It is possible to be extremely astute about how we manage difficult decisions. With just a few mental tools we get the benefit of better outcomes along with release from agonizing about the process of deciding.
Many mental tools—algorithms—developed with obligatory clarity for computers turn out to have ready application for humans facing such problems as: when to stop hunting for an apartment (or lover); how much novelty to seek; how to get rid of the right stuff; how to allot scarce time; how to consider the future; when to relax constraints; how to give chance a chance; how to recognize when you’re playing the wrong game; and how to make decisions easier for others (“computational kindness”).
Brian Christian, the co-author of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, lives in San Francisco, deploying his degrees in philosophy, computer science, and poetry.
Monday May 2, 02016 – San Francisco
In the 1960s, Mischel and colleagues at Stanford launched a series of delayed-gratification experiments with young children using a method that later came to be known as “the marshmallow test.” A researcher whom the child knew and trusted, after playing some fun games together, suggested playing a “waiting game.” The researcher explained that the child could have either one or two of the highly attractive treats the child had chosen and was facing (marshmallows, cookies, pretzels)–depending on how long the child waited for them after the researcher left the room. The game was: at any time the child could ring a bell, and the researcher would come back immediately and the child could have one treat. To practice, the researcher left the room, the child rang the bell and the researcher came right back, saying, “You see, you brought me back. Now if you wait for me to come back by myself without ringing the bell or starting to eat a treat you can have both of them!!” The wait might be as long as 15 or 20 minutes. (About one third made it that far.)
The kids varied widely in how long they could stand it before ringing the bell. Mischel emphasizes that the focus of the research was to identify the specific cognitive strategies and mental mechanisms, as well as the developmental changes, that make delay of gratification possible–not to “test” or pigeonhole children. Between the ages of 4 and 6 years, for example, the older kids could delay their gratification longer, apparently as the impulse-overriding “executive function” of their maturing brains kicked in. And in some conditions it was easy for the children to wait, while under other conditions it was very difficult. The research sought to identify the cognitive skills that underlie willpower and long-term thinking and how they can be enhanced.
Longitudinal studies of the tested children suggested that something profound was going on. By the time they were adolescents, the kids who had been able to hold out longer for the bigger reward in some conditions were also likelier to have higher SAT scores, to function better socially, and to manage temptation and stress better. On into their adulthood, they were less likely to show extreme aggression, less likely to over-react if they became anxious about social rejection, and less likely to become obese. For the kids who did not hold out well and took the quick reward, Mischel said the findings suggested that “the inability to delay gratification can have quite serious potential negative effects.” (Mischel cautions that the longitudinal results are only correlations that describe group findings and do not allow accurate predictions for individual children.)
Can “delay ability” be trained? Mischel thinks it can, if we understand how our mind works. He and colleagues postulated a “Hot System” and a “Cool System” in the brain. (They are similar to Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2” in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.) The Hot System (Go!) is: emotional, simple, reflexive, fast, and centered in the amygdala. It develops early in the child and is exacerbated by stress. The Cool System (Know), on the other hand, is: cognitive rather than emotional, complex, reflective, slow, and centered in the frontal lobes and hippocampus. It develops later in the child and is made weaker by stress. In the Hot System the stimulus controls us; in the Cool System we control the stimulus.
You can chill a hot object of desire by representing it to yourself in Cool, abstract terms. Don’t think of the marshmallow as yummy and chewy; imagine it as round and white like a cotton ball. One little girl became patient by pretending she was looking at a picture of a marshmallow and “put a frame around it” in her head. “You can’t eat a picture,” she explained. (Girls were better handling temptation than boys.)
While coolly defusing a temptation, you can also make Hot the delayed consequences of yielding to it. Mischel was a three-pack-a-day smoker ignoring all warnings about cancer until one day he saw a man on a gurney in Stanford Hospital. “His head was shaved, with little green X’s, and his chest was bare, with little green X’s.” A nurse told him the X’s were for where the radiation would be targeted. “I couldn’t shake the image. It made hot the delayed consequences of my smoking.” Mischel kept that image alive in his mind while reframing his cigarettes as sources of poison instead of relief, and he quit.
“If you don’t know how to delay gratification,” he said, “you don’t have a choice. If you do know how, you have a choice.”
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The Long Now Foundation is making its video archive of the Seminars About Long-Term Thinking (SALT) freely available on its website and on the new Apple apps, allowing people to stream the SALT Seminars on Apple TV and their iOS devices.
The free iOS apps feature videos of The Long Now Foundation’s latest Seminars, including those by author and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman; author Neil Gaiman; English composer and record producer Brian Eno; oceanographer Sylvia Earle; biotechnologist, biochemist and geneticist, Craig Venter; WIRED’s founding executive editor Kevin Kelly; author and MacArthur Fellow Elaine Pagels; Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh; biologist Edward O. Wilson; author and food activist Michael Pollan; and psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel, creator of The Marshmallow Test.
The Long Now Foundation Seminars, which are hosted by Stewart Brand, are online and available in the iTunes store as as free app and audio podcast. The iOS app initially launched with 50 Seminars with new videos added monthly as part of the Foundation’s ongoing lecture series.
The Seminars are free to watch, and are made available through the generous donations of the members and sponsors of The Long Now Foundation. Membership begins at $96 per year, and includes free tickets to the monthly Seminars held at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, as well as a quarterly newsletter, free and discounted tickets to partner events amongst other member offerings. The Seminar media is created in association with Shoulder High Productions, a full circle media company and with FORA.tv, a San Francisco-based video production and marketing company.
Can you pass the marshmallow test? You’re a little kid. A marshmallow is placed on the table in front of you. You’re told you can eat it any time, but if you wait a little while, you’ll be given two marshmallows to eat.
The kids who have the self-control to pass this most famous of psychological tests turn out to have more rewarding and productive lives. Walter Mischel, who first ran the test in the 1960s, spent the rest of his career exploring how self-control works, summarized in his 2014 book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. “The ability to delay gratification and resist temptation has been a fundamental challenge since the dawn of civilization,” he writes. “It is the ‘master aptitude’ underlying emotional intelligence, essential for constructing a fulfilling life.”
This talk spells out the remarkable things have has been learned about willpower and self-control in the individual. It also considers wider implications. Does it make a difference when an organization or society has more people able to fully engage self-control? Does it make a difference when that kind of behavior is publicly expected and trained for explicitly? Is there a social or political or cultural level of surmounting marshmallow-test temptations? That might be the essence of long-term behavior.
1100Lab has developed a visualization mapping all of the battles in Wikipedia in the last 5,000 years. Their blog details how they compiled the data, as well as other projects by the Netherlands based research and development firm.
On March 8th & 9th at Fort Mason Center, Autodesk will be hosting their annual conference event REAL2016, which focuses on new 3D technologies, including 3D modeling, 3D printing, laser scanning, augmented reality, and fabrication. Autodesk has generously offered Long Now Members a 50% discount for the event, please check your email for instructions on how to redeem this discount.
The programming over 2 days features talks, panels, demonstrations and a startup competition – all centered around capture, compute and create technologies and their increasing convergence.
Do stop by and visit The Interval while you are at the event, we’ll be open from 10am to midnight offering thoughtful coffee and cocktails. Private events and ticketed lectures are noted on The Interval website and our Twitter.
We hope that many of you will be able to attend!
Tuesday February 9, 02016 – San Francisco
“We are uniquely fire creatures,” Pyne began, “on a uniquely fire planet.” Life itself is a form of slow metabolic combustion—which eventually created oxygen and burnable vegetation that allowed fast combustion, ignited by lightning. Humans came along and mastered fire for warmth, food preparation, and managing the landscape, and that made us a keystone species. Humanity’s ecological signature on the world is fire.
Then we made fire the all-purpose catalyst for craft (clay, glass, metal) and eventually industry, shifting to the vast geological resource of fossil fuels. That “pyric transition” made humans dominant on the earth, even to the point of affecting climate. We used fire to clear much of the world’s forest for agriculture.
Then came a century of misdirection about wildfire. The forests of Europe are mostly too wet to burn, but by the late 19th century the leading foresters in world came from there and taught their ignorance to foresters in North America and India, where the land depends on seasonal fire for ecological health. National governments set about suppressing all wildfire, with catastrophic success. In the absence of the usual occasional local fires, massive fuel loads built up, and destructive megafires became the norm. There was an alternative theory of a “restoration strategy” to manage wildfire in way that would emulate how lightning and native American burning kept the landscape ecologically healthy, but it has been applied haltingly and fractionally, and megafires still rule.
“The real argument for fire is that it does ecological work that nothing else does,” Pyne concluded. “Charismatic megaflora” like redwoods need fire. An ecologically rich mosaic of forest, savannah, and meadows needs fire. Healthy prairie needs fire or it gets taken over by invasive woody plants. People trained only as foresters are blind to all that. Wildfire practice now works best when it is guided by wildlife biologists who insist that red cockaded woodpeckers need fire-dependent longleaf pines, that grizzly bears need the berries that grow in recent burns, that pheasants need grassland burned free of invasive eastern red cedar.
The techniques for prescribed burns for a bioabundant natural landscape are now well honed. They need to be applied much more widely. When in doubt how to proceed, ask the ecologists, who will ask the animals.
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This November, The Rosetta Project was awarded access to staff and facilities at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to develop a wearable version of the Rosetta Disk. The successful proposal, titled “The Rosetta Disk – An Exploration into Very Long-term Archiving” focused on the need for access to high-powered microscopes and imaging technology available at the Lab to prepare and evaluate components of a new Rosetta Disk prototype. The user program will provide Rosetta Project staff access to the Molecular Foundry, Advanced Light Source, and National Center for Electron Microscopy.
The new version of the Rosetta Disk currently under development uses a similar manufacturing process as the first edition of the Rosetta Disk, with the resulting archive being microscopically formed in nickel and readable with 1000x magnification or less. The main difference is that the final archive is about 2 centimeters in diameter, making it a size that could comfortably be worn on the human body. Given the new process is reliable, fast, and less expensive than the one used for the original Rosetta Disk prototypes, it is the first version of the Disk that could potentially meet the long-desired goal of broad dissemination, in keeping with the long-term archiving strategy of LOCKSS (“lots of copies keeps stuff safe”).
Although the new, smaller size of the disk is an advantage, it imposes a new constraint of having less surface space that the archive contents can occupy. If we keep the information or “pages” in the archive at the size where they can be read with 1000x magnification, we can fit 1000 or fewer of them on the disk. The original Rosetta Disk has over 1,500 languages and 13,000 pages of information, so this means we must include fewer languages, fewer pages for each language, or some combination of the two. Yet constraints breed creativity, and we have chosen to meet this new challenge by slightly altering the contents that will go on the wearable Rosetta Disk.
The contents will be in keeping with the original Rosetta Disk in that they will be represent many of the world’s human languages. The contents will also be parallel, that is, the same information for each language. The two main kinds of content will be a parallel text and parallel vocabulary list. The text we have chosen is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”), which is available in over 300 languages, and the parallel vocabulary will be Swadesh lists compiled by Long Now’s PanLex Project. The vocabularies will be chosen to match the texts as nearly as we can.
In a major departure from how the contents of the original Rosetta collection were assembled, the Universal Declaration and PanLex data are all “born digital”. This means we have a lot of control over font and font size, but this entails making choices. Our goal will be to maximize the amount of language content on the disk while preserving maximum legibility. This is where access to the Lab microscopes and imaging equipment will be especially helpful.
Another advantage to having “born digital” material is we can make the contents of the wearable Rosetta Disk available as open digital data as well as a physical artifact. We hope this will allow for all kinds of interesting experimentation in the archival longevity of both forms. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights collection we will be using are all available in Unicode, which is a much preferred long-term format, and the PanLex Swadesh lists are now part of the Natural Language Toolkit collection and available as a corpus for computational tinkering.
The 1000x magnification required to read the Rosetta Disk is vastly lower than what is capable with the resources of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, which in addition to a vast array of imaging equipment operates the most powerful microscope in the world (TEAM I, left). Nonetheless, access to higher power equipment will allow us to prepare the content that will go on the disk, evaluate the longevity of the materials we are choosing to use, and to explore new methods to protect the disk surface from environmental damage as well as direct contact with human skin (many people – myself included – are sensitive to nickel).
An aspirational goal of the project is to develop long-term relationships with the staff and scientists at the Lab who have interest in exploring new materials and methods for long-term archiving. Some intriguing new possibilities have already emerged from early discussions (hint: think color!). These may allow us to radically change not only how we archive, but what we are able to archive for the long-term as well. And while new archival technologies are evolving rapidly, what seems steadfast and applicable to all of them are the strategies for long-term archiving long articulated by The Rosetta Project, and both explored and practiced in its Rosetta Disk.
The late 20th century saw the yields of the world’s staple crops more than double. To keep this momentum going well into the 21st century, scientists are working on C4 rice, a rice that more efficiently photosynthesizes sunlight, potentially making the crop that feeds half the world up to 50% more effective.
Jane Langdale is a Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford.
We’re happy to announce that starting this week, Long Now Members may reserve the private room at The Interval for 1-2 hrs on Mondays with no bar minimum! The Interval is a great venue to host a meeting, reception or event. Our private room fits up to 10 people. Reservation requests will be filled on a first come, first served basis and must be made between Monday and Friday the week prior to the Monday you are requesting. (Sorry we cannot offer complimentary bookings further than a week out.)
The room is available to rent to members and the general public on other days as well for $75 to $150 an hour, depending on the day & time.
Reservation requests are made through this link, and must be finalized and approved before your booking is 100% confirmed. Be sure to put your member number in the notes field to receive the discount: http://theinterval.org/space/#rental
Members also receive a 10% discount on food and beverages at The Interval on Mondays. Please remember to tip our bar staff well; they are also ambassadors for Long Now and are doing a fantastic job both delivering a wonderful experience at The Interval and educating patrons about our projects, ideas and mission.
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