Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Magic of “Hugo” (the film)

August 20, 2012 Leave a comment

This post is another flashback from my writing archive. I wrote this on the very last day of 2011. It has been edited (as most of my earlier writing must be).

My siblings bicker and complain in the background, my father finds a couple of things to worry about. The monkey mind is at work around me–but as for me, I want to preserve something beautiful in my head, an image to hold fast to. What I want to hold onto is Hugo.

Hugo is a masterpiece—it is what cinema should be.

As if to remind us that film too often falls short of its early promise, the story (which is based on the real-life story of Hugo Cabret) is partly about the history of early film. But that’s where the meta ends: there’s none of that unnecessary, try-too-hard self-referential crap found in mediocre fare like The Muppets, which I had the misfortune of viewing a few days ago.

The diction–or rather, elocution–of the dialogue was executed dramatically. That may seem an odd adverb—by dramatic I mean it was lively, full, vigorous, emphatic. And I wish people actually talked like that. Dialogue in most modern movies seems to be more everyday. Flat, boring, smaller than life, rather than larger. But the great director of this film, Scorsese, apparently does not feel bound by ephemeral artistic fashions, instead returning to drama in its best sense.

He is similarly unabashed using colors. Lyrical colors, if that makes any sense. It’s so beautiful. Everything about the film is. Its perfect; it’s not afraid to be emotional, but–again–isn’t self-consciously dramatic. It’s surprising. It’s not predictable, and it’s not stupid. I don’t think to myself the protagonist is an idiot—I would do obviously X, or Y doesn’t make sense. In this film, there were little stories interweaved into the main story driving the film, like passengers hitching a ride on the rustic engine that plays a significant part. I think they were done masterfully.

But even with these few specific feelings, it’s hard to account for the sum of its impact: it seems that there is more, I just can’t pinpoint what it is that makes it great. Greatness is hard to define, but there’s something to define, even if there is a large and arbitrary social-proof element. And Mr. Scorsese’s magical film about a boy, an automaton, a girl, a man who has forgotten himself, and the enchantment of the first moving pictures, has it.

Part of it is surely Asa Butterfield, who is so expressive. Part of it may be that the two child stars played characters who are like miniature, innocent adults, made picture-perfect and polished. Hugo, the titular character, is someone precious–I found myself thinking and feeling that a person like that (the fictional character) is precious and cannot just disappear. If there are people like that, they should not die. That would be tragic. Alive people need to be alive.

See Hugo.

Also, two months after I saw this movie and wrote my heartfelt review, it won five Oscars. I think we both know why it won those Oscars. You can’t miss this blog: subscribe now. There’s an RSS button at the top and right.

Categories: Uncategorized

Sep2Dec: Mission Statement

August 20, 2012 Leave a comment

My Mission:

To Learn Everything (A) Useful and (B) Good

Why bother with a mission statement? If a mission statement can exclude, then it’s valuable. If it can define, then it’s valuable. If it can guide…  well, that’s really what a mission statement is all about, right? It’s about standing for something, something strong enough to silence the background noise of life.

So here’s mine:


to learn TWO kinds of things:

1. marketable, useful skills and knowledge, and

2. proven strategies and skills for self-improvement that are

both actionable and deeply rooted in theory.

Note that learning a skill implies doing that skill.

This should be more than sufficient until the end of 2012.

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God never existed. Now where do we turn?

August 19, 2012 2 comments

So, there is no God. Nor demons of any sort. Now what do we do?

First let’s look at we know isn’t the case. We do not exist because God created us out of whole cloth. He is not why there is Light, nor “firmament”. Marriage does not exist because God made it so, and neither is the allocation of power in society God-designed. Finally, if we have something approximating “free will”, it’s not because of Him. These facts are a mere sampling, of course.

Perhaps religion does not matter even to most believers. After all, very few people wear WWJD wristbands. People care about love, and money, and happiness; they would rather play laser tag than devote every minute to missionary work and prayer, which they would do if they truly believed in the infiniteness of God (see here an argument why).

It’s important, especially to the newly de-converted, to note this: it’s not that we killed God, He was never there in the first place. If something that seems magical turns out not to be real, it it takes mental effort to remind oneself that it wasn’t killed off–even though it might feel like something has died (see this comic)–because the idea was only ever just an idea. That’s why it may feel, to those who lose their “faith”, like a hundred beautiful stories have been blasted into oblivion and that, to give a twist on a common phrase, what has been unseen cannot be seen again.

On closer inspection, none of these stories should have ever made sense. The distinctions between light and dark, animals and plants, man and woman–none of these distinctions are black-and-white, but they are presented as such in the stories of Genesis. Not only do the these explanations have all the subtlety of a five-year-old’s view of the world, they’re not even explanations, they’re non-explanatory. God created it, STOP. That’s the explanation, STOP. It doesn’t apply just to origin stories: anytime “God” is called upon as an explanation for something, what you’re seeing is a semantic stop sign, the social signal for you to “stop that thinking right there, young man!”

As Jason Cooperrider put it in the inaugural issue of Think!Utah (the Utah Coalition of Reason newsletter), “God is useless when trying to tell a story about how the universe came into being and what it is”. In fact, without science, some questions would never even have been posed–questions that illustrate the inadequacy of religion in modern life. It is not obvious that some questions even exist to be asked. Who knew that life is so complicated, made of so many parts; that 90% of the cells in your body are bacterial cells and that countless organisms call your body home? Who knew that you’re made of mostly “empty space”, or perhaps more accurately forces of physics that are alien to our intuitive understanding of matter? Who knew that you can perceive something, or remember something, and conduct objective tests that show your perception (or memory) is wrong and can’t be trusted?

But now that we know the simple stories are false, where do we turn? (And now that we know the world is complex and fascinating, what do we do?)

The answer is, naturally, pursue science and rationality. In general, that could work, but some sciences are better than others, e.g. evolution. And some treatments are better than others: We need stories, science popularization in the style of Carl Sagan, because stories give meaning and can fill the same place in one’s mind as religious ones. Science (and even rationality) is not good enough, of course: We also need humanist values, strong, positive humanist voices to articulate the superior moral alternative.

This is a question meriting much consideration, but unfortunately I am out of time for today (and alas, I must publish every day).

What science (and/or treatment) do you think could both serve as an effective anecdote to religion as well as a partial substitute? Do you think the focus ought to be more on critical thinking / rationality? And do you know of an especially good articulation of humanist values? Leave a comment.

Categories: Uncategorized

21 Things I’ve learned on Crack(

August 18, 2012 Leave a comment
I have wondered if is called Cracked because, like crack, it’s addictive. (Note: I can only personally confirm Their website receives a billion hits a year (thanks, Wikipedia!). Part of what’s so addictive is that you frequently learn something mind-blowing. The humor just acts like grease to keep the wheels of addiction turning.
Here are just a few things I’ve discovered via their articles, with links….


6 shockingly affordable sci-fi inventions

  • a 3D printer (or “matter replicator” of sci-fi) – see for things that have already been made with 3D printers
  • zero-g flight (on NASA’s “vomit comet”, for just $5000, albeit just 30 seconds as zero-g – note, at least one couple has been married in zero-g)
  • a universal translator (used by the US Army for engagements in the Middle East since 2001–for 11 years!–commercially available 2009)
  • augmented reality glasses – quite apart from the Google Glasses/Goggles ( can see street directions, info on attractions, emails, take pictures)

6 insane conspiracy theories (that actually happened)

Big auto killed electric public transportation. More: around 1920 (in the USA), electric trains and trollies could be found in towns across America, and accounted for 90% of trips taken in vehicles. Cars were too expensive, you didn’t have to learn to drive this way or pay for gas. Here’s where the fun starts: GM and a bunch of other car and oil companies teamed up, formed ‘fake rail companies’ as fronts, and bought the railways from all the small companies that owned them, replacing 900 of 1200 public railway systems by the mid 1950s. GM was fined eventually but the fine was nothing to the profits made due to this.

Article Unknown

Free spirit spheres – in Vancouver, CA, you can stay in a sleeping-unit (what else to call it?) that hangs from the trees. Also, it’s a sphere. And wooden. I’m going to stay there someday. You can see pics at

The 6 most terrifying public restrooms in the world

sketch – sketch is a a restauarant/bar in London. It looks like a freaking awesome place to go. I’m going to visit their bathroom someday. I know that sounds weird, but their bathrooms are made of egg (shapes). Still not making sense, right?… just read the article linked to above. I don’t know how to describe it.

6 things from history everyone pictures incorrectly

Greek statues were brightly painted. Like, goofy-looking. Not this regal, austere white we envision.

7 books we lost to history that would have changed the world

  • The Gospel of Eve, author unknown, a totally sexually perverse lost book of the Bible
  • As well as the rarest books from all over the world (burned down at the Grand Library of Baghdad)

The 5 most depraved sex scenes implied by Harry Potter

  • In the Harry Potter universe, Dolores Umbridge got gang-raped by centaurs (really, JK Rowling kinda confirmed).
  • Also, Aberforth (Dumbledore’s brother) got in trouble with magical law for bestiality (also kinda confirmed).

6 amazingly high-tech ancient weapons

Archimedes invented a giant claw. From the article:

Archimedes created a ship-capturing system of crane-like wooden arms with hooks at the ends. They would basically grab the Roman ships and hoist them out of the water. The enemy ships would then be dropped and capsized.

The 5 manliest hobbies you’ve never heard of

Wingsuit flying. Cooler and trickier than skydiving. (See this point-of-view video on Youtube – – You will shit your pants. At the annoying music, if nothing else.) I’m going to do this someday.

5 superpowers from the Bible that put Marvel and DC to shame

Ezekiel raised a zombie army in the Bible. Geez, if people taught this stuff (along with 6 raunchiest, most depraved sex acts mentioned in the Bible, another cracked article), I may have been willing to suspend my disbelief…  until age 12 or so, anyway. Here’s a funny excerpt of the article:

Unlike Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha didn’t have those ridiculous “staff” things holding them back. These guys were basically plugged into The Matrix here, and could do anything they wanted whether the laws of physics were cool with it or not.

The 6 creepiest lies the food industry is feeding you

Olive oil is mostly not olive oil because it’s pirated by the Italian Mafia. For real. Most available olive oil has only 20% real olive oil (the rest sunflower oil)–or none at all.

6 people you’ve never heard of who probably saved your life

Norman Borlaug is said to have saved over a billion people. Yeah, that’s a “b”.

6 mind-blowing things people built in their backyard

Someone just built a medieval castle in Kansas…. because why not? He says passersby often mistake it for a real medieval castle before realizing that doesn’t make sense. Especially because (if you’re close enough) you can see the stone pathway up to the castle is emblazoned with math equations (dude’s a math teacher, who just built a castle in his spare time…  what, what do you do in your spare time?)

The 5 stupidest things ever done with borders

  • There is a single counter-counter-enclave in the world: namely, an Indian town, in Bangladesh, in India, in Bangladesh. No shit. Sucks for the people in India-in-Bangladesh, and in-Bangladesh-in-India-in-Bangladesh, and… I give up…  it sucks because their governments can’t provide for them, so some of them still live in Stone-Age conditions.
  • There is a town in Belgium-no wait, the Netherlands-no wait… sigh. There is a town that is completely scrambled. Like completely, with some parts belonging to one country, some in the other. The trippiest part is a photo of a restaurant with a border splitting it in two, one side marked NL for Netherlands, the other B for Belgium. I am going to visit this town someday.
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Academic summary notes on the problem of consciousness

August 17, 2012 1 comment

From my archives:

My Notes: An Intro to the ‘problem’ of consciousness

Because I’ve been lazy recently, today is a “5-minute post”, in which I fish out something that I’ve previously written that I think will be interesting. Not, perhaps, to the audience I hope to have, but to the very small audience I currently have.

Review: Consciousness and Its Place In Nature. This an introduction to an introduction: notes on a 45-page philosophy paper authored by David Chalmers that seems to me to serve as a pretty good introduction to the field of the philosophy of mind. It gives you a framework for understanding how theories differ, and what jargon terms mean. I hope that my notes summarizing it makes sense to you: do they? I recommend reading/skimming the article yourself, it’s the first article listed on his webpage right here. <– But be warned! That beast of an article that took me over two hours to read.

There is a hard problem of consciousness as opposed to easy problems. For when the easy problems are accounted for, what’s left over is the fact that it is like something to be you.

By the way, an earlier taxonomy by a philosopher named Broad said that mental (and physical) states can be one of four things: delusive, reductive, emergent, or a basic property. Chalmers has a new ‘taxonomy’, though, of six groups–three materialist, three not.

By the way, there are three basic arguments against materialism: explanatory, conceivability, and knowledge. They all share the characteristic of an ‘epistemic gap’, meaning that material explanation does not explain consciousness. The assumption is that this entails an ontological gap (or that there must be more than one ‘kind of thing’, in my limited understanding).

The explanatory argument: physical functions only explain–that is, only examine the structure and function of material things–but this is not sufficient to explain consciousness. The conceivability argument–the zombie problem: zombies are physically conceivable, defined as humans without the first-person experience, or with mental processes occurring ‘in the dark’. The knowledge argument: consciousness isn’t (it seems) deducible from the facts even if you’re an omnipotent perfect reasoner. In other words, if all physical facts regarding consciousness are not all the facts, consciousness is nonphysical.

Both materialism and non-materialism face respective challenges. Materialism must account for the ‘epistemic gap’ of the hard problem of consciousness. Non-materialism must account for the apparent fact that physics is ‘causally closed’, or that there’s no ‘room’ for consciousness.

There are three ways for materialists to resist the ontological gap-due-to-the-epistemic gap: Type A, there is no gap, Type B, there is an epistemic but not an ontological gap, Type C, the (epistemic) gap will become closed in the future. Type A is called eliminativism. What Type B would say is that zombies are conceivable, but they’re not metaphysically possible because there’s ultimately an identity of nature with mind (in other words, no separation is possible because they’re ultimately the same thing somehow).

The problem with eliminativism is it ‘denies manifest reality’–that consciousness is an ‘explanandum’ (an actual word that means a thing that needs explaining). Therefore its arguments must be strong; but to the contrary, they seem to be weak arguments of analogies that do not hold upon examination. The problem with Type B materialism is the ‘primitive identities’ problem. It assumes an identity of consciousness with nature, but not that an explanation or means of knowledge about consciousness is possible. But this identity business seems an awful lot like (the math that reveals) the discovery of a fundamental law of physics. This suggests it actually follows the spirit of nonreductiveness. The problem with Type C is that it is an appeal to ignorance in my opinion, and also that it collapses into a different argument-Type upon examination. For instance, if it assumes that ‘in the future, we’ll see that functional explanations suffice’, it’s actually Type A in disguise.

There are also three ways that non-materialists can resist the apparent ‘closed causality’ of physics. Type D is called interactionism and denies causal closure, Type E is called epiphenomenalism and says that the mental and the physical are completely separate (no interaction), and Type F is called monism and says that consciousness is somehow the intrinsic nature of reality, even supplementing physics, which doesn’t speak about the “intrinsic nature” of reality. (But the idea of the ‘intrinsic nature’ of reality is something I don’t quite grasp the meaning of.)

The objection to interactionism is obvious: how do they interact? There’s no causal nexus, or place of similarity, by definition it seems, since we’re assuming that nature and mind are fundamentally different. But Chalmers cleverly points out that the same could be said of the fundamental forces in physics (I think this alludes to my suspicion that he is monist; see down two paragraphs). There’s something cool about interactionism and quantum mechanics: in theory, interactionism may eventually be empirically testable, and thus perhaps even test the presence of consciousness.

Epiphenomenalism doesn’t say there’s no interaction between nature and mind, but rather that it goes in one direction only: from nature to mind, and not vice versa. An odd implication of epiphenomenalism is that a constant stream of ‘lucky coincidence’ is necessary if our experience of pain really plays no part in our decision to move our hand from a fire. On a similar note, an interesting objection to epiphenomenalism: it seems to deny any possible knowledge of consciousness, if saying ‘I am conscious’ is not due to the feeling of consciousness. This is an “inelegant” theory.

Chalmer’s Type F: monism has responses to all three arguments, namely, conceivability (zombies), explanatory, and knowledge. It features consciousness and physical reality as deeply intertwined, and concludes that it is fertile ground for investigation, because there is no detailed theory on it yet. The problem it faces is the ignorance about how you could break down consciousness into components and how conscious phenomena are composited.

Conclusion: it’s often assumed that materialism simply must be true, even if it’s hard to see how, but there are reasonable alternatives. Consciousness may have a ‘fundamental’ place in nature.

3 Endnotes

1: There’s an interesting concept, intermediacy, used to get around that it seems impossible to explain consciousness physically. That is, there’s some mediating agent X between the physical world and consciousness such that if you could explain consciousness in terms of X and X in terms of physical world, you could still be a materialist, albeit in a roundabout way. Chalmers finds this unconvincing, claiming that the gulf is too deep and that one of the two chains must necessarily be too weak to bridge it–no matter how you conceive of X. In other words, X is either a chicken or a man, no in-betweens. If you stick feathers up your butt, the illusion is just an illusion, because you’re just a man trying to pretend you’re in between being a chicken and a man and not just a man.

This concept is used again in Chalmer’s monism to propose a panprotopsychism which may or may not be the special case of panpsychism. The monism Chalmers describes is said to have the surprising–and seemingly crazy–implication that it is like something to be an electron (or anything else). The concept of panprotopsychism waters that down by saying, I think, that everything has some intermediate (neutral?) substance that is the seed for mind. Or something.

2: By the way, the wave function collapse of quantum mechanics is interesting for the philosophy of mind because of the fact that measurement is what produces collapse. This suggests the idea that it could be that conscious states are like physical states, but with the extra constraint of no superposition, so that when another state threatens to superpose, collapse is the response (I admit that my mind is muddled thinking about it). Chalmers–a math genius by the way–says that physicists who raise eyebrows to the idea that quantum mechanics could reconcile consciousness with nature should examine the idea more carefully if they’re really sure that physical theory rejects interactionism.

3: From a meta-view, I wondered how a science sociologist might see this paper. In my opinion, philosophy journal articles function as subtle conformity tools. It seems pretty clear to me that Chalmers is rooting for Type F-Monism and that the effect on readers will be to put a halo on it and consider that outlook the most reasonable–and exciting (at least I do). So I think one of the primary functions of philosophy papers might be to change the climate of opinion even more than establishing truth. After all, my mind is far better informed, but quite hazy regarding which is the most accurate of the six main outlooks; due to the subtlety of the arguments, it’s not at all clear. In fact I think it’s very difficult to understand it all (maybe even for the brightest) to the point where some ‘truth’ becomes evident, so that you can demonstrate not only what’s wrong, but also what is correct–and that’s why there will always be philosophers. Consequently, we end up depending on our feelings of apparent-reasonableness, excitement, and other emotional undercurrents more than we should when we read something challenging.

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“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”: probability, planning fallacy, and why your project is $2 billion over budget

August 16, 2012 4 comments

Sherlock Holmes is ridiculous. Indiana Jones and James Bond would have long since died. And–believe it or not–the reason why is the same fundamental reason that all kinds of projects end up taking longer than we expect. Intrigued? Read on.

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” — And die he ought to have

I am a fan of James Bond (as in a I’ve-collected-all-the-movies-available-on-cheap-VHS level of fan). But probability convinces me he should be dead. Like many fictional pop-culture heroes, he is thrusted into situation after situation in which he barely escapes death. Of course, that’s part of the thrill. The close-escape and its associated thrill is exemplified in one of the Indiana Jones films. After escaping from a steadily collapsing stone chamber, Indiana escapes and snatches his signature fedora before a stone wall slams down on where his hand was moments ago.

The problem? Each close call implies a nonzero probability that the outrageous escapade will fail—which may be negligible once, but not if compounded over and over. And it’s only because we’re really bad at thinking probabilistically that we can suspend our disbelief and enjoy such escapism.

An innumerate savannah

Humans didn’t evolve to be accountants. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Kahneman proved that we are systematically biased when reasoning with numbers. Two examples follow. Note that in both cases, we do not immediately see the connection between the math and reality.

  • The representative heuristic. If we’re asked to judge if somebody is more likely to be a librarian or salesperson, we base our judgment almost solely on a description of the person and ignore the relative number of people in each profession. If a description seems representative of a stereotype of a librarian, we tend to ignore the fact that there are vastly more salespeople than librarians—even when the relevant numbers are prominently provided.
  • Overconfidence. If we’re asked to judge whether a series of propositions are true, like “Dolphins have gills: true or false?”, or to decide how confident we are that the Earth is between 10 million and 100 million miles from the Sun, we are overconfident. We may be right only 80% of the time we say we’re 95% confident.

The specific failure of quantitative reasoning that is at the core of this blog post is our failure to realize the unlikelihood of a long series of events all coming out successfully {*1}. The implications of this failure goes well beyond fictional heroes, however. This simple bias can also explain why projects tend to run over schedule and over-budget.

The planning fallacy costs humanity billions each year

When the construction of the Stapleton international airport in Denver finally finished, it was two billion dollars over budget. The Sydney Opera House was built ten years late and fourteen times over budget. These may be extreme examples, but it is commonplace that projects take more time and more money (often, many times the initial budget money) than planned. The term “planning fallacy” is shorthand for the pervasive tendency to underestimate completion times or costs. But why do plans fail?

…   and it’s (partly) because we’re bad at probability

Our trouble with understanding probability can help explain why {*2}. Before getting there, it needs to be pointed out that there is one and only one way for things to go according to plan, but many ways for things to be dragged out. That is the simple but inexorable logic that is invariably overlooked. Overruns on breaks, sickness, lack of motivation, red tape; no matter what it is, Murphy’s Law is pervasive. And yet, we don’t always take into account the inevitable wrench being thrown in the works. Why not?

We must look deeper to get to the bottom of it. And a major reason is because we underestimate the cumulative likelihood of many things all coming out heads, figuratively speaking. (In the interest of fairness, there is a psychological component that may or may not be fully explainable by this deeper mechanism I propose, but the planning fallacy per se is beyond the scope of this post.) To illustrate, let us assume that significant projects usually have a large number of stages, and for the sake of argument let’s say that each stage may have a 90% chance of succeeding. The thing that is usually overlooked is that if there are many stages, you have to multiply 90% by itself many times over, and you may end up with a small chance of the project being seen through to the end. The fact of having to compound in this manner is what I mean by “cumulative likelihood”.

Quick recap

To summarize: the planning fallacy arises from many factors, one of which, I propose, is our failure to intuit probabilities in the specific case of compounding outcomes. At the beginning of this post, I illuminated another context in which we’re probably unaware of this cognitive bias: pop culture. In that case, however, it may not be such a bad thing if it allows us to enjoy thrilling heroics. There’s one more context, though, and that is the entire endeavor of rhetoric and argumentation itself

Impressively long arguments suck (don’t trust them)

When we construct elaborate arguments, we don’t realize that more may be worse. Not all the time, of course, but when the “more” is more links or chains in argument, then yes, there may be a hidden danger. If we are sometimes wrong about the validity of making a leap from A to B, and we make then leap from B to C, C to D…. and Y to Z, then the more chances there are to trip. We tend to consider a longer chain of reasoning to be more impressive, and I am saying that we should actually consider exactly the opposite. A longer chain just gives us more to hang ourselves with.

Even I don’t think this should be applied without qualifications, but I do think it follows undeniably that there is a hidden danger in more links or chains in an argument. Sherlock Holmes’ reasoning is a perfect example. I am not doubting the brilliance of that fictional character or any real-world analogues, but I am suggesting that the reason we never hear of such long chains of reasoning being used in real-world crime-solving is because it wouldn’t work, for the very reason I just outlined.

Conclusion #1: how to be the cleverest dick in the room when watching an adventure film

It’s a favorite technique of police dramas to have the protagonists solve the case in the nick of time, arriving just as the culprit was about to claim his next victim. What you can point out is that a close call implies a higher probability of failure.

In other words, by showing us how close a call was, the scriptwriters (or whoever) are showing us just how stupid the protagonist really is.

Conclusion #2: fighting the planning fallacy

I would just like to pass on the advice that by putting a bit of trust in more objective methods, we will come up with better projections than if we focus on the individual case before us. One such “objective” method is to remember or find out how long similar projects have usually taken in the past–which has already taken into account the bumps on the road–and use that when we make plans which, if formulated badly, just might end up costing us an extra two billion dollars.


*1 This doesn’t necessarily apply, at least not as strongly, if the events are statistically dependent, as they usually are, but that’s beyond the scope of this post, and the broader point still stands.

*2 A missing piece of the puzzle, if you’re interested in pursuing a tangent, is how to think about ‘being bad at probability’ and ‘failing to see the connection between numbers and reality’. Our beliefs fail to propagate – that is, when we learn something new, the implications of that new piece of knowledge fails to fully propagate throughout your entire belief network. introduced me to that.

And 3. One more note: This post is edited and re-arranged material, originating as an essay I wrote for a rhetoric class last fall.

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Self-improvement through imagination (pretending)

August 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Altering the distant past

Altering the distant past was easy, you just had to think of it at the right time.

— Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), Chapter 12: Impulse Control (

I like this phrase. What it means is that you can alter the distant past of future-you, by thinking of it at the right time. By thinking of it now.

That’s the essential promise of self-improvement (“self-modification” in the psychologists’ parlance). That by using “willpower”, you can “alter the distant past” by doing what you should do rather than what you would like. (Willpower is an inadequate construct, but that’s beyond the scope of this short post.)

Twelve months from now, twelve months will have passed, no matter what, so what are you going to do with those twelve months? Formulating a question like this is how considering “alter[ing] the distant past” can be useful.

What if X, Y, or Z in your life had turned out differently?

How would things be different? We’ve all been torn by those questions. Such questions can haunt you, but maybe there’s a simple way of transforming it from a depressing question into an inspiring one.

You just need to move the frame of reference to the future. Instead of thinking ‘what if X had happened differently in the past?’, you think ‘Let’s pretend this is the future, say three months from now: How could things have gone differently?’… and then…. ‘And what can I do now so I won’t be thinking that?’

We are literally helplessly myopic–hyperbolic discounting–but can maybe partially ameliorate this bias. But is the future any less real than the present? So long as you’re going to be alive, it is. (And if you’re young, in a first world country, and looking just a few years ahead, it’s extremely probable you’ll still be alive so that factor is negligible).

Alternative you

According to the most popular quantum mechanics interpretation, all possible worlds exist. Honing in on you, that means all possible you’s exist (the philosophical question of identity involved is beyond the scope of this post). Every action you’ve ever taken–or not taken–there is someone pretty much exactly like you who did something good that you didn’t. [I should clarify that this many-worlds considerations is a source of imagination to consider alternative you’s as a useful reflection for the present, but nothing more, and that’s good enough].

Role models

I’ve found it useful to compare my standards to other peoples’. When you realize that someone is doing something you’d like to do, or more of it, and it’s not even a challenge for them, you wonder if perhaps it shouldn’t be a challenge for you either.

Doing different: maybe boredom is a problem, and it can be fixed

Finally, you can focus on what else you could do (as opposed to be). And maybe you’ll realize that you’re just really bored when you find yourself depressed and lethargic and uninspired, and that that is holding you back from being You 1.1. As this highly-upvoted comment on Reddit reminds us, we can do more and do not often realize what is possible. That we can solve our boredom.

— Reddit user bikewithoutafish on sub-reddit how not to give a fuck (original here)

Happiness = Excitement = Better you?

Tim Ferriss (author, entrepreneur, life-hacker) would say that the opposite of happiness isn’t sadness, it’s boredom, in much the same way that the ‘opposite’ of love isn’t hate so much as it is indifference. He proposes that happiness=excitement. (And of course increased happiness is self-improvement.)

What do you think of happiness=excitement? Leave a comment.

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