Meditation: practicing being in control of your thoughts.

I was listening to “Back to Work”, a podcast with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin, and they were talking about meditation. Here’s what I took away from it:

The goal is to be able to watch yourself think. You probably can do two things at once, for instance talking and walking, or doing dishes and listening to the radio. In this case, you are going to be allowing yourself to think the things you normally think, but for your second action, you are going to watch those thoughts. At first, all you will do is acknowledge that you are having a thought. It will take practice because you will fall into your normal patterns, which is why you want to be sitting comfortably, with time to do nothing else.

With practice, you will be able to stop, and think about thoughts which just passed.

Phase two is when you can be in this state all the time, that is, able to stop after, or even during a thought, and examine it. This will also take practice. The hardest will be thoughts which are triggered by external stimuli, such as a car passing too close. If you feel in danger, it’s hard to keep the fear from overriding your control. This is why it’s important to practice this sort of thinking.

When you have gained some ability to interrupt your thought stream, then you may be able to consider each thought as to whether it’s useful, accurate, or in some way optimal. Importantly, you might get to turn aside useless or harmful thoughts, such as internal voices telling you to doubt when the reasons for doubt are weak.

This is only one aspect of mediation, but I suspect it might be the most useful one for most people.

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Seeing, Saying, Knowing

  1. The set of people witnessing an event can be divided into subsets with important perceptual biases.
  2. Those with a stake in the results of the perception will impose their biases.
  3. Those who have no stakes will also impose their biases, though perhaps more weakly.
  4. If there is a need to adjudicate the results of perception, the accuracy and usefulness of the adjudication will depend on the biases of the judge and the method used to select the judge.
  5. The perceptions of witnesses is biased by the entirety of their life experience up to the moment of each retelling of their perception.
  6. The strength of change of perception is mapped to the possibly hidden perception that the change might bright about the fulfillment of a needs of the perceiver.
  7. The implications of a perception are affected by these biases.
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Intent versus Capability

Intent: noun, resolved or determined to do something.
Capability: noun, having the tools and/or skills to do something. In tools,  I include time and space.

These are requisites for getting something done. All the intent in the world without capability produces nothing. Equally all the capability in the world without intent produces the same nothing.

Interestingly, intent can lead to capability, because capability can be gained. However, you might have to have more intent,  that is, be willing to pay a greater cost.

Of course, to balance things out, if you already have a lot of capability, the cost of your intent is lessened, making it easier to get done.

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Measuring Up

Science is about looking at things, making guesses about them, and then figuring out how to test those guesses. A huge portion of that testing requires measurement. To compare two things, such as two states of being separated by time and work, you need a basis of comparison. These measurements and comparisons form the basis of the study, and if they are useful, allow us to test our guesses, our hypotheses, by changing things, and then seeing what the measurements look like.

Most of the measurement we see in a given week is pretty simple. Can we fit the car in that space? What size shirt do I need? How much milk goes in this recipe? Things get a little more complicated when goals become less anchored in the physical world. How important is it really that Kid 2 is a bit taller than kid 1. They might think it’s very important, and maybe you think it’d be good to fudge the difference in the service of family harmony.

There are two particular areas of measurement which are particularly hard. One is at work. Some jobs are pretty straight forward, such as piecework tasks. They have a few confounding variables which can be relatively easily eliminated, such as differences in tools or work area. Other jobs are far harder to measure, such as engineering or art jobs where one must first devise a solution to a problem that maybe has never been solved before. Measuring the relative productivity of such a person can be quite difficult, especially in a shared office where their interactions with others might also have an effect on themselves and others.

The other hard area is measuring ones own progress in life. This is a topic we shall attempt to explore at length on this site. First we shall attempt to define measurement as it applies to humans, and then we shall try to come up with a straw man list of aspects of oneself which could be reasonably be measured.

Measurement. To observe a describable state in terms can unambiguously be compared to other such observations.

Some simple measurements are height, weight, age, strength. Given a reasonable test, these can be reduced to a set of numbers.

More complex measurements: what skills do you have, how good are you at them. What do those levels mean?

What resources do you have? Money (easy to count). Liquid assets (easily converted to money). Other assets, such as tools, which maybe you could sell for money, but maybe you could spend time, and use the tools to make money. Influence. Who can you get to help you, and how well can they help?

Note that these last three can be very hard to measure the final output of, because in some ways they all can be converted into each other, but the results from that conversion can be highly variable.

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This article is probably wrong

When I was very young, I was wrong. I tried to communicate my needs, but when you are an infant, you don’t have a lot of signals. If something is wrong, you cry.

In fact, when something is wrong, even if you have words, if they are ineffective you feel like crying. I cried my share as a child. As an adult I don’t cry too much but I occasionally hurt furniture, in my frustration. I don’t like being wrong.

But wrong is what we are. We start off wrong, and as we learn, we get less wrong. This is great, it means our knowledge is expanding. It’s also horrible, because as you gain understanding, you start to grasp how much you are wrong about.

It seems wrong somehow, but that’s what learning does. And after a while, you get used to it. Once you embrace your wrongness, and plan for it, and notice it, then you are wrong less and less.

Or so you might think. But be careful. You also might be wrong.

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Trust: (noun)

a : assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something

b : one in which confidence is placed

Trust is a relatively simple idea, but it’s application is as complex as anything in the world. Let’s start with one person, you.

Trust in yourself indicates that you have some level of confidence in something in your self. But what? By default we tend to believe in our abilities, and our intentions. Sometimes we trust our memories. However, there are a few confounding problems.

  • Our abilities have edges, areas where our experience is actually thin, and especially where there are extra variables which make our intuitions wrong. For instance, if you’re an experienced auto mechanic, but you are working on a strange new car, like a hybrid, the electrical subsystem is entirely new, and actually changes how other parts of the car work. In these areas, trust might be misplaced.
  • Intentions are often driven by knowledge. If your knowledge is wrong, your intentions might lead to an outcome you don’t want.
  • Memories turn out to be quite fragile, and easily manipulated. A classic example of this is the fishing story about the great catch when you were a kid, where you remember it being huge, and then someone digs up a picture and it’s not so huge.

These problems lead to a simple conclusion: trust is a measure of probability.

For the person or people being trusted, you are measuring how likely they are to act in a particular way, or do a particular thing. You might trust yourself to spend your money wisely, or take care of the dog well. You might trust a buddy to be helpful when times are tough. You also might trust him to disappear if the plan for the night is to play a game he dislikes.

Of course, when people use the word trust in a general sense, they usually mean that the person in question will act with honesty or discretion. They are someone you can confide in, who won’t go blabbing about your troubles around town, or they’ll faithfully deliver your hard earned change after picking up pizzas for dinner.

It’s useful, though, to have this expanded idea of trust. The question to ask is “What can I trust this person to do?”

Of course, you also have to ask, “How well can I trust my judgement of this person?”

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What is Happiness?

Happiness: (noun) The state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. (Source:

An article I read recently pointed out that comfort doesn’t equal happiness. This is super true. In fact, for a lot of people, comfort is a neutral state, what they feel when they aren’t pursuing happiness.

Happiness is a continuum, a range of emotions. It’s the positive part of the emotion line (like the number line, but for emotions). Comfort is 0, on its own. Discomfort often accompanies unhappiness, but as any number of serious outdoors people can tell you, you can be pretty uncomfortable, and pretty happy at the same time, such as hiking in very cold weather. Many hikers feel like superheroes during those times, busting through personal doubt and numb digits to make it to a camp, defying nature, and being out when wild animals think it’s too cold.

Happiness is the result of a composition of needs which have been met. What is required for a particular person is dependent on their personality and situation. For instance, one might adore writing, and will be extremely happy when sitting at home, after a nice lunch out with a friend, typing away at a story inspired by the conversation. Someone else might be happiest underneath a customer’s car, tugging at a recalcitrant bolt while her coworkers tell bawdy jokes and conduct oil changes. Others might dislike those situations, for reasons of their own.

Because of the nature of the word, we will try to avoid using it directly. To be sure, however, a central goal of this work is to shore up the foundation of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, that notable phrase from the Declaration of Independence.

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