This is the idea I've learned that has affected my worldview the second most. It's probably the most unusual idea I hold, and to date I don't think I've met another person who holds it without me telling them about it first. I learned it from Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, a very rich, complex, detailed, and difficult to understand graphic novel. I highly recommend it. It is largely about this idea that I'm going to be talking about, but presents it in a much more metaphorical way. If you read it, the odds are fairly good you won't understand it or get much from it, but if you do, it will affect you a great deal. I'm honestly not sure how much of this idea was intended by Grant Morrison to be present in the book. Well, it doesn't matter, as you'll see below, it's unlikely that it was the ape called Morrison who made the decision to include anything in the comic.
This idea will probably be the spine of much of what I write in this blog. It won't be the only thing I write about, this is intended to be a general purpose blog, but since, as I said, this is probably my most unusual idea, it'll probably be the most interesting and distinctive thing for me to write about. Much like how Overcoming Bias is largely but not entirely about signalling.
Keep in mind that I'm not saying that this idea is "literally" true, whatever that would mean, but rather that this is a very useful model to use when thinking about the world. Frequently more useful than the more standard alternative.
Memes are people; humans aren't.
When I say a human here, I mean the ape bodies running around interacting with other hairless apes. From now on I'm going to try to use the word "ape" to mean specifically the body and the word "human" to mean the mind-body hybrid. No guarantees I'll be consistent on that, you may have to work it out from context.
One habit that I have found very disheartening is that of comparing myself to other people. I have a tendency to try to think of myself as being in the most favorable reference class* that makes any sense, and so then when I compare myself to other people, I naturally pick people from that reference class. Since I picked the nicest reference class in the first place, these comparisons usually don't work out well for me. I end up feeling depressed about my position in life, and it's very unproductive and unhelpful.
I have two strategies that I use to counteract this. The first is to try to think purely of myself in relation to myself, and not in relation to other people. Comparing myself to my past self is almost always a favorable one, and more helpful than favorable comparisons against other people, because it doesn't breed a superiority complex, and it demonstrates to myself that I can improve. So that's a better tactic.The other one that has helped me a great deal is thinking about myself in terms of trajectory instead of position. Focusing on position isn't actionable. It tells you that you're better than other people or positions you could be in, so you can rest on your laurels. It tells you that you're worse than different people, or alternate versions of yourself, but suggests no methods of improvement.
Thinking about your trajectory, on the other hand, changes all of that. If you're thinking about trajectory, you're not thinking about where you are currently, you're thinking about how your position is changing. So it doesn't matter if you're in a really bad situation, what matters is if your situation is improving or getting worse. And this lets you go meta, which is always a good thing: the second derivative, how how your situation is changing is changing.
This is really useful because, while the thing you actually care about is your position in life, you can't choose your position at any given moment. But you can, more or less, choose your trajectory. And your trajectory now determines your position later.
For instance, a few months ago I was in a really good position, but just sort of treading water. Not really improving or getting worse. Now I'm in a really similar position (that's what happens when you don't have a positive or negative trajectory, you're still in the same position later!), but I've started a new project (this blog), have two more projects that will be starting soon (National Novel Writing Month and a youtube channel), have made significant progress on two new games for my business, and am moving to Brooklyn in three weeks. My present situation hasn't changed much, but I'm setting myself up to have a lot more success in the future.
Edit: Some of the below links don't work, they just take you back to this page. For the ones where that is the case, I have tried to add the urls in parentheses afterwords. If you find one where that is not the case, please let me know.
This will probably sound like several ideas, but it all ties together really well into a single, coherent worldview. Much more coherent and applicable to living in the real world than any other one that I've encountered. This post isn't intended to teach all of these concepts, this is basically just me explaining myself. Because of that, the way I'm going to structure this is by splitting it up into a few sections and explaining the views I used to hold and contrasting them with the views that I hold nowadays.
If you want to actually learn all this stuff, read the Sequences on Less Wrong. They're really poorly laid out, extremely long, and very, very valuable. I do strongly recommend them to anyone who is at all interested in having accurate beliefs, being effective at whatever it is you choose to do, having an interesting life, and last and certainly least, philosophy. If this ends up being super incredibly valuable sounding, you might also want to check out the Center for Applied Rationality, who run week long intensive workshops on this, which will get you up to speed much quicker than reading blog posts, most likely. I was in the first of their attempts at that, back when it was 9 weeks long.
I'll try to include the appropriate links at the appropriate moments so that if you want to read more on a specific subject you can just click through to the Less Wrong article on it. I'm sure to miss some, though, and there's a lot more content there, so I again recommend reading the Sequences. If you want a more easygoing, fictional read, then even though I cringe to write this sentence, I do recommend reading the fan fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. HPMoR and the Sequences are written by the same person, Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Here's my favorite thing I've written so far today. 38,000/50,000. I wasn't inspired to write much in the story I already did, so after a bit of struggling with that, I decided to write something new, set in the #Cthulhu Mythos, and specifically intended as basically a novelization of one of the scenarios I'm going to include in Cultists of Cthulhu: Miskatonic University. This part is taken from a bit of backstory of one of the characters, the one who happens to be the Cultist in this instance of the game. It explains why he ends up trying to do what he does.
He had finally decided that he had enough data to write up what he had been doing and submit it to a prestigious academic journal, and was out on the town celebrating with his wife, when it happened. They had eaten at a new seafood restaurant that had opened recently and which her friends had been telling her was wonderful. She had had crab for the first time in her life. She had always wanted to try crab. During the meal she felt slightly uncomfortable, but tried to hide it - this was a special night celebrating his accomplishment, and she did not want to tarnish it in any way. Eventually it became too much for her to conceal, and when he asked her what the matter was and she told him, he cut their dinner short so as to take her home to rest. As they were walking home, hand in hand as they always did, she collapsed in his arms. This was no mere faint. He held her, cried out to her, called for help, and laid her down in the street and did the chest-compression exercises he had seen as a means for rescuing her. Her breathing came in ragged gasps, growing every fainter. Her face was swollen and covered in red hives. Her whole body was swelling, filling her well tailored clothes grotesquely. When the chest compressions failed, and no one answered his cries for help, he picked her up - he, a man crippled by polio, picked up his wife, who weighed two stone more than him and had stood a head higher - and ran with her six city blocks to the hospital. By the time he got there his mangled leg was an agonizing inferno of fire and needles, like knives heated in a kiln and shoved through him at every angle. He hardly noticed. He carried her in to the hospital, where the nurses and doctors leapt up and took her from him, and as he collapsed he refused to answer questions about himself, and would only tell them what had happened to her. He lost consciousness when she was being wheeled away into the emergency room.
He awoke the next day in a hospital bed, his leg re-set into a brace. He had dreamed that the two of them were walking along when a horrible, red tentacled monster, with skin like a rash and a shell covering its body, its tentacles covered in claws, had grabbed her and pulled her away from him into Outer Space. She screamed for him to help her as she was dragged away, until she reached the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, where the lack of pressure robbed her of her voice and made her blood vessels expand horribly, puffing out her body and tinting it a terrible bloody color. He screamed her name until she disappeared. When he regained consciousness, for a brief, blissful moment he thought that she had never really died, that the entire day before had been part of his dream. Then he realized she wasn’t lying next to him, and that he was in a hospital bed, instead of his traditional four-poster mahogany that she had chosen for them during their engagement. He cried out for a doctor, and a nurse ran into the room to ask what was the matter. He tried to clamber out of bed, but his leg was bound in place and he stumbled. He asked over and over where Marcia was, whether she was okay, what had happened, what had happened, what happened, but this nurse didn’t know. She hadn’t been there when he had arrived with Marcia, she didn’t even know he was there on behalf of his wife. How could she not know? How could it not be plain that Marcia was the most important thing here, in this hospital, on this whole planet? In all of the planets, on all of the worlds in all of the universe, Marcia was the most important thing, how was that not obvious? The nurse went and found the doctor who had admitted Marcia. When he entered, Professor James Montgomery Ellery saw the look on his face, and he knew that Marcia Jessica Ellery nee Schwartz, Marcia of the black hair and green eyes, Marcia who knew the only place he was ticklish, Marcia who could always beat him at chess, Marcia who made apple pies even better than his mother, Marcia who was 3/4ths done with her first novel that would surely have been a hit even if they had had to publish it under his name, but now it would never be done, he couldn’t finish it, he couldn’t write fiction, he didn’t understand how, he didn’t even know the ending, she had insisted that she wouldn’t tell him until she had written it, Marcia, Marcia, his beloved Marcia, this fool of a Doctor was trying to tell him that he would never see her again, that he would never get to speak with her or hold her and feel her hold him back, that she was cold and would always be cold (she hated the cold! She always wore two sweaters, even indoors!), that she would never be warm, that he would never again hear her laugh, this Doctor, who does he think he is, what medical school did he go to, he’s a quack, obviously a lunatic, James Ellery was also a Doctor, he should be let in to see her, what do you care if he has a Doctorate in chemistry, he’s done things with living and dead organisms that your feeble mind could not even comprehend much less invent on your own, let him, let him in, let him see her, for all of the mercy in God’s creation, let him see her one last time!
And then he did, and he broke down and cried, and would have cried forever if he had not remembered something very important.
I wrote the following story in a single 13 hour sprint at the end of NaNoWriMo. At 22,000 words, it is almost half of my novel. It takes place in the world of SIxpence Games's upcoming Cultists of Cthulhu: Miskatonic University. It is presented here unedited, save for spelling and grammar.
______________________________________________________Jimmy Sullivan, real name Johan Shlomo Rosenberg, woke up, yawned, stretched his arms, and lay back down in bed. “Five more minutes…” he mumbled to no one. After another two hours, he awoke again. He yawned again, wishing he was sleepy enough that he could return to the comfort of his bed, but knowing he could not regain his pleasantly dream filled slumber. Grumbling, he cracked his back and got up. He went over to the window of his dormitory and pulled the curtains aside. Staring out into the quad, he sipped from the glass of water he had gotten himself the previous night. He was used to being able to see a grand view across the quad of the Hall of Nature and the Sciences, the combination women’s dormitory and administrative building, and the Historical Studies building - the oldest and largest of the buildings on campus, which housed his major, Anthropology, as well as a variety (which he termed a mishmash) of other studies-Archaeology, Sociology, Economics, general History, and yet more. Today, however, Miskatonic University was completely overcome by a thick New England fog, which obscured his view to the point he had to look down from his second floor window to the ground to check that there wasn’t just a sheet of grey paper in front of it.
Jimmy dressed casually but warmly. It was Winter Break-Christmas Break, officially, but Jimmy was Jewish, not that he let anyone know that here, and so it was Winter Break in his mind, Chanukah having ended a while ago. Jimmy was one of the few unfortunate souls remaining at the school, his classmates having been lucky enough to live nearby or have parents wealthy enough to be able to afford train tickets home for the holidays. Holiday, singular, he thought bitterly, then remembered New Year’s. Did that count as a holiday? It was pretty far from a High Holy Day, though given the consumerism levels he saw on disgusting display every Christmas, it was astonishing to him that Christians considered Christmas a Holy Day these days. Whatever, he shouldn’t let it get to him so much. He pulled on a warm coat and stepped down the stairs, taking them slowly, as his cane forced him to.
At the base of the stairs he went over to knock on his best friend’s door, the only one of his friends who had remained over the break. He knocked and stood there for a moment, shifting his weight from his good foot to his cane and back. He was hungry, and that always made him energetic, for whatever reason. After a moment of waiting, he reached up to knock again, and just as his hand reached the door a thunderingly deep note resounded from behind him. He jumped, whirled around, collapsed against the wall, and put his hand to his chest in mock heart attack. Adam had been sitting there at the piano the whole time, unnoticed, waiting for his opportunity, and now that he had taken it, he cracked up and not-ineptly played a quick arpeggio and stood up, bounding forward to give Jimmy a hug.
Adam Smith (yes, descended from the economist, no, don’t ask him about it) had been Jimmy’s friend since Jimmy had moved to the US. Born in Germany, Jimmy’s parents had realized that someone was trying to turn up the heat under the usually-simmering anti-Semitism once the Great War had ended, and took the opportunity to move to a new location, one they hoped would be more approving of their “alternate lifestyle.” They moved into a mostly Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn, and disapproved when their little boy had become best friends with, not just a goy, but this towering, meat headed picture of Aryan perfection! Their opinions had changed slightly when they learned Adam’s name - they were the kind of people who are always on the lookout for signs from G_d - and their opinion had been cemented when Adam had saved Jimmy, as he had by then taken to being called, from a pack of drunken louts looking for a member of some unpopular group to take out their frustration at Prohibition and the Depression. From that point on, Adam had been like unto a member of the family, and had joined them for more Shabbas dinners than he had missed. The favor had been repaid in full and the friendship cemented fully when Jimmy had pushed Adam out of the way of an oncoming automobile, sacrificing part of the functionality of his own leg in the process. Adam was at Miskatonic primarily to hold up their burgeoning American Football team, and he was acutely aware of how his life would have been much different, and much worse, if the auto had struck him instead of Jim.
This post is about the idea I thought of last time that has actually affected my own life an enormous amount, possibly even more than the other two ideas I wrote about earlier. This is the story of how I realized that it is possible for anybody to start a business, and the creation of Sixpence Games.
You know what? I should not have tried to come up with an ordering as to which of these ideas are the most important. I'm just gonna keep writing things, forget which of them are the most significant, that's not the thing to pay attention to. Anyways! On with the content.I don't think I'm unusual in that regard, but I might be. Everybody in my (rather large) extended family was either a doctor, a professor, or worked in a cubicle. There are some exceptions: I have an uncle who's in construction and another who invents things and sells them to big companies who then make and sell them. But the prescribed career paths for me were 1) academia, 2) a cubicle. I briefly flirted with being a medical doctor, but I don't have the memory or passion needed, and so I returned to my first true love: mathematics.
When I was growing up, I didn't know anybody who had started a business.
Despite a decently impressive CV (oh god that site is ancient and embarrassing, don't actually click that), when the time came to apply for graduate schools, none of them gave me sufficient funding to counteract the cost and actually live off of. This was the derailment of my intended career path of bright kid -> decent college student -> lazy grad student -> post docs are a thing? -> tenure track professorship -> lounge around thinking about shapes and smoking a pipe in my tweed jacket all day.
I was completely at a loss as to what to do. Working in a cubicle was like living in suburbia: I genuinely think that doing that would lead me to a life not worth living, followed by suicide. Ennui taken to the nihilistic void it inevitably trends towards.
I'm a Consequentialist: I believe that the moral rightness of a thing should be judged based on the (expected) outcome of it, not based on any particular moral rules. That is, it's (generally) bad to lie because that leads to a confusing world, but if lying in a specific instance will keep you from being killed by the Gestapo, then by all means lie. It's bad to murder because that results in somebody being dead, not because anybody said not to. It's bad to be gay because uh well actually since it turns out that doesn't harm anybody it actually is okay to be gay, even if a deity tells you it's bad
I wasn't always a consequentialist, though, and trying to get this idea to fully permeate all of my thoughts takes a bit of effort. One of the main things that I've had difficulty thinking of in terms of consequences rather than rules or virtues is conversations. When talking with people, I still feel a very strong urge to be completely, frankly, brutally honest, and even worse, I feel that if I don't say something, that's the same as lying about it. This has gotten me into trouble. More than once. I've lost at least one, possibly two friends because of this, and it was only through deliberate, learned effort that I managed to avoid that urge getting me criminal charges
When you're talking with people, what are your goals with the conversation? Are you trying to convince them to do something for you? Are you trying to convince them to adopt your position on some issue? Or are you just having a fun conversation? In all of those situations, getting angry, or making the other person angry, is not a useful thing to do. Saying things that from your perspective are true, but where you can predict that the result of saying it is going to be counter productive, is incredibly tempting, but is actually counter productive. I mean, come on! You saw that coming!
There's a cultural norm out there among the crowds I frequent that being a tourist is a bad, shameful thing to do. That if you visit a country, you should not do it as the stereotypical tourist: wearing ostentatious clothing (fannypacks and hawaiian shirts), speaking loudly in English, only going to the few tourist attractions in the area, eating off the tourist menu at the few westernized restaurants, not getting to know any of the locals, and in general just acting like you've no idea how things are done around there.
I basically agree with this. I think that travelling can be a great thing, can teach everyone a great deal (though beware the false lessons), and can really improve your life and your outlook on it. And I think you don't get that if you only look at the tourist traps. But that said, I think there sometimes people err too far in the other direction, utterly avoiding tourist attractions. I mean, they're tourist attractions for a reason. The Pyramids at Giza are a truly mind blowing thing to witness, even if there are touts trying to sell you camel rides the entire time you're there. And to be honest, the camel rides aren't that bad either.
The oft-times discussed counterpart to tourism is travelling. The distinction is usually nebulous, but it focuses on paying attention to the people in a country rather than the things or attractions there, using a lower budget, travelling via traditional or popular transport instead of modern, expensive means, and generally doing things in ways that bring you closer to the day to day lives of folks who live there. This is definitely an improvement over tourism. Getting to know the culture as an actual, living, breathing culture, full of apes and meme-creatures, is the only way to have the experience "broaden your horizons." Otherwise, you might as well be watching a movie, right?
That's the position I held for a long time, and it worked really well for me. Not ideally, but it was great. It showed me a lot about myself, taught me how to deal with comfort-based hardships, and did actually expose me to a great deal more of the culture than I would have seen if I was just going to the tourist attractions. Backpacking around Europe is a great and storied tradition, and I totally recommend it if you haven't ever done it. Southeast Asia would probably be even better to start with-I did Europe first, and then Asia a few years later, but reversing that might be preferable. Asia's not actually much more difficult, just more intimidating, and so probably teaches bravery better.
But there's a third way to deal with going places (man, "travel" having a specific jargon meaning here is inconvenient). Namely, living in them. This is both a practical distinction in terms of time, and also a philosophical distinction, so let's discuss both. This is the mode I'm currently employing, and have for
I am attempting to write a novel in the course of November. 50,000 words. That's 1,667 a day. I will probably be updating once a day, every day, so the cutoffs might not make a lot of sense-a day's writing may not be an entire scene. Here is day one: 1,779 words.
Jason Darling in: Forbidden Fruit
All but one of the fruits in this story are real. Everything else is fictional.
Jason Darling held the peach gingerly in his fingers. Trying though he was to be delicate, his thumb was almost piercing its skin. It was so ripe as to be almost rotten-its scent was already powerful enough to be smelled from several aisles over in the bustling marketplace, if you had a nose for that sort of thing, which Jason prided himself on having. His crooked, Semitic nose nicely matched his crooked, mischievous grin. He raised it to his lips, closing his eyes and inhaling the almost alcoholic smell. The old fruit vendor smiled an almost-toothless grin and said something which roughly translates as “Yes, you must appreciate her romance!” Jason nodded, not opening his eyes, and pushed the fruit into his mouth. It immediately exploded in juices, filling his mouth and dripping down his chin. The flavors were powerfully, sickly sweet. His earlier estimation was right; pungent alcohol vapors were already starting to form. A few more days and a few more peaches and it could get you drunk. He bit into the fruit, his teeth stopping just shy of the pit, and pulled the fruit away and sucked the flesh into his mouth with a twisting motion of his wrist. He stopped chewing and let it savor, unspoilt, on his tongue, for a few long moments, and then began to chew it slowly, appreciating the ease with which the textures morphed from one to another, releasing even more juices that he eagerly swallowed. He breathed in, swallowed his bite, and breathed out through his nose. An old sommelier’s trick, this coats the throat with the flavor and then the breath picks it up and pushes it through the nose, hitting the olfactory organs in the opposite order than sniffing it, and giving a unique, nasal quality that you can’t get elsewise. He sighed in contentment and opened his eyes.
“I’ll take them all. Do you have any prepared seeds?”
People sure like to talk about it. It's usually used as an applause light, that is, something where the meaning isn't that important, it's just used as a signal that you should agree with the speaker.
Sometimes people make a distinction between "positive" and "negative" liberties or rights. Positive and negative aren't used in the sense of good or bad, more akin to the psychological sense of positive and negative reinforcement. Negative liberties are ones where in order to exercise them all you need is that nobody stop you from doing it, like freedom of speech, and positive rights are ones that require other people or society to help you exercise them, like the right to healthcare.
I don't think that distinction makes much sense. I'm unusual in that I think that a lot of the reason that countries like America seem so much freer than countries like the USSR (not to argue that they're not freer, just that the degree is exaggerated) is because in America a distinction is (nominally) drawn between governmental power and economic power, and for some reason we only consider misuse of governmental power to count as infringing on freedom. In the USSR or China or any other country with a very powerful government that is actively involved in the planning of the economy, the economic and governmental powers are obviously controlled by the same entity, so when somebody gets censored by the state-run media for advocating laissez faire capitalism, that's considered censorship. Contrast with in the USA, where the economic and political power are ostensibly separated and for whatever reason we only care about abuses of political power: you certainly don't see people advocating for hardcore Maoism here. You don't even really see anybody advocating for things that are very uncontroversial in rather similar countries, like single payer universal healthcare. There are definitely people who want these things, and want to advocate them in big public ways, but cannot, because the economic powers that be deny them the platform to do that. And this is not considered censorship.
I think that caring about whether something should be considered censorship, or a violation of X or Y right, is kind of a silly, outmoded way of thinking. Rights and liberties are not Aristotelian categories fallen from the heavens where it is Bad to do a thing that is a violation of a right, but if you can come up with a good enough argument for why it doesn't count as actually violating that right, then all of a sudden it's Good. That's ridiculous. What matters is whether or not the person was able to do the thing, not whether it was forbidden in a way that fits into your arcane rules about how to forbid things.
I have pretty much come around to think that freedom is being able to do what you want, and as a corollary to that, the only real freedom is economic freedom. Well, there are some others, but economic freedom is the most important, and you could argue that the others flow out of it, but that's kind of irrelevant. Now, I want to talk about economic freedom.