Sunday, May 14, 2017

Meditation Design

words: 2367


There are two kinds of people: People who meditate a lot, and people who feel guilty that they don’t meditate.

(There are in fact many more kinds of people than this, but these are certainly two of the kinds of people that there are.)

The people who meditate a lot tend to do it thusly: They’ll hear some good things about meditation, go off to a mindfulness retreat or read a book on zazen, and take up a regular practice of whatever sort of meditation they learned about. Then they’ll just keep doing it, in about the same way, indefinitely.

The second type of person will start such a practice, find that it’s not working out, and then feel vaguely guilty forever because they aren’t one of the cool people who meditates.

I’ve been each of these myself, at some point or another. And from my current perspective, both relationships with meditation seem dysfunctional. Neither one resembles how I behave, or what I feel, when I Actually Try to do something (besides maybe follow instructions).

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t meditate.

What I’m saying is, maybe the forms of meditation that were designed by other people for the purpose of achieving parinirvana, or migration to the Pure Land, or communion with God, are not the best possible forms of meditation for you to be doing.

Maybe they’re not even very good, for you in particular. Even if they lower your blood pressure. Even if you sometimes feel better after you do them. Maybe the value of a meditation depends on your particular goals and cognitive style, so that it’s almost impossible for anybody besides you to find the perfect fit for your situation.

We are not broken. Meditation is.

(Well ok maybe we are broken; this just isn’t much evidence one way or another.)

But maybe, we can fix it.


I don’t have a general-purpose procedure for designing meditations (yet). But I do have a firm enough grasp on the thought-style to design meditations for myself at this point. I hope I can at least gesture at what I’m doing.

I’ll start with three foundational principles:

  • Your meditations are yours. Other people’s meditations might be good for inspiration and guidance, but you’re the only one inside your mind. You have your own problems, your own goals, your own strengths, and your own weaknesses. You should therefore have your own meditations.
  • You are allowed to have goals. Some meditations shun them, but yours doesn't have to. You are also allowed to stuff your mind full of whatever you want. You are allowed to be attached to things. Perhaps you will be best served by clinging tightly to the goal of following as many thoughts as possible in twenty minutes. Or maybe for you, that would be bad, but you mustn’t take it for granted. It is your mind, you make the rules.
  • There is no One True Meditation. The perfect rain dance cannot clear the clouds. It’s not just that different people need different dances for summoning rain; the same person might need rain one day day, and sun the next. No single cognitive dance can accomplish every goal. Equip yourself with many meditations.


Ok, enough prep. Time for the nitty gritties. Here is how I designed an orientation meditation for myself a couple weeks ago.

I started with a familiar imagined experience that indicates a problem.

Problem: I have a trapped feeling of un-directed futility, like I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing, what I might do instead, or what difference it would make.

Then, I used it to identify a goal. To find the goal, I asked myself, “How would I experience the world where my problem has been solved?” If my problem were solved,…

Goal: I’d feel a sense of perspective, clarity, and decisiveness. It would be as though I could see my life from above, like a rat armed with a satellite image of its maze. I’d understand how my present experiences and next actions relate to my large-scale strategy. I’d feel determination and equanimity.

So I wanted to design a meditation that moves me from a state of disorientation to a state of clarity. I began to brainstorm paths from the first state to the second, but then I backed up and tried brainstorming approaches to finding that path instead.

Possible Approaches

  • Go straight for a solution as though whatever plan I have after five minutes is the one I’ll use forever.
  • Imagine in concrete detail an experience of being trapped and disoriented in a tiny perspective. Imagine that ten minutes later, I’m no longer trapped and disoriented, but rather free, clear, calm, and determined. In between, I do something. What exactly do I do?
  • Ask a friend who seems to be good at finding direction and clarity what they do to be like that. Ask a friend who seems to struggle a lot with being trapped in a tiny perspective how they deal with it. Ask Facebook. Ask Google.
  • Again, imagine the experience of being trapped and disoriented. How did I end up that way? See if my list of causes suggests obvious solutions.
  • Can I remember times when I went from feeling trapped and disoriented to feeling free and clear? What happened in my mind? Can I deliberately reproduce some of that?

Then I picked my favorite approach, and took a shot at using it. I went with the second one: “Imagine being disoriented. Ten minutes later, I’m oriented. What happened?

From here, things got a bit messier. I’m not clear on how I did the rest, except that I took many components from other meditations or techniques I’ve used before.

But here is what I actually came up with in response to the prompt.

Meditation For Clarity

Step 0: Advocation. I notice that I’m in a bad spot, and that I need to take care of myself. I summon the will to do that by the same method I usually use: I recite Invictus. My new attention to self-care alerts me that I need to find clarity and direction, and should therefore move into my clarity meditation.

Step 1: Presence. I become very aware of my current context. I say exactly where I am, what I’m doing right now, and what I’m feeling. For example, “It’s May 2017. I’m at my house in Berkeley. I’m sitting on the couch scouring the internet for the perfect teapot. I feel frustrated, disoriented, and drifty. I feel like I’m wasting time, but I don’t know what to do with it instead.”

Step 2: Self Compassion. I bring attention to (the very general reason) why I’m feeling trapped and disoriented. I do this with the guidance of my past self, who has designed and stored for me a mantra. They’ve composed the words, and my only job is to sink into the large, self-compassionate perspective they point toward. It goes something like this: “I am only an egg. My mind is too small to support the me I yearn to be. I am ambitious, but limited, and can only see a little at a time.”

Step 3: Maximum Zoomout. Then I remind myself of my largest-scale goal and my largest-scale strategy. These words are also pre-scripted by a past self, and I try to sink into their meaning. “I want humanity to survive and flourish. I will mitigate global catastrophic risk by accelerating AI alignment research.”

Step 4: Transition. I begin the second half of the meditation with a question: “By what means am I moving forward?” The problem I’m addressing involves being stuck, so rather than answering by stating my local strategy as something static (”I’m supporting AI alignment research by [various means]”), I want to focus on motion. I search specifically for deliberate growth, creation, and change. “I am moving through my life toward a goal,” I think. “By what means am I gaining speed, accuracy, and precision?”

Step 5: Declaration of Motion. This part is a little different each time, since my focus changes month to month, week to week, even day to day. But by this point in the meditation, I’ve arrived at a mental space where I have enough vision to answer the question on my own.

Were I to do this right now, I would say, “I am leveraging my strengths, accommodating my weaknesses, and increasing stability. I am learning to use social support, establishing routines that promote comfort and concentration, and seeking more sustainable dynamics with the people I love.”

Step 6: Orientation. Finally, I look over my opportunities for the rest of the day. “From my current position,” I ask myself, “how can I move in the ways I’ve just described? What actions are available, and which tiny tactics advance my strategy?” I choose at least one next action, and resolve to take it.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve used the full version of this meditation about three times. The full version is most helpful when I notice that “something is wrong”, and the wrong thing turns out to be “I feel directionless and disoriented”. But an abbreviated version is part of my routine now, and I use it for daily planning either first thing in the morning or late at night.


The bits I feel confident about end there, at least for now. But just for fun, let’s dip our toes into some theory. I’ll talk a about what I think meditation is for, and when it might be a good idea to meditate. From that I’ll extract a (tentative) taxonomy of meditations, which I intend as a jumping-off point for others.

I hope you’ll concede that meditation is at least helpful for some people sometimes. But even then, going straight for meditation can be wrong. Maybe you can re-gather concentration by doing a concentration-gathering meditation; but it might be more efficient, or at least better for you in the long run, to try eating a snack first.

From my perspective, it looks like the best reason to take a few skill points in meditation is that eating a snack doesn’t always work. Sometimes there’s just no ready-made hack at my disposal that will do the trick, and for all I know the tool I need doesn’t even exist yet. At these times, meditation is a way to sit down with myself, look myself straight in the mind, and say, “Ok, self, it’s all up to us. Let’s do this.”

Meditation is for problems that can be solved just by changing what your mind is doing. It’s not so good for problems that are best solved in dialog with the environment. It would be silly to meditate on opening a jar of peanut butter, if your goal is to thereby open the jar of peanut butter. (Young me spent a lot of time trying this, in fact. Doesn’t work.)

But if your problem is that you want to re-produce an experience of heightened awareness you once had after studying for a long time, or that you spiral into a pit of shame whenever you feel jealousy, or that you want to be more honest and epistemically humble, or that you want to grok every implication of the lecture on supervised k-means you just heard, then meditation may be in order.

In other words, a few things meditation can help with are

  1. deliberately moving from one mental sate to another,
  2. re-training cognitive reflexes,
  3. cultivating capacities and dispositions,
  4. gaining awareness of your own cognitive patterns, and
  5. deeply integrating information you already have.

The orientation meditation I showed you is of the first type: deliberately moving from one mental state to another. These five classes of problem probably require distinct classes of meditation; that was just one.

For instance, mettā (or loving-kindness meditation) is type 3: cultivating capacities and dispositions. It’s often practiced like prayer, as though thinking nice thoughts about someone will make nice things happen to them; but what it actually does is cultivate compassion in the person who uses it.

I recommend finding a meditation of each type that works for you at least some of the time, whether you make it from scratch or borrow from somebody else. That way, when you run into a problem that could benefit from meditation, you’ll have a source of inspiration and guidance that resembles the meditation you need.

But I’d hate for this rough taxonomy to tie you down, just like I hope you’re no longer bound by meditations you’ve already tried. I’ll be extra happy if this post spins off better theories and systems, and not just a few new personal meditations.

P.S. A couple posts ago, I announced my Patreon. I want to mention that it seems to be working! I am now blogging almost every morning. I currently have five new posts in the works, at least two of which I expect to actually publish. I’ve also noticed more of my attention throughout the day going to technique design-, blog-, and teaching-related thoughts. Thank you so much to everybody who’s been pitching in! I think there’s a lot more room yet for additional funding, and I confidently predict that if you pitch in a little financial support per post, you will cause me to be more generative and to get more of what I make into publishable shape. If that sounds like a good deal to you, click on the Patreon button in the top right to learn more.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Creativity TAPs

word count: 755

you might like to read this if: you're into positive psychology, you're interested in ways to be more creative, you want to know what i've been up to recently

at the suggestion of 80,000 Hours, i was looking into signature strengths.

“signature strengths” are a positive psychology thing; they're supposed to be “character strengths that are most essential to who we are”. i think of them as “the virtues that matter most to me”. 80k says you should exercise at least one of your top five signature strengths every day.

i think "one strength a day" sounds inadequate. after reading and thinking about signature strengths, here’s what i feel i should be doing.

  1. install a collection of signature-strength-boosting trigger-action plans and changes to routine that (collectively) fire multiple times a day.
  2. identify and remove chronic barriers to exercising my signature strengths.
  3. deeply indulge (>1hr) in each of my top five signature strengths at least once a week.

the first one seemed shiny, so i got straight to work.

according to the VIA survey linked in the 80k article, my top signature strength is creativity (which they define as “thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things”). i looked through the VIA list of ways to use creativity, and i was… a bit disappointed. so i made my own.

here are some TAPs that i hope will help me take better advantage of my creativity.

  • if i notice the sensation of stopping at an obvious answer, i’ll think of at least one more possible answer.
  • if i have a thought that feels interesting in response to something i’ve read, i’ll write a less-than-twenty-word version of it in my notebook beside a little picture of a lightbulb.
  • if i’m doing a creative thing, it’s about time to stop, and i don’t want to stop because it’s going so well, i’ll write down the next action for next time and stop anyway. (this is about giving my future self something to sink their teeth into, not about time/attention management.)
  • if i’m about to research something, i’ll propose at least one possible answer first, or generate a possible example of the thing.
  • if i feel stuck, attached, bored, robotic, like i don’t know where to start, like i’m spinning my wheels, or like i want to map a section of concept space, i’ll consider making a brainstormy list. (this is actually seven TAPs.)
  • if i’m annoyed by a small but recurring problem, i’ll write it down. (this one’s relevance will become clear shortly.)
  • if i’m making a list of possible solutions to a problem, i’ll consider making a list of possible approaches to solving the problem instead (unless i’ve already done so).
  • if i feel like i’m running out of ideas while brainstorming, i’ll try associating with pairwise combinations of the items i’ve already generated.
  • if i feel blank, i'll impose an arbitrary constraint. ("only things that remind me of the color blue.")
  • if i find myself getting very interested in a new topic, i’ll try making a map of relevant concept space to guide my investigations.

and here are a few changes to regular routine (that is, TAPs whose triggers are temporal):

  • at regular intervals (probably once or twice a week), pick one of my small but annoying problems and spend five minutes trying to solve it.
  • at regular intervals (probably once a week), pick something i do frequently. make a map of variations on ways to do the thing.
  • engage with one of my deliberately creative projects (such as writing) for one to five minutes every morning. (this is an attempt at productive procrastination; i’m trying to give myself a chance to think about my work while i do other things.)

my next step is to identify chronic barriers to exercising creativity.

my other signature strengths are judgement, curiosity, love of learning, and appreciation of beauty and excellence. i doubt i’ll do a whole series on this, but if there’s a particular part you’re interested in, let me know, and i’ll see about turning my experience of it into a followup post.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Eleven Techniques For Emotional Awareness

word count: 1,830

you might like to read this if: you struggle to know what you’re feeling, you want to get better at knowing what you’re feeling, you’re curious about what i’ve been up to for the past year

i am bad at emotional awareness. over the past year, i’ve gotten much better. here are some things that have helped.

  1. instead of asking myself “how do i feel?”, i ask myself “what do i feel?”. when i hear “how do you feel?”, i tend to indicate some point on a linear spectrum from “good” to “bad”. it’s like, “how do you like ice cream?” “oh, i love ice cream!”. i might end up answering “pretty good”. not a lot of info.

    but when i hear “what do you feel?”, it’s more like “what ice cream do you like?”. answering it feels like strolling along beside the counter at Baskin-Robbins, sampling flavors to decide what to buy. “rocky road? orange sherbert? ooo, triple chocolate fudge, yes that.” “what do i feel” might get me an answer like “frustrated, excited, happy, anxious, and annoyed”. for most contexts where my emotions matter, that’s way more valuable than “pretty good”.

  2. i spent a week practicing “emotional inventory”. i set an alarm for every two hours between 8:00 and 10:00. on the first day, whenever it was inventory time, i wrote down at least one thing i was feeling. on the second day, i wrote down two things. after that, i wrote down at least three things each time. (it might be possible to feel fewer than three emotions, but i’ve never run into that so far.)

    it was really hard at first, and it took forever. i remember timing myself, and finding that it took fifteen minutes to report five emotions, some of which were clearly caused by the search process itself.

    but it’s gotten way easier over time. my current inventory is [sleepy, eager, happy, relieved, focused, distracted, calm, hopeful, engaged], and that took me about thirty seconds.

  3. i guess. sometimes when i ask myself “what do i feel?” the only answer i get is “i have no idea”. so i start naming emotions randomly, and checking whether i feel them. “am i happy? maybe. am i angry? no. am i tired? yes, super tired.” early on, i kept a list of emotion words in my pocket (well, on my phone) so i could just go through them and pick out the ones that felt relevant.

  4. i consider emotional quadrants. if i assume emotions can be graphed as measures of arousal and valence, then i can find the rough location of what i’m feeling by checking whether it’s more like happy, sad, excited, or scared.

    the downside of this is that it points me to a single answer, as though i’m only experiencing one emotion at a time, which i never am. but usually it helps me get my bearings by nudging introspection toward emotional identification.

  5. i look for more than one thing. if i assume that i’m only feeling one emotion at a time, i’m super confused, trying to infer a single coherent shape from a collection of apparently unrelated sensations. if i seem to be feeling multiple things, then i probably am.

  6. contrasting emotions can happen simultaneously. “sad” and “happy” are not mutually exclusive in the space of a human mind. emotions are independent, like “sweet” and “bitter”.

    this is an update, not a technique, but i’ve had to remind myself of it often. when i add sugar to my coffee, i get a drink that’s both sweet and bitter. there’s nothing weird about that, even though “sweet” and “bitter” seem kind of like opposite ends of a single spectrum. emotions are like that. i’m frequently happy and sad at the same time.

  7. i progress from easy introspection to difficult introspection. being reflectively aware of emotions is a lot harder for me than being reflectively aware of most other things. it’s easier for me to know what i’m thinking about, or what my body is doing, or what i’m hearing.

    so i have a little meditation i go through sometimes, which feels like gaining control of my mind’s eye, and then turning it inward. first, i name something i see, something i hear, and something i feel with touch: blue shoes, the sound of rain, the texture of my socks. then i name three things i feel in my body: itchy arm, chest moving as i breathe, back muscles holding me upright. then i start asking myself what my emotions are. it’s sort of a warm-up, and seems to help.

  8. i look to my body for hints. emotions are often correlated with specific bodily sensations or movements. if my throat is tight, for example, it’s strong evidence that i’m either sad or afraid. so if i do a body scan and find that my throat is tight, i know to ask myself “am i sad?” and “am i scared?”. if i find that my knee is bouncing, then i might be restless, eager, or anxious. if i find a headache and painfully tight shoulder and neck muscles, i’m probably stressed.

  9. there are also subtler things it took me longer to learn, things that somehow feel part-way between “physiological correlate” and “subjective emotional component”. i think this is what people are usually talking about when they say “what does it feel like in your body?”.

    for example, joy and excitement are so strongly associated with a kinesthetic sensation of upward motion in my torso that the perceived movement feels like part of the emotion. it’s such a close tie that learning to recognize the motion as a sensation in itself took some work. but now that i can do it, it’s sometimes easier to spot that upward-motion sensation before i’ve identified feelings of “joy” or “excitement”.

  10. i learned about writing fictional characters. one of the most common pieces of (good!) writing advice in fiction is “show, don’t tell”. in general, it’s a suggestion to move away from “abstract” and toward “concrete”. but a central instance is communicating a character’s emotions to the reader.

    i could “tell” you that John was feeling scared. or, i could show his knuckles going white as he grips the flashlight like a talisman, his breath coming in ragged gasps that the intruder can surely hear through the closet door, a ball of ice in the pit of his stomach that freezes his limbs in place, obsessive visualizations of faceless monsters playing on repeat through his mind, the disorganization of his thoughts as he struggles to form a plan of attack, or time seeming to stretch so far it might shatter.

    setting aside the details of how, when, and why to use this sort of thing in writing, it’s clearly worth storing in my writing toolbox. but how can i actually do it? how can i show the reader my character’s fear if i don’t recognize signs of fear myself?

    it helped to study depictions of emotion in other people’s fiction. it also helped to study the whole of my experience carefully when i noticed i was feeling an especially strong emotion.

    but most of all, it helped to find a wonderful book by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression.

    The Emotion Thesaurus is just a long list of emotions - “adoration”, “agitation”, and “amazement”, through “unease”, “wariness”, and “worry” - with several ways of depicting each. the longest sublist, usually taking up a whole page, is “physical signals”. on the opposite page are lists of “internal sensations”, “mental responses”, “cues of acute or long-term [emotion]”, and “cues of suppressed [emotion]”. for example,“disappointment”’s “physical signals” list has thirty-nine items, and begins with “lowering one’s head”, “lips pressing tight”, and “shoulders dropping or slumping”.

    referring to these lists as i wrote was super handy not just for writing, but for building associations between emotions and other parts of my experience. but i do think the “actually trying to write characters” part was essential. this wouldn’t have worked if i’d just read the book.

  11. i learned how to to figure out what i want. i will talk at greater length about this one in a separate post, but briefly: it is useful to suppose that for every emotion, there is a corresponding desire, and for every desire, a corresponding emotion. if i find myself wanting to sprint up a mountainside, for example, there’s a very good chance that i’m feeling restless.

    if i happen to have an easier time identifying my desires, which sometimes i do, i can use them as a map to my emotions.

  12. i made trigger-action plans. it would do little good to learn emotional awareness techniques if i never used them. although i have, at this point, developed a nearly constant, low-level awareness of my emotional state, there are still times when it’s especially important i snap my attention to what i’m feeling.

    the most obvious triggers for emotional awareness are things like “someone asks me how i feel about something”, or “i’m trying to do a CFAR exercise that requires i know how i feel”. turns out creating TAPs for these was actually necessary, since i otherwise go back to abstractly inferring the answer from a deliberate model of myself, or whatever it is that happens when i don’t actually check.

    but the most important trigger for emotional awareness is “something’s wrong”.

    this trigger is a vague sensation of “feeling bad”, “tension”, or “ickiness”. it’s the sort of thing i might experience right before my mother looks at me and says, “what’s wrong???”. it reminds me a lot of the “confusion” sensation, but it has more to do with me and my relationship to the world than with the world itself.

    “feeling bad” indicates that some concoction of unpleasant emotions is brewing. before i began learning emotional navigation, my default response to this was basically “ignore it”. which makes sense, i think. if your emotions seem unintelligible, and you wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway, then focusing on the bad feels will just make them worse.

    but over the past year, i’ve made my way out of that powerless position. i’ve learned that unpleasant emotions usually correspond to desires to change my behavior or context, and that they happen at critical intervention points. this is most of why emotional awareness is worth gaining.

awareness of my desires proved about as important as awareness of my emotions. in my next post, i plan to talk about “figuring out what i want”, and after that i’ll explain how i’ve come to use awareness of these two things to be more effective in general.

p.s. i have a Patreon now! if you like it when i share the stuff i'm learning, you can provide me with financial incentives to do more of it. to become a patron or learn more about what's up with this, go to my Creator Page, or click the Patreon button in the top right.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


1. Why I Never Go To Dinner Parties

Try to calculate 497x34 and 782+48 in your head, at the same time, as quickly as possible. While you’re at it, imagine that someone is reciting random numbers loudly right beside your ear. After twenty seconds, start calculating the square root of 73, whether you’re done with the last two problems or not.

That’s how group conversations are for me.

I mean, not really. It’s an exaggeration. But it’s the same sort of challenge I face in group conversations much of the time.

Here are my three main struggles in groups:

1: It’s sometimes hard multiple people for talk me at to filter once the sounds.

Sorry, let me break that down for you: Sometimes multiple people talk at once. It’s hard for me to filter the sounds.

I can’t filter out the sounds that aren’t relevant, so they blend together with the ones that are, and I have no idea what’s going on. If I focus really hard, often I can get something like, “it’s SOMETIMES hard MULTIPLE PEOPLE for TALK me AT to filter ONCE the sounds”, and from there I can figure things out. But it’s hard, and slow, and exhausting.

2: Sometimes people in

immediately after

and it bounces

one part of the group talk

people in another part,

around like that.

If I’m in a position where I can’t easily see everyone at once, my whole visual experience is in constant motion. That’s very disorienting for me. And I can’t just close my eyes, because lip reading helps me work out what people are saying.

3: The conversation moves quickly and it’s hard to speak and think at the same time so I can't go fast enough especially if I’m trying to track social things simultaneously which is hard by itself I never jump in right after someone stops talking because I’m still comprehending what they’ve said there's no time to have my own thoughts in response let alone put them into mouthwords so by the time I’m ready to speak someone else is already talking or maybe the conversation has moved to an entirely different topic and it's all so fast it makes it impossible to jump in and contribute.

2. How the Columbus Rationalists Solved Everything

Fortunately, it turns out there’s a solution to most of this, and it’s called “automoderation”.

In automoderated conversations, I’m able to participate. It creates discussions that are fluid, patient, and orderly, which accommodates my cognitive style.

Practitioners report that it increases efficiency for other neurotypes, too. But the difference for me in particular is astounding. When I tried it with a group who knew the system well, it made talking with about seven people as easy for me as one-on-one conversation, if not easier.

We’ve used it a little at Godric’s Hollow (my group house), and it did help - but everybody else was new to it, I couldn’t remember all the rules, and I couldn’t find a description of it online. Today I am excited, because yesterday, J posted a clear and thorough explanation of automoderation to his blog.

The rationality community in Columbus, Ohio, found itself in the position of needing a system of moderation for their discussions, in particular for a rationality dojo. A little over two years ago Max Harms along with another member of the community created a system of hand signals supporting moderation in smaller, less formal settings. This system was inspired by the Occupy movement hand signals. When all participants know the hand signals, a moderator may not even be needed. A moderator is still useful, but often does little besides clarifying the system and consequently introduces very little friction. This system of hand signals is called automoderation. It has been used successfully in groups as small as 3 to 4 people and as large as 15 to 20.

It uses a hierarchical system of five hand signals to determine who will speak when. Different signals indicate different kinds of conversational contribution: Raising your pointer finger, for example, means you want to ask a clarifying question, because you didn’t understand something the previous person said. When they’re done, it will be your turn

— unless somebody’s making a triangle with their fingers. The person making a triangle goes before you and your clarifying pointer finger. Triangle has top priority, because it indicates a meta point like “I can’t hear over the sound of the air conditioner. Can we turn it off and open a window instead?”

3. How It Works

The simple version goes like this:

  1. When someone is done speaking, call on people who are signaling a desire to speak.
  2. If two or more people are signaling, call on the one with the highest priority signal; break ties by going in a circle, clockwise from the last speaker.
  3. If someone asks a question (probing or clarifying), the person they ask should respond; flow continues from the question answerer.

J’s post spells it out in a bunch more detail, and I recommend reading through it if you want to introduce this to a group yourself. But that’s the gist.

Here’s a chart with pictures of the signals, from first priority to last, to get you started.

There’s also a version with high enough resolution to make a poster, and another with extra text describing the system. Either would look lovely, I think, in the common area of an office or group house, nudge nudge wink.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

An Empathy Technique

I recently stumbled on a technique for making empathy easier: Get the other person to talk about something that has nothing to do with me.

By default, they'll talk about stuff that involves me, or interests me, for the obvious reason. If I'm not deliberately attempting empathy, talking about something that doesn't involve me in any way will in fact bore me.

But when empathy is a primary goal, I'm a distraction to myself. If I ask them about their experience of the interview I helped them prepare for, or about principles of mind design, or about the time when we went to the Exploratorium with mutual friends, then I can't help spending a lot of precious cognitive resources on things besides empathy.

But if I get them to talk about a time when they went out to dinner with their family, there is nothing whatsoever interesting about what they have to say except what the experience felt like and meant for them.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sentiment Shaping and Tuning

Note: This post makes more sense if you read or listen to Invincible Summer first. On Becoming Poems also helps.

One of the great lessons of mnemonics is “Memorable things are also impactful.”.

You may be riding an elephant that doesn’t care much about your puny reins, but if you’re a master mnemonist, you needn’t rely on reins. Memorable thought is not stored in a card catalog; it sinks deep into your mind where its tendrils intertwine with the rest of your knowledge and experiences. If you can think memorably, you’re an elephant whisperer.

There is a correlate: “If you know how to make something memorable, then you can impact other people, as well.”

This is a principle I ran with when I designed my speech Invincible Summer. I applied a lot of different mnemonic techniques, but most of all, I applied Becoming Poems. I developed a new technique I call “sentiment shaping and tuning”, which is basically Becoming Poems for composition, rather than learning.


When I’ve talked about memorable thought in the past, I’ve mentioned that sticky things are “story-like”. “Shaping” refers to one central feature of stories: their emotional arcs.

I started with a couple of rough ideas, which I threw together into a draft. I edited the draft in the usual way until it made conceptual sense, more or less. Then the shaping began.

In terms of Becoming Poems, “shaping” corresponds to the step where you identify the structure of the edifice. The idea is to get an emotional handle on each block.

In composition, it includes the additional step of moving the blocks around. After all, a rough draft is a giant heap of bricks.

So I mashed everything together into a single block of text with no paragraph breaks, like laying the bricks out side by side. Then I read through, and inserted a line break every time I felt an emotional transition trying to happen. This left me with chunks of text organized by emotion.

Next, I labeled each chunk of text according to the main emotion(s) it wanted to express. I might have labeled this paragraph “presentation and invitation”, for example, because right now I have a feeling of showcasing a technique in a transparent way.

Then, I looked inside the chunks of text for smaller scale emotional transitions (like lines in a poem, rather than stanzas). The previous paragraph labeled “presentation and invitation” might have a more specific flow of “discernment, demonstration, illumination, explanation”.

Thus concludes the descriptive portion of shaping. So far, this is just what I would do if I were going to memorize the text.

Now for the exciting part.

I took all those labels and made a list, in the same order as the text but without any content. So it was just a list of emotions, something like


I walked through that list, simulating each emotion as I went, and attending to the overall effect of experiencing those emotions in that order.

Vonneghut famously identified eight emotional arcs for stories. A “man in hole” story is one with emotional valence that rises, falls, and then rises again at the end. A “rags to riches” story starts low and ends high.

So I thought about story arcs, and how mine might be shaped. My list looked like it wanted to be two man-in-hole arcs in a row, which a sentiment analysis of novels suggests is one of the most popular shapes. (It’s also my favorite.)

But the actual list didn’t have quite the smooth, satisfying, rise-fall-rise-fall-rise shape I imagined, so I rearranged the list items until it did. When I was done, I had two clear man-in-hole arcs, with the second bigger than the first.

Then I walked through the list again, and made a few more adjustments. Some places felt jarring - horror followed immediately by curiosity was difficult, for instance - so I inserted a new emotion that smoothed the transition: horror, grasping, curiosity.

And in some places there was a long string of similar emotions, which I knew wouldn’t work so well. So I kept the most important emotion in the string and cut the rest, or I combined them into a single, more complex emotion.

At the end, I had a list of a bit over 30 emotions, which sketched an emotional arc I was happy with.

But a list is not a speech.

So I re-arranged the original text blocks into the order of the desired emotional arc (having already conveniently labeled them by emotion). Then things got cut, combined, and added, to reflect changes I’d made to the original list.

Making sense of the concepts in the new order took some doing, but when I was done, the draft was far more fluid and satisfying than before.


0) Make a draft.
1) Label the emotions.
2) Write the emotions as a list.
3) Simulate the emotions in order.
4) Find a satisfying story shape that reminds you of the list.
5) Modify the list to match the chosen shape.
6) Make a new draft to match the list.


Next came tuning. (This corresponds to “diving” in the Becoming Poems method.) I tuned everything, but focused on the points that mattered most, so they’d each be strong enough to carry the weight of the entire speech.

Under each emotion label, I looked at the phrases. Anything that didn’t cause me to feel the emotion I was going for got cut, or (where necessary) modified.

For the remaining phrases, I took anything that tried to point at the emotion abstractly, and replaced it with an image it would be easy to “dive” into if I were memorizing the text. “Boats are exciting” might become “the wheel’s kick, and the wind’s song, and the white sails’ shaking”.

Specifically, I made things concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, story-like, and personally engaging. Here’s an example.

Desired emotions: Loss, hollowness, horror.
Original text: I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Winter after winter, I forget who I am. I lose sight of my values, passions, aspirations, for months at a time.
Tuned version: I have Seasonal Affective disorder, so for me, this season really sucks. What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

The original text invites the audience to share a certain emotional experience with me. It’s like handing someone a flute and a piece of sheet music. The tuned version, though, is like sitting right next to them and playing the flute myself. There’s no question about whether the experience will be active in their minds, so I know there’s something solid to build the rest of the speech on.

I kept doing this with each section until System 1 groked every piece, until every phrase made the elephant move.


1) Know what emotions you’re going for.
2) Cut or modify anything that’s out of tune with the desired emotions.
3) Concertize every abstraction, and otherwise push toward memorability.
4) Keep at it until your elephant groks the whisper.


I’ve gotten more intensely positive feedback for Invincible Summer than I have for anything else I’ve created so far. I think shaping and tuning was around a third of what caused that.

There are story shapes that fit snuggly in human minds. They evolved along side us, inside us. They’re part of what we are. When you hear them, you’re a hunter on the savanna at night, enthralled from across a campfire, while someone recounts a legend your tribe has told for ages.

It may be magic, but it’s not mysterious. The shapes are learnable. There are six of them, more or less.

Nonfiction is made from a tougher wood, but you can carve it all the same. You can shape and tune it like the fiction we’re built to love, if you learn the craft.

And when you whisper, minds will move.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Invincible Summer

I gave a speech at the 2016 Bay Area Secular Solstice ceremony, which I'm quite proud of and seems to have been well received. You'll probably like it if you think the world's in grave danger and are into saving it.

Here's a video of the whole Solstice. I start at 34:46, and go for about ten minutes. It cuts out for a few seconds toward the beginning, but comes back.

Content note: This is quite dark, involves depression, and mentions suicide.

And here's the (approximate) text. I do strongly recommend the video over just the text, though, because it's very much designed to be performed in bodyspace.


A stained glass palace hangs in the sky at dawn. I watch from below, circling, as wind caresses the feathers of my wings. The clouds, parting to flow around the Eastern tower, burn red-orange where they catch the sun.

This is a vision of Victory. A fantasy of how life might be, when humanity is safe, and free. A Dream.

I have dozens of Dreams: Ballets choreographed for free-fall. Base jumping without injury or death. Intellectual intimacy with friends, without the barrier of symbolic language.

But here on Ancient Earth, we’re not safe. Not yet. And I am especially unsafe in the Winter. I have seasonal affective disorder, so for me, this season can suck.

What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person, who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

I remember a time, when I was very depressed, lying on the basement floor and staring at the ceiling. As I had been, for hours. It was like my veins were full of lead.

The line between obsessive thoughts and hallucination blurs at times like these. I saw ice water. I felt it, covering my body. And concrete pressed into my back, where I lay heavy at the bottom of a well. A deep well. Above me were miles of murky water. And I was drowning.

But even through all that water, I could see to the surface, if I tried. And above the well, filtering through the icy sludge, points of light swam into focus.

Not just above the surface, but lightyears away. They were the stars. And they grew brighter as I focused on them, their hearts igniting, and burning through the darkness, with an intensity I’d forgotten was possible.

And in the fire of those distant stars, I saw visions of myself. In one star, I was a professor, teaching logic to freshmen at a university. I could feel the chalk on my hands. In another, I was learning to paint.

And in a third star, the Summer sun warmed my face, and I was laughing, freely. Like that was… just… a normal thing to do.

I’d been very close to dying on that day. Winter had almost consumed me.

But when I saw the stars, when I felt them burning in the night, despite their impossible distance, despite the expectation that I’d never lift my arms, much less climb out of that well into the sky, I realized that I. Had. To live. I had to protect the possibility that I might teach. That I might paint. That I might feel the sun, one day, and laugh.

Today, I’m much more robust against the Winter. But I also see more darkness than I ever have before.

I see the darkness of an empty future. Of the stars grown cold, having meant nothing to anyone for more than one beat of a fragile heart.

It is hard to strive on empty. It’s hard to breathe another breath, and keep on breathing, when your lungs don’t know the taste of laughter.

And I don’t know that we can win. In fact, in the vast majority of timelines, we lose.

Because humanity is fragile and heavy, full of lead at the bottom of a well that seems far too deep to climb out of in time. Nobody’s gonna reach down from the sky to save us. There is no natural law saying that things must turn out ok in the end. No rescuer hath the rescuer. No Lord hath the champion, no mother and no father, only nothingness above. Nihil supernum.

And when I feel the depth of that darkness, smothered by despair at the challenge we face, sometimes it is tempting not to look so far ahead. To look at my feet, at just the next few years. To let myself drown.

Nihil supernum. Nothing above.

But with nothing above us, with nothing but ourselves holding us down, how high might we reach, if we manage stand at all? With what might we fill all that potential? Nihil supernum, absque capacitas crescendi - nothing above, except room to grow.

Dreams are not predictions. They’re by nature inaccurate and fanciful. But they are symbols of what we strive for. And we need them. We need to share them, to ignite each other. To forge the future in the furnace of our shared visions of Victory. We need, in the depths of Winter, to find within ourselves an invincible Summer.

However cold the night, however sharp the bitter winds of Winter, I will fight, forever, as long as I know the taste of Victory.

So I pluck the stars from my sky, the ones that burn brightest for me, that show me what might be, and why we have to live. I tuck them into the pockets of my soul, where I keep the precious things I’ll fight to protect, so that whenever I decide whether to drown or to blaze, in all the little choices made on ordinary days that lead toward or away from Victory, I find myself already on fire.

This is the fire that I share with you: A stained glass palace in the sunrise. The wind caressing my wings.