean, and I’ve found out that my driving skills have atrophied considerably.  But I’m a lot more outgoing than I once was, I have many more interesting stories to tell, and I’m more confident.

Looking back, there were so many days in Korea when I was tired and stressed and wanted to quit.  If you choose to take the leap, you’ll have them too.  But I can’t remember any stretch of time during which I made more positive changes and learned more about myself and about life.

It was worth it.  It really, really was.

What’s true and what’s not in stereotypes of South Koreans?

In order to give a kind of overview of my Korean experience I thought it might be helpful to lay out some common stereotypes and discuss which ones I’ve found to be true and which ones are nonsense.

Perhaps you think of Koreans as rice-eating math geniuses who play Starcraft all day and are a foot shorter than Americans. When you think of Korean classrooms you might be picturing rows and rows of disciplined students dutifully writing down your every word. Unsurprisingly these stereotypes are neither totally accurate nor completely off the mark.

Korean people are significantly smaller than Westerners.

This one is unequivocally false.  I am right at 6 feet tall and a reasonably muscular 190 pounds.  Seeing men who are taller, more muscular, or fatter than me is normal, and seeing women about my height only slightly less normal.  I have several students who are still teenagers that are getting pretty close to my size.  Compared to America I see fewer people who are insanely in shape or insanely out of shape, but unless you are pretty big at home you aren’t going to be pretty big here.

Korean people are very deferential and polite.

This is generally true, but with some important caveats.  First, what counts as impolite is different in Korea, and I’ve heard Koreans tell foreigners that they ‘look tired’ or ‘look a little fat’.  This is almost never meant to be hurtful and just reflects different cultural standards of appropriateness.  Second, your students are going to vary enormously in how polite they are to you.  Some of my students are extremely respectful, while others don’t give a damn about me and don’t care if I know it.

Koreans eat a lot of rice.

This is absolutely true.  Koreans eat rice with everything and at nearly every meal.  Once, while I was on a low-carb kick, I ordered what looked like a big omelet because it was the only thing on the menu that didn’t come with rice.  Guess what the omelet was stuffed with?  Rice!

Koreans can’t drive. 

Here is the thing you have to realize about roads in Korea: things like traffic lights and stop signs are just suggestions.  Whereas in America a red light means “you have to sit and wait until I turn green, even if no one else is around”, in Korea it means “slow down long enough to make sure no one is going through the intersection and then gun it”.  I looked at traffic death statistics from Wikipedia and the World Health organization, and it appears that Korea has more traffic deaths than America, but not that many more.

Koreans love starcraft.

This one is true but I get the feeling that starcraft’s popularity is waning just a bit.  There are still major Starcraft tournaments here and the best player’s are still Koreans, but I think most regular people have moved on to other games. Fair warning: this assessment is based only on my having asked around and observed what people play at internet cafes.

Koreans are sexually repressed.

This is actually a pretty complicated topic, and the response will depend on the angle at which it is viewed.  Korean culture emphasizes monogamy and marriage, and this puts tremendous pressure on people to settle down.  As a result I think a lot of Koreans rush into long-term commitments for which they are not prepared and wind up unhappy with the decision.  Though divorce is on the rise it’s still not common, leaving those in unsatisfying marriages with no way to escape.  This isn’t the only thing driving the booming prostitution business, but it can’t be hurting it.

So that’s one side of it.  But as far as individual Koreans go, I haven’t yet been involved with anyone who was even remotely afraid of their sexuality.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

Koreans are geniuses.

Not really. Education is a huge part of Korean society, and most Korean kids go to school all day everyday (even, in some cases, on Saturday).  The result is that the students who work hard end up being pretty impressive by the time they get to college. However, I had quite a number of students who didn’t ever do homework, didn’t listen in class, and put no effort into furthering their education.

Every Korean studies martial arts.

Taekwondo strikes me as being similar to American sports like baseball in that it is very popular and a lot of people study it, but the vast majority of them are not that serious about it.  You aren’t going to see many Koreans flipping over tables and breaking boards with their face.

Koreans eat dogs.

This is true, but it’s far more rare than you probably think.  I’ve never been served dog meat, never seen it in a restaurant, and come to think of it, never met a Korean person who admitted to wanting to eat it.   When I’ve asked my students whether or not they have eaten dog, or wanted to in the future, the answer has always been an emphatic no.  I don’t know how often dog is eaten, but I can tell you that one weekend a co-worker had some at a restaurant, and the way he told me about it on Monday made it seem as though it was a very unusual experience.

Korean is a difficult language.

Korean is pretty exotic for an English speaker.  Verbs always come at the end of sentences, things like definite/indefinite articles and pronouns which are important in English are often omitted entirely, and sentences can vary significantly depending on the formality of the conversation.  That said, there isn’t any tonal system like in Chinese, and also unlike Chinese Korean uses a phonetic alphabet.  Learning Korean is going to be harder than learning Spanish or French, but it is something you should do and it’s also worth the effort.

Existential Risk: A Primer

I want to start this off with a quote, which nicely captures both how I use to feel about the idea of human extinction and how I feel about it now:

I think many atheists still trust in God. They say there is no God, but …[a]sk them how they think the future will go, especially with regards to Moral Progress, Human Evolution, Technological Progress, etc. There are a few different answers you will get: Some people just don’t know or don’t care. Some people will tell you stories of glorious progress…

The ones who tell stories are the ones who haven’t quite internalized that there is no god. The people who don’t care aren’t paying attention.

The correct answer is not nervous excitement, or world-weary cynicism, it is fear.

-Nyan Sandwich

Back when I was a Christian I probably gave some thought to the rapture, which is not entirely unlike extinction as far as most ten-year-olds can tell.  But that wouldn’t really be the end of all conscious human experience, since the righteous are transported to heaven to be with god and thus continue existing in a different form.  Sometime during this period I found a slim little book of fiction which portrayed a damned soul’s experience of burning in hell forever, and that did scare me.  Such torment, as luck would have it, is easy enough to avoid if you just call god the right name and ask forgiveness often enough.

When I was old enough to contemplate possible secular origins of the apocalypse, I was both an atheist and one of the people who tell glorious stories about the future.  The potential fruits of technological development, from the end of aging to the creation of a benevolent super-human AI, excited me, and still excite me now.  No doubt I would’ve admitted the possibility of human extinction, I don’t really remember.  But there wasn’t the kind of internal siren that should go off when you start thinking seriously about one of the Worst Possible Outcomes.  That I would remember.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate that most of us are not afraid enough of the future. Those who are afraid, are often afraid for the wrong reasons.

What is an Existential Risk?

An existential risk or x-risk (to use a common abbreviation) is “…one that threatens to annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically to curtail its potential” (Bostrom 2006). The definition contains some subtlety, as not all x-risks involve the outright death of every human. Some could take potentially eons to complete, and some are even survivable.

Positioning x-risks within the broader landscape of risks yields something like this chart:

A graph with severity of the risk along the x axis and scope along the right (Bostrom 2013)

At the top right extreme is where Cthulu sleeps.  They are risks that carry the potential to drastically and negatively affect this and every subsequent human generation.

So as not to keep everyone in suspense, let’s use this chart to put a face on the shadows.

Four Types of Existential Risks

Philosopher Nick Bostrom has outlined four broad categories of x-risk.  In more recent papers he hasn’t used the terminology that I’m using here, so maybe he thinks the names are obsolete.  I find them evocative and useful, however, so I’ll stick with them until I have a reason to change.

Bangs are probably the easiest risks to conceptualize.  Any event which causes the sudden and complete extinction of humanity would count as a Bang.  Think asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, or deliberately misused nanoweapons.

Crunches are risks which humans survive but which leaves us permanently unable to navigate to a more valuable future.  An example might be depleting our planetary resources before we manage to build the infrastructure needed to mine asteroids or colonize other planets.  After all the die-offs and fighting, some remnant of humanity could probably survive indefinitely, but it wouldn’t be a world you’d want to wake up in.

Shrieks occur when a post-human civilization develops but only manages to realize a small amount of its potential.  Shrieks are very difficult to effectively categorize, and I’m going to leave examples until the discussion below.

Whimpers are really long-term existential risks.  The most straight forward is the heat death of the universe; within our current understanding of physics, no matter how advanced we get we will eventually be unable to escape the ravages of entropy.  Another could be if we encounter a hostile alien civilization that decides to conquer us after we’ve already colonized the galaxy.  Such a process could take a long time, and thus would count as a whimper.

Just because whimpers are so much less immediate than other categories of risk and x-risk doesn’t automatically mean we can just ignore them; it has been argued that affecting the far future is one of the most important projects facing humanity, and thus we should take the time to do it right.

Sharp readers will no doubt have noticed that there is quite a bit of fuzziness to these classifications.  Where, for example, should we put all-out nuclear war, the establishment of an oppressive global dictatorship, or the development of a dangerous and uncontrollable superintelligent AI? If everyone dies in the war it counts as a bang, but if it makes a nightmare of the biosphere while leaving a good fraction of humanity intact it would be a crunch.  A global dictatorship wouldn’t be an x-risk unless it used some (probably technological) means to achieve near-total control and long-term stability, in which case it would be a crunch.  But it isn’t hard to imagine such a situation in which some parts of life did get better, like if a violently oppressive government continued to develop advanced medicines so that citizens were universally healthier and longer-lived than people today.  If that happened, it would be a Shriek.  A similar analysis applies to the AI, with the possible outcomes being Bang, Crunch, and Shriek depending on just how badly we misprogrammed it.

What Ties These Threads Together?

Even if you think existential threats deserve more attention, the rationale for treating them as a diverse but unified phenomenon may not be obvious.  In addition to the crucial but (relatively) straightforward work of, say, tracking Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), existential risk researchers also think seriously about alien invasions and rogue AIs. With such a range of speculativeness, why group x-risks together at all?

It turns out that they share a cluster of features which does give them some cohesion and make them worth studying under a single label, not all of which I discuss here.  First and most obvious is that should any of them occur the consequences would be truly vast relative to any other kind of risk.  To see why, think about the difference between a catastrophe that kills 99% of humanity and one that kills 100%.  As big a tragedy as the former would be, there’s a chance humans could recover and build a post-human civilization.  But if every person dies, then the entire value of our future is lost (Bostrom 2013).

Second, these are not risks which admit of a trial and error approach.  Pretty much by definition a collision with an x-risk will spell doom for humanity, and so we must be more proactive in our strategies for reducing them.

Related to this, we as a species have neither the cultural nor biological instincts needed to prepare us for the possibility of extinction.  A group of people might live through several droughts and thus develop strong collective norms towards planning ahead and keeping generous food reserves.  But they cannot have gone extinct multiple times, and thus they can’t rely on their shared experience and cultural memory to guide them in the future.  I certainly hope we can develop a set of norms and institutions which makes us all safer, but we can’t wait to learn from history.  We’re going to have to start well in advance, or we won’t survive.

A final commonality I’ll mention is that the solutions to quite a number of x-risks are themselves x-risks.  A powerful enough government could effectively halt research into dangerous pathogens or nano-replicators.  But given how States have generally comported themselves in the past, one would do well to be cautious before investing them with that kind of power.  Ditto for a superhuman AI, which could set up an infrastructure to protect us from asteroids, nuclear war, or even other less Friendly AI.  Get the coding just a little wrong, though, and it might reuse your carbon to make paperclips.

It is indeed a knife edge along which we creep towards the future.

Measuring the Monsters

A first step is getting straight about how likely survival is.  The reader may have encountered predictions of the “we have only a 50% chance of surviving the next hundred years” variety.  Examining the validity of such estimates is worth doing, but I won’t be taking up that challenge here; I tend to agree that these figures involves a lot of subjective judgement, but that even if the chances were very very small it would still be worth taking seriously (Bostrom 2006).   At any rate, it seems to me that trying to calculate an overall likelihood of human extinction is going to be premature before we’ve nailed down probabilities for some of the different possible extinction scenarios.  It is to the techniques which x-risk researchers rely on to try and do this that I now turn.

X-risk-assessments rely on both direct and indirect methods (Bostrom 2002).  Using a direct method involves building a detailed causal model of the phenomenon and using that to generate a risk probability, while indirect methods include arguments, thought experiments, and information that we use to constrain and refine our guesses.

As far as I know for some x-risks we could use direct methods if we just had a way to gather the relevant information.  If we knew where all the NEOs were we could use settled physics to predict whether any of them posed a threat and then prioritize accordingly. But we don’t where they all are, so we might instead examine the frequency of impacts throughout the history of the Earth and then reason about whether or not we think an impact will happen soon.   It would be nice to exclusively use direct methods, but we supplement with indirect methods when we can’t, and of course for x-risks like AI we are in an even more uncertain position than we are for NEOs.

The Fermi Paradox

Applying indirect methods can lead to some strange and counter-intuitive territory, an example of which is the mysteries surrounding the Fermi Paradox.  The central question is: in a universe with so many potential hotbeds of life, why is it that when we listen for stirring in the void all we hear is silence?  Many feel that the universe must be teeming with life, some of it intelligent, so why haven’t we see any sign of it yet?

Musing about possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox can be a lot of fun, and it’s worth pointing out that we haven’t been looking that long or that hard for signals yet. Nevertheless I think the argument has some meat to it.

Observing this state of affairs, some have postulated the existence of at least one Great Filter, a step in the chain of development from the first organisms to space-faring civilizations that must be extremely hard to achieve.   

This is cause for concern because the Great Filter could be in front of us or behind us.  Let me explain: imagine a continuum with the simplest self-replicating molecules on one side and the Star Trek Enterprise on the other.  From our position on the continuum we want to know whether or not we have already passed the hardest step, but we have only our own planet to look at.  So imagine that we send out probes to thousands of different worlds in the hopes that we will learn something.

If we find lots of simple eukaryotes that means that the Great Filter is probably not before the development of membrane-bound organelles. The list of possible places on the continuum the Great Filter could be shrinks just a little bit.  If instead we find lots of mammals and reptiles (or creatures that are very different but about as advanced), that means the Great Filter is probably not before the rise of complex organisms, so the places the Great Filter might be hiding shrinks again.  Worst of all would be if we find the dead ruins of many different advanced civilizations.  This would imply that the worst is yet to come, and we will almost certainly not survive it.

As happy as many people would be to discover evidence of life in the universe, a case has been made that we should hope to find only barren rocks waiting for us in the final frontier. If not even simple bacteria evolve on most worlds, then there is still a chance that the Great Filter is behind us, and we can worry only about the new challenges ahead.

If all this seems really abstract out there, that’s because it is.  But I hope it is clear how this sort of thinking can help us interpret new data, make better guesses, form new hypotheses, etc.  When dealing with stakes this high and information this limited, one must do the best they can with what’s available.

Mitigation

What priority should we place on reducing existential risk and how can we do that?

I don’t know of anyone who thinks all our effort should go towards mitigating x-risks; there are lots of pressing issues which are not x-risks that are worth our attention, like abject poverty or geopolitical instability.  But I feel comfortable saying we aren’t doing nearly as much as we should be.  Given the stakes and the fact that there probably won’t be a second chance we are going to have to meet x-risks head on and be aggressively proactive in mitigating them.

What does ‘aggressively proactive’ mean?  Well the first step, as it so often is, will be just to get the right people to be aware of the problem (Bostrom 2002).  Thankfully this is starting to be the case as more funding and brain power go into existential risk reduction. We have to get to a point where we are spending at least as much time, energy, and effort making new technology safe as we do making it more powerful.  More international cooperation on these matters will be necessary, and there should be some sort of mechanism by which efforts to develop existentially-threatening technologies like super-virulent pathogens can be stopped.  I don’t like recommending this at all, but almost anything is preferable to extinction.

In the meantime both research that directly reduces x-risk (like NEO detection), as well as research that will help elucidate deep and foundational issues in x-risk (FHI and MIRI) should be encouraged.

Conclusion

Though I maintain we should be more fearful of what’s to come, that should not obscure the fact that the human potential is vast and truly exciting.  If the right steps are taken, we and our descendants will have a future better than most can even dream of.  Life spans measured in eons could be spent learning and loving in ways our terrestrial languages don’t even have words for yet.  The vision of a post-human civilization flinging it’s trillions of descendants into the universe to light up the dark is tremendously inspiring.  It’s worth fighting for.

But we have much work ahead of us.

How to Have Space Correctly

[NOTE: This post has undergone substantial revisions following feedback in the comments section of the blog LessWrong, where it was originally posted.  The basic complaint was that it was too airy and light on concrete examples and recommendations.  So I've said oops, applied the virtue of narrownessgotten specific, and hopefully made this what it should've been the first time.]  

Take a moment and picture a master surgeon about to begin an operation.  Visualize the room (white, bright overhead lights), his clothes (green scrubs, white mask and gloves), the patient, under anesthesia and awaiting the first incision. There are several other people, maybe three or four, strategically placed and preparing for the task ahead.  Visualize his tools – it’s okay if you don’t actually know what tools a surgeon uses, but imagine how they might be arranged.  Do you picture them in a giant heap which the surgeon must dig through every time he wants something, or would they be arranged neatly (possibly in the order they’ll be used) and where they can be identified instantly by sight?  Visualize their working area.  Would it be conducive to have random machines and equipment all over the place, or would every single item within arms reach be put there on purpose because it is relevant, with nothing left over to distract the team from their job for even a moment?

Space is important.  You are a spatially extended being interacting with spatially extended objects which can and must be arranged spatially.  In the same way it may not have occurred to you that there is a correct way to have things, it may not have occurred to you that space is something you can use poorly or well.  The stakes aren’t always as high as they are for a surgeon, and I’m sure there are plenty of productive people who don’t do a single one of the things I’m going to talk about.  But there are also skinny people who eat lots of cheesecake, and that doesn’t mean cheesecake is good for you.  Improving how you use the scarce resource of space can reduce task completion time, help in getting organized, make you less error-prone and forgetful, and free up some internal computational resources, among other things.

What Does Using Space Well Mean?

It means consciously manipulating the arrangement, visibility, prominence, etc. of objects in your environment to change how they affect cognition (yours or other people’s).  The Intelligent Use of Space (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995) is a great place to start if you’re skeptical that there is anything here worth considering.  It’s my primary source for this post because it is thorough but not overly technical, contains lots of clear examples, and many of the related papers I read were about deeper theoretical issues.

The abstract of the paper reads:

How we manage the spatial arrangement of items around us is not an afterthought: it is an integral part of the way we think, plan, and behave. The proposed classification has three main categories: spatial arrangements that simplify choice; spatial arrangements that simplify perception; and spatial dynamics that simplify internal computation. The data for such a classification is drawn from videos of cooking, assembly and packing, everyday observations in supermarkets, workshops and playrooms, and experimental studies of subjects playing Tetris, the computer game. This study, therefore, focuses on interactive processes in the medium and short term: on how agents set up their workplace for particular tasks, and how they continuously manage that workplace.

The ‘three main categories’ of simplifying choice, perception, and internal computation can be further subdivided:

simplifying choice

  •       reducing or emphasizing options.
  •       creating the potential for useful new choices.

simplifying perception

  •       clustering like objects.
  •       marking an object.
  •       enhancing perceptual ability.

simplfying internal computation

  •      doing more outside of your head.

These sub-categories are easier to picture and thus more useful when trying to apply the concept of using space correctly, and I’ve provided more illustrations below. It’s worth pointing out that (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995) only considered the behavior of experts.  Perhaps effective space management partially explains expert’s ability to do more of their processing offline and without much conscious planning.  An obvious follow up would be in examining how novices utilize space and looking for discrepancies.

What Does Using Space Well Look Like?

The paper walks the reader through a variety of examples of good utilization of space.  Consider an expert cook going through the process of making a salad with many different ingredients, and ask how you would accomplish the same task differently:

…one subject we videotaped, cut each vegetable into thin slices and laid them out in tidy rows. There was a row of tomatoes, of mushrooms, and of red peppers, each of different length…To understand why lining up the ingredients in well ordered, neatly separated rows is clever, requires understanding a fact about human psychophysics: estimation of length is easier and more reliable than estimation of area or volume. By using length to encode number she created a cue or signal in the world which she could accurately track. Laying out slices in lines allows more precise judgment of the property relative number remaining than clustering the slices into groups, or piling them up into heaps. Hence because of the way the human perceptual system works, lining up the slices creates an observable property that facilitates execution.

Here, the cook used clustering and clever arrangement to make better use of her eyes and to reduce the load on her working memory, techniques I use myself in my day job.  As of this writing (2013) I’m teaching English in Korea.  I have a desk, a bunch of books, pencils, erasers, the works.  All the folders are together, the books are separated by level, and all ungraded homework is kept in its own place.  At the start of the work day I take out all the books and folders I’ll need for that day and arrange them in the same order as my classes. When I get done with a class the book goes back on the day’s pile but rotated 90 degrees so that I can tell it’s been used. When I’m totally done with a book and I’ve entered homework scores and such, it goes back in the main book stack where all my books are.  I can tell at a glance which classes I’ve had, which ones I’ll have, what order I’m in, which classes are finished but unprocessed, and which ones are finished and processed.  Cthulu only knows how much time I save and how many errors I prevent all by utilizing space well.

These examples show how space can help you keep track of temporal order and make quick, accurate estimates, but it may not be clear how space can simplify choice.  Recall that simplifying choice usually breaks down into either taking some choices away or making good choices more obvious.  Taking choices away may sound like a bad thing, but each choice requires you to spend time evaluating options, and if you are juggling many different tasks the chance of making the wrong choice goes up.  Similarly, looking for good options soaks up time, unless you can find a way to make yourself trip over them.

An example of removing bad decisions is in factory workers placing a rag on hot pipes so they know not to touch them (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995).  By symbolically marking a dangerous object the engineers are shutting down the class of actions which involves touching the pipe. It is all too easy in the course of juggling multiple aspects of a task to forget something like this and injure yourself.  The strategically placed and obvious visual marker means that the environment keeps track of the danger for you.  Likewise poisonous substances have clear warning labels and are kept away from anything you might eat; both precautions count as good use of space.

And here is how some carpenters structure their work space so that they can make good uses for odds and ends easier to see:

 In the course of making a piece of furniture one periodically tidies up. But not completely. Small pieces of wood are pushed into a corner or left about; tools, screw drivers and mallets are kept nearby. The reason most often reported is that ‘they come in handy’. Scraps of wood can serve to protect surfaces from marring when clamped, hammered or put under pressure. They can elevate a piece when being lacquered to prevent sticking. The list goes on.

My copy of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is on another continent, but the carpenter example reminded me of his recommendation to keep messy notebooks.  Doing so makes it more likely you’ll see unusual and interesting connections between things you’re thinking about.  He goes so far as to use a tool called DevonThink which speeds this process up for him.

And while I’m at it, this also points to one advantage of having physical books over PDFs.  My books take up space and are easier to see than their equivalent 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive, so I’m always reminded of what I have left to read. More than once I’ve gone on a useful tangent because the book title or cover image caught my attention, and more than one interesting conversation got started when a visitor was looking over my book collection.  Scanning the shelves at a good university library is even better, kind of like 17th-century StumbleUpon, and English-language libraries are something I’ve sorely missed while I’ve been in Asia.

All this usefulness derives from the spatial properties and arrangement of books, and I have no idea how it can be replicated with the Kindle.

Specific Recommendations

You can see from the list of examples I’ve provided that there are a billion ways of incorporating these insights into work, life, and recreation.  By discussing the concept I hope to have drawn your attention to the ways in which space is a resource, and I suspect just doing this is enough to get a lot of people to see how they can improve their use of space.  Here are some more ideas, in no particular order:

-I put my alarm clock far enough away from my bed so that I have to actually get up to     turn it off.  This is so amazingly    effective at ensuring I get up in the morning that I often hate my previous-night’s self.  Most of the time I can’t go back to  sleep even when I try.

-There’s reason to suspect that a few extra monitors or a bigger display will make your life easier  [Thanks Qiaochu_Yuan].

-When doing research for an article like this one, open up all the tabs you’ll need for the project in a separate window and close  each tab as you’re done with it.  You’ll be less distracted by something irrelevant and you won’t have to remember what you did  or didn’t read.  

-Having a separate space to do something seems to greatly increase the chances I’ll get it done.  I tried not going to the gym  for a while and just doing push ups in my house, managing to keep that up for all of a week or so. Recently, I switched gyms,  and despite now having to take a bus all the way across town I make it to the gym 3-5 times a week, pretty much without fail.  If your studying/hacking/meditation isn’t going well, try going somewhere which exists only to give people a  place to do that  thing.

-Put whatever you can’t afford to forget when you leave the house right by the door.

-If something is really distracting you, completely remove it from the environment temporarily.  During one particularly strenuous  finals in college I not only turned off the xbox, I completely unplugged it and put it in a drawer.  Problem. Solved.

-Alternatively, anything you’re wanting to do more of should be out in the open.  Put your guitar stand or chess board or  whatever where you’re going to see it frequently, and you’ll engage with it more often.  This doubles as a signal to other  people, giving you an opportunity to manage their impression of you, learn more about them, and identify those with similar  interests to yours.  

-Make use of complementary strategies (Kirsch, “Complementary Strategies”, 1995).  If you’re having trouble comprehending    something, make a diagram, or write a list.  The linked paper describes a simple pilot study which involved two groups tasked  with counting coins, one which could use their hands and one which could not.  The ‘no hands’ group was more likely to make  errors and to take longer to complete the task.  Granted, this was a pilot study with sample size = 5, and the difference  wasn’t that stark.  But it’s worth thinking about next time you’re stuck on a problem.

-Complementary strategies can also include things you do with your body, which after all is just space you wear with you  everywhere.  Talk out loud to yourself if you’re alone, give a mock presentation in which you summarize a position you’re trying  to understand, keep track of arguments and counterarguments with your fingers.  I’ve always found the combination of  explaining something out loud to an imaginary person while walking or pacing to be especially potent.  Some of my best ideas  come to me while I’m hiking.

-Try some of these embodied cognition hacks.

Summary and Conclusion

Space is a resource which, like all others, can be used effectively or not.  When used effectively, it acts to simplify choices, simplify perception, and simplify internal computation.  I’ve provided many examples of good space usage from all sorts of real-life domains in the hopes that you can apply some of these insights to live and work more effectively.

Further Reading

[In the original post these references contained no links.  Sincere thanks to user Pablo_Stafforini for tracking them down]

Kirsh, D. (1995) The Intelligent Use of Space

Kirsh, D. (1999) Distributed Cognition, Coordination and Environment Design

Kirsh, D. (1998) Adaptive Rooms, Virtual Collaboration, and Cognitive Workflow

Kirsh, D. (1996) Adapting the Environment Instead of Oneself

Kirsh, D. (1995) Complementary Strategies: Why we use our hands when we think

Space Exploration and Fragile Systems: Edge 2013 Questions, IV

49) Scott Sampson posits that love is required to accomplish large-scale conservation projects. Reasoning that humans will not be inspired to save something they don’t love, he concludes that we must forge an emotional connection with the natural world. Though we need more science, it has also been a major contributing factor to our growing distance from the natural world.

Psychology, Nature

50) Gino Segre sees that a hyperconnected world has brought many benefits, but he worries about the numerous downsides to connectivity. Rather than making any sweeping conclusions, he examines just one area in which these downsides are clear: that of professorships and academia. At least in some ways, he argues, all that connectivity can encourage groupthink and conformity at the expense of fostering wild and creative ideas.

Technology, Connectivity

51) Joseph Ledoux claims that though humans are generally an anxious species – a toll paid for having a future-predicting brain – everyone has a different natural level of anxiety. Since anxiety isn’t going anywhere, we should be trying to find ways of using our anxiety.

Stress, Psychology

52) Michael Vassar says that in order for real innovation to occur, humans need to have more than just basic needs satisfied; they must climb higher up Maslow’s hierarchy. The danger in not realizing this is relegating all innovation to a handful of startup founders, CEOs, and the very rare thinker for whom esteem is simply not important.

Psychology

53) John Naughton is worried about the incompetent systems in which we are all embedded. These are systems which are broken, but which fixing would require expensive coordination on the part of many different people. As an example he cites the Intellectual Property regime in the U.S., an incompetent system designed for a pre-computer world. Unfortunately repairing it would require many powerful institutions – who have a vested interest in keeping things the same – to voluntarily give up their positions and work together. This probably won’t happen.

Complexity, Culture

54) Steven Strogatz thinks we we may be too connected for our own good. “Coupling” is a state in which the elements of a system are free to influence one another. With the rise of digital technology, GPS, social media, etc., humans are becoming very coupled – and coupled systems are fragile. The much-lauded ‘wisdom of the crowd’ will only work when people are independent actors. It’s possible that with our insatiable desire for more connection, we may get more than we bargained for.

Social Media, Technology

55) Bruce Schneider reminds us that the internet doesn’t just enable the powerless, it also enables the powerless as well. While individuals can sometimes organize around issues like SOPA/PIPA, generally speaking institutions like the government, the military, or massive companies such as Google, are the ones shaping the future of the internet. The ethical and political realities surrounding the internet are complex, but not enough people are taking an interest in them. This should worry us.

The internet

56) Kai Krause is worried because, instead of the EDGE question being about picking a single problem and solving it, it is instead about coming up with more stuff to worry about. He thinks our current system and methodology are broken from the bottom to the top, and what we need is to design a system in which the best ideas truly are rewarded.

Methods

57) Mario Livio points out that many physicists are worried about the future of fundamental science. It is an oft-repeated truism that scientific theories must be falsifiable; that is, they must make testable predictions which could prove them wrong. Recently ideas like the multiverse hypothesis may be putting the goal of falsifiability out of reach. Livio is not as worried as his colleagues, however, as it may be the case that the multiverse hypothesis will make enough predictions to be believed in. Alternatively, we could have been mistaken about what to expect from ‘fundamental science’ to begin with, in which a new phase of scientific thinking is beginning.
Science, Philosophy

58) Rolf Dobelli is worried about what he calls the ‘paradox of material progress’, the fact that even as technology makes many goods and services available to ever-broader swaths of humanity, some status-conferring goods — like original paintings or private audiences with the pope — will remain out of reach. Non-reproducible goods such as these will likely increase in value as demand increases, the result could be an erosion of support for capitalism and free trade.

Economics

59) Randolph Nesse thinks everyone should be concerned about how fragile the complex systems that make our lives possible really are. He notes the historical example of the powerful solar flare that knocked out the telegraph system in the mid-19th century, and wonders what would happen should this even occur today. From GPS to food distribution networks to the internet, we float atop a dazzling array of complex, efficient, fragile systems which are vulnerable to single-point failures.

Complexity

60) Gregory Benford examines the breathtaking array of possibilities afforded by an expansion into space. He believes that we should be encouraged by both the entrepreneurial successes of companies like SpaceX and also by the plans to build space hotels, more efficient rockets, and interplanetary mining operations. The possibility of missing this opportunity concerns him, however, as empires in the past have turned away from their horizons. Given how much need there is in the world, and how much opportunity awaits, we can’t afford to not push our civilization into the stars.

Space Colonization

61) Ursula Martin notes simply that extremely detailed observation is a hallmark of science, and the in/ability to do it affects and will continue to affect scientific projects, including those done by ‘citizen scientists’. Massive datasets and tools like Google are only as useful as their inputs, which means they won’t be very useful if the people creating the inputs can’t do the kind of careful observation and description required for good science.

Description and Observation

62) David Berreby is concerned about the ‘greying’, or aging, of the global population. According to current studies and projections, the global average population is rising, bringing with it a host of novel problems. Not only are most societies not ready for, say, a population where 1 in 3 people is 60, few people are discussing the problem. This massive demographic shift might also lead to a variety of political and cultural changes as well, the potential effects of which are poorly understood.

Aging

63) Bruce Parker is worried about what he calls the “Fourth Culture”, which is the massive and still-growing culture of entertainment. Fueled by the internet, this culture is not limited to music and movies, but can also include politics and religion, among other things. According to Parker, it fails to promote intelligence, critical thinking, compassion, etc. and, most troubling, is also very influential. We should be concerned that we live in a world where elected officials who make decisions for millions and billions of people often win because of their entertainment value and ability to play on emotions rather than their ability to think carefully.

Politics, Entertainment, Culture

Two Weeks of Meditation can Reduce Mind Wandering and Improve Mental Performance.

[This post first appeared on LessWrong]

There are any number of reasons why aspiring rationalists might be interested in mindfulness meditation. Cultivating an ability to observe thoughts without being swept away in them could help in noticing when you’re confused, spotting biases or motivated cognition, and, if you are skilled enough, actually changing your mind. I’ve been on a couple of retreats myself, and I value meditation because it’s a useful technique with a lot of field testing that can be studied free of the religious context it generally comes packaged in. The results have been positive — I’ve learned what a mess my mind really is and my metacognitive awareness has improved noticeably.

Recent research suggests that we can add improved cognitive functioning to the list (Mrazek et al., 2013).

There is no shortage of researchers and individuals interested in better thinking, and perhaps the most effective way of doing so is to “target a cognitive process underlying performance in a variety of contexts”. A great example of such a process is “the ability to attend to a task without distraction”, as unrelated thoughts compete with the job at hand for limited working memory. Based on this it makes sense to hypothesize that, if mindfulness training can reduce mind-wandering and distractedness, it ought to boost mental performance.

Psychologists at the University of California Santa Barbara examined this hypothesis using a test of reading comprehension and a test of working memory capacity. Forty eight subjects, all undergraduates, were given two tasks: one, a modified version of the GRE verbal section and two, a test of working memory called the operation span task. The verbal section simply had all the vocabulary questions removed, while the operation span task alternates something that must be memorized (like a letter) with something irrelevant (like an equation which must be evaluated as true or false). If compared to someone else you can hold a longer string of memorized letters in your mind while also accurately evaluating equations, then you have a better working memory.

Importantly, during these tasks a couple of different techniques were used to assess mind-wandering, including asking subjects to assess themselves after the fact and asking them semi-randomly during the task.

Then the subjects were divided into a group which attended a two-week class on nutrition and a group which attended a two-week class on mindfulness meditation. Meditation instruction was pretty straightforward:

“Each class included 10 to 20 min of mindfulness exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (e.g., sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording)…Classes focused on (a) sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, (b) distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking, (c) minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present, (d) using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation, (e) repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations, and (f) allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.

Two-weeks later, the groups were tested again and it was found that:

relative to nutrition training, which did not cause changes in performance or mind wandering, the mindfulness training led to an enhancement of performance that was mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who had been prone to mind wandering at pretesting.

I couldn’t help but wonder about how much of a positive effect could be had by someone who didn’t actually do the meditation. An interesting additional experiment to have done would’ve been explaining (b) and (c) (in the first block quote) to participants, asking them how much their minds wandered semi-randomly during a task and then after a task, and testing them again two weeks later. Is noticing the problem enough to get a partial solution, or does flexing your attention add something that you can’t get any other way?

This is good news for those of us who would like to get the most out of our brains in an age before really high-octane cognitive enhancements are available.

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