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.  


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 :)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Being Foreign and Being Sane

[cross-posted at LessWrong.  This post was written for a particular audience, so it may be difficult to parse for those who are not familiar with LessWrong.  But it's accessible to anyone who follows the links.]

I’ve been reading Less Wrong for a while now, and have recently been casting about for suitable topics to write on. I’ve decided to break the ice now with an essay on what living and working abroad in Korea has taught me which carries over into studying rationality. While more personal than technical, this inaugural post contains generalizable lessons that I think will be of interest to anyone trying to improve their thinking.

You may be skeptical, so let me briefly make my case that traveling offers something to the aspiring rationalist. Many have written about the benefits of traveling, but for our purposes here is what matters:

Being abroad can make certain important concepts in rationality a part of you in ways studying can’t match.

It’s easy to read — and to really believe — that the map is not the territory, say, without it changing how you actually act. Information often gathers dust on the shelves in your frontal lobe without ever making it into the largely unconscious bits of your brain where so much of your deciding takes place.

With this in mind travel can be seen as part of the class of efforts to learn rationality without directly studying the science, instead doing something like playing Go or poker, for example. I don’t know for sure, but such efforts could hold the promise of teaching us to incorporate insights into emotional attachment, statistical probabilities, strategy, maximizing utility, and the like — things we’ve known for a long time — into our instincts, deep down where they can actually change how we behave.

I say all this because what living in a foreign country has given me is not so much a software update which has remade me into a paragon of rationality, but rather a hearty appreciation for certain facts which might make my thought-improvement efforts more fruitful. No doubt many of you have already long-ago internalized all of this, and for you I won’t be saying anything very profound.

Nevertheless, here is what I’ve learned:

1) You are vastly more complicated than you think you are.

The proposal for the Dartmouth conference of 1956, considered by some to be the birth of the field of AI research, had this to say:

An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.

Not to deny that considerable progress has been made in the past half century, but I think we can all agree that this thinking was just a tad bit optimistic.

I’m not an expert on AI research history, but it seems reasonable to assume that these proto-AI researchers perhaps didn’t appreciate how complex humans are. You look at a triangle and you see a triangle; you reach for a coffee cup and grasp it; you start speaking a sentence and finish it with only the occasional pause. What could be simpler? We all forget our car keys sometimes, and some of us know a little bit about bizarre neurological problems like aphasia, but still. In general we function so well that it never occurs to us that the things we do might actually be difficult to implement.

The problem runs deeper than this, though, because there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of techniques for elucidating this complexity from the inside. If there were, neuroscience might’ve been discovered a millennium ago in East Asia by Buddhist adepts. But instead our efforts at aiming the introspective flashlights on the machinery of our minds are thwarted by their presence totally outside our conscious awareness.

Well, if you ever feel like you’re not fully appreciating the intricacies of your wetware, sit in a coffee shop or bus stop in a foreign country while eavesdropping on people whose effortless bantering could not be more inscrutable, and you’ll have it impressed upon you. Alternatively, try to explain to someone with little-to-no English knowledge what something like “simple” or “almost all of” means. Even without a bit of neuroscience training you’ll start to get a grasp on the vastness of the gears and levers that make every utterance possible.

This insight, at least for me, seems to creep into the rest of your thinking life, though in my case it’s hard to tell because I’ve always pondered things like this. It isn’t a far leap from here to see the potential value of research into topics like Friendly AI. If human language and vision are complicated, what are the chances that human value systems are simple? If you didn’t manage to notice your retinal blind spot or the mechanisms by which you conjugate verbs in your native tongue, what are the chances that you aren’t at least a little mistaken about your true goals and desires and how best to achieve them? Exactly. So maybe it’s time to start reading those sequences, eh?

2) Don’t be bewitched by words

Obviously if you go to a country where English or a different language you’re already fluent in is spoken, this won’t apply as much. But my experience has shown me that living in and learning a foreign language bestows several valuable insights on those intrepid enough to stick with it. Simply put, a sufficiently reflective and intelligent person could independently figure out about half of the sequence A Human’s Guide to Words just by being in a foreign country and thinking about the experience.

First you’d have to go through the shocking revelation that so much of what you say is a fairly arbitrary set of language conventions, and then you’d begin to relearn how to communicate. You’d come to realize that words are mental paintbrush handles with which you guide the attention of other humans to certain clusters in thingspace, and that they are often disgusied queries with hidden connotations. This will be triply reinforced by the fact that you’d often have to resort to empiricism to get your point across – accompanying the word ‘red’ or ‘chair’ by actually point to red things or chairs. If you’re spending time with natives the inverse will happen, and they will have to point to the parts of the world that words represent to communicate. You’ll have a head start in replacing the symbol with the substance because you’ll be playing taboo with nearly every word you know. Since you’ll be doing this with low-level language, it’ll require elbow grease to port this into your native tongue when discussing topics like free will. But if you can avoid slipping into cached thoughts, the training you received when you were a foreigner will likely prove useful.

Beyond this, however, is the tantalizing possibility that we may be more rational when we think in a foreign language, perhaps because it increases reliance on the slow, analytic System 2 at the expense of the rapid-fire, emotional System 1. Psychologists from the University of Chicago tested this idea using English speakers proficient in Japanese, Korean speakers proficient in English, and English speakers proficient in French (Keysar, hayakawa, & An, 2011). In the first few experiments participants were randomly sorted into two groups, one of which was given a test in their native language and one of which was given a test in the foreign language. These tests were designed to elicit a well-known tendency for humans to differ in their risk preference depending on how the situation is framed.

Here’s how it works: imagine that you turn on the news today to find out that an exotic new disease is ravaging Asia, with an expected final death toll of 600,000. The governments of the world decided that the best solution would be to design two separate drugs, and then to randomly select one reader of Less Wrong to decide between the two. Your number came up, and now you have a choice to make.

Drug A is guaranteed to save 200,000 people. Drug B has a 33% chance of saving everyone and a 66% chance of saving no one.

This is called the gain-framing, because what’s emphasized is how many lives you’ll save, or gain. When framed this way, people often prefer to administer Drug A. But studies find that if the same problem is loss-framed – that is, with drug A it is guaranteed that 400,000 people die while with Drug B there is a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% that everyone will – far fewer people prefer Drug A, even though the results of using the drugs are identical.

Besides being sorted by foreign language participants were also randomly sorted by whether or not they got the gain or loss framing. Participants tested in their native language showed the predicted bias, but when tested in the foreign language, about an equal number of people preferred Drug A and Drug B.

An additional study found the same effect of foreign language on reasoning, but using a different bias. People tend to be loss averse, preferring to avoid a loss more than they prefer to gain an identical (or slightly better) amount. This means that people will often turn down an even bet which holds the possibility of gaining $12 and the possibility of losing $10, even though this bet has positive expected value. As with the other studies, Korean speakers proficient in English more often showed this tendency when reasoning in their native language than when reasoning in a foreign one, especially for larger bets.

There are a million reasons to learn a foreign language, but it’d be a very costly way to improve rationality. With that said, for anyone willing to invest the time and effort, better thinking could be the outcome. But even if you don’t go to the trouble, simply trying to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language as you will teach you a lot about how cognition and communication work.

3) The Zen of the Unfamiliar

Living in another culture can make you aware of so many things that you previously failed to notice at all. I remember not long after I got to Korea, I was in my kitchen and noticed that my sink was different from any of the ones I’d seen back in the States. It was a single open pit sunk into the counter, with a strange spinning mechanism where the drain usually is. After investigating for a while, I realized two things: one, the spinning mechanism was actually a multi-part contraption meant to catch food before it went down the drain (no idea why it could spin) and two, I’d just spend 100 times longer thinking about sinks than I had in the rest of my life combined.

To successfully live in a foreign country you’ll have to master the art of noticing things fairly quickly. You’ll start to watch how people dress, how they talk, how close they stand to each other, the relative frequency of eye contact, how they chew their food, what order people get served drinks. You’ll learn to read the environment to learn where to stand in line, where to catch the bus, where and how to buy things, which door is the exit and which one the entrance, whether or not certain places are likely to be safe, etc.

You’ll accomplish most of this by gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, using induction and deduction, and updating on new evidence. The things you’ve been reading about on Less Wrong will be put to use in finding food and shelter, the tools of rationality will be your compass in a world where you can’t read what’s written on signs or buildings and most people can’t understand your questions. So there’s a box on your wall with three buttons, two dials, a bunch of lights, and you’re pretty sure it can make hot water come out of the shower? Not a word of English anywhere on it, you say? Well then you’ll have to change one variable at a time and take note of the results, like any good scientist would.

Being immersed in a set of shared cultural and linguistic norms that you don’t understand makes almost every aspect of your life an experiment. It’s exhausting, and one of the most informative experiences I’ve ever had. On an emotional level, it will teach you to be more at ease with partial understanding, frustration, and confusion. With your comfort zone an ocean away, you’ll either persevere and think on your feet, or you’ll end up sleeping in the rain.


Like with learning a foreign language, there are many reasons to travel abroad and experience another culture. And of course, a plane ticket alone is not enough to make you a better thinker. But if you know what to look for and are actively seeking to grow from the experience, I can attest that being foreign for a little while is one way to become a bit more sane.

Getting Organized

The Devil in the Details

As an English teacher living abroad, my professional and personal life are positively drowning in details.  In a given week I teach something like 150 kids, ranging in age from about 6 to about 16.  These children are arranged in classes of 8 to 10 by ability, not age, though we do make a distinction between elementary and middle school students.

For each class there are a variety of different materials, and there are several different types of classes with versions that are different at the elementary and middle school level. In a given month I must do one-on-one assessments, grade essays and class participation, remember when and what tests to give, plan activities, and make adjustments to the curriculum.

Oh, and when there are holidays or special tests, one group of students gets out of sync with the others and my schedule for just that one class is off by a day.  This happens irregularly and over time the discrepancies pile up, so there may be as many as three or four classes that are one or more days off schedule, each.  What this means is that, whereas before I could think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10″, now I must think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10.  Except the first and second classes, they’re on units 8 and 9, respectively, so they get those tests.  Also I’ve got to remember to double up on homework so we can get back on track”.

Don’t forget that there are always students dropping out of the system and new ones coming in (my school is a private academy, not a public school, so kids come and go pretty regularly).

Finally, lurking far beneath it all is the slippery, malevolent software I’m forced to use, crashing at random and throwing errors which read like black-magic incantations, and a vast, tangled maze of record keeping that creeps as silently as thorn bushes growing over the fast-disappearing walls of my sanity.

It’s a looooooooooot to keep track of, and things were slipping through the cracks.  Sometimes it was a really inconsequential detail, sometimes it was more serious, but it’s unlikely in any case that as I get older the consequences of my mistakes will get less problematic.

So I Got Organized, and this is what I learned.  What I’ve recounted here is all fairly abstract, and is meant to be more of a framework for thinking about your own organization efforts.  If you want specific step-by-step instructions, check out Zen Habits, Cal Newport, or the Get Things Done system.

It’s All About Complexity

1) The basic insight is that being organized is about dealing with the complexity of your job.  Your need for organization scales as a function of how many more details there are than you can hold in your mind.  The rest flows from this one idea.

2) You have to make things as easy as possible on future versions of yourself. There is an information-asymmetry between your now-self and your future-self; while your future-self will know many things you don’t, there are details you have right in front of you now which your future-self will probably have lost sight of.

For example, when I go into a classroom it’s filled with children who are laughing, talking, fighting, and otherwise raising hell.  Just calming them down enough to start class requires all my working memory and multi-tasking skills, which leaves nothing for remembering what papers I need to get from them or special things I need to tell them.  So I make a to-do list (discussed more below) with anything on it that must be remembered.  When I sit down to calmly think through my day before classes begin, I’m not surrounded by screaming children, but I will be later.  I do my future-self a favor by clearly writing out everything he’ll need to do so he can focus on the kids.   During class I do my even-more-future-self a favor by taking notes on class problems, flow, results of things I tried, etc., so that he can look back on what I’ve written in a few weeks and draw insights from it, long after he’s forgotten the details.

3) As much as possible, try to carve tasks at their joints, or at natural stopping points.  Sometimes you have no choice but to stop right in the middle of something, but you can minimize mistakes by taking your daily workload, figuring out the smallest units it can be broken into, and knocking them out one by one.

This is not as trivial as it sounds.  Most of the mistakes I was making were a result of very small, very preventable omissions or filing errors.  For example, I might come in and see a huge stack of papers I need to grade.  Before returning the papers to the students I must both grade and enter the scores.  You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to input the scores, especially if I stop to check Facebook after grading.  This is bad because it pisses off the parents and it’s nigh-impossible to get something back from a student once it’s disappeared into the abyss of their backpacks.

I’ve eliminated this class of errors by establishing two habits: one, I carve the task at it’s joints, always grading and inputting scores for a class before moving on, and two, every so often I take ten minutes to review the scores I’ve input for all my classes to check for gaps.

3) A little bit of redundancy is necessary and desirable.  This is especially true if you’re in a job where no one is double checking you on the details (I figure most jobs are this way).  Keeping two different sets of records, particularly for things you do infrequently, will let you cross-check yourself and prevent you from getting too far off track.

An example of good redundancy is carefully recording the dates.  For each class I have a homework sheet with a grid on it that has a list of sudents’ names.  When I have a class, the date goes in three places: on the homework sheet, on the syllabus for the class, and on my to-do list.  This may seem like overkill, but it means that I can figure out in seconds what I taught on a given day, which students were absent, which ones did their homework, and what I should’ve received from them.  This has proven enormously useful when new students have joined our school, or kids have been absent for a few weeks and needed to catch up, or when something is missing and I’ve got to track it down, etc.  In addition, if I mistakenly write down the wrong date or put a score in the wrong column or something, I can use the redundant information to notice and correct the error.

To put it another way: you’re going to regret not writing something down ten times as often as you’ll regret writing it down.

4) Line-of-sight and spatial arrangement matter.  If I’ve got a lot on my plate, the things I can’t see might as well not exist.

In “The Intelligent Use of Space“, David Kirsh argues that space is a resource like time or memory which can be used with varying degrees of effectiveness.  He provides an example of good use of space through the seemingly-mundane activity of preparing a salad.  One subject carefully laid all the vegetables she’d sliced into neat little rows.  That may not seem clever, but by arraying her workspace in this fashion she could quickly assess how much of each type of vegetables she had, allowing her to add vegetables as needed and ensuring she didn’t run out of anything.  This would not be the case if she’d piled everything into a heap.  (Read the paper for a lot more discussion, it’s actually a pretty interesting topic.)

Structuring the environment allows you to offload some of what you would be doing in your head into the environment, lightening your load a bit and making mistakes less probable.  By sorting my papers into ‘graded’ and ‘not graded’, I can tell at a glance where I’m at in my day; by grouping papers from each class and each level together over time,  I can tell at a glance where I’m at in the semester (and I can find anything I need to).

You know how I guarantee the trash gets taken out?  I put that shit right by the door.  I don’t have to remember because, in some sense, the memory is stored in my environment. As long as my eyes are working the job will get done, no matter how absent-minded I may be on a given day.  The same applies for files, books, tools, or anything else I’m going to need often.  And this applies in reverse: don’t leave a browser with Reddit open because it’ll catch your eye and distract you.

5) To-do lists are powerful, and you should make use of them.  I didn’t appreciate this when I was in high school and the first half of college, but in a world where dozens of things compete for my attention, having a single place where I keep track of the most essential activities is a huge boost to productivity.  The effect is even greater when it becomes an ingrained habit.  At least in my case, I find it easier to focus on tasks, because when I have an idea or think of something I have to do, I just jot it down and return to work.  I no longer fret about whether or not I will remember to do it later.  Further, seeing the list and seeing one item after another being crossed off of it creates a productivity inertia which virtually ensures that I’ll get more work done.  And I can quickly re-prioritize tasks, say, choosing to knock out a couple of emails before I take a break for dinner because I know it’ll only take ten minutes.

There is a small downside: these days I find it difficult to remember to do something if I haven’t put it on a to-do list.  But given how cheap paper is and how everyone’s smartphones has a to-do list feature, this is a pretty small price to pay for having a clear plan of attack when approaching my daily workload.

From Here to Organized

It’s no doubt obvious how points 2) – 5) are really just elaborations on point 1).  Your need for organization is going to vary directly as a function of how much your job’s complexity swamps your ability to deal with it.

Once I realized this, and had gotten sufficiently frustrated with myself for making silly mistakes, actually getting organized wasn’t that hard.  The only two steps were figuring out what tools I needed to impose some order and being consistent enough to stick with it.  For my job I needed a general-purpose notebook where I keep my to-do lists and notes, and a bunch of files.  Over time I’ve made small adjustments here and there, and I’ve also gotten a good bit more organized at home (though I’ve been applying this information more haphazardly).

While I’m sure there’s volumes more that could be said about organization, this framework has helped me see the purpose of getting organized and how to do it.  As time goes on I’m only finding more reasons and more ways to not let the details get the better of me.

Excellence, Warped Incentives, and Mutually Assured Destruction: Edge 2013 Questions, III

33) Michael Norton worries that the spread of science news through social media will have two adverse effects.  The first is that much of what gets passed around in social media is not the highest-quality science being done.  The second is that the source of research gets incorporated by people into their judgement of its quality.  If you were watching Fox News, would you be more likely to trust the reporting on a study that was anti-gun or one that was pro-gun?  Probably the former, as it runs counter to the bias people associate with that media outlet.

Science, Culture, Social Media

34) Jessica Tracy looks at the high-profile deception cases of Jonah Lehrer, Lance Armstrong, and Dietrich Stapel to examine a deeper problem which is fundamental to human nature — that of hubristic pride.  Hubristic pride is different from triumph because it is not earned and instead acts as a cover for other emotional issues.  She thinks the solution might lie in developing technology that is better able to catch liars and in more rigorously fact-checking stories — especially feel good success stories — which seem too good to be true.  They just might be.

Culture, Psychology

35) Haim Harari lays out seven areas in which mismatches between science and democracy give us enormous cause for worry.  These include the fact that technology is shortening attention spans while problems are spanning longer time periods, that skills which make one electable are not skills which make one an effective leader, that many senior decision makers have not the slightest understanding of current technology, and so on.

Science, Politics

36) Bruce Sterling thinks that one thing we should not be worried about is the Singularity.  Many are familiar with those who predict a coming age of self-improving machines which rapidly catapult into superhuman stratospheres of intelligence, greatly exceeding our ability to predict and control them.  Sterling is not concerned, however, as there are no major signs that we’re any closer to self aware machines or nonbiological minds than we were in the ‘60’s.

Singularity, Technology

37) Vernor Vinge is worried about good old-fashioned Mutually Assured Destruction, which he thinks is distinguished by the fact that it is relatively likely in the next few decades and capable of destroying civilization.  To be as prepared as possible, we should plan carefully around the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction and study the early dynamics of the 20th centuries most destructive conflicts.  There are parallels to our current situation, he contends, in the tangle of alliances for example, and by better understanding what leads to global conflict we can try to avoid it.

Destruction, politics

38) Frank Wilczek is worried that many opportunities are not being seized upon, and cautions us to protect ourselves from the distractions of never-ending geopolitical conflicts and fundamentalism in its various guises.


39) Sam Harris begins by describing the perverse set of incentives which face a hypothetical young man who has just been sentenced to serve time in prison.  He believes that misaligned incentives underlie many of the failures of businessmen, politicians, and humans generally.  One titanic challenge for this and future generations is building cultural norms, institutions, and laws which are saner and better than we are.

Culture, Policy, Economics

40) Lee Smolin is worried that many of his fellow physicists trying to solve open cosmological problems within the framework of quantum mechanics are barking up the wrong tree.  While quantum physics remains our most powerful explanatory theory, there are aspects of it which Smolin finds deeply dissatisfying.  He believes that making the next leap forward in our knowledge will require building a quantum physics which accounts for space and time.

Quantum Physics

41) P. Murali Doraiswamy notes that the American model of diagnosing and treating mental illness is being exported far and wide, and that this might not be a good thing.  A variety of studies have illustrated the immense difficulty in correctly identifying psychiatric disorders, and many are aware of how pill-happy America has become.  Given how different mental illness is in its manifestation, identification, and treatment across cultures, we should be worried about the global trend of using American (but still highly subjective) criteria and pharmaceuticals to treat illness.

Mental health, Psychology, Culture

42) Marco Iacaboni sees a real problem in how science publishing happens.  For the most part, the only studies that get published are the ones that show unexpected results.  What is not published as often are studies replicating other studies, or studies which fail to find any effect at all.  This makes the scientific literature a difficult basis upon which to draw conclusions, which is a big problem for those involved in the day-to-day of research science.


43) Andrew Lih applauds the social-media fueled rise of the digital public square, in which billions of people have conversations with each and share content on a massive scale.  For a variety of legal and technical reasons, however, many people, both creators of content and those interested in studying it, are simply unable to access the treasure trove of information being generated.  The fact that such a potential goldmine will remain a sprawling wilderness for the foreseeable future should worry us.

Social Media, the internet

44) Erik R. Weinstein thinks too much has been made out of the pursuit of excellence, and that what has been lost in the process is a place for the sort of free-wheeling unmanageable genius which has lead to many of our biggest breakthroughs.

Excellence, Psychology

45) Richard Foreman believes that the act of picking problems to worry about is problematic because it focuses human thinking too much.  If we defocus for a moment then perhaps our minds will be able to generate a solution.

Art, Culture

46) Arianna Huffington is afraid that people are suffering from too much stress.  She makes the case that stress is a major contributor to long-term health problems and is expensive to boot.  Luckily, the cheapest solutions treat the causes of stress rather than its effects.  Practices like meditation and yoga, along with good sleeping habits, can go a long way in treating stress.


47) Xeni Jardin finds the fact that more progress hasn’t been made in the war on cancer distressing, particularly because a lot of attention and effort has been devoted to the problem.

Cancer, Health

48) Christine Finn believes that enhances in technology might cause us to lose touch – literally.  In a world filled with touch-screen smartphones, there is less and less for the hand to do.  But she notes that there are many activities, like cooking, which are still widely done by hand and which provide tactile stimulation.