Living to maximize intellectual residue

The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler. In some ways, it’s as if you died and the world continued on. If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one would take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died.

-Jon Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

There are always more opportunities to do things than there are hours in the day. We choose some opportunities over others, and choose what level of effort to put into the opportunities we pursue. Importantly, these choices are amplified over time to determine the course of our life,  and our legacy.

Like many others, I’ve struggled with the fact that there are many more things that I would like to do than I have time to do. While this is a common problem, how we approach this constraint is vitally important. Oftentimes, I am not deliberate in deciding how to spend my time. It’s easy to drift along doing productive work, feeling content that something is getting done, without considering if doing other work might be more important.

What philosophy should guide choosing the few things I can actually do from the many more things I might like to?

The quote that opened this post reflects on how the world will roll on without us. How would the world be different without you? In totality, the world would not be much affected: The country would not shut down, many other people would be born and die that same day, and waves would continually crash onto sandy beaches and recede to the ocean. Yet however slight, your absence would have impact, one that might grow as time passed: The accumulating impact of your unique contribution to the world.

There are some things in the world that are inevitable, that if you do not do them, someone else will. For example, many inventions and scientific discoveries are likely inevitable; that is, without Edison, we would still at some point have had an effective light bulb. This idea is called multiple discovery, that multiple scientists often discover the same principle independently at approximately the same time.

Of course, that is not to say that individual scientists do not have unique impact. While Darwin and Wallace both discovered the principle of natural selection at approximately the same time, Darwin’s superior insight into evolution, documented in his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, much more greatly impacted the world than did Wallace’s works.

That is the kind of legacy I would like to leave; my aspirations are not as grandiose as to discover something so fundamental as natural selection, but I would like to leave a unique imprint on the world, to follow threads that are uniquely suited to be followed by me, to know something (no matter how tiny) more deeply than anyone else, and to create something beautiful that no one else might have otherwise created.

What would be different fifty years from now between if you died today and if  you were instead alive and productive for twenty of those years?

This is the divergence I want to maximize, I want to follow my unique path as best I can, to add to the world something uniquely mine. The reason is not only personal vanity and wanting imprint myself on the world, but also because the world would likely be better if everyone lived in such a way. Science would progress faster, because more people would be following unique directions. There would be more varied and numerous art , as people would be driven to create something truly reflecting their own uniqueness. And people would perhaps even be happier, knowing they are uniquely impacting the course of history — at least more than they otherwise might without this philosophy.

In practice, one must learn to recognize that some projects are merely low-hanging fruit —  so obvious or attractive or necessary or straightforward  that their completion is inevitable. Those are the projects to be avoided to maximize your unique impact. However, the more unique projects are also likely more uncertain. It requires more courage to strike out on your own, in a direction not favored by the crowd.

In this way, maximizing uniqueness may also increase risk, because uncertain projects bear risk. For example, in academia, there is this pressure to publish more, or in a 9-5 job, there is a pressure to do more. Doing or publishing more is often easier when the projects are simple and well-defined. Thus doing what you are uniquely situated to do may be risky, because unique projects are risky, and our culture often overly punishes failure — even when no Herculean effort could have ever resulted in success.

This potential punishment implies that enacting the philosophy of maximal impact requires swimming against the natural current, which is difficult. It requires courage, deliberate action, and thought.

It requires embracing failure as an option.

I am still exploring how I want to live my life, and what principles to guide my decisions by, but the one outlined here appeals to me. It requires investigating what I am uniquely positioned to do, and then doing those things at the expense of  simpler or more attractive things — those that will inevitably be completed. Doing inevitable things might render me in effect a cog in a machine, whereas striking out on my own means that I am escaping that machinery to possibly impact the course of the world, even if in a tiny, tiny way.

Little known tool: pdfgrep

Grep is such an elegant linux tool, one that you might use from the command line in many different ways without even thinking about it. It’d be nice if non-plaintext file formats still worked with grep, e.g. pdf files.

While you can’t just grep pdf files as is, if you download a nice specialized tool called pdfgrep (, then your command-line life might be much enriched. Perhaps down the road some extensible grep-like tool might exist that offers plugins for searching through other binary file formats (microsoft word, open office, etc.); or perhaps such a thing already exists and I’m merely ignorant of it?

Toiletwater: Examine the Premise

A study by a 12-year old student making the social media rounds shows that ice from fast food restaurants is dirtier than that from toilets. The reason being that toilets are cleaned regularly while ice machines are not. This sounds disgusting, but is it really? The unquestioned precedent is that toilet water must be vile.

However, perhaps in general toilet water isn’t so bad because of regular cleanings with disinfectants and that flushing a well-powered toilet may do a decent job of removing waste. Of course, it may seem viscerally gross to drink water out of a toilet, regardless of how clean the water is! But no one is suggesting you actually do that. The fallacy here is an appeal to visceral disgust from drinking out of the same place you defecate into.

Because in the past I’ve often had beverages from fast food restaurants but am very rarely sick in general, it seems unlikely that the level of ice contamination is scarily high. So while it makes for a good sound bite, and perhaps ice machines should be better regulated, I don’t think I’m going to change my ordering habits.

Someone Please Make it Easy for me to Vote with my Wallet

Let me start out with the punch-line: Someone needs to make a mint-like financial site that tells me when I am spending money on companies with policies that disagree with my morality or personal politics; I don’t have time to research when companies do horrible things, please help me be a better person anyways.

Our political system is so broken that money spent may speak louder than an actual vote. So perhaps if everyone voted with their wallet, the collective power of our dollars might effect real change in a way that the current voting system cannot.

Real Voting is Broken

I believe that the political system in the US (and in many other places) is broken. The two-party system limits real choice and encourages political extremism; the electoral college renders many citizens’ votes meaningless; and campaign financing laws require candidates to sell out their constituents to corporate and private interests.

Obama ran on the platform of Hope and Change; personal politics aside, the message of the platform is informative: That they want change means that citizens are frustrated with the current system. Of course, any politician’s real ability to change such a system or to effect real change, is limited. For example, Obama is a product of the current political system, and more importantly, he’s constrained by it. Undoubtedly, the political system as a whole is still driven largely by corporate interests and lobbying, and in general seems a mess.

Most people are not happy with the ridiculous and embarrassing debt ceiling stand-offs; what kind of country is run in such a childish and irresponsible way?

Money Speaks

It seems like the influence of corporations on politics has increased over time, and that their interests often conflict with the interests of their consumers. Most people don’t like when jobs are shipped overseas, when companies use shady practices to avoid taxes, when they attempt to shirk responsibility for damages they cause, or when they treat their workers poorly.

Yet, these practices continue, generally because people continue to purchase from them despite their shady behavior — often because they might be unaware of the practices, or how their spending behavior indirectly controls what a company will do; in the limit case, if a company does something so terrible that everyone stops buying their product, they’ll go bankrupt.

I think fast food deserves particular attention here, because it is such a clear example of how a company’s interests and our own can be in direct conflict. No one wants to be unhealthy or fat; but the fast food industry does not care at all if we become so as a result of their product: They’re interested in our dollars, not our health. As a result, fast food is heavily optimized to be cheap, delicious, and addictive. Scientists actively study how the make the perfect addictive and delicious food. That such optimized food is part of a broken “western diet” that research shows is incredibly unhealthy, that is immaterial as long as the dollars keep rolling in.

More generally, optimizing for low prices drives companies to do terrible things; wal-mart has an awful reputation for treating workers poorly, as do most fast food companies. I don’t want my dollars to support terrible things. However, I’m lazy.

I’m Uninformed and Lazy

Here’s where some brilliant entrepreneur comes in. I want to be a better person and to allocate my dollars away from those doing terrible things to those that practice business in a way that aligns with my morality. If there was an app that put that easily put that information at my fingertips when I am about to make purchasing decisions, that would be great; if there was an app that reviewed my purchases and chided me when I spent money on a bad company, and lauded me when I spent more wisely, that would be great too.

I’d love to be a more responsible person and live in a way that better reflects what I believe. And perhaps you could make a few bucks in the process too.

Evolvability is Inevitable

I’m excited that a fun paper I’ve co-written with Ken Stanley, entitled “Evolvability is Inevitable: Increasing Evolvability without the Pressure to Adapt,” has just been published in PLoS ONE.

What’s really interesting about our study is that it shows that the drive towards more complex organisms in nature may not need special explanation, in contrary to what many have previously thought. In fact, an increasing ability to evolve (called evolvability) may be a fundamental feature of evolutionary processes in general. That is, once evolution begins, it might naturally accelerate, like a rock rolling down a mountain.

Interestingly, there’s a press release out from the University of Central Florida, so perhaps the paper will get a little traction in the blogosphere/press.

How do organisms become more evolvable?

The underlying idea is simple but counter-intuitive: If you assume that an organism’s ability to further evolve (its evolvability) is hereditary, then over time, even allowing organisms to reproduce randomly can actually separate more evolvable organisms from those that are less evolvable. While this might first seem surprising, the reason is that over many generations, the more evolvable organisms will change more in form than the less evolvable ones.

After many rounds of randomly letting organisms reproduce in a simple model, the most evolvable ones tend to travel furthest from the original niche in the center. (Lighter colors mean more evolvable organisms)

That is, if you started with a large population of organisms all with the same DNA, and allowed them to reproduce randomly, at the end, you could look at the organisms, and the most evolvable ones would be the ones that were most different. So the space of possible phenotypic forms acts like a filter that separates more evolvable organisms from less evolable ones. If you couple this idea with the fact that diverging forms might lead a species to spread through more biological niches (lead to new ways of life), you have a simple mechanism for evolvability to continually increase, like we seem to observe in nature.


Of course, this new hypothesis takes its place among many competing theories for how evolvability increases in nature — and indeed many factors may each contribute to increasing evolvability. This theory is different though because it does not depend upon there consistently being particular kinds of competition between organisms. For example, another leading theory is that evolvability increases because organisms have to survive across changing environments, which requires constant adaptation. So what’s really interesting here is that the results hint that increasing evolvability may not require such special explanations, and may be more fundamental than previously thought.

Required Courses for Politicians: MMORPG Design

If you could make any educational course mandatory for politicians to take and pass before they could be elected, what would it be?

There are probably many good candidates, like world history or economics, to ensure some basic understanding of the past and how money changes hands. And it’s clear that an important part of what a politician is doing is in crafting and arguing for and against various laws; so perhaps a remedial law course should be required?

Instead, I’d say that developing a robust intuition for the effects of laws will make more effective politicians. Many well-intentioned laws have perverse effects because of unintended consequences.

Economies are incredibly complex, human behavior is difficult to predict, and seemingly trivial aspects of laws can have surprisingly large and counter-intuitive impacts. While it might seem like there is no test-bed for playing god with economies or laws, MMORPGs offer a unique opportunities for experimentation.

Perhaps we should require all politicians to learn how to design MMORPGs; not the programming of them, but the way their laws and rules and economies are structured. That way they can learn from experience. They can gain first-hand insight into the complex dynamics that result from the simples rules or laws or economic policy they put into a virtual system. They can try audacious things that wouldn’t fly in the real world.

A complex system

Why not at least have politicians run for virtual office first — perhaps in the future the president of World of Warcraft will be a helpful credential when attempting to get into the white house. After all, we allow pilots to crash a simulated jumbo jet into the mountain to make passengers safer — shouldn’t we do the same for the citizens of our country?

The Joy of Stapling

Sometimes, when you’re caught in a slurry of projects, and you’re stumbling through difficult parts in all of them, you begin to question yourself.

The problem is that there’s so much uncertainty in the air; you’re making the best decisions you can, trying to navigate wisely, but so much is out of your control or beyond your direct knowledge. In the end, some of your uncertain endeavors will fail. But more than failure, it’s the persistent foggy doubt in the air that wears you down over time.

And so I found myself strangely looking forward to stapling some copies of a document together. It felt comfortable for a change to have an almost certain success through unthinking progress: Place the two sheets of paper on top of each other; staple; repeat.

Maybe the lesson is to always have comfortable unthinking projects on the back burner for those times in which the uncertainty of more ambitious and uncertain projects becomes oppressive.

Natural Flavor

Natural Flavor

Notice anything strange about the text on this bottle?

It took me awhile; I didn’t see it until after I’d bought this water-flavoring and taken it home.

The phrase “Natural flavor with other natural flavor,” seems bizarre. Yet at the same time it doesn’t seem so out of place — because on some level we know why it’s there: There must be some legal reason for such strange wording.

In other words, we assume that there must be some legal loophole accomplished by this comically redundant phrasing — a polished corporate machine wouldn’t produce that wording by chance.

Somehow this labeling must make the chemical soup that composes this product sound as un-artificial as possible within the constraints of the law.

Whatever the reason for this particular label, the underlying principle is more interesting: Optimizing profits, as many large corporations do, often leads to concerted efforts to deceive consumers (if you were feeling charitable, you could call it ‘bending’ the truth).

This may not be surprising, but it is sad to reflect on; if I were selling a friend something, I’d be honest in representing what it was. However, for corporations blindly optimizing profits, the corporation’s desires and that of the consumer often conflict.

While a consumer might really want something ‘natural,’ the producer cares more about how to cheaply receive the ‘legal’ label of natural. And in the process bizarre legalistic language games result: “Natural flavor with other natural flavor.”

Of course, this same principle applies in many other contexts. A person applying for a job might get ‘creative’ with their resume, a researcher might oversell the implications of what they’ve discovered in their latest paper, a president might claim to have more influence than he really does over the economy (when it is helpful to do so).

For better of for worse, as a society we are implicitly aware of such ‘politicing.’ Many people have a well-developed sense of when to be skeptical and detecting conflicts of interest. But how many others do not? Is there a way to encourage the critical thinking needed to be contextually skeptical?


We’re often told that persistence is a virtue. But it’s something beyond morality — it’s far more fundamental than that.

As it turns out, everything in the universe of any real interest is persistent. Only some things persist for long periods of time: Stars, planets, life. But before you get smug — this doesn’t include particular instances of life, only the process of evolution as a whole. No, each and every particular living thing is just a flash-bang in cosmological time.

But some things in the universe are relatively stable, like stars. The simplest atom is hydrogen (it’s just a single proton and an electron), and it was the only element in existence shortly after the big bang. So a star is a collection of hydrogen held together tightly by gravity, which causes a slowly dissipating nuclear reaction. It slowly showers energy outwards, and for no real reason, other than that is what stars do.

A planet is stable as well; when stars die, sometimes they explode, and their guts fly outwards. Star guts are more complicated atoms than hydrogen. And sometimes star guts accumulate such that they exert a gravitational pull on other nearby matter — and further attract more star guts. This creates a feedback loop resulting in what we call a planet — because ‘fetid file of star guts’ doesn’t have exactly the same ring to it.

On at least one planet that we know of, conditions were such that a new bold form of persistence emerged: Life. The dominant strategy for persistence before life was stability. That is, if you find a stable structure that is relatively immune from outside influence and that dissipates very slowly — then that is a simple yet very effective strategy to be around for a long time. A star is a collection of hydrogen atoms that exhausts itself very slowly. A planet is just a hunk of matter in a relatively stable orbit around the sun. They persist because they are stable.

But life is different. Life persists exactly because it is unstable. The process of evolution enables life to adjust to changing circumstances. An individual organism will eventually die, a particular species is almost guaranteed to go extinct, but life on Earth will likely persist for a long time. So life is a more intelligent form of persistence; it adapts, it changes, it has a more complicated and interesting strategy for persistence. It’s more dynamic than a star or a planet.

And then there’s us humans. We persist too, in different ways; doggedly we persist to live in the most basic sense. A man might cut off his own leg to escape from a bear trap. But also we persist in a more cognitive way, separated from the lower animals: We struggle achieve our goals, even those far removed from the basic struggle for life. This is different from any other persistent structure or process in the universe. I persist in my research to uncover how to recreate natural evolution in a computer, and you persist towards your goals as well.

So to say ‘persistence is a virtue,’ is to embrace a useful piece of human wisdom. But the truth is actually grander: Persistence is the story of the universe, and we’re just the latest chapter.

Bodybuilders as skilled debators

It’s tough to convince someone of something they don’t want to believe.

Our bodies are the same way — they’re tough to convince to expend energy on unnecessary things.

One way to view bodybuilders is to see them as people who for whatever reason have taken on the formidable task of convincing their bodies to invest significant amounts of energy on building (ultimately unnecessary) muscle. They’re debating with their bodies, using the rhetoric of food and focused exercise.

They have to convince their bodies that they have a surplus of energy by consuming unnecessary amounts of calories, and that additional muscles are actually necessary by stressing them. Evolutionarily, our bodies want to be misers with energy, not to needlessly waste it in case we weren’t able to hunt and kill that next mastodon.

So body builders actively deceive their bodies. In other words, gyms are like virtual reality for muscles — in real life you don’t often need to lift heavy things (we have machinery for that), but you can go to a gym and simulate needing to squat hundreds of pounds. But why? What’s the point?

Impressive things are those for which their difficult is easily recognized. In other words, it’s plain to see that a lot of effort went into it. They demonstrate their own challenge. Bodybuilding fits the bill because it literally is the very visible result of investing physical work over time. You can see a bodybuilder and realize how much effort probably went into achieving that physique.

A good novel is impressive because while it’s easy to read and appreciate its construction, its much harder to construct. A backflip is impressive because it’s easy to recognize, and your internal model of physics easily calculates that it’s pretty damn difficult to execute in reality. A new important breakthrough is often easily recognized (e.g. ‘I wish I had thought of that — it’s so simple’), but its derivation from what came before is often surprisingly difficult.

Interestingly, we often dislike when our internal metric of impressiveness is misled.

To support this idea, think of the derision that is usually aimed at people that use pharmacological shortcuts to become bodybuilders (e.g. steroids). They cheated. But really, what is it they cheated? They just convinced their bodies more directly, instead of taking the more ridiculous route of programming their bodies with exercise and food alone.

But the reason we’re upset by people who cheat in this way, is that their outcome, although it appears impressive on the surface, was in reality achieved through substantially less effort. They undermined our estimate of impressiveness — it’s not as impressive to have muscles if you use steroids. Just as it’s not really as impressive to take a photo of something as it is to paint a photo realistic image by hand. Also, think about the disillusionment that sets in when you recognize the underlying formula for a TV show that is initially interesting — the formula allows writers to crank out material with substantially less effort — there’s nothing really novel in each new episode.

What’s interesting about impressive ideas — those ideas that visibly demonstrate their construction’s difficulty — is that they are like little easily-communicated packets of valuable information. You can easily recognize why they are important — because they broadcast it themselves. For example, take Darwin’s idea of natural selection. What’s powerful about the concept is that it’s explanatory power is so evident. The appearance of design can result from competition induced by limited resources. It’s such a succinct nugget of condensed and important information.

It’s strange to think that a bodybuilder’s physique and darwin’s great idea can be seen as abstractly very similar: Just different instances of impressive artifacts.