Kaj Sotala (Xuenay) (xuenay) wrote,
Kaj Sotala (Xuenay)
xuenay

Travel diary, days 12-19

Long time, no write.

The house is quiet right now. My mother (hi, mom!) asked what we do on weekends. It varies: on Saturday we typically do something as a group, or if nobody comes up with something that enough people would be interested in, we generally just hang around. The first Saturday that I was here, we went out to an Indian buffet place to eat. On the second, we didn't do anything in particular. Today, most people went to see a computer history museum. I considered going - I suspect I would have found it interesting - but decided I'd rather sleep in and enjoy the peace and solitude of a quiet house for once. I think just about everyone is either at the museum or somewhere else. I think Steve is the only person other than me who's here at the moment.

Sundays are kinda off - they're called "human capital days". For those, people are encouraged to hold various workshops on the things they know and teach them to others. Their exact content varies a lot - last Sunday, Andre held a Krav Maga lesson as well as some improvisational games. I won't be here for this Sunday's workshops, though, since I'll be seeing a friend tomorrow. Even though I only knew her online, Lani was pretty much my best friend for some years, around the time when I was fifteen. We've drifted off somewhat since then, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't use the opportunity to finally meet her in real life now that I happen to be in the San Fransisco area.

The week's been pretty good, and at least for now, I've mostly gotten over my "should I even be here" worries. There have been two major reasons for that. Michael Vassar showed up during the end of last week/beginning of this week, and discussed with us some of the plans he had for SIAI. Somehow, something in what he said pushed me to decide that darnit, I'll stop worrying about whether I'm useful and do something. I've now compiled a preliminary list of topics for academic papers that I could possibly work on while here, and I'm determined to start actually working on them soon. (Although unfortunately for my plans to pass some of them off as a computer science Master's thesis, they all lay pretty firmly in the cognitive science sphere, implying that if I do want to graduate faster I shouldn't switch majors after all... ah well, I'll worry about it later on. And I do already have one paper that might pass for CS under review to a journal.)

The other reason is that Eliezer Yudkowsky showed up here on Monday, seeking people's help with the rationality book he's writing. Previously, he wrote a number of immensly high-quality posts in blog format, with the express purpose of turning them into a book later on. But now that he's been trying to work on the book, he has noticed that without the constant feedback he got from writing blog posts, getting anything written has been very slow. So he came here to see if having people watching him write and providing feedback at the same time would help. He did get some stuff written, and at the end, asked me if I could come over his place on Wednesday. (I'm not entirely sure of why I in particular was picked, but hey.) On Wednesday, me being there helped him break his previous daily record on amount of words written for his book, so I visited again on Friday and agreed to also come back on Monday and Tuesday.

In practice, "helping Eliezer write" doesn't really require me to do much. Mostly I just sit next to him and watch him write. Occasionally I make a suggestion or two, some of which have actually found their way to the manuscript (if the final version still has the xckd reference, I'm the one to blame), but mostly I just watch. Apparently having someone looking expectantly at the text is enough to prompt writing activity. (This does not surprise me. I know from writing fiction that I get far more done far easier if I'm writing it together with someone, and part of it is definitely in the knowledge that another person will read it as soon as I've written it out.) You might think that this would get boring quickly, but the topic is interesting enough for me to enjoy watching the way the text takes form. After all, I've read most of his previous blog posts on the topic and would definitely have intended to buy the book in any case. It's also interesting to see the way that the ideas take a more refined and clearer form, and having someone type them out slower than I would usually read the text prompts me to really think over the stuff while it's being generated. I think that helps me get a slightly deeper understanding of it than I would otherwise. (Also, I do have my laptop with me, so if I get really bored I can just surf the web in the meanwhile.) And even though I don't actually do much, whenever I see him complete a new section, I too get a feeling of accomplishment. So far, I've usually been there for around five or six hours at a time.

While here, I've gotten (again) badly hooked on Might and Magic VI, a computer game back from 1998. It's amusing - the basic gameplay consists mainly of going to a dungeon, killing monsters until you've ran out of hit points and spell points, and then leaving the dungeon to recover. Repeat until the dungeon is empty and you've collected all the loot inside. Repeat until all the dungeons in the game are empty. But combined with that are fifteen different areas to be explored, people to talk to, quests to complete... and most importantly, a character development system where you're constantly acquiring more experience points and therefore skill points to raise your various skills. Then you can visit various trainers around the world to obtain an Expert or Master ranking for your various skills. Not to mention all the improved arms and equipment you pick up during the game to boost you further, all of this combining to the pleasure of seeing the weaker enemies becoming easier and easier to kill. Until you run into the harder enemies and have to repeat the same drill, of course. It's a simple reinforcement system that feeds you with constant rewards (the same formula I hear World of Warcraft, not to mention countless of othe games of this type), masterfully exploiting the way our brains are wired for seeking immediate reward. The fact that I recognize how it works doesn't make it any less effective.
Tags: siai 2010, travel diary
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