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Notes for a speech held just after I left the Benton House and headed back to Finland.

I think the Visiting Fellows program has made a lot of progress during the time that I've been here. In a way, I'm sad to leave now that the program seems to really be getting its act together. I think this has partially been because of Jasen and Louie taking over Anna's responsibilities and giving her the energy to do all kinds of neat stuff. Having more kinds of group stuff, be it grant-writing or frequent rationality training sessions, is awesome. Partially it's also because we have a lot more energetic people now, doing various projects of all kinds.

In many regards, I think that the last month of my stay has been the one that I've gotten the most out of. On my first month, I was generally disoriented and trying to find something meaningful to do here. On my second month, working with Eliezer was for some reason draining most of my energy. It was during this last month that I've began actually feeling productive and useful, doing things like trying to write a Less Wrong post a day for a week. Which I admittedly haven't pulled off yet, but I have gotten pretty close on a few times.

During the early parts of my stay, I wondered whether coming here had been a good idea. Now I can honestly say that I'm glad that I came, due to lots of reasons. I'll start with the mundane ones. This was the first time that I traveled abroad for an extended period of time, and lived in a house that I shared with like fifteen people. I feel like that was a valuable experience, even though I can't precisely articulate the effects. I've learnt a lot about SIAI and how it functions. Also, being separated from many of my close friends for such an extended period of time forced me to cope with it. While I've been here, I've been making a lot of progress in taking control of emotions. Part of that was the fact that I felt so miserable that I just had to do it, part of it was due to listening Michael Vassar's various talks, part of it was due to reading books like the Happiness Hypothesis and Feeling Good that were floating around here, part of it was due to Alicorn's writings on the topic, and part of it has been helped by the habit card thing. Part of it was just the general atmosphere of wanting to become stronger.

I made a post on Less Wrong yesterday, about having a rationalist identity. I had one even before coming here, but here it has been made more concrete. I've done calibration exercises, made an effort to develop the art of rationality by writing good Less Wrong posts, lived with people who actually and genuinely cared about this thing. I think that where rationality was previously a kind of passive part of my being, the stay here has helped towards ingraining an active rationality into my thought patterns. It's not just a warning flag that's raised when I encounter or notice incoherent thought, anymore. It's a force that makes me more actively seek exploitable patterns and helps see through the layers of deception that have been woven into society. We should be capable of hacking pretty much anything, if we just put our minds to it.

Lastly, I've made lots of friends. Now, that's the kind of cliche you'd expect to hear from anyone making a departure speech, but I don't know if you realize how significant that actually is to me. When I realized that I had actually made lots of friends here, a few days back, I was genuinely surprised. It's usually been really hard for me to get close to people, and while I've had lots of acquintances, I have had only a few friends. Here, being friends has been something that's happened pretty much automatically and without needing any effort. I'd like to say a few brief words about everyone.

[a few brief words about everyone]

If any of you ever come to Finland for some reason, meet up with me. I'd welcome any one of you as a guest. If I ever get back to visiting the United States, I'll definitely try to find you guys. But if neither of those happens, I'll see you after the Singularity.
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Long time, no update. As I write this, there are only about two and a half weeks left of my stay.

I kinda wish I'd have been updating more often. A lot of my early posts are somewhat negative in tone, and so a person reading through the posts might get the impression that this has been primarily a negative experience. And for a while it was like that, but that time seems like it's in the distant past by now. Heck, I have difficulty even really remembering that time properly anymore.

I do still look forward to getting home and seeing all my friends again, but I don't feel horrendous homesickness like I used to. Part of it is simply getting used to being here, part of it is an active effort to reprogram my thoughts by interrupting any negative ones, and part of it is simply the fact that I won't be here for that much longer anymore. I do feel that my virtue ethical conversion has, unlike many other "big changes" in the past, really had a lasting effect on me. That hasn't been the only component, though. Another was reading a book about cognitive behavioral therapy that emphasized the effect that simply changing your thoughts will have on your behavior. A third has been the attitude around here that everything can be hacked, including your own emotions. I did previously kind of think that, but I hadn't fully internalized it: I would simply accept many of my emotional shifts or hang-ups as something that just needs to be lived with. I still need the occasional reminder, but in general I don't just passively accept bad moods anymore. As my elephant learns this new mode of thought, it will hopefully become automatic over time.

To mention an example of a more active approach, there was Burning Man Precompression party in San Fransisco last weekend. Now, I've usually been bad at making small talk, as well as approaching strangers in the first place. This time around, though, I consciously made it a goal to train my elephant some new habits, so I decided I'd strike up ten conversations with different strangers during that evening. And it worked great, I had several pleasant albeit short discussions with various people. Had I not started to really internalize the attitude that my brain is mine to twist to my will, I don't think I would have done that.

(That was quite an event, by the way. I almost didn't get in, because I was "smart" enough to leave my wallet back at the house to make sure it didn't get stolen. Only problem being, my ID was in the wallet, and the event had an age limit of 21. Ooops. I spent about an hour standing outside and waiting with Justin, until Sean McCabe showed up. His iPhone could display relatively high-resolution pictures, so Dennis took pictures of my passport and sent them to Sean. Those were good enough for the security guard, who then let me in. Among other things, the party had a pair of scantily-dressed girls, and what few clothes they did have had NASA's logos on them. I also saw a guy who seemed to be wearing nothing but shoes, faerie wings, and a condom. Everyone there was really friendly, too. Great party.)

A lot of things have been happening in the house. Previously, I mentioned a point system that I said I would talk more about later on. Well, updating so rarely kinda killed the point of saying much about the point system. It was basically an experiment we had going on for a month. People could earn various amounts of points by doing things such as writing papers, keeping in touch with SIAI contacts, doing the dishes or having conversations that the others thought were valuable to them. The idea was that if people wanted to stick around at the house for longer than three months, they'd become "continuing fellows" who'd need to earn 5,000 points in the first six months of their stay and 9,000 points every six months thereafter. (I found this system to lift my mood for a while, since me working with Eliezer gave me more than enough points to clearly mark my stay as valuable.)

That system isn't really in effect anymore, though. Around the beginning of this month, there was a reorganization in the way the house in run. Anna, who'd been rather overworked and would have preferred to do more research anyway, stepped down from the position of being in charge of the house. That task was taken up Jasen (who originally arrived here only one day after me!) as well as Louie. At the same time as that decision was made official, it was also announced that any decisions about whether or not to let fellows remain for extended periods would be made by the SIAI board. After that change, the point system lost its purpose.

I think I also mentioned daily e-mails as well as daily 10-minute meetings with Anna before. Both of those are pretty much gone. The 10-minute meetings stopped partially because Anna was busy, partially because people had a feeling that they weren't getting that much value out of them. (I wonder if we should resume something like it, though.) The daily e-mails have been replaced with a log of our doings that we keep at an internal wiki-like site. That one works better in practice than the daily e-mails did, since you can edit in several days' worth of doings at once. If you don't keep your log recent, Jasen will come and glare at you until you do.

The whole Visiting Fellows program is also becoming more focused now. Turns out I shouldn't have worried so much about producing things in the first month I was here, for the main purpose of the program is for people to learn rationality and useful skills that they can put to use in life. Of course, actually doing stuff is often the best way to learn things, but things are done more for the sake of learning than for the sake of doing alone. For that purpose, we are now trying to have daily discussions about rationality topics. Anna also talked to me a few hours back and said that we'd start doing more tutoring. She asked me both whether I thought I had skills I could tutor people here in, and whether I had any skills I wanted tutoring in from specific people. (I couldn't think of anything, so she said she'd just make up something and I could change it after finding out how much I hated what she ended up choosing for me. I thought that sounded fair.)

Working with Eliezer has still been tiring. We talked about that yesterday, and determined we should try rotating more people as his helpers to give me a bit of time to recover. We'd need to do that soon in any case, since I won't be here for indefinitely. Talking about Eliezer, whenever he updates Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, half the house gets stuck reading the update for half an hour.

There are now a lot more people in the house than there were when I got here. We are going to be acquiring a second house and expand in order to make room for all the fellows, soon. Some of the newcomers have been pretty darn impressive, too.

I'm also working with Louie Helm on a paper about the differences in bandwidth between various parts of the brain vs. between various individuals, and the relation this has on superintelligence. Expect a Less Wrong post of this, hopefully soon. On the topic of papers, my submission I made to ECAP2010 was accepted, so I'll be visiting Germany in October. This time SIAI is sponsoring my admission, too, so I don't need to pay it out of my own pocket like I did for last year's ECAP.

This weekend, me and at least two others are going to go fight with swords. Whee.
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I was going to write about the new points system we have here and stuff, but yesterday there were a bunch of things that triggered a weird change in me. I'm still not entirely sure of what's happening, so I'll try to document it here.

It all started when Michael Vassar was talking about his take on the Twelve Virtues of Rationality. He was basically saying that a lot of the initial virtues (curiosity, relinquishment, lightness, evenness) were variants of the same thing, that is, not being attached to particular states of the world. If you do not have an emotional preference on what the world should be like, then it's also easier to perfectly update your beliefs whenever you encounter new information.

As he was talking about it, he also made roughly the following comment: "Pain is not suffering. Pain is just an attention signal. Suffering is when one neural system tells you to pay attention, and another says it doesn't want the state of the world to be like this." At some point he also mentioned that the ideal would be for a person's motivations not to be directly related to states of the world, but rather their own actions. If you tie your feelings to states of the world, you risk suffering needlessly about things not under you control. On the other hand, if you tie your feelings to your actions, your feelings are created by something that is always under your control. And once you stop having an emotional attachment to the way the world is, actually changing the world becomes much easier. Things like caring about what others think of you cease to be a concern, paradoxically making you much more at ease in social situations.

I thought this through, and it seemed to make a lot of sense. As Louie would comment later on, it was basically the old "attachment is suffering" line from Buddhism, but that's a line one has heard over and over so many times that it's ceased to have much significance and become just a phrase. Reframing it as "suffering is conflict between two neural systems" somehow made it far more concrete.

An early objection that came to mind was that, if pain is not suffering, why does physical pain feel like suffering? My intuition would be that if this hypothesis is correct, then humans have strong inborn desires not to experience pain (which leads to the mistaken impression that pain is suffering). If you break your leg, your brain is flooded with pain signals, and it's built to prefer states of the world where there isn't pain. But it's possible to react indifferently to your own sensation of pain. Pain asymbolia, according to Wikipedia, is "a condition in which pain is perceived, but does not cause suffering ... patients report that they have pain but are not bothered by it, they recognize the sensation of pain but are mostly or completely immune to suffering from it". Further support comes from the fact that our emotional states and the knowledge we have may often have a big influence on how painful (sufferful?) something feels. You can sometimes sustain an injury that doesn't feel very bad until you actually look at it and see how badly it's hurt. Being afraid also makes pain worse, while a feeling of being in control makes pain feel less bad.

On a more emotional front, I discovered a long time ago that trying to avoid thinking about unpleasant memories was a bad idea. The negative affect would fade a lot quicker if I didn't even try to push them out of my mind, but rather let them come and let them envelope me over and over until they didn't bother me anymore.

So I started wondering about how to apply this in practice. For a long time, things such as worry for my friends ending up in accidents and anguish for the fact that there is so much suffering in the world have seriously reduced my happiness. I've felt a strong moral obligation to work towards improving the world, and felt guilty at the times when I've been unable to e.g. study as hard as conceivably possible. If I could shift my motivations away from states of the world, that could make me considerably happier and therefore help me to actually improve the world.

But shifting to focus to actions instead of consequences sounded like getting dangerously close to deontology. Since a deontologist judges actions irrespective of their consequences, they might e.g. consider it wrong to kill a person even if that ended up saving a hundred others. I still wanted my actions to do the most good possible, and that isn't possible if you don't evaluate the effects your actions have on the world-state. So I would have to develop a line of thought that avoided the trap of deontology, while still shifting the focus on actions. That seemed tricky, but not impossible. I could still be motivated to do the actions that caused the most good and shifted the world-state the most towards my preferred direction, while at the same time not being overly attached to any particular state of the world.

While I was still thinking about this, I went ahead and finished reading The Happiness Hypothesis, a book about research on morality and happiness that I'd started reading previously. One of the points the book makes that we're divided beings: to use the book's metaphor, there is an elephant and there is the rider. The rider is the conscious self, while the elephant consists of all the low-level, unconscious processes. Unconscious processes actually carry out most of what we do and the rider trains them and tells them what they should be doing. Think of e.g. walking or typing on the computer, where you don't explicitly think about every footstep or every press of the button, but instead just decide to walk somewhere or type in something.

Readers familiar with PJ Eby will recognize this to be the same as his Multiple Self philosophy (my previous summary, original article). What I had not thought of before was that this also applies to ethics. Formal, virtuous theories of ethics are known by the rider, but not by the elephant, which leads to a conflict between what people know to be right and what they actually do. On these grounds, The Happiness Hypothesis critiqued the way Western ethics, both in the deontologist tradition started by Immanuel Kant and the consequentialist tradition started by Jeremy Bentham have been becoming increasingly reason-based:
Read more... )
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Haven't posted in a while, again. Here's an interview with Mike Blume, a long-time Visiting Fellow. I'll shortly be making a more personal post, as well describing the new points system we've began using recently.


The description of Mike on the 2009 Visiting Fellows page says that he 'is a Ph.D. student in experimental particle physics at the University of  California at Santa Barbara. He holds a B.S. in Physics from the University of California at Irvine.' As you can probably guess, he's been around here for a while, as he was already in last summer's Visiting Fellows program. When I got here he was taking care of SIAI's sysadmin needs while at the same time interning with Rolf Nelson and his startup. Recently he's been moving some of the sysadmin duties over to Louie Helm, as Mike is currently seeking to test his l33t coding skillz in the greater Silicon Valley economy.

Mike, would you say that this description is accurate, or is there something you'd like to add to it?

Mike Blume:
I think it's fairly accurate, though obviously I'm not really a PhD student anymore.

Kaj: I could ask about something else, but I don't think our readers would appreciate being left hanging right that. So a few words on how come you stopped with that?

Mike: Hmm, that's a good question. One answer would be that upon reflection, it didn't seem like the best way to reduce existential risk. I'd gotten into physics with a sort of "knowledge for its own sake" ethos. And I still love that ethos, and find it beautiful, but it turned out there were things that needed to be taken care of first.

Kaj: So how have you been reorienting yourself to actually reduce existential risk better?
Read more... )
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What this page is about: I'm doing a three-month stint as a Visiting Fellow at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. These diaries chronicle my experience.

I was asked to make a single linkable page from which you could display all of my travel diary entries in chronological order. You could do that via using the siai 2010 tag, but that displays the latest entry first, which can be inconvenient to read. So here they are, listed from the earliest to the latest. This post will be updated as I make new entries.

Travel diary, day 1 April 5th - April 6th
Travel diary, day 2 April 6th
Travel diary, day 3 April 8th
Travel diary, day 4 April 9th
Travel diary, days 5-6 April 11th
Travel diary, day 7 April 12th
Travel diary, days 8-9 April 14th
Travel diary, days 10-11 April 16th
Travel diary, days 12-19 April 24th
Travel diary, days 20-26 May 1st
Travel diary, day 27 May 2nd
Travel diary, days 28-36 May 11th
Travel diary, day 37 - interviewing Alicorn - May 12th
Travel diary, days 38-47 - interviewing Mike Blume May 25th
Travel diary, days 48-49 (or, how I am becoming a virtue ethicist) May 27th
Travel diary, days 50-77 June 24th
Travel diary, departure speech July 15th

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As promised, here's the first part of my interview series. It's meant to give you a feeling of what kinds of people I'm spending my time with in the Visiting Fellows program.

Alicorn ([livejournal.com profile] alicorn24 on LJ) was already here when I got here, and will in all likelihood still be here after I leave. Less Wrongers will know her as being one of the people with the highest karma on the site. I was kinda surprised when I met her, because somehow I'd gotten the impression that she'd be really shy and stuff, but she turned out to be really outgoing and extroverted and not shy after all. Her school allowed people to make up their own degrees so long as they also completed some 'real' degree, and as a result she has degrees both in Philosophy and World-Building, which is totally awesome.

She writes serial fiction together with Tethys at elcenia.com, and has her own webcomic (which is cute and which I like) at htht.elcenia.com. Alicorn also makes good food (see her cooking blog) and likes petting people's hair, if they allow it.

Kaj: So, tell our readers, how did you come to be here?
Alicorn: I originally sent an e-mail last fall, asking about the summer, because at the time I expected to be in grad school for the forseeable future. I didn't get a firm response because there were so many summer applications to sort through and no clear idea of how many spots there were. Then, come the spring semester, I decided I wasn't happy, discerned no school-compatible way to fix that, and asked Anna if I could come out if I were able to leave right away instead of at the end of the school year. After some consideration and discussion, the answer turned out to be "yes"; I withdrew from school, packed up, flew out here, and proved useful enough to be kept around.
Kaj: 'Useful enough to be kept around' leads us pretty naturally to the next question, which is, what are the things that you do around here?
Alicorn: I write Less Wrong posts sometimes, although lately while I have lots of ideas, they aren't gelling properly. I've started doing a lot of outreach, because I love to chat with people, including the people SIAI wants someone to stay in touch with. I've also been doing some human capital development projects, absorbing more content and developing new skills.
Kaj: Too many potential lines of interr... uhh, interviewing that I could pursue, I have difficulty picking which ones. The outreach thing sounds interesting - do you generally get to talk with people about Singularity-type stuff a lot, or is it more general conversation? What kinds of people do you talk with that you count as outreach?
Alicorn: I have a pretty low ratio of Singularity-stuff to general conversation. For one thing, this probably increases my long-term quantity of Singularity conversations: people will be more willing to listen to me pontificate on that sometimes if it's not all I ever talk about! A lot of my contacts are people I was already friends with before I got involved with SIAI - some through Less Wrong, some not. In order to count for outreach at all, they have to have relevant interests, though - I can't include every one of my friends on my list of contacts for this reason.Read more... )
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Day 36... since I'll be here for, uhh, *counts* 100 days, that means that over a third of my visit has already passed. Whoa - it certainly doesn't feel like I've been here for that long.

The mind is a weird thing. For some reason, a week or so ago I just completely stopped worrying about the "what should I do with my life" issue, and got back to the old "well, I'll just find whatever to do" mindset I had previously. Weird. Ah well, I'm not complaining. Also, while I frequently keep feeling terribly homesick, the realization that it's been over a third suddenly made me feel like I don't want to leave this place. Gah.

The end of last week was busy, as most people were scrambling to write conference presentations to submit to ECAP10 before the deadline passed. I, too, managed to get something submitted, basically a shortened and rewritten version of the article that I currently have under review for Minds & Machines. (I contacted them about whether it'd be okay for them to also submit a copy to a conference, and they said it was fine.)  Now I'm kinda ambivalent about whether I want M&M to accept my paper or not, for I realized that there's a lot of expanding and rewriting that I could do on the original article that I submitted... I also started working on a paper on the complexity of human values, but realized I wouldn't have the time to finish that in time for the submission deadline. I do intend to expand that to a longer paper, though.

I've been doing pretty well on the "personal projects" and "helping others" parts of my personal goals, but haven't really gotten anything done on the "personal growth and education" part. But I finally got around doing more of that yesterday, when I was again helping Eliezer with his writing. We've determined that for as long as I can still say that I've read everything he's written that day, it's fine if I do various other stuff while watching him write. So while there, I started doing what I've been wanting to do for a long time, but never got around: reading the latest articles from various scientific journals. To make sure I actually remember what they say, I also decided to briefly write down and summarize their contents. I only actually got one article summarized (about the comparative study of cognition; the summary is at the end of this post, in case anyone's interested), for the second article was interesting enough that I started hunting through its references and wasn't patient enough to stop to write a summary. With some luck, I should be able to put the time at Eliezer's to maximal use: both help him write, and make myself read up on the stuff I should've been reading up on for a while now. On the topic of helping Eliezer, yesterday he told me that half of what's been written in the book manuscript so far has been with me present. That was kinda cool, and also a little surprising - I hadn't realized we'd already gotten that much written.

Starting tomorrow, I'll start doing an interview series profiling various people in the house. So far I've only been talking about myself, briefly mentioning various other people. I figure that my readers would be interested in knowing the kinds of people that I'm living with. First up is an interview of Alicorn, a long-time Less Wrong poster. If there's anything in particular you folks want to know about the people here, leave a comment and I'll make sure to include that question in my interviews.

Below's the summary of that article I managed to read yesterday.


Towards a bottom-up perspective on animal and human cognition )
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Feeling a lot better today. Not sure of the exact reasons: though I did have a motivating meeting with Anna in the evening, I was already feeling good in the morning. Maybe it was just the act of venting my uncertainties here that did it, or maybe it was some brain chemistry-related thing that just happened to return to balance during the night. Dunno. Main thing that it got fixed (for now), whatever it was.

Anna's working to make the Visiting Fellows program somewhat more structured. The exact details are still somewhat a work-in-progress, but I was very pleased even by the things that have been thought of so far. This makes it considerably easier for me to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing here, and when I should be satisfied with what I've achieved. For instance, now we have a recommendation that fellows work roughly 60 hours a week, divided roughly evenly between A) direct contribution (working on a useful project), B) Learning and/or plotting their personal trajectory (i.e. deciding what they want to do with their lives, like I've been trying to figure out) and C) helping with others' projects or learning or helping create a more positive community. People are also recommended to write at least 1000 words, four days a week. "This writing can include almost anything related to existential risks or rationality -- notes to oneself, personal brainstorms, emails on relevant issues, draft posts for Less Wrong or for local Less Wrong.  It is meant primarily to prompt thought, and secondarily to help develop writing skills, and particularly the ability to write quickly."

We also made a plan about the things I want to improve and accomplish while I'm here. For the "learning" part, Anna thought that improving my writing skills even further would probably be a good idea. She also asked me about the things on the official Curriculum I thought I wanted to improve on the most. We settled on math (I really need to brush up my calculus soon, and get over the ugh field I have around it), charisma (which probably counts at least as much as raw intelligence in life achievements) and physical exercise (since I don't usually get enough of it).

For projects, I'm first looking at submitting something at this year's ECAP conference (probably a shortened version of a paper I already submitted to Minds and Machines' transhumanism CFP, and which may or may not be accepted), also make more LW posts and prepare some other conference / journal papers. For helping others, well, I'm helping Eliezer, and I'll try to help Justin develop his writing skills. And so forth. Yay!
My goals under the cut )
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Random overheard conversation:

Justin: So who all went to the store?
André: Anyone want Thai tonight?
Justin: Kaj went to the store? No, Kaj's there.
André: Thai, not Kaj. Food from Thailand.
Justin: Food from Kajland?
André: No, Kaj is from Finland. They both end in 'land, but they're very different countries.

First off, apologies to those people who've e-mailed me but to whom I haven't gotten around writing back. (That's at least you, Jarkko, as well as various people I got into conversations with online.) I've been feeling rather drained a lot of the time, for reasons which I'll soon discuss.

Still wondering whether coming here was a good idea or a mistake. Looking at things from a purely utilitarian perspective, I should be satisfied. I'm now "working" with Eliezer three days a week, and each time when I'm there, he gets around 5000 words written on his book. That's very valuable, as his writings reshaped the way I think for the better, and the book could do that for - potentially - millions more. So if I were judging things solely on the basis of how much good I was doing here, I should be happy.

But... meh. I can't help the feeling that pretty much anyone could do what I do there, sitting next to him and watching him write. It's kinda draining, even though I'm mostly free to surf the web or whatever while there. I don't really get that much of a feeling of accomplishment from it anymore. Anna did remark that an ability to do "something that anyone could do" is an accomplishment in itself - that is, the ability to do something even though it isn't great and glorious and exciting. She mentioned, and my own experience agrees, that getting volunteers to do exciting things is easy, but getting them to do the less glamorous work (of which there is much more to do) is much harder. I guess I should consider that as a merit.

Three days a week leaves me two days for other things, weekends excluded. I do finally have in mind a specific working project that I could work on, but I'm not yet sure how much I can get done on that or if I should try to do something else in the first place. Need to still talk about it with Anna. The book days seem to leave me sufficiently drained that I have difficulty getting anything done on the in-between days. But I don't think several book days in a row would be much better, either (neither for me nor Eliezer).

I wonder if I should just treat my time here basically as a vacation: be content with the three days of a week during which I'm actually of some use, and just relax and not be worried about my productivity during the remaining time.

Been feeling wretchedly homesick this whole day. I think I mentioned in some earlier post that I previously thought I couldn't spend extended periods away from Finland, but being here made me change my mind. Well, I recant that now. The people here are nice, but I really miss the people back at home.

Still thinking about what I want to do with my life. For some years, I thought I'd want to do a PhD and go into academia. Well, I still might want to do that, but a few days back I realized how little of that motivation was actually very thought-out. The way the Finnish educational system works, after nine years of elementary school (age 7-15) you pick whether you want to do three years of generic academic high school, or roughly three years of vocational training for some job. If you think you want to get a job that requires a university education, you go to high school. More commonly, many also go to high school because they have no idea of what they want to do with their lives and need time to think.

I went to high school because I needed time to think. To a degree, I also went to university, into a sufficiently multidisciplinary educational program, because I needed time to think. That was the path of least resistance - can't figure out what to do? Continue studying and hope you come up with something good. Large part of my intention to go into academia was probably my brain just being on autopilot - continuing to do what it'd been doing before was the path of least resistance. Especially since a geeky kid could more easily get a feeling of validation from school grades than anything else, so school was automatically endowed with a general halo of approval. Unfortunately, you can't just keep studying forever, for there are no degrees past the PhD. (Yes, one could get multiple degrees of the same level, but by then you couldn't live off study grants anymore and had to figure out a job to support you.) This fact, as well as a general disillusionment with academia that I've been experiencing lately, has been forcing me to evaluate what exactly it is that I'd actually want to do.

For the most part, though, I find that I'm evaluating different career prospects more from the perspective of pain than gain motivation. I'm not as much looking for a career I'd enjoy, but rather a career that would be the least unpleasant. Part of it probably comes from just being here - I'm in contact with too many people obviously much smarter or generally more talented than me, and then I get the feeling that I'm not really good at anything. Yes, I know, this is a fixed mindset biting me. And yes, I also know that this place is drawing people from a very narrow distribution and most people I'll meet in life won't be equally smart and I should realistically expect to do fine. And that there are lots of other things than just smarts that count. And so on.

But... I dunno.
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Long time, no write.

The house is quiet right now. My mother (hi, mom!) asked what we do on weekends. It varies: on Saturday we typically do something as a group, or if nobody comes up with something that enough people would be interested in, we generally just hang around. The first Saturday that I was here, we went out to an Indian buffet place to eat. On the second, we didn't do anything in particular. Today, most people went to see a computer history museum. I considered going - I suspect I would have found it interesting - but decided I'd rather sleep in and enjoy the peace and solitude of a quiet house for once. I think just about everyone is either at the museum or somewhere else. I think Steve is the only person other than me who's here at the moment.

Sundays are kinda off - they're called "human capital days". For those, people are encouraged to hold various workshops on the things they know and teach them to others. Their exact content varies a lot - last Sunday, Andre held a Krav Maga lesson as well as some improvisational games. I won't be here for this Sunday's workshops, though, since I'll be seeing a friend tomorrow. Even though I only knew her online, Lani was pretty much my best friend for some years, around the time when I was fifteen. We've drifted off somewhat since then, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't use the opportunity to finally meet her in real life now that I happen to be in the San Fransisco area.

The week's been pretty good, and at least for now, I've mostly gotten over my "should I even be here" worries. There have been two major reasons for that. Michael Vassar showed up during the end of last week/beginning of this week, and discussed with us some of the plans he had for SIAI. Somehow, something in what he said pushed me to decide that darnit, I'll stop worrying about whether I'm useful and do something. I've now compiled a preliminary list of topics for academic papers that I could possibly work on while here, and I'm determined to start actually working on them soon. (Although unfortunately for my plans to pass some of them off as a computer science Master's thesis, they all lay pretty firmly in the cognitive science sphere, implying that if I do want to graduate faster I shouldn't switch majors after all... ah well, I'll worry about it later on. And I do already have one paper that might pass for CS under review to a journal.)

The other reason is that Eliezer Yudkowsky showed up here on Monday, seeking people's help with the rationality book he's writing. Previously, he wrote a number of immensly high-quality posts in blog format, with the express purpose of turning them into a book later on. But now that he's been trying to work on the book, he has noticed that without the constant feedback he got from writing blog posts, getting anything written has been very slow. So he came here to see if having people watching him write and providing feedback at the same time would help. He did get some stuff written, and at the end, asked me if I could come over his place on Wednesday. (I'm not entirely sure of why I in particular was picked, but hey.) On Wednesday, me being there helped him break his previous daily record on amount of words written for his book, so I visited again on Friday and agreed to also come back on Monday and Tuesday.

In practice, "helping Eliezer write" doesn't really require me to do much. Mostly I just sit next to him and watch him write. Occasionally I make a suggestion or two, some of which have actually found their way to the manuscript (if the final version still has the xckd reference, I'm the one to blame), but mostly I just watch. Apparently having someone looking expectantly at the text is enough to prompt writing activity. (This does not surprise me. I know from writing fiction that I get far more done far easier if I'm writing it together with someone, and part of it is definitely in the knowledge that another person will read it as soon as I've written it out.) You might think that this would get boring quickly, but the topic is interesting enough for me to enjoy watching the way the text takes form. After all, I've read most of his previous blog posts on the topic and would definitely have intended to buy the book in any case. It's also interesting to see the way that the ideas take a more refined and clearer form, and having someone type them out slower than I would usually read the text prompts me to really think over the stuff while it's being generated. I think that helps me get a slightly deeper understanding of it than I would otherwise. (Also, I do have my laptop with me, so if I get really bored I can just surf the web in the meanwhile.) And even though I don't actually do much, whenever I see him complete a new section, I too get a feeling of accomplishment. So far, I've usually been there for around five or six hours at a time.

While here, I've gotten (again) badly hooked on Might and Magic VI, a computer game back from 1998. It's amusing - the basic gameplay consists mainly of going to a dungeon, killing monsters until you've ran out of hit points and spell points, and then leaving the dungeon to recover. Repeat until the dungeon is empty and you've collected all the loot inside. Repeat until all the dungeons in the game are empty. But combined with that are fifteen different areas to be explored, people to talk to, quests to complete... and most importantly, a character development system where you're constantly acquiring more experience points and therefore skill points to raise your various skills. Then you can visit various trainers around the world to obtain an Expert or Master ranking for your various skills. Not to mention all the improved arms and equipment you pick up during the game to boost you further, all of this combining to the pleasure of seeing the weaker enemies becoming easier and easier to kill. Until you run into the harder enemies and have to repeat the same drill, of course. It's a simple reinforcement system that feeds you with constant rewards (the same formula I hear World of Warcraft, not to mention countless of othe games of this type), masterfully exploiting the way our brains are wired for seeking immediate reward. The fact that I recognize how it works doesn't make it any less effective.
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Yesterday, I:

- Wrote a blog post ( http://lesswrong.com/lw/23r/the_concepts_problem/ )
- Again wrote some personal e-mails
- Got my intro speech from Justin

Today, I:

- Will either make a new LW post or research one

From today onwards, I will attempt to have a new LW post up on an average of once per two days. We'll see for how long it lasts.

Yesterday, I realized a cause for my insecurities here. I hadn't been given any guidelines of how much I should be achieving, so to make up for that, I was imposing myself requirements that were possibly way too strict. So during our daily ten-minute meeting, I asked Anna about it. She was reluctant to give a direct answer ("you should do the best you can - what use would it be to place a minimum requirement on you?"), so I reworded it as "well, the Singularity Institute did have some goal in mind when the Visiting Fellows program was instituted, right?" That got me a longer answer (disclaimer: I've probably forgotten some parts of it already). Part of the purpose is to simply bring together people with potential and interest in SIAI/existential risk and improve their skills so that they can benefit the organization's cause even after having left the program. On the other hand, it would also be good if we "did stuff". She specifically mentioned that some people thought Less Wrong was dying (a claim which surprised me, personally) and that it'd be good to get more quality posts up there, especially ones of a slightly more technical nature. Furthermore, we should try to look productive so as to inspire new visitors to be productive as well, plus to build a growth atmosphere in general.

Justin also explained to me his conception of what SIAI's long-term strategy should look like. Briefly, growth -> (global) intelligence enhancement -> uploads -> Friendly AI. Right now, the organization should concentrate on outreach and teaching activities and seek to grow, then attempting to leverage its size and resources for a general raising of the sanity waterline as well as for global intelligence enhancement. Eventually, we should get the technology for uploads and for uploading FAI programmers, who could then hopefully build FAI. That's a rather ambitious plan, which I found myself mostly agreeing with. I do think that IA methods are sorely needed in general, and that a partially upload-mediated Singularity would be the safest one, if it's possible. Notably, it makes the operational assumption that real AI is still several decades away. That may or may not be true, but if somebody does have an almost finished AI project in their basement, there probably isn't very much we can do in any case. Justin's going to discuss his plans with more of the SIAI leadership.

People are optimistic about SIAI's growth prospects. Michael Vassar was here some days back, and he mentioned 40% yearly growth as a realistic goal. On the downside, the rapid growth SIAI has had so far has also left things in a somewhat chaotic state, without a cohesive large-scale strategy and different members of the organization being somewhat out of touch of what the others are doing. Justin is hoping to get that fixed.

We finally shared our mindmaps. The instructions for those had been rather loose, so everyone had rather different-looking ones. (Alicorn didn't have a mindmap at all, but rather a long outline and a list of questions.) Jasen's was probably the scariest. He discussed the threat of bioterrorism, and thought it possible that in some decades, synthetic biology might allow for the creation of diseases that no human's immune system can defend against. Furthermore, mixing together e.g. a disease that is very good at infecting people and a disease with a long incubation period might become possible and easy even before that. Until now, biowarfare has been relatively hard, but future breakthroughs could make it possible even for your basic graduate student to create such nightmare combinations. Also, there apparently are real death cults (or at least individuals out there), which doesn't exactly help me feel more safe.

I thought the presentations were good, though, and got a bunch of ideas for various things I could write about. For now, I've set myself the goal of just writing a lot here. We'll see how that goes.

Before I came here, I was feeling rather burnt out on my studies. I was figuring that I'd spend several months abroad, concentrate purely on whatever I'd be doing there and not think about my studies. Then I'd come back home, spend one month doing mostly nothing but relaxing, and then return to the studies filled with energy. Unfortunately, as good as that plan sounded, it doesn't seem to be working so far. I'm spending a lot of time worrying about the courses I should be taking after I get home, wondering which ones are the ones I should be taking, whether I should switch majors to CS after my bachelor's or stay in cognitive science, wondering whether it was mistake to come here and forgoing the chance to finish some more courses and to maybe net a summer job... meh.

Previously (like two paragraphs ago - this entry was composed over a period of several hours), I was thinking that I'd been spending most of my time here trying to get some academic writing done, in the hopes I could get enough publications together that I could pass them off as my Master's thesis in a year or two. But now I'm increasingly getting the feeling that I really don't want to do a Master's degree after getting the Bachelor's done. Unfortunately, the Master is the norm in Finland, so trying to get some kind of a job with just a Bachelor is going to be tricky. So maybe I should concentrate more on deepening my programming skills and maybe contributing to some open source project while here, to get something to show on a resume...
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Yesterday, I:
- Had preliminary discussions with Justin about co-writing something
- Communicated with some people back in Finland and kick-started our party's call for candidates for Parliamentary elections (by making a "write your name here if you're interested" wiki page)
- Went to get some exercise with Justin and Jasen
- Continued to study microeconomics
- Realized I needed to understand differential equations if I wanted to get the most out of the micro textbook, decided to brush up on my calculus skills and then move on to differential equations
- Had dinner conversations

Today, I'll:
- Answer some personal e-mails
- Get some exercise again
- Write a new LiveJournal post
- Study calculus
- See if I get a chance to write with Justin
- Work on writing something, maybe a LW post

This morning, I was blue. Literally, not metaphorically: the skin on my face was noticeably more blue than usual. I didn't pick up on it at first, but several of the people at the morning meeting commented on it and seemed a bit worried. Looking at myself in a mirror later on, I realized what they had been talking about. After I was out jogging, I went to take a shower and managed to figure out what the reason was: my pillow and blanket are blue. They'd apparently been leaking color, because both of my elbows were entirely blue. (This was a bit scary until I realized what the reason must be.) Then I took some soap and washed it off.

Had a slightly longer discussion with Anna about what I should be doing (both here and in general). Didn't figure out anything conclusive about what I want to do with my life, but we did figure out a multi-step process for maybe developing a research paper. Step one, wait that everyone has a mindmap to share. That was supposed to happen back on Sunday, but it's been getting pushed forward several times now. Hopefully should finally happen today. After the sharing of mindmaps possibly reveals some subjects of confusion, we can begin by turning them into blog posts for commentary. Blog posts can then be turned into conference abstracts, which can then be turned into working papers to the SIAI website, which can then be turned into journal submissions. That should work for a while.

Yesterday, we had an interesting dinner discussion. (We've taken up the habit of having dinner discussions at 7 PM.) It started as a discussion of ethics, which didn't really go anywhere, but then moved on to the question of how we could better promote a growth atmosphere. That is, an atmosphere where everyone tries to develop their talents and look mainly for the potential for growth, instead of being stuck in a fixed mindset. Everyone was first asked to mention something they were insecure about, then some way in which they had changed during the last five years, then three things they wanted to change and/or find out about themselves. (My answers: I'm insecure about whether I really have any useful skills or whether I'm just wasting SIAI's money by being here, I've been either becoming more extroverted or realizing I'm actually more extroverted, and I'd like to figure out what I want in life and increase my happiness set point.) It was great fun.

Also fun was going out to get some exercise with Justin and Jasen. We mostly did some jogging and swordfighting. I was kind of down before that, but then began to feel much better for the rest of the day. For tomorrow, I agreed to join a bunch of people getting up early to do some more jogging as a group. Actually getting a bit more exercise would probably be a very good thing, as I don't get much otherwise.

Today, Anna asked me what was the one character trait I wished to cultivate here the most. That was a good question, and I replied that I'd like to develop my productivity. Yes, I might appear to get more done than most people, but it sure doesn't feel like that way to me. There have been too many days (both here and at home) when I have a large to-do list, but then never manage to work my way through the whole list. Usually I just end up doing the first item or the couple of first items on the list and then spending the rest of the day without the energy to do anything more meaningful. If I could fix that, I could actually get done far more of the things I want to do (or at least want to want do).
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Briefly spoke with Anna about figuring out what, exactly, I should do here. She too recommended talking with Justin about getting some kind of co-writing done, with me helping Justin introduce some concreteness to his writing. In exchange, Justin might help improve my "analytical sharpness" I think the term was, though I wasn't entirely sure of what was meant by that. I was pointed to a book on critical thinking that apparently has some stuff relating to that, though Anna couldn't find the exact chapters about it. Huh. Well, I'll skim it through. She also said we should talk about that Platzer planning project more at some point, but didn't think me simply taking charge of it would be a good idea at this point. Fair enough, we'll see if anything comes out of that. In any case, Justin and I agreed to talk about things today, maybe get some of that co-writing stuff started. (Edit: Justin said he's taking a day off today, so I guess that'll have to wait.)

That still doesn't entirely answer the question of "what should I be doing here", though. I need some kind of overarching vision of the overall purpose of me being here should be, otherwise I'll feel that I'm just doing various disconnected stuff without any greater purpose.

This is kind of related to me in general not knowing what I'd want to do with my life. The free "everyone does whatever" sort of thing here is great when you've already decided on the best way you personally can contribute to avoiding existential risks, but less so when you have no idea. On the other hand, the positive thing about this is that it's kinda forcing me to decide on what I want. I've been worrying about this before, but the workload from college courses has also been filling part of my attention so I've been able to kinda drown the issue under those. Just do school work and only worry about what I actually want later on.

So, what lifepaths do seem viable? Here are the ones I've been thinking about:

POLITICS. I may have a non-neglible possibility of getting elected to the Parliament of Finland, either during the 2011 or the 2015 election. I'm estimating the chance of this to be around a couple of percent if I do nothing more than what I've been doing now, uppable to say 25% if I were to really dedicate myself to that during this autumn and the beginning of next year. This would allow me to popularize rationality and awareness of existential risks and affect country-level issues which I feel strongly about. The pay also isn't bad, so I could donate relatively large sums to x-risk prevention.

However, I have a strong suspicion I wouldn't actually like doing politics much.

ACADEMIA. There are two variants of this: try to do academic work concentrating on Singularity/AI issues, or try to do academic work concentrating more on something else. These are naturally not mutually exclusive, it being more of a question of emphasis. For the Singularity/AI issues - well, unlike some people at SIAI, I'm no genius so I'm not sure whether this is really where my comparative advantage lies. There are probably some low-hanging fruit in the form of stuff that hasn't yet been explored in depth or converted into academic papers, which I could do.

Academic work concentrating on something else would be interesting - I've got some ambitions about studying societies and large-scale human behavior from some grand interdisciplinary point of view combining cognitive science, economics, sociology, computer science et cetera. Pay in academia is often poor, however, and the work uncertain. I'm not sure I could deal with the stress of only knowing I or my team has project funding for the next six months.

INDUSTRY RESEARCH. As above, but doing something of interest for the private sector. I don't really know very much about this side of things. I'm figuring it'd have better pay and job security, but could spend less time doing genuinely interesting things and more time doing things optimized for making the biggest $$$ for The Corporation. Which might be okay or not, depending on how interesting that stuff would end up being.

WRITING. I've written three books now, the latest of which got a bunch of positive reviews, including a fourteen-paragraph one in Finland's biggest newspaper. It was also briefly on the list of most sold books in the webstore of Suomalainen kirjakauppa, the biggest bookstore chain in Finland, though I don't know how many sales they get through their webstore and how those stats were calculated. This is something I'd probably enjoy doing, though again the pay is poor and even more uncertain in academia. If I could break into the English-speaking market, the earnings potential would go up considerably. Most Finnish authors make the majority of their income via grants given out by various private foundations as well as the state, but there's again some degree of uncertainty involved in getting those.

CODE MONKEY. Catch-all term for "whatever doesn't sound too unpleasant but nets money". Currently most likely way of doing this seems to be by obtaining more programming experience and skill and then finding work in the IT sector, hence the name. The couple of instructors I've done CS programming project courses for said I have talent, and I realized that I actually liked doing practical programming projects a lot, more than many of the more theoretical courses I've had. This would also pay at least moderately well.

If I manage to pick one of these and decide I'll want to concentrate on it, I can leverage my time here to improve my chances of making it through to that field.

Considering those various options, I find that the thing that's most emotionally important for me right now is job security. Ideally I'd prefer a job I can just do and be at least moderately sure I'm doing a good job, without needing to worry about whether or not I'm doing a good enough job to pay my rent in a month or six months or whether the job'll exist at all at that point. That means that I'm currently rather strongly drawn towards the code monkey career heading, ideally at some big company that isn't likely to go out of business any time soon. It'll also allow me to do stuff falling under the other headings at the side.

(EDIT: I've also been playing the around with the idea of some kind of a consultancy thing, as I tend to have at least moderate talent in figuring out [1] [2] reasons for disagreement and a generic consultancy gig gives a nice excuse for studying a bit of everything in the hopes of it might be applicable.)

Considering my insecurities, it might also be a good thing if I didn't have an intellectually challenging job that had my re-evaluating my self-image all the time...
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Steve Rayhawk: Okay, I'm going to be an undead megacorporation.
Alicorn: You mean your character is going to be an undead megacorporation?
Steve Rayhawk: Yeah. Though only undead in an economic sense, all the employees are still alive.
Alicorn: So you're going to be the CEO of the corporation?
Steve Rayhawk: No, the whole corporation. I'll only communicate via press releases.

-- Alicorn and Steve discussing an awesome-sounding game of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which unfortunately didn't get played yet.

Steve had this fascinating way of applying the concept of "undead" to real life. First, in economics, an undead corporation is one that's employing e.g. outdated business models and would usually go bankrupt, but is still being kept "alive" via protectionist measures. Moving the metaphor into the domain of epistemology, an undead belief system is based on incorrect beliefs that should really die out, but are kept alive because of various personal reasons. (E.g. a creationist who refuses to accept the evidence for evolution.)

On Friday, I wrote a new blog post, did some of the exercises from Anna's math workshop, and finished my mindmap (which isn't really a mindmap). I was intending to discuss with Anna my issues about not knowing what I should be doing here , but she was out of the house and will only be coming back today.

Saturdays are reserved for relaxation. We all went to an Indian buffet place which has good although spicy food, I played several games of Go with various people, and helped Jasen make some boffer swords. Then I tried to beat up Jasen with my sword, mostly getting beaten up in the process. I also tried to get some kind of storytelling or roleplaying game going on the evening, but despite my advertisement on the house mailing list, everyone kept disappearing. Ah well. I should probably get a more explicit sign-up thing for a game or something. I also started reading a book on microeconomics.

Sundays are "human capital days", where people are encouraged to hold presentations and workshops about the things they're good at and teach those to others. Today it looks there won't be very many presentations, though they will be some. Apparently not everybody had been aware of the fact that we should be presenting our mindmaps today, so that got pushed off tomorrow. I got into a conversation with Justin about various things I could start working on, including taking charge of the Peter Platzer Book Project which has kinda gotten frozen due to various reasons. We also briefly discussed co-writing Less Wrong posts and maybe some academic papers. The academic papers thing would be cool, as that was kinda what I was hoping I could get to do here. (Also, having some published papers would help me graduate faster, as I could just try offering them to our professors as my Master's thesis.)

I've always had myself pegged down as an introvert, but some days back Anna suggested that I might actually be a shy extrovert. Being here, I'm beginning to suspect that might be the case. It feels great to be here, where there are constantly people around me. I know I'm going to feel really lonely when I finally get back home where that isn't the case. Previously I thought I couldn't live anywhere other than Finland, but were it not for the inconvenience of only having a limited-time visa, the thought of staying here indefinitely (with only the occasional visits to home) might not be unappealing at all.

Thanks to everyone who hit me with a cluebat after the angstiness in my last post. It's probably true that I probably have ridiculously high standards for myself, and I'm now trying to reorient myself to be more reasonable towards myself. Reading this discussion between CronoDAS and PJ Eby has also helped me to better understand some of the mechanisms in my brain that are holding me back with pointless guilt about not being perfect. I'll also make that one of My Big Projects Here (TM).
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First off, thanks to everyone who wished me a good journey!
Travel diary, day 1 )
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My previously announced departure to the US got a bit delayed, but now it's finally going to happen. Tomorrow's the day. My flight will depart the Helsinki-Vantaa airport at 7:35 AM. Change of plane at Paris-Charles de Gaulle, then it's a straight flight all the way to San Fransisco. Total duration, 16 hours. Matters aren't helped by the fact that if I want to be on the airport in time, I need to take a bus that leaves at 5 AM.

It's a strange feeling, looking around and knowing that I won't be seeing this place for four months. I can't help but feeling that it'll be a kind of a death and rebirth; I'll leave where and what I am now. One doesn't just spend four whole months in an entirely different place and remain unchanged. When I come back, I'll be a new person, hopefully for the better.

I should probably be getting to bed, but a part of me wants to remain awake and savor the last hours of my old life while it still can.

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