Looking for Beggars: A Perspective Shift

In January, while doing an internship in San Francisco, I found myself in the hospital. Fortunately, I needed to have insurance to even step foot in the states, so the hospital stay passed without a hitch. After my first night there, someone came by from the company I was working for and brought me food. However, the hospital was already feeding me, and they’d brought me, among other things, a whole fruit basket! I can’t eat so many apples and oranges by myself even when healthy.

I therefore decided, when I was discharged, that instead of just throwing out the remaining food, I would try to give it to the people on the street near Union Square who were begging. What followed was a remarkable experience.

The first observation I made was that the street people weren’t nearly as omnipresent as I’d thought—I lived near Union Square and I had the sense that I’d be able to give away the food in about 15 minutes easily. The first bit, indeed, went quickly, but then I had to spread out.

More significantly, I found it to be a profoundly unique feeling to be looking for beggars. So often the impulse is to try to avoid eye contact or to look away, in an attempt at denial or at least an attempt to avoid feeling obliged to help. This was a 180° shift for me, and was quite a surprise.

A similar experience showed up for me this week, when I was at a friend’s house and he had a device that looked like a squash racket with metal strings, that would literally zap fruit flies out of the air. I grabbed it and obliterated a few, and then found myself looking for fruit flies… opening cupboard doors in hopes of finding some. What?! If you’d told me last week that I’d spend some of this week excitedly looking for fruit flies (and disappointed not to find any) I would have been quite skeptical.

But it was fun! And so was interacting with the people on the street, once I was feeling truly and deeply generous. I also learned that many homeless people will refuse apples—because they don’t have sufficient teeth with which to eat them. That was totally something I took for granted.

I think there’s a broader lesson here, which is that a tiny shift in intention can transform situations from being unpleasant or tiring into being exciting and enjoyable. This can be applied to one’s life (making a game out of a chore) or could be used to create a product like that bug zapper. Any product that takes a necessary part of life and makes it fun instead of unpleasant offers a clear value to the users.

Accepting my present chocolate addiction

I’ve had a chocolate addiction for a few years now, but I’ve only recently started looking closely at it rather than just joking about it. Part of what has facilitated this is a framework called the Living Room Context which I relate to in several ways. One way is the house I’m living at, which is full of other people familiar with the ideas and is designed to be a microcosm within which to develop a new culture. The other is a group called CoCoA, which meets Monday evenings to talk about the LRC, and our own personal and collective growth.

In relating to a member of our community with a serious addiction, I reflected that my only personal experience I had to empathize with was this chocolate addiction. As we spoke, it became more and more apparent how similar our addictions were. We both…

  • had a rather naïve view of it at the beginning
  • use it as a coping mechanism in times of stress
  • find it hard to stop once started
  • had a moment when it clicked about how harmful it was

This connection, along with some recent events, caused me to acknowledge my addiction more meaningfully than before.

Talking about it

One interesting property that a chocolate addiction has is that there’s no particular cultural stigma around it. This is true of several chemical addictions, notably caffeine, but less true of most psychological addictions, such as alcohol, smoking, self-harm, and pornography. The chemical/psychological distinction I’m making hinges on stress-based cravings: like many alcoholics and others who are psychologically addicted, I have experienced severe cravings when stressed, and have often used chocolate as a coping mechanism. This cultural stigma can make it hard for addicts to speak up, so since I have relative space in that regard, I’m going to take advantage of it.

When, last week, I mention my addiction to my parents, my dad said something like “well, you know, sometimes I have a bit of chocolate to take the edge off” and I felt misunderstood, so I asked if he would say the same about wine if talking to an alcoholic. Then my parents got really serious (which I could have anticipated but hadn’t really thought through). I do believe that the extent of my cravings is serious, but I’m fortunate enough to have a relatively harmless addiction. That is, while I have eaten myself literally sick on a couple of occasions, no reasonable amount of indulging in this vice is going to cause serious short-term harm to myself or to others, unlike alcoholism. I suppose it’s a bit more like a nicotine addiction—long term damage to my health in exchange for temporary relaxation—except far more socially acceptable indoors, not to mention delicious. The freedom to experiment without doing serious harm is perhaps a second property to take advantage of, in trying to understand and transcend addiction.

Initial behaviour-change attempts

The aforementioned deliciousness has vexed me, as it means that I don’t want to go cold-turkey on chocolate (although I have done that sort of thing temporarily as a challenge). What I want to do is reduce my chocolate consumption to healthy levels, while not setting any explicit restrictions on it. I have tried explicit restrictions, cutting down my sugar intake from around 80-200g/day to 40g/day, but then, well, midterms. And stress. And then I ate 200g of chocolate during one midterm. Then another. And besides, I found myself frustrated by the restrictions, because some days I just want some ice cream, cravings largely aside. I tried 4HB Slow-Carb-Diet-style “Cheat” Days, but some days I don’t know in advance that I’ll have the chance to try someone’s homemade torte. Opportunism is important to me!

A picture of the cookie monster from sesame street, with the caption "Today me will live in the moment unless it's unpleasant in which case me will eat a cookie"

I found this after I made the post, but had to add it because it’s just so relevant.

Some of my recent introspection supported by the Living Room Context is related to motivation, and it prompted me to think of a new approach. Perhaps, rather than balancing my “I want” with an “I can’t”, I might try relaxing the “I can’t” to see if my “I don’t want” would strengthen itself. I think I did this too quickly, because days later I ate about 300g of chocolate during about 20 minutes. Turns out the “I don’t want” wasn’t ready to handle such extreme stress. I relayed this to Jean (one of the people who started the LRC) and she pointed out the retrospectively obvious point that psychological addiction is driving by patterns of thought—typically shame and anticipation. Anticipation is normally quite a valuable thing (research has demonstrated that people would pay much more for an awesome experience in 3 days than 3 hours) but this becomes toxic when the anticipation is tainted with dread and shame because the anticipated activity feels akratic (against one’s better judgement).

Noticing these urges

A bag of two-bite brownies.

About a third of my attention was in this bag, in my cupboard.

I didn’t really know what to do with the anticipation point for awhile, but during the most recent CoCoA meeting I had an idea. I had been sitting there finding myself spending about 30% of my cognitive energy on dealing with the urge to eat a two-bite brownie. I ultimately revealed this to the group when we were talking about sharing our own experiences, and after that the intensity relaxed somewhat, but it was still there.

My train of thought went something like this: the anticipation becomes intense when thoughts spiral and become obsessive. What do I know about obsessive thought spirals? They are also a key part of depression. What else do I know about this? Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – Wikipedia, a simple meditation practice I’ve taken workshops on at University of Waterloo, has been shown to seriously help people with depression escape their downward spirals.

Entering the Present

Then I recalled my earliest experiences with mindfulness, which were reading Eckhart Tolle, and I recalled one potent principle from one of his books. He spoke of stimulus and response. Stimulus: a dog barking, or a car alarm outside your window. Response: anger? frustration? As an alternative, he proposed using this potentially annoying cognitive interruption as an invitation to enter the present moment. I tried this at the time and found it a profound shift in perspective. I still do it today sometimes and it remains very powerful.

(I showed a draft of this post to some people, and one of them asked what “entering the present” means. It refers to not being caught up in thought patterns. To be experiencing and noticing, rather than thinking mindlessly. Directed thought, such as problem-solving, is very valuable, and meandering thought can be valuable and enjoyable as well. Persistent negative loops, on the other hand, are not, and so by returning to what’s happening in the here and now (in this case, the urge itself, and my friend speaking) I can break free from them. Meandering thoughts can be undesirable in situations like this too. Presence also implies a kind of acceptance: that reality is as it is, right now. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. This is what the title alludes to.)

My addiction as a resource

I realized during the meeting that I could do the same thing with my intrusive urges to go eat another piece of chocolate: treat the urge as a cue to relax into the present moment. This appears to be way more powerful than just thinking happy thoughts, because the entirety of the urge is a “wanting something else” which is by its nature nonpresence. So becoming present here does several things:

  • it diffuses the intensity of the urge by taking me out of anticipation mode,
  • it offers an alternative way to achieve the underlying need of stress-reduction,
  • & it changes my relationship with the urges from one of shame, frustration, impatience and anger, to a relationship of gratitude and delight.

Quoth I during the closing round of the meeting:

I have this thing that reminds me every few moments to be present? AWESOME!

This is a profound shift. I’ve wanted for awhile something that might remind me periodically to become present to what’s happening. Turns out I already have one, I just wasn’t using it. This is part of a larger pattern in the community I’m presently in, which is recognizing our patterns (both in thought and behaviour) as resources in the work we’re doing, rather than resenting them.

An analogy: imagine standing on a slippery cliff with an endless train of lemmings walking toward you. You can try to stop them by pushing back, but you’re unlikely to be able to hold them off forever, especially since the ones you repel will double-back with increasing pressure. Consider that you also have the option of simply stepping aside and watching them pass. Now, in most actual cases, the lemmings/urges are slightly more responsive and will change their route to again try to push you off. Step aside again. Not only is this more effective than fighting them, it’s a lot more enjoyable. Maybe you can even push off them as they pass, to gain momentum to get off the cliff altogether.

Beyond noticing

I know I said in my recent post on noticing that I’d write a report my progress in noticing my urges and thoughts. Well, what I’m realizing is that I didn’t focus on actually installing the habit of practising noticing. I also didn’t take my own advice about starting with one. I think the act of writing the post brought the noticing itself close to my attention, but then shortly thereafter I forgot. For the immediate future, I’m going to hone in on just using my chocolate urges as a cue to become present. I may delight in noticing other urges, but I think for now I need the clarity of focus. We’ll see how well it holds up under extreme stress. I expect it to work really well for the other half of the addiction, which is when I’ve had a small amount of chocolate and then I go back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc…

One final note on addiction:

Depending on how it’s defined, it can be estimated that over 90% of Americans have at least one “soft addiction” or “behavioural addiction” that they indulge in to unwind, to ultimate negative effect. We live in a culture of addiction, as Jean pointed out. So if you’re willing to admit it, chances are this article is personally relevant (and hopefully valuable) to you whether you identify as an addict or not. Be it chocolate or reddit, the first step is to be present to whatever your reality is.

The Meta-Application of Rationality

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of being able to attend an Applied Rationality workshop held in Berkeley, CA. I can say without a doubt that it has had a serious effect on the trajectory of my life. I want to talk briefly about this more specifically. I do have much more to say about the workshop when I get a chance, and I’d love to talk about it either privately or in the comments.

So, my life’s trajectory: those familiar with calculus will understand the following in terms of derivatives, but I’m going to use the analogy of a moving vehicle. If you want to describe the vehicle, you can talk about several things. The most obvious (and most immediately useful) is “where is it?” which often called displacement. The next most obvious/useful is “how fast is it going and in which direction?” also known as the car’s velocity. But, unless a wall or gas shortage stops the car before the relevant moment, the most useful thing to know about a car is how far down the gas pedal or brake is. This is the acceleration and ultimately it will tell you a lot more about how far the car will have gone by tomorrow than the velocity or displacement. You need to know roughly where the car was and how fast it started, but smaller changes in acceleration are much more important.

At the rationality workshop, I learned some things that definitely took me beyond where I’d been before (displacement / location). While at the workshop, I was definitely growing faster than usual, but right now I might be slower than usual as I focus on consolidating everything. Here’s why I’m not worried: what I definitely increased was my ability and propensity to assess how fast I’m going and to go faster still. Have a look at the chart to the right:

A chart demonstrating how much faster an exponential function increases than either a linear or polynomial function

Ideally, you want to be the yellow line on top.

Accelerating returns

It should be clear that the yellow line on the top is increasing much faster than the others. It begins just as slow, but because it’s not only getting faster but getting faster faster, it quickly takes the lead. This is the model I’m adopting. Short-term, it’s fine if my displacement and velocity are taking a hit. In the long run, by getting better at getting better (by applying my rationality skills to becoming even more rational) I can easily overtake my hypothetical other-self and never look back.

However, I’d like to think that I haven’t just increased my acceleration but that I’m increasing the rate at which I’m increasing my acceleration, and increasing that rate as well, and so on indefinitely. This resembles an exponential function, which is shown by the yellow line above. If I were just accelerating at a constant rate, I’d be the red line in the middle, and if I were just holding steady at a certain speed I’d be the shallow blue line. One fascinating principal is that no matter how many layers you do this acceleration like xbigNumber, the exponential curve always has more. That means that if I were to ask “who will win the race?” between x1234567890 and ex, then ex will always win as time goes on. I plan to do the same.


How am I going to do this? I have some general thoughts on this which involve developing personal scaffolds that will make it easier to install what I learned at the workshop as habits, but I’ve modified my environment as well. Or rather, I’ve decided to put myself into a different environment. I’m working at a software startup in San Francisco right now, but rather than live in SF I’ve decided to spend the next 3 months living in Berkeley. This will make me much more likely to attend various free training events held by CFAR (the Center for Applied Rationality, who ran this workshop) and will also make it easier for me to hang out with some of the people I met at the workshop, encouraging me to focus on these various aspects of my life. By investing the time and effort now to make my next 3 months more fruitful, I hope to ultimately set up self-reflection habits that are exponentially powerful. I’m not sure how I’d tell success from a close approximation, but honestly I think that if I get the first 5 or so layers than there really isn’t much to be gained at that stage.

I was surprised by the variety of rational techniques that were relevant to my decision to live in Berkeley rather than SF. They included not only a substantial consideration of my preferences and goals, but also a recognition of how I’m not as rational as I’d hypothetically like to be, and therefore I can predict that if I’m living in SF I won’t go to as much CFAR stuff. Similarly, while I might generally enjoy not having a 1h-each-way bus commute, I expect to be able to devote a lot of that time to this work, where previously I felt like there was a bit of imbalance such that most of my waking hours were directed towards working on things for the company I’m at. Then, when deciding if I wanted to accept a certain sublet option, I also weighed factors like, “how much more valuable of a place do I expect to get by waiting / more effort, and is it worth it?” I decided it wasn’t, so I accepted. Personal happiness is hard to judge, but we do our best.

One could also consider a function of personal utility. Again, I expect to slow down briefly but ultimately go so much faster/further. This is fairly easy to measure but very hard to judge cross-domain.

What’s a moment that not just changed your life, but changed how you approach it?

Laughing for no reason

I was going to do something food-related as my 30 Day Challenge for May 2012, to encourage me to cook more, but I ended up spending the first few days in transit, and so that just wasn’t a viable option. What I decided to do instead was something a little simpler:

For all of May 2012, I will make myself laugh every day.

Mostly this has been done while walking, usually walking home from work. My favourite tactic is simply to fake-laugh with really corny “Ha, ha”s or “Pfffts”, until eventually it sounds so silly that I just start laughing. It started when I made myself laugh simply by thinking that it would be funny to challenge myself to make myself laugh.

Laughing with others

This past weekend, I was in Ottawa for the Ontario Regional Contact Jam, which is basically a dance retreat. It was an amazing experience on all levels. One of the coolest moments was when I entered one of the floors, and the lights were out… some people were still, some were dancing, and two were laying in a corner, chanting or singing. I laid down next to them and began adding a bassline, and we sang all sorts of wild things, a few other people joining us. At some point, laughter came to mind (perhaps I heard somebody chuckle) and it occurred to me that this would be the perfect time to laugh.

“Ha…hahaha…haha…”   I sang breathily, then promptly burst out laughing at how ridiculous it sounded. After a few seconds of me laughing, others found themselves drawn into a fit of laughter as well. More people heard the commotion and came to investigate, and ultimately we had a pile of maybe 15 or 20 people laughing in full.

Three otters perched on a rock, all with open mouths, laughing.

I'm the one in the middle.

This continued, ebbing and flowing, for probably five to ten straight minutes before ultimately turning into song again. When we finally broke up (the lights were turned on) we had all had an immense ab workout and were feeling so relaxed and simultaneously energized. It was an amazing experience, and several people commented to me that they hadn’t laughed that hard in a decade. Personally, I think it’s the most I’ve laughed in my life, although that’s a record can’t wait to beat.

That was going to be the end of the post, but it occurred to me you might like some laughter yourself. In such a case, try this video of purportedly “the man with the most contagious laugh in the world.”

Laughing Otters image by Jenny Rollo.

How I crossed “duvet” off my To-Get List without buying a duvet

Coop-life has its share of complications. In addition to virtually never meeting half of the Engineering faculty at uWaterloo, it can also cause a change of residence every 4 months. This summer, in class, I lived in a regular on-campus residence. This fall I’m living in an apartment that is a convenient 15-minute walk from both my work and Uptown Waterloo. The weather is starting to get colder, so I put “duvet” on my list of things I should acquire next time I have the chance. I already had a duvet cover I got when I was at the IKEA in Montreal.

In the meantime, I used an unzipped sleeping bag on loan from my cousin (originally for a camping trip that was a few weeks ago) for warmth. Reflecting on my need for a duvet, I realized that I’m only going to be in this Queen size bed for 3 more months… so buying an $80 duvet is not really a good investment, especially since they’re also large and inconvenient to store. A few quick measurements later, and I decided to just buy my own sleeping bag instead. Turns out an unzipped rectangular sleeping bag is about the same size as a Queen size bed.

Two photos - on the left, a packaged sleeping bag and duvet cover; on the right, the sleeping bag being unzipped.

Opening the sleeping bag and duvet cover.

Two photos - on the left, the duvet cover laying on top of the the sleeping bag; on the right, the sleeping bag inside the duvet cover

Putting the sleeping bag in the duvet.

Two photos - on the left, a bed with just olive green sheets on them; on the right, the same bed with a dark striped blue and purple duvet on top.

My bed, before and after.

What Steve Jobs means to me

Portrait of a young Steve Jobs, wearing a suit and tie, and holding a red apple in one hand.

This isn't the Steve Jobs that I'm familiar, but he's definitely closer to me in age and hair length than 2011 Jobs.

I’m sure you’ve heard the news: Steve Jobs is dead. I found out while at work. I work at Kik, on the cross-platform messaging app that is Kik Messenger. The entire company would be wholly impossible without Jobs and the iPhone. This, however, is an understatement. Computers themselves, and thus the internet, and thus much of today’s culture, have all been massively influenced by this man.

If the me that I was a few years ago could see me blogging about how Steve Jobs is an inspiration, he’d be very confused. For years, I’ve been a Windows/Linux guy, and ragged on Apple as much as I possibly can. I just bought a smartphone this summer; it’s an Android. The only piece of Apple I own is a 2gen iPod Shuffle, which I proudly sync using Windows Explorer and python script. I don’t have iTunes installed. While my personal preference for computing has not changed over the past few years, I have grown an appreciation and respect for Apple and Steve Jobs.

I still like having two+ mouse buttons, and I still like having both a Backspace and a Delete key, and I really don’t know how well I’d be able to handle having my main modifier key (Ctrl/Apple) not in the corner of the keyboard. I also can’t stand the colourlessness that pervades the typical Apple interface. Yet, I can’t deny the vast influence that the mouse as introduced by Apple and the window manager have improved my life. I am not an ungrateful person.

I’d rather focus on Jobs though. Tonight, I read his speech at Stanford and then later watched/listened to it. This speech is 6 years old, and yet fits the occasion of his death very well, as his final point is about death. While Steve Jobs may only have had 56 years, most would agree that he made more of them than most people make of their 80. This was not an accident.

In his speech, Jobs describes how for all of his adult life, he has looked in the mirror every morning and asked himself:

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

I’ve recently been developing several new daily habits. I’ve been meaning to blog about them for awhile, and tonight seem like as good of an occasion as any. I recently listened to Jim Rohn’s The Art of Exceptional Living Audiobook, and it inspired me to make a number of changes in my life. So far I’ve integrated three daily habits:

  • I go for a walk.
  • I read for at least half an hour.
  • I journal.

Most books on the subject advise against making significant changes all at once, as they can be harder to keep. I wanted to dive right in. Besides, I think these habits are consistent and mutually reinforcing. The walking makes the other two easier, because by the time I get to the end of the day, I’ve already done one of my three new habits, so I’m already part-way toward my goal. Also, since my journalling is about personal development, it makes sense to read something inspiring first. I like reading anyway. I also like walking. I’ve been enjoying journalling as well. I’ve logged nearly 20000 words in 22 days.

Where does Steve Jobs fit into this? Well, I’m nailing my nights, but my mornings have been less than fantastic. My main excuse for this is that it’s really cold in my apartment (my room anyway) and so I’ve been lazing in bed because my newly-awoken-brain thinks that that will keep my feet warmest. Come on Malcolm: you can do better than that. Steve Jobs describes how he makes each day meaningful from the beginning, and I’m going to find ways to do the same.

I haven’t decided yet what this is going to consist of, but I now have a clear vision that my mornings need much more clarity and purpose than they have at present. Will I ask myself a question? Several? Recite a mission statement? Chant a mantra? Plan my day in my head? Do something specific?

…I don’t know yet. But I’m excited to find out.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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