Profiting From The Written Word

– Mentorbox is a new subscription-based service which sends customers a monthly box containing interesting books filled with study sheets, detailed notes, summaries, and the like.

– Alain De Botton’s School of Life has a bibliotherapy service in which people are guided to penetrating works of literature that grapple with whatever problems they’re currently facing. Feeling depressed? — here is a list of ten of the greatest books talking about happiness/meaning/suicide/etc. Oh, and we’re eager to help you apply those messages to your unique situation for $100/hr.

– Bill Gates famously locks himself away for two weeks in an isolated cottage to read books which he believes will add value to his business.

– I once read an article (from The Economist, I think) which opined that businesses should forego generic team-building exercises in favor of having employees read and discuss books as a way of articulatinga shared vision.

Maria Popova famously makes a living reading awesome books and sharing their lessons on how to live well.

– There are entire college curricula geared toward the Great Books. For a long time this was the way of educating a society’s elite.

—-

Surely it should be possible to combine these business models in some way, right? You could have a monthly subscription service which sends you books and notes a la mentorbox, but maybe there could be different ‘tracks’; instead of only receiving books about productivity, you might also opt to receive books about happiness, intentionality, adventure, etc. Each month you could switch your focus depending on how you’re feeling and what your needs are. For an additional fee you could get 1-on-1 coaching, maybe even with the author if they’re still alive.

Offer a special package to businesses interested in a company reading list. Work with the CEOs to devise a company worldview and then have your professional readers build a curriculum on that basis. Have your own space for businesses wanting to do retreats — and charge $10,000 for two weeks, with unlimited individual and group coaching.

 

I can’t think of a better than job than ‘professional reader’.

Does Biology Drive ‘Pebble Formation’ in Ideologies?

In ‘pebble form ideologies‘ I advanced the idea that over time information topologies degrade into much smaller ‘pebble forms’ which are are recognizably religious in nature, and I stipulated that part of what drives this process are ‘religion-shaped grooves’ worn deep into mammalian nervous systems. Elsewhere a commenter challenged this notion, questioning why I invoked biology as an explanation when I might instead assume this phenomenon to be an artifact of language.

My reply is that humans exhibit a property known as ‘hyper-active agency detection (HAAD)’, which is a tendency to posit agents as the cause for unknown phenomena instead of, say, the interactions of underlying components. If this were not the case, and  language were to blame for HAAD, we might expect there to be cultures whose members don’t exhibit this property. I’m unaware of a single case in which this is true. Even in situations where a mechanistic causal relationship is obvious (i.e. ‘the wall fell down because a rock hit it’) the ultimate cause is almost always assumed to be the will of some god. This is true despite the staggering diversity of the world’s languages.

That’s why I think the reliable degradation of even secular worldviews into quasi-religious ones is rooted in biology and not (solely) in language.

The Ultrapraxists

Thanks to an invite from my good friend Jeffrey Biles I was recently able to participate in a weekend session of Sebastian Marshall’s ‘ultraworking pentathlon‘.

The pentathlon consists of five ‘cycles’, with each cycle broken into two parts: an uninterrupted 30-minute work period followed by a 10 minute break. Before each cycle you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I plan on accomplishing?
  2. How will I begin?
  3. What hazards are present?
  4. What are my energy and morale like?

And after each cycle you ask yourself these questions:

  1. Did I accomplish my goal?
  2. Were there any hazards present?
  3. How will I improve for my next cycle?
  4. What are my energy and morale like?

Additionally, at the beginning of a the pentathlon you ask yourself this set of questions just once:

  1. What’s my first priority today?
  2. Why is this important for me?
  3. How will I know when I’ve finished?
  4. Any dangers present (procrastination etc.)?
  5. Estimated number of cycles required?
  6. Is my goal concrete or subjective?

And of course when you finish you debrief with this list of questions:

  1. What did I get done this session?
  2. How does this compare to my normal output?
  3. Where did I consistently get bogged down? Is this part of a pattern?
  4. What big improvement can I make in future cycles?

So each individual cycle is bracketed with before and after questions, and the whole macro-structure is bracketed with before and after questions. At first glance this may look like it would be very tedious and distracting, but once you get used to it it only requires a few seconds to complete.

Though this is just an adaptation of the familiar Pomodoro method, the questions form a metacognitive framework which confers several advantages:

First, asking questions like ‘why is this important to me’ is a great way to orient towards a task. Once I get focused it’s often not difficult to stay motivated hour-to-hour, but it can be very difficult to stay motivated day-to-day. Reminding myself of why I’ve chosen to work on a project at the start of each session helps to mitigate this problem.

Second, it encourages frequent reflection on the learning process and facilitates rapid iteration of new techniques, preserving those that work and discarding those that don’t. It’s easy to have a great idea for an improvement in your work process but to then to get so absorbed in actually working that you either forget to implement the idea or you implement it but don’t notice whether it actually works.

These are non-trivial improvements. If the mind can be thought of as a manifold with attention and motivation flowing through it like liquids, then we can think of mantras, visualization, and a host of other ‘self-improvement’ techniques as being akin to engineering depressions in the manifold towards which those liquids flow. Simply wanting to form a habit often isn’t enough, for example, so building a mantra stack around the habit is like putting a bowling ball on a trampoline: everything is more likely to drift toward the new default behavior. Ultraworking is a scaffold making this process quicker and more efficient. Good ideas can be tested and their results measured in just a few cycles while you simultaneously probe for larger regularities in your output and get actual work done. It’s great!

The development of the ultraworking pentathlon places Sebastian Marshall squarely in the company of thinkers like Cal Newport and Scott Young (hereafter MYN et al.), whose stratospheric achievement is built on the consistent application of simple, pretty-obvious-in-retrospect techniques. This contrasts with figures like Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was one of the most prodigious mathematicians to have ever lived. By his own account he would dream of Hindu Gods and Goddesses while complex mathematics unfolded before his eyes. Decades after his untimely death people are still finding uses for the theorems in his legendary notebooks.

What can a monkey like me learn from a mind like that? Not much. But I can learn a ton from MYN et al. Because, while these guys are very smart, I’m pretty sure Gods aren’t downloading math into their brains while they sleep, and yet they still manage to write books, run businesses, prove new theorems, have kids, and stay in shape.

As valuable as the Ramanujans of the world are, MYN et al. might be even more valuable. Their bread and butter consists of:

  1. ‘block off as much time as possible to work on hard problems because switching tasks is distracting’
  2. ‘Summarize concepts in your own words because then you’ll remember them better’
  3. ‘Do Pomodoros, but also ask yourself some questions before and after to stay on track’
  4. etc…

Anyone smart enough to read is smart enough to do that. This means that while Ramanujan can do mathematics that twenty other people on Earth can even understand, MYN et al. can raise the average productivity of tens of thousands of people, maybe by orders of magnitude in extreme cases.  I’m not positive that makes their net positive impact bigger than Ramanujan’s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.

Any group of thinkers that important should have a name, and here’s my proposal: The Ultrapraxists. ‘Praxis’ comes from Latin and refers to ‘action’ or ‘practice’ (think: orthopraxy). I kicked around a few different ideas for this title, but since Sebastian Marshall calls his technique ‘ultraworking’ and Scott Young just published a book on ‘ultralearning’ I settled on ‘ultrapraxist’.

Read ultrapraxy and learn from it; 2017 could be the most productive year of your life!

Literary Criticism as Applied Apophenia

Growing up I had far more books than friends, and have been writing regularly since I was about seventeen. In high school I was a voracious reader of “the classics”; with the lamp on late into the night I’d turn the pages of Hemingway and Dickens, not caring to wait for the English class in which they’d be taught. Owing to some high test scores I started college studying masterpieces of world literature with more advanced students, which necessitated much in the way of paper writing and classroom debate.

So it may be a surprise to learn that I’ve never had much patience for literary criticism. Upon hearing someone say “the author is using the bridge as a metaphor to…” or “the lion’s jaw is clearly an expressive vehicle for…”, I would think to myself, how could anyone possibly know that? Yes, a bridge could be a metaphor, but it could also just, y’know, be a bridge.

Now, literary criticism is a vast field and I admit to having explored little of it. But I have had many friends who enjoy literature and film, a nontrivial fraction of which were themselves steeped in the relevant theory. In an honest effort to understand I’ve often asked them about the basis of their interpretations, but they’ve rarely provided answers which I found satisfactory.

But with time and experience I’ve learned much. This essay is an attempt to answer my younger self’s skepticism by providing two different mechanisms which can justify the literary critic’s perception of metaphorical significance.

Semi-permeable cognitive membranes

I’ve written before about the fact that human introspection is shallow and much of what’s going on between our ears must be inferred. If we envision the mind as a kind of machine then many of its components are submerged under water and can only be understood indirectly. Further, the cognitive processes utilized for things like crafting a story are not cleanly partitioned from each other.

A corollary of the foregoing is that layers of meaning and metaphor can creep into a work even if the author fails to realize this. I see two ways this could happen, the first being through what may be called “leaky empathy”.

As an author tries to model characters and situations they may themselves begin to drift into corresponding emotional states. The process of writing about a group of horribly oppressed villagers preparing to travel through the forest surrounding their town could well give rise to feelings of despair or anger, albeit probably mild versions. If so, when the author conjures up an image of the forest their brains will be more likely to produce one that is dark, caliginous, and perhaps vaguely sinister.

The setting has become a metaphor for the internal states of the characters even though the author may not be remotely aware of this dynamic.

Second, and for basically the same reason, a work might reflect an author’s convictions and knowledge despite being ostensibly unrelated to the work through what may be called “leaky concepts”.

Imagine an author has just spent a year thinking about how Communism is/isn’t the greatest/worst idea anyone has ever had. When the same author sits down to design a world and plan out a story arc, is there any serious chance they’ll be able to keep these political beliefs from influencing their depictions of kingdoms, economies, and states?

Of course many authors write with the explicit purpose of promulgating a worldview or exploring some complex theme. But even if an author fails to see the lessons implicit in their work, that does not mean that the lessons aren’t there.

Reflective patternicity 

There was supposed to be some rational explanation to justify the mumbo-jumbo. Left-hemisphere pattern-matching sub-routines amped beyond recognition; the buggy wetware that made you see faces in clouds or God’s wrath in thunderstorms, tweaked to walk some fine line between insight and pareidolia. Apparently there were fundamental insights to be harvested along that razor’s edge, patterns that only Bicamerals could distinguish from hallucination.

-Peter Watts, “Echopraxia”

Another corollary to the shallowness of human introspection is that you may be surprised by the contents of your own consciousness. Sometimes the only way to explore your mind is to twist dials until lights start coming on.

Everyone has had the experience of being unusually moved by a song they’ve heard many times before. If a loved one has just passed away, then heightened emotional sensitivity is to be expected. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes, life is progressing as normal and a snatch of conversation, the light of the sun reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper, or a memory from childhood grabs hold of you and stops you dead in your tracks. Besides being profound and worth experiencing for their own sake these moments also hint at a range of emotional states which most people don’t realize they’re capable of.

If you’re tempted to resist my claim that you don’t know yourself as well as you believe, read through this characteristically thoughtful post from Scott Alexander. It relates the story of a boy who lived his entire life without a sense of smell and didn’t realize it until his late teens. This despite the fact that he used all sorts of olfactive expressions like saying fresh bread “smells good” or teasing his sister by telling her she stinks.

But how was he to know that his sensory experience was different from anyone else’s? He can’t borrow someone else’s nose. He can’t just open a neural command line, run ‘$ grep feelz.txt’, and get back a schematic of his perceptual apparatus, complete with a little blinking cursor in the spots where there are gaps.

Put more plainly: there are numerous facets of your own mind that you aren’t aware of, so it’s worth reading poetry, listening to new music, and going to art museums, just to see how you react. Likewise, it can be useful to try and interpret a piece of literature just to see what your brain comes up with.

This first began to dawn on me in a major way while I was living in South Korea. I had just re-read Dancing With the Gods and it came to my attention that an unusually careful and prolific neopagan scholar had taken up residence in a town not far from mine. We spent a day hiking and discussing all manner of recondite issues in philosophy and religion.

It was a blast.

Near the end I half-jokingly made a disparaging remark about tarot cards. He calmly pulled a deck from his backpack and told me he always carries it with him. During the return walk he made a compelling argument for the utility of reading cards which was rooted entirely in a secular, non-mystical understanding of human psychology.

His reasoning was that superimposing an interpretive framework over cards as they come out can yield genuinely useful information. The mental dots being connected were there all along; the cards emphatically do not provide access to knowledge of the future. But, in the same way that you can agonize for weeks over an important decision and then realize that the answer is obvious after a five minute conversation, sometimes you just need that initial spark.

This is the key point behind Scott Alexander’s essay “Random Noise is Our Most Valuable Resource“. He specifically mentions tarot cards as a source of noise which can help break us out of our mental ruts. Vivian Caethe has tried to leverage this for profit by inventing a tarot deck calibrated for aspiring authors stricken with writer’s block. Both of these are examples of outwardly-focused processes which can also usefully be turned inward.

And when viewed a certain way I think literary criticism can be a similar sort of introspective scaffolding. Whether or not you believe that the author intended the lion’s jaw as a metaphor, seeing how your brain interprets it metaphorically can be akin to performing a literary version of the Rorschach test. I imagine that, as with tarot cards, doing this long enough will yield an increasingly subtle familiarity with the folds and wrinkles of your psychology.

It’s important not to get too excited about this. Just as people can form incorrect hypotheses about physical data, they can form incorrect ones about introspective data; all the usual rationalist warnings apply. But I have come to believe that this sort of “applied apophenia” can be a tool in the arsenal of those wanting a better understanding of their phenomenological field.

 

Machine Ethics is Still a Hard Problem

I have now read Digital Wisdom’s essay “Yes, Virginia, We *DO* Have a Deep Understanding of Morality and Ethics” twice, and I am unable to find even one place where the authors do justice to the claims they are criticizing.

With respect to selfishness they write:
“Followers of Ayn Rand (as well as most so-called “rationalists”) try to conflate the distinction between the necessary and healthy self-interest and the sociopathic selfish.”
This is simply untrue. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged work together to bring down a corrupt and parasitic system, John Galt refuses to be made an economic dictator even though doing so would allow him limitless power, and in The Fountainhead Howard Roark financially supports his friend, a sculptor, who otherwise would be homeless and starving.

Nothing — nothing — within Objectivism, Libertarianism, or anarcho-capitalism rules out cooperation. A person’s left and right hand may voluntarily work together to wield an axe, people may voluntarily work together to construct a house, and a coalition of multi-national corporations may voluntarily work together to establish a colony on the moon. Individuals uniting in the pursuit of a goal which is too large to be attempted by any of them acting alone is wonderful, so long as no one is being forced to act against their will. The fact that people are still misunderstanding this point must be attributed to outright dishonesty.

Things do not improve from here. AI researcher Steven Omohundro’s claim that without explicit instructions to do otherwise an AI system would behave in ways reminiscent of a human psychopath is rebutted with a simple question: “What happens when everyone behaves this way?” Moreover, the AI alarmists — a demimonde of which I count myself a member — “totally miss that what makes sense in micro-economics frequently does not make sense when scaled up to macro-economics (c.f. independent actions vs. cartels in the tragedy of the commons).”

I simply have no idea what the authors think they’re demonstrating by pointing this out. Are we supposed to assume that recursively self-improving AI systems of the kind described by Omohundro in his seminal “The Basic AI Drives” will only converge on subgoals which would make sense if scaled up to a full macroeconomic system? Evidently anyone who fails to see that an AI will be Kantian is a fear-mongering Luddite.

To make the moral turpitude of the “value-alignment crowd” all the more stark, we are informed that “…speaking of slavery – note that such short-sighted and unsound methods are exactly how AI alarmists are proposing to “solve” the “AI problem”.”

Again, this is just plain false. Coherent Extrapolated Volition and Value Alignment are not about slavery, they’re about trying to write computer code which, when going through billions of rewrites by an increasingly powerful recursive system still results in a goal architecture which can be safely implemented by a superintelligence.

And therein lies the rub. Given the title of the essay, what exactly does our “deep understanding of morality and ethics” consist of? Prepare yourself, because after you read the next sentence your life will never be the same:

At essence, morality is trivially simple – make it so that we can live together.”
I know, I know. Please feel free to take a moment to regain your sense of balance and clean up the blood loss that inevitably results from having such a railroad spike of thermonuclear insight driven into your brain.

In the name of all the gods Olde, New, and Forgotten, can someone please show me where in the voluminous less wrong archives anyone says that there won’t be short natural-language sentences which encapsulate human morality?

Proponents of the thesis that human values are complex and fragile are not saying that morality can’t be summarized in a way that is comprehensible to humans. They’re saying that those summaries prove inadequate when you start trying to parse them into conceptual units which are comprehensible to machines.

To see why, let’s descend from the rarefied terrain of ethics and discuss a more trivial problem: writing code which produces the Fibonacci sequence. Any bright ten year old could accomplish this task with a simple set of instructions: “start with the numbers 0 and 1. Each additional number is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. So the sequence goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…”

But pull up a command-line interface and try typing in those instructions. Computers, you see, are really rather stupid. Each and every little detail has to be accounted for when telling them which instructions to execute and in which order. Here is one python script which produces the Fibonacci sequence:


def fib(n):

    a,b = 1,1
    fib_list = []
    for i in range(n):
        fib_list.append(a)
        a,b = b, a+b
    return fib_list

You must explicitly store the initial values in two variables or the program won’t even start. You must build some kind of iterating data structure or the program won’t do anything at all. The values have to be updated and stored one-at-a-time or the values will appear and disappear. And if you mess something up, the program might start throwing errors, or worse, it may output a number sequence that looks correct but isn’t.

And really, this isn’t even that great of an example because the code isn’t that much longer than the natural language version and the Fibonacci sequence is pretty easy to identify. The difficulties become clearer when trying to get a car to navigate city traffic, read facial expressions, or abide by the golden rule. These are all things that can be explained to a human in five minutes because humans filter the instructions through cognitive machinery which would have to be rebuilt in an AI.

Digital Wisdom ends the article by saying that detailed rebuttals of Yudkowsky and Stuart Russell as well as a design specification for ethical agents will be published in the future. Perhaps those will be better. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not particularly hopeful.

Black Lives *Do* Matter

In the wake of the recent Dallas shootings Facebook is ablaze with memes to this effect:

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The rhetoric of the BLM movement and the overall tone of their outrage leads me to believe that they consider white people, and especially white law enforcement, to be one of the single biggest threats to black people.

I don’t buy this, and I want to explain why by bracketing the data on police shootings with more general data on inter- and intra-racial homicide. Unfortunately the most recent (mostly) complete data I could find is from 2013, but I don’t think that’s a serious challenge to my thesis.

How many black people were killed by police in 2013? From killedbypolice.net [1] I count 181 black males and 7 black females killed between the months of May and December. That’s 23.5 per month, so let’s round that up to 24 and add this many deaths for the months of January, February, March, and April. That yields a total of 284 (188 + (4 x 24)).

To be safe let’s round that up to 300. And, for the sole purpose of disadvantaging my argument, I’m going to arbitrarily double that number to 600.

Bear in mind, this assumes each and every black person killed by the police in 2013 was innocent and includes those cases when the officer responsible for killing a black person was also black.

From the Expanded Homicide Data Table 6 from the FBI [2] I count 2,245 intra-racial black homicides and 189 white-on-black homicides. Let’s round the latter figure up to 200 and round the former figure down to 2,200. Again, just to disadvantage my argument.

That makes (600 blacks killed by cops) + (200 blacks killed by whites) / (2,200 blacks killed by blacks) = (800)/(2,200) = 36%.

Even when I have stacked the statistical deck against my argument in every conceivable way the total number of cop-on-black and white-on-black homicides is only a little over a third of the number of black-on-black homicides. If you remove my rounding and doubling, it’s more like 21%.

The conclusion seems inescapable: by far the single biggest threat to black people is black people. Not cops, not whites, not privilege, but other black people.

So far I haven’t found anyone who takes issue with my statistical analysis, but one objection that keeps cropping up is that none of the above is relevant because what BLM supporters are angry with is a pervasive and systemic bias against black people in modern society. When making this claim there is usually the implication, sometimes stated explicitly, that this bias is what is driving higher rates of criminality and even intra-racial homicide.

Now, my degree is in psychology. I took classes on evolutionary psychology, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and social cognition, and have read very widely in these fields in the years since I’ve graduated because I have a deep-seated interest in improving my ability to reason. I am aware of the fact that people have a natural tendency to trust those who look like them, that biases can be unconscious and nearly impossible to perceive, and that when summed across an entire majority population can exert major pressure on a minority population.

But I have two problems with this reply. The first is that so far every Leftist with whom I’ve discussed this issue seems comfortable treating ‘systemic bias’ as though it’s a universal and totally unambiguous explanation for every interracial disparity we might observe. Not long ago a Leftist made the claim that despite similar rates in drug usage blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession. I noted that patterns of drug use could be different even while rates of drug use could be the same. That is, if black people are more likely to sell and use drugs on a street corner with their friends while whites are more likely to do so in their basement, it isn’t surprising that they’d be arrested more often.

I want to be clear here: I have no idea if this hypothesis is true or not. While I have presented this hypothetical a number of different times I have always made it clear that it is conjecture and nothing more. What disturbs me is simply that I haven’t yet encountered a Leftist who has even momentarily considered this possibility. If they observe an inter-racial difference in arrests for drug possession, white-on-black racism must be the explanation, QED.

My second problem with ‘systemic bias’ as sole explanation for intra-racial violence is that it doesn’t account for why other historically oppressed groups seem to have assimilated into modern society without astonishing amounts of violence in their communities.

The Irish and the Chinese were both exploited and reviled in the early years of their immigration to the United States. The former group had it so bad that even many ex-slaves noted that their lives were much better than those of the Irish, who were used to do work considered too dangerous or difficult for valuable slaves [4]. And Wikipedia notes that [5]:

Chinese immigrants in the 19th century worked as laborers, particularly on the transcontinental railroad, such as the Central Pacific Railroad. They also worked as laborers in the mining industry, and suffered racial discrimination at every level of society. While industrial employers were eager to get this new and cheap labor, the ordinary white public was stirred to anger by the presence of this “yellow peril“. Despite the provisions for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, political and labor organizations rallied against the immigration of what they regarded as a degraded race and “cheap Chinese labor”. Newspapers condemned the policies of employers, and even church leaders denounced the entrance of these aliens into what was regarded as a land for whites only. So hostile was the opposition that in 1882 the United States Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China for the next ten years. This law was then extended by the Geary Act in 1892. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.[1] These laws not only prevented new immigration but also brought additional suffering as they prevented the reunion of the families of thousands of Chinese men already living in the United States (that is, men who had left China without their wives and children); anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women.[2]

And yet both groups have more or less successfully become a part of modern America.

A further instructive example comes from the relationship between the Koreans and the Japanese. Throughout the history of the Pacific Rim the Japanese have repeatedly invaded the Korean peninsula and abused the Korean people. The most recent such episode occurred in the early years of the Twentieth Century, during which Japan occupied Korea, seized control of its government, and committed the usual slew of atrocities that tends to accompany such behavior [3].

This has lead to a significant and understandable distrust of the Japanese by the Koreans. But I can attest from personal experience that Korea is an exceptionally nice place to live, filled with courteous and good-natured people who seem not to have taken to killing each other as frequently as American blacks.

Doubtless racism does still exist and is a factor in rates of inter- and intra-racial homicide. But I think the above makes a compelling case that these simply can’t be the only major factors at work. I truly believe that black lives matter. That’s why I hope BLM will take an honest look at their own communities and search for ways that they make grassroots improvements there.

***

[1] http://www.killedbypolice.net/kbp2013.html

[2] https://www.fbi.gov/…/expanded_homicide_data_table_6_murder…

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korea_under_Japanese_rule

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Chinese_Americans

Using a Mantra Stack

For a couple of months now I have been experimenting with different protocols for designing mantras and visualization exercises, combining them into ‘stacks’ like one might do with nootropics, and nestling them into ritual structures which make them more likely to become habits. As I have now had the opportunity to explore this territory under a variety of conditions, both favorable and unfavorable, I feel prepared to discuss my results.

My theory is that these techniques work because they create depressions in a cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. This is probably not even close to the full story, but it seems a useful enough metaphor for present purposes and not obviously wrong in any way, so it will be my point of departure.

Traditionally pursuits like this would have been undertaken in a religious, not secular, context; some cognitive operations are best performed via what I call themythopoetic command line interface[1], and religions have a monopoly on this. The ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding religions provide are important because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspective algorithms are shallow and lack teeth.

That having been said there is no dogma or metaphysical commitment associated with the exercises I describe below. To the best of my knowledge they are compatible with existing religious beliefs and with an absence of such belief.

The First Steps

When I began, I did two mantra sessions daily, one in the morning and one at night. They were structured as follows:

Morning:

  1. Lit a candle[2], took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan bootstrap sequence”
  3. Spoken: “I will be like water in my process, earth in my resolve, fire in my intensity, and air in my presence”. This mantra is henceforth “The element meditation”.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am distracted. A mind that wanders is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the colors of a prism become like a knife when focused, so too does the light of my mind converge upon the task at hand.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Distraction.”
  5. Written: some habit mantra. Generally these consisted of a short phrase that I would write longhand between 15-25 times. An example: “I will spend my last hour reading by candlelight”.
  6. Visualized: The best version of the coming day that I could imagine, with a special emphasis on moving quickly and efficiently from task to task.

Night:

  1. Lit a candle and took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan shutdown sequence”.
  3. Spoken: The element meditation, same as before.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am frustrated. Frustration is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the fog clears and lays bare the world so too does my frustration dissipate, leaving me to think and to act.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Frustration”.
  5. Written: some habit mantra, usually about getting up early the next day.
  6. Spoken: “if/then”s, i.e. “if I wake up tired, then I will still get up”.

Now some of this may seem grandiose and overblown. Is it really necessary to begin with a phrase like “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”? Surely I don’t consider myself a Titan, after all, and what purpose is served by styling myself after the four classical elements?

Perhaps the more interesting part of the answer to that question is that many aspects of the mantra stack just occurred to me. Once I began tinkering with my practice certain phrases began suggesting themselves as natural extensions of what I was already doing. I still remember how the element meditation kept coming to mind, almost fully formed, until I finally decided to incorporate it into the stack.

The same is true of the opening phrase, “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”. After a few days it just felt like I needed a dedicated signal to myself that the mantra stack was beginning, and as soon as I noticed this feeling the sentence presented itself to me.

Furthermore, as time went on some of the mantras became accompanied by stylized hieroglyphic images. These days when I say the Litany Against Distraction I picture a man standing with a rainbow beginning about a foot behind him, the colors converging as they pass through his head to become a focused point of searing light about a foot in front of him. This too was something that occurred naturally and with little overt effort.

The rest of the answer is that I believe the best mantras have a solemn, lyrical quality that echoes other elements of the religious memeplex. Commandments, poetry, songs, and stories from religious traditions often feel like a cross between a haiku and an aphorism. They are weighty, but short and easy to memorize. They’re true, but general enough to be applicable across vast swaths of a person’s life.

At once the bow and the arrow; a heavy stone with a little handle; a linguistic seed that, like an acorn, contains an enormous folded structure than opens when fed on sun and rain. 

In other words, my mantras sound portentous because that’s how mantras are supposed to sound.

Evolution

As the months passed this stack received all number of stress fractures and consequently underwent many changes. For a little while I tried adding a third mantra session around noon, and even gave thought to mimicking the Islamic Salah by doing five sessions a day. At various times I experimented with including failure autopsies in the stack, and was happy with the results.

There’s an interesting idea lurking here: I would’ve loved to have had a program into which I could enter various parameters and time constraints for a given day and received back a customized mantra stack. Huge bonus points if it could use data from something like Thync to automatically adjust my stack when I’m feeling more frustrated or stressed.

Alas, with an increasingly busy schedule my practice gradually eroded until, these days, I usually just do the morning session. And I’ll be honest, I’ve begun to feel less focused, less centered, and a lot more irritable. So I’ve begun to experiment with a new mantra stack, and I’m thinking about ways of adapting it to the challenges which caused me to loosen my grip on my practice in the first place.

I think multiple daily sessions will be a lot more sustainable if they’re very short, on the order of 90 seconds. That’s not enough time to write anything but it is enough to light a candle, do a little chanting, and hopefully get most of the benefit out of the exercise. One or two sessions a day will be longer, and it is during these times that I’ll do the writing and habit work.

What Have I Learned?

There are a two important takeaways here. The first is that mantras are definitely effective. More than once I have found myself on the verge of losing my temper only to have the Litany Against Frustration play itself in my head, and the less I’ve worked through the stack the more often frustration has gotten the better of me.

The second is that my stack has naturally bifurcated into theoretical and applied segments. The theoretical side consists of the bootstrap sequence, the two litanies, and the element meditation. These are very abstract, not at all specific, and are more about reaffirming a worldview. Thus they are spoken while staring into candlelight and visualizing an associated hieroglyphic instead of being written down, which would take too long. The practical side consists of habits I’m trying to instill, and they are usually written long-hand in front of a candle while I visualize myself performing the action.

The above classification scheme can be usefully extended. The theoretical elements in the mantra stack are like “rudders” you can attach to an iceberg to do something vaguely like steering. The practical elements can be further categorized as “vice wedges” or “skyhooks”.

In “Deep Work” Cal Newport recommends waiting five minutes to get online when you really need a piece of information. This small temporal distance diminishes the reward signal you get from distraction, making it less tempting in the future. It drives a wedge between you and your vices. Skyhooks on the other hand are built for ascendancy, and can include any positive behavior you are trying to make into a habit. Yes, as usual, these semantic boundaries are semi-permeable.

Conclusion

The fact that exercises like these crop up in many different religious traditions, together with personal experience, are enough to convince me to continue with my experimentation.

More broadly, this essay can be construed as another push in my attempt to adapt the best parts of religion to secular use. But so far this has all been pretty tame, just some mantras and some candles.

There are hints from the Neopagan community that that this religious posturing can be taken much, much further. Indeed, the Gods may be nothing more than stable micro-personalities running on a devotee’s wetware, and summoning one no more a violation of a scientific worldview than imagining a conversation with a deceased loved one. What I’ve read indicates that in this form the Gods don’t rise to the level of a full-blown Tulpa, but they can be, engaging, frightening, and insightful.

I have begun to wonder if a talented enough deimancer could use rituals to erect a pantheon of entirely new, custom-built Gods. To what purpose could such a profound level of mental control be bent….?

Notes

[1] I coined the phrase “mythopoetic command line interface”. It works just the same as an actual command line interface, but in the language of dreams, symbols, art, and metaphor.

[2] Candles are a popular ritual accoutrement. My best guess for why this is: candles do in the visual channel what rain does in the auditory one. It’s a gentle, unobtrusive stimulus that is just intriguing enough to be an object of focus while leaving extra resources for visualizing or chanting.