March 17, 2015

Comparative thoughts on the Bay Area

"If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy." - Eliezer Yudkowsky
So I recently visited the Bay Area, again, and I despaired leaving, again. I love it there. While I stay there, I feel like any problem is solvable. It seems like I could achieve my potential in actuality, instead of just in theory. What about that place affects me so deeply? Do I feel freer for the mere fact that I'm on vacation? Does the culture encourage or enable problem-solving more readily? Do I feel more secure and comfortable because I feel accepted in a community of people 'like me'?

The difference in my thinking could have nothing to do with the area or community itself. I've noticed before that I think more clearly after a quick change in context. You can solve a lot of seemingly insurmountable problems by taking a break and coming at them with fresh eyes, hence the common advice to "sleep on" an issue before taking drastic action. I can easily spend all day at home trying to figure out what to do and get nowhere, but if I'm made to go run errands I can organize my priorities and lay out a whole schedule of next-actions in the length of the drive. Taking a trip to a different state shifts the context a lot more than just going for a walk or sleeping on problem does.

I could interpret my sudden competence spike in a darker light too: I can't actually try most of the solutions I think up in California. It's possible that Utah lacks the je ne sais quoi to help me succeed, but it's also possible that there's no reality-checking in California to make me lose. I can have as many ideas as I want, and make them as impressive-sounding as I like. I never have to test their viability until I'm home and the high is gone.

To find that the differences between the cultures here and in the Bay have no meaningful effect on my cognition would surprise me. In Utah's almost-theocracy, appearances matter a great deal. With the surrounding monoculture, I feel a particular pressure to act 'normal' or at the very least with consistency.* I implicitly taboo the thought that I could break character for anything except to adopt normal mode, because it's just not done.
* I suspect this could be a neurotypical thing, not a Utah thing.

However, I can't do Utah normal for any meaningful length of time. I can be consistent, but my most consistent patterns of behavior walk right into downward spirals and depression. I need to break those patterns, and I can't do so by replacing them in whole cloth with normal mode.

The rationalist community, on the other hand, prizes changing actions. Actions need to change to align with thoughts, and thoughts need to change to align with reality. If I rationalize or support my opinions with bad epistemology, I expect to get called out on it. Half the time, even before I say a thought out loud, I recognize when a conversation would go down the road "and then they pointed out that I could believe the obvious truth, and take the obvious actions on it". I know I will get confused and disappointed looks if I don't change my thoughts and actions appropriately. It's hard to say how this difference will affect me long-term, but in the short-term it helps break me out of well-worn ruts.

Independent of specific cultural merits, community itself provides value. I share values and a very large frame of reference with Bay Area rationalists, while and I don't have much sense of community in Utah. Indeed, I pounced on the idea of creating this flavor of community in Utah long before I saw the Bay's instance of it. Now that I've seen it, I struggle to maintain even the barest echo of what I know is possible. It seems as though the saner Utahns are too bitter for outreach, too defensive for self-improvement, too skittish for mutual aid, too burnt for cuddle piles.

January 14, 2015

Mad Hatty Thoughts

(edited freewrite from Dec. 22, 2014)

Today, my thoughts begin with hats. I'm wearing one other than my usual today.

Hats, in fiction and to some degree in real life, externalize your core self. You choose to wear a hat, in a way that you do not choose to need glasses, but also in a distinctly different way from which you choose your wardrobe. Glasses can mean 'cool' or 'nerdy' or 'smart'; they represent constant, immutable traits. Clothes give a shorthand method for determining a person's choices; you can change your choices, if you dislike them. As surely as you must wear clothes, though, you must make choices. On the other hand, few situations truly require a hat; in everyday life you only put on a hat to do hard work or make a statement about yourself. It's the symbolic equivalent of wearing your heart on your sleeve.

An iconic character like Indiana Jones without his hat would be unthinkable; in fact, leaving their hat behind usually signifies that they've given up on their deepest drives. Royalty and clergy alike top themselves with the most extravagant hats as an external symbol of their power and calling. Hacking culture differentiates good and evil hackers as 'white hat' or 'black hat'.

I make it a habit to wear cool hats, as it makes me happy to look as awesome outside as I desperately hope I am inside. At the moment, I'm wearing a straw hat; I worry it signifies silly anime pirate than super-cool rationality master.

Perhaps that describes me better. I enjoyed being a pirate, back when I was pastafarian. Pirate rules pose few restrictions—I just do what I want, since the rules are more like guidelines anyways. A "rationalist" might insist on the doing the sensible thing, for a particularly rigid definition of 'sensible'.

Amidst the rationalist community, it sometimes looks like only certain wants really count. For example, I want a pie. A pirate would just eat the pie, and not share it. The picture of a rationalist in my head decides to eat something else. When I picture my picture rationalist's reasoning, it's because they genuinely want their long-term health more than they want the pie.

However, I have only spotty access to True Rationality(tm). If I decide to not eat the pie, I'm probably just ignoring my desire because Rationality said so. I feel wary of this strategy; ignored desires have a way of coming back at you with a vengeance. I vaguely sense that if my brain could envision quantities well enough to compare desires directly, I would, in fact, want my long-term health more than I want pie. If I try to think about it in terms of health points, I might like eating pies less—but probably just enough to make eating the pie less enjoyable, rather than preventing me from eating the pie.

Does my tendency to reduce rationality itself to a static model make me not a rationalist? These questions haunt me late into the night, and all because I'm wearing a different hat today.

January 11, 2015

Write What You Know, musings on rationalist buddhism

drafted Sep 23, 2014

“Write what you know,” advises Mark Twain, as does every other person who deigns to advise novice story weavers. I know a rationalist who knows his stoic philosophy, and it shows when he speaks. He likes to expound in detail how rationality and stoic philosophy mesh together; his exuberance in communicating his thoughts inspired me to try it myself. I know too little of stoic philosophy to comment on its merits, but I do know something of buddhism and taoism.

Buddhism builds a narrative around the idea that the reality we think we know is an illusion. It contends one of the more persistent illusions is the existence of the self as a separate and distinct entity from the rest of the world. According to this philosophy, suffering stems from constantly superimposing ideas of what 'should be'—what you want or do not want—onto what is. To live your life to the fullest, you must transcend judging your experiences and learn to simply experience them.

The appeal is clear; you can save a lot of effort by changing what’s in your head rather than the world outside it. The little wants and impulses that drive us often contradict each other. We use our intelligence to try to form coherent goals as best we can; we don't always succeed. When achieving a badly formulated goal leaves you wanting, you can either relinquish the wanting or change what you're doing to satisfy it. Buddhism, as you can imagine, is pretty heavy on the relinquishment.

What you feel or think describes a state of how you are, not of the things you're thinking of or having feelings about; Western (or perhaps, consumer) culture avoids making the distinction. Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes it! In a world where people too often confuse the map for the territory, it seems prudent to promote a narrative centered around distinguishing them for balance. The buddhist narrative encourages the useful practice of considering whether you can dissolve a perceived problem as simply as thinking of it in a different light.

Whereas Buddhism might be a useful reaction to our base culture's error modes. A basic technique from CFAR's bag of tricks, goal factoring, feels similar to the buddhist process of relinquishment. They start out identically: first make yourself aware of your own wants, and acknowledge the very human mess of motives lying underneath the surface. Where buddhism moves to relinquish these desires as broken kludges, though, goal factoring aims to bring the larger goal and lower level wants into perfect harmony.

We can appreciate the buddhist principle that people, including oneself, are better understood as another fragment of an interconnected world than as unique beings of spirit and free will. Furthermore, we notice intuition oversimplifies identity. Hyperbolic discounting shows the discrepancy well: if you want one thing now, and one thing at a different time, which is your true desire? Is your self a body, or a first-person story, or a nebulous je ne sais quo? Better philosophers than I have tried to tackle these questions.

Buddhism and rationality could make a potent mixing, but I doubt you can equate rationality, whose state of the art right now amounts to a grab bag of tricks and techniques, with any established worldview. If I had to choose, however, I can think of one narrative which stands a chance of pulling the disparate pieces together into a cohesive whole: Taoism. The Tao Te Ching, a chief spiritual text, stresses that the “master” practictioner wields only as much force as needed to complete his task, and never a moment too soon or too late. It is a simple narrative, with the idea of the least action at its very heart. A more poetic way to describe a rationalist’s dance to maintain pareto efficiency may exist outside of those pages, but I haven’t found it yet.

January 9, 2015


A free-write from Dec 14, prettied up to be intelligible and self-relevant

I want my friends to be happy.

Part of this is a simple need for security: I rely on others' goodwill for several necessities right now and dislike the thought of losing access to those necessities.

But I also want my friends’ happiness for its own sake. I want them to know that they are people worth knowing. They fill my life with happiness and excitement. I wouldn’t hang around them if they didn’t, regardless of any networking or support agenda.

Some of my friends are attracted to me.

From a security standpoint, it’s almost comforting. Sexual desire is a very simple and straightforward agenda; I can work with it. Gold digging is not complicated. It almost feels more honest to directly trade sex for security than to rely on a relationship of some uncertain value.

From the perspective of wanting the people I like to be happy, it terrifies the living shit out of me.

I process my own emotions at an excruciatingly slow pace. When my friends ask me how I’m feeling, I must literally pause in order to *figure it out*. At the same time, I must make sure I’m not pissing anyone off by sitting silent and blank-looking for 10 minutes. This reaction frustrates platonic friendships and sends all the wrong signals in sexual situations. “I don’t know" becomes an ‘okay’ to pushy people and a de facto ‘no’ to respectful ones. To those who would use me, I become an interactive plaything; To those who want to know and interact with the real me, I become as frigid and unyielding as stone. The opposite would serve me so much better, if I could manage it.