Jan 19, 2017

Freewrite rescued from my email drafts: 3

Part 1 here. Part 2 here.

I get up for a moment, urinate, wash my hands, moisturize. Refill my water glass. Return to my desk and find myself blocked again.

But I have so much I want to write about. So much I want to do.

I was not interested in very many things as a teenager. I liked jazz, girls, video games. Succeeding in school. Dangerous adventures. I found the world hard, and when its hardness was oppressive, the logic of suicide made a lot of sense to me. I don't consider my teenage self suicidal; I never made plans or an attempt, but it seemed very straightforward: life is hard and painful; if it gets to be too bad, stop living.

This logic no longer makes sense to me. I still think life is hard, and I still suffer. But killing myself? There's so much to do! Suicide doesn't even seem tragic, just absurd. Why would I every do that? I have too much to read, too many skills to acquire, too many places to see. I feel hugely time-constrained; cutting my fuse short seems ridiculous. I'm willing to put up with a lot of pain and difficulty in order to do the things I want to do. I encountered the world, I sipped from its goblet, and now I want to slake my thirst.

Before I was watching goings-on through a television screen. My lived experience was very limited (indeed I shied away from lived experience, as I was a social coward), and though my mediated experience was deep and wide, it was not sufficient to accurately inform my model of the world. I thought the world shallow and simplistic – I had seen it all, and having seen, was unimpressed. Exercise was animalistic, social norms absurd, academic pursuits an ivy-covered tail-chase, financial pursuits a garish masturbation. Family life and romance were reifications of Darwinian drives headed nowhere, the outdoors were a curated facsimile of a romanticization of our brutish primitive state. Visual art was a nihilistic social game, music a pedantic repetition of old mysterious forms. Religion was so obviously wrong as to not merit satirical characterization, mathematics too abstracted to connect to anything real. Sports: proxy warfare to sate latent bloodlust and tribalism. Literature: a tenuously carved-out space for the unathletic. Meditation: the whole-hearted embrace of a terrifying truth. Pets: kept because they lack the intelligence to be unhappy. I saw all these things through my screens, and none passed muster.

So, unimpressed and in pain, opting out made a lot of sense back then. But now, I have done some things, and there is so much more to do. The important difference between seeing and doing is that doing things takes time. You can't gloss over a three-mile run. You can't skim through a introduction to programming and come out a coder. You can't build a solid friendship while tuning out.

Doing things takes time, and I like doing things. It makes me feel alive, full of spark, raring to go. Because I want to do a lot of things, and each thing takes time, I am now hugely time-constrained. Suicide is absurd when you are hugely time-constrained. Death is coming soon enough. No need to speed it along.

[rereads: 2, edits: written in June 2016, a couple stylistic things but largely untouched]

Jan 17, 2017

Freewrite rescued from my email drafts: 2

Part 1 here.

Time. That's a topic. That's what I want to write about. Not philosophy. Not physics. Pragmatics. How do people use their time? How do they experience it? More specifically: how do I use my time? How ought I use it? How do I experience it?

God this is hoity-toity. I spend a lot of time with my eye on the future. On how I will be evaluated, on what abstract critics will think of me. This, what I'm writing right now, is juvenilia, and I'm painfully aware of it. The content is near non-existent, and the form is not strong enough to carry on without content. This self-awareness is paralyzing, and currently my main treatment is to acknowledge the paralysis and refocus my writing towards it. Write about it, write about nothing, because when I write about any actual topic I get locked up.

Time. Hah.

I spent the last hour attending to miscellany on my computer. Added my company credit card to my Lyft and Uber accounts. Subscribed to the New Yorker so that I could read Garrison Kellor's first contribution, a short satire published in 1970, which I learned about from a New York Times article discussing Kellor's retirement from Prairie Home Companion. A year ago, I was so zealously against reading the news. Now, with Trump ascendant, I've sunk deep into the mire. Sometimes it feels like all I do. Check the news, read the blogs I follow, read some analysis, check the prediction markets, make some small trades to readjust my betting positions, sketch out a plan for the rest of the day, almost immediately disregard this plan as I poke my head back into a news site.

And it gets worse when I stumble across some brilliant piece of work by another. I just stumbled (by way of checking the Hacker News front page when I inadvertently opened it as I was trying to delete my Hacker News bookmark from my browser toolbar) onto a philosophical paper by famed computer scientist & blogger Scott Aaronson considering the philosophical implications of computational complexity. My god. That's brilliant. I haven't read it, all I've done is glance at the abstract and save the paper to Pocket, but I'm sure it's brilliant. And even if the treatment is poor, the topic is so interesting. It reeks of interestingness. All I can do is stare in dumb admiration. I can't even read it. If I allotted some time for reading it, it would become a chore, and I would move on to doing something else. Something less productive. Something like watching an episode of Archer, or checking the front page of the Times, or clearing out my email inbox. It is so interesting, yes, but I am more concerned with staying culturally fluent, conversant in every domain, than I am in actually indulging my native curiosity in a subject. Even a subject as interesting as the philosophical implications of computational complexity. Another way to phrase this: I want to be the sort of person who is interested in the philosophical implications of computational complexity. The progress I actually make towards learning the topic is instrumental towards this social goal. I am ashamed of this.

God it feels good to write. But getting locked up, being blocked, is so painful. Painful enough that I shy away, that I'd rather passively consume the output of others rather than stumble through half-baked creations of my own. I want perfection. My ideas, ideas brimming inside me, unshaped, just hints of form and content, these are perfect. They bubble up, I form my thoughts into a phrase, that phrase sounds pretty good, I follow it with another, still pretty good, I venture another, still pretty good(!), but by this time I'm losing the shape of the first phrase, then my mind moves to some other track and I lose the whole construct. Writing it out, putting the first phrase into harsh light, then the second, then reading the two, then venturing the third, that is a different project. The imperfection is self-evident. The first phrase was trite, the second unnecessary. What was I thinking? I'm no creator, this is embarrassing, I'm third-rate at best. So I make the alternate choice. I consume, I read, I endeavor to become "well-read." This criterion is too soft to be evaluated cleanly; I can't be perfectly well-read, so whatever progress I make feels positive, even if I'm spinning my wheels. There's no paper trail. I have occasional interesting conversations in which I signal intelligence and well-read-ness and up-to-date-ness and I come out of these conversations feeling validated. Later, when I remember them, the feeling of validity dominates all other aspects and I mark it a success, progress, a step down the road I want to walk, even if I can't remember what we were talking about in the slightest.

Not so with writing. The content does not slip away so easily. Recall that piece you wrote a few months back? Pull it up and there it is, form unchanged. Reread it, revise your impression of it, your memory of it, your evaluation of it. A different experience entirely. A difficult experience. So easy to not, to have good intentions and a plan but when it comes down to doing the hard thing to turn away instead, to consume a couple of think pieces, a hot take, a news analysis, wile away an hour, maybe two, they slide by like water and before I really recognize it, I'm too tired to actually do the hard thing, too tired to take a crack at it, I've absorbed so much content, I need a break to process it all.

And I could do this for ages. I could do this, day after day, for years. Wake up, good intentions, make my plan, set my course, then immediately veer away. Regret this, angst over it, reflect, resolve. And do the same tomorrow. And on and on.

This feels like a small tragedy. No blood, no loss. No social cost or stigma. Indeed, a content consumer is elevated, and an expert one venerated. Did you hear about this going on? Yes, of course, what a shame. Did you read this piece in the Times? Yes, I glanced at it, but I really think the Journal did a better job with its coverage. What do you think about health care policy, gun control, religious freedom, African poverty, women's rights in the Middle East, the new budget, what the Fed chairperson did last week? Well, it's complicated, you see, but I do think that reasonable people could agree on X.

This is a small tragedy. Edging up to the hard thing, making hollow plans, then pulling back and burning the day. Coasting. Coasting through your job and your leisure. Making "ease in the moment" your primary decision criterion. Oh sure, sometimes the hard thing comes easily. Sometimes it flows out of you like it's flowing out of me now, when it is imperative, when it is literally the most important thing in the world. The ground could crack asunder, the building could crumble around me, there could be scream and shout and bloody commotion and I would write and write and write because that is all that matters in this moment. But this moment is a rare breed. Most of the time writing is a hard thing, tough and wracked and easier to avoid. Yes, I would like to be a writer. Yes, I'd like to create. But let's wait until inspiration hits (think about how good that feels!). Inspiration is a fickle thing, you can't force it, there's no sense in trying to make it happen, so let's sit back. Take in the news. Take in the view. Take it easy.

But this is so wrong. I write well, even when it is hard. Even when I find it awful and off-putting, the quiet pulsing joy is still there. Deciding to wait for inspiration is placing ease at the foreground of decision-making, even if you rationalize it differently. If it's not inspired, it won't be good, therefore you shouldn't do it. Ridiculous. Even if the product sucks when uninspired, the process is good practice. It builds a habit. Even if the breaking of the dam remains mysterious, and you go years without feeling the inspired urge, the practice of cranking out piece after piece, word after word, is healthful. The slog is good for you. This is not an empirical claim. This is a hypothesis, couched in mysticism and imperative. Like any hypothesis, it can be tested.

[rereads: 2, edits: written in June 2016, a couple stylistic things but largely untouched]

Jan 15, 2017

Freewrite rescued from my email drafts: 1

Until Boulder Mac Repair ships my hard drive, I'm resigned to writing in email drafts. And wow, it feels crushing.

I'm surprised by how much form matters. Form dictates content. Tools dictate content. My writing here is guided by the email template provided by Google. I'm more cautious, less wild, than I am in Atom, where I can type away illiberally in the simple black box. Here, I'm trying to be professional. Here, I'm trying to present myself. It's hard to be myself here.

I'm coming to you from the Workantile, a co-working space in Ann Arbor. I'm sitting at a desk in the middle of an open office, with other desks, other computers, other typers, all around. It is a nice enough place, but the tyranny of open offices exists here as well. The draw of a co-working space is closely tied to this tyranny. Ideally, I would work in a silent room, where just outside there was a social space of busy workers I could plunge into when I needed a break from deep focus. But an open office does encourage the appearance of work. I can browse the internet at my desk here, read some articles, some comics, check facebook. But I can't watch a movie. I couldn't play Age of Empires. I couldn't watch porn. It's not that anyone would care if I watched a movie (though they would probably care if I was watching porn). It's that I am socially incapable of doing so. It's a social impossibility. And that is one of the main value-adds of a co-working space, at least for someone of my disposition. Social constraints that direct my behavior towards work, or activities that appear to be work. And the space of activities that appear to be work that I find interesting is much smaller than the space of activities that I find interesting (e.g. movies, video games, porn).

So I'm sitting here in the middle of Workantile, typing away on my new Macbook. My beloved 15" Macbook Pro had a short on its logic board, causing it to power down at unexpected times. This was inconvenient, though not fatal, but it would have cost over $800 to fix. I got a new computer instead. I would have gotten another Macbook Pro, but the 2016 model refresh hasn't occurred yet (and is rumored to be set for Q4 2016), so instead I got the new Macbook, which was refreshed last month.

The new Macbook has a butterfly-action keyboard, in contrast to the scissor-action keyboards found on older Mac laptops. The butterfly action makes for a slimmer key profile, and only a slight physically depression when a key is pressed. A subtle punching noise accompanies each key press, but it is a far remove from clickity-click of my 15" Pro, and further still from the pronounced clackity-clack of a mechanical keyboard.

This is the first writing-at-length I've done on the new Macbook. The keyboard is large, I think approximately the same size as the keyboard on my 15", but due to the slender key profile it feels insubstantial. I can type fluidly on it, but I am not yet confident with my movements as I skate over the keys.

I have so much I want to write about. An hour ago, as I was sketching my plan for today, I wrote out a list of 10 topics to reflect on. I haven't touched on any of them yet, but the ground I've covered so far feels important. I'm so happy to be writing. It is not a loud happiness; it isn't even warm. But it is there, a quiet pulse beneath the surface, humming softly as I type, humming even when I stop, content just to be within close proximity of the act of writing.

Writing is one of my favorite things. It took me a long time to recognize this, and I am still not fully reconciled to the implications.

[rereads: 2, edits: written in June 2016, a couple stylistic things but largely untouched]

Dec 31, 2016

Second half of 2016 in review: analytic

Narrative portion of this review here. Previous review here.

Here are some statistics about my life in the second half of 2016:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 high), my average life satisfaction was 7.47. I subjectively assessed my life satisfaction at the end of each day. My highest day was a 9/10 and my lowest day was a 4/10. Gwern pointed out some problems with using a 1 to 10 scale, namely that the scale is too fine-grained and skewed to the upper end (i.e. I never assess days as "1" or "2"). At their suggestion, I'm shifting to a six-step scale for 2017 (six steps because I only experienced six degrees of satisfaction in 2016).
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 high), my average mood was 7.46, remarkably close to my average life satisfaction score. I used the Reporter app to subjectively assess my mood once or twice a day at a random time. My highest mood assessment was 9/10 and my lowest assessment was 4/10. Having my randomly sampled mood average be so close to my at-end-of-day life satisfaction average is reassuring – it means there's no end-of-day reporting bias.
  • A couple months ago, I started assessing conscientiousness at the end of each workday, though on reflection what I'm really assessing here is productivity: "how much did I accomplish this day?" I assessed this on a three-point scale: 0 as not conscientious, 1 as mediocrely conscientious, and 2 as fully conscientious. My average daily conscientiousness/productivity score was 1.28 – slightly above "mediocre." Ideally I'd be hitting 1.6 or 1.8 each week, so definite room for improvement here.

I wrote a fair amount in 2016. These are some of the pieces I like best:

I will likely be posting less in 2017, as the goals I am focusing on don't involve much writing. I'll still post things when the mood strikes me.

Skills (following this framework for evaluating performance):

  • Technical skill. Over the last few months, I've learned a lot of SQL syntax for my job. No technical skills have degraded noticeably.
  • Expressiveness. My expressiveness when speaking "up" the power dynamic (i.e. when speaking to people with more authority than me) has improved, though it still isn't fantastic. This is really nice, as it has long been a big weak spot of mine. My expressiveness when speaking down the power dynamic has likely also gotten better since I became a team lead, though I am still inexperienced on this vector and have much to learn about it. No noticeable change in peer-to-peer expressiveness.
  • Project management. This has definitely improved since becoming a lead (in particular I am getting better at backing my plans out of the goal-state I'm shooting for), though my awareness of how much I still have to improve is growing at least as rapidly as my skill in this area.
  • Vision. Many of the goal-states I'm aiming at these days are defined by clear metrics, which makes it really easy to measure progress towards the goal. The biggest conceptual update here is a much greater appreciation of how clarifying good metrics can be when thinking about goals.

[rereads: 1, edits: minor tweaks, played around with bulleted list formatting]

Dec 29, 2016

Second half of 2016 in review: narrative

Picking up from my last review, this is a 6-month review to put my yearly reviews in sync with calendar years. See also part 2.

9:13 pm on a Tuesday in Ann Arbor. The Last Word is beginning to fill up. I'm the only one with a laptop out. That's okay.

My waitress is a little impatient with me, a slow solo drinker occupying a four-top. The open laptop probably isn't helping matters. That's okay.

I opened an old freewrite from New Years Day 2016 immediately before starting here. The experience recorded there feels very close. Was it really a whole year ago?

And yet, on reflection, much has filled up my life since then. I toyed with the idea of dating Servilia, I decided to date Servilia (all while seeing Cornelia in the Bay), I moved to Michigan with the express purpose of dating Servilia and succeeded in doing so. A few weeks of that happy thing, then Servilia decides to break up and that seems like a pretty good idea to me.

I go to Ethiopia. Marvelous. Addis: smoggy and packed together, colors and sounds and dirt. Lalibela: snug above green valleys, full of Italian food and ancient churches. A wonderfully muddy motorbike ride to a mountain monastery. An entire lifetime in a week.

Back to America, and single again. Days at work, punctuated by workouts at the Y and dinners with my parents. Cornelia, still upset from our breakup, surfaces to tear me to shreds. I don't feel it though. When you initiate the breakup, you're the villain, but you don't get hurt.

Without Servilia, there's no motivation to stay in Ann Arbor. Most of my childhood friends now live in different places, and many of those connections have faded. Days are mostly solitary. I spend time with my parents, which is nice, but there is friction there, and one's parents can't constitute the entirety of a social sphere.

And Michigan is nice, Michigan is lovely. Rides up north, admiring the freshwater sea. Trips to places I have never been before. Sand beaches, warm weather, good company. Forest roads that stretch out until converging to a point. But summer is closing, and Michigan winter is a different beast.

So back to the Bay it is. The usual rush that foreshadows a move: what to pack, what to leave, what to do with the king bed I purchased for my summer sublet and the motorcycle I acquired on a whim. Packed clothes and effects, left books with my parents. Sold the bed to a friend, winterized the motorcycle and stowed it in my parents' garage.

And I'm back. I rapidly move out of the group house where I had spent the year prior to my Michigan sojourn. I like that house, enjoy the people. But our interests are largely divergent, and another friend had offered me an open apartment in a beautiful 1920s building. ("The structure is raw redwood," the landlord assured me, "never rots, never molders. Strong.") How could I pass that up?

Two weeks after returning to Oakland, I'm moving out of my room in the group house. Another logistical rush: pack up everything I possess, pick up a U-Haul, load the U-Haul despite a light drizzle, make the short drive to the new building, unload everything with the help of a soon-to-be-former housemate. After finishing, we take the U-Haul to a gelato place (we figure we can get away with parking illegally on a residential street if we leave the emergency blinkers on).

My new place has wood floors, big bay windows, and more than one room. I've never had more than one room to myself before. It's nice. I use the walk-in closet as a motorcycle staging area, and in so doing discover that I derive an immense amount of pleasure from possessing a room entirely dedicated to a single hobby.

I rent a desk at a co-working space in Berkeley. The space is less community-focused than the one I used in Ann Arbor. This suits me, for the most part, though building management insists on piping a combination of indie rock, electro-pop, and mainstream hip-hop through the common area speaker system 24/7, which is slowly driving me insane. Nothing compares to listening to Vampire Weekend's "Mansard Roof" at 10 pm on a Friday when you're the only one in the office.

For the most part, it's good. I'm able to focus well at my desk, and when focus flags, there are a multitude of corners to which I can regroup. The internet is fast & reliable. I spend a lot of time contorted into curious postures in the co-working space's tiny call booths, speaking to my manager, vendors, and my team. At the end of each day, I leave my computer at work, which causes me to spend less time on the internet & more time reading.

In sharp contrast to the first two thirds of 2016, I begin to build a solid routine. Up at 5:30 (if I'm good), or 6 (when I'm sloppy), quick breakfast, then a 15-minute to work. Coordination and response with my team, some individual contributor work if I can carve out time for it. The gym or a run around 4 (if I'm good), then home by 7 or 8. A couple hours of quiet domesticity – cooking, eating, reading, watching episodes of BoJack Horseman on my phone, doodling on the keyboard – then bed by 9:30 (if I'm good) or 10 (when I'm sloppy).

And this repeats, every weekday. I like it. A routine has power. Large chunks of your day become totally controlled by habit, which frees up a lot of cognitive power. You don't have to think about what to make for breakfast – you have Grape-Nuts and orange juice for breakfast, just like every day. You don't have to think about how to get to work – you ride down 51st, then up Shattuck into Berkeley, just like every day. Each workday starts the same: settle in at the office, pour yourself a hot beverage, check your calendar & the metrics dashboard, then dive into the morass of correspondence awaiting reply.

This rhythm is powerful. This rhythm is liberating. It reminds me of that Flaubert quote: "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

This is how life has been proceeding for the last few months, and it's how I expect it to proceed for the first few months of 2017. Beyond that, everything's foggy. (I don't think there's much value in extending one's planning horizon far into the future, and I try to limit mine to 3-4 months out.)

Goals for the next few months? I have goals; I'd prefer not to expound on them here. They can be stated simply:

  • do excellent work at my job, and grow from this.
  • date a romantic partner I'm excited about.
  • commit to a daily sitting practice, and a weekly meditation class.

[rereads: 2, edits: multitudinous phrasing tweaks, anonymized the names of ex-girlfriends]

Nov 20, 2016

Joint statement from California legislative leaders on result of presidential election

The day after the 2016 presidential election, California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon released a joint statement. I find it heartening. Here it is, in full:

Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land, because yesterday Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California.

We have never been more proud to be Californians.

By a margin in the millions, Californians overwhelmingly rejected politics fueled by resentment, bigotry, and misogyny.

The largest state of the union and the strongest driver of our nation’s economy has shown it has its surest conscience as well.

California is – and must always be – a refuge of justice and opportunity for people of all walks, talks, ages and aspirations – regardless of how you look, where you live, what language you speak, or who you love.

California has long set an example for other states to follow. And California will defend its people and our progress. We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.

We will be reaching out to federal, state and local officials to evaluate how a Trump Presidency will potentially impact federal funding of ongoing state programs, job-creating investments reliant on foreign trade, and federal enforcement of laws affecting the rights of people living in our state. We will maximize the time during the presidential transition to defend our accomplishments using every tool at our disposal.

While Donald Trump may have won the presidency, he hasn’t changed our values. America is greater than any one man or party. We will not be dragged back into the past. We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.

California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.

[rereads: 0, edits: 0]

Nov 09, 2016

President Trump

Donald Trump is now President-elect of the United States. In a couple months, he will become President Trump.

I'm shocked by this. It's a disconnected, faraway feeling. In the liberal coastal enclave where I live, everything is as it was yesterday. Things will probably keep chugging along here as they have been for quite a while. Maybe even for Trump's whole term, but who can say.

Everyone's shocked by this. All the media I consume is either expressing stunned disbelief or spouting apocalyptica. Yes, this seems very, very bad. And yet I expect that things for the most part will keep chugging along. The dissonance is strong.

I wonder how much the current feeling mirrors the experience of Wilsonian intellectuals in late 1919, or of German liberals in February 1933. The sense that we have just made a profound collective mistake, maybe that's the same. Or maybe not. Who can say.

Evan Osnos' President Trump's First Term (a) is the best imagining of Trump's early presidency I've seen. Now, given that we are hurtling towards the thing itself, I find the article to be a gentle balm.

[rereads: 1, edits: 0]

Nov 05, 2016

Should we give now or later? (continued)

My recent post on whether Good Ventures should give now or give later contained an important error – I gave my subjective probabilities of various futures, then used this probability distribution to draw a conclusion about the question at hand (I concluded that Good Ventures should emphasize present-day giving).

I still think my conclusion is sound, but the reasoning I laid out was faulty. When making decisions, it's better to assess the expected value of each choice rather than just the probability of each choice. I was doing this implicitly, but didn't make my reasoning explicit. So let's do that now.

In the post, I gave my best guess at the likelihoods of a set of scenarios. To assess (my subjective) expected value of these scenarios, we also have to assign a utility score to each scenario (obviously, the following is incredibly rough):

  • Current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement stalls out or reverses; no strong AI, no GCRs = Baseline
  • Current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement continues; no GCRs, if strong AI occurs it doesn't lead to post-scarcity = 2x as good as baseline
  • Strong AI leads to a post-scarcity economy = 100x as good as baseline
  • Strong AI leads to a global catastrophe (GCR) = 0x as good as baseline
  • A different GCR occurs = 0x as good as baseline

Before calculating the expected value of each scenario, let's unpack my assessments a bit. I'm imagining "baseline" goodness as essentially things as they are right now, with no dramatic changes to human happiness in the next 30 years. If quality of life broadly construed continues to improve over the next 30 years, I assess that as twice as good as the baseline scenario.

Achieving post-scarcity in the next 30 years is assessed as 100x as good as the baseline scenario of no improvement. (Arguably this could be nearly infinitely better than baseline, but to avoid Pascal's mugging we'll cap it at 100x.)

A global catastrophe in the next 30 years is assessed as 0x as good as baseline. It's a little weird to think of one thing being "zero times" as good as another thing, but it will suffice for our purposes here.

Again, this is all very rough.

Now, calculating the expected value of each outcome is straightforward (probabilities are taken from the first post on this topic):

  • Expected value of current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement stalls out or reverses; no strong AI, no GCRs = 0.3 x 1 = 0.3
  • Expected value of current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement continues; no GCRs, if strong AI occurs it doesn't lead to post-scarcity = 0.56 x 2 = 1.12
  • Expected value of strong AI leads to a post-scarcity economy = 0.05 x 100 = 5
  • Expected value of strong AI leads to a global catastrophe = 0.02 * 0 = 0
  • Expected value of a different GCR occurs = 0.07 * 0 = 0

And each scenario maps to a now-or-later giving decision:

  • Current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement stalls out or reverses; no strong AI, no GCRs –> Give later (because new opportunities may be discovered)
  • Current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement continues; no GCRs, if strong AI occurs it doesn't lead to post-scarcity –> Give now (because the best giving opportunities are the ones we're currently aware of)
  • Strong AI leads to a post-scarcity economy –> Give now (because philanthropy is obsolete in post-scarcity)
  • Strong AI leads to a global catastrophe (GCR) –> Give now (because philanthropy is nullified by a global catastrophe)
  • A different GCR occurs –> Give now (because philanthropy is nullified by a global catastrophe)

So, we can add up the expected values of all the "give now" scenarios and all the "give later" scenarios, and see which sum is higher:

  • Give now total expected value = 1.12 + 5 + 0 + 0 = 6.12
  • Give later total expected value = 0.3 = 0.3

Comparing the totals shows that, in expectation, giving now will lead to substantially more value. Most of this is driven by the post-scarcity variable, but even with post-scarcity outcomes excluded, I still assess "give now" scenarios to have about 4x the expected value as "give later" scenarios.

One note: this calculation is a little strange, because GCR outcomes are given no weight, but in reality if we were faced with a substantial risk of a global catastrophe, that would strongly influence our decision-making. Maybe the proper way to do this is to assign a negative value to GCR outcomes and include them in the "give later" bucket, but that pushes even further in the direction of "give now" so I'm not going to fiddle with it here.

Obviously, different people will make different assessments about the appropriate values to use here, but this framework feels like a reasonable way to assess the question.

When I assign probabilities and utilities that seem reasonable, my intuition that present-day giving opportunities outperform future giving opportunities is confirmed. (Note that I didn't make ad-hoc probability or utility assessments, or do any other fiddling to get the outcome I wanted – estimates were made in good faith, which makes me feel better about where it ended up.)

Disclosure: I used to work at GiveWell.
[rereads: 1, edits: prose tightening, formatting]

Nov 02, 2016

Should we give now or later?

Note: See the continuation of this post for further discussion and an updated conclusion.

Around this time of year, GiveWell traditionally spends a lot of time thinking about game theoretic considerations – specifically, what funding recommendation it ought to make to Good Ventures so that Good Ventures spends its resources wisely. (Here are GiveWell's game theoretic posts from 2014 & 2015.)

The main considerations here are:

  1. How should Good Ventures act in an environment where individual donors & other foundations are also giving money?
  2. How should Good Ventures value its current giving opportunities compared to the giving opportunities it will have in the future?

I'm more interested in the second consideration, so that's what I'll engage with here. If present-day opportunities seem better than expected future opportunities, Good Ventures should fully take advantage of its current opportunities, because they are the best giving opportunities it will ever encounter. Conversely, if present-day opportunities seem worse than expected future opportunities, Good Ventures should give sparsely now, preserving its resources for the superior upcoming opportunities.

Personally, I'm bullish on present-day opportunities. Present-day opportunities seem more attractive than future ones for a couple reasons:

  1. The world is improving, so giving opportunities will get worse if current trends continue.
  2. There's a non-negligible chance that a global catastrophic risk occurs within Good Ventures' lifetime (it's a "burn-down" foundation), thus nullifying any future giving opportunities.
  3. Strong AI might emerge sometime in the next 30 years. This could be a global catastrophic risk (GCR), or it could ferry humanity into a post-scarcity environment, wherein philanthropic giving opportunities are either dramatically reduced or entirely absent.

So far, my reasoning has been qualitative, and if it's worth doing, it's worth doing with made-up numbers, so let's assign some subjective probabilities to the different scenarios we could encounter (in the next 30 years):

  • P(current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement stalls out or reverses; no strong AI, no GCRs) = 30%
  • P(current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement continues; no GCRs, if strong AI occurs it doesn't lead to post-scarcity) = 56%
  • P(strong AI leads to a post-scarcity economy) = 5%
  • P(strong AI leads to a global catastrophe) = 2%
  • P(a different GCR occurs) = 7%

Yes, this exercise is ad-hoc and a little silly. But the point it illustrates is important: if you're like me in thinking that, over the next 30 years, things are most likely going to continue slowly improving with some chance of a trend reversal and a tail risk of major societal disruption, then it's quite likely that present-day giving opportunities will beat the opportunities we uncover in the future (70% likely, using my made-up numbers).

The only scenarios in which giving opportunities 30 years from now are better than the giving opportunities we have today are those in which current trends reverse or plateau, there are no GCRs, and strong AI doesn't emerge. I think there's about a 30% chance of the future looking like that. Funding the philanthropic opportunities presently available, therefore, seems like the better bet.

Thanks to Rebecca Raible for feedback on an earlier version of this post. Disclosure: I used to work at GiveWell.

[rereads: 2, edits: prose tightening, cut a section that felt redundant]

Oct 29, 2016

Misalignment of consequentialism and intuition

When it comes to assessing which actions are good and which are bad, consequentialism doesn't align very well with my intuition.

Consequentialism is the conceptual framework I most frequently use when assessing ethical questions, so this misalignment crops up fairly regularly. Ignoring my intuition is, well, unintuitive, so I'd like to find a resolution that's more accommodating than simply shouting myself down: "Shut up Intuition, you're wrong, just go along with what Rational Brain says because that's the only thing that makes any sense!"

Before we dive into potential resolutions, let me illustrate the misalignment more fully.

Activities that have traditionally been considered sinful are good case studies of the misalignment. (I don't mean "sinful" in any precise, things-that-take-you-further-from-God sense. Rather, I mean "sinful" in a vague, that-activity-is-bad-and-we-shouldn't-think-about-it sense, which I often associate with mainline American protestantism.) Consider masturbation as an example. I think many people feel shame & guilt about their masturbation habits, and it isn't something that can be discussed in polite company. Masturbation, in other words, is sinful in the vague sense.

People who feel shame or guilt around their masturbation habits probably have an intuition that it is a morally bad activity that they should stop doing. Yet, from a consequentialist viewpoint, masturbation isn't morally bad. Indeed, on a consequentialist view, the worst effect of masturbation is oftentimes the "unnecessary" guilt that the practitioner feels. We could even say that on a consequentialist view, the masturbation is morally neutral while the masturbatory guilt is morally bad.

This quality isn't unique to masturbation. Many vices bring about shame and guilt in those who partake, yet are assessed as morally neutral (or even mildly positive) on a consequentialist view. Here are some examples: intemperance, covetousness, pride, duplicity. My intuition says that these qualities are bad and ought to be avoided. But consequentialist assessment takes a more nuanced view – some vices can yield pleasant experiences without causing material harm (e.g. intemperance), and thus are moral goods themselves; other vices can be instrumentally useful for achieving other moral goods (e.g. duplicity), and are thus absolved when used as such.

Consequentialism and my intuition are misaligned in the other direction as well. On a consequentialist view, much good can be caused by giving money to effective causes. It follows that, when money is spent on other things (i.e. not given to effective causes), some amount of good is unrealized, which is morally bad (or morally suboptimal, for those who prefer softer language). When I buy a fancy $4 coffee, I have squandered that money, which could have otherwise been transformed into $3.60 in the pocket of a poor Kenyan subsistence farmer. Giving the money to the poor farmer would obviously have been higher utility than buying myself a fancy coffee. I knew this, yet I bought the coffee. On the consequentialist view, doing so was morally bad.

But my intuition is just not on board with this reasoning. I'm literally drinking a fancy $4 coffee as I write this, and I do not feel one iota of shame or guilt. I felt a pang of empathy as I wrote that line about the Kenyan farmer, but that pang was a desire to help them, not a reprimand of my morally bad purchase. Consequentialist reasoning does not seem to activate whatever brain module generates my feelings of moral badness.

So, what to do about this?

The standard consequentialist reply involves suppressing your intuition. It is what Peter Singer suggests in Famine, Affluence, and Morality: our moral intuitions & social norms are broken, and must be drastically revised. It's true that our moral intuitions are broken (Trolleyology does a good job of pointing out specific areas of brokenness), but I'm not convinced of the feasibility or desirability of a drastic revision.

Let's address feasibility first. For some people, moral intuition might be intractably hard to revise. I've experienced my moral intuitions change over time, but most of these alterations are around the margin rather than at the core. And I've never experienced my moral intuitions change as the result of an intentional project aimed at changing them. To be clear, I think that intuitions can change a lot over time, but I'm skeptical that intentionally trying to change one's intuitions is tractable. Beliefs can be altered intentionally, but not intuition (e.g. I can start believing that I shouldn't eat meat after reading some compelling animal welfare literature and endorsing it, but I can't cultivate a sense of visceral disgust about eating hamburgers in this way). As far as I can make out, my intuition evolves by way of a hard-to-understand process that incorporates my experience, my worldview, and societal forces, all on a long lead time. There doesn't seem to be room in the process for intentional direction.

Now, let's turn to the desirability of drastically revising our intuition to align it with our ethical framework. One strange characteristic of Singer's pond argument (in which a direct analogy is drawn between refusing to help a drowning child in a shallow pond for fear of ruining your nice clothes, and refusing to donate money to distant people who need it desperately) is that, while the conclusion suggests a radical overthrow of our traditional moral intuitions, the argument itself rests on an appeal to those intuitions.

To expand on that: there are two ways to generalize the drowning-child-is-the-same-as-distant-sufferer equivalency. We can take our strong, intuitive desire to save the drowning child, and generalize this desire to apply to all desperate sufferers everywhere. Or we can take our general indifference to desperate sufferers everywhere and apply this indifference to the case of drowning child (a direction considered briefly in this LessWrong post (a)).

Obviously, ignoring a drowning child and justifying my refusal to assist with "I don't give money to help distant sufferers in need, so why would I help a drowning child right in front of me?" is repugnant. But, repugnancy aside, it is just as consistent as going the other away. And this repugnancy is a gut reaction. An intuition. Without this visceral, intuitive feeling that we must help a drowning child when we encounter them, the pond argument deflates.

Given that the pond argument rests on an appeal to intuition, it does not seem obviously desirable to attempt drastically revising this intuition. If framed generously, we could view the drastic revision as a purification – we are merely making our morality stronger by ridding it of inconsistencies. But that cuts both ways. If we are willing to revise our morality such that our intuitive feeling for a single child in front of us propagates to all children everywhere, surely we should also at least entertain the idea of revising it such that we ignore the single child's plight, given all the other plights elsewhere that we're indifferent to.

This leaves us in a sticky position. On one hand, generalizing out from the drowning child, we place an extreme demand on ourselves. Giving to the level of marginal utility is a high, high bar for being a moral person (perhaps we decide to treat the level of marginal utility as an asymptote rather than as a threshold, but even still, most all of us are so far from this level that it cashes out the same). Going this direction, we resign ourselves to either asceticism or inescapable moral insufficiency.

On the other hand, applying our general indifference to the case of the drowning child, we endorse an extremely callous self-interest. We decide to be the sort of people who walk by kids drowning in kiddie pools.

It's pretty clear that if we want to walk out of this with a "reasonable" resolution, we're going to need to accept some amount of inconsistency (side note: not feeling like you are obligated to be as moral as possible takes much of the edge off here, but that's a topic for another time). Inconsistency is the nag that started this whole interrogation. Now, it seems like having intuitions misaligned with our ethical framework is the least shitty of three shitty options.

Okay, we're going to accept some amount of inconsistency. But how much? Where to set the trade-off?

I think each person sets the trade-off differently, at the point most palatable to their preferences. The more puritan-minded are likely inclined to attempt squelching their misguided intuitions and shouldering more of the extreme demandingness that giving to the level of marginal utility presents. The bon vivants are more likely to preserve more of their admittedly inconsistent intuitions and shirk more of the demandingness giving to the level of marginal utility calls for. And very few are likely willing to walk the third path, the implications that follow from applying their general indifference to the case of the drowning child.

Thanks to Carl Shulman, Jacy Reese, David Berlekamp, and Rebecca Raible for giving feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

[rereads: 3, edits: prose tightening, edits to clarify what I was saying about intentionally trying to change intuitions being intractable, added the "Shut up and divide?" link, removed the "this post also appeared on the EA Forum" note after I learned that you actually have to have 5 karma to create posts on the EA Forum, which seems rather silly.]

Oct 22, 2016

Black Mirror: Nosedive

For someone like me (a technophile with contrarian traditionalist tendencies), Black Mirror is high-grade catnip. The catnippiness starts with the title card, which starts with a "content loading" symbol that is either indicative of the start of the show or a technical problem with your stream. The title card ends with an aggressively high-pitched tone that results in the glass "shattering" (here it is on video; the effect is better experienced than described).

I've watched the first two seasons, the christmas special, and am halfway through the third season that just dropped on Friday. The genius of each episode is that almost everything is exactly the same as our present day, except for a slight tweak along one axis (15 Million Merits and White Christmas are exceptions, admittedly). But that slight tweak sets the entire world askew.

"Nosedive" is my favorite episode of Season 3 so far. I like it because the slight tweak is very slight indeed: residents of the pleasant pastel-themed society are heavy users of an Instagram-like app, with which users can rate all their social interactions on a 1- to 5-star scale. These ratings are compiled into an aggregate point rating for each user, and people care a lot about their aggregate ratings.

The protagonist of "Nosedive" is a bright-eyed woman who's very bought in to the ratings game (she's a 4.2; an entire world of peaks & prestige opens up if she can just get to 4.5). As the title suggests, things don't go so well. But in another way, things go really well – she breaks out of the system, out of her head, finds some of the authentic experience she was striving towards.

The scary part about the "Nosedive" tweak is that no new technology needs to be invented or propagated in order for pastel-world to exist. Everybody already has a smartphone. Millions of people are already avid social network users. And because of the on-demand economy, people are growing used to assessing trivial interactions on a scale of 1 to 5. All that has to happen to bring about pastel-world is Facebook deciding to roll out a 5-star rating system that produces aggregate user scores, and for everyone to buy in. Pastel-world isn't 15 minutes in our future, it's just the universe next door.

I'm unsettled by thought experiments like this because they challenge my sense of this world's normalcy. Would our world seem like a social media dystopia to the residents of a universe a couple doors down? No reason why it shouldn't. There's so much preening and self-censorship in our society. Social media sites and smartphones didn't create such phenomena, but they have enabled them.

There's a fair amount of irony in writing a public post about such concerns. This blog is part of my social persona – in addition to the simple joy of writing, posting yields (a modicum of) social standing. But I don't think the way to deal with irony is trying to comport oneself in a way such that no accusation of hypocrisy ever holds water. I think the thing to do is swallow the bitter charge head on, and focus on the authentic pleasures of what you're doing as much as possible.

After all, Charlie Brooker gets prestige and profit from creating Black Mirror, a television show that reacts against our current media consumption habits. But this doesn't mean Charlie Brooker ought not to have created the show. It's a richer world with Black Mirror in it, even if its existence is hypocritical.

[rereads: 1, edits: tightened up the prose, written while listening to Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Vol 2 which is the perfect sort of music for this sort of thing]

Oct 08, 2016

Books Read Q3 2016

Books I finished in the third quarter of 2016:

1. Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock
Head of Google's "People Operations" discusses how Google does HR-type things. Written with the optimistic pep that seems to pop up in all of Google's public-facing copy.

I should probably keep this on hand as a reference because I think there's a lot of valuable stuff here behind the pep. I'm currently struggling with the "above-the-mean" hiring rule, which seems obviously right yet somehow cruel.

2. The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker (audiobook)
Collected essays of Peter F. Drucker, management expert. I don't remember any specific takeaways, probably because I listened to this three months ago over the course of several runs. My vague recollection is that everything Drucker advocated seemed sensible, inoffensive, and sort of obvious. (Yesterday's revolution is today's status quo.)

3. Money, Real Quick by Tonny K. Omwansa & Nicholas P. Sullivan
History of M-Pesa, Kenya's expansive mobile money network. Moderately interesting content, though poorly written and sort of repetitive.

4. One Man's Wilderness Sam Keith & Richard Proenneke
Edited journal entries of Richard Proenneke from his first year in the Alaskan backcountry. Really amazing and beautifully written (though I wonder how much of content has been romanticized by Keith; I wish I read the unadulterated journal entries). Here's a particularly compelling excerpt. I also thoroughly recommend the documentary (a).

5. Assassination of a Michigan King: The Life of James Jesse Strang by Roger Van Noord
Read while on Beaver Island, appropriately enough. Strang lived a fascinating life, and I find the Strangites spellbinding. The biography itself isn't anything special, but the story is wonderful.

6. Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer & August Cole (audiobook)
Fun romp through an imagined third world war (USA vs. China + Russia in the Pacific Theatre). Read it on Chris Blattman's recommendation, though I think he enjoyed it more than I did.

7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I can't really write a summary that does this book justice. It's the best thing I've read in a long time. It's really amazing. You should read it.

8. What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
Story of a gay American expat and Bulgarian sometimes-prostitute. Depressing but captivating.

9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Enjoyable sci-fi. Some of the best world-building I've ever read – everything was so weird, but so natural, somehow.

10. Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor
Prison memoir by a Michigan ex-con. A fast read. Sort of a surreal account of a Michigan which is right next to the Michigan I know, but worlds away.

11. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Merton's spiritual autobiography. I liked this a lot, some of my favorite parts here.

12. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
DFW essay collection. This is the first Wallace I've read. He's just so good. He's probably the best. It's lovely to read a writer who's this good at writing. It's also intimidating. I sense that I'm about to enter my DFW phase, and I have mixed feelings about this.

13. Utilitarianism: For and Against by J. J. C. Smart & Bernard Williams
Smart provides the case for utilitarianism; Williams gives the reply. Williams won the day, in my view (though he had the advantage of replying to Smart, and I'm biased towards his position). Here's his concluding takedown:

One important feature of [utilitarianism], which I have tried to bring out, is the number of dimensions in which it runs against the complexities of moral thought: in some part because of its consequentialism, in some part because of its view of happiness, and so forth. A common element in utilitarianism's showing in all these respects, I think, is its great simple-mindedness. This is not at all the same thing as lack of intellectual sophistication: utilitarianism, both in theory and practice, is alarmingly good at combining technical complexity with simple-mindedness ... Simple-mindedness consists in having too few thoughts and feelings to match the world as it really is. In private life and the field of personal morality it is often possible to survive in that state ... But the demands of political reality and the complexities of political thought are obstinately what they are, and in face of them the simple-mindedness of utilitarianism disqualifies it totally.

I wish Williams had put forward a positive vision for an alternative to utilitarianism, though that wasn't really in his remit here. (I suppose he would have been some sort of Rawlsian, and Rawls feels poorly specified to me as I currently understand him.) Building up a positive vision for a moral system is orders of magnitude more difficult than tearing down someone else's proposal, so Smart had the harder job. He made a fine effort, but I came away still convinced of utilitarianism's non-viability as the main organizing principle of morality (please don't ask what main organizing principle I do endorse; things are ... fuzzy).

I wish more books were written in this format: Neoconservatism: For and Against, Social Justice: For and Against, Effective Altruism: For and Against. I would eat those up.

[rereads: 1, edits: fixed a link, prose tightening]

Oct 07, 2016

How much do I need to save to retire early?

[2016-10-09 Update] Ben read this post and suggested two changes:

  1. Assuming a consistent 6% on capital is optimistic. 5% is probably more realistic, and it's the rate used by some people I respect (person 1, persons 2 & 3, h/t to Ben for the sources).

  2. Long-term capital gains tax is roughly 20%. State taxes might be another 10%. After accounting for long-term capital gains and state taxes, the post-tax rate of return is around 3.5% for a 5% pre-tax rate.

The upshot is that early retirement is substantially further away than I originally estimated: saving aggressively, we get there at age 53 rather than age 45. I've updated my spreadsheet to use a 3.5% effective rate of return, and rewritten some of the below to reflect these changes.

One of my goals is to have enough money to retire early. I use the word "retire" loosely here – I'm not interested in retirement in the "old people hanging out in Florida" sense, nor in the "100% of my time is leisure time" sense.

I want to be "retired" in the sense of "not having to work on something unless I want to" or, more precisely, "not needing to have a job in order to support myself". ("Fuck you" money is a coarser term for the same concept, but let's set that aside.)

Mr. Money Mustache does a much better job at explaining the philosophy (a) and method (a) behind this sort of thing, but I was interested in how this cashed out for my own situation, so here's a quick look at that.

First question: what age do I want to target for retirement?
Let's say age 45.

How much money do I need to retire?
In the Bay Area, I can live comfortably on $3,500/month. If I adjusted my current standard of living (or moved to a more affordable housing market), this could be substantially less. (Obviously the calculus changes if we throw a long-term partner or some kids into the mix.)

Let's work with $3,500/month for now.

$3,500/month * 12 months = $42,000/year to support myself.

What annual return can I expect on my capital?
I think it's reasonable to assume a 6% return on investment (after inflation), on average over the long run. (Here's some thinking on that which I'm not going to engage with here (a).)

[2016-10-09 addition: 5% is probably more reasonable, and this becomes 3.5% after taxes, see note at the top.]

How much do I need to accumulate in order to generate $42,000/year?
With a 3.5% return on capital, the math is simple: $42,000 / 0.035 = ~ $1,200,000

So I need to accumulate $1,200,000 in order to generate enough money to support myself indefinitely.

So how much is that per month?
I'll be 45 in 21 years. Saving $3,083 a month, every month, will get me $1,200,000 in the bank by then. This spreadsheet gives my work.

$3,083/month is lot of money, and probably infeasible given my current means. So, what's a more reasonable retirement year to target?

Working this time from the amount saved per month, let's say I can sock away $2,000/month if I'm frugal. Saving $2,000/month gets us to retirement by age 53 (again, work in the spreadsheet).

$2,000/month is a sizable amount, but it's definitely doable. And the payoff – being able to not have to worry about money from the age of 53 onward – is huge! Saving money is hard, but keeping the payoff in mind is motivating.

[rereads: 3, edits: tightened up the prose, style tweaks, added the caveat, added intro and comments in response to Ben's suggestions, significant rewrites to the "So how much is that per month?" section, cut the capital-gains caveat at the end, changed the title from "...by age 45?" to "...early?"]

Sep 25, 2016

Motorcycling: is it worth the risk?

Looking at expected minutes lost shows just how great a discrepancy there is between risks from different sorts of transport. Whereas an hour on a train costs you only twenty expected seconds of life, an hour on a motorbike costs you an expected three hours and forty-five minutes.

- William MacAskill in Doing Good Better (on p. 61 of my copy)

I have some quibbles with MacAskill's calculation. Because he was writing a popular interest book, he didn't provide any sourcing. I suspect that whatever source he used to calculate the expected risks of train-riding and motorcycle-riding was based on old statistics, and that it grouped all motorcycle fatalities into one aggregate number. Grouping all fatalities together is silly – obviously if you ride your motorbike home from a night at the bar you are at higher risk than if you take a Sunday morning ride on an empty country road. Counting drunken-ride-home-from-bar fatalities and Sunday-morning-ride-on-a-empty-road fatalities in the same category doesn't make sense.

But I shouldn't let such quibbles obscure the point. Even if old numbers and silly categorization explained half of the calculated risk of riding a motorcycle, an hour on a motorcycle is still many times more dangerous than an hour on a train. So, is the risk worth it?

Contrary to the opinions of my mother and the current zeitgeist, I don't think the answer is an obvious "No!". Motorcycling has much to recommend it. It is the fastest way to traverse a city, and it's always easy to find parking. It is an incredibly experiential way to travel through countryside – you really see things as you ride, you feel the crispness of the air all around you as you cut through a fall day, you smell the strong tartness of laid manure as you pass worked fields. Plus, motorcycling is fun, in a visceral, animal way. Like a bicycle, the motorcycle is an extension of your body, responsive to thought – you join your soft body with this twisted exoskeleton of metal and rubber, and thus paired, you fly together.

When living in a city, it is amazingly nice to have a motorcycle tucked away in some garage or back lot. After a stressful day, the sort of day when all the humanness and bustle and bother of the social project starts to get to you, you can unveil your better half, rev it up, and leave. Just leave. No preparation, no careful analysis of traffic patterns, no stewing in highway backup. With just a thought, you find yourself 50 miles outside of town on a country road no commuter would ever think to bother with.

On a long ride, there is something purifying about cruising for hour after hour. Yesterday, I headed out of Montreal on my bike. I was distracted at first. Worried about my work, about all the emails I had to answer, about small things: when I would arrive at my destination that evening, where I should stop, whether I was wearing enough layers. The purification wasn't instant – at my first stop, I nervously flipped between Slack and gmail on my phone while trying to warm my hands on a cup of Tim Hortons. But by the afternoon, several hours of riding behind me, I was simplified. No need to worry about when I would get in, or where the next stop should be, or how things were going at work in my absence. No need to worry about anything, really.

So those are all good things. But it is undeniably dangerous. You skate over asphalt at 80+ mph, surrounded by distracted steel cages. Of course it is dangerous.

The scary part is that after you've been riding for a few months, it no longer feels dangerous. It feels very normal, just as anything that you do consistently for a few months feels normal. So you skate between distracted cages, at 80, 90, 100 mph. For hours. Hopefully you remember to check your blind spot every time you change lanes. And when you do forget to check, hopefully there's nothing in it. Hopefully all those cages remember to check their blind spots when they change lanes. Hell, hopefully they check their mirrors. And when they neglect to do so, hopefully you are out of range of their error.

There is so much of this when riding – blind hope that other drivers are reasonable and vigilant, that the road is smooth and unobstructed, that your machine is functional and all its bolts are tight. Most of the time, it's fine. You ride for a few months without incident, you get used to the speed and stress of the highway and don't fear it anymore. Everything is fine. A few years of the same; everything is fine. Eventually, it gets easy to believe that all those statistics and cultural fear are wrong, that all those people simply don't know what they're talking about, that motorcycling is objectively the best way to travel and that you, master rider that you are, are untouchable.

Alistair Farland embodies much of the spirit of motorcycling that I find so attractive. A few years ago, at age 24, he embarked on a 29,000 mile motorbike trip from Alaska to the bottom of South America. He chronicled his journey on his website (a), which has long been one of my favorite little corners of the internet. There is something immensely alluring about loading up an adventure bike with carefully selected gear, charting out a route for the day, and spending your time traveling through foreign places. Then doing this for day after day until it becomes routine. I love that. It's the same affinity I feel for Alexander Supertramp, minus the poorly specified rage against "the system".

Riding a motorcycle for hundreds of miles daily, day after day, is risky. 10,000 miles into Alistair's trip, he ran his bike into the back of a semi on I-95 in North Carolina and died. It was silly, arbitrary way to die. Alistair was traveling at 65 mph. The truck was moving at 60 mph in the same direction. Nobody did anything particularly stupid. No insane risk-taking. Just a slip in attention after thousands of miles of riding, and he was dead.

So in addition to an inspiring hero, Alistair Farland is a cautionary tale. I think about him sometimes when I'm cruising along at 75 or 85 mph. Alistair Farland died at 65 mph, and it was nobody's fault.

I'm not sure if I'll keep riding for much longer. As above, I really enjoy it, and not just in a juvenile, risk-taking way. Motorcycling makes my life better. But it also makes my life shorter, in expectation. And that's a tough decision to make.

Alistair Farland died at 65 mph, and it was nobody's fault.

But let's not close with that. Let's close with this charming post on Alistair's blog (a), written at the start of his journey.

[rereads: 2, edits: tightened up prose]

Sep 09, 2016

Passages I particularly enjoyed in "The Seven Storey Mountain"

I recently read Thomas Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I really liked it, way more than I was expecting to. Merton is a clear, simple writer, which is always a pleasure. And he's clearly highly intelligent, which makes it hard to write him off as he swerves from "secular, aspiring writer" to "nascent, devout Catholic" to "intensely committed Catholic monk".

Plus, he only throws religion in your face for like 20 pages, which is pretty remarkable considering it is a 460-page "autobiography of faith".

Here are the passages I particularly enjoyed:

On the Church of England: (on p. 72 of the edition I was reading)

Prayer is attractive enough when it is consider in a context of good food, and sunny joyous country churches, and the green English countryside. And, as a matter of fact, the Church of England means all this. It is a class religion, the cult of a special society and group, not even of a whole nation, but of the ruling minority in a nation. That is the principal basis for its rather strong coherence up to now. There is certainly not much doctrinal unity, much less a mystical bond between people many of whom have even ceased to believe in grace or Sacraments. The thing that holds them together is the powerful attraction of their own social tradition, and the stubborn tenacity with which they cling to certain social standards and customs, more or less for their own sake. The Church of England depends, for its existence, almost entirely on the solidarity and conservatism of the English ruling class. Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their Church the way they cling to their King and to their old schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions regarding the English countryside, old castles and cottages, games of cricket in the long summer afternoons, tea-parties on the Thames, croquet, roast-beef, pipe-smoking, the Christmas panto, Punch and the London Times and all those other things the mere thought of which produces a kind of warm and inexpressible ache in the English heart.

On experiencing romantic love for the first time: (p. 98)

I would rather spend two years in a hospital than go through that anguish again! That devouring, emotional, passionate love of adolescence that sinks its claws into you and consumes you day and night and eats into the vitals of your soul! All the self-tortures of doubt and anxiety and imagination and hope and despair that you go through when you are a child, trying to break out of your shell, only to find yourself in the middle of a legion of full-armed emotions against which you have no defense! It is like being flayed alive. No one can go through it twice. This kind of a love affair can really happen only once in a man's life. After that he is calloused. He is no longer capable of so many torments. He can suffer, but not from so many matters of no account. After one such crisis he has experience and the possibility of a second time no longer exists, because the secret of the anguish was his own utter guilelessness. He is no longer capable of such complete and absurd surprises. No matter how simple a man may be, the obvious cannot go on astonishing him for ever.

On the best philosophical proof of the existence of God: (p. 103-4)

My advice to an ordinary religious man, supposing anyone were to desire my advice on this point, would be to avoid all arguments about religion, and especially about the existence of God. However, to those who know some philosophy I would recommend the study of Duns Scotus' proofs for the actual existence of an Infinite Being, which are given in the Second Distinction of the First Book of the Opus Oxoniense – in Latin that is hard enough to give you many headaches. It is getting to be rather generally admitted that, for accuracy and depth and scope, this is the most perfect and complete and thorough proof for the existence of God that has ever been worked out by any man.

On having a "good time": (p. 114-5)

I believed in the beautiful myth about having a good time so long as it does not hurt anybody else. You cannot live for your own pleasure and your own convenience without inevitably hurting and injuring the feelings and the interests of practically everybody you meet. But, as a matter of fact, in the natural order no matter what ideals may be theoretically possible, most people more or less live for themselves and for their own interests and pleasures or for those of their own family or group, and therefore they are constantly interfering with one another's aims, and hurting one another and injuring one another, whether they mean it or not.

On aspiring to monkhood: (p. 126)

Is there any man who has ever gone through a whole lifetime without dressing himself up, in his fancy, in the habit of a monk and enclosing himself in a cell where he sits magnificent in heroic austerity and solitude, while all the young ladies who hitherto were cool to his affections in the world come and beat on the gates of the monastery crying, "Come out, come out!"

His assessment of American capitalism, drawn in contrast to communist Russia: (p. 147-8)

It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness. And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.

On "virtue": (p. 223)

The word virtue: what a fate it has had in the last three hundred years! The fact that it is nowhere near so despised and ridiculed in Latin countries is a testimony to the fact that it suffered mostly from the mangling it underwent at the hands of Calvinists and Puritans. In our own days the word leaves on the lips of cynical high-school children a kind of flippant smear, and it is exploited in theaters for the possibilities it offers for lewd and cheesy sarcasm. Everybody makes fun of virtue, which now has, as its primary meaning, an affectation of prudery practiced by hypocrites and the impotent.

After his baptism: (p. 248)

It was to this that I was called. It was for this that I had been created. It was for this Christ had died on the Cross, and for this that I was now baptized, and had within me the living Christ, melting me into Himself in the fires of His love.

This was the call that came to me with my Baptism, bringing with it a most appalling responsibility if I failed to answer it. Yet, in a certain sense, it was almost impossible for me to hear and answer it [...]

For it was certainly true that the door into immense realms was opened to me on that day. And that was something I could not help realizing however obscurely and vaguely. The realization, indeed, was so remote and negative that it only came to me by way of contrast with the triviality and bathos of normal human experience – the talk of my friends, the aspect of the city, and the fact that every step down Broadway took me further and further into the abyss of anti-climax.

His first impressions of St. Ignatius' Exercises: (p. 295)

The big and simple and radical truths of the "Foundation" were, I think, too big and too radical for me. By myself, I did not even scratch the surface of them. I vaguely remember fixing my mind on this notion of indifference to all created things in themselves, to sickness and health, and being mildly appalled. Who was I to understand such a thing? If I got a cold I nearly choked myself with aspirins and hot lemonade, and dived into bed with undisguised alarm. And here was a book that might perhaps be telling me that I ought to be able to remain as cool as an icebox in the presence of a violent death. How could I figure out just what and how much that word "indifferent" meant, if there was no one to tell me? I did not have any way of seeing the distinction between indifference of the will and indifference of the feelings – the latter being practically a thing unknown, even in the experience of the saints. So, worrying about this big difficulty of my own creation, I missed the real fruit of this fundamental meditation, which would have been an application of its notions to all the things to which I myself was attached, and which always tended to get me into trouble.

On entering the Gethsemani Monastery as a novice, probably the most famous line of the book: (p. 410)

So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.

Addressing God, in the conclusion: (p. 461)

I do not make a big drama of this business. I do not say: "You have asked me for everything, and I have renounced all." Because I no longer desire to see anything that implies a distance between You and me: and if I stand back and consider myself and You as if something had passed between us, from me to You, I will inevitably see the gap between us and remember the distance between us.

My God, it is that gap and that distance which kill me.

That is the only reason why I desire solitude – to be lost to all created things, to die to them and to the knowledge of them, for they remind me of my distance from You. They tell me something about You: that You are far from them, even though You are in them. You have made them and Your presence sustains their being, and they hide You from me. And I would live alone, and out of them. O beata solitudo!

For I knew that it was only by leaving them that I could come to You: and that is why I have been so unhappy when You seemed to be condemning me to remain in them. Now my sorrow is over, and my joy is about to begin: the joy that rejoices in the deepest sorrows. For I am beginning to understand. You have taught me, and have consoled me, and I have begun again to hope and learn.

[rereads: 1, edits: transcription corrections]

Sep 07, 2016


Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.
- Rick Warren (sometimes incorrectly attributed to C.S. Lewis)

This account of becoming obsessed with productivity techniques (a) is the most profound (read: most resonant with my present situation) thing I've read recently. I've read it three times now, and each time it's knocked me flat on my ass. This is probably because the author and I have similar interests and similar reservations about said interests. He was into lifehacking. I'm into self-improvement. Tomayto, tomahto.

The piece is full of wonderfully amusing bits, like:

I stuck coloured paper all over my walls so that I was rarely more than 2 seconds away from a surface that could be used to capture important information or ideas.


[My] mind expansion generally took the form of reading more and more blogs about productivity, since this is logically the most productive thing that anyone can do with their time.


I went to a co-working space and shuffled around pieces of coloured card in order to help me visualise and crystallise my thoughts, because there were just so many things that I had to work out.

And finally:

I started trying to maintain a file in Evernote for each new person I met or contacted, with their interests, background, skills, and our history together. I tried doing the same thing in Highrise. Neither initiative worked or lasted, because they were both completely unnecessary for me.

Okay, just one more:

Fortunately I still ended up working and hanging out with some cool people, and was having fun and learning a lot whilst doing so. I was just generating a whole lot of unnecessary dust and noise at the same time.

Plus, the piece has obvious intersections with media I've been consuming lately: Ryan Holliday on EconTalk and Thomas Merton's autobiography. Scott Alexander is right about chronology being a harsh master.

I don't have a clear takeaway here, just a strong intuition that I've been organizing my life improperly (suboptimally? uninspiredly?), and some external confirmation of this in the form of Heaton's post.

I really like systems, plans, grand designs. And I really like introspection – careful consideration of how I've been doing and where I want to be heading.

But all these plans and reflections are tools. I can use them to push towards things I want to accomplish. But just possessing a tool is not sufficient to ensure its proper use. These tools can push in many directions. This, I think, is the crux of it: am I using these tools to push towards something I care about? Or am I using them as a substitute for actual, object-level pursuits?

All these tools can be used to build up a looming edifice. But such edifice is artifice: complicated, elegant, alluring in an alien way. But all scaffolding, rising up, supporting nothing but itself.

[rereads: 2, edits: tightening up the prose]

Aug 29, 2016

When akrasia crosses with depression

Sometimes I grow akratic – I just can't work. I want to, I've carved out the time, I have the tasks and tools at hand. But it doesn't happen. I read something interesting online. I get something to eat. I play a few rounds of counter-strike. I'm always just about to work, it's always the next thing on my plate, but I usually don't. I read another article, play another round of CS.

The akrasia isn't so bad by itself. Wasting time is pleasant: internet articles are interesting, counter-strike is fun. But when the akrasia gets crossed with depression – that's scary. That is dangerous ground. The depression tells me that I'm no good, was never any good, and won't be any good going forward. The akrasia provides the evidence. "Oh yeah, you were going to finish all your work, and then write that insightful blog post? Well it looks like you're just getting pwned on Office. You can't even play CS properly!"

Sometimes, when things get really dark, I'm able to pull myself out of it. I get upset at myself, fuming so that I can't even enjoying wasting time any more. Then I have to move, have to walk, have to be going somewhere, and if I'm lucky I'll be able to walk myself right into bed and fall asleep without difficulty. When morning comes I wake up feeling sharp and clean, and work will come easily when I attempt it.

That's if I'm lucky. But I'm rarely able to work myself into such pique. Instead, the depression and akrasia just float over me like a gray haze slowly thickening. Eventually it chokes out any enjoyment I was getting from the time-wasting, and I just sit there like a zombie, going through the motions, not getting any reward at all. No dopamine hit, no pleasure in the lizard brain, just moving forward by habit alone. That's the place I fear – it's a loss of will to act. And without the sensation of will, what am I? Just a piece of furniture. An office plant, shriveling up.

I'm waxing poetic. I don't want to wax poetic. I just want to write down what it feels like, what it is like. Maybe when I write it down accurately, I'll have some insight so that I don't go to that gray haze place anymore. Maybe when I review the accurate account, I'll see where I went wrong, what I have to do differently the next time. But that seems naïve.

My best guess is that this problem isn't going away, though it might be mitigated. I'm not going to stop having akratic periods. And I'm not going to stop having depressive episodes. Sometimes, the two will coincide. But when that happens, I can take care of myself. Even after walking deep into a black tunnel, I can turn around. I might be a worthless scumbag, true enough, but I'm a worthless scumbag that will have a sunnier opinion of itself in the morning. I almost always have enough cogency to acknowledge that things will be different in the morning. So I can keep that in mind, as best I am able.

I don't think there is anything profound about the dark place I go to when depression and akrasia intersect. It certainly feels profound when I'm there, in some vague way, but on reflection that feeling is baseless. It's just another place, another mood, another state of being. It doesn't deserve a privileged position in my consciousness.

[rereads: 2, edits: tightening up phrases]

Aug 15, 2016

Reflection on my time at GiveWell

I worked at GiveWell from August 2014 to May 2016. This piece is a reflection on my time there, on things I think GiveWell does well as an employer, on things I think it could do better, and why I decided to leave.

I envision two functions for this piece: (1) as an exercise to help me process my time at GiveWell, and (2) as a resource for people considering working at GiveWell. When I was considering taking a job at GiveWell, I found Nick Beckstead's reflection on his internship at GiveWell to be very helpful. Outside of Nick's piece, there isn't very much substantive information available about working at GiveWell. Many people consider employment at GiveWell; I hope some of those people find this reflection to be useful.

Some background

I learned about GiveWell in Spring 2014, after reading Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality in a college ethics class and encountering related topics on the internet. By the time I took the ethics class, I knew that I did not want to go to graduate school immediately after my undergraduate, but I was very taken by academic ethics and wanted to continue serious thinking about the topic. GiveWell seemed like a good opportunity to continue thinking carefully about ethics outside of academia.

After a somewhat protracted application process, I decided to take a job at GiveWell. (A brief history of my application process: I was rejected two times, first because GiveWell was not hiring when I inquired, then because I failed the resume screen for a research analyst (RA) position. After my second rejection I was encouraged to apply for an admin position, during the admin application process I also did a case study interview for the RA position; I received an offer for the RA position after doing well on the case study.) Going into the job, I expected that it would help me think through several ethical questions, provide an opportunity to do impactful work, and be a good (i.e. well-regarded) first step out of college. Broadly, I think GiveWell delivered on all three.

While at GiveWell, I worked primarily on its top charity investigations. I spent time staying up to date on the progress previously recommended charities were making, as well as looking into promising programs run by charities we had not previously recommended. Specifically, I worked on GiveWell's investigations of the Against Malaria Foundation (which was a GiveWell top charity for several years prior to my joining), Development Media International (which we recommended as a "standout" charity for the first time shortly after I joined), and New Incentives (which has yet to receive a top charity or standout recommendation). I was not involved in Open Philanthropy Project investigations, nor did I do a substantial amount of intervention research (research focusing on what interventions are most helpful, rather than on what organizations are most effectively implementing priority interventions). The reflections below are based on my experience at GiveWell – I cannot speak from direct experience about what it is like to work on GiveWell intervention reports or the Open Philanthropy Project.

What I got out of my time at GiveWell

Worldview building

The main benefit I got out of my time at GiveWell was a more settled worldview. Going in, I was in exploration mode: I had many unsettled questions about the world, and few beliefs that I strongly endorsed. In college, I had been exposed to many areas of inquiry, but I didn't have opinions about most of these topics.

At GiveWell, I settled on answers to many of these questions. I now feel like I have a basic framework for thinking about the world and how I should operate in it. GiveWell enabled me to build this framework by (1) allowing me to work and converse with peers who had thought very closely about these topics, and (2) presenting me with real-world problems whose solutions required selecting and applying an ethical framework.

Here is a brief sketch of some of the worldview beliefs I now hold, all of which I decided on during my time at GiveWell:

Professional skills

I gained several professional skills at GiveWell. I went from knowing very little about quantitative social science to being able to read a complicated paper and form a view about its quality (I am by no means an expert in this, but I am much more capable at it than I was prior to joining GiveWell).

On the object level, I learned a lot about developing world public health and some about development economics. I now have a good idea of how to answer empirical questions in these fields. For empirical questions in other social science fields, I now have a rough idea of how to assess the literature and arrive at an answer, though it would take me longer to spin up on the literature due to lack of previous experience.

I learned basic statistical concepts, especially those that apply to assessing the results of a randomized controlled trial. Note that I made a special effort to learn statistics while at GiveWell and it is not clear that I would have learned much statistics without making this effort.

My skill with Excel greatly improved at GiveWell. I had only basic knowledge of Excel prior to joining; building and working with GiveWell's cost-effectiveness analyses strongly developed my ability to use Excel for quantitative modeling.

My writing skill was strong prior to GiveWell. I think that it improved slightly, especially along the axis of precision (GiveWell writes in an idiosyncratic way that is very concerned with precision). My writing also may have become more verbose at GiveWell (another trait of GiveWell's writing style).

Finally, at GiveWell I became more persistent when trying to figure things out, and better at assessing arguments on their merits. Internally, I became more skeptical of my prior beliefs and began to develop a habit of thinking carefully about why I believed the things I did (as well as a habit of explicitly changing my mind when encountering new evidence or new arguments). Externally, I became more dogged when asking questions, and less likely to be satisfied with vague, underspecified answers. Along with this, I also lost almost all respect for arguments from authority, and now I try to not privilege arguments presented by experts over arguments made by laypeople.

Networking within the Effective Altruism community

I was unfamiliar with the Effective Altruism (EA) community prior to joining GiveWell. GiveWell provided an excellent platform for engaging with this community. This had both social and professional benefits: I now have many friends in the EA community, and when I was considering leaving GiveWell, three of the opportunities I seriously considered (including the offer I accepted) were enabled by my EA network. (I had multiple rounds of interviews for all of these positions. If I had not worked at GiveWell, and thus not had connections at these places, I doubt I would have received callbacks from any of them.)

Humanitarian impact

I think that my time at GiveWell yielded a positive humanitarian impact, though it is difficult to accurately assess the amount of impact appropriately attributed to my individual contribution. Parsing out the portion of an organization’s impact attributable to an individual contributor is a problematic exercise, and I’m personally skeptical of its usefulness, but some readers may be interested in such an estimate so let's give it a go.

As an institution, GiveWell is enormously impactful. I think in the final analysis, the bulk of GiveWell's impact will probably be due to indirect effects from changing how philanthropic incentives are set up and modeling an altruistic career path for young, high-potential professionals. However, it is especially hard to get a read on the expected magnitude of impacts like these, so for simplicity let's disregard them here and focus only on GiveWell’s direct impact.

A good proxy for GiveWell's direct impact is the money it moves to its recommended charities. In 2015, GiveWell tracked $110.1 million to its recommended charities. Most of this money moved was the result of work done in previous years, and the work done in 2015 will be used to inform recommendation decisions in future years, so there is not a direct relationship between work done in 2015 and 2015 money moved. However, I expect that GiveWell’s money moved in the next few years will be either about the same as it was in 2015 or higher, so for simplicity I’ll use 2015 money moved as an estimate of the impact of the work done in 2015; note that this is a conservative estimate.

According to GiveWell's 2015 year in review, an entry-level staffer in their first year is considered to add 10% of the value of a co-founder. I don't have access to the algorithm GiveWell used to model the relationship between co-founder equivalents and work experience, so let's assume that in 2015, my second year at GiveWell, I added 20% of the value of a co-founder. Further, as a research analyst, I was replaceable – let's assume that my working at GiveWell in 2015 had 10% more value-add than the person that would have been hired in my absence. GiveWell calculates that it employed 9 co-founder equivalents total in 2015, so the portion of 2015 money moved attributable to me would be: ($110.1 million / 9) * 0.2 * 0.1 = $244,700. Note that all the inputs to this calculation are very rough, and other values may arguably be more accurate.

It's tempting to assume that this figure is equivalent to me causing $244,700 of impact, but that would be double-counting. All of GiveWell's donations are made by donors, and many of those donors would have given to charity regardless of GiveWell's existence. I don't have good data on what proportion of donors would not have given charitably in GiveWell's absence, nor on what proportion of GiveWell's money moved would gone to less impactful charities in its absence. It's more appropriate to treat the figure as a proportion: i.e., whatever GiveWell's direct impact was in 2015, 0.22% of that impact was attributable to me ($244,700 / $110,000,000 = 0.22%).

If I wanted to put my proportion of GiveWell’s impact into dollar terms, I could make a rough estimate of the proportion of GiveWell’s money moved that ought to be attributed to GiveWell’s work (e.g. perhaps I estimate that roughly 40% of the impact of money moved should be attributed to GiveWell), then I could multiply through. (Following our example, $110,000,000 * 0.4 * 0.0022 = $97,900 of GiveWell’s 2015 direct impact would be attributable to me; from an impact perspective, I would be indifferent between working at GiveWell in 2015 and working at an impact-neutral job in 2015 and donating $97,900 to GiveWell’s recommended charities.)

Things I think GiveWell does well as an employer

  • Flexible working schedule. GiveWell suggested that its employees to work a "full-time week", which is intentionally vague but essentially means putting in around 35 to 45 productive hours a week (note that 35-45 productive hours a week equates to roughly 50-60 hours in the office per week). Where and when to put in these hours is left up to the employee. This flexibility is nice in many ways: it accommodates early risers and night owls, it lets employees avoid the rush hour commute (GiveWell's office is in downtown San Francisco), it makes it easy to schedule chores during the week, and it accommodates lazy mornings when going into the office feels unreasonably hard.

  • Access to co-founders and senior staff. GiveWell grew from 13 to 32 people during my time there. As a result of this growth, more levels of hierarchy were instituted (before I joined, the co-founders directly managed everyone; this shifted to distinct teams, each with a manager). Even at its larger size, GiveWell did a good job of maintaining access to senior staff. I had weekly, mandatory 1-on-1's with my manager, and co-founders held weekly office hours during which anyone could drop in to talk about anything. Less formally, it was easy to ask to meet with a co-founder or senior staffer, and these requests would almost always result in a 30- to 45-minute meeting (usually in the form of a walk along the Embarcadero).

  • Receptiveness to staff input. I think that GiveWell leadership were very good at soliciting and hearing feedback from other staff, including feedback on major decisions and on how GiveWell was doing as an employer. However, in general I think that senior staff were unlikely to change their minds as a result of staff feedback, and I think this was primarily because they engaged in very thorough thinking prior to soliciting staff feedback about decisions.

  • Clear communication about performance and trajectory. GiveWell communicated clearly about how I was performing and how it expected me to progress as an employee. I had ample opportunity to discuss performance feedback, and my manager made a point of periodically checking in about how things were going.

  • Hard-working culture. In general, people at GiveWell have a tendency to work very hard. This produces a cultural norm of working very hard, which in turn reinforces people's tendency to work very hard. Though it carries some risk of encouraging burnout, I think that overall this hard-working culture was a good thing. It felt good to work at a place that held you to an exacting standard, and I think spending time in GiveWell's work culture made me a more productive person.

Things I think GiveWell could do better as an employer

  • Top-down decision-making. During my time at GiveWell, most major decisions were made by the co-founders, or the co-founders in collaboration with senior staff. Decisions were then announced to all staff and staff feedback was used as a means of stress-testing the decision. In general, staff input had a low "hit rate" of changing decisions (note: my view here may be biased by my low personal hit rate of changing GiveWell decisions, other employees may have different opinions about this). I think this low hit rate is indicative of very solid decision-making by senior staff, but it could feel disempowering. Decisions often had the appearance of being made beforehand, and while decisions would be discussed after being announced, these discussions usually didn't change the plan very much, and the main contribution of research analysts was to execute on the original plan. As a research analyst, I generally felt that I had limited autonomy in my work (i.e. I usually felt that I couldn't do more than four hours work in any one direction without checking in with my manager), and this could be frustrating.

  • Time tracking. Everyone tracked their time at GiveWell. Most people opted to use Toggl, a desktop timer, though some people used more freeform methods (e.g. estimates logged in an excel sheet). Employees sent timesheets were sent to managers at the beginning of each week, as well as a more detailed report at the end of each quarter. Timesheets were used by senior staff to (1) get a sense of many hours different types of projects took, and (2) notice when a project was taking far longer than projects of its sort generally took, which could indicate a problem. Time tracking caused me a fair bit of anxiety during my first months at GiveWell, but I eventually acclimated to it. At my current job I am not required to track time, which I much prefer, though somewhat ironically I still track time on my volition (I think requiring time tracking introduces a bundle of small frictions and anxieties which cumulate into a substantial productivity cost; whereas voluntary time tracking doesn’t introduce many of these costs).

  • Performance evaluation. GiveWell’s work assignment philosophy is to give more challenging work to staffers who are performing very well, while keeping adequately performing staffers on the work they have been doing. After my first 8 months, I was assessed as an adequate performer (note that this is not used as a formal category at GiveWell), and once this assessment had been made I found it difficult to change. In general, poor performance on an assignment would result in a fairly large negative update on the staffer's overall performance, whereas consistently solid performance would be considered adequate, but would not result in a large positive update on overall performance (as far as I could tell).

    I think GiveWell's method of performance evaluation works well for people who are already confident in their abilities and direction (i.e. people in execution mode), but can be quite costly for people who are still figuring out what they are good at and what they want to do (i.e. people in exploration mode). This is especially problematic because GiveWell has a tendency to hire young, high-potential, self-skeptical people, and high-potential, self-skeptical people have a tendency to believe that they can do less than they actually can, if challenged. I was very much in exploration mode when I started at GiveWell, and I think this resulted in a worse performance assessment than I would have received if I was more settled in my beliefs and more confident in my abilities. Once assessed as an adequate performer, I found it difficult to grow quickly, as I was not consistently given assignments that felt challenging.

  • Team building. I felt a lack of "teamness" during my time at GiveWell. I didn't realize how strong this lack was until I started at another job – I've been with my current company for about two months now, and I already feel a greater sense of team than I did at GiveWell. I have difficulty articulating precisely why a sense of team is important, but I strongly believe that it is. During my time there, GiveWell identified this issue and made efforts at increasing people's sense of connectedness. I think these efforts were moderately successful – things were better when I left than they were in late 2015 – but there is more room for improvement on this axis.

  • Lack of explicit emphasis on self-care. Many people at GiveWell maintained a strong division between their private and professional lives, and people were especially careful about infringing on their perceptions of other people's privacy. There are definite benefits to this, but one cost is that the organization did not explicitly encourage staff to take care of themselves.

    I think that an emphasis on self-care is especially important in American work culture, where employees frequently feel that they should be working a lot and that time they spend not working is time they should feel bad about. Additionally, I think an emphasis on self-care is especially especially important when, as at GiveWell, the hiring pool selects for young people who might be convinced that they are morally obligated to do as much good as they possibly can with their time. Two things to note here: first, my impression is that most employers are pretty bad at encouraging self-care, and I have no reason to think that GiveWell is exceptionally bad in this direction; second, not explicitly encouraging something is quite different than discouraging it – in my experience, GiveWell was good at giving employees space and time when they asked for it, just not very good at encouraging people to make the ask.

Why I decided to leave

I decided to leave GiveWell because the object-level work didn’t align well with my interests, and because I found an opportunity which I thought would encourage faster personal growth (at Wave, a mobile money startup focused on African markets, which I joined as a non-engineer generalist). As I said, one of the main benefits I got out of GiveWell was worldview building – once I settled some of the open questions I had been chewing over, there was less building to be done.

I imagine that if I had a stronger interest in public health, or if I prioritized personal growth less highly, or if my disposition was slightly different (such that I found GiveWell's working culture to be more compatible with my preferred working style), I would have found medium-term (5-10 year) employment at GiveWell to be fulfilling. As things stand, however, my best guess is that I would have grown restless and unhappy at GiveWell if I had stayed for a few more years.

I got a lot out of working at GiveWell, and I have no regrets about my time there. I was able to work with amazing people who cared deeply about what they were doing, and I learned an immense amount. Through GiveWell, I was exposed to a community of people and ideas that aligned well with my own beliefs, and I was able to contribute to a sizeable humanitarian impact. As a first job after college for someone interested in an impactful career, or for someone interested in a career in public health or global development, I heartily recommend it.

Thanks to Michael Griffes, Ben Kuhn, Scott Weathers, Kit Harris, Vipul Naik, Holden Karnofsky, and Elie Hassenfeld for reading drafts of this post and providing feedback. And to Timothy Telleen-Lawton for kindly pointing out a calculation error after publication. This post also appeared on 80,000.

[rereads: many, edits: multitudinous]

Aug 14, 2016

Nanodegree postmortem

In my recent Year In Review, I wrote that, though I was deprioritizing technical learning, I was going to continue working on my Udacity Nanodegree:

On the object level, this means stopping all technical learning I feel that I "should do," while continuing to learn things that grab my attention. One exception to this: I want to finish my Nanodegree by the end of August – towards this end I'm going to block off my Sunday mornings to work on the Nanodegree, either until it's finished or September arrives, whichever comes first.

I'm writing this on August 14th. I haven't finished the Nanodegree and September hasn't arrived, but this morning I ended my Nanodegree enrollment. So that's another plan that ganged agley.

I began the Nanodegree last September. During the previous summer, I had struggled through the first half of Joe Blitzstein's Statistics 110: Introduction to Probability course, which turned out to be very difficult, despite the low course number and friendly sounding title. I had been turned onto Blitzstein's course by Ben Kuhn's recommendation (a), which was backed up by Andrew Gelman (a) when I wrote him asking for advice. (Gelman's blog has a long lead time – I wrote him in June 2015 and his reply wasn't posted until February 2016, though he did reply to my email right away. Also, sending a thoughtful reply to an unsolicited message was very nice of him, given what must be a massive email burden.)

A moment of clarity came when I sat down to self-administer the midterm from Blitzstein's course. I found that I couldn't confidently solve any of the problems without referencing the answer key. This was discouraging – I gave up on the course after that.

I still had a desire to "tech up", so I decided to enroll in Udacity's Data Analyst Nanodegree after reading about it in the Times (a). The Nanodegree promised more pragmatic technical learning than the probability course, which was focused on fundamentals. In addition, Udacity would bill me $200/month for the Nanodegree, which I hoped would function as a strong accountability mechanism.

I had better success with the Nanodegree than with Blitzstein's probability course. The Nanodegree presented content as short videos in a sequence, interspersed with problems to solve. In general, the concepts presented in the videos were very straightforward, sometimes feeling too simplistic, which led me to move through the video sequences quickly. After each "course" of sequences, I was given a freeform project to complete. The projects were the meat of the program – a human reviewer would grade each project submission, and only projects that "met specifications" (i.e. passed all the requirements on a rubric) would be accepted. The Nanodegree was completed by meeting specifications on all seven of its projects.

At first, this seemed eminently doable, and within a month I had met specifications on the first project (in addition to completing the optional introductory project). But I soon became less conscientious, shifting from working on the Nanodegree a little each day to working on it a couple of times a week to working on it on weekends, sometimes. By December, weeks had gone by without forward progress.

When home in Michigan for my winter holiday, I sketched out a plan to knock out the remainder of the Nanodegree during my vacation. On reflection, this was obviously naïve. But the plan encouraged me to work, and I met specifications on another project over the holiday.

My interest flagged again in early 2016, and again weeks were going by without any progress. This stagnation was painful – every month was costing me $200, and every derailed work schedule made me feel bad about both my ability to make reasonable plans and my ability to execute on goals.

I rallied again in late March, knocking out one project and diving into another. But I got bogged down while working through Udacity's Machine Learning course in preparation for the project, an ML investigation of a dataset of Enron emails. The sequences of videos & questions were straightforward enough, but they felt detached from the underlying work that the machine learning models were doing. I was learning how to direct these models but I had no idea how they worked, just like learning to drive a car doesn't teach you about what makes it go. This was frustrating, as I've always craved understanding of fundamentals.

I'm not sure if this disconnect was the blocker, but I never really gained traction on the machine learning project. I entered another long stagnation, which, apart from a couple of desultory jabs at a project using SQL to parse and clean data about my hometown pulled from OpenStreetMap, brings us to today, when I decided to cancel my subscription.

I completed about half of the content necessary to obtain the Data Analyst Nanodegree. I "met specifications" on three of the seven projects necessary to obtain the degree, and made some progress on two of the other projects.

It's possible that had I really buckled down, I could have finished the program by the end of August. There really wasn't that much work left, probably 50 focused hours worth, which would have made for an intense yet manageable three weeks. But I had little desire to do this, and the desire I did have came from a bad place. I didn't want the Nanodegree in order to acquire the skills necessary to answer some pressing question I had, nor did I want it to secure a well-paying, interesting job. Rather, I wanted the Nanodegree for some mix of pride, credentialism, and curiosity. I did find the topics interesting, but as I wrote recently:

I would classify my interest as casual, an "oh, that's interesting, let me poke around for a while" rather than a "wow this is the coolest thing and I have to learn everything that has ever been written about it."

I don't have much regret now that I've cancelled my subscription. I regret that my indecision and impotent ambition delayed cancellation by a few months, which cost me several hundred dollars. It was pretty clear by March that things were not going particularly well and that something would have to change. Hell, it was pretty clear by December. But I'm quite good at ignoring unpleasant truths about myself.

What did I learn from this episode?

I learned that it is difficult for me to learn things when driven by abstract reasons. It is much easier to learn things when I have a concrete problem or interest to pursue. For example, I learned much faster when writing about a potentially overvalued prediction market on Trump (and later revisions to this post) than I did when halfheartedly struggling through Blitzstein's probability course. I often can't get invested in abstract problems or puzzles. I don't know why I'm wired that way, but I am.

I learned that I want to be viewed as a technically competent person much more than I want to actually spend time solving technical problems. This isn't a pleasant fact about my character, but I think it's true.

My discernment about what I'm genuinely interested in improved as well. Writing gives a clear contrast here – I have spent the last two hours writing this post and only noticed the time because I had to calculate it to make this point. I can't always get into a good flow when I try to write, but more often than not I can. And I enjoy it. I don't just enjoy experiencing the final product, and I don't just enjoy being viewed as a person who writes well – I enjoy the process as it occurs (though I enjoy those other aspects as well). I haven't experienced the same degree of enjoyment of process with the technical learning I've done so far. I think this is a strong signal about how I should spend my time.

Oh, I actually did learn some coding and statistics as well :)

[rereads: 2, edits: tightened up language]

Aug 03, 2016

Excerpt from "One Man's Wilderness"

I recently read One Man's Wilderness, an edited collection of Richard Proenneke's diaries from his first year living alone in the Alaskan backcountry. I really liked the book – Proenneke shares much of what I admire about modern wilderness seekers like Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell, while not sharing their angry reactivity against human society, nor their hubris. Proenneke has definite criticisms of human society (at least Proenneke filtered through Sam Keith, the compilation's author, does), but they are framed as gentle wonderings, not diatribes.

Here is an excerpt that I really, really liked:

I was proud of my cabin, my woodshed, and my cache. The actual cash layout had been just a shade over forty dollars, and that figure included the glass window Babe had flown in but which was still in storage. The Mylar thermopane had been better for my needs.

Needs? I guess that is what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people. I don't understand economics, and I suppose the country would be in a real mess if people suddenly cut out a lot of things they don't need. I wonder how many things in the average American home could be eliminated if the question were asked, "Must I really have this?" I guess most of the extras are chalked up to comfort or saving time.

Funny thing about comfort – one man's comfort is another man's misery. Most people don't work hard enough physically anymore, and comfort is not easy to find. It is surprising how comfortable a hard bunk can be after you come down off a mountain.

I've seen grown men pick at food. They can't be hungry in the first place. Or maybe their food has been too fancy and with all the choices they've had, they don't really know what they enjoy anymore.

What a man never has, he never misses. I learned something from the big game animals. Their food is pretty much the same from day to day. I don't vary my fare too much either, and I've never felt better in my life. I don't confuse my digestive system, I just season simple food with hunger. Food is fuel, and the best fuel I have found is oatmeal and all the stuff you can mix with it, like raisins and honey and brown sugar; meat and gravy and sourdough biscuits to sop up the juices with; a kettle of beans you can dip into every day; rice or spuds with fish, and some fresh greens now and then.

I enjoy working for my heat. I don't just press a button or twist a thermostat dial. I use the big crosscut saw and the axe, and while I'm getting my heat supply I'm working up an appetite that makes simple food just as appealing as anything a French chef could create. I've never found anything I like better to drink than Hope Creek water. The good feeling I get out of lungfuls of mountain air and draughts of sweet water from the snows is probably as good as any "high" I would get out of a bottle or a pill. But of course not many have a chance to live in unspoiled country.

I have learned patience, learned to take my time and try to do a job right by first figuring it out. No sense to rushing and going off half cocked; there's plenty of time out here. No sense complaining if the weather turns sour – make your job fit the day. Grandmother Nature is in control, and you better just wait until she sees fit to give you the weather that is right for another job you have to do.

Distance is relative. You learn that in time. A trip for me down to the lower end of the lower lakes takes three hours by canoe if I don't have the wind to fight. That's a distance of about eight and a half miles. With a motor on the canoe I could make the trip in under an hour, but a motor's noise stills the sounds of the wilderness.

Eight and a half miles can be covered in minutes with a car on an expressway, but what does a man see? What he gains in time he loses in benefit to his body and his mind. At my pace I can notice things. A bubble on the water, an arctic tern's breast tinged with the blue reflection of the lake. The landscape is not just a monotonous blur on either side. The stroke of a paddle moves you forward about eleven feet. Sometimes I get lost in the rhythm of the paddling. I even count the strokes it takes to get me to a point of land. The play of muscles in one's arms and shoulders, and the feel of palm against worn wood, are preferable to glancing at a speedometer.

I have surprised myself with what I could make with simple tools when a definite need arose. I made a tap out of a nail and cut a thread for a homemade screw that my tripod needed. I made a spring for the automatic timer on the camera, and countless other times repaired the camera, the gas lantern, and other accessories. I made a crimping tool to scallop the edges of some tin trays I fashioned from gas cans. I have made all kinds of things from gas cans. I don't think a man knows what he actually can do until he is challenged.

Nature provides so many things if one has the eye to notice them. It is a pleasure to see what you can use instead of buying it all packaged and ready-made. Several stumps with just the right flare gave me my wooden hinges. Burls and peculiar branch growths afforded me bowls and wooden spoons and clothes hangers. Driftwood provided me with a curtain rod and my spruce buck horns. I found spruce cones to be as effective as Brillo pads or steel wool to scour my pots. Stones of all colors and shapes were the raw material for my fireplace. When I did resort to manufactured products such as polyethylene, nails, and cement, I felt as though I had cheated. I was not being true to the philosophy I was trying to follow.

I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes. It is a way of life with us now. The emphasis is on teamwork. I believe this trend bears much of the blame for the loss of pride in one's work, the kind of pride the old craftsman felt when he started a job and finished it and stood back and admired it. How does a man on an assembly line feel any pride in the final product that rolls out at the other end?

I realize that men working together can perform miracles such as sending men to walk on the surface of the moon. There is definitely a need and a place for teamwork, but there is also a need for an individual sometime in his life to forget the world of parts and pieces and put something together on his own – complete something. He's got to create.

Man is dependent upon man. I would be the last to argue that point. Babe brought me things that other men made or produced. We need each other; but nevertheless, in a jam the best friend you have is yourself.

I have often thought about what I would do out here if I were stricken with a serious illness, if I broke a leg, cut myself badly, or had an attack of appendicitis. Almost as quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. Why worry about something that isn't? Worrying about something that might happen is not a healthy pastime. A man's a fool to live his life under a shadow like that. Maybe that's how an ulcer begins.

I have thought briefly about getting caught in rock slides or falling from a rock face. If that happened, I would probably perish on the mountain in much the same way many of the big animals do. I would be long gone before anyone found me. My only wish would be that folks wouldn't spend a lot of time searching. When the time comes for a man to look his Maker in the eye, where better could the meeting be held than in the wilderness?

News never changes much. It's just the same things happening to different people. I would rather experience things happening to me than read about them happening to others. I am my own newspaper and my own radio. I honestly don't believe that man was meant to know everything going on in the world, all at the same time. A man turns on the TV and all those commentators bombard him with the local, the national, and international news. The newspapers do the same thing, and the poor guy with all the immediate problems of his own life is burdened with those of the whole world.

I don't know what the answer is. In time man gets used to almost anything, but the problem seems to be that technology is advancing faster than he can adjust to it. I think it's time we started applying the brakes, slowing down our greed and slowing down the world.

I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn't cost me a lot of money either. They just worked on my senses. Did you ever pick very large blueberries after a summer rain? Walk through a grove of cottonwoods, open like a park, and see the blue sky beyond the shimmering gold of the leaves? Pull on dry woolen socks after you've peeled off the wet ones? Come in out of the subzero and shiver yourself warm in front of a wood fire? The world is full of such things.

I've watched many hunters come and go. I don't begrudge a hunter his Dall ram if he climbs to the crags to get one and packs it down the mountain. If he does this, he has earned those curved horns to put up on his wall. Yet there are so many who have not earned what they proudly exhibit. Even though the hunt may have cost them thousands of dollars, they did not pay the full price for it.

I have no doubt that to others I am an oddball in many ways. The Lord waited a little too long to put me on one of his worlds. I don't like the look of progress, if that is what it's called. I would have liked the beginnings better. That's why this place has taken hold of me. It's still in those early stages and man hasn't left too many marks on the land. Surely I have been places up and down these mountains where other men have never been. How long before all this will change as the other places have changed?

I've seen a lot of sights from this old spruce chunk, and have thought a lot of thoughts. The more I think about it, the better off I think I am. The crime rate up here is close to zero. I forget what it is like to be sick or have a cold. I don't have bills coming in every month to pay for things I don't really need. My legs and canoe provide my transportation. They take me as far as I care to go.

To see game you must move a little and look a lot. What first appears to be a branch turns into that big caribou bull up there on the benches – I wonder what he thinks about? Is his brain just a blank has he lies there blinking in the sun and chewing his cud? I wonder if he feels as I do, that this small part of the world is enough to think about?

[rereads: 1, edits: 0]

Jul 30, 2016

On spending money freely

Lately, I've been living as though money were no object. Anything that I want, I buy. Because I have a strong minimalist tendency, I actually don't want to purchase very many objects, but I've purchased any object I've wanted. Regarding experiences I am more maximalist – I want to live an interesting life, and many interesting experiences can be bought.

For example, last night I went to my hometown's hippest speakeasy (you know it's hip because the entrance is an unmarked door in the side of a post-industrial building and the interior is a dimly lit space full of dark wood, leather, and bottles of alcohol with exotic labels). At the speakeasy, I ordered a $10 cocktail. On one view, I spent $10 on a drink. On another view, I spent $10 on a package of experiences: the slight excitement of entering a curated space, the bartender moving a cocktail shaker so fast that you lose sight of his hands, learning that raw egg whites become meringue-like when added to a drink and shaken, the powerfully bitter taste of the establishment's Manhattan #2, the smell of expensive soap on your hands after washing them in the well-maintained bathroom, and on and on.

On the $10-for-a-drink view, the purchase can't be justified. I earn enough and have sufficiently few commitments that $10 isn't a critical amount of money for me, but the $10 I spent could have been donated or saved. I have medium-term goals of 1) helping others by donating charitably and 2) achieving financial independence – neither of which is furthered by purchasing a $10 cocktail.

But on the $10-for-a-package-of-experiences view, the purchase makes more sense. Not only did $10 let me access a set of otherwise inaccessible experiences, but paying the money made me more appreciative and aware. There is a great deal of beauty and wonder in the world, and most of the time I walk past without noticing any of it. In addition to purchasing the external object or experience, paying money for something buys mental space for enjoying it. The purchase quiets the ever-calculating part of my mind that is solely interested in making sure I get my money's worth and get ahead. This is the part that drives me past so much everyday beauty with my head down, and money is a language it understands. (I am reminded of a passage in Deep Work where Newport purchases a fine leather-bound journal to serve as his schedule and daily time tracker, just so that he will take the endeavor more seriously).

When I was younger, I was disdainful of the upper middle-class lifestyle I observed in many adults. I thought the luxury cars, the expensive dinners, the fine clothes were all so wasteful, that the people pursuing these things were lost, seeking happiness in a self-sabotaging way. That critique still resonates with me, but now that I'm making decent money, the upper middle-class lifestyle is starting to make more sense. For one, many luxury purchases exchange money for time, which is a good trade if you are making a lot of money and find yourself very time-constrained. Further, making expensive purchases can validate the experience, quieting the calculating voice. It's okay to take your time and appreciate the moment, you paid for it, you should at least try to enjoy it.

Obviously it would be better to find enjoyment in the moment without having to pay for the privilege, but it is a long road to that place. I'm still working towards that, but in the meantime I am happy to discover this framing of luxury purchases. It is a hack, but it works, and I assess things on whether they deliver.

I don't plan to indefinitely keep spending so freely. It grates on my stingy disposition and runs counter to my medium-term goals. But in the short-term I don't feel guilty about it, so I'm enjoying it while it's here.

[rereads: 3, edits: phrasing and style tweaks, more phrasing tweaks after a later reading]

Jul 15, 2016

Books Read Q2 2016

Books I finished (or mostly finished) in the second quarter of 2016:

  1. The Human Factor by Graham Greene
    Fun British espionage thriller.

  2. Tenth of December by George Saunders
    Short stories set in present-day America with a sci-fi twist. Very good, easy to gobble up. I particularly liked Escape from Spiderhead, Victory Lap, and Exhortation.

  3. Grendel by John Gardner
    The Beowulf myth from Grendel's perspective. I was charmed by the premise and underwhelmed by the execution.

  4. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (audiobook)
    Play-by-play history of the development of atomic weapons, starting with quantum physics in the early 1900s, following through to the Manhattan Project, and closing with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rhodes' description of the aftermath at Hiroshima is very good – vivid, visceral, and overwhelmingly tragic.

  5. The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff
    Short story collection of dark Americana. I enjoyed all of them, Bullet in the Brain is particularly fun.

  6. The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov (audiobook)
    Asimov sci-fi. 'Eternals' are bureaucrats who monitor the timeline of humanity from outside of time. Enjoyable, though heavy on premise and light on character development. The main character, Andrew Harlan, is actually sort of an asshole. And all the time travel paradox business might not make sense if you were to lay it out clearly, though it works well enough for the plot. Warning: contains a fair amount of 1950s gender dynamics.

  7. Command and Control by Eric Schlosser (audiobook)
    More play-by-play nuclear history, telling the story of the Damascus incident, in which a Titan-II ICBM develops a fuel leak and explodes in its silo.

  8. Bear by Marian Engel
    Woman takes over stewardship of a remote Canadian estate. Woman befriends domesticated bear who resides on the estate. Woman and bear develop a sexual relationship. Woman 'finds herself' through this relationship.

  9. My Struggle – Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
    Knausgaard continues being Knausgaardy. Begins during his time at the Bergen Writing Academy, then follows his young adult life in Bergen trying to make it as a writer. I liked this one better than Books 3 and 4.

  10. On the Move by Oliver Sacks
    I bought this at a hipster bookstore in Bend, Oregon, on the return leg of a West Coast motorcycle trip. Oliver Sacks was big into motorcycling and his autobiography has a bike on the cover, so it seemed an appropriate purchase. A good read, though a bit rambling. Sacks had a remarkable life.

  11. On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers
    I read about half of this before it became too repetitive to continue. Rogers has (what seems to me) commonsense ideas about how psychology should work. It's a bit crazy to me that these ideas were considered radical when he was putting them forward.

  12. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
    Story of a prominent Nigerian man during a time of colonial transition. I really liked Achebe's writing style, which made many traditional Nigerian practices and products seem commonplace and obvious, while not going out of the way to explain what these things are.

[rereads: 1, edits, 0]

Jul 03, 2016

2015-2016 year in review

It's been about a year since my last year in review, and my life has been changing a lot lately, so it feels like a good time to reflect on the past year. I'll likely do a 6-month review in January to bring myself in sync with everyone else.

I'm not thrilled with the format I used last year, which was dominated by responses to the PhilPapers survey. My approach here will be a loosely structured prose narrative. I think this will make the review useful and accessible, while maintaining flexibility when writing.


(Following my framework for thinking about performance.)

Technical skill

Improving my programming and statistical ability was a major goal of mine over the past year. Towards this goal, I continued working through Learn Python the Hard Way, enrolled in a Udacity Nanodegree (in Data Analysis), and pursued a couple coding projects on my own.

I'm not very satisfied with my progress here. I still haven't finished all of Learn Python the Hard Way, and I made only intermittent progress on the Nanodegree (I would work diligently for a few days or a week, then drop it entirely for several weeks, then begin feeling guilty/anxious about my lack of progress and start working diligently again, beginning the cycle anew).

This is frustrating, because I really want to learn about these subjects. I feel that my poor performance in this domain is not a failing of desire to learn, or ability to handle the material, but one of conscientiousness (sidenote: Gwern has an interesting page on the effects of IQ and conscientiousness on online education outcomes).

My failure to accomplish as much as I wanted here is a strong signal that something is going wrong – I either need to revise my goal or revise my approach. I have a chronic problem of setting highly ambitious goals for myself, then only working casually towards these goals, falling away from the ambitious schedule, feeling bad about this, then either abandoning the project or revising the schedule (which repeats the cycle, because the revised schedule is also highly ambitious).

I basically think that I should no longer focus on teching up. I would classify my interest as casual, an "oh, that's interesting, let me poke around for a while" rather than a "wow this is the coolest thing and I have to learn everything that has ever been written about it." Another way of explaining this that resonates: I don't feel the same degree of excitement about coding or statistics as I do about writing – my interest in writing goes to depths unplumbed, whereas my interest in coding/statistics quickly bottoms out. That is not to say that this interest isn't there, or that it is in some way disingenuous. It is just to say that I believe my interest isn't sufficient enough to drive intense autodidacticism in these areas.

This means that (a) I'm not going to make an effort to learn technical things for a while (though I will likely pick up a fair bit of instrumentally useful technical stuff at my job), and (b) I'm not going to stress about about not learning technical things (I think guilt about being non-technical drives many non-technical people to attempt to learn technical topics, and to feel bad about their sporadic, insufficient efforts).

On the object level, this means stopping all technical learning I feel that I "should do," while continuing to learn things that grab my attention. One exception to this: I want to finish my Nanodegree by the end of August – towards this end I'm going to block off my Sunday mornings to work on the Nanodegree, either until it's finished or September arrives, whichever comes first.


My verbal communication improved over the past year, especially in professional contexts. I think this improvement was largely driven by increased confidence in my expressive ability. I'm not sure where the confidence boost came from.

My written communication ability hasn't changed very much over the last year, though I suspect I got better at cranking out emails that can be sent quickly, without spending too much time rephrasing or proofreading. This improvement also was driven by increased confidence in my expressive ability, as well as by a recognition that the minutia of my email style just doesn't matter very much.

Looking forward, I'm planning to continue working on my verbal expressiveness. I have some "rough around the edges" tone issues that could be smoothed out, as well as substantial anxiety about speaking to large groups of people. Also, I over-mediate my speech depending on my audience – if I perceive the person I'm speaking to as more powerful or hierarchically above me, I tend to be wish-washy and quick to walk back my opinions (as well as expressing fewer opinions in the first place). When speaking to someone I perceive as less powerful or hierarchically below me, I tend to be forceful and strongly opinionated. Ideally, I would just say what I think, regardless of my perception of my audience.

I'm planning to improve my verbal communication by attending Toastmasters and working through its Competent Communicator course. I think this will improve my public speaking by reducing anxiety and improving flow, tone, and delivery. I'm not sure if Toastmasters will help with the over-mediation, but it would be very surprising if it hurt.

I have complicated feelings about written expressiveness. For a long time, I have considered writing to be one of the things I do best, and I haven't seen much obvious room for improvement. This is a bit naïve – it would be very surprising if I was at the top of my writing game without doing any intentional work towards improving my ability. I think there are gains to be had, though I'm not sure how to realize them. With self-improvement, my emphasis has long been on growing in areas where I am weak, rather than polishing up my strengths. But writing is one of my favorite things. I want to continue writing for my whole life, and investing time and effort into a pursuit I love seems robustly good. So I'm going to start thinking about how to improve as a writer. My first strategy is simple: write a lot. Ideally every day, and at least several times a week.

Project management

My biggest weakness in the project management domain is implementation. I'm very good at planning, but my follow-through needs work. There were several instances of this over the last year: in addition to the irregular progress on my Nanodegree, I did almost no work on the Chomksy project I outlined, read far less than I intended to, and did not do as much work on my professional goals as I would have liked.

This implementation failure is in part a symptom of a planning failure: over-ambitious plans are bound to fail. It is a tricky balance: I want to be pushing myself with my plans, but not so far as to burn out when I don't achieve the planned goals. It's important to lay ambitious plans to ensure that I'm using all of my capacity (i.e. if I were to make easily achievable plans, I would not be challenging myself, and some of my capacity would remain unrealized). But too ambitious and the plan seems unrealistic or over-onerous, and thus demotivating. Right now, I'm too far in the over-ambitious direction.

One part of the solution here is to just do less. Have less stuff on my plate, and do the stuff on my plate very well. Not focusing on teching up will go a long way towards this, and there are other things I can pare down as well.

Another cause of the implementation failure is lack of discipline. I am a conscientious person, but variably so. I go through periods of shirking responsibility, of gleefully disregarding my carefully laid plans, and of plain akrasia. These periods are likely not going away, though I could find strategies to minimize their impact.

I don't have many actionable ideas for improving my project management, but I've come to a useful diagnosis of my problem. Going forward, I will reflect further about this when making plans.


I did a fair amount of worldview building over the two years. For most "big" questions, I now have an answer that I operate under. I think having a more solid worldview has improved my vision (which I define as "ability to decide what to do next").

This is the least well-specified domain in my performance framework, and I can struggle to think clearly about it. I am weak on macro-level vision – I don't know what career track I want to be on (though it's likely academia, politics, or the startup-o-sphere). On intermediate vision, I feel better. I almost always know what I'd like to accomplish during the week ahead, and I usually know what I want to accomplish during the upcoming month.

I'm not planning to explicitly work on improving my vision in the upcoming months, though I expect it to improve as my worldview continues to distill. (sidenote: I think I should specify the vision domain better, because I'm not convinced it is useful as-is.)


As mentioned above, I did a lot of worldview building over the last two years. Although I took stabs at laying out my thinking, much of this was implicit. In contrast to where I was a few years ago, I just feel more settled (and more self-possessed as a result).

Last summer, I enacted a radical open period. I made an explicit announcement of the period's beginning, and I think it pretty clearly came to an implicit end sometime during the last year. It was a useful exercise, and I feel no desire to do a postmortem of it here.

I'm not going to try to carefully lay out my worldview, but in slogan form it could be stated as: "Use empirical evidence to figure out what to believe, and test your beliefs whenever possible. Interrogate your beliefs, and try very hard to change them when they appear wrong, but do not doubt them simply because they run contrary to the opinion of others. Make morally good decisions when you feel the urge to, as well as when it is easy to do so, but do not feel obligated to be as moral as possible. Use loosely specified consequentialism for moral decision-making. Assess arguments based on their merits, not based on their context or their advocates. Recognize that other people are mistaken about a lot of things, and that you are also mistaken about many things."

Yeah, that looks about right.

Life narrative

My life changed a lot over the past year, and it is in a transitional phase as I write.

At my job, I grew more confident and took on more responsibility. I also felt an increasing urge to leave, as I didn't find the work intrinsically satisfying and wasn't growing as fast as I would have liked. In early 2016 I dedicated a lot of energy to thinking about what I wanted to do professionally, and pursued promising leads. One of these promising leads yielded an offer, which I took. I started my new job in late May. I feel good about this job. I enjoy my co-workers, I care about the mission, and I believe that I will grow quickly. But it is still early days, so I'll leave off without further discussion.

I recently moved from California to Michigan, at least for the summer and perhaps for longer. I did this to start dating someone who I'm excited about (we met via Tinder when I was visiting Michigan in the winter; it has been the most successful Tinder interaction I have ever had or ever heard of; I should probably contact Tinder to discuss using our story in an ad campaign). My plan is to stay in Michigan for the summer, get to know this person I'm excited about, and decide at the end of the summer where I want to settle (my new job is at a distributed startup, which affords me the luxury of living wherever I want). It's very likely that I end up in either Michigan or the Bay Area, though I really don't know which. The looming decision is a bit fatiguing, but I have been managing it okay so far.

I took some really lovely motorcycle trips over the past year. In August 2015 I headed up the California coast road, then through Oregon, Washington, and back down. In November I took a nice dip down to LA. In May 2016 I took another trip up to Seattle, then further: explored the Olympic Peninsula, saw Victoria, Vancouver, and a sliver of British Columbia. I really love motorcycling, and recently I realized that motorcycling supports a more implicit interest: geography and demographics. I'm a bit embarrassed to proclaim a love of geography, it feels like the sort of thing stodgy 46-year-old dads enjoy, but when you find yourself putting off sleep in favor of reading about Ames, Iowa, what else can you say?

In spring 2016, I decided to take a longstanding casual interest in mindfulness more seriously, and enrolled in an 8-week course. I really liked the course, and I wanted to maintain a regular mindfulness & yoga practice afterwards, but I fell away. I have plans to reinvigorate my practice, but currently these plans are sitting in a box with all my other plans and it is not obvious that I'm about to pull them out and dust them off.


This review took quite a while to write, and the writing process was painful. I was very akratic, burning an entire evening on the internet instead of finishing the thing. Though I'm pretty happy with the result, I'm not confident that I'll be able to do such a heavy structure for next year's review. But that's far in the future.

More broadly, I've been writing on this blog for about 1.5 years now. Overall, I've been satisfied with it. It certainly hasn't blown up, but I never intended it to (though a secret, deep-down part of me would be unbelievably satisfied if it did). Existence as a public diary is sufficient: I write more seriously for the blog than I would for a private journal, and I navel-gaze less (an odd thing to say at the end of a massive introspective piece, I know, but trust me – however self-involved you find my blogging, my journaling is massively more so). Plus it's nice to have something I can reference when a topic I've written about comes up in discussion.

In its 1.5 years, this blog has gone through some phases: there was the Freewheeling Juvenilia phase, then the Hey Look I Have Important Things To Say phase, then the Dabbling In Prediction Markets phase.

I'm not really sure where we are now, but it is time for a shift in approach. I want this blog to move more in the direction of "public diary", and further away from "analysis of a possibly interesting and definitely obscure topic." I like interesting, obscure analyses, but they take a lot of work to crank out, they breed a lot of performance anxiety and writer's block, and I think I'll get more utility from stream-of-consciousness journaling than from carefully prepared treatising.

I'll think more about where I want to go with this thing, and might write more about it as well.

[rereads: 5, edits: many phrasing tweaks, style edits]

Jun 22, 2016

Excerpt from Schlosser's "Command and Control"

I recently finished listening to Eric Schlosser's excellent Command and Control. A particularly mind-bending passage:

While serving in the Army, [William] Stevens had been trained to assemble the warheads of tactical weapon systems. In May 1953 members of his battalion participated in the test of an atomic cannon. Its shells could travel twenty miles and produce a yield equivalent to that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For the test in the Nevada desert, all sorts of things were placed near ground zero to study the weapon’s effects: trucks, tanks, railroad cars, aircraft panels, oil drums and cans of gasoline, household goods and materials—denim, flannel, rayon curtains, mops and brooms—a one-story brick structure, steel bridges, buildings that resembled motels, one hundred tall pine trees, field crops, flowers, insects, cages full of rats and mice, fifty-six dogs tethered inside aluminum tubes, forty-two pigs dressed in U.S. Army uniforms whose skin would respond to thermal radiation in a manner similar to that of human skin, and more than three thousand soldiers, including Bill Stevens, who huddled in a trench about three miles from ground zero.
The troops were part of an ongoing study of the psychological effects of nuclear warfare. They’d been ordered to climb out of their trenches and march toward the mushroom cloud after the blast. The Army Field Forces Human Research Unit hoped to discover how well they would follow the order, whether they’d obey it or come unglued at the sight of a large nuclear explosion. The atomic shell would fly directly over the heads of Stevens and the other soldiers. They were told to crouch in their trenches until the weapon detonated, then rise in time to brace against the blast wave and watch the explosion. At eight thirty in the morning, a great fireball lit up the desert, about ninety miles from Las Vegas.
As the troops stood, a powerful shock wave blew past, catching them by surprise. It was a “precursor wave,” a weapon effect that hadn’t been predicted. Highly compressed air had come down from the fireball, hit the ground, and spread outward, traveling faster than the blast wave. When Stevens and his unit climbed from the trenches to march toward ground zero, they were engulfed by a cloud of dirt and dust. Their lead officer couldn’t read the radiation dosage markers and led them closer to ground zero than planned. After returning to their base in Albuquerque, Stevens shook the dirt out of his uniform and saved some of it in a can. Twenty years later, he had the dirt tested at Sandia — and it was still radioactive.

[rereads: 1, edits: 0]

May 12, 2016

"Trump overvalued" postmortem

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered a market on whether Trump would win majorities in all five states voting on April 26th. Trump winning more than 50% in all five states seemed highly unlikely to me at the time, so I bet against it and wrote up my reasoning. Some errors in my thinking were later pointed out to me, but heading into April 26th I still felt good about the fundamental bet.

Then the April 26th primaries happened, and Trump dominated (a), taking over 50% of the vote in all five states. A few nights later, Trump swept Indiana, Cruz suspended his campaign (as did Kasich soon after), and the Republican primary was effectively over. All of this triggered an avalanche of angsty reevaluations of data journalism, as well as wiping out all of my prediction market winnings (I lost a lot on the "majorities in all 5 states" bet, and my "brokered convention" shares cratered from $0.60 purchase price to near zero).

So, what happened here? The challenge is assessing how much of my April 26th loss was attributable to poor reasoning, and how much of it was a genuine surprise (such that it would have been difficult to predict even if I had reasoned perfectly with all the information available prior to April 26th).

My take is that, on reflection, there are a couple of places where my reasoning about the bet could have been better, but even with those improvements, the magnitude of Trump's April 26th victory would have seemed quite unlikely heading into the primaries. If my reasoning had been better, I'm not sure if I would have made the bet – I'm guessing that I still would have, though likely would have wagered a smaller amount.

Let's take a closer look at how my reasoning could have been better.

538's polls-plus vs. polls-only

538, my go-to for primary forecasting, has been building two types of models for its 2016 primary forecasts (a) – polls-plus and polls-only. Polls-only incorporates all of the polling from the state into a model. Polls-plus incorporates all of the in-state polling, as well as national polling (which is a contrarian indicator) and endorsements.

I had been favoring polls-plus forecasts over polls-only, under the naïve assumption that more information and a more nuanced model would generate more accurate forecasts. I hadn't dug into the details of how the polls-plus model was put together before making the judgment, even though there was reason to think that polls-plus might not be strictly better than polls-only (when backtested, polls-only was more accurate 43% of the time).

Operating on this naïve assumption, I favored polls-plus in my decision-making around the "Will Trump win majorities in all 5?" bet. Additionally, polls-plus was better aligned with my prior, as it gave lower probabilities of Trump victories, which made the chance of a five-state sweep seem very low.

If I had done my homework about polls-plus (or had followed a different heuristic, like "try to not rely on black boxes you don't understand"), I would likely have put more weight on the polls-only model, and that would have made Trump's 5-state majority victory seem less outlandish (using my method with polls-only data and a 3x fudge factor would have yielded a 21% chance of victory, rather than a 5% chance). I would have likely been less enthused about the bet.

Dealing with dependence

I first assumed that the primaries were all independent of each other. This was a mistake, and I ended up calculating the conjunct probability of majority victory in all five states as if the primaries were independent, then adding a 3x fudge factor to account for inter-primary dependence.

This approach probably did not adjust sufficiently for dependence (after adjusting, I estimated a 5% chance of Trump winning majority victories in all five). An alternate method, which at the time I dismissed as too complicated, might have yielded a better estimate. Let's take a look at that method now.

Starting with one primary (our "seed primary"), we then condition off of it, forming a chain of conditional probabilities:

p(Trump wins 50% in Maryland) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Pennsylvania | Maryland >50%) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Connecticut | Maryland >50% and Pennsylvania >50%) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Delaware | Maryland >50% and Pennsylvania >50%
  and Connecticut >50%) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Rhode Island | Maryland >50% and Pennsylvania >50%
  and Connecticut >50% and Delaware >50%)

Plugging in some numbers (and drawing the seed probability from 538's polls-only model) gives us:

0.20 * 0.80 * 0.99 * 0.99 * 0.99 = 0.155

15.5%, substantially higher than the dependence-adjusted probability of my original method. Note that apart from the seed primary, the probabilities here are entirely subjective. You have to imagine what you'd estimate the chance of Trump winning a majority in Pennsylvania would be, having learned that he won a majority in Maryland. Then you have to imagine your probability for Connecticut, having learned of Trump majority victories in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and so on.

Above, I arbitrarily chose Maryland to be the seed primary. To mitigate anchoring effects, we can take the average of all the outcomes of this exercise, starting with each primary as the seed primary (if we wanted to go a step further, we could take the average of the outcomes from all possible orderings of each probability tree, but I'm not going to do that here; instead, I'll keep the order constant except for swapping out the seed primary in each iteration).

Maryland (as above): 0.20 * 0.80 * 0.99 * 0.99 * 0.99 = 0.155
Pennsylvania: 0.40 * 0.70 * 0.95 * 0.99 * 0.99 = 0.272
Connecticut: 0.98 * 0.50 * 0.70 * 0.99 * 0.99 = 0.336
Delaware: 0.95 * 0.45 * 0.99 * 0.75 * 0.99 = 0.314
Rhode Island: 0.95 * 0.45 * 0.99 * 0.99 * 0.80 = 0.335
Average: 0.283

So, this method yields a 28.3% chance of Trump winning majority victories in all five primaries. Much higher than the method I used (28.3% vs. 5%), higher even than my original method would have yielded if I used polls-only data (28.3% vs. 21.2%), and more in line with the market at the time.

Genuine surprise

If I had been more careful with my reasoning, I likely would have arrived at a much higher conjunct probability than I did. It's hard to say, but I might have not even made the bet, given that the probability arrived at above was basically in line with the market at the time (though I likely would have low-balled the subjective estimates if I was using the above method before April 26th, not having the benefit of hindsight and operating under the prior that Trump majority victories are very unlikely).

That said, there is some reason to think that Trump's majority victories were genuinely surprising.

Prior to April 26th, Trump had won only one majority victory, in his home state of New York. The New York majority victory could be attributed to a fundamental shift in Trump's prospects, or it could be attributed to home state advantage. When thinking about the April 26th bet, I favored the home state advantage interpretation. In retrospect, it seems like Trump actually made substantial gains unrelated to any home field advantage he may have had in New York.

Also, Nate Silver seemed to find the April 26th result surprising. So I feel in good company.

[rereads: 1, edits: phrasing tweaks]

Apr 25, 2016

Revisions to "Trump overvalued"

Note: Trump did in fact win majorities in all five states. I did a postmortem of this bet here.

A couple of revisions to my recent post on a Trump PredictIt market being overvalued.

1. Independence of primaries

In the post, I assumed that each primary was independent of the others:

It's safe to assume independence in this case because the five primaries (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island) will all occur at roughly the same time, in the same time zone. It would be unlikely for the result of one of these primaries to influence the result of another, so we will assume that there's no inter-primary influence.

This assumption is incorrect. I was understanding independence as "not being causally linked," but actually independence is a stronger criterion than that. Independence of events implies no correlation between the events (I asked about this on Cross Validated, and a helpful answer (a) pointed me to this simple proof of why correlation implies dependence (a).

It's pretty clear that the primaries are correlated (e.g. learning the result of one of the primaries would inform your guess about the likelihood of Trump winning the other primaries), so they are therefore dependent, even though they aren't causally connected. Given dependence, we can't calculate the conjunct probability by multiplying all the primary probabilities together. I.e., this method isn't valid:

p(Trump wins 50% in 5 states) =
p(Trump wins 50% in Connecticut) * p(Trump wins 50% in Delaware) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Maryland) * p(Trump wins 50% in Pennsylvania) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Rhode Island)

Unfortunately, I don't know a simple way of calculating the conjunct probability of multiple, dependent events that occur simultaneously. We could start with the probability of one 'seed' primary, condition on a Trump majority victory there to estimate the conditional probability of a Trump majority victory in the next primary, and so on. But that method is complicated, and I would be basically making up the conditional probabilities further down the tree.

Instead, I'm inclined to use the independent method of calculating the conjunct and add a (basically arbitrary) dependence discount to the resulting probability. This probably isn't theoretically sound, but it will give a rough read on what the conjunct probability is.

2. Incorporating 538's probability distributions

In its primary forecasts, 538 includes a visualized probability distributions for each candidate's chance of winning the primary.

Instead of estimating Trump's chance of winning the majority of the vote via a base rate (the method I favored in my previous post), we could eyeball these visualizations to estimate what percent of the probability mass is over the 50% threshold.

For example, let's take a look at the Maryland polls-plus distribution:

Maryland polls-plus

Looking at Trump's distribution, we see that roughly 8% of the probability mass lies past the 50% threshold (the red shading indicates 80% of the probability mass, centered, so the grey right-hand tail is 10% of the mass).

Doing this for the other states gives us:

p(Trump wins 50% in Pennsylvania) = 0.25
p(Trump wins 50% in Connecticut) = 0.95

There aren't 538 profiles of Delaware or Rhode Island, but given recent polling, let's adjust those estimates as well:

p(Trump wins 50% in Delaware) = 0.95
p(Trump wins 50% in Rhode Island) = 0.95

Note that these are much higher numbers than I previously estimated using a bumped-up base rate. A recent poll shows Trump taking 61% of the vote in Rhode Island, so I think we should expect Trump to take the majority there, and likely in Delaware as well.

Here are the probabilities given by the same method using polls-only estimation (which is more favorable to Trump):

p(Trump wins 50% in Maryland) = 0.20
p(Trump wins 50% in Pennsylvania) = 0.40
p(Trump wins 50% in Connecticut) = 0.98
p(Trump wins 50% in Delaware) = 0.95
p(Trump wins 50% in Rhode Island) = 0.95

3. Revised estimate of Trump winning majority victories in all five states

Let's estimate the conjunct again, using our revised probability estimates drawn from the 538 (polls-plus) data visualizations. We'll assume independence, and use a 3x fudge factor to account for dependence. This gives:

p(Trump wins 50% in 5 states) = (0.08 * 0.25 * 0.95 * 0.95 * 0.95) * 3 = 0.05

5%. Still substantially lower than PredictIt (which is at 27% as of this writing), but not negligible. Plus, I'm not confident that my 3x fudge factor for dependence is right – I very well should be using 4x or 5x, in which case PredictIt looks somewhat better.

My reservations about fudging for dependence notwithstanding, this is the best method for estimating this market I've encountered so far. I'll plan to use a similar methodology going forward.

Thanks to Howie Lempel for pointing out the independence issue and suggesting the use of 538's data visualizations to derive >50% win probabilities

[rereads: 3, edits: phrasing tweaks, fixed links, added a note]

Apr 23, 2016

Trump overvalued

Note: I have revised the reasoning and conclusions of this post in a more recent post. Please see that post for my most recent thinking about this market. Also, Trump did in fact win majorities in all five states. I did a postmortem of this bet here.

I spotted an irrationality on the prediction markets today that caused me to update negatively against the institution's usefulness as an information aggregator. I've previously encountered (and written about) prediction market irrationalities; this is another one for the books.

A new market recently surfaced, on whether Trump will exceed 50% in all five April 26 primaries. The market struck me as abnormally high at 20%:

Probability Trump wins 50% in five states

This market is asking about the conjunct of five events – Trump winning more than 50% of the primary vote in each of the states voting on April 26.

The conjunct probability of five events is the product of the probabilities of each event (assuming independence):

p(Trump wins 50% in 5 states) =
p(Trump wins 50% in Connecticut) * p(Trump wins 50% in Delaware) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Maryland) * p(Trump wins 50% in Pennsylvania) *
p(Trump wins 50% in Rhode Island)

It's safe to assume independence in this case because the five primaries (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island) will all occur at roughly the same time, in the same time zone. It would be unlikely for the result of one of these primaries to influence the result of another, so we will assume that there's no inter-primary influence.

Let's step back from the "wins 50%" part of this for a moment, and just look at the probability that Trump wins in each state. Independence still holds, so this is given by:

p(Trump wins all 5 states) =
p(Trump wins Connecticut) * p(Trump wins Delaware) *
p(Trump wins Maryland) * p(Trump wins Pennsylvania) *
p(Trump wins Rhode Island)

538 is my go-to for primary forecasting. For each primary, 538 provides two forecasts, 'polls-only' (which just aggregates state-level polling data) and 'polls-plus' (which aggregates state-level polling along with national polling and endorsements). It's unclear which method is more accurate, though I tend to take polls-plus more seriously.

Trump polls well, so the polls-plus method is more conservative. Plugging 538 polls-plus numbers into the above equation give us:

p(Trump wins all 5 states) = 0.90 * 0.99 * 0.81 * 0.86 * 0.99 = 0.61

Note: 538 hasn't modeled the Delaware and Rhode Island primaries because there hasn't been much polling in those states. To be generous to Trump, I assumed a 99% chance of victory for those primaries.

The conjunct probability of winning all five states is 61%, using polls-only forecasts. So, under these assumptions, Trump has a 61% chance of sweeping on the 26th (using polls-only, it's substantially higher: 85%).

It looks like Trump has a very good chance of winning all five states on April 26th. Let's return to the question of whether he will win majorities in those states.

So far, Trump has only won >50% of the vote in one state (New York), and usually wins 30% to 40% of the vote. To think that he would win >50% in the April 26th primaries, you would have to think that they were as favorable to Trump as New York, where he had home state advantage.

Taking a look at recent polling, Trump's current polling averages are in the low- to mid-40s in Connecticut, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. To think that he would win by >50% in these states, you'd have to think that he will outperform his polls in each state (historically, Trump has underperformed his polling).

The main consideration in this market is what to think of the relationship between winning a state and winning a majority in that state. If we think Trump has a reasonable chance of taking 50% of the vote in states he wins (e.g. if we think that April 26th states will be similar to New York, where Trump dominated), then this market is likely undervalued. Here's an example of that scenario, where we assume that for each state, the probability of Trump taking 50% of the vote is 10 points less than the probability of Trump winning the state (this scenario uses polls-plus 538 forecasts, which, as mentioned above, I prefer to polls-only):

p(Trump wins 50% in 5 states) = 0.80 * 0.89 * 0.71 * 0.76 * 0.89 = 0.34

34%. So following this view, the market is actually quite undervalued, by nearly 2x!

Now let's consider an alternate scenario, where we believe that Trump is highly unlikely to take the majority of votes in states he wins (e.g. we believe that New York was an exceptional performance due to his home state advantage, and other states will have margins closer to his previous victories). To get a read on how likely we should consider majority victories, we can estimate Trump's majority victory base rate: to date, 35 states have held primaries or caucuses (not including D.C. or territories), and Trump has won a majority in one of them. 1/35 = ~3%. This is likely an underestimate, because as presidential candidates drop out, Trump's share of the vote will increase, so let's say that for each state going forward, there's a 6% chance of Trump winning a majority. Further, Rhode Island and Connecticut are very close to New York, so let's give them a 'close to home' bonus and bump them up to 30% each. This scenario implies:

p(Trump wins 50% in 5 states) = 0.30 * 0.30 * 0.06 * 0.06 * 0.06 = 0.000019

0.000019 is just a sliver of a percent. Because I'm bad at thinking about probabilities that are that small, let's call this <1%. So, following this view, there's a <1% chance that Trump wins a majority of the vote in all five April 26th primaries.

Depending on how we approach the problem, we arrive at very different estimates of how likely Trump is to win majorities in the five April 26th primaries (<1% compared to 34%). At 20%, the PredictIt market is splitting the difference. If we thought both of these views were equally valid, 20% would be a reasonable place for the market to be.

However, I think the second method is more grounded than the first. By using a base rate, it takes into account Trump's track record of achieving majority wins. It also aligns better than recent polling, which suggests that Trump will take 40-46% of the vote in the three states where polls are available, as well as aligning with the historical expectation that Trump will match or underperform his polling, rather than exceeding it. Also, under the first method (estimating the chance of majority victory by adjusting the chance of victory down by an arbitrary amount), it's not clear what adjustment would be appropriate, and a reasonable-seeming adjustment (down by 10 points) yields very sunny results.

Personally, I'm applying very little weight to the first method, so my guess is that the real probability of Trump sweeping majorities on April 26th is closer to 1% than 20%. I bought some 'No' shares, obviously.

My guess is that some participants in the PredictIt market are betting based on a form of method 1 reasoning, and others are making impulsive bets without thinking through the probabilities these bets imply. Something similar is likely happening in other Trump-centric markets as well (Will there be a GOP brokered convention? has been in a slow slide for a couple weeks now, and after New York, Trump's chances of being the Republican nominee have more than rebounded). Unfortunately, assessing just how overvalued these markets are is more difficult than the current case. I'm anti-Trump in both, though it's possible that the Trump hysteria persists until the convention, in which case there would be no market correction, and the overvalued shares would resolve to $1.

[rereads: 6, edits: typo corrections, phrasing tweaks, making the code blocks look pretty, added a pointer to the 'revised' post and the postmortem. Also, when writing a previous version of this post, I had mistakenly flipped a probability I was considering, then spent several paragraphs and a couple of hours building a case for the situation that the flipped probability implied. I realized this a few minutes after publishing the post (and sending it to some friends), felt very silly, then reworked my argument based on the correct probabilities. This was a good lesson in the dangers of motivated reasoning – taking an incorrect probability as true, I built a case around it that seemed convincing and obviously correct, and when writing it never occurred to me that I might be honing in on an absurd conclusion.]

Longform Read Q1 2016

In addition to the books I read last quarter, I read a fair bit of longform. Some pieces I enjoyed:

  1. Humanism, Science, and the Radical Expansion of the Possible (a) by Marilynne Robinson
    A wordy apology for present-day Christian belief. From what I can understand of it, Robinson is critical of current empirical methods for limiting imagination too much, and of the current cultural mood for fostering a sense of urgency to "get things done." Interesting to read a fiction author I respect doing philosophy. Probably deserves a second, slower read.

  2. Drake Is 2015’s Artist of the Year (a) by Andrew Unterberger
    Drake had a really great 2015. Seeing everything he did in one place drives that home.  

  3. The Happiness Code (a) by Jennifer Kahn
    A nytimes reporter profiles the the Center for Applied Rationality. Good to read a take from outside the bubble, though it's an overly critical one.

  4. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (a) by Harlan Ellison
    High-quality sci-fi short story about a band of humans trapped in the innards a gigantic, malevolent AI.

  5. Life Is Short (a) by Paul Graham
    I really like Paul Graham's writing. This piece includes a quote which earned a long tenure on my house's common room whiteboard: Relentlessly Prune Bullshit.

  6. Why Video Games Are Essential For Inventing Artificial Intelligence (a) by Julian Togelius
    Decent overview of recent developments in AI and ML, coupled with a proposed path forward that I hadn't encountered before.

  7. Isaac Asimov: Man of 7,560,000 Words (a) by Lewis Nichols
    The amount of writing that Asimov produced is truly difficult to comprehend – 500 books (written or edited) and over 90,000 letters during his lifetime (according to Wikipedia). If you were wondering, that's approximately 7 books written or edited during each of the 72 years of his life, including infancy. Which is under two months per book! So, Asimov is my current upper-bound benchmark for how much writing one person can do in a lifetime. This 1969 nytimes profile gives a good snapshot of his process.

  8. The Path to Convention Chaos (a) by Benjamin Ginsberg
    The prediction market for likelihood of a contested convention has been in a steady slide for the last few weeks. I don't understand what's driving this, especially because Indiana and California are anyone's guess and award a large number of delegates (this 538 tool is useful for playing around with different scenarios to get Trump to the requisite 1237 delegates by convention time). This piece, authored by a lawyer who was involved with the development of the Republican convention rules, is a good overview of how the mechanics of a contested convention would work.

  9. Hits-based Giving (a) by Holden Karnofsky
    Holden outlines the strategy underlying Open Philanthropy grantmaking.

  10. My Year in Startup Hell (a) by Dan Lyons
    A buzz piece for Lyons' book about his time at HubSpot (a company that does something with marketing and sales software? Maybe CRM, like a Salesforce alternative? It's one of those sites where I can't tell what they do at a 10-second glance). Lyons is pretty critical about the culture he encountered at Hubspot (which he then generalizes to all of startup culture). He has some fair points, especially around demographic homogeny, though the dude seems kind of bitter. He did get a book deal and a ton of press out of his year in "hell."

  11. The Unrelenting Specter of Drug-Resistant Malaria (a) by Sarika Bansal
    Drug-resistant malaria is on the rise in Southeast Asia. That could be very bad. A profile of some of the efforts to improve drug regimen compliance and diagnosis in the region.

  12. Eliezer's Facebook Post On the Multiple-Stage Fallacy and Jeff Kaufman's Reply (a1 and a2)
    Eliezer being Eliezer (elucidating and condescending) and Jeff defending himself against a charge of deploying fallacious probability estimates.

(a) = archived version of the page, mostly hosted by the Internet Archive. A new thing I'm trying with an eye towards building Long Content (a).
[rereads: 1, edits: phrasing tweaks]

Apr 10, 2016

Books Read Q1 2016

Books I finished in the first quarter of 2016:

  1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
    A Christmas gift from a friend. I really liked this – the main character embodies a lot of what I find appealing about Christianity, and little of what I dislike.

  2. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (audiobook)
    Follows three people as they make the journey out of the Deep South as part of the mid-20th century Great Migration. Interesting, but largely anecdotal, so I took it mostly as entertainment.

  3. Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene
    The best thing I've read for highlighting the brokenness of everyday, common-sense morality. Mostly by way of comparative analysis of trolley problem variants ("trolleyology").

  4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    Short and powerful. "The Dreamers." I haven't fully unpacked the term, but I suspect I'm one of them. Or some substantial portion of me is one of them.

  5. The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
    I'm growing fond of Tracy Kidder's writing, I might endeavor to read everything he's written. The Soul of a New Machine follows an engineering team at Data General Corporation (which apparently was a behemoth tech company in the 80s), on their quest to ship a new computer. Fascinating sociology of the personalities and environment behind the creation of a new computer.

  6. King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (audiobook)
    History of the Belgian Congo. Not pretty, but worthwhile. File under the "Case studies of how terrible people can be towards each other" category.

  7. Deep Work by Cal Newport (audiobook)
    A manifesto for a theory of how to be a productive knowledge worker. This has been influential on my thinking; I have implemented several of Newport's ideas in my day-to-day routine (daily scheduling and time tracking, blocking out long periods for focused worked, conducting a weekly review of how things are going relative to your goals).

  8. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
    Beautiful book, playing with form. Poem and commentary entwined.

  9. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
    Entertaining, though long. I got a bit tired of it during the final third.

  10. My Struggle – Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
    Karl Ove graduates high school and heads north, to take a teaching post at a school in a fishing village (a quirk of Norwegian culture: 18 year olds without training could become teachers to 13 year olds, at least in the 1980s). Good, as all the previous volumes have been. 18-year-old Karl Ove is very focused on sex.

  11. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
    A pair of sisters are eventually placed of under the care of their vagabond aunt. Good, though I liked Gilead more.

[rereads: 1, edits: 0]

Mar 12, 2016

Another prediction market oddity

Over the past month I've blossomed from toe-dipping prediction market novice to hot-blooded prediction market day trader.

Today during my daily PredictIt trawl, I encountered another strangely priced market dyad (strangely priced dyads have previously proven quite profitable).

"Will Hillary Clinton win the Democratic nomination?" was trading at $0.80. Meanwhile, "Will a federal criminal charge be filed against Hillary Clinton in 2016?" was trading at $0.30.

So Hillary has an 80% chance of winning the Democratic nomination while simultaneously having a 30% of being indicted? Granted, these outcomes aren't mutually exclusive – there exist scenarios where Hillary secures the nomination only to have charges filed against her later in the year. Naïvely, that would be surprising – bringing charges against a party frontrunner would be a big kerfuffle, but not as big as bringing charges against a party nominee. Maybe FBI Director James Comey (who is "very close" to the Clinton investigation) wants to blow up the 2016 presidential election by indicting Clinton in the fall, but I'm going to go ahead and put scenarios like that in the "highly unlikely" bucket.

My intuition is that there's a misvaluation here. Either p(Clinton wins Democratic nomination) = 80% is too high, or p(Clinton is indicted) = 30% is too high. Which is it?

Let's take p(indictment) first. If we're considering the conjunction of winning the nomination and being indicted as highly unlikely (say, p(conjunction) < 0.05), then we're mainly thinking about the likelihood of Clinton being indicted before she secures the nomination. Is there a 25% chance of that?

Given that David Petraeus received a light punishment for more serious but similar violation, setting a lenient precedent, Clinton's apparent unconcern, and the fact that using personal email for government business is fairly common, I would be surprised if Clinton was indicted. I think it's unlikely. Less than 25% likely? Probably.

Considering the alternative, p(wins nomination). 80% seems pretty on point, if not low. Clinton could fail to secure the nomination either by losing to Sanders or dropping out. Despite her defeat in Michigan, she still is on track to defeat Sanders, and I think there is only a small chance (say < 5%) of her dropping out.

Conclusion: "Will Clinton be indicted in 2016?" is currently being overvalued by the market. I picked up some "No" shares.

[rereads: 1, edits: phrasing tweaks]

Mar 05, 2016

A bet against Sanders, II

While checking my PredictIt account this morning, I saw that the market was valuing Sanders' chance of winning the presidency at 10%.

Sanders wins presidency

(I took this screenshot after purchasing my shares, which moved the market, so the image is slightly out of sync with the narrative.)

This seemed high to me, so I took a look at the conditional probability of Sanders winning the presidency given winning the Democratic nomination, p(Sanders prez | dnom), the same thing I did for my initial bet against Sanders.

Looking at the Democratic nomination market:

Sanders wins presidency

Sanders is at 17% to win the nomination. So, the conditional probability of Sanders winning the presidency, given the nomination, is:

p(Sanders prez | dnom) = 0.1 / 0.17 = 0.588

A 58.8% chance of winning the presidency if Sanders gets the nomination? That still seems quite high.

So I bought some more "No" shares. My initial bet had done quite well during February, but I had been selling off shares to pay for other bets I wanted to take, so this was a welcome chance to re-up on a bet I feel good about.

[reread: 1, edits: phrasing tweaks]

Feb 28, 2016

A new daily schedule

I recently finished listening to Cal Newport's Deep Work. Its thesis is that substantial blocks of intensely focused work are required to get anything important done, and that the baseline environment of a typical 21st-century knowledge worker is inimical to this sort of work, so in order to work deeply, your environment and habits must be shaped into a more amicable form.

I liked the book a lot, and I've been toying around with implementations of Newport's ideas.

Here's one implementation, a proposed daily schedule that I'm intending to follow: (times are approximate)

6:00 - Wake up. For a long time now, I have had difficulty waking up when I aim to. My current strategy for waking up involves:

  1. an alarm going off every 10 minutes from 5:50 to 7:00
  2. going to bed whenever I feel tired
  3. intermittent "wake-up" practice

(h/t to Steve Pavlina for 2 (a) and 3 (a))

6:10 - Yoga. The mindfulness class I'm currently taking encourages daily periods of formal practice, each day, whether you feel like it or not. I really like this attitude of pre-committing to something you want to do on the second order, then executing on it regardless of how you feel. Yoga is my favorite formal practice so far, and it tends to start my day on a pleasant orientation. I would attempt morning sitting meditation but would likely fall asleep.

6:50 - Shower, breakfast, shave, etc. Hygiene and all that.

7:10 - Commute to the office. Currently longboarding then BARTing. Usually listening to an audiobook or podcast for the duration.

7:50 - Read email, blogs, and comics. Catch up on all the stuff that was posted when I was away from my computer.

8:10 - Make daily plan.

8:30 - Morning Deep work period. Task(s) laid out beforehand. Addictive parts of the internet turned off using Freedom.

11:30 or 12:00 - Shallow work. Check work email and slack. React to new email by replying or boomeranging to later.

12:30 - Lunch.

12:45 - Shallow work. Handling the day-to-day admin stuff I have to do; more email replying. Maybe go for a run.

13:30 or 14:30 - Afternoon Deep work period. Task(s) laid out beforehand. Addictive parts of the internet turned off.

17:00 or 18:30 - Shallow work. Maybe go for a run. Check email and slack.

19:30 - Commute to home. Listening to an audiobook or podcast.

20:15 - At home. Dinner, leisure (reading, piano, time with friends). Bed when I'm tired.

[rereads: 1, edits: formatting tweaks, rephrasings]

Feb 15, 2016

A more serious commitment to mindfulness, and a relevant paradox

I've been a mindfulness dilettante for quite a while now. I've read a few books about buddhism (some very straightforward, others impossibly cryptic), visited a few mindfulness practitioners, and occasionally (and inconsistently) meditated on my own. I haven't noticed any long-term benefit from these efforts. I think I've been approaching the entire enterprise incorrectly.

There's a lot of judgment in that last paragraph. I'm not interested in correcting that judgment here, so I'll just note it and move past.

Recently, I've decided to make a more serious commitment to mindfulness practice. I'm intending this to be different from previous efforts in two ways: (1) rather than just practicing when I feel like it, I'd like to pre-commit to a regular practice, then do it whether I feel like it or not; (2) instead of constantly assessing whether this activity is worth my while, I'd like to reserve judgment and just do the practice, then revisit after a time to think about what I've gotten out of it and whether to continue.

My recent commitment has two components. Each Sunday evening I go to a meditation class, where we sit mindfully for 30-40 minutes. And each Tuesday evening, I go to a mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) class, which takes up the whole evening.

As a supplement to the MBSR course, I've been reading Full Catastrophe Living, a primer written by the creator of the MBSR method (fun intersection: his son leads the meditation class I'm going to).

There is a paradox inherent in mindfulness practice. People want to use the practice as a means towards some other purpose – to become less stressed, or more at peace, or less bothered by pain, or more effective at their work. Yet the practice emphasizes "non-striving" and can only be approached as an end-in-itself. So how does that work?

Full Catastrophe Living has some good discussion about this: (p. 93-94)

In framing the work of meditation in this way, we are putting [MBSR students] in a paradoxical situation. They have come to the clinic hopeful of having something positive happen, yet they are instructed to practice without trying to get anywhere. Instead, we encourage them to try to be fully where they already are, with acceptance. In addition, we suggest they suspend judgment as best they can for the eight weeks that they are in the program and decide only at the end whether it was a worthwhile undertaking or not.

Why do we take this approach? Creating this paradoxical situation invites people to explore non-striving and self-acceptance as ways of being. It gives them permission to start from scratch, to tap a new way of seeing and feeling without holding up standards of success and failure based on a habitual and limited way of seeing their problems and their expectations about what they should be feeling. We practice the meditation in this way because the effort to try to "get somewhere" is so often the wrong kind of effort for catalyzing change or growth or healing, coming as it usually does from a rejection of present-moment reality without having a full awareness and understanding of that reality.

A desire for things to be other than the way they actually are is simply wishful thinking. It is not a very efective way of bringing about real change. At the first signs of what you think is "failure," when you see that you are not "getting anywhere" or have not gotten where you thought you should be, you are likely to get discouraged or feel overwhelmed , lose hope, blame external forces, and give up. Therefore no real change ever happens.

This paradox is my biggest concern about making a serious commitment to mindfulness. I am a very striving, impatient person. I worry that as these qualities lessen, my drive to accomplish things will diminish as well. And that would be a shame – I like feeling driven, and I like accomplishing things!

The counterargument here is that there are ways of being which induce drive but not stress. I am skeptical of this hypothesis, but I am withholding judgment and trying it out. Which is a surprisingly hard thing to do.

[rereads: 1, edits: phrasing tweaks, not in love with the title]

Feb 07, 2016

A prediction market bet against Sanders

Lately, I've been enjoying playing around with prediction making and prediction markets.

I had a good time last week with the Iowa Caucus. Some of my co-workers noticed that the PredictIt market for "Who will win the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses?" was substantially over-estimating Trump's chances. Better still, there was a sweet contract on "Will Donald Trump place 2nd in the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses?" with "Yes" shares trading at $0.23 during the afternoon before the caucus. Cruz was the only other candidate with a plausible case for winning the caucuses, so "Will Trump place 2nd?" seemed nearly equivalent to "Will Cruz win?". A 23% chance of a Cruz victory seemed low given Cruz's strong ground game in Iowa and the tendency of polls to inflate Trump's support.

So, after quickly creating a PredictIt account and dumping in $100 from my credit card, I bought 330 shares of "Yes" on the "Trump 2nd" contract (at an average of $0.2345/share for a total of $77.40).

Even better, when the first caucus results started coming, "Yes" shares dropped to $0.17 (I think the very early results looked favorable for Trump). Panicking at this point and selling would have been a mistake, so I doubled down and bought more shares at $0.17 and $0.18 with the rest of my initial PredictIt deposit.

By the end of the evening it was clear that Cruz had won the caucus. Rubio came uncomfortably close to Trump (23.1% to 24.3%), which I didn't expect. I hadn't thought through Rubio's chances prior to making my bets, so that's a lesson for nex time. Happily, Trump maintained his 2nd-place position, and all my shares cashed in at about $1 each (I sold some at $0.98 and $0.99 before the market closed because I wanted to cash in somewhat even if Rubio took second in the end). Total cash-in: $308.82. Not too shabby.

In a Slack conversation today, a co-worker observed another apparent misvaluation on PredicitIt: the probability of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Nomination was trading at $0.3, while the probability of Sanders winning the presidential election itself was trading at $0.18.

Here are the trading screens:

Sanders wins democratic nomination

Sanders wins presidency

Because the event "Sanders wins prez election" depends heavily on the event "Sanders wins D. Nom", we can calculate the conditional probability "Sanders wins prez election given Sanders wins the D. Nom" using the market probabilities:

p(Sanders wins prez election | Sanders wins D. Nom) = 0.18 / 0.3 = 0.6

The market probabilities imply a 60% chance of Sanders winning the presidency if he wins the nomination! Which seems crazy – this is the candidate who tries to thoughtfully explain that he is a democratic socialist when asked on national television, and candidates who thoughtfully explain that they are socialists do not have a 60% chance of winning an American presidential election.

So, the market is overvaluing Sanders – how do we capitalize on that? A simple approach is to plug a reasonable p(Sanders prez | Sanders dnom) value into the equation and see what it spits out for p(Sanders prez). Let's assume that in reality p(Sanders prez | Sanders dnom) = 0.2 (this is conservative; the actual probability is probably much lower). Keeping p(Sanders dnom) steady at 0.3, this yields:

p(Sanders prez) = p(Sanders prez | dnom) * p(Sanders dnom) = 0.2 * 0.3 = 0.06

With these assumptions, Sanders has a 6% chance of winning the presidency. The market is overvaluing him by at least 3x, and these are conservative assumptions! Both p(Sanders prez) and p(Sanders dnom) are likely lower than the values used above.

At the time I made my bet, "No" shares on "Will Sanders win the presidential election?" were trading at $0.81. There is probably a clever way to figure out how many shares a rational agent would buy, but I took the crude approach and sunk nearly all the liquid money in my account into "No" shares (400 shares for a total of $324). My plan is to sell these for a nice profit after the market adjusts downwards. I could make a maximum return of 23% if I held them to contract end, but I suspect I'll want the liquidity before that.

Also, after I ordered I noticed that I had made a mistake – I should have used most of the money I was planning to commit now (maybe 1/2 or 2/3rds of the money I was planning to commit? not sure), then have used the rest after the New Hampshire primary this week. Bernie is strong in New Hampshire, and my guess is that his market p(Prez) will inflate further after the primary. Maybe I'll add some more money to my account...

[rereads: 1, edits: phrasing tweaks]

Jan 23, 2016

Putting a bug-out bag together

A bug-out bag is a bag full of useful survival items that you keep somewhere in your domicile. The idea is to have a bag of survival supplies at the ready, which you can grab quickly in case you have to evacuate.

That's the nominal purpose, at least. Preparing a bug-out bag is also a central rite of passage for Preppers, the tribe who spends a lot of time preparing for post-apocalyptic life (fun New York Times profile of Preppers (a)). Viewed uncharitably, putting together a bug-out bag is really just a good excuse for geeking out about melee weapons, guns, and rugged individualism.

Regardless of your opinion of prepping, having a bag of useful supplies on hand for when shit hits the fan is a robustly good idea. A lot of people in my milieu spend a lot of time thinking about global catastrophic risks – a fancy term for shit hitting the fan. People who worry about GCRs don't appear to worry much about individual survival plans or bug-out bags (if they do, they don't do it publicly – searches for "bug-out bag" and "survivalism" come up empty on the EA Forum, and there's no substantive discussion on LessWrong, though there are brief mentions in these open threads from 2013). This is interesting – p(event for which a bug-out bag would be useful) seems inherently larger than p(GCR occurs). I'm considering this to be minor evidence of signaling dynamics at work in the effective altruism & rationalist communities (a la Robin Hanson (a)). People who both a) strive to be rational actors and b) genuinely believe that there is a >10% chance of the world as we know it being severely disrupted in the coming decades would be well-served by spending a few hundred dollars and a couple of hours to put together a basic survival kit. But nobody seems to be doing so.


This evening I ordered a bunch of stuff to put in my bag. I 80-20'd my order, and I'm trying to 80-20 this post too, so here's a list of the things I bought:

Calorie-dense non-perishables

  • Squeezable tubes of peanut butter
  • KIND Nut & Chocolate Bars
  • A few freeze-dried meals
  • Hiking-style sporks pot & pan
  • Hiking-style sporks
  • Might add a hiking stove and fuel at some point

Ways to carry water and make it safe to drink

  • Chloride dioxide water purification tablets
  • LifeStraw-type water filter
  • One-liter stainless steel water bottle
  • Might add a water bladder at some point

Heat-reflecting, durable synthetics

  • Very cheap, compressible sleeping bag
  • Quick-drying pack towel
  • Tarp / emergency blanket
  • Poncho
  • Will add a change of clothes

First aid
Packing bandages and a small pharmacy, drugs cribbed from this page (a)

  • Pack of bandages, gauze wraps, and alcohol pads
  • Triple antibiotic ointment (anti-infection)
  • Hydrocortisone ointment (anti-itch)
  • Dimenhydrinate pills (for reducing motion sickness, inducing sleep, and reducing anxiety)
  • Diphenhydramine pills (antihistamine)
  • Loperamide hydrochloride pills (antidiarrheal)
  • Ibuprofen pills (anti-inflammatory and pain relief)
  • Acetaminophen pills (pain relief)
  • Might add modafinil or caffeine pills at some point (for wakefulness)

Firestarters and blades

  • Stormproof matches
  • BIC-style lighters
  • Folding pocket knife
  • Kukri (Nepalese machete)
  • Will add a multitool
  • Will add a compass, considering adding a signaling mirror
  • Might add a handgun, though that feels like overkill

The bag itself
Eddie Bauer's Bacon Pack (a), mainly because I got it on sale. I've used it once on a motorcycle trip and it seems serviceable enough.

The supplies I ordered today totaled to a little less than $200. The bag was $50, and I expect I'll spend another $50 rounding out the kit with more supplies. [$300 total]

It took me about an hour to compile the list of things I'll need (though I have a lot of backpacking experience so knowing what to order was intuitive), an hour to go to Eddie Bauer and buy the bag, about an hour to put together the Amazon order, and about two hours to write this post. I expect it'll take about an hour to pack and place the bag once all the supplies come in. [6 hours total]

Also, I expect maintaining the bag (checking the integrity of the supplies, replacing expired food) to average about a half-hour and $20 per year.

(a) links are archive links for the link they're next to.
[rereads: 1, edits: formatting and typo corrections]

Jan 17, 2016

Review of "The Hateful Eight"

A substantial portion of my yesterday was spent with The Hateful Eight. I saw it at the Grand Lake Theatre, quite possibly the ideal setting for this movie. For this is a movie that Tarantino wants you to view. It wouldn't be appropriate to watch it on your laptop, or your TV. Seeing it at the local cineplex would barely suffice. It was the most immersive movie experience I've ever had.

And Tarantino wants you to be immersed. Tarantino ransacked almost all the movie warehouses in North America to dredge up 96 70-millimeter projectors for The Hateful Eight's initial run.

Tarantino shot the film in Ultra-Panavision (the last film shot in Ultra-Panavision was released in 1966), yielding a 2.76:1 (read: very wide) aspect ratio.

Tarantino commissioned Ennio Morricone to score the film, and makes you listen to his angsty neoromantic music for five minutes of overture (the overture! I think the last feature film to open with an overture premiered in 1937), while all there is to watch is a still frame of stagecoach silhouetted against crimson mountains.

Tarantino divides the film into six chapters, each beginning with a title card. The first three chapters are separated from the last three by an intermission (an intermission!), for which the red curtain of the Grand Lake's theatre glided down.

And this is all just the foreplay. There are plenty of tidbits to love in the movie itself: the product placement of products that don't exist, the long shots of Western snowscapes, the careful, quiet observation shot from Samuel L. Jackson's perspective (I know that Jackson nominally plays different characters in different Tarantino films, but all their details slip away: there's just Samuel L. Jackson, inexplicably, perfectly placed in various times, places, and styles of dress).

Everything else you'd expect from a Tarantino movie was there too: the overblown violence, the fast-paced banter, the emphasis on race relations. And the plot, well, the plot was okay. A whodunnit (a wholldoit?), a sort of cross between Stagecoach and The Thing. But the plot is really beside the point.

This is a movie's movie. A movie for film lovers, by the biggest cinephile still standing.

And it works! The Hateful Eight took up the better half of my afternoon (counting overture and intermission it clocked in at around three hours and twenty minutes), but the time was well spent. Time in another world, a world where even if you find yourself stranded by a Wyoming blizzard in a lonesome cabin with several characters of dubious background, all your troubles can be solved by clear thinking, fast talking, and long pistols.

[rereads: 2, edits: punctuation and grammar fixes]

Jan 13, 2016

Longform Read Q4 2015

In addition to the books I read last quarter, I also read a lot of longform. Here's a selection of pieces I enjoyed:

  1. Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union is Wrong (a) by Leon Aron
    Almost all contemporaneous experts failed to predict the (non-violent, morally principled) collapse of the USSR. The collapse should really be more surprising, but because it happened we're inclined to treat it as quite ordinary.

  2. Blowing the Whistle on the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department (a) by Alexander Coward
    Beloved mathematics adjunct at UC Berkeley is penalized for being an excellent teacher (admittedly a one-sided account).

  3. How to Lose Weight in Four Easy Steps (a) by Aaron Bleyaert
    Good advice.

  4. The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield (a) by Daniel Engber

  5. A History of Transhumanist Thought (a) by Nick Bostrom
    Quick history of the modern transhumanist movement written by one of its founders.

  6. What Developmental Milestones Are You Missing? (a)
    by Scott Alexander

  7. The Doomsday Invention (a) by Raffi Khatchadourian
    New Yorker profile on Bostrom.

  8. The Value of a Life (a) by Buck Shlegeris
    Attempt to figure out the "buyer's price" of human life. I found the derivation section opaque, a sign that I haven't absorbed the approach fully (and am thus unable to assess its validity), but I appreciated the attempt.

  9. Who By Very Slow Decay (a) by Scott Alexander
    Fairly horrifying perspective on dying in the US health system.

  10. I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup (a) by Scott Alexander

  11. Before the Startup (a) by Paul Graham
    Some advice on the "do I want to start a startup?" question that reduced my angst: consider all the things you can do before a startup that are more difficult after starting one.

  12. Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity (a) by Marc Andreessen

  13. Anthropic Shadow by Cirkovic, Sandberg, and Bostrom
    Discussion of anthropic bias. My (admittedly lacking) summary: the fact that we are here observing bears on our probability estimates of existential risks. Some of the evidence we see is biased towards lower extinction probabilities, because if an extinction event of sufficient magnitude (e.g. earth-splitting magnitude) had occurred, there wouldn't be any observers left to take note of it.

  14. An unreasonably large number of New Yorker think pieces on Trump

  15. Frank Sinatra Has a Cold (a) by Gay Talese
    Fun profile of Sinatra, whom I knew very little about going in.

  16. Sharpening the Fermi Paradox by Armstrong and Sandberg
    Cashing out the feasibility of intergalactic colonization, then noticing that if intergalactic travel is as feasible as it appears, then the Fermi paradox becomes more problematic.

  17. Prediction Markets (a) by gwern
    I've been getting more into prediction-making lately (reading Superforecasting, setting up a PredictionBook account, making predictions of which contenders will become GiveWell top charities).

  18. Year's End (a) by Jhumpa Lahiri
    Short story about a father, son, and the father's new wife and daughters who just migrated from India.

  19. What Money Can Buy (a) by Larissa Macfarquhar
    Macfarquhar profile on Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Opens with a very beautiful, very Macfarquharian intro paragraph.

(a) = archived version of the page, hosted by the Internet Archive. A new thing I'm trying with an eye towards building Long Content (a).
[rereads: 1, edits: typo fixes, added the endnote about archived content]

Jan 10, 2016

Books Read Q4 2015

(See also: Q1 list, Q2 list, Q3 list)

I continued to get into audiobooks this quarter. I think my comprehension and retention is substantially lower for audiobook listening compared to reading on paper (maybe 80% as good on both axes?), but the quantity more than makes up for it – I read approximately twice as much this quarter than the last.

Books I finished in the fourth quarter of 2015:

  1. Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar
    MacFarquhar's examination of extreme altruism. Very good, one of the best things I read this year. A bit of a surreal read for me, because people I know personally kept popping up amidst the profiles of heroic do-gooders (like Babu Amte, who built a thriving leper colony in the Indian wilderness by sheer force of will, or Ittetsu Nemoto), the Zen priest who gave himself wholly to counseling suicidal people in Japan).

  2. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
    Transcribed talks on Zen buddhist practice by the bringer of Zen to America.

  3. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation)
    Angsty Russian intellectual goes about his day, imagining slights, plotting revenge, struggling against the mundane. Similar to The Catcher in the Rye (or rather, Catcher is similar to Notes, if we want to be chronological about it).

  4. Braintrust by Patricia Churchland (audiobook)
    Churchland's attempt to ground morality, using neuroscience! I was excited for this after reading the excellent New Yorker profile of the Churchlands, but came away disappointed. The neuroscience just isn't where it needs to be in order to support Churchland's materialist claims, so she spends a lot of time discussing interesting findings in neuroscience, and some time on abstract moral philosophy, without strongly connecting these two parts. Also, I wish she had spent more time on is-ought, which seems very pertinent to materialist conceptions of morality.

  5. The Alliance by Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh
    Another Silicon Valley business book. Heard about it via EconTalk; it seemed interesting enough to check out.

    As with most business books I've encountered, the core idea is simply stated, and most of the text is given over anecdotal examples and discussion of how the core idea should be applied. The core idea here: the old model of the employer-employee relationship is outdated, and a new model is necessary. Employees and employers should form alliances – employees sign up for time-limited "tours of duty", with the expectations for the tour agreed upon at the outset; at the conclusion of the tour, the employee and employer can agree to re-up, or to go their separate ways; once employees move on, the employer should work hard to maintain a strong alumni relationship with them.

  6. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Anscombe, Hacker, & Schulte translation)
    I started this months ago, on a motorcycle trip up the coast, pursuing some high-minded ideal of nomadic scholarship. I finished in November, on another motorcycle ride down to LA. So – ideal realized.

    There's a lot going on here, some of which definitely went over my head. The basic premise is that human language is always used within the context of a "language-game", and the meaning of words is determined by the context of the game they are used in. Further, sometimes language-games become detached from physical reality. Once this happens, words in the game are unable to say useful things about the world outside of the game. This detachment happened to academic philosophy, thus philosophical claims about Truth are not meaningful outside of the philosophical language-game (though some claims play the language-game better than others).

    That's my quick gloss. The work is composed entirely of aphorisms, most of which consider some use-case of language and then rhetorically ask what truth can be gleaned from the words of the case. This style is very indirect, and I think intentionally so – I am therefore suspicious of my plain-spoken summary of Wittgenstein's work. Perhaps the Thing Wittgenstein was pointing to could only be pointed at obliquely, perhaps any attempt to just come out and say it would actually fail to say the Thing. Or perhaps not.

    Also, I suspect I will get more out of the Investigations after I read the Tractatus, so I'm planning to reread this at some point in the future.

    Favorite quote (from the end of the introduction):

    I should have liked to produce a good book. It has not turned out that way, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

  7. Principles by Ray Dalio
    Life principles and management principles by the founder of Bridgewater.

    Some good takeaways here –
    Takeaway 1: You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want.
    Takeaway 2: Organizations are machines that turn goals into outcomes, and consist of two types of parts – the design and the people.

  8. My Struggle – Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Bartlett translation)
    The third volume of Karl Ove's memoir. Focuses on his childhood on an island in Norway. I enjoyed this one less than the first two (reading about schoolyard crushes and exploring forests gets a bit boring after a couple hundred pages), but Knausgaard's writing remains absorbing, and there are some great scenes with his father. I'm looking forward to Book Four.

  9. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (audiobook)
    The most substantive book I've attempted as an audiobook so far. Thesis: violence has been on consistently downward trend for a long, long time. Not too complicated – the impressive part is Pinker's salvos of evidence. Dataset after dataset, across domain after domain, all in support of his thesis. I really enjoyed it, though I should probably revisit it at some point to ensure absorption.

  10. One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs (audiobook)
    Hour-by-hour account of the Cuban Missile Crises. Pretty engaging, which made for easy listening. I'll write more about this soon.

  11. The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford (audiobook)
    I wasn't impressed. A polemic against modern life, particularly against the commoditization of attention. Which is fine as a thesis, but was not well supported.

    Then again, on reflection I'm having trouble recalling the details of Crawford's argument, so maybe I just wasn't listening closely.

  12. Superforecasting by Tetlock and Gardner (audiobook)
    Tetlock's volunteer-sourced Good Judgment Project entered IARPA's forecasting tournament, and several GJP forecasters (and teams of forecasters) dominated. The book is an examination of how they were able to do that, and more broadly of the principles underlying sound prediction-making.

  13. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
    I liked this a lot. I still need to write up my notes on it, so I haven't absorbed it all yet, but here's the thrust: thinking can be conceptually divided into two systems. System 1 is rapid, unconscious, lazy, and prone to error. System 2 is slow, conscious, more rational, and requires greater exertion. This two-system set-up is an efficient division of labor. In both systems, thinking makes use of heuristics and is prone to bias.

[rereads: 2, edits: moved a parenthesis, nearly forget this end-tag :)]

Dec 20, 2015

Heuristics for evaluating performance

A lot of the thinking I do occurs in poorly defined domains – places where the feedback loops are fuzzy, long, and subjective; places where, by default, it's not clear how well a particular project is going.[1]

I think a lot of interesting and important work lies in places like this, so it's important to have methods for evaluating performance when operating in poorly defined domains.

To that end, here are some heuristics I've thought of for evaluating performance when working in fuzzy domains. These aren't battle-tested, so take them with a grain of salt.[2]

  • Knowing what you know about how this project went, would you expect to be successful when undertaking a similar project in the future?
  • Would other people expect you to be successful on a future, similar project if you explained the story of this project to them?
  • Would you expect one of your peers to be successful on a similar project? If not, what missteps would you expect your peer make? Why would you expect to avoid these missteps when your peers didn't? (If the answer is that you are more capable than your peers in some relevant way, then you're not really comparing yourself to a peer group, just another group. If you think you don't have a peer group, you'd probably benefit from a change of scene.)
  • Knowing what you know about this project, would you confidently take on a more difficult (i.e. larger, longer, more fuzzily defined, or more cognitively intense) project in the future? Would you expect to be successful at the harder project? If not, what missteps would you expect to make?
  • Gut check: how do you instinctually feel about your performance on the project? Try to cash this out – if you feel bad about it, why do you feel bad? If you feel good about it, why?
  • (When working in an organization with a hierarchical management structure) How much time did your work save your managers?
  • Assess your work through two frames –
    (1) Objective: How did your work product to compare to the work product that was required or aimed at?
    (2) Subjective: How did your work product compare to your expectation of how you would do on this project? (Or, if in an organization) How did your work product compare to what is expected of a person at your capability level?
  • Can you identify common, thematic strengths in your work? What are they? Similarly, can you identify common, thematic weaknesses in your work? What are they?
  • If you can identify thematic weaknesses in your work, what could you do to address these weaknesses during future projects? If you can identify thematic strengths, what can be done to maintain or amplify these strengths on future projects?

[1]: Writing a philosophical essay, doing historical research, and assigning subjective probability judgements all occur in poorly defined domains – a sound philosophical argument is not obviously more valid than a fallacious one, an incomplete historical narrative is not obviously less compelling than a more complete narrative (especially when the incompleteness is unknown), and an incorrect assessment of an event's probability can feel about the same as an accurate assessment.

In contrast, domains like motorcycle riding, programming, and rhetoric are well-defined – success is clearly differentiated from failure and the difference is immediately communicated to the agent. In well defined domains, expending effort to nail down accurate performance evaluations is less important because so much high-quality feedback is intrinsically available.

[2]: Take battled-tested business advice with a grain of salt too – anecdotes of business strategy obscure the role that luck played in the success story you're hearing; see Thinking Fast and Slow p. 205-208

[rereads: 3, edits: formatting and grammar tweaks, "most" –> "a lot of", fixed Kahneman page numbers]

Dec 10, 2015

Two quotes from "The House I Live In"

Here are two quotes I really liked from The House I Live In, a documentary about the American prison system (quotes are back-to-back starting around 1:30:00, can't find a clip of the relevant bit on YouTube so here's the IMDB page).

First, from David Simon (of The Wire fame):

Let's say it this way, cause it's more honest – instead of saying: "Let's get rid of all these drug addicts and drug dealers and once we throw away the key on them we'll solve this problem." ...

Why don't you try saying it to yourself this way? –

All these Americans that we don't need anymore – the factories are closed, we don't need them, you know, the textile mills, they're gone, GM is closing plants – we don't need these people. They're extra Americans. We don't need 'em. Let's just get rid of the bottom 15% of the country.

Let's lock 'em up. In fact, let's see if we can make money by locking them up, in the short term. Even though it's going to be an incredible burden to our society. Even though it's going to destroy these families, you know, where these people are probably integral to the lives of other Americans. Let's just get rid of them.

At that point, why don't you just say: "Kill the poor. If we kill the poor, we're going to be a lot better off." Because that's what the Drug War has become.

Second, from Richard Lawrence Miller (Lincoln Historian and Beard Cultivator):

My father was a war crimes investigator in Europe after WWII. And we often talked about his experiences.

I was reading the work of Raul Hilberg, who wrote about the destruction of European Jews in the Holocaust.

(Hilberg): We've long known that the process of destruction was an undertaking step-by-step.

I realized that there was a chain of destruction, that what he was talking about could be expressed by links in a chain. Around the world, in more than one society, people do the same things, again and again, decade after decade, century after century.

Now this chain of destruction begins with a phase we can call Identification, in which a group of people is identified as the cause of the problems in their society. People start to perceive their fellow citizens as bad, or evil. They used to be worthwhile people, but now all of a sudden, for some reason, their lives are worthless.

The second link in the chain of destruction is Ostracism, by which we learn how to hate these people and how to take their jobs away; how to make it harder for them to survive. People lose their place to live, often they're forced into ghettos, where they're physically isolated, separate from the rest of society.

The third link is Confiscation. People lose their rights, their civil liberties. The laws themselves change, to make it easier for people to be stopped on the street, patted down and searched, and for their property to be confiscated. Now, once you start taking people's property away, you can start taking the people themselves away.

And the fourth link is Concentration. Concentrate them into facilities such as prisons, camps. People lose their rights. They can't vote anymore, have children anymore. Often their labor is exploited in a very systematic form.

The final link in the chain of destruction is Annihilation. Now this might be indirect, say by withholding medical care, withholding food. Preventing further birth. Or it might be direct, where death is inflicted; people are deliberately killed.

These steps tend to happen of their own momentum, without anybody forcing them to happen.

I think a lot of people would be disturbed and outraged by the thought that any part of this process could be going on in America. But it wasn't until I began studying the Drug War, where I realized that some of these same steps were happening ...

The documentary draws a pretty strong parallel between the American Drug War and the Nazi Holocaust, and really drives it home in its third act. The parallel feels a bit off the mark, and the Holocaust exacted a much greater humanitarian cost than the Drug War has or ever will.

But the framing is shocking, emotively powerful (if you're wired in a way similar to the way I'm wired), and not obviously false.

Though I work at GiveWell, views expressed in this post are my own.
[rereads: 2, edits: phrasing tweaks in the first paragraph, added Raul Hilberg hyperlink, cleaned up quote-within-quotes, added Lincoln Historian hyperlink, "not quite on mark" –> "a bit off the mark", removed extraneous "that"]

Dec 03, 2015

Lost time

Warning: navel-gaving ahead

I liked this passage from the recent New Yorker Profile on Nick Bostrom:

Bostrom has a reinvented man’s sense of lost time. An only child, he grew up—as Niklas Boström—in Helsingborg, on the southern coast of Sweden. Like many exceptionally bright children, he hated school, and as a teenager he developed a listless, romantic persona. In 1989, he wandered into a library and stumbled onto an anthology of nineteenth-century German philosophy, containing works by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He read it in a nearby forest, in a clearing that he often visited to think and to write poetry, and experienced a euphoric insight into the possibilities of learning and achievement. “It’s hard to convey in words what that was like,” Bostrom told me; instead he sent me a photograph of an oil painting that he had made shortly afterward. It was a semi-representational landscape, with strange figures crammed into dense undergrowth; beyond, a hawk soared below a radiant sun. He titled it “The First Day.”

I sympathize with this sense of lost time. Lately, I have felt like I'm learning about all sorts of big important things that will require a lot of time to get my head around. Harder still, several of the big important things probably require acquisition of technical skills which are no cakewalk to learn either.

If only I had been turned on to these ideas a few years earlier! Instead of learning a whole lot about the Siege of Alesia, I could have been learning about arguments surrounding the Fermi Paradox. Instead of learning Latin, I could have been learning Python. Instead of a major in history, one in statistics. Or computer science. Or physics. Or economics, at least.

The picture I painted in that last paragraph is too bleak. I did get a lot out of my education – I can write well, and I can learn new things easily. Having a bunch of eccentric facts rattling around my head is pretty nice as well, especially in social situations ripe for amusing anecdotes.

But I can't shake the sense that all of that time could have been better spent. All the "could have been's" are useless, but the general sentiment is useful. I don't have very much time, and knowing what time poorly spent feels like is important for appreciating the time coming down the pipe. I have a lot of catching up to do, and I'll only get my head around all those big important things by chipping away one hour at a time.

Holden uses a heuristic that I like:

I have a general heuristic of “when in doubt, say no to everything that isn’t a core priority.”

I'm tempted to adopt this myself. I have a lot of ideas for interesting projects to work on, and these all float around in my head without prioritization. If the status quo persists, I'd expect most of these projects to be dropped and a few to be half-heartedly executed. But doing something well requires full-hearted execution. And full-hearted execution eats up a lot of capacity. Ergo, doing things well means that I can only do a few things at a time.

Trouble is, I don't know what my core priorities are. I have a guess, but it's shifting, fickle, and uncertain. I don't think I need an ordered list of everything that I want to do, but I'd benefit from a rough idea of where I'm headed.

So I'll work on that. Figure out the current core priorities, drop everything else, and execute on what remains.

[rereads: 2, edits: some word-choice changes, small formatting tweaks; I will probably think this post is written in an absurdly young voice when read at some future point]

Dec 02, 2015

Migrating to Pelican

I recently migrated my blog from Wordpress to a static site generated by Pelican. This post is a quick debrief of the process.

I migrated the site because the Wordpress UI felt clunky, Pelican-generated sites are sleek, and I wanted a project that would help me learn more about programming (I find it difficult to learn things when I don't have projects I can apply the content to).

I chose to use a static site generator. I know some HTML and CSS, but they can be a pain to work with, and any site I built from scratch would not be nearly as nice as one built off a theme, at least to start. Pelican has a nice selection of themes; I went with Nevan Scott's Mockingbird.

I chose Pelican over other static site generators because I already know a little Python, want to learn more Python, and don't want to mess with Ruby (which other popular generators are written in). I didn't think about which generator to choose as hard as some people. I was surprised at how little syntax was required to generate the site – if other generators are similar, I could have gone with a generator written in any language and used another criterion to decide on which one.

The migration was fairly intimidating at the outset. I found a couple of walkthroughs, and the Pelican documentation is pretty good, but all of that material presumes that you sort of know what you're doing from the start.

As someone without a strong technical background (read: someone who doesn't know what they're doing), it took a while to understand what all the pieces were and how they fit together. Here's a conceptual walkthrough of what I did:

  1. Installed Pelican and the other requisite libraries using pip. This took a while because I had a lot of random Python stuff installed thanks to a previous Enthought Canopy installation. I ended up doing a fresh install of regular (non-Canopy) Python.

  2. Tried to set up a virtual environment, which the Pelican documentation recommended. I set up a virtualenv for Pelican, but ran into a weird bug when I tried to migrate my Wordpress files from within the environment, so ended up just doing everything outside of the virtualenv. This might come back to bite me in the future, though I don't plan to be running a ton of different Python projects that all rely on the same libraries, so it should be okay.

  3. Imported my posts from Wordpress. The pelican-import tool is nifty – it pulled each post and page from the XML file I exported from Wordpress and converted them into separate Markdown files.

  4. Learned Markdown syntax. As the name sorta implies, Markdown is a minimalist markup language. It's way easier to write in than HTML, which is what I had been doing previously.

  5. Chose a theme for the site. I wanted something minimal and flexible that wouldn't look really bad in five years. Nevan Scott's Mockingbird fit the bill.

  6. Ran pelican-quickstart to generate my site structure, and pelican to convert all my posts from Markdown into HTML.

  7. Uploaded the files generated by pelican to my server using FTP. Filezilla was the FTP client I used. My site is hosted by Siteground; their support chat was somewhat helpful in figuring out how to turn off my Wordpress installation and how to use FTP. This tutorial was also helpful.

  8. Clicked through posts; fixed formatting and links that had broken during the XML –> Markdown –> HTML conversion or during the upload.

And that's it! Eight steps to build your own Pelican-generated site!

To keep me honest, here are some things I still need to do before the site is fully operational:

  • Add my nice balloon-taking-off-from-a-greek-temple photo
  • Add a favicon
  • Add RSS capability
  • Add comments (maybe)
  • Tweak the color palette
  • Fix the "posted on" date at the bottom of all posts

[rereads: 1, edits: formatting tweaks]

Oct 03, 2015

Reading List Q3 2015

Books I finished in the third quarter of 2015:

  1. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
    Vignettes from Sedaris' family life. Darkly comic and enjoyable.

  2. Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham
    Essays from Y Combinator founder Paul Graham about programming, good design, and how to create beautiful things. I really liked this and found it inspiring.

  3. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
    Idealistic young American starts mucking about in French colonial Vietnam. Disillusioned older Englishman views him with cynicism and latent admiration. A love triangle, bit of political terrorism, and noir-style murder investigation all ensue.

  4. Marx: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer
    Peter Singer wrote a Very Short Intro on Marx?! Weird. Actually Singer spent some serious time on Marx and Hegel, writing a book about each of them. This intro was good; I came off it with a better grasp of Marx's thought and how it differed from the crazy Marxist-idea-implementers that followed.

I didn't ready too much on paper this quarter. I did, however, try out audiobooks, having been nudged by Nick Beckstead's post about them. I've listened to two audiobooks in full so far, and am halfway through a third. I find the content to be higher quality than a lot of podcast content, which is the thing audiobooks replace in my life. I'm pretty sure I retain quite a bit less from an audiobook than from actual close reading on paper, but it seems like a good medium for lightly written books and books on topics I'm only moderately interested in.

Audiobooks I listened to this quarter:

  1. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

    An alternate history where the Axis wins World War II and Japan and Germany immediately plunge into a cold war. Set in 1960s America, which has been divided into the Pacific States (West Coast, Japanese control), the Rocky Mountain States (Middle America, autonomous buffer state?), and the United States (East Coast, Reich control). I love this premise, and found the book pretty entertaining, though at times tiring (too much I Ching). I was turned onto the book by this Amazon Originals pilot, which I really hope takes off.

  2. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
    Ben Horowitz is a badass. Also, it is incredibly entertaining to listen to a deep-voiced honky narrate the gangsta rap lyrics that Horowitz prefaced each chapter with.

And to compensate for the sorry number of books, here are the longform articles I most enjoyed this quarter:

  1. What Is Code? by Paul Ford
    Fantastic walkthrough intro to programming concepts from the perspective of a know-nothing mid-level executive at a typical American corporate entity.

  2. The Absurd by Thomas Nagel
    What's the point? Well, we just don't get to know.

  3. GiveWell Shallow Investigation of Nuclear Weapons Policy by Nick Beckstead
    Are nukes still a problem in the post-cold-war era? Yes. Can we do something about it? Probably yes.

  4. Stop the Robot Apocalypse by Amia Srinivasan
    In-depth book review of Doing Good Better. Impressive both for its detailed understanding of a lot of Effective Altruist stances, and for its well-put phrasings of many common critiques of EA.

  5. How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis by Alison Gopnik

    This really makes me want to read Hume.

  6. The Bourne Aesthetic by Mike Hoye

    Nice little essay about how our zeitgeist is shifting away from the James Bond way of doing things (classy, expensive, institutional) towards the Jason Bourne way of doing things (rough, makeshift, practical), which shifts into a polemic against Apple's design principles that I thoroughly enjoyed.

  7. In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

    Essay on why work for the sake of work, or work considered a virtue, is a bad way to go. I found this really refreshing; the favorite thing I've read by Russell so far (his autobiography is just boring). Winning quote:

    First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

[rereads:1, edits: phrasing tweaks]
Though I work at GiveWell, views expressed in this post are my own.

Sep 29, 2015

The fading of older relatives

First post on this topic here. Second one here.

My grandfather isn't going to die. Not imminently, anyway.

Over the week of my visit, Grandpa's health improved quite markedly. When I first saw him last Monday, he was barely conscious in a hospital bed, frail and curled up. The bedsheets obscured the form of his legs, so it appeared as if he were half a man – his body ending just below his small paunch.

That Friday, he was fully formed again. When we came to visit, he was seated in a wheelchair in his room at the rehab facility. He greeted us in a hoarse voice as my dad and I seated ourselves in chairs by the wheelchair. We asked him how he was feeling. He was feeling fine. Then we stared at each other, and at other things in the room, for the next several minutes.

At one point, Grandpa mentioned that the University of Michigan had sure paid a lot for their new football coach. My dad and I agreed. When my dad left the room a few moments later, Grandpa mentioned that the University of Michigan had sure paid a lot for their new football coach. I agreed.

We concluded that visit with a wheel-walk through the facility's garden. It is a beautiful garden, well kept by MSU Horticulture students (as my dad learned from a very old woman who was wandering about with clippers, attempting to deadhead roses that were too close to the ground for her to safely reach).

We returned to the facility on Sunday. It was a whole family affair this time – my mom joined my dad and I for the trip, and my aunt was visiting with Grandpa when we arrived.

Grandpa was in the room's recliner. I took a seat in the wheelchair, my parents seated themselves along the wall. We all watched the Tigers lose to the Twins (a 7-1 blowout, with the Twins getting 6 runs in the first inning). I've never been more excited about watching a sports game. You need something in that situation, some external content to grasp onto. Without some external stimulus, a great gulf opens up between the people in the room. Conversation consists of half-whispered strategizing among the adults, punctuated every three sentences by a theatrically loud, vapid question pitched to Grandpa. If the strategizing was successful, or if we just get lucky, the question hits and we have something to talk about for a few minutes. "California? Well I drove my 1930 Packard out to California! To San Francisco, in fact. The oldest car to make the trip."

And we are all thankful for the topic, even if it is one of three topics in endless rotation. Because the rehash of an old memory is infinitely better than a stark, silent acknowledgement of the great gulf, which consists entirely of staring at another person, at their hands and forearms, their hair and brow and eyes that don't contact yours. Staring, and wondering: "Is anyone in there? How far distant has he grown?"

It wasn't all grim. There were good moments, too. Good to help him eat lunch, in the hospital when he was too frail to manage it capably by himself. Good to walk along a garden path, wheeling him ahead of me. And when we returned to his comfortable, neutral room, good to hear him ask with a smile: "So who's handsomer – me or your dad?"

But goodness wasn't the bulk of it. The bulk of it was just empty. And that emptiness is sad. There isn't any there there.

[rereads:1, edits: cut some words, phrasing tweaks]

Sep 22, 2015

Navigating the death of older relatives, II

First post on this topic here.

Writing now from Michigan. I took an overnight flight on Sunday and spent most of yesterday with my family, nuclear and extended.

I'm pretty amazed by the extent to which my priorities are dictated by my environment and the events therein. For quite a while, I have conceptually understood that the American healthcare system is fucked up. Knowing this hasn't really affected my behavior. Yes, U.S. healthcare is fucked, but aren't there bigger problems to deal with?

But now, as I watch the system apply its grinding processes to someone I love, I'm moved to write about it. This probably isn't the most impactful thing to spend time on. I could be using this time to tech up on AI in advance of the huge risk we might be hurtling towards. I could be using this time to think carefully about farm animals and how we might help them. Those topics are probably more impactful than writing about U.S. healthcare. But I don't find them motivating. So I'm not spending time on them right now.

So, U.S. healthcare is fucked up. How so?

Well, my grandfather is currently staying in a hospital. He is very weak, and last week he was placed on comfort care, meaning that the hospital will try to keep him comfortable, but will not try to prevent his death. He had contracted sepsis, a bad-news disease for older patients, so comfort care made sense.

Somewhat amazingly, after he was taken off antibiotics, my grandfather's system fought off the sepsis on its own. Yesterday, we learned that he was no longer in septic shock. This news placed us in a weird no man's land. Instead of preparing for an imminent death, we don't really know what to expect now. He will probably still die sometime soon, but "sometime soon" might be a few days or a few weeks.

The hospital does not want to keep a lingering patient in one of its beds. So, my grandpa has to be transferred somewhere. But where? Having exited septic shock, he is no longer eligible for hospice. Yet we don't expect him to recover, so home care isn't a good option. Perhaps a long-term care facility, like a nursing home, but nursing homes are expensive. My grandpa is not rich, but he has enough assets to be above the threshold for Medicaid eligibility, so some assets will have to be spent down before he is able to qualify for Medicaid coverage. However, long-term care facilities can be selective about the patients they admit, and Medicaid patients are not lucrative, so patients on Medicaid are unlikely to be accepted by high-quality facilities. So there is a riddle here – do you spend down your assets to qualify for Medicaid eligibility and apply for admittance at a lower-tier facility? Or do you take those assets and use them to pay out of pocket at nicer facility, then try to get on Medicaid once you're there?

Working with a palliative care doctor yesterday, my family devised a plan. The hospital will conduct a physical therapy evaluation on my grandpa. If he is receptive to PT and the hospital deems that he can be rehabilitated, we will transfer him to a rehab facility, which his current insurance covers so long as he can be shown to be making progress on PT (capped at 20 days, I think). This buys us enough time to figure out the next step (either applying for Medicaid or moving to a hospice, or both – I'm a little fuzzy on the details here, and I don't think anyone knows with certainty).

By this point, you might be thinking "gosh, that sounds complicated, but it doesn't seem too fucked up." So, what's wrong with this picture? Allow me to enumerate:

  1. The biggest problem with this situation is that we are planning to send a man who no one expects to recover to a rehabilitation facility. We are sending him there because it is financially expedient, because other alternatives are very expensive, not because we think it will help him. He will attempt to do physical therapy in some weird attempt to game the system, not because anyone thinks physical therapy is a useful thing for him to do.

  2. My impression is that the majority of my family's thinking and discussion during this time has been dominated by money. Family dynamics are definitely at play here, but the situation is exacerbated by the system we are operating in. The focus isn't really on my grandfather right now. The focus is on what is to be done about him. This is sad and frustrating. A more sensible system would place emphasis on the person whose life is ending, not on stratagems for underwriting his last days.

  3. During the course of his stay at the hospital, my grandpa has changed rooms three times. We have been visited by several doctors, some of whom give conflicting information. This all happened before I arrived, so I'm fuzzy on the specifics. But my family hasn't received a clear picture from the hospital, and confusing advice from medical authority figures is very unhelpful during this time.

  4. From the conversations I've heard, it seems generally accepted that long-term care facilities are motivated primarily by profit. The hospital may also be motivated primarily by profit, but if so it at least cloaks it behind a veneer of "saving lives and improving health outcomes." But the long-term facilities want to make money, that's a given, so we have to work around that.

  5. It would be probably be best for my grandfather to be moved to a hospice, where he can be comfortable and experience some institutional stability. Because he is no longer in septic shock, he is not eligible for a hospice. Ergo, no man's land.

  6. The above are all points about my grandfather's immediate situation. There is some broader point about how our healthcare system handles dying people by placing them in quiet, institutional rooms full of medical equipment. These rooms are far removed from the familiar setting of the dying person's life, and they aren't particularly comfortable. Maybe hospices are better in this regard, and I'm just being influenced by the current state of affairs. But I think I want to die at home. If there's no expectation of being saved, what's the point of all the pomp and disruption? (this reminds me of that Atul Gawande piece from a while back)

I'm going to close now. This might not have been the most illuminating post, but writing it was gently therapeutic.

[rereads: 1, edits: added section break, added point about long-term facility profit motivation, "picture" –> "situation", still embarrassed about writing posts like this]

Sep 19, 2015

Navigating the death of older relatives

It's strange what a decision can come down to. Earlier this morning, before my coffee, I sat in my robe toying around with Kayak and Hipmunk. My grandfather is sick – he was hospitalized for a small stroke and then contracted sepsis. Two days ago, he was placed on comfort care. Everyone expects him to die soon. I am considering traveling to Michigan to see him before he goes, hence Kayak and Hipmunk. But then the strange thing: once I'm searching for flights, my decision-making becomes dominated by whether or not I could find a cheap, convenient flight.

And that's ridiculous. The impending death of my last surviving grandparent, and I'm worried about whether my flight costs \$200 or \$300? Whether I depart at 3:20 pm Thursday or 6:00 am Saturday? Three months from now, I will have no memory of these trivialities, yet they threaten to determine whether I take this trip or not.

There are other strange questions around death – should I go home for a final visit, or for the funeral alone? Perhaps both?

I don't see much purpose to funerals, but my social instincts flare up around them. Everyone will be there! A time to gather and reflect! To cherish a life! But that's not how it plays out. I envision a comfortable, inoffensive venue. Perhaps a sterile sermon. Some awkward small talk with some distant relations; some more intimate conversation with the relatives I know better. If things go well, maybe we all reminisce together for a while, play Euchre, or Hearts; games Grandpa loved.

But who is all that really for? My grandfather, who will be dead? His memory? Or maybe for the family, for those who live on?

It seems better to visit before death comes, to actually spend some time with the person before they go. Social instincts have nothing to say here: a neutral activity, they lie quiet (though perhaps there would be some yapping if I choose the visit over the funeral – visiting may be a neutral social-instinctive activity, but skipping a funeral is clearly a negative one). That's what I'm leaning towards now: institutional hospital in place of comfortable venue, quiet exchange of pleasantries instead of awkward small talk. A chance to spend a little more time with the actual person seems better than attendance at a ritualized service. Assuming I can find a good flight.

I'm embarrassed to write this. Embarrassed to turn a family situation into a shitty little internet think piece. Embarrassed by treating my grandfather, still a person in the world, as a subject for analysis.

But I'm going to publish it anyway. Silent stoicism runs deep in my family, and this is one of the places where it doesn't serve well.

And it feels like our culture lacks good vocabulary around death. Mainstream mourning rituals consist of religious veneers and corporatized banalities. So maybe this will open things up a bit.

[rereads:3, edits: spent too long finding fancy words for the second-to-last sentence, debated whether to include "on" at the beginning of the post's title – decided to drop it, became -> becomes, if -> whether]

Sep 03, 2015

Framework for thinking about performance

The vector performance could be broken into four principal components:

  • Technical skill – Roughly defined as "fluency with tools," or "ability to select and apply tools to the task at hand." Examples include coding in a computing language, driving a car, playing a sport, applying a statistical test to a dataset, executing a chemistry experiment, etc.
  • Expressiveness – Roughly defined as "ability to communicate work progress and goals to others." Encompasses the domains of written and verbal communication, which means this is possibly a subset of technical skill, but it seems important enough to be separated out as a distinct part.
  • Project management – Roughly defined as "ability to triage tasks," or "ability to organize a set of tasks in order of priority and execute on this ordering." Examples include email inbox management, making to-do lists and schedules, dividing a block of time between two competing tasks.
  • Vision – Roughly defined as "ability to decide what to do next." Examples include designing a marketing strategy, thinking X moves ahead in a game of chess, anticipating the actions of a political opponent and creating a response.

There is a lot of overlap and interplay between these components, and the divides between are fuzzy.

This is the current framework I'm using to think about my skill set. I think I'm strong on technical skill (and technical skill acquisition), project management and written expressiveness. I think I'm weak on verbal expressiveness and vision.

[rereads: 2, edits: changed _code_ tags to _i_ tags. I thought the _code_ tags would look cool, but I was wrong. Also, I wrote this in < 20 minutes, which I'm proud about and thought I'd share]

Jul 26, 2015

Research methodology for a pseudostatistical analysis of Understanding Power

As I mentioned previously, I'm interested in digging into some of the claims Chomsky makes in Understanding Power.

The book is lengthy (401 pages) and the footnote appendix lengthier (449 pages!). Researching each claim would be an enormous project (read: a project I would never finish). Some sampling is in order.

Sample size

Out of 756 footnotes, I decided a random sample of 20 would be sufficiently powered for my purposes. I didn't think too hard about what "power" means for a study like this; there is a clear trade-off between the confidence I have in my conclusion and the work I'm willing to put into this. Checking one or two footnotes would not be thorough enough to convince me of anything, checking 200 is beyond the limits of my patience.

Sampling procedure

On my first crack at this a couple of months ago, I just started flipping through the main text of UP and then read the footnotes for claims that caught my interest.

This method is far too susceptible to bias – something more rigorous is in order. (Pseudo)randomly selecting 20 chapter numbers and footnote numbers should do the trick.

This excel file contains the methodology I used. Essentially, I applied a RAND function on the range 1-10 (to select the chapter), then applied another RAND function on the range of the number of footnotes in the randomly selected chapter. This procedure is sort of ad hoc (I had to manually code each footnote-selecting RAND function), and I am sure there is a more elegant way to program this, but I think it preserves good randomization on both levels.

Here are the results of that procedure:

  • Chapter 1, Footnote 23
  • Chapter 1, Footnote 36
  • Chapter 2, Footnote 10
  • Chapter 3, Footnote 22
  • Chapter 3, Footnote 35
  • Chapter 4, Footnote 73
  • Chapter 4, Footnote 75
  • Chapter 5, Footnote 57
  • Chapter 5, Footnote 96
  • Chapter 6, Footnote 8
  • Chapter 6, Footnote 9
  • Chapter 6, Footnote 10
  • Chapter 6, Footnote 38
  • Chapter 8, Footnote 10
  • Chapter 8, Footnote 59
  • Chapter 8, Footnote 65
  • Chapter 9, Footnote 18
  • Chapter 9, Footnote 22
  • Chapter 9, Footnote 27
  • Chapter 10, Footnote 86

Research Questions

I'm interested in two research questions:

  1. Do the citations in each footnote support the factual claims Chomsky makes in the text?
  2. Do the factual claims Chomsky makes support his broader conceptual point?

#2 is the squishier question – at best, the factual claims will provide anecdotal support for Chomsky's theoretical claims, and alternative theories will likely fit with the facts to some degree. However, if Chomsky's theories consistently line up with the facts across a random sample (perhaps not always the "best-fit" theory, but at least always a "competitive-fit" theory), I will be persuaded that there is something to his position. This feels very subjective and dependent on my prior beliefs going in, but I don't think further procedural rigor will rescue us from that.

Keeping my methodology and reasoning transparent will provide some guard against this subjectivity.

Research Procedure

For question #1, I'm planning to:

  • Read the footnote and the related in-text passage in UP.
  • Track down each citation at its given source, and read 1-2 pages around the cited passage for context.
  • Search the cited topic on google, google scholar, JSTOR, and the New York Times archive. From this search, find 2-3 associated sources and evaluate whether they confirm or disfirm the cited passage.
  • Write up a brief summary of this search and my conclusion about the factual claim.

For question #2, I'm planning to:

  • Read roughly 2-5 pages of the UP text around the footnote.
  • Write up a summary of Chomsky's conceptual point to make sure I understand it.
  • Try to brainstorm alternative theories that line up with Chomsky's point. Possibly dig into some outside sources here (this is probably a rabbit hole, so I'll probably put a time cap on it).
  • Consider a counterfactual position (i.e., how strong is Chomsky's claim X if cited event Y never happened? Does claim X heavily depend on the evidence, or is claim X detached from the evidence such that it remains plausible for any imagined history?).
  • Write up my conclusion about the relationship between Chomsky's claim and the evidence he cites.

Ideally, I'll do this in chunks of 5 footnotes apiece. Some of the footnotes are pretty hairy, so if I've selected one of those, I might just handle that one its own.

I don't have a timeline for conducting this research or publishing the results. If no progress has been made within a year, I would be sad.

Preregistration of prior beliefs

In the vein of subjective squishiness, it seems appropriate to state my current understanding of UP before diving in.

I am basically sympathetic to Chomsky's thesis, which I parse as:

Modern America is an imperial power that is not notably better than previous empires. America conducts military and economic interventions abroad with the purpose of maintaining its position, often to the detriment of other countries and their people. Domestically, the corporate power-elite conspires with the government to maintain their socio-economic status and decision-making ability.

The American public has a distorted concept of America, and consider their country and system of government to be vaguely "better" than other countries. This conception is factually incorrect, but the media and higher education system reinforce and perpetuate it.

Although this situation is discouraging, it has been slowly improving over time, which can be demonstrated by the limiting of the power-elite's explicit means of control (large police actions, imprisonment and blackballing of opposition) and its recourse to secretive means of control (mass media dispersion of propaganda, widespread government surveillance, accessible provision of numbing entertainments). This shift is cause for optimism about the future.

My parse is pretty rough, but I think the basic thrust is correct. His position rings true for some reason I can't put my finger on.

I believe that I am open to changing my view about the validity of Chomsky's thesis after digging into some of the evidence he cites, though I might be fooling myself here. I am also open to the evidence-digging reinforcing my current view, or not moving me at all.

[rereads: 3, edits: rephrased "political propaganda" clause, "cheap" –>"accessible", "own" –> "one"]

Jul 19, 2015

Radical open period

For indeed none can love freedom heartily, but good men: the rest love not freedom, but license.
- John Milton (full quote here)

I have been thinking some recently about obligation – what an obligation is, and where our obligations lie. My mind might be changing about the matter, hard to say from within the mists.

Also recently, I have been rekindling an old interest in self-experimentation. (sometimes I feel like I was on a certain track until about age 16, then read a series of books that shunted me down a very different track, and have spent the last few years hauling myself overland in the vague direction of the first track.)

Tonight, we combine the two!

I frequently operate under a normative framework in my everyday life. Normativity is very embedded into the way I work and the way I make decisions. For the most part, I am okay with this. Doing things because I ought to makes intuitive sense to me, and this framework reliably gets the job done.

Sometimes, though, I worry that my framework is too restrictive, and I think about changing it. That conversation usually goes like this:

Alcibiades: Hey, I don't feel too great about the way we work around here.
Glaucon: Mm, why not? What's your worry?
Alcibiades: Well, we're always feeling like we have to do this or that. Even when we're doing something that we're supposed to do, there's something else we're not doing!
Glaucon: Hm, I guess it does feel a little demanding sometimes.
Alcibiades: And even when we're on top of everything, it feels like we could be working faster.
Glaucon: Well, isn't that true? We don't work as efficiently as we could. We could focus better, read and write faster, plan more strategically, and execute with less hesitation.
Alcibiades: That's true. But maybe being able to do something better doesn't mean we have to do it better?
Glaucon: Where would we set our goals, then? How would we know what was acceptable, and what wasn't?
Alcibiades: I'm not sure. What if we didn't try to set goals?
Glaucon: That's insane! Without goals, we'd just sit and watch pirated TV all day. We wouldn't make it out of the house!
Alcibiades: Yeah... But maybe that's okay? What are our goals based on, anyway?
Glaucon: Does sitting around all day sound good to you? Isn't it better to strive towards something great?
Alcibiades: Yeah, I guess. I just wish there was a way to do that without all the accompanying shit.
Glaucon: I'm all ears. But until you have an alternative, I suggest you get back to work.

The problem here is that all the debate comes before the evidence. Alternatives to the status quo get picked apart before they're given a shot. Even more troubling, sometimes I try out an alternative for just a teeny bit. Then, when things don't go absolutely swimmingly, my prior belief gets reinforced. Alternatives don't work, feeling like you have to do something is the only way to do it. No half measures.

This isn't very scientific.

Here's something more scientific:

For the next [AMOUNT OF TIME UNDETERMINED], I'm going to be in a "radical open period." I'll do what I want. I won't worry to much about not doing the things I should be doing. I'll read what I want, write what I want, eat what I want, sleep for how long I fancy.

I have definite obligations related to my current employment, so I am going to bracket out a significant portion of each weekday. This bracketed portion will be excluded from the radical openness blossoming all around it.

I'm guessing that this openness will not be an easy sensation to maintain. I'm deeply habituated to my current practice, and will default to it when not thinking. Spending a substantial portion of my waking time in a professional setting will continue to reinforce my current working practice, which is heavily salted with have to's and should have's. On top of this, there is no point in trying to not try. My plan is to be gentle, non-prescriptive, and expecting a lot of regressions to habituated practice.

The point of this exercise is not to induce some grand shift in life direction. It's just to test out a hypothesis: perhaps living without obligations in my day-to-day results in a series of TV binges. Perhaps it will result in something else. I'm hoping for the latter.

[rereads: 3, edits: inserted line break, added ",though," added some spaces, cut "going in", cut down the Milton quote so it reflects its appearance in Empire:Total War, en-dash –> comma, added a missing "to"]

Jul 09, 2015

Reading List Q2 2015

Books I read in the second quarter of 2015:

  1. The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

    This is a pretty good introduction to effective altruism. I was familiar with most of the material going in, so I didn't get too much out of it.

  2. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński

    Polish journalist extraordinaire interviews former members of Haile Selassie's regime after its fall. I liked this less than The Shadow of the Sun, but still thought it was worthwhile. Ethiopia was a crazy place under Selassie.

  3. Philosophy & This Actual World by Martin Benjamin

    Read at the recommendation of a friend, sort of in preparation for a dinner with the author. Philosophical primer blending Wittgenstein and the Pragmatists (especially James). I need to read Wittgenstein.

  4. My Struggle – Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard
    Norwegian phenom. Sucks you in until you're wearing his life like your own. I wrote more about it here (not a review, more a half-baked essay about appropriate titles and fascism).

  5. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

    Birth of a libertarian moontopia. Classic hard sci-fi. Early instance of an AI playing a pivotal supporting role. I enjoyed the whole thing, but repeatedly got tired of the premise and had to take breaks.

  6. Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance

    I want to be Elon Musk. (who wouldn't?)

  7. My Struggle – Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

    Book two of six. Maybe I'll finish the series by year's end (at least what's been translated to English to date – it's super good, but not good enough to learn Norwegian for).

  8. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

    Pop science treatment of habit. I wasn't expecting much going in, but was pleasantly surprised. Stimulus –> Response –> Reward is a simple framework, but a fun one to apply to your own behavior ("Identify the stimulus!" "Replace the response!").

  9. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

    I really like stories of people who develop their own plan for the world, then set about trying to execute on that plan as hard as they possibly can (cf. Elon). This is another story like that. It's amazing.

  10. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
    Interlocking storylines in WWII Europe. Diamonds. Radios. Nazis. Curses.

  11. The Pattern on the Stone by W. Daniel Hillis

    Pop science account of how a computer works. I read it in preparation for this other pop science account of how a computer works. Eventually I'll actually start coding, I swear.

[rereads: 3, edits: added links that I forgot, "it" –> "on that plan", cut "see above"]

Jun 28, 2015

2014-2015 Year in Review

I am preparing for a professional annual review, so I thought I would create a personal year-in-review in parallel. It has been almost a year since I moved to the Bay from Michigan, so the timing is fairly natural.

As with any exercise of this type, the following is incomplete and does not reflect the entirety of the past year. It isn't even designed to target the most interesting parts of the last year, so read with caution.

Skill set


  • Parkour-type exercises (quadrupedal movement, core-strengthening exercises, pull-ups, push-ups)
  • Motorcycling
  • Basic proficiency in HTML
  • Rudimentary understanding of fundamental concepts in probability and statistics
  • Rudimentary understanding of Python (mostly recognizing syntax and writing very simple programs)

Maintained or improved

  • Improved verbal communication, especially over the phone. (improved = more personable, more comfortable / less anxious when preparing for phone calls, more concise speaking style, less rambling)
  • Improved email communication. (improved = more reliably and quickly able to write courteous, concise, actionable emails)
  • Improved ability to parse papers in academic social science fields (especially those with quantitative or statistical components)
  • Prose writing ability maintained (or possibly improved, sort of hard to evaluate)
  • Better budgeting (creating more realistic budgets and sticking to them)
  • Running (form maintained, endurance improved)
  • Soccer (technique and endurance improved)


  • Ability to read and write sheet music
  • Piano technique (and fluidity)
  • Sailing technique and associated skills
  • Lifeguarding and basic first-aid
  • Backcountry skills and fieldcraft (making fires, obtaining potable water, making shelters, hiking endurance and comfort, climbing, etc.)
  • Bicycling (endurance and form)
  • Spanish speaking, reading, and writing ability
  • Latin reading and writing ability

Personal projects


  • Analysis of Understanding Power
  • More diverse, deeper meditation practice
  • Aikido


  • Learning to code
  • The blog you're reading
  • Pen pal correspondence with a prisoner in solitary confinement
  • Regular meditation practice
  • Parkour training
  • Learning statistics


  • Correspondence with friends
  • Loosely following the news


  • Learning to code (I'm double-counting projects I began and then paused)
  • Analysis of Understanding Power
  • Joining a sailing club
  • Parkour training
  • Daily journaling
  • Closely following the news
  • Regular piano playing

Beliefs and worldview
I'm not really sure how to evaluate or catalogue this. I decided to take the PhilPapers Survey to evaluate my current philosophical outlook, and to give short prose descriptions of other updates that fall into this category.

PhilPapers survey

A priori knowledge: yes or no?
Answer: yes
Level of confidence: low
Justification: Based on the ability of humans to learn languages, but only languages within a certain set of syntaxes, I'm guessing there is some knowledge "already there," or at least there prior to experience. I haven't looked at this closely though, and my understanding is that there is an open debate.

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?
Answer: nominalism
Level of confidence: low
Justification: My current guess is that we use generalized terms to refer to family resemblances of objects in the world, and that Platonic forms of these objects do not exist. I haven't looked at this at all, really.

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?
Answer: objective
Level of confidence: medium, but conflicted
Justification: From my experience with music and mathematics, some forms do seem to be aesthetically better than others, for reasons separate from my cultural viewpoint. But this is a tangled issue.

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?
Answer: yes
Level of confidence: very low
Justification: I don't know anything about this debate. My experience with math makes me think that some propositions are true without being related to the physical world.

Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?
Answer: ?
Level of confidence: n/a
Justification: I don't anything about this, and a 3-minute scan of the internet didn't illuminate things for me.

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?
Answer: non-skeptical realism
Level of confidence: very low
Justification: I don't really understand the distinction between idealism and non-skeptical realism, but I'm not a skeptic, so I have some opinion here.

Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
Answer: compatibilism, or maybe some form of pragmatic libertarianism
Level of confidence: low
Justification: A couple of my friends who know more about this than I are compatiblists, which makes me think I should be a compatiblist, or learn more about it until I know why I'm not. A couple of years ago I made an argument for something like pragmatic libertarianism (slogan: we certainly appear to have free will in our day-to-day actions, so for all practical purposes we are best off by operating as if we do).

God: theism or atheism?
Answer: atheism
Level of confidence: medium
Justification: Basically an atheist due to the irresolution of the problem of evil. However, this was the first year I could genuinely see myself adopting some form of theism in the future (likely as a guard against nihilism, possibly some form of Christian existentialism, but this is all speculative.

Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?
Answer: ?
Level of confidence: n/a
Justification: I don't know anything about this.

Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?
Answer: rationalism
Level of confidence: very low
Justification: Answering "rationalism" to be consistent with above answers. I haven't thought a lot about this.

Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?
Answer: Humean
Level of confidence: low
Justification: I have difficulty imagining how prescriptive laws would arise, or how they would operate. The descriptive story seems much simpler.

Logic: classical or non-classical?
Answer: non-classical
Level of confidence: low
Justification: I don't really understand the distinction – maybe "classical" respondents think that non-classical forms of logic don't exist, or aren't coherent? They certainly seem to exist. I haven't thought about this very much.

Mental content: internalism or externalism
Answer: ?
Level of confidence: n/a
Justification: I don't know anything about this.

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
Answer: moral realism
Level of confidence: medium
Justification: I want to formulate some type of constructionist theory for morality, and I'm not sure how that falls on the realism/anti-realism question. I currently conceive of "real" morality in the same way I think of "real" mathematics – incorrect mathematical formulas can be conceived and manipulated, but they are different from "real" mathematics in a meaningful sense (i.e. they aren't coherent, don't follow from simple axioms, or something like that). There is more work to be done here.

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
Answer: naturalism
Level of confidence: very low
Justification: I parse this as – "is philosophy able to encapsulated by other fields of inquiry?" I haven't thought about this a lot, but the historical trend points to yes, and I don't see an obvious reason why not.

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?
Answer: non-physicalism
Level of confidence: low
Justification: I might be a dualist, or occupy some sort of moderate in-between. I haven't investigated this a lot – this belief might need to be revised.

Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
Answer: cognitivism
Level of confidence: medium
Justification: I believe ethical statements contain meaningful content.

Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?
Answer: internalism
Level of confidence: medium
Justification: Moral claims which are not at all motivating do not seem to exist, or to be useful. I haven't read the arguments for the externalist position, so I'm uninformed here.

Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?
Answer: one-box
Level of confidence: medium
Justification: One-boxing made intuitive sense on my first read of the problem. I haven't done a lot of decision theory work, so I'm likely missing nuances here. Also, answers might be highly sensitive to the way in which the question is formulated.

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?
Answer: virtue ethics
Level of confidence: medium, though conflicted
Justification: I could see myself identifying as some sort of broad consequentialist, but because all of the refined versions of consequentialism seem terribly fraught, I'll sign up for vaguely defined virtue ethics.

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?
Answer: ?
Level of confidence: n/a
Justification: My first guess is that I'm something close to qualia theory, but I'm not sufficiently familiar with the issue.

Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?
Answer: ?
Level of confidence: n/a
Justification: Probably further-fact, but I haven't thought about this at all.

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?
Answer: egalitarianism, though somewhat attracted to libertarianism
Level of confidence: medium
Justification: I have trouble separating out my views on specific political situations from the theoretical issue. I'm probably heavily biased in ways I don't yet appreciate.

Proper names: Fregean or Millian?
Answer: ?
Level of confidence: n/a
Justification: I have no idea what this is about.

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?
Answer: realism
Level of confidence: low
Justification: Science appears to pay dividends. This makes me think it's connected to the world in a meaningful way. I might be misunderstanding the question.

Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?
Answer: survival
Level of confidence: medium-high
Justification: I have an intuition that the person would be the same person after being transported. This might be at odds with earlier answers. Also, this question might not be a very interesting one, see here.

Time: A-theory or B-theory?
Answer: B-theory
Level of confidence: medium
Justification: B-theory seems to be more consistent with my (very naïve) understanding of physics. However, it is a little unclear what "experiencing the present" means/is under B-theory.

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don't switch?
Answer: throw the switch!
Level of confidence: high
Justification: I would also push the fat man onto the track, in the variant of the problem.

Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?
Answer: correspondence
Level of confidence: low
Justification: Mostly because it intuits with me and appears to be the mainstream view. I haven't thought about this very much.

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?
Answer: metaphysically possible
Level of confidence: very low
Justification: Following my immediate intuition, and I don't see an obvious reason why they couldn't be possible. I haven't thought about this very much though.


This year, I was exposed to the rationality community, mostly by meeting a bunch of rationalists (and rationalist-type people who shun the identity), and reading things on the internet, on places like LessWrong and Slate Star Codex.

This exposure was a substantial development – I'm now thinking about a host of topics I wasn't aware of a year ago. I'm not a rationalist, but someone could now plausibly (and annoyingly) label me as one of the rationalist-type people who shun the identity.

Theology and spirituality

I've largely put my angsty investigation into Christianity on hold, though I am still corresponding with a friend about theology. This wasn't an intentional decision, more of a function of the people I am spending time around (more rationalist-types (almost all atheists), fewer Christian-types).

I've made some effort to deepen my study of Buddhism, by reading a small amount of Buddhist literature and going to a meditation group fairly regularly. I'm hoping this deepening continues over the next year.

Goals for the next year

  • Continue learning statistics
  • Apply statistical methods to problems I want to solve
  • Learn Python
  • Build something in Python
  • Understand how a computer works
  • Establish a stable living situation for the next 1-3 years
  • Perform well at work, and take on increasing amounts of responsibility
  • Deepen my meditation practice
  • Get a dog or a cat
  • Take a long motorcycle trip
    Categories I considered but ended up not using:
  • Daily routine (average schedule and variance)
  • Habits (+ frequency)
  • Assets
  • Social network
    [rereads: 1, edits: some tweaks]

Jun 19, 2015

You should read this

Nate Soares has been writing an interesting series of posts, which begins by arguing against feelings of listless, nihilistic guilt that are frequently associated with young people in the West. The series then shifts towards arguing against feelings of specific, pointed guilt that are associated with a certain subset of young people in the West, a similar subset to the one that is attracted to the Effective Altruist (EA) community.

This argument against feelings of specific, pointed guilt concerns me.
A while back, Luke Muehlhauser identified a distinction between EAs who are motivated by an opportunity to good and EAs who are motivated by an obligation to help those who need it. I suspect that the topic of this post touches heavily on this distinction, and that my concerns only really apply to people who are motivated primarily by obligation. I don't personally identify as an effective altruist, but I spend enough time thinking about this stuff to serve as a functional proxy here.
I have had discussions about the topic with a couple of people in the EA community, and have come away troubled each time.

I parse the argument as positing that the concept of normativity is harmful. A plainer way of stating this would be: "should's and ought to's are bad, and we would be better off without them."

My purpose here is to lay out why I find this concerning, then propose a couple of hypotheses about what I think is going on with the argument. I'll start with a little groundwork, for framing and context.


I draw a strong distinction between things I want to do and things I ought to do. I usually call the things I want to do "desires", and I call the things I ought to do "obligations." I don't think these terms can be easily defined precisely, so in lieu of precise definitions, here are lists of things which I put into each category:

Things I class as "desires":

  • Getting hungry and wanting to eat a filling meal
  • Wanting to eat ice cream, regardless of how hungry I am
  • Becoming aroused and wanting to have sex
  • Wanting to exercise
  • Wanting to watch funny sitcoms
  • Wanting to read interesting books
  • Wanting to have a successful career
  • Wanting to have a family
  • Wanting to travel
  • Wanting to be well-traveled, or worldly
  • Wanting to be the sort of person that helps other people

Things I class as "obligations":

  • Buying presents for friends and family during the holidays
  • Staying in touch with extended family
  • Refraining from assaulting, abusing, or murdering other people
  • Paying taxes, and following laws
  • Helping people who are suffering and close to me (emotionally, genetically, spatially, temporally)
  • Helping people who are suffering and far from me (same qualifiers)

All of the "desires" I listed are self-centered, focused on the agent. All the "obligations" I listed are contractual, focused on satisfying the requirements of agreements the agent holds with others. I'm not going to speculate further on these observations.

The takeaway is that I when I talk about my desires, I'm roughly speaking about things I want; and when I talk about my obligations, I'm roughly speaking about things I have to do.

Why a lack of "should's" is concerning

In this post, the "no-should's" argument is stated plainly:

...the pattern is the same: the subject thinks there's something they should be doing (or some way they should be), and they're not doing it (or aren't being it), and so they feel really guilty.

I claim that the word "should" is causing damage here.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the way that most people use the word "should," most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves.

In most of these posts, the argument against "should" is presented in a specific, context-dependent way. The given advice is to unpack the "should" statement into a more meaningful "if-then" statement. For example:

"I should call my father this week" might cash out to "if I don't call my father this week, he'll feel disappointed and lonely."

I don't have an issue with this advice. Making "should" statements into "if-then" statements has the happy result of making the consequences of actions explicit. This is probably useful for most decision-makers, and very useful for decision-making in a consequentialist framework. And it's not problematic, because once you've unpacked all your "should" statements, you will be better positioned to judged which of the "if-then" statements is best, and then you can do the thing that is best.

But Nate proceeds to make a stronger claim – that this procedure of unpacking your statements, then weighing your options, can be applied to more significant decisions. From this post:

I've seen many people use the word "should" to highlight a conflict between what they perceive as desires and what they perceive as moral obligations. For example, they might say "well I want to buy this ice cream, but I should donate the money to the Against Malaria Foundation instead."

I say, this is a false conflict. Imagine this person precommiting to never doing anything just because they "should." How might they feel?

They might feel relieved, because they actually didn't care about helping others, not even a little bit. So they discharge their guilt, buy their ice cream, and go on their merry way.

But more likely (in someone who thought they "should" give to AMF), that would feel a little bad, and a little hollow. This person, when committing to never do things because they "should," might feel a bit of fear. They might worry that if they didn't keep themselves in check then they'd never do anything to help those less fortunate than themselves. That might seem bad, to them.

Which lets them actually see the true problem, for the first time: they both want to buy the ice cream and help those who are worse off than them. Now they can actually weigh both desires on the scales, or search for clever third options that fulfill both desires, and so on.

Deciding whether to buy ice cream or bednets is certainly a specific, context-dependent decision. But it has a lot more philosophical heft behind it, so the implications of following the "unpack-your-should's" procedure grow more severe.

My basic issue with this framework is that it sounds relativist and egoist overtones, two concepts that rub me the wrong way.

One way of stating my objection is that doing away with "should's" gives desires primacy over behaviors. Thinking hard about what you want, then doing what you most want is probably a great procedure for desire-fulfillment maximization, but not necessarily a good procedure for ethical conduct. It does seem empirically true that some people have a strong desire to help other people, thus fulfilling this desire results in ethical conduct and good outcomes. However, not everyone have desires so happily aligned. In the extreme case, it seems like someone who followed this procedure, and on reflection had a strong desire to murder innocents, would then go on killing spree to satisfy their blood thirst. If desires direct behavior, there is not an obvious way in which this behavior is "wrong."

Extreme cases like this are non-controversial – no one argues that it is okay for mass murderers to mass murder, even if that is what they genuinely desire to do. Cases like this highlight a premise implicit in the "get rid of the should's" argument. The premise looks something like this:

If you introspect carefully, you will find that your strongest desires align with what most people call "ethical conduct."

This is probably true for most people, most of the time. However, for some people, most of their desires seem to point in very unethical directions. And for most people, some desires occasionally point in unethical directions. I see the useful work of ethics to be constraining these edge cases – the sociopaths, and the sociopathic tendencies within all of us. Normativity – telling us what we ought to do, and what we ought not do – seems to be the best tool in the toolbox for this work. So I'm reluctant to define away the best tool we have; without normativity, ethics becomes a method of desire clarification and maximization. That is not a pursuit I'm excited about.

Now, onto some educated guesses at what is going on with this argument and my disagreement with it.

Hypothesis 1: Language Games

Most people I've talked to about this with in the EA community don't seem to be asserting a strong relativist position, nor do they seem eager to endorse the actions of serial killers. However, they are arguing against the use of "should" language. Because everyone having the conversation is some sort of objectivist who dislikes serial killers, I'm guessing that the argument has become confused somewhere.

My first guess about this confusion is that our conversations have been language games played poorly, wherein we talk past each other a fair bit. Here are some guesses about what that could look like:

Blown out of proportion

It's possible that I've overgeneralized the "get rid of should's" argument. I'm interpreting it as a general philosophical statement – the argument's proponents might be saying something more specific, like: "if you introspect about what you want, and like most people, discover that your desires align with what we call 'ethical conduct', then you would be better off not using an obligation framework. Instead, just do what you most want to do! But if upon introspection, you discover that your desires are unsavory, follow a different rule system. Don't act on bad desires."

This position seems plausible to me, though I'm not sure it's entirely consistent. If the "no-should's" argument is actually saying something this specific (i.e. "if you are the sort of person who has a strong desire to help people and also feels guilty about not helping enough, then stop feeling guilty!"), I would have to think about it more.

However, based on the conversations I've had, I'm pretty sure that a stronger claim is being made (i.e. "the concept of normativity is harmful and we'd be better off without it"). It's this stronger claim that I'm reacting against, and I've spilled a lot of pixels in vain if nobody is asserting that.

Positives and negatives

I might have overgeneralized the "no-should's" argument in another way: perhaps only "action-inducing should's" (positives) are to be done away with, whereas "action-preventing should's" (negatives) can be kept in place. For example, there could still be normative, deontological constraints like "you should not kill people" and "you should not steal things," but these constraints would be all negative – things you couldn't do. Positive deontological mandates, like "you should give most of your money to effective charities" would be disallowed. Desires would dictate positive actions.

I'm pretty convinced that this is not what is being proposed, though I'm not entirely sure. However, it's not a consistent position – the division between positivity and negativity is too fluid (for example, the negative constraint "you should not neglect your family" easily morphs into "you should spend time with your family," a positive mandate, and it's not clear which of these is the true form of the concept).


The categories of "desires" and "obligations" are fluid as well – the argument's proponents and I could be talking past each other by reclassifying the concepts proposed by the other party. For example, I say "I feel a strong obligation to help those in need", which they then redefine as "One of your strong desires is to help those in need," both of which basically point towards the same concept. This could be happening repeatedly, allowing for a persistent, insoluble argument.

This might have been happening in the conversations I've had about this issue. If so, we've been caught in some pretty impressive loops.

Now, on to my second hypothesis...

Hypothesis 2: Running straight up a mountain isn't the best way to scale it

My hypothesis-1 speculations are all about the nature of the discussion around this topic. I have a second hypothesis, which deals with the substance of the topic:

It could be the case that there are some things which we are obligated to do, and that the best way to accomplish these things is by not feeling any obligation to do them. This would mean that obligation is a meaningful class of concepts, yet feeling obligated is not an effective way to fulfill one's obligations.

This might not be true in the general case, but it is seems very likely to be true for some subset of people. With this restriction, the statement would look like:

There are some things that we are obligated to do, and for a certain type of person, the best way to accomplish these things is by not feeling any obligation to do them.

When we apply this hypothesis to the case in question, we get something like:

There are some things that we are obligated to do. It's plausible that one of these obligations is to help improve the lives of others. If helping others is one of our obligations, we can say that we should help others.

However, for some people, feeling as though they should help others is not an effective way to help others. For these people, feeling this obligation will likely result in demotivation, guilt, and self-loathing. Therefore, it would be better for these people to find alternative motivators, like desire, to explain their actions.

I like this hypothesis, because it address my concern, and I think it addresses most of what the "no-should's" argument is reacting against as well. It's a little subtle though – in simple language, I'm saying something like "hey, you don't like feeling like you have to do things? But you still feel compelled to help people? Well then, try not to feel that way! I bet you'll still want to help people."

This seems quite close to the "no-should's" argument, which in simple language says "hey, you don't like feeling like you have to do things? Well, I've got good news: you don't have to do anything! Just think about what you really want, then do that!" But that goes a step too far – as I discussed above, it legitimizes too many desires that seem clearly unethical. The step too far is taken with the implicit assumption that, for the most part, people's desires align with what we would consider "ethical behavior." Empirically, this is probably true most of the time, but it fails frequently enough to be disqualified as a building block for a moral theory.

So, closing restatement – "obligations" exist as a meaningful class of concept (at least as meaningful as the class of "desires"). This means that there exist things that we ought to do. If the existence of obligations bothers you, yet you still find yourself drawn to doing good actions, don't worry over it too much. You're probably better off not feeling obligated.

[rereads: 3, edits: fixed typos, reworked some phrases, tightened up language, rewrote the second half of the "blown out of proportion" section]

Jun 08, 2015

How to get started as a Bay Area motorcyclist

Soon after moving to the Bay Area last fall, I bought a motorcycle. Since then, I've been learning how to ride – it's great fun. Here are some things I've learned, and wish I had known about when I was getting started:

  • First things first, take a MSF course, or something similar. These courses are about 10 hours long, which is divided between classroom time and time on a riding course (read: empty parking lot populated with safety cones), learning to handle a bike at low speeds. A course like this is the first step in reifying your "I want to ride a motorcycle" impulse.

  • Once you've taken the course, you will need to get a motorcycle endorsement on your license. I'm not exactly sure how this works in California, because I transferred my Michigan endorsement. I believe it involves a trip to the DMV and some sort of test.

  • I bought my current bike from MotoJava, a small outfit just above the Mission. It is run by two guys, Paul and Joe, who buy used bikes, refurbish them, and sell them for a profit. They only have a handful of bikes at a time. Their site is sort of fun to check out – the inventory page is frequently updated with newly in-stock bikes. You can't test drive their bikes prior to purchase, which is a bummer. However, they consistently get rave reviews.

  • Craigslist is probably the best place to find good deals on used bikes, if you know what to look for.

  • For your first bike, don't buy new. It's very likely that you will drop your first bike a couple of times (I definitely did), and it will get scratched up. It's better to get a cheaper, older bike that you won't feel as bad about as it gets banged up.

  • Similarly, I would buy a small, light bike first. Mine was a 2006 250r Ninja. In retrospect, 250 cc was a little small for me, but it was a good size to learn on. I wouldn't buy anything larger than 650 cc, and a 650 is pushing it.

  • This site is specific to 250 Ninjas, but it is well-curated and has a lot of good general info. Specifically this, this, and this.

  • This is a good buyer's guide for used bikes. There are a lot of shit bikes out there, be careful.

  • Read this book.

  • Here is a map of cool roads to ride around the Bay. There is a lot of beautiful riding around here.

  • On risk – it's definitely a risky hobby. A lot of this risk can be mitigated by how you ride (i.e. being alert, very defensive, and not competitive), and the conditions you decide to ride in (i.e. choosing to ride on country roads in the middle of the day rather than on the expressway during rush hour). But there is still a lot of risk that is inherent in moving 50-80 mph over asphalt, surrounded by large metal vehicles conducted by inattentive drivers. You can read a lot of "risk mitigation" stuff online. I think it's good to drill it in beforehand, because it is easy to be cocky and confident once you're comfortable on your bike.

  • Gear is important. It's also a big hidden cost, expect to spend about $1000 for all the gear you need. Initially, I spent $300 on a jacket, $200 on a helmet, and $100 on gloves. In retrospect, that was not enough, I should have also bought riding pants ($250) and boots ($150), which I purchased later. It's expensive because it's basically a suit of armor – abrasion-resistant materials with armored plates incorporated.

    One thing you notice when you get out there is how crazily fast everyone is driving – you never notice this in a car. And if an accident happens at high-speed, you don't have much control over what body parts will be contacting the pavement.

    The best metaphor I've heard about this: Imagine yourself in your riding gear. Then take a power sander and thoroughly go over all parts of your body with it. The parts that would hurt after doing this are the parts that aren't protected enough. Asphalt at 60+ mph is at least as bad as the power sander.

  • Revzilla is a good site for comparison-shopping for gear. For your first purchase, I'd recommend going into a shop and try a bunch of stuff on, then getting the stuff that fits best.

[rereads: 2, edits: this post is a cleaned-up version of an email wrote to a friend, made some tweaks after a readthrough]

Jun 03, 2015

How many productive hours do I have remaining?

This questions has been vaguely on my mind for some time now. Today, I tried to pin it down more precisely.

Headline result: I optimistically have 103,271 productive hours remaining. Pessimistically, I have 78,972 productive hours remaining. [1]

See this spreadsheet for methodology and details.

Rough definition of "productive hour": An hour that results in substantive progress on a work product, a personal project, or a personal goal.

[1]: Assumes 47 years of working 5 days/week for ~9.3 hours/day optimistic or 7.15 hours/day pessimistic, taking 5 weeks off each year, followed by 20 years of retirement (optimistic) or decline (pessimistic). Further assumptions are documented in the spreadsheet.
[rereads: 2, edits: added a comma, added "a" to final clause of final sentence]

Jun 01, 2015

Min Kamp

Last weekend, I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle. I find it utterly captivating, as every dutiful member of the young intelligentsia should. As Karl Ove himself has pointed out, there is an addictive, hypnotic quality attached to moment-by-moment autobiography.

My Struggle has received a tremendous amount of press. In America, at least, most of this press says essentially the same thing:

  1. "Wow, get a load of this tell-all Scandinavian!"
  2. "Why do we find you so captivating, Karl Ove, when you write about such boring stuff?"
  3. "I wonder what life must be like for him now that he has spilled all his beans... and what about his poor family?"
  4. "What's next for you, Karl Ove?"

A friend recently pointed out that despite the all the buzz, little has been said about the appropriation of Hitler's distinctive title. So here is my contribution to the tumult — a brief analysis of two questions: 1) why did Karl Ove name his autobiographical masterwork after Hitler's autobiographical masterwork? And 2), why are we okay with it?

Why Min Kamp?

The identity has merited many in-passing mentions as a curious feature of the book, but little actual discussion. Well, there is a New Yorker piece on the question, which for some reason spends a large amount of time discussing a famed Norwegian author/Nazi sympathizer, before addressing its titular question with this:

When asked why he called the project “Min Kamp,” Knausgaard often remarks that he had working titles that he found unsatisfactory (“Argentina” and “Parrot Park”). Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” came up in conversation with his best friend, the author Geir Angell Øygarden, and Geir—as he is called in the book—said, “There’s your title.” Knausgaard says that he agreed right away, though Geir told me that he recalled some hesitation. But all this is more of a narrative than an explanation, and it seems notable that Knausgaard frequently refers to Geir’s role, as if to deflect some responsibility.

So here Knausgaard dodges the question, and the New Yorker doesn't have really draw out any illuminating insight. I suspect I won't be able to do much better – this is literary criticism I'm attempting, where the distance between insipid and inspired is quite short and the crossing-over point unclear.

Here's Knausgaard himself on the question: (in an interview covered by the Times)

Mr. Knausgaard said he originally planned to call the book “Argentina,” to represent a place he thought about a lot but to which he would never go. “My Struggle” is “a very ironic title,” he said. “Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is all about perfection and ideology. There’s no doubt in that book. In my book, it’s the opposite.” And the title “is a provocation, of course.”

As with everything else, Knausgaard is painfully aware of the connotations around the title. And the concept seems to have seeped in slowly to the body of the work. The first book contains only one reference to Nazism – the sixth is dominated by Hitler (I'm at risk of embarrassing myself here, I'm making sweeping claims having only read one-sixth of the thing). Knausgaard again: (interviewed by the Paris Review)

In the sixth book of Min Kamp, I wrote four hundred pages on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Hitler was a man who lived a year without seeing anyone, just sitting in his room reading, and when he left that room, never let anyone close, and stayed that way, intransigent, through the rest of his life, and one characteristic thing with his book, is that there is an “I,” and a “we,” but no “you.” And while I was writing about Hitler, a young Norwegian who had stayed some two years all by himself, and written a manifesto with a strong “I” and a “we,” also without a “you,” massacred sixty-nine youths on an island. In other words, his countenance fell.


I was in Germany, I was talking to my German editor, and we were talking about this because in the last book there is that long essay on Hitler, treating Hitler as a human being, and this is a very delicate and sensitive matter in Germany, of course. So what shall we do with it? Shall we have some historian read it and modify it, treat it as an essay? Or shall we just treat it as a madman from Norway writing whatever he thinks?

And a little more: (from that New Yorker article I disparaged above)

Knausgaard allows that the title was “a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the reader.” But that reflected, he felt, the aesthetics of his project: he would give no thought to pleasing the audience, never mind family or friends. He told me, “If it was boring, I wanted it boring... No compromises were made in this book. The title kind of makes that statement.”

So I think the best we can do here is something like this: Knausgaard's friend Geir happened on the title, and thought it was fitting. Knausgaard agreed and applied it, liking the spunk. The Nazi undertone wasn't the deciding factor in the naming decision, though it brings out some nice play with Knausgaard's idea that men who live evil lives are still men, after all.

Why are we all okay with the appropriation?

We live in a world where writing a fantasy novel about Muhammad will attract the unfriendly attention of the Supreme Leader of Iran. But apparently you can name your book after Hitler's book and no one bats an eye as it becomes an international literary sensation. No protests. No death threats. No strongly worded letters to the editor.

From what I've read, the Norwegian press is much more interested in the sensational revealing of Knausgaard's private life than in his choice of title (thanks, Google Translate!).

The American press is going in for the same, in addition to a fair amount of awkwardly self-conscious questioning ("what the hell is this thing and why do we all like it so much?"), and an effort to publish as many dramatic photos of this ruggedly handsome man as it possibly can.

Appropriately enough, the German press seems most concerned with the title, but even there the hubbub is minimal. In Germany, the books have been published under alternate titles. Here's a (machine-translated) excerpt from a review in Der Spiegel:

Knausgård's ironic idea, his life project with overwriting "Mein Kampf", but in this country has no chance against the imperative of moral propriety.

Not much there, really.

So why is everyone comfortable with Knausgaard's appropriation of Hitler's title? I suspect this is in the category of "interesting questions without firm answers." But it is certainly surprising, so I'm going to engage in a little speculation.

Maybe we accept the appropriation because we have all made our peace with the Holocaust and its principle perpetrator. But I don't think this is the case. In the world where everyone has reconciled themselves to past atrocities and moved on, there shouldn't be much interest in a work that includes a 400-page examination of Hitler's youth.

Here's my guess: we are all getting swept up in this exciting literary wave, and having to consider the implications of the title isn't very much fun. Most of the readers of My Struggle haven't read Mein Kampf. The Holocaust happened a long time ago, it's fading from living memory, and it's not on the minds of most people most of the time. So it's easier to just drop it, to go along with the heady flow, to not bring up the uncomfortable connotations.

And if that's what's going on, Knausgaard might just have the last laugh. Us Americans haven't had easy access to Book 6 yet, where Knausgaard rolls out his long analysis of Nazism and its modern-day analogs. Such dark things were brought about by men, and there might not be such a far distance between those struggles and the everyday struggles chronicled by Karl Ove as we would like to believe.

[rereads: 4, edits: reordered a list, fiddled with phrasing a lot, efforts to make the concluding paragraph punchy.]

May 27, 2015

In which repugnancy functions as the catalyst of an agenda for further ethical investigation

Total, aggregate utilitarianism has an unfortunate implication that I'd like to avoid, the repugnant conclusion. Somewhat gloomily, it seems like a tough implication to avoid.

A short statement of how to arrive at the repugnant conclusion:

  • Definition: A "moral agent" (shortened to "agent" to save words) is someone or something worthy of ethical consideration.

  • Definition: "Total utility" is a measure of the compiled happiness of all moral agents.

  • Premise 1 (P1): Maximizing total utility should be the goal of all moral agents. [1]

  • Premise 2 (P2): Total utility can be determined by aggregating ("adding up") the utilities of all moral agents.

  • Assign each moral agent a default utility of 100 utils, and consider an agent with 100 utils to be happy.[2] From P1 and P2, we can conclude that two agents have a higher total utility than one agent (200 utils is greater than 100 utils). As we are maximizing total utility, we should thus pursue two agents instead of one.

  • If an agent is unhappy, let's assign zem a weight of 70 utils. If an agent is extremely unhappy, assign zem a weight of 30 utils. Now, following P1 and P2, note that for any number of default agents, there is a number of unhappy agents which produces a higher total utility, and thus ought to be pursued to maximize utility (e.g. instead of one default agent, we would rather have two unhappy agents [100 utils compared to 140 utils]). Similarly, for any number of default agents, there is a number of extremely unhappy agents which produces a higher total utility, and thus ought to preferred in the pursuit of maximum utility (e.g. instead of one default agent, we would rather have four extremely unhappy agents [100 utils compared to 120 utils]).

And that seems very wrong. When presented with an option between a world of one happy person and a world of four extremely unhappy people, it seems clearly better to pick one-happy-person world. (For a slightly more realistic case, consider choosing between one world of a billion happy people and another world of four billion extremely unhappy people).

I'm not sure what to do with this. The repugnancy could speak against utilitarianism, or it could speak against just the total, aggregate flavor of utilitarianism, or it could speak against only the rigid straw-man util framework I set up to represent the total, aggregate flavor of utilitarianism, which might be represented much more robustly. All of these are plausible, and I haven't separated out which I actually believe.

Unfortunately, many ethical theories have problems like this – odd implications in extreme cases that I don't know what to do with.[3] Other ethical theories don't have crazy implications at the extrema, but instead are less well-defined, or less coherent, or provide less actual guidance on how to act. Clarity, consistency, and rigor seem to be tied to disturbing edge-case implications. Conversely, palatable "common-sense" morality becomes mushy and contradictory when pushed into a rigorous framework.

Happily, we don't often have to deal with the repugnant conclusion head-on. There aren't many opportunities to choose between hive worlds packed full of unhappy masses and desert worlds pocketed with enclaves of the enlightened few.

However, there are some topics that draw out the issue. If we are total utilitarians, a question like: "what would be the best trajectory for humanity over the next 1,000 years?" leads to an analog of the repugnant conclusion. Perhaps it's right to pursue a course of action that leads to many planets being colonized, even if most colonists would be quite unhappy. Pushing further, perhaps it's right to create as many moral agents as possible, even agents that are miserable much of the time, provided that each agent produces some amount of utility towards the aggregate.

The total utilitarian can come back with a two-pronged reply. First, ze says, there is no reason to take these edge cases seriously. In practice, most moral agents consider their existences worth having ("lives worth living" is a favored term), and as long as this is the case, we should work to maximize the number of these existences (which is approximated by total utility). In practice, the repugnant conclusion just isn't that bad.

Second, the total utilitarian notes that there is a dearth of competitive, consistent alternatives. "I understand the objection," ze says, "and I agree it's problematic. But what alternative framework do you propose for thinking about this question? How would you go about determining the best trajectory for humanity over the next 1,000 years?"

I don't have a strong alternative framework yet.[4] I do have a strong, intuitive reactions against total, aggregate utilitarianism, and some thoughts about how to approach future-facing repugnant conclusion-type problems.

I'm not going to dive into these thoughts in this post – I haven't read enough yet, and this thing is long enough as stands. Instead, I will close by outlining a couple of topics I might explore further in future writing.

Question: is aggregation the right way to think about morality across people? Considerations:

  • How do contractualists think about morality across people? Virtue ethicists? Kantians? Judeo-Christians? Buddhists?
  • If not some form of adding-up, then what?

Question: How important is consistency in an ethical framework?

  • Can an inconsistent framework be considered valid?
  • It seems like most people live with some degree of moral inconsistency. If inconsistency can exist in a workable morality, should it be worked against? On what grounds?
  • Is the earlier-stated relationship between consistency and extreme edge cases accurate? If this relationship is accurate, how should extreme edge cases be handled? Ignored? Accepted head-on?

Question: should we consider future people in our moral calculus (i.e. are future people moral agents?)

  • For an action to be judged bad, must it be bad towards someone?
  • When thinking about morality, should temporal distance be thought about in the same way as spatial distance?

Question: If future people are moral agents, how should we consider them? How should we compare the well-being of future agents to the well-being of present moral agents?
Possible Approaches:

  • Consider future persons as each of equal value to present persons.
  • Apply a discount rate to future generations, such that the further removed from the present a person is, the less consideration ze receives.
  • Apply a recursive rule that each generation follows, such that each generation's moral consideration only extends to a certain future point.
  • Some combination of a discount rate and a recursive rule.

[1]: I feel obligated to note that I probably disagree with this premise, but it is necessary to hold for the purpose the investigation.
[2]: I feel again obligated to note that I think utils are a silly unit that shouldn't be taken seriously, but are useful for explaining this problem in a simple way.
[3]: Average, aggregate utilitarianism (in which the total utility divided by the number of agents is the major consideration) has similar difficulties with its calculus: for example, it is better to have two unhappy people, one at 11 utils and one at 10 utils (average utility = 10.5), rather than having just one unhappy person (average utility = 10). It seems odd for a theory to encourage the creation of unhappy agents, which can happen in both total and average flavors of aggregate utilitarianism.
[4]: Possibly no one follows a single framework consistently after being exposed to a mass of them.

[rereads: many, edits: reworked into a shorter version, cut out final section and replaced with a list of questions, changed title]

May 10, 2015

Godless humility

Lately, I have been struggling to reconcile my belief that humility is a virtue with its lack of secular grounding. I have a strong intuition that it is good to be humble. But I do not know why I should be so, absent belief in God. This post is an attempt to clarify the two things and draw out the tension between them.

Wikipedia gives the definition of humility I like best: "having a clear perspective and respect for one's place in context." This is quite different from more traditional definitions, like "a sense of one's own unworthiness through imperfection and sinfulness" (from Webster's 1913 Dictionary).

For me, the latter definition evokes images of high-steepled churches, somber-faced clergy, and bottomless penance. Humility by this definition is wrapped in strong, mostly negative, religious overtones. Yet my favorite definition is also compatible with a religious perspective. "Having a clear perspective and respect for one's place" can be considered in the context of Creator and created. And if your worldview includes a hereditary stain on all humankind, then the place of the created in relation to the Creator seems low indeed.

But that's not part of my worldview. With my worldview (almost certainly secular, or at least rigidly non-mystical), it is more difficult to figure out my context and my place within it.

Maybe my context looks something like this:

I am one of many of a certain type of creature. Creatures of my type share a roughly similar set of abilities, and inhabit a roughly similar environment. Creatures of my type are able to out-perform creatures of all other known types, and thus we dominate our environment. It is not obvious where we came from, where we're headed, or why we are here at all.

In this context, Nietzschean will to power seems a strong contender for "a clear perspective" of one's place. I am one of the dominant group. There is nothing superior to me, excepting other members of my group. We all strive towards self-improvement, towards expansion our being, towards proving ourselves best when contested against our peers. By this dialectic, we all spiral upwards together, to greater planes and places. Humility thus becomes an acknowledgement of one's (potential) superiority, and an encouragement to develop its nascent forms.

While this concept is a consistent interpretation of my favorite definition of humility, it is antithetical to what I mean by the term. I want a justification for humbleness in the pious monk, knowing teacher, wise beggar sense. My intuition of what humility "actually is" is too strong to be thrown out by a reshuffled interpretation of the concept. Nietzsche isn't cutting it here.

I've been wrestling with this for a while now, and by this point I'm convinced that I'm not going to reach a tidy resolution in this post. So, in the spirit of this place, I'm going to lay out a few things that seem true, then let the thing lie.

  • Humility is a virtue.
  • A humble person is aware of their failings and limits, and works to simultaneously improve themselves and accept themselves.
  • Humility is possible, and important, without God. (I acknowledge that this is the main thing I'm struggling with, so including it in my list of unsupported conclusions is a bit unsporting. I'm going with my gut here.)
  • A person can be genuinely humble without partaking in complete self-immolation or bottomless self-abnegation.
  • It's possible that my confusion results from a too-coarse analysis. Perhaps to be understood, humility should be split up into its component parts, and each then considered on its own merits. I.e. epistemic humility is different from egoistic humility is different from social humility, and only some of these concepts are justified.
  • The concept I'm pointing at when I say "humble" feels very similar to the Zen concept of beginner's mind.
  • It also feels quite similar to Elon Musk's attempt to perform an accurate self analysis.

[rereads: 3, edits: many rephrasings, reworked passages, and angsty changes of conceptual direction]

Apr 12, 2015

Music from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Posting this because it does not exist already, and it should.

It's hard to dislike the movie about an Iranian vampiress who skateboards and falls in love with dreamy Iranian James Dean. Couple that premise with a great soundtrack, and we have a real winner.

The great soundtrack (in order of appearance):

  1. Charkheshe Pooch by Kiosk

  2. Gelaye by Radio Tehran

  3. Dancing Girls by Farah

  4. Bashy by the Free Electric Band (sample only, I was unable to find the full track online)

  5. Black Sunday by Federale

  6. Bread Thief by Bei Ru (Not sure if this exists online for free)

  7. Death by White Lies

  8. Sisyphus by Federale

  9. Khabama by Radio Tehran

  10. Thirsty's Return by Federale

  11. Cheshme Man by Dariush

  12. Tatilat by Radio Tehran

  13. Yarom Bia by Kiosk

  14. Hello by Lionel Richie [Bonus Track]

[rereads: 2, edits:0]

Apr 07, 2015

Reading List Q1 2015

Books I read in the first quarter of 2015: [1]

Discourse on the Method by René Descartes
Two summers ago, as I was struggling to conceive of a topic for my senior thesis, a professor of mine recommended reading the Discourse on the Method to settle some of the more existential bits of the process. I got around to reading it this January.

I have just three things to say about the Discourse now:

  • I don't at all understand how Descartes is able to confidently move from "I think, therefore I am" to "God exists." The line of thinking might go something like:

  1. I think,
  2. therefore I exist.
  3. I determined step 2. using a process of reason.
  4. Because I'm confident in the movement from 1. to 2., I can be confident
  in this process of reason.
  5. I didn't create this process of reason that I'm using.
  6. Because I'm confident in a process that I didn't create, it must have
  been created by a being separate from myself and more capable than myself.
  7. We call this being "God".

But there is something fishy (or circular) in step 4 – "I'm confident in the results of this process, therefore I can be confident in this process generally." It's not clear why I am confident in the results of the process (though I am), and it's not clear why being confident in the results of a process should mean that we can be confident in the process overall.[2] But enough from the armchair.

  • I hear Wittgenstein has interesting things to say about this – specifically, how could a disembodied Cartesian agent (i.e. an agent confident only in the fact that ze exists) formulate thoughts? How could ze be confident that zir language use was meaningful? How would ze learn language in the first place? This line of thinking seems to go strongly against Cartesian skepticism.

  • There's obviously a lot going on in this part of the Discourse, so I'm reluctantly to pragmatically dismiss it after curt examination here. I'd like to revisit it at some point, and pick through his reasoning with a little more care.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales by Edgar Allen Poe
Consists of three stories: the title story, the Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and the Purloined Letter. I enjoyed them, but as with most mysteries, didn't quite understand what all the fuss is about. Reading the stories reminded me of this adaptation, one of the highlights of my childhood.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro
Part one of arguably the greatest biography yet written. Reads like a novel. A novel centered on an amoral, recklessly driven, ruthlessly ambitious political climber.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
What a romp. Any story which features both fictional ancient secret orders and real-world tech mammoths is enjoyable by default. Getting to cruise around the Bay with your likable, mild-mannered protagonist is just icing.
Plus, I've gotten to hang out with the author a couple of times, which was great fun – he's a cool guy.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
Part two of arguably the greatest biography yet written. Our hero arrives in elected office and begins pulling levers.

Portfolios of the Poor by Daryl Collins et al.
When a team of economists tries to track every financial transaction that a couple dozen very poor families make, what do they learn? That very poor people think a lot about money, and have sophisticated methods of handling it. Millions of people live on less than \$2 a day, but they're not living hand-to-mouth. First chapter is online for free here.

Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky
I previously proposed a project for this book. I haven't started it yet. But that's okay. I'm not on a deadline.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
As the title promises, this is a tragic story. It's also a beautiful story. It made me further appreciate the determining effect that environment, upbringing, and social standing has on your life.

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
Artificial Intelligence is a subject with a powerful draw on me. AI sits at some intersection of my favorite topics – precise thinking, epistemology, ethics, and machines that can compute. Yet I'm very much on the outside of the thing. I can read things and then think "well, that's interesting," but I don't have the skills to contribute to the project. Happily, skills can be gained with a bit of elbow grease.

But that's an aside. In my read of it, Superintelligence focuses on two topics:

  1. Potential ways in which a superintelligent general AI (i.e. a computer that is better than humans at most tasks that humans do) could arise, and the implications of these pathways.
  2. How to go about teaching morality to an AI, so that the AI doesn't decide on some very silly goal and then proceed to execute this goal with extreme efficiency.

The treatment of topic 2. was very interesting. It really is the question. If we are able to endow an AI with a robust ethical framework, all our speculations, preparations, and precautions are unimportant. (granted that it may be impossible to endow an AI with a framework of sufficient robustness, and even if this were achieved, it may be impossible to know if the framework was sufficiently robust before letting the AI go about its business. And in these cases, all the speculations, preparations, and precautions would be very valuable.)

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
Powerful memoir of manic-depression. A fast read that paints a strong impression of the condition – both the utter drudgery of depression and the alluring, empowering, careening drive of mania.

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Probably the best book I've yet read about Africa. For decades and decades, Kapuscinski was the Africa correspondent for socialist Poland. If his memoir is any guide, he has been everywhere on the continent and done most everything. And he is able to write about it in beautiful prose.

Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Very good at driving home three lessons:

  1. Trying to develop the third world is a very complicated problem.
  2. Very complicated problems are not amenable to sweeping theories of change.
  3. Well-designed empirical tests can lend some insight into what will actually help.

[1]: Excludes online media, academic articles, books I am currently reading but have not finished, and books I started and now have little intention of completing.
[2]: I'm using a logical, step-by-step argument to examine the nature of logic. Yes, it's both problematic and meta.

[rereads: 2, edits: minor tweaks, formatting edits to the Cartesian proof]

Mar 24, 2015


An ongoing conflict in my life occurs between my rational decision-maker self and my impulsive reward-seeker self (I am walking along the well-trod paths of psychology, I know, but I'm going to state these two selves without further definition or reference and move forward).

My rational decision-maker self faces the future. Planning is one of his primary tools – an arsenal of budgets, agendas, to-do's.

My impulsive reward-seeker self lives in the present. He plies urges, quiet suggestions, fast action.

The rational and the impulsive selves often want conflicting things. Me (ego-me, true-me) most often sides with the rational, and as a spectator in this fight cheers him on.

Unfortunately for rational decision-maker self, most decisions are executed in the present, domain of impulse. The crucial moment comes in the transition from future to present, thought to action, plan to implementation. Impulsive reward-seeker self often wins out in this moment through brute force and tempting imagery. So goes the battle, so goes the war.

Happily for us reasonable folk, impulsive reward-seeker self is wholly focused on the objects of his desires. He doesn't survey the whole picture, doesn't consider unusual routes of approach. He can be caught unawares.

One of rational self's best stratagems is choosing the battlefield on which the fight will take place. By arranging the time and place of the crucial moment, rational self can gain a decisive advantage. Impulsive self still fights valiantly, but finds himself charging uphill, stumbling across trenches, falling into pits, and is thus smartly dispatched.

I've found this idea to be flexible and effective – focus more on shaping your decision-making environment, and less on willfully making good decisions in the moment. Impulsive self has the upper hand in any given moment, and willpower is exhaustible and takes awhile to recoup. Willing yourself through one choice may contribute to poorer decisions made at later junctures. Investing effort in designing decision-making environments that work in your favor conserves in-the-moment willpower and helps rational decision-maker self have easy wins.

I want to shift now to a practical application of this pleasant proposal. I sometimes spend money impulsively, often on food that impulsive self assures me will be delicious (he is rarely wrong). Unfortunately, this delicious food is also usually expensive, and the cumulative purchases eventually derail my carefully planned budget.

Note that I am operating in an environment:

  • of effectively unlimited purchasing power (thanks to generous credit limits).
  • that lacks benchmarks to link in-the-moment spending to long-term (monthly) spending plans.

I will try to alter this environment by:

  • no longer carrying credit cards in my wallet.
  • giving myself a weekly allowance of \$50 (cash) to spend as I please. Within the bound of my allowance, I am absolutely forbidden from feeling bad about any purchase. Above the bound, I am out of money, and thus out of luck.

In terms of food, I am counting grocery shopping as outside of the allowance (a separate budget item), and restaurant purchases as inside the allowance. This is because I often make restaurant purchases impulsively, and have never gone grocery shopping on impulse.

Also within the bound of the allowance are things like:

  • café coffee
  • ice cream, pastries, and other sweet things
  • random things I buy on Amazon
  • books
  • concerts

Pre-registration: I expect this procedure to result in lower spending on restaurant food and miscellaneous impulse buys. I expect myself to diverge from the scheme within a couple of months, then soon repent, reaffirm, and return (possibly with tweaks). I expect this scheme to mildly reduce the amount of worry I spend on money matters, but not by much. I do not expect this scheme to reduce spending in other areas, and it might result in a slight uptick in grocery store spending.

[rereads: 1, edits: added "smartly", added "Investing effort in designing decision-making environments that work in your favor conserves in-the-moment willpower and helps rational decision-maker self have easy wins."]

Mar 11, 2015

Ode to the Caffe Mediterraneum

It troubles me that, after years of studying ancient Rome, and several concerted efforts to spell it correctly, I invariably misspell and must look up "Mediterranean" and its cognates.

I am slowly coming to appreciate the effect that my environment has on my workflow. When analyzed, it makes sense – the pathway is quite clear: the environment I'm in affects my state of mind, and my state of mind affects both my level of focus and my desire to work, both of which bear heavily on my workflow and output.

This is not to say that my workflow is determined by my environment. There are many factors: immediate personal history, current physical health, current mental health, current conception of the importance of the work to be done, etc. But I am sometimes amazed at what wonders a change in scene will work.

One of my favorite places to work is the Caffe Mediterraneum (where I am typing this now). It is a place for misfits – refugee college students, old men with their newspapers, another type of old men equipped with very thick books and scribble pads, Berkeley kids immersed in video games, the internet, or their favorite old men.

I often feel like a misfit. When I'm at the Mediterraneum, I still feel like a misfit, but a misfit in safe harbor. Everybody is odd here, odd in a way without phoniness, and all that is asked of Caffe participants is a gentleness of manner and and a quiet respect for the eccentric pursuits of others.

The Med is a dirty place (filthy, in some corners, by some standards). It isn't contrived dirt, nobody was going for a look. No, it is the sort of dirt that comes from decades of staying the same. There have been efforts to combat this slow slide, you can appreciate the results of some of these campaigns, but the overall trend is towards grime and dust.

The dirt doesn't bother me. The dirt is part of the allure. Besides, the important parts (tabletop, toilet seat) are quite clean, though in close proximity to some of the roughest parts (tablebottom, every other part of the bathroom). And the coffee is tasty.

So here I find myself, amid the eccentricities and filth, very ready to work. Tasks come easily, everything is organized in a "ready-to-go" way and the execution is simple. It is feeling like a maestro over her orchestra, well-prepared and confident that the music will carry itself out through the imperfect players assembled. The imperfections of the players are not absent, no, they are readily apparent, but the thing will be done well regardless.

This sensation was entirely absent just hours ago, as I sat at my desk by my bed, in my quiet room that I like very much. There, my imperfections ruled, and this computer was a device fit only for entertainment and light reading, and very poorly suited for serious work.

So I credit the Med, its dirt, its participants, and their eccentricities. It provides a staging for a change of scene; a destination for a much-needed journey that shook the dust off my mind.

[rereads: 1, edits: 0]

Mar 10, 2015

Reading for quantity

For a long time, I have kept a record of the books I have read. For many years, each book read was recorded in a small spiral-bound notebook. At the end of each year, I would count up the number of books I read during that year, write the total at the bottom of the page, and begin the new year on a fresh sheet.

Lately, I have been book-tracking in excel. The system remains the same: log each book in an excel sheet; at the end of the year tally up the total and move to a new sheet. I have added the step of reporting out my reading here, with short blurbs about each book.

There are a couple of reasons for tracking my reading:

  1. Having a log I can reference when trying to remember what I read and when I read it.
  2. Knowing how much I am reading, and thinking about whether I want to increase or maintain my rate (decreasing the rate never appeals to me, for some reason).
  3. Comparing my reading rate to others.

Reason 1 is bland and innocuous. Reason 2 seems useful. Reason 3 is thoroughly negative.

I read a lot, more than most people do, I think. This shouldn't matter very much, but I find myself thinking about it sometimes. Some part of me cares about how much I read, and uses this as a proxy of "how knowledgeable I am" or "how seriously I'm pursuing the life of the mind." Success by these measures is entirely relative – it matters not that I read X books a year, but that I read at least as many books as X person.

This way of thinking is toxic, and the metric I'm using is inane. "Books read" is a poor proxy for "quantity read", "quantity read" is a poor proxy for "information retained", "information retained" is a poor proxy for "insight gained", "insight gained" does not necessarily play the leading role in the life of the mind, and the life of the mind is quite possibly not the good life.

If I wanted to continue keeping track of this, I could make improvements – I could count pages read instead of books; I could count all the reading I've done, not just books finished; I could consider more carefully what I get out of each book I read, and strive each year to "get more out of things read" rather than to simply finish more books.

But I really don't like keeping track of this sort of thing. It is an ego-stoking waste of effort. When I see a passage like this, or read that Kay Redfield Jamison used to read three or four books a week before she began taking Lithium to treat her manic-depression, I launch into comparisons –
Four books a week isn't so much, right? Oh wait, that's 208 books a year. How many books did I read last year? Around 30 ...

When I come across things like this, I spend a non-trivial amount of time comparing myself to these "competitors" in a harsh, cutting way. I'm not good enough. I'm not reading fast enough. I'm not even reading the right things. This is a silly line of thinking (never mind that I am drawing competitive comparisons between myself and somebody with manic-depressive illness). The silliness is brought out when I consider that, even if I was reading at precisely the rate and volume of my competitors, I would still be making all of these arguments to myself, just applying them to another set of rivals.

I'm going to continue logging the books I read, for reasons 1 and 2 (and for reason 4: solemn respect for long-held personal traditions), but I'm not going to worry so much about how I am stacking up to others. And when I do worry about how well I'm doing relative to other people I respect, I'm going to say "Hey, remember when you wrote about how this doesn't matter very much at all?". Then maybe I'll skim over this post, and feel a little better about doing something I promised I wouldn't.

[rereads: 3, edits: some passage changes as I finished out the thing; added the parenthetical about manic-depression, changed one of the speedreading links to the relevant wikipedia page]

Mar 02, 2015

Couple thoughts on organics

Writing from the far back table of the second floor of the Caffe Meditteraneum. I like this place a lot. It is filthy – a Bellowian bath of humanity. An except from an email just sent:

My thinking about organic foods sometimes goes something like this:

  • They are more expensive from my perspective.
  • They taste about the same to me.
  • I am unsure if they are healthier for me in the long-term (seems very plausible, but I haven't researched this closely, and from what I have read the jury seems to be out).
  • There are probably hidden costs (environmental damage, unfair labor practices) associated with conventional farming.

So, when I pay a premium to eat organically, I'm paying for:

  • Potential health benefits
  • Less environmental damage / unfair labor

But maybe I could use that organic-food premium differently to greater effect. Maybe eating conventionally and donating the difference to charity is more beneficial, in the end. If I care specifically about the environmental damages, maybe supporting an advocacy organization is a more effective way to spend that premium. If I care about the labor practices, maybe supporting a pro-labor lobbying group is the way to go.

So that's one way of looking at it. To be honest, I don't like looking at things through that lens, cause I have trouble justifying most of my spending through it (i.e. almost every dollar I spend could probably be spent better, basically the point of Famine, Affluence, and Morality). And that is really fatiguing to consider.

I think my more regular thinking about organics (and most premium goods) goes more like this:

  • I can't tell an immediate difference in the quality, tastiness, or healthfulness of the product (though arguably there are subtle, long-term effects I'm glossing over).
  • There are probably more effective ways to move the issues I care about (though this is arguable for two reasons: a. I don't regularly pursue these more-effective ways, so they are irrelevant, and b. substantial systemic change can occur when many people change in a small, consistent way).
  • I choose not to pay the premiums, because from my perspective I'm about equally satisfied with either good, and I'm not convinced that paying the premiums will change things very much. I'd rather have the extra money, either for luxury purchases, or for impactful donations to other things I care about.

The systemic argument (many small changes in a consistent direction matter) is interesting and persuasive. I need to think about that more; I might change my mind about this.

[rereads: 2, edits: added title (woops), changed all lists to html for aesthetic purpose, added "way" (embarrassing, I sent out an email with that omission...)]

Feb 23, 2015

Untitled, by D'Angelo

Sometimes, a block comes from the very existence of a plan of action. For example, a couple of weeks ago I outlined the beginning of a lengthy, arduous, and very important personal project involving this blog and Noam Chomsky. If I was following my plan, if this blog was titled something else, this post would not be being written now. Once a plan has been laid out, a switch flips in my mind – doing anything besides the plan becomes bad. Doing nothing at all is also bad, but preferable to doing something else. It feels like staying still, rather than diverging off course.

This, of course, is total horsecrap (I think "horsecrap" has the highest crudeness-to-vulgarity ratio of all the words I've yet encountered). Writing something else is doing something else, and I spend most of my time doing things other than following my carefully laid plans. And all of these things are better than doing nothing at all. Putting "writing something else" in the box of "going against the plan" is a dumb thing to do. "Writing something else" should be in the box of "valuable activities that do not follow carefully laid plans" (also in this box is the genesis of this project). But enough exposition. Gang aft agley,



There are a few songs I know that possess the ability to immediately command the entirety of your attention. Untitled, by D'Angelo is in this category.

There are another few songs I know that allow you to slowly mosey up to them, getting to know them intimately such that you know exactly what is coming, and are excited to hear it come. Untitled, by D'Angelo is in this category.

There are some songs I know that, once you're accustomed to them, wash over you in a way that concentrates your focus to a fine point, which is then aimed at objects of your choosing. You can then marvel as these objects melt away under the hot ray of rhythmically empowered attention.

Untitled, by D'Angelo is in this category.

Untitled, by D'Angelo is also in the category of songs that are seven minutes long but feel as if three.

Untitled, by D'Angelo is also in the bonus category of songs that are performed by handsome, naked, black men.

[rereads: 3, edits: feeling –> feel, commas removed, italics removed]

Feb 12, 2015

Understanding Power

I have been reading Understanding Power, a collection of transcribed Noam Chomsky discussions. It is a powerful, dangerous book. I think it fits into the narrow category of "books that are harmful to read, when read incorrectly."

It is in this category because it is radical. Chomsky is far to the left, and his analysis of 20th century events (near-current events for him, history for me) is very critical of the mainstream, the status quo, the system.

And it is in this category because it is convincing. Chomsky isn't just pontificating, he gives good examples for his claims, and he discusses them in detail. These examples are frequently footnoted (though in the edition I'm reading, the actual footnotes have been sent to the online realm to cut down on publishing costs; posted here.

This morning, I realized that a very likely outcome of my time with this book would be to read it through, become convinced by its arguments, and adopt its framework as my own. And that would be bad – Chomsky's framework is compelling, but it cannot stand on its own. It is too far outside the mainstream, too removed from my current views (hesitant as they are). If I am to subscribe to this way of seeing things, I need to investigate it.

The clearest way to vet this position is to follow up on the footnotes. Happily, Chomsky's examples are both compelling and (reasonably) easy to verify. If enough of them check out, maybe there's something to this story of the system. So that's what I'll be doing here, for the foreseeable future.

[rereads: 1, edits: changed a link]

Jan 24, 2015


Tonight I discovered this map, which is slightly less tongue-in-cheek than this map (previous iteration here, conceptual forerunner here).

Scott Alexander's map is more awe-inducing than Randall Munroe's, not by virtue of its craftsmanship, but because the map can be used to jump directly to each place plotted.

And the quality of some of these places is superb.

I know this not from a thorough investigation of these locales, but rather from some innate sense of quality (by quality, I mean a mix of aesthetic sense, substantive content, and authorial restraint).

Scott Alexander restricted his map to rationalist places and places affiliated with rationalist places. This is a small community in the scope of the internet. Yet the content in this community is dense, intertwisted, and immense.

I am boggled by the amount of quality stuff out there. It's common knowledge that the internet is a big place, but I consistently estimate the scale of the thing. Thousands and thousands of thinkers, each with their own thoughts to type out. It's true that a lot of this production is nothing but fluff and plumage, but even with fluff and plumage accounted for, so much quality stuff is pouring out into the world.

warning: navel-gazing ahead.

I have no idea where my little blog fits in the pour. I am new to this business, and to public content production in general. A part of me cares about the reception of this place, I want to see it grow and thrive. Another part of me wants to disregard the reception altogether, and this part has so far been dominant in the structuring of this project. But I'm pulled both ways by these desires.

I feel lost about this. I think the best I can do at the moment is to write honest things that scratch some itch. This policy, at least, will protect me from being horribly derivative.

[rereads: 1, edits: fixed link, cut clause]

Jan 19, 2015

Things I found on the internet

I was planning to do some grand self-reflective piece here today, but the internet happened.

And it happened very hard.

So now, because I'm trying to be in bed at a certain time each night, I'm crunched for time. An odd sensation, being crunched for time on pet projects of your own design. But a common one.

There were two main branches of tonight's internet tree:

  1. Tracing the crisis of faith of MIRI's executive director. Which I sent off to some of my Christian friends.

  2. This blog comment about nerds, privilege, and feminism, which spiraled out into a whole mess of critiques and counter-critiques. I sent some of these off to some of my feminist friends. This Slate Star Codex piece resonated with me the most. It also grabbed the back of my neck and pushed me facefirst into an ever-expanding elastic well of pop culture references, intimate anecdotes, and medical studies. In the most enjoyable way something like that can happen.

Time's up.

Now let's all take a moment to watch Mike do what Mike does best.

[rereads: 1, edits: fixed second link, formatting tweaks]

Jan 07, 2015

The Problem With Meaning

I like David Brooks. I really do. I have fond memories of watching PBS Newshour with my parents and being bored out of my mind as Brooks debated that jowly man whose name I can't remember (Shields! Shields & Brooks, google brings it rocketing back).

I occasionally read Brooks in the Times. His column this week has got me all in a huff. It opens promisingly enough, with an analysis of an inspirational graduation speech. But it soon goes off the rails.

Brooks has a problem with how we use the word "meaning." He considers two current usages of the word:

  • "The first thing we mean is that life should be about more than material success."
  • "Second, a meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life ... In this way, meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self."

I basically agree with this characterization.

I don't agree what follows:

Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity...

Because it’s based solely on sentiment, it is useless. There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do...

The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Taken on its own ground, this argument is fairly convincing. Pieces of it resonate with me. But when I try to apply it to my life, I get stuck. And then very frustrated.

Brooks is stuck in some secular-objectivist netherworld, caught between the cushy relativism he cries out against and the rigid rule systems he hearkens towards. Yes, I concur – anything-goes relativism is unsatisfying and shallow. But it is accepting. It's hazy tolerance enables the peaceful coexistence of a universe of crazy worldviews.

Objective rule systems are not as forgiving. Things are either right, wrong, or devoid of moral content. There is no yielding middle, where contrary positions can quietly drift past each other. This is the price paid when objective morality is adopted – other people can be wrong (actually wrong, not just wrong in your opinion), and something must be done about them. It is difficult to live with immorality, difficult to live around sin.

This is what is so frustrating about Brooks: he lays down a lucid critique of one side without acknowledging the difficulties of the other. He points out the need for an objective system, without writing one word about how to implement one. And implementation is the interesting question: how do we live a good life in the current world? How do we balance the need to sincerely believe in systems we endorse with the need to coexist with different others? That is the meat of the matter.

Pointing out the insufficiencies of the status quo is easy and unfulfilling. It bothers me that columns like this are published in the New York Times, while good work finds purchase only in quiet places. Everyone should be concerned with this question. Big-name writers should push further than they do.

But now I am slipping into a series of normative claims, and nobody wants that.

Brooks does have a move here – he could use this column as a platform to reach towards an objective system. If over the next weeks, his columns push closer towards the objective morality he endorses, and explore how to live out this morality in the world, then I have no beef with this at all. That would, in fact, be an elegant approach: a man's philosophy laid out in print over months, to be dissected in the comments all along the way.

But I'm skeptical of that happening. It seems more likely that this column will float by as a piece of misguided moralizing, forgotten in the flow of current events and editorial pressure. And if that is the case, I'm sad that it was able to be published in the first place.

[rereads: 2, edits: blockquote formatting, "that" –> "implementation", word cuts, added "quietly", "this" –> "that", small formatting tweaks]

Jan 05, 2015

(latter part of) 2014 reading list

Books I read over the last few months: [1]

  1. We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

    Irish-American family saga. A bit depressing, in a realistic way. I saw the author give a reading at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Vivid imagery, which his reading brought out. I worry that I read the rest of it too quickly.

  2. The Big Short by Michael Lewis
    Read on a plane to Burkina Faso. The story of bankers who made a lot of money by remaining ignorant during the subprime lending scheme, and traders who made a lot of money by betting against this scheme.

  3. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
    Really good. Sci-fi alien war with (mostly) realistic physics. Each time soldiers return to Earth from the front, Earth-time has galloped centuries ahead of soldier-time. May or may not serve as a memoir of the author's experience in Vietnam.

  4. Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction
    by Robert C. Allen Good quick explanation of why England industrialized when it did, and everything that followed.

  5. Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

    Oceanography. Somali Al-Qaeda affiliates. Old French chateau, now a hotel. Skinny dipping. Excruciating, long-term imprisonment. Love at first sight. What more could you want?

  6. The Idealist by Nina Munk
    Chronicles Jeffrey Sachs' Millennium Villages Project. Good examples of why development is very hard.

  7. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
    How do you deal with the decline, decay, and death of your parents? If you are a cartoonist, you write a cartoon memoir.

[1]: Excludes online media, academic articles, and books I am currently reading but have not finished.
[rereads: 1, edits: 0]

Dec 29, 2014

Crash course to the current world

One of my friends feels like they don't know very much about what's going on in the world. this is my attempt to bring them up to speed, as best I can.

To read:
These are short, well-written, and substantial. They are snapshots, not the total picture.

  • The Last Question by Isaac Asimov
    This short science-fiction story has always stuck with me. It has an unparalleled vision of where we came from, where we are, and where we might going, in under 10 pages.

  • Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction by Robert Allen Attempts to explain why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did (England, 1700s). The Industrial Revolution is basically why Europe and North America are rich and powerful now, while Asia, Africa, and South America are poor and weak.

  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
    Vonnegut is my favorite author. He fought in World War II. Slaughterhouse-Five is his fictionalized account of what happened. World War II is the pivotal event of the 20th century; it's probably the most important thing to understand in modern history. There are more comprehensive books about WWII, but this is a short one. And fun to read!

  • The Prince by Niccoló Macchiavelli
    Modern political theory starts with Locke, Hobbes, and Macchiavelli. Understanding some political theory is important because it gives frameworks for understanding present-day political behavior. And there is a lot of political behavior in business, social circles, and politics (duh). The Prince is short and sweet. Skip the introduction, it's not very interesting.

To follow:
I wouldn't try to follow all the news, or all the outlets. I would follow some good ones, some of the time (as much as is interesting). If it isn't interesting, don't read it.

  • The New York Times is probably the best place to start. And it publishes a ton of content. I read something from it everyday.

  • Vox is a new outlet. It updates more frequently than the traditional papers, and can be a little gossipy. It is very up-to-date, and usually has something fun to read.

  • The Economist is a British paper with an economic focus (duh, again). It often has really good stories, and gives a European perspective that can be interesting. I think there is a paywall after a couple of articles/month.

That's probably a good start.

[rereads: 2, edits: changed some links]

Dec 18, 2014

seasons greetings

I got a letter in the mail today
from the wife of my grandfather.

It said:
Seasons Greetings!
She said:
Grandpa enjoyed your call
We are looking forward to seeing you over Christmas.

I called my grandfather on Monday
the words between us vibrating rapidly through the air.
This reply circled back to me by Thursday
traveling overland, thousands of miles.
I wonder if he remembers the call by now, over all that distance?

[rereads: 2, edits: line removed, spacing, added italics]

Dec 14, 2014

Abridged, dramatized account of a car ride conversation

The rental car accelerated as it descended the bridge and pulled onto the coastal highway. Mammoth clay-red storage tanks stood sentinel as they were passed by, clustered on hillsides. The clear day provided a pleasant contrast to the persistent grey rain of the past week.

Do the meetings often turn philosophical? O asked in the backseat.

Frequently. A common disagreement is the value of saving a human life relative to providing developmental effects to a population, I answered. How many people should receive boosted income, instead of saving one child's life? Personally, I'm reluctant to engage with the question.

O smiled softly. I looked out the window. The car sped towards the city. The conversation turned over the opinions of various thinkers on the issue. Eventually, I fell back into it.

The way I think about this is as a set of all present people. The goal is to make the lives of all present people worth living, I said. Adding additional people to the set doesn't necessarily further this goal.

Let me propose a thought experiment for you, O replied. You and three other people are living together. You all have the option to create a fifth person, Bruce. Bruce would be your slave, and having Bruce-the-slave would make your four lives better. Once you all create Bruce, if you create Bruce, you can't unmake him, and you can't free or improve his condition. So the question: do you create Bruce?

I thought it over out loud. So if we create Bruce, he would improve our lives, but his life would be poor. So the set of all present lives would probably get worse. But in the moment before we decide, we have an option to improve all current present lives, by creating Bruce. To not take this option would be not keeping with the goal. So we should take into account future, not-present lives. We should consider the value of Bruce's life before he is created. But once we start doing that ... why stop with just Bruce?

Right. Whenever I try to formalize the rule you are proposing, I run into inconsistencies. I could feel O smiling softly again, though I didn't look at him. This is a broad problem within the field of population ethics. All the attempts to formalize this principle that I have seen run into serious problems.

And why is it important to have a formalized, consistent principle? I asked, scrambling. That was a dumb tack to take.

Well, if a rule-system has inconsistencies like this, I worry that it also contains serious flaws. How could I trust it? O had more to say, but the car had pulled up in front of my house.

Philosophy class is over, kids. C said from the driver's seat.

I said my goodbyes and got out of the car.

[rereads: 1, edits: added "it", removed comma, added "We should consider the value of Bruce's life before it is created", added spaces]

Dec 09, 2014

Another bit from the internet

I just came across this on Aaron Swartz's Raw Thought. I like it a lot. It resonates with what I am trying to do here.

[rereads: 1, edits: 0]

Dec 08, 2014

Overheard in Maseru

I'm busy writing up my thoughts on where I'm giving this year, for a post on the GiveWell blog. I'll post a version of my write-up here, later in the week.

In the meantime, enjoy this anecdote I found on the internet:

Last Friday afternoon I was leaving Lesotho via the Maseru airport. An African gentleman — country unknown — was standing in front of me in the short line for the immigration passport check. The immigration officer greeted the man in Sesotho, asking him a question. From behind his body language seemed confused, and then he asked a question in English.

The immigration officer said, “Oh! You are not Basotho. I mistook you for one of my brothers.”

“No, no,” laughing. “But I am still an African. We are all brothers.”

He takes his passport, examines it, and stamps. “Yes, we are brothers.”

“We have the same problems, so we are brothers.”

“Yes, we do have those.”

[rereads: 2, edits: added a space, archived the link]

Nov 30, 2014


A lot has been written about Tinder, so much in fact that I don't even feel the need to include an explanatory clause after first raising the subject. I'm a little late to the party (you know you are late to a party if the Wall Street Journal is already there when you show up, and WSJ brought an oddly specific story about professional football players in New York looking for love).

But I'm here now nonetheless, and I've brought some personal stories from the trench, which should serve nicely as a warming digestif.

My thoughts about the app are mostly negative in the abstract, while generally positive in the personal case.

In abstract: Tinder is dating commoditized. There is something discouragingly close to online shopping about the endeavor. And I am opposed to anything that treats people like things. People, as you might know, are ends-in-themselves.

But I'm not convinced that dating itself is a useful construct (disclosure: I am bad at dating, in any traditional sense of the word). Dating is romance socialized. Deep meaning, true companionship, self-actualization all bundled up into a series of charged pseudo-casual interactions with near-strangers.

I'm sounding cynical. That's not good. Nobody likes a cynic.

Enough abstraction.

In the personal case: I have been using Tinder for about 2 months. Actually, I reactivated my Facebook account so I could take part. The market offered was too large and too alluring to refuse, despite my principled objections.

And the market was larger than I imagined. My first weekend on the app was an orgy of sorting, swiping, right right right left right left left right left right right right left left left left right ... and on and on. I thought I had run out of candidates; I thought I had sorted them all. Then I returned a couple of hours later to find my queue refilled. Right right right right left left right ...

In the torrent, I got some matches. My first attempts at casual banter were non-starters (to a cute girl that whose text box described her as Russian: "are you from Russia or from a Russian family?"). But I got into the groove of it, and maintained some exchanges. Words are what I'm good at, after all.

Eventually, I was carrying on extended conversations with Y and Z. Y was a student at SF State; Z had just graduated from a college in the South and had come back home.

Last week, I set up dates with both of them. Back-to-back, actually. Y: coffee at noon in the Mission. Z: coffee at 3 at an Italian café in North Beach. It was a busy Saturday.

The dates went reasonably well. A lot of banter with Z, more serious "get to know you" talk with Y. I had another date with Z this weekend, though that might be the last. And Y and I have plans later this week. I still don't know these girls in any meaningful way. But that is a dating problem, not a Tinder problem. Tinder served its purpose – we were able to transition from packaged photos to packaged experiences. And I was able to swoosh through hundreds of pretty faces in the interim. Not a cure to chronic 20-something loneliness. But a salve, definitely.

[rereads: 3, edits: added "charged" before "pseudo-casual", "this" to "the", "and" deleted before "bolder", "chronic" added before "20-something"; fairly heavy redactions to the personal case, at the suggestion of two friends; capitalized title]

Nov 24, 2014

True Detective, ep. 1

The most interesting part of True Detective lies underneath the ritualistic violence, the multigenerational sex, and the harrowingly intense camerawork. There is something deep here, operating across episodes, mainly contained within the psyche of Rustin Cohle (or possibly Nic Pizzolatto). At this depth, True Detective is a redemption narrative (or even a story of Christian conversion, if you are so inclined).

This submerged story is a little off-kilter with the flashier goings-on. Most of its plot movement occurs before the show begins, it surfaces only rarely, and its climax occurs in the final scene of the final episode.

Yet when it does surface, it is entirely absorbing. The noir hard-boiledness and cajun hoodoo simply can't compete.

The first surfacing occurs as Rust and Marty drive away from the crime scene that entangles them in consuming mystery. The crime scene breaks Rust out of his generally silent melancholy; a punctuated monologue ensues:

Rust: I'd consider myself a realist, alright, but in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist.

Marty: Um, okay, what's that mean?

Rust: It means I'm bad at parties.

Marty: Let me tell you – you ain't great outside of parties either.

Rust: I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist, by natural law.

Marty: That sounds god-fucking-awful, Rust.

Rust: We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling. Programmed, with total assurance, that we are each some body. When in fact, everybody is nobody.

Marty: I wouldn't go around spoutin' that shit, I was you. People around here don't think that way. I don't think that way.

Rust: I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight; brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

Marty: So, what's the point of getting out of bed in the morning?

Rust: I tell myself I bear witness. But the real answer is that it's obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.

Marty: My luck, I picked today to get to know you. What was it, three months? I don't hear a word from you. And ...

Rust: You asked.

Marty: Yeah. And now I'm begging you to shut the fuck up.

Rust: I get a bad taste in my mouth out here – aluminum and ash. Like you can smell the psychosphere.

Marty: I got an idea – let's make the car a place of silent reflection from now on. Okay?

(catch the delivery here)

Marty is out of his depth, though he manages enough wit to close the conversation without getting sucked in to Rust's obsessive metaphysic. Excepting the "psychosphere" line (which is just jargon thrown in for good measure), Rust's position is clear:

  1. Rust is a nihilistic materialist. We are things, and beyond that we are things without meaning.
  2. We are programmed, so that even if we come to realize the truth of our situation, we are helpless to change it. Appropriately enough, this theme will keep cropping up.
  3. Despite the situation, Rust sees an out – voluntary extinction, a letting-go en masse. It is unclear if this would be better than the programmed status quo, or just different.

Interestingly, Rust maintains some normative constructs despite his nihilism, like natural law and honor. These concepts don't square neatly with his main thesis; instead, they suggest a cluttered mind. Rust is a very smart man who has seen a lot, done a lot, and read a lot. All of this has left him deeply pessimistic. His metaphysic is soaked in this pessimism, though the philosophy appears to have arrived after the experience. It is post-hoc, messy, and possibly circular.

Rust can outargue most people he meets (Marty certainly doesn't engage him). By the time of this monologue, he has sunk into nihilism for want of hope or competitive alternatives. However, this doesn't mean that the metaphysic is true. He has traded the uncertain hope of something better for the certainty of knowing how terrible things truly are.  It is the best he can bring himself to believe given his circumstance.

This will remain Rust's status quo for most of the show, yet it will be radically different by the end. But that is an analysis for another time.

[rereads: 2.5, edits: word cuts, man those webcite links suck but I'm not changing them]

Nov 17, 2014


first post, in a way.

(I think I'm becoming obsessed with virginal posts)

I want to write tonight about Aaron Swartz. This is a bit of a dangerous subject for someone like me to write on – someone with my disposition, someone who works where I work. (I work with people who knew Aaron Swartz. I never met Aaron Swartz.)

More specifically, I want to write tonight about a passage in Larissa MacFarquhar's retrospective on Aaron. This passage:

In the last years of his life, he decided that he disliked programming, that computers were awful in many ways, and that there were things more interesting than freedom of information. He would have liked to give up computers altogether. In the summer of 2009, he spent a month offline—no computer, no phone; mostly he just sat in his apartment and read—and he always described this month as the happiest of his life.

When I first read this, I was inspired. I, too, have had a sneaking suspicion that computers are not all that they are cracked up to be. And this, coming from a whiz kid of the Internet!

So I am trying something similar. Last week, I left my computer and phone at work each night. Granted, I usually left work at 9:00 or 10:00. But I spent more time reading in the evening, rather than crashing through the Internet.

I am conflicted in this conviction (I am writing a blog, after all). This is a grand and wondrous machine I am typing on. And we have done marvelous things with these machines, when we link them up all together.

But they also serve as vehicles for our loneliness and our darkness. It is easy to immerse yourself in the torrent, and wash out with time lost and nothing gained. I am not a very good steward of myself, and sometimes this machine enables me in ways I detest. I don't want to hate myself. The easier thing is to set down the box for a while and walk away.

Well, maybe not the easier thing. But the better thing, I am convinced.

I don't know how long I will keep this up for. These self-imposed programs of self-improvement are notoriously short-lived. But it is a good idea, and I see know reason to wind it down now.

[rereads: 0, edits: made blockquote text size smaller, fixed link]

Nov 09, 2014

Where blogging falls

Final structural post.

Third post. And the last one explicitly focused on defining the bounds of this place. After this, the going gets tough. It is easy to state the things you want to be. It is difficult to be them.

I am an intensely private person, despite my protests to the contrary. I am proudest of my private writing, which occurs as letters to friends and journal entries to myself. I don't have much to say about my public writing – most of this is cloaked in academic style, and thus not as honest as it could be. The tool in the writer's box I most detest is the omnipotent narrator. What a ridiculous concept! What a frail façade!

[Squiggly ç's are called cedillas – just learned that. Alt-c for all you Mac users out there.]

And I have made no serious attempts at writing fiction. So anything that sprouts here will be infantile by default.

Being experienced in letters and journals, I find this blogging business to be dangerous territory. As I type here in my quiet room, sipping my tea, I feel quite bookish and brilliant. And alone! I might as well be scribbling in the journal on my desk. A blog conveys an intimacy, a false privacy. Rationally, I know that all of this will be shipped soon to the world, on the record, for posterity. But this doesn't register in my habit. I feel as private and protected as ever, here in my room. Maybe that is the allure.

I stated in the last post that transparency will be the first principle here. This is a smidge derivative, I admit (see my employer). But transparency is a flexible term, and I intuit that transparency here will play out far differently than transparency there. When I write letters to my friends, I often self-censor and tailor the piece to fit the friend in question. Writing here for an open audience, I do not have many inputs for the tailoring. Censorship will either be crude, broad, and stifling, or essentially non-existent. I'm aiming for the latter.

That is how I envision my writing here – the cloying intimacy of a journal, broadcast to all. This is going to be very hard for a person like me to do, I promise you.

One more thing: I have kept the content of place very open ended. And I haven't said a peep about the update schedule. I am going to post once a week, likely on Sunday. I might post more frequently.

[rereads: 1, edits: three words cut]

Oct 30, 2014


second post.

Everything here is still so virginal and fresh. I am reluctant to write, for fear of creasing these finely folded pages. But crease I must. That is the point, in the end. To get it out, all out, to flood this infinite repository with words until it can take no more. So I write and crease and cringe. And here we are.

I have some concerns about this project which I would like to lay out for you. But I need a framing; there is no pleasure in a dry procedural document.

Framing: citizenfour

Edward Snowden is a man of principle. To walk away from a good life – respectable job, longterm relationship, beautiful locale – for the sake of an abstraction; this is something only a principled man could do. One of the most amazing things about this story is that Snowden appears to have been entirely honest about his motives. A year and a half after the story broke and no sleazy underbelly has turned up. No previous ties to Russian intelligence, no large anonymous deposits into his account. I'm speculating here, of course. But I speculate because I'm impressed. It is an instance of principle standing up in a world accustomed to operating without it.

The above paragraph brings me to the first concern: what will be the content here, in practice? I left it quite open-ended in my last. Now, actually writing, I have to make choices. Is this a public journal? A platform for righteous diatribe? Or some sputtering attempt to map my creative process on a white screen?

all and none, all and none

In the end, it does not matter so much what results. That is the entire premise (of the moment). What matters here is the process, the action-in-the-moment as I put down these words and you read them up. What I think after writing does not matter. And what you think after reading ... well, maybe that matters a little. Nobody promised consistency.

So, the content? A couple areas off the top of my head:

  • Journal entries (from my life)
  • Ethical conundra
  • Attempts at prose fiction

How's that? Good enough? Good enough.

Second concern: readership. Who is going to want to read rubbish? drivel? trash? Again, my reply is that the concern is unimportant. There is a part of me that is deeply worried about what others think – how will this writing be received? Will anybody spare the time to read it through? To leave a nice word at the end, about how they thought it was "just marvelous"?

Quite a neat little project really, you should check it out. He is writing in such a direct way, yet so relevant! You'd enjoy it, I'm sure.

I'm running away from this part of me. I'm not terribly interested in what you think. Or how many of you think it. Rather, I shouldn't be interested in such things, and I am doing my damnedest not to be.

And now, we are closing in on the third concern: I worry that entries to this white screen will leave me totally unhinged. Too much masturbatory cleverness, too much sly self-reference, and I will find myself utterly detached from everything outside the borders of this box. In this regard, the content is important – I want what I write (what I do, what I live ...) to be tied to the world. I do not want to write in circles.

I worry that this will be the primary problem of the project. Case in point – my attempt to frame these concerns in some reference to my life and the world. What does Ed Snowden have to do with any of this anyhow? To bring him back in now is artificial, forced. I've already gone off the rails here.

But let's try to get back on. Principles. Snowden. NSA leaks, surveillance state, neofascism cloaked in old fears.


That's right. So I've outlined a couple concerns. But what about the positive aspect? What do I actually care about here? What are the principles of the project?


Transparency is deeply important to what I would like to do here. It is why I am mercilessly subjecting you to this winding examination of what I think my goals are, rather than laying out Goals 1, 2, and 3.

I want to lay myself out, showing each piece as it falls into place. I want my process for creating a polished product to be made as clear as it can. I want the record of this process to stand, irrelevant as it is.

The same applies to my writing about the world. I believe a great many things, and I am not confident in the validity of most of these beliefs. Laying them out, putting them under the microscope, perhaps that will bring some insight.

I do not know what transparency will look like here, in practice. But it is the first principle, for the moment at least.

More will follow.

[rereads: 2, edits: 1]

Oct 26, 2014

Form follows function

Form follows function. content follows form.

What, then, is the function? And what content will result? The middle of the first line contains the motivation for this project as well as its result. And the end result is drivel.

function. content

I do not think I am not capable of explaining the function of this project. But I can try to show you, slowly.

This evening, I decided to create a blog. This blog. I had been toying around with the idea for some months, and today the great wheel ratcheted forward, for I arrived at a name.

Flight from perfection

And this name was very special – it was not attached to a domain! www.flightfromperfection.com was free, so www.flightfromperfection.com it shall be. And here we are.

Before writing this post, I began toying around with the settings offered by Wordpress. Some of the things toyed:

  • Should "from" be capitalized in the title? (After consulting an anonymous authority on the internet, I concluded that "Flight from perfection" was slightly imperfect, thus perfect for my purposes here)
  • What favicon to use? (Hot air balloon rising above Greek temple seemed like a good balance of legibility, poetic applicability, and deep meaning)
  • What's a favicon? (Tiny picture that appears next website name on browser tabs [source: wikipedia])
  • Should I change my username? (yes, nalimseffirg is too cryptic and weird. How do you divide it, anyway? nalim sef firg? na limsef firg? nal imseffirg?)
  • Can I change my username? (no, it's locked into Wordpress)
  • Should the tagline use "rubbish" or "drivel"?
  • Same question for "end product" vs. "final product"

All that to get me precisely this far. Which doesn't feel very far at all.

And that's the problem. That's why I'm here, trying to run away from all tiny decisions only to find myself wrapped up in them again. The editorial process is the creative process. Yet somehow it is capable of crushing its own creative blossom.

Self-consumption is a common trope. Ouroboros.

  • Did I spell "ouroboros" right? (no, "ourosboros" first, then to google to check)
  • Will readers understand the reference? Should I post a picture? (no, subtlety is valuable)

So that is the function, as best as I can say it. A tearing-away from myself, a plunging-forward into the murk. A flight from perfection. (The title in the text!)

The form? Stream-of-consciousness blogging, apparently. I'm trying not to box myself in.

And the content? Well, drivel. (or is it rubbish? [will people associate rubbish with British? What would that imply to them about me? {am I being too clever with my meta-commentary? How tiresome it must be.}])

It's all in the name, really.