Religious Fasting Traditions

If you’ve ever talked to me about nutrition, you would know that I’m a huge proponent of fasting. I knew that cultural and religious traditions throughout the world had incorporated some form of fasting practice into their doctrines, though I had not systematically tried to document it myself at the time. There may be a decent review article on this somewhere, but I decided to sit down and do a little research myself last year, and these are my notes from that exercise.

tl;dr: there are lots of different kinds of fasting. Some commonalities include the use of sunrise/sunset, fasting as a spiritual practice (opposed to mere starvation) including prayer and charity, proscribed feasting days/periods, and not drinking water either. Longer-term fasts usually restrict eating during daylight hours and/or restricted types of food during the night, and these appear to be the most common. Fasts of 1-2 days can involve complete cessation of both food and water. The strictest fast is 2 meals over 5 days. Fasting is at most 250 days/year, and 1-2 times per week or month is very common. Exceptions for the young, the old, the sick, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, laborers, and travelers are relatively common. Not every religion has a fasting tradition.

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Memorizing Emotionally Salient Quotations

One of the more unusual projects I undertook a few years back was memorizing a bunch of quotations. In particular, I mostly picked ones that seemed emotionally salient.

I love it when I read something that lets me glimpse a truth about the world that I hadn’t quite noticed or thought of in that way. And typically, the clue that I’m realizing something is that I have an emotional reaction.

I did find that if I spent enough time with the quotations, I was able to grok them more fully. I could update my model of the world and internalize the meaning that I had been reacting too. I was still able to recognize the words as beautiful afterwards, but the character of my appreciation for them had changed to something softer.

Looking back at some of the passages I memorized at the time, I thought I’d share a few and what I think I learned from them.

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Parenting and the Non-Shared Environment

There is a major thread in the parenting literature that claims, in short, that parenting (short of outright abuse) has little to no effect on adult outcomes that we care about. Two exemplars in this category include The Nurture Assumption and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. This claim is largely based on twin and adoption studies, which allow us to attribute the observed variance in traits to genetic, shared environment, and non-shared environment factors. The general pattern is that lots of traits are about half genetic and half non-shared environment, with little contribution from shared environment. There is a major embedded assumption in this line of reasoning: that parenting effects are mainly in the shared environment. It turns out that this assumption is not a particularly good one.

A review article on research into the non-shared environment was released about two years ago, and it provides some fascinating data on this subject. I will quote some sections at length, but the entire paper is worth reading. Here is the first excerpt of interest:

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Suffering is Created by Resistance

I got an email a few days ago about a card from one of my Anki decks that says “Suffering is created by resistance.”

I wanted to explain what that statement meant to me. To start, in my mind there is a companion phrase: “Pain is not suffering.” 

Here’s what I’ve written about that statement. I hope it makes sense.

But suffering seemingly exists, and so if pain doesn’t account for it, what does?

This post is a more complete and articulate presentation of the idea that suffering results from conflict between two subsystems. 

And sometimes I do put it that way. I think there’s another card in the same Anki deck that says something about how internal conflict results in suffering. Saying that suffering is created by resistance is a slightly different framing, and one that I think is useful.

Physical suffering is a lot about tensing up, which seems to go along with the framing of suffering being resistance. Suffering comes from wanting the world to be different, and making some mental or physical motion that sort of kind of almost works on the margin but is actually ridiculous.

A very rough idea of how I think our brain works is that we hold in our mind a mental representation of how we want things to be, and then move towards that goal state. It seem to be strongly reinforcing to have our external experience match our internal pictures. But when we resist, we’re trying to hack this system. Like closing our eyes to prevent someone from seeing us.

Or trying to ignore and silence disturbing thoughts because that better fits our mental picture of health and happiness.

Pretending not to be angry because I don’t know what to do with anger. Slumping and having bad posture to dampen my feelings.

All that stuff feels bad, and I would call it resistance.

Feeling Better than Other People

This post will just be a quick note based on a conversation I had with someone recently on the subject of feeling superior to other people. I’ve been there before, as I suspect many people have. If you find yourself simultaneously thinking you’re somehow better than other people and thinking it’s wrong to think that way, here are some distinctions that may make the issue less loaded.

  • The question of how much net value you are providing for the world is a legitimate one, in my opinion. And the answer may be that you’re providing more than most, especially if you’re optimizing for it. 
  • If you’re feeling a sense of entitlement that seems less than pro-social, remember that most things aren’t zero sum. If you want more attention from others, influence in the world, money, etc., that’s legitimate! But these things don’t have to come at other people’s expense.
  • People are pretty different from each other. You may be more intelligent, powerful, aware, etc. than many people. And you are almost certainly less of all the above characteristics than others. It can be polite to ignore differences in ability between people, but there comes a time when you may also want an accurate assessment of where you are. Make it okay to think about these things as objectively as possible when you choose to focus on them. It’s okay that differences exist, and if you try to repress your desire to discern them, you might get messy side effects.. Sometimes these differences have far-reaching implications, and often not. 
  • The capacity to feel respect and compassion for all people is a really important one. Some thinkers say that we get our gut-level feeling of self-worth primarily from recognizing this particular capacity, and this seems plausible to me. Whatever causes you to lose track of this ability is worth reconsidering.

I think I had more thoughts there, but that’s a brief partial brain dump.

Incorporating Training into Management

We have a dog now!

After having read a bunch of books and doing some clicker training with Lydia, I’ve now been doing it with a very food-motivated, very trainable breed of dog. Wow, is it much easier. The dog is totally happy to remain focused on me for dozens of minutes at a time in order to eat tiny pieces of cheese or liver. And he’ll repeat behaviors over and over again. The feedback loop for my own learning is much tighter, though I’m also in a pretty forgiving situation with the dog.

Lydia, primate that she has, has been pretty inclined to imitate both me and the dog during the sessions, but it’s impossible to directly motivate in the way that I do with the dog.

But anyway, those are just some scattered thoughts. What I actually want to write about is training, management, and how and whether to combine them, though my thoughts there are somewhat rambling, still, too.

With the dog, it’s easy to do a dedicated training session that’s pretty long where he can learn useful like skills. The first few days, before he was reliably looking at me when I said his name, coming when I called, going up and down stairs on his own, heading for the lawn when he had to pee or poop, or playing with his toys over other household objects most of the time were difficult. I invested a bunch of time into training each behavior listed above. 

But I also needed to take care of him as I was training him. Good training (of the style that I’ve subscribed to) involves not using cues when they aren’t well-established and not repeating them when the subject doesn’t comply. Fair enough. So I try not to abuse the cues I want to be most reliable, but if Argus is wandering into the living room, possibly to start peeing, when I’m in the kitchen feeding Lydia, it seems like the right call to call him twice if he doesn’t come when I do it once. 

I like the philosophy of shaping and capturing behavior without using lures and prompts. Lots of trainers claim to have anecdotal evidence that it teaches the animal to think for itself more. This makes sense to me. 

But in time-sensitive real-life situations, I find myself using lures and prompts quite a bit. Management can be done mostly with things the animal likes (luring him away from fragile or dangerous stuff with food), mostly with things the animal doesn’t like (yelling at him when he does things I don’t like), or by keeping him physically restrained. Most modern positive dog training books recommend using the crate quite often. I’m not willing to do that. It seems aesthetically wrong, and my intuitions advise against. 

Many people don’t want to take time to do dedicated training with their dogs. They would much rather incorporate training into everyday life. I am willing to do dedicated training, but I want my management techniques to be useful teaching tools as well. And in situations that don’t involve the dog, (Lydia yes, but also everyone I interact with), I want to be teaching in more informal situations.

Here are a few thoughts on how to do it:

  1. Always be on the lookout for behavior I like and be prepared to reward it. That’s the biggest one, and it’s classic advice, but it’s hard to do consistently. Do I usually notice when Argus looks over and decides not to chase Lydia while she’s waving the towel around?
  2. Say the cue you’re trying to teach just as the subject is about to do the thing you’d like. Say “down” when I see Argus lying down on his own. Say “come here!” when I see Lydia coming towards me. With adult humans, this exact thing could get obnoxious, but building compliance by asking for things in situations where people are inclined to agree works. (This can be nefarious, of course, but I have in mind things like asking a roommate to help unload the dishwasher when he’s hanging out in the kitchen anyway.)
  3. If you see behavior you don’t like, be willing to use prompts and lures, but try to transition away from them. When the dog has something that I do need back, I will say give it first, but if he doesn’t do it willingly I’ll put a treat by his nose. Maybe he’s not thinking for himself as much, but he’s catching on. (We do dedicated training of this one also, which I’m sure helps.) If I call Lydia and she doesn’t come over right away, I’m totally willing to do something to attract her attention. I just ordered a clean/dirty sign for the dishwasher for our house. That’s a visual prompt I’m fine using permanently though.
  4. Keep mental notes of things you have to keep managing, and figure something out. One advantage to delaying dedicated training is that lots of issues just go away. Lydia doesn’t chew power cords anymore. I’m not really sure why. The dog seems to slowly be getting over stealing diapers in favor of other activities. But, I can tell it’s going to be useful to have a rock-solid leave it, since he’s still learning what he can and can’t have. We decided to work on clicker training Lydia to relax in the car seat when we realized it might be years before she grew out of hating it.

Anki Cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog

I made some Anki cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog to help me better internalize the material. This deck isn’t intended to be a general overview of the most important concepts–just stuff that seemed important and I didn’t think I already fully understood. Your mileage may vary, but here it is!

Don’t Shoot the Dog.apkg

(Positive and Negative) Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement

I just reread Don’t Shoot the Dog, which I recommend extremely highly. Here’s a good summary, but actually just read the whole thing because it’s worth it. There isn’t a kindle version, but if you google for a pdf that will work.

Anyway, I read Don’t Shoot the Dog a while back, then more recently I’ve been reading tons of stuff about modern dog training since we’re getting a dog this coming weekend (!!!). The stuff I’d been reading recently talked about the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement.

In that context, positive means adding something and negative means taking something away. So, kicking a dog when it did something you didn’t like would be positive punishment. Walking away when the dog did something you didn’t like would be negative punishment. Giving the dog a treat for doing something you liked would be positive reinforcement. Pinching a dog’s ear until it did what you wanted would be negative reinforcement.

And then there’s extinction, which is stopping responding to something that previously worked. That can work too, if the behavior isn’t self-reinforcing. Parents use this when they leave babies to cry themselves to sleep. The baby is crying to attract the parents, so eventually the baby stops crying.

An important message from Don’t Shoot the Dog is that punishment does not reliably work, whether it’s negative or positive punishment. 

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Updated Anki Decks

I used to have a bunch of Anki decks up on the internet, until Posterous stopped hosting the files. I’ve gotten some requests for them to be reuploaded, so here they are!

(Sadly, they’re not updated. I want to cull unnecessary cards because some of these decks are huge and make it so the clozes are done in the Anki 2.0 style, but that would take more time than I had today.)

How to Listen Effectively

I recently had a conversation with a friend about listening that seemed worth writing up.

There are a bunch of things we humans like to do when other people are talking to us. Thinking up what we’re going to say in response is a big one, crunching social rules that we’re afraid of breaking can happen too. Trying to fit what the person is saying into our existing worldview, wondering what we’re going to have for dinner, having a reaction to something it reminded us of…

There’s nothing wrong per se about doing all that stuff, but it is distracting. Sometimes, this doesn’t matter much. Human conversations are often pretty compressible, and it often works out fine to make full use of our autocomplete and use our spare thought cycles elsewhere.

But there’s something else that we can do that involves actually listening to people, and it’s really useful to have that one in your toolkit.

I didn’t used to be able to do it much, at least not on command. People had to be saying something particularly interesting and novel to me to get my full attention, and even then I might not be able to stick with what they were saying.

I’m much better at it now, and I think it’s entirely possible for most people to develop the capacity easily.

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