Less Wrong Sequences decks

I read Eliezer’s Sequences back when he was posting them to Overcoming Bias, and both enjoyed them and thought they were full of lots of good rules about how to think. Just as with communication advice, the hardest time for me to remember rationality advice has been when I most needed it. So far I’ve made Anki decks of the first two of Eliezer’s core Sequences, and that does seem to have helped the material sink in.

Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

One piece of wisdom I’ve gotten from the self-help literature is that by default, the function of a belief in the human mind is to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We tend to look for confirming evidence, reject (or fail to notice) counter-evidence, and take actions which confirm our world view. There are also truth-tracking beliefs. These are beliefs that we’d bet on, and that we update as new information comes in. The posts in Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions helped classify and categorize a bunch of important rules for filling my mind with the latter types of belief, not the former. My best one-sentence summary of the sequence is: “Don’t ask what to believe, ask what to anticipate.”

Here’s the deck:

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A Human’s Guide to Words

I used to spend a lot of time nitpicking and arguing about words. I didn’t realize that I was doing so at the time–I would have said I was arguing about ideas–and that’s why I kept doing it. Having learned tons of Anki cards about the ways humans slip into doing this without noticing, I’m aware of at least many of the failure modes. I often find myself saying, “wait–it seems like we’re arguing about words” and changing course, which I take to be a good sign.

The deck I made for myself probably goes into more detail than most people would want, so I recommend suspending any cards that don’t seem interesting or relevant.

The deck:

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Responding to difficult psychedelic experiences deck

I like the idea of being prepared for whatever difficult situations might come up in my life. That’s why I made the deck about how to talk to the police. Given that I do stuff like, say, attend Burning Man, I figured I’d throw some knowledge about how to deal with people having psychedelic crises into the mental preparedness backpack too. I made this deck from the resources I found on the MAPS website:

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And even though I haven’t had occasion to use the advice in its intended context, I think it is much more broadly useful. For example, “Talk through, not down”, and “Difficult is not necessarily bad” are useful principles to remember when talking to anyone who’s upset.

I’ve noticed a pattern: the selection pressures on specialized communication advice seem to be especially good. Some of my favorite tips on how to talk to people came from advice about how to talk to kids, abusers, crazy people, and people having psychedelic crises.

Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming deck

I’ve been interested in lucid dreaming ever since I was a kid, and Stephen LaBerge‘s book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming is the strongest text on the subject. The deck I made from this book mostly covers two things: how we sleep and how our minds perceive reality. 

I wanted to internalize information about how sleep works in order to help my brain better model that it was sleeping while it was sleeping. Not sure whether it really had much effect. 

I’d LaBerge’s book years ago, at a time in my life before I had a good model of what people meant when they talked about the ego, so it was cool to revisit it and see that what once sounded mystical and confusing now made sense to me. Some sentences from the book that I think do a good job explaining what the ego is: 

1. “Seeing that the ego cannot be who you really are makes it easier to stop identifying with it.” 
2. “Once you no longer identify with your ego, you are freer to change it.” 
3. “Simply recognizing that the ego is a simplified model of the self gives you a more accurate model of the self, and makes it more difficult for you to mistake the map for the territory.” 
4. “If you can see your ego objectively in its proper role as the representation and servant of the self, you won’t need to struggle with your ego.” 
5. “You cannot get rid of it in any case, nor would it be desirable to do so—the ego is necessary for effective functioning in the world.” 

When I was actively keeping a dream journal and working on lucid dreaming, I was having them a few times a week, but these days I’ve let that slide so I only have them every once in a while. The intent behind making the deck was to help me have them more often, so it mostly failed there, but I do think having a more complete model of how to be more conscious of the craziness that goes on in dreams has helped me be more conscious of the craziness that goes on in waking life. The deck:

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Crucial Conversations deck

The third deck of communication cards I made was from Crucial Conversations. Recommended to me by Anna Salamon, this book gave me a lot of insight into the inner workings of the stories we tell ourselves that create our emotions.

The basic model is that the purpose of dialogue is to get all the relevant information into the shared “pool of meaning”, and then to decide what to do with it. When people don’t feel safe, they become either silent, withholding meaning from the pool, or violent, trying to force meaning into the pool. The entrance condition of dialogue is Mutual Purpose–having a shared reason to talk about the thing in the first place. The continuation condition of dialogue is Mutual Respect.

The book also describes what it calls our “Path to Action”, where we first see or hear facts about the world, then tell ourselves stories about them, then feel emotions based on the stories, then act based on the emotions. We want our emotions to both be based on true stories and to lead us in useful directions. If any of our emotions lacks one or both of these qualities, we can change it by figuring out the facts that generated the relevant story and choosing to tell a different story. 

One of the key lessons for me was learning to recognize three types of stories the book calls “clever stories”: the Victim Story (“it’s not my fault”, the Villain Story (“it’s all your fault”), and the Helpless Story (“there’s nothing else I can do”). We make up these stories because they conveniently excuse us from responsibility and help us justify continuing to act in the same way that created the problem instead of modifying our behavior. We tell the stories when we’ve done something we feel bad about and don’t want to admit it–and they’re almost never true. I started tagging both my own and others’ stories with these labels when they applied, and I’ve found it quite valuable. 

A lot of the rest of the advice in the book is so simple it’s embarrassing how much mileage I’ve gotten from using it. For example, if someone misunderstands something you said, Contrasting (“I didn’t mean X, I did mean Y”) can be very useful. Don’t let yourself get away with saying stuff like “Someone has to tell her how she’s acting, even if it means being cruel”. Instead, present your brain with a more complex question: “How can I tell her how she’s acting AND be kind?”. If you find that you’re becoming either silent or violent in conversation, return to your motive. Ask yourself, “What do I really want to get out of this conversation?” and “How would someone who really wanted those results behave?”.

Here’s the deck:

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10 Rules for dealing with the police deck

Getting clear about what why legal rights are in police encounters had been in the back as something I wanted to do someday for years. I finally did it! I used the information from Flex Your Rights to make this deck. They do a good job of explaining what the official rules are, which is most of what I wanted to know. Barry Cooper, who has actual experience being a cop has some conflicting advice: he recommends minimizing suspicion by consenting to searches during traffic stops if you have items you don’t want the police to see that you’ve hidden well.

With that caveat, here’s the deck:

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The only police encounter I’ve had since learning the deck was a cop who saw me walking (barefoot :-)) along the side of a highway in a place that wasn’t for pedestrians.  Didn’t need to use any of this–he was friendly and he gave me a ride home.  It still makes me feel safer to have the information internalized though.

How to Talk to Kids deck

I’ve been living with Tovar, my favorite five-year-old, for a little over a year now. I’ve always liked kids a lot, so when I moved in I knew my plan was to interact with him a bunch, and I wanted it to go as well as possible. I didn’t have much experience handling situations where kids didn’t want to do what I wanted them to, and I wanted to be better at connecting with them overall, so I read the book on this subject that my friends recommended the most highly: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. I loved it, and as with NVC, the hardest time to remember all the advice was during an actual conflict with Tovar. The book came with helpful cheat sheets with the most important strategies for different categories of communication.

The cards really helped even more than I thought they would. Sometimes the strategies improved the situation a lot right away, and sometimes they didn’t, but having a mental list of things to try helped me feel a lot more in control, and THAT always helped quite a bit. The real secret about this book is that it’s definitely not just for communicating with kids. I use this stuff all the time on adults and kids both. And to be clear, I love it when people use the techniques on me! In particular, when I’m upset an easy and fun one to use is #3 from helping children deal with their feelings, give the child his wishes in fantasy (e.g. “I wish I could make that banana ripe for you right now!”). It cracks me up that this works as well as it does.

Here’s the deck:

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Nonviolent Communication deck

Nonviolent Communication has a lot of ridiculously useful communication advice. Of course, the hardest time to remember communication advice is in the middle of a conflict. Eventually, after getting frustrated with myself for not being able to remember how to do what the book said in the moment, I got an idea! If the problem was about forgetting, perhaps SRS was the solution…

So I extracted all the material that seemed important and made an Anki deck. Reviewing the deck made me realize that successfully practicing Nonviolent Communication relied on understanding more of the subtleties than I had realized, so I ended up including a fair amount of detail. I also put all the exercises from the book in there, and the NVC half of all the sample conversations. I found that doing so made it easier for me to automatically mentally classify and translate statements. Evidence that memorizing these things was actually have an effect is that for a while I was having crazy NVC Tetris effect dreams.

My best NVC story is that I was on Caltrain once and there were some drunk guys fighting loudly about some sports thing, and I noticed that my visceral reaction to the situation had changed: in the past my impulse was to move away from angry drunk potentially violent people, but instead I felt drawn to them, and I intuited that the safest thing would be to go empathize with them and defuse the situation. My brain pattern matched the situation to the sample conversations in the book. Sure enough, it worked! I cornered one guy, calmed him down, and then when I was done with that the other guy came over to talk to me because he wanted to be heard too. I like to brag about this one, so feel free to ask for details if you see me in person and haven’t already heard my story :-). 

Please email me with any questions that come up when you use it, and I’ll post my answers here.

More about how I’ve been memorizing quotations

As I already mentioned, I’ve been working on memorizing some of my favorite quotations. One of the main motivations for this project was to play around with spaced repetition software. I’d heard of SuperMemo a while ago, probably from the Wired article, and I was definitely intrigued, really glad that Peter Wozniak had done all the research he had, and a little annoyed that I hadn’t known about it in high school and college when I was taking language classes. It occurred to me at the time to wonder if I should try to use it for something, since I like to try out new tools and am interested in learning, but I couldn’t think of anything I was all that interested in memorizing, and knew I wasn’t liable to stick with it unless I came up with something that would be either fun or useful.

Then, last spring, I decided I wanted to memorize some prose. Mostly just for fun, because I was curious about what it would be like to do it, and because I had been convinced that would be easier than I would have initially estimated. I started out by learning the first page or so of The Last Unicorn, which I enjoyed enough to make me want to learn more. So far I was just using two Emacs windows, putting the real text in one and typing what I could remember in the other, and doing ediff-windows-wordwise.

I did learn more. I learned one of my favorite Heinlein quotations, and my favorite death scene from a book, and then the whole page or so before that death scene. And I wanted to learn even more, but at that point I was getting worried about keeping track of all of them, mentally.

When I’d learned only one passage, I felt confident that I could retain it forever by simply saying it to myself from time to time, after all, being able to recite it in my mind was the reason I’d memorized it to begin with. But if I were going to tackle a bunch of passages, I wanted some sort of scheduled quizzing system, which of course made me think back to SuperMemo and spaced repetition.I did some research, decided that Anki was the SRS program that best fit my needs, and entered a bunch of quotations I wanted to learn. I knew I wanted the first letters of every word as a hint, and though I looked into various hint plugins, I just ended up taking one of the suggestions on their website and just using white text instead, so I could only see the letters when I selected them. Here’s an example of a card I made:

Whatever I’m memorizing, I break up into chunks of no greater than two hundred words or so. I also turned on the setting for my deck where you actually type in the answer, since that’s long enough that I can’t check it all otherwise, and I like to get punctuation marks right. I’m not sure exactly how Anki’s diff works, and sometimes it does slightly funky things like coloring it all red when I get a word wrong near the beginning, but it’s good enough for me.

When I started memorizing prose myself, I searched the internet for advice on the best ways to do so and didn’t find much, so in case anyone else is looking for the same thing I was, I figured I’d give as detailed a description of my process as I would have wanted (which is probably not of general interest). Once I enter the text and the hint and it comes up in Anki, I usually give it one try without having made a real effort to memorize it at all. I’m not totally sure this is a valuable use of time, since I don’t usually get much at all on this pass, but I find it kind of fun to see how much I can figure out. Names usually pop out at me, because they’re capitalized, and maybe a few other things. I don’t spend much time on this, but I think it helps focus my mind a little, anyway. Then, once I hit show and see the actual quotation, I highlight the hint again and try to really learn the thing. Usually I’ll read a smallish chunk, maybe ten words or so, of the quotation, then, while it’s still in short-term memory, look back at the hint and reconstruct the words from that. I’ll do this until I get to the end of the quotation, then try to see if I can remember the whole thing, just looking at the hint. Depending on the length of the quotation, that probably takes me a few tries.

I usually add more than one quotation at once, which I think helps because I can switch back and forth. So at this point I’ll usually move onto another quotation and do the same thing with that. Then, when it brings up the first one again (which it will very soon, since I’ve just told it i got the card wrong), I highlight the hint and try to type the thing out as best as I can remember. I usually get it mostly right, since the time I looked at it I was able to do this, but more often than not there I’ll mix at least a few words up. Even if I get it totally right, I’ll still click the button that says I got it wrong, since at this point I’m still using the hint. I’ll keep doing this when the card comes up until I can get it all right with the hint, though I make a conscious effort to look at the hint less and less, and try to chunk it more if possible. So, I might look at the hint for a sentence, look away and type the sentence, and then look back. Once I can get the whole thing right looking at the hint, I’ll make myself look at the hint only at the beginning, then unhighlight it and type the whole thing without looking at it. And if that works reasonably well, I won’t look at the hint at all the time after that.

I bet I could optimize this process a lot more than I have, but I’m already learning the text a lot faster than I was when I first started doing it. And one nice thing about my process is that it gets harder pretty gradually, so at no point do I feel overwhelmed. I’m still a little surprised at how well the first letters thing seems to work for me. It’s a lot easier for me to get the quotation right looking at the hint, but once I’ve done it even once or twice with, I find I know the thing almost perfectly (though punctuation is particular bugbear of mine, probably because it’s just not represented particularly well in my phonological loop).

If there’s a particular part I keep messing up, I’ll say it over and over again a bunch of times, with as distinctive an inflection as possible. Also, if I find that when I’m typing there’s a part where I keep starting to type the wrong thing, only to go delete it and go back, I try to go back further than is strictly necessary, to practice the transition. Maybe all these strategies sound obvious, but they didn’t occur to me right away, so I thought they might be worth recording.

Overall, I’d say Anki works very well for committing a bunch of different passages to memory. Using it, I don’t feel the need to practice them excessively, since I trust that it’ll remind me when it’s time to review them, so I can just say them in my head because they sound pretty, not because I’m worried I might forget them. But it’s definitely not an ideal setup, for a few reasons.

  1. I can’t figure out a way to enter the return character in the answer box without submitting the entire answer. Usually, I break things up into paragraph chunks anyway, so it doesn’t matter much, but sometimes I have dialogue or something with more line breaks, and then it’s annoying. I think I’d be a lot more inclined to add poetry too if I could figure this out. When I have a passage with line breaks in it, I end up just ignoring them when I type in the answer, but it looks sort of ugly that way and I don’t like it.
  2. As I said, the diff is kind of weird sometimes. 
  3. It seems like the algorithm just isn’t optimized for things longer than single words or facts. From what I’ve read about the algorithm, I’m supposed to be getting 90% of the cards right when they come up. I’m not. Here’s a graph of my ease of recall, where 1 is wrong, 2 is hard, 3 is good, and 4 is easy:


As you can see, I very rarely mark something as “easy”, but I’ve been only been doing this for a few months, and I think I’m just not there yet. Looking at this graph a few days ago also convinced me that I’m marking too many things as “normal” that I should be marking as “hard”, so I’ve tried to be better about that, and I think that’s been helping with my error rate.

Still though, I think the algorithm is optimized for much smaller chunks of information. And there’s also a lot of data being discarded. I’ll mark my answer as wrong whether I garble the whole thing or get it entirely correct except for one punctuation mark, and it seems like an optimal algorithm would take that into account somehow.

In support of this hypothesis, often my cards are marked as “leeches” and suspended, and when this happens Anki helpfully informs me that I should consider breaking up the information on the card into multiple cards.

And sometimes I do want it to just ask me the specific thing I keep getting wrong about a quotation instead of quizzing me on the whole thing. For example, there’s one passage where I keep putting a semicolon instead of a colon. I wish it would automatically make a flashcard with just that piece of information on it.

I think what I really want is a dedicated verbatim text memorization program that will do the right sort of chunking automatically. Because ideally, I want to be able to put in a passage of any length. My ideal program would divide the whole thing into bite-sized sections, and quiz me on those first. If I kept making the same specific mistakes, it could quiz me on exactly what I was getting wrong. Once I had the parts down, it could start to build the entire thing up, until eventually it was asking me for the entire passage. If I started getting it wrong, it could break it down again. I’m not sure exactly how this would work, but I wish something like what I’m describing existed. And since it I haven’t found an application that fits my needs all that well, I’m definitely more than a little tempted to try to program something myself… Rarely, however, do I find myself following through on these impulses. In case anyone is curious, I’ve attached my Anki deck.

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