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.