Brain technique: “Patient problem-solving”

This post is part of a series about my brain training techniques. It might help to read Part 1 and Part 2 first if you haven't.

Here is a trouble I sometimes have: I sit down to solve a problem, but I can't figure it out right away, and I get frustrated. Maybe it's a story I'm trying to write, maybe it's a computer program I'm trying to design, maybe it's a big decision I'm trying to make. Whatever it is, my brain forms this memory:

Try to solve the problem → Argh, I'm stuck

So I come back and try again later. But after one or two attempts, my brain starts jumping straight to “Argh, I'm stuck”, without even making a good try at the problem first. Worse yet, being frustrated makes me more stuck, and being stuck makes me more frustrated. It reinforces the memory that's causing trouble!

To deal with this, I need a technique. The technique needs two things: First, it should avoid triggering the bad memory. Second, it should avoid creating any more bad memories.

I call my technique “patient problem-solving”. The first part of the technique is to [...]

Continue reading...

Whoops, we are violating people's freedom of speech all the time

“Freedom of speech” can mean a lot of different things, but mostly boils down to this: Don't punish people for what they say. Different people have different reasons for thinking this is important. Here are a few perspectives:

  1. People benefit individually from saying what they want to.
  2. Society as a whole benefits from people saying what they want to.
  3. Punishment causes material harm to people (regardless of whether there's a justification for it).

For C, the size of the punishment is important. Killing someone for denouncing the tyrant is much worse than yelling at someone for denouncing the tyrant. But for A and B, the only thing that matters is what speech actually happened. If 10 people stay quiet because they're afraid of being yelled at, that has the same effect as 10 people staying quiet because they're afraid of being killed, or 10 people having their messages blocked by official censorship. This will be important later.

Here's one way we screw it up

Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario #1: If you're caught denouncing the tyrant, the tyrant's soldiers will throw you in a hole until you starve.

Scenario #2: You are already in a hole. The tyrant's soldiers don't care what you say. A few people are willing to feed you, but only in exchange for you consistently praising the tyrant.

Do you have more freedom of speech in scenario #2? Of course not. For [...]

Continue reading...

Eli status: December 2016

I've been sort of sick for a few days, so I'm not up to writing a serious blog post. So instead, I'll take this time to give an update on what I've been doing recently.

My hands

In my last status update, I mentioned that my adductor pollicis hadn't been doing its job. Since then, we've discovered that the same thing happened with my first dorsal interosseous muscle, which also helps the thumb move. Training that muscle has given me another big improvement in how well my hands work. A couple weeks ago, I actually drew for 30 minutes straight, which was manageable (although close to my limit at the time). They're not feeling quite as good now, but they are normally worse when I'm sick, so they may still be improving overall.

My projects

Writing The 23 Days Cult turned out to be a much bigger project than I had planned for. It left me pretty burnt out, and I didn't manage to get excited about another project for the month after that. I did manage to do some work on a game modding thing in Wesnoth, which is fun, but it's not one of the Great Works Of I also randomly learned how to livestream games on Twitch. Here's my Twitch page, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

But yesterday I think I finally got excited about something again – continuing work on [NSFW] Hexy Bondage. I actually made a couple changes to the rules, more than a year ago, but I never published the changes, because my original publishing process was INCREDIBLY inconvenient. So first I was thinking of improving the publishing process. But now I'm also hoping to make an online version of the game, which you could play on a computer or smartphone or whatever. I'm not sure if I'll stick to this project – we'll have to see how I feel when I'm not so sick. But I'm pretty excited about it so far.

– Eli

That's Not Funny!

Joe tells a disparaging joke, and a few people laugh. Candace replies “That's not funny!” Joe counters, “Yes it is. Look, someone laughed at it.”

Joe may be technically correct. The joke was well-crafted and made people laugh. But that's not what Candace meant. What really happened here?

Really, Candace just wants people not to say disparaging things. In some other world, the conversation might go like this: Candace says “Don't say that. It's disparaging.” Then Joe says “What? It's just a joke!”

Many people believe that something can be “just a joke”, making it less bad. But a disparaging joke is actually worse than a disparaging statement. First, a joke is enjoyable, encouraging people to repeat it. Someone might go to all their friends, saying “I just heard this great joke!”, but it's much less common for someone to run around saying “I just heard this great disparaging statement!”. Second, the joke makes people let down their guard. People may simply laugh and absorb the joke, without stopping to think whether it's right or wrong. For both these reasons, the better a joke is (in technical joke-craft), the more damage it can do from a moral perspective.

I'll put it this way: the funnier a joke is, the more joke power it has. Other things [...]

Continue reading...

How to make your fantasy setting less racist

Suppose I'm a white supremacist, and I want to write a fantasy story. What kind of story do I write? Maybe it would be something like this:

  • There is a “white” race, which is consistently portrayed as normal or good. Other races are usually portrayed as unusual, exotic, and/or bad.
  • Races are clearly separated from each other. Interracial relationships are rare or nonexistent. There is no significant population of mixed-race people.
  • The white race may have some variety, but non-white races are often one-dimensional caricatures. The question “why are they attacking people?” doesn't need much of a reason beyond “they are [race]”.
  • However, I want to spread my propaganda without everyone instantly knowing how racist it is. So, I don't explicitly label the races “white”, “black”, etc.. Instead, I make them fantasy races that just have some superficial traits of the human races I'm thinking of. The audience can figure out what I'm implying for themselves.

What have I just described? This isn't just some weird thing done by a few white supremacists. It's a staple of modern fantasy. It's Humans and Orcs. In a lot of modern fantasy, all humans are white, and orcs are people's worst stereotypes about black people (and/or other PoC), just with the name changed.1

I'm going to single out [...]

Continue reading...

Supervillains are cool

Supervillains are cool.

Don't get me wrong. The story of a superhero is a story of empowerment. The reader – an ordinary person who can't easily fix the problems in zir society – gets to imagine having awesome powers and saving the world.

But if the superhero is empowered, the supervillain is even more empowered. Ze doesn't just have more physical power (although that's still true, so that the audience can root for the underdog). Ze also has more freedom. Ze isn't limited by laws or social norms. Ze can do anything ze wants to. The supervillain, and ze alone, has a vision to change the world.

Tell me – why is this character the villain? Many of our laws are unjust. Many of our social norms are repressive. In a typical story, the hero stops the villain's plan and restores the status quo. But in our world, the status quo is not good, and has never been good. To reach a good world, we need a vision for a change.

Give me a story where the hero accepts everyone's identity and sympathizes with everyone's struggles, not because the wise old mentor told zem to, but because fuck the rules. Give me a story where the hero ignores people's hypocritical moralizing, not to become evil, but to forge a better morality. Give me a story where the hero has a genuine project to change the world.

And then let the hero succeed.

– Eli

Why should knowledge be correct, anyway?

Let me tell you a fable about how we come to understand things:

One time, long before geometry was invented, Uzoma and Carmen were standing at the corner of a square racetrack.

“I wonder what shape this racetrack is,” said Carmen.

“Well,” said Uzoma, “I have run along it many times, and I always get back to where I started. So it must be a circle.”

“You fool!” exclaimed Carmen. “It has a corner right here! Circles do not have corners!”

“I guess that's strange, but I still think it's a circle,” said Uzoma.

“Hmph,” said Carmen. “You're being unscientific. None of our theories fits the evidence, so we can only conclude that we do not know what shape it is.”

A few months later, the rainy season came. There was a lot of flooding. Uzoma and Carmen built a wall to block the flood, but [...]

Continue reading...

How to Train Your Brain, Part 2: Memory

This is the second post in a series. You should go read Part 1 first if you haven't.

This post is about how to apply the same techniques to learning and memory.

A simple example

This post isn't just about rote memorization, but talking about rote memorization will help to introduce some ideas. Let's say I'm trying to memorize this quote:

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.

– Frederick Douglass1

First, I'd read the quote a few times on the page. Then I'd look away and try to repeat parts of it from memory. I'd go back and forth until I could repeat the whole thing.

The obvious way is to memorize the first line, then the first two lines, then the first three lines, and so forth. But some people suggest that you first memorize the last line, then the last two lines, and so forth. This can be a good technique. Explaining why it's good will be a bit more complicated:

I want you to imagine memory as a set of one-way arrows.

  • “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”“Those who profess to favor freedom,”
  • “Those who profess to favor freedom,”“and yet depreciate agitation,”
  • “and yet depreciate agitation,”“are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
  • ...etc.

(It should be obvious that the arrows are one-way: you can't repeat a quote backwards just because you can repeat it forwards!)

In order to memorize the quote, you have to build each of these arrows in your mind. That's what happens automatically when you memorize something. But there are ways to make the process easier or harder.

When you try to look away from the page and repeat first two parts, you're trying to build this:

  • “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”“Those who profess to favor freedom,”

But what if you forget the second part before you get to it? Then you end up with:

  • “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”“Uhh... what was the next part?”

This actually gets recorded as a memory. Remember from Part 1: Your brain will remember exactly how you imagined it, whether it was right or wrong. Later, your brain will sometimes automatically follow the “→ I forget” path, unless the “→ [actual next line]” path is much stronger. In order to memorize things well, you need to make sure that you will still remember the second part when you get to the point where you can record it.

That's why starting from the end can be useful. If you've memorized the first four lines, and you are trying to add the fifth, then you have to remember the fifth line while you repeat the first four to yourself. But if you've memorized the last four lines, you can start with the fifth-to-last, and then proceed into ones you already remember pretty well.

But that's enough about rote memorization. Let's get into the good stuff:

A more sophisticated example

Let's say I'm trying to learn all about how trees work. At some point, I learn that they bring water from their roots up to their branches using capillary action. I obviously want to form these memories:

  • Capillary action → trees use it to lift water
  • How trees lift water → capillary action

Remember, memories are one-way, so these are two separate memories, even if you usually form them at the same time. So when I'm really trying to remember something, I often go over it in my head both ways. Capillary action, trees; trees, capillary action.

Also, what I really want to happen is to remember this a while in the future, when I haven't just been studying it. Recall from Part 1 that you have to wake up the exact part of your brain that you want to change. I want to be able to remember this even without all the other context. So I specifically try to clear my brain of all the other context. I imagine that I've just run into the term “capillary action” and want to remember some things about it, sometime when I haven't just been thinking about trees. Then I lead my brain through the other related knowledge.

And that's not even the good part. If I build the two memories above, it's like using my brain as a dictionary. A dictionary contains lots of information, but it doesn't know how to understand or interpret that information. My goal isn't to learn facts about trees – my goal is to understand the system of trees.

Therefore, when I learn a new fact, I specifically try to build a lot of memories related to understanding the systems behind it. I play around with the fact in my mind, trying to relate it to other things I know. In this case, I might build memories like these:

  • Things that happen in tree roots → collecting water for capillary action
  • Things that happen in tree leaves → pulling water through capillary action
  • Ways various lifeforms transport water → capillary action
  • Ways plants exploit quirks of physics → capillary action
  • Things trees need in order to survive → moving water from roots to branches through capillary action

And when I think of each memory I want to build, I do the “imagining it without context” thing again. I imagine that I have only been asked “what are some things that tree roots do?”, when I wasn't thinking about the other stuff. And so on for each of the others.

(I don't worry about trying to build the reverse memories for these ones. That tends to happen automatically when I'm trying to think of what memories to build. And besides, if I was able to come up with those ideas just now, I can probably come up with them again in the future.)

Forming these the extra memories helps me understand things faster and better. You start with a list of facts. This technique transforms it into a network of facts. That way, you can remember each fact whenever it might be helpful, rather than just when someone asks about that fact specifically.

– Eli

  1. Alas, this quote is still relevant more than 150 years later. I want to say “I'll prove you wrong, Frederick Douglass! I'll seize power and then concede something without demand. That'll show you!” But what Douglass is really saying is that violent resistance can be justified as a way to end injustices, which is something I actually agree with. back

How to Train Your Brain, Part 1

A lot of people assume that you can't train creativity or intelligence. I know that's not true, because I've done it myself. That is, I have improved my intelligence – including fluid intelligence – through deliberate training.

Here's the real reason people think you can't do it: We just haven't figured out the best techniques for training your brain yet. That's understandable, since brains are complicated and different for different people. Since other people haven't invented the best techniques yet, I was forced to invent a lot of techniques myself.

I'm very interested to see whether I can share my techniques with other people. A lot of them are internal and untranslatable, but I think a lot of them can be explained – and they might even be useful for other people. This post is my first attempt to do that.

The basics

I'm going to explain a few of the basic ideas that I always use when I train myself. This is general brain training. It's not specifically “intelligence training” or “anger management training” or “memory training”, although I've used it for all of those things.

To help explain the ideas, I'm going to use a specific example from my life. When I was around 10 years old, [...]

Continue reading...

“Tuning out” and “Dream thinking”

These are a couple of my mental techniques for problem-solving.

Tuning out

Sometimes, I work on the same problem for a long time, but I get stuck. I keep thinking of slightly different solutions, but none of them actually work. Focusing really hard on the specific problem isn't helping me. So I “tune out”. I keep directing my brain to think about the problem, but I relax and don't focus so hard on specific solutions. Doing this often gives me useful new ideas.

I'm going to try to explain exactly what I'm doing and how it helps. But before I can do that, I have to explain some things about how brains work.

Let's say someone shows me a picture of a bear. I can immediately say, “that's a bear”, without having to think about it. How did I do this?

Somewhere in my brain, there's the knowledge of what a bear is. But there's also a lot of other knowledge. Suppose my brain had a single CPU, and it had to go to all the knowledge one at a time. “Is it a twig? Nope. Is it a sack of potatoes? Nope. Is it the Burj Khalifa? Nope. Is it...” This process will eventually get to “Is it a bear?”, but it will take forever. So that can't be how it works.

Instead, I want you to imagine that my brain has separate processors for every single [...]

Continue reading...