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 trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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