New Month Resolution #7

As I mentioned a few months ago, I think it’s valuable to mindfully mark time as a way to make gradual changes to one’s behavior. I’m trying out the idea of New Month Resolutions; the basic principle is to choose some habit or activity each month to commit to, one that is (a) big enough that it takes a focused effort to get it done, and (b) small enough that one can expect to make real progress in 15-30 mins each day over the course of a month.

Play along from home, if you want. 🙂 (If you do, I’d love to hear about your experience!)

Update from Last Month (April 2020)

Another month in COVID-19 quarantine. Not much to tell. About three times in the month, I made it to Rehovot to visit the office, though all other days I was working from home. My friends and colleagues around the world have mostly adapted to this new situation, with more meetings / seminars (for work) and more conversations / parties (for friends) held virtually over Zoom. I’ve started teaching a statistics course through my university for Master’s / Ph.D students, which of course has been moved online as well. Overall, it’s weird how the days blend together when they’re not marked by a commute to work.

Thankfully I have good roommates and I’ve had several opportunities to see my excellent girlfriend this month. We even had a cookout on the balcony to celebrate Israel’s 72nd birthday.

As a country we’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel too. Over the last week or so, Israel has started reacting to the very optimistic infection numbers and started to reopen the economy. Just today, I read that 80% of Israel hasn’t had a new COVID-19 case in several days, and the government is considering reopening public parks, beaches, and outdoor markets. From where I sit I see a class of schoolchildren playing soccer in a nearby field (legally or illegally, I couldn’t tell you). Things are rapidly approaching something close to normal.

Optimism via https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

Let’s hope we don’t see a new peak in infections as a result.

In blog-related news, I haven’t written as much as I’d hoped, but I have a few things that are half-written and should get posted soon. My Twitter presence has languished since finishing my 100-day challenge, so I’m thinking of restarting a new 100 days.

Last Month’s Resolution

Major Resolution: Lucid Dreaming

Historically I never remember my dreams (maybe a few times per year), and last month I worked to fix that. More ambitiously, I wanted to learn to lucid dream. A lucid dream is where you ‘wake up’ inside your dream and can interact consciously with the dream; in some cases, people report being able to control the contents of the dream, leading to flight, world travel, sleeping with famous people, or whatever else they felt like doing. Sounds like fun!

The first part (remembering) has been a huge success. I started keeping a dream journal, using the Awoken app on my phone, and every day when I woke up I tried to remember what I had been dreaming. In many cases, it worked!

I have 12 entries in my dream journal over the course of a month, which is a huge improvement.

I did not, however, have any lucid dreaming experiences. What I tried to do, to make it happen, was to initiate “reality check” moments throughout the day to make it a habit to see if I was dreaming; this I did using the same Awoken app. When the app played a chime, I’d stop what I was doing, look at my hands, count my fingers, bite my tongue, read something carefully, or any number of other simple “am I dreaming?” tests. The goal is to make it such a habit that I’d even do it in my sleep. The app even played the chime in my sleep to try to trigger these checks during a dream. Unfortunately it never happened for me.

The reality checks are interesting, because they’re basically short mindful moments speckled throughout the day. Notice your hands. Notice the sounds around you. Look around. I started to notice how much my daily life is spent in a daze, sort of focused on what I was doing but basically mindless and un-present. Even though I was awake, I felt like I was waking up. Regardless of the lucid dreaming idea, I’d like to keep cultivating these moments.

So I think I’ll keep these habits, though maybe with less emphasis: I’ll continue to journal dreams when I remember them, and I’ll keep the reality checks happening for now.

  • Commitment: 4/5
  • Difficulty: 2/5
  • Results (+/- relative to my expectation, which corresponds to 0): 2/5
  • Likelihood to do it again the following month: 5/5

Up Next

I’ve been thinking lately about the benefits of subtractions to one’s routine, in addition to additions, inspired by Nassim Taleb’s Via Negativa principle. He writes in his book Antifragile:

So the central tenet of the epistemology I advocate is as follows: we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works).  So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition — given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.

If I apply this to habit cultivation, the life lesson I draw is: think hard about the habits you’ve already cultivated, and subtract the bad in addition to adding the good. So for the next few months, I’m intending to split my NMR into these two parts.

A subtraction: I’d like to go a month without alcohol. This should be easy, and I’ve done it many times before. In the future I may try other dietary subtractions like caffeine, gluten, dairy, meat, etc. But I’ll start simple this month. I’m also interested to try subtracting other, non-dietary things from my life to see how it goes; I have some ideas. 🙂

An addition: a good morning routine goes a long way, and I want to work on mine. Two things I think would be helpful are stretching and breathing daily, so that’s what I’ll do. There are plenty of simple stretches online, from basic to yogi-level, which I’ll sample day by day. Breathing is more tricky, but I’ll start with breathing exercises for singers and maybe move to more extreme kinds (some of these are also yogi-level).

(I didn’t stretch/breathe yesterday (May 1), so I began this morning (May 2).)

Resolution #7

Starting May 2, until (at least) the end of the month, I will (+) do a daily stretching and breathing routine in the morning, and (-) abstain from alcohol.

Results and new Resolution will be given on or around June 1, 2020.

Zoom: The Other Exponential Growth Story of 2020

First, my own anecdotal point of view:

Sometime last year I recall seeing a group on my campus handing out flyers for some (new?) video conferencing app called Zoom. I’d never heard of it! I looked at the brochure, decided that the features sure sounded a lot like what I was already getting for free from Skype, and threw it away. That week I had several work and personal video calls, all of which I did on Skype. Skype was the verb of choice: “Want to Skype this weekend?” “Hey let’s Skype next week to push the project!” etc.

In the last few weeks, I started to almost universally hear “Skype” being replaced by “Zoom”: e.g. “Want to Zoom this weekend?” The lecture I’m supposed to teach for the Spring semester is being moved online (for obvious reasons), and the administration told me that the whole campus will use Zoom; my impression is that many universities around the world are doing the same. Several of my usual Skype work meetings have migrated to Zoom too.

I signed up, of course, and so did all my friends.

But what’s going on?

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It’s not just my corner of the world; interest in Zoom has skyrocketed over a span of just a month. From Google Trends:

In the United States
Worldwide

It’s a nearly 100-fold increase in a span of about a month. I included Skype and Google Duo for comparison; both have seen some gains in interest but at a level far lower than Zoom.

To put this in context, here’s the spike in interest in COVID-19 over the same period, and also interest in “cats”:

Worldwide. Note that dogs (not represented here) are roughly twice as popular as cats. 🙂

Zoom is about 10-20 times less interesting than COVID-19, which is reasonable, but it’s now about as popular a search as “cat”. Given that cat memes are always popular I take this also as evidence that something special is going on.

Another measure: Zoom stocks are up 10-fold over the last month (via MarketWatch):

I would like to compare to Skype directly, but it’s not possible because Skype is owned by Microsoft and doesn’t have its own tradable stocks. The closest thing would be Microsoft stock, which is way down over the same period (link):

This plummet seems unlikely to be related directly to Skype, as Microsoft is a huge company with its hands in many pies; probably it’s just hurting because everyone is hurting. (Well, Zoom’s not hurting!)

One more comparison for good measure: Here are the trends in stocks from Slack, a communications company marketed towards remote workers:

You might have expected Slack also to zoom to greater heights (pun intended) as millions of workers are sent to work from home, but they instead took the big hit that so many others did and bounced back to normal. Commendable, but I’m sure they wish they were Zoom right now.

I’m far from the first to notice this very sudden change; many articles have already been written. In the last three weeks: “Zoom Became the Most Important App in the Business World Overnight” (Inc.com); “How Zoom became so popular during social distancing” (CNBC); “All your friends are using Zoom, the video-chat app that is suddenly dominating competition from Google and Microsoft” (Business Insider); among others. A related article from Drift.com gives us another, more direct metric to judge the growth of Zoom (numbers of users per day):

In December 2019, Zoom reportedly had 10 million users / day. Now, fast-forward to March 2020: Zoom reported 200 million users / day. Once more: 100 million / year is about 300,000 / day in 2015, to 10,000,000 /day in 2019 and 200,000,000 / day in 2020. They’re growing (*gasp*)… exponentially!

Linear Scale, exponential fit
Log Scale, same fit

To be clear, this is a bad exponential fit, but the data I’m using is not good and Zoom hasn’t released any more detailed recent numbers. But if you believe it even a little, this looks like the exponential nature of Zoom’s growth is many years in the making, and not unique to the last month of quarantine. Slack, on the other hand, displays a clear trend of linear growth.

Again, what’s going on?

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I don’t know the answer. Let me recount some half-baked theories, along with some reasons to doubt them; in the end I think each holds part of the puzzle. Finally I’ll try to aggregate all of it into my own story of what might be going on.

Theory 0 (the Null Hypothesis): Nothing special is happening in the past month

I hope I’ve provided pretty convincing evidence that there’s something especially weird happening with Zoom since the beginning of March. But let’s give the devil his due: I already told you that Zoom’s growth may have been exponential for years preceding 2020, whereas related companies seem to be stuck at linear. Here’s more of that, via Diginomica:

Sorry for the bad quality; it’s a screenshot of a low-quality image apparently copied from a Zoom Q4 video presentation. The vertical axis says “Number of Customers” and Zoom is the green line.

Roughly speaking: Zoom exponential, everybody else linear. (Maybe RingCentral (the orange line) is looking a bit exponential too, not sure.) But the timescale here is from 2016! Whatever’s blowing up with Zoom, maybe it’s long-term and we are just at the exciting side of it.

But no, dammit, something weird is happening! It would be an extraordinary coincidence if Zoom happened to overtake Skype in a big way in the same month as a global pandemic. I have big doubts. So let’s press on.

Theory 1.0: It’s all about COVID-19!

Here’s the plausible, simple theory to explain the timing: the thing that’s special about this moment in history is that half the world’s population is in quarantine due to a global pandemic (duh!). While they’re stuck in their homes, many more people need to use video chat and many more companies need to use video conferencing. Bing bang boom, a big boon for Zoom. Right?

The timing is so unique that this must be part of the explanation. But if this were the whole story, I’d expect to see similar upticks in other video conferencing platforms. My eye is especially on Skype, which has dominated the field for more than a decade; in fact I’d expect it to dominate even more than before in quarantine-land, as new users flock to whatever application is already being used by all their friends. But:

You can see the little Skype / Duo upticks at the end, but they’re dwarfed by what Zoom is doing. Why didn’t we all run to Skype for our video chat needs? Why is Zoom winning this race by so much?

Let’s add some epicycles.

Theory 1.1: COVID-19 happened, and Zoom’s just new and exciting!

So we have all these new users, freshly quarantined, and they need a way to make video calls. Naturally, they look in the app store, find Zoom, and that’s the end of the story!

On some level, this must be true too; there’s good evidence that much of the uptick in Zoom interest is from new users (rather than just increased use of existing users) in the last month of so. From Business Insider (note that the article was written on March 24, 2020):

The most clear evidence that Zoom is doing well is its position atop both the iPhone and Android top-downloaded apps charts. 

It’s so popular on mobile that it’s 2nd only to TikTok as the world’s most downloaded app across the last week. During that period, Zoom added “close to 20 million new mobile users,” according to data provided by mobile data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

And many of those downloads were first time users: “Globally, first-time installs of Zoom’s mobile app increased 213% last week compared to the preceding week of March 9, and 728% compared to the week of March 2,” Sensor Tower’s Head of Mobile Insights Randy Nelson told Business Insider.

“Zoom’s mobile app was installed about 3.7 times more than Skype’s and 8.6 times more than Google Hangouts,” he said. 

The comparison to TikTok strengthens the argument: TikTok is for sure just the latest exciting thing in a long stream of exciting things that changes month to month. Maybe Zoom just happened to strike right when it could take full advantage of the worldwide quarantine.

But also…

Except, no, not even close. Zoom has been around since 2011 and has been publicly traded for nearly a year. It was in the App Store next to Skype for all those years, with Skype dominating sales, and suddenly we all go into quarantine and everyone decides it’s time to download Zoom. I mean, they had a pretty big software update in Dec 2019, but who reads about those kinds of things? I don’t think Theory 1.1 is plausible.

Theory 1.2: COVID-19 happened, and Zoom’s just better!

My experience with Zoom has been extremely positive. After years of using Skype and feeling like it was fine, switching to Zoom has been legitimately a happy experience. The user interface is very intuitive, it’s easy to invite friends / colleagues to join a chat, and the connection is extremely stable (feels better than Skype). Zoom has some other features that have been pointed out as possible explanations. Their platform allows 100-person video calls (free up to 40 mins), whereas Skype can only do 50; this is very useful for online classes, now the dominant schooling method all over the world.

Maybe the average person didn’t have any idea which video conferencing app was best. But if they blindly opened the App Store, they are at least as likely to see Google Duo or Skype (which had the most downloads by far of the three). To test this I tried searching in my own app store on my Android phone, using several search terms that seemed like what people might look for.

What the heck is “JusTalk” and why aren’t we using it?

Zoom was more likely to come up for “video conferencing” but was not even in the top 8 for any others; that sounds to me like a search my workplace would make but not that my mom would make. (It’s possible that my phone filters my app store searches somehow but this was the best I could do; try it yourself and let me know what results you get!)

For Zoom to be successful, somebody was looking for Zoom specifically. But my model of the average person is not one that suggests this kind of optimization; people download what their friends are all downloading. And the average person who did not search for “video conferencing” probably did not find Zoom by searching the app store either.

Theory 2.0: My theory is just a story

I can aggregate all the info above into a plausible-sounding story, which may not be true but it helps me sleep at night.

Zoom was already a very successful company, displaying exponential growth over the past few years. Then COVID-19 hit, and everybody went into quarantine. There was a new need for video calling/conferencing: from universities that had to move classes online; from businesses that had to keep their work-from-home employees connected; and from individuals wanting to keep up with friends and family.

The universities tended to choose Zoom for the simple reason that the platform could support 100+ participants where Skype / etc. could not. Businesses, with strong financial incentive to optimize, did some research and found all the stability and ease-of-use benefits of Zoom. So as the institutions started to switch, their employees and students had to download Zoom too. Now Zoom is the new, exciting thing, the app that all your friends have (because they downloaded it for work or school). So a little later, when a new person entered the market, they asked their newly-Zooming friends what to use, and the choice was made for them.

Therefore, in the past month Zoom’s user base has grown exponentially with a much higher rate than before, beating out the competitors in a big way.

The End.

“True Story”

I’ve been interested in the ways in which stories can be interesting and informative, even if they are not literally true. That is, maybe Socrates never participated in his famous Socratic Dialogues, but the critical insights we find in them remain unchanged in any case. In large part, what I write on this blog is an attempt to derive interesting life lessons from sources like this. For example, scientific truth may be literal truth, but we can derive further lessons by analogy to, or from the process of, scientific thinking, and those lessons may be orthogonal to that literal interpretation.

Do such things qualify as “true”? One view (held by Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein) is that stories can be literally false but “metaphorically true”. This is one way to view the Socratic Dialogues, and (they argue) many stories in the Bible. We learn important life lessons from metaphor and story, whether or not the events actually transpired. Both prose and poetry can hold metaphorical truth.

Whether this is really “truth” or not, seems like a pedantic distinction to me; it’s clear enough that there are at least two factors at work that we care about. For my purposes, let me use Literal to denote “literal truth” and Insightful to denote “metaphorical truth”. On this splitting, a story can be either Literal, or Insightful, or both at the same time; what you learn from a Literal story is what actually happened, whereas an Insightful story tells you something broad, general, or merely unrelated to the specifics of the story. When I tell a story about a group of friends choosing a restaurant, I might be relating the facts Literally, and/or making a general point applicable to other areas of life.

To make use of another of my favorite distinctions: Literal stories live in the Real World, whereas Insightful stories can exist either in the Real World or the Meta Level. A Literal story might be the tale of how you met your current significant other; an Insightful story might be the story of King Lear. A Literal+Insightful story might be a metaphor, like when I tell you a story from my own life that helps you come to terms with a similar situation in yours.

This is the picture I have in mind

But, don’t forget that everything is a spectrum! There exists, in fact, a whole two-dimensional plane of possibilities extending across the Literal / Insightful axes. Your favorite stories populate this plane more or less continuously.

Just a rough sketch, of course.

That’s all I wanted to say today.

Just Pick a Restaurant

In a group of friends, it can be a nightmare to make decisions, e.g. where to go for dinner. “We could go to Restaurant A, B, or C? What do you think?” “Those all sound fine,” replies everyone in unison. Maybe one gets ruled out because they don’t have vegetarian options or whatever, but for all you know D might get thrown in to compensate. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced this numerous times; it’s a relationship meme, for goodness sake, and only gets worse as the number of people grows.

In social interactions, the reasons for this problem seem to be twofold: first, people don’t want to appear aggressive. You might call this kind of person the Tyrant, one who says “I want to go to B and I don’t care what you think!”; essentially the Tyrant tries to make a unilateral decision at the expense of other’s feelings. But this is a mistake: the Tyrant tends to exaggerate small differences in the choices, and fails to aggregate preferences where appropriate. So people try to avoid being a Tyrant in their group. Additionally, if someone else is acting as a Tyrant, it’s beneficial not to give in, lest they install themselves as the Dinner Czar for all future get-togethers.

A second, more pernicious failure mode appears in people attempting to optimize. Call this the Overthinker, who says “Well A is cheaper, but B has slightly better beer. Still, C is closer to the house and parking is simpler. We could go to D if we want to go to the bar afterwards, but …” The Overthinker can’t stop until every upside and caveat is taken into account in a unified model of “where we should go tonight”, but is easily slowed or stopped by incommensurable comparisons. After ruling out any immediately-unacceptable options, the Overthinker often makes the mistake of neglecting opportunity costs; the time spent optimizing is not worth the gain in enjoyment. It would be much better to just go somewhere, wherever that might be.

If you’re neither a Tyrant nor an Overthinker, you might think you have to be a passive member of the group, without a strong opinion. Not so! A passive member wouldn’t have a strong preference, but we’ve already said that your preference is to go somewhere. Now! Not later! So I advocate a stance you might call Neutral Tyrant: “I don’t care where we go, but let’s go!” The Neutral Tyrant is forceful like the Tyrant, but without a strong specific decision in mind.

The Neutral Tyrant may suggest flipping a coin. The Neutral Tyrant may propose a random person chooses this time, someone else next time. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what the decision is; it is more important that a decision be made in a timely manner.

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As with everything, this example can be generalized by zooming out to the Meta Level. Seeing this situation as a member of a class of related situations, it becomes a model for others you may find in life. The class I have in mind is the set of scenarios where there are many options, of which are all potentially worth doing, but the differences between them are slight.

What are some situations like this? Well, to name a few:

  • Deciding what to order once you’re at the restaurant;
  • Picking out clothes;
  • Planning your path through a grocery store (how much time can you really save?);
  • Which item on your To Do list should you do first?
  • Etc.

My favorite example is the To Do list (which I’ve been making every day lately). A To Do list is, at its core, a list of things worth doing. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to organize a To Do list–maybe something is urgent and should be done first–but if not, anything on the list is something you should do. So stop thinking about which you most feel like doing and just do one of them.

You’ll preferentially end up doing the things you like most, or which are least tedious, or whatever, but as long as they remain worth doing it’s likely better than spending time deliberating. If, after some time, one of the tedious items becomes urgent, you can do that immediately. Deliberation is friction in your system which, as long as you’re moving in roughly the right direction, is best minimized.

When you’re a one-person group, the good news is that you don’t have to convince anyone to agree with you; you can just decide unilaterally. In this way you get to be a Neutral Tyrant and decide quickly without any unnecessary friction. The main enemy here is overthinking. Just pick a restaurant.

New Month Resolution #6

As I mentioned a few months ago, I think it’s valuable to consciously mark time as a way to make gradual changes to one’s behavior. I’m trying out the idea of New Month Resolutions; the basic principle is to choose some habit or activity each month to commit to, one that is (a) big enough that it takes a focused effort to get it done, and (b) small enough that one can expect to make real progress in 15-30 mins each day over the course of a month.

Play along from home, if you want. 🙂 (If you do, I’d love to hear about your experience!)

Update from Last Month (March 2020)

In case you’ve been living under a rock: March has been weird.

Things are bad, and probably will be for the long haul. As of this writing (March 31), the number of confirmed cases in Israel (where I live) is just over 4000…

…and in the US (where I’m from) the number is nearly 150,000, the most in the world by a large (and growing) margin.

Source (note the logarithmic scale)

It seems likely that these numbers are underestimating the total case count, as tests have been difficult to distribute at scale in places like the US.

Anyway, this isn’t another COVID-19 post. I bring it up because, since March 5, I’ve been either in full or partial quarantine in my apartment. This just sets the stage for the ways my life has changed, and with it my resolutions.

I’ve also been doing a lot of stuff daily.

  • I’m maintaining a Twitter presence for the first time in my life, at the suggestion of Jacob from PutANumOnIt; it’s just a quick daily post about whatever’s on my mind that day.
The goal is 100 days; we’ll see after that.
  • I’m also keeping To Do lists in an attempt to stay productive and sane during the quarantine.
The doodles are just a bonus.
  • Also, I got a cool calendar at a workshop last month, which has small blank boxes next to each date; I’m using this to log “what each day was about”. This is something like the advice of Tim at WaitButWhy, except in days rather than weeks.
Started Feb 29.

So, y’know, keeping busy.

Last Month’s Resolution (March 2020)

Major Resolution: Exercise

I resolved last month to sign up for the gym, and attend at least once a week. Well, I signed up and did my first workout on March 3, only to be sent to home quarantine on March 5. A week and a half later, nationwide quarantine measures were put in place in Israel, which included a “stay at home” recommendation for anyone with a non-essential job (me). A few days later the gym was officially closed indefinitely.

So, you know, that made the resolution tougher.

But even though I couldn’t fulfill the letter of the law, I succeeded in fulfilling it in spirit. The weeks I’ve spent in quarantine, I started doing yoga through the livestream of a yogi in Tel Aviv that I like; she holds classes every day of the week, and I’ve been doing it twice per week. (It’s donation-based, so you can contribute if you want / can but you can also just join.) Yoga is a real workout, especially the vinyasa flow style she does. I take this as fulfilling my Resolution pretty fully.

The yoga has helped both physically and mentally; this claustrophobic living situation, staying indoors all day every day (modulo very short walks outside) gets to you after a while. It feels good to move my body, and especially to combine that with the quiet and meditative environment yoga brings. I recommend it if you are looking for some exercise while confined to your room, and if you’re into this kind of thing.

Also, I just feel stronger and more flexible than I have in months!

  • Commitment: 5/5
  • Difficulty: 3/5
  • Results (+/- relative to my expectation, which corresponds to 0): 3/5
  • Likelihood to do it again the following month: 5/5

Minor Resolutions

I’m still tracking my alcohol consumption, but won’t report it each month. Suffice it to say things are going fine.

I’m still using Eat Right Now for mindful eating reminders and tools. I had planned again to end my subscription at the end of the month, but after finishing the Core Modules I unlocked the Theme Weeks, which are more focused on specific problem patterns. I’m doing one on “getting stuck” now, which is more enlightening than it probably sounds.

Up Next

I’ve been focused on my physical health the last few months, which has been great. But it’s time for something very different.

An alternative title for this series was “Self-Experiments”. In that framing, the focus was on the fact that a month is roughly the right length of time to try something out, not knowing whether it’ll be useful or good. Then, if it was useful/good, you can keep doing it; if not, not. But this involves trying out some stuff that you don’t know will work.

So here goes: I almost never remember my dreams. Maybe, like 2-3 times per year can I actually recall a few details. On top of that, I’m super interested in what dreams are and what we can learn from them about our own minds (high on my To Read list is this book, which apparently discusses some of this).

Further, I’ve been reading about lucid dreaming, where you are fully conscious inside of your dreams. Some say that once you get the hang of it, you can actually control what happens in the dream, allowing you to fly, talk to old friends or relatives, face your fears, or become someone else. Given that our brains know and do way more than we are aware of, I take seriously the possibility that dreams allow insight into unconscious processes. In any case, even if you think dreams are essentially like computer screen savers, without any important or insightful content to discover, it’d still be cool to fly.

How do you cultivate lucid dreaming? There are a few techniques I see in many places:

  • Keep a dream journal, and write down everything you remember about your dreams as soon as you wake up (this leads greater recall of dreams in the morning).
  • “Reality check” often; that is, become a little paranoid throughout the day that you might be dreaming. Good reality checks include: trying to read something, looking away, then reading it again to see if it changed; press your finger into the palm of your opposite hand, to see if it feels solid; bite your tongue or cheek and see if it hurts; etc.
  • Related: some say to use a “totem” noise that reminds you to reality check (this can be done with an app on your phone). Then, when you’re used to it, set your phone to play the same noise while you sleep; if you hear it in your dream, it can trigger a reality check that will fail, and you’ll become aware that you’re dreaming.

It sounds pretty interesting, and after a month I feel like I’ll have a sense of whether it works. I’ll report back with the results, of course.

Resolution #6

Starting April 1, until (at least) the end of the month, I will experiment with lucid dreaming, by (1) keeping a daily dream journal and (2) performing reality checks many times a day.

Results and new Resolution will be given on or around May 1, 2020.

The Long Haul

(1700 words, ~6 minutes to read)

You’ve been sent to prison, but you haven’t committed a crime. You’re stuck in your cell, day after day, briefly let out for food and medicine. Of course, this means your plans are cancelled for a while; you already haven’t seen your friends in weeks. It’s not your fault! It isn’t fair! You didn’t do anything wrong! Even so, here you are, isolated from everyone.

You plan your escape, only to realize there’s nowhere to go; everyone else is in prison too. What’s more, if you leave, the punishments will intensify, and not just for you; you’re likely to sentence everyone around you to additional time locked up (if not the death penalty). And you won’t get away with it; more and more, the government is watching your movements. Better to wait it out.

So you kill time, in anticipation of getting out and back to your life. You complain to your friends about how unfair it all is. You drink to pass the time. You’re getting bored, there’s nothing to do in this stupid place! You want to go outside! You want to go to parties, to concerts, to travel the world like you used to!

These are the thoughts of someone who sees the end in sight. But you don’t know how long your sentence will be. Some say weeks; some say months; could it be nearly two years? You might get parole early, but there are no guarantees.

Can’t things just go back to normal? How bad could it get?

I’m telling you, it can get bad. And it’s best for everyone if we plan to be in it for the long haul.

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Most of us did nothing personally wrong, to put us here in pseudo (or full-on) quarantine. But we’re here, and what happens next is up to us.

On the societal level, the best thing we can hope for is to successfully #FlattenTheCurve, keep the number of new cases per day low enough that local hospital resources don’t run out and the minimum number of people have to needlessly die. If we don’t, things can get very bad, as we see in places like Italy where they already have. The worst (realistic) case scenarios are not civilization-ending, but look extremely dire to anyone willing to take a hard look.

Image result for flatten the curve

On an individual level, there are two kinds of people. There are those still out there, fighting for all of our lives or to keep their livelihoods afloat, under literal threat of death. They’re the medical professionals, the police officers, the bus drivers, the cashiers, the food delivery people, and many others who are keeping us healthy and the skeleton of our economies moving. On top of that are the medical researchers, working around the clock to develop new treatments and vaccines. All of these people are the heroes of the story, and deserve our praise. If you’re one of them, thank you; you have my unwavering gratitude and support. But this post is not about you.

This post is those of us that are lucky enough to have jobs we can do from the safety of our comfortable, temperature-controlled homes, but nonetheless feel trapped. Like innocent prisoners, we are just waiting for parole and don’t know when it will come.

Many of us (and I do mean “us”, me included) have been treating this as a temporary setback, something to get through before returning to our lives as we knew them. If this whole thing is temporary, then I can cut corners, treat this as a mini-vacation, and after some time just teleport myself back into my former life. I can spend a few weeks eating rice and lentils or rationing my last few rolls of toilet paper. I can get drunk every night, hoping to pass the time without thinking too much about the reason we’re all here. I can snap at my friends when they get on my nerves. Can you blame me? Can’t you see, I’m just stressed by the situation! It’s not my fault!

All of this, it represents the action of a bitter inmate that curses a system that could visit such injustice on them. But it’s not sustainable, if we’re in this for the long haul.

My expectation of the long haul is, I think, optimistic; a hope against it is a hope that this all ends quickly, which easily translates into more deaths. In numerous countries now (including my home country and current residence), the infection rate has risen exponentially, and barring some China-level restrictions of movement, it will likely continue to rise for some time. It didn’t take long between Italy’s first thousand cases and its hospitals being overwhelmed. If we don’t flatten the curve, then the US, Israel, Germany, so many countries around the world, will face the same fate. Barring a miracle, a vaccine will take 12-18 months, and until then we need to try to mitigate the damage.

Look again at the curves above: a flattened curve is a wide curve, a pandemic that lasts many months or longer. That’s the long haul. That’s what we are hoping for. That’s how our parents and grandparents, if they (God forbid) get sick, will be able to see a doctor and stay in a comfortable hospital bed getting the treatment they need. The long haul is how we keep people alive.

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What does life look like for us, if we’re here quarantined for the long haul?

Some advice is ubiquitous by now: stop going out unless you absolutely need to; cancel your plans; keep a 2 meter distance from others; wash your damn hands. But on top of that, if we’re in it for the long haul, our daily and weekly routines will be forcibly disrupted in a nearly unprecedented way. It takes months to cultivate a new habit, but that’s the time we have right now. This is the perfect opportunity to develop new skills and build the habits we’ve always wanted.

I have the luxury to be able to work from home, and aside from that my calendar is now empty. This is a rare opportunity to change my routine, to change my life, in myriad ways that I “didn’t have time for” before. There sits that pile of books I’ve put off reading, that piano that I’ve put off playing, that family member that I’ve put off reconnecting with, because I “didn’t have time”. It’s clear, now, that I have time. All that’s missing is the motivation, and it’d be a shame not to dig deep and find the will do something positive with this opportunity.

Why not come away from this with some amazing new habits? If you want to get in better shape, there are a million free, at-home workouts available online (now, more than ever). If you’ve always wanted to try meditation, now’s the time. If you want to pursue a new academic discipline, learn to code, to juggle, or whatever, it’s all there at your fingertips. You can quit smoking. You can learn to cook. Whatever you want! What excuse do you have left?

Of course, your situation may be different from mine. Maybe your kids are home indefinitely from school, making your work life more difficult. If this were a short-term problem, you could power through, try to ignore their distractions and interruptions. But given the situation, it’s worth it to set yourself up a quiet place or establish some firm guidelines with them. It makes sense to establish a schedule with your significant other, e.g. one working while the other spends time with the kids. You need to make your new life sustainable for the long haul.

Or maybe you and your roommates (or partner) don’t get along so well when you see them all day, every day. If we just have to get through a few weeks, you can justify getting irritable with them and hoping for the day you go back to your normal routine. But you’re stuck with them for the long haul, and you’ll need to find some empathy so that you don’t rip each other’s heads off. Don’t forget: they’re innocent prisoners too. They didn’t ask for this any more than you did.

And if your struggles are more serious–if you or a loved one is ill, stranded in isolation elsewhere, or something else–my prayers are with you. Still, I hope you can strive to make the best of a bad situation.

I look around and I see a lot of pain, but I also see a lot of beauty: people helping their elders obtain essential groceries and medicine; offering their services or performances for free; helping each other cope with the new normal. The same is true around the world, and for good reason; it is likely that never in your lifetime have you had so much in common with fellow human beings in every corner of the globe. Right now, more than ever, your plight is their plight, in a manner that is both deep and completely obvious. Is there something, however small, you can do to help those in your community (or around the world) to get through this with a bit more strength, a bit more positivity, a bit more hope? Dig deep and find empathy for your fellow human. If not now, then when?

Whatever your particular challenge, this ordeal can carry an important silver lining. How often do you get to spend a whole day with your kids, or your significant other? When else would you have real reason to sit down with your “annoying” roommate and empathetically discuss your common plight? Why not brainstorm ways to help your fellow humans around the world, if only from within your apartment? And, if you’re like me and find yourself at home with a lot of unexpected free time, what excuse do you have for not cultivating the best habits of your life?

So assume you’re in this for the long haul. And as such, you’re going to come out changed, for better or worse; what you do right now matters. Take this time to make yourself better, because I shudder at the thought of having another opportunity like this one.

Dark Side of Sharing

(700 words, 2-3 minutes to read)

We live in a confusing time.

1) I often see “news articles” that contain blatant lies, or at least heavily doctored facts, making incendiary claims about this or that political/religious/ethnic group. There’s a temptation to share such articles, along with my own comment pointing out the inaccuracies and warning people to be careful.

I’m performing a valuable service, right? But every share gets the article more clicks, generates revenue for the people who write and host garbage articles, and incentivizes more of the same. They wanted publicity, and I’m giving it to them.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

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2) A friend of mine found out that a neo-Nazi was soliciting at a store near her house, advertising a meetup or something. It’s scary, the idea that people like that are so close to home (even given the fact they they constitute a tiny fraction of the population). Similarly, I recall a story of some Florida school teacher who was fired after it was revealed that she was boasting about bringing her white supremacist beliefs into the classroom. She apparently even had a podcast on the topic. I have an instinct to point out these people, to make others aware that they are around and to be careful.

I’m performing a valuable service, right? But for someone advertising a neo-Nazi meetup or a white supremacy podcast, the best thing they could possibly hope for would be national publicity and their information spread all over the internet. The people who would never attend/download still won’t, but those that might now are able to. There’s a sense in which my behavior incentivizes more of the same. They wanted publicity, and I’m giving it to them.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

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3) Far too frequently, there are mass murders (shootings or bombings, usually). Some are motivated by hatred and anger, and others by desire for fame, but all are horrific and seem newsworthy. Sometimes the frequency is sufficient to motivate policy changes, or changes in security measures. Sometimes the effect is more personal, as we grieve collectively the very public loss of life. I often want to share these stories, to motivate a sense of outrage against the perpetrators or the system that allowed such a tragedy to happen.

I’m performing a valuable service, right? But a potential murderer motivated by fame will, upon seeing other murderers achieve it, be more likely to follow through. (A clear example is the one surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, who became some twisted version of a celebrity through his actions.) Even one driven more by anger could see frequent occurrence of previous acts as justifying their terrifying plans. So there’s a sense in which my behavior incentivizes more of the same. Whether they wanted publicity or justification, in a way I’m giving it to them.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

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4) Donald Trump ran for president in 2012, and nobody noticed. Nobody really talked about him, and he was quickly defeated in the Republican primaries. Then he ran again in 2016. His Republican opposition was not clearly weaker than in 2012; the demographics of the country, or the Republican party, hadn’t changed significantly since 2012. What’s more, he met with an impressive series of scandals and accusations, and some of which he admitted publicly to. In my bubble, nearly very talk show, every news outlet, every person I talked to, was saying negative things. It made perfect sense to constantly talk about and share articles detailing his wrongdoings and backwards attitudes.

We were all doing a valuable service, right? But as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” He was all over the news every day, every night; people watched the debates just to see him. When his opponents tried to talk about the real political issues, or what they wanted to do as president, nobody heard them because all any of us could see was Trump. He wanted publicity, and we gave it to him.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

A Dialogue on Occam’s Razor

Previously: Please Stop Misunderstanding Occam’s Razor.

What is Occam’s Razor? It is an academic principle attributed to 14th Century English Franciscan William of Ockham (apparently we’ve all been butchering his name all this time, who knew?). It is stated thusly:

Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.

It’s not very precise, like my “we decide to go with” statement. So consider the following disagreement with several people trying to be more precise about what they mean:

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Andy: Consider two hypotheses about where dinosaur bones came from: Either there were literal dinosaurs that lived and died, whose bones we now found; or Satan carefully laid dino bones around the world in such a way that we would be deceived into believing there were actual dinos. By construction they cannot be distinguished by any experimental test. So why are we debating them? There’s no way to tell the difference so we might as well accept that they’re equally valid.

Betty: Surely not! Clearly the hypothesis of actual dinosaurs is vastly simpler than the one with Satan faking dinosaurs, with no loss in predictive power. Therefore, by Occam’s Razor, we conclude that it is more likely that dinosaurs actually existed.

Carl: Wait wait, how do we know that this is how the world works? By what test can we distinguish and verify the “actual dinosaurs” hypothesis?

Betty: There is no test, even in principle; if Satan is very clever he can make all the experiments look the same. But there’s no reason why the Universe would be overly complicated. Occam’s Razor says the simpler explanation is more likely to be true, and “actual dinosaurs” is simpler.

Carl: I agree that it’s simpler, but that doesn’t imply anything about whether it’s true. The Universe just is the way it is. We don’t know that it’s simple, though we might wish it was. The Universe might have a bunch of ZEVOs running around, and it doesn’t care that we can’t tell the difference.

Betty: So you reject Occam’s Razor?

Carl: No no, I accept it, but you are misunderstanding its implication. The “Actual Dinos” hypothesis is simpler, has fewer moving parts, fewer hidden variables. Therefore, it opens itself up to greater testability than the “Satan’s Trick” hypothesis. A complicated explanation like Satan’s Trick can explain anything, because all the relevant variables are hidden underneath a magical entity that can’t be reduced or tested for, whereas Actual Dinos makes predictions that can be tested. Remember that “The strength of a theory is not what it allows, but what it prohibits; if you can invent an equally persuasive explanation for any outcome, you have zero knowledge.” We can’t falsify Satan’s Trick but we may falsify Actual Dinos; all Occam’s Razor asks of us is that we prefer the hypothesis that is “simpler” in the sense of being “more testable.”

Diane: I think you’re all very confused.

Carl: What do you mean?

Diane: You are all getting part of the story right. Yes, the hypotheses cannot be experimentally distinguished. Yes, “Actual Dinos” is the simpler explanation. And yes, simpler often implies potential testability, but in this case does not. See, the problem is that there are not only two hypotheses, but that the possibilities are innumerable.

Andy: What do you mean?

Diane: See, we are considering two potential hypotheses, but for a given fact there are infinite hypotheses that can explain it. They take the form “Dino Bones + X”, where X takes infinitely many forms: Actual Dinos, Satan, A Fairy That Turns Dirt Into Bones, etc. You can multiply these without end as well; “Satan + Satan 2” or “Dirt Fairy + Actual Dinos” of “Ten Satans + Three Dirt Fairies” constitute real possibilities in the solution space.

The problem here is probabilistic: any possibility that is strictly more complex–here let’s say I mean “more inputs” or “more assumptions” or “requires more things to be true”–are probabilistically less likely than ones that are less complex. To do this really carefully requires some mathematical rigor, but more or less it’s just a question of avoiding the Conjunction Fallacy.

In short, Linda is more likely to be a bank teller than to be both a bank teller and active in the feminist movement, and something like this is all Occam’s Razor boils down to.

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And so they all internalized Diane’s amazing description, changed their minds immediately, and lived rationally ever after.

To sum up,
Andy (incorrectly) believes hypotheses with identical predictions are equally likely;
Betty (incorrectly) believes the Universe is simple and so simple hypotheses are preferred ontologically;
Carl (incorrectly) believes a testable hypothesis is more likely to be true than an untestable one;

And Diane (correctly, in my view) identifies Occam’s Razor as a probabilistic statement which almost completely reduces to the avoidance of the Conjunction Fallacy.

New Month Resolution #5

As I mentioned a few months ago, I think it’s valuable to consciously mark time as a way to make gradual changes to one’s behavior. I’m trying out the idea of New Month Resolutions; the basic principle is to choose some habit or activity each month to commit to, one that is (a) big enough that it takes a focused effort to get it done, and (b) small enough that one can expect to make real progress in 15-30 mins each day over the course of a month.

Play along from home, if you want. 🙂 (If you do, I’d love to hear about your experience!)

Update from Last Month (Feb 2020)

I’ve had another busy month. Two out of four weeks I spent in Munich for a workshop on Axion Cosmology.

Future travel plans are a bit on hold due to COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) becomes an increasingly serious concern. In March I still plan to visit a few cities in Europe with my girlfriend, but my planned visit to Japan in April may be cancelled or postponed. I’m holding off on planning any other big trips until things are more under control worldwide. Here’s a good site from John’s Hopkins tracking up-to-date cases around the world.

In the digital world: for better or worse, I’ve started maintaining a presence on Twitter. I’m posting 100 things over 100 days, about whatever I happen to be thinking about, following the advice of Jacob at PutANumOnIt. Check it out if you’re into that kind of thing!

Last Month’s Resolution (Feb 2020)

How’d I do last month?

1. Main Resolutions (Exercise)

Big failure. Opposite of success.

Last month I pledged to renew my subscription to the gym, go at least once per week, and also do yoga at least once per week. I did none of those things. I knew I was going to travel for the last two weeks of the month, and the knowledge of that depleted my gumption to begin the pledge when it was still possible. Why did I pledge to do things that are almost impossible while traveling? This thought crossed my mind as I wrote last month and I should have paid attention to the warning flag in my mind. The failure was predictable.

So in failure, there are lessons to be learned. The habits I want to form here are difficult ones and I’m not convinced I can really just will myself into them. I also set the bar pretty high, planning for a solid exercise routine directly starting from zero. But even though the actions didn’t take place, I think it’s been useful in the sense that I’ve kicked around the thoughts more often. I’ve been thinking about how good it would be to have more energy, feel stronger, likely sleep better, etc. I actually want to go to the gym, which wasn’t true last month.

So for now I accept the defeat, learn what there is to be learned from it… and next month, Begin Again.

  • Commitment: 0/5
  • Difficulty: 5/5
  • Results (+/- relative to my expectation, which corresponds to 0): -5/5
  • Likelihood to do it again the following month: 5/5

2. Minor Resolutions (Mindful Eating, Non-Excessive Drinking)

I also had the idea to continue my previous month’s resolutions, which went somewhat better. I’m still using the Eat Right Now app, which promotes mindful eating through daily lessons, exercises, and tools. I advanced roughly 1 more week in the program since last month, which is better than nothing.

For drinking, I’ve continued to accumulate data and I did succeed in my goal to reduce.

Mean drinks / day is 1.97, down from 2.87 last month, with only 2 days at the 5+ SDU threshold. The Mode is still 3 (if you exclude 0), which ideally would be closer to 1 or 2. Overall though, much better!

Up Next

I’ll continue to use Eat Right Now, likely very passively and I expect for only one more month.

In terms of drinking, my goal is still to reduce: stay away from the 5+ SDU/day and 14+ SDU/week thresholds. It would be nice to make 1 or 2 drinks more common than 3 or 4.

I failed my NMR to exercise last month, so here I Begin Again. I’m shifting the goalpost to make it more accessible and less gumption-draining for the times I’ll be out of town.

Resolution #5

Starting March 1, until (at least) the end of the month, I will go to the gym (at least) once per week, or 5 times overall during the month.

Known impediment: I’ll be traveling the during the second week of March.

Results and new Resolution will be given on or around April 1, 2020.

Please Stop Misunderstanding Occam’s Razor

It might be the case that everything you think you’re seeing is an illusion, a trick being played by some evil demon who has both malicious intent and perfect control over your experience. You could try to test things around you very carefully to see if you can find evidence of the demon’s trickery, but if they’re very clever they’ll reproduce every outcome with perfect precision and leave no dangling threads.

This, of course, sounds absurd, and (almost) nobody believes that this is true. But how do we know that this is not in fact what is going on? (Do we?)

It’s an old question, but it came back to mind because of a recent post on SlateStarCodex. Scott Alexander writes about two hypotheses for how dinosaur bones got put into their place inside Earth’s crust: (1) dinosaur bones originated in actual dinosaurs millions of years ago, who died and now their bones are where they left them; and (2) Satan put them there to fool us, carefully making it look precisely as they would if there had been actual dinosaurs (but there in fact were never dinosaurs). He asks, how do we distinguish these hypotheses scientifically?

I think the correct response is to say that both theories explain the data, and one cannot empirically test which theory is true, but the paleontology theory is more elegant (I am tempted to say “simpler”, but that might imply I have a rigorous mathematical definition of the form of simplicity involved, which I don’t). It requires fewer other weird things to be true. It involves fewer other hidden variables. It transforms our worldview less. It gets a cleaner shave with Occam’s Razor. This elegance is so important to us that it explains our vast preference for the first theory over the second.

I like the example and the explanation. By construction, Satan doesn’t leave dangling threads so the predictions of the two hypotheses are precisely the same (with regard to the dino bones we expect to find). Someone named Faza in the comments notes that Satan is a “ZEVO”: a Zero Epistemic Value Object (good term!). If you subtract Satan you don’t lose any explanatory power. In fact, you can add more evil demons on top and the outcome is the same. (“No, really what happened was Satan 2 played a trick to make it seem like Satan played a trick to make it seem like…”) So we subtract the ZEVOs and, by Occam’s Razor, we decide to go with the simpler explanation.

(I’m saying “simpler”, mathematical rigor be damned. You know what I mean.)

I was careful to say “we decide to go with the simpler explanation”, a vague way to state the conclusion. Consider a few more precise alternatives:

  1. By Occam’s Razor, we conclude that the simpler explanation is true.
  2. By Occam’s Razor, we conclude that the simpler explanation is more likely to be testable.
  3. By Occam’s Razor, we conclude that the simpler explanation is more rational to believe.

I think we should carefully distinguish these three different conclusions, and I want everyone to understand that (3) is the right one. More on this coming soon.

(To be clear, I don’t think Scott is misunderstanding Occam’s Razor in the linked post.)