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 The core idea here: the old model of the employer-employee relationship is outdated, and a new model is necessary.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.

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"]

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

Acquired

  • 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)

Deteriorated

  • 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

Imagined

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

Undertaken

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

Continued

  • Correspondence with friends
  • Loosely following the news

Abandoned/postponed

  • 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.

Rationality

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.

Groundwork

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).

Redefinition

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 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?
Considerations:

  • 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?)
Considerations:

  • 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]