Being Foreign and Being Sane

[cross-posted at LessWrong.  This post was written for a particular audience, so it may be difficult to parse for those who are not familiar with LessWrong.  But it’s accessible to anyone who follows the links.]

I’ve been reading Less Wrong for a while now, and have recently been casting about for suitable topics to write on. I’ve decided to break the ice now with an essay on what living and working abroad in Korea has taught me which carries over into studying rationality. While more personal than technical, this inaugural post contains generalizable lessons that I think will be of interest to anyone trying to improve their thinking.

You may be skeptical, so let me briefly make my case that traveling offers something to the aspiring rationalist. Many have written about the benefits of traveling, but for our purposes here is what matters:

Being abroad can make certain important concepts in rationality a part of you in ways studying can’t match.

It’s easy to read — and to really believe — that the map is not the territory, say, without it changing how you actually act. Information often gathers dust on the shelves in your frontal lobe without ever making it into the largely unconscious bits of your brain where so much of your deciding takes place.

With this in mind travel can be seen as part of the class of efforts to learn rationality without directly studying the science, instead doing something like playing Go or poker, for example. I don’t know for sure, but such efforts could hold the promise of teaching us to incorporate insights into emotional attachment, statistical probabilities, strategy, maximizing utility, and the like — things we’ve known for a long time — into our instincts, deep down where they can actually change how we behave.

I say all this because what living in a foreign country has given me is not so much a software update which has remade me into a paragon of rationality, but rather a hearty appreciation for certain facts which might make my thought-improvement efforts more fruitful. No doubt many of you have already long-ago internalized all of this, and for you I won’t be saying anything very profound.

Nevertheless, here is what I’ve learned:

1) You are vastly more complicated than you think you are.

The proposal for the Dartmouth conference of 1956, considered by some to be the birth of the field of AI research, had this to say:

An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.

Not to deny that considerable progress has been made in the past half century, but I think we can all agree that this thinking was just a tad bit optimistic.

I’m not an expert on AI research history, but it seems reasonable to assume that these proto-AI researchers perhaps didn’t appreciate how complex humans are. You look at a triangle and you see a triangle; you reach for a coffee cup and grasp it; you start speaking a sentence and finish it with only the occasional pause. What could be simpler? We all forget our car keys sometimes, and some of us know a little bit about bizarre neurological problems like aphasia, but still. In general we function so well that it never occurs to us that the things we do might actually be difficult to implement.

The problem runs deeper than this, though, because there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of techniques for elucidating this complexity from the inside. If there were, neuroscience might’ve been discovered a millennium ago in East Asia by Buddhist adepts. But instead our efforts at aiming the introspective flashlights on the machinery of our minds are thwarted by their presence totally outside our conscious awareness.

Well, if you ever feel like you’re not fully appreciating the intricacies of your wetware, sit in a coffee shop or bus stop in a foreign country while eavesdropping on people whose effortless bantering could not be more inscrutable, and you’ll have it impressed upon you. Alternatively, try to explain to someone with little-to-no English knowledge what something like “simple” or “almost all of” means. Even without a bit of neuroscience training you’ll start to get a grasp on the vastness of the gears and levers that make every utterance possible.

This insight, at least for me, seems to creep into the rest of your thinking life, though in my case it’s hard to tell because I’ve always pondered things like this. It isn’t a far leap from here to see the potential value of research into topics like Friendly AI. If human language and vision are complicated, what are the chances that human value systems are simple? If you didn’t manage to notice your retinal blind spot or the mechanisms by which you conjugate verbs in your native tongue, what are the chances that you aren’t at least a little mistaken about your true goals and desires and how best to achieve them? Exactly. So maybe it’s time to start reading those sequences, eh?

2) Don’t be bewitched by words

Obviously if you go to a country where English or a different language you’re already fluent in is spoken, this won’t apply as much. But my experience has shown me that living in and learning a foreign language bestows several valuable insights on those intrepid enough to stick with it. Simply put, a sufficiently reflective and intelligent person could independently figure out about half of the sequence A Human’s Guide to Words just by being in a foreign country and thinking about the experience.

First you’d have to go through the shocking revelation that so much of what you say is a fairly arbitrary set of language conventions, and then you’d begin to relearn how to communicate. You’d come to realize that words are mental paintbrush handles with which you guide the attention of other humans to certain clusters in thingspace, and that they are often disgusied queries with hidden connotations. This will be triply reinforced by the fact that you’d often have to resort to empiricism to get your point across – accompanying the word ‘red’ or ‘chair’ by actually point to red things or chairs. If you’re spending time with natives the inverse will happen, and they will have to point to the parts of the world that words represent to communicate. You’ll have a head start in replacing the symbol with the substance because you’ll be playing taboo with nearly every word you know. Since you’ll be doing this with low-level language, it’ll require elbow grease to port this into your native tongue when discussing topics like free will. But if you can avoid slipping into cached thoughts, the training you received when you were a foreigner will likely prove useful.

Beyond this, however, is the tantalizing possibility that we may be more rational when we think in a foreign language, perhaps because it increases reliance on the slow, analytic System 2 at the expense of the rapid-fire, emotional System 1. Psychologists from the University of Chicago tested this idea using English speakers proficient in Japanese, Korean speakers proficient in English, and English speakers proficient in French (Keysar, hayakawa, & An, 2011). In the first few experiments participants were randomly sorted into two groups, one of which was given a test in their native language and one of which was given a test in the foreign language. These tests were designed to elicit a well-known tendency for humans to differ in their risk preference depending on how the situation is framed.

Here’s how it works: imagine that you turn on the news today to find out that an exotic new disease is ravaging Asia, with an expected final death toll of 600,000. The governments of the world decided that the best solution would be to design two separate drugs, and then to randomly select one reader of Less Wrong to decide between the two. Your number came up, and now you have a choice to make.

Drug A is guaranteed to save 200,000 people. Drug B has a 33% chance of saving everyone and a 66% chance of saving no one.

This is called the gain-framing, because what’s emphasized is how many lives you’ll save, or gain. When framed this way, people often prefer to administer Drug A. But studies find that if the same problem is loss-framed – that is, with drug A it is guaranteed that 400,000 people die while with Drug B there is a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% that everyone will – far fewer people prefer Drug A, even though the results of using the drugs are identical.

Besides being sorted by foreign language participants were also randomly sorted by whether or not they got the gain or loss framing. Participants tested in their native language showed the predicted bias, but when tested in the foreign language, about an equal number of people preferred Drug A and Drug B.

An additional study found the same effect of foreign language on reasoning, but using a different bias. People tend to be loss averse, preferring to avoid a loss more than they prefer to gain an identical (or slightly better) amount. This means that people will often turn down an even bet which holds the possibility of gaining $12 and the possibility of losing $10, even though this bet has positive expected value. As with the other studies, Korean speakers proficient in English more often showed this tendency when reasoning in their native language than when reasoning in a foreign one, especially for larger bets.

There are a million reasons to learn a foreign language, but it’d be a very costly way to improve rationality. With that said, for anyone willing to invest the time and effort, better thinking could be the outcome. But even if you don’t go to the trouble, simply trying to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language as you will teach you a lot about how cognition and communication work.

3) The Zen of the Unfamiliar

Living in another culture can make you aware of so many things that you previously failed to notice at all. I remember not long after I got to Korea, I was in my kitchen and noticed that my sink was different from any of the ones I’d seen back in the States. It was a single open pit sunk into the counter, with a strange spinning mechanism where the drain usually is. After investigating for a while, I realized two things: one, the spinning mechanism was actually a multi-part contraption meant to catch food before it went down the drain (no idea why it could spin) and two, I’d just spend 100 times longer thinking about sinks than I had in the rest of my life combined.

To successfully live in a foreign country you’ll have to master the art of noticing things fairly quickly. You’ll start to watch how people dress, how they talk, how close they stand to each other, the relative frequency of eye contact, how they chew their food, what order people get served drinks. You’ll learn to read the environment to learn where to stand in line, where to catch the bus, where and how to buy things, which door is the exit and which one the entrance, whether or not certain places are likely to be safe, etc.

You’ll accomplish most of this by gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, using induction and deduction, and updating on new evidence. The things you’ve been reading about on Less Wrong will be put to use in finding food and shelter, the tools of rationality will be your compass in a world where you can’t read what’s written on signs or buildings and most people can’t understand your questions. So there’s a box on your wall with three buttons, two dials, a bunch of lights, and you’re pretty sure it can make hot water come out of the shower? Not a word of English anywhere on it, you say? Well then you’ll have to change one variable at a time and take note of the results, like any good scientist would.

Being immersed in a set of shared cultural and linguistic norms that you don’t understand makes almost every aspect of your life an experiment. It’s exhausting, and one of the most informative experiences I’ve ever had. On an emotional level, it will teach you to be more at ease with partial understanding, frustration, and confusion. With your comfort zone an ocean away, you’ll either persevere and think on your feet, or you’ll end up sleeping in the rain.


Like with learning a foreign language, there are many reasons to travel abroad and experience another culture. And of course, a plane ticket alone is not enough to make you a better thinker. But if you know what to look for and are actively seeking to grow from the experience, I can attest that being foreign for a little while is one way to become a bit more sane.

Getting Organized

The Devil in the Details

As an English teacher living abroad, my professional and personal life are positively drowning in details.  In a given week I teach something like 150 kids, ranging in age from about 6 to about 16.  These children are arranged in classes of 8 to 10 by ability, not age, though we do make a distinction between elementary and middle school students.

For each class there are a variety of different materials, and there are several different types of classes with versions that are different at the elementary and middle school level. In a given month I must do one-on-one assessments, grade essays and class participation, remember when and what tests to give, plan activities, and make adjustments to the curriculum.

Oh, and when there are holidays or special tests, one group of students gets out of sync with the others and my schedule for just that one class is off by a day.  This happens irregularly and over time the discrepancies pile up, so there may be as many as three or four classes that are one or more days off schedule, each.  What this means is that, whereas before I could think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10”, now I must think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10.  Except the first and second classes, they’re on units 8 and 9, respectively, so they get those tests.  Also I’ve got to remember to double up on homework so we can get back on track”.

Don’t forget that there are always students dropping out of the system and new ones coming in (my school is a private academy, not a public school, so kids come and go pretty regularly).

Finally, lurking far beneath it all is the slippery, malevolent software I’m forced to use, crashing at random and throwing errors which read like black-magic incantations, and a vast, tangled maze of record keeping that creeps as silently as thorn bushes growing over the fast-disappearing walls of my sanity.

It’s a looooooooooot to keep track of, and things were slipping through the cracks.  Sometimes it was a really inconsequential detail, sometimes it was more serious, but it’s unlikely in any case that as I get older the consequences of my mistakes will get less problematic.

So I Got Organized, and this is what I learned.  What I’ve recounted here is all fairly abstract, and is meant to be more of a framework for thinking about your own organization efforts.  If you want specific step-by-step instructions, check out Zen Habits, Cal Newport, or the Get Things Done system.

It’s All About Complexity

1) The basic insight is that being organized is about dealing with the complexity of your job.  Your need for organization scales as a function of how many more details there are than you can hold in your mind.  The rest flows from this one idea.

2) You have to make things as easy as possible on future versions of yourself. There is an information-asymmetry between your now-self and your future-self; while your future-self will know many things you don’t, there are details you have right in front of you now which your future-self will probably have lost sight of.

For example, when I go into a classroom it’s filled with children who are laughing, talking, fighting, and otherwise raising hell.  Just calming them down enough to start class requires all my working memory and multi-tasking skills, which leaves nothing for remembering what papers I need to get from them or special things I need to tell them.  So I make a to-do list (discussed more below) with anything on it that must be remembered.  When I sit down to calmly think through my day before classes begin, I’m not surrounded by screaming children, but I will be later.  I do my future-self a favor by clearly writing out everything he’ll need to do so he can focus on the kids.   During class I do my even-more-future-self a favor by taking notes on class problems, flow, results of things I tried, etc., so that he can look back on what I’ve written in a few weeks and draw insights from it, long after he’s forgotten the details.

3) As much as possible, try to carve tasks at their joints, or at natural stopping points.  Sometimes you have no choice but to stop right in the middle of something, but you can minimize mistakes by taking your daily workload, figuring out the smallest units it can be broken into, and knocking them out one by one.

This is not as trivial as it sounds.  Most of the mistakes I was making were a result of very small, very preventable omissions or filing errors.  For example, I might come in and see a huge stack of papers I need to grade.  Before returning the papers to the students I must both grade and enter the scores.  You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to input the scores, especially if I stop to check Facebook after grading.  This is bad because it pisses off the parents and it’s nigh-impossible to get something back from a student once it’s disappeared into the abyss of their backpacks.

I’ve eliminated this class of errors by establishing two habits: one, I carve the task at it’s joints, always grading and inputting scores for a class before moving on, and two, every so often I take ten minutes to review the scores I’ve input for all my classes to check for gaps.

3) A little bit of redundancy is necessary and desirable.  This is especially true if you’re in a job where no one is double checking you on the details (I figure most jobs are this way).  Keeping two different sets of records, particularly for things you do infrequently, will let you cross-check yourself and prevent you from getting too far off track.

An example of good redundancy is carefully recording the dates.  For each class I have a homework sheet with a grid on it that has a list of sudents’ names.  When I have a class, the date goes in three places: on the homework sheet, on the syllabus for the class, and on my to-do list.  This may seem like overkill, but it means that I can figure out in seconds what I taught on a given day, which students were absent, which ones did their homework, and what I should’ve received from them.  This has proven enormously useful when new students have joined our school, or kids have been absent for a few weeks and needed to catch up, or when something is missing and I’ve got to track it down, etc.  In addition, if I mistakenly write down the wrong date or put a score in the wrong column or something, I can use the redundant information to notice and correct the error.

To put it another way: you’re going to regret not writing something down ten times as often as you’ll regret writing it down.

4) Line-of-sight and spatial arrangement matter.  If I’ve got a lot on my plate, the things I can’t see might as well not exist.

In “The Intelligent Use of Space“, David Kirsh argues that space is a resource like time or memory which can be used with varying degrees of effectiveness.  He provides an example of good use of space through the seemingly-mundane activity of preparing a salad.  One subject carefully laid all the vegetables she’d sliced into neat little rows.  That may not seem clever, but by arraying her workspace in this fashion she could quickly assess how much of each type of vegetables she had, allowing her to add vegetables as needed and ensuring she didn’t run out of anything.  This would not be the case if she’d piled everything into a heap.  (Read the paper for a lot more discussion, it’s actually a pretty interesting topic.)

Structuring the environment allows you to offload some of what you would be doing in your head into the environment, lightening your load a bit and making mistakes less probable.  By sorting my papers into ‘graded’ and ‘not graded’, I can tell at a glance where I’m at in my day; by grouping papers from each class and each level together over time,  I can tell at a glance where I’m at in the semester (and I can find anything I need to).

You know how I guarantee the trash gets taken out?  I put that shit right by the door.  I don’t have to remember because, in some sense, the memory is stored in my environment. As long as my eyes are working the job will get done, no matter how absent-minded I may be on a given day.  The same applies for files, books, tools, or anything else I’m going to need often.  And this applies in reverse: don’t leave a browser with Reddit open because it’ll catch your eye and distract you.

5) To-do lists are powerful, and you should make use of them.  I didn’t appreciate this when I was in high school and the first half of college, but in a world where dozens of things compete for my attention, having a single place where I keep track of the most essential activities is a huge boost to productivity.  The effect is even greater when it becomes an ingrained habit.  At least in my case, I find it easier to focus on tasks, because when I have an idea or think of something I have to do, I just jot it down and return to work.  I no longer fret about whether or not I will remember to do it later.  Further, seeing the list and seeing one item after another being crossed off of it creates a productivity inertia which virtually ensures that I’ll get more work done.  And I can quickly re-prioritize tasks, say, choosing to knock out a couple of emails before I take a break for dinner because I know it’ll only take ten minutes.

There is a small downside: these days I find it difficult to remember to do something if I haven’t put it on a to-do list.  But given how cheap paper is and how everyone’s smartphones has a to-do list feature, this is a pretty small price to pay for having a clear plan of attack when approaching my daily workload.

From Here to Organized

It’s no doubt obvious how points 2) – 5) are really just elaborations on point 1).  Your need for organization is going to vary directly as a function of how much your job’s complexity swamps your ability to deal with it.

Once I realized this, and had gotten sufficiently frustrated with myself for making silly mistakes, actually getting organized wasn’t that hard.  The only two steps were figuring out what tools I needed to impose some order and being consistent enough to stick with it.  For my job I needed a general-purpose notebook where I keep my to-do lists and notes, and a bunch of files.  Over time I’ve made small adjustments here and there, and I’ve also gotten a good bit more organized at home (though I’ve been applying this information more haphazardly).

While I’m sure there’s volumes more that could be said about organization, this framework has helped me see the purpose of getting organized and how to do it.  As time goes on I’m only finding more reasons and more ways to not let the details get the better of me.

Excellence, Warped Incentives, and Mutually Assured Destruction: Edge 2013 Questions, III

33) Michael Norton worries that the spread of science news through social media will have two adverse effects.  The first is that much of what gets passed around in social media is not the highest-quality science being done.  The second is that the source of research gets incorporated by people into their judgement of its quality.  If you were watching Fox News, would you be more likely to trust the reporting on a study that was anti-gun or one that was pro-gun?  Probably the former, as it runs counter to the bias people associate with that media outlet.

Science, Culture, Social Media

34) Jessica Tracy looks at the high-profile deception cases of Jonah Lehrer, Lance Armstrong, and Dietrich Stapel to examine a deeper problem which is fundamental to human nature — that of hubristic pride.  Hubristic pride is different from triumph because it is not earned and instead acts as a cover for other emotional issues.  She thinks the solution might lie in developing technology that is better able to catch liars and in more rigorously fact-checking stories — especially feel good success stories — which seem too good to be true.  They just might be.

Culture, Psychology

35) Haim Harari lays out seven areas in which mismatches between science and democracy give us enormous cause for worry.  These include the fact that technology is shortening attention spans while problems are spanning longer time periods, that skills which make one electable are not skills which make one an effective leader, that many senior decision makers have not the slightest understanding of current technology, and so on.

Science, Politics

36) Bruce Sterling thinks that one thing we should not be worried about is the Singularity.  Many are familiar with those who predict a coming age of self-improving machines which rapidly catapult into superhuman stratospheres of intelligence, greatly exceeding our ability to predict and control them.  Sterling is not concerned, however, as there are no major signs that we’re any closer to self aware machines or nonbiological minds than we were in the ‘60’s.

Singularity, Technology

37) Vernor Vinge is worried about good old-fashioned Mutually Assured Destruction, which he thinks is distinguished by the fact that it is relatively likely in the next few decades and capable of destroying civilization.  To be as prepared as possible, we should plan carefully around the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction and study the early dynamics of the 20th centuries most destructive conflicts.  There are parallels to our current situation, he contends, in the tangle of alliances for example, and by better understanding what leads to global conflict we can try to avoid it.

Destruction, politics

38) Frank Wilczek is worried that many opportunities are not being seized upon, and cautions us to protect ourselves from the distractions of never-ending geopolitical conflicts and fundamentalism in its various guises.


39) Sam Harris begins by describing the perverse set of incentives which face a hypothetical young man who has just been sentenced to serve time in prison.  He believes that misaligned incentives underlie many of the failures of businessmen, politicians, and humans generally.  One titanic challenge for this and future generations is building cultural norms, institutions, and laws which are saner and better than we are.

Culture, Policy, Economics

40) Lee Smolin is worried that many of his fellow physicists trying to solve open cosmological problems within the framework of quantum mechanics are barking up the wrong tree.  While quantum physics remains our most powerful explanatory theory, there are aspects of it which Smolin finds deeply dissatisfying.  He believes that making the next leap forward in our knowledge will require building a quantum physics which accounts for space and time.

Quantum Physics

41) P. Murali Doraiswamy notes that the American model of diagnosing and treating mental illness is being exported far and wide, and that this might not be a good thing.  A variety of studies have illustrated the immense difficulty in correctly identifying psychiatric disorders, and many are aware of how pill-happy America has become.  Given how different mental illness is in its manifestation, identification, and treatment across cultures, we should be worried about the global trend of using American (but still highly subjective) criteria and pharmaceuticals to treat illness.

Mental health, Psychology, Culture

42) Marco Iacaboni sees a real problem in how science publishing happens.  For the most part, the only studies that get published are the ones that show unexpected results.  What is not published as often are studies replicating other studies, or studies which fail to find any effect at all.  This makes the scientific literature a difficult basis upon which to draw conclusions, which is a big problem for those involved in the day-to-day of research science.


43) Andrew Lih applauds the social-media fueled rise of the digital public square, in which billions of people have conversations with each and share content on a massive scale.  For a variety of legal and technical reasons, however, many people, both creators of content and those interested in studying it, are simply unable to access the treasure trove of information being generated.  The fact that such a potential goldmine will remain a sprawling wilderness for the foreseeable future should worry us.

Social Media, the internet

44) Erik R. Weinstein thinks too much has been made out of the pursuit of excellence, and that what has been lost in the process is a place for the sort of free-wheeling unmanageable genius which has lead to many of our biggest breakthroughs.

Excellence, Psychology

45) Richard Foreman believes that the act of picking problems to worry about is problematic because it focuses human thinking too much.  If we defocus for a moment then perhaps our minds will be able to generate a solution.

Art, Culture

46) Arianna Huffington is afraid that people are suffering from too much stress.  She makes the case that stress is a major contributor to long-term health problems and is expensive to boot.  Luckily, the cheapest solutions treat the causes of stress rather than its effects.  Practices like meditation and yoga, along with good sleeping habits, can go a long way in treating stress.


47) Xeni Jardin finds the fact that more progress hasn’t been made in the war on cancer distressing, particularly because a lot of attention and effort has been devoted to the problem.

Cancer, Health

48) Christine Finn believes that enhances in technology might cause us to lose touch – literally.  In a world filled with touch-screen smartphones, there is less and less for the hand to do.  But she notes that there are many activities, like cooking, which are still widely done by hand and which provide tactile stimulation.