Ancient Peoples Could Probably See Blue, But Cognitive Archaeology is Still Awesome

According to Richard Carrier, the proud holder of a PhD in ancient history, the speculations that ancient peoples couldn’t see blue is nonsense.

He points out that descriptions of blue-eyed barbarians can be found in the memoirs of Julius Caesar, that not only did ancient Greek have words distinguishing blue from green but roots for those words can be found all the back in Proto Indo-European, that blue “cobalt” glass was a hot commodity for thousands of years, and that blue objects are frequently depicted in classical art.

This discussion, however, is a great excuse to introduce the phrase-of-the-day: “Cognitive Archaeology“.

Cognitive archaeology is exactly what it sounds like: a field which harnesses various branches of science along with linguistics and psychology to try and piece together the unique worldview of a group of people from whatever cultural fragments remain.

For the intellectually adventurous, the most extreme cognitive archaeology I’m aware of is to be found in Julian Jayne’s surreal volume “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind“. He posits that ancient peoples were not conscious in the way we are today, and then makes a surprisingly difficult-to-dismiss case for this thesis.

These Failures Form a Ladder

It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re trying to do anything even remotely noteworthy your relationship to failure is going to have at least the following two characteristics:

  1. It’s guaranteed to happen.
  2. It’s rarely pleasant.

Building a constructive stance towards failure is therefore a crucial step in increasing the likelihood that any given project will succeed in the long term.

When I was younger I tended to view failures as unambiguously Bad Things, with the result that they tended to elicit in me profound feelings of frustration and anger. My current working hypothesis for why this happened is that somewhere along the way I internalized a very strong version of what’s called entity theory. In a nutshell, people’s attitudes towards learning and growth can usually be characterized as process oriented or results oriented. A person that believes they are successful in mathematics because of immutable personality traits are entity theorists, and those that believe their success derives from hard work and changeable factors are incremental theorists.

The efforts of entity theorists are often brittle because they tend to interpret failures as evidence that they simply aren’t up to completing the task they’re facing. Having assumed that they’ve been successful up to this point because they just ‘have a knack for it’, they are poorly equipped to deal with problems beyond their abilities. Incremental theorists, in contrast, will become invigorated in the face of exceptional challenges and redouble their efforts at improvement.

I have sub-hypotheses for why I ended up this way, but since it’s a complicated discussion I’ll defer it to a future post. Luckily, during the course of getting a degree in psychology, I learned about entity theory and incremental theory, and made a concerted effort to change the way I frame failures.

Now I think of them as forming parts of a ladder. Above me hangs a goal I’ve set for myself, and if I’ve chosen something difficult it’ll be well out of my reach. So I grasp, and I fall short.

But the grasping process isn’t a Boolean function with binary outputs corresponding to success and failure. Having grasped I have grown, and thus is a rung added to the ladder. With each iteration in this cycle the goal gets progressively larger in my vision and my grasps come up less short than they did before.

This does not mean that failures should be accepted without reflection. They represent an opportunity to learn, yes, but sadly most people seem to learn little or nothing from their failures.

Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t attempt to minimize failures. By all means, try as hard as you can to avoid failing altogether. Just know that life rarely works that way, and that failing is something that can be done productively and intelligently.

You must climb to success, incrementally, on the ladder built from your failures.

What To Do When You Feel Inadequate

There are times in life, usually when I’m struggling with a problem that I’m sure I’ll look back on as trivially easy, when I begin to feel a creeping sense of doubt in my own abilities.

I think to myself, “you are hoping to accomplish Big Dream X, and yet here you sit struggling to write a javascript program that prints out a chessboard”.

Concerns of this sort can be very difficult to brush aside, but when they happen to me, there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind:

1) Everything I’m good at I used to not be good at.

I don’t think it’s unfair or overblown to say that at the peak of my guitar playing abilities I was just a little shy of world class. Around the age of 21 or 22 I could easily handle Andy Mckee’s “Drifting”, and I even had a pretty convincing cover of Eric Johnson’s seminal “Cliffs of Dover” under my belt. But where I really dazzled was in my original compositions which, if you’ll permit me the indulgence of tooting my own horn a little, displayed a sensitivity and nuance that almost everyone who heard them found striking.

That’s not an assumption on my part. Back then it was a regular occurrence to perform at some college event and then be approached by a half-dozen people asking me questions and gushing about how they’d never heard anyone as skilled as me play in person.

Which is why it became easy, even for me, to forget how bad I was when I started and how hard I had to work to achieve what I did. I think I had been “playing” guitar for about two years before I even began to seriously practice. Even then, while my progress was fairly quick, it was far from spectacular.

The same guy who went on to excel musically spent many, many frustrating hours trying to get graceless fingers to coax something vaguely resembling music out of an uncooperative piece of wood. Perhaps the same guy who goes on to found a billion dollar company or helps reshape the foundations of AI theory will look back on those simple coding exercises and wonder why it ever seemed so hard.

This helps me put my struggles into context.

2) Constant failure is the price you pay for greatness.

A great way to avoid failure is to simply never try to do anything very hard. I could just start working at a Barnes and Noble, wait until I’m in middle management, and stay there for the next half century, and I bet I would experience very few embarrassing failures.

Since I’ve deliberately chosen not to take the easy way out, there’s no avoiding the fact that I’m going to bump up against my limits. I’m going to embark on a project that’ll wind up being too ambitious and at some point I’ll simply crash and burn.

But so what? Point me to anyone who has achieved great things, like solving a longstanding problem or remaking an industry, that also managed to avoid failure while they did so.

Can’t think of any? Me either.

The tricky part, of course, is remembering this when you’re actually in the middle of an ongoing crisis and you’re beset by self doubt.

3) Titans rarely feel like Titans

Sometime last year or so I was reading “Almost a Miracle”, a history of the Revolutionary War by John Ferling. It was fascinating overall, but one thing that stuck out was the insight it gave me into the personality of George Washington.

Washington is about the closest thing American history has to a mythical figure. And yet he spent his entire life feeling insecure because of his lack of formal education, and he repeatedly questioned his suitably for the role he was asked to play in the war.

This is the man that went up against one of the greatest empires in world history and won, all while unsure as to whether he had the personal resources, wit, and wherewithal to succeed.

Why should I expect my own accomplishments to come easily?


I’ll level with you: you’re going to fail. You’re going to feel inadequate. That’s what happens when you hold yourself to a high standard and reach for the best within you in an attempt to accomplish big things.

You have to know when to throw in the towel, of course; not every idea is worth pursuing. But the majority of people I’ve encountered err on the side of quitting far too soon. Finding someone with sub-optimally high levels of persistence and grit seems to be pretty rare.

There’s another thing I remind myself of, as a last resort, when I feel like giving up. It’s not something I say often or when I’m feeling depressed, but it’s nevertheless true, and sometimes you have to be the person who’ll say the tough things you need to hear.

After a while spent futilely groping toward a solution to a problem, when I want to just let go and sink into mediocrity, I’ll think to myself:

If this is all it takes to break you, you would never have been worthy of greatness anyway.

My Epistemic Status as of the end of 2015

The following is a list of things I learned or became more convinced of in 2015:

* The Christian god is real, and so are all the others, just not outside anyone’s head. Almost everyone I’ve ever come across, theist or atheist, misinterprets the implications of this.

Religions furnish both a ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding, and you need this because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspection is very shallow.

Some operations are best performed via the mythopoetic command line interface, and religions have a monopoly on this.

* Mantras, meditation, and visualizations work because they create depressions in your cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. The fact that these things are enthusiastically embraced by mushy flower-power hippies doesn’t mean they don’t work.

* I have a suspicion that attention is more poorly understood and more important than most of us realize. I think it might be the mechanism undergirding Sapir-Whorf effects, and I have noticed that ubermenschen like Richard Feynman, Elon Musk, and Josh Waitzkin are capable of a level of focus I can’t seem to reach.

We need a Dictionary of Internal Events in order to better categorize our failings of attention and target our interventions. We need a more concerted effort to understand the algorithms and circuitry undergirding attention so that we can develop ways of training it.

* Huge amounts of race-level differences in performance are attributable to race-level differences in genes. Conversely, almost none of the gender wage gap is attributable to structural discrimination.

* The division of labor should be applied to power. It kind of already is but nobody is honest about it. I’d rather live in a sovereign startup with a national CEO than a tepid democracy where every problem is addressed via an interminable carnival of special committees and hearings.

* Having learned more about the rise and fall of communism, I like the ideology even less.

* Proposed definition of ‘civilization’ : “a concatenation of black boxes”. Proposed definition of “culture”: “a constellation of Schelling points hanging in the space between two or more minds”.

* There is a such thing as social technology, and tradition is an example of it. The ‘black boxes’ I mentioned in the previous point can include technologies of this sort. The argument known as “Chesterton’s Fence” has teeth, at least if you don’t like Manticores.

* It is inappropriate to categorize systems on the basis of their being “fragile” or “robust”. Rather, think of them as exhibiting what I call ‘vector-dependent fragility’.

A rocket is designed to withstand many g’s of force and enormous temperatures upon reentry into the atmosphere, but if an o-ring is out of place the whole thing might explode.

If words in a language are mispronounced in one way it’s a regional dialect, if they’re mispronounced another way they are incomprehensible.

* The causal structure of a system can be more or less opaque. In cases where causality is well-understood you can be more daring. In cases where it’s not, you should be more cautious.

Or, when facing Knighting Uncertainty the proper response is Talebian Conservatism.

Or, maybe we shouldn’t be broadcasting messages into space for aliens to pick up because we have no clue what’s out there.

* Rather than thinking about emotions in gestalt, model them as hyperdimensional shapes with bulges, edges, corners, and wrinkles along different axes.

A dear friend of mine and I once spent the better part of an hour taking ‘ambition’ and breaking it down in terms of its ‘direction’, ‘magnitude’, and ‘volatility’. By conversation’s end we had both done this analysis on ourselves and thought about ways we could try and bring our efforts at being productive more in line with the natural shape of our ambition.

The connection to the idea for a Dictionary of Internal Events is probably obvious.

Maps Of Inner Worlds

[As of February 2017 this post is a repository of my thoughts on introspective vocabulary and any words I coin in the process of doing that thinking. Check back for updates]

Artist and filmmaker John Koenig is inventing a bunch of words to better capture various higher-order emotions. He calls it “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”. Here, ‘sorrows’ doesn’t have quite the traditional meaning, instead denoting:

  1. an unspoken intensity of feeling.
  2. a spark of transcendence that punctuates the flatlining banality of everyday life.
  3. a healthy kind of ache—like the ache in your muscles after hard exercise—that reminds you that your body exists.

Koenig  says that he has chosen to focus on emotions towards the negative, or at least bittersweet, end of the spectrum because positive ones tend to evaporate when we begin to inspect them.

He may or may not know this, but this notion has a basis in neurophysiology. Though it’s been a long time, I recall encountering research in college which claimed that the nervous system has fairly sharp and distinguishable modes corresponding to negative emotions but only a generalized mode for the warm glow of positive emotions.

Why in this subjective landscape is happiness a relatively uniform river flowing amongst sharply-distinguished nations of misery and melancholy?

Venturing some armchair evolutionary psychology, I’d suggest that it’s because negative emotions are more important for survival. When you’re happy things in life are probably going pretty well, and there just isn’t much need to have tools you can use to pick those feelings apart. If you have reason to be sad, miserable, or afraid, however, then having a way to parse these emotions and find their source could be advantageous.

This seems reasonably straightforward, but a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences advances the alternative hypothesis that positive affective states are inherently less variable and more similar than negative affective states, and thus are processed differently.

In addition to being a beautiful project, this has actual research relevance. All the natural languages I’m familiar with are fairly impoverished with respect to the introspective frameworks they provide. Rationality, reflectivity, and secular mysticism would be easier to teach if we had a shared vocabulary for certain kinds of internal experiences.

For example, Koenig made a word for an emotion I previously had to try to describe circuitously:

  • gnossienne, n., a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.

This has happened to me a handful of times throughout my life and it has always been an experience so powerful it borders on the religious. I was never able to capture exactly what it felt like, but now that I have a word for it, I can try cultivate it.


What then are some neologisms that might be useful to an aspiring rationalist?

How about a word for what happens when an important piece of information simply fails to make its way up to the level of your conscious awareness?

  • agnosis, n., A mental event during which something you should have considered simply fails to occur to you. Not a thought you’re actively flinching away from, but a bubble bursting well below the surface.

Two related phenomena occur when you do manage to avoid agnosis but then you miss some obvious corollary:

  • (model/affective) implicasia, n.,  Also known as implication blindness, implicasia occurs when you fail to consider one or more alternatives or possible outcomes of a situation. These arise from not understanding how a process or device works (‘model’ implicasia), or from emotions like frustration which interfere with cognition (‘affective’ implicasia).


While trying to think of a term for that part of the learning process in which you spend several hours thinking about a difficult problem and find yourself unable to clearly articulate the kind of progress you’ve made I wound up developing a taxonomy of different gnostic states:

  • Agnosis, n. — Lacking procedural or declarative gnowledge( 😉 ).
  • Semignosis, n. — The state in which the seeds of future gnosis are being sown but there is no current, specifiable increase in gnowledge.
  • Infragnosis, n. — Gnowledge which you didn’t know you had; the experience of being asked a random question and surprising yourself by giving an impromptu ten-minute lecture in reply.
  • Gnosis, n. — Having procedural or declarative gnowledge, and gnowing you have that gnowledge.
  • Misgnosis, n. — “Gnowing” something which turns out not to be true.
  • Supergnosis, n. — Suddenly grokking a concept, i.e. having an insight. Comes in a ‘local’ flavor (having an insight new to you) or a ‘global’ flavor (having an insight no one has ever had before).
  • Misinfragnosis, n. — Gnowledge you don’t gnow you had, but which (alas) ends up being untrue.
  • Gnostic phantom, n. — A false shape which jumps out at you because of the way an argument is framed or pieces are arranged; the mental equivalent of a Kanisza figure.
  • Saturated gnosis, n. — ‘Common gnowledge’
  • Saturated infragnosis, n. — ‘Common sense’, or gnowledge everyone has but probably doesn’t think about consciously unless asked to do so.

(This taxonomy could be extended a lot. If the idea behind ‘semignosis’ isn’t clear read the linked post for an in-depth example)

I’m sure many readers have fallen victim to ‘counterfactual drain’:

  • Counterfactual drain, n. — A decrease in motivation or mental energy arising from poring over possible alternatives. Counterfactual drain subsumes the colloquial notion of ‘analysis paralysis’ as a special case, but can also include bigger topics like ruminations over jobs not taken, romantic partners not pursued, etc.

Having long been a fan of Scott Young, Sebastian Marshall, Cal Newport, and similar writers I endeavored to make a label which captures what makes them awesome:

  • Ultrapraxists, n., Those who achieve greatness through the conscientious application of basic principles which are commonly known but too-rarely used (as opposed to those who achieve greatness primarily through stratospheric talents not available to more ordinary people.) See Also: “It’s Not Always About the Message”

Do you ever hear the voice of a parent, sibling, teacher, or spouse in your head, even years after they’re no longer a part of your life? What should we call that?

  • Soulshatter, n.,  A simulation of a significant person that you carry around with you. It can be a rich sub-personality that you regularly interact with or just a disembodied voice chiming in here and there with advice, admonishment, or commentary. See Also: Tulpa

Why does any of this matter? For the same reason that words always matter: like inventing a handle you can use to break off and carry around pieces of fog, words limn the contours of experiences, thoughts, and concepts, giving shape to the nebulous and making otherwise hard-to-pin-down things easier to teach, aim towards, or avoid.


Should We Care About Motives?

Imagine you have two people, one of whom is a known sociopath and the other of whom is an altruist, and both decide to build their own organic gardening communes.

They each have the same amount of money and a suitable plot of land, and both are able to complete their communes at around the same time. Moreover, let’s stipulate that in addition to the usual building inspections, special attention was paid to insuring that the sociopath’s commune has no hidden torture chambers or anything sordid like that.

Neither person stands to make any significant financial gains from this endeavor; the sociopath, however, has built his commune because the plot of land was desired by a hated rival and for complicated legal reasons the only thing he could get a permit to build was an commune, while the altruist just wanted to provide a place for people who don’t own shoes to raise free-range carrots or something.

Should we care why these two people built their communes? Isn’t the fact that the world now has more quality fruits and vegetables than it did before all that matters ?

In short: no, because motives are epistemically relevant.

It’s not like the altruist or the sociopath built their communes and then killed themselves. Both will go on to act in the future, and knowing why each of them did a certain thing, even when the outcome was the same in every way, will allow us to better predict what their future behavior will be.

It just isn’t feasible to partition off a subset of your motives indefinitely. Ted Bundy might be able to build a handful communes without torture chambers. But if he built a hundred, I’d lay long odds that you’d eventually find a torture chamber on one of them.

And, well, avoiding torture chambers seems like as good a reason as I can think of for trying to discover and track the underlying motives of other people.


Your Intelligence Isn’t Magical.

I’m writing a series of posts summarizing my views on the Intelligence Explosion, and the first claim I want to defend is that we should take seriously the possibility of human-level artificial intelligence because fundamentally human intelligence is not magic.

Human intelligence is the product of the brain, an object of staggering complexity which, nevertheless, is built up from thoroughly non-magical components. When neurons are networked together into more and more sophisticated circuitry, there is no point at which magic enters the process and gives rise to intelligence.

Furthermore, human intelligence is the product of the blind, brute-force search algorithm which is evolution. Organisms are born with random mutations into environments which act as fitness functions.  Beneficial mutations preserve themselves by leading to greater reproductive success while deleterious ones eliminate themselves by lowering reproductive success. Evolution slowly explores possibilities by acting on and changing existing DNA patterns.

Even without engineering oversight, evolution managed to produce Homo Sapiens, primates with the ability to reason across a wide variety of domains and use their intelligence in ways radically different from the uses for which it evolved.

This is not to imply that our intelligence is well understood; my impression is that great strides have been made in modeling brain activity, but we are surely still a long way from having probed these mysteries fully.

Nor does it imply that building a human-level intelligence will be easy. For decades now AI researchers and computer scientists have been trying, making progress in various narrowly defined tasks like chess, but still nowhere near achieving the creation of a general reasoner on par with humans.

Additionally, it doesn’t imply that a human-level AI must actually resemble human intelligence in any way. AI research is a vast field, and within it there are approaches which draw on neuroscience and mathematical psychology, and de novo approaches which want to build an AI ‘from the ground up’, as it were.

But don’t lose sight of this key fact: the intelligence which produced these words is a non-magical product of a brain made of non-magical components which was produced by a non-magical process. It is hard for me to see where or why a skeptic could draw a special line in the sand at the level of a human and say ‘machines won’t ever get this far’.



Luck I: Finding White Swans

Quoth the Master, great in Wisdom, to the Novice: “Ye, carry with thee all thy days a cheque folded up in your wallet.  For there may be many situations in which thou shalt have need of it.”

And the Novice, of high intelligence but lesser wisdom, replied, saying unto the Master: “Of what situations dost thou speak?”  

To which the Master replied: “imagine that thou dost come upon a nice piece of land, and wish to make a down payment on it. The real estate market moveth quickly in these troubled economic times, and you may soon find your opportunity dried up like dead leaves in summer.  What would you do?”  The Master, you see, did dabble in real estate development a little, and his knowledge was deep in these matters.  

The Novice thought for a moment, saying: “But always I carry with me a credit card.  Surely this is sufficient for my purposes.”

And the Master replied: “Thou knoweth not the ways of commerce.  Thinketh thee that all dealings are conducted within feet of a machine that can read credit cards?!”

The Novice knew the ways of Traditional Rationality and Skepticism, and felt it his duty to take the opposite stance to the Master, lest he unthinkingly obey an authority figure.  Undeterred, he replied, saying unto the Master: “But always I carry with me cash. Surely this is sufficient for my purposes.”

Upon hearing this, the Master did reply, incredulously: “Would thee carry with thee always an amount of cash equal to the reasonable asking price of a down payment for a piece of land?!”   

And lo, the Novice did understand, though he could not put it into these words, that the Master did speak of a certain stance with respect to the unknown.  The swirling chaos of reality may be impossible to predict, but there are things an aspiring empirimancer can do to make it more likely that ve will have good fortune.

Verily, know that that which people call ‘luck’ is not the smile of a beneficent god, but the outcome of how some people interact with chance.  


Consider for a moment two real people, whom we will call ”Martin” and “Brenda”, that considers themselves lucky and unlucky, respectively. Both are part of the group of exceptionally lucky/unlucky people which Dr. Richard Wiseman has assembled to try and scientifically study the phenomenon of luck.

As part of the study, both people were placed in identical, fortuitous circumstances, but both handled the situation very differently. The setting: a small coffee shop, arranged so that there were four tables with a confederate (someone who knows about the experiment) sitting at each table. One of these confederates was a wealthy businessman, the kind of person that, should you happen to meet him in real life and make a good impression, could set you up with a well-paying job. All the confederates were told to act the same way for both Brenda and Martin. On the street right outside the coffee shop, the researchers placed a £5 note.

Brenda and Martin were told to go to the coffee shop at different times, and their behavior was covertly filmed. Martin noticed the money sitting on the street and picked it up. When he went into the coffee shop he sat down next to the businessman and struck up a conversation, even offering to buy him a coffee.  Brenda walked past the money, never noticing it, and sat quietly in the shop without talking to anyone.

Fortune favors the…?

There are obvious differences in Brenda and Martin’s behavior, but are they indicative of more far-reaching differences in how lucky and unlucky people live their lives? First, let’s discuss what doesn’t differentiate lucky from unlucky people. Wiseman, having assembled his initial group of subjects, tested them on two traits which could have an impact on luck: intelligence and psychic ability. Determining that intelligence wasn’t a factor was as easy as administering an intelligence test. Psychic ability was ruled out by having both lucky and unlucky people pick lottery numbers, with the result being that neither group was more successful than the other.

Wiseman further tested for differences in personality using the Five Factor Model of Personality, which you will recall breaks personality up into Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (the acronym OCEAN makes for easy recall) . Lucky and unlucky people showed no differences in Conscientiousness or Agreeableness, but did show differences in Openness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism.  It is here that an interesting picture began to emerge.

Ultimately, Wiseman was able to break luck down into four overarching principles and twelve subprinciples, summarized here:

Principle One: Maximize the number of chance opportunities you have in life.

  •   subprinciple one: lucky people maintain a network of contacts with other people.
  •   subprinciple two: lucky people are more relaxed and less neurotic than unlucky people
  •   subprinciple three: lucky people introduce variety into their routines.

Principle Two: Use your intuition to make important decisions.

  •   subprinciple one: pay attention to your hunches.
  •   subprinciple two: lucky people try to make their intuition more accurate.

Principle Three: Expect good fortune.  

  •   subprinciple one: lucky people believe their luck will continue.
  •   subprinciple two: lucky people attempt to achieve their goals and persist through difficulty.
  •   subprinciple three: lucky people think their interactions will be successful.

Principle Four: Turn bad luck into good.

  •   subprinciple one: lucky people see the silver lining in bad situations.
  •   subprinciple two:lucky people believe that things will work out for them 
  •   subprinciple three: lucky people spend less time brooding over bad luck.
  •   subprinciple four: lucky people try to prevent further bad luck.  

I suspect that LWers will have a unique set of reactions to and problems with each of these principles, so let’s take them one at a time.  In this essay, I will examine the first two.

Facing up to randomness

First, how would you go about increasing the likelihood of positive chance encounters? Well, you could start spending more time talking to strangers and making friends with people.  Indeed, one of the important differences between unlucky and lucky people is that lucky people are more outgoing, more friendly and open in their body language (lucky people smiled and made eye contact far, far more often), and keep in touch with people they meet longer. The age-old adage ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ has more than a grain of truth in it, and a great way to get to know the right people is by simply getting to know more people, period. The chances of any given person being the contact you need are pretty slim, but the odds improve with every person you get to know.

This actually works on several levels. Since the complexity of the world greatly exceeds the cognitive abilities of any one person, cultivating a strong social network positions you to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of others. Even if you are so much smarter than person X that they can’t compete with you along any dimension, they may still have information you don’t, or they may know somebody who knows somebody who can help you out.

Moreover, I’m sure everyone is familiar with the experience of struggling with a problem, only to have a random conversation (with a stranger or a friend) shake loose a key insight. This can happen locally inside your own head when you have the necessary raw material laying around but haven’t seen a certain connection. In this situation you would have eventually hit upon the insight but the process has been expedited.  More valuable still is when two or more people enter a conversation that produces an insight that nobody had the necessary components to produce for themselves; I think this is part of what Matt Ridley means when he talks about ideas having sex.

So you’re doing your best to meet more people and flex your extroversion muscles. Next, you might try and be more spontaneous and random in your life. Wiseman notes that many lucky people have a strong orientation towards variety and novel experiences.  Some of them, facing an important decision like which car to buy, will do something like list their options on a piece of paper and then roll a die.

You don’t need to go quite this far; it’s also acceptable to shop different places, take different routes to work, or pick a new part of the city to explore every month. The takeaway here is that it’s difficult to have positive chance encounters if you always do the same thing.

One of my favorite examples of someone positioning themselves to benefit from chance comes from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, when Harry and Hermione first read all the titles of the books in the library and then read all the tables of contents.  From their point of view the books in the library are a vast store of unknown information, any bit of which they might need at a given time. Since reading every single book isn’t an option, familiarizing themselves with the information in a systematic way means creating many potential sources of insight while simultaneously reducing the cost of doing future research. Hacker Eric Raymond made related point in the context of winning table-top board games:

I made chance work for me. Pay attention, because I am about to reveal why there is a large class of games (notably pick-up-and-carry games like Empire Builder, network-building games like Power Grid, and more generally games with a large variety of paths to the win condition) at which I am extremely difficult to beat. The technique is replicable.

I have a rule: when in doubt, play to maximize the breadth of your option tree. Actually, you should often choose option-maximizing moves over moves with a slightly higher immediate payoff, especially early in the game and most especially if the effect of investing in options is cumulative.

What’s the common thread between extroversion, skimming the library shelves, and beating your friends at boardgames? Certain actions and certain states of mind make it more likely you’ll benefit from white swans.

(Clever readers may be saying to themselves: “okay, but doesn’t all this also make the chances of encountering black swans higher as well?” We will address these concerns when we talk about principles three and four.)

Attitude matters

We’ve covered extraversion and openness, but the lucky people Dr. Wiseman interviewed were also more relaxed and less neurotic than the unlucky ones. This has obvious consequences for when you are trying to meet new people, but research also hints that being less anxious may make you more likely to notice things you aren’t specifically looking for. This is probably why several of Dr. Wiseman’s lucky participants remarked on how often they found money on the street, found great opportunities while listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, and in general stumbled over opportunities in places where other people simply failed to notice them.

This attitude undergirds and complements much of what I discussed in the previous section; while you are trying to maximize your pathways to victory, don’t forget that constantly worrying and mentally spinning your tires will make you less likely to see a chance opportunity.

Pump your intuition

Lucky people tend to have strong intuitions, and they have a habit of paying careful attention to them.  I’m sure you’re skeptical of this advice, as I was when I first started reading this section. Given present company I don’t think I need to reiterate all the billion ways intuition can be derailed and misleading. That said, placing intuition and rationality as orthogonal to one another is a good example of the straw vulcan of rationality. Intuitions are of course not always wrong, and in some cases may be the only source of information a person has to go off of.

Two things put a little nuance on the proposition that you should listen to your intuitions. The first is that, as far as I can tell, lucky people don’t trust their intuitions immediately and absolutely. They don’t stand at a busy intersection, blindfolded, and trust their gut to tell them when it’s safe to cross. Rather, their hunches act more like yellow traffic lights, telling them that they should proceed with caution here or do a bit more research there. In other words, it sounds to me like lucky people treat their intuitions in a pretty rational manner, as data points, to be used but not relied upon in isolation unless there is just nothing else available.

The other thing is that many lucky people take steps to sharpen their intuitions, utilizing quiet solitude or meditation. Dr. Wiseman goes into precious little detail about this, including just a few anecdotal descriptions of people’s efforts to clear their mind. The rationalist community will be familiar with more quantitative methods like predictionbook, and googling for ‘improving your intuitions’ turned up about as much garbage as you’d probably expect.  If anyone has leads to legitimate research on improving intuition, I’d be happy to add an addendum.

Suggested exercises

Throughout the book Dr. Wiseman includes exercises which are meant to help people utilize the principles uncovered in his research to become luckier. Here are the suggested exercises for the topics discussed in this post:

-To enhance your extraversion, strike up a conversation with four people you either don’t know or don’t know well. Do this each week for a month. Additionally, every week make contact with a person you haven’t spoken to in a while.

-To relax, find a quiet place and picture yourself in a beautiful, calming scene. Make sure to visualize each and every detail of the location, including whatever sounds and smells are around you. When you’ve got the scene in place, visualize the tension leaving your body in the form of a liquid flowing out of you, starting with your head. once you feel sufficiently relaxed, slowly open your eyes.

-Inject some randomness in your life by making a list of 6 new experiences. These can be anything from trying a new type of food to taking a class on a subject you’ve always been interested in.  Number them 1 to 6, roll a die, and then do whatever corresponds to the number you rolled.

To be continued…

What I Learned From Two Years in South Korea.

It’s cold outside, around three in the morning, and I’m staring up at the apartment building I’ve been living in.  Friends have passed in and out of my life there, relationships have begun and ended there.  

My gaze drifts higher and I notice that an unusual number of stars are visible.  This seems fitting, as I’ve often lamented how few stars one can normally see, but such is not the case on my last night in Korea.  My plane leaves in just a few hours, and I know that sleep will not come for many more.  But I don’t mind so much just now, as I’m lost in a particularly intense train of thought.   Beneath the jeweled sky, in the pre-dawn chill, I reflect quietly, and with a hint of sadness, on all that has changed for me these last two years.  

If I could sum this long post up in a few words, I’d say that living and working in South Korea has been every bit as rewarding and life changing as I thought it would be.  If you relish challenges and are looking for a change of scenery, then I would heartily recommend giving the Land of the Morning Calm a try.

But I won’t bullshit you.  There have been real problems, loneliness, and cultural mishaps of the tragic and hilarious variety. When you live in a place where most people don’t speak your language and you are very obviously a foreigner, a thousand little sources of friction are created that will wear on you.

On a good day everything is an adventure, even mundane tasks are tinged with a sense of novelty, and people’s enthusiastic questions will make you feel like a celebrity.

But some days are bad.  Some days you don’t want an adventure, you don’t want to struggle to complete even simple tasks like mailing a letter, you don’t want to feel like a zoo animal with kids pointing at you and whispering.  All I can say is that learning to deal gracefully with the bad days is part of the value.  That, and, in my experience, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

My hope is that if I detail my experiences then I can both encourage people to go for it while also preparing them for the inevitable difficulties that will arise.

Ending Up Far Away From Home

I came to Korea in February of 2012, partly as an act of desperation.  There were no jobs to be had in America at the time, you see, and I was tired of working multiple jobs while still having my savings dwindle.  A friend of mine from college lived on the beautiful Korean island of Jeju-do, and she had almost nothing but good things to say about it. So, lacking a better plan, I began the process of filling out applications and getting my paperwork in order.

Since numerous factors shape my conclusions, I’ll tell you that I’m a 25-year-old white heterosexual male, fairly introverted, college-educated, with an adventurous streak. Though I’ve traveled widely in Korea I’ve lived and worked in a small town at an after-school private academy teaching kids aged 7 to 15.

Gyeryong, South Korea.  My home for nearly two years.

Gyeryong, South Korea. Home for nearly two years.

I’ve made my best effort throughout the past two years to be as objective and observant as I possibly could be, but still, this is all just one guy’s opinion.  People of different ages, races, and sexual orientations, as well as people who live in big cities or work at public schools, often have somewhat different stories to tell.  Nevertheless I think what I’ve written here will prove useful to most everyone.  At any rate, if you decide to take the plunge you’ll get to learn about all of this stuff yourself 🙂


The Korean peninsula is basically a group of mountains and foothills, hanging off the eastern part of Russia and jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.  It occupies approximately 100,000 square kilometers, or roughly the same amount of land as two Nova Scotias, Scotland and Wales together, three Lesothos, or Kentucky.  Most of the foreigners I’ve met have been from Canada, the U.K., South Africa, or America, so I chose my geographic comparisons appropriately.

There are four clearly defined seasons. The vibrant, humid summers, colorful autumns, and springs filled with wildflowers and rain offer outdoorsy types plenty of chances to lay on the beach or hike.  Winter, however, is not a gown that Korea wears well.  Some places have a sparse, desolate beauty which can make the colder months almost electrifying. In Korea it’s just frigid and grey, with winds screaming across the landscape cramming fistfuls of cold air down people’s shirts. Be sure to bring some heavy winter clothing.

Population-wise there are about 50 million people, fully half of which live in the sprawling capital, Seoul.  The cities are big, skyscraper-studded affairs offering just about any pleasure or convenience you could ask for.  In the towns and the countryside the old and new are rather dramatically juxtaposed; temples and mountain-top pagodas are sometimes visible from supermarkets, the chanting of monks can be heard a minute’s walk from a cafe. This can be very captivating, and is a primary source of what I call “holy shit I’m in Korea” moments.


The cuisine is one of my favorite things about Korea.  It’s typically rice- and vegetable-based, with small amounts of protein and few fruits.  That may not sound like much raw material, but a staggering variety is produced by combining and seasoning the food in different ways.  To give an example, consider Kimchi, the ubiquitous cabbage dish that is one of the only Korean foods a lot of non-Koreans know about.  It is served at pretty much every meal, but it can come as whole leaves or diced-up cubes, nearly raw or extremely fermented, salty, sour, spicy, or completely plain.

For the most part eating in Korea won’t blow your mind, but a few things may take some getting used to. Of course the most obvious is eating with chopsticks, but you’ll get the hang of it before too long, and there are usually forks and spoons available. Also, Koreans like their food hot, in both ways: many of their dishes are spicy and soups are served still boiling.

If you enjoy sea food you’re in luck, as fish, squid, and octopus show up quite a bit at Korean tables, and in some places you can eat octopus while it’s still alive. This is apparently pretty dangerous because the octopus can stick to the inside of your throat and choke you to death.  I haven’t done it.

The only Korean food I think I have genuinely not liked has been silk-worm larva, or ‘bondeggi’. It’s not usually served at restaurants but they sell it as a snack on the streets in most places, and it’s extremely tart.

I especially like the way Korean restaurants work.  Before the main course you always get a smattering of different side dishes, usually something along the lines of kimchi, fish cakes, or bean sprouts. This is fun because you can sample a wide variety of foods at every meal and every restaurant makes their side dishes slightly differently.  In restaurants where the specialty is meat there is usually a grill built into the table where you cook whatever you ordered.  This makes going to a restaurant sort of a communal, participatory experience.


A pretty typical spread at a Korean restaurant

As far as costs go, eating in Korea is generally pretty cheap, and it can be extremely cheap if you want it to be.   Since I exercise a lot I also tend to eat a lot, and I consume a good bit of meat, so for me eating here has been more expensive than it is for most other foreigners I know.   Still, I’m usually able to save money by waiting until there is a sale on something like chicken breasts, buying a whole bunch of it, then cooking and freezing it, unthawing as needed. Non-meat items like fruits and vegetables are comparable in price to what they are in America

Eating at restaurants costs about the same as cooking and eating at home.  I verified this by carefully tracking what I spent at the store and what I ate at each meal, calculating the cost of the average meal eaten at home, and comparing that to what I usually spend at restaurants.  My figures aren’t in front of me just now, but eating at home cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 when I got many of the items on discount.  The cheapest meals at a restaurant are about $6, usually more like $8 or $10.  But consider that’s only when I wait to find deals on the most expensive items, and it doesn’t include the time spent cooking and cleaning.

I eat out five or six times, go shopping once or twice a week, and spend around $500 a month on food.


My impressions of Korean people have been overwhelmingly positive.  Koreans are for the most part extremely generous and accommodating, more than willing to aid the lost and weary foreigner looking for a place to bed down for the night.

I will never forget trying to buy fabric softener within the first few weeks of arriving, and asking one of the store employees if a particular item was what I was looking for.  Our attempts at communication failed, so she asked someone else, who asked someone else, which began a chain reaction that ended with six or seven Korean people standing around my friend and I and talking to each other.  Finally one of them pointed to the thing I was holding and said ‘soft’.  Problem solved.

This generosity can have a down side.  I will also never forget the many times I’ve been in the gym, headphones in, music going full blast, literally in the middle of doing bench press, only to have someone wander up and insist I eat a sweet potato.  Turning down food that has been offered to you is considered rude in Korea, so when this happens I find myself either having to force something down in the middle of exercise, rudely refuse it, or effusively promise to eat it later.

For myself and my circle of friends about the worst that’s ever happened is cab drivers charging us more than they would a Korean, but one does occasionally hear of abuses much more serious than this.   Apparently other teachers have worked at schools which have stolen money from them or fired them over completely trivial issues, have had coworkers that treated them with indifference or even disrespect, or have had to live in really sub-par housing.

The truth is, there is a chance you will end up in this situation.  It’s a bit disconcerting, but that’s the reality.  As far as I can tell it’s exceedingly rare; I’ve never known anyone to whom this has happened, and I’ve never known anyone whose known someone to whom this has happened.  If you go through a recruitment agency like Reach To Teach (whom I cannot recommend enough) or contact the other people working at your school ahead of time you stand a good chance of being happy with where you end up.

Foreigners in Korea

By and large I’ve gotten along with the non-Koreans I’ve met.  You might be thinking that the foreigners here are exceptionally adventurous or outgoing or enthusiastic about novel experiences. After all, wouldn’t it take just such a person to uproot their whole life and move to a new continent?

Surprisingly, no.   The foreigners I’ve met have mostly been pretty average on all of these traits, with some extreme personalities in both directions.  Note that this isn’t me making a value judgment; there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert who likes routine.  I’m just saying that my expectations were incorrect.

There are plenty of foreigners here who like to party, though, and in the bigger cities there are establishments which have sprung up to cater just to us.  This is great, and Science knows I’ve had my fair share of shenanigans while I’ve been here.  But it seems to me like a lot of foreigners get stuck in this trap where they make a bunch of foreign friends, give up their initial attempts to learn Korean and integrate into Korea, and begin a cycle of boozing and partying all the time which leaves them complacent, takes a chunk out of their savings, and prevents them from experiencing Korea in a more authentic way.  No one is going to stop you if you piss away your paychecks drinking four nights a week, but ask yourself if that’s really the best way you could be spending your time.

Ultimately, like most other opportunities, this one is going to be what you make it.  It could be one of the more intense and fertile periods of learning you’ve had up to this point, like it was for me, or it could be a drunken haze you barely remember and from which you learn very little.

Learning Korean 

There is one place where I am absolutely going to make a value judgment, though, and that’s the pitifully small number of foreigners who make an effort to learn Korean.  Make no mistake, it is a pretty tough language, but that’s no excuse for not learning how to carry out basic tasks in the language that everyone else speaks.   Most Koreans are going to accommodate you, and a lot of them are happy to practice their English, but most of them can’t speak English well and shouldn’t be expected to.  If you live in Korea then you should learn Korean, and though you can probably get by without it, you should feel a pang of guilt every time you point and grunt your way through an interaction like a Neanderthal.

I’ve met people who claim that they have ‘survival Korean’ and don’t care to study beyond that.  Fair enough, maybe you aren’t interested in reading Korean literature or holding forth on philosophical topics in Korean, but I think a lot of people are kidding themselves as to what constitutes the minimum Korean they need.

My Korean is at about survival level.  I can hold basic conversations, give and receive directions, figure out what most signs and print means without pictures, and get the gist of what’s being said around me.  A bit less than half of my communication with friends has been in Korean, mostly texting, and I have managed English-free interactions for a few hours at a time with only minimal referencing of the dictionary.

Here is a video I made speaking Korean right before I came back to the States:

I’m not tooting my own horn here.  My Korean isn’t as good as I’d wanted it to be before I left, and I’m still embarrassed every time I can’t get a point across or understand someone who is trying to talk to me.   Getting this modest level took a lot of effort and study, but it has been absolutely, without a doubt, worth it.  In addition to all the little things that have become easier, my experience here has been significantly deepened as a result.

Let me give you an example: the secretary that works at our school is in her early thirties and has two kids I’ve taught. We’ve become good friends, and we always use Korean because she doesn’t know more than a few words in English. Though she maintains professionalism at work I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with her many times during off hours, and have discovered she has a really quirky and dirty sense of humor.  She’s taught me Korean slang and Korean swear words and I’ve returned the favor in English, and she gets a kick out of hearing about my adventures and exploits. I hope to keep in touch with her, but even if I don’t I’ll remember her for the rest of my life.

If you’ve been in Korea for years and still can’t speak Korean, that’s a problem and you should fix it.  Assuming you want to learn, let me give you some advice: there are free classes offered in various places, and these might be a good place to start, but  I recommend transitioning to private tutoring as fast as possible.  Seriously, it costs all of $10 a lesson and you can do them over skype.  Beyond that, use Korean every chance you get.  I talk to people at bus stops, in the gym, between classes at school, through texting, on the internet, etc.

There is no substite for speaking to new people as often as possible.  If you interact with the same group of native speakers, they are going to get used to your quirks and mistakes.  They’ll learn how to tell what you’re trying to say and they’ll figure out how to hear through your accent.  The only way to be sure you’re improving is by testing yourself with new people who have no idea who you are and have never spoken to you before.


Romantic interactions have been a pretty big part of my stay in Korea; they have helped me get to know the language and culture better, and have contributed massively to my positive feelings on Korea overall.  As such it’s only appropriate that I say a few (tactful) words about dating here.  As I mentioned before I am straight, so I can’t tell you anything about dating Korean men or what it’s like to be gay in Korea, though these subjects have been broached elsewhere.

As others have noted, there are some unique rewards and challenges associated with dating women outside your language or culture.  Miscommunications are commonplace, even when the other person speaks your language pretty well, and you will almost certainly end up either being a little offended or offending them at least once because of something culturally insensitive one of you did.

That said, one of the lessons I’ve learned living in Korea is that an amazing amount of non-linguistic or barely-linguistic communication can happen when two or more people are motivated to get a point across.  This goes for people who just want to be friends as well as for people who want to rip each other’s clothes off.  If you’re into her and she’s into you, then I doubt either of you will have too much trouble figuring that out.

Which brings me to another point, one I think it is important to stress: in my experience, Korean women are just sexually normal people with sexually normal appetites.  You may have had your expectations molded by…erm…certain videos that can be found on various corners of the internet.  If so, then you may imagine Korean women will be either completely submissive in the face of sexual advances or, in the memorable words of a friend, “sex-crazed dragon-ladies”.  They are neither, and if I could pass on a pro tip here, I’d say it’s usually not a good idea to take your cues from porn.

The bottom line is that there are few surprises waiting for you behind closed doors.  Like anywhere else every person is different, and I have been involved with girls who range from very conservative and deferential all the way to career-driven-alpha-female types.  I recommend dating Koreans not because it’s some extremely exotic new experience, but because Korean women are attractive and affectionate and fun to interact with.  You know, pretty much the same reasons you date anyone.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you're trying to achieve transcendence through your guitar.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you’re trying to achieve musical transcendence.

If you do choose to date outside the group of foreigners, though, you’ll see a side of Korean culture that’s hard to get any other way.  Plus, as a bonus, you’ll most likely become very motivated to practice Korean.


As a teacher your job is to build structures of information in the brain of another person.  When it comes to language education you will need a special set of communication skills, the ability to direct attention, and ocean’s worth of patience.

Let’s start with re-learning how to use English.  This is far, far more than simply speaking more slowly, and involves changes in vocabulary choice and sentence structure as well.  Repeated interactions with students at different levels will start to give you an intuitive sense of the kinds of words and phrases someone is likely to be able to understand, and time spent in Korean culture will teach you which words have been imported from English.

Many Koreans, even ones who for all intents and purposes speak no English, know common words like ‘cheap’, ‘famous’,  or ‘early’, as well as unusual ones like ‘casanova’ (referring to guys who have a lot of girlfriends).  I couldn’t tell you why these particular words have been absorbed, but that’s been my experience.

You’ll also figure out how to phrase complex ideas in terms of simpler ones by choosing which subtleties and nuances can be smoothed away without losing too much of the meaning.  One of my favorite examples of this was when a pretty competent student asked me what ‘engineering’ meant.  Before I tell you my reply let’s look at one way I could have responded:

“The process of using scientific knowledge to create new technologies.”

This is a nice dictionary definition, but no one outside of the best one or two students would have understood it.  Why? Well despite the fact that ‘process’  and ‘create’ are common English words most students aren’t going to know them because the ideas behind them are actually fairly complex.  Further, most of my students would know what ‘science’ is but would have difficulty with the adjective ‘scientific’.  My actual response was this:

“Using science to make things.”

Now, engineering is a sprawling human enterprise which involves both using and creating new scientific knowledge and new technology.  Does my definition appropriately capture all that?  No it doesn’t, but you will have to learn to live with this kind of partial communication as it’s often the best you can do.  Importantly, though, my definition does capture a significant portion of the first definition’s meaning, and it does it with words almost all of my students will know.

Second, you’ll have to learn how to keep the attention of a large number of kids.  Attention is a pretty fickle thing, even in adults, and the best ways I’ve found to keep it are by being funny and using a lot of pictures and props.  Humans are by nature visual animals, so most any concept that can be communicated with the aid of pictures should be, and big, exaggerated, silly actions are easier to focus on than detailed verbal explanations.  None of this is a guarantee, unfortunately; there will be days when every effort fails, and you’ll go home emotionally exhausted.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Finally, you’ll need a healthy dose of patience.  If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language very well you know it can be an exhausting experience.  If you’ve ever spent much time interacting with kids, even teenage ones, you know it can be an exhausting experience.  Well, as a teacher your whole job all day is going to be interacting with kids who don’t speak your language well.

Does that sound exhausting?  It is.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think me age and position entitle me to.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think my age and position entitle me to.

Now, I really like kids, and I think I like them even more after having taught them for a while. But let me tell you: sometimes they’re going to frustrate you, disappoint you, and do things that are downright bizarre.  Other times they will be funny, affectionate, and surprise you with their insight and competence. You’d better just steel yourself for the roller coaster ahead of time. If you teach English for any length of time in Korea, you absolutely will learn to be more patient.

All Good Things…

Now I’m back in the States, and the experience has of course been bitter sweet.  I miss speaking Korean, and I’ve found out that my driving skills have atrophied considerably.  But I’m a lot more outgoing than I once was, I have many more interesting stories to tell, and I’m more confident.

Looking back, there were so many days in Korea when I was tired and stressed and wanted to quit.  If you choose to take the leap, you’ll have them too.  But I can’t remember any stretch of time during which I made more positive changes and learned more about myself and about life.

It was worth it.  It really, really was.

How to Have Space Correctly

[NOTE: This post has undergone substantial revisions following feedback in the comments section of the blog LessWrong, where it was originally posted.  The basic complaint was that it was too airy and light on concrete examples and recommendations.  So I’ve said oops, applied the virtue of narrownessgotten specific, and hopefully made this what it should’ve been the first time.]  

Take a moment and picture a master surgeon about to begin an operation.  Visualize the room (white, bright overhead lights), his clothes (green scrubs, white mask and gloves), the patient, under anesthesia and awaiting the first incision. There are several other people, maybe three or four, strategically placed and preparing for the task ahead.  Visualize his tools – it’s okay if you don’t actually know what tools a surgeon uses, but imagine how they might be arranged.  Do you picture them in a giant heap which the surgeon must dig through every time he wants something, or would they be arranged neatly (possibly in the order they’ll be used) and where they can be identified instantly by sight?  Visualize their working area.  Would it be conducive to have random machines and equipment all over the place, or would every single item within arms reach be put there on purpose because it is relevant, with nothing left over to distract the team from their job for even a moment?

Space is important.  You are a spatially extended being interacting with spatially extended objects which can and must be arranged spatially.  In the same way it may not have occurred to you that there is a correct way to have things, it may not have occurred to you that space is something you can use poorly or well.  The stakes aren’t always as high as they are for a surgeon, and I’m sure there are plenty of productive people who don’t do a single one of the things I’m going to talk about.  But there are also skinny people who eat lots of cheesecake, and that doesn’t mean cheesecake is good for you.  Improving how you use the scarce resource of space can reduce task completion time, help in getting organized, make you less error-prone and forgetful, and free up some internal computational resources, among other things.

What Does Using Space Well Mean?

It means consciously manipulating the arrangement, visibility, prominence, etc. of objects in your environment to change how they affect cognition (yours or other people’s).  The Intelligent Use of Space (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995) is a great place to start if you’re skeptical that there is anything here worth considering.  It’s my primary source for this post because it is thorough but not overly technical, contains lots of clear examples, and many of the related papers I read were about deeper theoretical issues.

The abstract of the paper reads:

How we manage the spatial arrangement of items around us is not an afterthought: it is an integral part of the way we think, plan, and behave. The proposed classification has three main categories: spatial arrangements that simplify choice; spatial arrangements that simplify perception; and spatial dynamics that simplify internal computation. The data for such a classification is drawn from videos of cooking, assembly and packing, everyday observations in supermarkets, workshops and playrooms, and experimental studies of subjects playing Tetris, the computer game. This study, therefore, focuses on interactive processes in the medium and short term: on how agents set up their workplace for particular tasks, and how they continuously manage that workplace.

The ‘three main categories’ of simplifying choice, perception, and internal computation can be further subdivided:

simplifying choice

  •       reducing or emphasizing options.
  •       creating the potential for useful new choices.

simplifying perception

  •       clustering like objects.
  •       marking an object.
  •       enhancing perceptual ability.

simplfying internal computation

  •      doing more outside of your head.

These sub-categories are easier to picture and thus more useful when trying to apply the concept of using space correctly, and I’ve provided more illustrations below. It’s worth pointing out that (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995) only considered the behavior of experts.  Perhaps effective space management partially explains expert’s ability to do more of their processing offline and without much conscious planning.  An obvious follow up would be in examining how novices utilize space and looking for discrepancies.

What Does Using Space Well Look Like?

The paper walks the reader through a variety of examples of good utilization of space.  Consider an expert cook going through the process of making a salad with many different ingredients, and ask how you would accomplish the same task differently:

…one subject we videotaped, cut each vegetable into thin slices and laid them out in tidy rows. There was a row of tomatoes, of mushrooms, and of red peppers, each of different length…To understand why lining up the ingredients in well ordered, neatly separated rows is clever, requires understanding a fact about human psychophysics: estimation of length is easier and more reliable than estimation of area or volume. By using length to encode number she created a cue or signal in the world which she could accurately track. Laying out slices in lines allows more precise judgment of the property relative number remaining than clustering the slices into groups, or piling them up into heaps. Hence because of the way the human perceptual system works, lining up the slices creates an observable property that facilitates execution.

Here, the cook used clustering and clever arrangement to make better use of her eyes and to reduce the load on her working memory, techniques I use myself in my day job.  As of this writing (2013) I’m teaching English in Korea.  I have a desk, a bunch of books, pencils, erasers, the works.  All the folders are together, the books are separated by level, and all ungraded homework is kept in its own place.  At the start of the work day I take out all the books and folders I’ll need for that day and arrange them in the same order as my classes. When I get done with a class the book goes back on the day’s pile but rotated 90 degrees so that I can tell it’s been used. When I’m totally done with a book and I’ve entered homework scores and such, it goes back in the main book stack where all my books are.  I can tell at a glance which classes I’ve had, which ones I’ll have, what order I’m in, which classes are finished but unprocessed, and which ones are finished and processed.  Cthulu only knows how much time I save and how many errors I prevent all by utilizing space well.

These examples show how space can help you keep track of temporal order and make quick, accurate estimates, but it may not be clear how space can simplify choice.  Recall that simplifying choice usually breaks down into either taking some choices away or making good choices more obvious.  Taking choices away may sound like a bad thing, but each choice requires you to spend time evaluating options, and if you are juggling many different tasks the chance of making the wrong choice goes up.  Similarly, looking for good options soaks up time, unless you can find a way to make yourself trip over them.

An example of removing bad decisions is in factory workers placing a rag on hot pipes so they know not to touch them (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995).  By symbolically marking a dangerous object the engineers are shutting down the class of actions which involves touching the pipe. It is all too easy in the course of juggling multiple aspects of a task to forget something like this and injure yourself.  The strategically placed and obvious visual marker means that the environment keeps track of the danger for you.  Likewise poisonous substances have clear warning labels and are kept away from anything you might eat; both precautions count as good use of space.

And here is how some carpenters structure their work space so that they can make good uses for odds and ends easier to see:

 In the course of making a piece of furniture one periodically tidies up. But not completely. Small pieces of wood are pushed into a corner or left about; tools, screw drivers and mallets are kept nearby. The reason most often reported is that ‘they come in handy’. Scraps of wood can serve to protect surfaces from marring when clamped, hammered or put under pressure. They can elevate a piece when being lacquered to prevent sticking. The list goes on.

My copy of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is on another continent, but the carpenter example reminded me of his recommendation to keep messy notebooks.  Doing so makes it more likely you’ll see unusual and interesting connections between things you’re thinking about.  He goes so far as to use a tool called DevonThink which speeds this process up for him.

And while I’m at it, this also points to one advantage of having physical books over PDFs.  My books take up space and are easier to see than their equivalent 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive, so I’m always reminded of what I have left to read. More than once I’ve gone on a useful tangent because the book title or cover image caught my attention, and more than one interesting conversation got started when a visitor was looking over my book collection.  Scanning the shelves at a good university library is even better, kind of like 17th-century StumbleUpon, and English-language libraries are something I’ve sorely missed while I’ve been in Asia.

All this usefulness derives from the spatial properties and arrangement of books, and I have no idea how it can be replicated with the Kindle.

Specific Recommendations

You can see from the list of examples I’ve provided that there are a billion ways of incorporating these insights into work, life, and recreation.  By discussing the concept I hope to have drawn your attention to the ways in which space is a resource, and I suspect just doing this is enough to get a lot of people to see how they can improve their use of space.  Here are some more ideas, in no particular order:

-I put my alarm clock far enough away from my bed so that I have to actually get up to     turn it off.  This is so amazingly    effective at ensuring I get up in the morning that I often hate my previous-night’s self.  Most of the time I can’t go back to  sleep even when I try.

-There’s reason to suspect that a few extra monitors or a bigger display will make your life easier  [Thanks Qiaochu_Yuan].

-When doing research for an article like this one, open up all the tabs you’ll need for the project in a separate window and close  each tab as you’re done with it.  You’ll be less distracted by something irrelevant and you won’t have to remember what you did  or didn’t read.  

-Having a separate space to do something seems to greatly increase the chances I’ll get it done.  I tried not going to the gym  for a while and just doing push ups in my house, managing to keep that up for all of a week or so. Recently, I switched gyms,  and despite now having to take a bus all the way across town I make it to the gym 3-5 times a week, pretty much without fail.  If your studying/hacking/meditation isn’t going well, try going somewhere which exists only to give people a  place to do that  thing.

-Put whatever you can’t afford to forget when you leave the house right by the door.

-If something is really distracting you, completely remove it from the environment temporarily.  During one particularly strenuous  finals in college I not only turned off the xbox, I completely unplugged it and put it in a drawer.  Problem. Solved.

-Alternatively, anything you’re wanting to do more of should be out in the open.  Put your guitar stand or chess board or  whatever where you’re going to see it frequently, and you’ll engage with it more often.  This doubles as a signal to other  people, giving you an opportunity to manage their impression of you, learn more about them, and identify those with similar  interests to yours.  

-Make use of complementary strategies (Kirsch, “Complementary Strategies”, 1995).  If you’re having trouble comprehending    something, make a diagram, or write a list.  The linked paper describes a simple pilot study which involved two groups tasked  with counting coins, one which could use their hands and one which could not.  The ‘no hands’ group was more likely to make  errors and to take longer to complete the task.  Granted, this was a pilot study with sample size = 5, and the difference  wasn’t that stark.  But it’s worth thinking about next time you’re stuck on a problem.

-Complementary strategies can also include things you do with your body, which after all is just space you wear with you  everywhere.  Talk out loud to yourself if you’re alone, give a mock presentation in which you summarize a position you’re trying  to understand, keep track of arguments and counterarguments with your fingers.  I’ve always found the combination of  explaining something out loud to an imaginary person while walking or pacing to be especially potent.  Some of my best ideas  come to me while I’m hiking.

-Try some of these embodied cognition hacks.

Summary and Conclusion

Space is a resource which, like all others, can be used effectively or not.  When used effectively, it acts to simplify choices, simplify perception, and simplify internal computation.  I’ve provided many examples of good space usage from all sorts of real-life domains in the hopes that you can apply some of these insights to live and work more effectively.

Further Reading

[In the original post these references contained no links.  Sincere thanks to user Pablo_Stafforini for tracking them down]

Kirsh, D. (1995) The Intelligent Use of Space

Kirsh, D. (1999) Distributed Cognition, Coordination and Environment Design

Kirsh, D. (1998) Adaptive Rooms, Virtual Collaboration, and Cognitive Workflow

Kirsh, D. (1996) Adapting the Environment Instead of Oneself

Kirsh, D. (1995) Complementary Strategies: Why we use our hands when we think