• Beyond fire alarms: freeing the groupstruck

    Crossposted from AI Impacts

    [Content warning: death in fires, death in machine apocalypse]

    ‘No fire alarms for AGI’

    Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote that ‘there’s no fire alarm for Artificial General Intelligence’, by which I think he meant: ‘there will be no future AI development that proves that artificial general intelligence (AGI) is a problem clearly enough that the world gets common knowledge (i.e. everyone knows that everyone knows, etc) that freaking out about AGI is socially acceptable instead of embarrassing.’

    He calls this kind of event a ‘fire alarm’ because he posits that this is how fire alarms work: rather than alerting you to a fire, they primarily help by making it common knowledge that it has become socially acceptable to act on the potential fire.

    He supports this view with a great 1968 study by Darley and Latané, in which they found that if you pipe a white plume of ‘smoke’ through a vent into a room where participants fill out surveys, a lone participant will quickly leave to report it, whereas a group of three (innocent) participants will tend to sit by in the haze for much longer1.

    Here’s a video of a rerun2 of part of this experiment, if you want to see what people look like while they try to negotiate the dual dangers of fire and social awkwardness.

    A salient explanation for this observation3 is that people don’t want to look fearful, and are perhaps repeatedly hit by this bias when they interpret one another’s outwardly chill demeanor as evidence that all is fine. (Darley and Latané favor a similar hypothesis, but where people just fail to interpret a stimulus as possibly dangerous if others around them are relaxed.)

    So on that hypothesis, thinks Eliezer, fire alarms can cut past the inadvertent game of chicken produced by everyone’s signaling-infused judgment, and make it known to all that it really is fire-fleeing time, thus allowing face-saving safe escape.

    With AI, Eliezer thinks people are essentially sitting by in the smoke, saying ‘looks fine to me’ to themselves and each other to avoid seeming panicky. And so they seem to be in need the analogue of a fire alarm, and also (at least implicitly) seem to be expecting one: assuming that if there were a real ‘fire’, the fire alarm would go off and they could respond then without shame. For instance, maybe new progress would make AI obviously an imminent risk to humanity, instead of a finicky and expensive bad writing generator, and then everyone would see together that action was needed. Eliezer argues that this isn’t going to happen—and more strongly (though confusingly to me) that things will look basically similar until AGI—and so he seems to think that people should get a grip now and act on the current smoke or they will sit by forever.

    My take

    I forcefully agree with about half of the things in that post, but this understanding of fire alarms—and the importance of there not being one for AGI—is in the other half.

    It’s not that I expect a ‘fire alarm’ for AGI—I’m agnostic—it’s just that fire alarms like this don’t seem to be that much of a thing, and are not how we usually escape dangers—including fires—even when group action is encumbered by embarrassment. I doubt that people are waiting for a fire alarm or need one. More likely they are waiting for the normal dance of accumulating evidence and escalating discussion and brave people calling the problem early and eating the potential embarrassment. I do admit that this dance doesn’t look obviously up to the challenge, and arguably looks fairly unhealthy. But I don’t think it’s hopeless. In a world of uncertainty and a general dearth of fire alarms, there is much concern about things, and action, and I don’t think it is entirely uncalibrated. The public consciousness may well be oppressed by shame around showing fear, and so be slower and more cautious than it should be. But I think we should be thinking about ways to free it and make it healthy. We should not be thinking of this as total paralysis waiting for a magical fire alarm that won’t come, in the face of which one chooses between acting now before conviction, or waiting to die.

    To lay out these pictures side by side:

    Eliezer’s model, as I understand it:

    • People generally don’t act on a risk if they feel like others might judge their demonstrated fear (which they misdescribe to themselves as uncertainty about the issue at hand)
    • This ‘uncertainty’ will continue fairly uniformly until AGI
    • This curse could be lifted by a ‘fire alarm’, and people act as if they think there will be one
    • ‘Fire alarms’ don’t exist for AGI
    • So people can choose whether to act in their current uncertainty or to sit waiting until it is too late
    • Recognizing that the default inaction stems not from reasonable judgment, but from a questionable aspect of social psychology that does not appear properly sensitive to the stakes, one should choose to act.

    My model:

    • People act less on risks on average when observed. Across many people this means a slower ratcheting of concern and action (but way more than none).
    • The situation, the evidence and the social processing of these will continue to evolve until AGI.
    • (This process could be sped up by an event that caused global common knowledge that it is socially acceptable to act on the issue—assuming that that is the answer that would be reached—but this is also true of Eliezer having mind control, and fire alarms don’t seem that much more important to focus on than the hypothetical results of other implausible interventions on the situation)
    • People can choose at what point in a gradual escalation of evidence and public consciousness to act
    • Recognizing that the conversation is biased toward nonchalance by a questionable aspect of social psychology that does not appear properly sensitive to the stakes, one should try to adjust for this bias individually, and look for ways to mitigate its effects on the larger conversation.

    (It’s plausible that I misunderstand Eliezer, in which case I’m arguing with the sense of things I got from misreading his post, in case others have the same.)

    If most people at some point believed that the world was flat, and weren’t excited about taking an awkward contrarian stance on the topic, then it would indeed be nice if an event took place that caused basically everyone to have common knowledge that the world is so blatantly round that it can no longer be embarrassing to believe it so. But that’s not a kind of thing that happens, and in the absence of that, there would still be a lot of hope from things like incremental evidence, discussion, and some individuals putting their necks out and making the way less embarrassing for others. You don’t need some threshold being hit, or even a change in the empirical situation, or common knowledge being produced, or or all of these things at once, for the group to become much more correct. And in the absence of hope for a world-is-round alarm, believing that the world is round in advance because you think it might be and know that there isn’t an alarm probably isn’t the right policy.

    In sum, I think our interest here should actually be on the broader issue of social effects systematically dampening society’s responses to risks, rather than on ‘fire alarms’ per se. And this seems like a real problem with tractable remedies, which I shall go into.

    I. Do ‘fire alarms’ show up in the real world?

    Claim: there are not a lot of ‘fire alarms’ for anything, including fires.

    How do literal alarms for fires work?

    Note: this section contains way more than you might ever want to think about how fire alarms work, and I don’t mean to imply that you should do so anyway. Just that if you want to assess my claim that fire alarms don’t work as Eliezer thinks, this is some reasoning.


    “One might think that the function of a fire alarm is to provide you with important evidence about a fire existing, allowing you to change your policy accordingly and exit the building.

    In the classic experiment by Latane and Darley in 1968, eight groups of three students each were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that shortly after began filling up with smoke. Five out of the eight groups didn’t react or report the smoke, even as it became dense enough to make them start coughing. Subsequent manipulations showed that a lone student will respond 75% of the time; while a student accompanied by two actors told to feign apathy will respond only 10% of the time. This and other experiments seemed to pin down that what’s happening is pluralistic ignorance. We don’t want to look panicky by being afraid of what isn’t an emergency, so we try to look calm while glancing out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting, but of course they are also trying to look calm…

    …A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire; after which it is socially safe to react. When the fire alarm goes off, you know that everyone else knows there is a fire, you know you won’t lose face if you proceed to exit the building.

    The fire alarm doesn’t tell us with certainty that a fire is there. In fact, I can’t recall one time in my life when, exiting a building on a fire alarm, there was an actual fire. Really, a fire alarm is weaker evidence of fire than smoke coming from under a door.

    But the fire alarm tells us that it’s socially okay to react to the fire. It promises us with certainty that we won’t be embarrassed if we now proceed to exit in an orderly fashion.”

    I don’t think this is actually how fire alarms work. Which you might think is a nitpick, since fire alarms here are a metaphor for AI epistemology, but I think it matters, because it seems to be the basis for expecting this concept of a ‘fire alarm’ to show up in the world. As in, ‘if only AI risk were like fires, with their nice simple fire alarms’.

    Before we get to that though, let’s restate Eliezer’s theory of fire response behavior here, to be clear (most of it also being posited but not quite favored by Darley and Latané):

    1. People don’t like to look overly scared
    2. Thus they respond less cautiously to ambiguous signs of danger when observed than when alone
    3. People look to one another for evidence about the degree of risk they are facing
    4. Individual underaction (2) is amplified in groups via each member observing the others’ underaction (3) and inferring greater safety, then underacting on top of that (2).
    5. The main function of a fire alarm is to create common knowledge that the situation is such that it is socially acceptable to take a precaution, e.g. run away.

    I’m going to call hypotheses in the vein of points 1-4 ‘fear shame’ hypotheses.

    fear shame hypothesis: the expectation of negative judgments about fearfulness ubiquitously suppress public caution.

    I’m not sure about this, but I’ll tentatively concede it and just dispute point 5.

    Fire alarms don’t solve group paralysis

    A first thing to note is that fire alarms just actually don’t solve this kind of group paralysis, at least not reliably. For instance, if you look again closely at the rerun of the Darley and Latané experiment that I mentioned above, they just actually have a fire alarm4, as well as smoke, and this seems to be no impediment to the demonstration:

    The fire alarm doesn’t seem to change the high level conclusion: the lone individual jumps up to investigate, and the people accompanied by a bunch of actors stay in the room even with the fire alarm ringing.

    And here is a simpler experiment entirely focusing on what people do if they hear a fire alarm:

    Answer: these people wait in place for someone to tell them what to do, many getting increasingly personally nervous. The participant’s descriptions of this are interesting. Quite a few seem to assume that someone else will come and lead them outside if it is important.

    Maybe it’s some kind of experiment thing? Or a weird British thing? But it seems at least fairly common for people not to react to fire alarms. Here are a recent month’s tweets on the topic:

    The first video also suggests that the 1979 Woolworths fire killed ten people, all in the restaurant, because those people were disinclined to leave before paying their bill, due to a similar kind of unwillingness to diverge from normal behavior. I’m not sure how well supported that explanation is, but it seems to be widely agreed that ten people died, all in the restaurant, and that people in the restaurant had been especially unwilling to leave under somewhat bizarre circumstances (for instance, hoping to finish their meals anyway5, or having to be dragged out against their will6). According to a random powerpoint presentation I found on the internet, the fire alarm went off for four minutes at some point, though it’s possible that at that point they did try to leave, and failed. (The same source shows that all were found quite close to the fire escape, so they presumably all tried to leave prior to dying, but that probably isn’t that surprising.) This seems like probably a real case of people hearing a fire alarm and just not responding for at least some kind of weird social reasons, though maybe the fire alarm was just too late. The fact that everyone else in the 8 floor building managed to escape says there was probably some kind of fairly clear fire evidence.

    So, that was a sequence of terrifying demonstrations of groups acting just like they did in the Darley and Latané experiment, even with fire alarms. This means fire alarms aren’t an incredibly powerful tool against this problem. But maybe they make a difference, or solve it sometimes, in the way that Eliezer describes?

    How might fire alarms work? Let’s go through some possible options.

    By creating common knowledge of something to do with fire?

    This is Eliezer’s explanation above. One issue with it is that given that fire alarms are so rarely associated with fires (as Eliezer notes) the explanation, ‘​​A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire…’ seems like it must be a markedly different from the precise mechanism. But if a fire alarm is not producing common knowledge of a fire, what is it producing common knowledge of, if anything?

    …common knowledge of the fire alarm itself?

    Fire alarms might produce common knowledge that there’s a fire alarm going off better than smoke produces common knowledge of smoke, since fire alarms more aggressively observable, such that hearing one makes it very likely that others can hear it and can infer that you can hear it, whereas smoke can be observed more privately, especially in small quantities. Even if you point out the smoke in an attempt to create common knowledge, other people might think that you are mistaking steam for smoke due to your fear-tainted mindset. Smoke is more ambiguous. In the experiments, people who didn’t leave—seemingly due to being in groups—reportedly attributed their staying to the smoke probably not being smoke (which in fairness it wasn’t). Fire alarms are also ambiguous, but maybe less so.

    But it’s not obvious how common knowledge of the fire alarm itself avoids the problem, since then everyone has to judge how dire a threat a fire alarm is, and again one can have more and less fear-indicative choices.7

    …common knowledge of some low probability of fire?

    A perhaps more natural answer is that fire alarms produce common knowledge ‘that there is some non-negligible risk of fire, e.g. 1%’. This would be an interesting model, because if Eliezer is right that fire alarms rarely indicate fires and are probably less evidence of a fire than smoke8 then it must be that a) fire alarms produce common knowledge of this low chance of fire while smoke fails to produce common knowledge of a higher chance of fire, and b) common knowledge of a low risk is worth leaving for, whereas non-common knowledge of a higher risk is not worth leaving for.

    These both make sense in theory, strictly speaking:

    1. Fire alarms are intrinsically more likely to produce common knowledge (as described above)
    2. People might have a more shared understanding of the probability of fire implied by a fire alarm than of the probability of fire implied by smoke, so that common knowledge of smoke doesn’t produce common knowledge of an n% chance of danger but common knowledge of a fire alarm does.
    3. If you think there is a 5% risk of fire but that your friends might mistake you for thinking that there is a 0.01% risk of fire, then you might be less keen to leave than if you all have common knowledge of a 1% risk of fire.

    But in practice, it seems surprising to me if this is a good description of what’s going on. Some issues:

    • Common knowledge doesn’t seem that unlikely in the smoke case, where others are paying enough attention to see you leave.
    • If others actually don’t notice the smoke, then it’s not clear why leaving should even indicate fear to them at all. For instance, without knowing the details of the experiment in the video, it seems as though if the first woman with company had just quietly stood up and walked out of the room, she should not expect the others to know she is responding to a threat of fire, unless they too see the smoke, in which case they can also infer that she can infer that either they have either seen the smoke too or they haven’t and have no reason to judge her. So what should she be scared of, on a story where the smoke just produces less common knowledge?
    • People presumably have no idea what probability of fire a fire alarm indicates, making it very hard for one to create common knowledge of a particular probability of fire among a group of people.

    Given these things, I don’t buy that fire alarms send people outside via creating common knowledge of some low probability of fire.

    …common knowledge that it isn’t embarrassing?

    Another possibility is that the fire alarm produces common knowledge of the brute fact that it is now not embarrassing to leave the building. But then why? How did it become non-embarrassing? Did the fire alarm make it so, or did it respond to the situation becoming non-embarrassing?

    …common knowledge of it being correct to leave?

    Maybe the best answer in this vicinity is ‘that there is a high enough risk that you should leave’. This sounds very similar to ‘that there is some particular low risk’, but it gloms together the ‘probability of fire’ issue and the ‘what level of risk means that you should leave’ issue. The difference is that if everyone was uncertain about the level of risk, and also about at what level of risk they should leave, the fire alarm is just making a bid for everyone leaving, thereby avoiding the step where they have to make a judgment about under what level of risk to leave, which is perhaps especially likely to be the step at which they might get judged. This also sounds more realistic, given that I don’t think anyone has much idea about either of these steps. Whereas I could imagine that people broadly agree that a fire alarm means that it is leaving time.

    On the other hand, if I imagine leaving a building because of a fire alarm, I expect a decent amount of the leaving to be with irritation and assertion that there is not a real fire. Which doesn’t look like common knowledge that it is the risk-appropriate time to leave. Though I guess viewed as a strategy in the game, ‘leave but say you wouldn’t if you weren’t being forced to, because you do not feel fear’ seems reasonable.

    In somewhat better evidence-from-imagination, if a fire alarm went off in my house, in the absence of smoke, and I went and stood outside and called the fire brigade, I would fear seeming silly to my housemates and would not expect much company. So I at least am not in on common knowledge of fire alarms being a clear sign that one should evacuate—I may or may not feel that way myself, but I am not confident that others do.

    Perhaps a worse problem with this theory is that it isn’t at all clear how everyone would have come to know and/or agree that fire alarms indicate the right time to leave.

    I think a big problem for these common knowledge theories in general is that if fire alarms sometimes fail to produce common knowledge that it isn’t embarrassing to escape (e.g. in the video discussed above), then it is hard for them to produce common knowledge most of the time, due to the nature of common knowledge. For instance, if I hear a fire alarm, then I don’t know whether everyone knows that it isn’t embarrassing for me to leave, because I know that sometimes people don’t think that. It could be that everyone immediately knows which case they are in by the nature of the fire alarm, but I at least don’t know explicitly how to tell.

    By providing evidence?

    Even if fire alarms don’t produce real common knowledge that much, I wouldn’t be surprised if they help get people outside in ways related to signaling and not directly tied to evidence of fire.

    For instance, just non-common-but-not-obviously-private evidence could reduce each person’s expected embarrassment somewhat, maybe making caution worth the social risk. That is, if you just think it’s more likely that Bob thinks it’s more likely that you have seen evidence of real risk, that should still reduce the embarrassment of running away.

    By providing objective evidence?

    Another similar thing that fire alarms might do is provide evidence that is relatively objective and relies little on your judgment, so you can be cautious in the knowledge that you could defend your actions if called to. Much like having a friend in the room who is willing to say ‘I’m calling it - this is smoke. We have to get out’, even if they aren’t actually that reliable. Or, like if you are a hypochondriac, and you want others to believe you, it’s nice to have a good physical pulse oximeter that you didn’t build.9

    This story matches my experience at least some. If a fire alarm went off in my house I think I would seem reasonable if I got up to look around for smoke or a fire. Whereas when I get up to look for a fire when I merely smell smoke, I think people often think I’m being foolish (in their defense, I may be a bit overcautious about this kind of thing). So here the fire alarm is helping me take some cautious action that I wanted to take anyway with less fear of ridicule. And I think what it is doing is just offering relatively personal-judgment-independent evidence that it’s worth considering the possibility of a fire, whereas otherwise my friends might suspect that my sense of smell is extremely weak evidence, and that I am foolish in my inclination to take it as such.

    So here the fire alarm is doing something akin to the job Eliezer is thinking of—being the kind of evidence that gives me widely acceptable reason to act without having to judge and so place the quality of my judgment on the line. Looking around when there’s a fire alarm is like buying from IBM or hiring McKinsey. But because this isn’t common knowledge, it doesn’t have to be some big threshold event—this evidence can be privately seen and can vary by person in their situation. And it’s not all or nothing. It’s just a bit helpful for me to have something to point to. With AI, it’s better if I can say ‘have you seen GPT-3 though? It’s insane’ than if I just say ‘it seems to me that AI is scary’. The ability of a particular piece of evidence to do this in a particular situation is on a spectrum, so this is unlike Eliezer’s fire alarm in that it needn’t involve common knowledge or a threshold. There is plenty of this kind of fire alarm for AI. “The median ML researcher says there is a 5% chance this technology destroys the world or something equivalently bad”, “AI can write code”, “have you seen that freaking avocado chair?”.

    My guess is that this is more a part of how fire alarms work than anything like genuine common knowledge is.

    Another motivation for leaving beside your judgment of risk?

    An interesting thing about the function of objective evidence in the point above is that it is not actually much to do with evidence at all. You just need a source of motivation for leaving the building that is clearly not very based on your own sense of fear. It can be an alarm telling you that the evidence has mounted. But it would also work if you had a frail mother who insisted on being taken outside at the first sign of smoke. Then going outside could be a manifestation of familial care rather than anything about your own fear. If the smell of smoke also meant that there were beers outside, that would also work, I claim.

    Some other examples I predict work:

    • If you are holding a dubiously covid-safe party and you actually want people who are uncomfortable with the crowding to go outside, then put at least one other thing they might want outside, so that they can e.g. wander out looking for the drinks instead of having to go and stand there in fear.
    • If you want people in a group who don’t really feel comfortable snorkeling to chicken out and not feel pressured, then make salient some non-fear costs to snorkeling, e.g. that each additional person who does it will make the group a bit later for dinner.
    • If you want your child to avoid reckless activities with their friends, say you’ll pay them $1000 if they finish high school without having done those things. This might be directly motivating, but it also gives them a face-saving thing they can say to their friends if they are ever uncomfortable.

    This kind of thing seems maybe important.

    By authority?

    A common knowledge story that feels closer to true to me is that fire alarms produce common knowledge that you are ‘supposed to leave’, at least in some contexts.

    The main places I’ve seen people leave the building upon hearing a fire alarm is in large institutional settings—dorms and schools. It seems to me that in these cases the usual thing they are responding to is the knowledge that an authority has decided that they are ‘supposed to’ leave the building now, and thus it is the default thing to do, and if they don’t, they will be in a conflict with for instance the university police or the fire brigade, and there will be some kind of embarrassing hullabaloo. On this model, what could have been embarrassment at being overly afraid of a fire is averted by having a strong incentive to do the fire-cautious action for other reasons. So this is a version of the above category, but I think a particularly important one.

    In the other filmed experiment, people were extremely responsive to a person in a vest saying they should go, and in fact seemed kind of averse to leaving without being told to do so by an authority.

    With AI risk, the equivalent of this kind of fire alarm situation would be if a university suddenly panicked about AI risk sometimes, and required that all researchers go outside and work on it for a little bit. So there is nothing stopping us from having this kind of fire alarm, if any relevant powerful institution wanted it. But there would be no reason to expect it to be more calibrated than random people about actual risk, much as dorm fire alarms are not more calibrated than random people about whether your burned toast requires calling the fire brigade. (Though perhaps this would be good, if random caution is better than consistent undercaution.)

    Also note that this theory just moves the question elsewhere. How do authorities get the ability to worry about fires, without concern for shame? My guess: often the particular people responding also have a protocol to follow, upheld by a further authority. For instance, perhaps the university police are required by protocol to keep you out of the building, and they too do not wish to cause some fight with their superiors. But at some point, didn’t there have to be an unpressured pressurer? A person who made a cautious choice not out of obedience? Probably, but writing a cautious policy for someone else, from a distance, long before a possible emergency, doesn’t much indicate that the author is shitting themselves about a possible fire, so they are probably totally free from this dynamic.

    (If true, this seems like an observation we can make use of: if you want cautious behavior in situations where people will be incentivised to underreact, make policies from a distance, and or have them made by people who have no reason for fear.)

    I feel like this one is actually a big part of why people leave buildings in response to fire alarms. (e.g. when I imagine less authority-imbued settings, I imagine the response being more lax). So when we say there is no fire alarm for AI, are we saying that there is no authority willing to get mad at us if we don’t panic at this somewhat arbitrary time?

    One other nice thing to note about this model. For any problem, many levels of caution are possible: if an alarm causes everyone to think it is reasonable to ‘go and take a look’ but your own judgment is that the situation has reached ‘jump out of the window’ level, then you are probably still fairly oppressed by fear shame. Similarly, even if a foreign nation attacks an ally, and everyone says in unison, ‘wow, I guess it’s come to this, the time to act is now’, there will probably be people who think that it’s time to flee overseas or to bring out the nukes, and others who think it’s time to have a serious discussion with someone, and judgments will be flying. So for many problems, it seems particularly hard to imagine a piece of evidence that leads to total agreement on the reasonable course of action. The authority model deals with this because authority doesn’t mess around with being reasonable—it just cuts to the chase and tells you what to do.

    By norms?

    A different version of being ‘supposed to leave’ is that it is the norm, or what a cooperative person does. This seems similar in that it gives you reason to go outside, perhaps to the point of obligation, which is either strong enough to compel you outside even if you were still embarrassed, or anyway not related to whether you are fearful, and so unlikely to embarrass you. It still leaves the question of how a fire alarm came to have this power over what people are supposed to do.

    By commitment?

    Instead of having a distant authority compelling you to go outside, my guess is that you can in some situations get a similar effect by committing yourself at an earlier time where it wouldn’t have indicated fear. For instance, if you say, ‘I’m not too worried about this smoke, but if the fire alarm goes off, I’ll go outside’, then you have more reason to leave when the fire alarm does go off, while probably indicating less total fear. I doubt that this is a big way that fire alarms work, but it seems like a way people think about things like AI risk, especially if they fear psychologically responding to a gradual escalation of danger in the way that a boiling frog of myth does. They build an ‘alarm’, which sends them outside because they decided in the past that that would be the trigger.

    By inflicting pain?

    In my recollection, any kind of fire alarm situation probably involves an unbearably ear-splitting sound, and thus needs to be dealt with even if there is zero chance of fire. If leaving the building and letting someone else deal with it is available, it is an appealing choice. This mechanism is another form of ‘alternate motivation’, and I think is actually a lot like the authority one. The cost is arranged by someone elsewhere, in the past, who is free to worry on your behalf in such situations without shame; quite possibly the same authority. The added cost makes it easy to leave without looking scared, because now there is good incentive for even the least scared to leave, as long as they don’t like piercing shrieks (if you wanted to go really hard on signaling nonchalance, I think you could do so by just hanging out in the noise, but that end of the signaling spectrum seems like a separate issue).

    My guess is that this plays some role, speaking as a person who once fled an Oxford dorm enough times in quick succession to be fairly unconcerned by fire by the last, but who still feels some of the ungodly horror of that sound upon recollection.

    By alerting you to unseen fire?

    Even if some of these stories seem plausible at times, I find it hard to believe that they are the main thing going on with fire alarms. My own guess is that actually fire alarms really do mostly help by alerting people who haven’t received much evidence of fire yet, e.g. because they are asleep. I’m not sure why Eliezer thinks this isn’t so. (For instance, look up ‘fire alarm saved my life’ or ‘I heard the fire alarm’ and you get stories about people being woken up in the middle of the night or sometimes alerted from elsewhere in the building and zero stories about anything other than that, as far as I can tell on brief perusal. I admit though that ‘my friends and I were sitting there watching the smoke in a kind of nonchalant stupor and then the fire alarm released us from our manly paralysis’ is not the most tellable story.)

    I admit that the evidence is more confusing though - for instance, my recollection from a recent perusal of fire data is that people who die in fires (with or without fire alarms) are mostly not asleep. And actually the situation in general seemed pretty confusing, for instance, if I recall correctly, the most likely cause of a fatal fire appeared to be cigarette smoking, and the most likely time for it was the early afternoon. And while, ‘conscious person smoking cigarette at 1pm sets their room on fire and fails to escape’ sounds possible, I wouldn’t have pinned it as a central case. Some data also seemed to contradict, and I can’t seem to find most of it again now at all though, so I wouldn’t put much stock in any of this, except to note confusion.

    My guess is still that this is a pretty big part of how fire alarms help, based on priors and not that much contrary evidence.

    In sum: not much fire alarm for fires

    My guess is that fire alarms do a decent mixture of many things here - sometimes they provide straightforward evidence of fires, sometimes they wake people up, sometimes they compel people outside through application of authority or unbearable noise, sometimes they probably even make it less embarrassing to react to other fire evidence, either via creating common-knowledge or just via being an impersonal standard that one can refer to.

    So perhaps Eliezer’s ‘creating common knowledge of risk and so overcoming fear shame’ mechanism is part of it. But even if so, I don’t think it’s as much of a distinct thing. Like, there are various elements here that are helpful for combatting fear shame—evidence about the risk, impersonal evidence, a threshold in the situation already deemed concerning in the past, common knowledge. But there’s not much reason or need for them to come together in a single revolutionary event. And incremental versions of these things also help—e.g. A few people thinking it’s more likely that a concern is valid, or common knowledge of some compelling evidence among five people, or someone making a throwaway argument for concern, or evidence that some other people think the situation is worse without any change in the situation itself.

    So—I think fire alarms can help people escape fires in various ways, some of which probably work via relieving paralysis from fear shame, and some of which probably relate to Eliezer’s ‘fire alarm’ concept, though I doubt that these are well thought of as a distinct thing.

    And on the whole these mechanisms are a lot more amenable to partialness and incremental effects than suggested by the image of a single erupting siren pouring a company into a parking lot. I want to put fire alarms back there with many other observations, like hearing a loud bang, or smelling smoke: ambiguous and context dependent and open to interpretation that might seem laughable if it is too risk-averse. In the absence of authority to push you outside, probably people deal with these things by judging them, looking to others, discussing, judging more, iterating. Fire alarms are perhaps particularly as a form of evidence, but I’m not sure they are a separate category of thing.

    If this is what fire alarms are, we often either do or could have them for AGI. We have evolving evidence. We have relatively person-independent evidence about the situation. We have evidence that it isn’t embarrassing to act. We have plenty of alternate face-saving reasons to act concernedly. We have other people who have already staked their own reputation on AGI being a problem. All of these things we could have better. Is it important whether we have a particular moment when everyone is freed of fear shame?

    Is there a fire alarm for other risks?

    That was all about how fire alarms work for fires. What about non-fire risks? Do they have fire alarms?

    Outside of the lab, we can observe that humans have often become concerned about things before they were obviously going to happen or cause any problem. Do these involve ‘fire alarms’? It’s hard for me to think of examples of situations where something was so clear that everyone was immediately compelled to act on caution, without risk of embarrassment, but on the other hand thinking of examples is not my forte (asking myself now to think of examples of things I ate for breakfast last week, I can think of maybe one).

    Here are some cases I know something about, where I don’t know of particular ‘fire alarms’, and yet it seems that caution has been abundant:

    1. Climate change: my guess is that there are many things that different people would call ‘fire alarms’, which is to say, thresholds of evidence by which they think everyone should be appalled and do something. Among things literally referred to as fire alarms, according to Google, are the Californian fires and the words of Greta Thunberg and scientists. Climate change hasn’t become a universally acknowledged good thing to be worried about, though it has become a universally-leftist required thing to be worried about, so if some particular event prompted that, that might be a lot like a fire alarm, but I don’t know of one.
    2. Ozone hole: on a quick Wikipedia perusal, the closest thing to a fire alarm seems to be that “in 1976 the United States National Academy of Sciences released a report concluding that the ozone depletion hypothesis was strongly supported by the scientific evidence” which seems to have caused a bout of national CFC bannings. But this was presumably prompted by smaller groups of people already being concerned and investigating. This seems more like ‘one person smells smoke and goes out looking for fire, and they find one and come back to report and then several of their friends also get worried’.
    3. Recombinant DNA: my understanding is that the Asilomar conference occurred after an escalation of concern beginning with a small number of people being worried about some experiments, with opposition from other scientists until the end.
    4. Covid: this seems to have involved waves of escalating and de-escalating average concern with very high variance in individual concern and action in which purportedly some people have continued to favor more incaution to their graves, and others have seemingly died of caution. I don’t know if there has ever been near universal agreement on anything, and there has been ample judgement in both directions about degrees of preferred caution.
    5. Nuclear weapons: I don’t know enough about this. It seems like there was a fairly natural moment for everyone in the world to take the risk seriously together, which was the 6th of August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. But if it was a fire alarm, it’s not clear what evacuating looks like. Stopping being at war with the US seems like a natural candidate, but three days later Japan hadn’t surrendered and the US bombed Nagasaki, which suggests Hiroshima was taken as less of a clear ‘evacuation time’. But I don’t know the details, and for instance, maybe surrendering isn’t straightforwardly analogous to evacuating.
    6. AI: It seems like there has been nothing like a ‘fire alarm’ for this, and yet for instance most random ML authors alike agree that there is a serious risk.10

    My tentative impression is that history has plenty of concerns built on ambiguous evidence. In fact looking around, it seems like the world is full of people with concerns that are not only not shared by that many others, but also harshly judged. Many of which seem so patently unsupported by clinching evidence that it seems to me ‘rational socially-processed caution dampened by fear shame’ can’t be the main thing going on. I’ll get more into this later.

    Summary: there are no ‘fire alarms’ for anything, and it’s fine (kind of)

    In sum, it seems to me there is no ‘fire alarm’ for AGI, but also not really a fire alarm for fires, or for anything else. People really are stymied in responding to risks by fear of judgment. Many things can improve this, including things that fire alarms have. These things don’t have to be all or nothing, or bundled together, and there is plenty of hope of having many of them for AGI, if we don’t already.

    So upon noting that there will be no fire alarm for AGI, if your best guess previously was that you should do nothing about AGI, I don’t think you should jump into action, assuming that you will be ever blind to a true signal. You should try to read the signals around you, looking out for these biases toward incaution.

    But also: fire alarms are built

    I think it’s interesting to notice how much fire alarms are about social infrastructure. Reading Eliezer’s post, I got the impression of the kind of ‘fire alarm’ that was missing as a clear and incontrovertible feature of the environment. For instance, an AI development that would leave everyone clear that there was danger, while still being early enough to respond. But the authority and pain infliction mechanisms are just about someone having created a trigger-action plan for you, and aggressive incentives for you to follow it, ahead of time. Even the common knowledge mechanisms work through humans having previously created the concept of a ‘fire alarm’ and everyone somehow knowing that it means you go outside. If fire alarms were instead a kind of organic object that we had discovered, with the kind of sensitivity to real fires that fire alarms have, I don’t even think that we’d run outside so fast. (I’m not actually even sure we would think of them as responding to fire—or like, maybe it would be rumored or known to fire alarm aficionados?)

    Developments are basically always worrying for some people and not for others - so it seems hard for anything like common knowledge to come from a particular development. If you want something like universal common knowledge that such-and-such is non-embarrassing now to think, you are more likely to get it with a change in the social situation. E.g. “Steven Hawking now says AI is a problem” is arguably more like a fire alarm in this regard than AlphaGo—it is socially constructed, and involves someone else taking responsibility for the judgment of danger.

    Even the components of fire alarm efficacy that are about conveying evidence of fire—to a person who hadn’t seen smoke, or understood it, or who was elsewhere, or asleep—are not naturally occurring. We built a system to respond to a particular subtle amount of smoke with a blaring alarm. The fact that there isn’t something like that for AI is appears to be because we haven’t built one. (New EA project proposal? Set up alarm system so that when we get to GPT-7 piercing alarms blare from all buildings until it’s out and responsible authorities have checked that the situation is safe.)

    II. Fear shame and getting groupstruck

    I think a better takeaway from all this research on people uncomfortably hanging out in smoke filled rooms is the fear shame hypothesis:

    Shame about being afraid is a strong suppressor of caution.

    Which is also to say:

    your relaxed attitude to X is partly due to uncalibrated avoidance of social shame, for most X

    (To be more concrete and help you to try out this hypothesis, without intending to sway you either way:

    • Your relaxed attitude to soil loss is partly due to uncalibrated avoidance of social shame
    • Your relaxed attitude to risk from nanotechnology is partly due to uncalibrated avoidance of social shame
    • Your relaxed attitude to risk from chemicals in paint is partly due to uncalibrated avoidance of social shame
    • Your relaxed attitude to Democratic elites drinking the blood of children is partly due to uncalibrated avoidance of social shame
    • Your relaxed attitude to spiders is partly due to uncalibrated avoidance of social shame)

    How is information about risk processed in groups in practice by default?

    Here it seems helpful to have a model of what is going on when a group responds to something like smoke, minus whatever dysfunction or bias comes from being scared of looking like a pansy.

    The standard fire-alarm-free group escape

    In my experience, if there is some analog of smoke appearing in the room, people don’t just wait in some weird tragedy of the commons until they drop dead. There is an escalation of concern. One person might say ‘hey, can you smell something?’ in a tone that suggests that they are pretty uncertain, and just kind of curious, and definitely not concerned. Then another person sniffs the air and says in a slightly more niggled tone, ‘yeah, actually - is it smoke?’. And then someone frowns as if this is all puzzling but still not that concerning, and gets up to take a look. And then if anyone is more concerned, they can chime in with ‘oh, I think there’s a lot of dry grass in that room too, I hope the spark generator hasn’t lit some of it’, or something.

    I’m not sure whether this is an incredibly good way to process information together about a possible fire, but it seems close to a pretty reasonable and natural method: each person expresses their level of concern, everyone updates, still-concerned people go and gather new information and update on that, this all repeats until the group converges on concern or non-concern. I think of this as the default method.

    It seems to me that what people actually do is this plus some adjustments from e.g. people expecting social repercussions if they express a different view to others, and people not wanting to look afraid. Thus instead we see the early reports of concern downplayed emotionally, for instance joked about, both allowing the reporter to not look scared, and also making it a less clear bid for agreement, so allowing the other person to respond with inaction, e.g. by laughing at the joke and dropping the conversation. I’m less clear on what I see exactly that makes me think there is also a pull toward agreeing, or that saying a thing is like making a bid for others to agree, and disagreeing is a potentially slightly costly social move, except for my intuitive sense of such situations.

    It’s not obvious to me that crippling embarrassment is a bias on top of this kind of arrangement, rather than a functional part of it. If each person has a different intrinsic level of fear, embarrassment might be genuinely aligning people who would be too trigger-happy with their costly measures of caution. And it’s not obvious to me that embarrassment doesn’t also affect people who are unusually incautious. (Before trying to resolve embarrassment in other ways, it seems good to check whether it is a sign that you are doing something embarrassing.)

    Two examples of groups observing ambiguous warning signs without fire alarms in the wild, from the time when Eliezer’s post came out and I meant to write this:

    1. At about 3am my then-boyfriend woke up and came and poked his head around my door and asked whether I could smell smoke. I said that I could, and that I had already checked the house, and that people on Twitter could also smell it, so it was probably something large and far away burning (as it happened, I think Napa or Sonoma). He went to bed, and I checked the house one more time, to be sure and/or crazy.
    2. I was standing in a central square in a foreign city with a group of colleagues. There was a very loud bang, that sounded like it was a stupendously loud bang some short distance away. People in the group glanced around and remarked on it, and then joked about it, and then moved to other topics. I remained worried, and surreptitiously investigated on my phone, and messaged a friend with better research resources at hand.

    I think Case 2 nicely shows the posited fear shame (though both cases suggest a lack of it with close friends). But in both cases, I think you see the social escalation of concern thing. In the first case my boyfriend actually sought me out to casually ask about smoke, which is very surprising on a model where the main effect of company is to cause crippling humiliation. Then it didn’t get further because I had evidence to reassure him. In the second case, you might say that the group was ignoring the explosion-like-thing out of embarrassment. But I hypothesize that they were actually doing a ratcheting thing that could have led to group fear, that quickly went downward. They remarked casually on the thing, and jokingly wondered about bombs and such. And I posit that when such jokes were met with more joking instead of more serious bombs discussion, the ones who had been more concerned became less so.

    The smoke experiment video also suggests that this kind of behavior is what people expect to do: the first woman says, ‘I was looking for some sort of reaction from someone else. Even just the slightest little thing, that they’d recognize that there was something, you know, going on here. For me to kind of, react on that and then do something about it. I kind of needed prodding.”

    I think this model also describes metaphorical smoke. In the absence of very clear signs of when to act, people indeed seem embarrassed to seem too concerned. For instance, they are sometimes falling over themselves to be distanced from those overoptimistic AI-predictors everyone has heard about. But my guess is that they avoid embarrassment not by sitting in silence until they drown in metaphorical smoke, but with a social back and forth maneuver—pushing the conversation toward more concern each time as long as they are concerned—that ultimately coordinates larger groups of people to act at some point, or not. People who don’t want to look like feverish techno-optimists are still comfortable wondering aloud whether some of this new image recognition stuff might be put to ill-use. And if that goes over well, next time they can be a little more alarmist. There is an ocean of ongoing conversation, in which people can lean a little this way and that, and notice how the current is moving around them. And in general—before considering possible additional biases—it isn’t clear to me that this coordination makes things worse than the hypothetical embarrassment-free world of early and late unilateral actions.11

    In sum I think the basic thing people do when responding to risks in a group is to cautiously and conformingly trade impressions of the level of danger, leading to escalating concern if a real problem is arising.


    A notable problem with this whole story so far is that people love being concerned. Or at least, they are often concerned in spite of a shocking dearth of evidential support, and are not shy about sharing their concerns.

    I think one thing going on is that people mostly care about criticism coming from within their own communities, and that for some reason concerns often become markers of political alignment. So if for instance the idea that there may be too many frogs appearing is a recognized yellow side fear, then if you were to express that fear with great terror, the whole yellow side would support you, and you would only hear mocking from the heinous green side. If you are a politically involved yellow supporter, this is a fine state of affairs, so you have no reason to underplay your concern.

    This complicates our pluralistic inaction story so much that I’m inclined to just write it off as a different kind of situation for now: half the people are still embarrassed to overtly express a particular fear, but for new reasons, and the other half are actively embarrassed to not express it, or to express it too quietly. Plus everyone is actively avoiding conforming with half of the people.

    I think this kind of dynamic is notably at play with climate change case, and weirdly-to-me also with covid. My guess is that it’s pretty common, at least to a small degree, and often not aligned with the major political sides. Even if there are just sides to do with the issue itself, all you need for this is that people feel a combination of good enough about the support of their side and dismissive enough of the other side’s laughter to voice their fears.

    In fact I wonder if this is not a separate issue, and actually a kind of natural outcome of the initial smelling of smoke situation, in a large enough crowd (e.g. society). If one person for some reason is worried enough to actually break the silence and flee the building, then they have sort of bet their reputation on there being a fire, and while others are judging that person, they are also updating a) that there is more likely to be a fire, and b) that the group is making similar updates, and so it is less embarrassing to leave. So one person’s leaving makes it easier for each of the remaining people to leave12. Which might push someone else over the edge into leaving, which makes it even easier to leave for the next person. If you have a whole slew of people leaving, but not everyone, and the fire takes a really long time to resolve, then (this isn’t game theory but my own psychological speculations) I can imagine the people waiting in the parking lot and the people sticking it out inside developing senses of resentment and judgment toward the people in the other situation, and camaraderie toward those who went their way.

    You can actually see a bit of something like this in the video of the Asch conformity experiments—when another actor says the true answer, the subject says it too and then is comradely with the actor:

    My guess is that in many cases even one good comrade is enough to make a big difference. Like, if you are in a room with smoke, and one other person is willing to escalate concern with you, it’s not hard to imagine the two of you reporting it together, while having mild disdain for the sheeple who would burn.

    So I wonder if groupishness is actually part of how escalation normally works. Like, you start out with a brave first person, and then it is easier to join them, and a second person comes, and you form a teensy group which grows (as discussed above) but also somewhere in there becomes groupish in the sense of its members being buoyed enough by their comrades’ support and dismissive enough of the other people that the concerned group are getting net positive social feedback for their concern. And then the concerned group grows more easily by there being two groups you can be in as a conformist. And by both groups getting associated with other known groups and stereotypes, so that being in the fearful group signals different things about a person than fearfulness. On this model, if there is a fire, this gets responded to by people gradually changing into the ‘building is on fire’ group, or newcomers joining it, and eventually that group becoming the only well respected one, hopefully in time to go outside.

    In sum, we see a lot of apparently uncalled for and widely advertised fearfulness in society, which is at odds with a basic story of fear being shameful. My guess is that this is a common later part of the dynamic which might begin as in the experiments, with everyone having trouble being the first responder.

    Note that this would mean the basic fire alarm situation is less of a good model of real world problems of the kind we might blog about, where by the time you are calling for people to act in spite of their reluctance to look afraid, you might already be the leader of the going outside movement which they could join in relatively conformist ease, perhaps more at the expense of seeming like a member of one kind of group over another than straightforwardly looking fearful.

    Is the fear shame hypothesis correct?

    I think the support of this thesis from the present research is actually not clear. Darley and Latané’s experiment tells us that people in groups react less to a fire alarm than individuals. But is the difference about hiding fear? Does it reveal a bias? Is it the individuals who are biased, and not the group?

    Is there a bias at all?

    That groups and individuals behave differently doesn’t mean that one of the two is wrong. Perhaps if you have three sources of evidence on whether smoke is alarming, and they are overall pointing at ‘doubtful’, then you shouldn’t do anything, whereas if you only have one and it is also pointing at ‘doubtful’, you should often gather more evidence.

    It could also be that groups are generally more correct due to having more data, and whether they are more or less concerned than individuals actually varies based on the riskiness of the situation. Since these kinds of experiments are never actually risky, our ability to infer that a group is under-reacting relies on the participants being successfully misled about the degree of risk. But maybe they are only a bit misled, and things would look very different if we watched groups and individuals in real situations of danger. My guess is that society acts much more on AI risk and climate change than the average of individuals’ behavior, if the individuals were isolated from others with respect to that topic somehow.

    Some evidence against a bias is that groups don’t seem to be consistently less concerned about risk than individuals, in the wild. For instance, ‘panics’ are a thing I often hear that it would be bad to start.

    Also, a poll of whoever sees such things on my Twitter suggests that while rarer, a decent fraction of people feel social pressure toward being cautious more often than the reverse:

    Are groups not scared enough or are individuals too scared?

    Even if there is a systematic bias between groups and individuals, it isn’t obvious that groups are the ones erring. They appear to be in these fire alarm cases, but a) given that they are in fact correct, it seems like they should get some benefit of the doubt, and b) these are a pretty narrow set of cases.

    An alternate theory here would be that solitary people are often poorly equipped to deal rationally with risks, and many tend to freak out and check lots of things they shouldn’t check, but this is kept in check in a group setting by some combination of reassurance of other people, shame about freaking out over nothing, and conformity. I don’t really know why this would be the situation, but I think it has some empirical plausibility, and it wouldn’t be that surprising to me if humans were better honed for dealing with risks in groups than as individuals. (D&L suggest a hypothesis like this, but think it isn’t this, because the group situation seemed to alter participants likelihood of interpreting the smoke as fire, rather than their reported ability to withstand the danger. I’m less sure that inclination to be fearless wouldn’t cause people to interpret smoke differently.)

    One might think a reason against this hypothesis is that this shame phenomenon seems to be a bias in the system, so probably the set who are moved by it (people in groups) are the ones who are biased. But you might argue that shame is maybe a pretty functional response to doing something wrong, and so perhaps you should assume that the people feeling shame are the ones who would otherwise be doing something wrong.

    Is it because they want to hide their fear?

    In an earlier study, D&L observed participants react less to an emergency that other participants could see, even when the others couldn’t see how they responded to it.

    D&L infer that there are probably multiple different things going on. Which might be true, but it does pain me to need two different theories to explain two very similar datapoints.

    Another interesting fact about these experiments is that the participants don’t introspectively think they interpret the smoke as fire, and want to escape, but are concerned about looking bad. If you ask them, apparently they say that they just didn’t think it was fire:

    “Subjects who had not reported the smoke also were unsure about exactly what it was, but they uniformly said that they had rejected the idea that it was a fire. Instead, they hit upon an astonishing variety of alternative explanations, all sharing the common characteristic of interpreting the smoke as a nondangerous event. Many thought the smoke was either steam or air-conditioning vapors, several thought it was smog, purposely introduced to simulate an urban environment, and two (from different groups) actually suggested that the smoke was a “truth gas” filtered into the room to induce them to answer the questionnaire accurately. (Surprisingly, they were not disturbed by this conviction.) Predictably, some decided that “it must be some sort of experiment” and stoicly endured the discomfort of the room rather than overreact.

    Despite the obvious and powerful report inhibiting effect of other bystanders, subjects almost invariably claimed that they had paid little or no attention to the reactions of the other people in the room. Although the presence of other people actually had a strong and pervasive effect on the subjects’ reactions, they were either unaware of this or unwilling to admit it.”

    I don’t take this as strong evidence against the theory, because this seems like what it might look like for a human to see ambiguous evidence and at some level want to avoid seeming scared. Plus if you look at the video of this experiment being rerun, the people in groups not acting do not look uniformly relaxed.

    For me a big plus in the theory of fear shame is that it introspectively seems like a thing. I’m unusually disposed toward caution in many circumstances, and also an analytic approach that both doesn’t match other people’s intuitive assessments of risk always, and isn’t very moved by observing this. And I do feel the shame of it. This year has allowed particular observation of this: it is just embarrassing, for me at least, to wear a heavy duty P100 respirator in a context where other people are not. Even if the non-social costs of wearing a better mask are basically zero in a situation (e.g. I don’t need to talk, I’m kind of enjoying not having my face visible), it’s like there is an invisible demand rising from the world, ‘why are you wearing such a serious mask? Is it that you think this is dangerous?’ (‘Only a little bit dangerous, please, I’m just like you, it’s just that on net I don’t really mind wearing the bigger mask, and it is somewhat safer, so why not?’13)

    But on further consideration, I think introspection doesn’t support this theory. Because a much broader set of things than fear seem to produce a similar dynamic to seeing smoke in a group, or to in other cases where I feel unable to take the precautions I would want because of being observed.

    Here are some actions that feel relatedly difficult to me—probably either because the outward behavior seem similar or because I expect a similar internal experience—but where the threat of seeming too fearful in particular isn’t the issue:

    1. Wearing a weird outfit in public, like a cape (this feels fairly similar to wearing a heavy duty mask in public, e.g. I’m inclined not to though there are no obvious consequences, and if I do, my brain becomes obsessed with justifying itself)
    2. Wearing no mask in a context where others have masks (my friend says this feels similarly hard to wearing an overly large mask to him)
    3. Getting up and leaving a room of people doing a questionnaire if there appeared to be hundred dollar bills falling from the sky outside the window (I expect this to feel somewhat similar to seeing smoke)
    4. Answering a question differently from everyone else in front of the room, as in the classic Asch conformity experiments (I expect this to feel a bit like seeing smoke, and the behavior looks fairly similar: a person is offered a choice in front of a group who all seem to be taking the apparently worse option)
    5. Being shown a good-seeming offer with a group of people, e.g. an ad offering a large discount on a cool object if you call a number now (I would find it hard to step out and phone the number, unless I did it surreptitiously)
    6. Being in a large group heading to a Japanese restaurant, and realizing that given everyone’s preferences, an Italian restaurant would be better (I think this would feel a bit like seeing smoke in the room, except that the smoke wasn’t even going to kill you)
    7. Sitting alone at a party, in a way that suggests readiness to talk, e.g. not looking at phone or performing solitary thoughtfulness (this makes me want to justify myself, like when wearing a big mask, and is very hard to do, maybe like standing up and leaving upon seeing smoke)
    8. Leaving a large room where it would be correct to say goodbye to people, but there are so many of them, and they are organized such that if you say goodbye to any particular person, many others will be watching, and to say goodbye to everyone at once you will have to shout and also interrupt people, and also may not succeed in actually getting everyone’s attention, or may get it too loudly and seem weird (this has an, ‘there’s an obviously correct move here, and I somehow can’t do it because of the people’ feeling, which I imagine is similar to the smoke)
    9. If a class was organizing into groups in a particular way, and you could see a clearly better way of doing it, telling the class this
    10. Shouting a response to someone calls out a question to a crowd
    11. Walking forward and investigating whether a person is breathing, when they have collapsed but there is a crowd around them and you don’t know if anyone has done anything
    12. Getting up to help someone who has fallen into the subway gap when lots of people can see the situation
    13. Stepping in to stop a public domestic violence situation
    14. Getting up to tell a teacher when a group of other students are sticking needles into people’s legs (this happened to me in high school, and I remember it because I was so paralyzed for probably tens of minutes while also being so horrified that I was paralyzed)
    15. Asking strangers to use their credit card to make an important phone call on the weird public phones on a ship (this also happened to me, and I was also mysteriously crippled and horrified)
    16. Criticizing someone’s bad behavior when others will see (my friend says he would feel more game to do this alone, e.g. if he saw someone catcalling a woman rudely)
    17. Correcting a professor if they have an equation wrong on the board, when it’s going to need to be corrected for the lesson to proceed sensically, and many people can see the issue
    18. Doing anything in a very large room with about six people scattered around quietly, such that your actions are visible and salient to everyone and any noise or sudden motion you make will get attention
    19. Helping to clean up a kitchen with a group of acquaintances, e.g. at a retreat, where you are missing information for most of the tasks (e.g. where do chopping boards live, do things need to be rinsed off for this dishwasher, what is this round brown object, did it all start out this dirty?)
    20. Doing mildly unusual queueing behavior for the good of all. For instance, standing in a long airport queue, often everyone would be better off if a gap were allowed to build at the front of the queue and then everyone walked forward a longer distance at once, instead of everyone edging forward a foot at a time. This is because often people set down their objects and read on their phones or something while waiting, so it is nicer to pick everything up and walk forward five meters every few minutes than it is to pick everything up and walk forward half a meter every twenty seconds. Anyone in the queue can start this, where they are standing, by just not walking forward when the person in front of them does. This is extremely hard to do, in my experience.
    21. Asking or answering questions in a big classroom. I think professors have trouble getting people to do this, even when students have questions and answers.
    22. Not putting money in a hat after those around you have
    23. Interacting with a child with many adults vaguely watching
    24. Taking action on the temperature being very high as a student in a classroom
    25. Cheering for something you liked when others aren’t
    26. Getting up and dancing when nobody else is
    27. Walking across the room in a weird way, in most situations
    28. Getting up and leaving if you are watching something that you really aren’t liking with a group of friends

    Salient alternate explanations:

    1. Signaling everything: people are just often encumbered any time people are looking at them, and might infer anything bad about them from their behavior. It’s true that they don’t want to seem too scared, but they also don’t want to seem too naively optimistic (e.g. believing that money is falling from above, or that they are being offered a good deal) or to not know about fashion (e.g. because wearing a cape), or to be wrong about how long different lines are (e.g. in the Asch experiments).
    2. Signaling weirdness: as in 1, but an especially bad way to look is ‘weird’, and it comes up whenever you do anything different from most other people, so generally cripples all unusual behavior.
    3. Conformity is good: people just really like doing what other people are doing.
    4. Non-conformity is costly: there are social consequences for nonconformity (2 is an example of this, but might not be the only one).
    5. Non-conformity is a bid for being followed: if you are with others, it is good form to collaboratively decide what to do14. Thus if you make a move to do something other than what the group is doing, it is implicitly a bid for others to follow, unless you somehow disclaim it as not that. According to intuitive social rules, others should follow iff you have sufficient status, so it is also a bid to be considered to have status. This bid is immediately resolved in a common knowledge way by the group’s decision about whether to follow you. If you just want to leave the room and not make a bid to be considered high status at the same time—e.g. because that would be wildly socially inappropriate given your actual status—then you can feel paralyzed by the lack of good options.

      This model fits my intuitions about why it is hard to leave. If I imagine seeing the smoke, and wanting to leave, what seems hard? Well, am I just going to stand up and quietly walk out of the room? That feels weird, if the group seems ‘together’ - like, shouldn’t I say something to them? Ok, but what? ‘I think we should go outside’? ‘I’m going outside’? These are starting to sound like bids for the group agreeing with me. Plus if I say something like this quietly, it still feels weird, because I didn’t address the group. And if I address the group, it feels a lot like some kind of status-relevant bid. And when I anticipate doing any of these, and then nobody following me, that feels like the painful thing. (I guess at least I’m soon outside and away from them, and I can always move to a new city.)

      On this theory, if you could find a way to avoid your actions seeming like a bid for others to leave, things would be fine. For instance, if you said, ‘I’m just going to go outside because I’m an unreasonably cautious person’, on this theory it would improve the situation, whereas on the fear shame hypothesis, it would make it worse. My own intuition is that it improves the situation.

    6. Non-conformity is conflict: not doing what others are doing is like claiming that they are wrong, which is like asking for a fight, which is a socially scary move.
    7. Scene-aversion: people don’t like ‘making a scene’ or ‘making a fuss’. They don’t want to claim that there’s a fire, or phone 911, or say someone is bad, or attract attention, or make someone nearby angry. I’m not sure what a scene is. Perhaps a person has made one if they are considered responsible for something that is ‘a big deal’. Or if someone else would be right in saying, ‘hey everyone, Alice is making a bid for this thing to be a big deal’

    These are not very perfect or explanatory or obviously different, but I won’t dive deeper right now. Instead, I’ll say a person is ‘groupstruck’15 if they are in any way encumbered by the observation of others.

    My own sense is that a mixture of these flavors of groupstruckness happen in different circumstances, and that one could get a better sense of which and when if one put more thought into it than I’m about to.

    A big question that all this bears on is whether there is a systematic bias away from concern about risks, in public e.g. in public discourse. If there is—if people are constantly trying to look less afraid than they are—then it seems like an important issue. If not, then we should focus on other things, for instance perhaps a lurking systematic bias toward inaction.

    My own guess is that the larger forces we see here are not about fear in particular, and after the first person ‘sounds the alarm’ as it were, and some people are making their way outside, the forces for and against the side of higher caution are more messy and not well thought of as a bias against caution (e.g. worrying about corporate profits or insufficient open source software or great power war mostly makes you seem like one kind of person or another, rather than especially fearful). My guess is that these dynamics are better thought of as opposing a wide range of attention-attracting nonconformism. That said, my guess is that overall there are somewhat stronger pressures against fear than in favor of it, and that in many particular instances, there is a clear bias against caution, so it isn’t crazy to think of ‘fear shame’ as a thing, if a less ubiquitous thing, and maybe not a very natural category.

    III. Getting un-groupstruck

    How can fear shame and being groupstruck be overcome? How are things like this overcome in practice, if they ever are? How should we overcome them?

    Some ideas that might work if some of the above is true, many inspired by aspects of fire alarms:

    1. A person or object to go first, and receive the social consequences of nonconformity
      For instance, a person whose concern is not discouraged by social censure, or a fire alarm. There is no particular need for this to be a one-off event. If Alice is just continually a bit more worried than others about soil loss, this seems like it makes it easier for others to be more concerned than they would have been. Though my guess is that often the difference between zero and one people acting on a concern is especially helpful. In the case of AI risk, this might just mean worrying in public more about AI risk.
    2. Demonstrate your non-judgmentalness
      Others are probably afraid of you judging them often. To the extent that you aren’t also oppressed by fear of judgment from someone else, you can probably free others some by appearing less judgmental.
    3. Other incentives to do the thing, producing plausible deniability
      Cool parties to indicate your concern, prestigious associations about it…
    4. Authorities enforcing caution
      Where does the shame-absorbing magic of a real fire alarm come from, when it has it? From an authority such as building management, or your school, or the fire brigade, who you would have to fight to disobey.
    5. ‘Fire wardens’
      A combination of 1 and 2 and maybe 8. The experiment above found that people responded very fast to a fire warden telling them to move. Here, a policy made from a distance sends in a person whose job it is to authoritatively tell you to leave. This looks pretty effective for fires, anecdotally. For AI safety, one equivalent might be a person in a company whose job it is to watch over some analysis of the safety of different projects, with the authority to tell people that projects have to be set down sometimes. In general, set up genuine authority on the questions you want to have guidance for when the time comes (rather than making calls on at the time), and allow them to set policy in coolness ahead of time, and grant them the ability to come in with a megaphone and a yellow vest when you want to be warned.
    6. Clash with another conformist behavior
      For instance, if everyone is sitting by in some smoke, but also everyone does what they are told by a police person, then calling in the police might dislodge them
    7. Politicization
      Once there are multiple groups who feel good about themselves, it is probably easier for people to join whichever might have initially felt too small and non-conformist. On the downside, I imagine it might be harder for everyone to ultimately join, and also this sounds messy and I’ve only thought about it for a few minutes.
    8. Policy from outside the paralysis
      If you leave your dorm because there is a fire alarm, the dean who made the policy that requires you to does not have to feel awkwardly afraid each time the alarm goes off and you have to leave the building. (As discussed above.) In general, arranging to make cautious policies from places where caution won’t be embarrassing seems helpful.
    9. A slightly better empirical case that the time for concern is now These forces aren’t all powerful—if people are worried enough, they will often act in spite of embarrassment, or cease being embarrassed. Plus, if the evidence is good enough that someone acts, that can help others act (see 1).
    10. A shift in the general overton window
      thinking climate change will probably cause intense disaster and may destroy the world and requires urgent action is now the norm, and thinking that it might be bad but will probably not be that bad and shouldn’t be the highest priority risks being an asshole.
    11. A new framing or emphasis of attention
      E.g. It’s not about being scared of lifelong disability, it’s about respecting the frontline workers and the work they are putting in day in and day out dealing with people who insist on partying in this disaster.
    12. Personal trigger for action
      It can probably be valuable to state ahead of time a trigger that you think would cause you to do a thing, so that you at least notice if your standards are slipping because you don’t want to do the thing. I don’t see why this should be particularly related to any threshold at which society recognizes interest in an issue to be non-embarrassing.
    13. Smaller rooms
      If your auditorium of people hearing a fire alarm were instead a hundred rooms with five people in each, some of the fives of people would probably manage to leave, which if visible might encourage others to go. It’s easier to get common knowledge that a thing isn’t embarrassing with five people than with five hundred people. My guess is also that people would leave the room in the smoke faster if they were in pairs who were messaging with each other as part of the fake task. Because bringing up the smoke to one person isn’t so hard, and if a pair finds that they are both concerned, it is easier for two people to leave together. Thus for instance organizing small group discussions of an issue might be better for getting people’s genuine levels of concern on the table.
    14. Escalating scale of company
      Related to the above, my guess is that if a person is in a larger group implicitly, e.g. a community, and is concerned, they will try to get the mild attention of a single person and discuss it privately, then escalate from there. E.g. first you jokingly mention the worry to your boyfriend, then if he doesn’t laugh that much, you admit that maybe it could conceivably be a real thing, then you both speculate about it a bit and learn a bit more, then you say that you are actually a bit worried, and then he says that too, then you start to feel out your friends, etc. My guess is that this helps a lot with mitigating these paralyses. Thus making it easier seems helpful. For instance, if you are running an event where you think people are going to be crippled from dissenting from a certain view in front of the room, you could have them first discuss the question with a single person, then with a small group.16
    15. Citable evidence
      If objective, citable evidence that you could justify your caution with is much more helpful than evidence for private consumption, then you can help mitigate fear shame by providing that sort of evidence. For instance, survey data showing that the median ML researcher thinks AI poses an extreme risk.
    16. Make a fire alarm
      As noted above, fire alarms are not natural phenomena—they are built. If you thought fire alarms were a thing, and their absence was important, then trying to build one seems like perhaps a good move. (If you were considering devoting your life to trying to engineer a friendly AI revolution on a short timeline for want of a fire alarm, perhaps more so.) Given the ambiguities in what exactly a fire alarm is doing, this might look different ways. But maybe something like a measure of risk (which needn’t be accurate at all) which triggers the broadcast of an alert and call for a specific act of caution from specific parties, which was generally thought to be authoritative or otherwise desirable to listen to ahead of time.

    Conclusions: forget fire alarms, down with fear shame and groupstrickenness

    In conclusion, fire alarms don’t seem that important in the battle against fear shame, and fear shame also doesn’t seem like a great description of what’s going on. People seem frequently encumbered into apparent irrationality in the company of others, which seems important, but there seem to be lots of things to do about it. I think we should plausibly do some of them.

    Action conclusions

    I’m saying:

    DON’T: say ‘there will never be a fire alarm, so this is basically the situation we will always be in’ and flee the building/work on AI safety out of an inability to distinguish this from the dire situation.

    DO: consider whether your position is unduly influenced by social incentives that don’t track the real danger of the situation—for instance, whether you would find it embarrassing among your current associates to express deep concern for AI risk—and try to adjust your level of concern accordingly.

    DO: make it easier for everyone to follow their assessment of the evidence without oppressive social influences at a personal level, by:

    1. practicing voicing your somewhat embarrassing concerns, to make it easier for others to follow (and easier for you to do it again in future)
    2. reacting to others’ concerns that don’t sound right to you with kindness and curiosity instead of laughter. Be especially nice about concerns about risks in particular, to counterbalance the special potential for shame there. [or about people raising points that you think could possibly be embarrassing for them to raise]

    DO: consider thinking about designing policies and institutions that might mitigate the warping of fear shame and social encumberment (some ideas above).

    DO: make ‘fire alarms’, if you think they are important. Find measurable benchmarks with relatively non-subjective-judgment-based import. Find them ahead of time, before social incentives hit. Measure them carefully. Get authoritative buy-in re their import and the reasonable precautions to take if they are met. Measure carefully and publicize our distance from them.

    In sum, I think you should take seriously the likelihood that you and everyone else are biased in the direction of incaution or inaction—as it seems like there is good evidence that you might be—but that this is not especially well thought of in terms of ‘fire alarms’.


    1. A single real participant accompanied by two actors instructed to remain calmly in the room will also sit by, but this seems unsurprising and unconcerning, if we assume people in groups normally share information and partly defer to one another. Probably a lone human surrounded by actors claiming to have thought about AGI and come to the view that it is totally fine would also not prioritize AGI, which seems fine. 

    2. The video doesn’t show the more interesting case with a group of innocent participants. I checked with Dominic Abrams, the professor featured in it, and he said it was a genuine experiment, i.e. with real participants, rather than just a re-enactment, but that they didn’t write it up. He recalls that they also did the condition with three innocent participants, and that people were always slower if not alone. Even as essentially anecdote, I find the video pretty interesting. 

    3. Though this explanation has more trouble with the observation of an earlier experiment that people were inactive when they knew others could see a problem, even though they were invisible to the rest of the group, and so arguably protected from judgment, as noted by Darley and Latané 1968. (“We have found (Darley & Latané”, 1968) that the mere perception that other people are also witnessing the event will mark- edly decrease the likelihood that an individual will intervene in an emergency. Individuals heard a person undergoing a severe epileptic-like fit in another room. In one experimental condition, the subject thought that he was the only person who heard the emergency; in another condition, he thought four other persons were also aware of the seizure. Subjects alone with the victim were much more likely to intervene on his behalf, and, on the average, reacted in less than one-third the time required by subjects who thought there were other bystanders present.”) 

    4. Or at least a smoke alarm—technically I think a fire alarm is the thing that sends ringing throughout a large building in response to some trigger, whereas the smaller thing with a single detector and attached sound maker is a smoke detector. 

    5. “Evacuation expert Prof Ed Galea said “People who had purchased and paid for their meal… Even though they could see the smoke, they could smell the smoke, they could hear the alarms going off, they felt they had sufficient time to complete their meals before evacuating.”” https://www.fireco.uk/3-reasons-people-ignore-fire-alarms/ 

    6. “Another witness of the fire called Kate said: “I remember reading in the newspaper at the time that one man had to be dragged from the restaurant because he wanted to finish his meal despite the flames across the floor.”” https://www.mancunianmatters.co.uk/life/09052013-ill-never-forget-it-manchester-remembers-tragic-woolworths-fire-of-1979-that-claimed-10-lives-in-blaze/ 

    7. It could be that randomly at that next level, people are scared enough to leave. But then it feels like our understanding of fire alarms here is at the level ‘randomly people are more worried about them’. 

    8. That matches my experience but it sounds like maybe the ones that automatically call the fire department really do indicate a fire at least 15% of the time (I think I saw much higher numbers too somewhere). 

    9. Note to hypochondriacs: this doesn’t work as well as you might think—people will doubt your pulse oximeter, and your judgment about when to say pulse oximeters are probably just broken. If you have two pulse oximeters to provide ironclad evidence, this can make them even more suspicious of the whole situation. Which seems somehow fair, though I know of no good explanation for how it is fair. 

    10. According to a large survey of machine learning experts thath I ran with others, the median chance that high level machine intelligence has ‘extremely bad (e.g human extinction)’ level outcomes is about 5%. 

    11. In the particular case of AI I am more worried than average, and the coordinated time to act will be later, and I suspect too late, so maybe I would prefer ignore it. But this is a specific issue where I already have a view, and I don’t see that considering the larger structure of fire alarms lends support to my desire in general. 

    12. On the alternate model that people are basically conformist, this seems even more true. It’s probably worse as a conformist to be the first to leave than to conform with a much smaller group when there is a larger available group. 

    13. And wearing a p100 in public is actually non-conformist-public-concern on easy mode, because it also covers up your face and averts the need for you to make expressively apologetic or excusatory faces at random strangers. ‘Yes I know, I know, but look I’m not oblivious, I do know—probably I am doing something you don’t understand…I’m looking at something you can’t see, and I’m looking at my watch because I’m in a hurry for something you don’t know about but that definitely means I need this excessive mask; I’m probably escorting the queen somewhere or something like that, and you know, she’s very old and it’s reasonable for her to be cautious, or I mean obviously it’s not that reasonable, like I wouldn’t do it, but you know, she’s the queen, and she’s from another time, so we have patience with her foibles’. 

    14. As an interesting datapoint about this, people seem to talk as if they are compelled to act as a group, when there is no obvious reason that they have to, and they don’t seem to agree with the group consensus. e.g. ‘The fire alarm in the block of apartments we r staying in is going off but we are ignoring it?’ 

    15. Thanks to a friend for this word. 

    16. This sort of thing maybe requires that you can maintain a view at least somewhat different from that which you are most comfortable expressing.

      Interestingly in the study, people actually took much longer to notice the smoke when they were in company (based on the authors’ claim that the point of noticing ‘was a relatively easy observation to make, for the subjects invariably showed a distinct, if slight, startle reaction.’). It took a median of under five seconds for people alone to notice the smoke, and 20 seconds for the first person in a group (combining both group conditions). The authors attribute this to people looking around all over the place when alone, but keeping their eyes in line in a group, for fear of seeming to stare or something. Which sounds plausible, but I do wonder a bit if there is something else going on, for instance where at a basic perceptual level if you are in a group with an implicit consensus that things are fine, you don’t endanger that with exploration of peripheral sign of danger. (It could also be that it’s easier to see something moving when everything is still in a room.) 

  • Punishing the good

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

    For example:

    1. A newspaper sends me annoying emails all the time, but suppose that empirically if they didn’t behave like this, they would get markedly fewer subscribers, and may not survive. And suppose their survival is in fact worth a little annoyance for a lot of people, we all agree. Such that if I was in their position, I agree that I would send out the annoying emails. Should I resent them and unsubscribe from their paper for their antisocial behavior, or praise them and be friendly because overall I think they made the right call?
    2. Suppose Bob eats beef, which he thinks makes him feel somewhat better and so be better able to carry out his job as a diplomat negotiating issues in which tens of thousands of lives are at stake. He also thinks it is pretty bad for the cows, but worth it on net. Suppose he’s right about all of this. Five hundred years later, carnivory is illegal and hated, and historians report that Bob, while in other regards a hero, did eat beef. Should the people of 2521 think of Bob as an ambiguous figure, worthy of both pride and contempt? or should they treat him as purely a hero, who made the best choice in his circumstances?

    I have one intuition that says, ‘how can you punish someone for doing the very best thing they could have done? What did you want them to do? And are you going to not punish the alternative person, who made a worse choice for the world, but didn’t harm someone in the process? Are you just going to punish everyone different amounts?’

    But an argument for the other side—for punishing people for doing the right thing—is that it is needed to get the incentives straight. If Alice does $100 of harm to Bruce to provide $1000 of help to Carrie, then let’s suppose that that’s good (ignoring the potential violation of property rights, which seems like it shouldn’t be ignored ultimately). But if we let such things pass, then Alice might also do this when she guesses that is only worth $60 to Carrie, if she cares about Carrie more than Bruce. Whereas if we always punish Alice just as much as she harmed Bruce, then she will take the action exactly when she would think it worth it if it was her own welfare at stake, rather than Bruce’s. (This is just the general argument for internalizing externalities - having people pay for the costs they impose on others.)

    This resolution is weirder to the extent that the punishment is in the form of social disgrace and the like. It’s one thing to charge Bob money for his harms to cows, and another to go around saying ‘Bob made the best altruistic decisions he could, and I would do the same in his place. Also I do think he’s contemptible.’

    It also leaves Bob in a weird position, in which he feels fine about his decision to eat beef, but also considers himself a bit of a reprehensible baddie. Should this bother him? Should he try to reform?

    I’m still inclined toward punishing such people, or alternately to think that the issue should be treated with more nuance than I have done, e.g. distinguishing punishments from others’ opinions of you, and more straightforward punishments.

  • 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? I clearly believe they do. They make it my turn. But they don’t send a wire into the ‘whose turn is it’ variable deep in the ought-sphere, so what exactly do they do?

    I suspected that this button didn’t change whose turn it was, and it felt empty and devoid of some special potence of being a traffic button.

    I liked to imagine that it was just a normal traffic button, but taking a more nihilistic view of its role. In which case, its nihilistic view seemed to have practical consequences! It wasn’t being as good a good traffic button while saying that it didn’t change whose turn it is. It genuinely fails to coordinate the traffic so well, because here am I unable to garner the ‘right’ to cross with confidence, and there are the drivers unsure what I’m doing. But shouldn’t a traffic button be able to do its job regardless of its philosophical commitments, or without pretending to have philosophical commitments it doesn’t have?

    One might say that the thing going on is that it being ‘my turn’ is a fact about everyone’s expectations. For instance, if the drivers will expect me to cross, then it is ‘my turn’. (I’m tempted to say ‘if the drivers think it is my turn, then it is my turn’, but what are the drivers then thinking?) This doesn’t seem quite right, in that the drivers themselves are asking whether this light means that it is the pedestrian’s turn, and all of us seem to be asking something about the underlying truth, not about each other. Also, if I run erratically into the road, the drivers and I may both come to expect that I am going to cross, but it still isn’t my turn.

    I fantasized that I had woken up in a new world which was just like the old world, but where everything was like the traffic light. I would phone the doctor’s office later to ask if it was ok to cancel my appointment this late, they would just say, ‘I’ll change what it says in this schedule’.

    ‘But is it ok?’

    ‘I will not record your cancellation.’

    ‘Should I pay you?’

    ‘I am not charging you’

    ‘But is that like a favor, or is it the policy? Have I wronged your medical practice? Do I owe you really? Tell me if I was bad!’

    ‘I erased your name from this box on my piece of paper.’

    My tentative take is that turns are real, and we created them, and traffic buttons have genuine power over them, and if a traffic button doesn’t recognize their existence it is potentially at a real disadvantage, perhaps in a similar way to how a chair maker who doesn’t recognize chairs as a thing is at a disadvantage.

    (To be clear, I expect philosophers have much better thought out views on this, and welcome people telling me what they are–this is me thinking aloud, not philosophical advice.)

  • 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.

    On this occasion at least, Lafayette doesn’t feel properly like a small town to me. I think it’s the main road. A lot of the town is spread along this single road, but the road itself doesn’t feel like its main deal is being Lafayette’s main road. It feels more focused on being an energetic transitway between somewhere and somewhere else, neither in Lafayette. Which probably isn’t even that true, since there is a perfectly giant highway also spanning Lafayette just North of it. Maybe the problem is that it’s too wide, so that the town feels like it’s tenuously accumulated on the sides of a road like plaque, rather than the road being an organic vessel of the town. Or, you know, I’m imagining things.

    I seem to imagine things a lot regarding some kind of road Feng Shui (note: I know nothing about actual Feng Shui). My mind natively reads roads as conduits of some kind of ‘energy’, and tries to apply appropriate intuitive physics. For instance, if you have big flows in and out of a place, relative to the place itself, it won’t feel like its own place. It will feel like a section of a larger place. For instance, the typical random intersection in a big American city can’t be a place with its own local vibe, where you might feel like staying, because it can’t be very separate from the surrounding city that its energy-traffic is constantly being exchanged with. It’s just going to feel like a section of various energetic routes elsewhere.

    This intuitive physics is sort of like the physics of streams with leaves and debris in them. For a place to be placelike, and appealing to stay in, it needs to have enough nooks or ponds or complications for the fast flowing streams in and out to eddy around in and slow down and let the debris swirl to a halt. And this main street is a big stream running through a small place.

    This is all contradicted by the frequency with which people like to stand in narrow thoroughfares at parties even in the face of literal physical streams of partygoers pressing against them. (My intuition on this case is that the pressure of the partygoer liquid is so high that it somehow makes sense to be stuck in the doorway, but I don’t explicitly see how this model even makes sense.)

    I don’t know of any pro evidence for this model, but my brain just keeps on having it.

  • 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.

    To break it down more, on this view:

    1. A blog post should have a propositional claim (e.g. ‘the biggest externalities are from noise pollution’, or ‘noise pollution is a concept’ vs. expression of someone’s feelings produced by externalities, or a series of reflections on externalities). A ‘propositional claim’ here can be described straightforwardly in words, and usually conveys information (i.e. they say the world is one way instead of another way).
    2. It should be a general claim—i.e. applicable to many times and places and counterfactuals (e.g. ‘here is how tragedies of the commons work: …’ vs. ‘here is a thing that happened to me yesterday: …’)
    3. It should be a novel claim(e.g. a new reason to doubt one of the explanations put forward for the demographic transition)
    4. The claim should be described, which is to imply that the content should be:
      1. Verbal (or otherwise symbolic, e.g. a table of numbers surrounded by text would count)
      2. Explicit (saying the things it means, rather than alluding to them)
      3. Mostly concerned with conveying the relevant propositions (vs. for instance mostly concerned with affecting the reader’s mood or beliefs directly)

    I probably would have agreed that the odd vignette was also a good blog post, but ideally it should be contained in some explicit discussion of what was to be learned from it. I probably wouldn’t have held my more recent Worldly Positions blog1 in high esteem.

    I now think that departures from all of these things are often good. So in the spirit of novel descriptions of explicit and general claims, I have made a typology of different combinations of these axes.

    Before getting to it, I’ll explain some part of the value of each category that I think I overlooked, for anyone similar to my twenty year old self.

    Worthy non-propositional-claim content

    Minds have many characteristics other than propositional beliefs. For instance, they can have feelings and attitudes and intuitions and grokkings and senses. They can meditate and chop onions quickly and look on the bright side and tend to think in terms of systems. They can also have different versions of ‘beliefs’ that don’t necessarily correspond to differences in what propositions they would assent to. For instance, they can say ‘it’s good to exercise’, or they can viscerally anticipate a better future when they choose to exercise. And even among straightforward beliefs held by minds, there are many that aren’t easily expressed in words. For instance, I have an impression of what summer evenings in the garden of a lively country restaurant were like, but to convey that sense to you is an art, and probably involves saying different propositional things in the hope that your mind will fill in the same whatever-else in the gaps. So this belief doesn’t seem to live in my mind in a simple propositional form, nor easily make its way into one.

    All of this suggests that the set of things that you might want to communicate to a mind is large and contains much that is not naturally propositional.2

    Minds can also take many inputs other than propositional claims. For instance, instructions and remindings and stories and music and suggestions implicit in propositional claims and body language and images. So if you want to make available a different way of being to a mind—for instance you want it to find salient the instability of the global system—then it’s not obvious that propositional claims are the best way.

    Given that minds can take many non-propositional inputs, and take many non-propositional states, you should just expect that there are a lot of things to be said that aren’t naturally propositional, in form or content. You should expect messages where the payload is intended to influence a mind’s non-propositional states, and ones where the mode of communication is not propositional.

    …in communicating propositional claims

    There are different versions of ‘understanding’ a proposition. I like to distinguish ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ a thing — which is to say, seeing it fit into your abstract model of the world, being inclined to assent to it — and ‘realizing’ it — intuitively experiencing its truth in the world that you live in. Joe Carlsmith explores this distinction at more length, and gives an example I like:

    If asked, one would agree that the people one sees on a day to day basis — on the subway, at parties, at work — all have richly detailed and complex inner lives, struggles, histories, perspectives; but this fact isn’t always present and vivid in one’s lived world; and when it becomes so, it can make an important difference to one’s ethical orientation, even if the propositions one assents to have not obviously changed.

    I repeatedly have the experience of ‘already knowing’ some obvious thing that people always say for ages before ‘realizing’ it. For instance, ‘the map is not the territory’. (“Of course the map isn’t the territory. Why would it be? That would be some stupid mistake, thinking that the map was the territory. Like, what would your model of the situation even be like? That the place you live is also your own mind?”) Then at some point it actually hits me that stuff that seems to be in the world ISN’T IN THE WORLD; WHAT SEEMS LIKE THE WORLD IS MY OWN MIND’S IMAGE OF THE WORLD. For instance, long after seeming to know that ‘the map isn’t the territory’ I was astonished to realize that those things that are just boring in their basic essence, like sports statistics and home care magazines, things that seem to be fundamentally drab, are not like that at all. They gleam with just as much allure as the things I am most compelled by, from many vantage points out there—just not mine. And in such a case I say to myself, ‘Oh wow, I just realized something…huh, I guess it is that the map is not the territory…but I knew that?’. Probably reading this, you are still thinking, ‘um yes, you weren’t aware that boringness is person-dependent?’ And I was aware of that. I ‘knew’ it. And I even knew it in some intuitively available ways—for instance, just because I find Married at First Sight interesting, I did not expect my boyfriend to find it so. In particular, in approaching my boyfriend with the news that I have been watching a bunch of Married at First Sight, I viscerally did not expect ‘boyfriend sympathizes with appeal of objectively excellent show’ type observations (in fact he liked it, and I was in fact surprised). But still the boringness of other subjects is depicted to me as part of them, like being red is depicted as in the world (whereas ‘liable to reduce my hunger’ say, is I think more accurately represented by my mind as a feature of myself). And ‘realizing’ that that isn’t right changes how the world that I spend my concrete days in seems.

    (I know I have hardly explained or defended this claim that ‘realizing’ is a thing, and important, but I’m not going to do that properly here.)

    All of these ‘realizations’ seem to be non-propositional. You already had some proposition, and then you get something else. I think of ‘realizing’ a proposition as acquiring a related non-proposition. To realize the proposition ‘other people have inner lives’ is to take in some non-proposition. Perhaps a spacious sense of those other minds being right there around you. If you are communicating a proposition, to have it actually realized, you want to get its non-proposition partner into the recipient’s mind also. This isn’t really right, because each proposition probably has a multitude of intuitive realizations of it, and each intuitive sense of the world could be part of appreciating a multitude of different propositions. But at any rate, communicating a proposition well, so that the other person can really make use of it, often seems to involve conveying a lot of its non-propositional brethren.

    Worthy non-descriptive communication

    Closely related to non-propositional content is non-descriptive communication, which I shall call ‘evocative’ communication.

    I’m thinking of a few different axes as being related to descriptiveness of communication:

    • Verbalness (consisting of words, e.g. “donkeys are nice” vs. a video of a nice donkey)
    • Explicitness (saying in words the thing you mean, rather than demonstrating it or suggesting it or subtly causing it to creep into the background of the picture you are painting without naming it. E.g. “I want us to follow this protocol” vs. “Most reasonable people are following this protocol now”)
    • Neutrality (not setting out to affect the readers’ emotions except via content itself)

    I think of the most vanilla communication as being explicit, verbal and neutral. And this seems pretty good for conveying propositional content. But I suspect that non-propositional content is often conveyed better through evocative communication.

    (Or perhaps it is more like: communicating propositional claims explicitly with language is uniquely easy, because explicit language is basically a system we set up for communicating, and propositions are a kind of message that is uniquely well suited to it. But once we leave the set of things that are well communicated in this way, and given that there are lots of other ways to communicate things, non-descriptive forms of communication are much more likely to be helpful than they were.)

    Relatedly, I think non-descriptive communication can be helpful in making the ‘realizing’ versions of propositional claims available to minds. That is, in really showing them to us. So in that way, evocative communication seems also potentially valuable for communicating propositional content well.

    Worthy communication of non-propositional things descriptively

    Going the opposite way—trying to communicate ineffable things in words—also seems valuable, because a) groping nearby propositionally does contribute to understanding, and b) only understanding things in ineffable ways leaves them unavailable to our reasoning faculties in important ways.

    Worthy non-generality

    I thought that if things were not general, then they were particularly unimportant to talk about. All things equal, isn’t it way better to understand a broad class of things better than a single thing?

    Some ways this is misleading:

    • Understanding specific things is often basically a prerequisite for understanding general things. For instance, devising a general theory of circumstances under which arms races develop will be harder without specific information about the behavior of specific nations historically, to inspire or constrain your theorizing
    • Understanding specific things one after another will often automatically lead to your having an intuitive general model, through some kind of brain magic, even in cases where you would have had a hard time making an explicit model. For instance, after you have seen a thousand small disputes run their course, you might have a pretty good guess about how the current dispute will go, even if you couldn’t begin to describe a theory of argumentation for the relevant community.
    • Specific things are often broadly relevant to the specific world that you live in. For instance, exactly what happened in a particular past war might determine what current obligations should be and what sentiments are warranted, and who is owed, and what particular current parties might be expected to want or take for granted. Which is perhaps only of much interest in a narrow range of circumstances, but if they are the circumstances in which we will live for decades, it might be consistently material.

    Worthy non-originality of content

    On my naive model, you don’t want to repeat something that someone else said, because there is implicitly no value in the repetition—the thing has already been said, so re-saying adds nothing and seems to imply that you are either ignorant or hoping to dupe ignorant others into giving you undeserved credit.

    But on a model where many claims are easy enough to accept, but hard to realize, things look very different. The first time someone writes down an idea, the chances of it really getting through to anyone with much of its full power are low. The typical reader needs to meet the idea repeatedly, from different angles, to start to realize it.

    In a world like that, a lot of value comes from rehashing older ideas. Also in that world, rehashing isn’t the easy cashing in of someone else’s work. Writing something in a way that might really reach some people who haven’t yet been reached is its own art.

    Worthy non-originality of communication

    I think I also kind of imagined that once an idea had been put into the ‘public arena’ then the job was done. But another way in which unoriginality is incredibly valuable is that each person can only see such a minuscule fraction of what has ever been written or created, and they can’t even see what they can’t see, that locating particularly apt bits and sharing them with the right audience can be as valuable as writing the thing in the first place. This is curating and signal boosting. For these, you don’t even need to write anything original. But again, doing them well is not trivial. Knowing which of the cornucopia of content should be shown to someone is a hard intellectual task.


    Here is my tentative four-dimensional typology of kinds of blog posts. Any blog post maps to a path from some kind of content on the left, through some kind of communication to publication on the right. Content varies on two axes: generality and propositionalness. Communication varies in evocativeness. And blog posts themselves vary in how early in this pipeline the author adds value. For instance, among posts with a general propositional idea as their content, communicated in a non-propositional way, there are ones where the author came up with the idea, ones where the author took someone else’s idea and wrote something evocative about it, and ones that are repostings of either of the above. Thus, somewhat confusingly, there are 16 (pathways from left to right) x 3 (steps per pathway) = 46 total blog post types represented here, not the 36 you might expect from the number of squares.

    I include a random assortment of examples, some obscure, zooming probably required (apologies).

    Blog post typology

    Main updates

    1. Lots of worthy things are hard to describe in words
    2. ‘Realizing’ is a thing, and valuable, and different to understanding
    3. Details can be good
    4. Having ideas is not obviously the main place one can add value


    1. It’s good to write all manner of different kinds of blog posts
    2. It’s good to just take other people’s ideas and write blog posts about them, especially of different kinds than the original blog posts
    3. It’s good to just take one’s own ideas and write second or third blog posts saying exactly the same thing in different ways

    Other thoughts

    These different sorts of blog posts aren’t always valuable, of course. They have to be done well. Compellingly writing about something that isn’t worthy of people’s attention, or curating the wrong things can be as bad as the good versions of these things are good.

    Epistemic status: overall I expect to find that this post is badly wrong in at least one way in short order, but to be sufficiently interested in other things that I don’t get around to fixing it. Another good thing about rehashing others ideas is that you can make subtle edits where they are wrong.


    1. Older posts here 

    2. I don’t want to make strong claims about exactly what counts as propositional—maybe these things are propositional in some complicated way—but hopefully I’m pointing at an axis of straightforward propositionalness versus something else, regardless. 

  • 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.

    For example, from Arbital:

    Well, but suppose I declare to you that I simultaneously:

    • Prefer onions to pineapple on my pizza.
    • Prefer pineapple to mushrooms on my pizza.
    • Prefer mushrooms to onions on my pizza.

    Suppose I tell you that I prefer pineapple to mushrooms on my pizza. Suppose you’re about to give me a slice of mushroom pizza; but by paying one penny ($0.01) I can instead get a slice of pineapple pizza (which is just as fresh from the oven). It seems realistic to say that most people with a pineapple pizza preference would probably pay the penny, if they happened to have a penny in their pocket.[1]

    After I pay the penny, though, and just before I’m about to get the pineapple pizza, you offer me a slice of onion pizza instead–no charge for the change! If I was telling the truth about preferring onion pizza to pineapple, I should certainly accept the substitution if it’s free.

    And then to round out the day, you offer me a mushroom pizza instead of the onion pizza, and again, since I prefer mushrooms to onions, I accept the swap.

    I end up with exactly the same slice of mushroom pizza I started with… and one penny poorer, because I previously paid $0.01 to swap mushrooms for pineapple.

    This seems like a qualitatively bad behavior on my part. By virtue of my incoherent preferences which cannot be given a consistent ordering, I have shot myself in the foot, done something self-defeating. We haven’t said how I ought to sort out my inconsistent preferences. But no matter how it shakes out, it seems like there must be some better alternative–some better way I could reason that wouldn’t spend a penny to go in circles. That is, I could at least have kept my original pizza slice and not spent the penny.

    In a phrase you’re going to keep hearing, I have executed a ‘dominated strategy’: there exists some other strategy that does strictly better.

    On the face of it, this seems wrong to me. Losing money for no reason is bad if you have a coherent utility function. But from the perspective of the creature actually in this situation, losing money isn’t obviously bad, or reason to change. (In a sense, the only reason you are losing money is that you consider it to be good to do so.)

    It’s true that losing money is equivalent to losing pizza that you like. But losing money is also equivalent to a series of pizza improvements that you like (as just shown), so why do you want to reform based on one, while ignoring the other?

    If you are even a tiny bit incoherent, then I think often a large class of things are actually implicitly worth the same amount. To see this, consider the following diagram of an entity’s preferences over money and apples. Lines are indifference curves in the space of items. The blue lines shown mean that you are indifferent between $1 and an apple on the margin across a range of financial and apple possession situations. (Not necessary for rationality.) Further out lines are better, and you can’t reach a further out line by traveling along whatever line you are on, because you are not indifferent between better and worse things.

    Indifference curves between numbers of apples and dollars

    Trades that you are fine with making can move your situation from anywhere on a line to anywhere on the same line or above it (e.g. you will trade an apple for $1 or anything more than that).

    Now let’s say that you are also indifferent between an apple and $2, in general:

    Two conflicting sets of indifference curves

    With two incoherent sets of preferences over the items in question, then there are two overlapping sets of curves.

    If indifference curves criss-cross, then you can move anywhere among them while remaining indifferent - as long as you follow the lines, you are indifferent, and the lines now get you everywhere. Relatedly, you can get anywhere while making trades you are happy with. You are now indifferent to the whole region, at least implicitly. (In this simplest case at least, basically you now have two non-parallel vectors that you can travel along, and can add them together to get any vector in the plane.)

    Indifference spreads through all the intersecting indifference curves

    For instance, here, four apples are seen to be equally preferable to two apples (and also to two apples plus two dollars, and to one apple plus two dollars). Not shown because I erred: four apples are also equivalent to $-1 (which is also equivalent to winning the lottery).

    If these were not lines, but higher-dimensional planes with lots of outcomes other than apples and dollars, and all of the preferences about other stuff made sense except for this one incoherence, the indifference hyperplanes would intersect and the entity in question would be effectively indifferent between everything. (To see this a different way, if it is indifferent between $1 and an apple, and also between $2 and an apple, and it considers a loaf of bread to be worth $2 in general, then implicitly a loaf of bread is worth both one apple and two apples, and so has also become caught up in the mess.)

    (I don’t know if all incoherent creatures value everything the same amount - it seems like it should maybe be possible to just have a restricted region of incoherence in some cases, but I haven’t thought this through.)

    This seems related to having inconsistent beliefs in logic. When once you believe a contradiction, everything follows. When once you evaluate incoherently, every evaluation follows.

    And from that position of being able to evaluate anything any amount, can you say that it is better to reform your preferences to be more coherent? Yes. But you can also say that it is better to reform them to make them less coherent. Does coherence for some reason win out?

    In fact slightly incoherent people don’t seem to think that they are indifferent between everything (and slightly inconsistent people don’t think they believe everything). And my impression is that people do become more coherent with time, rather than less, or a mixture at random.

    If you wanted to apply this to alien AI minds though, it would seem nice to have a version of the arguments that go through, even if just via a clear account of the pragmatic considerations that compel human behavior in one direction. Does someone have an account of this? Do I misunderstand these arguments? (I haven’t actually read them for the most part, so it wouldn’t be shocking.)

  • 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.

    This isn’t a perfect relationship though, so a natural way to mitigate the trade-off is to just look harder until you find things that serve a worthy purpose while being non-committal and consistently non-arduous. For instance, you can exercise or learn about history or practice guitar or write half-assed blog posts without real conclusions or narrative consistency.

    There is also probably good holidaying to be done that doesn’t seem obviously purposeful, and maybe that is more in the spirit of holidaying. Perhaps one should avoid too much purpose, lest one end up not holidaying?

    Today I travelled by rowing boat across a lake and back, with my boyfriend and some of his family.


    Now we are going to the zoo.

  • 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. ‘Highly intelligent goal-directed agents are dangerous’
      If AI systems exist that very competently pursue goals, they will likely be better than us at attaining their goals, and therefore to the extent there is a risk of mismatch between their goals and ours, we face a serious risk.

    Rohin’s counterargument

    Rohin’s counterargument begins with an observation made by others before: any behavior is consistent with maximizing expected utility, given some utility function. For instance, a creature just twitching around on the ground may have the utility function that returns 1 if the agent does whatever it in fact does in each situation (where ‘situation’ means, ‘entire history of the world so far’), and 0 otherwise. This is a creature that just wants to make the right twitch in each detailed, history-indexed situation, with no regard for further consequences. Alternately the twitching agent might care about outcomes, but just happen to want the particular holistic unfolding of the universe that is occurring, including this particular series of twitches. Or it could be indifferent between all outcomes.

    The basic point is that rationality doesn’t say what ‘things’ you can want. And in particular, it doesn’t say that you have to care about particular atomic units that larger situations can be broken down into. If I try to call you out for first spending money to get to Paris, then spending money to get back from Paris, there is nothing to say you can’t just have wanted to go to Paris for a bit and then to come home. In fact, this is a common human situation. ‘Aha, I money pumped you!’ says the airline, but you aren’t worried. The twitching agent might always be like this—a creature of more refined tastes, who cares about whole delicate histories and relationships, rather than just summing up modular momentarily-defined successes. And given this freedom, any behavior might conceivably be what a creature wants. 

    Then I would put the full argument, as I understand it, like this:

    1. Any observable sequence of behavior is consistent with the entity doing EU maximization (see observation above)
    2. Doing EU maximization doesn’t imply anything about what behavior we might observe (from 1)
    3. In particular, knowing that a creature is an EU maximizer doesn’t imply that it will behave in a ‘goal-directed’ way, assuming that that concept doesn’t apply to all behavior. (from 2)

    Is this just some disagreement about the meaning of the word ‘goal-directed’? No, because we can get back to a major difference in physical expectations by adding:

    1.  Not all behavior in a creature implicates dire risk to humanity, so any concept of goal-directedness that is consistent with any behavior—and so might be implied by the coherence arguments—cannot imply AI risk.

    So where the original argument says that the coherence arguments plus some other assumptions imply danger from AI, this counterargument says that they do not. 

    (There is also at least some variety in the meaning of ‘goal-directed’. I’ll use goal-directedRohin to refer to what I think is Rohin’s preferred usage: roughly, that which seems intuitively goal directed to us, e.g. behaving similarly across situations, and accruing resources, and not flopping around in possible pursuit of some exact history of personal floppage, or peaceably preferring to always take the option labeled ‘A’.6)

    My counter-counterarguments

    What’s wrong with Rohin’s counterargument? It sounded tight. 

    In brief, I see two problems:

    A. The whole argument is in terms of logical implication. But what seems to matter is changes in probability. Coherence doesn’t need to rule out any behavior to matter, it just has to change the probabilities of behaviors. Understood in terms of probability, argument 2 is a false inference: just because any sequence of behavior is consistent with EU maximization doesn’t mean that EU maximization says nothing about what behavior we will see, probabilistically. All it says is that the probability of a behavioral sequence is never reduced to zero by considerations of coherence alone, which is hardly saying anything.

    You might then think that a probabilistic version still applies: since every entity appears to be in good standing with the coherence arguments, the arguments don’t exert any force, probabilistically, on what entities we might see. But:

    B. An outside observer being able to rationalize a sequence of observed behavior as coherent doesn’t mean that the behavior is actually coherent. Coherence arguments constrain combinations of external behavior and internal features—‘preferences’7 and beliefs. So whether an actor is coherent depends on what preferences and beliefs it actually has. And if it isn’t coherent in light of these, then coherence pressures will apply, whether or not its behavior looks coherent. And in many cases, revision of preferences due to coherence pressures will end up affecting external behavior. So 2) is not only not a sound inference from 1), but actually a wrong conclusion: if a system moves toward EU maximization, that does imply things about the behavior that we will observe (probabilistically).

    Perhaps Rohin only meant to argue about whether it is logically possible to be coherent and not goal-directed-seeming, for the purpose of arguing that humanity can construct creatures in that perhaps-unlikely-in-nature corner of mindspace, if we try hard. In which case, I agree that it is logically possible. But I think his argument is often taken to be relevant more broadly, to questions of whether advanced AI will tend to be goal-directed, or to be goal-directed in places where they were not intended to be.

    I take A) to be fairly clear. I’ll lay out B) in more detail.

    My counter-counterarguments in more detail

    How might coherence arguments affect creatures?

    Let us step back.

    How would coherence arguments affect an AI system—or anyone—anyway? They’re not going to fly in from the platonic realm and reshape irrational creatures.

    The main routes, as I see it, are via implying:

    1. incentives for the agent itself to reform incoherent preferences
    2. incentives for the processes giving rise to the agent (explicit design, or selection procedures directed at success) to make them more coherent
    3. some advantage for coherent agents in competition with incoherent agents

    To be clear, the agent, the makers, or the world are not necessarily thinking about the arguments here—the arguments correspond to incentives in the world, which these parties are responding to. So I’ll often talk about ‘incentives for coherence’ or ‘forces for coherence’ rather than ‘coherence arguments’.

    I’ll talk more about 1 for simplicity, expecting 2 and 3 to be similar, though I haven’t thought them through.

    Looking coherent isn’t enough: if you aren’t coherent inside, coherence forces apply

    If self-adjustment is the mechanism for the coherence, this doesn’t depend on what a sequence of actions looks like from the outside, but from what it looks like from the inside.

    Consider the aforementioned creature just twitching sporadically on the ground. Let’s call it Alex.

    As noted earlier, there is a utility function under which Alex is maximizing expected utility: the one that assigns utility 1 to however Alex in fact acts in every specific history, and utility 0 to anything else.

    But from the inside, this creature you excuse as ‘maybe just wanting that series of twitches’ has—let us suppose—actual preferences and beliefs. And if its preferences do not in fact prioritize this elaborate sequence of twitching in an unconflicted way, and it has the self-awareness and means to make corrections, then it will make corrections8. And having done so, its behavior will change. 

    Thus excusable-as-coherent Alex is still moved by coherence arguments, even while the arguments have no complaints about its behavior per se.

    For a more realistic example: suppose Assistant-Bot is observed making this sequence of actions: 

    • Offers to buy gym membership for $5/week 
    • Consents to upgrade to gym-pro membership for $7/week, which is like gym membership but with added morning classes
    • Takes discounted ‘off-time’ deal, saving $1 per week for only using gym in evenings

    This is consistent with coherence: Assistant-Bot might prefer that exact sequence of actions over all others, or might prefer incurring gym costs with a larger sum of prime factors, or might prefer talking to Gym-sales-bot over ending the conversation, or prefer agreeing to things.

    But suppose that in fact, in terms of the structure of the internal motivations producing this behavior, Assistant-Bot just prefers you to have a gym membership, and prefers you to have a better membership, and prefers you to have money, but is treating these preferences with inconsistent levels of strength in the different comparisons. Then there appears to be a coherence-related force for Assistant-Bot to change. One way that that could look is that since Assistant-Bot’s overall behavioral policy currently entails giving away money for nothing, and also Assistant-Bot prefers money over nothing, that preference gives Assistant-Bot reason to alter its current overall policy, to avert the ongoing exchange of money for nothing.9 And if its behavioral policy is arising from something like preferences, then the natural way to alter it is via altering those preferences, and in particular, altering them in the direction of coherence.

    One issue with this line of thought is that it’s not obvious in what sense there is anything inside a creature that corresponds to ‘preferences’. Often when people posit preferences, the preferences are defined in terms of behavior. Does it make sense to discuss different possible ‘internal’ preferences, distinct from behavior? I find it helpful to consider the behavior and ‘preferences’ of groups:

    Suppose two cars are parked in driveways, each containing a couple. One couple are just enjoying hanging out in the car. The other couple are dealing with a conflict: one wants to climb a mountain together, and the other wants to swim in the sea together, and they aren’t moving because neither is willing to let the outing proceed as the other wants. ‘Behaviorally’, both cars are the same: stopped. But their internal parts (the partners) are importantly different. And in the long run, we expect different behavior: the car with the unconflicted couple will probably stay where it is, and the conflicted car will (hopefully) eventually resolve the conflict and drive off.

    I think here it makes sense to talk about internal parts, separate from behavior, and real. And similarly in the single agent case: there are physical mechanisms producing the behavior, which can have different characteristics, and which in particular can be ‘in conflict’—in a way that motivates change—or not. I think it is also worth observing that humans find their preferences ‘in conflict’ and try to resolve them, which is suggests that they at least are better understood in terms of both behavior and underlying preferences that are separate from it. 

    So we have: even if you can excuse any seizuring as consistent with coherence, coherence incentives still exert a force on creatures that are in fact incoherent, given their real internal state (or would be incoherent if created). At least if they or their creator have machinery for noticing their incoherence, caring about it, and making changes.

    Or put another way, coherence doesn’t exclude overt behaviors alone, but does exclude combinations of preferences, and preferences beget behaviors. This changes how specific creatures behave, even if it doesn’t entirely rule out any behavior ever being correct for some creature, somewhere. 

    That is, the coherence theorems may change what behavior is likely to appear amongst creatures with preferences. 

    Reform for coherence probably makes a thing more goal-directedRohin

    Ok, but moving toward coherence might sound totally innocuous, since, per Rohin’s argument, coherence includes all sorts of things, such as absolutely any sequence of behavior. 

    But the relevant question is again whether a coherence-increasing reform process is likely to result in some kinds of behavior over others, probabilistically.

    This is partly a practical question—what kind of reform process is it? Where a creature ends up depends not just on what it incoherently ‘prefers’, but on what kinds of things its so-called ‘preferences’ are at all10, and what mechanisms detect problems, and how problems are resolved.

    My guess is that there are also things we can say in general. It’s is too big a topic to investigate properly here, but some initially plausible hypotheses about a wide range of coherence-reform processes:

    1. Coherence-reformed entities will tend to end up looking similar to their starting point but less conflicted
      For instance, if a creature starts out being indifferent to buying red balls when they cost between ten and fifteen blue balls, it is more likely to end up treating red balls as exactly 12x the value of blue balls than it is to end up very much wanting the sequence where it takes the blue ball option, then the red ball option, then blue, red, red, blue, red. Or wanting red squares. Or wanting to ride a dolphin.

      (I agree that if a creature starts out valuing Tuesday-red balls at fifteen blue balls and yet all other red balls at ten blue balls, then it faces no obvious pressure from within to become ‘coherent’, since it is not incoherent.)
    2. More coherent strategies are systematically less wasteful, and waste inhibits goal-directionRohin, which means more coherent strategies are more forcefully goal-directedRohin on average
      In general, if you are sometimes a force for A and sometimes a force against A, then you are not moving the world with respect to A as forcefully as you would be if you picked one or the other. Two people intermittently changing who is in the driving seat, who want to go to different places, will not cover distance in any direction as effectively as either one of them. A company that cycles through three CEOs with different evaluations of everything will—even if they don’t actively scheme to thwart one another—tend to waste a lot of effort bringing in and out different policies and efforts (e.g. one week trying to expand into textiles, the next week trying to cut everything not involved in the central business).
    1. Combining points 1 and 2 above, as entities become more coherent, they generally become more goal-directedRohin. As opposed to, for instance, becoming more goal-directedRohin on average, but individual agents being about as likely to become worse as better as they are reformed. Consider: a creature that values red balls at 12x blue balls is very similar to one that values them inconsistently, except a little less wasteful. So it is probably similar but more goal-directedRohin. Whereas it’s fairly unclear how goal-directedRohin a creature that wants to ride a dolphin is compared to one that wanted red balls inconsistently much. In a world with lots of balls and no possible access to dolphins, it might be much less goal-directedRohin, in spite of its greater coherence. 
    1. Coherence-increasing processes rarely lead to non-goal-directedRohin agents—like the one that twitches on the ground
      In the abstract, few starting points and coherence-motivated reform processes will lead to an agent with the goal of carrying out a specific convoluted moment-indexed policy without regard for consequence, like Rohin’s twitching agent, or to valuing the sequence of history-action pairs that will happen anyway, or to being indifferent to everything. And these outcomes will be even less likely in practice, where AI systems with anything like preferences probably start out caring about much more normal things, such as money and points and clicks, so will probably land at a more consistent and shrewd version of that, if 1 is true. (Which is not to say that you couldn’t intentionally create such a creature.)

    These hypotheses suggest to me that the changes in behavior brought about by coherence forces favor moving toward goal-directednessRohin, and therefore at least weakly toward risk.

    Does this mean advanced AI will be goal-directedRohin?

    Together, this does not imply that advanced AI will tend to be goal-directedRohin. We don’t know how strong such forces are. Evidently not so strong that humans11, or our other artifacts, are whipped into coherence in mere hundreds of thousands of years12. If a creature doesn’t have anything like preferences (beyond a tendency to behave certain ways), then coherence arguments don’t obviously even apply to it (though discrepancies between the creature’s behavior and its makers’ preferences probably produce an analogous force13 and competitive pressures probably produce a similar force for coherence in valuing resources instrumental to survival). Coherence arguments mark out an aspect of the incentive landscape, but to say that there is an incentive for something, all things equal, is not to say that it will happen.

    In sum

    1) Even though any behavior could be coherent in principle, if it is not coherent in combination with an entity’s internal state, then coherence arguments point to a real force for different (more coherent) behavior.

    2) My guess is that this force for coherent behavior is also a force for goal-directed behavior. This isn’t clear, but seems likely, and also isn’t undermined by Rohin’s argument, as seems commonly believed.

    Two dogs attached to the same leash are pulling in different directions. Etching by J. Fyt, 1642</figure>

    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. 

    6. I am not sold on this usage myself for ‘goal-directed’—there is an appeal to using that phrase for ‘pursues goals’ in its most basic sense, but I am also tentatively in favor of having as many concepts as possible. 

    7. It seems perhaps misleading to call these ‘preferences’, if they are incoherent, and so do not together implicate orderings of outcomes being better than one another. If a creature is not coherent, what are even the objects of its decision calculus? I am inclined to think in terms of ‘decision criteria’, e.g. ‘given X and Y, choose X’, and ‘given Y and Z, choose Y’, which don’t necessarily imply anything about ‘given Z and X, choose …’, but I haven’t thought about this much, and it seems like a technical detail of the creature in question. Whatever they are though, if the creature has behavior, then there are internal dynamics that produce it. When exactly an aspect of these should be considered a ‘preference’ for the sake of this argument isn’t entirely clear to me, but would seem to depend on something like whether it tends to produce actions favoring certain outcomes over other outcomes across a range of circumstances (similar to the unclear definition of ‘agent’). 

    8. The ‘right’ way to correct your own incoherent preferences seems complicated and not obviously well defined or existent, and perhaps there is not much more to say than that what you do will depend on your design. It’s also not clear to me that a genuinely incoherent creature should necessarily want to reform, by its own lights, but that is a question for another time—here I’m assuming that the coherence arguments do have this implication that seems commonly attributed to them. My guess is that in practice, such creatures often do want to reform, and exactly how they do it doesn’t matter for my argument here. 

    9. I’m describing the force potentially felt by Assistant-Bot itself, but to the extent that its makers, or users also have preferences for money over nothing, and wish to use Assistant-Bot, and can alter it, they would seem to have similar incentives to mitigate its self-defeating behavior. 

    10. The creature’s ‘preferences’ can’t be in terms of consistent numerical values assigned to everything, because those would be consistent. So what are they? For instance, one might imagine that they are pairwise comparisons between some kind of things (which can include ‘A > B’ and ‘B > C’ and ‘C > A’), or that they are a set of ‘situation—>action’ mappings, or they are a noisy ‘options—>feelings’ mapping combined with a set of deontological constraints over actions and feelings (‘choose things you feel better about, except don’t choose things out of selfishness, except when you feel more than 50% scared…’, etc. 

    11. For instance, humans are insistently incoherent on the Allais paradox

    12. That seems pretty interesting—but note that well-designed computers have been known to do things that took humans participating in biological and cultural evolution hundreds of thousands of years before, so inference here not straightforward, and the forces of coherence depend on the costs of reform, which depend on the machinery for it. Also, we don’t know what other forces were in play—there might even have been forces for apparent incoherence, e.g. insofar as hypocrisy can benefit social animals, and dishonesty is complicated (The Elephant in the Brain discusses such ideas). 

    13. For instance, the coherent creature that evaluates red balls differently on Tuesday and Wednesday might be in conflict with its creators, if they have a more consistent red ball evaluation, giving them reason to reform it. You might class this under the question, ‘what kinds of advanced AI will people want?’, but the reason for it is very similar to the reasons for internal pressure for coherence. If you refuse to pay $13 for a red ball, and your AI then goes out and buys you one for $15 because it is Tuesday, then the pair of you together could have done better. 

    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?















    On the one hand, we can’t have been the first creatures to have the innovation of facial expressions. And the same kind of animal is often seen to have different facial expressions, which has got to happen for a reason. But on the other hand, the whole race of dolphins just looks vaguely elated, and surely that can’t track the collective personality of the species.





    I suppose the answer is that many animals do have meaningful facial expressions, and even that broadly ‘smiling’ matches our broadly ‘smiling’, but that for the most part, they don’t match in their subtleties, and species-wide features don’t track anything.

    That all sounds very reasonable, but can I really look at this creature and not see it as happy?


    Perhaps I can’t, but my hard-to-quash beliefs are just wrong. How tragic in that case to have a visual right on one’s face—standing in the way of our ever looking each other in the eye and understanding at all, even if we were to spend a lifetime together.

    And seals—they seem to look extremely contented more than half the time, but not all of the time. So it’s not that they are automatically contented-looking. What does it mean?










    Are these creatures not contented?


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

    I tend to read slightly different smiles with a lot of flavor and significance, for instance.

    But when I look in the mirror, my face doesn’t look like what I mean it to look like. At least not reliably and with fine specifically. I’m way better than chance on ‘smile’ when intending to smile, but ‘friendly smile’ can easily end up as ‘ridiculous to the point of questioning how anyone takes me seriously’ smile, or ‘somewhat intimidating smile’.


    And people’s default faces have features that my brain interprets as expression—if one person looks more grouchy or judgmental or open or lighthearted across the board than another, does that mean something? My automatic interpretation of things thinks so, but it seems very questionable.



  • 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.

    One way that I could imagine Open Phil’s spending saying something about the size of the EA community is that the community might provide funding opportunities for Open Phil, so that its growth was reflected in Open Phil’s spending. But this would require EA growth at a scale that produced large enough funding opportunities, that met Open Phil’s specific criteria, to show up amidst hundreds of millions of dollars of annual grant-making. I think this at least requires argument.

    I’m further confused when in trying to explain the purported end of growth, ADS says, ‘One possibility is that there was not a strange hidden cause behind widespread stagnation. It’s just that funding slowed down, and so everything else slowed down with it’, then go on to explore the possibility that funding from Open Phil/Good Ventures has slowed down in line with this ‘widespread’ stagnation (in different aspects of Open Phil and one Google Trends result). They find that indeed it has.

    There is a strange hidden cause! Which is the underlying structural relationship between Open Phil and a combination of Open Phil twice and another thing.

    (In fairness, ‘widespread’ might at that point in the post also include the stagnation since 2010 and 2013 respectively of Google searches for popular Rationalist blogs, Less Wrong, and Slate Star Codex. But stagnations that old seem unlikely to be symptomatic of an EA post-2015 stagnation, so probably the author didn’t intend to include them in it.)

    While it’s not relevant to my above confusion, I should also note that even if Open Phil funding of Givewell was a better metric of the size of EA than I understand, if the data for 1) reached 2020, it would probably tell a different story: Open Phil’s allocation to GiveWell charities grew a lot— to $100 million, up from $54 million the previous year (according to the figure). So there isn’t even a stagnation of Open Phil allocation to GiveWell to be confused by.

    I agree that 3) is evidence of the EA community receiving less attention since 2017 (though not 2015). But mild evidence, because searching for “effective altruism” on Google is probably not that closely associated with commitment to EA, as ADS notes, and because Google Trends is just pretty complicated to make sense of.

    I think it’s worth finding better evidence, before we get to speculating about such things. For instance, this 2018 post by Peter Hurford looks at about thirty metrics, only two of which peaked in or before 2015. I haven’t read that post, but my impressions from skimming it a bit seem like a more informative start than a single Google trend.

    In the process of coming up with explanations, ADS does also point to further relevant trends: the aforementioned flatness of two major rationalist blog name Google Trends, the aforementioned further measure of Open Phil activity via Good Ventures which looks like the other Open Phil activity measure, and the trend of Giving What We Can membership.

    Giving What We Can membership seems potentially very informative. Does it support the view that EA hasn’t grown since 2015? No—GWWC membership has apparently grown by about 7x since 2015. ADS correctly notes that this is a measure of “cumulative interest” whereas how many people Google a term is a measure of “active interest”. That is, the total GWWC members on a day are the sum of everyone who has ever wanted to become a GWWC member, whereas searches for “join GWWC”, say, would be a measure of how many are wanting to do that right now. But ADS’s claim was that EA hasn’t grown. It wasn’t that EA’s rate of growth hasn’t grown. And the size of the EA community is about cumulative interest, to the extent interest persists. (For some activities, you might expect them to happen again every day that you remain involved, but neither joining a society for giving away 10% of your money, nor Googling “effective altruism” is one.) Or skipping all this complication about cumulativeness, the size of EA is very much the same kind of thing as the size of GWWC membership.

    In sum, I don’t have a clear picture of how EA has grown since 2015, but as far as I can tell, the main relevant evidence that this post presents is that Google Trends “effective altruism” is flattish, Giving What We Can membership is growing (though not exponentially), and non-Open-Phil GiveWell money moved is growing. (Also, including information not in the post, it seems that Open Phil money moved to GiveWell was flat for a while then grew a lot in 2020, but it remains unclear to me how this is relevant anyway.) I’m inclined to interpret this evidence as mildly supporting ‘EA has grown since 2015’, but it doesn’t seem like much evidence either way. I think we should at least hold off on taking for granted that EA hasn’t grown since 2015 and trying to explain why.

  • 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

    Clue: it’s more than 50 degrees.

  • 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 all1. As if morality was defined by friendship preferences or inclination to pass judgment. Again Julia is perplexed. Do these people agree with her, and just call their facial movements and personal social preferences ‘morality’? Michael Sandel even explained that he didn’t want to ban consensual cannibalism, he just thought it was immoral. Julia says, “I don’t even know what people are talking about when they talk about whether a thing is moral or immoral, if they’re not talking about wanting to use legal pressure to change people’s behavior”

    Here’s how I see morality and its relationship with shuddering, judging, declining friendship, and the law:

    Morality is about what is actually good.

    Shuddering, cringing and wincing are instinctive guesses about what is actually good. But much like your instinctive guesses about whether a spider is dangerous or whether you are driving well, they can err, and can even continue to err after you have seen the error. They are especially likely to err when the goodness of a thing is not readily available to your imagination. For instance, if you are a twelve-year-old hearing about sex, you might shudder, but you are missing a lot of the good bits of the picture. Or if you are thinking about a baby coming from a test-tube in 1977, you may be mostly focused on the test tube situation, and not on the century of happy life that the child will have, and the love and joy in the family that would have been emptier.

    Judging people is a response to your guesses about morality, but also to your guesses about other qualities like social status, effectiveness, personal aesthetics, and likelihood of being immoral in the future. You might judge people because they seem ridiculous, or slow, or aesthetically repellant, without thinking that the world would be objectively better off with a random different person existing instead. Or you might judge a person’s enjoyment of watching YouTube videos of plane crashes, without thinking that it is doing any harm.

    Choices about friendship seem to bring in everything that ‘judging’ does, but are also substantially complicated by preferences for actual interactions. For instance, you might have no moral problem with cooking, while dispreferring cooking-obsessed friends. Sometimes you might even prefer friends with traits that you judge—you might find continental philosophy ridiculous, while also enjoying that your friend Bob is so into it, since he explains bits of it in a language that you understand, and it’s fun to tease each other.

    The law is a complicated agreement between a collection of people for cooperating in pursuit of their different ends. It is very unclear that a thing being immoral (in the sense of ‘actually making the world worse’) means that the law should control it:

    • If the population mostly don’t know that the thing is bad, then it doesn’t seem like they should agree to be constrained from doing it. Similarly if they are in broad disagreement e.g. If you and 40% of people think A is moral, but 40% of people think it is immoral, and 20% are very unsure, then it may be that all of you think that it shouldn’t be legislated. The government doesn’t have access to the truth about it, and neither requiring or banning A would seem like a good compromise in the current state of knowledge, and either would probably have to be undemocratic.
    • Sometimes there would be harm in the law controlling things, or it wouldn’t be a good judge. e.g. maybe everyone agrees that it is immoral to cheat on your partner, or to not pay attention to signs that your teenage son is depressed because you are into playing a computer game, but most people wouldn’t want the law policing these things.
    • The law has certain actions available to it, and sometimes none is the best response to a moral concern. For instance, perhaps a person seems unfairly critical of others in a way that seems wrong to their friends. This is arguably better rectified with quiet words, sharp looks, or a reduction in invitations and endorsements, than by fines or sentences.
    • it can be better ultimately for people to make good choices through understanding the situation themselves over time, even while initially making errors, rather than having their good behavior forced or otherwise incentivized. For instance, it might be better for a person to learn compassion than to be trained by numb rote to act kindly, even if kindness is always better in the moment. Or, if the good behavior in question was enjoying the best experiences of art: you can’t actually force someone to experience a thing.
    • Coercion itself might be bad, or it might be fundamentally better for people to be free. (I’m being agnostic about what is or isn’t moral.)

    Julia and these other people aren’t using words differently, I interpret2: Michael thinks a world where people consensually eat one another is worse, whereas Julia thinks it isn’t—her own displeasure at it is a little bad, but this is presumably nothing compared to whatever satisfaction those involved enjoy. Michael and Julia both have an emotional response, and perhaps neither would be friends with the participants. But Julia doesn’t want to use the law because she thinks the act doesn’t make the world worse, whereas Michael may or may not want to use the law, but isn’t talking about that—he’s saying that it makes the world worse.


    1. here, but gated, so just going by Julia’s recollection. 

    2. To be clear, I’m going by Julia’s description in this discussion with Haidt, and haven’t e.g. listened to the discussion with Sandel. 

  • 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

    There are clearly stationary coffee trucks, like food trucks. I think moving trucks may also exist or have existed ever, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, and it’s hard to find mention of them. Here are some people who had the same idea, but since nobody was expecting a moving coffee bus, they got more traffic sitting still like a cafe. But surely people expecting your product to exist is an obstacle not unique to circulating coffee trucks. Here is someone with the same idea, and someone who says there was one in a holiday park once, and some others who think they exist in Australia and Buffalo, but it sounds like they might be thinking of stationary coffee trucks.

    I’m not sure that it’s good for any kind of truck to exist if it makes noise all the time as it travels through neighborhoods, delighting some, but surely disrupting others. But I think that can be entirely resolved digitally: instead of the truck playing music, the service could have an app that plays music when truck is approaching, if you signed up for that. Then you touch the notification to turn off the music and at the same time report whether you want a coffee.

    Am I missing something?

  • 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.

    Oliver had shared his sexual orientation with with the San Francisco gay community—or at least he had worked at a gay bar, paraded for gay pride, demonstrated for gay rights, helped in the (LGBT) Imperial Court System, and worked on the campaign to elect openly gay board of supervisors candidate Harvey Milk. But he hadn’t shared it with his family in Detroit, who had more old-fashioned impressions about the morality of homosexuality. He also hadn’t shared it with the world at large, who after all, lived at a time when evidence of a gay person being a public hero was considered fascinating news.

    How did the media learn about this? Perhaps there were many sources, or would have been eventually. But the morning after the shooting, two prominent gay activists each outed Oliver to the San Francisco Chronicle. One was Reverend Ray Broshears, leader of the ‘Lavender Panthers’. The other was Oliver’s own friend, Harvey Milk.


    Harvey is reported to have explained privately to a friend, “It’s too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.”

    The next day, Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who received these messages, reported to the world that Oliver was gay. He added that Oliver was friends with Harvey Milk, and speculated that President Ford hadn’t invited him to the White House because of his sexual orientation.

    Somewhere in here, Oliver asked that the media not report on the topic of his sexual orientation, lest his family or current employer learn of it. It’s not clear to me whether this was in time for them to definitively know that he didn’t want them to when they first did it, since apparently Caen ‘couldn’t contact him’.

    At any rate, the topic was reported on thoroughly. Gay activists called for his recognition as a gay hero. He was deluged by reporters, and hid at a friend’s house, at which point they turned to interviewing Harvey Milk. Harvey opined that President Ford’s gratitude would indeed have flowed more generously had Oliver been straight.

    Oliver’s mother was purportedly harassed by her neighbors, and declared her intent never to speak to him again. He was estranged from his family. His father at some point instructed his brother to forget that he had a brother.

    Oliver sued the reporter Caen and numerous newspapers and publishers for the invasion of his privacy. The suit was dismissed, but he fought on. In 1984 a state court of appeals held that he had become news, and his sexual orientation was part of the story.

    Oliver didn’t do well after becoming a hero. He drank heavily, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, put on weight, and needed a pacemaker. Over a drink, he was heard to say that he regretted grabbing the gun.

    It is said that he eventually reconciled with his family, but it is also said that his father didn’t let him come to his mother’s funeral, so granting both stories it may have been a late or mild reconciliation.

    One February day in 1989, Oliver’s friend found him dead in his San Francisco apartment, alongside a bottle of Jack Daniels and a running television. He was 47.

    Years later, journalistic ethics professors found this an instructive class discussion topic.

  • 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.

    You can buy bracelet versions in a very small number of places online, and also keychain or general hanging clip-on versions, but I don’t think I saw necklaces anywhere. This seems striking, given the clear superiority to a phone counter for me so far, and the likely scale of phone counter usage in the world.

  • 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:

    • The causal connections between things in the brain’s model are not the ones you would give if asked to describe the situation. For instance, you might say that practicing piano causes you to get better at piano, while in the model, practicing piano mostly causes you to be bad at the piano, since you usually experience being bad at piano immediately after you experience practicing it.
    • The effects of an action are based mostly on past visceral experiences with similar actions. For instance, if you usually hit your thumb when you use a hammer, then when you get out a hammer today, it might seem non-delicious. Whereas if you are just told that most people hit their thumbs when using hammers, this might not affect deliciousness as much. It is as though it is not in the right language for your brain’s model to take it in. (My guess is that it is more likely to get taken in if you translate it into ‘experience’ via imagining.)
    • The connection between an action and an outcomes is modeled as much weaker as more delay occurs between them. So that if you press a button which has a good effect in half a second and an equally bad effect in ten seconds, this will sum up in the estimate as good overall, because your brain will model the second effect more weakly.
    • If B is delicious, and you demonstrate a strong empirical connection between A and B in language your brain’s model can take in, then A will often come to also be delicious. Thus if doing Z leads to A which leads to the excellent B much later, if the connection between A and B is made clear, then Z can become delicious, even though it is fairly distant from the ultimately good outcome.
    • Since adjusting the deliciousness of options happens based on experience, it is difficult to update ones that happen rarely. For instance, if you want to train a pigeon to peck out drawing of a tree, you can’t just reward it when it happens to do that, because it will take way too long for it to even do it once. A way to get around this is to start by rewarding it if it pecks at all, then reward it if it pecks along in a line (then maybe stop rewarding it for pecking at all, since it knows it has to do that now to get the pecking in a line reward), then reward it if it pecks a more tree-shaped line, and so on. This is called ‘shaping’.
    • your brain generalizes between things, so if it tried an action and that was bad, then it will estimate that another action like that one is probably also bad. So if someone punishes you when you do almost the right thing, that can make your brain estimate that doing the right thing is bad. This is especially harmful if it doesn’t receive a punishment for doing things very far away. For instance, if playing the piano badly gets a frown, and not playing the piano at all gets nothing, your brain might avoid the piano, rather than honing in on the narrow band of good piano playing right next to the punishable bad piano playing. This and the last point means that if you are trying to teach your brain what is good by giving it extra rewards or punishments as soon as it does things, you want to give it rewards for anything near the best action, at least at first.

    Quick takeaways:

    1. How nice things seem is in your deliciousness-model, not the world
    2. Your deliciousness-model can be pragmatically shifted, much like a bucket of water can be shifted. Things that are awful can become genuinely nice.
    3. If a thing seems like it should be nice, but your deliciousness-model is rating it as not nice, you can think about why it is wrong and how to communicate its error to it. Has it not taken in the nice consequence? Does it not understand the causal connection, because the consequence takes too long to happen? Does it not realize how bad things are even when you are not near the piano?
    4. You should generally reward or punish yourself according to whether you want yourself to do ‘things like this’ more or less. Which often means rewarding yourself for getting closer to your goal than in the most available possible worlds where you looked at social media all afternoon or played a computer game, even if your success was less than in some hard to find narrow band nearby.

    (I called this post ‘training sweetness’ because the thought of changing which things taste sweet or not via ‘training’ sounds kind of wild, and reminds me that what seems like real, objective niceness in the world is what we are saying is in your mind and malleable, here. I don’t know whether a literal sweet taste can be retrained, though it seems that one can come to dislike it.)

  • 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:

    An experiment in 2000–from a paper titled “The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Counterfactuals”–asked subjects to consider the dilemma of a hospital administrator named Robert:

    Robert can save the life of Johnny, a five year old who needs a liver transplant, but the transplant procedure will cost the hospital $1,000,000 that could be spent in other ways, such as purchasing better equipment and enhancing salaries to recruit talented doctors to the hospital. Johnny is very ill and has been on the waiting list for a transplant but because of the shortage of local organ donors, obtaining a liver will be expensive. Robert could save Johnny’s life, or he could use the $1,000,000 for other hospital needs.

    The main experimental result was that most subjects got angry at Robert for even considering the question.

    After all, you can’t put a dollar value on a human life, right?

    But better hospital equipment also saves lives, or at least one hopes so. 4 It’s not like the other potential use of the money saves zero lives.

    Let’s say that Robert has a total budget of $100,000,000 and is faced with a long list of options such as these:

    • $100,000 for a new dialysis machine, which will save 3 lives
    • $1,000,000 for a liver for Johnny, which will save 1 life
    • $10,000 to train the nurses on proper hygiene when inserting central lines, which will save an expected 100 lives

    Now suppose–this is a supposition we’ll need for our theorem–that Robert does not care at all about money, not even a tiny bit. Robert only cares about maximizing the total number of lives saved. Furthermore, we suppose for now that Robert cares about every human life equally.

    If Robert does save as many lives as possible, given his bounded money, then Robert must behave like somebody assigning some consistent dollar value to saving a human life.

    We should be able to look down the long list of options that Robert took and didn’t take, and say, e.g., “Oh, Robert took all the options that saved more than 1 life per $500,000 and rejected all options that saved less than 1 life per $500,000; so Robert’s behavior is consistent with his spending $500,000 per life.”

    Alternatively, if we can’t view Robert’s behavior as being coherent in this sense–if we cannot make up any dollar value of a human life, such that Robert’s choices are consistent with that dollar value–then it must be possible to move around the same amount of money, in a way that saves more lives.

    In particular, if there is no dollar value for which you took all of the opportunities to pay less to save lives and didn’t take any of the opportunities to pay more to save lives, and ignoring complications with lives only being available at a given price in bulk, then there is at least one pair of opportunities where you could swap one that you took for one that you didn’t take and save more lives, or at least save the same number of lives and keep more money, which at least in a repeated game like this seems likely to save more lives in expectation.

    I used to be more feisty in my discussion of this idea:

    Another alternative is just to not think about it. Hold that lives have a high but finite value, but don’t use this in naughty calculative attempts to maximise welfare! Maintain that it is abhorrent to do so. Uphold lots of arbitrary rules, like respecting people’s dignity and beginning charity at home and having honour and being respectable and doing what your heart tells you. Interestingly, this effectively does make human life worthless; not even worth including in the calculation next to the whims of your personal emotions and the culture at hand.

  • 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!’.

    She had the same unease with movies often. Did that scene of the couple driving in their car add something to the plot? Either half the movie was revealing information entirely invisible to her, or film producers went to great expense to make films a certain length despite the fact that no story required it. She liked to think that if she spent years studying this it would all make sense, as she regularly insisted to other people that everything did if you studied it enough. Part of her was terrified that this wasn’t true. When it got too insistent a bigger, more heavily armed part of her would menacingly point out, ‘that doesn’t make sense and you have zero reason to believe it’ and the other part would whimper ‘what if that doesn’t matter?’ and go off to wring its hands in a less conscious corner. A short handsome boy sat down unusually close to Carrie, and she turned to make funny noises at him.

    “Paul. How do you do?”

    “Uh..I..do..am.. Carrie..fine, actually.. not.. sorry, never mind”, Carrie smiled reassuringly.

    “You’re cute. What do you do?” He pretended to be pushed closer to her by someone else sitting on his other side.

    When she was younger Carrie had had a reasonably high prior on her having a male partner, or several, in her lifetime. By the time she was eighteen and still didn’t have a single close friend, let alone a male one, ‘kiss someone, ever” was well down her list of unrealistically optimistic goals, between ‘stop global warming’ and ‘build a computer that understands everything’. So the fact that this boy seemed to be coming on to her suggested that she was misunderstanding human mating behaviour even worse than she suspected, or that he was much more drunk than he seemed.

    “I try to save the world, but I’m not very good at it. Also I’m not interested in romance at the moment because I’ve just realized that other people probably aren’t conscious, so I think it would be hard to relate to one, and kind of creepy to hang out with them, and other bits would be too much like necrophilia.. so I might go home soon actually”

    “You do philosophy?” he smiled.

    “Not officially”.

    “You’re fun. Come inside and dance with me.”

    “Only if you convince me that you’re probably not a zombie”

    He looked deep into her eyes and made a reassuring smile. His eyes were soft, brown, and impenetrable. She felt completely alone. “I promise you I’m not, and I should know.”

    Nonplussed, angered by his dismissive stupidity, but sheepishly unable to forgo an opportunity to dance with a male, Carrie followed him inside woozily. She wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or amused at the lack of shattering force with which extremely important philosophical considerations could influence human mating.

  • 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.

    But there are also rewards for positive visions and for sincere enthusiasm that aren’t had by critics and routine doubters. So for things to change over time, you really just need the scale of these incentives to change, whether in a basic way or because the situation is changing.

    One way this could have happened is that the internet (or even earlier change in the information economy) somehow changed the ecology of enthusiasts and doubters, pushing the incentives away from enthusiasm. e.g. The ease, convenience and anonymity of criticizing and doubting on the internet puts a given positive vision in contact with many more critics, making it basically impossible for an idea to emerge not substantially marred by doubt and teeming with uncertainties and summarizable as ‘maybe X, but I don’t know, it’s complicated’. This makes presenting positive visions less appealing, reducing the population of positive vision havers, and making them either less confident or more the kinds of people whose confidence isn’t affected by the volume of doubt other people might have about what they are saying. Which all make them even easier targets for criticism, and make confident enthusiasm for an idea increasingly correlated with being some kind of arrogant fool. Which decreases the basic respect offered by society for someone seeming to have a positive vision.

    This is a very speculative story, but something like these kinds of dynamics seems plausible.

    These thoughts were inspired by a conversation I had with Nick Beckstead.

  • 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:





    (A view of the interior of Nasir ol Molk Mosque located in Shiraz, Iran. Image: Ayyoubsabawiki, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

    Shah Mosque

    (Interior view of the dome of the Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran. Photo: Amir Pashaei, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

    Sheikh Lotfallah Esfahan

    (Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran. Photo by Nicolas Hadjisavvas, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

    1. Adult dorms. An organization would buy a complex that could house something like a few hundred people, and had common areas and such. They would decide on the kind of community they wanted, and what services they would provide (e.g. cleaning, food, nice common areas). There would be a selection process to get in. If you lived there, you would be assumed part of the community, like in school.

    2. Well directed quantitative contests and assessments for adults, that put numbers on things that the adults would like to care about. If there were a Save The World From X-Risk Olympiad, or an ‘expected relative value of your intellectual contributions’ number that was frequently updating, it would be easier to optimize for those things relative to e.g. optimizing for number of internet-dogs who visited your page, or success at memorizing Anki cards.

    3. Social-implication-limited socializing services. There are many reasons to want to be around other people, and not all of them are strongly correlated with wanting the entire cluster of attributes that come with the specific personal relationships that you want. For instance, if you want some social pressure to have your act together sometimes, but the kinds of people you make friends with are too forgiving, you can have someone with their act together stop by sometimes and totally expect you to be on top of things. Or if you are sick and want someone nice to take care of you, yet none of your specific personal relationships are at a point where getting vomit on them would be a plus? Or if you just sometimes want to tell a young person some useful life-lessons, so you be helpful instead of irrelevant, you don’t have to go out and have a whole relationship with a younger person to do that.
      (If this went well, an ambitious version might try to move into transactionalizing less-transactional relationships, where for instance you say you want to have a long term slightly flirtatious yet old fashioned relationship with the person you buy bread from, and your preferences are carefully assessed and you are sent to just the right bread seller, and you don’t even like bread, but you like Raf’s bread because you know the whole story about his epic fight for the recipe, and you were there when the buckwheat got added, and the smell reminds you of a thousand moments of heartfelt joy at his counter, laughing together over a pile of loop-shaped loaves like this one. Which is exactly what you wanted, without the previous risks and trials and errors of being unusually open in bakeries across your city.)

  • 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.

    To put it the other way around, most people don’t care what other people think, for almost all values of ‘other people’. They care what some subset of people think. So if there are particular views from other people that you wish to not care about, it can be realistic to stop caring about them, as long as you care what some different set of people think.

    Ten (mostly fictional) examples:

    1. You feel like ‘people’ think you should be knowledgeable about politics and current events, because they are always talking about such things. You read some philosophers through the ages, and instead feel like ‘everyone’ thinks you should be basically contributing to the timeless philosophical problems of the ages. (Also, everyone else has some kind of famous treatise - where is yours?)
    2. You haven’t really thought through which causes are important, but ‘people’ all seem to think it’s nuclear disarmament, so looking into it feels a bit pointless. You go to a weekend conference on soil depletion and experience the sense that ‘people’ basically agree that soil degradation is THE problem, and that it would be embarrassing to ask if it isn’t nuclear disarmament, without having a much better case.
    3. You are kind of fat. You wish you didn’t care what ‘people’ thought, but you suspect they think you’re ugly, because you’ve seen ‘people’ say that or imply it. You read about all the people who appreciate curviness, and recalibrate your sense of what ‘people’ think when they see you.
    4. You can hardly think about the issue of gun regulation because you feel so guilty when you aren’t immediately convinced by the arguments on your side, or don’t have an eloquent retort for any arguments the other side comes up with. You wish you were brave enough to think clearly on any topic, but knowing everyone agrees that you would be contemptible if you came to the wrong conclusion, you are stressed and can’t think or trust your thoughts. You become an undergraduate and live in a dorm and hang out with people who have opposing views, and people who don’t care, and people who think it’s unclear, and people who think that thinking clearly is more important than either side. Your old sense of ‘people’ condemning the bad side is replaced by a sense that ‘people’ want you to have a novel position and an interesting argument.
    5. You tried out writing poetry, and to your surprise you really like it. You want to share it, but you think people will laugh at you, because it’s all poetic. You wish you didn’t care what people thought, because you want to express yourself and get feedback. But ‘people’ in your mind are in fact your usual crowd of Facebook friends, and they are not poetic types. But if you instead share your writing on allpoetry.com, you are surrounded by people who like poetry and compliment yours, and soon you are thinking ‘people liked my poem!’.
    6. You kind of think climate change is a big deal, but ‘people’ seem to think it isn’t worth attention and that you should focus on AI risk. It doesn’t seem like their arguments are great, but getting into it and being the one person with this crazy view isn’t appealing. So you tell the next five people you meet from your social circles about the situation, and they are all like, ‘what? climate change is the worst. Who are these cranks?’ and then you feel like socially there are two sides, and you can go back and have the debate.
    7. You want to write about topics of enduring importance, but you can’t bear to be left out of what people are talking about, and you feel somehow silly writing about the simulation argument when everyone is having a big discussion together about the incredibly important present crisis. So you make an RSS feed or a Twitter list of people who keep their eye on the bigger questions, and converse with them.
    8. You feel like people are super judgmental of everything, so that it’s hard to even know what flavor of hummus you like, as you anticipate the cascade of inferences about your personality. The only thing that keeps you expressing preferences at all is the distain you expect looms for indecisive people. So you notice who around you gives less of this impression, and hang out with them more.
    9. You imagine liking being a mathematician, but the other kids have decided that physics is cooler, and you don’t want to be left as the only one doing a less cool degree. So you do math anyway, and a year later you have new friends who think math is cooler than physics.
    10. You hang out with various groups. Some clusters are so ubiquitously accomplished that you think they must have let you in by mistake. In others, people turn to look when you walk in, and a crowd gathers to talk to you. You find yourself gravitating to the former groups, then developing an expectation that ‘people’ are never impressed by you, and being discouraged. So you hang out in broader circles and are buoyed up by ‘people’ being regularly interested in you and your achievements.
  • 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

    So the observation that a system is in flux seems fairly irrelevant to whether it is in equilibrium.

    Any system designed to go somewhere relies on some of its parameters remaining within narrow windows. Nature isn’t designed to go somewhere, so the issue of what ‘should’ happen with it is non-obvious. But the fact that ecosystems always gradually change along some dimensions (e.g. grassland becoming forest) doesn’t seem to imply that there are not still balance in other dimensions, where they don’t change so much, and where changing is more liable to lead to very different and arguably less good states.

    For instance, as a grassland gradually reforests, it might continue to have a large number of plant eating bugs, and bug-eating birds, such that the plant eating bugs would destroy the plants entirely if there were ever too many of them, but as there become more of them, the birds also flourish, and then eat them. As the forest grows, the tree-eating bugs become more common relative to the grass-eating bugs, but the rough equilibrium of plants, bugs, and birds remains. If the modern world was disrupting the reproduction of the birds, so that they were diminishing even while the bugs to eat were plentiful, threatening a bug-explosion-collapse in which the trees and grass would be destroyed by the brief insect plague, I think it would be reasonable to say that the modern world was disrupting the equilibrium, or putting nature out of balance.

    The fact that your bike has been moving forward for miles doesn’t mean that leaning a foot to the left suddenly is meaningless, in systems terms.

  • 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.

    At work I came across a thing that was that most unpleasant combination, of implicitly disrespectful and genuine evidence that I might be bad. Which I dealt with largely with calm, curiosity, and good intent. I thought about it and wrote down considerations. Then I asked a couple of other people about that and about another customarily shameful and distressing question, for good measure. I felt something good in my mind growing in strength, and exercising it made other things blossom: what had been an uncomfortable reserve into a fruitful friendliness.

    I had gone to bed last night with a headache, and fallen asleep thinking that on the outside view headaches often disappear by sleeping, but that my intuition said that this one would get worse. By the time I finished making lunch today, it was so bad that I quickly degenerated into an unhappy heap. It was that kind of headache where you feel hot and fragile and your neck aches and you wonder if you have meningitis but you don’t have the strength to get into that kind of inquiry. I lay in my reclining chair and thought that it would be wise to take painkillers, but that would involve doing things.

    My boyfriend came and looked after me. He put all the things around me - tea and sugar in a bowl and apple sauce and little packets of MeWe peanut butter and painkillers. He got another table for it all, and rubbed my neck, and looked in my eyes, and talked to me about what I care about in the world. I nibbled at the sugar and sipped the tea. I played Sporcle and learned about historic dates and American presidents, and I didn’t feel like I should be doing something else.

    I took some xanax, in case my headache was being worsened by my unease about it. I suppose it knocked out my unease at all levels about anything, because after recovering a bit I just kept wanting to work, until I’d been at work for about 10.5 hours, even having missed two hours to wretchedness in the middle of the day.

    I felt communality with the people far away reaching out to me across the internet. My room was full of warm lamps and orange wood, with green leaves here and there. My housemates made me meatballs and pasta and my boyfriend brought them to me with butter and parsley and dill. I was comfortable in my fully-reclined chair. I thought about things and made decisions. Someone sent me a book they were writing, and I liked it.

  • 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?

    Also, is this picture true and applicable to the real world? Is the size of these steps in human culture such that culture learns well? Can you see such effects in the world?

    Is this why women’s clothing—which seems expected to vary more between women—also changes faster over time than men’s clothing? (Is that even true?)

  • 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.

    I have noticed both of these human forces before, but I hadn’t seen them so vividly as acting in the same realm. You don’t want your essay to be on an identical topic to another student’s, but you also don’t want it to be outside the bounds of what the professor thinks of as an essay, or expressing views beyond a short hop from those others would endorse.

    This makes me imagine the curlicues of culture as growing in the fertile interstitial zone between options too conformist to consider and options too wild to consider. Kind of like a Mandelbrot set or a tidal flat or a cellular automaton. There’s a similar pattern in the space of ways the whole of culture could have been: if everyone was very conformist about everything, it would be monotony, and if everyone immediately flung themselves as far away from anyone else as they could on every axis, it would be another kind of monotony. But with this balance of effects as it is, we get some complicated spiraling evolution of art movements and attitudes, trousers and tools. Each idea bringing forth riffs of of it in every direction.

    Inspired by a conversation with Robin Hanson, where he probably basically said the main point here, that these two forces act in opposition.

  • 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. For instance, you might imagine them hurrying around, being frazzled and not sure what to do, trying. And it’s not just that they look like they might be those things - in imagination, it is available that they are. While you aren’t in their mind, you also aren’t just observing its consequences and inferring things about it from a distance. You experience their feeling.

    But what is it to experience a person’s sadness, say, without experiencing it as an aspect of their experience? i.e. as something that can requires an imagining of their mental experience to imagine, in the way that imagining the wetness of a dog would seem to require—or be greatly aided by—imagining the dog?

    In the everyday togetherness of being with someone, I am also rarely actually picturing the world through their eyes, and yet I am often doing some kind of ‘seeing things from their perspective’ and some kind of ‘being with them’ that feels like relatively direct contact with their mind. (What is it to experience a mind, if not to look at the conscious experience that is a mind’s main deal?) I am engaging with them very differently from how I would engage with an object, or with a set of observations of a distant person. Is it strange that your experience of being you is not the thing that I focus on when I’m experiencing you, together with you?

  • 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?

    I think one reason why not is that you don’t tend to have much evidence that a thing is efficient unless you are in the business of making quantitative measurements. You are more likely to say ‘this daycare is unusually efficient’ if you have been measuring ‘costs of providing legally adequate childcare’ across different centers, than if you have been observing children and workshopping policies for their thriving. If you have been doing the latter, you will probably just call it something else.

    It seems to me that we would be better with more specific concepts though, rather than conflating striving with an eye to a defined metric and the doing the best we can do with our materials. I suggest narrow efficiency and inclusive efficiency. An assembly line is narrowly efficient. Utopia is inclusively efficient.

  • 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.

    How bad is it to have your customers indoors to order and pickup their drinks? Some Microcovid estimates for San Francisco, right now: Indoor: about 20 microcovids Outdoor: about 1 microcovid

    So very roughly 20 extra microcovids per visitor.

    How many visitors? Seems like a Starbucks restaurant serves maybe 500 customers per day = ~10k extra microcovids per day. A lot, but still 100 days to cause an extra case of covid. So only a few extra cases of covid per year, per cafe. Then maybe a factor of two for people they infect. Should they move their whole ordering counter to the front of the store just to avoid like seven people getting covid per year?

    Well, that’s maybe 14% of a death per year per cafe, and maybe one person disabled longer term.

    Which seems pretty bad, for an arrangement of furniture. For instance, if some brand of cafe had a characteristic setup of tables such that every year in one in seven of these cafes someone died, and in just about every outlet, someone was badly injured every year, I think their negligence would be their main claim to fame, if they were not straight up shut down by the law. Am I wrong?

    We can also ask, how bad is it for someone to get covid, then compare to the costs of rearranging. Let’s very roughly guess: P(death) of 1.7% * estimated statistical value of life of $9M * 15% of life left at average age of US covid death of about 76 * a factor of 2 for disability (a guesstimate I’ve heard, based on way more likely but way less bad than death, though I wonder about this, since it is also affecting people much younger). That gives us $0.05/microcovid.1 So doing it outside seems worth very roughly $1 to each customer, or about $500 per day across customers.

    This has ignored spread from each person who gets it to others, which seems hard to reason about, but it seems that so far a person who gets covid spreads it to more than one other person directly on average, since the number of cases has gone up overall. For the social costs of this, we also care about further cases caused indirectly, but that seems hard to reason about, so let’s say roughly (and I think optimistically) that if you give an extra customer covid, that causes around one additional covid case. This gives us a total social cost of around $1000 per day from not moving the counter.

    (This doesn’t account for the customers who find your cafe too risky and avoid it.)

    The effort of moving the counter seems unlikely to be this high.

    But maybe it isn’t negligible, and cafes can’t afford to do it without recouping some costs from customers, and there just isn’t demand?

    Do customers not care? If an identical coffee were $2.00 more at one cafe instead of another nearby, I expect a lot of people to habitually frequent the cheaper one. Do people not think covid is that bad? (Why not?) My guess would have been that there were a variety of people, and that many people were going to great lengths to avoid getting covid, so at least their patronage would be altered by the covid dose one gets with one’s coffee. But that doesn’t seem true.

    Especially perplexing evidence reached me via a trip to Philz. I am told they did have some kind of outdoors serving, which makes sense since they have a large window in the front of their store. But when I went there, in the middle of the pandemic, they had just moved everything back into the store and proudly told me that ‘I could come inside!’ as if I was really hanging out for an opportunity for some indoor co-breathing but had been barred from this by some kind of paternalism. I continued on my way, looking for an outdoor cafe, but couldn’t find one, so eventually came back because at least Philz could be ordered from my phone and had a window open. But their behavior suggests that there is some kind of public demand for the joy of ordering indoors.

    I wonder if I’m wrong somehow. I’ve historically been pretty pro-Starbucks, but when their customers’ lives were at stake, they seem to have just thrown a bunch of them away. I wish I saw their perspective better. (Not to suggest they are worse than many others. I wish I understood any of them.)

    1. For a different estimate, I think my house puts a microcovid at about 0.2 minutes of loss in expectation (including from death and disability). If an average person here earns very roughly $50k, maybe they value their time at roughly $25/h (their salary), which is $0.08 per 0.2 minutes, so $0.08 per microcovid. 

  • 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.)

    I feel like the situation was better in high school: there were contests and exams for all kinds of stuff that seemed decently useful, like math and chemistry. I guess one problem with my current situation is that because I learn things in a more distributed way, they don’t tend to come with a well matched test. A couple of times I have learned some math for instance, then looked for a suitable exam, but most exams don’t match the exact math that I learned. I suppose a solution might be to only learn things from places that also offer tests, but somehow this doesn’t sound great. Perhaps it is that the tests I found before didn’t seem that promising for rapid feedback anyway - you had to turn to a different page of a pdf or book and search through and check your own solutions. Imagine how much less fun Sporcle would be if instead of instantaneously responding to your touch, nothing happened until the end of a quiz, at which point it emailed you a pdf of the answers.

    Some of this seems like it might have an easy solution that someone else knows about, at least for areas that are readily quantitatively examinable, such as math. So if I seem to be wrong, please correct me!

    Do you know of well-gamified learning opportunities or tests for things that are worth studying?

    I had fun practicing calibration of predictions, which seems useful, until the app idiosyncratically broke for my account in a permanent way. I also recently noticed the existence of Quantum Country, which apparently teaches about quantum mechanics via essays with built in spaced repetition, so I’m also excited to try that.

  • 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:

    land snail

    But it’s true. And it seems that not only are the spiral-looking shells from snails, but various flat and non-spiral ones are too.


    Little Mountain 5, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    Julia exquisita

    Alexandre Laporte, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


    Image: Malcolm Storey, BioImages - the Virtual Fieldguide (UK) through the Encyclopedia of Life and the creative commons CC BY-NC-SA license.

    Cowrie snail NOAA (Photo Collection of Dr. James P. McVey, NOAA Sea Grant Program), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    This is a meaningful update because snails are a particular kind of thing I’m familiar with, and furthermore I like them.

  • 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.

    Ones regarding which my enthusiasm has extended to writing, photography, transcendent-style elation, notable ongoing quality of life improvement, or extended consideration of the ethical implications of eating all of them before anyone else knows that they exist

    • Mewe snickerdoodle peanut butter packets
    • Hanuta hazelnut wafers
    • Serenity food squashes
    • Jonny pops, especially cherries and dark chocolate, but also strawberry, chocolate mint, probably most other flavors
    • Many Marks & Spencer’s prepared foods, if you are in the UK (e.g. coconut pieces, cream yogurts, wasabi peas, cheeses, raspberry jelly, flapjacks, Our Best Ever Trifle, berries, small sausages, rice crackers, cappuccino chocolate things; but mostly I like the experience of being able to construct your own bento box of foods like this for lunch)
    • Ferrero Rochers - I realize these shouldn’t generally be a sustaining food, but sometimes if I lose my appetite for some reason, and yet would benefit from eating, and they are one of the few things that are still appealing

    Ones I have reliably liked and eaten for some period

    Ones I like but haven’t gotten super into so far

    Ones in a similar genre that I’m not that into but other people really like

    Ones that are almost or sometimes great but fall down on at least one dimension

    • Potato chips and fritos: great once in mouth, but oily on hands and packet non-pleasing
    • Mi goreng (or in cups): delicious and mostly convenient but opening flavor packets is hard and often causes them to spurt on hands and nearby things
    • Blueberries: excellent food but ask to be washed and are then wet and dripping from the holes in package; plus often some are moldy. M&S I think does this well. Some are much more delicious than others.
    • Jello cups: promising but jello is usually not substantial enough, and one time I cut my hand pretty bloodily trying to open the Jello brand ones. Pretty good from M&S, with raspberries in.
    • Rice pudding: a promising type of food in a promising form, but I don’t know of an ideal instance of it for my tastes
    • Cereal cups: seems maybe great if I liked cereal
  • 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.

    I usually wince when people criticize efficiency, and think they are confused and should be criticizing the goal that is being pursued efficiently. Which does seem basically always true. For instance, if they are saying their childcare center cares only for efficiency, they probably mean that it is doing something like trying to minimize financial costs without breaking the law. Perhaps by fitting many children into a room with minimal oversight or attention to thriving. Here, I would complain that the childcare center cares only about its profits and not breaking the law. If it was fulfilling my own values efficiently, that would be awesome.

    However I think there is more merit to efficiency’s poor reputation than I have given credit for. Because pursuing efficiency does seem to systematically lead to leaving things out. Which I suppose perhaps makes sense, for creatures who don’t explicitly know what their values are, and especially who have trouble quantifying them. If you set out to build an efficient daycare center, chances are that you don’t know exactly what makes a daycare center good, and are even less well equipped to put these things into numbers and build machinery to optimize those numbers. (This would be much like the AI alignment problem but where the AI you are trying to direct is made of your own explicit reasoning. It might also what Seeing Like a State is about, but I haven’t read it.) It’s still not clear to me why this would systematically turn out actively worse than if you didn’t aim for efficiency, or whether it does (my guess is that it usually doesn’t, but sometimes does, and is notable on those occasions). If efficiency has really earned its poor reputation, I wonder if I should be more worried about this.

  • 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.

    Some stylized facts about spirituality:

    • People across religions have ‘spiritual experiences’ that involve particular styles of feeling
    • People can have spiritual attitudes more broadly
    • Spiritual attitudes involve less interest in ‘worldly’ or petty things
    • Spiritual things often involve sacredness and ritual
    • Spiritual feelings are often associated with awe and the word ‘transcendent’
    • Spiritual experiences do not present themselves as about hedonic enjoyment of the experience
    • Spirituality is connected with ‘meaning’ and tends to feel deep and significant
    • Spirituality tends toward an interest in philosophy, especially metaphysics, especially regarding whether everything is one, the nature of selfhood, the possibility and nature of ‘souls’, the nature of love
    • Certain drugs seem to induce spiritual or adjacent states
    • Spirituality tends to be fairly positive, in the sense that from a satisfactorily spiritual mental place, one expects the world to seem broadly good or at least compatible with peace
    • Spirituality is related to ideas of connecting with something beyond yourself
    • Spirituality is sincere
    • Spirituality is serious
    • Spirituality is normative
    • I suspect that from a spiritual vantage, this list might seem like a mundane missing of the point

    Why are people into spirituality? Why is it a kind of thing that humans can experience? Why is it a thing they experience so much?

  • 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.

    Wow, Facebook is showing me a machine-learning based writing platform. I believe that this is the first mainstream application of all this. See how it goes. I wrote this paragraph on my own quickly, and then rewrote it using Wordtune to demonstrate its features. Then I may rewrite it using its premium features or using my more refined writing skills, if all goes well. —Wordtune

    I am intrigued by Facebook’s advertisement with regards to an artificial intelligence (AI) writing tool. I’m not aware of any mainstream application arising from these efforts.Let us see how it goes. I created this paragraph quickly myself, and now I’m going to rewrite it using Wordtune to demonstrate all it has to offer. Afterwards, I will be able to incorporate premium features in it or craft it into a more refined style, all going well. —formal Wordtune

    Wow, Facebook is advertising a writing tool which uses artificial intelligence (AI) that I did not know existed. This is something of a landmark event; I’ve not yet seen a mainstream useful product coming out of anything like this. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes. I’ve begun by writing this paragraph myself but I will then rewrite it with the aid of Wordtune to illustrate its various features. Then I may rewrite it further using its premium features or my more honed writing, all going well. —longer Wordtune

    Wow, Facebook’s touting a writing tool powered by artificial intelligence. This is the first time I’ve seen a mainstream use coming from all this. Let’s see what it does. I wrote it quickly, and I’m gonna rewrite it with Wordtune, just so I can show you how it works. After that I’ll maybe rewrite it more using its premium features or my own better skills. —casual Wordtune

    Wow, Facebook offers me an AI-driven writing tool. This is the first mainstream product I’ve seen from all of this. Let’s see. I first wrote the paragraph, and then I rewrote it with Wordtune, so you can see its features. Then I will retake it using its premium features or my better writing, all going well. —shorter Wordtune

    Facebook just surprised me with an ad for an AI writing tool. Could it be the first useful mainstream product to come from all this?  Let’s take it for a ride. I wrote this paragraph fast, then asked Wordtune to rewrite it, to show you its moves. I might repeat the demonstration with its other style options, or mine, fate willing. —me spending more time

    A Facebook ad for AI-improved writing! GPT-3-like tools enter the mainstream. Let’s try it. I jot five lines, apply Wordtune, and watch. Next I might compare paid features or my own skills. —me shorter

    Facebook takes a break in its endless stream of extremely comfortable-looking bra suggestions and creepy-but-welcome commercials for things I mentioned in conversation or thought of in a dream once or something, to offer me artificial intelligence to automate half my writing process. Wait, what? Is it the future at last? Shit! I like that half of my writing process. Well, let’s see it. I’ll write a shitty paragraph, and then see what this ‘Wordtune’ can do with it. Then maybe I’ll see what I can do with it, to compare (and see if it’s all over for my joyous thesaurus expeditions). —me, humorous conversational

  • 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. Hopefully someone is, and will tell me ways that it is wrong, then later I might offer you something reliable. At present, it is probably pretty unreliable, and should only be used insofar as you would otherwise use something even more unreliable. Some non-exhaustive evidence of its unreliableness:

    • I haven’t actually read much of the paper
    • The answers in the spreadsheet have changed substantially while I have felt about as confident in them as I do now
    • There are numerous places where it seems dubious to me, or where I made up numbers
    • I try not to be the sort of person who only shares things if they are of high quality, even if the stakes are high
    • This calculation is ignoring the efforts everyone is making to be safe, so you might underestimate the risks if surfaces look low risk in this study because supermarket employees are actually constantly wiping them down, for instance. So it should probably be interpreted more like ‘if you take levels of caution similar to those taken with the study surfaces…’.

    Interesting tentative conclusions so far, rely upon at own risk:

    • a person with covid touching something then you touching it then touching your face is worth extremely roughly 13 microcovids (uCov) (with 90% confidence of 0.7 to 110 according to my estimate, but I wouldn’t trust that)
    • thus such a touch-touch-face sequence with a random person in San Francisco (where I live) at the moment is ~0.7 uCov (give or take an order of magnitude)
    • adding further wild guesses about how many touches are involved in acquiring groceries, I get that a 30 item San Francisco grocery trip is worth about 5 uCov (give or take an order of magnitude)
    • that would mean about two cases from groceries in San Francisco per week, (give or take an order of magnitude) which doesn’t sound crazy to me. (You might think it does sound crazy, because surely we would notice that by now, but I’m pretty uncertain about our collective ability to observe and infer things.)

    The basic reasoning is this:

    • If an infected person touches a surface, it looks like it has about a 13% chance of becoming detectably infectious by this method (based on 36 samples from grocery store surfaces which are estimated by me to receive very roughly 2 covid-infected touches per day yielding 4 positive samples, along with some complication with distributions that make the arithmetic strange.)
    • Average risk from touching one of these positive-testing surfaces is very roughly 100 microcovids (taking an estimate half way between the average grocery surface infectiousness and the average surface infectiousness, according to the paper)
    • So if a person with covid touches a surface, then you touch it and then touch your face, this gives us about 13% of 100 microcovids = 13 microcovids (.0013% chance of covid)

    I welcome all kinds of comments, e.g. even ‘I want to know why this cell says 27, but I can’t be bothered reading all these 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.

    It was initially hypothesized by a housemate that this was due to error. The cheese cubes are more expensive per unit of cheese, while also consisting of worse cheese. Which is fairly suggestive of overall worseness. One could further note that they involve substantially more packaging, and take up more space per cheese. So a natural theory is that the cheese-cube eating housemates are erring, due to some kind of short-sighted non-endorsed laziness.

    I’m with the cheese-cube eaters, except at least ten times more passionately (for instance, I am writing an essay in favor of the position). It’s not about the quality-adjusted cheese per dollar. Getting out a pre-opened hunk of cheese, examining the color and consistency of its moist edges, awkwardly undressing it further from its tight, torn, damp plastic casing, finding a knife and something to cut it on, cutting some, wrapping the rest again, fitting it back in the fridge, and cleaning up the knife and counter, is an experience. And it’s not a good one. It has all kinds of wetness and ineffectual muscular exertions and tenuous balancing and making hard decisions about risk under uncertainty and washing things. Whereas reaching out your hand for a cheese-cube pack then de-lidding it into the trash—while not an amazing experience—is I’d say overall positive, being substantially comprised of the initial sighting of your desired cheese-cube-pack and then the immediate having of it. At worst it is a very short experience. And it makes perfect sense to prefer twenty seconds of the cheese cube experience to two minutes of the better cheese experience enough to overwhelm the other stakes of the choice.

    I have relatively consistent preferences in this direction, whereas the rest of the house seems to vary by food. Others lunch on intermediately aged leftovers ladled from stacked tupperwares, while if I’m not going to make something fresh, I prefer just-add-boiling-water pots of vegetable curry or microwaveable instant rice (I do add butter and herbs though, which is a slight departure from the genre). Others have been known to eat yogurt spooned into a bowl from a giant tub, while I eat from towers of fresh stackable single-serve yogurt pots. Snack foods tend to cater to my interests here better, perhaps because everyone hopes to be more lazy and individualistic for snacks. There are tiny bags of chips and string cheeses and nut butter pouches and apple chips and fruit strips and protein bars.

    My boyfriend affectionately refers to these objects of my desire as ‘li’l pots’ (probably a term he grabbed from some gleeful past exclamation of mine) and often offers me ‘some sort of li’l pot?’ for breakfast, whether it be oatmeal or yogurt or rice pudding or mashed potato to be determined.

    I claim that this is not about appreciating aesthetic qualities less. It is about appreciating more aesthetic qualities. Packaging can be beautiful and simple and pleasing to use, but it is often painful to behold and also painful to try to open: packets that tear open half way down the side, or can’t be opened at all with normal-range female grip strength, or that naturally explode their contents on nearby objects unless you do something that I haven’t discovered yet, or that cut your hands then leave you holding a small overflowing tub of water.

    The arrangement of objects can similarly give pleasure or suffering: my stack of fresh white yogurt bled through with passionfruit, lemon or red berries asks to be reached for, whereas the jumble of giant containers of yogurt and sour cream and cream cheese on top and in front of each other and strewn between with other objects trying to fit somewhere, has no such appeal. String cheeses living upright and individuated are much more appealing than string cheeses attached together in a large string cheese blanket inside another plastic packet horizontally hidden under some other cheeses. Small stacks of different types of protein bar laid out for eating are more pleasing than a rubble of large packages thrown into a drawer.

    Snack drawer

    And actions can be aesthetically pleasing or not. Peeling a grape with your teeth is pleasing. Breaking through the tin-foil-paper on top of a new jar of Caro can be very pleasing. Wrestling an icy firm-like-slightly-decomposing-wood field roast sausage from its skin-tight twisted plastic tubing is not pleasing. Any kind of tearing that is difficult and involves a new liquid appearing that you are not equipped to deal with is not pleasing. Anything that naturally calls for more than two hands is not pleasing unless you are a group of people. Making judgment calls about food safety is not pleasing. Actions that require finding, dirtying, and cleaning multiple objects tend not to be pleasing unless there’s a real payoff.

    It’s not just about the time. There are preparation rituals that are beautiful and compelling. I am secretly a bit pleased that our coffee machine is being replaced and we are temporarily relegated to measuring fresh grounds into my beautiful orange French press, then pouring boiling water into the roiling black soup of them, then slowly pressing the mandala-like metal plunger onto them, perhaps watching mysterious currents shooting up the sides of the clear glass tower. I enjoy choosing a cup, and directing a smooth black torrent into its belly. I like shaking the cream carton with vigor, and pouring a dollop of its heavy white cloud into the black depths, to curl and spiral through it.

    Which is not to say that others should agree with my evaluation of li’l pots. The same series of actions is probably a very different experience for different people. For one person, there might be a single action ‘get out some cheese’, and in a half-conscious flurry it happens, and they are soon focused on the eating of the cheese. For a different person ‘get out some cheese’ means something more like ‘take out the cream cheese and the yogurt and balance them tenuously near the fridge, then reach in and get the intended cheese from a slightly wet and slimy pool on the shelf, then replace the cream cheese and the yogurt, then try to open the cheese while touching only the dry bits, then be unable to rip the plastic on the first three tries but hurt your finger somewhat, then look for scissors to cut it, then fail to find them and look for a knife instead, then use the knife to somewhat recklessly cut the edge of the packet, then try to rip it again from there, then get it suddenly and nearly lose the cheese (in the process grab the wet package and the cheese and give up on that particular separation), then open a cupboard with the least cheesy part of your hand and take out a chopping board and put the cheese on it, then hope that the pool of liquid running from the cheese doesn’t run onto the counter, then wash your hands because of the fridge slime and the cheese water, then cut off some cheese with the knife, then take out a storage container and move the rest of the cheese from its entire now-useless package into the container, then throw out the bag, then wipe up the cheese water that dripped while moving the bag, then move the yogurt and the cream cheese again, then put the cheese block back in the pool of liquid, then replace the yogurt and the cream cheese, then wipe up the cheese water from the counter, then wash the knife, then take your cheese to your room so that you can lie down for a bit before eating the fucking thing.’


    Note: I do have OCD, so my love of indeterminate liquids, contamination, decisions about safety risks, and additional reasons to wash my hands is lower than it might be for a human.

  • 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?

    Some possible things:

    1. To actually coordinate that many people, you would need to have serious policing—beyond what is an acceptable alternative to a year-long pandemic—or serious buy-in—beyond what is possible in any normal place of more than ten people.
    2. Even if you could basically coordinate that many people, you would fail in a few places. And if you fail anywhere, then the disease will gradually build back up.
    3. You can’t just have everyone buy groceries for a given fortnight at some point in the preceding months, because there aren’t enough groceries in warehouses or enough grocery producers able to spin up extra weeks of grocery production on short notice (I am especially unsure whether this is true).
    4. The people who do really have to work are too many to over-prepare well for it in a month
    5. It would cost really a lot of money
    6. It would need to be longer than two weeks if you wanted to actually crush the disease, because some people are probably infectious for abnormally long times.
    7. You would need everyone not living alone to stay away from those they live with, to avoid spreading covid within houses, making this a more extreme proposition than it first seems, very hard to police, and basically impossible for households with small children or other very dependent members.
    8. It’s just way too much logistical effort to make this happen well.

    1, 2 and 7 look like the clearest problems to me. I don’t know enough to say if 3, 4 or 8 are real obstacles, and it seems like the US federal government has sent out a lot of money already, so 5 could at worst be solved by doing this thing at the time the money was sent out. 6 seems true, but I’m not sure if the length it would need to be is out of the question, if the other questions are solved.

    7 is pretty bad even in a community without dependent people, because it requires active effort from everyone to protect themselves within their houses, which seems much less likely to be ubiquitously complied with than a request to not go to effort to do something (i.e. more people will find the energy to stay on their sofas than will find the energy to set up their room to prepare food in it for a fortnight). Then the dependent people who really need to stay with someone else seem even harder to get the end-of-fortnight risk down for. I could imagine dealing with these problems by spreading people out as much as feasible and requiring longer quarantines for pairs. But the difficulty of that—or need for extending the length of the whole thing—seem quite costly.

    On 2 and 7, even if you don’t actually stop the pandemic, and you have to have another occasional scheduled ‘firebreak’ in activity, once cases had built up again, it seems like it could hugely reduce the human cost, without more total caution (just moving the caution in time).

    (Also, if you did it for four weeks instead of two, you would only end up with cases where two failures met, i.e. where someone improbably got covid during the first two weeks, then improbably passed it on to another person in the second.)

    On 4, One way you might swing this is to have many of the people who work during the two weeks then do their own hard quarantine in the following two weeks, where they can be replaced by some of the workers with similar skills who were at home during the main round.

    Many of these depend on scale, and location. For instance, this can clearly often work at the level of a group house, and is probably too ambitious for a large and ideologically diverse nation (especially one that isn’t really organized for people to consistently wear masks after a year). Could it work at the level of a relatively anti-covid city? (The city would then have to limit or quarantine incoming travelers, but that seems doable for many cities.) A small town? A small college campus? A highly religious adult community, where the church was in favor? There are a lot of human groups in the world.

    Have I got the main reasons this wouldn’t work? Is there some good solution to them that I haven’t seen?

    Has anyone done something like this? There have been lots of lockdowns, but have there been time-bounded almost-total lockdowns scheduled in advance, with huge efforts to avert people needing to take risks during that particular period (e.g. treating moving risks to the time earlier as great compared to running them that week)?

    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.

    There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this secondary hierarchy quite altered.

    There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have dispaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.

    My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man.

    The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

    His main explicit reasons for advising against succumbing to this easy set of motives are that it runs a major risk of turning you into a scoundrel, and that it is fundamentally unsatisfying—once admitted to the ingroup, you will just want a further in group; the exclusive appeal of the ingroup won’t actually be appealing once you are comfortably in it; and the social pleasures of company in the set probably won’t satisfy, since those didn’t satisfy you on the outside.

    I think there is further reason not to be drawn into such things:

    1. I controversially and uncertainly claim that even the good of having especially high social status is a lesser kind of good relative to those available from other arenas of existence. Though I suppose it increases your life expectancy somewhat.
    2. It is roughly zero sum, so hard to wholly get behind and believe in, what with your success being net bad for the rest of the world.
    3. To the extent it is at the cost of real craftsmanship and focus on the object level, it will make you worse at your profession, and thus less cool in the eyes of God, or an ideal observer, who are even cooler than your local set.

    I think Lewis is also making an interesting maneuver here, beyond communicating an idea. In modeling the behavior of the coolness-seekers, you put them in a less cool position. In the default framing, they are sophisticated and others are naive. But when the ‘naive’ are intentionally so because they see the whole situation for what it is, while the sophisticated followed their brute urges without stepping back, who is naive really?

  • 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?

    For instance, does it mostly matter that my research group, AI Impacts, is a certain size force for AI risk related thinking (with the size determined by the number and competence of people and the functionality of the organization, say), or does it matter whether we write journal articles or news stories or blog posts or research pages, or whether we choose our projects collectively vs. individually, or whether we get most of our feedback internally vs. externally? Maybe most of these things can mostly be translated into ‘functionality’. But the ‘type of thing we are producing’ one doesn’t seem to as easily.

    How much does what exactly you are producing matter? It could matter almost entirely or not at all, to my knowledge. For instance, I have some intuition that ‘there are about three small orgs in that space’ is a reasonable description of how much effort is going into a goal, but I also have intuitions that, say, minor differences in the responsiveness or navigability or style of a website can make the difference between it seeming great or annoying or crankish, and being read or not, or liked by different people. Which seems like it should just have a fairly different effect. These seem vaguely in conflict.

    I originally meant for AI Impacts to be an unusual kind of entity, and the form of the output (website of ongoingly updated research pages on modular questions, hierarchically supporting one another) was a key part of the experiment. Which doesn’t imply a strong view on the importance of format—experimentation might make sense if format is so important it is worth searching alternative ones, but it might also make sense if it is so unimportant that it won’t mess anything up.

    But there are costs to doing unusual things (e.g. people are confused about what you are doing, other entities aren’t organized to interface with you), so if format is totally unimportant, maybe we should move to more normal things. (Or the same goes if format is important, and this one is clearly worse.)

    This question is also relevant in how you pick organizations to donate to, so maybe people who regularly do that know the answers. Does it mostly matter that you have competent people working on the right cause, or having checked that, do you generally also need to look closely at exactly what they are doing?

  • 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:

    • The US is falling apart rapidly (on the scale of years), as evident in US politics departing from sanity and honor, sharp polarization, violent civil unrest, hopeless pandemic responses, ensuing economic catastrophe, one in a thousand Americans dying by infectious disease in 2020, and the abiding popularity of Trump in spite of it all.
    • Western civilization is declining on the scale of half a century, as evidenced by its inability to build things it used to be able to build, and the ceasing of apparent economic acceleration toward a singularity.
    • AI agents will control the future, and which ones we create is the only thing about our time that will matter in the long run. Major subplots:
      • ‘Aligned’ AI is necessary for a non-doom outcome, and hard.
      • Arms races worsen things a lot.
      • The order of technologies matters a lot / who gets things first matters a lot, and many groups will develop or do things as a matter of local incentives, with no regard for the larger consequences.
      • Seeing more clearly what’s going on ahead of time helps all efforts, especially in the very unclear and speculative circumstances (e.g. this has a decent chance of replacing subplots here with truer ones, moving large sections of AI-risk effort to better endeavors).
      • The main task is finding levers that can be pulled at all.
      • Bringing in people with energy to pull levers is where it’s at.
    • Institutions could be way better across the board, and these are key to large numbers of people positively interacting, which is critical to the bounty of our times. Improvement could make a big difference to swathes of endeavors, and well-picked improvements would make a difference to endeavors that matter.
    • Most people are suffering or drastically undershooting their potential, for tractable reasons.
    • Most human effort is being wasted on endeavors with no abiding value.
    • If we take anthropic reasoning and our observations about space seriously, we appear very likely to be in a ‘Great Filter’, which appears likely to kill us (and unlikely to be AI).
    • Everyone is going to die, the way things stand.
    • Most of the resources ever available are in space, not subject to property rights, and in danger of being ultimately had by the most effective stuff-grabbers. This could begin fairly soon in historical terms.
    • Nothing we do matters for any of several reasons (moral non-realism, infinite ethics, living in a simulation, being a Boltzmann brain, ..?)
    • There are vast quantum worlds that we are not considering in any of our dealings.
    • There is a strong chance that we live in a simulation, making the relevance of each of our actions different from that which we assume.
    • There is reason to think that acausal trade should be a major factor in what we do, long term, and we are not focusing on it much and ill prepared.
    • Expected utility theory is the basis of our best understanding of how best to behave, and there is reason to think that it does not represent what we want. Namely, Pascal’s mugging, or the option of destroying the world with all but one in a trillion chance for a proportionately greater utopia, etc.
    • Consciousness is a substantial component of what we care about, and we not only don’t understand it, but are frequently convinced that it is impossible to understand satisfactorily. At the same time, we are on the verge of creating things that are very likely conscious, and so being able to affect the set of conscious experiences in the world tremendously. Very little attention is being given to doing this well.
    • We have weapons that could destroy civilization immediately, which are under the control of various not-perfectly-reliable people. We don’t have a strong guarantee of this not going badly.
    • Biotechnology is advancing rapidly, and threatens to put extremely dangerous tools in the hands of personal labs, possibly bringing about a ‘vulnerable world’ scenario.
    • Technology keeps advancing, and we may be in a vulnerable world scenario.
    • The world is utterly full of un-internalized externalities and they are wrecking everything.
    • There are lots of things to do in the world, we can only do a minuscule fraction, and we are hardly systematically evaluating them at all. Meanwhile massive well-intentioned efforts are going into doing things that are probably much less good than they could be.
    • AI is powerful force for good, and if it doesn’t pose an existential risk, the earlier we make progress on it, the faster we can move to a world of unprecedented awesomeness, health and prosperity.
    • There are risks to the future of humanity (‘existential risks’), and vastly more is at stake in these than in anything else going on (if we also include catastrophic trajectory changes). Meanwhile the world’s thinking and responsiveness to these risks is incredibly minor and they are taken unseriously.
    • The world is controlled by governments, and really awesome governance seems to be scarce and terrible governance common. Yet we probably have a lot of academic theorizing on governance institutions, and a single excellent government based on scalable principles might have influence beyond its own state.
    • The world is hiding, immobilized and wasted by a raging pandemic.

    It’s a draft. What should I add? (If, in life, you’ve chosen among ways to improve the world, is there a simple story within which your choices make particular sense?)

  • 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

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  • 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”

    “You’re saying when people say words, they are ascribing meanings to them that they just made up, according to which definition they like most?”

    “Well, they like definitions that fit with other people’s usage a lot more than other ones.”

    “I think they are just guessing what the real meaning is”

    “There isn’t a real meaning”

    “Ok, what the consensus meaning is”

    “There isn’t a consensus”

    “Yeah but they believe there is one”

    “You’re like a word meaning nihilist—you want only these ‘real’ word meanings or at least these word meanings of consensus, yet you know they don’t exist. That seems sad.”

    “Maybe, but that doesn’t make it wrong. And also, I was talking about what other people do.”

    “What does it matter what other people do? You can use whatever meanings you want.”

    “That seems unfriendly somehow”

    “What if you do it in a friendly way? For instance, where a meaning is ambiguous, if you choose the best one. For instance, if you say toasters can be stupid?”

    “It’s more a vibe of do-it-alone responsibility for everything, thinking of others as machinery that happens to be near you, that rings my alarm bells. Leaving the common experience of word usage to stand outside the system, as it were, and push the common stock of concepts in the way that you calculate best. At least it seems somehow lonely and cold”

    “That’s a bit dramatic - I think the odd nudge in a good direction is well within the normal human experience of word usage. Plus, often people clearly redefine words somewhat in the context of a specific conversation. Would it be so strange if within our conversation we deemed ‘stupid’ applicable to toasters? Not doing so seems like it will only limit our discussion and edge us toward taking up some further concept like shmoopid to fill the gap.”

    “It’s not clear at all to me that that is the only bad consequence at stake. For instance, words have all kinds of connotations besides what you explicitly think of them as about. If you just declare that stupid applies to toasters, then try to use it, you’ll doubtless be saying all kinds of things about toasters that you don’t mean. For instance, that that they are mildly reprehensible, and that you don’t like them.”

    “I don’t know if I would have used it if I didn’t implicitly accept the associations, and this is a risk one seems to always run in using words, even when you would deem them to apply.”

    “Hmm. Ok, maybe. This sounds like a lot of work though, and I have done ok not thinking about using my influence over words until this day.”

    “You think you have done ok, but word meanings are a giant tragedy of the commons. You might have done untold damage. We know that interesting concepts are endlessly watered down by exaggerators and attention seekers choosing incrementally wider categories at every ambiguity. That kind of thing might be going on all over the place. Maybe we just don’t know what words could be, if we were trying to do them well, instead of everyone being out to advance their own utterings.”

  • 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).

    I am well capable of enjoying actual disconnected scenery. But imagining is effort, so the immediate action of staring at the wall, say, seems like a better deal than having to imagine someone else’s wall to be staring at. Plus, a wall is already straining my visual-imaginative capacities, and there are probably going to be all kinds of other things, and some of them are probably going to be called exotic words to hammer in whatever kind of scenic je ne sais quoi is going to come in handy later in the book, so I’m going to have to look them up or think about it while I keep from forgetting the half-built mental panorama constructed so far. It’s a chore.

    My boyfriend and I have recently got into reading haikus together. They mostly describe what things look like a bit, and then end. So you might think I would dislike them even more than the descriptive outsets of longer stories. But actually I ask to read them together every night.

    I think part of it is just volume. The details of a single glance, rather than a whole landscape survey, I can take in. And combined with my own prior knowledge of the subject, it can be a rich picture. And maybe it is just that I am paying attention to them in a better way, but it seems like the details chosen to bring into focus are better. Haikus are like a three stroke drawing that captures real essence of the subject. My boyfriend also thinks there is often something clean about the images.

    Some by Matsuo Bashō from our book The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass [ETA: line positionings not as in original]:

    In the fish shop
    the gums of the salt-bream
    look cold

    Early fall—
    The sea and the rice fields
    all one green.

    Another year gone—
    hat in my hand,
    sandals on my feet.

    More than ever I want to see
    in these blossoms at dawn
    the god’s face.

    The peasant’s child,
    husking rice, stops
    and gazes at the moon.

    Year after year
    On the monkey’s face
    A monkey face

    In sum:

    Ten words
    Draw on my mind
    Cleaner than fifty lines

  • 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.

    That’s a pretty incredible difference. Why is New York fifty times slower at delivering covid vaccines in 2021 than it was at delivering smallpox vaccines in 1947?

    Part of the answer is presumably ‘regression to the mean’: if thousands of different cities at different times try to roll out vaccinations quickly, with a similar basic ability to do so, and there is some random chance in how well it goes, then the one we tell stories about seventy years later will one that got surprisingly lucky. You shouldn’t expect your own effort to go as well as that best one. But—without having done the statistics—I don’t think you should expect your attempt to be fifty times worse. New York didn’t get that lucky.

    Perhaps there are other differences in the problems faced. For instance, the current vaccine needs refrigeration, or we are so late in the disease spread that we can’t all crowd together in around fast-moving vaccinators, or be rounded up in our natural crowded habitats, like classrooms or offices.

    Though the 1947 situation looks harder in important ways too. For one thing, there was no time to prepare. The vaccination project began the day that the disease was identified to health commissioner Weinstein. By 2pm, he was apparently holding a news conference publicly asking residents to be vaccinated. With covid, there were about ten months to prepare. For another thing, now people have smartphones with which they can be alerted, and computers and online systems that might be used to coordinate them and tell them what to do.

    I heard about this episode from the Rachel Maddow Show, and read about it in the New York Times, both of which bring it up to note the inadequacy in the current vaccine efforts. The New York Times says a rollout like this, “almost certainly couldn’t happen today”, and offers some explanations:

    1. Complicated relationships between city and other governments these days

      “In 1947, the city was able to act alone, as opposed to navigating a complicated relationship with the governor of New York and the federal government,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “The city was able to say, ‘We’re going after this,’ and then make it happen.”

    2. A ‘hollowing out’ of the public health infrastructure

      But this time, with the coronavirus pandemic, New York faces a logistical hurdle. Experts in infectious disease point to a hollowing out of the public health infrastructure — not just in the city, but across the country.

    3. Lack of public faith in medical science, government and the media

      “This was the height of polio in the United States,” he said. “People had a much better sense of the impact of infectious disease. They saw it all the time, and they were rightly fearful. But they were also optimistic that medical science could conquer this. In 1947, there was tremendous faith in the medical community, unlike today.”…

      …Yet, [infectious disease experts] believe the biggest obstacle is not distribution but the public’s distrust of government, science and the media.

      “We’re coming out of a train wreck of messaging,” Dr. Redlener said. “We’ve learned that politics is poison to a public health initiative, especially during a crisis. Honesty and straightforward, clear messaging are absolutely critical.”

      In 1947, Dr. Weinstein was the only voice with a megaphone. He spoke and people listened.

      “Back then, there was a much simpler media landscape,” Ms. Sherman said as she laid out the Ad Council’s campaign, which is due to kick off early next year. “In today’s environment, we’re dealing with a highly, highly fragmented media. We’ll be relying on micro-influencers who are the trusted voices.”

    They seem to favor #3, noting that it is what ‘experts believe’. But it seems so implausible—am I totally misunderstanding the claim? On the current margin, if lack of public trust was making the vaccine rollout even ten times slower, wouldn’t we see campaigns begging us to go out and get the incredibly accessible vaccine, rather than seeing elderly people camping in outside queues to get vaccinated, and most people being told that they just can’t have a vaccine for months or a year? Perhaps they mean that ultimately the number of doses given out will be limited by public willingness to receive them? (Which seems surely true, but not necessarily the answer to an interesting question).

    The NYT’s other suggestions don’t seem immediately wrong, but are too vague for me to understand. I guess I’d like to know how things went differently at an object level. At what point, in 1947, did someone decide that it was their job to gather a volunteer army to administer vaccines, for instance? Do people work in similar roles nowadays? Did they think of this? Did they expect to get into trouble for having a bunch of lay people giving injections? Do they have to fill out a lot of paperwork to recruit them, whereas in 1947 they would have just shouted for them in the street? (I don’t know.) If New York had had these constraints, would their vaccination campaign have looked like ours, or is there more to explain?

    I suppose I have several questions:

    1. What is really going on, that can account for a near 50x slowdown?
    2. Why does the New York Times have such an unenlightening, vague, and seemingly wrong discussion so close to where one could have a genuinely interesting one?
    3. (Are these things related?)
    4. My guess after thinking about it for ten seconds is that the gap in speed is to do with more things being regulated and formalized. The difference in time it would take me to physically cause someone to have a cookie versus to legally sell someone a cookie seems huge enough for this kind of thing to account for large slowdowns, and I do expect creating a massive band of volunteer non-nurses to administer a vaccine to require time-consuming paperwork or to be straight up illegal. How does this explanation sound?

    This isn’t just an idle inquiry, and shouldn’t be just another interesting story for another payload of political disapproval.

    Naively extrapolating, New York City could be fully vaccinated in about seven weeks if we knew how to do what was done in 1947. At the current rate, which will presumably change, vaccinating everyone would take years.2

    What if someone figured out how to replicate even part of what New York did before at Weinstein’s direction? In America alone, around three thousand people are dying each day now, as they wait for the vaccine. My boyfriend’s ninety year old grandmother in Vermont was diagnosed with covid last week. Her center was scheduled to begin vaccinating its residents this Wednesday.

    (Regardless of what makes things slower these days, good on everyone who is working to forward the vaccination effort, and also those doing their best to make it appropriately safe. Good luck being fast and right.)

    P.S. In fact the whole of America vaccinated fewer people in the first two weeks of having a covid vaccine than New York did in 1947:

    Also interestingly, others are not doing better.

    Photograph shows school children waiting in line for immunization shots at a child health station in New York City, N.Y. Photograph shows crowd of people waiting to be vaccinated at the Department of Health building, New York City.

    Photos from the Office of War Information and Al Ravenna at the World Telegram and Sun, via the Library of Congress

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

    2. Naive extrapolation says six years, but this is especially naive since at that rate covid will speed things up by reaching many people before the vaccine does. Plus we should probably expect some speedup over time, if it was going to take that long. Or something different to happen. 

  • 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.

    In the app there were a series of tables with increasing stakes. The first one was ‘your grandmother’s table’ or something, at which you needed almost no money to play, and were given a lot of advice about what to do. If you won several games there, you could afford a single game at the next table up, and so on. If you lost enough that you could no longer buy in at your higher table, you would drop down, and if you could no longer afford grandmother’s, then you could transfer American dollars to the app-maker in exchange for more fake poker money, and keep going.

    I got the hang of the rules and began to play fast. And I got the hang of not losing and bought my way into higher tables. I played faster. I didn’t pause. The ends of games got the same reflexive flash of choice as any other part of the game. Time passed, and lots and lots of games. My mind started to wander, even while I played. It wandered to a memory of long ago, more vivid and detailed than memories that come when I call for them. How strange. I played very fast. And more memories appeared, intense against the smooth background of mindless poker. I don’t usually remember things for pleasure—recollection is a neutral activity, if not about something particularly upsetting or nice. But these were somehow pleasing. Not because they were about anything that would usually inspire happiness—they were mundane scenes, like a road that I crossed once to get to a gas station, and the look of the gas station, and the feeling of the sky and the car and the other passenger waiting and the afternoon (not a real example necessarily; I forget all of the particulars now)—but in their mere pungent existence, they felt somehow satisfying. I drifted between them and frantic yet peaceful poker. Hours passed. I often wondered what I had just done—what cards I had played, or why—and realized that I had no explicit recollection. More hours passed, and more scenes from younger years projected fragrantly into the flickering virtual cards. I don’t think I consciously explored the strange mental landscape, transfixed as I was by the irresistible torrent of poker moves to be made. I took action after action definitively, yet lived dreamlike above it. After nine hours, with morning beginning to establish itself, I stopped.

  • 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.”

    It’s as if someone decided that dictionaries these days had to sound like they were written by a Xerox machine, not a person, certainly not a person with a poet’s ear, a man capable of high and mighty English, who set out to write the secular American equivalent of the King James Bible and pulled it off.

    My guess is that dictionaries became ‘official’ and so are written in an official style. And that official style is contrary to color and poetry, because these things are in some way personal, showing glints of a specific idiosyncratic soul. And part of the point of officialness is that the entity having it is expansively clean and impersonal, involving specific people only insofar as they can be homogenized and branded and made fungible. You’re not supposed to look them in the eye.

    I wonder if this is related to dictionaries being commonly treated as authoritatively defining words rather than documenting a group of people’s efforts to feel around for their meanings. Somers also says:

    “Notice, too, how much less certain the Webster definition seems about itself, even though it’s more complete — as if to remind you that the word came first, that the word isn’t defined by its definition here, in this humble dictionary, that definitions grasp, tentatively, at words, but that what words really are is this haze and halo of associations and evocations, a little networked cloud of uses and contexts.”

    I got curious about the author of this dictionary, Noah Webster, and learned about his 1783 Blue backed speller (or formally, ‘A Grammatical Institute of the English Language’, speller section), which taught children to read and spell. It was the most popular American book at one point, according to Wikipedia, which also makes it sound like Webster might have had a substantial part in making American English different from English English:

    His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamour[30] of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation.[31] Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” This meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language…

    …As time went on, Webster changed the spellings in the book to more phonetic ones. Most of them already existed as alternative spellings.[33] He chose spellings such as defense, color, and traveler, and changed the re to er in words such as center. He also changed tongue to the older spelling tung, but this did not catch on.[34]

    Here is a version of Webster’s dictionary online, and Somers describes how to add it to your computer (which surprisingly worked for me in spite of his article being from 2014.)

  • 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:

    chip box 1 chip box 2 chip box 3 chip box 4

    The corners of the box opened out, so that it was like a bowl.

    As usual, I wonder, is it actually better or does it just seem so to me? If it is better, why aren’t most chips sold this way?

    Ways it seems better to me:

    • you don’t get oil from the bag all over your hand
    • you can see what you are picking up, which is somehow pleasing
    • and which also allows more delicate grasping, rather than just thrusting your hand into the food, which seems better for sharing
    • it has a natural surface to sit on, which is more pleasing than a bag that sits on its side
    • it would fit neatly in a drawer, instead of taking up a large shapeless space (this is getting minor, but I do imagine it affecting what I would in fact want to buy)

    Further evidence that this is good is that people often pour chips into bowls.

    A downside is that it seems to involve more packaging, though I’m not sure how much the environmental impacts of cardboard and normal chip packaging compare. Other foods regularly involve cardboard boxes, along with numerous layers of other packign material, so it would be surprising if that was prohibitively costly. I think the foil-like layer is needed to avoid air getting in and making the chips stale (chips are actually packaged with nitrogen to keep fresh, apparently).

    There could easily be costs I don’t know about. For instance, apparently normal chip packaging involves carefully chosen layers of polymer for things like repelling moisture and avoiding package breakage. And some materials will change the taste of ingredients. I also wonder if you could do a similar thing with creative use of entirely normal chip packaging, though there is less of an existence proof there. I’m imagining something like this:

    chip drawing

  • 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.

    In life, it is often taken for granted that one should pursue goals, not just very locally, but over scales of decades. The alternative is taken to be being unambitious and directionless.

    But there should also be an alternative that is equivalent to the chess one: heuristically improving the situation, without setting your eye on a particular pathway to a particular end-state.

    Which seems like actually what people do a lot of the time. For instance, making your living room nice without a particular plan for it, or reading to be ‘well read’, or exercising to be ‘fit’ (at least insofar as having a nice living space and being fit and well-read are taken as generally promising situations rather than stepping stones immediately prior to some envisaged meeting, say). Even at a much higher level, spending a whole working life upholding the law or reporting on events or teaching the young because these put society in a better situation overall, not because they will lead to some very specific outcome.

    In spite of its commonness, I’m not sure that I have heard of this type of action labeled as distinct from goal-directedness and undirectedness. I’ll call it condition-directedness for now. When people are asked for their five year plans, they become uncomfortable if they don’t have one, rather than proudly stating that they don’t currently subscribe to goal-oriented strategy at that scale. Maybe it’s just that I hang out in this strange Effective Altruist community, where all things are meant to be judged by their final measure on the goal, which perhaps encourages evaluating them explicitly with reference to an envisaged path to the goal, especially if it is otherwise hard to distinguish the valuable actions from doing whatever you feel like.

    It seems like one could be condition-directed and yet very ambitious and not directionless. (Though your ambition would be non-specific, and your direction would be local, and maybe they are the worse for these things?) For instance, you might work tirelessly on whatever seems like it will improve the thriving of a community that you are part of, and always know in which direction you are pushing, and have no idea what you will be doing in five years.

    Whether condition-directedness is a good kind of strategy would seem to depend on the game you are playing, and your resources for measuring and reasoning about it. In chess, condition-directedness seems necessary. Somehow longer term plans do seem more feasible in life than in chess though, so it is possible that they are always better in life, at the scales in question. I doubt this, especially given the observation that people often seem to be condition-directed, at least at some scales and in some parts of life.

    (These thoughts currently seem confused to me - for instance, what is up with scales? How is my knowing that I do want to take the king relevant?)

    Inspired by a conversation with John Salvatier.

  • 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:

    • In my world, art supplies are a kind of archetype of a thing that is viscerally exciting vastly beyond its likelihood of being used (and even further beyond its likelihood of being used well). Like, look at this paper I got! (I did, extensively.) Think of the potential it holds! But actually, for now, it’s sitting under my bed. Colored paper
    • It is sometimes very hard to draw without poking my tongue out. Not in the sense that that without my tongue out, drawing is hard—I mean, while drawing, it seems infeasible to keep my tongue in my mouth. This feels natural and unsurprising, like how if you stand on one leg it is hard to not fall over, not like an epileptic seizure overcoming my tongue. But stated explicitly, it is pretty weird.
    • It is also frequently very hard to draw without tilting my head from side to side. I first noticed this in high school art class, where I sat drawing and listening to the other students talk. One of them pointed out to another that looking around the room, students were tilting their heads to and fro all over the place. I also overheard an eye-opening discussion of how awesome it was that we were going to war in Iraq imminently, since that might clear space in the ranks of military helicopter pilots, allowing the excited student to fill it. Drawing and overhearing seem like good complementary activities.
    • It’s hard to really get behind my attempts to draw well, because it doesn’t feel like they are leading anywhere. I would be more into it if it was part of a compelling plan to save the world. Perhaps I don’t really believe in leisure enough to wholeheartedly do it, and don’t disbelieve in it enough to work all of the time. Alas.
    • Even without the world perhaps needing saving, drawing feels a bit pointless, since we have photography. But this doesn’t make sense: if you want to create an image of a scene, much better to draw it than to have to create it in real life then photograph it. For instance, most of the time, the scene you want probably isn’t realistic in the sense that it looks exactly like some bit of reality. How about computer graphics then? Yes, but even if arbitrary styles of image could be computer generated, doing this is itself basically just another kind of drawing—you still have to understand what patterns on the page would produce what in the minds of viewers, and you still have to invent ideas worth sending to the minds of viewers. It’s just the interface for putting down colors and shapes is different. That said, usually I just draw people, who might be better photographed, so it’s unclear that these thoughts apply. I feel like there are other good things about it that I haven’t captured. For instance, there are lots of great paintings just attempting to capture what is in front of them.
    • I feel like I learn to draw faces better over the years via taking in insights about what they look like. For instance, ‘there is that little dip above the lip that you can fill with shadow’, or ‘eyes go half way down’, or the very early, ‘mustaches go under noses, not on top of them’.
    • I basically can’t imagine faces, at least to anywhere near the degree of realism with which I can draw them (checking this now, I’m struggling to imagine a generic smiley face, though arguably succeeding). It’s interesting to me that a person can draw what they can’t imagine.
    • I have the intuition that you can learn to draw more easily by looking at someone else’s drawing than you can by looking at a photograph of its subject. I decided to test this, and drew three people—one from a painting, one from a photograph, and one from my head. Can you guess which is which? (If so, how?) Drawing of a woman's face 1 Drawing of a woman's face 2 Drawing of a woman's face 3
  • 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.

    (Imagine organizing a party with hundreds of thousands of people at it. Imagine that is located in an overseas country, where you don’t have a house, and everyone hates you. Imagine that it goes for several years. Imagine it is a very stressful party for the partygoers, but also you are counting on them to carry out some hard and terrifying tasks for you during the party. Imagine you anticipate many deaths during the proceedings.)

    Which made me wonder, why is war so centrally planned? Why wouldn’t all these logistical details be simpler and cheaper in the usual ways if each soldier looked after himself mostly? Similar to how it works better for each person to look after themselves during peacetime, rather than having commanders organize and dictate the whole peaceful existence effort. Thoughts?

  • 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.

    The protagonist is a relatively uncaring womanizer, who we first meet making a friendly visit to one woman while another waits in his car, to be dropped off before he gets home to his wife, who he finds disgusting in her aged ill-health. He seems to be largely driven by avoiding boredom and upholding an image of himself as a sophisticated and charming stud. He knows that his tendency to feel loathing in the place of pity toward the unfortunate in general is not ‘comely’, but has abandoned feeling shame about this unfortunate fact of his nature. When his wife dies, he immediately marries his young mistress, on an apparently humor-fueled whim and with little regard for her. He is ever detached, lightheartedly throwing back strategic retorts to questions sent his way, never actually with another person in spirit. He seems intelligent and reasonable aside from being callous to the point of ridiculous imprudence. For instance, if you marry a woman as a ‘practical joke’, this might predictably cause inconvenience to your own life at some point, even if you are dedicatedly indifferent to her welfare.

    In fact the biggest thing that goes wrong is that the intriguing woman he visits but doesn’t dally with—she with the mysterious Gioconda (Mona Lisa) smile—falls in love with him, surreptitiously murders his wife, attempts too late to claim him, then frames him for the murder.

    So why is this good to read? What would one come to this for?

    It is probably a memorable story, but why is it worth remembering? Has it added anything rich to my life?

    Is it perhaps a moralizing story? The protagonist is gratuitously awful, which is some hint. One way it could be this is as a tale of his errors coming back to get him, where by emptily seducing every woman around, he was carelessly pitching powerful passions against one another, and somebody was bound to be crazy enough to do something terrible (his second wife also tries to kill herself, upon realizing that her husband doesn’t love her). But why write that? For people who would feel no moral compunctions about the guy’s behavior in general but may not have considered the pragmatic consequences?

    Another way it might be a moral story is that his own joyful amusements are cut short by another’s incredible selfish callousness, which serves him right for his own years of incredible selfish callousness? I don’t know, this doesn’t seem like a very interesting moral saga.

    Maybe it is meant as an interesting, amoral, portrait of a callous but smiling man, coldly charming women as he goes on with his empty existence, until the wake of his own heartlessness flips his boat? I didn’t come away with a vivid sense of his character, but perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention.

    The title suggests that it is actually a portrait of the enigmatically smiling woman in the background, though she is an infrequent character. The protagonist imagines her as having mysterious depths to her personality in a way that his straightforward wife and lover do not, but again I didn’t end up with a well-formed sense of them.

    Maybe it’s for the murder mystery plot? The real murderer wasn’t revealed until the end, but as soon as it became clear that the wife was murdered, it seemed pretty obvious who had done it. For instance, if you assume that it wasn’t the husband (since that would conflict with the narration of his confused perspective) then the other visitor at the time of the poisoning was ol’ Gioconda smile. I guess it could have been an unnamed servant. The protagonist still seems confused about who the murderer could be at this point though, which is a bit strange if the author agrees that it is obvious.

    Maybe the point is to try to guess the murderer before it comes out that it was a murder? There were clues. For instance, Gioconda was like ‘your wife seems very sick, she could die any time’ and then the wife dies a few hours later. Then when the husband later goes to see Gioconda, she is like, ‘I’m impressed by how you put up with your wife for so long, but I saw that you weren’t really into it, and actually you needed a soul mate; also I love you’. But it seems like you would only guess that this is a murder mystery at that point if your mind happened upon the thought that this is all suspicious, at which point you have also solved it.

    It has some insightful observation of psychology. For instance, the protagonist reflecting on Gioconda’s decorations while waiting for her, illuminating both her psychology and his own:

    Photographs of Greek statuary, photographs of the Roman Forum, coloured prints of Italian masterpieces, all very safe and well known. Poor, dear Janet, what a prig—what an intellectual snob! Her real taste was illustrated in that water-colour by the pavement artist, the one she had paid half a crown for (and thirty-five shillings for the frame). How often his had heard her tell the story, how often expatiate on the beauties of that skilful imitation of an oleograph! “A real Artist in the streets,” and you could hear the capital A in Artist as she spoke the words. She made you feel that part of his glory had entered into Janet Spence when she tendered him that half-crown for the copy of the oleograph. She was implying a compliment to her own taste and penetration. A genuine Old Master for half a crown. Poor, dear Janet!

    This seems richer to me. But The Gioconda Smile was made into multiple films, which seems surprising if the value is in the unspoken thoughts of characters or manner of description, since these are hard to translate into action.

    It seems likely that I’m missing something.

  • 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.

    (Hopefully this was also a vivid and enlightening experience of signing up for annoying projects, which I do often, but usually the annoyance is months later than the agreeing, so I’m not sure that my intuitive anticipations make the connection.)

    Before I go and do something anti-annoying, I figure I should write some notes on the experience, while it is fresh.

    Some notes:

    • It did feel fairly encumbering. There were nascent sentences that I might have tried to poke in somewhere, then play around with, then look at and move or get rid of, where the prospect of trying to do some equivalent of all that in my head while keeping hold of the broader paragraph was too intimidating, and I watched them go by. And the sentences I did write felt like half my attention was on something like balancing them on the end of a stick and not having them fall on the floor, and really sculpting them would have required too much dexterity.
    • Though I think in some sense they were much more sculpted than usual, because I did think about each one for longer, and often hone it into something more succinct and memorable instead of writing down the first ramble that entered my mind. I’m not sure how that fits with the above observation.
    • It felt mentally strength-building - as if I was exercising a capability that would improve, which was exciting, and I briefly fantasized about a stronger and defter inner world.
    • I started out looking at things around me as I composed, like my resting computer, and the table, and the sea. But after a while, I realized that I was staring intently at a long rug with about as many Persian whorls as paragraphs in my prospective post, and that as I envisaged the current sentence, I was mentally weaving it around some well-placed sub-curls of its paragraph-whorl. Looking away from it, it was harder to remember what I had been saying. (I have noticed before that thinking in the world, I end up appropriating the scenery as some kind of scratch paper - you can’t write on it, but you can actually do a lot with reinterpreting whatever it already contains.)
    • For words with lots of synonyms, I kept selecting one, then forgetting which and having to select again (e.g. ‘lively’ or ‘energetic’ or ‘vigorous’?)
    • I originally set out to compose the whole thing before writing it, but this was fairly hard and seemed somewhat arbitrary, so after composing the basic outline and a few paragraphs, somewhat discouraged by the likelihood of forgetting them again imminently, I decided that I could instead compose chunks at a time rather than having to do it all at once. In the end I did it in paragraph chunks. Which is probably a much easier task than Bauby had, since if someone was coming to transcribe stuff for hours, one probably wants more than one paragraph relatively well prepared.
    • Thinking lots of thoughts without saying or writing them can feel a particular kind of agitating.
    • It took about 20 minutes for my boyfriend and I to transcribe a single sentence using roughly the winking method described in the book, for a speed of around 1 word per minute. The scheme was for him to run his finger over an alphabet reorganized by letter frequency, then for me to wink when he reached the desired letter. We added some punctuation, and a ‘pause! let me think!’ signal, and ‘yes’, and ‘no’. These last three got a lot of use. It basically worked as expected, though one time we made an error, and I didn’t know what to do, so I continued from the beginning of the word again, which made the sentence nonsensical, which confused him for a while, but he figured it out.
    • I wondered why Bauby and his assistant didn’t use Morse code, or something more efficient. We didn’t try this, but some forum users also wonder this, and one claims that he can wink out about 20 words per minute in Morse code, but that the large amount of blinking involved is ‘pretty tiring’.
    • We made a huge amount of use of my boyfriend guessing the rest of the word, from context and the first few letters. In the book, Bauby describes how people frequently mess that up, or fail to check that they have guessed correctly, or refuse to guess and conscientiously coax forth every letter. This all sounds terrible.
    • I’m aware that some people probably compose things entirely in their heads all the time (people have all kinds of mental situations - some people can also reliably imagine a triangle without it being more like the feeling of a triangle laid out in a kind of triangle-like space, or breaking apart and becoming a volcano full of red and white flowers), and my notes here probably sound to them like a person saying ‘for a bizarro experience, I tried to walk across the room without holding on to things, but it was obviously a total disaster - knees bending every which way, and imagine balancing a whole floppy and joint-strewn human body on top of two of those things, while moving! Such sympathy I have for those who have lost their walking frames.’ I’m curious to hear from them whether this is what it sounds like.
  • 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.

    But perhaps it is just that a writing process without vigorous back-and-forth with a mind-expanding piece of paper or virtual paper—a place to lay out one’s words and see them and move them around, without having to keep the entire gameboard in one’s head—sounds mentally paralyzing to me.

    At this point, I realize that in all likelihood it is my own mind that is weak and wasted from clinging to these crutches, and that has learned to fear starting out by itself with no piece of paper to reassuringly catch its thoughts and promise that nothing will be forgotten. Bauby’s mind may well have become stronger between his time as eloquent editor of French Elle and writing this book.

    It probably isn’t the feat of its creation though that makes this enjoyable to read, or makes my mind keep coming back to it. It’s a bright and compelling window into another person’s mind. (The bizarre tragedy of the plot probably doesn’t hurt either.)

    Another thing I found interesting about the book was that the setting of being immobile in a hospital bed doesn’t give the reader many of the clues they might usually use to make out the character of the protagonist. How does he hold himself, when he can hold himself? How does he talk to his partner, when he can do more than blink? What did he want in life, before the goalposts were changed and, as he says, not drooling all the time became a cherished ambition? (We do learn that he is 44 years old, and that if he is going to drool, he would prefer to drool on cashmere.) Yet, I did not have a sense of blankness about his personality. From his narration of the world, I felt that I knew him. However toward the end, he narrates the final day before the stroke that detached his mind and his body mostly. And I realize that if I had met him in that way first, I would have a different impression of him. And I liked the way around that I did meet him. So I wonder, if it would be better to more often meet people’s trains of thought for a while before getting to see their appearance or overt behaviors.

    I composed each paragraph of this post in my head except about fifteen words of editing, and dictated the first line to my boyfriend via winking.

  • 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.

    Possibly others don’t have the same mental hangups around such things as I do, or have thought clearly about this earlier, but just in case not, I’ll spell out how it actually isn’t bad at all, even in these terms (or at least offer some somewhat scattered thoughts on the matter).

    Let us distinguish between two kinds of mistakes: ‘innocent mistakes’ and ‘evil mistakes’.

    Suppose you made a mistake. Was it a mistake given what you knew and understood at the time? Then that’s an ‘evil mistake’. For instance, if you think kicking dogs is worse than not kicking them, and you kick one anyway to experience what badness feels like. (It sounds kind of strange to call it a mistake, since it was what you intended, but whatever.)

    If your mistake was not an error given your understanding the time, then it’s an ‘innocent mistake’. For instance, if you made an unsuccessful choice about what projects to do, or if you hurt your brother’s feelings because it hasn’t occurred to you that he would be sensitive about his appearance. It is tempting to say that an innocent mistake wasn’t a mistake in the relevant sense. You couldn’t have really done better in your actual circumstances of limited knowledge and limited thought, at least not predictably. Your conscience should be clear, at least. You did the best you could, so you do not seem to deserve blame or regret.

    Yet if blame and regret are for teaching people, then it seems you should have them, at least if they are the ways for you to notice or feel your mistake. For instance, perhaps your sister should say ‘you were so mean to Bob!’ or you should find your thoughts sadly dwelling on your choice of projects. On the other hand, there is not much point blaming the evil mistake-doer, unless your blame hurts them in a way that might put them off selfishly in the future, supposing that they haven’t come around. Just pointing out that they were bad is no news to them. Regret might help them more, but it’s a bit unclear how, since by the time they are regretting their evil, it seems they have already changed their mind about whether they prefer evil. In sum, blame, regret and genuine moral wrongness seem to come apart: blame and regret are often helpful for the innocent mistake-maker, and less so for the evil mistake-maker, while it is the evil mistake-maker who is a genuine moral failure.

    A different way of putting this is that the notion of innocence put forward here is a bit different from the normal one - for instance, if you were thoughtless because you were young and hadn’t thought about not being thoughtless yet, and implicitly didn’t think being thoughtful was worth it, and you hurt someone, then you are innocent in the current sense, but quite possibly a guilty asshole in more common senses. We all agree that you should have the error of your ways pointed out to you, but I’m claiming that you shouldn’t take this as your having genuinely made the world worse than you might have, or feel that it is a true negative mark in some moral ledger.

    Only innocent mistakes are helpful for learning. And only evil mistakes represent having genuinely made the world worse when you could (in the relevant sense) have made it better. So looking back on the year, one can hope without terror to see many innocent mistakes, and no evil mistakes.

  • 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.

    My own experience for instance involves often not remembering even the options that I noticed before, and these not seeming that multitudinous, except relative to my pitiful capacity to hold things in my mind. Also, regularly noticing new aspects of the world suggestive of many options whose existence hadn’t even dawned on me previously, even though they would be pretty obvious to a creature for whom logic was free. And mostly being extremely uncertain about what actions will lead to what outcomes. If I habitually model myself as roughly homo economicus, deftly directing my resources toward my goals, at worst according to my pristine priors, it seems like I am in danger of continually finding my real self incredibly disappointing. Plus, abstracting away parts of the situation that might be rich with potential for improvement.

  • 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.

    The problem with this is that having the ability to do incredible things, and wanting to do those incredible things, is not enough. If you can also do a bazillion other non-incredible things, then you also have to be able to pick out the incredible path from among the rest, and even if you do, a moment later it hits another incomprehensibly complicated intersection of unmarked paths, and you have to do it again.

    This perhaps sounds obvious, but I think we do often still talk as if what happens is determined by people’s goals and their capabilities, and ignore the issue of computing which exercise of capabilities will bring about which goals, or leaving it as hopefully irrelevant noise in the model. My tentative guess is that this is a real impediment to thinking about the world and strategizing about life well.

    I don’t know if anyone has a better model, or has thought about how bad this is. My tentative guess is that it is bad. It seems like something economists would think about, but I’m not sure what it would be called.

  • 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)


    1. George Saunders, e.g. The Braindead Megaphone, and Tent City, USA

    2. Epic tomato sorting machine

    3. Slatestarcodex archives, e.g. on meaning and the problem of evil and thinking under conformity pressure (these are incidentally all funny stories, but the site is mostly non-fiction)

    4. Test your ability to distinguish real people from AI generated faces (or to just see unreal people, look at thispersondoesnotexist.com)

    5. Julia Galef, probably via Rationally Speaking Podcast

    6. Robin Hanson: Politics isn’t about policy; The Great Filter - Are We Almost Past It?

    7. Did President Truman not realize that Hiroshima was a city?

    8. Politics and the English Language: I found the writing ironically uncompelling, but the idea interesting

    9. Hamilton the Musical

    10. How to live for much longer in expectation

    11. Xkcd, e.g.


    Informative ones: Earth’s temperature over time, chart of what improvements are worth the time

  • 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)




    George Saunders: The incredible Buddha boy, The New Mecca

    Archive of 3495 Peter Dombrovskis photographs

    Nice buildings that are mostly mosques (click the x when it misleadingly says that you need to log in to see more)

    Opulent Joy: my friend’s art blog

    Unsong: one of my favorite books that I haven’t finished reading.

    How to do what you love: Paul Graham has some other good essays too

    AI dungeon: have cutting edge AI write you a story

    The oldest video: strange

    It’s as simple as one, two, three

    3Blue1Brown, e.g. The unexpectedly hard windmill question or the first of a 15 part series on linear algebra, if you are in for something more involved

    Extensive Mandlebrot set

    Rent a real goat for your video calls

    The (Mormon) Tabernacle Choir

    Universal love, said the cactus person

    The guns falling silent at the end of WWI, reconstructed into sound from ‘sound ranging’ equipment that translated sounds onto visual film at the time.

    Very impressive patty cake a cappella (and more: 3D pretty a cappella patty cake)

    AI fills in a cat/house/etc if you draw the outline. I thought these buildings were pretty good:

    eg1 eg2

    Hamilton (the musical)

    How to live for much longer in expectation

  • 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)



    1. AI dungeon: a text adventure written by AI in response to your responses

    2. AI can also generate coherent completions of photographs (See examples under ‘Completions’)

    3. A lecture about the Bronze Age collapse (I enjoyed this, though your historical understanding being thousands of times greater than mine might make it less good for you)

    4. Slave voyages: a memorial in the form of a database of 36,000 specific slaving expeditions that took place between 1514 and 1866. Perhaps most easily appreciated in the form of this timelapse of the journeys (note that you can click on any dot and see the details of the ship and captives). I’m pretty impressed at them finding this much data.

    5. On the shortness of life (I enjoyed this, though don’t necessarily agree)

    6. How to live for much longer in expectation

    7. The isles of Greece

    8. The tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is pretty cool looking:

    roman_logov_f5QWC1a3tOA_unsplash denis_harschi_A4o2W_MgQEM_unsplash alex_azabache_9ZChTzDtCww_unsplash_(1) nick_fewings_4PDWwUD6g_4_unsplash cem_ersozlu_HX16IHCPlO4_unsplash ben_koorengevel_yoksEYoQUD4_unsplash jake_de_bique_o_Ye4KHFaSY_unsplash zheni_yaneva_ZLVY4YuMT48_unsplash thomas_drouault_3dGU4xziUAM_unsplash

  • 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)



    1. Baby elephants

    2. A nice video of a 1965 living room clog dance

    3. Round seals that I gathered earlier

    4. Dance your PhD winner (though perhaps you showed that to me originally..)

    5. The complete works of Alfred Sisley

    6. Archive of Olegas Truchanas’ photography

    7. The 1890s, around the world, on film

    8. Positly: Perhaps you have enough opportunities to interview people, but if you want to run your own surveys of strangerse online, this streamlines the process a lot (i.e. you basically write some questions and put money in the slot and they handle getting strangers to answer your questions and paying them). For instance, I asked some Americans why they voted as they did, and some other things about their experience of the election.

    9. Hamilton the Musical: I know I probably recommended this before, but a) I should note that it might be the strongest artistic recommendation I’ve ever given, and b) if you did listen to it, I recommend listening to it again.

    10. How to live for much longer in expectation (I know you don’t believe in this, but I encourage you to think about it more, because it’s important to me that you avoid dying if feasible.)

    11. Rijksmuseum: the national museum of the Netherlands has a pleasing website for their pleasing art collection.

    Here are some that I like today:

    Morning Ride along the Beach, Anton Mauve, 1876 Morning Ride along the Beach, Anton Mauve, 1876 Fishing Pinks in Breaking Waves, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, c. 1875 - c. 1885 Fishing Pinks in Breaking Waves, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, c. 1875 - c. 1885 Landschap in de omgeving van Den Haag, Jacob Maris, 1891 Landschap in de omgeving van Den Haag, Jacob Maris, 1891 Cellar of the Artist’s Home in The Hague, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1888 Cellar of the Artist’s Home in The Hague, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1888

  • 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.

    I don’t know of a clearly better source, for a typical person who isn’t a professional ethicist. But given the intense fallibility of this one, I’m inclined to say that the resulting moral views should be held with uncertainty and modesty.

    From this I’m inclined to infer that people should not be moralizing about moral disagreements.

    I do share the urge to moralize when I’m in a moral disagreement, but is this wrong?

  • 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.

    This time I drew a card marked, ‘can’t critique food’. Admittedly not the most horrifying of failures, and I don’t currently feel too bad about it, or remember writing it down. But I suppose that what I had in mind is that when people discuss the merits or subtleties of different foods and food establishments, I often feel like the topic is outside my domain, and furthermore suspect that if my strongest views of the moment were revealed—e.g. “good fries > bad fries » not fries”, or “I want to eat something cool and wet and I prefer it involve parsley”, or “pea protein is the worst”—I would seem childish.

    So I read online briefly and found that Jonathan Gold is a famous food critic, then read a very small amount of his writing. Now I will have a go at critiquing food at all, which I expect is a decent step toward being passable at it (while also fulfilling my intention to occasionally do things I haven’t done).


    On an almost empty teacup of Mary’s Gone crackers I found in my bedroom while cleaning up recently.

    Food that you know has been sitting open on your desk for a week can be tainted by a foul flavor of unease. But my expectations for these crackers were cleansed with the fresh-toasted snap and delicate flavor of my first nibble of one.

    Crispy things are often light and insubstantial—crunch and heft seem to often overlap in coarse, unyielding foods. Yet this Mary’s Gone cracker had both a pleasing, easy crackle and a real density. And while in no way chewy, it was good to chew: coming apart not into a wheat slurry, but into a textured rubble of seed meal, satisfying and nutty. I wanted to find the fragments lost in the corners of my mouth. I wanted to crush the last seeds with my teeth. All the while the bright taste of toasted herbs lingered, sometimes veering into a burning. Not of chili, but of flavor.

    Then my boyfriend became available for chatting, and I chatted with him, ceasing to resist the temptation to eat virtually all of the crackers. I bit them thoughtfully as we spoke, knowing I was eating up the opportunity to critique them, but only sparing enough attention from the conversation to favor this end, on grounds that they were presently delicious.

    In sum, Mary’s Gone Crackers are very good crackers, and survive surprisingly well in an uncovered teacup. If you keep a stack of them in a teacup with a somewhat but not much larger diameter, this can also be spatially pleasing.

    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.


    • Alice values openness, so tends to be very open: she tells anyone who asks (and many people who don’t) what’s going on in her life, and writes about it abundantly on the internet. But when she is embarrassed about something, she feels oppressed by everyone being able to see her so easily. So then she hides in her room, works at night when nobody is awake to think of her, and writes nothing online. Because for her, interacting with someone basically equates to showing them everything, her love of openness comes with a secondary love of being totally alone in her room.
    • Bob values connecting with people, and it seems hard in the modern world, but he practices heartfelt listening and looking people in the eye, and mentally jumping into their perspectives. He often has meaningful conversations in the grocery line, which he enjoys and is proud of. He goes to Burning Man and finds thousands of people desperate to connect with him, so that his normal behavior is quickly leading to an onslaught of connecting that is more than he wants. He finds himself savoring the impediments to connection—the end of an eye-gazing activity, the chance to duck out of a conversation, the walls of his tent—in a way that nobody else at Burning Man is.
    • An extreme commitment to honesty and openness with your partner might leads to a secondary inclination away from honesty and openness with yourself.
    • A person who loves travel also loves being at home again afterward, with a pointed passion absent from a person who is a perpetual homebody.
    • A person who loves jumping in ice water is more likely to also love saunas than someone who doesn’t.
    • A person who loves snow is more likely to love roaring fires.
    • A person who loves walking has really enjoyed lying down at the end of the day.
    • A person who surrounds themselves with systems loves total abandonment of them during holiday more than he who only had an appointment calendar and an alarm clock to begin with.
    • A person with five children because they love children probably wants a babysitter for the evening more than the person who ambivalently had a single child.
    • A person who loves hanging out with people who share an interest in the principles of effective altruism is often also especially excited to hang out with people who don’t, on the occasions when they do that.
    • A person who directs most of their money to charity is more obsessed with the possibility of buying an expensive dress than their friend who cares less about charity.
    • A person who is so drawn to their partner’s company that they can’t stay away from them at home sometimes gets more out of solitary travel than someone more solitariness-focused in general.
    • A person craving danger also cares about confidence in safety mechanisms.
    • A person who loves the sun wants sunglasses and sunscreen more than a person who stays indoors.

    This pattern makes sense, because people and things are multifaceted, and effects are uncertain and delayed. So some aspect of you liking some aspect of a thing at some time will often mean you ramp up that kind of thing, producing effects other than the one you liked, plus more of the effect that you liked than intended because of delay. And anyway you are a somewhat different creature by then, and maybe always had parts less amenable to the desired thing anyway. Or more simply, because in systems full of negative feedbacks, effects tend to produce opposite effects, and you and the world are such systems.

  • 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
    11. Casual minor encounters and non-encounters with strangers in shops, streets and cafes (and these being more of the meeting places of the world, and internet comments being less, for more people)
    12. Meeting new people regularly
    13. More distinct places and place-vibes to conveniently be in
    14. One fewer area to worry that I should be doing something better
    15. Listening to an audiobook on crowded public transit on the way to my downtown office, and then being at my office
    16. Reading and writing in notebooks in cafes
    17. The world feeling so big that you can go to other places and find people thinking about entirely different things
    18. Being dirty
    19. Crowded, dimly lit places with atmosphere and mild uncertainty
    20. Resolution of this episode
    21. Watching everyone else enjoy things coming back
  • 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?

    It’s hard to explain my confusion, because in each particular case, there might be plenty of plausible motives given–someone wants ‘power’, or to ‘reunite their country’, or there is some customary enemy, or that enemy might attack them otherwise–but overall, it seems like the kind of thing people should be extremely averse to, such that even if there were plausibly good justifications, they wouldn’t just win out constantly, other justifications for not doing the thing would usually be found. Like, there are great reasons for writing epic treatises on abstract topics, but somehow, most people find that they don’t get around to it. I expect going to some huge effort to travel overseas and die in the mud to be more like that, intuitively.

    To be clear, I’m not confused here about people fighting in defense of things they care a lot about—joining the army when their country is under attack, or joining the Allies in WWII. And I’m not confused by people who are forced to fight, by conscription or desperate need of money. It’s just that across these various sources on history, I haven’t seen much comprehensible-to-me explanation of what’s going on in the minds of the people who volunteer to go to war (or take part in smaller dangerous violence) when the stakes aren’t already at the life or death level for them.

    I am also not criticizing the people whose motives I am confused by–I’m confident that I’m missing things.

    It’s like if I woke up tomorrow to find that half the country was volunteering to cut off their little finger for charity, I’d be pretty surprised. And if upon inquiring, each person had something to say—about how it was a good charity, or how suffering is brave and valiant, or how their Dad did it already, or how they were being emotionally manipulated by someone else who wanted it to happen, or they how wanted to be part of something—each one might not be that unlikely, but I’d still feel overall super confused, at a high level, at there being enough total energy behind this, given that it’s a pretty costly thing to do.

    At first glance, the historical people heading off to war don’t feel surprising. But I feel like this is because it is taken for granted as what historical people do. Just as in stories about Christmas, it is taken for granted that Santa Clause will make and distribute billions of toys, because that’s what he does, even though his motives are actually fairly opaque. But historical people presumably had internal lives that would be recognizable to me. What did it look like from the inside, to hear that WWI was starting, and hurry to sign up? Or to volunteer for the French military in time to fight to maintain French control in Vietnam, in the First Indochina War, that preceded the Vietnam War?

    I’d feel less surprised in a world where deadly conflict was more like cannibalism is in our world. Where yes, technically humans are edible, so if you are hungry enough you can eat them, but it is extremely rare for it to get to that, because nobody wants to be on any side of it, and they have very strong and consistent feelings about that, and if anyone really wanted to eat thousands or millions of people, say to bolster their personal or group power, it would be prohibitively expensive in terms of money or social capital to overcome the universal distaste for this idea.

  • 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.)

    But a kind of art about nature that I can especially get behind is that which to me evokes some of wild alien vigor of nature, that I sometimes experience for instance sitting in my overgrown back garden, contending with a flock of ascendent giant poppy faces and a stilled frenzy of branches gaining ground and sky about my seat.

    It is a sharp exotic aliveness, an electric intent for living that wants to overwhelm the strictures of physical space and come curling and unfolding through the air, with an explosive energy that has no truck with time.

    Not alien like an alien mind, but more like an alien spirituality, that doesn’t know anything so mundane as minds. But while you revere under the perfect spires of goodness, it comes in unexpected and unintelligible from the edges and without looking you in the eye, just overwhelms you with how what really made the world is intensely here and intensely not in your understanding. This was always the world.

    “Everything wants to live”, my botanist grandfather would explain to me. Perhaps for plants it is often more borderline whether living is in store. Regardless, their unrelenting striving for it is more visceral to me than that of animals. Animals are more placidly set in their bodies. Plants take every opportunity to push outwards, expanding into new limbs and thickening out old ones in their unthinking, unfailing fervor.

    A lot of nature in art isn’t like this. Often it is idyllic, or evocative at a landscape level, or sleepy furniture for a human story. But here is some art that does portray it somewhat, for me, though I don’t know if the artists actually meant to:

    The Hill Path, Ville d Avray, by Alfred Sisley The Hill Path, Ville d Avray, by Alfred Sisley

    Irises, Vincent Van Gogh (1889) Irises, Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

    Myrtle tree in rainforest at Mount Anne, southwest Tasmania, 1984 , by Peter Dombrovskis (under copyright)

    I have some of the same image with these lines:

    “Reduced to a Gothic skeleton, the abbey is penetrated by beauty from above and below, open to precisely those elements it had once hoped to frame for pious young men, as an object for their patient contemplation. But that form of holy concentration has now been gone longer than it was ever here. It was already an ancient memory two hundred years ago, when Wordsworth came by. Thistles sprout between the stones. The rain comes in. Roofless, floorless, glassless, “green to the very door”—now Tintern is forced to accept the holiness that is everywhere in everything.” - Zadie Smith, Some notes on Attunement

  • 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:

    I haven’t actually seen Moneyball, but it does sound heartwarming, and I have had to hide my tears when someone described a payment app their company was working, so I’m probably in Julia’s category here.

    If I didn’t feel this way though, reading this I might imagine it as some alien nerdly aberration, and not a way that I could feel from the inside, or that would seem the ‘right’ way to feel unless I became brain-damaged. Which I think is all wrong—such feelings seem to me to be a warm and human response to appreciating the situation in certain ways. So I want to try to describe what seems to be going on in my mind when my heart is warmed by quantitative methods and efficient algorithms.

    When using good quantitative methods makes something better, it means that there wasn’t any concrete physical obstacle to it being better in the past. We were just making the wrong choices, because we didn’t know better. And often suffering small losses from it at a scale that is hard to imagine.

    Suppose the pricing algorithm for ride sharing isn’t as good as it could be. Then day after day there will be people who decide to walk even though they are tired, people who wait somewhere they don’t feel safe for a bit longer, countless people who stand in their hallway a bit longer, people who save up their health problems a bit more before making the expensive trip to a doctor, people who decide to keep a convenient car and so have a little bit less money for everything else. All while someone who would happily to drive each of them at a price they would happily pay lives nearby, suffering for lack of valuable work.

    I’m not too concerned if we make bad choices in baseball, but in lots of areas, I imagine that there are these slow-accreting tragedies, in thousands or millions or billions of small inconveniences and pains accruing each day across the country or the world. And where this is for lack of good algorithms, it feels like it is for absolutely nothing. Just unforced error.

    Daily efforts and suffering for nothing are a particular flavor of badness. Like if someone erroneously believed that it was important for them to count to five thousand out loud at 10am each day, and every day they did this—and if they traveled they made sure there would be somewhere non-disturbing to do it, and if they stayed up late they got up by 10am; and if they were doing something they stepped out—there would be a particular elation in them escaping this senseless waste of their life, perhaps mixed with sorrow for what had been senselessly lost.

    Also, having found the better method, you can usually just do it at no extra cost forever. So it feels reelingly scalable in a way that a hero fighting a bad guy definitively does not. This feels like suddenly being able to fly, or walk through walls.

    So basically, it is some combination of escape from a senseless corrosion of life, effortlessly, at a scale that leaves me reeling.

    Another thing that might be going on, is that it is a triumph of what is definitely right over what is definitely wrong. Lots of moral issues are fraught in some way. No humans are absolutely bad and without a side to the story. But worse quantitative methods are just straightforwardly wrong. The only reason for picking baseball players badly is not knowing how to do it better. The only reason for using worse estimates for covid risk is that you don’t have better ones. So a victory for better quantitative methods is an unsullied victory for light over darkness in a way that conflicts between human forces of good and bad can’t be.

    Yet another thing is that a victory for quantitative methods is always a victory for people. And if you don’t know who they are, that means that they quietly worked to end some ongoing blight on humanity, and did it, and weren’t even recognized. Often, even the good they did will look like a boring technical detail and won’t look morally important, because saving every American ten seconds doesn’t look like saving a life. And I’m not sure if there is anything more heartwarming than someone working hard to do great good, relieving the world from ongoing suffering, knowing that neither they nor and what they have given will be appreciated.

  • 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?

    I act as though I’m assuming email involves implied norms, though I didn’t agree to them. For instance, if someone writes me a personal message, I think I should not delete it without reading it, unless they deserve my disregard for some reason. If someone sends me a message asking me to do something, I act like I think I should do it in a timely fashion, if it is a reasonable request. If I write to someone, I feel like I should make it less terse than ‘ok.’. At least, many people seem to constantly feel bad for failing to uphold some standards that are I guess implicitly bought into by having an email address. (And not having an email address would be pretty wild.)

    Was this bad luck, and we could instead have developed happier norms? For instance, that there is no expectation that one read emails, or that responding in about a month is proper, or that tersity is expected, like text messages? Or the norm that you are meant to respond within a few seconds, or consider it dead, like verbal speech? Or the norm where if you want to put something in someone else’s to-do list, you find a slot in their Calendly and send them money for it? My guess is no - the norms are mostly implied by the length and cost and permanence of the form. Could we have a form that better implies happier norms in that case?

  • 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:

    • Monarch butterflies can probably fly at least 100km on the energy in about a quarter of a raspberry (not counting the energy they get from the wind, which seems to be central to their flying methods. And not to suggest that they eat raspberries, I am just more familiar with those than flower nectar).
    • People who estimate monarch butterfly ‘performance parameters’ sometimes do so by attaching plasticine to dead butterflies to get them to the right weight and balance, and then hand-throwing them across the room and noting measurements for those “in which no obvious pitching up or stalling occurred after release” (or at least they did in 1979).
    • Paramotors are a thing. They are like a giant fan you wear on your back to turn your paraglider into a powered vehicle.
    • A model airplane crossed the Atlantic on a gallon of fuel (this was the furthest per Joule of the machines in our collection).
    • This pedal-powered flying machine crossed the English Channel.

      This might be a slightly different one: Gossamer Albatross with bikes, maybe

  • 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.

    As far as I know, most popular languages are like this: they have a mouth-sound version and a hand-drawn (or hand-typed) version. They often have a braille version, with symbols that can be felt by touch instead of vision. An exception is sign languages (which are generally not just alternate versions of spoken languages), which use 4-D symbols gestured by hands over time, and received by eyes.

    I wonder whether there are more modes of languages that it would be good to have. Would we have them, if there were? It’s not clear from a brief perusal of Wikipedia that Europe had sophisticated sign languages prior to about five hundred years ago. Communication methods generally have strong network effects—it’s not worth communicating by some method that nobody can understand, just like it’s not worth joining an empty dating site—and new physical modes of English are much more expensive than for instance new messaging platforms, and have nobody to promote them.

    Uncommon modes of language that seem potentially good (an uninformed brainstorm):

    • symbols drawn with hands on receiver’s skin, received by touch, I’ve heard of blind and deaf people such as Helen Keller using this, but it seems useful for instance when it is loud, or when you don’t want to be overheard or to annoy people nearby, or for covert communication under the table at a larger event, or for when you are wearing a giant face mask. -symbols gestured with whole body like interpretive dance, but with objective interpretation. Good from a distance, when loud, etc. Perhaps conducive to different sorts of expressiveness, like how verbal communication makes singing with lyrics possible, and there is complementarity between the words and the music.
    • symbols gestured with whole body, interpreted by computer, received as written text What if keyboards were like a Kinect dance game? Instead of using your treadmill desk while you type with your hands, you just type with your arms, legs and body in a virtual reality whole-body keyboard space. Mostly good for exercise, non-sedentariness, feeling alive, etc.
    • drumming/tapping, received by ears or touch possibly faster than spoken language, because precise sounds can be very fast. I don’t know. This doesn’t really sound good.
    • a sign version of English this exists, but is rare. Good for when it is loud, when you don’t want to be overheard, when you are wearing a giant face mask or are opposed to exhaling too much on the other person, when you are at a distance, etc.
    • symbols drawn with hands in one place e.g. the surface of a phone, or a small number of phone buttons, such that you could enter stuff on your phone by tapping your fingers in place in a comfortable position with the hand you were holding it with, preferably still in your pocket, rather than awkwardly moving them around on the surface while you hold it either with another hand or some non-moving parts of the same hand, and having to look at the screen while you do it. This could be combined with the first one on this list.
    • What else?

    Maybe if there’s a really good one, we could overcome the network effect with an assurance contract. (Or try to, and learn more about why assurance contracts aren’t used more.)

  • 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.

    Sitting in my chair was likewise aversive, and I thought perhaps a walk would help. (Often I find similar work compelling, so it seems a shame to wrestle myself into a slow and encumbered version of it at a time when I don’t.) I also had a package to take to FedEx. If I listened to the Alignment Newsletter Podcast while I walked and delivered the package, I might even be being extra productive instead of extra unproductive.

    I took my P100 mask and a packet of snickerdoodle flavored peanut butter and some moderately comfy shoes, in case the three and a half blocks to the pharmacy that FedEx was inside turned out to be too much for flip flops, or I decided to wander around more.

    I reached the pharmacy and stood in its small outside queue with my package between my legs and put on my P100. A man at the door let me in and pointed me to a longer inside queue. I waited in it and thought about how hard it was to see the total population of the room, and how much time had passed without the queue moving at all, and how much the San Francisco covid cases were spiking, then decided to try for a different FedEx down the road.

    I left my P100 on and walked along faceless, listening to the podcast. Which sounded interesting, but I kept getting distracted. The warm bright sun on every surface sent away my vague image of the locked-down city as wan and enfeebled. Though I wondered if was climatically alarming for San Francisco winter to be such a nice summer.

    I enjoyed my mask, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Perhaps having one’s face in the public sphere does call for some ongoing attention and composure and care, that I don’t notice until its absence is a relief. Or perhaps it is nice for ones mouth and nose to be seriously removed from the clouds of covid dust, instead of just covered to the point of social acceptability. At any rate, I walked along with my mouth hanging open.

    With the talk of alignment a happy background chatter, I got to thinking about how national policy should deal with different people having different impressions about morality. Morality is hard to detect in a publicly agreeable way. Insofar as a nation reacts to morality, the information reaches the nation via individuals making observations about it. But there are lots of individuals with different observations. People’s policy views are often that the government should enforce morality as they see it. Even though the nation includes people with different morality impressions. The policy game is seen as the game of having your morality implemented. But opinion could instead be at the level of what laws or norms a group of people should have when a subset thinks that doing X is immoral, and another subset wants to do it. Then the answers to object level questions, such as, ‘should people be free to have abortions?’ would fall out of these.

    The FedEx place was further than I expected, but a man outside just took the package from me. I waited a moment in case there was any problem with it, and looked at my phone, thinking about where to go next. A man on a bike stopped close to me and said something. I felt protected from having to respond much, due to my giant mask. But I think I gestured friendlily, before walking away. I sensed him watching me. Down the road a bit, I glanced back and saw him still there, looking my way. Then he rolled up next to me. “Can I have your number?” I still lacked the usual compulsion to respond to things people say to me, and my instinctive behavior was somehow akin to a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. I looked at him vaguely and kept walking. He rolled along, and asked me where I was from, and my name, and if I speak Spanish. He introduced himself. He observed that I was scared of him, and told me that I shouldn’t be. He noted that all men would probably like me, I guess as some kind of point about whether I should be scared of him. I said some things, like ‘Australia’ and ‘I don’t want to talk’. Eventually he rode away, but so slowly I didn’t trust that he was really going. I stepped into the entry of a parking garage and discussed the fact that I was just temporarily hiding from that dude on a bike with a security guard there, who suggested that I call the police.

    I decided to go a different way home. I made eye contact with another guy in a car, who seemed to lean down to look at me more through the passenger window as I passed. I wondered whether mini skirt and apocalypse mask are actually an alluring combo. I admit that I enjoy something about the style.

    The soles of my feet became blistered, and I did the velcro straps up tighter and thought about pain and suffering. I think I could walk on my feet until they were bleeding and raw pretty easily, if I wanted to. They hurt sharply, but it seems more loosely connected to suffering than other pains. I feel like my walking on them shyly is because I’m unsure whether it is ok to damage your feet that much, and that if I decided to do it, I could do it without flinching. (A recollection of teenagerhood supports this: I vaguely recall my shoes being fairly bloody by about the second day of a four day hike, and marching on fairly unperturbed.)

    I wonder if a no-speaking P100 dance party in the park might be fun, but I guess it is illegal now.

  • 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?)


    Why doesn’t the market offer these delicious biscuits all over the place? Isn’t this just the kind of rival, excludable, information-available, well-internalized good that markets are on top of?

    Some explanations that occur to me:

    1. I am wrong or unusual in my assessment of deliciousness, and for instance most people would find a chocolate chip cookie or an Oreo more delicious.
    2. They are harder to cook commercially than the ubiquitous biscuits for some reason. e.g. they are most delicious warm.
    3. They are Swedish, and there are mysterious cultural or linguistic barriers to foods spreading from their original homes. This would also help explain some other observations, to the extent that it counts as an explanation at all.
    4. Deliciousness is not a central factor in food spread. (Then what is?)

    If you want to help investigate, you can do so by carrying out the following recipe and reporting on the percentile of deliciousness of the resulting biscuits. (I do not claim that this is a high priority investigation to take part in, unless you are hungry for delicious biscuits or a firsthand encounter with a moderately interesting sociological puzzle.)





    (Or Kolasnittar. Adapted from House & Garden’s account of a recipe in Magnus Nilsson’s “The Nordic Baking Book”. It’s quite plausible that their versions are better than mine, which has undergone pressure for ease plus some random ingredient substitutions. However I offer mine, since it is the one I can really vouch for.)

    Takes about fifteen minutes of making, and fifteen further minutes of waiting. Makes enough biscuits for about five people to eat too many biscuits, plus a handful left over. (Other recipe calls it about 40 ‘shortbreads’)


    • 200 g melted butter (e.g. microwave it)
    • 180 g sugar
    • 50 g golden syrup
    • 50g honey
    • 300 g flour, ideally King Arthur gluten free flour, but wheat flour will also do
    • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
    • 2 teaspoon ground ginger
    • 2 good pinches of salt


    1. Preheat oven: 175°C/345°F
    2. Put everything in a mixing bowl (if you have kitchen scales, put the mixing bowl on them, set scales to zero, add an ingredient, reset scales to zero, add the next ingredient, etc.)
    3. Mix.
    4. Taste [warning: public health officials say not to do this because eating raw flour is dangerous]. Adjust mixedness, saltiness, etc. It should be very roughly the consistency of peanut butter, i.e. probably less firm than you expect. (Taste more, as desired. Wonder why we cook biscuits at all. Consider rebellion. Consider Chesterton’s fence. Taste one more time.)
    5. Cover a big tray or a couple of small trays with baking paper.
    6. Make the dough into about four logs, around an inch in diameter, spaced several inches from one another and the edges of the paper. They can be misshapen; their shapes are temporary.
    7. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until golden and spread out into 1-4 giant flat seas of biscuit. When you take them out, they will be very soft and probably not appear to be cooked.
    8. As soon as they slightly cool and firm up enough to pick up, start chopping them into strips about 1.25 inches wide and eating them.




    Bonus mystery: they are gluten free, egg free, and can probably easily be dairy free. The contest with common vegan and/or gluten free biscuit seems even more winnable, so why haven’t they even taken over that market?

  • 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’!

    I wonder if it is possible to make a camera that captures scenes the way they look to a person there.

    For a mundane example, it would need to make the moon appear big, when a camera might capture it as tiny. Is there a two dimensional set of pixels that can produce the same sense of how big the moon is, without changing other aspects of the picture to be further away from the perception? Is there such a two dimensional image for any perceived scene?

    With sufficiently good what-it-seemed-like-to-the-photographer cameras, we could make substantial progress on bridging the gaping gaps between different minds.

    For now, I suppose you can always edit the colors a bit.

  • 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.

    This morning I was chatting to my boyfriend about whether a person who went back in time (let’s say a thousand years) would be able to gather more social power than they can now in their own time. Some folk we know were discussing the claim that some humans would have a shot at literally take over the world if sent back in time, and we found this implausible.

    The most obvious differences between a 2020 person and a 1200 AD person, in 1200 AD, is that they have experience with incredible technological advances that the 1200 AD native doesn’t even know are possible. But a notable thing about a modern person is that they famously don’t know what a bicycle looks like, so the level of technology they might be able to actually rebuild on short notice in 1200 AD is probably not at the level of a nutcracker, and they probably already had those in 1200 AD.

    How does 2020 have complicated technology, if most people don’t know how it works? One big part is specialization: across the world, quite a few people do know what bicycles look like. And more to the point, presumably some of them know in great detail what bicycle chains look like, and what they are made of, and what happens if you make them out of slightly different materials or in slightly different shapes, and how such things interact with the functioning of the bicycle.

    But suppose the 2020 person who is sent back is a bicycle expert, and regularly builds their own at home. Can they introduce bikes to the world 600 years early? My tentative guess is yes, but not very ridable ones, because they don’t have machines for making bike parts, or any idea what those machines are like or the principles behind them. They can probably demonstrate the idea of a bike with wood and cast iron and leather, supposing others are cooperative with various iron casting, wood shaping, leather-making know-how. But can they make a bike that is worth paying for and riding?

    I’m not sure, and bikes were selected here for being so simple that an average person might know what their machinery looks like. Which makes them unusually close among technologies to simple chunks of metal. I don’t think a microwave oven engineer can introduce microwave ovens in 1200, or a silicon chip engineer can make much progress on introducing silicon chips. These require other technologies that require other technologies too many layers back.

    But what if the whole of 2020 society was transported to 1200? The metal extruding experts and the electricity experts and the factory construction experts and Elon Musk? Could they just jump back to 2020 levels of technology, since they know everything relevant between them? (Assuming they are somehow as well coordinated in this project as they are in 2020, and are not just putting all of their personal efforts into avoiding being burned at the stake or randomly tortured in the streets.)

    A big way this might fail is if 2020 society knows everything between them needed to use 2020 artifacts to get more 2020 artifacts, but don’t know how to use 1200 artifacts to get 2020 artifacts.

    On that story, the 1200 people might start out knowing methods for making c. 1200 artifacts using c. 1200 artifacts, but they accumulate between them the ideas to get them to c. 1220 artifacts with the c. 1200 artifacts, which they use to actually create those new artifacts. They pass to their children this collection of c. 1220 artifacts and the ideas needed to use those artifacts to get more c. 1220 artifacts. But the new c. 1220 artifacts and methods replaced some of the old c. 1200 artifacts and methods. So the knowledge passed on doesn’t include how to use those obsoleted artifacts to create the new artifacts, or the knowledge about how to make the obsoleted artifacts. And the artifacts passed on don’t include the obsoleted ones. If this happens every generation for a thousand years, the cultural inheritance received by the 2020 generation includes some highly improved artifacts plus the knowledge about how to use them, but not necessarily any record of the path that got there from prehistory, or of the tools that made the tools that made the tools that made these artifacts.

    This differs from my first impression of ‘cultural accumulation’ in that:

    1. physical artifacts are central to the process: a lot of the accumulation is happening inside them, rather than in memetic space.
    2. humanity is not accumulating all of the ideas it has come up with so far, even the important ones. It is accumulating something more like a best set of instructions for the current situation, and throwing a lot out as it goes.

    Is this is how things are, or is my first impression more true?

  • 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.

    Last Christmas I was mostly alone, since I live in America and my family lives in Australia. I celebrated by myself: I made myself a Christmas stocking full of things like pens and post-it notes and beads and chocolate (with a traditional balloon on it), and had hot chocolate, and opened presents, and then I read a book of essays that I had collected up online beforehand and printed out nicely. The theme was something like, ‘being in touch with far away people, elsewhere and in the past, and in particular trying to see what they are really like, and to remember that they are not like what I think’. There are ways you can be especially close to people by reading their words that are different from the ways you can be close by chatting and eating together, and I hoped to do those ones, I suppose.

    This year lots of people are forced to stay at home, so I have plenty of company. But if I were going to celebrate relatively alone at the same time as my friends or family were doing the same thing elsewhere, I like the idea of trying to combine these ideas somehow.

  • 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. The vivid and visceral cloth of her dress and the minuscule lumpiness of its stitching, please me too. The sheen of the basket canes makes me almost feel the knobbly weave of the baskets. Maybe I am just a big texture fan. Or maybe getting the textures right adds a kind of realism that is particularly satisfying. As I write about it, I note that it is often that I have a vivid sense of the physicality of the object, as well as that physicality being somehow especially rich and enlivening. I wonder if this is related to his commonly credited skill with painting glimmering light (hypothesized controversially to have been related to use of an early camera-like device).

    It is amazing to remember that before cameras, mankind didn’t have any good way to ‘know’ what things really looked like except to look at them and do their best at recording it on paper. (They knew in the sense that they could see it.) In spite of everyone looking at things all the time, you could make major discoveries about what everyday things looked like, at least into the fifteenth century.

    I got the painting from the Rijksmuseum website, which is itself a great thing.

  • 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.)

    I recorded the time and remaining email count in a spreadsheet as I went along, and watched the expected time to completion at the current rate, to see if it was before or after 10:30pm.

    emails graph

    It was pretty intense, because most of the time it looked borderline whether I would make it, and tearing through reading a plethora of different things in a race against time for about nine almost consecutive hours is a lot. Overall it was pretty interesting.

    Some miscellaneous things on this topic:

    • My sincere apologies to a large fraction of the people who have ever tried to email me.
    • It’s nice to go back and remember the flavors of the different times and the different sets of people who have been around. I look forward to the coming times when mingling with sets of people is back on.
    • I get a fair number of extremely strange emails, for some of which I have trouble constructing any plausible circumstance that might have prompted them.
    • It’s notable how quickly my brain categorizes emails as ‘crankish’ or not. You might think that this would require getting some of the content, but I think a lot of my view on the matter is formed by the time I’ve seen very surface features. Supposing I judge correctly (which seems true if I look at the content, but that could be prejudice), I wonder why there is this strong correlation between content and style.
    • It seems like people have very different norms for length when writing emails. It’s nice that some people think I have so much concentration, reading speed and spare time that I’m going to make it through any five page essay that someone I don’t know sends my way, but it’s not true. The chance for me reading a thing when I get it drops off fast, maybe reaching 50% at around two sentences, unless some good reason to read it has arisen by then. In the past, I mostly left it in my email at that point, for maybe several years, but going forward I think I’m going to try to just give up.
    • I’m not sure if it would have been better to read all these emails at the time. Probably yes, because it would have been good for me to actually respond to people. But this way might have been better experientially.
  • 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:

    If I’m anxious:

    1. Notice that I am anxious
    2. ‘Connect with my outcome picture’. Which is to say, imagine a really good version of my life. (Usually focusing on details that parallel currently problematic ones. For instance, if I was distracted by the sense of not being able to breathe while hanging out with a friend, I might imagine a version of my life where I hang out with my friends attentively while confidently brushing off all manner of chest sensations, perhaps in the context of a life more broadly full of confidence and attention on things that matter.)
    3. Be excited for the current bout of anxiety as an opportunity to exercise skills at living in the ‘outcome picture’ version of life in spite of anxiety. This involves having redrawn the goal as living well even in the context of anxiety rather than not being anxious. It also involves thinking of the route to this goal as developing a skill or strength via repeated practice, similar to learning a language or becoming good at bench press. Then because that practice requires a series of anxiety-filled contexts, you are naturally excited if an occasion comes up. For example, instead of aiming to never have panic attacks while getting lunch with someone, you are trying to become the kind of person who can keep their attention on the finer points of an argument in spite of maybe feeling like they can’t breathe that well. This is only going to happen via a number of practice occasions with arguments and breathing difficulties. So if one of these comes up, you are pumped.
    4. Go back to what I was doing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in a non-anxious way even, just treating it as practice.
    5. Get a point.

    If I get ten points, I get a cookie.

    I think the clear rules for getting a point, and the dispersal of cookies, are both crucial for my own success with this, though my impression is that they are not included in the classic versions.

    Things I like or think might be good about this:

    • Imagining how you want things to be ten or twenty times a day is pretty inspiring in general, anxiety aside. (Anxiety reduction techniques that involve doing something virtuous every time you are anxious seem good in general, if you can make them work. I used to play DDR whenever I was anxious, and I got heaps of exercise and very good at DDR.)
    • If you can get genuinely excited for being anxious, that alone seems to undermine some of its force.
    • Feeling like anxiety is the thing that is meant to happen, that is a key part of the path to your goal (or at least the path to a point), rather than a sign of things going wrong, also makes it easier to deal with.
    • Empirically it seems to just make me happy somehow. It might be all the imagining my outcome picture.
  • 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.

    I also think that it’s easy to have a somewhat silly habit, but then to deal with its oppressiveness by doing it automatically and fast. But then you barely notice it, so it is harder to remember that it’s a problem and fix it. And yet such things build up. And even having someone else watching can make the details of what you are doing—and their defensibility—briefly vivid. For instance, today I quickly noticed myself that I wash my hands way more than is reasonable while making a sandwich, but I do it pretty habitually and don’t even think about it. I just believe that making sandwiches is somehow arduous.

    Another good thing about this activity is that where I am focused on the detail of a problem, a new observer can be confused at why I would even think the thing is a problem, or worthy of my time to solve, or why I would assume the constraints that I’m assuming. Which can all be refreshing.

    Overall, I found it helpful and enlightening.

    But another virtue of this is in the never-ending effort to see what other people’s worlds are like. In hearing someone describe how your world looks to them, you perhaps get to infer something about the landscape of the place that view is coming from.

  • 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.

    The ‘G’ rated Disney film also seemed as if it was from a different culture in other ways, for instance the overt sexuality, its combination with religion, and the seriousness of the violence and hatred. At one point Frollo grabs Esmerelda in an apparent attempt to imprison her, but then presses his face into her hair and breathes in the smell. At other times he sings that his burning desire for her is turning him to sin, before asking the Virgin Mary to destroy her and send her to burn in hell if she won’t have him. “Destroy Esmeralda…And let her taste the fires of hell…Or else let her be mine and mine alone…Hellfire, Dark fire…Now gypsy, it’s your turn…Choose me or, Your pyre…Be mine or you will burn”. Later in his attempts to find Esmerelda, and also to bring about a genocide against the gypsies, he locks a family in their house and sets fire to it. Another time he burns her at the stake himself, until she is rescued.

    I wonder whether these things also seemed strange at the time, or if norms have changed since 1996 (or if I’m wrong about what they are like now). I recently listened to the audiobook of The Better Angels of our Nature, which made me more aware of how norms around violence have changed in the long run, so I am curious about whether I can see it happening at the scale of my life. For instance, apparently only a couple of hundred years ago normal people would find burning a cat alive good entertainment. In twenty-five years, do we also get to see another tenth of that much change?

    Looking at critical response in Wikipedia, it sounds fairly positive, though there was indeed some controversy (including protests?) over the sexuality as well as apparently the possibility of ‘homosexual undertones’ (which seems like a clearer case of norms having changed quickly). Gene Siskel, writing in in 1996, actually remarks on the tastefulness of the humor! (‘These ideas are presented with effective songs and, yes, tasteful bits of humor’.) Roger Ebert loved it 4/4 much.

    On the other hand, I didn’t find evidence of people complaining much about its tastefulness in modern times either, so perhaps it’s just me or a more local cultural difference (I think a couple of my housemates also mentioned finding the humor to be bad).

  • 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.

    But how would I expect it to get better? Here are some partial mechanisms by which I might expect things to get better usually, which this is evidence about the strength of:

    1. The market: people would be marginally more likely to buy a product with slightly more helpful labeling, e.g. they might pay an extra cent for saving several seconds of their time. I don’t feel surprised that this doesn’t work. For one thing, it would take the customer a large fraction of the time saved for each item to check whether it has the more useful label. Is there some theoretical reason that this should turn out ok in a homo economicus utopia?

    2. Brand affect and loyalty: people won’t check ahead of time whether a product will save them a second later, but after finding a product slightly more annoying to deal with, they will like the brand slightly less, and be less likely to buy it in future, even though the object they receive is identical. I don’t intuitively expect it to work on its own, I think in part because I expect people to interpret very small things in light of the larger vibe they are getting from a product. For instance, if it was helpful in several ways, they might interpret a helpful label as more of that, whereas if it was in other ways minimalist, this might detract from that vibe. I don’t have an argument against it working in theory, but at a very small scale, since it is a very small problem for a customer.

    3. People being thoughtful and nice: maybe even without incentives, it basically doesn’t cost more to have more helpful writing on your label, so why not do it? My guess is that people writing labels don’t think of it. I’m not sure how reasonable that is, because I haven’t emotionally comprehended how many people are thinking about what to write on labels.

    4. Some sort of feedback from users of labels: if the problem with 3) was lack of knowledge, then the customer seems like the most likely person to bridge that gap. Probably if you have users test a simmer sauce or something, you don’t go far enough down the details of their response to catch things like this? And nobody writes to the company to complain about something this small. Virtually all people have better things to think about than even noticing this cost.

    Others? (I expect I could think of some, but it is my bed time.) Happy Thanksgiving!

  • 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


    Careful library
    of things
    I haven’t gotten around to


    Where would I keep this
    very big pad of paper
    if I were Critch?


    Don’t eat the pepparkakor
    just because they are there
    I did and regret nothing


    Moldy washcloth
    my mother gave to me
    I wash it

  • 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?)

    Also, I’m not sure I have heard anyone other than the president of America mock someone else’s PPE, so it’s unclear where I got the impression that it is embarrassing. It doesn’t seem to be an entirely idiosyncratic impression. It was worse at the outset - I remember the day San Francisco first locked down, I went out one last time to buy some things wearing a mask, and I felt painfully silly.

    Pragmatically, if I feel embarrassed wearing a lot of PPE, I think about:

    1. how I’m correct, and anyone judging me is wrong
    2. how they can’t see my face now anyway, especially if I add some more PPE
    3. how it seems genuinely pitiable to be cowed into risking your life by the possibility of strangers (who are wrong) laughing at you. Then I feel sad for the people who would judge me, for some of them probably dying out of embarrassment at someone potentially laughing at them if they wore a more serious mask, similar to how I would feel sad for someone who got syphilis because they were too embarrassed to ask for a condom, or died of snake bite on their butt because they were too embarrassed to take off their pants to show the doctor.
    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 2020picss5 2020picss6 2020picss7 2020picss8 2020picss9 2020picss10 2020picss11 2020picss12 2020picss13 2020picss14 2020picss15 2020picss16 2020picss17 2020picss18 2020picss19 2020picss21 2020picss22 2020picss23 2020picss24 2020picss26 2020picss27 2020picss28 2020picss29 2020picss30 2020picss31 2020picss32 2020picss34 2020picss35

    For my boyfriend.

  • 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.

    4. Interactive textbook-exam hybrids to learn all subjects, on the internet. 

    5. A social-antisocial switch in the Uber app. Not that ‘social’ would get used much, realistically, but it would be nice to have the option, so that there was common knowledge that it wasn’t being taken, negotiated in an entirely comfortable fashion.

    6. Readily available basic evaluations of things that come up a lot. For instance, how much is going to the dentist twice per year instead of once per year worth? How much illness is avoided by the average person washing their hands before eating? How good is getting 8h of sleep instead of 7h? How much extra life do you get for one hour of exercise? How much better is it to trim your hair every three months instead of every year, in terms of time lost disentangling it and appearance? How many uses does an article of clothing usually get? How many fewer if you put it in the dryer even though you are not meant to? I think people mostly just think of dental care and hygiene and sleep and exercise and hair cuts and following proper laundry directions as qualitatively virtuous, and have basically no idea whether they should be willing to drive an hour to go the dentist. Some such evaluations exist, but you have to take initiative and look for them, or usually do some more complicated research putting things together. I’d like it if there were serious research effort on this kind of thing (as if making informed personal decisions were important, rather than an occasional amusement for nerds). And communication such that many figures were floating around and hard to avoid knowing, like it is hard to avoid knowing roughly how many people live in China or having an intuition for how large a ‘large’ drink is relative to a ‘small’ drink.

    7. Readily available probability estimates for things that come up a lot. For instance, how likely are you to spread a cold to someone else under different policies? How likely are you to broadly endorse your children’s life choices? How likely are cancer, HPV, death, nothing much, if you have a bad pap smear? What are the probabilities of various bad outcomes if you take a drug? This is much like #6. I think we should know roughly how much common things are worth, and how often events of interest happen.

    8. A way to type on your phone (and ideally receive information back) inconspicuously without taking it out of your pocket. For instance, input using volume button morse code, output using mild vibration. I asked about this on Facebook, and I think the closest suggestions were a one-handed keyboard that you hold in your hand (but then you need to have an extra object with you always) and this morse code app, which you can at least open and then type with volume buttons and so don’t need to look, though I expect you can’t really use it in your pocket because there are too many parts of the screen you can touch and cause non-morse-code things to happen.

    9. Cheap places to sleep for 1-12h at any time in a dark, quiet, person-sized box. For use in traveling cheaply, napping without going home, or using as an alternative to home if the neighbors are having a party or if their lawn-mowing schedule doesn’t fit with your sleep schedule.

    10. Shopfronts where you can go with a group of people to have unusual experiences. For instance, you show up with three friends and pay at the door. You are guided into an antechamber where you change into finely embroidered robes and masks with wide tinted lenses that make your eyes look surprised and the world look red. You enter through a narrow archway into a wide, tall room full of streaming (red) sunlight and chanting and a smell that slightly burns your nose. The air is warm and moist, occasionally cut by cool breezes. About thirty other figures are standing around the edges, talking among themselves or chanting with the room. The center of the room is a wide pool of shallow red water over intricate red and white stone. Sometimes a group walks slowly to the center of the pool, and climbs onto a dry, raised platform of black metal. Then the room goes quiet and the group cries out a single cryptic phrase, like ‘blackened backend bulkhead’ and ‘numbed named numbers’. Then some rushed and elaborate displacement of people occurs. One of your friends is displaced by short woman with dark red eyes. She seems to want your group to go to the stage, but all of her words are in the same cryptic assonant triads. “waiting weighting wanting” … “speakers, seekers, peekers”…“annunciate, announce, nuance”… There are white labradors everywhere, but they look pink. You decide to follow her…

  • 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:

    Tool Purpose How it reached me
    microcovid.org estimating covid risk of activities One of my friends helped make it
    Agreement with my housemates to accrue less than 15 minutes of expected covid harms to the house each day, with spreadsheets calculating the expected harm from covid and documenting our potentially risky behaviors and estimating their costs, based on the downloadable microcovid.org spreadsheet for negotiating risks with people I live with we made it (a lot of what we made initially was similar to microcovid.org but less thorough and worse to use, so we replaced it with their spreadsheet.)
    Instacart etc safe groceries I already used it a lot of the time
    surgical masks for doing things that aren’t very risky, like going for walks outside with a low-risk colleague or alone. I somewhere got the impression that they were better than the cloth masks that I used to use
    P100 masks being potentially very safe from covid at the expense of being a bit uncomfortable after several hours and being a bit less audible (e.g. important indoor medical appointments, flying) I somehow vaguely knew about them and so in ignorance of anything bought one in March as soon as things looked potentially bad and before they had become scarce on Amazon
    The impression that touching things isn’t that bad allowing me to be less cautious there (though I still use hand sanitizer) people around me reason about this a bit, and public authorities say things about it [ETA: but maybe it is much worse—yet to investigate]
    Hand sanitizer with more than 70% alcohol cleaning hands out and about suggested by housemate probably, and I forgot what the actual relevant % was meant to be
    Alcohol spray, preferable of a drinkable variety cleaning groceries (we did this at the start, then judged that it was not risky enough to be worth it) housemate suggested it
    Goggles reducing risk at expense of some difficulty seeing (usually worn with P100) suggested by Facebook friend, then confirmed later by other friends
    Gather virtual events that can have lots of small group conversations instead of one giant awkward one like Zoom a friend invited me to one probably
    Delivery restaurants low effort relatively covid-safe food my household calculated the risk in a very hand-wavey fashion, though this is out of date. Also, we hear other people do this, including in China.
    At home tests, e.g. Pixel (others listed here) checking if I have covid at home for free, with about three days of delay or two if I bought a test in advance a housemate told me about these and I investigated online
    Quarantine area place to leave packages before bringing them into the house, to let some virus die off and reduce risk in March we assumed the worst about everything as a first pass, then had to do research on virus longevity to feel comfortable letting packages in at all, and found papers on it; we shortened it to one day probably based partly on the impression that other people we knew were being less cautious, and partly on guesses and calculations.
    Copper tape killing covid faster on high-touch surfaces was rumored in my online social circles to be somewhat helpful early on, so we put some around; haven’t heard update on whether it is actually helpful
    Disinfection in the oven (200 degrees F for 15 minutes) disinfecting delivery food if we are concerned about it employee and maybe housemates knew about this method, and figured out relevant temperatures
    Virtual coffee catching up with colleagues casually my employees and I came up with this early in the year, so that we would feel like we were at work more and have ‘water cooler’ type conversations rather than just meetings.
    CIRES airborne transmission tool I haven’t used it but might investigate if I needed to do some more serious airborne transmission evaluation e.g. wanted to know if it was safe to repeatedly spend time in some large but ventilated space read about it online somehow
    Air purifiers reducing covid risk, I haven’t had reason to use much, though glad of dentist having one colleague probably

    A lot of these I got from people I know personally. Does everyone have the same list at this point, which spread through acquaintances? Or does everyone have a different list, based on who their acquaintances are? Do my acquaintances drastically overrepresent the kinds of nerds who read lots of papers and make spreadsheets at the slightest nudging and who were already worrying about global catastrophes?

    I’m especially curious to hear what is on your list and not mine.

  • 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.

    This might seem like a silly thing to wonder about. For one thing, isn’t it because I don’t choose to clean up my room, whereas they do? Or if not entirely that, isn’t it just that people vary, and I have the trait ‘messy’?

    This isn’t very satisfying, because what does this difference looks like at a lower level? What is it like to be a tidy person? It’s not just about liking neatness I think. I love neatness. I fantasize every day about cleaning up my room, but then run out of time. It’s quite messy, so would be a lot of hassle to clean up, and I have a lot of things going on. Sometimes if I’m particularly on top of everything, I’ll substantially clean it up, but then as soon as I’m more overwhelmed with other things, I’ll let it slide again, and it will rapidly slide quite far. Kind of like other unsustainable virtuous lifestyle choices, like getting up extra early to read poetry before breakfast.

    Maybe tidy people just really love tidiness, even more than I do? Or maybe they enjoy tidying, like I enjoy reading a little bit before bed, and somehow make time for it? Or do they just prioritize it even higher, like I prioritize work? Or do they have twice as much time or energy as me every day? Does messiness seem like an unconscionable sin, so that they wouldn’t dream of leaving an empty plate on their chest of drawers in the first place, even if they were in the middle of something? Would they never get home and toss a bag of stuff from an event in the corner rather than immediately unpacking it? Do they have fewer objects? (Yes, but I don’t think that explains it—for instance, I also manage to be a constant mild force for messiness in my boyfriend’s room. I suppose it could be about objects:storage ratio, but it doesn’t seem like it.) Does it somehow require less effort for tidy people to make things tidy?

    I have thoughts, but first I’m curious to hear if any tidy people have insight.

  • 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.’

    As I was falling asleep last night, somewhere after imagining a kind of house made from genetically engineered trees that just grew into pleasing rounded house shapes roofed with massive leaves, it occurred to me that actually Schelling points are perfectly applicable and even very interesting in cases with communication. It’s just that when there is some combination of a relatively small amount of communication and clear norms about how to respond to communication, then communication often provides a particularly salient Schelling point, so there is not much of a question of what to do, and Schelling points don’t seem relevant.

    When many things are being said, or there are other salient Schelling points, or it isn’t clear that everyone’s motives are trustworthy, or probably in other cases, there is no longer a determinate Schelling point necessarily.

    For instance:

    • Ten thousand oppressed people have to decide when to launch a revolution against a tyrant. If a small number try to revolt alone, they are probably captured by the oppressors and useless to the revolution. So all ten thousand would like to coordinate to fight at once. They can communicate perfectly freely with one another. However there are constantly suggestions that it happen tonight from the youngest and least strategic members of the group, so if such a suggestion is made, everyone has to guess whether this is the one that everyone is going to get behind. Even if Alice is wise and makes such a suggestion, and Bob knows her to be wise, if Bob doesn’t think everyone will be sure enough that everyone will be sure enough, then he won’t want to go out tonight.
    • Charles and Dick are in a fight, and both would strongly like to not be in a fight, however would not like to stop fighting before their opponent, because then they might get punched extra. They also don’t really want to fight beyond when their opponent is fighting, because if they punch him extra, he will hold a grudge. So ideally they would stop at the same time. But there is another Nash equilibrium at both continuing to fight (i.e. if both were going to fight more, neither would want to stop earlier). So they have to try to coordinate on one of the Nash equilibria. Charles says that he is going to stop now, but that doesn’t inform Dick much, because of course Charles wants Dick to think Charles is stopping, since then he too will stop. But Charles always wants Dick to stop sooner, regardless of his own plans. So the communication is hopeless in normal terms, and at least not automatically a Schelling point.

      Here is the table of payoffs for one punch:

        stop punch
      stop 5, 5 -5, 3
      punch 3, -5 4, 4
    • Ellen and Frederick are meeting in New York City, and their phones are working fine, and Ellen texts ‘I’ll meet you outside the station in ten?’ and Fred texts ‘yeah’. But Ellen is somewhat tempted to go in and wait under the clock because she and Fred met there once before under highly romantic circumstances, and she is interested in going back there, as it were, but from their current platonic situation, it would be weird to just ask him to meet under the clock again, or to immediately proposition him. She figures that if he feels the same way, and their coordination game is on point, he will actually wait for her under the clock, then come outside if she doesn’t show up. And if he’s not there, well, she tried, and will be a minute late outside. Frederick also figures he might be able to risk-free learn if she feels the same way, and waits inside.

    You might argue that these are not all ‘communication’ in some strict sense of genuine information in fact being cheap to convey. Fair enough probably, but in that strict sense, limits to communication are more common.

    You might argue that these are still all very contrived examples. Which is fair, but I suspect it stems at least partly from how hard it is to come up with examples, especially if they are examples of a game theoretic situation you recently thought of being manifest.

    I assume this is not an original point, but don’t know who it is unoriginal because of. If you liked this post, you might like The Strategy of Conflict, which for all I know literally has this point in it, but at least has a lot more good discussion of Schelling points, including introducing the concept.

  • 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?

    Some answers I can think of:

    1. It would be great, but it isn’t anyone’s job, and it’s hard to profit from it because hardly anyone will give you a cent for making their judgment for them.
    2. It would be more effort to open the calculator than the thought most people put into this. (Relatedly, all apparent examples of this are just ‘how worried should I be about X’ where X is something that actually nobody is worried about unless they have an anxiety disorder. There is a form for solving this and it is called a psychiatry intake form.)
    3. If someone made such a thing, there is no way that more than a minuscule fraction of the world would come to know about it.
    4. Such things exist all over the place, and everyone else is using them and have just never mentioned them to me
    5. Such things really do involve a lot of personal information somehow
    6. Few people would trust such a tool enough to do what it said
    7. This sort of thing just isn’t a thing, and people mostly do things that are things. The market isn’t efficient. Everyone’s personal lives are currently like pre-Moneyball baseball.
    8. Nobody knows the answers to these questions. It’s possible to have a better answer than most people’s made up ones (e.g. by averaging most people’s made up answers, or having an expert make something up), but nobody wants to either stand behind that, or pay for it.
    9. This case is a mysterious anomaly, but there aren’t many such cases. For instance, can you think of more good ones right now? No.

    Figuring out the covid risk of different activities is another example of massive potential replication of effort, though in that case microcovid.org (and perhaps others) stepped up.

    I have a similar feeling at a smaller scale about speculating about the future of AI, which is perhaps why I run aiimpacts.org and other people don’t. (While that enlightens me on some specific things that might go wrong with trying to do this, it’s hard for a particular project to shed light on the problems with a category it is in, since it is in many categories and presumably might have problems from all of them.)

    P.S. Yes, I believe the word is ‘octobillion - upling

  • 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?

    People often have schedules (or other intentions around times or orders of activities), and often have momentum or excitement about activities, so I assume these also conflict for others. I include:

    • when a period intended for something ends, and you haven’t finished it
    • when a period for starting something occurs, and you haven’t finished the last thing
    • when a period for something occurs and you really don’t feel like it relative to something else that is perfectly productive, but not the intended activity.

    Some examples:

    • If it’s ‘bed time’, but you are making a lot of progress on writing, should you go to bed?
    • If you mean to stop work and go outside at 5pm, and now it is 5pm and you are in the middle of something that will be annoying to get back to, do you stop and go outside?
    • If you meant to set aside 3h on Sunday for working on some self-improvement things, and it is now an hour into that period because you woke up late, and also you haven’t finished figuring out what you need to do today at all, should you move immediately to the planned time block or finish planning your day and getting up?
    • If you meant to write in your planner every morning before work, and it is work time and you haven’t done it, should you start work fifteen minutes late?

    Of course the answer is ‘it depends’: there are some circumstances where you should stick with what you are doing or excited about, and others you should stick to the plan. But I wonder how far to lean one way or the other, or what it should depend on.

    I think in practice it is a thing I make many judgments about without a lot of thought, and without remembering or learning from the huge number of other such judgments I’ve made. Has anyone else done better?

  • 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. The implicit assumption in the line of reasoning that suggests that you should be embarrassed is that you should have thought of the obvious thing first. But there is at least one obvious thing for every way of looking at a situation. So you can’t think of all of them first because there are so many of them. For instance, having framed your recent life as ‘having an anxiety disorder’, obvious things to do might include therapy, psychiatry, trusting your own assessment of what is alarming less, doing exposure therapy on your own, reading self-help books, exercise, trying to be less anxious.. And if a few days ago you were thinking of your situation as more ‘not being on top of things’, then the obvious things would be different. If earlier today you were thinking of the situation as ‘I really don’t want to leave the house today, for this thing’, then other options will be obvious. And these are all just ways of framing a particular thread in your life. At the same time, there will be obvious things to do about the fact that you don’t have an office chair, and to do about how you like musicals, and to do about being unfit, and so on.

    You can’t think of every obvious thing immediately, because there are so many of them. You can spend all day doing things that would obviously improve your life, and then have someone tell you another obvious thing.

    An upshot of this is that in my ideal world, people would not refrain from suggesting solutions because they seem too obvious, because nobody would be offended that their friend really thinks it might not have occurred to them to try anxiety drugs if they have a bad anxiety disorder.

    It’s also possible that I’m just uniquely bad at considering all obvious things at all times, in which case that last point just applies to me.

  • 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.

    I think a likely scenario leading to bad outcomes is that AI can be made which gives a set of people things they want, at the expense of future or distant resources that the relevant people do not care about or do not own.

    For example, consider autonomous business strategizing AI systems that are profitable additions to many companies, but in the long run accrue resources and influence and really just want certain businesses to nominally succeed, resulting in a worthless future. Suppose Bob is considering whether to get a business strategizing AI for his business. It will make the difference between his business thriving and struggling, which will change his life. He suspects that within several hundred years, if this sort of thing continues, the AI systems will control everything. Bob probably doesn’t hesitate, in the way that businesses don’t hesitate to use gas vehicles even if the people involved genuinely think that climate change will be a massive catastrophe in hundreds of years.

    When the business strategizing AI systems finally plough all of the resources in the universe into a host of thriving 21st Century businesses, was this misuse or misalignment or accident? The strange new values that were satisfied were those of the AI systems, but the entire outcome only happened because people like Bob chose it knowingly (let’s say). Bob liked it more than the long glorious human future where his business was less good. That sounds like misuse. Yet also in a system of many people, letting this decision fall to Bob may well have been an accident on the part of others, such as the technology’s makers or legislators.

    Outcomes are the result of the interplay of choices, driven by different values. Thus it isn’t necessarily sensical to think of them as flowing from one entity’s values or another’s. Here, AI technology created a better option for both Bob and some newly-minted misaligned AI values that it also created—‘Bob has a great business, AI gets the future’—and that option was worse for the rest of the world. They chose it together, and the choice needed both Bob to be a misuser and the AI to be misaligned. But this isn’t a weird corner case, this is a natural way for the future to be destroyed in an economy.

    Thanks to Joe Carlsmith for conversation leading to this post.

  • 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. It’s a diaper caddy which typically contains all things that might help with migraines, or some physical symbol of them if they don’t fit (e.g. a pick stands for playing guitar).


    Now if I remember at all to do anything, I am reminded of, and handed, everything. And the motion to make this happen is like ‘grab or ask for visually obvious basket’ not ‘try to remember if you put your painkillers in your bag and also where you put your bag’. I’ve had it for several months, and it seems good.

  • 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?

    A first idea we had is that some goals are self-reinforcing. For instance, if you consume things a lot, then you want to consume even more next time, and when that’s hard then you get even more desperate to consume, and so just increasingly focused on consuming, and therefore maybe inattentive to other potentially good things. Similarly for some other goals, such as making money.

    Another thought is that ‘what they’re worth’ means ‘what you can sell them for’, and what you can sell them for is often a subset of the values on the table. So if you look out for what things are worth and then sell them for that, you will lose a lot of other value.

    My favorite explanation is that the world is very complicated, so in order to interact with it at all, you have to make much simpler summary versions for use in your head. For instance, you might think of there being a drawer in the kitchen with flour and sugar in it, rather than thinking of there being a whole conglomeration of specks of wheat and splinters of wood and screws and glues and plastics, or of a massive cloud of atoms.

    There are lots of different ways of simplifying the same scene, and for different purposes, you probably want different ones. If you are drawing a picture of the kitchen, you might simplify the same part of it to a grainy brown rectangle cupboard front. If you are showing your parents around your apartment, it might just be one of several ‘safe to open’ cupboards, that isn’t holding anything rapidly hidden and alarming.

    The world is like a gameboard on which you can play a multitude of different games, but for each one you only pay attention to the few aspects of the board that are relevant to that game. Sometimes you use the chess squares and ignore the snakes and ladders between them, sometimes you just put Go stones on the corners.

    Supposing that your brain automatically adjusts the salience of parts of the gameboard for the game you are playing, this means that what game you are playing affects what you see. For instance, if at a party you are playing the game, ‘come up with good insights and say them’, you are less likely to see your friend Fred glance momentarily at your friend Serena than you are if you are playing the game, ‘observe everything about Fred’, or the game, ‘check how people are doing at the party’. In none of these cases will you see the beautiful walnut chair, but you might if you were playing ‘locate beautiful things’ or ‘figure out how rich the hosts are now’.

    So the basic issue is that if you play games like, ‘how much can I sell this for?’, or even ‘what can this do for me?’, you end up living in a simplified world that emphasizes financial and pragmatic possibilities but lacks a lot of richness that would bring value not via either being sold or doing something tangible. Which is arguably a lot of the richness.

    Then a sad thing is that from this vantage, you don’t appear to be missing anything. So indeed it seems the best you can do is collect up that which can be sold or tangibly leveraged, since that is all the world has to offer. Similarly, if you are so hungry for potato chips that all you can see is whether a thing is potato chips, you might conclude that this is a reasonable way to be, what with everything either being potato chips or not, and potato chips being better than not.

  • 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.

    The basic problem with it is that maybe we can’t distinguish worlds where social media companies label false things as false, and those where they label things they don’t like as false, or things that aren’t endorsed by other ‘official’ entities. So maybe we don’t want such companies to have the job of deciding what is considered true or false, because a) we don’t trust them enough to give them this sacred and highly pressured job forever, or b) we don’t expect everyone to trust them forever, and it would be nice to have better recourse when disagreement appears than ‘but I believe them’.

    If there were a way to systematically inhibit or label false content based on its falseness directly, rather than via a person’s judgment, that would be an interesting solution that perhaps everyone reasonable would agree to add. If prediction markets were way more ubiquitous, each contentious propositional Tweet could say under it the market odds for the claim.

    Or what if Twitter itself were a prediction market, trading in Twitter visibility? For just-posted Tweets, instead of liking them, you can bet your own cred on them. Then a while later, they are shown again and people can vote on whether they turned out right and you win or lose cred. Then your total cred determines how much visibility your own Tweets get.

    It seems like this would solve:

    • the problem for prediction markets where it is illegal to bet money and hard to be excited about fake money
    • the problem for prediction markets where it’s annoying to go somewhere to predict things when you are doing something else, like looking at Twitter
    • the problem for Twitter where it is full of fake claims
    • the problem for Twitter users where they have to listen to fake claims all the time, and worry about whether all kinds of things are true or not

    It would be pretty imperfect, since it throws the gavel to future Twitter users, but perhaps they are an improvement on the status quo, or on the status quo without the social media platforms themselves making judgments.

  • 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.

    We took a detour for downtown Castro, to see if it was more exciting. Apparently that was in fact the Schelling point for being excited together. When we got to the intersection with Castro street, cars were still going through it slowly, but each one seemed like an event somehow. While we watched, the crowd overcame the road entirely.

    Castro party (click for video)

    I wasn’t keen to walk through this, due to my poor imagination for how aerosols work in large outdoor crowds, so we turned back up a side street and went around. Roads seemed fuller than they have been since March, I think with people just driving around for the revelry. I soon wished that I had brought a musical instrument, when my hands were tired from clapping. A couple passed us with little bells in each hand to tinkle. We received compliments on our (very minimal) cardboard hats.

    Away from the Castro it was a bit more normal. We stopped to get coffee and a woman outside the cafe asked us if we were celebrating the election. “Uh, yes?” “Does that mean it’s been called?” “Yes!” She was glad. She had been aggressively avoiding the election coverage apparently, and I suppose the scene in the park outside the cafe could also be explained by it being a surpassingly pleasant Saturday on normal weather related grounds. The cafe was selling Champagne. We bought a bottle.

    The next park we got to was even less celebratory—at a glance, more full of inert young people at very safe distances, engaged in solitary phones and music and such. But over the hill a group of women were playing loud music and called out to us. ‘It’s our fuck Trump playlist! Enjoy!’ We stood a while on the crest of the hill and looked out over the city. A band of dogs frolicked in the sun, the light making a halo in the white mane of a golden retriever.

    “What are the chances they actually have kouign amann?” For some reason places generally say they will sell kouignoù amann, but then don’t actually have any, or only have one, or are closed at all of the times you ever want a kouign amann. Philz Coffee has been out of kouignoù amann for at least a month. I had a better feeling about this place though. The one time I went there years ago, it had more of a kouign amann production outlet vibe, and veritable mounds of kouignoù amann of different flavors. Still, approaching the bakery at last, we hardly dared hope. I put 55% on kouignoù amann, but admitted that that probably meant 40%, empirically. He was much less optimistic.

    But we reached the bakery, and it had stand after stand of them. We asked if we could really buy like ten of them, or whether this would deprive others. We could. We noticed another case with as many kouignoù amann again. We got eleven, and some cookies and cake too. Then on the way home we stumbled upon another noted kouignoù amann bakery, and got one more.

    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

    The best non-committal snack is Mewe snickerdoodle peanut butter.

    The best committal snack is Jonny Pop’s chocolate dipped cherries ice cream bar

    The best YouTube videos to watch while you eat Jonny Pops are 3Blue1Brown’s series on linear algebra

    The best thing about elaborate covid facial getup aside from not getting covid is that nobody can see you crying, which means you can expand your casual Hamilton-listening all the way through the second half.

    The best underwear is boody and the best work trousers are BetaBrand dresspant yoga pants

    The best morning routine component ignoring costs is a tight race between doing something you have never done before, dancing on a rug outside, and acquiring coffee, won by the first.

    The most beautiful thing is everything, in the right frame of mind.

    The best color is orangey green

    The best person to be argued with by is Robin Hanson.

    The best mode of transit is the bicycle, with the train close behind.

    The best tourist experience is the do-it-yourself Leo Szilard themed tour of Budapest.

    The best Twitter presence is Lin Manuel Miranda’s.

    The best common time is 7:50pm, and the best rare time is 4:55am.

  • 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.

    I surveyed about 63 people, asking them:

    • Who did you vote for in the US presidential election 2020?
    • What was the reasoning behind your choice?
    • What would be the worst thing about your least favorite candidate winning?
    • Who do you think is going to win?
    • What went through your head when Trump said that he had won the election already on Tuesday night?

    20 out of 63 preferred Trump (19 voted plus one would have chosen Trump if forced to vote). Here is the reasoning they gave for their choices:

    • spite
    • I want a better America!
    • I like the presidency over the lead of the Donald Trump.
    • the only of good electionship of a best moment
    • He has been a good ;leader delivering on all his promises.
    • I’m a republican and i just have to vote for trump because he represents the republican party even though he’s not smart.
    • he was an trusted person and good one
    • I believe in what Donald Trump stands for. I cannot vote Democrat because I am a Christian who is Pro-Life.
    • He is the most qualified to lead the country, regardless of his character that many hate.
    • I support his America First agenda
    • I feel he is the better choice to lead us
    • Supreme court, guns, political correctness.
    • With the economy precociousending radical race theory, creating peace in the middle east, and working with Americans so that we are treated fairly locally and globally, I believe he deserves a second term to continue his work.
    • Trump is saving america from the chi com globalists.
    • Trump has done some good things for the economy. I also believe he has strengthened our national security.

    Here is what would go badly if Trump loses, according to these respondents:

    • fraud against the American electorate
    • unsure
    • Choosing the right ecommerce platform for the business digital presence is critical. Also to find the one that meets the needs.
    • He’s not likely to win in South Carolina it is the good election
    • The country will be destroyed.
    • The Democratic candidate would probably increase the tax on the rich which i think is not fair.
    • they will not interact with people directly
    • Turning this country into a socialist country.
    • A rebellion may start in the country.
    • Massive increase of illegal immigration
    • The direction he will take our country
    • Political correctness winning, them thinking that since they won, they can go to even more extremes.
    • More wars, corruption in government, and media suppression on conservative thoughts.
    • China becomes the world super power.
    • I believe Joe Biden’s policies would move America away from nationalism and toward socialism.

    What to make of that?

    I noted yesterday that everyone thinks their candidate will win

    Another notable thing is that a large number of responses are hard to make sense of. A friend suggested many are bots, but none of the apparent Biden-leaning responses are like this, and would bots always claim to vote Trump? (Also, aren’t bots good at writing now?)

    Here are a few arbitrarily chosen answers to the reasoning question from Biden supporters:

    • I am a democrat, and I love their policies
    • I felt we need a traditional U.S president. I also felt he might bring some stability to the U.S.
    • Trump is the worse leader in US history. We need a strong leader now that unites us and helps us move forward rather than creating division.
    • Biden is a Democrat.
    • I am a democrat. But more importantly, I am so sick of Trump’s lies, manipulation, and general hateful divisive attitude. We need to get the country together and reassert ourselves as a respectable nation.
    • Joe Biden’s policies actually aim to help Americans as well as protecting the environment while Trump is a pseudo dictator who’s broken countless laws and continues to do so, on top of being a racist, misogynistic, terrible person.

    Here is all of the data.

    Here’s my summary of the issues that Biden and Trump supporters care about, by number of mentions [ETA: including all that at least two people cared about]:

    voter issues

    (There are really about half as many Trump supporters as Biden supporters, but they are under-represented in the graph because I was less able to make out particular issues in what they wrote, whereas Biden supporters often mentioned multiple issues.)

  • 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.

    I think it’s related to how everyone is experiencing this thing together, and whether or not anyone has fun per se, there is something good in sharing it. And I do appreciate being part of a country-sized crowd looking the same way.

    I wish the evening involved more familiarity with voters dissimilar to me though. The evolving plot would be more interesting if every time something surprising happened at a vast statistical level, a camera zoomed in to three random voters from that place who behaved surprisingly, for a short interview on what they were actually thinking. My guess is that it is often more inspiring than suspected, and it would be nice to know the nation better.

  • 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.

    A natural way to resolve this incongruity is to suppose that my brother and I share 50% of the 0.01% of genes that might possibly vary between two humans, which we call ‘50% of my genes’ as a shorthand.

    But this raises a problem. The usual explanation for familial affection evolving is that since my brother shares half of my genes, from a genetic perspective it is half-selfish for me to look after his welfare. So genes that make me care about my brother tend to spread.

    But on this new model where ‘50%’ is shorthand for ‘50% of the way between virtually all and all’, taking care of my brother is about as good as taking care of myself (genetically). And a banana is worthy of my kin affection more than I thought my brother was. All living creatures are my family, and all humankind is myself.

    This does not describe my feelings about bananas, and to learn of a basic biological drive for selflessness across vast swathes of the tree of life would be a bit of a surprise.

    How does this actually work?

  • 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?
    6. How did nations come about?
    7. Are various countries evil? What are we even asking here?
    8. How bad would it be if a ‘bad’ country came to control the world, forever?
    9. What reasons do we have to not worry about this, in the current situation?
    10. If history can be considered from various perspectives (a series of wars changing the borders of territories; a sequence of technological discoveries; a sequence of high level changes affecting the nature of technological discovery; a sequence of particular people and their biographies..) why is the version that is all about countries warring for territory always the one taught in ‘history’?
    11. Why do wars happen? What does IR say about this?
    12. How do the different theories of how wars happen relate to one another? On the model where it is all about entities exercising and maximizing power, why does it sometimes seem like ideas or institutions are playing a part?
    13. To the extent history is summarizable at a high level, involving wars between nations say, how too did ‘wars’ come to be a thing (if they are), rather than low level conflict being possible and sometimes realized at all times?
    14. Why don’t we hear more about the Uyghurs?
    15. Is improving the discourse an important cause?
    16. Has the public discourse worsened over time? How could we tell empirically?
    17. If the public discourse has worsened, why?
    18. Does public discourse seem worse because it has been more democratized, and listening to everyone means opening the floor to messages sent with less attention to conceptual clarity, or using different discourse norms, or constructed with less philosophical skill than when public expression was inaccessible to most people? Might it in that case be better overall, in a trade-off between representing values and knowledge from across the population, and average skill of expression and thought?
    19. What would I write if I felt free to express myself online?
    20. What is good about Hegel? Why do such philosophers feel to some like a campaign to gaslight people? What are our experiences of trying to read Hegel? Is it better understood as a guide to tripping?
    21. Supposing such philosophy is a way of conveying non-propositional stuff to put in your mind, couldn’t that still be talked about in an open and propositional way? For instance in an introduction that says ‘This book is a sequence of words that I believe will cause you to have a different experience of your relationship with the world if you read them.’
    22. Why doesn’t someone write a better account of any of these things? Why are we still reading the originals?
  • 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:

    1. Early in the existence of bread, it might have been toasted by someone holding it close to a fire and repeatedly observing it and recognizing its level of doneness and adjusting. Now we have machines that hold the bread exactly the right distance away from a predictable heat source for a perfect amount of time. You could say that the shape of the object embodies a lot of intelligence, or that intelligence went into creating this ideal but non-intelligent tool.
    2. Self-cleaning ovens replace humans cleaning ovens. Humans clean ovens with a lot of thought—looking at and identifying different materials and forming and following plans to remove some of them. Ovens clean themselves by getting very hot.
    3. Carving a rabbit out of chocolate takes knowledge of a rabbit’s details, along with knowledge of how to move your hands to translate such details into chocolate with a knife. A rabbit mold automates this work, and while this route may still involve intelligence in the melting and pouring of the chocolate, all rabbit knowledge is now implicit in the shape of the tool, though I think nobody would call a rabbit-shaped tin ‘artificial intelligence’.
    4. Human pouring of orange juice into glasses involves various mental skills. For instance, classifying orange juice and glasses and judging how they relate to one another in space, and moving them while keeping an eye on this. Automatic orange juice pouring involves for instance a button that can only be pressed with a glass when the glass is in a narrow range of locations, which opens an orange juice faucet running into a spot common to all the possible glass-locations.

    Some of this is that humans use intelligence where they can use some other resource, because it is cheap on the margin where the other resource is expensive. For instance, to get toast, you could just leave a lot of bread at different distances then eat the one that is good. That is bread-expensive and human-intelligence-cheap (once you come up with the plan at least). But humans had lots of intelligence and not much bread. And if later we automate a task like this, before we have computers that can act very similarly to brains, then the alternate procedure will tend to be one that replaces human thought with something that actually is cheap at the time, such as metal.

    I think a lot of this is that to deal with a given problem you can either use flexible intelligence in the moment, or you can have an inflexible system that happens to be just what you need. Often you will start out using the flexible intelligence, because being flexible it is useful for lots of things, so you have some sitting around for everything, whereas you don’t have an inflexible system that happens to be just what you need. But if a problem seems to be happening a lot, it can become worth investing the up-front cost of getting the ideal tool, to free up your flexible intelligence again.

  • 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.

    I went to work in my own room, and had some success clarifying my thoughts about arguments for catastrophic risk from artificial intelligence in a Google doc. I took a quick walk in the sun. I dropped into a massive online town to have virtual coffee with my colleagues and other passers by.

    I went back and discussed some troubling things with my boyfriend while standing on one leg, so that the discussion couldn’t possibly get out of hand and eat a lot of time.

    We went out for a leisurely walk, but quickly realized that if we were going to eat cake on this day, we probably wanted to acquire it from a bakery a twelve minute walk away and get back to the house for his next appointment within less than 30 minutes. So it became a brisk walk up a giant hill and down the other side, to the slightly alternate universe of Noe Valley, where there are things like children and farmers markets and good but not fancy restaurants. The bakery had a queue, but we did not give up, and it turned out to be an extremely fast one so we got home with a creamy yellow passionfruit cake before too long.

    Alone again, I opened a present I got myself, a giant piece of rope. I keep having some unexplained hankering for hauling myself up a giant piece of rope. So I thought, why not? Now I am only impeded by my total lack of arm strength or general dexterity. (No this fantasy was not based on prior experience of climbing ropes, I think.)

    In the midst of various kind offers to make food I like for dinner, I became flustered and couldn’t remember what is good to eat. I thought it might be okonomiyaki, but coludn’t find any for sale in my city. Eventually I happily went with what I always make: crispy fried silken tofu with craisins and nuts and greens. With the possible addition of farro, a recent interest. So we cranked up the music and made it together and drank green apple cider and ordered extra fries and jalapenos and such on the side.

    My whole household joined for dinner, and we talked about why it isn’t possible to buy academic papers at prices that someone might plausibly pay, and whether it is generally better for the world if goods like Netflix movies are sold in large bundles (all of Netflix) rather than one at a time (pay per movie).

    Then we got out a neat little box of polymer clay in many colors that I recently acquired, and sculpted things while we played a game I remembered from years ago, though still don’t know the name of. You basically try to guess summary statistics of your group for different questions, then reveal the individual answers that let you see who was right. For instance, questions included ‘how many of us can play the tune of happy birthday on two different instruments without sheet music, but with five minutes to think about it?’ and ‘how many of us have kissed someone of our own sex?’

    We then briefly played ‘what’s more unlikely?’ a game where you are presented with two very unlikely things, and try to convince a judge that one of them is less likely. For instance, is it more likely that by 2060 a potato has become president of the United States, or that a head of cabbage has? (Favored answer: potato)

    We then had a round of ‘Katja is interviewed about things’ (“How do you feel about trees?”)

    Then we played askhole, which was tamer and more wholesome than their website led me to expect. It was pretty good.

    Eventually everyone went to bed, except for my boyfriend and I, who stayed to clean up a little more. But cleaning quickly turned to dancing, and dancing turned into dancing a lot. At least for me—he got tired and flopped around on a beanbag mostly. (This was arguably the best bit of the day, but I can’t elaborate because I am falling asleep so aggressively while writing this that I just concluded this sentence with apparent nonsense.

    In other news, if you don’t have the maximal number of cars in the massive garage of your weirdly proportioned house, and you aren’t allowed to rent out the space to another sub-letter, and you have eaten down some of your quarantine stores, and you mop up all the shards of broken fluorescent tube that fell there, and your housemate kindly lays out the mats, then you can sometimes have a rad private dance floor!


  • 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. I admit I don’t really know how this whole system works, but if it’s some kind of popularity contest, with this many entrants, shouldn’t the results be reliably almost superhumanly likable? (Which is not to say superhumanly deserving of being liked, or superhumanly competent at running the country.)

    A non-obvious but plausible category of answer is that such people really are superhumanly likable, but that the situation nonetheless leads to them seeming not so.

    Another is that things were different not so long ago, and recent times are a weird aberration. (I welcome insight from anyone who was paying attention in the past.)

  • 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):

    1. Gates foundation plans to improve math education: interesting, but not so much that I even read it enough to know exactly what it was saying. I’m not sure what it wanted me to do, and am probably not going to do it. Probably slightly changes my perception of GF.
    2. Something you put in your ears to make sounds less annoying: very well honed to my interests supposing it works, 50% chance I buy it in a few weeks, without checking if it works.
    3. A kind of exercise object that I searched for yesterday because I found one in my garage: maybe interesting if I didn’t apparently have one, may have still reminded me to use the one I have, which could lead to buying more things from them.
    4. 6 different ads for political candidates: I’m a foreigner who can’t vote, so no dice.
    5. a kind of non-coffee hot brown water with low-key drugs in it: a kind of thing I’m unusually interested in. Pretty weird because while I have recently renewed interest in such things, I think it has been entirely manifest in verbal discussion with housemates in the kitchen in terms like ‘brown water’, and in physically combining various roast grain substances that I found in my cupboard with hot water. I probably won’t buy it now, because I apparently have a lot of different brown waters in my cupboard, but decent chance I remember it and search for it in future.
    6. New Oculus Quest, a VR machine that my house just got so I just tried for the first time: Again, unlikely to buy since I sort of have one, but plausible that prompting me to remember that it exists or think its cool is still helpful to them. I don’t remember searching for it, but did search for whether The Witness could be played in VR recently.
    7. Another kind of obscure new drink containing mild drugs, this time alcohol-themed though probably not containing alcohol: Again, great try, though did not click.
    8. Humorous T-shirts: not funny to me, and hard to imagine nearby scenario where I buy humorous t-shirt
    9. Borat movie: advert suggests to me there is very little chance that I will like. Some chance I would so aggressively dislike that I am tempted to watch it to explore the nature of my dislike, but not that probable. Does increase my perception that movie is a big deal, so maybe that helps somehow.
    10. The National Academy of Sciences is looking for nominations for a prize, in an ad that I would have missed if I wasn’t looking for ads, and my brain still wants to miss having noticed it: I don’t really know what I’m being asked, and am not curious enough to find out.
    11. At home fitness program that I probably would have skimmed over, but I guess it looks maybe interesting, now that I am really attending to looking at ads: unlikely to click on or buy, but if I want such a thing in future, may remember that this one exists. Though not sure what it was called, so may have to search ‘home fitness videos sexy trainer and normal people exercising ad’, which doesn’t seem promising.

    So we have:

    • very well targeted and I don’t have: 2 (#2, #7)
    • well to very well targeted but I have: 3 (#3, #5, #6)
    • kind of interested to see, but not going to do anything: 3 (#1, #10, #11)
    • not at all likely, but it’s subtle: 2 (#8, #9)
    • basic demographic info would tell you there’s no chance: 6 (#4)

    (As an aside, 3/16 seem weirdly well targeted to the point that I assume they are based on fairly specific surveillance, or would if I could imagine how (#3, #5, #6).)

    This seems to me very high variance: a mixture of surprisingly well targeted and surprisingly poorly targeted things.

    It also seems more successful overall than I would think, but probably I should exclude the one that prompted me to think of doing this, which was #2.

    On the theory that most of the optimization is going into making me look at Facebook for longer, rather than the ads themselves, the ads shouldn’t necessarily be very optimized. But on a theory where the manipulation is broader, or where the ad-makers are also powerfully optimizing, or any theory where I am being strongly compelled to do the things ads want me to do, then they should be.

    Probably this has been overall some evidence for the ‘advertising is well optimized’ hypothesis, though I’m not sure how good I expected it to be.

    I do have the broad sense that Facebook ads are much better than ads in any other place. For instance, I remember buying the things they offer sometimes, whereas I don’t remember that for ads elsewhere except signs in the street, though it must have happened.

  • 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:

    • The phenomenon of spending way too long doing apparently pointless things on my phone seems to be at least as often caused by things that are not massively honed to manipulate me. For instance, I recently play a lot of nonograms, a kind of visual logic puzzle that was invented by two people independently in the 80s and which I play in one of many somewhat awkward-to-use phone apps, I assume made by small teams mostly focused on making the app work smoothly. My sense is that if I didn’t have nonograms style games or social media or news to scroll through, then I would still often idly pick up my phone and draw, or read books, or learn Spanish, or memorize geographic facts, or scroll through just anything on offer to scroll through (I also do these kinds of things already). So my guess is that it is my phone’s responsiveness and portability and tendency to do complicated things if you press buttons on it, that makes it a risk for time consumption. Facebook’s efforts to grab my attention probably don’t hurt, but I don’t feel like they are most of the explanation for phone-overuse in my own life.
    • Notifications seem clumsy and costly. They do grab my attention pretty straightforwardly, but this strategy appears to have about the sophistication of going up to someone and tapping them on the shoulder continually, when you have a sufficiently valuable relationship that they can’t just break it off you annoy them too much. In that case it isn’t some genius manipulation technique, it’s just burning through the goodwill the services have gathered by being valuable in other ways. If I get unnecessary notifications, I am often annoyed and try to stop them or destroy the thing causing them.
    • I do often scroll through feeds for longer than I might have planned to, but the same goes for non-manipulatively-honed feeds. For instance when I do a Google Image search for skin infections, or open some random report and forget why I’m looking at it. So I think scrolling down things might be a pretty natural behavior for things that haven’t finished yet, and are interesting at all (but maybe not so interesting that one is, you know, awake..)1
    • A thing that feels attractive about Facebook is that one wants to look at things that other people are looking at. (Thus for instance reading books and blog posts that just came out over older, better ones.) Social media have this, but presumably not much more than newspapers did before, since a greater fraction of the world was looking at the same newspaper before.

    In sum, I offer the alternate theory that various technology companies have combined:

    • pinging people
    • about things they are at least somewhat interested in
    • that everyone is looking at
    • situated in an indefinite scroll
    • on a responsive, detailed pocket button-box

    …and that most of the attention-suck and influence that we see is about those things, not about the hidden algorithmic optimizing forces that Facebook might have.

    (Part 1 of Social Dilemma review)

    1. My boyfriend offers alternate theory, that my scrolling instinct comes from Facebook. 

  • 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.

    I heard the film as suggesting that your behavior and thoughts in general are being twisted by these forces. But lets distinguish between a system where huge resources are going into keeping you scrolling say—at which point an advertiser will pay for their shot at persuading you—and a system where those resources are going into manipulating you directly to do the things that the advertiser would like. In the first case, maybe you look at your phone too much, but there isn’t a clear pressure on your opinions or behavior besides pro phone. In the second case, maybe you end up with whatever opinions and actions someone paid the most for (this all supposing the system works). Let’s call these distorted-looking and distorted-acting.

    While watching I interpreted the film suggesting the sort of broad manipulation that would come with distorted-acting, but thinking about it afterwards, isn’t the kind of optimization going on with social media actually distorted-looking? (Followed by whatever optimization the advertisers do to get you to do what they want, which I guess is of a kind with what they have always done, so at least not a new experimental horror.) I actually don’t really know. And maybe it isn’t a bright distinction.

    Maybe optimization for you clicking on ads should be a different category (i.e. ‘distorted-clicking’). This seems close to distorted-looking, in that it isn’t directly seeking to manipulate your behavior outside of your phone session, but a big step closer to distorted-acting, since you have been set off toward whatever you have ultimately been targeted to buy.

    I was at first thinking that distorted-looking was safer than distorted-acting. But distorted-looking forces probably do also distort your opinions and actions. For instance, as the film suggested, you are likely to look more if you get interested in something that there is a lot of content on, or something that upsets you and traps your attention.

    I could imagine distorted-looking actually being worse than distorted-acting: when your opinion can be bought, the change in it is presumably what someone would want. Whereas when your opinion is manipulated as a weird side effect of someone trying to get you to look more, then it could be any random thing, which might be terrible.(Or would there be such weird side effects in both cases anyway?)

  • 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?

    My P100 is a fairly central tool in my own do-things-while-avoiding-covid strategy. I wear it almost whenever I go inside away from home, which isn’t as rare as it would be if I didn’t have it. I still don’t feel comfortable enough to just spend ages indoors with other people, and it doesn’t help much with eating or talking heavy activities (I find it hard to talk audibly through it, though other people are fine at this). Yet there are lots of other risky activities, and still I rarely see anyone else wearing one, except for my friends, for whom P100s also play a central role. I do see other people taking risks seriously——for instance avoiding flying, or quarantining after flying——yet on a plane, everyone is wearing surgical masks at best. Why don’t people pay $60 and drastically reduce the risks?

    Here are some good use cases for wearing a P100:

    • Indoor medical appointments (I have been on a bunch of these during covid, mostly to freeze my eggs)
    • Flying in planes (I did this once)
    • Taking Ubers (I’ve done this a lot)
    • Being in busy waiting rooms (I did this waiting for a train, on board of which I had a roomette)
    • If I had an indoor or public facing job that didn’t involve talking primarily, such as shopping for Instacart or being a kitchenhand, I’d hope to wear a P100, though I might be missing details of such jobs that would make it hard. (I do find my mask uncomfortable to wear for many hours in a row, but I am unusually prone to getting headaches from things touching my head.)
    • Voting in person when unsure if this will mean waiting around indoors with other people (I actually don’t know what this is like, I’m not a US citizen)

    (Note that airlines and at least some fertility clinics don’t allow masks with valves in general, because they don’t protect other people. To make a P100 prosocial, wear a surgical mask over the outflow valve. Airlines accept this most but not all of the time, according to anecdotes.)

    But anyway, what gives?

    Man in respirator [Added Oct 27: also useful for making things, going to Burning Man, or breathing outside in California sometimes]

  • 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).

    For instance, from microcovid.org:

    -A P100 is even better. Since P100s are generally not used in medical settings, there isn’t the sort of research that would let one state a protection factor under typical use with any kind of confidence. One study found P100s to filter out a virus aerosol at their stated 99.97% filtration efficiency, but at those levels your risk probably starts to be dominated by previously-small effects like surface transmission and getting virus in your eyes. We think that under ideal conditions, the risk reduction with a P100 might plausibly be as high as 100x compared to no mask, but we’re really not sure.

    (Note that the study they cite is not about covid in particular.)

    A factor of a hundred makes many otherwise fraught activities fairly innocuous, e.g. going on a plane scaled down by a factor of a hundred would seem to be much safer than going to a supermarket. I have been treating it as a much smaller factor than a hundred due to pessimism about my wearing the mask correctly, and uncertainty due to my limited research on this, but still, it’s hugely helpful.

    Furthermore, P100 masks cost $30-$100 and are designed to be reused a lot of times. You can currently buy the GVS Elipse, recommended by microcovid.org and also me, on Ebay.

    Other interesting notes, from microcovid.org:

    -P100s are easier to test the seal on. You can search for online training on how to do this. -Note that P100 respirators typically have an outflow valve, meaning they provide minimal protection to others from you, so if you take this route, you should at least cover the outflow valve with a surgical mask.

    P100_ovm_respirator A p100 mask

    [Various edits 27 Oct 2020]

  • 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.

    Which is not to say either that I think people should pour their energy into awful cities, or that San Francisco is the kind of awful city that might prompt the question of whether they should. But I do wonder if there is something missing in the usual attitude. In everyone moving here, assessing what the city gives them, and finding it either sufficient or lacking.

    One thing is that the city is largely people. Who do you expect to make it good? It’s not true that you should stay at parties that aren’t fun, but you are missing something if you show up at parties to sit at the side judging before going on to the next one.

    At Burning Man it is clearer that whatever the social scene is, you and others are making it. If it is more others than you, why are you so powerless? Maybe there are just a lot of others, and they don’t want the same things as you. In which case, a fair time to leave for another camp. But if you are an observer puzzled at why ‘they’ don’t do things better, then consider that you are ‘they’, as much as anyone.

    I’m open to the possibility that contributing to the goodness of your city is not a worthy use of effort, if you have more important projects going on, and you abide by laws and pay your taxes. But I don’t take it for granted, and similar views seem probably wrong—for instance it seems like an error not to contribute to your household being good, or your family being good, or your friendships and relationships being good. A city is bigger, so it might be tempting to succumb to tragedy of the commons—no helped stranger will likely benefit you enough to make the help worth your while selfishly. But averting tragedies of the commons is better than suffering them, if possible.

    On a different and non-prescriptive note, the same place is different if you love it. I have a friend who appears to relentlessly like San Francisco. And San Francisco is better going around with him. It’s a place of bright parks and hidden shops, fresh bread and rich coffee, characters, corridors for riding, singing in the street, culture, stories, poetry. I don’t necessarily recommend people go around loving things they don’t love for the sheer experiential benefits of it, but it seems worth noting.

    Straight down San Francisco through a bush

    San Francisco viewed through a bush straight down the middle on my evening run.</figcaption> </figure>

  • 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?

    Politics is important, from what I can gather. And detailed. And probably involves all kinds of normally intellectually gratifying constructions such as game theory, strategy and institution design. So shouldn’t it be interesting?

    I think it doesn’t seem interesting because I have the impression of it being broadly ridiculous, and as a consequence, somehow not my problem. An analogy: in my current house, I am usually plenty interested in perfecting the finer details of our system of household responsibilities. But if I joined a new house, and they told me that they determined who was going to wash up based on a weekly basketball tournament combined with an astrological reading, I wouldn’t be intellectually gripped by the finer questions of how the basketball tournament should be run, or how different people were doing in the game.

    Or relatedly, it feels too far from making sense to me to engage my intellectual curiosity. If someone was trying to find a good route North to Seattle, I’d be more compelled to join them in the question than if they were trying to find a good route North to New Zealand or Mars.

    When I say it seems ridiculous or nonsensical, here are some things I’m thinking of:

    • if you wanted to determine the best policies to adopt across a huge number of issues, voting to choose a small group of people to decide them all, out of a moderately larger pool of people, based on a combination of a few issues that seem salient at the time, plus the candidate’s vibes, social prowess, and susceptibility to public embarrassment, doesn’t seem like a thing you should even expect to work.
    • Continual overt lying isn’t a deal breaker in the highest office
    • Debate of the kind where you discuss the answer to some question doesn’t seem to be part of presidential debates
    • Things I would usually think of as basic are not assumed in public debate. For instance, that the ‘personal freedom’ we might agree to uphold isn’t prima facie going to include freedom to harm other people by giving them covid.
    • Something something QAnon?

    This is all an account of my previously unexamined feelings, and on examination, I don’t endorse them.

    For one thing, the sense that something isn’t my problem because it is silly doesn’t make sense. Where does it come from? Perhaps that at a smaller scale, if a thing is too silly, it is often best to disengage. If a club has lots of stupid rules, you should usually leave rather than trying to overhaul it; if a restaurant won’t let you eat without discussing the proprietor’s confusing personal conflicts at length, the standard response is to find a different restaurant rather than trying to workshop your relationship with this proprietor. But there aren’t other Americas to go to, and this one has plenty of influence over all kinds of important things, so this heuristic doesn’t apply at all.

    But at another level, my sense that things are ridiculous in a way that might negate my identifying with them or caring about them seems wrong. Everything is part of the world, and there are real reasons it came about, that would make sense on the most complete and true theory of things. It is my world, and if I am to contend with and understand it, then that includes the curling of Donald Trump’s lips as much as much as the flocking of swallows, the unfolding of logic, or the spiraling of galaxies.

  • 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.

    I’d like to figure out what’s so great about the evening, so I can have more of it in the morning. But a problem with my impressions are that they are very vague. It is pretty unclear to me what exactly goes wrong earlier in the day. I can’t point to things and say ‘aha, five instances of bad thing before noon, and none later in the day’. And looking at my own mind at a particular moment, I can’t easily say it is in one state or another, though I often have the sense over the day that it did get somehow better.

    (Mental states are tricky—it seems to me that for some of them you can internally point at a quality of it that is clearly there or not, but for other axes the change is more subtle. Like watching a film you can instantly tell if it changed to being in black and white, but it is harder and slower to tell if it changed to really emphasizing Bob’s point of view at the expense of Sally’s.)

    I could perhaps log my time using Toggl and look for patterns in what time of day work blocks are, but there are a lot of confounders, like the fact that official work time is in the day and popularly coordinated on social time is in the evening. Or for whatever reason, it feels a bit hopeless.

    Given that it is early in the day and I do at least feel like writing, I thought I’d write down what it is like somewhat, so that I can compare to later.

    Here are some features of my experience:

    • I can’t easily remember if I finished my morning routine as much as I intended. If I did, there was a long while where I had the sense that there was more of it to do, but wasn’t really focused on it. I have a sense of a stack of things that I have intended to do, and set aside repeatedly, that I should go back to. I woke up and got various messages, which I meant to deal with later, but at least one was a person asking me ‘if I had had a chance to look at’ a thing I should probably look at imminently. Then I was doing my morning routine, which I have probably finished (ok, on consideration, I did finish it), but in the process I made some coffee that I should drink. I saw that I should do washing up and take out the trash. And maybe clean up my room, sometime soon. I started to plan my day, which I do every morning, but for some reason do not consider part of my morning routine. Before I finished planning, I started to write to ask someone to help me with an important thing, but then decided I should do it later and finish planning first. I was feeling unwell a few minutes ago, so maybe I should do something about that. I had intended to go to the other room to work, but now I’m not—should I go back? I had intended to ask my housemate if I could use his desk while he’s away. I need to go to the bathroom. Now I’m writing this. There is another larger scale problem in the back of my mind that I wonder if I should do something about. And another one.
    • My heart is beating hard, and at about 110bmp apparently. I can see it moving my stomach. I feel a sense of urgency from nowhere.
    • I am cold. The house is bright, but feels uninspiring.
    • I don’t know what I want to do next. There are some mundane tasks, which I expect to take a long time for no apparent reason, and which I feel some revulsion around. I expect doing them to waste the day, and leave me with a similarly insurmountable pile of mundane tasks, and one fewer day. There are some more important projects, which I expect to take an obscenely long time for no apparent reason, and be unsatisfying, and then if I finish them, for other people to find them unremarkable, especially since finishing them probably involves lowering my standards a lot. I feel less averse to these, but trepidatious.

    During the making of this list I wandered off and did something else multiple times

    Seeing what I have written, a natural hypothesis is that too many things are going on and slightly occupy my attention, and I’m responding by being overwhelmed rather than organizing them and focusing on one. If this situation is different to later in the day, it could be that the onslaught of things is different somehow or that my own adeptness at organizing them and picking one is different. My current hypothesis is that the organizing them and picking one task is less natural and harder now, because my attention is hard to keep on one thing, and everything seems a little bit aversive and hard to deal with instead of a little bit appealing.

    I’ll check further by trying to organize the tasks.


    Ok, well notably I didn’t do that. I put on clothes, then I responded to messages, then I looked at the internet. I will try again.


    While planning my day, other notes on what goes wrong:

    • I have the background sense that someone expects me to do something, which is encumbering and uncomfortable. I think this might be fairly destructive. (I have previously thought that a nice thing about working at 4am or so is that everyone who might be expecting anything of you is asleep.) My guess is that running an organization doesn’t help with this, because for instance my employees expect me to meet with them, look at their work, be at work, respond to their messages. Also, other people expect my organization to produce useful things. If this were a big deal, it would predict things got radically better between about 5pm and 8pm, when people stop being at work or thinking that you might be, and better again at about 1am when people stop being awake. It would also predict that if I do the things that most obviously someone might be expecting me to do, things get better. I’ll try doing them first.
    • The plan for my day would naturally include a bunch of small tasks that I feel averse to, though each in itself doesn’t seem bad. It is more the sense that they will eat the day, and I can’t get into anything. So I got a sheet of paper and wrote down many such things, especially the ones where it doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t happen this time (for instance, tidying my room, doing my laundry). My plan is to do them as breaks, but not for them to be a main focus of attention. This feels better somehow, I think because I can singlemindedly direct myself at one important thing at a time.

    Ok, I made a plan. I feel like it took a long time, and involved various drifting off and doing other things. Now I have four or so small aversive tasks to do, and then I can get to the main deal. If I want a break, I have a list of non-compulsory ideas.

    Current hypotheses about key intermediate factors between early hours and worseness:

    • Number of incoming things to do or attend to
    • Tendency to find arbitrary things offputting instead of nice
    • Ease of directing attention
    • Sense that people are expecting something of me
    • Light
    • Biological factor to do with recency of sleep

    I shall consider this again later in the day.

    One hope about letting people see bits of my life in detail is that they will notice that particular bits seem much more stupid than in their own lives. Like one time my friend noticed that I didn’t know that WiFi was all around us, and showed me how to turn it on. Or one time, my boyfriend at the time noticed that I don’t know how to cut or chew meat, and showed me how. So comments expressing disbelief that I don’t do things in an obviously better way are especially welcome (in general, not just on this post).


  • 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.

    To check I’m not just badly mistaken about riots, I looked a bit for particularly bad previous riots in the United States. The 1863 New York City draft riots is the disaster with the largest death toll listed as a ‘riot’ in this list of US disasters by death toll. Wikipedia lists it as involving the death of around 120 people (though someone argues 2,0001), and the population at the time was apparently 813,669, so that’s around a one in ten thousand mortality rate of city residents. The 1967 Newark riots were also mentioned somewhere as especially bad, and seem to have involved a similar death rate of city residents. The 1992 Los Angeles riots involved 62 deaths, from a population of about 3.5M, which is a one in fifty thousand chance of death per resident. This wasn’t a very in depth review, but seems to support my view that a riot which killed one in one thousand residents in a city would be very surprising (e.g. would probably be the deadliest riot in US history). It seems fairly unlikely that this election involves the deadliest riot in US history at all, and if it did, unlikely that such a riot occurs in my particular city, and even if it did, a resident might then have a one in a thousand chance of death, ignoring probably a large further factor of safety for not joining a riot.

    What am I missing?

    1. “The most reliable estimates indicate at least 2,000 people were injured. Herbert Asbury, the author of the 1928 book Gangs of New York, upon which the 2002 film was based, puts the figure much higher, at 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded,[25] a number that some dispute.[26]” - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_draft_riots#Aftermath 

  • 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.

    On the other hand, this seems implausible. It’s not just that I don’t remember writing it, which would be pretty unsurprising. But I don’t remember having the thoughts that are in it, or being the kind of person who would write it. For instance, I think the author has substantially more poetry writing skill than me and substantially less desire to be over-the-top existential than early-twenties me. And while it’s unfinished, this appears to be intentional. And there is a kind of person who would call a thing Endless and then not give it an end, and I thought that that person was someone else. Not that I necessarily object to them. One plausible explanation is that one of my ex-boyfriends wrote it, but the only likely candidate doesn’t recognize it either.

    I didn’t like it that much at first. It took me several read-throughs to even understand it. But I kept wanting to re-read it and liking it more. And it sticks in my mind. Now I quite like it, and also especially feel like I get the person who wrote it. And I still can’t figure out if it was me. (Do I get them more because they are me? Or I am sympathetic to a writer I imagine might be me? Would I like it more or less if I knew the answer? I think maybe less if it were resolved in either direction.)

    Anyway, here’s a poem I like; origin unknown:


    I am your photo, un-adore
    this laughing play and lively dance
    All strands of magic yours before
    Perfection through dull mirror glanced
    No rapt’rous thing not yours alone
    If we meet, binding, one our night.
    What wonder radiant eyes enthrone,
    In days encrusted by your light,
    Can walk this strangled endless scene
    Of narrow moments, reaching past
    for one to drown them in between
    all fleeting stillness, blind their farce.
    To not come, resolution waits,
    don’t let me near you, to my dream,
    It’s all I have,

  • 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

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    another seal

    [Edited Dec 7 2020 for clarity.]

  • 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?

    I’m inclined to say that something in the vicinity of the problem thing is a real problem, because ways the world could be better that are not ‘problems’ are probably relatively ignored, what with the popularity of solving problems. But that sentence was somewhat self-undermining, in that upon recognizing a way that the world might be better (we might notice ways the world could be better that don’t correspond to ‘problems’) I declared the absence of the good thing a problem. Maybe that’s what people usually do, so in fact any plausible improvement becomes a ‘problem’?

    I have the impression that that there is much more interest in healing diseases than in making normal people even better, physically or mentally. Which seems like evidence for attention going to ‘problems’ disproportionately. But I think it could easily be explained by valuing of equality between people, or just by the general ease of progress via fixing broken things over progress via treading new ground.

    I tentatively suppose that a trick with gratitude is to not aim for it to be evenly distributed across a sensically understood space of gratitude deserving entities. Instead focus on whatever actually inspires appreciation. It’s ok to be grateful for the horsehead nebula thing, your phone and gravity and to call it quits. That said, I have no idea, and welcome views from anyone more informed about the proper having of gratitude.

    Some things I am grateful for tonight:

    • Other people putting up with lonely, hard, hopeless-seeming times, and trying to look after themselves even when it doesn’t feel worth much.
    • People who take roles where they have to make high stakes decisions in real time, and who are also properly sensible to those stakes.
    • Everyone involved in providing me with toast with raspberry jam and butter
    • The logical structure of possibility
    • Round seals, and whatever inconveniences and deprivations they suffer in gracing the world with round seals.

    Round seal

  • 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):

    1. Mind manipulation: Advertising is famous for uncooperatively manipulating people’s beliefs and values in whatever way makes them more likely to pay money somehow. For instance, deceptively encouraging the belief that everyone uses a certain product, or trying to spark unwanted wants.

      Painting an ad

    2. Zero-sumness: To the extent advertising is aimed at raising the name recognition and thus market share of one product over its similar rivals, it is zero or negative sum: burning effort on both sides and the attention of the customer for no overall value.

    3. Theft of a precious thing: Attention is arguably one of the best things you have, and its protection arguably worthy of great effort. In cases where it is vulnerable—for instance because you are outside and so do not personally control everything you might look at or hear—advertising is the shameless snatching of it. This might be naively done, in the same way that a person may naively steal silverware assuming that it is theirs to take because nothing is stopping them.

      London underground

    4. Cultural poison: Culture and the common consciousness are an organic dance of the multitude of voices and experiences in society. In the name of advertising, huge amounts of effort and money flow into amplifying fake voices, designed to warp perceptions–and therefore the shared world–to ready them for exploitation. Advertising can be a large fraction of the voices a person hears. It can draw social creatures into its thin world. And in this way, it goes beyond manipulating the minds of those who listen to it. Through those minds it can warp the whole shared world, even for those who don’t listen firsthand. Advertising shifts your conception of what you can do, and what other people are doing, and what you should pay attention to. It presents role models, designed entirely for someone else’s profit. It saturates the central gathering places with inanity, as long as that might sell something.

      Outdoor ads over darkened figures

    5. Market failure: Ideally, whoever my attention is worth most to would get it, regardless of whether it was initially stolen. For instance, if I have better uses for my attention than advertising, hopefully I will pay more to have it back than the advertiser expects to make by advertising to me. So we will be able to make a trade, and I’ll get my attention back. In practice this is probably too complicated, since so many tiny transactions are needed. E.g. the best message for me to see, if I have to see a message, when sitting on a train, is probably something fairly different from what I do see. It is also probably worth me paying a small sum to each person who would advertise at me to just see a blank wall instead. But it is hard for them to collect that money from each person. And in cases where the advertiser was just a random attention thief and didn’t have some special right to my attention, if I were to pay one to leave me alone, another one might immediately replace them.1

      Underground ads over crowd

    6. Ugliness: At the object level, advertising is often clearly detracting from the beauty of a place.

      Ads overwhelming buildings

    These aren’t necessarily distinct—to the extent ugliness is bad, say, one might expect that it is related to some market failure. But they are different reasons for disliking a thing-a person can hate something ugly while having no strong view on the perfection of ideal markets.

    What would good and ethical advertising look like? Maybe I decide that I want to be advertised to now, and go to my preferred advertising venue. I see a series of beautiful messages about things that are actively helpful for me to know. I can downvote ads if I don’t like the picture of the world that they are feeding into my brain, or the apparent uncooperativeness of their message. I leave advertising time feeling inspired and happy.

    Ads: we are building a new story

    Images: London Underground: Mona Eendra, painting ads: Megan Markham, Nescafe ad: Ketut Subiyanto, Coca-Cola: Hamish Weir, London Underground again: Willam Santos, figures in shade under ad: David Geib, Clear ad in train: Life of Wu, Piccadilly Circus: Negative Space, Building a new story: Wilhelm Gunkel.

    1. For advertising in specific public locations, I could in principle pay by buying up the billboard or whatever and leaving it blank. 

  • 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:

    • Some people start out in pre-arranged relationships of control over others, so that they can insist that those people risk their lives to do things that they don’t otherwise care about, e.g. kill strangers. In particular, the controllers can otherwise punish the soldiers-to-be harshly. They can do this because societies generally have an arrangement where anyone can be punished for failing to follow the rules, including whatever the leader says (e.g. ‘we are going to war now’) and the rules about upholding of punishments. This means individuals can end up doing things that are overall costly for them, because their leader can impose a larger cost if they don’t do it. If people succumb to such threats, the threats don’t need to be carried out often, and so it can be cheap for those in control to ask a large number of controlled people to do things otherwise strongly against their interests. (e.g. a government can extract far more in taxes from a population than the cost of incentivizing them to pay taxes.) So this equilibrium is fairly stable, though we haven’t considered alternate sources of threats (e.g. another party saying they will punish you if you listen to the ruler).
    • Once you have large groups controlled by decisionmakers who don’t suffer the costs of their decisions, it becomes unsurprising if the outcome is massive costs to almost everyone concerned with little gained by anyone.
    • You might only need one such controller of others to prefer war, as long as the others or their citizens consider it worth defending from the attack.

    I don’t know how much this explains though. And there are probably other things going on. For instance, here’s Winston Churchill in 1914:

    Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. It is not horrible to be built like that? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity.

    And in 1916:

    I think a curse should rest on me – because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet, I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it.

  • 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.


    Such pictures got a new flavor for me when I realized that the wide circular bay these buildings overlook is actually the caldera of a massive volcano. The flavor is similar to the one they would have if the cliffs resolved into the eyelids of a giant looking up beneath the waves.

    Santorini from above

    When I say the volcano is large, I don’t mean I know anything about the usual distribution of volcano sizes. Just that I can zoom out on Google maps almost enough to see the whole of Greece, and still make out the lip of this volcano.

    Santorini and Greece

    The volcano was responsible for the Minoan eruption, one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the last twenty thousand years, and possibly the downfall of Minoa. It unsurprisingly destroyed the city of Akrotiri which is actually on Santorini. Very surprisingly to me, it didn’t destroy it that much, such that it is an exciting archeological site (note that I have no expertise, and am going only by my evidently wrong imagination for what happens if melted rock comes out of a hole that big with enough force to go anywhere). Also surprisingly to me, it seems to have been successfully evacuated, with practically nobody killed in the blast.

    If you asked me to predict how well I would do living on the island rim of an underwater volcano sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, on the unlucky occasion of it erupting intensely, I would have guessed ‘very badly’. Apparently the buildings of Akrotiri were often several stories high and some had indoor water-flushing toilets though, so it seems they had their shit together much more than I would have expected.

  • 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.

    The basic situation with the end of the Bronze Age, as I remember hearing it, is this. There were about nine thriving civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea leading up to 1200BC. They had palaces and grand monuments and written records and ships carrying perfume and metals and grapes and letters about. It was going pretty well. Then in a matter of decades, they were all destroyed or drastically diminished. Basically every major city in some large area was ruined and often abandoned forever.1

    The big mystery of it is what happened. In spite of us having earlier records for events like Hammurabi returning a pair of sandals, it seems that this early try at an interconnected civilized world came to an end without leaving conclusive evidence about what the problem was. There is writing of ‘sea people’ attacking cities, and evidence of drought and famine, earthquakes and violence. But which, if any, of these really caused it is an open question.

    A mystery that we discovered tonight is that there aren’t any good looking documentaries about this around. It was easy enough—and incredible, let me say—to watch a documentary about that time a religious commune tried to start a city in rural Oregon, but there are only a couple of neglected videos on obscure websites about what I’m told is one of the most intense civilizational disintegrations ever.

    We ended up watching expert Eric Cline give a lecture about it instead. It was pretty interesting, though I think we have disagreements about epistemology. 2 Highlights for me included seeing the neat parcels of glass dredged up from a trading ship wrecked 3400 years ago, and hearing concerned letters from the time 3 4 . The continuity of familiar human experience—molding substances and transporting them around, anguish, asking for help—so far back into the mist of civilizational dawn that the requests are pressed into clay tablets, is inspiriting in spite of the hardness of the experiences.

    1. “Drews claims that every major settlement between Pylos in Greece and Gaza in the Levant was destroyed and abandoned. Forty-seven were credibly identified as having been destroyed during this period, and the number is probably much higher in actuality.” - Grant Piper 

    2. For instance, his central complaint about a simple theory was that it was simple. 

    3. “The gates of the house are sealed, since there is famine in your house, we shall starve to death. If you do not hasten to come, we shall starve to death” - Someone living in Northern Syria a long time ago, p305. 

    4. More from a desperate king here 

  • 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.

    My first impulse was to hold this against them. But my caricatured impression of politics plus my boyfriend’s amusement at my indignation suggest that not answering the question is to political debate as running on grass is to soccer. So even if we have some broader norms suggesting that one should answer the question in such circumstances-or should have such norms—still these debaters have no reason to expect viewers to hold it against them if they don’t answer the question. And given that, and the importance of winning, shouldn’t they, morally, totally ignore the question, whenever there is something more politically advantageous to say? And then shouldn’t I not be annoyed, and in fact fully support that, since they acted morally?

    That all sounds plausible, in a way. But suppose it is definitely genuinely worse for the world for debaters not to answer the question. And the social costs from people like me (but eligible to vote) thinking worse of them are the very thing that determines whether or not they answer the question. That makes it seem right for me to punish them. So should I rightly punish them, while they rightly do the thing I’m punishing them for (and I agree that they are right)? Should they agree that I should punish them, while also thinking that they should go ahead and do it?

  • 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?

    Oh yeah. Alright then.

    Pastoral 1

    When I was younger
    it was plain to me
    I must make something of myself.
    Older now
    I walk the back streets
    admiring the houses
    of the very poor:
    roof out of line with sides
    the yards cluttered
    with old chicken wire, ashes,
    furniture gone wrong;
    the fences and outhouses
    built of barrel-staves
    and parts of boxes, all,
    if I am fortunate,
    smeared a bluish green
    that properly weathered
    pleases me best of all colors.

    No one
    will believe this
    of vast import to the nation.


    I suppose it is something to do with honoring the poor, —

    Nah-— sorry, go on.


    You first!

    Well, when he was young, he thought that making something of himself—being rich and successful—was where it was at. But now here he is among the vast detail of the poor, and he realizes that the world is big, and this is important.

    Hmm. I disagree.

    Ok, go ahead.

    He’s saying that he used to be a young rationalist, and he intended to do what was maximally good with his life, because it was logically impossible and therefore literally unimaginable that anything could be better than that. And then he grew up and found himself standing among these chicken wires and rubble and it’s transcendently beautiful, and he’s like ‘man, I really needed to get out of the car’.

    So, he learned that these mundane things were beautiful?

    No, not beauty traditionally understood. More the kind of transcendent beauty that everything arguably has. He’s found a new kind of thing rather than having clearly learned anything in his previous sense of learning things or found anything nice to look at in his previous sense. What has overall happened and how these things relate to each other, he struggles to put into words, but he also finds that his previous devotion to putting things into words has waned anyway, and not having words no longer feels like unconsciousness..

    Oh, I see—-he was a young rationalist, and then he listened to Hamilton the Musical. Your account doesn’t make sense of the end though: “No one … will believe this … of vast import to the nation.”

    I can’t even parse it. No one will believe this, which is of vast import to the nation?

    No, I think, ‘no one will believe that this is of vast import to the nation’

    Ah-then it makes sense: this new thing is of vast import to the nation, but no-one will believe that.

    Seems like a stretch that it is of vast import to the nation.

    Well if it is vastly important-and it seems to be, because it has transformed his world-then it is probably also vastly important on a national scale. Like, the nation and the transcendent beauty are probably not in separate magisteria.

    Ah. I like your interpretation. It might even be right.

    It would be nice to be able to contact the author and check. Is he dead?

    I think so. Maybe the internet can tell us something.

    I don’t know, they might just read into it something about whatever they have going on.

    Loosely based on reality

    1. By William Carlos Williams 

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