Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tasting Godhood

words: 2477

[Note: This is my take on a thing I’ve been learning from Max Harms. He’s very good at it, from my perspective. I am not.]

When I savor a wine, I am careful and slow. I attend and adjust, listening intently, as though I’m waiting for a very quiet song over an old radio that I have to tune.

What is the song? It’s never “this wine tastes good” or “this wine tastes bad”. The song was composed by someone else, and they were trying to communicate what they were thinking and feeling as they crafted it. My goals and values are not components of their song.

The song of the wine itself is carried on things like “a tingly peppery spice at the tip of my tongue”. It interacts with my own mind, of course, and when it’s filtered through my memories it might come to me as “the time when Grandpa and I were eating oatmeal raisin cookies while he smoked a pipe”. From that I can extract “oatmeal, raisins, and tobacco”, and hold those perceptions against the other sensations created by the wine, to taste the larger shape of its flavor. I sometimes do free-association while drinking wine, to pick up more subtleties like this.

There are lots of subtleties, lots of sensations going on all at once, and I have to listen closely to hear all the parts. I usually have to listen multiple times.

In early college, when I drank wine for the first time outside of Mass, my experience was very different. I was mainly concerned with whether I could tolerate the taste long enough to get drunk.

I don’t mean to say that it’s better to experience food and drink as art. Sometimes wolfing down the nutrients needed to run my body is exactly the right thing to do.

What I’m pointing at, rather, is that my brain is programmed to efficiently assess whether food is safe to eat, and whether it is calorically rich. Chefs, winemakers, and other culinary artists are doing their own thing, which is almost orthogonal to the goals (so to speak) of biological evolution. So, if I want to know what a carefully crafted food actually tastes like, then I have to do something weird with my mind. I have to be an epicure, which I would not do by default, because it’s not part of a human mind’s factory settings.

This is, of course, a metaphor for rationality in general. But I’m going to apply it a bit more precisely than that.


When I struggle to empathize with someone (which is pretty much every time I try, in my case), the main obstacle is the very same thing that originally prevented me from tasting wine.

By default, I’m only perceiving a few blunt fragments of info about how they relate to my goals and values. Are they smart? Do they signal like my in-group? Are they easy to talk to? Do they enjoy the same things as me? Can I tolerate this wine long enough to get drunk?

And I’m filtering the info so quickly that I’m not even aware it’s happening, unless I’m looking right at the process. The thing that makes it to consciousness and feels like “my perception of the person” actually contains more of my song than theirs. I’ve discarded most of their personhood.

Again, I’m not saying that this is always bad. I need to be able to make quick judgments, sometimes, about whether a person is safe or dangerous, friend or enemy, smart or dumb.

But if I want, for whatever reason, to see them for more of what they are than for what I am, I have to do a weird thing with my mind. I have to be an epicure of personhood, to see them as an artistic experience in the midst of creating itself.

I can’t always do it. It’s hard for me. But when I deliberately choose to try, and then it works, here’s how that happens.

First, I take on a mental posture I call “dreaming”. It’s the one I use for brain storming, fiction writing, and solving lateral thinking puzzles. Its central features are disinhibition and creativity. If you want to know what it feels like, name as many animals as you can in the next minute.

When I name as many animals as I can in the next minute, it starts out feeling sort of panicked, then easy and familiar, and then I feel struggle when I begin to run out of dogs, cats, and elephants. And then, often, something shifts, and things start flowing again. I name animals I haven’t thought about for a long time, like tapirs and rat snakes. I describe animals whose names I can’t remember, like those fish with the transparent heads and you can see their brains. I even begin to name things like venus fly traps, and then I go, “wait, that’s not an animal”. Everything after that shift is “dreaming”.

So I start to dream about the person in front of me, using the bits and pieces of what I know of them (and of people in general). They are a prompt, a seed for association.

I dream about what they might have done that day - taking the train to work, Kindle sitting on their lap as the train lurches and roars; meeting their spouse for lunch and receiving a kiss on the cheek; choosing the green shirt they’re wearing from among the other shirts in their closet. I dream about experiences from earlier times in their life - riding in the back seat of a car, boxes crammed in all around them, as their family moved across the country, or the last conversation they had with their best friend from high school. If I know that being a student is important to them, and that they’ve been struggling with the structure and culture of academia, I might imagine them watching the clock during a dull lecture.

Next, I shift into first person perspective while I continue dreaming about them. At first the shift is just outrospective: the arm rest of the couch is under ”my” arm, and I don’t see my own head or face as I make eye contact with “my” best friend from high school.

But then I focus in on the emotions, especially the ones related to what they want in that situation, and I feed in anything I can infer about their values, aspirations, and talents. What might it be like for this person to visit their hometown after a couple years of college, and hang out with someone they used to be close to but has gone their own way since then?

I might get something like pining, and the feeling of familiar ground being suddenly strange. That would be mixed with curiosity and caring. Maybe a little shame that my caring is more “for old time’s sake” than genuine interest in the person in front of me. I try to see the answers from a first-person emotional perspective, just like like the visuals but fleshed out with introspective sensations as well this time. It feels like filling my own body with their experiences.

Then I change the genre from “semi-biographical Earthfic” to something like “semi-biographical far-future utopion sci-fi/fantasy”. I use those emotion-and-value-laden first person experiences from their past and present, and dream about what they might become, what they might do, what it might feel like to be them, if all their current limitations were eliminated. If they could actually get what they wanted. If they lived in a world optimized for their own flourishing. If, basically, they were a god.

(I often set this a couple centuries out in a world with a slow AI takeoff, instead of a foom-type intelligence explosion. The first thing is a lot easier to imagine in concrete detail, and I’m going for richness over accuracy.)

My father is a high school biology teacher. He also raises animals, and loves nurturing things in general. When I did house chores as a kid, he’d have me cover the mesh ceilings of terrariums with ice so that as it melted, his lizards could drink the rain.

^That time the emu got cold so Dad gave it his sweater.

When I imagine his distant future, sometimes I think of a whole planet with nothing but interesting creatures for him to cultivate and love. He doesn’t spend all his time there, but he at least takes long visits.

I think of him exploring an alien forest and finding a crab that shimmers strangely. (Surprise, interest, curiosity, excitement, examination.) He takes it back to his lab - a giant greenhouse in the middle of the forest, packed with all kinds of sciency gadgets. (Adventure, planning, inquiry, caretaking, diligence.) After lots of investigation, perhaps with the help of younger naturalists he mentors, he understands what causes it to shimmer. Then he begins to manipulate pockets of his planet’s ecosystem so that other creatures can shimmer as well. (Creativity, advancement, satisfaction.)

I call this “tasting godhood”. Or, sometimes, “tasting personhood”. They are the same.

At this point in the process, it becomes hard not to see the person as an artistic process. But even so, I might move back and forth between different periods in their lives: their future as it contains their past, and their past as it contains their future. I feel for the similarities between the experiences of the future god and the experience of the present person. Dad’s experience as he makes a comfortable space for the shimmery crab in his forest greenhouse is similar to his experience when he covers the terrariums in his apartment with ice cubes. One is a human, and the other a god, but they are instances of a single person.

^Dad’s sulcata tortoise has a Tile glued to its shell, so he can be found via bluetooth when he wanders off. One day Darwin dislodged the Tile, and then went on a grand adventure. I found out when Dad made a Facebook post asking all his students and friends to keep an eye out for a seventy pound tortoise roaming the countryside. “His tracker isn't working. I've been searching for hours,” he wrote. “He is very friendly, and loves strawberries.” If it had gone on any longer, I think he’d have printed up dozens of “Have you seen this tortoise???” fliers and scattered them about the little towns near his farm. But Darwin came back, all on his own! And Dad fed him fruit to welcome him home.

The specific experiences I imagine are probably quite different from the ones the person actually has/had/will have, but the point is that I’m perceiving them in a different way. I’m looking for the particular notes in the complex bouquet of their personhood, not deciding whether I can tolerate them long enough to collaborate on a project. Not drinking the wine just to get drunk.

It’s a lot easier to empathize with a person when I’m actually paying attention to them, instead of to how they relate to my goals. This is pretty obvious, in retrospect. But unless I do the weird epicurean thing, “how they relate to my goals” just is what “perceiving another person” feels like, even when I’m deliberately focusing on them. And when I’m not deliberately focusing on them, perceiving another person tends to feel like walking past furniture.

Undoubtedly, that’s partially because I’m missing important social software that comes pre-installed for most people. Still, much of what I know about how human minds work suggests that even neurotypicals spend most of their time a lot closer to the “wine is good or bad” side of social perception than the “oatmeal cookies and grandpa’s pipe” side. At the very least, they lack control over their position on that spectrum.

But there’s another way this practice might be used even when empathy is very easy for you: Tasting godhood doesn’t have to be directed at someone else. You are a person as well.


I often look for my own godhood by this method. I go through exactly the same procedure - dreaming about specific experiences, imagining the present, imagining the past, speculating about the future - using myself as a prompt. In some ways it’s easier, because I can draw on memories rather than just imaginings.

Why would I do this, if I already know exactly what it’s like to be me? Well in fact I’m often not aware of what it’s like to be “me”, in the sense of being a complex pattern of values and experiences and decisions, distributed across time. It’s easy to focus in on the pieces of the pattern that are surfacing in the current moment, forgetting that there are many other ways I have been or might become.

And it’s easy to tell a simple story about myself that’s really just a few blunt fragments of info involving whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment. So it’s especially useful to spend some time tasting my godhood when I’m judging myself harshly, when I’m only able to see myself in terms of simple hateful judgments like “I am broken” or “I am stupid and lazy”.

I think this method is an especially good way into self-compassion at those times. When I’ve tried to find self compassion by other methods, the main sticking point has been that they work by denying or at least distracting me from accurate perceptions of weakness or whatever. Telling my shame to just shove it almost never works.

When I taste my godhood, though, I see the truth of those judgements in context. I see the way my struggles result from conflicts between what I most deeply value and the constraints of a broken world. And this happens as a side effect of seeing myself Originally, even if I’m just trying to “remember myself”, as opposed to processing shame in particular.

I don’t feel hatred toward an oak seedling for not being a hundred feet tall, especially when it’s growing in a desert. Even though it’s small and fragile. (Of course it’s small. Of course it’s fragile.) Instead, I feel love and awe, because I can see what it’s trying to become. I want to give it water so it can reach up into the sky. When I see myself Originally, I perceive myself as a god seed just beginning to sprout.

Tasting the personhood of anyone feels this way. A person is a god. Everything else is mere humanity.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Relinquishment Cultivation

word count: 2,727

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.


I consider loving-kindness meditation to be a central example of a “cultivation” exercise. If you’re one of the people it fits well and you do it regularly for a long time, it nudges your dominant cognitive patterns into a more compassionate shape. Eventually, you become a more compassionate person, overall.

Some more examples: Shikantaza, and other meditations that go straight for enlightenment, might also be cultivation meditations. If you do daily gratitude journaling, that’s probably a cultivation for gratitude (or some related capacity). Runners who train at slightly greater distances every week cultivate endurance.

Gendlin’s Focusing, by contrast, is not primarily a cultivation.

In exploring the craft of meditation design, one thing I’d like to learn is how to cultivate arbitrary virtues using nothing but my own mind. So I set out to build a meditation that cultivates epistemic relinquishment. And here it is.


It borrows the structure of loving-kindness meditation, but has nothing to do with compassion. To start, you’ll need to tailor the building blocks so they each fit you snugly and don’t chafe. Then I’ll explain how to put them together, and at the end, I’ll suggest variations.

Stuff you’ll need (I’ll discuss each of these in detail):

  • a fixation point
  • a reference experience
  • a mantra
  • a belief it would be very easy to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • a belief it would be a little hard to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • (eventually) a belief it would be very difficult to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • some circumstances that would be counter-evidence against each belief


A fixation point is an external target onto which you can rest all of your attention. The goal is to gather up as many cognitive resources as possible in preparation for the meditation. Some examples include

  • the sound of your breath
  • the visual details of a dime-sized spot on the wall
  • the feeling of your feet touching the ground

The “external” part is important. When you look at a spot on the wall, you can be sure the spot will stay put. If you instead focused on “what you’re feeling right now”, you’d have a moving target. Choose something that will stay put without any effort on your part, so you’re free to devote your whole mind to mere observation.

A note on neuroatypical attention: I expect that fixation may be a wrong move for a lot of people, especially some with ADD. If fixation sounds terribly unpleasant, you should probably skip it. Do whatever will help you engage with the rest of the meditation.

A Reference Experience

During this meditation, you’ll be moving into a mental state where it would be easy to let go of a belief that carries extreme personal significance. What would such a mental state feel like?

You might not get this right, at first, and that’s ok. But try to take a guess. You can call on memories of changing your mind, or imagined experiences from fiction or other people’s lives. Think of a time when you held or even defended a belief fiercely, but then something changed so it became possible fto update easily. That is the kind of state you’re looking for.

In my case, the relevant feeling is a kind of freedom, relaxation, and relief. It’s a letting go, a recognition that I’m not responsible for holding reality by force of will. It’s a relief to feel that all I have to do right now is learn what is true, and a reassurance that I’ll be positioned to respond with greater strength once I’ve done that.

A Mantra

For some people, words will just get in the way. If you think you’re one of those, skip this part. But if you’re not sure, give it a try.

Look for a word, phrase, or series of phrases that can be a System 1 handle for your reference experience. You can adopt someone else’s words, or you can compose your own. To me, using the right mantra feels like speaking the True Name of relinquishment.

My general method of finding mantras is this: I imagine a far-future version of myself who lives in Utopia, is vastly more wise and competent than I am right now, and who remembers exactly what it was like to be me. I imagine them coming to me in a moment where I need to make a specific mental motion, as though they’ve traveled back in time to intervene at a key point in my development. Then I imagine the words they speak to me to guide me through the motion.

When I do this for relinquishment, I get, “First know what is true. Work out what to do about it later.” Those words are my mantra.

Some Beliefs For Visualization

The meditation itself consists of a series of visualizations. For the first visualization, you’ll need a belief with no personal significance.

For example, I currently believe that the pencil I tossed in my book bag this morning is yellow. I’m pretty confident of that, but when I imagine reaching into my bag to find that it’s actually pink, it’s no big deal. I feel no hesitation about observing the pencil, no fear or shame or despair, no feeling that things I care about rest on the color of the pencil. I don’t feel betrayed by reality. I just imagine a brief moment of surprise and mild confusion, followed by a guess at why I was wrong, and then an effortless update. All it takes for me to change my belief from “yellow” to “pink” is picking up the pencil and observing its color.

For the second, you’ll need a belief with moderate personal significance, something you care a little about. You could try completing some of these sentences: * I think that , and would be a little unhappy if it turned out that _. * I think that , and it would be uncomfortable to learn that . * I think , and I hope it’s false that . * I feel mild dread at the idea that __.

A good example of this for me is, “I feel mild dread at the idea that I filed the legal documents incorrectly.” It wouldn’t be huge, just annoying because bureaucracy sucks.

You can keep going with this series, finding beliefs that are increasingly dear to you. But I recommend starting with just these two, to get the hang of the meditation itself before adding more difficult content.

Imaginary Counter-Evidence

For each belief, come up with at least one observation you would count as counter-evidence. For “the pencil is yellow”, counter-evidence could be “when I take the pencil from my bag, it looks pink”. For “I filed the legal documents correctly”, counter-evidence could be “I got a letter from the County Clerk saying I did something wrong”, or “I didn’t hear back from the Clerk when I expected to”. It doesn’t have to be decisive, as long as it would cause some part of you to feel that you should update.

For more personally significant beliefs, look for imaginary counter-evidence in the direction of hesitation or fear. Look for regions of thought-space you would prefer to avoid while holding the belief in mind. Look for the thoughts that hurt.

With filing legal documents, I looked in the directions of “something about paperwork that is already in the mail and out of my control”, “something about red ink”, and “something about judges”. Navigating by the experience of avoidance is key to this exercise.

A Word Of Caution

Bear in mind that relinquishment is not the same as updating away from a belief.

Relinquishment is the mental motion that allows you to update away from a belief that you’ve been clinging to stubbornly. A simple Bayes net can update a belief. It takes a far twistier mind, one with a strange human-like relationship to epistemics, to relinquish one. It is possible to relinquish without updating, and in fact part of the goal here is to divorce those two motions.

The virtue cultivated by this meditation is the freedom to change your map when you notice a discrepancy with the territory. But it can go the other way: If clinging and belief are still tightly bound in your mind, then relaxing your grasp may directly cause an update. That would be like changing your map when it already matches the territory.

So when you do begin to progress to more fraught visualizations, I caution against choosing beliefs that are doing a lot of practical work in your life, at least until you have the hang of the associated mental motions. There is some danger here of actually updating away from beliefs you have no reason to think are false. If you notice your betting odds changing drastically during this meditation, back up and work with an easier visualization.

With that, you now have all the parts you need to put this meditation together.


Relinquishment Cultivation

  1. Perform your fixation (breathing, or whatever). Wait until you feel clear and free of distraction.
  2. Play through your first visualization, in vivid detail if possible. In my example, this would mean closing my eyes to imagine reaching into my backpack, searching for a pencil. Then I find the pencil, take it out, and am met with counter-evidence: it seems to be a different color than I expected.
  3. Pay attention to your subtle psychological responses this whole time. First notice what it’s like to expose yourself to the possibility of counter-evidence. Then notice what it’s like to receive it. Seek your reference experience, or the opportunity to create it, in those responses. In my visualization, the pencil I’m looking at is most certainly pink. There’s an unconcerned openness between me and that fact. Learning I was wrong, I completely submitted to alignment with reality, with no wasted motion. That’s the easy freedom that I’m looking for.
  4. When you find it, focus your attention there, as you did earlier with your fixation object, drinking it in. Then, when the feeling of relinquishment is steady and precise, recite your mantra, either aloud or silently. For me: “First know what is true. Work out what to do about it later.” Repeat it a few times, if you like. Feel it in the context of the visualization. Let its meaning wash over you.
  5. When you’re ready, move on to your next visualization.
  6. At the end of your final visualization, let go of the details. Spend some time basking in the abstract experience of relinquishment. That’s the goal of this exercise: to make pure relinquishment familiar and comfortable. Rest there until you feel satisfied.


Some Variations

The version of this meditation I just described is for routine cultivation. It uses beliefs whose truth values you have no reason to doubt, just to get you familiar with holding them loosely. It’s meant to be done regularly, at the point in your routine when it’s time to meditate.

But a slight adjustment makes it good for acute relinquishment as well. It can be part of a trigger-action plan: “If I notice myself clinging to a belief, I will do a relinquishment meditation, using the belief in question for the second [or third] visualization.” If you’ve done the cultivation version many times, you can probably skip the fixation and even the other visualizations, and move straight into relinquishing the belief.

If you can identify the experiences and mental motions that most often obstruct relinquishment, you can make this meditation the second half of a reflex re-training meditation. I’ll talk about reflex re-training meditations later in this series, but I’ve probably hit on most of it already while writing about how to build cognitive trigger-action plans.

You can also adapt this for cultivation of lightness or evenness, since they’re really just different guises of the same capacity.

With lightness, for instance, I’d do variations on the theme of each visualization. I’d imagine the pencil being pink, then green, then purple. I’d imagine it being a pen instead of a pencil. I’d imagine it being absent all together. I’d imagine seeing that it’s pink, then realizing I’m in unusual lighting and it’s actually yellow after all. I’d look for the feeling of dexterity, rather than the feeling of letting go. I’d say to myself, “I follow where reality leads.”

Finally, this meditation could be used in a Crisis Of Faith.


I’d like to close by inviting you to repair this meditation.

The thesis of my first post on meditation design was that different minds benefit from different meditations, and it is worthwhile to find or even create the ones that serve you best given your circumstances.

There is a larger thesis for this whole line of thought and research: If you are interested in systematic personal growth, you should learn how to wield your own mind.

Yes, you should also learn to mine external resources. You should be intellectually gluttonous, because there’s a lot to learn from others, out in the rest of the world. “The eleventh virtue is scholarship.”

But you should also be prepared to face down important problems that have never been identified, let alone solved. One point of disagreement I seem to have with a lot of my community is that such problems are commonplace. It’s not immodest or arrogant to suspect that you’ve found one. One reason for this is that you are the only person who has ever been you, who has ever experienced the intersection of your circumstances and values. When you walk from where you are to where you want to be, you will encounter problems that nobody but you is likely to solve.

And when you do — when you find yourself in a place that lacks roadsigns, or any trail at all to follow — do not wait to be rescued. You may have followed someone else’s directions, and ended up in a place they never imagined could exist. Part of the territory is your mind, you can’t avoid walking through that region, and nobody’s been there but you.

What do you do when nothing you know is enough? When you don’t expect to find an answer outside of yourself no matter how hard you look? When your parents have failed you, your gods are dead, and your tools have shattered in your hand? This is the question that drives me, when I think about meditation.

So if you try the relinquishment cultivation I’ve outlined, it won’t work. Not exactly as I hope. It won’t take you to the same place it takes me, because I’ve never walked through your mind. Don’t wait for someone else to come along and fix it. Ask yourself, “What went wrong? Why exactly did that happen? What could I try instead?”

Out of these broken pieces I’ve offered you, please build something that is new, and whole, and yours.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Curiosities List 1

words: 827

i keep a list of “curiosities”. my curiosities list contains stuff that at some point made me go, “huh, that’s interesting. i wonder…” but then i realized it wasn’t worth interrupting what i was doing. every now and then, i go through the list and do a bunch of googling. this time i took notes.

why do goats have weird eyes? their main survival strategy is "when there are predators, run away", so they they need to see far in front of them and behind them, without being blinded by the sun overhead. the horizontal pupils give them 280 degree horizontal vision. goat eyes [even rotate]( to stay parallel to the ground when they bend to eat.

why are they called "Mormons"? the prophet who compiled scriptures from ancient America was called “Mormon”, and the book he made is called “the book of Mormon”.

what are “forty-niners”? they’re prospectors who went to California in the gold rush of 1849.

Petra? i heard in an episode of Writing Excuses that there have been two major cities in the history of ever that were founded in the middle of a desert, while it was a desert, and managed to flourish. one is Las Vagas, which managed because of the Hoover Dam. the other is Petra. so far i haven’t had any luck fact-checking that claim, but Petra is in fact very neat nonetheless. it was established in the early 300s BCE in Southern Jordan. there were two main things going for it: one, it was at the crossroads of two major trading routes. second, its citizens developed high-tech water collection methods. also, they were awesome at carving stuff into solid stone, like houses and canals and shit, and the rocks in the area are all rosy red. John William Burgon wrote a poem about the city, with an excellent last line, and it goes like this:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand, by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned; But from the rock as if by magic grown, eternal, silent, beautiful, alone! Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine, where erst Athena held her rites divine; Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane, that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain; But rose-red as if the blush of dawn, that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn; The hues of youth upon a brow of woe, which Man deemed old two thousand years ago, Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time.

why doesn’t China do team sports? this seems pretty odd to me, given that 1) China is enormous, so after sifting through all those people to find the best athletes there must be some damn good athletes, and 2) my impression of East Asian culture generally is that it’s super into something like team spirit. in short, i still have almost no idea. but here are some things various internet people have proposed that may be worth considering.

  • people in China freak out over competitive academics instead of competitive sports.
  • they’re a lot more locally focused so the athletes spend most of their sports time doing intramural stuff rather than rising through every-more-global ranks.
  • the government doesn’t have its shit together in relevant ways so the society lacks necessary infrastructure for well-organized national sports. (except they’re boss at table tennis so??? maybe it’s substantially easier to organize pairs than teams.)
  • they value grit and brains over physical strength, so when people do sports they go for the stuff that relies on loads of training and strategy. however, when i look at the competitions China tends to win in the Olympics, “solo activities” describes the list better than “brains over brawn”: table tennis, badmitton, gymnastics, diving, [weight lifting?], shooting, swimming, fencing, archery, boxing, cycling.
  • this isn’t an explanation, just a complication: their women’s teams seem to do fine in the olympics. the women are good at basketball, volleyball and soccer. bwa?
  • something something athletically gifted kids are taken from their homes and rigorously trained to mechanical excellence, and the ones who aren’t good enough are just thrown out of the system to fend for themselves with no skills but their athletic training. your survival depends on your own athletic ability, so the family-like team coordination stuff isn’t nurtured. (this doesn’t explain women’s volleyball.)
  • i don’t know. i’m still really confused. would love for some of my China-familiar friends to speculate.

Iroquois farming methods? the Iroquois cultivated their main crops by the “three sisters method”. they used raised beds with fish and eels buried for fertilizer, then they’d plant corn, squash, and beans right beside each other in the same plot. the corn stalks work as a trellises for the beans, so there’s no need for poles. the beans provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. the broad leaves of ground-creeping squash vines prevent weeds. nice design! i think i may give this a shot in my garden next year.

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.