Heuristics to steer by in study exploration

When I’m getting oriented in a domain, most of what I’m doing is figuring out where and how to invest my attention and effort. 

After a while, I’ll get the hang of it, such that I feel like I can reliably sit down and turn time and attention into progress towards my learning goal. But before I reach that point, I’m exploring (read: flailing around), trying to get a foothold. (This is very related to getting “hooked in.”)

The following are the heuristics that I’m currently using to steer that exploration process, in order of application. That is, the first one takes precedence over the second and so on.

Follow the hope

Often, when I’m trying to learn something new, it feels daunting. In fact, “daunting” doesn’t really cover it. I feel hopeless despair: the topic is huge, and there’s so much of it that I have to learn, and its going so slowly, and I don’t trust my futureself to do enough to get it to every pay off. 

When I feel like this, I want to follow the hope. That is, I’ll consider, and maybe try, several approaches, paying attention to if any arouse a slight glimmer of hope, a subverbal sense of “oh, I that might lead to progress”, that you can sort of sim following that path to your goal.

When you notice that flicker of hope, try the action that inspired it. Use your sense of hope as the heuristic function guiding your exploration.

Steer toward difficulty / intensity

But once you have a little bit of a foothold, you might still end up engaging in fluff, content that is easy to digest, but not the core hard part of what you are trying to learn. As an example, most versions of passively watching video, as opposed to actually trying to do the thing, are fluff.

Remember that learning = time * intensity. Once you have a foothold that has some hope about it, you want to dig into the hardest part of it. Look for something that would strain your effort some.


First look for hope, then move toward the hard part. (Point yourself in the right direction, then increase your magnitude.)

Ideology/narrative stabilizes path-dependent equilibria

[Epistemic status: sounds on track]

[Note: Anna might have been saying basically this, or something very nearby to this for the past six months]


Lately I’ve been reading (well, listening to) the Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, which is something like a realpolitik analysis of how power works, in general. To summarize in a very compressed way: systems of power are made up of fractal hierarchies of cronies who support a leader (by providing him the means of power: the services of an army, the services of a tax-collector, votes that keep him in office) in return for special favors. Under this model, institutions are pyramids of “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationships.

This overall dynamic (and its consequences) is explained excellently in this 18 minute CGP Grey video. Highly recommended, if you haven’t watched it yet


One consequence of these dynamics is how coups work. In a dictatorship, if an upstart can secure the support of the army, and seize the means of revenue generation (and perhaps the support of some small number of additional essential backers) he gets to rule.

And this often happens in actual dictatorships. The authors describe the case of Samuel Doe, a Sargent in the Liberian military, who one night, with a small number of conspirators, assassinated the former dictator of Liberia in his bed, seized control of the treasury, and declared himself the new president of Liberia. Basically, because he now had the money, and so would be the one to pay them, the army switched allegiances and legitimized his authority. [Note: I think there are lot of important details to this story that I don’t understand and might make my summary here, misleading or inaccurate.]

Apparently, this sort of coup is common in dictatorships.


But I’m struck by how impossible it would be for someone to seize the government like that in the United States (at least in 2019). If a sitting president was not voted out of office, but declared that he was not going to step down, it is virtually inconceivable that he could get the army and the bureaucracy to rally around him and seize / retain power, in flagrant disregard for the constitutional protocols for the hand-off of power.

De Mesquita and Smith, as well as CGP Grey, discuss some of the structural reasons for this: in technological advanced liberal democracies, wealth is produced primarily by educated knowledge workers. Therefore, one can’t neglect the needs of the population at large like you can in a dictatorship, or you will cut off the flow of revenue that funds your state-apparatus.

But that structural consideration doesn’t seem to be most of the story to me. It seems like the main factor is ideology.


I can barely imagine a cabal of the majority of high ranking military officials agreeing to back a candidate that lost an election, even if they assessed that backing that candidate would be more profitable for them. My impression of military people in general is that they are extremely proud Americans, for  whom the ideals of freedom and democracy are neigh-spiritual in their import. They believe in Democracy, and rule of law, in something like the way that someone might believe in a religion.

And this is a major stabilizing force of the “Liberal Democracy” attractor. Not does this commitment to the ideals of America, act in the mind of any given high ranking military officer, making the idea of a coup distasteful to them, there’s an even more important pseudo-common knowledge effect. Even if a few generals are realpolitik, sociopath, personal expected utility maximizers, the expectation that other military leaders do have the reverence for democracy, and will therefore oppose coups against the constitution, makes organizing a coup harder and riskier. If you even talk about the possibility of seizing the state, instead of deferring to the result of an election, you are likely to be opposed, if not arrested.

And even if all of the top military leaders somehow managed to coordinate to support a coup, in defiance of an election result, they would run into the same problem one step down on the chain of command. Their immediate subordinates are also committed patriots, and would oppose their superior’s outright power grab.

The ideology, the belief in democracy, keeps democracy stable.

Realpolitik analysis is an info hazard?

Indeed, we might postulate that if all of the parties involved understood, and took for granted, the realpolitik analysis that who has power is a matter of calculated self interest and flow of resources (in the style of the Athenian’s reply the the Milians), as opposed to higher ideals like justice or freedom, this would erode the stabilizing force of democracy, which I think is generally preferable to dictatorship.

(Or maybe not: maybe even if everyone bought into the realpolitik analysis, they would still think that democratic institutions were in their personal best interest, and would oppose disruption no less fervently.)

I happen to think that realpolitik analysis is basically correct, but propagating that knowledge may represent a negative externality. (Luckily (?), this kind of ideology has an immune system: people are reluctant to view the world in terms of naked power relations. Believing in Democracy has warm fuzzies, about it.)

There’s also the possibility of an uncanny valley effect: If everyone took for granted the realpolitik analysis the world would be worse of than we are now, but if everyone took that analysis for granted and also took something like TDT for granted, then we would be better off?

When implementation diverges from ideal

The ideology of democracy or patriotism does represent a counter-force against naked, self interested power grabs. But it is a less robust defense against other ideologies.

Even more threatening is when the application of an ideology is in doubt. Suppose that an election is widely believed to have been fraudulent, or the “official” winner of an election is not the candidate who “should have won”. (I’m thinking of a situation in which a candidate wins the popular vote, by a huge margin, but still loose the electoral college.) In cases like these, high ranking members of the military or bureaucracy might feel that the actual apparatus of democracy is no longer embodying the spirit of the democracy, by representing the will of the people.

In a severe enough situation of this sort, they might feel that the patriotic thing to do is actually to revolt against the current croup system, in the service of the true ideal that the system has betrayed. But once this happens, the clear, legitimized, succession of power is broken, and who should rule becomes contentious.  I expect this to devolve into a chaos, and one where many would make a power grab by claiming to be the true heir to the American Ideal.

In the worst case, we the US degrades into a “Waring states” period, as many warlord vie for power via the use of force and rhetoric.

Some interesting notes

One thing that is interesting to me is the degree to which it only matters if a few groups have this kind of ideology: the military, and some parts of the bureaucracy.

Could we just have patriotism in those sectors, and abandon the ideology of America elsewhere? Interestingly, that sort of looks like what the world is like: the military and some parts of the government (red tribe?) are strongly proud to serve America and defend freedom, while my stereotype of someone who lives in Portland (blue tribe) might wear a button that reads “America was never great” and talks a lot about how America is an empire that does huge amounts of harm in the world, and democracy is a farce. [Although, this may not indicate that they don’t share the ideology of Democracy. They’re signaling sophistication by counter signaling, but if the if push came to shove, the Portlander might fight hella hard for Democratic institutions.]

In so far as we do live in a world where we have the ideology of Democracy right in exactly the places where it needs to be to protect our republic, how did that happen? Is it just that people who have that ideology self select into positions where they can defend it? Or it it that people with power and standing based on a system are biased towards thinking that that system is good?

Conclusion: generalizing to other levels of abstraction

I bet this analysis generalizes. That is, it isn’t just that the ideology of democracy stabilizes the democracy attractor. I suspect that that is what narratives / ideologies / ego structures do, in general, across levels of abstraction: they help stabilize equilibria.

I’m not sure how this plays out in human minds. You have story about who you are and what you’re about and what you value, and a bunch of sub parts buy into that story (that sounds weird? How do my parts “buy into” or believe (in) my narrative about myself?) and this creates a Nash equilibrium where if one part were to act against the equilibrium, it would be punished, or cut off from some resource flow?

Is that what rationalization is? When a part “buys into” the narrative?  What does that even mean? Are human beings made of the same kind of “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationships (between parts) as institutions made of  (between people)? How would that even work? They make trades across time in the style of Andrew Critch?

I bet there’s a lot more to understand here.




The Basic Intervention Set for Productive Flow, and That, Generalized

[Epistemic status: Sketch. I could write this post in a lot more detail, delving in the specifics of what I mean and being a lot more rigorous, but I’m opting for a quick and dirty outline that hopefully gestures in the right direction. Plus, I’m still figuring out some of the details.]

Related to: My personal wellbeing support pillars

The Basic intervention Set for my Personal Productivity

Lately, I’ve been writing a book (or something) about the psychology and phenomenology of personal productivity, and designing a complete, robust system, for maintaining high levels of productivity sustainably. In that text, I go into a lot of detail about the a fairly large number of policies and procedures.

But in thinking about implementing this system, I recently asked myself “what are the most basic, most important pieces? Which habits are crucial, in their support of making everything else work? Which things should I make sure happen every day?”

This is the list I came up with:

  1. Prioritize sleep: Sleep well and long every night, and if that fails for some reason, make up the difference with a nap in the afternoon.
  2. Exercise everyday (which in practice, means having an exercise TAP, or a suite of exercise TAPs).
  3. Outline my day, everyday (part of an evening routine).
  4. Have free space (on the order of two hours) at the end of every day,
  5. Reliably transition to a Focusing Process when I experience aversion or anxiety.

(This is missing somethings that are obviously crucial, but I mostly don’t worry much about any more, like having a system to keep track of everything the I need to do without using my head, or not overeating. I these are issues that I used to have, but are now robustly taken care of.)


Looking at this list, I can generalize each item: I don’t care about sleep for it’s own sake, I care about my level of mental energy and focus. This is important to note, because sometimes I’ll have missed the boat on good sleep, and knowing what sleep is in service of lets me find other ways to meet that goal.

(Similarly, having a TAP to get paper, when your working memory is overwhelmed is excellent, but you want to understand the mechanism by which paper helps. Otherwise you might find yourself without any paper, and not realize that ducking with a buddy might also help you.)

Generalizing in that spirit, it seems like there are three phenomenological states that are contributing to a final goal:

  1.  Space or spaciousness, both
    1. Attentional space, and
    2. Physiological / emotional space
  2. Mental energy
  3. Structure / nudges / goals loaded up / context

All of which together create or support something like

4. Flow / momentum / rhythm

2019-12-05 Space, energy, structure

I tentatively claim that if the first three are present, the fourth deterministically follows.

Elaborating on each

These breakdowns are first and foremost phenomenological categories. The important thing is that they feel like distinct states from the inside. I might additionally have theories about the mechanisms that give rise to those states, or how these states give rise to other states further downsteam, but the fundamental thing is the first person experience.


Or internal space. The feeling of not being distracted, or yanked around, or whatever. Not feeling pressured. Not being harried or rushed.

Related to what I called metacognitive space, but I think metacognitve space is actaully the combination of space and structure.

I break down internal space into space of two kinds (which are probably quite interrelated):

Attentional space is freedom from distraction, meaning both people coming and bothering you, and little nagging pings about things that you need to deal with. GTD is aimed at creating this kind of space.

Physiological / emotional space is related to Focusing. Your attentional space can be eaten by some nagging thought. Your physiological / emotional space can be taken up by some unmet need or unhandled goal which is manifesting as a felt sense in the body. This can be just as distracting.

[Actually I think this might still be conflating two things. I can have space in the sense of “there’s no pressing need in my felt sense center”, and I can have space in the sense of “there is a pressing need, but I have some distance from it, and am not blended with it or acting compulsively from it.” I think those are importantly different. Note to reader: I’m still confused about this one and. I should figure how how those pieces all fit together.]

Mental energy

The thing I was talking about here and here. I currently define it as “in practice willingness to exert cognitive effort.” The more your mental energy is topped off the more effortless it is to do demanding cognitive work. To the extent that you’re running low on cognitive energy, doing work feels force-y.

Good sleep is crucial for this, and regular exercise also seems to help.


Even having both space and energy, my hours may not be automatically spent on progress towards my goals. I need to have my goals (or tasks) “loaded up” in my attentional space in order for me to automatically take action on them.

I think this is why scheduling my day is so helpful, among other reasons: it primes me with some mental context about what I care about and what needs to be done.

Flow / rhythm

This is what it feels like when I’m clipping along, smoothly moving from one task to the next. There’s no impediment. There’s a slight pressure, like a forewind pushing me forward. There’s momentum to it. I don’t have to force, the natural thing to do is just the next thing that needs doing.

2019-12-05 Space, energy, structure (with interventions)

I actually don’t know how reserving 2 hours at the end of day during which I have no obligations and I’m not trying to do anything in particular fits into this. Naively, it seems like it would contribute to spaciousness, in the same way that meditation is. But it also seems like it actually buys me energy, in the same way that a rest day buys me energy.

I think that taking time with no obligations actually buys me space in the sense of space between stimulus and response / being able to take things as object, as opposed to either attentional or physiological/ emotional space.

The automatic alignment of the flow through effects of obliterating fundamental problems.

[Draft. This post really has a lot of prerequisites, that I’m not going to bother trying to explain. I’m just writing it to get it out of me. I’ll have to come back and make it understandable later, if that seems worth doing. This is really not edited.]

We live in an inadequate world. Things are kind of a mess. The vast majority of human resources are squandered, by Moloch, on ends that we would not reflectively endorse. And we’re probably all going to die.

The reason the world is so messed up, can be traced back to a handful of fundamental problems or fundemental constraints. By “fundamental problem” I have something pretty specific in mind, but Inadquite Equlibira points in the right direction. They’re the deep reasons why we can’t “just fix” the worlds problems.

Some possible fundamental problems / constraints, that I haven’t done the work to formulate correctly:

  • The wold is too big and fast for any one person to know all of the important pieces.
  • The game theoretic constraints that make rulers act against the common good.
  • People in power take power preserving actions, so bureaucracy resist change, including correct change.
  • People really want to associate with prestigious people, and make decisions on that basis.
  • We can’t figure out what’s true anywhere near efficiently enough.
  • People can’t actually communicate about the important things.
  • We don’t know how, even in principle, to build an aligned AGI.
  • Molochian race dynamics.
  • Everyone is competing to get information to the people with power, and the people in power don’t know enough to know who to trust.
  • We’re not smart enough.
  • There is no system that is keeping track of the wilderness between problems.

I recently had the thought that some of these problems have different characters than the others. They fall into two camps, which, of course, actually form a spectrum.

For some of these problems, if you solved them, the solution would be self-aligning.

By that I mean something like, for some of these problems, their solutions would be a pressure or force, that would push towards solving the other problems. In the best case, if you successfully solved that problem, in due course this would case all of the other problems to automatically get solved. The flow-through effects of such a solution are structurally positive.

For other problems, even though the represent a fundamental constraint, if they were solved they wouldn’t push towards the solving of the other problems. In fact, solving that one fundamental problem in isolation might make the other problems worse.

A prototypical case of a problem who’s solution is self-aligning [I need to come up with better terminology] is an Aligned AI. If we knew how to build an AI that could do what we actually want, this would perhaps automatically solve all of our other problems. It could tell us how (if not fix the problems itself) to have robust science, or optimal economic policy, or incentive-aligned leaders, or whatever.

Aligned AI is the lolapaluza of altruistic interventions. We can solve everything in one sweep. (Except of course, the problems that were prerequisites for solving aligned AI. Those we can’t count on the AI to solve for us.)

Another example: If we implemented robust systems that incentivized leaders to act in the interests of the public good, it seems like this has the potential of (eventually) breaking all of the other problems. It would be a jolt that knocks our civilization into the attractor basin of a sane, adequate civilization (if our civilization is not in that attractor basin already).

In contrast, researcher ability is a fundamental constraint of our civilization (though maybe not a fundemental problem?), but it is not obvious that the flow through effects of breaking through that fundamental constraint are structurally positive. On the face of it, it seems like it would be bad if everyone in the world decoupled their research acumen: that seems like it would speed us toward doom.

This gives a macros-strategic suggestion, and a possible solution to the last term problem: identify all of the fundamental problems that you can, determine which ones have self-aligning solutions, and dedicate your life to solving whichever problem has the best ratio of tractability to size of (self-aligned) impact.

I maybe reinventing symmetric vs. asymmetric weapons here, but I think I am actually pointing at something deeper, or at least extending the idea further.


[Edit / note to self: I could maybe explain this with reference to personal productivity?: you want to find the thing which is easy to do but most makes it easy to do the other things. I’m not sure this captures the key thing I want to convey.]