• Punishing the good

    Should you punish people for wronging others, or for making the wrong call about wronging others?

  • Lafayette: empty traffic signals

    Seeking to cross a road on the walk into downtown Lafayette, instead of the normal pedestrian crossing situation, we met a button with a sign, ‘Push button to turn on warning lights’. I wondered, if I pressed it, would it then be my turn to cross? Or would there just be some warning lights? What was the difference? Do traffic buttons normally do something other than change the lights?

  • Lafayette: traffic vessels

    This week I’m in Lafayette, a town merely twenty-three minutes further from my San Franciscan office than my usual San Franciscan home, thanks to light rail. There are deer in the street and woods on the walk from the train to town.

  • Typology of blog posts that don't always add anything clear and insightful

    I used to think a good blog post should basically be a description of a novel insight.

  • Do incoherent entities have stronger reason to become more coherent than less?

    My understanding is that various ‘coherence arguments’ exist, of the form:

    1. If your preferences diverged from being representable by a utility function in some way, then you would do strictly worse in some way than by having some kind of preferences that were representable by a utility function. For instance, you will lose money, for nothing.
    2. You have good reason not to do that / don’t do that / you should predict that reasonable creatures will stop doing that if they notice that they are doing it.
  • Holidaying and purpose

    I’m on holiday. A basic issue with holidays is that it feels more satisfying and meaningful to do purposeful things, but for a thing to actually serve a purpose, it often needs to pass a higher bar than a less purposeful thing does. In particular, you often have to finish a thing and do it well in order for it to achieve its purpose. And finishing things well is generally harder and less fun than starting them, and so in other ways contrary to holidaying.

  • Coherence arguments imply a force for goal-directed behavior

    Crossposted from AI Impacts

    [Epistemic status: my current view, but I haven’t read all the stuff on this topic even in the LessWrong community, let alone more broadly.]

    There is a line of thought that says that advanced AI will tend to be ‘goal-directed’—that is, consistently doing whatever makes certain favored outcomes more likely—and that this is to do with the ‘coherence arguments’. Rohin Shah, and probably others1 , have argued against this. I want to argue against them.

    The old argument for coherence implying (worrisome) goal-directedness

    I’d reconstruct the original argument that Rohin is arguing against as something like this (making no claim about my own beliefs here):

    • ‘Whatever things you care about, you are best off assigning consistent numerical values to them and maximizing the expected sum of those values’
      ‘Coherence arguments’2 mean that if you don’t maximize ‘expected utility’ (EU)—that is, if you don’t make every choice in accordance with what gets the highest average score, given consistent preferability scores that you assign to all outcomes—then you will make strictly worse choices by your own lights than if you followed some alternate EU-maximizing strategy (at least in some situations, though they may not arise). For instance, you’ll be vulnerable to ‘money-pumping’—being predictably parted from your money for nothing.3
    • ‘Advanced AI will tend to do better things instead of worse things, by its own lights’
      Advanced AI will tend to avoid options that are predictably strictly worse by its own lights, due to being highly optimized for making good choices (by some combination of external processes that produced it, its own efforts, and the selection pressure acting on its existence).
    • ‘Therefore advanced AI will maximize EU, roughly’
      Advanced AI will tend to be fairly coherent, at least to a level of approximation where becoming more coherent isn’t worth the cost.4 Which will probably be fairly coherent (e.g. close enough to coherent that humans can’t anticipate the inconsistencies).
    • ‘Maximizing EU is pretty much the same as being goal-directed’
      To maximize expected utility is to pursue the goal of that which you have assigned higher utility to.5

    And since the point of all this is to argue that advanced AI might be hard to deal with, note that we can get to that conclusion with:

    1. For instance, Richard Ngo agrees here, and Eric Drexler makes a related argument here, section 6.4. 

    2. Something something This has more on these arguments. 

    3. I haven’t read all of this, and don’t yet see watertight versions of these arguments, but this is not the time I’m going to get into that. 

    4. Assuming being ‘more coherent’ is meaningful and better than being ‘less coherent’, granting that one is not coherent, which sounds plausible, but which I haven’t got into. One argument against is that if you are incoherent at all, then it looks to me like you can logically evaluate any bundle of things at any price. Which would seem to make all incoherences identical—much like how all logical contradictions equivalently lead to every belief. However this seems unlikely to predict well how creatures behave in practice if they have an incoherent preferences. 

    5. This isn’t quite right, since ‘goal’ suggests one outcome that is being pursued ahead of all others, whereas EU-maximizing implies that all possible outcomes have an ordering, and you care about getting higher ones in general, not just the top one above all others, but this doesn’t seem like a particularly relevant distinction here. 

  • Animal faces

    [Epistemic status: not reflective of the forefront of human undersetanding, or human understanding after any research at all. Animal pictures with speculative questions.]

    Do the facial expressions of animals mean anything like what I’m inclined to take them to mean?




  • Quarantine variety

    Among people sheltering from covid, I think there is a common thought that being stuck in your home for a year begets a certain sameyness, that it will be nice to be done with.

    It’s interesting to me to remember that big chunk of the variety that is missing in life comes from regular encounters with other people, and their mind-blowing tendencies to do and think differently to me, and jump to different conclusions, and not even know what I’m talking about when I mention the most basic of basic assumptions.

    And to remember that many of those people are stuck in similar houses, similarly wishing for variety, but being somewhat tired of a whole different set of behaviors and thoughts and framings and assumptions.

    Which means that the variety is not fully out of safe reach in the way that, say, a big lick-a-stranger party might be. At least some of it is just informationally inaccessible, like finding the correct answer to a hard math problem. If I could somehow spend a day living like a person stuck in their house across the street lives, I would see all kinds of new things. My home itself—especially with its connection to the internet and Amazon—is capable of vastly more variety than I typically see.

  • Why does Applied Divinity Studies think EA hasn't grown since 2015?

    Applied Divinity Studies seeks to explain why the EA community hasn’t grown since 2015. The observations they initially call the EA community not having grown are:

    1. GiveWell money moved increased a lot in 2015, then grew only slightly since then.
    2. Open Phil (I guess money allocated) hasn’t increased since 2017
    3. Google Trends “Effective Altruism” ‘grows quickly starting in 2013, peaks in 2017, then falls back down to around 2015 levels’.

    Looking at the graph they illustrate with, 1) is because GiveWell started receiving a large chunk of money from OpenPhil in 2015, and that chunk remained around the same over the years, while the money not from Open Phil has grown.

    So 1) and 2) are both the observation, “Open Phil has not scaled up its money-moving in recent years”.

    I’m confused about how this observation seems suggestive about the size of the EA community. Open Phil is not a community small-donations collector. You can’t even donate to Open Phil. It is mainly moving Good Ventures’ money, i.e. the money of a single couple: Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna.

  • Sleep math: red clay blue clay

    To me, going to bed often feels more like a tiresome deprivation from life than a welcome rest, or a painless detour through oblivion to morning. When I lack patience for it, I like to think about math puzzles. Other purposeful lines of thought keep me awake or lose me, but math leads me happily into a world of abstraction, from which the trip to dreamland comes naturally.

    (It doesn’t always work. Once I was still awake after seemingly solving two Putnam problems, which is about as well as I did in the actual Putnam contest.)

    A good puzzle for this purpose should be easy to play with in one’s head. For me, that means it should be amenable to simple visualization, and shouldn’t have the kind of description you have to look at multiple times. A handful of blobs is a great subject matter; an infinite arrangement of algebra is not.

    Recently I’ve been going to sleep thinking about the following puzzle. I got several nights of agreeable sleep out of it, but now I think I have a good solution, which I’ll probably post in future.

    Suppose that you have 1 kg of red clay that is 100 degrees and 1 kg of blue clay that is 0 degrees. You can divide and recombine clay freely. If two pieces of clay come into contact, temperature immediately equilibrates—if you put the 1kg of red clay next to 0.5 kg of blue clay, all the clay will immediately become 66 degrees. Other than that the temperature of the clay doesn’t change (i.e. no exchange with air or your hands, no radiation, etc.). Your goal is to end up with all of the blue clay in a single clump that is as hot as possible. How hot can you make it? (Equivalently: how cold can you make the red clay?)

    HT Chelsea Voss via Paul Christiano

  • Arrow grid game


    There’s something I like about having different systems all the time. Apparently.

  • Remarks on morality, shuddering, judging, friendship and the law

    I lately enjoyed listening to Julia Galef and Jonathan Haidt discuss Haidt’s theorized palate of ‘moral foundations’—basic flavors of moral motivation—and how Julia should understand the ones that she doesn’t naturally feel.

    I was interested in Julia’s question of whether she was just using different words to those who for instance would say that incest or consensual cannibalism are ‘morally wrong’.

    She explained that her earlier guest, Michael Sandel, had asked whether she didn’t ‘cringe’ at the thought of consensual cannibalism, as if he thought that was equivalent to finding it immoral. Julia thought she could personally cringe without morally condemning a thing. She had read Megan McArdle similarly observing that ‘liberals’ claim that incest is moral, but meanwhile wouldn’t befriend someone who practices it, so do in fact morally object after all

  • Coffee trucks: a brilliant idea that someone should do?

    I sometimes wonder if the world should have coffee trucks, like ice cream trucks, roaming the street. Especially when half the population is working from home.

    Coffee seems ideal for this because:

    1. you can probably prepare it fresh in a briefly stopping vehicle,
    2. you don’t need much variety,
    3. people are often flexible about when they get it,
    4. they often like to get it as a short break from work in which they bump into other people,
    5. more than half of the US population consumes it at least once every day, so potential demand is radically higher than for most foodstuffs!
    6. most people don’t have the means to make cafe-quality coffee in their home,
    7. it doesn’t go bad easily
  • Oliver Sipple

    The other day I read Wikipedia arguably too much, and consequently came to know the story of Oliver Sipple. Here’s my summary of the story according to these two Wikipedia pages and this page:

    In the September of 1975, Oliver (‘Billy’) Sipple was an ex-marine of thirty-three, injured in Vietnam and living in San Francisco. He was in and out of the veteran’s hospital, six years into civilian life.

    One afternoon, he stood in a crowd of thousands of people to see the visiting President Gerald Ford leave a San Francisco hotel from across the street. Ford stopped to wave. Suddenly, a shot sounded, and Oliver saw a woman nearby adjusting the aim of her revolver. He lunged and grabbed her arm, sending the second bullet into the hotel, injuring a man inside.

    Oliver was thanked for saving the president, and celebrated as a hero by the media. A heroic veteran.

    Soon the media learned that he was in fact a heroic gay veteran.

  • Neck abacus

    My points for anxiety system continued to help, but was encumbered by the friction of getting my phone out to mark points. Thus I have turned to wearable abaci.

    neclace 1

    necklace 2

    I made this necklace according to very roughly this picture, using knitting wool and beads I bought at one point to use as virtual in-house currency and now found in a box in my room. It works well! The beads don’t shift unless I move them, which is easy and pleasing. It seems clearly more convenient than my phone. (Plus, I can show off to those in the know that I have 4 or 6 or 24 or 26 of something!) I am also for now reminded when I look in a mirror to consider whether I can get a point, which is currently a plus.

  • Training sweetness

    (This is my attempt to summarize the ‘Taste & Shaping’ module in a CFAR 2018 participant handbook I have, in order to understand it better (later version available online here). It may be basically a mixture of their content and my misunderstandings. Sorry for any misunderstandings propagated. I also haven’t checked or substantially experimented with most of this, but it seems so far like a good addition to my mental library of concepts.)

    Some things seem nice, and you just automatically do them (or gravitate toward them), and have to put in effort if you don’t want that to happen. Other things seem icky, and even though maybe you know they are good, you won’t get around to them for months even if they would take a minute and you spend more than that long every week glancing at them and deciding to do them later. (In my own dialect, the former are ‘delicious’. As in, ‘oh goody, my delicious book’).

    How delicious things seem is caused by a kind of estimate by your brain of how good that thing will be for the goals it thinks you have.

    Your brain makes these estimates in a funny way, with some non-obvious features:

  • Remember that to value something infinitely is usually to give it a finite dollar value

    Just an occasional reminder that if you value something so much that you don’t want to destroy it for nothing, then you’ve got to put a finite dollar value on it. Things just can’t be infinitely more important than other things, in a world where possible trades weave everything together. A nice illustration from Arbital:

  • What didn't happen

    I have a secret fiction blog, which I intermittently mean to publish things on, but apparently haven’t now in over ten years, which seems like a reasonable point at which to make it less secret. Here is the start. It’s not very long.

    Here is an excerpt inspired by events leading to my first kiss (names changed, coincidence with name of my later partner coincidental):

    The main argument for believing other people are conscious is that in all other respects they resemble you. Carrie stared tiredly into the crowd of blurs surrounding her and found this argument uncompelling. She couldn’t actually imagine thinking any of the things that had recently been shouted near her, which strengthened the hypothesis that nobody else was thinking them either. Which pressed the question of why someone was simulating this particular reality for her, and what the significance was of a tall man screeching ‘It’s beer pong o clock!’.

  • The ecology of conviction

    Supposing that sincerity has declined, why?

    It feels natural to me that sincere enthusiasms should be rare relative to criticism and half-heartedness. But I would have thought this was born of fairly basic features of the situation, and so wouldn’t change over time.

    It seems clearly easier and less socially risky to be critical of things, or non-committal, than to stand for a positive vision. It is easier to produce a valid criticism than an idea immune to valid criticism (and easier again to say, ‘this is very simplistic - the situation is subtle’). And if an idea is criticized, the critic gets to seem sophisticated, while the holder of the idea gets to seem naïve. A criticism is smaller than a positive vision, so a critic is usually not staking their reputation on their criticism as much, or claiming that it is good, in the way that the enthusiast is.

  • Things a Katja-society might try (Part 2)

    (Part 1)

    1. Carefully structured and maintained arguments for any interesting claims that people believe. For instance, I would like to see the argument for any of the causes generally considered Effective Altruist carefully laid out (I’m not claiming that these don’t exist, just that they aren’t known to me).

    2. A wider variety of accommodations. For instance, you could rent houses in cheap versions of this sort of style:


  • The art of caring what people think

    People care what people think. People often strive to not care what people think. People sometimes appear to succeed.

    My working model though is that it is nearly impossible for a normal person to not care what people think in a prolonged way, but that ‘people’ doesn’t mean all people, and that it is tractable and common to change who falls into this category or who in it is salient and taken to represent ‘people’. And thus it is possible to control the forces of outside perception even as they control you. Which can do a lot of the job of not caring what other people think.

  • In balance and flux

    Someone more familiar with ecology recently noted to me that it used to be a popular view that nature was ‘in balance’ and had some equilibrium state, that it should be returned to. Whereas the new understanding is that there was never an equilibrium state. Natural systems are always changing. Another friend who works in natural management also recently told me that their role in the past might have been trying to restore things to their ‘natural state’, but now the goal was to prepare yourself for what your ecology was becoming. A brief Googling returns this National Geographic article by Tik Root, The ‘balance of nature’ is an enduring concept. But it’s wrong. along the same lines. In fairness, they seem to be arguing against both the idea that nature is in a balance so intense that you can easily disrupt it, and the idea that nature is in a balance so sturdy that it will correct anything you do to it, which sounds plausible. But they don’t say that ecosystems are probably in some kind of intermediately sturdy balance, in many dimensions at least. They say that nature is ‘in flux’ and that the notion of balance is a misconception.

    It seems to me though that there is very often equilibrium in some dimensions, even in a system that is in motion in other dimensions, and that that balance can be very important to maintain.

    Some examples:

    • bicycle
    • society with citizens with a variety of demeanors, undergoing broad social change
    • human growing older, moving to Germany, and getting pregnant, while maintaining a narrow range of temperatures and blood concentrations of different chemicals
  • A great hard day

    (Draft from a while ago, lightly edited.)

    There were times when I was younger that I used to fantasize about having a friend at all, let alone a boyfriend. And there were times when I thought that if I could just figure out how to make life consistently bearable, I’d really be onto something. So when I say how great my life is, it means that hard lives can get a lot better, not that mine is likely to be consistently more awesome than yours (I hope).


    Today was great. I arrived in the world caught in a bundle of sheets with my boyfriend. Half asleep, I decided to wake him up by incrementally escalated cuddling, which I assume is similar in its benefits to those slowly loudening alarms.

  • Evolution from distinction difference

    If we have norms such that each copy of a common behavior must to be a tiny step away from from its parent, rather than a giant step or no step, this would seem to make culture much more amenable to gradient descent via evolution than it otherwise would be.

    Is the latter somehow reason for us seeing the former? For instance, did ancient groups who frowned on really weird people and who felt awkward being too conformist outflourish other groups with their better evolved cultural norms and artifacts?

  • The distinction distance

    People have a strong tendency to be different from one another (e.g. are horrified to be caught in the same dress, find it weird to order the same dishes as their companion without comment or to choose the same art for their living room). Yet they also have a strong tendency to conform.

    These are even in the same areas, and the best behavior seems to be balancing on an edge between the two forces. You don’t want to wear either a dress that someone else is wearing, nor a dress in a style that hasn’t been worn since the 1600s.

  • Massive consequences

    Hypothesis: whenever you make a choice, the consequences of it are almost as likely to be bad as good, because the scale of the intended consequences is radically smaller than the scale of the chaotic unintended effects. (The expected outcome is still as positive as you think, it’s just a small positive value plus a very high variance random value at each step.)

    This seems different from how things are usually conceived, but does it change anything that we don’t already know about?

    Could this be false?

  • Current cryonics impressions

    People around me often sign up for cryonics, and say that it is very important. My guess is that this argument for it, heavily inspired by Waitbutwhy’s much longer piece, as well as years of talking to people around me and reading their blogs, is correct:

    1. One day people will probably live much longer than they do now.

      Probably we will work out how to beat the diseases of aging, as we have many of the infectious diseases. Eventually dying at age 90 of heart disease will seem as much of a needless tragedy as dying of an infection at age 45 does to us now.

    2. One day we will probably be able to ‘freeze’ and usefully thaw organs like brains using vitrification.

      We can already do this with other organs. For instance a rabbit kidney can apparently already be vitrified then warmed up and put back in a rabbit and work.

    3. People can start to successfully evade the diseases of aging as soon as science reaches the freezing part of 2, even if it hasn’t got to the thawing part or to 1 yet. Because once you are vitrified, you can wait quite a long time for further developments.

    4. There is a decent chance that we are already at the freezing part of 2. For instance, a defrosted vitrified rabbit brain apparently appeared to be in good order, though I assume we don’t know how to reattach brains to rabbits, alas.

    5. The chance that we are there on the freezing is high enough that people dying soon (by our current standards of irrevivability) should generally be vitrified instead of burned or buried, if the chance to survive longer is worth the price to them.

    6. You can sign up for something like this at the cost of a not-super-expensive life insurance policy, though I think the more promising techniques at the moment aren’t available yet to purchase.

    I haven’t actually signed up for this, but I might, and if I thought there was a higher chance of me dying sooner, I would get around to figuring it out more urgently. So I thought I’d point it out to others older than me, who might want to think about it more promptly.

    I found Waitbutwhy’s essay on these topics pretty good.

  • Ways of being with you

    Suppose you want to get in touch with your care for someone, or to feel empathy for them. One way is to imagine what it is like to be them, looking out of their eyes and feeling what they are feeling. For instance, if your friend did something frustrating, you might imagine the experience of choosing under pressure that might have led to it, and you might thereby feel warmth toward them and sympathy for their error.

    But I think it is more common to do something else, kind of like imagining them from the outside, but such that their mental content is also somehow accessible.

  • Speaking of the efficiency of utopia

    I noted that it is probably reasonable for people to be wary of things introducing themselves as ‘efficiency’, since maximization of specific metrics has some tendency to go badly.

    On the other hand, ‘efficiency’ doesn’t mean anything about building explicit or quantitative machinery. It just means getting a lot of the desired output per input. So one might wonder why, if these explicit efforts would tend to make things worse for our actual goals, we would pursue efficiency in such ways, and continue to call that ‘efficiency’. For those who think quantitative pursuit of well-defined goals has been a bad strategy overall, shouldn’t ‘efficient daycare’ suggest a daycare where we have used our best intuitions for holistically improving the experience?

  • Covid cafes

    I’m puzzled that during the pandemic so few cafes near me have moved to serving customers outside, by moving their ordering and payment apparatus to the doorway. I’ve seen about five cafes in San Francisco do this (few enough that none are conveniently close).

    (I wanted to include a photo, but I actually just can’t find a picture online, such an obscure idea it is, I guess?)

    Is this harder than it looks to organize? And even if it is for a small business run by a single person without a spare second all year to think about aerosols or reorganize, I’m still surprised that Starbucks doesn’t have its act together more.

  • Elephant seal 2

  • Feedback for learning

    I wish there were better (or more known to me) quantitative tests of skills that are good for me to have. I often find learning things when there is tight feedback pretty fun. For instance, I play geography and history quizzes on Sporcle with an addictive vigor, and enjoy learning various languages on Duolingo, and various facts via Anki. I used to memorize poetry from the bathroom walls. But none of these seems that useful (in Anki I mostly learn about famous art and art movements). And meanwhile, I fail to know all manner of things that would be good to know, and forget most of what I read. (For instance, I’d like to know many more details of machine learning, how the US government works, and what happened in most of history, and I wish I remembered the details of The Precipice or The Better Angels of our Nature or even War and Peace—which I haven’t read much of, substantially because I keep losing track of what is going on or who the characters are.)

  • Oceans of snails

    Somehow while knowing that a) ‘sea snail’ was a concept, and b) beaches were strewn with sea shells, which involve various snail-reminiscent spirals, I failed to reach the stunning conclusion that the oceans are substantially inhabited by these kinds of characters:

  • Play with neural net

    I found Tensorflow Playground pretty cool to play with, in case anyone is looking for the kind of intuitive understanding of neural nets that futzing with a thing with one’s hands contributes to.

    Tensorflow playground

    One game you can play is pretending to be a training algorithm. How would you adjust the weights, if you wanted to classify which of two spirals a point comes from?

  • Top li'l pots

    I am a connoisseur of a certain genre of mostly-snack food, combining aesthetics, convenience and the idiosyncratic types of actual food that I like to eat (central examples of food whose substance I like, ignoring form, are parsley, farro, black lentils, pecans, craisins, dark chocolate, feta cheese, swedish crispbread, cream, ginger, brown or raw sugar on its own. Central non-examples are cinnabons, most cereals, cheetos, milk chocolate, cheese-flavored anything, pea protein, Coca-Cola, parmesan cheese, sweet potatos, spinach, beyond burgers.)

    Here is a list of some of the best li’l pot style foods I have come across so far (not all literally in small pots). Links for illustration, not guaranteed to be value-for-money instances.

  • Unpopularity of efficiency

    I feel like ‘efficiency’ is often scowled at. It is associated with factories and killing and commercialization, and people who are no fun. Things are openly criticized for being oriented toward efficiency. Nobody hopes to give their children an efficient childhood or asks for an efficient Valentine’s day, unless they want to get it over with. I expect wariness in listeners at talk of efficient charity.

    This intrigues me, because in what I take to be its explicit definition, ‘efficiency’ is almost the definition of goodness manifest. The efficiency of a process is the rate with which it turns what you have into what you want.

  • What is up with spirituality?

    What is up with spirituality? I mean, from an atheistic perspective?

    In my experience, atheists tend to focus on the empirical question of whether there is an all-powerful supernatural creature behind all that we observe. And yeah, there probably isn’t.

    But having won that point, what does one make of the extreme popularity of religion? I think the usual answer given is something like ‘well, we used to be very ignorant and not have good explanations of natural phenomena, plus we tend to see agents in everything because our agent detection software is oversensitive’.

    Which might explain the question ‘Why would people think a supernatural agent controls things?’. But what seems like only a corner of religion.

    Another big part of religion—and a thing that also occurs outside religion—seems to be ‘spirituality’—a cluster of things I find hard to describe, but which seem pretty disconnected from explanatory questions of where trees came from or why the crops failed.

  • Wordtune review

    Wow, Facebook is advertising an AI-driven writing tool to me. I think this is the first time I’ve seen a mainstream potentially useful product coming from all of this. Let’s see how it does. I’ve started by writing this paragraph quickly myself, and then I will rewrite it using Wordtune, to demonstrate its features. Then I may rewrite it further using its premium features or my more honed writing, all going well.

  • Tentative covid surface risk estimates

    My household previously made some highly uncertain estimates of the covid risk from bringing random objects that other people have recently been touching into our home, for instance salads and groceries an endless stream of Amazon packages. The official guidance is very vague, e.g. “…not thought to be the main way the virus spreads”. Our bad estimates were fairly low, so we decided to basically ignore it in our covid risk accounting, except for habitually taking some reasonable precautions.

    Then the covid rates here increased by a factor of ten, so we decided it would be good to look at it again.

    So today I tried to estimate this from this paper (HT Ben Weinstein-Raun and Catherine Olsson) in which a group of researchers swabbed various door handles and trash cans and crosswalk buttons and the like in a small Massachusetts city and measured the covid RNA detectable on them. They also used the amounts they measured to estimate the infectiousness if someone else were to touch the surface and then touch their face.

    Here I offer you a draft of an elaborate Guesstimate spreadsheet on the topic, in case you are interested in such things.

  • Li'l pots

    As a pandemic-era purchaser of foods for a large household of time-thirsty researchers, I can tell you an interesting thing about the demand for cheese in this context:

    1. If you spend a lot of money on a nice cheese, wrapped up in some fancy foreign label, there is a good chance that it will languish sadly in the back of the fridge for months until someone notices that it is moldy and throws it away, or makes a last-ditch attempt to cut up the whole thing and compel the group to eat it. Maybe on the way there, someone will take a single slice of it once, and move it in a zip-loc bag, where it will remain until the end.

    2. If you spend a few dollars on a six-pack of generic single-serve cheese-cubes with nuts, they will fly from the fridge and you will be acknowledged for this triumph of shopping, and more such cheese will be needed by the next grocery order.

  • Who should you expect to spend your life with?

    Striking things about the figure below, which I got from Our World in Data, on time use [edit: oops, all only known to be true in America]:

    • People spend increasing time alone over their whole lives, with the exception of roughly their twenties. This surprises me a bit because it seems like people like spending time with other people, and I would expect them to increasingly succeed at it with experience and time to acquire partners and families and friends.
    • From 31 to 45, people spend more time with children1 on average than they spend with any other category of person, including for instance partners and colleagues.
    • You might think all this children time would be substituting for some partner time, but as the children time swoops downward by three quarters, partner time stays about the same.
    • People are at a relationship-time-steady-state between about thirty and sixty. I imagine that many people start relationships in that time, so does that mean that they also stop them at about the same rate, or gradually reduce time with their partners at a rate matching others’ forming of new relationships? Are people radically less likely to start relationships after about thirty?
    • People spend broadly decreasing time with every group except their partner over time, from some early peak for each trend—in the teenage years for friends and family, and in the 20s and 30s for colleagues and children. I wonder how many people just like being alone and with their partners more than most other options, and steadily optimize for that, once they have been sociable enough to find a partner in their early years.
    • Coworker time peaks at age 25-30 and goes slowly downward before the retirement descent. Is that from people dropping out of the workforce? Earning themselves a nice private office? Some difference between junior and senior roles?
    • People spend fairly consistent time with their friends after a decline from 18 to 40. Retirement doesn’t increase it. Spending three hours a day fewer with children doesn’t increase it. I guess those things go to solitude.

    In other news, Our World In Data seems awesome.

    1. I’m guessing that this means ‘any children’ rather than ‘their own children’, because the rate for 15 year olds seems high 

  • What if we all just stayed at home and didn't get covid for two weeks?

    I keep thinking about how if at any point we were all able to actually quarantine for two weeks1 at the same time, the pandemic would be over.

    Like, if instead of everyone being more or less cautious over a year, we all agreed on single a two week period to hard quarantine. With plenty of warning, so that people had time to stock up on groceries and do anything important ahead of time. And with massive financial redistribution in advance, so that everyone could afford two weeks without work. And with some planning to equip the few essential-every-week-without-delay workers (e.g. nurses, people keeping the power on) with unsustainably excessive PPE.

    This wouldn’t require less total risky activity. If we just managed to move all of the risky activity from one fortnight to the one before it, then that would destroy the virus (and everyone could do as many previously risky activities as they liked in the following fortnight!). It could be kind of like the Christmas week except twice as long and the government would pay most people to stay at home and watch movies or play games or whatever. Maybe the TV channels and celebrities could cooperate and try to put together an especially entertaining lineup.

    How unrealistic is this? It sounds pretty unrealistic, but what goes wrong?

    1. Or however long it takes a person to reliably stop spreading covid, after contracting it. 

  • Thoughts on the inner ring

    I enjoyed C. S. Lewis’ The Inner Ring, and recommend you read it. It basically claims that much of human effort is directed at being admitted to whatever the local in-group is, that this happens easily to people, and that it is a bad thing to be drawn in to.

    Some quotes, though I also recommend reading the whole thing:

    In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.

  • On fundamental solitude

    A quote from Aldous Huxley that has stuck in my mind more than perhaps any other over the years:

    “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”

    I used to be fairly troubled by this kind of thought. These days I’m more inclined to think of memories of myself, my own writing from yesterday, my sense of a person in my arms, words vibrating my inner ears as light bounces between someone’s eyes and mine, words reaching me across the internet from a stranger, barely understandable lines from thousand year old pages, as more of a piece—physical communications between scattered consciousness. All interpreted with more or less insight and confidence and detail and sense of being an ‘experience’ and not just ‘information’, depending on the quality and nature of the message. But my ‘imagining’ of your mental state, and my ‘knowing’ of my own are both guesses. The sense that they are different is a pragmatic, superficial, quantitative one, not the symptom of a deep metaphysical separation.

  • Public selves

    A question that I return to in life strategy is whether to lean heavily on ‘spending one’s weirdness points wisely’—otherwise put, cowering lonely behind a cardboard cutout of the most forgettable person while proffering optimized propaganda through carefully selected slots—or whether to offer the world a fuller view of oneself.

    A few arguments as I see them:

    • Hiding allows you to be strategic, showing anything that is good to show, hiding anything that is not. Surely that is better then than any alternative, that must involve showing things that are bad to show, or not showing things that are good to show?
    • Not necessarily! People can tell which strategy you are using, and usually the things that are ‘bad to show’ are bad for you to show, but other people would be perfectly interested to see them. So it is less cooperative, and people may respond to that, which may on a longer term view be bad for you.
    • Also, which strategy you are enacting overall, or what you are doing in the past or future, can change whether something is good or bad to share. For instance, maybe you have personal problems that it would be both nice to have in the open, and helpful for others to know that you also face. If you are usually open about things, mentioning these might be no big deal, and so worth it on net. Whereas if you tend to be private, then suddenly announcing a personal problem will seem like a bigger deal, so the costs might outweigh the benefits.
    • There is something good about actually knowing other people - being part of a global intellectual society of real people, not of robotic fictions created by people. Being open contributes to this world being actual.

    There are intermediate options too, of course. Are there good principled ones?

    What considerations am I missing?

  • Are the consequences of groups usually highly contingent on their details?

    How much of the impact of an organization is covered by it being ‘a group of size M working on X’, relative to the specifics of how and what they do in working on X? What if we also include a single scale of how functional they are?

  • What is going on in the world?

    Here’s a list of alternative high level narratives about what is importantly going on in the world—the central plot, as it were—for the purpose of thinking about what role in a plot to take:

  • Meditative thinking

    I got fairly into meditation in 2018. Not in a way where you do a huge amount of meditation, or seek guidance on how to do meditation well, or on whether what you are doing is meditation at all. I don’t think I even graduated from doing meditation largely in five minute bouts. I just really dug a set of mental things which seemed related to meditation. I was riding an ethos. I suppose meditation was a particularly namable point in the space, but not obviously the most exciting part of it, so I ended up being pretty excited about ‘meditation…?’ while not actually meditating that much.

    I also remained so ignorant about meditation traditions and previous human meditation experience that you might doubt that I’m talking about the same thing. (I did talk to other people a little, and did about five guided meditations, which seemed like a different kind of thing anyway, but also very awesome.)

    With that said, here’s a kind of meditation I made up. I call it, ‘meditative thinking’. In it, you do all the stuff you would usually do while meditating: be in a meditation-conducive position (I do lying on my back, which I hear is a bad idea, but it is very comfy); set a meditation timer with bells at the start and end (mine also makes water sounds between them, but this probably isn’t crucial); close your eyes; be aware of your breathing; then just go on being aware of stuff in a conspicuously conscious way. But before all this, choose a question to think about. And then, once meditating, think about the question. Maintain the same mental stance as you normally would meditating, insofar as that makes sense. Be aware of your breathing, and your awareness, and your thinking. If you stop thinking about the question, gently bring your awareness back to it.

    I still find this good. Though it’s possible that it gets much of its benefit from being a ritualistic way to actually think about a question for five or ten minutes without reflexively opening Facebook because thinking doesn’t correspond to a tab or occupy one’s hands.

  • San Francisco outing

    PXL_20201223_202446423 PXL_20201223_202723913 PXL_20201223_202241573

  • Discussion on the choice of concepts

    “The reason that you can currently make toast without doing great damage is just that your toaster is stupid.”

    “Can ‘stupid’ be correctly applied to toasters?”


    “What if I say no?”

    “Well, if you have a conception of stupidity that can’t be applied to toasters, and one that can, why would you choose the one that can’t?”

    “But I don’t have two—I’m talking about the actual concept”

    “There isn’t an actual concept, there are a bajillion concepts, and you can use whichever one you want.”

    “There’s one that people mean”

    “Not really—each person has a slightly different usage, and probably hasn’t pinned it down. For instance if you ask them if toasters are stupid, they might be unsure.”

    “Yes! They are unsure because they are trying to guess what the real concept is, from their limited collection of exposures to it. If it were about making one up, why would they be uncertain?”

    “They might be uncertain which one they want to make up”

  • What's good about haikus?

    Fiction often asks its readers to get through a whole list of evocative scenery to imagine before telling them anything about the situation that might induce an interest in what the fields and the flies looked like, or what color stuff was. I assume that this is fun if you are somehow more sophisticated than me, but I admit that I don’t enjoy it (yet).

  • A vastly faster vaccine rollout

    When a traveler introduced smallpox to New York City in 1947, the city—and in particular its health commissioner, Israel Weinstein—apparently ran an epic vaccination campaign, reaching 5 million people in the first two weeks.1 That is, four hundred thousand vaccinations per day. San Francisco in two days.

    For covid, the first New York City vaccine was given on the 14th of December, and if I understand, by the 10th of January, twenty seven days later, 203,181 doses had reportedly been given. That’s around eight thousand doses per day. A factor of fifty fewer.

    1. My information about this is all from the New York Times, Wikipedia, and the Rachel Maddow Show 

  • The time I got really into poker

    One time I decided it would be good to learn to play poker. I had probably learned to play some form of poker a couple of other times before, and forgotten. One way to play a game a lot is to play it with a computer rather than other people. An iPad turns Agricola from one of the slowest games that casual board gamers might still be bothered to play to something you can play a few quick rounds of over lunch. I downloaded some kind of poker app, and began. It was maybe 9pm, and I was maybe sitting on my bed, in maybe Berkeley. My memories are pretty unclear. The app was green I think, like some kind of casino table.

  • A different dictionary

    I enjoyed James Somers account (HT Liron Shapira) of how Webster’s dictionary used to be much more beautiful than dictionaries today, for instance:

    “…Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.”

    Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface .”

    Who decided that the American public couldn’t handle “a soft and fitful luster”? I can’t help but think something has been lost. “A soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface” doesn’t just sound worse, it actually describes the phenomenon with less precision. In particular it misses the shimmeriness, the micro movement and action, “the fitful luster,” of, for example, an eye full of tears — which is by the way far more intense and interesting an image than “a wet sidewalk.”

  • Why not? potato chips in a box edition

    In reviewing my year I came across these photos of a box of potato chips I took in January on a plane. I took them because it seemed so much better to me than chips in a bag:

  • Condition-directedness

    In chess, you can’t play by picking a desired end of the game and backward chaining to the first move, because there are vastly more possible chains of moves than your brain can deal with, and the good ones are few. Instead, chess players steer by heuristic senses of the worth of situations. I assume they still back-chain a few moves (‘if I go there, she’ll have to move her rook, freeing my queen’) but just leading from a heuristically worse to a heuristically better situation a short hop away.

  • Evening drawing

    This evening I became tempted by a YouTube video of an artist painting a portrait, which led me to be tempted by another such video, and then more of them, and then by one of these artists’ websites, and then by my own pencils and paper. (I did not become tempted by YouTube videos advertising breaking news of some sort of crazy Trump riot, since I decided not to ‘check the internet’ until bed time).

    Some observations on drawing:

  • Centrally planned war

    We watched Dunkirk, and wondered how many military deaths are for reasons more of logistics than of facing the enemy. Probably lots - we have heard that war is made of colossal logistical feats, so probably they often fail, and often lives depend on them.

  • Intended enjoyment

    I am sometimes unsure what is meant to be enjoyed in things, for instance the short story The Gioconda Smile, or In the mood for love which people often enjoy a lot. Which seems like it shouldn’t be a problem, as long as I find something to enjoy in them. But it also seems like I would be seriously missing something if I was buying bags of coffee all these years just to appreciate the thick, substantive quality of the paper bag between my teeth as I chewed it. How many of my enjoyments are like this?

  • Review: The Gioconda Smile

    (Spoiler alert: discusses entire plot of The Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley)

    I’ve been reading short stories lately, which are often confusing to me, and I frequently wish that the author resolved the actual tension and relieved my actual curiosity more, by including some sort of short note at the end on what they were even trying to do.

    With that said, I read Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile, and was somewhat confused by it. I mean, it was a story. But since I got it from ‘50 Great Short Stories…a comprehensive selection from the world’s finest short fiction’, I’m expecting it to be somehow surpassingly great.

  • On writing like a butterfly

    I thought it would be interesting to try to write my review of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly in my head without setting pen to paper until the end, and to convey at least some of it by blinking, since I find the fact that the author wrote the whole book in this way astonishing. Perhaps experiencing that process myself would improve my understanding of things, such that I wouldn’t be astonished.

    I think trying to do this was an even better exercise than I expected, though by the end I was frustrated to the point of tears, and I’m still feeling kind of annoyed, having just put it up.

  • Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

    I suspect my mind of taking its observations of a person’s physical energy and dexterity as strong evidence about their mental quickness and clarity.

    The existence and the wrongness of this presumption were brought into relief for me by reading Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, on his life with locked-in syndrome. Because realizing that the author’s lively and intelligent voice was issued from a single blinking eye looking out of a mostly inert body felt like seeing a magic trick.

  • Mistakes to want

    The end of the year is a classic time for reflecting on the year. And a classic part of reflecting is noticing mistakes you have made. I admit that I don’t relish this: having made mistakes, admitting to them, and looking at them further all pain me, and I find it hard to call things mistakes. It’s because to make a mistake would seem to be to make the world worse than it could have been, and thus to indelibly reduce the total goodness of the universe at the end of time, which feels like a big deal and the worst (only?) evil.

  • Seeing the edge of the world

    A nice thing about looking at the ocean that I noticed today is that it is unusually easy to interpret the view as a close up of the edge of a giant wet ball of rock in space, and thus to more compellingly visualize the fact that I live on one of those, and some of all that that entails.

    The Pacific Ocean where I am got dark, so here’s the Norwegian Sea 2.5 years ago to illustrate: Norwegian sea, probably

  • Desires as film posters

    Sometimes I like to think of desires as like film posters. You come across them, and they urge you to do something, and present it in a certain way, and induce some inclination to do it. But film posters are totally different from films. If you like a film poster, you don’t have to try to see the film. There is no metaphysical connection between the beauty of a film poster and the correctness of you seeing the film. It’s some evidence, but you have other evidence, and you get to choose. A film poster can be genuinely the most beautiful film poster you’ve ever seen, without the film being a worthwhile use of two hours. That’s largely an orthogonal question. If you put up the poster on your wall and look at it lovingly every day, and never see the film, that doesn’t need to be disappointing—it might be the best choice, and you might be satisfied in choosing it.

  • Measuring up to incredible potential

    Yesterday I wrote that people often talk as if events are basically determined by people’s values and capabilities, ignoring the difficulty of figuring out which opportunities to take, or even noticing opportunities.

    I think one reason to have a better model is that this one doesn’t account for a substantial category of felt difficulty in being a human, possibly encouraging a general sense that one is ubiquitously failing, what with not seeming to be demonstrably grabbing the best of a vast multitude of possible options at each moment.

  • Infinite possibilities

    Naively, for instance from the perspective of me as a child, it seems like a person has vastly many possible options at each moment, leading out in every direction, where many of them surely lead to amazing things, and thus it should be very easy to have an incredibly great life and make a huge positive difference to the world.

  • An open Christmas card to my stepfather

    Julafton, Carl Larson

    Happy Christmas!

    I made you a link post of things you might find interesting on the internet. (Please don’t feel obliged to look at them!)

    Lots of love, Katja oxo


    (Picture: Christmas Eve, by Carl Larson, 1904-5)

  • An open Christmas card to my brothers

    candy canes nyc

    Dear Brothers,

    Happy Christmas! I made you a list of things you might like on the internet. I won’t tell you which of you any was intended for, so feel especially free to skip any that don’t look interesting.

    Love, Katja


    (Picture: nearing Christmas in New York 2017)

  • Open Christmas card to my father

    Our christmas tree

    Dear Daddy,

    Merry Christmas! I got you a list of things on the internet I thought you might find interesting. No obligation to look at them. (Many things I’ve enjoyed lately are old or about history, so there’s a good chance that you have seen them or seen much better things, but oh well.)

    Lots of love from Katja oxo


    (Picture: our Christmas tree)

  • Open Christmas card to my mother

    Geboorte van Christus, Robert van den Hoecke, after Jan van den Hoecke, 1632 - 1668

    Dear Mama,

    Happy Christmas!

    Rather than be so bold as to give you a further object to take care of, I gathered for you a collection of things I think you might like on the internet. I CC the world, in case they are interested, or want to add anything.

    Lots of love, Katja xox


    (Picture: Geboorte van Christus, Robert van den Hoecke, after Jan van den Hoecke, 1632 - 1668)

  • Moral moralizing

    Most people get their ethics from a combination of trusting what is normally done in their society and doing what they feel is right.

    It seems to me that this has been utterly discredited as a reliable source of ethical advice, because it is the same one that recommended to the average person slavery as labor, and genocide as standard geopolitical strategy, and rape as prize, and torture as entertainment.

  • What is food like?

    I have an Anki1 deck of things I feel like a failure regarding. Instead of each card having a question that I see if I can remember the answer to, it has a potentially shameful thing that I see if I still feel bad about. Each time I look at one, as well as marking it correct to the extent that I no longer feel bad about it, I briefly do a little bit to make it better. (Learn about the thing I’m embarrassed to not know about, practice the skill that I don’t have, think about whether it’s a real problem, etc). My sense is that one can often feel bad about something for a long time which one could alternatively make marked progress on in a very short time.

    1. A spaced repetition flashcard system 

  • Elephant seal

    Elephant seal

  • Opposite attractions

    Is the opposite of what you love also what you love?

    I think there’s a general pattern where if you value A you tend to increase the amount of it in your life, and you end feeling very positively about various opposites of A—things that are very unlike A, or partially prevent A, or undo some of A’s consequences—as well. At least some of the time, or for some parts of you, or in some aspects, or when your situation changes a bit. Especially if you contain multitudes.


  • Thesauring

    Sometimes I really enjoy opening a thesaurus. I don’t know why. It’s just a moment of opening it, anticipating feeling around amongst the meanings of different words, weighing their rightnesses, which seems like a kind of heavenliness, sometimes. I think it was better in 2018, and now I’m mostly remembering that.

  • Genetic magic

    23andMe are now willing to guess where one’s ancestors are from at the level of counties. For instance, as well as thinking I have 19% Swedish ancestry, they now guess that it is primarily from Västra Götaland County. Which is in fact where my current Swedish relatives cluster. Their guesses in Ireland center on Cork, with Limerick and Tipperary next door 4th and 8th most likely (of 26 counties), and those two are where the few 17th-19th Century relatives I know about seem to have come from in Ireland, so that also seems pretty good.


    Much as I believe all that stuff about one’s body being full of cells that contain genetic code that is shared by one’s relatives, and about historic movement and mixing of populations being low, it’s awesome to actually see someone take a fairly good guess at what part of what country your obscure relatives lived hundreds of years ago by examining your spit.

  • Some things I'm looking forward to in 2021: probable post-pandemic edition

    1. Fewer deaths all around
    2. A giant party at my house
    3. A portion of the research I feel bad about not doing just becoming irrelevant (e.g. what’s the evidence about surfaces now? Are we badly underestimating the harms of long covid?)
    4. Leaving my house in an unprepared fashion and seeing where it takes me
    5. Whatever it was that I used to do in places other than my house, that I actually can’t seem to remember or explicitly pinpoint and plan from a distance, but which I vaguely miss (possibly this is basically just 4)
    6. Seeing friends who live in faraway places such as Berkeley
    7. Going on a cross-country train and embracing the general lack of hygiene and space
    8. Seeing non-household friends without inadvertently spending a fraction of my attention on air dynamics and mask stability
    9. The stakes of everyday personal choices being lowered enough that people being thoughtless or foolish isn’t a critical threat to friendliness, harmony or anyone’s life
    10. Helping the economy of restaurants and cafes recover
  • What is it good for? But actually?

    I didn’t learn about history very well prior to my thirties somehow, but lately I’ve been variously trying to rectify this. Lately I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, listening to Steven Pinker’s the Better Angels of Our Nature, watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary about the Vietnam War and watching Oversimplified history videos on YouTube (which I find too lighthearted for the subject matter, but if you want to squeeze extra history learning in your leisure and dessert time, compromises can be worth it.)

    There is a basic feature of all this that I’m perpetually confused about: how has there been so much energy for going to war?

  • The wild

    The idea of art about nature doesn’t sound exciting to me in the abstract. Perhaps I remember that I am evolutionarily supposed to see it and go, ‘oh fantastic, it’s green and blue near each other, maybe I’m in for some reproductive success’, and that doesn’t sound very inspiring. (Yes, I know that simple evolutionary situations can feel inspiring from the inside.)

  • Blog plant

    I like to have plants in honor of things I’ve done. I’m not consistent or proportionate about it, and admittedly I also have quite a few plants that I intend to be in honor of things I haven’t yet done. But now that this blog has apparently functional comments and images and analytics, as well as words on pages on the internet, I declare it fully bloggy, and my effort to make a blog complete. Here’s my blog plant:


    I welcome perspectives on good marginal improvements toward WSSP being a pleasing blog to interact with. (I’m aware that the subscription possibilities are not as salient as they could be.) It is a static site made using Jekyll and kept on Github, with its comments looked after by Disqus and its analytics by Google and its pictures by Photobucket.

  • Why quantitative methods are heartwarming

    From Twitter:

  • The institution of email

    There seems to be a common phenomenon where people get messages, then fail to respond to them, then feel bad. And the rarer strategy of actually dealing with all of one’s emails promptly doesn’t even seem obviously better. Was that how things were with letters or telegrams? Is it just that there are so many messages now, because they are easy to send?

    Could email, say, have gone a different way?

  • Flights of wonder

    Today I put up the last page in AI Impacts’ (primarily Ronny Fernandez’s) investigation into how human-made flying machines compare to evolved ones. (Relevant to how we expect human efforts to build minds to compare to evolved minds.) Evolution mostly won.

    Some other interesting things I learned in the process of editing this:

  • Unexplored modes of language

    English can be communicated via 2D symbols that can be drawn on paper using a hand and seen with eyes, or via sounds that can be made with a mouth and heard by ears.

    These two forms are the same language because the mouth sounds and drawn symbols correspond at the level of words (and usually as far as sounds and letters, at least substantially). That is, if I write ‘ambition’, there is a specific mouth sound that you would use if converting it to spoken English, whereas if you were converting it to spoken French, there might not be a natural equivalent.

  • Walk to a San Francisco FedEx

    Today I had three work projects so close to done that I might be able to put something up on each, which would usually encourage work enthusiasm. But when I started on the first, I was struck by a strong inclination to stop and do something else. I didn’t immediately, but the inclination remained. And such inclinations make work worse in themselves, because when each new sentence or next motion engenders a little flinch away from it, the whole thing gets so slow and encumbered and hard to concentrate on that it makes sense to be repelled by it. And the thought of moving to the next little bit on the other projects seemed similarly distasteful.

  • Why are delicious biscuits obscure?

    I saw a picture of these biscuits (or cookies), and they looked very delicious. So much so that I took the uncharacteristic step of actually making them. They were indeed among the most delicious biscuits of which I am aware. And yet I don’t recall hearing of them before. This seems like a telling sign about something. (The capitalist machinery? Culture? Industrial food production constraints? The vagaries of individual enjoyment?)


  • What it really looks like

    Near Sutro Tower</blockquote>

    A photograph taken during a discussion of how photographs often fail to capture scenes.

    It seems to me that photos often don’t capture what the photographer saw in the scene (perhaps especially if the photographer isn’t really a photographer). But it’s kind of amazing that I think of this as ‘the photograph failed to capture what it was really like’, rather than ‘my perception failed to capture what it was really like, as evidenced by this photograph’!

  • Cultural accumulation

    When I think of humans being so smart due to ‘cultural accumulation’, I think of lots of tiny innovations in thought and technology being made by different people, and added to the interpersonal currents of culture that wash into each person’s brain, leaving a twenty year old in 2020 much better intellectually equipped than a 90 year old who spent their whole life thinking in 1200 AD.

  • Distanced Christmas book celebration

    I attended a friend’s wedding this year, that was in the form of a play which everyone was sent in book form, to read at the same time from different places. There were various interactive interludes, including phone calls with strangers I had been algorithmically matched with, and a big group Zoom. I liked it.

    When I was a child, I had a ‘Christmas book’ that I liked, with lots of different nice things in it, like stories about the nativity, and about the Christmas ceasefire in World War I, and songs, and instructions for making foods and decorations, and descriptions of Christmas in other places.

  • How to unhurriedly take a short time?

    Everything I do feels hurried. And yet if I don’t hurry, everything I do takes forever. Is there some outside the box alternative that other people do? (Aside from least-bad compromises between the two?)

  • The Milkmaid

    The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

    The Milkmaid, by Johannes Vermeer.

    I have had a soft spot for Vermeer, the 17th Century Dutch artist, ever since I was compelled to write about him in high school, and I especially like this painting. I think it’s a particularly good example of how his painting of textures makes them seem almost supernaturally pleasing. I wouldn’t usually think of myself as a huge fan of textures. But here—the seed encrusted bread looks so crisp and solid, I can imagine the sound of my hand knocking some seeds off as I pick it up, or the thud of the loaf if I tapped it.

  • Inbox zero day

    Today I spent the entire day emptying my main work email inbox of all its emails, many of which had lived there for years. Apparently it was last empty around when I got that email in early 2014. I had committed to someone that I would archive anything left in that account without reading it at 10:30 tonight, and thereby give up on getting to it. And I wanted to at least glance at things. The point of all this was to not have the ever-present sense of a giant backlog of things I am supposed to deal with, of which mounds of non-given-up-on emails are one piece. (Another option would be to just give up on everything that was ever pending, but I’m not quite up for it.)

  • Points for anxiety

    I have an intermittently crippling anxiety disorder, so I recently started trying a new kind of therapy to mitigate it. I’ve been finding sufficiently great so far that even if it doesn’t work long term I will probably think it was worth it. So I’ll tell you about it.

    It is based on Reid Wilson’s ideas, I think as described in his book, though I haven’t read it and most of my understanding comes from my therapist, my friend who also does this, and a set of humorous videos on Reid Wilson’s website.

    Here is the practice, as I practice it:

  • Sincerity trends

    I have the impression that sincerity, earnestness and straightforward conviction used to be more popular flavors of attitude and have been replaced (at least in the public sphere) by more self-conscious, ironic, critical, half-hearted, cool type attitudes. I went hiking with a friend today, and he mentioned the same impression (though I may have got mine from him), and we speculated about the reasons.

    Does everyone share this impression? Over what time-scales? Do we have good explanations?

  • Another point of view on the details

    This morning my boyfriend and I did an activity where he followed me around for a couple of hours and observed as I started the day and did some tasks. (I’ve also done something like that before with a friend who was trying out anthropology.) I suggested it this time because I often find it enlightening to hear an outside perspective on things that I do, and his in particular. And it seems rarer to hear about the details and tactics, versus very high level questions: I often know what projects another person thinks are good, but rarely know what they would do if they got an email asking to hang out from an acquaintance, or if they were feeling antsy, or how they would decide where to start on the project in question, or when to stop.

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a 1996 taste datapoint

    My household watched the 1996 Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame recently. A notable thing about it to me was that the humor seemed in such poor taste. Which made me wonder, was 1996 just culturally different? Slapstick humor includes an emaciated old man imprisoned in a cylindrical cage tumbling over and over while someone runs on top of it, before he escapes, only to accidentally fall into some stocks. Ha! During a song, romantic rivals are jovially represented as hanging in the gallows. Various jokes are made around two men being sentenced to hanging without trial or ability to speak (‘any last words? didn’t think so’). Maybe I’m wrong that this would all seem weird to current viewers, and instead I’m just out of touch.

  • No need to refrigerate

    If you are wondering whether a food needs refrigerating, you look at the label until you either see an instruction to refrigerate it, or have looked at the label enough to exclude the possibility of it containing that instruction somewhere. This seems clearly worse worse than the label just always saying whether or not the food needs refrigerating, so the procedure terminates as soon as you find that sentence.

    It’s only a tiny bit worse—only a few seconds are at stake each time—but it is so clearly worse, it is interesting to me that it remains in the worse state.

  • Air walls and empty currents

    There is an experience archetype in my world that goes like this: you have been carefully navigating around a landscape of walls, or inching forward against an overwhelming current. Intently battling hard obstacles. Then you tentatively try walking right into a wall, and realize that they are all actually just air, and you can just walk straight through them. Or you find a turn of mind where you can just stand up straight against the wrenching current—not through huge effort and force, but through the current suddenly losing all physical relevance to your free motions.

    Is this familiar? What circumstances are like this?

  • Salience costs and other lives

    Alice has a car that can only drive at 65mph.

    Bob has a car that can drive at 70mph.

    Every time they both drive 70 miles to the city, Alice spends almost five extra minutes driving.

    When Bob’s car breaks down, he borrows Alice’s car. Driving it, he constantly has his foot on the accelerator, to no avail. The visceral slowness is encumbering and distracting. He spends more than an hour overcome with frustration, plus that extra five minutes driving.

    Bob finds it hard to believe that Alice puts up with this, and supposes she must be really struggling in life, or making errors of judgment, if she hasn’t got a new car already.


    There are many ways that you can fail to appreciate how bad other people’s problems are. But I think you can also systematically fail to appreciate how bad they aren’t, for the person. What is salient in moving from your world to theirs is not necessarily salient in theirs, so when most of the cost is from the salience, you might be overestimating it.

  • Room cleaning haikus

    Autumn clothes
    from old websites
    in my drying machine


    Thin cardboard box
    with pictures of face creams
    now roaming nearby


    Handful of tissues
    collected from drifts
    many tears and lunches

  • Social stigma of PPE

    One reason to wear less PPE is that it can be embarrassing to wear more PPE.

    This potential for embarrassment seems interesting. Especially where the main cost of precautions is the social stigma.1 What exactly is the stigma stigmatizing? Being so concerned about a widely-acknowledged-to-be-worth-a-lot-to-avoid disease that you are willing to risk social stigma? Why should you be embarrassed by evaluating a disease as worse than social stigma? Couldn’t it just be that you don’t expect the social stigma to be that bad? Is there some equilibrium size of social stigma implied by such a situation? (Or even if you evaluate the disease to be bad, isn’t that pretty clearly demonstrated by now?)

    1. For instance, if I’m walking around outside (pretty safe) and could wear a really safe P100 mask or a less safe cloth mask, and they are about as comfortable to me, and I’m going to end up wearing the P100 when I get to the place I’m going, then it is clearly better to wear the P100 now, except that I do feel kind of silly if I wear the P100 mask walking around outside. 

  • Some beauty, mid-2020 edition

    2020picss1 2020picss2 2020picss3 2020picss4

  • 10 things society might try having if it only contained variants of me

    (Other than desperate efforts to fend off an impending demographic disaster.)

    1. Shopfronts where you can go and someone else figures out what you want. And you aren’t expected to be friendly or coherent about it. Like, if you are shopping, and yet not having fun, you go there and they figure out that you are the wrong temperature, don’t have enough blood sugar, are taking too serious an attitude to shopping, need ten minutes away from your companions, and should probably buy a pencil skirt. So they get you a smoothie and some comedy and a quiet place to sit down by yourself for a bit, and then send you off to the correct store.

    2. Ubiquitous virtual queues. Each person’s phone keeps track of their priority waiting, so they don’t have to keep track of it with the location of their body.

    3. Efficient plane disembarkment. Like this. Saving many hours per lifetime of thinking about how planes could be disembarked more efficiently.

  • Personal covid responses as a technology microcosm or 18 ways I know to make the pandemic suck less

    With covid-19, basically everyone in the world is facing a set of personal problems that they didn’t have before, but which have much in common with everyone else’s new problems. Most basically, how to go about life without catching a deadly or crippling disease. But also, how to make alternative activities workable, and how to thrive and be happy in this potentially oppressive circumstance.

    With everyone thinking about what to do about similar problems, an interesting set of questions to me is where do ideas for ways to improve the situation come from, and how do they spread? That is, how do people learn about them? How much are people benefitting from other people’s thinking about similar problems?

    I’ve been extremely lucky in having a job that can continue fine from my house, living with a bunch of people I like who can also work from home, having started dating someone I already lived with in January, being in San Francisco, and having some spare money this year, so I’m not compelled to do anything very risky and thus my exact problems and solutions may differ from others’. Nonetheless, it seems good to share them.

    Here are pieces of my own current apparatus for avoiding covid and enjoying life despite it:

  • What is it like to be a tidy person?

    A thing I have been curious about since I was about fourteen is why my living quarters are so much messier than other people’s. At that point it was mostly not my own fault, and now that it is, they are less messy. But still, there’s a clear gap between my room and many other people’s rooms that I see. Like for me, if you can see the places where the floor and the walls meet, or if there is a clear path between the door and at least one reasonable place to be in a room, these are victories (bonus points if you don’t have to do any unusual jumping or balancing to follow the path). And other people have entire twelve-foot cubes full of immaculately placed objects.

  • Schelling points amidst communication

    If two people are trying to meet in New York City, and they forgot to pick a spot, and both of their phones are dead, so they both just go and stand under the clock in Grand Central Station, hoping that the other will expect them to do that, guessing that if they were going to pick a spot to do this, it would be that one, then what you have is a Schelling point.

    This is a pretty contrived circumstance, and I usually hear Schelling points talked of as if they are neat but only relevant in those rare cases when communication is impossible. For instance, Wikipedia says ‘In game theory, a focal point (or Schelling point) is a solution that people tend to choose by default in the absence of communication.’

  • Octobillionupling effort

    When basically everyone in the world faces the same problem, it is interesting if everyone does their own working out to solve it. Even if there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, you might think it would be massively more efficient to do a good job of answering once with some free variables.

    For instance, my impression is that even before covid, basically everyone was sometimes possibly a bit sick and had to decide whether to go to an event, given that they might be contagious. The usual thing to do, I think, was to consider the question for a bit yourself (or not, depending on conscientiousness), and to maybe mention it to the host and try to guess how annoyed the other guests would be, and then to make a call. But this isn’t a highly personal question—if someone who knew more about infectious disease contagion than most people (which wouldn’t be hard) made a form to tell you what to do based on your symptoms and the number of people at the event, you would probably already be making a better choice, faster, than most people.

    Why doesn’t this happen?

  • Schedules versus momentum

    A mundane issue that arises endlessly in my life, but which I haven’t heard that much advice on: what to do when your schedule says you should do one thing, but you have momentum on a different thing? Or more broadly, what to do when scheduling and energy for a task conflict?

  • The day of Hellfire

    With the 2020 reduction of variety in places and companionship that might set the days apart, there is a risk of swathes of time blending together and seeming short. One solution is to substitute other sources of visceral variety. Yesterday I had the song Hellfire from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame stuck in my head all day, which I can recommend as intense and a different vibe from normal.

  • Overlooking the obvious

    One can feel stupid for not having tried the obvious thing. For instance, if you have terrible anxiety, and you tell your friend, and your friend is like, ‘um, have you considered anxiety drugs?’, and somehow it hasn’t occurred to you, you can feel stupid.

    I think this is often wrong, because there are so many obvious things.

  • Misalignment and misuse: whose values are manifest?

    AI related disasters are often categorized as involving misaligned AI, or misuse, or accident. Where:

    • misuse means the bad outcomes were wanted by the people involved,
    • misalignment means the bad outcomes were wanted by AI (and not by its human creators), and
    • accident means that the bad outcomes were not wanted by those in power but happened anyway due to error.

    In thinking about specific scenarios, these concepts seem less helpful.

  • Migraine basket

    I get migraines about once a week. They aren’t as bad as migraines are classically understood to be—in fact they always start out pretty mild—but they sometimes become terrible by the evening.

    While there are always various things I could do to improve such situations, I have often failed to do them promptly. Which seems pretty weird, but I suppose I am not at my most energetic and mentally functional. Also, none of the interventions I know of actually resolve migraines instantaneously, so my sense that I should for instance take painkillers is more of an intellectual one than a felt urge. And I think suffering drains my interest in upholding vague intellectual senses that I should do things. Then even if I did remember, it’s a further effort to even recall what else might be good, let alone go and find the relevant objects.

    I have improved this a fair bit with a retrospectively obvious innovation: the migraine basket.

  • And you'll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon

    Over toothbrushing tonight, my boyfriend and I analyzed the song ‘Colors of the Wind’, from Pocahontas, which we had just listened to in curiosity over Roger Ebert’s claim that The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a better message than Pocahontas.

    A pair of lines that caught my attention were:

    ‘Come roll in all the riches all around you And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’

    This suggests that wondering what everything is worth negates what is valuable about it, which is to say, makes it worth less to you. Is it true that looking out for value like this is self-undermining? It sounds plausible to me, but why?

  • Tweet markets for impersonal truth tracking?

    Should social media label statements as false, misleading or contested?

    Let’s approach it from the perspective of what would make the world best, rather than e.g. what rights do the social media companies have, as owners of the social media companies.

    The basic upside seems to be that pragmatically, people share all kinds of false things on social media, and that leads to badness, and this slows that down.

  • On the fifth day of election

    I was woken yesterday by cheering and whooping in the streets.

    (Which was overall great, though I think replacing the part of the day, [get enough sleep and then wake up and remember who you are and what you were doing and then do some familiar morning rituals while your brain warms up] with [abrupt emergence into city-wide celebration] was disorienting in a way that I failed to shake all day.)

    After some music, Champagne, party hats, chatting with the housemates, and putting on our best red-white-and-blue outfits, my boyfriend and I set out for a walk in the city, tentatively toward b. patisserie, legendary and inconveniently distant producer of kouignoù amann.1

    Within a few blocks we found cars and pedestrians breaking into rounds of cheering and waving at each other, and a general sense that the whole street was a party to this. We still had our party hats, one with an American flag sticking out of the top, so there was no ambiguity for other street-goers about whether we were.

    1. A kouig amann (plural kouignoù amann) is a kind of French buttery sugary pastry. It’s a bit like toffee with quite a lot of pastry in it. 

  • Where are the concept factories?

    Concepts are arguably critical to our success as humans, our recent success as rich and productive humans, and many of our individual successes at whatever we each individually do.

    Why don’t we produce them in an industrial fashion?

  • Calling it

    In an atmosphere of general thirst for someone calling something, I’ll call some stuff.

    In my experience and current judgment:

    The best non-inert art is the musical Hamilton

    The best place in the San Francisco Bay Area is the Essex Hot Tub, and the best place near it is Bodega Bay

    The best undergraduate degree to wish you had done is computer science

  • Why Trump? A survey

    It felt strange going into this US election so hopeful for Biden to win while so at a loss regarding why comparably many Americans were badly hoping for the opposite. I heard people speculating about the possible motives, and I considered plausible steelmen. But why should I be guessing about what half of people think? I figured out how to survey some Americans beyond my vicinity.

  • Everyone headed to win

    Last night I was especially curious about why people vote as they do, and whether they were experiencing the election similarly to me. So I set up a survey in Positly and paid a bunch of people to tell me about such things.

    I haven’t read all of the responses yet, but a notable feature of them so far is the extent to which people expected their own favorite candidate to win the presidency. If someone said both who they voted for (or would vote for if forced to vote) and who they thought would win, these were the same person 87% of the time.

    Is this just ‘wishful thinking’ (whatever that is) or some more interesting phenomenon?

  • Election night

    Earlier in the evening, I reasoned that I should not ‘watch’ the election, since I will learn the result in the end and experiencing the uncertainty in the meantime doesn’t seem productive at all, let alone competitive with other things I could do.

    This attitude somehow felt unfriendly though, or like being the kind of spoilsport who says ‘there is no reason to celebrate Christmas, or to celebrate anything for that matter’—both failing to add to the fun, and implicitly asking others to defend their own enthusiasm.

  • Why are bananas not my brothers?

    It is said that we share 99.9% of our genes with one another, 95% with chimpanzees, and 60% with bananas. (It is also said that this isn’t quite right about bananas, but reading about that did not quell my confusion.)

    It is further said that I share 50% of my genes with my brother, and that this is why I like him.

    And yet, I seem to be more closely related to my brother than to a banana.

  • Questions of the afternoon

    Today I spent about three hours chatting with eleven of my closer friends who I’ve mostly hardly seen this year, as a virtual birthday party. I thought the discussion was pretty interesting—so I record here some of the questions that came up (aloud or my mind):

    1. Did various of us err by not doing technical subjects in undergrad? Or should we have tried to do ‘cool’ seeming subjects, technical or not?
    2. What is ‘coolness’? Is coolness always about power? Why is a big, fast train cool? Can you be cool if you are not relaxed? If you are small and scared? If you are mediocre in every way?
    3. Is etymology deep? What do people get out of knowing the origins of words?
    4. What is going on in history, at a high level?
    5. Can history be understood at a high level, or to have a real understanding of ‘what’s going on’, do you need to know about the detailed circumstances in each case?
  • Automated intelligence is not AI

    Sometimes we think of ‘artificial intelligence’ as whatever technology ultimately automates human cognitive labor.

    I question this equivalence, looking at past automation. In practice human cognitive labor is replaced by things that don’t seem at all cognitive, or like what we otherwise mean by AI.

    Some examples:

  • Study of a 34th birthday

    It was recently my birthday. I started the celebrations by sleeping in so late that I probably wouldn’t be that sleep deprived. My boyfriend continued the celebrations by making me breakfast in bed and setting aside his work, donning a hat, and singing to me when I woke. He actually always makes me breakfast and it is usually in bed, but that didn’t really detract from it.

  • Why don't presidential candidates seem more ideal?

    Without speaking to my own judgments of historical candidates, my impression is that people very often vote (in US primaries and elections at least) with an attitude of ‘ugh well it can’t be Alice, so I guess it has to be Bob, even though he is evil as far as I can tell’ rather than, ‘wow, Alice is one of the most shining examples of an excellent leader and all around good person I have ever witnessed, but I just have to vote for Bob because he is astonishingly even better, and when I see him speak it just makes me cry because I can’t donate money to his campaign fast enough’.

    There are like 150 million eligible US citizens to choose from for president, and in my experience many people generally inspire excitement and warmth in others, and are reasonable and knowledgeable and good.

  • Blue wall


    I photograph nice things when I am running, and send them to my boyfriend at home.

  • Empirical case study: how optimized are my Facebook ads?

    (Other thoughts on The Social Dilemma: one, two)

    For some more direct evidence about how aggressively Facebook optimizes its content, we can also look at its content.

    Here are a bunch of ads it showed me yesterday (prompted by me seeing a particularly compelling ad (#2) and thinking of this, then just noting the other ones starting at the top of the page):

  • Whence the symptoms of social media?

    A thing I liked about The Social Dilemma was the evocative image of oneself being in an epic contest for one’s attention with a massive and sophisticated data-nourished machine, tended by teams of manipulation experts. The hopelessness of the usual strategies—like spur-of-the-moment deciding to ‘try to use social media less’—in the face of such power seems clear.

    But another question I have is whether this basic story of our situation—that powerful forces are fluently manipulating our behavior—is true.

    Some contrary observations from my own life:

  • But what kinds of puppets are we?

    I watched The Social Dilemma last night. I took the problem that it warned of to be the following:

    1. Social media and similar online services make their money by selling your attention to advertisers
    2. These companies put vast optimization effort into manipulating you, to extract more attention
    3. This means your behavior and attention is probably very shaped by these forces (which you can perhaps confirm by noting your own readiness to scroll through stuff on your phone)

    This seems broadly plausible and bad, but I wonder if it isn’t quite that bad.

  • Yet another world spirit sock puppet

    I have almost successfully made and made decent this here my new blog, in spite of little pre-existing familiarity with relevant tools beyond things like persistence in the face of adversity and Googling things. I don’t fully understand how it works, but it is a different and freer non-understanding than with Wordpress or Tumblr. This blog is more mine to have mis-built and to go back and fix. It is like not understanding why your cake is still a liquid rather than like not understanding why your printer isn’t recognized by your computer.

    My plan is to blog at worldspiritsockpuppet.com now, and cross-post to my older blogs the subset of posts that fit there.

    The main remaining thing is to add comments. If anyone has views about how those should be, er, tweet at me?

  • The end of ordinary days

    One time as I was burping, the thought occurred to me that there would be a last burp in my life; a final silence on that familiar bodily stage. And while I wasn’t a particular burping enthusiast, it was a sad thought. Since then, burping often reminds me of this.

  • Why aren't P100s all the rage?

    Some confusing facts:

    • P100 masks plausibly increase the safety of activities by a factor of a hundred, if worn correctly, which can’t be that hard. And my uneducated guess is that worn imperfectly they should be a lot better than a surgical mask at least.
    • P100 masks cost about $60 (or $30 pre-pandemic, if I recall), and a single one can be reused indefinitely
    • Lots of people are greatly constrained in what they do by covid risk.
    • I have seen almost no discussion of or interest in P100s. It took me a bit of searching to even figure out if they were helpful, since the internet was so disinterested in the topic.

    What gives?

  • P100 PSA

    If I understand, a well fitted P100 mask might increase the covid-safety of activities by a factor of about a hundred (though note well fitted, and I’m unclear on how hard it is to fit them perfectly, or on how good they are if not—I treat it as a smaller factor).

  • My city

    People often tell me that they don’t like San Francisco, especially of late. It’s dirty, or depressing, or has the wrong vibe, or is full of people who think it is reasonable to ban straws, or is the epitome of some kind of sinister social failing. Which are all plausible complaints.

    I’m reminded of this thought from Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton, which my boyfriend and I have been meanderingly reading in recent months:

    Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

  • American Politics

    The other day I had a dentist appointment, and as an alternative to focusing on whether or not it was currently unpleasant, I tried to become interested in American politics.

    It’s not that American politics fails to be attention-grabbing. But a casserole falling on the floor is attention grabbing, and I wouldn’t say that I’m interested in falling casseroles. I do read about the political situation, but like a casserole-fall viewer, mostly with curiosity and responsive dismay, not with real intellectual engagement or fertile thinking. Why?

  • Oxford: starting the day liveblog

    A draft post from a year ago that I didn’t put up then, about a problem that I had forgotten about:

    I recently woke up, and do not appear to be aggressively pursuing anything worthwhile, for instance understanding the future of artificial intelligence, or trading my precariously slung dressing gown for more versatile writing attire. I did make some coffee, but am falling down on actually drinking it, and it is on the other side of the room, so that might be a thing for later.

    My impression has been for a while that I am just a worse human in the morning, and then gradually improve toward the evening. Such that I can spend hours incrementally trying to direct my attention toward some task and carefully reflecting on why it’s not working and how to improve the situation in the afternoon, and then just do it without problems after about 8pm.

  • Scale of unrest

    I live in San Francisco. Some people I know are worried about living in US cities at election time because of the potential for political unrest. This seems surprising to me, since I figure the chance of rioting harming a specific person in a large city is very low, especially if that person takes the precaution of not being intentionally at a riot. If I thought the chance of a riot so incredibly huge and destructive that one in a thousand people in my city is killed is as high as one in a thousand, that is still only giving me around a one in a million chance of death, i.e. similar to the risk from a flight to New York. Possibly I’m not being imaginative enough.

  • The past: mysterious poem

    I found a poem in my Google docs from 2012, seemingly pasted there from an obsolete document system of even earlier. I couldn’t find it anywhere else on the internet, and I seem to have multiple slightly different versions of it in my docs, and also some related notes. Which all suggests that I wrote it.

  • More seals

    In case others also wanted to see more round seals, I present several that I came across in my investigation of illustrations for that last post, and a more extended the seal perusal that followed.

    On considering the existence of seals more, I came to wonder how this body design—short plump fur snake with weirdly placed flipper limbs, apparently optimized for being extremely cute while lying in one place—could possibly evolve in a world where animal dexterity can get pretty high (e.g. also leopards exist) and there is just no obvious upside for seals being so cute. After minor YouTube investigation, I think a) seals are not somehow surprisingly agile on land; b) seals live in water, where this seems to be an excellent body design; c) penguins and seals are fairly similarly shaped water creatures, but in their awkward land phase, rest on different edges.

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

  • Problems and gratitudes

    Being grateful is often suggested as a good and scientific way to raise some kind of wellbeing measure. Probably somehow resulting from that, and from my much greater enjoyment of being grateful than of investigating this claim at all, sometimes I embark on a concerted effort to be grateful for specific things.

    However I am sometimes confused about directing gratitude, in a similar way to how I am confused about considering things ‘problems’. Is there a problem—never spoken of but so much bigger than anything that ever is—of everyone not being able to access vast quantities of wisdom and pleasure by pressing their belly buttons?

    Maybe I should be grateful that the horsehead nebula isn’t a real horsehead?

  • The bads of ads

    In London at the start of the year, perhaps there was more advertising than there usually is in my life, because I found its presence disgusting and upsetting. Could I not use public transport without having my mind intruded upon continually by trite performative questions?

    London underground

    Sometimes I fantasize about a future where stealing someone’s attention to suggest for the fourteenth time that they watch your awful-looking play is rightly looked upon as akin to picking their pocket.

    Stepping back, advertising is widely found to be a distasteful activity. But I think it is helpful to distinguish the different unpleasant flavors potentially involved (and often not involved—there is good advertising):

  • Todo rocks

    Among people, I tend far toward liking to organize things, to make detailed plans, to conceive of my actions as within some sensical framework, etc. I appreciate that all this might be bad, but it is at least very compelling to me.

    Among people with these kinds of traits, my guess is that I am unusual in how often when typing something into a todo list or writing it on a whiteboard, I vaguely wish that the task instead involved moving around a bunch of rocks, possibly organized into little heaps.

    After having this fantasy a few times, I got some rocks. Here are a few of the more public ones.

  • 200,000 hours

    I have never been an enthusiastic bed-goer, because I like life. But a nice thing about going to bed is that you can be confident that you are doing roughly the best thing. At noon, the smallness of the chance that your chosen task is really among the best ways to spend your precious moments in this world might be discouraging or oppressive. Perhaps you would only have to be a tiny bit smarter or think a bit longer to be able to recognize that this is the wrong way and that you could be doing much better. But at 4am, sleeping is probably pretty close to the most valuable thing.

  • War as a carefully honed coordination failure

    Today I watched some YouTube videos about the World Wars, and in particular how the first one came about. It did seem like a sequence of plausible sounding steps that led to a giant war. But there is an abstract level at which I still feel confused. Which is one where initially there are basically a very large number of humans who each very much don’t want to die presumably, most of whom have very little reason to kill almost any of the others. Then somehow this all turns into everyone putting huge amounts of effort in and risking their lives to kill each other. It is as if you told me that you had a barn full of soaking wet hay, and it turned into a big bonfire.

    I suppose the natural explanation is that there are rulers, or in more game theoretic terms to match the incentive-level of my confusion:

  • Heavenly hellfire

    Today I read about ancient history instead of doing work. Which got me thinking about Santorini.

    If you see blue-domed chapels with whitewashed walls perched idyllically over the Aegean sea, there is a good chance you’ve got yourself (a picture of) Santorini.


  • The mystery of the fall of the Bronze Age

    This evening my boyfriend and I decided we would like to learn about the fall of the Bronze Age. Really he wanted to learn about the World Wars or the rise of communism, but I pointed out that to understand WWI you probably want to know what was going on just before it, and that I would be willing to only ride this slippery slope as far as the Bronze Age, and that the Bronze Age collapse was pretty interesting. Admittedly I also wanted to learn about a period of history that had at most one of carnage and photography.

  • Punishment for forgotten norms

    I watched some of the vice-presidential debate tonight, in an act of uncharacteristic attention to politics. Which is to say, it’s not a kind of game I am familiar with the finer details of. Early on, one of the debaters was given two minutes to answer what sounded like an easy question, and proceeded to just openly and brazenly not answer it and instead talk about how bad the other party was for nearly the whole time in such an overt fashion that I felt embarrassed for them. They answered at the end, technically but not very informatively.

  • Pastoral meanings

    Shall we read a poem? Just one?

    Or we could finish reading that George Saunders essay?

    We finished it-‘Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.’ Remember?

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