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Covid 10/14: Less Long Cvoid

14 октября, 2021 - 17:20
Published on October 14, 2021 2:20 PM GMT

The pandemic has become predictable, which is the world we much prefer to live in. Cases and deaths continue their slow but steady declines, vaccine approvals for boosters and children continue to slowly move forward. Mandates continue to make people angry but mostly work when used, while also not that often being used. Same old, same old.

The big news story was that one of the studies of Long Covid was revealed to be vastly overestimating frequency due to a methodological ‘error.’ It’s an important update.

Executive Summary
  1. Cases and deaths declining as expected.
  2. Approvals progressing slowly as expected.
  3. Long Covid study had important error, see discussion later in post.

Let’s run the numbers.

The Numbers Predictions

Prediction from last week: 560k cases (-10%) and 11,500 deaths (-8%). 

Results: 547k cases (-12%) and 11,051 deaths (-12%).

Prediction for next week: 481k cases (-12%) and 9,835 deaths (-11%).

We are still in a low-variance situation, with no reason to expect any big surprises for at least several more weeks. 

Deaths

The exact rate of decline here was a pleasant surprise, but we’ve gotten to the point where this is a lagging indicator, so the times when it is surprising are mostly about data gathering issues, either holidays or changes in the ways in which we do testing. Expect this trend to continue, and continue to mirror cases with a lag.

Cases

This is pretty much exactly what we would have expected. The Northeast number is slightly disappointing, others were slightly better than expected, but no real surprises.

Vaccinations 

The rate of vaccinations continues to not change much, and it’s clear that the positive bump wasn’t the start of a surge. That continues not to tell us much about how much work the mandates are doing here. My impression is that the mandates that have teeth work, but that few of them have teeth.

In his podcast interview this week with FiveThirtyEight, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb asks where the cost-benefit analyses are on the vaccine mandates, since there don’t seem to be any. He estimates that we could use mandates to go from something like 80% adult vaccination rates to 84%, and asks how much that really accomplishes. 

My answer is that this change would be worth quite a lot, but how much depends heavily on how we would react to the two scenarios. 

Cutting the number of unvaccinated adults by 20% wouldn’t cut transmission by 20%, since there is some spread by non-adults and some spread by the vaccinated. It’s still a major percent drop in transmission if behavior didn’t adjust, at least 10%. Cutting transmission by 10% means a 10% cut in cases every four days or so if behavior doesn’t adjust, which is a rather big game, cutting cases in half each month. 

Behaviors would of course adjust, which is a big benefit. We’d get to increase our equilibrium amount of Covid-19 risk by 10%, which is a substantial percentage of the way back to regular life. If we used this to eliminate ‘stupid prevention’ selectively the win would be even bigger. 

Alternatively, if we didn’t adjust our behaviors, then we get full suppression before too long, or damn close to it, at which point the adjustments happen no matter what any ‘public health experts’ or government officials might want. If we’re looking at under 10k cases per day, as we likely are within a few months, people outside of some particular institutions going to go back to normal, and even in those few places there’d be increasing pressure over time.

The intuition pump here is that putting us over the top is a huge deal, and that this is plausibly exactly what we need to get over the top, and if this doesn’t get us there it still gives us a bunch of extra slack to spend. Plus it creates new ‘safe spaces’ where everyone is vaccinated. And of course, it lowers average severity that much more, as well. 

One big cost of all this is that Republicans are turning against vaccinations and vaccine mandates in general, which is a big problem, but the timing seems to correspond to the vaccine rollout rather than to the mandates. Not clear to what extent the mandates will contribute to this, but would be rather disastrous if red states stopped requiring childhood immunizations. 

Looks like mix and matching vaccines is going to be shown once again to be effective, but this time the results come from America, so maybe they will count. 

Vaccine Mandates

The mandate conflict this week is that Texas mandated a lack of vaccine mandates by any entity at all, to combat Biden’s mandate that there be mandates for large corporations, putting the two in direct conflict. There’s still a technical way out of that for corporations, which is that the Biden rule allows frequent testing as an alternative. Alternatively, one can take a side and say that the Texas rule is invalid, which is what the Biden administration is claiming, and the major airlines seem to have adopted this policy. 

Mostly we didn’t hear about much in the way of new mandates this week. The mandates that are already in place or being put in place seem to be proceeding smoothly, but there isn’t much appetite to add new ones.

Meanwhile, given the lack of enthusiasm for surprise, ruthless efficiency or fanatical devotion to the Pope, some vaccine advertisements turn to fear

In other places, some countries are actively halting or scaling back use of Moderna, despite it being clearly the most effective vaccine, due to relatively trivial concerns. I can’t even get angry about it anymore, but all the more reason to get your shots while you can to be safe on multiple fronts. 

The FDA is moving forward with child vaccine approval (after which it will presumably become mandatory right away in many places) but isn’t comfortable yet that it has inserted enough delays to make everyone feel comfortable, so the delays continue for now.

Long Covid 

Via an excellent comment, we have an important discovery about the Long Covid data.

A major source for the previous pessimistic LC estimates, like Scott Alexanders (the UK’s giant ONS survey) published an update of their previous report which looked at a follow-up over a longer time period. Basically they only counted an end to long Covid if there were two consecutive reports of no symptoms, and lots of their respondents had only one report of no symptoms before the study ended, not two, so got counted as persistent cases. When they went back and updated their numbers, the overall results were substantially lower. This graphic explains their original mistake:

This is why it’s important not to cut your dataset off early

The new headline result is 7.5% of Covid-19 patients had ‘some limitation’ of daily activities after 12 weeks if you ask them if they had long Covid-19. If you go by asking if there were any symptoms from a given list, the rate is lower (like 3%).  The full reportis here. What’s notable is that a lot of participants reported LC symptoms with no Covid-19 positive test.

They break it down by age and sex in the full report, but you should treat these numbers as numbers for mostly double vaxxed AZ and some mixture of single/double vaxxed Pfizer/Moderna for younger groups, since that’s how it worked in the UK. 

Specific symptom rates over time (corrected methodology) Self-reported long covid rates over time (corrected methodology)

This is a pretty dumb error, a very dumb way to get a lot of people very scared and destroy a lot of value. Many thanks to the team for correcting the error, whether or not it was intentional and whether or not they should never have made the mistake. And whether or not the mistake was a reasonable one to be making, which it pretty much wasn’t. Error correction is a big deal. Basically what they did, as far as I can tell, was this:

  1. If you report symptoms, that means for now you have Long Covid.
  2. If you report no symptoms twice in a row, congratulations, you don’t have long Covid.
  3. If you report no symptoms then symptoms, we still assume the symptoms are due to Covid, and you therefore still have Long Covid.
  4. If your last report was no symptoms, you’re still considered to have Long Covid until you report in again with no symptoms.
  5. A lot of people didn’t feel the second no-symptom report was a terribly urgent thing to be doing.
  6. A lot of people simply hadn’t had the chance to report a second time once their symptoms had cleared up.
  7. Yet they still counted the period that included their report of no symptoms, as a length of time that they had Long Covid.

To be blunt, they cheated (intentionally or otherwise), it was a massive effect, and we should have caught it, but to my knowledge none of us did. They have now fessed up.

If you ask people to pick from a list of common symptoms, only 3% report that they have one. The larger numbers are mostly or entirely what happens when people are asked if there is anything wrong with them at all, and would they like to blame it on Covid-19. Also the percentages declined a lot over time, so chances are few of the cases would be permanent or semi-permanent. Even if you buy one of the larger numbers, this is a substantial improvement. 

Given how many people have already had Covid if you go by the antibodies present in various populations or what I would otherwise guess, this seems far more plausible, that Long Covid while real is relatively rare.

NPIs Including Mask and Testing Mandates 

The other thing I wanted to highlight from Gottlieb’s podcast interview this week with FiveThirtyEight was that when cloth masks were first proposed as a solution, everyone involved (according to his account) agreed that cloth masks probably worked, and agreed they were widely available, but that they pushed back hard because if people were told they could use masks, they wouldn’t listen to demands that they stay inside. So that’s the type of thinking we are dealing with there. Scott Gottlieb is very much in the ‘level with the people and it will work out’ camp, and I continue to wonder about the alternative world where he had still been in charge at FDA in 2020. 

Lateral Flow Tests looking more effective in practice than we previously thought.

Good thing we blocked them due to being insufficiently good, leaving many people without any access to testing when it mattered most. 

In Other News

There were a bunch of flights cancelled in Florida, over some combination of a lack of pilots due to protests against vaccine mandates, a lack of air traffic controllers due to protests over vaccine mandates, and bad weather, depending on who you believe. In the mainstream media this has been treated with something that’s hard not to describe as a media blackout, where a big event happened with both practical short-term and potential long-term impact, and everyone somehow decided not to cover it. It seemed to reflect prioritizing something other than reporting newsworthy events or providing useful information to listeners and readers. 

On the other side, this was seen as some glorious sign of revolt and things to come, which also seems mostly wrong to me. Such disruptions seem both rare and mostly not that impactful, with this being news exactly because it had any meaningful impact at all. Whereas supply chain issues caused by actual Covid-19 disruptions are increasingly dire. 

Ivermectin studies looking more and more like outright fraud, as in the study never happened and they copied lines of data a lot levels of fraud. 

Another reminder of how bad it’s been that we’ve groundlessly scared pregnant women to the point where they’re largely not getting vaccinated, and now they’re filling ICUs. 

Dr. Sanjay Gupta appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience. Due to time limitations I haven’t yet had a chance to listen, I hope to be able to report back on this next week.  



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Is nuking women and children cheaper than firebombing them?

14 октября, 2021 - 11:25
Published on October 14, 2021 8:25 AM GMT

When I was a teenager, my favorite board game was the World War Two strategy game Axis & Allies. It taught me basic principles of adversarial strategy including Lanchester's laws, how to wield the law of large numbers and "chaos favors the underdog". But my favorite thing about the game is what it taught me about morality.

The game is balanced and rewards aggression. If you don't send everything you have to the front lines as fast as you can enemy forces will march through your homeland and those of your teammates. The game is long. If you lose your defeat will be protracted. It will suck. Axis & Allies is a desperate struggle for survival.

In Axis and Allies it's common to leave a single infantry unit on the front lines knowing they'll become casualties so you can destroy your enemy's more expensive tanks after the inevitable counterattack. Whether your enemy accepts prisoners of war or just shoots surrendering soldiers is irrelevant to this calculus.

Soldiers are fungible. Territory is fungible. Entire continents can be sacrificed and regained. Just holding off the enemy forces requires every trick available.

Axis & Allies supports a mechanic called "strategic bombing". Strategic bombing is a euphemism for bombing civilians. Strategic bombing is usually the wrong thing to do. Not because burning women and children alive is unethical. Strategic bombing is wrong because it does slightly less damage to an enemy's capacity for war than bombing their soldiers directly.

When I think about ethics I ask myself "If I was a 19-year-old in 1945 would I have refused to pilot a B-29 just because I was ordered to commit a war crime?"

I'm pretty sure the answer is no.

I'm not saying that bombing civilians is ever morally defensible. Or even that it was strategically effective. Just that, given my knowledge of history and my knowledge of my own personality I'm pretty sure that bombing civilians is what I would have done if I had been born in 1926 and assigned to the Air Force operating a B-29. I might've ended up on the Manhattan Project instead.

One-Sided Offensive Nuclear War

When discussing the ethics of nuclear weapons[1], it's easy to get drawn into calculations of how many Japanese lives they did(n't) save. Such perspective is a historical anachronism. When I'm playing Axis & Allies I throw all of my resources at the enemy as fast as I can. I don't ask "is it ethical to detonate nuclear bombs on starving civilians who never voted for their fascist government"? I ask "is nuking women and children cheaper than firebombing them"?

  1. We added many homebrew rules, including rules for nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are not in vanilla Axis & Allies. ↩︎



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Compute Governance and Conclusions - Transformative AI and Compute [3/4]

14 октября, 2021 - 11:23
Published on October 14, 2021 8:23 AM GMT

Cross-posted here on the EA Forum.

Transformative AI and Compute - A holistic approach - Part 3 out of 4

This is part two of the series Transformative AI and Compute - A holistic approach. You can find the sequence here and the summary here.

This work was conducted as part of Stanford’s Existential Risks Initiative (SERI) at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. Mentored by Ashwin Acharya (Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET)) and Michael Andregg (Fathom Radiant).

This post attempts to:

  1. Briefly outline the relevance of compute for AI Governance (Section 6).
  2. Conclude this report and discuss next steps (Section 7).
Epistemic Status

This article is Exploratory to My Best Guess. I've spent roughly 300 hours researching this piece and writing it up. I am not claiming completeness for any enumerations. Most lists are the result of things I learned on the way and then tried to categorize.

I have a background in Electrical Engineering with an emphasis on Computer Engineering and have done research in the field of ML optimizations for resource-constrained devices — working on the intersection of ML deployments and hardware optimization. I am more confident in my view on hardware engineering than in the macro interpretation of those trends for AI progress and timelines.

This piece was a research trial to test my prioritization, interest and fit for this topic. Instead of focusing on a single narrow question, this paper and research trial turned out to be more broad — therefore a holistic approach. In the future, I’m planning to work more focused on a narrow relevant research questions within this domain. Please reach out.

Views and mistakes are solely my own.

Previous Post: Forecasting Compute

You can find the previous post "Forecasting Compute [2/4]" here.

6. Compute Governance

Highlights

  • Compute is a unique AI governance node due to the required physical space, energy demand, and the concentrated supply chain. Those features make it a governable candidate.
  • Controlling and governing access to compute can be harnessed to achieve better AI safety outcomes, for instance restricting compute access to non-safety-aligned actors.
  • As compute becomes a dominant factor of costs at the frontier of AI research, it may start to resemble high-energy physics research, where a significant amount of the budget is spent on infrastructure (unlike previous trends of CS research where the equipment costs have been fairly low).

Lastly, I want to motivate the topic of compute governance as a subfield of AI governance and briefly highlight the unique aspect of compute governance.

Compute has three unique features which might make it more governable than other domains of AI governance (such as talent, ideas, and data) (Anderljung and Carlier 2021):

  1. Compute requires physical space for the computing hardware — football-field-sized supercomputer centers are the norm (Los Alamos National Laboratory 2013). Compared to software, this makes compute easier to track.
    • Additionally, compute is often highly centralized due to the dominance of cloud providers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and others. Moreover, current leading hardware, such as Google TPUs, is only available as a service. Consequently, this feature makes it more governable.
  2. The energy (and water demands). For running those supercomputers, massive amounts of energy and water for cooling are required (Los Alamos National Laboratory 2013).
  3. The supply chain of the semiconductor is highly concentrated, which could enable monitoring and governance (Khan 2021) — see “The Semiconductor Supply Chain” by CSET for more.

Second, according to my initial research and talking to people in the field of AI governance, there seems to be more of a consensus on what to do with compute regarding governance: restricting and regulating access to compute resources for less cautious actors.[1] This does not include a consensus on the concrete policies but at least in regards to the goal. Whereas for other aspects in the field of AI governance, there seems to be no clear consensus on which intermediate goals to pursue (see a discussion in this post).

6.1 Funding Allocation

Within this decade, we will and should see a switch in funding distribution at publicly funded AI research groups. Whereas AI and computer science (CS) research groups usually had relatively low overhead costs for equipment, this will change in the future to the increased need for spending more funding on compute to maintain state-of-the-art research. Those groups will become more like high-energy physics or biology research groups where considerable funding is being spent on infrastructure (e.g., equipment and hardware). If this does not happen, publicly funded groups will not be able to compete. We can already observe this compute divide (Ahmed and Wahed 2020).

6.2 Research Questions

For a list of research questions see some “Some AI Governance Research Ideas” (Anderljung and Carlier 2021). My research questions are listed in Appendix A (not published yet), including some notes on compute governance-related points.

7. Conclusions

Highlights

  • In terms of published papers, the research on compute trends, compute spending, and algorithmic efficiency (the field of macro ML research) is minor and more work on this intersection could quickly improve our understanding.
  • The field is currently bottlenecked by available data on macro ML trends: total compute used to train a model is rarely published, nor is spending. With these it would be easier to estimate algorithmic efficiency and build better forecasting models.
  • The importance of compute also highlights the need for ML engineers working on AI safety to be able to deploy gigantic models.
    • Therefore, more people should consider becoming an AI hardware expert or working as an ML engineer at safety-aligned organizations and enabling their deployment success.
  • But also working on the intersection of technology and economics is relevant to inform spending and understanding of macro trends.
  • Research results in all of the mentioned fields could then be used to inform compute governance.

Compute is a substantial component of AI systems and has been a driver of their capabilities. Compared to data and algorithmic innovation, it provides a unique quantifiability that enables more efficient analysis and governance.

The effective available compute is mainly informed by the compute prices, the spending, and algorithmic improvements. Nonetheless, we should also explore the downsides of purely focusing on computational power and consider using metrics based on our understanding of the interconnect and memory capacity.

We have discussed components of hardware progress and discussed the recent trends such as Moore’s law, chip architectures, and hardware paradigms. Focusing on only one trend comes with significant shortcomings; instead, I suggest we inform our forecasts by combining such models. I would be especially excited to break down existing compute trends into hardware improvements and increased spending.

Limited research in the field of macro AI

My research is based on a small set of papers, whereas most focus on certain sub aspects. Overall, the research field of macro ML trends in used compute is, to my understanding, fairly small. Seeing more research efforts on compute trends and algorithmic innovation could be highly beneficial. This could lead to a better understanding of past trends, and forecasting future trends — for example, breaking down the trend into increased spending and hardware progress can give us some insights into potential upper limits.

Limited data for analyzing AI trends

Another limitation, and perhaps the cause of limited research, is that , there is also limited data available. Consequently, researchers first need to build the required dataset. I would be excited to see bigger datasets of compute requirements or experiments to measure algorithmic efficiency.

We share in this work our public ML progress dataset and a dataset using MLCommons training benchmarks (MLCommons 2021) for measuring the performance progress of modern AI hardware and ask others to share their insights and data.

ML deployment engineers

As the role of compute is significant for AI progress, there is a strong need for ML engineers who can efficiently deploy AI systems. This was also discussed by Olah in an 80’000 hours episode #107. Consequently, ML engineers should consider working at safety-aligned organizations and enable the deployment of gigantic models which are —ideally— reliable, interpretable and steerable.

Interdisciplinary research

An essential component for compute prices and spending are economic models — either based on spending, or the computing industry, such as the semiconductor industry. Interdisciplinary research on those questions could be of great benefit. Examples of such work are (Thompson et al. 2020; Thompson and Spanuth 2021).

I plan to work on aspects of this research in the future and would be especially interested in exploring collaboration or other synergies. Please reach out. The exact research questions are still to be determined.

Appendix A (not published yet) lists various research questions that I would be interested in exploring and also want others to explore.

Acknowledgments

You can find the acknowledgments in the summary.

References

The references are listed in the summary.

  1. It seems reasonable and somewhat likely to me that we will be regulating and restricting the export of AI hardware even harsher and might classify it legally as weapons within the next decades. ↩︎



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Book Review: How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen

14 октября, 2021 - 09:56
Published on October 14, 2021 6:56 AM GMT

Way back in the ancient times of 1980, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich wrote "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk" (henceforth "Kids"). It turns out that kids and adults operate with mostly the same internal machinery, so you could perhaps more accurately call it "How To Talk So [Humans] Will Listen and Listen So [Humans] Will Talk" . 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src: local('MathJax_Vector Bold'), local('MathJax_Vector-Bold')} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-Bx; src: local('MathJax_Vector'); font-weight: bold} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-Bw; src /*1*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/eot/MathJax_Vector-Bold.eot'); src /*2*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/woff/MathJax_Vector-Bold.woff') format('woff'), url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/otf/MathJax_Vector-Bold.otf') format('opentype')} ¹, and is widely regarded as useful for adult-adult communication as well.

40 years ago is a long time though. It is long enough for Joanne Faber, daughter of the original author Adele Faber to grow up, have kids of her own, and put the skills her mother raised her with to good use herself. And in the much-less-distant past of 2017 Joanne, with co-author Julie King, wrote what could be considered a modernized update of her mother's work, titled "How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen" (henceforth "Little Kids").

The core principles are the same, but the update stands on its own. Where the original "Kids" acts more like a workbook, asking the reader to self-generate responses, "Little Kids" feels more like it's trying to download a response system into your head via modeling and story-telling. I personally prefer this system better, because the workbook approach feels like it's only getting to my System 2 (sorry for the colloquialism). Meanwhile being surrounded with examples and stories works better for me to fully integrate a new mode of interaction. In fact, if I truly wanted to integrate it I would want 3 more books of anecdotes, a TV show, and a fiction book series to model after. 

Structure and Philosophy

"Little Kids" is very goal-oriented. It explicitly asks "What are you trying to accomplish with this communication to your kids?", and recognizes that oftentimes the answer is behavioral change, for example "I want Little Alice to stop hitting when she's angry." 

After focusing on the goal, they then examine the effects of various types of responses. Situations faced by children are often hard to empathise with as an adult (e.g. really not wanting to leave the toy store even though it is time to go to dance lessons). "Little Kids" therefore creates scenes that are the adult equivalent of common childhood scenarios. Then a variety of responses are presented such as lecturing, you-poor-thing-ing, comparing to others, etc. and after each response the reader is asked to examine their own feelings if they heard it directed at themselves.  This allows the reader to viscerally feel how upsetting certain types of responses are. 

Ultimately, the optimum response in the majority of these situations is an acknowledgement of feelings. While listening to the book, and putting myself in the shoes of the person in the scenarios, I could really feel how validating and calming it felt to have my emotions acknowledged. 

The philosophy in their work is that while all feelings are valid, not all behaviors are. This sounds like it should be obvious, but the Mommy Wars are real. On one side  is the common practice of parents to negate or minimize children's feelings ("Of course you don't hate your sister! You don't mean that! You love her!" or "No more crying... It's just a little scratch. It doesn't hurt that bad!"). These are the folks that implicitly claim that neither all behaviors nor all feelings are valid. On the other side are the strict NVC types who believe in focusing solely on connection and communication of feelings without actively trying to change any behavior unless necessary. These folks operate with the premise that both all feelings and all behaviors are valid.

The first half of their book focuses on their Problem Solving technique along with many tips and tricks for good communication. The second half of the book applies the lessons from the first half to various common problems such as eating, sibling rivalry, and getting ready in the morning.

Rationalists have mentioned "Kids" here and here, and you can find countless summaries with a quick Google. "Little Kids" is similar enough in overview that just summarizing it wouldn't add much value. 

Problem Solving

The central proposal in the book is a process they call "Problem Solving". This can be used for any kind of issue. It's a bit of an undertaking, so it most frequently comes up with recurring issues. 

  1. Make Sure the Time is Right - This isn't a thing to do when emotions are high. You should bring up the problem when everyone is calm and receptive, including yourself.
  2. Acknowledge Feelings - This is the number one advice of the book. Even if you're not in the middle of a Problem Solving session, the authors assert you can never go wrong with just describing what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it: "It's frustrating for you when I make you hold my hand. You want to run free!" ²
  3. State the Problem - Next briefly state the problem, but don't use the word "but...." as this invalidates all the good work you just did in acknowledging their feelings and making them feel heard. Instead try the phrase: "The problem is...": "The problem is that there is a busy street nearby and I worry that you might get hurt." ³
  4. Brainstorm - Brainstorm solutions. There are no wrong answers. It can make it easier to come up with silly solutions at the beginning to get the ideas flowing. "What if instead of holding my hand, you held on to my sweater and we pretended we were a train?" Write down the ideas as you go, or use representative pictures if your child can't read.
  5. Select a Solution - Cross out solutions that are infeasible, and select one to try out of the remaining ideas. Solutions that the kids have come up with themselves work surprisingly often.
  6. Try the Solution - Next time the situation comes up, try the solution.
  7. Repeat as Necessary - If the first solution doesn't work, move on to a different one, or try another round of Problem Solving.
Behavioral Change or Environmental Control

Let's say you've tried Problem Solving multiple times. Still nothing works. Every time you take Little Charlie to the amusement park he runs away, tantrums, and/or causes destruction, leaving you a stressed and frazzled mess. Does this mean we just resign ourselves to Little Charlie's Reign of Terror? Not quite! 

There are times when no matter what we try, the problem persists. We just can not make it better. In these cases we recognize that we're asking too much of our children at their current stage of development. It turns out that Little Charlie is just not ready for amusement park excursions yet. So we switch from trying to modify the behavior to trying to modify the environment. In the above example, it's very simple! We just don't go to the amusement park for a while, until we feel like Charlie might have grown in such a way that we can try again.

This concept is strongly dwelled on in the book, but it is something I think about a lot with my reactive rescue dog. I do my best to socialize her, and we've had lots of success! But I also recognize there are situations where she is not ready for certain situations yet, and may never be. There, my job is to control her environment. If she finds children scary, I keep my eye out for kids and cross the street if I see them coming. When I do my job right, then from the outside she doesn't look reactive at all. If she ever does appear reactive, that is a failure on MY part, not hers! This is a common practice in dog training. 

I wonder how our lives would be different if we applied this same mindset to ourselves? What if instead of viewing our screw-ups as evidence of our own personal failures, we acknowledged that the thing we are trying to do is hard, possibly too hard for our abilities, and tried to arrange our lives so that we were setting ourselves up for success rather than failure?  This runs counter to modern achievement-oriented pop psychology, but seems like some potentially useful reversed wisdom for a community that urges members to tackle Big Problems. 

It seems like there are times where it's better to keep trying and failing (eventually you will succeed!), and times where it's better to accept temporary defeat and not dwell on an activity that will just fail anyways. I have some theories on when each tactic is more useful, but would be interested in what others come up with. 

Yup, THAT Works on Adults Too...

The first half of the book is full of tips and tricks. Some of these are obvious to any parent, such as giving a choice: "Would you like to take a bath before dinner or after dinner?", or turning it into a game: "Let's see if we can pick up all the blocks before the timer goes off!" Many were novel though, and as I read I found myself mentally sorting various techniques into either "Good for All Ages" and "Just Good for Kids."

One such technique is to "Write it Down". Specifically, this can be used in stores when your child really, really wants the new dinosaur-themed Star Wars LEGO set. You are not going to buy them the LEGO set. You sense a tantrum coming on..... You pull out a pen and paper, and write down "Dinosaur-themed Star Wars LEGO set". You start a list. Maybe occasionally, such as on their birthday, you get something from the list. You child is happy! They no longer are adamant you immediately buy the LEGO set. Crisis averted! 

In my head, I filed this as a child-specific technique.

Then I saw a really cute-but-expensive puzzle box I wanted. I copied the link, added it to my Pinterest, and closed the tab.  

Similarly, there is a technique where you give the child what they want in fantasy. "I wish you could have FIVE puppies! And they'd all sleep in your bed! You could take them to school with you and pull them around in a wagon!" 

I couldn't think of how useful this would be for adults. 

Then I opened Zillow, and looked at Victorian mansions with elaborate hand-carved wooden stairwells.

Throughout this book, it was really interesting to see how almost every technique was just as useful for adults as for children, even when it didn't initially seem that way. The window-dressing changes, but the core remains the same. 

Critique: A and Not-A

Have you ever read one of those dating books where Chapter 8 says "Be Vulnerable", and Chapter 9 says "Be Strong", but somehow there is no Chapter 10 that tells you when to be vulnerable and when to be strong? I felt like that happened a couple times in these books. 

Most egregious was in "Kids" where a very good chapter on giving praise talks about describing what you see ("I see all the toys put back in their bins!") and not applying labels ("Wow! You're so responsible!"). This chapter argues that a label can easily be taken away the next day with a reversal ("You're so messy!") but no one can take away the time they cleaned up after themselves without being asked. Don't apply labels. Just describe. 

Later in the book, there was talk about how powerful and affirming positive labels can be ("I never worry about you! You're self-correcting"). Anecdotes were given about a complimentary label that held meaning for a person for years, and they'd keep coming back to it for years whenever they were doubting themselves. 

These felt to me to be mutually exclusive, but that fact was never acknowledged. Maybe others find it obvious when you should apply a label and when you should definitely not do that, but if so it isn't operationalized here. 

Epistemic Status

The book isn't centered around citing studies or randomized control studies. Instead it's a collection of:"Huh, I hadn't thought of it that way, but on reflection that seems correct!"; tricks that most parents recognize as working; and tricks that are worth a shot. It's a better parenting book than most, but is not at all trying to emulate a hard science. 

Given that the original is over 40 years old, and many of the techniques therein have since become common wisdom, I would expect that there do exist studies that have taken place in the intervening (or even preceding) years, but I did not do any epistemic spot checks.

Footnotes

1 -  For a sanity check, I looked it up on Amazon Best Sellers under "Parenting" and the audio version was #19 and the paperback was #21.

2 - The book does a good job of giving the kind of specific instruction that can be useful if this kind of interaction doesn't come naturally to you. For example, they mention the proper tone of voice. Bad examples include: flat tone ("You must be furious."), overly dramatic ("OH NO!! You must be ABSOLUTELY FURIOUS!!1!!"), patronizing ("Awwwww, you must be sooooo fuuuurious!"). Your tone and emotion choice should appropriately match the felt emotion. "You must be furious!" They give this kind of breakdown for many skills, and so reading the whole thing can be useful for people who have difficulty intuiting the exact way to utilize the instructions.

3 - An interesting aside here is that it rarely works to just say "You might get hurt" or "You might hit your brother with it", because then the inevitable response is "No, I won't!" Instead say something like: "I worry you might get hurt" or "I worry you might hit your brother with it." Not only is this owning your own feelings, but it is also much harder to be negated. 



Discuss

Creating a truly formidable Art

14 октября, 2021 - 07:39
Published on October 14, 2021 4:39 AM GMT

Over this last week, I and several other folk from CFAR's past gathered. We were doing a kind of post-mortem on the last decade.

I mostly haven't thought explicitly about Less Wrong style rationality for the last three years. It would come up in conversation every now and again, and I engaged with the "best of 2018" review process for a couple of my posts. But it just isn't where I've been focusing anymore.

This week of immersion and reflection stirred some old circuitry in me. It was beautiful and fascinating to witness how who I am today dances with old ways of thinking and being from my CFAR days.

As I left that event, I noticed I could clearly feel an ember glowing in me. I remembered the Beisutsukai, and the sense that more is possible.

I also remembered the well-worn ache of repeated failure and defeat from trying to create these things, and the endless intellectual conversations that turned out to go nowhere as we struggled to birth any hint of the full Art.

But I've learned something these last three years about how to navigate that kind of failure, and how to deeply honor the true essence of an inspiration.

So I find myself in the amusing position of feeling how someone might actually create truly good rationality training. It's amusing because I doubt this is my gift to give the world. I'm doing something closely related, but different. Far too mystical for the right aesthetic.

I'd like to attempt a translation. Partly for myself, because writing out these things brings me clarity. But partly as an invitation for the souls here who can feel the call and might do something with it.

I think the world would be more beautiful, and more fun, with real Beisutsukai.

 

Some Possible Ingredients of the ArtEmbodying the Void

The first concept I'll point at here is noise. Not in the information-theoretic sense (i.e., the opposite of signal). More in the sense of how it's hard to be calm and composed in a loud environment, especially after you've been startled. The way the emotional noise of living with an abusive partner can make it hard to notice what's going on and decide to leave. The way the feeling of alarm from outrage porn crowds out clear thinking and perception in favor of fueling the inner mental fire. The way noisy thoughts about already knowing the answer make it hard to really listen to the words and concepts someone else is saying.

Most tools for thinking more clearly add noise. They're often useful noise, like "Oh, I'm giving a time estimate, which might be subject to the planning fallacy." But they're still adding inner sensation. Instead of inner silence, there's yet another thought.

What's needed here, as a foundational practice, is an art of removing inner sensation. The ability to come to inner silence at will.

(I know I'm wording that strongly. "What's needed here," etc. I mean it that strongly because it's something I'm crystal clear on. But I also want to acknowledge an asymmetry of information here. I'm mostly going to keep ignoring that fact and continue to speak plainly throughout this post. I don't mean for my confidence to pressure you beyond your epistemic comfort. But I'm also not going to pretend I know less than I do.)

This is an awful lot like clearing a workbench. Sure, you can stack your next project on top of the chunks of wood and oils and notes and wires scattered across your table…

…or you could take some time to clean everything up. It's often surprising how much ease and functionality comes from having way more table room than you need. It's easier to breathe.

The main difference is empty space. The Void. There's a richness of nothingness that you can fill with physical "noise" (i.e., things) but you haven't yet. It's this free potential that brings ease.

The same thing happens in a mind. I find it hard to see what's going on in me when everything is loud inside and thoughts are slamming into one another and creating turbulence while other thoughts are running in the background influencing me unseen. It doesn't matter how accurate some or even all of those thoughts are: I still can't do much intentionally with all that clutter. I'm just reacting.

But if I can come to inner silence, I can see and hear what's going on in me very clearly.

This is a very, very powerful place from which to reshape how a mind behaves.

Today, if I were creating a discipline of rationality, I would start with this and interweave it into everything. Every step, every breath, every thought and practice would have the Void as its touchstone. I would focus on deepening it in myself, and I would make sure that every person walking into my rationality dojo had enough of a handle to start consciously deepening it in themselves. As a group I'd establish a signal that means that no matter what's going on, we pause and come to stillness so that we can then come to view what was just happening from utter inner silence. Some of the practices would focus on creating inner stress via outside stimulation (e.g., eye gazing, or conversation) so that the solidity of one's stance in nothingness slowly becomes unassailable.

I suspect this plays the sort of role that strength and endurance training does in martial arts. It's not the Art, but it's such an absurdly strong support for the Art that it'd be foolish to neglect.

 

Do the Thing and Not the Non-Thing

After I wrote the above and re-read it, it occurred to me that a reader might think "inner silence" is the same thing as numbing or suppressing inner experiences, and then they might rightly object that that's a bad thing to cultivate.

So, first: No. That's not what I mean.

But rather than clarifying what I do mean instead, I'd like to use this as an example.

My hope is that in reading the section on embodying the Void, you caught a glimpse of something. Something true. And I don't mean "an aspect of the map that accurately reflects the territory". I mean it the way there's something true about how Captain America in the MCU stands up for what he sees as right no matter what (even if you might quibble about whether he's right about what's right).

And more importantly, it's the same way in which there's something true about the sense that more is possible.

If you can feel that "something true" about the inner silence, you can use that sense as a guide for your practice. You can start to tell what does and doesn't fit — sort of like how you can feel what does or doesn't "vibe" with a "scene" once you grok the scene's aesthetic.

So once you grok the "aesthetic" of the Void, you can tell that numbing and suppression are the opposite of the right direction. So even if I in fact had meant something like that, you would be able to see what I should have meant and could make yourself stronger that way.

(And if you can't tell that, then this signals that you haven't understood the Void's "aesthetic" yet — although I again want to acknowledge that I'm saying this across a possible asymmetry of information.)

In the same way, when we look at the sense that more is possible with the Art, it has a certain… ringing to it. It's such that we can feel and know that we haven't really done the thing yet. We don't yet know what it would look like if we had, but we can still compare what exists right now to the tone of the intuition, and we can see that there's still a sense that way more is possible.

How do we tell whether something is or isn't "rationality"? It isn't via a formal definition. If we were to try, we'd be testing the definition against a deeper knowing. If they sync up under scrutiny, then we can explore surprising implications of our definition. But the core thing, where caring about the Art comes from in the first place, is something deeper. By consciously attending to that, we become more honest about what we're doing, and much more able to consciously distinguish progress from distraction.

This is the core anti-Goodhart move. What could cure you of Goodhart drift, at least in the limit, within your own mind? Not just using better and more clever measurements to stave off the entropic slide toward lost purposes, but actually end the drift? Naturally make it so that lost purposes systematically get unearthed and slain, and every single proxy comes to be transparent and stops confusing or distracting you?

This echoes the Virtue of the Void (or "twelfth virtue" or "zeroth virtue" depending on whom you talk to) from the Twelve Virtues of Rationality:

Before these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless.

[…]

You may try to name the highest principle with names such as “the map that reflects the territory” or “experience of success and failure” or “Bayesian decision theory.” But perhaps you describe incorrectly the nameless virtue. How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name.

This is "Keep your eye on the ball", only as seen from the emptiness of the Void. And it's a practice. It requires asking, again and again, in the silent voice of stillness: "Where did this thought come from? What purpose does it serve? How does it compare to my intention? What's actually true here?"

I should also note that I for one find this practice extremely embodied. It feels like something in my body to resonate with an aesthetic. When something doesn't match the aesthetic I'm focused on, the something feels sick in my heart and/or stomach. Most of this practice is a matter of spending time "tuning in" to the "frequency" of the aesthetic, sort of letting the intuition ring in my body until I know it the way I know whether my clothes are comfortable or whether I'm in love.

My personal experience is that this practice and that of cultivating inner silence synergize. The more deeply I come from inner silence, the easier it is to notice and stay with any aesthetic. And the more I attend to the aesthetic of emptiness, the deeper my rooting in silence grows.

My impression is that these two work in tandem to help cultivate the Virtue of the Void.

 

Devotion to Truth

But there's still one piece of that Virtue to emphasize:

Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement.

I sort of want to bold and underline "Every" there. Every step. Every single one. Each breath, each moment, fully devoted to truth.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) has a wonderful example of this. In the BJJ dojos I've visited, there's a very powerful embodied empirical attitude. If someone comes in with a theory about how it'd be easy to slip out of thus-and-such position, the typical answer is "Show me." No philosophy. No discussion. Just an honest "Let's try it and see what happens."

Every step comes under scrutiny via the question "What's actually real here?" Once you know what to try, every word uttered after that point is wasted breath because it doesn't cut through to the truth. The direction of truth here is action.

I posit that this is why BJJ is so much more effective as a fighting style than nearly every other martial art. They train under pressure, with fully resisting opponents, in order to learn what works under pressure with fully resisting opponents. That cuts directly toward the correct answer in a way that lengthy theoretical debates or practicing on non-resisting opponents just can't.

It's tempting to see BJJ's success and put together some kind of rule, like "Seek a practical test ASAP."

I think this is maybe a little helpful. It's something like an embodied version of the Virtue of Empiricism.

…but I think it mostly misses the point. It's seeking to add mental noise without checking why. It doesn't define the Art.

The question is, if you're going to add noise, what is it in service to? Does it move you toward truth, or away from it? Does it cause you to see more, or less — the way vision from the Void sees vastly and clearly compared to vision from within thought?

I mean this at very micro levels. In a conversation, sometimes I'll feel myself itching to inject my perspective, seeking a gap in the other's speech so I can blurt out my "Yeah, but…". To hold that itch, I have to care more about saying my piece than I do about listening. But if I enter the Void and silently ask myself "What moves me closer to truth here?", almost every time the answer is to let go and listen. I know my thought already, but getting wrapped up in needing the other person to hear me can cause my mind to contract and leave me subtly confused.

…and sometimes I end up saying my piece after they finish anyway. But it's coming from having listened, and from seeing how the act of speaking it helps me see more clearly.

(And sometimes I stop waiting and just cut right in with what I have to say. Because if the other person's speech is actually that irrelevant to my understanding, then there's no point in my listening to them. I'd be serving social politeness or maybe even fawning instead of truth.)

What would it be like to have every single breath devoted to cutting through this way? Not one single step taken away from truth, ever?

Well, honestly, it might be kind of terrifying. What if you realize that in fact, you and your partner aren't really compatible, and you've been kind of ignoring that fact to keep the semi-comfortable status quo? If you care more about your relationship than you do about deepening your devotion to truth, you might never really look.

…which means that even if there is no trouble brewing underneath, you don't get to know that either. Because you aren't willing to look.

So how do you face the specters, known and unknown?

How do you devote yourself to truth so deeply that literally nothing can deter you, even for a moment, even for the other things you hold dear?

You practice.

You devote to truth again and again.

Standing in the Void, aiming for the true thing and not the non-thing, you look.

"Why am I saying these words?"

"What is this thought serving?"

"Is looking at this website in this moment moving me closer to truth? Or is it obscuring and distracting me from truth?"

This is truly a devotional practice. You are entrusting your heart to reality itself. You're choosing to leave every fiction, no matter how precious or wonderful or meaningful, in favor of contact with reality. And you're developing the skill of making that choice, again and again, and of letting every part of you that resists this process fully die.

…even if it feels on the inside like what dies is you.

 

(And Maybe Other Ingredients Too)

Of course, there's probably more. I didn't intend this to be exhaustive. I'm trying to name an intuition.

It's particularly a bit silly to be talking about the Beisutsukai when the word literally means to be Japanese for "those who use Bayes", and from what I can tell this vision of the Art doesn't require its practitioner to ever know about Bayes' Theorem, let alone practice using it.

I haven't named any of the core common material usually thought to be part of rationality, like probability calibration and awareness of biases.

I also haven't re-combed through the Sequences to see if I've maybe missed something I can sense in Eliezer's vision.

I didn't even reread the Beisutsukai fiction!

But I suspect that what I've described here forms a kind of three-part synergistic engine that will rederive the need for the rest of the Art precisely to the degree that it's relevant.

It's a bit like trying to name the kernel of an operating system. In the case of rationality, I'm pretty clear that the "kernel" is the Virtue of the Void.

If for many years you practice the techniques and submit yourself to strict constraints, it may be that you will glimpse the center. Then you will see how all techniques are one technique, and you will move correctly without feeling constrained. Musashi wrote: “When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally. All this is the Way of the Void.”

And if I'm wrong about any or all of that…

…well…

…then do the thing and not the non-thing.

 

Creating a Rationality Dojo

But for now, I'll pretend this is the thing to paint a picture. I'd like to offer a semi-concrete vision of how I'd go about developing a rationality dojo these days.

I actually tried to run a rationality dojo about six years ago. It went roughly weekly for something like a year based at the CFAR office. It wasn't anything to crow about, but I did learn from it. Looking back, the single biggest mistake I'd point to was trying to teach something I wasn't embodying. It was more like a study group where I'd sometimes share strange ideas. I don't think anyone there moved meaningfully toward becoming truly formidable master Beisutsukai as a result of attending those sessions.

Since then I've really taken seriously how important it is to embody first, and to teach to embodiment.

(…at least for me as a teacher, and for the students I've taken on since then.)

With that, the plan is pretty simple and would work pretty much the same whether I or others would create a rationality dojo:

  1. Embody the Art, for real.
  2. Use the embodiment to define and hold the dojo space.

 

Becoming the Art

The main thing here is to become a dedicated student of the Art. Which is to say, for-real internalizing those three core components (the Void, doing the thing, & devoting to truth) plus whatever they end up inspiring in you.

And the third of that trio means you can't train in the Art in order to teach it or in order to save the world. You might start out that way, but that's part of what the Art will demand you purify in order to progress beyond a certain point. For this to work, you have to become serious enough that you're willing to drop the idea of the dojo if running it would move you away from truth. If the idea survives the crucible of your devotion, then you can proceed.

…but not before.

To get there, I recommend four steps in sequence:

 

(1) Learn to soothe your body

This might seem like a non sequitur, and it might well be the opposite advice from what some folk need to hear. But based on my own experience, and on my handful of students, this is quite critical for a lot of people — possibly most.

The gist is that if your body is chronically activated and you don't learn how to calm it down yourself, you won't find that inner silence simply by trying. Your body will inspire too much noise and movement. Later, after you've anchored in nothingness deeply enough, agitation won't distract you anymore. But getting there at first can be a little tricky, and it's much easier with a calm body.

The best resource I know of for this is Luis Mojica's podcast "Holistic Life Navigation". I especially recommend episodes 2 (on "fawning"), 4 ("Trauma is Our Birthright"), and 10 ("Finding Safety In Yourself"). If you're up for listening to only one, I recommend the last of these three. Finding and developing somatic safety is core for moving into the Art as I see it.

 

(2) Deepen your contact with the Void

Once you have some kind of handle on how to soothe and settle your body…

…stop.

It really is that simple. Just stop.

Stop moving. Stop doing. Stop listening to your thoughts. Just for a little while.

Just listen instead to the quality of silence.

Sit down, be still, and listen.

You are drunk

and this is

the edge of the roof.

—Rumi

You know the feeling of relief that happens when you're in a very loud environment and then step into another room and… aaahhhh. Sweet, sweet nothing. Yes? That's what you're looking for. Look there.

At first you might find it helpful to go somewhere that inspires this quality for you. A silent room, or a remote hilltop overlooking an expansive vista. Then just listen to the silence. Deepen your familiarity with it. Notice your boredom with it, your attempts to fill it, as though noise is all that matters… forgetting the ease and relief you know you feel in the stillness. Just keep pointing your attention at the emptiness.

I found that after a while of this deepening, I stopped needing the environment to be any special way. The silence is everywhere. It's in the gap between thoughts. It's around and behind every sensation. Just like underneath all the clutter on a desk, there's a desk, and without the clutter the desk would be spacious.

Then I started finding that I could drop into emptiness even in conversation — if I tried. And at first trying required a lot of dedication. But there's something immensely freeing about noticing that what I'm doing in a conversation doesn't make sense and just… stopping. Really taking in the truth that clearing the inner noise matters far, far more than whatever crazy thing I was just doing, and letting the mad impulse die.

My impression is that this takes way longer to cultivate than most minds find reasonable. Minds addicted to noise and sensation want fast results. When you can see clearly from the Void, I'm pretty sure you'll see why this is. (It's basically because fast results are sensational, and judgment of slow results is sensational, and addicted minds really super like the distraction that this kind of sensation provides.)

But I'm pretty sure there's no magic trick.

It just takes time choosing, over and over again, to be with the silence.

Giving yourself deep permission simply to be.

 

(3) Learn to notice and leave the Drama Triangle

After you start being able to drop your reactions mid-conversation into the Void, I recommend reading Lynne Forrest's article "The Three Faces of Victim". Or alternatively, read it before then, but return to it as emptiness starts really clicking for you.

These Drama Triangle patterns are everywhere. Utterly everywhere. They entangle people's noise with each other. So if you don't learn how to notice when you're operating in the Triangle and leave it, others can (and usually will) flood your mind with their own confusion. It's crabs-in-a-bucket for madness.

Fortunately, once you see these patterns, you can become immune to them — at least in the limit. You can learn to be anti-fragile to others' attempts to manipulate you.

One key here is to go beyond the intellectual understanding. Can you see yourself in Forrest's article? Can you see how you play each of the three roles? When, precisely? What exactly did it feel like in your body in specific instances? What thoughts would go through your mind? Can you see how you inspire Drama Triangle reactions in others? And how you respond to others' invitations to enter the Triangle with them?

You know it has landed when you start noticing yourself enacting the patterns as they happen in real time.

That's when you pause. This is where that Void skill you've hopefully developed comes in super handy. Drop your share of the Triangle pattern into the silence and watch it unravel, leaving nothing but simple presence.

A note of warning: If you start succeeding at this, you might start having good boundaries… and lots of (most?) people find real boundaries painful to encounter and might try to make you wrong for having them. One reason is that "caring" and "connection" are usually taken to mean a particular type of Drama Triangle dynamic, usually with at least one person playing the role of Rescuer. But that's not real connection, and that'll be incredibly transparent to you the more deeply you free yourself of the Triangle and devote yourself to truth. But still, when you drop that Triangle game, it can feel to others like you are unwilling to play with them at all. Like you don't care.

To attain truly unassailable clarity, you need to become completely emotionally fine with people misunderstanding you this way. Not numbing or ignoring your feeling response to it, but actually okay with it. It might still hurt, but if you can hold yourself through your own emotional pain (see "Learn to soothe your body" above) then their bids to flood your mind with madness will stop having power.

 

(4) Embody the Art's aesthetic

I've worked a lot with the above three steps, and I've done this fourth step quite a lot with other aesthetics. So I'll end up being very slightly more hypothetical for this part, although I'm still speaking from a not irrelevant amount of experience here.

This is about embodying the "Do the thing and not the non-thing" step. Anti-Goodhart. Which is to say, making yourself immune (in the limit) to distractions from the guiding intuition of the Art.

The main strategy here is to make the aesthetic extremely blazingly clear in your body, mind, and heart. The act of doing this will reveal many of the things that try to distract you from it, and you'll get practice countering those distractions.

To point at the thing: There's a certain flavor to the sense that more is possible, and to the Beisutsukai. They act sort of like handles for… something. A felt sense. A hint that inspired me to notice these three core possible practice-qualities (Void, doing the thing, & devotion to truth). An intuition that's a better match for mid 20th century sci-fi novels than it is for, say, the Twilight Saga.

That feels like a specific thing in my body. As I write this, I feel it as a kind of hungry ache in my heart, and a sort of want-to-raise tingle across my shoulders and outer arms, and a slight pressure forward in my head. My body wears this energy.

(This is already pretty advanced, to be honest. My experience is that most people who start amplifying an aesthetic this way can barely tell at first whether they're finding it in their bodies. Part of that is because of weak Void skill, part of it is difficulty staying with their body sensations, and part is just not having spent enough time with the feeling for it to be loud and clear for them. Fortunately, simply trying usually seems to resolve this after a while.)

If you do this kind of "tuning in" for yourself, and you just spend time with it the same kind of way you spend time with the Void, a clear sort of knowing will start to settle in. You'll start to get why the aesthetic is the way it is, which can inspire insights about how you can train yourself to see reality more clearly.

(This is a natural extension of the sort of thing that tells me that, say, Ron from "Harry Potter" most definitely is not a Beisutsuka — but Quirrell from HPMOR pretty much is. And I know that before thinking about why. I'm just focusing on the essence of this intuition, which starts picking out the details of why I care. It just very often "speaks" in the voice of intuition or the Void, not conscious models.)

For some reason I don't really understand, there's usually a "clunk" where an aesthetic makes sense and just is available thereafter. It's a fair bit like the "clunk" that happens from suddenly realizing how to solve a challenging math or programming problem. Hopefully you will have spent enough time with the Void to experience it there; if so, you'll know exactly what to look for. That's the minimal bar you're going after.

Once that happens, you'll sort of… know what to do. I have a little trouble knowing how to describe this clearly. You'll get something about why the aesthetic has value for you, and you'll have a clear sense of what to try next in order to deepen that value in yourself. It's a subtle intuitive thing, not made of mental models at all, but prior to them. Much closer to the Void than thought.

(I normally find it a convenient shortcut at this point to switch to Mythic Mode and imagine that I'm dialoguing with a god or spirit whom I'm taking as my teacher. But I sort of suspect that this aesthetic in particular would object to being thought of that way!)

From that point on, it's much easier to choose to do the thing instead of getting distracted with ideas about the thing. You'll have an exquisitely honed bullshit detector for things that masquerade as attempts at the Art that are actually ego-based distractions (like wanting to look smart or feel important). This is key for identifying how to train yourself. It's from here that you feel out how to devote to truth, for instance.

This is also a must for running a transformative rationality dojo. I'll gesture a little at why later, but I don't mean to issue a persuasive argument. I'm just letting you know in case you can hear me across the information asymmetry: If you try to skip or shortcut this step and put some kind of dojo together anyway, I'm pretty darn sure you won't get Beisutsukai — not unless you go back and remediate and tear down everything you'd built that doesn't fit. It's actually much faster and more sure to just spend the time to get these four steps right first.

 

Founding the Dojo

It's a little tricky to predict what someone who groks the Art's aesthetic would choose to do without my groking it myself. In particular, it's unclear whether and exactly how a given person would create a rationality dojo as part of their own training. Founding a dojo isn't for everyone.

However, if they were to, I can predict some of what would have to go into that.

 

Teaching by embodiment, not instruction

I already hinted at the starting point, but it bears emphasizing. It's an easy thing to forget — which is actually a feature, not a bug.

The sensei cannot have their primary aim be to teach. Their primary aim must be to master the Art. A rationality sensei worth learning from is someone whose devotion to truth guides them to lead a dojo, and who would abandon the dojo the moment it's true for them to do so. This way it's their devotion to the Art that teaches, not their ego.

Suppose a student stumbles but doesn't recognize it (like completely missing an obvious selection bias in a proposed experiment). If the sensei is attached to teaching effectively, then their impulse will be to manipulate the student into doing something different, often sliding into the Drama Triangle or weaponizing authority. That might help the student fix that mistake, but it also makes the student a little more reliant on the sensei to notice mistakes like that one. And the example the sensei will have just enacted isn't pristine.

But if the sensei sees the mistake and their first urge is toward "How can my seeing this move me closer to truth?", they are more likely to see the whole picture. Then the question of how to cause the student to understand isn't in service to their pride as a teacher. It's instead a training ground for the sensei. Often, just letting the student make their mistake and then asking the right question later on ("What do you predict happens in these cases over here then? Shall we look?") can cause the student to notice their blunder in a much more integrated way.

The challenge here is that student success is a metric for the sensei's developing skill… which offers a temptation to subtly Goodhart. So part of the sensei's practice is about perfecting their immunity to Goodharting — here and ideally in general. They need to keep checking their progress based on how their students are doing while never targeting that as a goal.

That's why I say it's a feature, not a bug, that it can be easy to forget all this. The act of running a rationality dojo this way is itself a significant challenge for some devotees of the Art. The students learn almost incidentally as the sensei forges themselves against those students' learning processes.

This gives room for the dojo culture to have impeccable integrity.

 

Holding an aesthetic space

Once the devotee is very, very clear with themselves that the next phase of their own training includes running a rationality dojo, their next step would be to define and hold a space that lets the aesthetic of the Art saturate the students.

I think of walking into a cathedral. Its vast ceilings and rich iconography and stony silence has a kind of impact on me. I find myself wanting to walk slowly, respectfully. I speak in hushed tones or not at all. Whatever I might think about religion and the staleness of Mass and the economic forces that created the building, I cannot deny the power that this space has on me simply by my being in it. I feel reverence.

Online spaces can have this kind of "feel" impact too. A lot of work went into Less Wrong 2.0 to create a particular sort of atmosphere. It's not primarily by visual impact upon visiting lesswrong.com, but there's still a guiding aesthetic. Part of learning what kind of comments and posts to put here and where is based on getting intuitively familiar with that aesthetic. If something deviates too much from it, the moderators step in to correct or remove it because the alternative is culture decay.

By way of contrast, rebooting Less Wrong culture absolutely would not have worked on Twitter. Dramatically different vibe, and the tech neither allows the kind of in-depth comments that LW thrives on nor (as far as I know) permits the kind of moderator powers needed to enforce communal boundaries.

A would-be Beisutsu sensei needs to create and hold a space this kind of way based on (their embodiment of) the Art's aesthetic. Well, "need" might be a strong word, but their task would become unreasonably hard if they were to skip this part.

Part of the key here is to let the aesthetic lead. Should it be an email group? A Mighty Network? A Slack or Discord? Maybe it should have more of a secret society vibe where faceless members interact only via unique aliases. Or perhaps (pandemic nonwithstanding) it should be a physical space, maybe with a dedicated room or building, or perhaps as a small group that gathers at coded times now and then in speakeasies at midnight.

If the aspirant sensei starts by coming up with a plan for teaching, and then figures out the medium based on what would work well for the curriculum, and then tries to fill the whole thing with the Art's aesthetic via banners and colors and the like…

…well, it won't work. I promise. Maybe a little at first, but it'll whither and fade. And the sensei will probably find it exhausting along the way. Speaking from a fair amount of experience and observation here.

If they let the aesthetic lead instead, pragmatics be damned, then what emerges will be good and beautiful and right.

And it will attract the right kind of people.

This naturally saturates the space with the sensei's embodiment of the aesthetic. The dojo truly becomes an extension of their practice. Just being there will tend to guide the students in the right direction.

This saves the sensei a lot of energy by encouraging a kind of collective cutting straight toward the truth.

I also bet it'd just be way more awesome.

 

Pressure-testing in the Art

As to the content of each session, I can only make some educated guesses. I'd be quite surprised if Void meditations weren't a natural part of basically every session, and I suspect some kind of practice about seeking things to sacrifice on the altar of truth would be good and right. (For instance, Void-focusing on a prompt like "What's something I know is or might be true but I'm avoiding fully acknowledging?" and following up with "What is precious to me here that I would be risking by looking?")

But I'm reasonably sure the Art will ask for pressure tests.

By "pressure test", I mean the kind of thing where in BJJ they take their theories to the mat against a fully resisting opponent. It's why MMA works in 1-on-1 fights while Aikido doesn't. It's a flavor of empiricism that strives to marry truth and action.

(This is a distant intuition, but it seems worth adding here: My guess is that the classical LW rationalist focus on making predictions to test models makes the Art too mental and slow. It's a correct analytic description of the process from the outside, but from the inside I'm guessing it feels more like moving decisively in a chosen direction with a clear and attentive mind. The "predictions" arise the same way I "predict" that typing on these keys will write these words on the screen, and the "empirical tests" come from interacting with reality.)

What would pressure-testing in the context of rationality look like?

Well, honestly, I don't yet know.

I have a few bad examples that don't strike me as entirely wrong, so to vaguely gesture in the kind of direction I'm intuiting but dissatisfied with:

  • In one story of Eliezer's fictional Beisutsukai, the students received a challenge to invent quantum gravity in one month.
  • Years ago when I ran rationality dojos, I once issued a challenge of roughly this type. I warned them ahead of time to prepare and gave them some general parameters but wouldn't tell them what the challenge was beforehand. When they arrived, I handed them a paper describing the challenge: "You will have one hour to sustainably 80/20-boost the expected vitality of every attendee of tonight’s session."
  • I could imagine students of the actual rationality dojo showing up one day and finding instructions to (say) build a monkey bridge in a certain plot of land in three hours. They'd need to manage their physical & mental endurance and team morale, find out how it's constructed, learn what supplies they need, get those supplies, and actually put the thing together.
This is a monkey bridge.
  • Less adrenalin-based might be "Build and sell a house." Very practical across a wide swath of real skills, from carpentry to law to marketing. I'm not at all sure how to define the test part… but it seems to me obvious that most houses get built absurdly slowly, so getting it built both right and fast would be quite something.
  • Arguing with one of those street preachers, like I at least used to see on college campuses pretty often, strikes me as maybe promising. Stupid and pointless, yes, but if we ignore that for a moment… those preachers work with a kind of script that's largely meant to hook people into debating them. What kind of clarity would you need to not feel hooked, but walk into the trap anyway, and still navigate it skillfully? You'd need to real-time learn the actual structure of the preacher's mental program and identify what conversational moves would actually jam his mental code — not just what's illogical about the content of his words. And you'd need to real-time notice every time you lost even a hint of clarity and got sucked the slightest bit into the rhythms of the hypnotic tirade. This strikes me as quite a bit like BJJ rolling for the mind.

Ideally, very early in their training the aspirant sensei would figure out and enact good pressure tests for themselves. I'm guessing this is one of the first things the Art would ask of them, not long after the aesthetic "clunks" (although maybe after scouring their mind for things to sacrifice on the altar of truth). Through a lot of trial and error they'd get a lot of experience about what works and why, and what doesn't work and why. That would form a very practical basis for coming up with challenges for their students.

Although maybe in the course of doing so they discover that coming up with these tests is actually key for developing the right kind of mastery. In which case the sensei might focus on issuing well-informed meta-challenges: "Ah, you think that more calibration will help you avoid making this kind of mistake again? How might you ask reality if you're right?"

At this point, though, I'm just speculating. The truth would emerge from a level of expertise here that's well beyond my own — and possibly well beyond what has yet been created.



Discuss

Book Review: Denial of Death

14 октября, 2021 - 07:28
Published on October 14, 2021 4:28 AM GMT

Denial of Death is the 1973 summation of anthropologist Ernest Becker's life's work studying human nature, building upon the work of the great psychologists of the 20th Century. It basically aims to be a grand unifying theory of psychology, and against all odds it kind of succeeds.

I came across DoD on a forum under the topic, "books that drastically changed your life," or something like that. Since then I've only encountered a few other references to this book in my life, coming from quite different types of people but all glowing. There was the late, great Norm Macdonald, a brilliant comedian known for his esoteric disposition and his ability to create humor out of anything—he references the book as pretty important to his worldview. There's my yogi friend who's very into intuition and spirituality and swears by it as a way to understand herself. And there's me—analytical, materialist—who has also found tremendous value in it. I hope you will, too.

TL;DR

Becker's thesis is that humans have a paradoxical dual nature (divine vs. animal), the tension of which causes us to experience psychological terror. The presence of that terror makes us “partialize” the world by embedding ourselves within relatively safe pockets of it—we set up a game-within-the-game to play. This lets us pursue our "heroic" projects without having to face the scary limitations and risks that come with our animal nature. The pockets we hide ourselves in include the behaviors and thoughts we adhere to, so all psychological neuroses as well as "normal" human character are contextualized as various responses to a deep fear of that animal nature. This context gives us a new schema for understanding neurosis, mental health, personality, etc.

I promise that this book is not all fluffy academic jargon. This is a book that's heavy with new concepts, but all of the above are meant to pertain to concrete things that you and I experience.

If there's a call to action to be gleaned from this, it's something like: You should seek to take in more of life, more chaos, but without destroying yourself. And you shouldn't judge or condemn people who live simple lives or rely on blatant repressions—their experience is as heroic as yours.

Context of the work

Cultural Anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote this Pulitzer Prize-winning book at the end of a long career as an anthropology professor. Published in 1973, this book spoke to one consequence of the emerging secular pluralism in American society: the old structures of meaning were losing their relevance, and their replacements were being found inadequate. Becker explores the psychological needs and weaknesses that appear in the absence of trusted grand narratives, elegantly tying them all back to a primal fear of physical death and a need to achieve symbolic immortality through actions that are universally worthwhile.

What you'll enjoy

One of the first things a reader will notice is that this work is way more ambitious than anything we associate with the word "psychology" today. Thinkers who are vexed and disappointed with modern psychology—the endless parade of tiny particular claims seemingly made for no reason other than to get papers published, only to fail replication a couple years later—can fully indulge in something which is far on the other side of the spectrum. There's almost a taboo fascination reading something whose claims are so far-reaching. I'm not exaggerating when I say this book aims to be a Grand Unifying Theory of human psychology. If that sounds familiar to you, let me confirm that yes, Becker writes extensively about Sigmund Freud and his ideas. While conceding that much of it was wrong and that Freud lived in what we'd call a happy death spiral of his theories, Becker asserts that Freud was on to something. But the end product is far different from Freud's work.

Does it succeed at that? It's complicated. If I hadn't read the book, I'd primarily be wondering, "Ok, psychology is a science; does this book give me any scientific models that have more predictive power than the models I'm currently using?" I think the answer is, "Yes, slightly, with caveats," but that's not where the real value comes from. This work really shines as a way to simplify and unify many psychology concepts that you already know (and maybe a few more). A theory which predicts all the same facts while being much simpler than the standard theory, is a better theory. 

I see the main thesis of this book as a kind of alternative coordinate systemyou could describe modern psychology as painstakingly trying to describe a spiral shape in cartesian coordinates, and then along comes the polar coordinate system where it's trivially easy.

The system of ideas described in this book have become fundamental to how I understand myself, others, and culture at large. It is a really elegant system.

The other thing I deeply appreciate about the book is what it doesn't say about death. This is not another new-age just-so solution to the terror of the human condition. It doesn't tell you to "meditate on death so you can grow to accept it" or "kill your ego and be one with the universe." It also doesn't tell you, like the Greek philosophers would've, that after a life virtuously lived you should be able to greet death with satisfaction. I think this community largely rejects those lines of thought in favor of the view, carried by EY in his writings, that no, death is actually really bad, and viewing it as anything else is a coping mechanism.

This book pulls no punches and does not really prescribe a solution. Readers should keep the Litany of Gendlin in mind: If the book's thesis is true, then you are already living under these conditions; knowing about them can't hurt you further. And in this case I think readers will find themselves much better armed to understand themselves, others, and society, and therefore more easily effect marginal change for the better.

What you'll dislike

This isn't an easy read. That's partly because Becker's style borders on cryptic academic jargon at times (though it could definitely have been worse, and as concepts click into place, old passages become more clear). It's also because the subject matter is heavy. A given paragraph could be making implications about every decisions you've ever made up to this point in your life. I found that a lot of reflection time was needed, and I took a ~6-month break in between reading the first and second halves.

Two other complaints I have are that the order of chapters is kind of dizzying (more on that below) and that there is more content about Freud than most readers will really care about.

About this outline

My outline of this book is long because the book covers such a breadth of topics. I've left the more important sections long and tried to cut down the others. I've also switched up the chapter order to present the concepts in a more learnable way—you'll thank me for this. The way Becker organized this book is not optimal for learning the concepts, because he also aims to do a kind of sequential look through Freud, his students Carl Jung and Otto Rank, and some other psychologists and philosophers. I often had the experience of, "Ok, this concept is exactly the same as that earlier one, but with a new perspective." I think the value of this book is in the concepts that are laid out and not in how they originally evolved from Freud's psychoanalytic theory.

Another way to save time would be to skip the quotes (there are a lot, though they are quite poetic). I've summarized what I felt were the most important points in my own words. I also point out where the quotes belong to other psychologists, presented by Becker; he does this fairly often. 

Chapter 1 - Introduction: human nature and the heroic

The gist of this chapter is that humans need to engage in some kind of heroism in their lives. Replace "heroism" with "meaning" or "purpose" and it all basically matches Becker's point. This is a key concept throughout the book. 

Then we land on "cultural heroics": When we're unsure what kind of heroism really matters, or afraid to do the heroism we think matters, we settle for culturally-sanctioned hero projects. We defer to our culture to decide what is meaningful:

  • "It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning."
  • "Human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders."
     
Chapter 2 - The terror of death

"The revival of interest in death, in the last few decades, has alone already piled up a formidable literature, and this literature does not point in any single direction." Becker describes two common schools of thought with regard to the fear of death:

  • Healthy-minded argument: fear of death can and should be overcome
    • "From this point of view, fear of death is something that society creates and at the same time uses against the person to keep him in submission."
  • Morbidly-minded argument: fear of death is innate
    • "That nevertheless the fear of death is natural and is present in everyone" … “the worm at the core”

Becker buys into the morbidly-minded argument: fear of death comes with the territory of being human. He points out that this aligns with the need for self-preservation, so it makes sense in light of evolution. Yes, some will claim they lack this fear, but Becker attributes this to a successful repression: “[From Zilboorg:] A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day...and he does not care to bother about it - but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.” 

William James, Sigmund Freud, and Freud's students also took this view. 

Childhood terror

Becker argues that we all encounter tremendous fear as children when we come to understand our own mortality. He focuses not so much on the single fact of knowing you're going to die, but more on the surrounding facts: all the ways your physical body determines and limits your experience. "I think it is important to show the painful contradictions that must be present in it at least some of the time and to show how fantastic a world it surely is for the first few years of the child’s life."

The argument goes: a child observes that he does not always have control over his immediate environment. He seeks to understand how the whole system works, but it's extremely complicated to him. Yelling and crying works, except sometimes when it doesn't. Speaking works, except when mysterious "reasons" and "circumstances" unexpectedly break his model. A little later on, he learns that not only is he contingent on unpredictable physical systems, but the parts of that system on which he's most contingent (his parents) are equally contingent themselves.

It's hard for me to disagree with this setup when 1) I try to imagine the stress of having my priors obliterated as frequently as a child's are, and 2) I recall instances where I've witnessed people experience extreme terror, and nearly all of them are children.

Maturation and the “disappearance” of the terror

As we become adults we stop experiencing such panic. One would assume it's because we figure out how the world works. Becker sort of flips this around: part of the work we do in that process is to shrink our world into something that we can easily figure out.

  • "Man cuts out for himself a manageable world: he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly. He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn’t bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does. He uses all kinds of techniques, which we call the "character defenses": he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out; he learns to embed himself in other-power, both of concrete persons and of things and cultural commands; the result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him."

Much more on this later.
 

The Nature of morbid terror

Here, Becker gives a philosophical embellishment to that kind of terror. He describes it as "Man's dual nature": Humans are animal, but we are the only animal that knows it is mortal. This gives rise to aspirations of divinity, says Becker. We know what it means to be powerless, so we imagine having infinite power. We know what it means to expire, so we imagine living forever. We care about right and wrong, but not just so we can cooperate with our peers; we want to take "right" and impose it on the entire universe, despite being physically incapable of doing that.

  • “He is half animal and half symbolic...This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it...He sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever."
     
Chapter 4 - Human character as a vital lie

This chapter is further elaboration on the "character defenses" mentioned in the quote above.

"The Jonah Syndrome [from Maslow], then, seen from this basic point of view, is "partly a justified fear of being torn apart, of losing control, of being shattered and disintegrated, even of being killed by the experience." And the result of this syndrome is what we would expect a weak organism to do: to cut back the full intensity of life."

Becker claims that we shy away from life, in so many ways, in order to avoid the dangers it contains. This is not just a physical shying away (i.e. staying near the campfire), it is also experiential shying away: We cannot think too much about the vast field of possible experiences before us, because it is overwhelming. "Most of us—by the time we leave childhood—have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation."

Personally, I've noticed this kind of thing as I continue to grow without (currently) any major life commitments. There are a lot more possible lives that I could go live. Very different, numerous possible lives. Should I retire to a farm when I've saved enough? Should I find a way to live in Europe for a year? Should I do the big city rat race until I'm 40? Should I be more involved politically? And on what issue? Should I get really into meditation?

And then a part of me would say, "No, you don't like farms. No, your career goals aren't in Europe," but according to Becker that is exactly the repressive tool of "human character" rearing its head—that somehow I am incompatible with every possible lifestyle except the one I'm currently in. I make decisions according to expected utility, but couldn't by utility function be changed by a few more formative experiences? What if I'd have the same tastes as the world's most satisfied farmer, and the only way to realize it is to go through the trouble of "switching lanes" and trying it? These are the questions we protect ourselves from asking. They are debilitating if we ask them too often.

The fear of life

Becker describes the "Fear of life" as the following:

  • "[Mankind is] an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world...an animal completely open to experience. Not only in front of his nose, in his umwelt, but in many other umwelten. He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species. He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes."

I'm not sure it's a useful label because, as he goes on to explain, it's not really different from the fear of death, just another aspect of it. We "fear life" in the sense that we fear being totally open to experience, because the scope and depth of our experiences threaten to overwhelm us and make us lose ourselves. And the only reason that's bad, really, is because in our lost, ungrounded state we might actually lose control of our physical environment and thus lose our lives—our very ability to experience anything. It's a perverse deal: infinite possible experiences, but if you reach for them all with abandon, you'll lose everything pretty quickly.

I hope I'm not being too woo/conceptual here. Becker references the schizophrenic homeless person who is fully engaged in some set of ideas that are extremely interesting to him, even as his physical body suffers. Or, think of a high-openness teenager who gets a bit too excited about the idea of leaving her small town, so she travels across the world to "find herself," and gets robbed on the first day of her trip, putting her in serious danger. Or the risk-averse nerdy guy who decides to subvert his character for one night and try psychedelics, and then ends up on a bad trip and tries to harm himself.

Yet, it is possible to spend days in heady thought without becoming homeless. It is possible to get across the world from your small town in less than a day and have a really great time over there. It's possible psychedelics could permanently make you a happier person. What Becker calls the "character lie" is that which says, "You just don't do things like that." The character lie is based on one's native culture and one's peers: it's what is "normal." And it's a lie, because there are so many other "normals" one could have if one wanted to.

Becker defines psychoanalysis as the study of this self-limitation (the character lie) and its cost.

Chapter 7 - The spell cast by persons - the nexus of unfreedom

Here we get into a more complex kind of repression that people employ. Becker borrows and reframes a concept from Freud—transference. In Becker's framing, transference is when we find some comfortable Other and make it stand in for the entire universe for us. He gives two types, but later explains that "transference" and "the character lie" are not really different things—they are different ways of embedding ourselves into safe systems and using "borrowed powers" to face our world without fear.

Group leaders

People use their authorities as transference objects: The leader represents the world to us, and represents our concerns to the world. All will be okay as long as we obey the leader. And if it's not okay, that will be the leader's fault, and they will atone to the rest of the universe for it on our behalf.

  • "He blows the physician up larger than life just as the child sees the parents. He becomes as dependent on him, draws protection and power from him just as the child merges his destiny with the parents, and so on. In the transference we see the grown person as a child at heart, a child who distorts the world to relieve his helplessness and fears"
  • "The part of the father is transferred to teachers, superiors, impressive personalities; the submissive loyalty to rulers that is so wide-spread is also a transference of this sort."
     

Becker moves on to what happens when this transference becomes too complete:

  • Leaders can sanction taboo behaviors, and people will indulge without responsibility. "This, then, is another thing that makes people feel so guiltless, as Canetti points out: they can imagine themselves as temporary victims of the leader."
  • The leader can then use this “suspended guilt" to bind them closer to him. If they leave his domain, they are subject to outside judgment for their acts.
  • And that's how we get cults. "We are faced with the even more astonishing conclusion that homicidal communities like the Manson "family" are not really devoid of basic humanness. What makes them so terrible is that they exaggerate the dispositions present in us all."

Becker also points out an interesting dynamic in leadership that I'd never considered before. The transference actually goes the other way, too. The leader uses his following as a stand-in for the universe. If he can control the group and be a hero in the eyes of the group, then he believes himself a hero who's in control, period.

  • The group he leads serves as a smaller, safer world for him to conquer: "He is not just a naturally and lustily destructive animal who lays waste around him because he feels omnipotent and impregnable. Rather, he is a trembling animal who pulls the world down around his shoulders as he clutches for protection and support and tries to affirm in a cowardly way his feeble powers."
  • "The qualities of the leader, then, and the problems of people fit together in a natural symbiosis."

Of course this kind of transference is doomed, because the leader doesn't actually have that kind of mastery over the universe: "When the leader dies the device that one has used to deny the terror of the world instantly breaks down; what is more natural, then, than to experience the very panic that has always threatened in the background?"

Relationships

Perhaps the most controversial part of Becker's thesis (but, I find, one of the most fascinating) is the idea that masculinity and femininity are different sides of the transference equation. His definitions of masculinity and femininity would seem narrow-minded if he prescribed them onto men and women respectively, but in fact he doesn't do this. Becker has lots to say about people who are playing the masculine role but doesn't prescribe anything for men. I'm going to do my best to summarize these terms as Becker uses them:

  • Masculinity is that which seeks to engage with chaos, conquer it, and bring it into oneself. It's Freud's concept of Eros. It's the heroism Becker referred to in Chapter 1, and it's the urge to stick out from one's context and be an individual force in the world. Ultimately, the masculine would like to remake the universe in its own image.
  • Femininity is that which seeks to find something stronger than oneself, endear oneself to it, and join it, providing some kind of value in exchange for protection and borrowed power. Ultimately, the feminine would like to merge and achieve perfect unity with the rest of the universe.

The reason I find this fascinating is because, in light of all this talk about borrowed powers and human fragility in a chaotic physical world, Becker has pointed out reasons for masculine and feminine behavior that go beyond reproductive success. I've been convinced (this is probably one of the most uncommon beliefs I hold) that even if humans were asexual, some of us would be more masculine and some would be more feminine, because these are two fundamental responses to chaos, and we tend to benefit from specializing in one or the other. 

We can see how this applies to the tension of wanting to stand out from one's culture as a hero vs. wanting to belong to the culture and enjoy its protection. It's less interesting to me that males do more of the former and females more of the latter, and more that we all do both, and we all have an ideal proportion of each (more on that later).

That being said, yes, we can look at the typical traditional heterosexual relationship and see this pattern of transference. He goes out into the world and "conquers" some of it; brings home value from it; protects her. She "belongs to" his house; helps him; relies on his protection. If it's really a traditional relationship, this protection goes beyond the physical: there are whole categories of worldly concerns that she doesn't have to bother with, because those are "his business." So long as she is a hero within his world (a "good wife"), she is good, period. Never mind the work she could be doing on cancer research, AI risk, etc.; the purpose of transference is to block those possibilities out. Likewise! He gets to play the hero for her. As long as he provides for her, he is generous (never mind the starving people elsewhere in the world). As long as he keeps her comfortable, he is a good steward of his domain (never mind climate change).

In this way both parties use the other to minimize the worlds in which they could act out their hero projects.

Beyonds

This is another big concept; if you take only one concept from this whole summary, it should be this one. For Becker, one's "beyond" is the lifestyle space one finds oneself in once transference happens. For the cult follower, it's the cult. For the strictly traditional couple, it's the household. For the middle-management careerist (Venkatesh Rao's "Clueless"), it's the company. It's the default place where one looks, when one looks "beyond oneself." It's what's "out there" for us—the (limited!) space in which to find some chaos and bring it into order.

Most people have more than one beyond, but not too many. Career, romantic relationship, hobby community, religious community, etc. Becker points out that there are tight beyonds and open beyonds, with the expected tradeoffs.

And Becker points out that people choose different beyonds for themselves, according to what appears to be a particular balance being sought. An obvious example: adolescents naturally start to experience more of that Eros/masculine drive to stand out and express themselves, so they move from smaller beyonds to larger: small town to big city, strict religion to open spirituality, biological family to loosely connected friend group.

  • "You can try to choose the fitting kind of beyond, the one in which you find it most natural to practice self-criticism and self-idealization."

A different example: Person A—shy, straight-A student, uncommitted career-wise—goes to grad school. They find themselves caring deeply about faculty drama, about recruiting new students to the program, and about being liked and respected by everyone there. They like the structure of adult education and find the prospect of graduating and moving on frightening. Person B—aggressive, ambitious, pragmatic—has a well defined career goal and needs grad school as a stepping stone. They don't bother to learn their classmates' names and only relate to the professors in order to secure useful future connections. They feel stifled and can't wait to graduate. Grad school is serving as a beyond for Person A but not Person B, and that's because of psychological differences that exist between them. 

We could say Person B requires a more open beyond than Person A at this point in their lives. Grad school is a tighter beyond than entrepreneurship: there are more rules, more bounds, and consequently lower risks. We could dare to say Person B is more masculine under Becker's definition. And, if we're intent on getting predictive power out of this model, we could say Person B is more likely to be male, more likely to care about personal physical strength, more likely to score low on Big-5 neuroticism, and the like (more interesting correlations in later sections).

Again, this probably isn't new predictive power, but the value is in the simplicity of the model.

  • "You can ask the question: What kind of beyond does this person try to expand in; and how much individuation does he achieve in it?" When I meet someone new, I want to know what their beyonds are, and this is much simpler than piecing together a list of "Cares about X in Y context but not in Z context; is generally uncomfortable in W context, etc."

Indulge me for a tiny bit of TV analysis (no spoilers). While I was reading this book I was watching Mad Men. I noticed that throughout the series, when Donald Draper would run into trouble with his romantic partner, he'd invest more in his career (and often shine). And when he was facing setbacks in his career, he'd invest in his relationship (to his partner's appreciation). It was an oscillation between two beyonds—heroism in one was needed to bury the failures in the other. And, both were too stringent on their own, otherwise he would've remained in one or the other for the long run, as other characters did. I found these ideas very useful for analyzing dynamics like that, especially in my own life.

Choice of beyonds

When your beyonds are too tight, you feel stifled, like "one of the crowd," and guilty for not living more true to yourself. When your beyonds are too loose, you feel overwhelmed and paralyzed with fear of failure.

Becker asserts that most people choose the "nearest" beyond to make their transference object: "Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, or the leader; they accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a "good provider" or a "solid" citizen. In this way they earn their species immortality as an agent of procreation, or a collective or cultural immortality as part of a social group of some kind."

Of course, all this helpful talk about finding beyonds that are just right is not a solution to the problem of morbid terror. That's because when you realize that the boundaries you've set up for yourself are arbitrary, the heroism you achieve within those bounds loses its meaning. You are a well liked and productive member of your team at work, but is this really the team that will best equip you to change the world the way you want to? Is this even the best company to do so? If not, your self-image flips from "office hero" to "coward hiding from their purpose."

I made this graphic to keep track of my own understanding of beyonds: how they span a spectrum between "tight" and "open." I noticed that the basic hero narrative could be thought of as taking little steps forward and back on this spectrum: confront a little more chaos than you're used to, then return to your comfort zone. There are some concepts here that show up in later chapters. I also included the concepts of "True Believers" and "Fanatics" from Eric Hoffer's The True Believer—more on that at the end.

Chapter 3 - the recasting of some basic psychoanalytic ideas.

Becker reinterprets a lot of Freud's ideas (anality, Oedipal complex, penis envy) within an existential context. "Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality." I think much of it is still a stretch, just as I think about Freud's original descriptions. Becker does a better job of making us see this "primary repression" in everyday life in his later examples, so I will skip over Freud's subject matter.

Chapter 6 - The problem of Freud’s character, Noch Einmal

This chapter is about how and why Freud was wrong in his attempted grand unifying theory. There is a lot of analysis about what Freud believed and what he feared at different points in his career, and how those pressures might have driven his research toward the direction of superstition. I don't think it's worth elaborating on here, but scholars of Freud would get a lot out of it. I think this chapter made more sense in the 1970s when Freud's work was more culturally relevant. 

Chapter 5 - The psychoanalyst Kierkegaard

It gave me quite a surprise to learn that the Christian Theologian Søren Kierkegaard has a whole chapter dedicated to him in this neo-Freudian book about death. Becker found that Kierkegaard, when writing about human character and behavior, landed squarely on some of the ideas above. He pulls content mainly from The Concept of Dread and The Sickness Unto Death.

This chapter starts Becker's look into neuroses (mental illnesses). He mostly takes a back seat and channels Kierkegaard's own concepts, adding on to them later. A core idea here is that the nature of the neurosis is a matter of how a person relates to their beyond, especially after realizing that it's a culturally arbitrary beyond and isn't really satisfactory.

In the later part I'll comment on whether I think these idea are compatible with modern psychology.

The Fall and man’s dual nature

Becker notices that his account of the problem of man's dual nature somewhat matches the Christian account of the Fall of man. In several places in this book, Becker speaks approvingly of Christianity without really endorsing it. More on that later.

  • This is Becker's synthesis, meant to apply to both frameworks: "Man emerged from the instinctive thoughtless action of the lower animals and came to reflect on his condition. He was given a consciousness of his individuality and his part-divinity in creation, the beauty and uniqueness of his face and his name. At the same time he was given the consciousness of the terror of the world and of his own death and decay."
The Immediate man / Philistine

Here we start getting into a kind of list of archetypes that represent different neuroses. Becker says of the man who lives under the "character lie": "[They] do not act from their own center, do not see reality on its terms; they are the one-dimensional men totally immersed in the fictional games being played in their society."

Meanwhile, Kierkegaard wrote about the "immediate man," whose identity is based on the cultural symbols immediately surrounding him: "He dies; the parson introduces him into eternity for the price of $10—but a self he was not, and a self he did not become... For the immediate man does not recognize his self, he recognizes himself only by his dress, … he recognizes that he has a self only by externals." That is, K's immediate man identifies himself only by the set of cultural symbols he wears.

"For Kierkegaard "philistinism" was triviality, man lulled by the daily routines of his society, content with the satisfactions that it offers him: in today’s world the car, the shopping center, the two-week summer vacation."
 

Responses to Philistinism

Becker believes most people belong to the immediate man / Philistine category. What happens when they discover the pitfalls of their flawed identity projects?

The introvert

This is not the modern concept. Kierkegaard's "introvert" is the person who realizes he is an immediate man and has contempt for it, believing he is something unique that others are not. We wants to see himself as special, but norm-breaking actions are dangerous: "It would be so nice to be the self he wants to be, to realize his vocation, his authentic talent, but it is dangerous, it might upset his world completely." 

What then? He imagines for himself a hidden identity that doesn't really correspond to his actual life: "And so he lives in a kind of "incognito," content to toy—in his periodic solitudes—with the idea of who he might really be; content to insist on a "little difference," to pride himself on a vaguely-felt superiority."

The self-created man

An alternative response is what Becker calls the "self-created man." Seeing that all he's accomplished is "cultural heroism," and realizing that he is impotent to become something greater, he rebels against the whole system that kept him in such a box. "At its extreme, defiant self-creation can become demonic, a passion which Kierkegaard calls "demoniac rage," an attack on all of life for what it has dared to do to one, a revolt against existence itself."

  • This is meant to cover anyone whose bitterness over their own impotence turns into vengefulness against the world. People who start mass movements against the status quo because they couldn't attract a partner, or because they can't earn more money, or because their country is in debt and they failed art school.

Similar to this is prometheanism: those who embark on exploration for its own sake: "It, too, is thoughtless, an empty-headed immersion in the delights of technics with no thought to goals or meaning."

  • When I think prometheanism, I think outer space. I don't think Elon Musk fits this archetype, because he does have a goal he believes in, but I think many of his fans who uncritically ride the "Space travel is badass!" hype do fall into this category.
  • There's also the Silicon Valley flavor of this: founders who conquer the world with their app, make billions... and do what with it exactly? What was it all for? There is a type of person here who appears to chase wealth just for the sake of seeing a number go up on a screen—as a distraction.
The cipher in the crowd (depressive)

A person is depressed when see both the triviality of their beyond, and its persistent necessity, so they remain in it and try to live without meaningful heroism.

  • "[Kierkegaard:] by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself…does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others."
  • "[Kierkegaard:] this kind of man is paralyzed; he won’t engage with possibility, so he is stunted and can’t really do anything"
  • [Kierkegaard:] “[in the depressive] either everything has become necessary to man or everything has become trivial.”
    • Becker amends this thought: "Actually, in the extreme of depressive psychosis we seem to see the merger of these two: everything becomes necessary and trivial at the same time—which leads to complete despair.
  • "The depressed person avoids the possibility of independence and more life precisely because these are what threaten him with destruction and death. He holds on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, belittling interaction, precisely because these people are his shelter, his strength, his protection against the world."

Depression is what we’d call the symptom of this, regardless of the composition of its causes.

Infinitude’s despair (schizophrenic)

Becker frames the schizophrenic as having the opposite response to their beyond. They deny its necessity, and deny that any hero-project they invent must be trivial. So they go looking far, wide, and deep, for heroism in life's infinite possibilities. Recall the danger of losing oneself.

  • "What we call schizophrenia is an attempt by the symbolic self to deny the limitations of the finite body."  
    "What really is lacking is the power to … submit to the necessary in oneself, to what may be called one’s limit."
  • for K, it was possibility (infinity of human imagination and experience) vs. necessity (limitations and contingency of the human body)

At first, schizophrenia seems like to extreme a thing to be placing "just so" as the polar opposite of depression. Helpfully Becker (and Kierkegaard, apparently) acknowledge that there are degrees of this orientation. There are functional schizoid types, like the fictional Walter Mitty, who live in a world of ideas and possibilities but can reckon with their bodily limitation when they need to.

Summary

It's important to note that this is a different spectrum from the first: this is not about types of beyonds, but just about the orientations people have to their beyonds, once exposed. However, at the extremes of this spectrum (depressive and schizoid), people are driven to change their beyonds. The depressive shuts in; the schizoid runs out.

I thought this polar framing of the phenomenology of depression and schizophrenia was extremely elegant. A lot of things fell into place the more I thought about it. The schizophrenic feels things that their body is not actually experiencing (hallucination); the depressed feels the limits and discomforts of their body all-too-clearly, and is hung up on them. Women are more likely to develop depression. Men experience schizophrenia more severely. Some people who start lifting weights (denying the body its "necessary" comfort and safety in pursuit of a goal that many say is meaningful) find that their depression goes away.

Kierkegaard's answer

If Kierkegaard ventured into the same fraught territory that Becker does, what was his solution? K wrote about a "school of anxiety," a kind of process people should go through wherein they remove their helpful repressions and simply face the terror underneath. "The flood of anxiety is not the end for man. It is, rather, a "school" that provides man with the ultimate education, the final maturity."  "The curriculum in the "school" of anxiety is the unlearning of repression, of everything that the child taught himself to deny so that he could move about with a minimal animal equanimity."

Becker doesn't really take this view. He believes there is real danger to removed helpful repressions - not an enriching kind of stress. Perhaps the difference is that Kierkegaard believes in God as an ultimate solution to that danger:

A man denies his creatureliness by imagining that he has secure power, “and this secure power has been tapped by unconsciously leaning on the persons and things of his society." When he admits his creatureliness, he looks for a corresponding Creator, an ultimate cause.  

  • This is K’s ultimate message, that one learns to seek this Ultimate Power and link himself to it, and to abandon all his dependent links to social/cultural powers. "One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator"
  • And that this leads to true freedom: “Man breaks through the bounds of merely cultural heroism…and by doing so he opens himself up to infinity, to the possibility of cosmic heroism, to the very service of God.”
Chapters 8, 9, and 10 - Otto Rank and the closure of psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard, The present outcome of psychoanalysis, and A general view of mental illness


These chapters have a lot in common so I'm going to combine them. They are about neuroses (mental illnesses) and how they relate to the above ideas.

Is this part actually true?

One would be inclined toward more skepticism when reading this section. Modern psychology has a lot to say about various mental illnesses, and none of it is about "beyonds" or "morbid terror." I don't think there need be any incompatibility though. At worst, Becker has used some eerie coincidences to justify forcing some diagnoses into a framework where they don't belong. But I will say, Becker never strikes me as the kind of armchair psychologist who thinks all medication is bunk and everything can be solved with ideas. A lot of the below, which sounds like proposed causes of neuroses, are more usefully understood as insightful descriptions of neuroses. For example I don't think Becker aims to say what causes depression (The beyond is too tight? Well what caused that?) as much as to give a more complete description of what depression is, experientially.

Universality of neurosis:

Here Becker takes more shots at the "normal" person, the "immediate man," diagnosing him, too, as neurotic: "This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality. But we can also see at once that there is no line between normal and neurotic, as we all lie and are all bound in some ways by the lies… We call a man “neurotic” when his lie begins to show damaging effects on him or on people around him… Otherwise, we call the refusal of reality “normal” because it doesn’t occasion any visible problems."

  • This is a somewhat popular idea now; the message of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon comes to mind. People sometimes say, "With the current state of the world, you'd have to be crazy to be okay with everything." Except that when people say this they're usually referring to politics or climate change or capitalism, but Becker says no, it's the entire human condition that forces you to adopt these clumsy lies and discrepancies, just to function day-to-day.
Partializing neurosis (depressive):

Becker says a bit more about why the depressive person shrinks further into their restrictive beyond. The person experiences two kinds of guilt: 

  • First, because they are so hopelessly dependent on their relationships, it is a kind of slavery, and they feel guilt to themselves over this.
  • There is also an instrumental guilt that keeps the situation going: they blame themselves for every problem, because to blame the Other would be to dismantle it and lose its transference power. For example, to say that your friend is being callous or neglectful is to admit that they can't save you. Repressing this, you instead "admit" that in fact you've just been a bad friend. And that prevents you from seeking new friends, and so on. From Adler: "Depression is systematic self-restriction that compounds."
Holistic neurosis (schizoid):

Here, similarly, Becker sheds a modern psychoanalytical light on schizophrenia.

When the person cannot partialize the world and becomes bound up in the chaotic wholeness of life, he feels isolated from the “regular” world, and he lacks the cultural programming that makes life simple. He won’t “pay the price” of nature - he won’t come down to earth and engage with his animal body. He is all about ideas and symbols, leaving the body behind. 

  • “At its extreme, this describes the schizoid type par excellence. Classically this state was called the “narcissistic neurosis” or psychosis.”"
  • This is adjacent to the creative type. He avoids clinical neurosis because he actually does take in and engage with the world, but he reworks and recreates it as his own. He is obsessed with his own ideation, but he finds a way to apply it back to his reality.
    • “The more totally one takes in the world as a problem, the more inferior or “bad” one is going to feel inside oneself...But it is obvious that the only way to work on perfection is in the form of an objective work that is fully under your control and is perfectible in some real ways.”
    • “you objectify that imperfection in a work, on which you then unleash your creative powers. In this sense, some kind of objective creativity is the only answer man has to the problem of life...He takes in the [whole] world, makes a total problem out of it, and then gives out a fashioned, human answer to that problem.”"
    • “There is no doubt that creative work is itself done under a compulsion often indistinguishable from obsession. In this sense, what we call a creative gift is merely the social license to be obsessed."
Neurosis as historical

Here Becker points out the historical context of his work. We find ourselves in a time where we no longer share a convincing hero ideology (as cultures did historically, until about the Enlightenment).

  • Becker points to social unrest as a result: “It begins to look as if the modern man cannot find his heroism in everyday life any more… raising children, working, and worshipping. He needs revolutions and wars and “continuing” revolutions to last when the revolutions and wars end."
Perversions

This is Becker's weakest section in my view. He attempts to explain all manner of sexual phenomena in the context of his grand theory: fetishes, the hermaphroditic urge, sado-masochism, non-hetero orientations. Some of it may come off as delegitimizing to certain groups, but then I remember how much he tore apart heterosexual relationships in earlier chapters. Still, I think he is mistaken here.

The general point is that most "perversions" arise because we need to make sex different in some way in order to feel above our animal nature. This sounds a little too just-so to me, like it could explain anything. And proposing it to explain homosexuality feels pretty far beyond the pale.

It's difficult, though, because some of it still sounds right, like that basic fetish objects allow us to use the language of cultural symbols (straight hair, high heels, etc.) to "elevate" the sex act with culturally-sanctioned meanings. Aside: I'm a fan of The Last Psychiatrist and I believe he's made very similar claims.

Overall I don't very well know what to do with this section. 

The Romantic solution

This section goes further into the potential problems of romantic transference. In essence, it's that your romantic partner is arbitrary, they're not divine, they might be wrong, so if you feel like a hero in their eyes, that's not really enough in the grand scheme.

Becker accuses the post-religion modern man of trying to make up in romance what he lost in spirituality (and notice again this additive dynamic where one beyond is pursued as another gets destroyed): "Modem man’s dependency on the love partner, then, is a result of the loss of spiritual ideologies, just as is his dependency on his parents or on his psychotherapist. He needs somebody, some "individual ideology of justification" to replace the declining "collective ideologies."" And a single person cannot grant so much meaning: “[You] try to make it the sole judge of good and bad in yourself...you become simply the reflex of another person...No wonder that dependency, whether of the god or the slave in the relationship, carries with it so much underlying resentment."

As a result of this tension, “We often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size...We see that our gods have clay feet, and so we must hack away at them in order to save ourselves...the deflation of the over-invested partner, parent, or friend is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particular object and is not bound to it. But not everybody can do this because many of us need the lie in order to live."

Then Becker gets into the sexual aspect, which is very enlightening. Becker believes that our taboos and rules around sex came about not only for evolutionary reasons, but because sex is a blatant collision with our animal nature which threatens to trigger all the related terrors. Normally I'm skeptical when I see two different explanations for the same thing, but I think this works. Yes, evolution already explains why males would care a lot about female fidelity and why females would police each other's sexual availability.. but why are we the only species to have sex in private? Why are we the only species to hate the thought of our parents having sex? Why is event talking about sex considered taboo in many situations?

According to Becker, we make such rules to make sex "ours," to assert that we're "above" sex. Sex poses the problem of reminding us of our creatureliness: “It reminds hims that he is nothing himself but a link in the chain of being, exchangeable with any other and completely expendable in himself...He doesn’t want to be a mere fornicating animal like any other...With the complex codes for sexual self-denial, man was able to impose the cultural map for personal immortality over the animal body. He brought sexual taboos into being because he needed to triumph over the body, and he sacrificed the pleasures of the body to the highest pleasure of all: self-perpetuation as a spiritual being through all eternity.”

The Creative solution

This is an entirely new concept that boils down to: creativity works very well as a coping mechanism for the fear of death. That's because the creator doesn't lie to themselves about what is meaningful; they resist settling into the familiar beyonds of their culture.

  • "Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, then you must fashion your own...The creative person becomes, then, in art, literature, and religion the mediator of natural terror and the indicator of a new way to triumph over it. He reveals the darkness and dread of the human condition and fabricates a new symbolic transcendence over it.”

This section was pretty esoteric and I'm not sure I fully got it. I'm a creative person (digital art and some other stuff) and I think what he's getting at is: Creativity allows (or requires!) you to see the world as it is, with all the overwhelming chaos and possibilities, and man's fragile place in it, because you'll find meaning in taking all that raw material and making something beautiful out of it. But "beautiful to whom?" is a question with a surprising answer:

  • "You wonder where to get authority for introducing new meanings into the world." And so the artist feels guilt for his grab at immortality. “What right do you have to play God?” The artist, if sober-minded, still knows he’s a creature, which would make his creation meaningless, too. He cannot play God. And he can't merely create for society, because, as with the romantic partner, they too are arbitrary and cannot really grant meaning.
  • "The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God." Freud rejected religion, "But this was precisely Freud’s bind; as an agnostic he had no one to offer his gift to—no one, that is, who had any more security of immortality than he did himself." But Freud's student Otto Rank was more approving of religion: "Here Rank joins Kierkegaard in the belief that one should not stop and circumscribe his life with beyonds that are near at hand, or a bit further out, or created by oneself. One should reach for the highest beyond of religion...Rank made complete closure of psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard, but he did not do it out of weakness or wishfulness. He did it out of the logic of the historical-psychoanalytic understanding of man."

A bit to unpack here: Rank championed this "Creative solution" to the meaning crisis, but he admitted that the creation would have to be on behalf of God, otherwise it's just crowd-pleasing trivia. This is why Becker says that psychoanalysis "closes" on theology, which would've sounded insane to me in any other context.

As a creative atheist, I don't know where that leaves me. I do find creation meaningful, and I do find myself absorbing more of the world than most can accept (I judge this by how often people say to me, "that's so depressing, I could never believe that!" about things that seem perfectly acceptable to me). But it's true that I create for my society, and I do recognize that, on paper, that doesn't really add up to any meaning. One lasting notion this book left me with was, "If I ever lose my creative energy, or lose the motivation to show beauty to my peers, I'm going to be in real trouble."

More on Christianity

Here are some more reflections, from throughout the book, on how Christianity answer the problem of death.

"When man lived securely under the canopy of the Judeo-Christian world picture he was part of a great whole; to put it in our terms, his cosmic heroism was completely mapped out, it was unmistakable...Christianity took creature consciousness—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism."  

  • I was raised Christian and this is all pretty undeniable. It doesn't really help if you don't believe it's true, but there are some powerful ideas here, and I think their unique ability to alleviate fear of death is partly responsible for Christianity's memetic success. It says yes, you are an animal, and just an animal; there is no little deity inside you hopelessly struggling to get out. But there is a power outside, and this power does adequately stand in for the entire universe, so you will transcend all your physical limitations by living rightly with it. And the way to live rightly with it is to acknowledge your nature (as a creature). And even if you fail that, you will not be annihilated.
  • I should mention though that Christianity, like any religion, can also just become a set of rules, making it another relatively restrictive beyond. It's interesting to look at people who belong to the same religion but have different psychological profiles, and see how their personal theologies reflect the size of beyond they require. There are versions of Christianity that run the whole gamut.
Chapter 11 - What is the heroic individual?

In this chapter Becker asks (as many readers have likely asked), "Ok, which heroism is preferable then?"

“The most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes him less of a driven burden on others.” Indeed, some beyonds give us enough freedom to actually make the world better for others, while other beyonds mainly impose costs on the people who have to protect us. So I think the argument is, all else being equal, at least help others if you can.

  • One silver lining: at least we get to experience more than dumb animals: “When evolution gave man a self, an inner symbolic world of experience, it split him in two, gave him an added burden. But this burden seems to be the price that had to be paid in order for organisms to attain more life”
  • Of course, we can still conceive of a world where we'd get such a life without paying that price, and that wish torments us. I told you at the beginning there wasn't a satisfying solution.

Also in this chapter, a bitter pill for anti-aging optimists: from Jacques Choron: “Postponement of death is not a solution… there still will remain the fear of dying prematurely.” And a premature death would deprive man “not of 90 years but of 900.”

Limits of psychotherapy

Becker's dark perspective allows him to work out what appear to be some damning truths about the field of psychology. Becker rejects what he calls the narrative of "unrepression" - the idea that we can achieve the best versions of ourselves by facing reality more and more directly. Unrepression will not save us, he says, for reasons we’ve already seen. We need illusions and transference objects, or we are utterly overwhelmed or petrified. And so, the lofty claims of the “whole therapeutic enterprise” can be called into doubt. Why should a patient seek to uncover the ways they deceive themselves, if all that awaits is either terror or further self-deception?

  • Becker outlines: In America, the Christian myth was replaced by the Hollywood myth (thanks to commercial industrialism), and now that myth is being replaced by a paradise-through-self-knowledge myth. Psychotherapy is the new means by which people seek rightness with the universe. And so we get patient-doctor transference: patients believe their doctors not because of the ideas themselves, but because of the role the doctor is playing - must play. In this way, psychotherapy is less about fixing one's neuroses (which can't be entirely fixed), and more about paying someone to symbolically take responsibility for setting us on a good path.
  • Similarly, in an earlier chapter, Becker takes some shots at Maslow’s concept of “full humanness,” that nirvana supposedly waiting at the top of the hierarchy of needs. Becker doesn't expect much of a victory there: “Full humanness means full fear and trembling...Maslow was too broad-minded and sober to imagine that being-cognition did not have an underside; but he didn’t go far enough toward pointing out what a dangerous underside it was—that it could undermine one’s whole position in the world."

Have you ever found it odd that all the advice about "comfort zones" says to step beyond them? Is that a universal solution that most people just don't follow for some reason? Are there no people who desperately need to hear the reverse and stay inside their comfort zones? There are, says Becker, and this fight for constant expansion is shortsighted. It doesn't account for the dangers people face. The "step out of comfort zone always!" people don't have to answer to those who wind up crazy, broke, or dead. The comfort zone is there for a reason. It's "lindy," as they say on Twitter. That doesn't mean there aren't overestimates of risk—there are bound to be plenty when our risk-meters aren't evolved for the modern world. But the idea that expanding one's comfort zone is always good is reckless, and it doesn't take much thought-experimenting to see that.

Summary

A good quote to wrap up the thesis: “The orientation of men has to be always beyond their bodies, has to be grounded in healthy repressions, and toward explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence.

Old ideas, recontextualized

I said that Becker's thesis was an excellent coordinate system. The following are some ideas I personally held before reading, that I feel are more elegantly represented in Becker's terms. The original ideas are first-level bullet points, recontextualizations are the second-level bullet points:

  • Substance vs symbols - symbols don’t always correspond to the real thing; you should root your identity/actions in substance instead.
    • This book made me realize that the push to discard symbols in favor of substance, is the very same push for unrepression that Becker warns about. It's the dangerously optimistic view that everyone is better off shedding all their cultural symbols. In truth we need the symbols to function at all.
    • That being said, the creative type does not speak with cultural symbols, but fashions his own symbols, and he must occasionally engage with the substance more directly in order to do this.
  • We’re happiest at the border of order and chaos (from Jordan Peterson, and the general “comfort zone” rhetoric of many self-help gurus).
    • We settle into a beyond that satisfies our twin ontological motives in exactly the amounts we need: we have safety and we have adventurous work ahead.
  • Bridge to Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: His message was: People exist as either True Believers or Individualists, and this is the real political spectrum we should pay attention to. If you're familiar with that book, the following will make sense.
    • The TB has a specific transference object due to a specific set of circumstances. Instead of aiming lower after consistent failures (and shrinking into tighter beyonds), they abandon any hope of self-heroism and give the self up in favor of identifying with a movement.
    • TB is ontological feminine in the extreme, in the sense that he is entirely embedded; his experiences are entirely mediated by an Other.
    • The Fanatic, who tends to lead True Believers, is a type of self-created man. S-C man is aware of his impotence (perhaps through failed creativity) and will act drastically to defy the world in which such impotence exists. He can do this by starting a mass movement: he either invents dogmas or clings to existing ones. He’s more daring (or more filled with rage) than an ordinary True Believer.
    • The Individualist is everyone who occupies a beyond that still prizes some form of individual heroism.
  • Bridge to TheLastPsychiatrist/Nietzsche: People buy into cultural-symbolic markers of identity instead of caring about what they actually do with their lives. They go to great lengths to avoid self-discovery and change.
    • Because self-discovery warrants change, and change requires you to step into chaos. Instead, we choose to avoid a challenging life, and we find easy transference objects - human authorities, organizations, video games.
    • TLP’s narcissist is completely covered in DoD. And TLP’s positive prescriptions tend to be vague because he must avoid the same dead-end that DoD runs into. In this way, TLP is more optimistic, making it seem (at first) like you can make a few corrections, dispel a few illusions, and you’ll be “right” again.
  • I hate even the idea of nerve injuries—they remove your ability to experience things.
    • I’m bothered by the fact that my own ability to experience is mediated through fallible objects that cannot always be replaced.
  • My creative ambitions alone are enough to get me out of bed each day.
    • Even while taking in more of the terrifying world than most, the creative type finds his work to be a worthwhile project.
  • "The best use of freedom is to choose how you’re going to restrict it"
    • We choose our beyonds. They restrict not only our actions, but our ambitions and the ways we interpret our experiences.
  • The “hierarchy of urges” / Human complete problems—Natural urges put us into finite games, but the task of arranging our urges for the optimal experience is a uniquely human task and amounts to infinite games.
    • The ability to reorder and channel the natural urges makes us able to function in one hero project or another. We direct ourselves in the given patterns, and the resulting cultural/symbolic “success” tells us we’ve mastered our mortality.
    • To live happily (or at least without despair) is an infinite game. It requires that one find a suitable hero project, but because the project can expire or you can fail at it, you must sometimes find a new one.

If you liked this book review, consider subscribing to my blog at patrickdfarley.com.



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Book Review: The End of Average

14 октября, 2021 - 04:49
Published on October 14, 2021 1:49 AM GMT

We all strive to be like the others - more exactly, like the others, but better. (Chapter 2)

 

Note: the quotes have been translated back from the French translation, so they probably slightly differ from the original text.

The End of Average is a 250-ish pages book published in 2016 by academic Todd Rose.

The main points

Rose describes the rule of average as the ubiquitous use, in major decisions that impact our lives, of a norm based on the average. From our grades at school to our career options, all the way through medical diagnoses, important institutions compare individuals with the average, with 2 goals:

  • assessing normality: what differs too much from the average is considered abnormal. For example, the developmental path for learning how to walk was determined in the 1950s by observing babies and averaging the result to get the "normal development path". Any child that diverges too much from that path will be closely looked for abnormalities.
  • assessing skill: a single variable is assumed to correlate with a large number of desired dimensions, and becomes very important in people's lives. For example, a student's understanding of a lesson is graded as a single note. Then, at the end of the year or semester, the notes in a class are summed up as a single average that is supposed to reflect the value of the student in that class. The higher a student is graded, the more intelligent and talented they are deemed, and the better their options.

In both cases, claims Rose, by averaging the data over the samples, important information is lost. It turns out that there are no less than 25 viable development paths for learning to walk, where the usual steps are taken in reverse, simultaneously, or even skipped. As for school grading, Rose picks examples both from research and from his personal experience to show that students that fail in the standard school system can thrive when the lessons are more adapted to their personal profile.

Born with modern statistics and acclaimed as a major methodological progress, the average-ist approach's limitations were overlooked for a long time, claims Rose. But now, with the help of computers' processing power, a more personalized treatment of information is possible and desirable: the individualist approach.

  • the average-ist approach: summing up the data, then analysing it; commits the ergodic error (attributing to a member a property of the group - more on that later)
  • the individualist approach: analysing the data, then summing it up; avoids the ergodic error
Impressions from reading

Rose has a slight tendency for imprecisions and corner cutting. For example, his "average" can mean anything from mean, to median, to simply norm, depending on the situation. This is a book aimed at convincing both the decision-maker and the layman of the interest of adopting the individualist approach, and it sacrifices accuracy for ease of reading and persuasion.

The central leitmotiv is that when you take a group of humans, there is no average member. One of the examples he gives is how the US Air Force, after a slew of deadly accidents in the 1940s, decided to collect the measurements of 4063 pilots on 10 dimensions. The conclusion was that not a single pilot was in the average for all 10 dimensions. The cockpit, which had been designed for the average pilot, was actually fitting no one. Upon that realization, the Air Force ordered that gear in cockpits be made adjustable, which drastically reduced accidents.

The thesis of the book has a simplicity and an intuitiveness that felt familiar, as if I was merely noticing, or piecing together, something that was at the edge of common knowledge. Of course, we are all outliers, no one is average. Then why do we, people and institutions, mostly forget this fact when we define our policies? For example, why do schools deliver the same curriculum for everyone?

While Rose mainly advocates for large changes in education and career management, there is a piece of advice that is directly actionable by anyone. Human behaviour, explains Rose, is determined by a combination of personality and situation. A person can be extroverted with friends and introverted with colleagues. Rose recommends to play into your strengths rather than struggling to correct your weaknesses. He explains how he managed to revert a difficult start at university by avoiding the courses where he risked meeting old schoolmates because he knew he wouldn't study seriously in their presence, and by choosing courses that were not recomended for him because they were difficult, but which topic particularly motivated him.

 

This is it for the short summary, but if you want more details, Rose's story about the rule of average starts with three guys.

Quetelet, Galton, Taylor

Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874) is a Belgian astronomer. When the Belgian Revolution breaks out in 1830, threatening to postpone the completion of  his shiny new observatory in Brussels indefinitely, he suddenly takes an interest in social sciences.

To make up for the imprecision of human measures, astronomers of the time average the measures of multiple observers. The average is considered better than any individual measure. It's the right measure. Quetelet transposes that method into social science: gathering measurements about Scottish soldiers, he asserts that the resulting average is the right soldier, a Platonic ideal. That method will be used on a variety of topics like crime and marriage rates, and is a cornerstone of statistics. He shows that suicides, which were considered a deeply personal and irrational act, remain at a constant rate over the years. He creates the BMI!

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) is a fervent admirer of Quetelet and his statistical methods. He too is confident that human qualities can be summed up in a single trait.

According to him, if your intelligence was "outstanding", then in all likelihood so was your physical health, as well as your courage and your honesty.

But contrary to Quetelet, Galton sorts the population into ranks: the average are mediocre, and at the extremes are the outstanding and the idiots. Quetelet's average man and Galton's ranks will become instrumental in defining what we consider normal and what we consider successful.

These two ideas serve as guiding principles for our present education system, as well as the overwhelming majority of recruitment methods and employee evaluation systems all over the world.

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) is, according to Rose, inspired by Quetelet's methods when he sets out to revolutionize the way factories work. Before him, the workers were basically free and even encouraged to reorganize the tools and machines however they saw fit. Taylor separates decision from execution, creating the manager class to do the former. The workers become adjuncts to the machines, interchangeable elements in the chain of fabrication. Taylor professes that he prefers an average worker who would follow orders blindly, to a skilled worker who would take initiatives.

This style of organization has spread way beyond the factory: Todd Rose gives present examples in retail (Walmart) and customer service.

In the span of fifty years - from 1890 to 1940 -, almost all our institutions came to evaluate everybody by their relation to the average.

At the time, adds Rose, the young universal education system was approaching its modern form. The tenets of Taylorism were incorporated so that education would prepare the average student to fulfill his role as an average worker: the students, batched by age rather than by interest or competence, followed nationally standardized lessons for nationally standardized durations (chosen to fit the average student), that ended when the school bell rang, a prefiguration of the factory bell. Students were graded with notes that average their results, and those notes were compared in order to determine who's average and who's outstanding. Teaching speed was optimized for the average learner, and the fast had to wait while the slow were left behind. Not much has changed since then.

The ergodic lure

But recently, researchers have started to question this model. Peter Molenaar, a researcher who interacted with and inspired Todd Rose, published in 2004 a manifesto against the ergodic lure. [1] He explains that according to the ergodic theory, the average can be used to make useful predictions about the individual elements if and only if the system is ergodic, which means:

  • all elements are identical
  • each element remains the same over time

The ergodic lure, or ergodic error, is attributing to a member the properties of a non-ergodic group. If you measure a group for typing speed and typing error, you will notice that the faster people type, the less errors they make, on average. If you want to reduce mistakes, you might be inspired to incentivize people to type faster. But individually, the opposite correlation is true. That's the ergodic error.

Todd Rose gives no precision on how "identical" elements have to be or how "constant over time", he simply takes as obvious that cells, genomes and human traits are not ergodic, which I'm inclined to accept, but that leaves open the question of how far we can extrapolate. The wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodicity has a more rigorous introduction to the concept.

To solve the ergodic error of the average-ist approach, Rose presents the individualist approach, and names multiple researchers who support it despite the apathy of their colleagues.

The 3 Principles of the Individualist Approach
  • principle of discontinuity:

When a variable can be decomposed into multiple dimensions, and those factors are loosely correlated, then the average is misleading.

This feels intuitively right. The meaning of the average of multiple dimensions is based on what is common in those dimensions. If two dimensions have so little in common that they aren't correlated, then the average necessarily leaves out a lot of their meaning.

According to Rose, the Dow Jones is a good average because, even if the stock market is the grouping of thousands of individual ratings, they are correlated enough.

On the other hand, human measurements, IQ results and personality test results like the MBTI are not! I was surprised by this because I thought IQ was a measure of general intelligence. But Rose is adamant that intelligence is discontinuous, and shows two profiles of women who score identical at the WAIS test but have completely different results at the sub-tests. I'm not sure what to think about that.

Character traits like honesty or aggressiveness also happen to be discontinuous. According to a study cited in the book, where kids were tested for honesty in multiple environments, a kid who cheated at tests by copying on their neighbour, could refrain from cheating when asked to self-grade, and vice-versa. [2]

  • principle of context:

Essentialists and situationists fought for domination in the social sciences for the last decades. The essentialist attempt at explaining behaviour by a person's character fails. The situationist attempt at explaining behaviour by the situation also fails. What succeeds is the interaction between an individual character and a situation. Academic Yuichi Shoda calls that a "if... then" signature.

This reminded me of the fundamental attribution error, which says that we all lean the essentialist way when trying to explain other's behaviour, and the situationist way when explaining ours. Which makes sense, because they are both simplifications (edge cases) of the "if... then" model. We tend to see plenty of other people, but each in the same scenario (coworkers at work, online friends online...), so, failing to observe a given person in various scenarios, we infer that their behaviour is a consequence of their character. We personally experience multiple scenarios, but failing to observe what someone else would have done differently in our shoes, we infer that the situation dictated our behaviour.

  • principle of path:

There is no universal sequence in human development - no set of steps that everyone has to take to grow, learn, or meet one's objectives.

I didn't really question that claim until someone with a medical background pointed to me that there are some sequences in human development that are mandatory. On second thought, I can't imagine, say, the embryonic development would have much diversity.

To his defense, Rose does not pretend that all paths are equally viable. When he gives the exemple of a study on how children learn reading, he precises that a path taken by 10% of the children leads to serious learning problems. But using the individualist approach helps detecting those children so that appropriate help can be provided.

Individualist education

In the last part, Rose proposes 3 (overlapping) key changes to improve education:

  • deliver certifications, not degrees: divide the current long, fixed courses, into multiple shorter courses that the student can choose from. There is no reason that all paths should have the same length as is currently the case. And the student would only pay for what they take.
  • replace notes with skills: Instead of having a note that bundles a bunch of skills, have each skill validated atomically. Separate teaching from certification, so that a student can validate their knowledge however they acquired it (be it in a public or private university, with a tutor, online, or by themselves). This also makes it easier for recruiters to check whether an applicant's skill set matches the job description.
  • allow students to choose their path: This should also make changing career course during education easier. If you start with the goal of becoming a neuroscience researcher and you discover mid-way that you like interacting with people, you can reuse the certifications you already acquired to go for clinical psychology. And students wouldn't have to do courses they don't like (in Rose's view, a student is responsible for their path, so if they choose a path, it means they certainly like it).

 

 

The ideas of the book seem simple and intuitive enough that I doubt they will surprise the average LW reader. [3] The question of how widely they can be applied remains open, though. Rose seems to be interested only in education and career management. He does give examples of averaging giving wrong conclusions in medical care of cancer, and in the care for patients recovering from clinical depression. But he doesn't have a plan to improve those institutions.

Society by large is still running on the assumption that students, employees and citizens can be represented by a few key numbers by averaging their deeper characteristics. It seems to me that in recent years, some companies have started picking these low-hanging fruits. Big data companies have been analysing individual behaviour for years already in order to individualize advertisement. Online education and certification is rising and will probably soon become a serious challenger to traditional, more costly and rigid education. The End of Average has helped me make the connection between those innovations and a deeper theoretical framework. I'll keep it in my toolbox and see how helpful it turns out.

 

 

 

[1] A Manifesto on Psychology as Idiographic Science: Bringing the Person Back Into Scientific Psychology, This Time Forever by Peter Molenaar

[2] Hartstone et. May, Studies, vol. 1: Studies in Deceit

[3] Though, according to the principle of discontinuity, each reader should find one that is new for them



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[Proposal] Method of locating useful subnets in large models

13 октября, 2021 - 23:52
Published on October 13, 2021 8:52 PM GMT

I’ve seen it suggested (e.g, here) that we could tackle the outer alignment problem by using interpretability tools to locate the learned “human values” subnet of powerful, unaligned models. Here I outline a general method of extracting such subnets from a larger model.

Suppose we have a powerful, unaligned model M. We want to be able to extract a small subnet from M that is very useful for a certain task (T), which could be modeling human values, translating languages, etc. My proposal for finding such a subnet is to train a “subnet extraction” (SE) model through reinforcement learning.

We’d provide SE with access to M’s weights as well as an evaluation dataset for T. Presumably, SE would be a perceiver or similar architecture able to handle very large inputs and would only process small parts of M at a time.

During training, SE would select a small subnet from M, then the subnet would be sandwiched inside an “assister model” (AM), which consists of a pretrained encoder, followed by randomly initialized layers, followed by the extracted subnet, followed by more randomly initialized layers. The AM is then finetuned on the dataset for T as well as on a set of distractor datasets, {D_1, … D_n}. SE would get reward for AM’s post-finetuning performance on T’s dataset minus its average performance on the distractor datasets and be penalized according to the size of the subnet.

R = finetune(AM, T’s dataset) - a avg_val{finetune(AM, D_i), for i 1 to n} - b |subnet|

Where a and b are hyperparameters.

The idea is that the subnet M uses to solve T can be easily adapted to solve T. It’s possible such subnets rely on features generated by other parts of M. That’s why I sandwich the subnet in the assister model. It’s supposed to provide the subnet with generic features, so that SE doesn’t have to extract those generic features from M.

I include the distractor datasets to ensure SE learns to extract subnets that are specific to the task/dataset provided and not just extract subnets from M that are really good for learning any task. I encourage SE to extract smaller subnets because I expect smaller subnets will be easier to analyze with other interpretability tools and because I think smaller subnets are less likely to include risky spillover from M (e.g., mesa optimizers).

When we want to extract the human values subnet, we give SE a dataset that we think requires human value modeling to solve. Hopefully, it extracts the “human values” subnet.

One potential risk is that there’s a mesa optimizer in M that trains SE to extract it by being very good at T while deliberately failing on the distractors. To address this issue, we can compare the subnets extracted for various tasks/datasets to see if they share weights and add a term to SE’s reward that encourages diversity in the subnets it extracts for different tasks.



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Books Review: "Sapiens", "Homo Deus" and "21 Lessons For The 21st Century", by Yuval Noah Harari

13 октября, 2021 - 20:08
Published on October 13, 2021 4:21 PM GMT

Introduction

In this review I will consider one of the most important literary and cultural phenomena of the last 20 years - the ambitious trilogy of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In these three books Harari takes into consideration the past of humanity (Sapiens), the present (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) and the future (Homo Deus), trying to trace the global lines of development from the Stone Age up to the abandonment of biological bodies in favor of synthetic ones, passing through Trump and the future of unemployment. Among his greatest strengths as an author are:

  • The ability to look at trends from a bias-free perspective (with some notable exceptions)
  • The ability to bring together insights from many different disciplines in a very effective way
  • The ability to involve the reader with clear and accessible, yet not simplistic, language

There are undoubtedly more relevant and specific texts on each of the many themes addressed by Harari. Likewise, many of the observations in the texts can be (and have been) criticized from various points of view and for a variety of reasons, like Harari’s generalist approach and the lack of details. But precisely the horizontality and the ambitious scope are the main assets that make this trilogy so interesting and worth reading.

Observing a macro-trend from a hyper-specialized perspective can allow us to detail its different facets and potential origins, but makes it more complex to bring together different and broader contributions. Harari has chosen not to tackle the issues he faced from a hyper-specialized point of view, sometimes lacking detailed knowledge on certain topics, but manages to insert them within a universal narrative. A reader of Harari might find far-reaching insights into this narrative to ask questions about the research trajectories of his discipline and its role in a global perspective. 

The purpose of my review is to anticipate and facilitate this exercise of reflection. For each of these three texts I’ve summarized a small set of broad key ideas to keep in mind while reading. In conclusion, I will summarize some of the criticisms that have been made against the three books. 

SapiensThe intersubjective myths

One of the starting points underlying Harari's entire body of work concerns the realm of intersubjectivity and its ability to concretely intervene on the world through the creation of myths. Between individuality and collectivity there is a third front, which is neither an objective fact nor a subjective impression, but resides in a sort of shared creative subjectivity. Harari defines this realm as an emergent property of the interaction between the single nodes of the collective, capable of creating a super-consciousness with a will of its own. From this dimension, a series of powerful intersubjective myths have emerged over the millennia, which as we will see in the book include laws, gods, money, morals, patriarchy and nations. They exist neither only in the natural world (although they refer to it), nor only in the non-shared imagination, but in shared intersubjectivity. To understand humans it is therefore necessary to understand the intersubjective myths we share.

This ability to create myths is what distinguishes Homo Sapiens from other species. It exists because we know how to use imagination and language to create and communicate new worlds, alternatives and future possibilities not physically present in the current reality. The function of such shared myths in our development was essential, as it allowed us to cooperate, organize ourselves on a large scale and dominate the world. Collectively they are the glue that holds societies together: they give meaning to existence and help make choices in a highly complex world. Let's look at two examples of collective myths:

  • Brands. The Peugeot brand does not exist in the natural world: you could kill all Peugeot employees and destroy all their buildings and products, but the Peugeot brand would still exist. On the other hand, if a signature is placed on a company winding up document, the French car brand would cease to exist. It, therefore, exists as a "fiction" in the intersubjective imagination. Its power lies in its ability to coordinate humans to produce and consume on a large scale.
  • Money. Money represents a unit of exchange that functions only as a shared fiction. For Harari, money is "the height of human tolerance" because it is more open than any other shared fiction (language, laws, cultural codes or religious beliefs) and because it does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion, age or sexual orientation.

In summary, therefore, it can be said that the intersubjective myths are the glue that holds culture and, consequently, society together. From this derives an essential consequence: breaking the myth means breaking the culture, and therefore the social world that relies on this myth, leading to a dramatic and rapid change. As we have seen in the past, breaking the myth of monarchy, slavery, or patriarchy means changing the cultural model of society. Slavery, for example, with all its premises about human nature and hierarchy, has been a widely accepted myth for a long time. By questioning this myth entire cultures slowly changed their views about the topic, leading to a series of social revolutions.

The last reflection linked to this idea concerns the (non-existent, for Harari) difference between natural and chemical/artificial. This distinction makes no sense: the chemical elements are the basis of nature. Paracetamol, petrol, blueberries, our saliva and a quasar are made of the same chemical elements. Consequently, everything Sapiens can do by modeling chemistry is, by definition, natural. Biology opens the way for changes; it is culture that closes us by forbidding certain behaviors and labeling them as unnatural. In a sense there is no difference between natural and artificial but only between possible and impossible. The study of human culture often covers the study of what we prohibit and how we box such prohibitions within natural/unnatural rhetoric.

The three revolutions that created humanity

Harari divides the history of man into three major revolutions, which as it will become clear in Homo Deus, will perhaps soon be followed by a fourth and more radical revolution. They are the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution.

  • The Cognitive Revolution occurred when winning genetic mutations slowly led humans to develop larger and more efficient brains. This evolution was undoubtedly one of our winning assets in the great war for adaptation and survival, but at the same time it can prove to be an important limitation today. Winning heuristics in the savannah do not work to engineer the right move for a job promotion.
  • The Agricultural Revolution led Homo Sapiens to become a sedentary species. According to a provocative yet interesting claim made by Harari, agriculture has given more evolutionary benefits to plant species scattered around the world than to us. Crop’s genes, for example, have spread around the world, making one among many plant species the most widespread species on the planet. It has been argued (even if it’s still a controversial topic) that the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society has led us toward less favorable existential conditions, decreasing our overall well-being and happiness. But, at the same time, with this transition our culture has grown, leading to stronger social ties. The birth of the sedentary agricultural tribes has brought stability, security and culture, but also more inequalities, an increase in internal violence (that, of course, is present even in hunter-gatherer tribes) and deficits in the body.
  • The Scientific Revolution has allowed the passage from a culture highly based on the unverifiable consequences of some myths to one founded on the verifiable consequences of other myths. The topic is complex and controversial, but science too, according to Harari, could be considered (at least partially) a myth. It has had the virtue of transferring power from arcane sources to empirical verification, opening the doors to doubt, uncertainty and investigation. As a consequence, science helped us to make better predictions and to build advanced technologies. Although the birth of science proved to be a fundamental step in the history of man, we could find ourselves, at this moment, at the gates of its potentially catastrophic effects (more, again, in Homo Deus)
The three engines of history

Another main theme of the book concerns the three main myths capable, according to Harari, of driving history. As always, following Harari, it is important to remember that each of these three engines actually has mythological foundations and does not represent anything tangible or material. It is possible to touch a coin and feel like we are touching “money” in itself, but a coin is just a symbolic representation of the concept. So there is no way to find a physical proof of the existence of nations, money or gods as concepts, but only as symbols of each concept. This does not mean, as already mentioned, that the effect of such intersubjective creations is not powerful. It is quite the opposite: these forces have been so powerful that they have shaped history indelibly.

  • Empires. Although today they are seen (with some exceptions, like with the Roman or the Ottoman Empire) by many as a terrible legacy of the past - the cause of wickedness and terrible wars of conquest - empires have represented the longest, most stable and unifying form of government in the history of humanity. They made it possible to move from separating tribalism to the union of multitudes within a single mythological container. Where before there was chaos, lack of information exchange and violent clashes, empires have brought clear boundaries, legislative and linguistic unity and a common currency. Obviously they have often adopted violent and abusive means to reach their goals, and this should not be forgotten, but at the same time it is also important to recognize the role they have played in the development of humanity. What remains, today, of the imperial legacy?
  • Money. A second driving force has been money. Barter, a primitive form of exchange, could only have advantages on limited small scales (like in families or in prison internal economies), but overall it’s a highly inefficient way of trading. How many liters of milk should the farmer exchange for a pair of shoes from the local shoemaker? Money, on the other hand, has proved to be perhaps the strongest glue in the history of humanity, since it is a highly clear and efficient currency. Clashes between different religious myths or between different imperial myths took place within a macro-cultural framework of reference in which the existence of money was not in doubt. The simplicity behind the idea of ​​money is what has allowed it to spread on a large scale: religions, empires and moral codes require adherence to complex structures of norms, while money requires accepting a single idea.
  • Religion. Religion is the third great unifier of the world, like money and empires. It is defined as a set of values ​​based on belief in a superhuman order and plays its role effectively when it is defined as "universal" and "missionary". Universality, opposed to the locality of the animist religions of hunter-gatherers, allows to unite even apparently distant peoples, while missionarity allows the ambassadors of the "new" system of values ​​to spread like a new actively pushed cultural meme.
21 LessonsIdea: the challenges of the new century

In the central (and least original) book of the trilogy, Harari makes a series of reflections on a multitude of themes, trying to prefigure the main lines of development of this century. There are many issues addressed, and it would be impossible to focus on each of them in too much detail, so I will try to summarize only a few points of view.

  • The social effects of algorithms. Modern financial, political and economic systems rely heavily on complex algorithms. There have already been stock market crashes caused by algorithms that have not yet been fully understood. The effect of this complexity on citizens has been disorientation and difficulty understanding the future. This has led us, as evidenced by the revival of identity movements, religiosity and nationalism, to seek simple answers and to rely on strong leaders.
  • The impossibility of ending research. As we have seen, the effects of the radical advancement of science could lead to unprecedented social, economic and political upheavals. So why not regulate research to avoid the dangers? To this issue, widely discussed in other research arenas, Harari responds with pessimism: no global agreement would be able to stop an AI research laboratory located in the most hidden corner of North Korea. More likely, we could hope for the inefficient procurement of the resources necessary to advance the research resulting from these agreements. But hoping for total restraint is, according to Harari, practically impossible.
  • The immigration dilemma. Faced with an increasingly globalized world, the free movement of individuals is becoming an increasingly hot topic. According to Harari, the problem is particularly present in Europe, and to address it he breaks a lance in favor of both the opposite points of view (the pro- and the anti-immigrationist). The European Union (and its predecessors, like the ECSC) was born as a political and economical project to unite different peoples, nations and cultures (German, French, Italian, etc.) under the flags of tolerance, freedom and equality. The task seems to have been a success, given the extremely low level of violent conflicts that there have been in Europe in the last decades. Today, however, the European Union is facing the entry of a large number of people with structurally different values. Should coexistence be preferred between those who preach tolerance and those who oppose it, hoping for the creation of new systems of values? Or is it necessary that there are moral barriers to entry, which would unify European citizens within the liberal system of values? The debate, for Harari, must be addressed rationally, looking at the ideological differences from an impartial perspective.
Myths and post-truth

As stated earlier, according to Harari, the extreme complexity of the modern world is leading to the rebirth of religious extremism and identitarian movements. This, however, is not to be considered as large a danger as it might appear. In fact, while extremist movements can give a sense of purpose and a clear moral compass to the everyday lives of their adherents, they are unable to make sense of modern problems. How can reading a thousand years old sacred text give us answers on the future of Artificial Intelligence? How can the sense of national identity help us understand the developments in genetic engineering? The problem is that we do not yet have solid alternative myths that can speak to the majority of people and not just to hyper-specialized audiences.

Complicating the scenario is the great question of the excess of information available. When it is possible to instantly access every possible point of view and its opposite, how can we recognize what is true? From this question arose the idea that we live in the age of post-truth. In a sense, it no longer matters to the general public what is true and what is false, whether a scientific remedy works or not, or whether a theory is valid or invalid. What counts is the narrative behind these ideas and the way in which they adapt to our already existing vision of the world. According to Harari, as already seen abundantly in Sapiens, humans have always preferred narrative over truth, and have always been guided by myths. Post-truth, therefore, is a phenomenon as old as mankind, and has nothing to do with the upheavals brought about by Twitter and fake news.

This brings us back to the topic of creating myths. Given the potential upheavals caused by scientific rationality and its effects on society, it becomes necessary to rethink different ways of creating new myths, which will push people to re-evaluate their existence. In an interesting chapter of the book, based on an article published in Wired, Harari points out the crucial role that science fiction will have in this mythopoeic enterprise. A piece of fiction based on science but able to effectively tell the social and personal consequences of technological developments could be the key to creating new glueing myths? Could the role of films like Inside Out and Interstellar have a more important cultural function than a highly-cited physics paper?

Skills of the future 

A very interesting reflection concerns the most important skills that the inhabitants of the 21st century will have to possess, according to Harari. The transversal reflections on the theme cover more than one chapter. An important theory (but not the only one) states that the rate of acceleration of technological development and automation of tasks increases more or less constantly. If it’s true in the future the work we do today could become obsolete and the skills which we may have learned over the course of years useless in the job market, leaving us with a high probability of becoming unemployed. According to Harari, to get used to this frenetic pace of development it is necessary to teach the new generations more transversal skills, such as

  • The ability to learn. The need to constantly (and probably forever) learn new concepts, ideas and tools will reward those who will be able to learn quickly and effectively.
  • Critical thinking. In a world where the amount of data we receive is far higher than in the past, the problem of information scarcity is reversed. In a world where we can literally inform ourselves about everything and the opposite of everything, it becomes essential to reflect independently on the data received, filtering good data from bad and drawing only from sources that are reliable.
  • Empathy and communication skills. Even if algorithms become better than us in several cognitive domains, the average human’s brain will remain the same as that of hunter-gatherers. Essential elements in this sense are our need for socialization and empathy. Humor, understanding and affection may sooner or later be reproduced by a machine, but the time when we will see such reproduction is still far away. Much better, therefore, to learn to practice the art of compassion.

Thinking about learning to program in Java to secure a long-term future immersed in PCs can be a huge miscalculation. On the other hand, those who focus on acquiring more transversal skills will be much more advantaged. Ultimately, however, one should not rely too much on these individual skills, as according to Harari they will all be more or less destined to be emulated by algorithms. The meta-skill par excellence is therefore flexibility, the ability to understand and grow in a world where it is impossible to make confident predictions about the future.

Homo DeusThe class of the useless

According to Harari, this century will be defined, among other things, by two driving forces.

  • Biological change: numerous and radical innovations in the field of biotechnology, genetic engineering, cognitive enhancement and super-longevity (foundations of the transhumanist paradigm) will change the physical, mental and biological structure of human beings.
  • Job change: automation, the increasing power of algorithms and the development of technology will make almost all jobs fully automatable.

From these two premises follows a rather disturbing argument, one of the book's main points:

  • Consequence of biological change: the pace of development of innovations will be more and more rapid and will lead to a radical mutation of the bodies and minds of humans, giving them semi-divine abilities to control internal and external reality. The costs to be incurred to "keep up" with innovations in this sense will be too high and the prerogative of only a small elite of the super-rich.
  • Consequence of the job change: the "cognitive" advantage of humans over machines, up to now the guarantee of the birth of new jobs also as a result of automation processes, will disappear, leaving no possibility for people left behind to use their time in an economically productive way.
  • Conclusion: we will see a clear separation between a very small elite of super-rich with semi-divine powers able to shape reality more or less to their liking and an overwhelming majority of "useless" human beings, who will neither have the opportunity to empower themselves nor to spend their time on useful work.

The Marxist hypotheses about class struggle, in comparison, will be a nice thing of the past. Harari’s vision is bleak indeed: a scenario made up of semi-divine human beings, machines that do every job and billions of individuals drugged and immersed in virtual realities that distract them from the misery of their useless existence.

Dataism and techno-humanism

According to Harari, the myth capable of demonstrating the highest degree of cultural resilience in history has been (and still is) liberal humanism. Born from centuries of philosophical stratifications, since the end of the USSR it has established itself as a central value in almost the whole of the earth, leading thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama to speak about the "end of history". Liberal humanism is founded on democracy, capitalism and tolerance, and celebrates human intelligence, experience, values ​​and uniqueness. According to Harari, in the next century we will see a rapid decline of this value.

To narrate the decline of liberal humanism, Harari starts by describing the intersection of two new sets of values, one rooted in more extreme assumptions (which he calls Dataism) and a more moderate one (which he calls techno-humanism and which we could define as transhumanism).

  • Techno-humanism. This system of values ​​is based on the search for immortality, overcoming the limits of biology, cognitive enhancement and the search for maximum happiness. These results can be achieved thanks to the joint work of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, brain-machine interaction and other emerging technologies.
  • Dataism. Dataism is based on the idea that life itself is data processing, and everything is quantifiable, measurable and improvable through statistical analysis. By analyzing an increasing amount of data about our experiences, our biological parameters and a number of other sources, it will become possible to make algorithms more aware than ourselves of what we truly want. The value of an experience, for dataism, is given by the amount of useful data it can produce, not so much by anything phenomenological.

According to Harari, the intersection between these two value systems will lead to the overcoming of humanism. We have realized that in order to achieve the techno-humanist’s lofty goals it is necessary to use a large amount of data about ourselves. By aggregating them to try to get to know them better or to make the right choice, the algorithms will guide us in everyday life, until they become an essential element in our life. If, therefore, the fundamental value of liberal humanism is that of autonomy and if we realized that this autonomy is less effective in achieving the highest goals than delegating our choices to a machine, what will remain of humanism? What will happen to independence and individualism in the face of the idea that something external to us will know us better than we know ourselves?

According to Harari, the triumph of data will defeat the domain of individual autonomy, and morality will take on completely new and unimaginable shades. What values ​​will an immortal post-human being, enhanced and fused with data processing systems, believe in? To think that such a being can base its ethical system on what the disciples of monotheistic religions or of the scientific revolution have taught us is naive, and the question remains open.

The last step of this trajectory concerns the creation of what Harari calls the internet-of-all-things. If everything is an algorithm, if reality is permeated with data to be processed and if this processing allows to achieve better results in everything, then it is easy to assume that the next result will be that of creating an internet that permeates the whole of reality, of an algorithm that is fused with every aspect of the planet, the galaxy or the entire universe. Obviously, here we are in the plane of pure science fiction speculation (or not?). But even the first steps towards the creation of this system will be the premise for the disappearance of Homo Sapiens.

Organisms are algorithms

An interesting chapter of this wild flight concerns the thesis, which Harari defines as "accepted by biologists", according to which organisms are nothing more than algorithms. This is a thesis with strong philosophical implications, which should be investigated more carefully, but on which the book relies heavily. The idea is that everything that makes up an organism can actually be decoded and analyzed as data. The emotions we feel, the thoughts we have, the decisions we make and the values ​​we believe in are the summation of a series of chemical impulses in the brain, caused by neuronal activation patterns defined in part by our past experiences and in part by our background genetics. Nothing more. There is no "magical" component behind what Sapiens, or any other species, are and do.

In light of this, it becomes very easy to imagine the continuation of the reasoning. If what we are is determined by a series of clear and quantifiable contributing causes, then it becomes automatic to try to decode them in order to try to improve them. We can break everything down, quantify it, analyze it and try to create an enhanced version of it. Even human activities generally considered more "subtle" become simple material to decode: the most sublime art arises not from the work of the Muses, but from the release of combinations of neurotransmitters at the root of pleasure linked to every note, stroke or rhyme. Decode these combinations, create a system to produce new ones and you will have created a Van Gogh 2.0.

This reasoning also supports the hypothesis of complete work automation very well. If everything is permeated with data and if that data can be interpreted effectively by perfect machines that can do impeccable jobs with them, what is left for humans? This argument could face an anti-reductionist philosophical critique of the central thesis according to which “organisms are algorithms”. Personally, I lean towards materialist and physicalist positions, but there is no doubt that such laconic sentences on such complex issues can be subject to numerous criticisms.

The final step of the whole reasoning is very simple: the era of Homo Sapiens is nearing its end. In its place we will see the birth of Homo Deus, something that we cannot yet describe, but which we know will originate from the exponential development of all the social, technological and cultural trajectories described in the three books of the trilogy.

Conclusion

This trilogy therefore offers us food for thought and many questions to answer. If those who have come to the end of this review should intend to launch themselves into the reading of the trilogy (personal advice: the three books lend themselves very well to audio reading) here are some general questions to keep in mind.

  • What is the real role of myths in the past, present and future of Homo Sapiens? Can we say that it was only fiction that made society so united?
  • Are organisms really algorithms? The reductionist approach in biology is commonly but not unanimously accepted (as Harari would like to imply). Is there some space of reality that cannot be transformed into readable data?
  • How realistic is the scenario proposed by Harari, according to which we will see a clear separation between a small elite of Homo Deus and an overwhelming majority of completely useless individuals? And if this scenario is plausible, what kind of interventions can be implemented to reduce its dystopian scope?
  • Are we really witnessing the end of liberal humanism? If so, what cultural narrative can replace it in the coming decades? How do the dataist and techno-humanist ideas that Harari speaks of fit into this theme?


 



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Book Review: Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

13 октября, 2021 - 19:59
Published on October 13, 2021 4:22 PM GMT

 Introduction

Paul Kennedy's 1986 masterpiece "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" (I'll abbreviate as RF) is, first, a dataset. It is the most comprehensive compendium of case studies from 1500-1980 available to the casual reader (that I have come across) of the fate of nations over 50-100 year periods. Second, although he never explicitly states it, I read Kennedy's book as one of the best expositions of the view that a nations internal economic and political arrangements are the most important thing to get right. 

There are three ways to read the book. They become more interesting as they become more epistemically risky. The first is simply the thesis that - "productive balances determine the outcome of [conventional] military conflicts". With a few notable exceptions Kennedy makes a powerful case for this. The virtue of RF is it compiles difficult to find data that make this point powerfully. Even this weak conclusion is not trivial. Although most people prima facie accept this claim, often they don't carry it through to the logical conclusion that economic backwardness eventually imperils a nations existence - a point that is essential to understand Stalin's Soviet Union. The second is to view it as a bunch of data which we can use to test theories that attempt "grand history" - (i.e Zeihan in Disunited Nations or Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail). The most interesting (and most risky) way to interpret the book is as a framework think about whether a nation (great or not) succeeds or fails. I'll review RF mostly under this reading.

Towards the end, Kennedy finally states this view explicitly: 

"since the varied demands of defense spending/military security, social/consumer needs, and investment for growth involve a triangular competition for resources, there is no absolutely perfect solution to this tension."

 Let me make this slightly more explicit as the claim that if we want to know about a nation's future we should analyze the trade-offs between:

  1. Military superiority to competitor nations in the present,
  2. Making sacrifices in the present for economic growth in the future (i.e investment),
  3. Maintaining stability at home.

An appropriate reaction at this point is "Whoever would have thought otherwise? Who would have thought that investment was not important for a nations future?". The content of this framework is first that there are tradeoffs between these objectives and second, that analyzing these trade-offs gives you insight into how a nation will evolve (as opposed to say focusing on a nations geography as in Disunited Nations).

This is probably best illustrated with an example. There are basically two types of ideas on what determines a nations long term future:

  1. The geographic thesis: Success is primarily determined by how suited a nations geography is to the technology of the time (i.e having oil deposits is useless before 1850).
  2. The internal thesis: Success is primarily determined by whether a nation has the right internal structure -(i.e institutions, culture, governance, trust etc...).

These lead to vastly different grand strategies. It follows from the first that, insofar as it's able, a nation's first priority should be to seize the geographical regions that will unlock its potential. It follows from the second that the requisite blood and treasure to acquire territory are (usually) much better kept at home. On the second view, it seems nonsensical that, say, China would want to annex Taiwan. Why spend the money building a strong enough military to take or intimidate the island, when you could use it to invest in AI in Shenzhen? On the first view however, this would protect the flow of resources China needs to continue to develop - the economic growth will then take care of itself.

The framework in RF suggests that the right answer to whether this helps or hinders Russia will depend on the extent to which the resource cost (diplomatic, military and political) will impact the other two components. We can then see the geographic and internal theses as special cases: the geographic thesis sees the last two objectives as largely fixed, whilst the internal thesis sees them as largely movable. Kennedy's framework would be falsified if these components were not in conflict (if military buildup accelerates economic growth, say - as is sometimes claimed for US investment in R&D in the 1960s), or if different factors need to be considered.

There are too many historical cases to give an overview of them in a reasonable length of time - for that, you'll have to read it! I'll review RF by going through what I consider to be the most illustrative historical example of each type of conflict that arise between the objectives, then point out what this framework struggles to explain, and finally speculate (wildly) by applying it some contemporary economies.

Domestic stability vs. investment

Stalin's Soviet Union in the interwar period 1929-1941 is the paradigm of sacrificing domestic stability in order to force economic growth. To properly understand the context of this trade-off we first have to appreciate the weakest form of Kennedy's thesis - that "Productive balances determine outcome of [conventional] military conflicts". To see this, let us look at the total manufacturing GDP (the part of GDP relevant for producing weapons) for each side in WW1:

The "Productive balances" in the first world war before the entry of the US.
Source: KENNEDY, P. M. (1987). The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000.

Since the manufacturing GDPs are roughly equal we would expect a stalemate with a slight advantage for the Entente - which indeed is precisely what happened. Once the USA joins the allies the story is completely different - and indeed once US soldiers had landed in meaningful numbers in 1918, the war came to a quick conclusion.

The "Productive balances: in the first world war after the entry of the US.
Source: KENNEDY, P. M. (1987). The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000.

Kennedy marshal's similar data for the Crimean War. Once Britain and France had an overwhelming advantage in the "productive balances" against Russia, they translated this into military gains in the Crimean War for 1853.

GNP at in billions of 1960 USD
Source: KENNEDY, P. M. (1987). The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000.

The period between the world wars then, was a hazardous time for a nation. The 1800s had confirmed that the western powers were merciless in using their economic advantage to impose brutal colonial regimes where they could. Since wars between the European powers were restrained by their high stakes, the European powers looked to make military gains against less developed nations. But what nations were left? The first world war and then the revolution had left Russia devastated. The resulting "productive balances" for the 1927 Soviet Union were grim:

 

 191319201921192219231924192519261927USSR4%1%1%1%1%2%2%3%4%Germany15%9%13%12%8%11%11%10%13%U.K.14%14%10%11%11%11%10%9%10%France6%5%5%6%6%7%6%7%6%Japan1%2%2%2%2%2%2%2%2%US40%53%49%51%54%48%49%50%46%

Stalin saw the danger: "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.". Hitler concluded that Russia would become "Germany's India" after a "war of annihilation". Economic development was no longer about being marginally ahead but now about survival at all. The stakes could not have been higher. It follows that of the three competing objectives, in Stalin's view, the only two available, were military power and economic development. The sacrifices for future economic growth would have to come at the cost of living standards. Since the Soviet union was at that point largely a subsistence economy, this would mean driving the population to the brink of starvation in order to fund the factories. This brutal story is told in the statistics by the increase in investment at the expense of consumption following the introduction of the 1929 five year plan:

Ratio of Investment to GDP in the Soviet Union
Source: Was Stalin Necessary for Russia's Economic Development?, Cheremukhin, Anton and Golosov, Mikhail and Guriev, Sergei and Tsyvinski, Aleh (2013)

No population could have been expected to suffer such privations without serious discontent. To maintain domestic stability and insure uninterrupted reallocation of resources into heavy industry Stalin created one of the most brutal regimes in history. The median historian estimate is that two million civilians were murdered. The Soviet Union became the first major power in history to achieve breakneck growth of around 10% a year (from an artificially low base), with even more impressive increases in manufacturing:

 192719281929193019311932193319341935193619371938USSR4%4%5%7%10%13%13%14%15%16%17%20%Germany13%12%11%11%10%9%9%11%11%10%10%12%U.K.10%9%10%10%11%10%11%10%10%9%9%0%France6%7%7%8%8%9%9%8%7%6%6%7%Japan2%3%3%3%3%3%4%4%4%3%3%4%US46%46%47%43%40%35%37%36%37%39%38%31%

Just as in WW1, the slight industrial advantage enjoyed by the allies gave them a slight military advantage. Thus, when France was fighting alone in 1940, it was quickly defeated. The Soviet Union came within a hair of annihilation in 1941, but was able to turn the tide, largely alone, by 1943. The fate of the axes was sealed once the US entered the war in a meaningful way in 1944. As Churchill proclaimed "the rest is just the application of overwhelming force".

It is hard to overstate the example of the Soviet Union Five Year Plan's had on the developing world. As the world order was reshaped after WW2, newly independent countries saw the Soviet Union economic model as the only one that had developed the means to resist the former colonial powers. Moreover, it had done so against the backdrop of the most severe financial crisis of the 20th century. Brutal thought the cost had been (and the full cost was not then widely known) the Soviet Union had succeeded in achieving rapid growth and thereby providing the material means to resist colonization. Many countries planning their economic system ex nihilo thus concluded that to ensure their survival they too would have to suffer the same privations the Soviet's had. Hence India's Nehru, China's Mao, and Egypt's Nasser would all institute central planning for their economies.

Even Paul Samuelson, one of the founding fathers of modern economics, was taken in. In his 1960 textbook he predicted that the Soviet Union would overtake the USA by 1980. The reason was simple - as an extractive totalitarian regime, the Soviet Union could make larger short term sacrifices (i.e drive consumption lower) for long term benefits (to support a higher investment rate). Eventually therefore, the Soviet's would become dominant.

Stalin's gambit, however, had a sting in the tail. To understand this, let's introduce a useful tautology: define the "rate of return" as:

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This is a very crude way of quantifying the "quality" of investment - a higher value means that each unit of investment produces a larger increase in economic output. We can imagine the "rate of return" as capturing the ability of an economy to develop new technologies, convert them into more efficient production, quality of administration, waste etc... . The regime Stalin had created was efficient at increasing the amount of investment, but once the low hanging fruit was gone the rate of return collapsed:

This occurred for all the well documented problems with central planning that were exposed in the soviet union post 1960's: excessive bureaucracy, tremendous waste (Kennedy repeats the well known but nonetheless striking statistic that 4% of agricultural land in the soviet union was private yet produced 25% of output), low rates of innovation etc... . The USSR was thus in a bind - it had forced investment at the price of creating a brutal internal security regime to preserve domestic stability. As the rate of return collapsed post 1960, the soviet union increasingly had to hope that it could use it's point in time military superiority to translate into economic gain. The cold war thus saw its final flash points in the 1980's, before Gorbachev gambled unsuccessfully on resolving the core imbalance: "Acceleration of the country’s socio-economic development is the key to all our problems; immediate and long-term, economic and social, political and ideological, internal and external."

"Rate of return" and Gross Fixed Capital Formation/GDP for the Soviet Union
Source: Calculated from Joint Committee Report on Soviet economic growth 1980 and 1990

Before commenting briefly on the next trade-off, it's worth pausing to see whether first, others scholar agree that the soviet industrialization had to come at the expense of domestic consumption, and second if we can find other examples of this trade-off. I think the most we can conclude is that this question is criminally understudied. This strikes me as the central question for coming up with an assessment of Stalin's policies and yet after 1800 pages of Stephen Kotkin's authoritative biography, all we get is a reference to a 2013 paper that illustrates a growth decomposition method. It claims that Stalin's policies were unnecessary by simulating a 'Japan style' path for the Soviet Union in 1929 (Beyond the scope of this review but I don't find their analysis conclusive - the problem is that the external environment's were entirely different. To substantiate this requires at least a slightly detailed discussion of the diplomatic options available to the USSR.) What I think is at least clear is that Kennedy's framework gets us the right qualitative answer - growth was boosted at the expense of consumption.

On the second, the most illustrative example is the initial industrialization phase for the western European economies. They, too, went through a similar pattern of driving down living standards to fund the investment necessary for the industrial revolution (which featured prominently in the Soviet's thinking about the right economic model). Carl Frey recounts this "Engels pause" phenomenon excellently in The Technology Trap:

Real GDP per worker stagnates before 1840, whilst real GDP grows - implying that the fruits of growth flow to the owners of capital.
Source: FREY, C. B. (2019). The technology trap: capital, labor, and power in the age of automation

Even though the real wage rate is stagnant, hours worked increased and nutrition suffered causing life expectancy to be ten years lower in industrial regions than the rest of the country. 
(Aside: looking at industrializing nations (say in Devine's History of Scotland) in detail one often finds accounts of workers eagerly moving to the cities despite being aware of the lower life expectancy and harder working conditions, so its not entirely convincing that industrial life was worse until 1870.)

Military vs. investment

The contrast between pre- and post-WW2 Japan is the clearest example of the conflict between investing in economic growth and spending on the military. 

Between 1914 and 1938, Japan favored military expansion at the expense of economic growth. Japan devoted around 5% of its GDP to the military (about twice the rate of the UK) leaving only 15% for investment:

Japan Military spending as % of GDP
Source: Calculated from  Interwar U.S. and Japanese National Product and Defense Expenditure, William D. O'Neil (2003)Japan non-military investment as a % of GDP
Source: Calculated from  Interwar U.S. and Japanese National Product and Defense Expenditure, William D. O'Neil (2003) and
Long-term Movement of Capital Formation - The Japanese Case, Koichi Emi

Worse, the rate of return was terrible since the best talent went to the military. The result was that Japanese GDP per capita barely moved - from $920 in today's dollars in 1913 to $960 in 1938.

Between the Americans leaving in 1950 and 1973 Japanese GDP per capita exploded - from $3000 to $18000. From the perspective of the economic statistics, the proximate explanation is simply this - freed from the requirement to spend 6-10% of GDP on its military, Japan could devote this resource to investment. When combined with a population willing to save large portions of their income to fund the country's development, this set of a virtuous cycle of investment growing incomes which in turn increased the capital available for further growth.

Growing income also reduced the fertility rate (more on this in the penultimate section). Since children are the largest expense of a household this supercharged the growth in savings available for investment. This allowed Japan to have an investment rate higher even than the Soviet Union - totalitarianism is no match for demography! The real magic, though, lay in the rate of return. Japan managed to sustain a much higher rate of return than the Soviets, and intriguingly, the rate of returned increased with increasing investment up to 165:

Japanese and Soviet Gross Fixed Capital Formation as % of GDP
Source: Calculated from Joint Committee Report 1986 and 1990 and World BankJapanese and Soviet ``Rate of return" calculated over rolling five years windows
Source: Calculated from Joint Committee Report 1986 and 1990 and World Bank

Kennedy's framework analyzes this as Japan having sacrificed military spending and domestic consumption to concentrate on future economic growth via investment. Kennedy points out that this was only possible because of Japan's unique circumstances: "sheltering under the US military umbrella" removed the usual penalty for falling behind competitor nations militarily, and an unusually high level of social cohesion post WW2 meant the population were willing (once properly incentivized through tax policy) to defer large portions of current consumption. The lesson is simple: if a nation can avoid being penalized by competitors for having a weak military, has the right demographics, and a population willing to sacrifice current consumption - then spectacular economic growth can be achieved, laying the foundations for long term success. In terms of the framework, we can trade-off objectives 1 and 3 with 2.

Domestic stability vs. Military spending

Surprisingly, I found it difficult to cleanly categorize any of the cases reviewed as this conflict. The cleanest candidate is probably the French revolution. The American war of Independence initiated yet-another war between England and France that would exhaust the French treasury. Kennedy doesn't go into detail here and merely nods in this direction: "the sheer cost of the 1778-1783 war... interacted with the growing political discontents, economic distress, and social malaise to discredit the ancien regime." The decline of the Ottoman Empire, too, is a good candidate to be analysed this way since it may have been excessive spending on the military that thwarted on Ottoman industrial revolution. Finally we have the decline of Russia's relative economic power after 1815, but that is probably better considered as a conflict between military spending and investment.

The Prussian counterexample

The most striking counterexample in Kennedy's work is 1700-1871 Prussia. Prussia appears to be the archetype of a power that succeeds in securing economic growth through military spending. At the start of Kennedy's period, Prussia is just one princedom amongst the three hundred or so German states. Through marriage and judicious military intervention, Prussia would grow into a moderate power by 1700. But it was significantly poorer than Britain or France, and had no easily defensible borders:

Brandenburg-Prussia at the time of the Great Elector (1640-88)
Source: CLARK, C. M. (2006). Iron kingdom: the rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge, Mass, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Prussia under Frederick the Great (1740-1786)
Source: CLARK, C. M. (2006). Iron kingdom: the rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge, Mass, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Prussia's remarkable ascent during the next 170 years was built on its military. Voltaire famously quipped that " “Where some states possess an army, the Prussian Army possesses a state.” 80% of the government budget (and since the economy was largely subsistence this was most of the surplus) went on the army, the largest of any of the major European powers.

Military spending as a % of government revenues
Source: What to do states do? Politics and economic history, Philip Hoffman, Journal of economic history

In 1860-71, Prussia translated the military advantage into economic gains, winning a war against Austria and then decisively against France to unify Germany. This, at least initially, fits badly with the weak form of Kennedy's thesis. The same type of analysis of the "productive balances" as in WW1 would suggest a stalemate in the war with France:

GNP of the European power billions of 1960 USD
Source: KENNEDY, P. M. (1987). The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000.GNP per capita of the European powers in 1960 USD
Source: KENNEDY, P. M. (1987). The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000.

Kennedy suggests that this is the exception that proves the rule, since a more detailed look into the numbers would show that Prussia had more production where it mattered: "Germany had more miles of railway lines, better arranged for military purposes. Its gross national product and its iron and steel production were just then overtaking the French totals. Its coal production was two and a half times as great, and its consumption from modern energy sources was 50 percent larger". I think without further work this explanation of the 1700-1871 story is unconvincing (given that the per capita and total manufacturing levels were roughly equal) and so Prussia during this time should be considered a counterexample even to the weakest form of Kennedy's thesis.

More interesting, contrary to the usual story of a militaristic imperial Prussia/Germany post 1871, the most remarkable period of Prussian/German growth occured after the 1871 unification. After the war, Prussia/Germany's military spending fell dramatically. France became the largest spender among the western powers. Low and behold, it fell dramatically behind Germany economically in the next fifty years. The military spending-economic growth trade-off seems to have been operating:

Percentage shares of world manufacturing output
Source: KENNEDY, P. M. (1987). The rise and fall of the great powers: economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000.Military spending as a percentage of GDP
Source: EH.net, quoting Jari Eloranta, “Struggle for Leadership? Military Spending Behavior of the Great Powers, 1870-1913Application to contemporary economies

If by some miracle you're still with me at this point, hopefully you think there's something useful in Kennedy's framework. What would it say about contemporary economies? I think two of the most interesting predictions would be:

  1. India will grow faster than China in the next twenty years.
  2. US growth will slow.
China, India, Japan

At the end of his book, Kennedy offers some predictions on Japan, America, and Europe up to the year 2000. He gets Japan badly wrong: "Just how powerful, economically, will Japan be in the early twenty-first century? Barring large-scale war, or ecological disaster, or a return to a 1930s-style world slump and protectionism, the consensus answer seems to be: much more powerful.". Although the proximate cause of Japan's problems are the 1989 financial crisis and its aftermath, the deeper cause is that the trade-off of the 1950-70's between domestic consumption and investment went into reverse. This is the hangover of falling fertility rates. Once the population ages and moves into retirement the savings surplus becomes a deficit as retirees consume their savings  Since these savings were financing growth the investment rate had to come down and with it, growth:

Household savings as a % of income and Gross Fixed Capital Formation as % of GDP for Japan
Source: Calculated from World BankJapan Real GDP growth
Source: Calculated from World Bank

China is now in this predicament. The one child policy created a massive surplus of investment capital that could be used to finance the extraordinary growth of 1990-2015, but we are right on the cusp of the hangover (i.e Japan in 1970):

Share of population in each age group: China is now facing the same expansion of the retirement age group as Japan did in the 1970s
Source: Demographics and aggregate household savings in Japan, China, and India, Curtis, Lugauer and Mark (2017)Household savings rate: China is where Japan was in the late 1970's.
Source:  Demographics and aggregate household savings in Japan, China, and India, Curtis, Lugauer and Mark (2017)

India never had a one child policy, nor is its population as urban as China's (fascinating aside on whether China's example was behind its sterilization flirtation). India's increase in savings and consequent rise in investment capital is hence much more gradual:

India share of the population that is below 20 (grey), above 64 (red) and 20-63 (white)Gross Fixed Capital as % of GDP
Source: Calculated from World Bank

So we would expect India's growth to lag China's - until now. India's savings rates should increase for the next twenty years, while China's must decline

Change in the savings rate as a consequence of demographics
Source: Demographics and aggregate household savings in Japan, China, and India, Curtis, Lugauer and Mark (2017)

Barring a collapse in the rate of return then, India should grow significantly faster than China for the next twenty years.

Barring a collapse in the rate of return then, India should grow significantly faster than China for the next twenty years.

US

Since the start of the Cold War, the US has had two overriding objectives: to grow faster than the USSR and maintain military superiority or at least parity. Kennedy's framework would suggest that this should come at the expense of domestic stability. I think this is indeed the case, but the mechanism is via wealth redistribution and hence more subtle. From 1970-1991 the US allocated roughly 5% of GDP to the military, whilst the investment rate stayed constant at around 20% (Note also the reallocation into investment after the fall of the soviet union!):

US Gross Fixed Capital Formation as % of GDP
Source: World BankUS Military expenditure as % of GDP
Source: World Bank

Whilst the investment rate has stayed constant, the rate of return has come down:

US "Rate of return" rolling five year windows
Source: Calculated from FRED

The important context for domestic stability is that this has happened, as in almost all other western economies, against the backdrop of a collapse in the household savings rate. Whilst this would suggest that short term improvements in living standards are being favored over long term investment, the improvement in material living standards has been concentrated exclusively among the wealthy:

US Income for different percentiles
Source: MURRAY, C. A. (2012). Coming apart: the state of white America, 1960-2010.

Because the wealthy save a larger proportion and earn higher returns, both the investment rate and the rate of return would have been even lower had growth been shared evenly.

Savings rate by wealth percentiles
Source: Wealth inequality in the US since 1913: Evidence from capitalized income tax data, Saez and Zucman (2014)Rates of return on savings by wealth percentile
Source: Rich pickings? Risk, Return and Skill in Household Wealth, Laurent Bach, Laurent E. Calvet, and Paolo Sodini, (2018)
 

As Charles Murray documents in Coming Apart, the consequence is that the American working class have seen a devastating decline in all the metrics that sociologists believe predict happiness - relationship quality, income, quality of work, community participation. Here are two of the easier to interpret ones:

Proportion of white males 30-49 that are married. ``Belmont" represents Americans with high education and incomes, Fishtown represents low education and incomes
Source: MURRAY, C. A. (2012). Coming apart: the state of white America, 1960-2010.White heads of household aged 30-49 self-reported working hours
Source: MURRAY, C. A. (2012). Coming apart: the state of white America, 1960-2010.

Unsurprisingly, the American working class (around 40% of the population as Murray defines it) is unhappy with the establishment political parties. They would like the US to choose domestic stability at the expense of the other two parts of the framework. If America increasingly sees China as a threat military spending will likely remain robust. That leaves only the, inequality-driven, artificially high, economic growth to trade-off.

Conclusion

Predicting the success or failure of nations over the long term is hard. The best that we can hope for is to ask the right kinds of questions. The prime virtue of Kennedy's framework is it helps us to do that. I think we can take away the following general themes:

  1. The value of this kind of work for economics is that particular case studies can serve as starting points for further research, though they are very weak evidence in and of themselves. Japan from 1950-1964 and India from 1960-2018 saw increasing rates of return with increasing investment rates. This is ,at least at first glance, difficult to explain in a conventional economic analysis that assumes investment projects are chosen in order of attractiveness and so higher investment rates should result in lower average returns.
  2. Both Stalin's Soviet Union and post WW2 Japan illustrate the importance of savings rates for growth. By the connection with demographics, this is a rare instance of a macroeconomic variable that we can have some confidence in predicting going forward.
  3. This framework helps us understand the mindset of policymakers. It is striking how directly in Stalin's thinking the analysis of the "productive balance" was. We can see in Stephen Kotkin's biography how prominently this calculation featured in Stalin's refusal to believe that Hitler would go to war with the Soviet Union, France, and Britain. It is also easy to see, perhaps, why savings had such a strong moral component before 1950 - the fate of the nation hinged on having enough capital to outgrow its competitors.
  4. I have frequently added tidbits from other literature to this review. The framework Kennedy proposes is sufficiently general in order to allow us to probe each trade-off in more detail. The Technology Trap, say, is a great example of the domestic stability vs. growth trade-off. Coming Apart tells us about dynamics internal to domestic stability, and we can use then relate the findings back to the framework.


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Forget AGI alignment, are you aligned with yourself?

13 октября, 2021 - 19:20
Published on October 13, 2021 4:20 PM GMT

Here's the problem to solve:

 - value alignment between AI and broad societal values

Here's some other unsolved problems:

 - value alignment across factions of society

 - value alignment between two members of society

 - value alignment between two members of society who have a a 99% overlap in their values and beliefs

 - value alignment between a person and the very same person from 5 years ago

 - value alignment between a person and a clone of the person with cognitive superpowers

 - value alignment between a person and a clone of the person in a different mood

 - value alignment between a person and a clone of the person

This might sound weird, but assume I was locked in a room with a clone of myself. Also in the room is a button that grants absolute totalitarian control of the future of humanity via a ton of previously uninvented tech. I imagine it would start with two of us bein vary - physically protecting ourselves, not pushing the button, and starting a a conversation, both of us unsure both of our own goals and how well they align with the other person in the room. Even though the other person is my clone, we could interact asymmetrically in a conversation due to non-deterministic effects or asymmetric instantiation (we both walked into the room with different thoughts in our mind). And as the conversation evolves, we will diverge - be it over minutes or weeks. I can totally imagine a future where we both hit on some key point of difference in the conversation that causes us to fight to the death in the very same room, for that control. (Assuming ofcourse we both care that strongly about the future of humanity to begin with.)

Wondering if anyone else relates to this.



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Notes from the book ‘First Three Minutes’ by Steven Weinberg

13 октября, 2021 - 12:06
Published on October 13, 2021 9:06 AM GMT

This is a cross-post from my blog.

It’s mind-blowing that we humans are able to talk about what happened in the first 3 minutes of The Big Bang. This book was written in 1976 which was quite a while back but it’s interesting to note that while there have been extensions in the ideas presented, I’m not aware of any idea being rejected or overturned yet. This should perhaps be unsurprising because most scientific ideas that are accepted as truth are consilient, i.e. they’re supported by multiple lines of evidence.

This means that when we talk about what happened in the first 3 minutes of The Big Bang, we’re confident about those events because only those descriptions make sense when we account for what we observe in the universe today.

I’m writing these notes primarily to solidify what I understood from the book. I’d love to get corrected if I’m wrong somewhere and to learn from people who are informed a lot more about cosmology than me.

How do we know that the Big Bang really happened?

The evidence for Big Bang essentially comes from the observation that we see different galaxies moving away from us and their speed of movement is proportional to how far they’re from us. This speed — called the Hubble Constant — is an empirical measurement (i.e. cannot be derived from first principles yet). Currently, it’s measured to be 70 (km/s)/Mpc. The unit Mpc is mega parsec where 1 parsec is approximately equal to 3.26 light years.

If we roll back this expansion, we’d naturally find that all these galaxies once were at the same place. To understand this, notice that a galaxy twice as far from us as another galaxy moves at twice the velocity. So if you roll back time, you’ll find that all galaxies (no matter how far from us currently) were once coincident in space.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that our location on Earth is special and the Big Bang started here. The expansion of universe can be observed from any location in the universe (which is the basis of cosmological principle). No location is privileged. Big Bang happened everywhere in the universe.

We can do a rough estimate of when did Big Bang happen by simply inverting the Hubble Constant. Which means if we know that currently a galaxy 1 mega parsec away is moving from us at 70 km/s, we need to ask how much time it would have taken for the galaxy to reach 1 megaparsec from us at that speed.

So, Time since Big Bang =

Converting 70 km/s into light years / years (natural units).

Plugging in:

Time since Big Bang =

=

=

The correct calculation would include the changing velocity of expansion with time (which is primarily due to initial slowing down due to gravitation but current acceleration due to dark energy / cosmological constant).

How do we measure the velocity of galaxies?

We don’t see galaxies moving away from us when we observe them in the telescope because such movement is too imperceptible to human eyes. But we have another way of measuring movement.

This method of measuring of how far away something is moving is called redshifting of atomic spectra.

Stars usually emit light at a spectrum of multiple wavelengths. As the light comes out of a star, some of the wavelengths get absorbed by the elements present on its surface. The light gets absorbed because photons at those specific wavelengths cause jumping of electrons in these elements from one energetic state to another. The result of such absorption is that when we pass the light through a sensitive prism, we see dark bands at some locations. These dark bands correspond to the elements in the star. This method is, in fact, how we study the composition of stars.

For example, here is the spectrograph of sun’s radiation (called Fraunhofer lines).

The dark bands correspond to various elements present in the Sun (such as Fe, Na, etc.)

As light from distant galaxies comes towards us, the intervening space itself expands, stretching the wavelength of the emitted light. As I said, this stretching is known as redshifting.

So when we measure spectrum of a distant galaxy, we can compare how much the known absorption lines (as compared to a closer object like Sun) have moved. The difference in wavelengths of what we expect and what we see indicates the velocity of the object.

(Note that measuring Hubble’s constant requires us to know the distance as well (apart from speed). Measuring distances of distant objects is tricky and astronomers use multiple methods. One method is to rely on stars that are called Cephid variables whose absolute luminosity can be calculated from its periodicity of light. We can easily measure periodicity of light which gives us how luminous we expect the star to be. Now we can compare this absolute luminosity to apparent luminosity that we observe in our telescopes to estimate distance needed to dilute absolute luminosity enough to give rise to what we see in our telescope.)

By the way, we can measure the redshift of light from objects at different distances in the universe to figure out the speed of expansion of space during different times in the history of the universe. It’s crazy but in our universe, looking far in space = looking far in time.

For example, the redshift of relatively closer objects is higher than much further objects, indicating that the universe now is expanding faster than it was doing in the past. In other words, it appears our universe’s expansion is accelerating. (Light from the objects nearer would have spent a larger proportion of time traveling through higher rate of space expansion than light from the objects further away, hence we should expect higher relative redshift for closer objects than objects further away)

Estimating what happened in the first three minutes

We have essentially two signals from the very first moments of The Big Bang:

  1. The radiation signal – the leftover light from the Big Bang should be observable today, albeit its wavelength would have been stretched enormously with the expansion of the universe. We detect this radiation as Cosmic Microwave Background, a faint electromagnetic radiation coming from all directions.
  2. The matter signal (stellar nucleosynthesis)- all hydrogen that we observe is from the Big Bang (since hydrogen cannot be made in stars as it is their fuel to make higher elements). Also, even though stars produce helium, it turns out most of the Helium that exists in the universe is from the Big Bang (we know this because abundance of Helium is estimated to be ~25% in the universe; this amount of Helium if produced in stars would have created intense radiation, something that we would have observed. Moreover, this abundance of helium is pretty constant across stars and galaxies while other heavy elements’ abundance varies which indicates its primordial nature). Since hydrogen and helium were created at the Big Bang, our current ratio of their relative abundance (which is 4:1) should have been the same at the Big Bang and that’s something we can use in our deduction of what happened then.

So, we can put together the radiation signal and the matter signal to roughly reconstruct what must have happened at the Big Bang.

Let’s start with finding more about the temperature of the universe during its first moments.

All objects at thermal equilibrium emit electromagnetic radiation (called blackbody radiation) at a specific spectrum of wavelengths called Plank distribution. This distribution of wavelengths is not as important. What matters is that every object in the universe emits radiation with a specific mean temperature. The higher the temperature of a body, the higher the mean wavelength of emitted radiation. The black body radiation is why infrared cameras work. Animals like humans who maintain a temperature of their bodies emit radiation that peaks in the infrared spectrum, so even in dark when there is no visible light, an infrared camera can pick up this radiation.

Just like all bodies emit a radiation that depends on temperature, we can consider the leftover radiation signal (the cosmic microwave background) to also correspond to a temperature of the universe today. The CMB today is measured to have a characteristic temperature of 2.5 degree kelvin. This temperature corresponds to the microwave length radiation that we observe coming from all directions in the universe.

Since the Big Bang, the photons universe started with have neither been created nor destroyed, so net number of photons today should be similar to what we had during universe’ initial moments. However, wavelength of these photos has been stretched by the expansion of the universe which means volume filled by the same photons grew as a cube. As wavelength increased by the cube, frequency of photons decreased by the cubed. Since temperature of an object depends on energy and energy depends on frequency, so energy per unit volume also got diluted as universe expanded.

If we run this logic backwards in time, this means that per unit volume, as the universe shrunk by a factor of X, there would be a factor of X more energy in that volume and hence the temperature will be higher than a factor of X.

The upshot of this insight is that when the universe was 1000 times smaller than the current size, the background radiation energy of the universe was 1000 times more (since total background radiation is neither created or destroyed since the Big Bang).

This enables us to link the background temperature of the universe with the size and hence age of the universe since the Big Bang.

Why is knowing temperature of the universe during its history important? It’s because at different threshold temperatures, different transitions happen (such as the formation of first atoms, collisions between particles, etc.).

The first moments of the Big Bang

We measure our current observable universe to be roughly a sphere with 45 billion light years radius, which means when the universe was roughly 45 billion times smaller, the background radiation temperature would have been 2.5 degree kelvin * 45 billion = ~100 billion Kelvin in the first instance. This is intensely hot (as a comparison, Sun’s core is 15 million Kelvin). At this high temperature, most interactions and dynamics are at an equilibrium (i.e. the number of particles of matter and antimatter created by pure energy is equal to energy released by annihilation of matter and antimatter).

Because the early universe is super-hot and most interactions are at equilibrium, we cannot say much about the universe other than properties that are conserved (that is, those that are fixed and don’t change with time or size of the universe). Three such conserved quantities describe the first moments:

  1. Net charge: this is the total charge (positive or negative) in the universe. We know it to be zero from modern observations and also from the fact that if there was a net charge, universe would not have been the way as we observe it today.
  2. Baryon number: baryons are large nuclear particles such as neutrons and protons (and their anti partners). Baryon number is the total number of baryons per photon. We know that that this number is not zero because baryons exist (since we’re made from protons and neutrons). This number is experimentally observed to be 1 per 1000 million photons. Note that in early universe, baryons and anti-baryons were constantly created and destroyed. As temperature dropped, this creation stopped and most baryons and anti-baryons annihilated into radiation leaving us with the extra remaining baryons that make up stars, planets and living beings like us. Nobody knows why there are extra baryons or first principles basis of knowing the exact Baryonic number. Perhaps, anthropic principle can explain – if this number would have been different, we would have not existed. It’s speculated that outside our observable universe, in different pockets of the entire universe, this number could be different.
  3. Lepton number: leptons are particles such as electrons, positrons, neutrinos and anti-neutrinos. This number is similar to baryon number and hence represents extra number of leptons per photon. The exact number is hard to estimate but is believed to be smaller than 1.
Nucleosynthesis event

When temperature was high enough, there were similar number of neutrons and protons (both matter and anti-matter) that were constantly getting created and destroyed. As temperature dropped, there was not enough energy in the radiation for this creation, hence it stopped. At that point, matter and anti-matter for baryons were still annihilating into radiation. (The temperature was still high enough for electrons and positrons to still constantly get created and destroyed).

The remaining baryons after annihilation consisted of matter neutrons and protons (almost in equal proportions). Where did antimatter go? It got annihilated. Why was there leftover matter? We don’t know for sure.

At high temperatures, neutrons can be converted into protons and vice versa. However, as temperature drops, the likelihood of a neutron converting into proton is much higher than the other way around. This means with expanding universe (and correspondingly decreasing temperature), more and more neutrons converted into protons (but the reverse didn’t happen much).

Eventually, at ~13 seconds since the Big Bang, temperature dropped to 3 billion degrees and at this temperature, strong nuclear force was able to bind protons and neutrons into stable nucleus such as hydrogen and helium. We can calculate that we should expect the ratio of neutrons to protons at this temperature to be ~15 percent (neutrons) and ~85 percent (protons). Since Helium contains equal neutrons and protons while hydrogen only contains protons, we should estimate Helium to Hydrogen proportion in the current universe to be double proportion as the proportion of neutrons. That is, we should expect our universe to have ~30% (helium) to ~70% (hydrogen). In fact, that is what we observe today and it’s a fantastic confirmation that we’ve got the story of the Big Bang roughly right.

Recombination event

As universe expanded and cooled further, leptons (electrons, neutrinos and their anti-partners) stopped getting created. Neutrinos and anti-neutrinos do not interact much with anything else, so they remain as free particles (which in principle, we should be able to observe today but they don’t interact much). However, electrons and its anti-partner positron interacts so, as temperature dropped, most of them get annihilated away into radiation, leaving a leftover number of electrons which is exactly equal to to number of protons (so that net charge is zero in the universe).

However, universe was still too hot (radiation is still too energetic) for electrons to bind to protons to make stable atoms. Light was constantly getting scattered by the unbounded electrons. It’s only after ~350k years that the temperature drops enough for free electrons to be captured by hydrogen and helium nucleus to give rise to hydrogen and helium atoms. These atoms eventually coalesce into galaxies and stars, giving rise to living beings like us.

This is incidentally when the universe became transparent as light didn’t have any free electrons to bump into / scatter from. With no more free electrons to bump into, the radiation started to travel freely and that’s what we see today in CMB (cosmic wave background).

But the first stars didn’t form until 200-500 million years. So until then, the era is called the Dark Ages.

Future of the universe

What happens in the future with our universe depends on whether there is enough mass in the universe for gravity to start dominating the movement of galaxies, so that at some point in future instead of racing away from each other, they start racing towards each other.

Hence, the two scenarios of the future would be:

  • Open: there is not enough matter density. The universe keeps on expanding forever, which means any two distant galaxies (that are not locally gravitationally bound) keep getting further and further away, eventually getting so far at such speeds that even light wouldn’t be able to travel between them.
  • Closed: there is enough matter density that after a point, galaxies stop moving away from each other and start moving towards each other. This would look like running the Big Bang in reverse, eventually compressing everything into a small space. It’s called the Big Crunch.

We don’t know about the future of the universe with certainty, but all current evidence indicates that there isn’t enough matter and hence the universe will keep on expanding forever.

Closing lines

To close my notes, I’ll quote the lines from the last paragraph from the book because they’re so beautiful:

The more universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.
..
But if there’s no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. .. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.



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Meetup Advice #1: Choosing a venue

13 октября, 2021 - 09:23
Published on October 13, 2021 6:23 AM GMT

This is the first post in a sequence I'm writing on how to run a meetup. The advice in this sequence comes from hundreds of survey responses and dozens of conversations I've had with meetup organizers and attendees over the past four and a half years. I'm just the messenger.

In this post, I discuss best practices for choosing a meetup venue. I'm erring on the side of thoroughness, but I also don't want the slew of considerations to give people decision paralysis. No venue is perfect on every single axis! People have had great meetups at all kinds of suboptimal places. Please don't give up on having a meetup because of this post; just pick a place that seems decent to you and see what happens. According to the most recent data, there's a 96% chance you won't regret it!

Basic considerations for choosing a venue

What factors should go into your choice of a venue? TL;DR:

  • Location — The venue should be easy to get to.
  • Size — The venue should be big enough to fit all the people who show up to your meetup.
  • Availability — The venue needs to be available for a group of your size at the time your meetup is scheduled.
  • Physical comfort — The venue should be within walking distance of bathrooms and drinking water, and people need to be able to sit down. It also shouldn't be too hot, cold, wet, bright, full of wasps, etc.
  • Noise — The venue should not have much background noise and should not get cacophonous if many people are talking at once.
  • Food — The venue should offer a variety of affordable food, or you should provide food yourself.
Geographical location

Travel time is a major reason that people don't attend meetups, so you want to choose a place that's as easy as possible for people to reach. Consider:

  • Accessibility via public transport
    • A location near a major transit hub can be a good choice, especially if people are coming from far away
  • Availability and price of parking
  • Walkability / bikeability
  • Centrality / convenience for attendees
    • You can survey people to find out what areas are best for them
    • If you're in a spread-out area, you might want to alternate locations — e.g. Chicago has some of their meetups close to the center of the city and some farther north.
Size

You need a venue that can accommodate all the people who might show up. If you expect a lot of people or have a lot of uncertainty about how many people will attend, choose a flexible venue such as a park, or plan ahead for a spillover location. For example, an indoor meeting might spill over into an adjacent yard or parking lot, or a nearby park.

Availability

It's important to be sure that the space you've chosen is actually available for a group of your size at the time you've chosen to meet.

If meeting indoors, you might want to:

  • Check the venue's schedule for conflicts.
  • Make a reservation if possible.
  • If you can't reserve seating, get there early to secure a spot.
  • Check Google Maps to see how busy the location is at your planned meeting time.

If meeting in a park:

  • Check whether there might be a protest, an outdoor concert, or some other unusual event, and/or choose a park where this is unlikely to be the case.
  • Be aware that some cities require you to get a permit to hold an event in their parks.
Physical comfort
  • Bathrooms 
    • Bathrooms are non-optional! Most indoor locations will have nearby bathrooms by default, so this is mostly relevant for outdoor meetups. Outdoor meetups might use bathrooms at cafés or shopping centers, park shelters, or attendees' homes, or pay-per-use public toilets (in some countries).
  • Water
    • Same deal as bathrooms.
  • Places to sit
    • Standing for multiple hours is unpleasant enough that it gets mentioned a lot, so it's best to choose a location with chairs or picnic tables. All else equal, more comfortable furniture is better. If you're meeting somewhere where there's no seating — e.g. a lawn or beach — bring blankets, towels, and/or folding chairs to sit on. (You can ask attendees to bring their own as well, but they probably won't.)
  • Environment
    • People will be distracted and unhappy if it's too hot, cold, wet, sunny, or dark, or if there are lots of mosquitoes or wasps. (More on this in the section on outdoor locations.)
Noise level

Noise can be distracting and unpleasant, and of course can make it hard to hear people talking, which is usually the point of a meetup. What's more, many people on this community are on the spectrum or have other sensory processing issues, so will be more sensitive to noise than the average person.

There are two main types of noise problem:

  • Background noise, whether from street or from other people
  • Enclosed spaces that become cacophonous when many people are talking

Here are some potential solutions:

  • Be outside (avoids cacophony)
  • Use a private venue like a house (avoids background noise)
  • If you're going to a restaurant or café, choose one that you know has low background noise, pick a time when you know it won't be busy, and/or get a private room
  • Avoid locations near train tracks, major roads, construction sites, etc.
  • If you can't completely avoid cacophony (e.g. in a private house), designate a Quiet Zone away from the main conversation
Food

People consistently prefer meetups where food is available. If there's no food, and the meetup goes on a long time, people have to either suffer or leave, but if there is food, they can stay and not suffer!

Note that rationalists are disproportionately likely to have dietary restrictions or just strong preferences, and are especially likely to be vegetarian or vegan. Rationalists are also disproportionately non-drinkers.

If meeting at a restaurant, café, or food court, consider:

  • Variety
    • Because of dietary restrictions, it's best to avoid places that only serve one type of food (e.g. only pizza).
  • Option not to buy
    • In a sitdown restaurant or café, there's often a sense that you need to buy your right to sit there. This can be off-putting enough that people might not come to your meetup.
  • Price
  • Quality

If providing food yourself, consider:

  • Dietary restrictions
    • For a small group, you can send out a survey asking people about their preferences and restrictions, or ask people to contact you if they have restrictions.
    • For a large group, it's good to have a variety of options accommodating the most common restrictions (e.g. vegetarian, nut allergy; maybe vegan, gluten free, kosher, halal, paleo, or keto, depending on where you are).
    • If you're cooking and don't know people's restrictions, use the don't-put-anything-in-everything trick, and/or just avoid common allergens such as peanuts.
    • Potlucks can be a good strategy because everyone can personally ensure that there's something they can eat, but don't rely on other people bringing food unless you have strong reason to believe they'll actually do so. A good compromise is to provide enough main-course food for everyone, then encourage others to bring snacks/drinks/desserts.
Privacy/publicity

There are basically three types of location. 

  • Public, e.g. a park, café, or restaurant
  • Semi-private, e.g. a private room or entire floor at a restaurant, bar, or café; a meeting room at a university or library
  • Private, e.g. inside someone's home

Unlike for the other factors, I don't have a strong prescription here; there are trade-offs and you should make your own decision. I will note that ACX readers in particular generally prefer locations that have some measure of privacy, so that they can talk about weird and/or controversial ideas freely.

Kaj makes a good suggestion in his guide

New people may feel uncomfortable meeting in a private location. At the same time, people who do know each other usually feel more comfortable at a private location. An ideal balance might be to have regular meetups at a public location to attract newcomers, and also meet often at someone’s home. For example, you may want to hold weekly meetups at someone’s home and meet in public once a month.

Other

Some other things you might want to think about:

  • Niche-ness
    • Be aware of what signal your choice of location sends. Many locations are pretty neutral on this axis; however, if your venue is a bar, a board game café, or a hiking trail, be aware that you're going to be meeting a pre-filtered subset of all the people near you who might be interested in meetups.
  • Amenities
    • For example, if the meetup involves a presentation, you should have a large screen you can hook your computer up to. Or if you're worried about not having sufficient supplies, you might choose a venue near a full-service grocery store.
  • Kid-friendliness
  • Dog-friendliness
  • Wheelchair accessibility
  • Ambience
    • One survey respondent suggested that a meetup location should be cozy, welcoming, and reliable. I think that's a nice set of adjectives.
Being findable

It's not uncommon for people to attempt to attend a meetup, but be unable to find the group. This is often because the location given is too vague, e.g., just the name of a park or restaurant. It may also happen if the group has no obvious identifying visual characteristics; many people are uncomfortable approaching a group of people if they're not certain it's the right group. Here's how to avoid that problem:

  • Make it easy for people to contact you
    • Give out your phone number to people who have RSVP'd.
    • Publicly commit to check your email regularly during the event, so that people know they can email you if they're lost.
    • If you're meeting at a restaurant, you might tell people to give your name at the hostess stand.
  • Give an exact and easily identifiable location
    • If you're somewhere big, like a park or a food court, try to narrow it down, e.g. "the tables just to the east of the main entrance".
    • Describe the location in a way that's easy to look up (e.g. give an address or intersection), and/or easy to navigate to (e.g. "the exact center of the park"). Don't assume that a landmark that is salient to you will be known to everybody.
    • Send out a Google Maps drop pin or GPS location so that people can navigate to you directly with their phones.
    • If you're meeting in a park or similar, set the location as an open space rather than a specific landmark — i.e. the place where the actual socializing will occur.
  • Make yourself visible
    • In your announcement/advertising, mention what you'll be wearing to the meetup — ideally something that is visually distinctive even from a distance, e.g. a tall hat or a brightly-colored shirt.
    • Bring a sign, and ideally make it large or hold it up high (especially if outside), so that it can be identified from a distance. Placing it upright on a table can be fine too, as long as it's visible to people approaching.

Changing locations

Another reason people might have trouble finding you is if you're not where you said you would be. It's best to err on the side of staying put, but sometimes you can't avoid moving at the last minute. For example, you might find that the restaurant is unexpectedly closed, or you have twice as many people as you expected, or it might start pouring rain.

If you need to move, there are several things you can do:

  • Send an update via whatever communication channel your group uses.
  • Leave a note at the original location directing people to your new location. If it's not easy to give directions, leave your phone number on the note.
  • Have someone wait at the original location and send people over.
  • And of course, making yourself available by email and/or phone (already mentioned above) is also helpful.
Setup & Circulation

The setup of a space can strongly influence the social dynamics of an event, and many people are unhappy to find that their space leads people to socialize in one uncomfortably large circle.

So, if you're holding a social meetup with ~8 or more attendees, try to make it possible for people to congregate at multiple spots, so that you end up with a variety of small-group conversations. One way to do this is to arrange multiple small seating zones, each accommodating 2 to 8 people. If this isn't possible — for example, because the venue is your house, and it's just not designed for large social events — you might need to actively break up conversations. (More on that in a future post.)

At a social meetup, you also want to make it possible for people to circulate, so that everyone can converse with multiple different groups over the course of the event. I recommend against a single table at a sit-down restaurant; it's better to have something like those small standing-height tables used at cocktail parties, or a mix of standing and sitting areas.

But maybe you're running an event that's not primarily social, like a presentation, or a reading group. In that case, you may not need to focus so much on the mingling aspect. However, it's still a good idea to choose a place with some flexibility — people may want to discuss things after the presentation, and the rigidity of e.g. a lecture hall makes this difficult.

Types of venue

Okay, so we've talked about a bunch of abstract factors, but how do people feel about specific locations when they actually have meetups there?

Outdoor locations

People generally love outdoor locations as long as the weather is favorable, because they're more flexible and less cacophonous, and it's just nice to be outside. Parks and beaches also allow for physical activities like e.g. playing frisbee. And of course, as of this writing, a lot of people still feel uncomfortable meeting indoors.

However, outdoor locations are also high-variance, and can be terrible if it's raining, really hot or cold, or smoky; if there are biting/stinging insects or a lot of ambient noise; or if your meetup goes on into the night and it gets pitch dark.

So if possible, it's good to keep your options open, for example by holding your meetup at a house with a backyard, a restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating, or a café near a park. You can also designate a rain location, or precommit to canceling in case of bad weather.

If you have to have your meetup outside (e.g. for COVID reasons), take weather into consideration when deciding on details. For example, if it's a hot season in your city, have your meetup in the evening when it's cooler, rather than at midday. Or if there's a chance of rain, find a covered outdoor area, like a park shelter or someone's garage.

Homes

Homes are generally a good fit for more personal or vulnerable meetups, such as a rationality dojo or a deep questions meetup. They're less good for meetups where you're trying to attract newcomers — having to show up at an internet stranger's house is a dealbreaker for some people.

In general, private homes offer a lot of advantages that other types of venues don't. They're:

  • Reliable
    • There's no chance the place will be too busy or will be hosting a conflicting event, and you don't have to worry about being kicked out at closing time or because your group gets too big. 
    • Random people can't intrude on your meetup.
    • People might be able to store bikes at your place and not have to fear them getting stolen off the street.
  • Free
    • There's no rental or reservation fee, and no pressure to buy anything, and homemade food is cheaper than restaurant food. 
    • Many residential neighborhoods also have free street parking, which is less likely to be the case in commercial areas.
  • Comfortable
    • Homes usually have more comfortable furniture than public spaces, and always have bathrooms and drinkable water. 
    • There's generally less background noise than in a public place. 
    • You can adjust the thermostat or open the windows to get an optimal temperature.
  • Chill
    • People often just feel more relaxed in a private space, where there's no closing time, no pressure to eat or not eat, and no feeling of being watched by strangers. 
    • If you're an introverted host, you can retreat to your own room for a quick breather.
  • Flexible
    • You can move furniture around for a better setup, and if your home isn't too small, you can make multiple spaces available, so people have more choice in what they do and the space doesn't get too loud.
    • There's a wider range of activities available to you (e.g. singing, cooking). 

Homes do have some disadvantages as well. 

  • Many homes are not set up for entertaining.
  • Homes may be less conveniently located than cafés or parks.
  • If you live in an apartment or small house, your home may be smaller than alternate venues.
  • As with any indoor location, your home may get loud quickly.
  • If you share a building with others, you may worry about making too much noise.
  • Hosting at your home may be more costly if you have to do a lot of cleaning, or if you feel more pressure to 'be a good host' in a way that makes it harder for you to actually participate in the meetup.
Cafés

Cafés are one of the classic meetup locations, and previous guides have suggested them as a good place to hold a first meetup. 

Pros:

  • Low-effort
  • Laid back
  • Conveniently located
  • Food available
  • If no one shows up you can just read a book or work on your laptop

Cons:

  • Might not have space for a large group
  • Busy/loud at convenient hours
  • Everyone is usually expected to buy something
  • No privacy
  • You get kicked out at closing time
Restaurants

Pros:

  • Low-effort
  • Laid back
  • Conveniently located
  • Food available
  • You might be able to reserve a private room or whole floor

Cons:

  • Might not have space for a large group
  • Busy/loud at convenient hours
  • People might be required to buy something
  • You get kicked out at closing time
  • New people may feel intimidated sitting alone at a restaurant while waiting for others
  • Often the table setup is inflexible
  • In many restaurants, it's awkward to just walk around looking for a group
Other

These are some less-common venue types.

Bar/pub

Plenty of meetups take place at bars, pubs, beer gardens, or breweries, and at least one group has successfully met regularly at a brewery for years.

  • Pros:
    • Low-effort
    • Laid back
    • Conveniently located
    • Food available
    • You might be able to reserve a private room or whole floor
  • Cons:
    • Often loud
    • Many rationalists don't drink
    • Standard bar/pub food isn't great for people with dietary restrictions
    • People may have to be 21 (or 18) just to enter the building
      • Please avoid this!

Food court, or shopping center plaza

Food courts seem to be a pretty well-liked option. Austin has been meeting at a place that I think fits this description every week for like ten years! I think the main reason more meetups don't use them is that they're just not that common of a thing.

  • Pros:
    • Low-effort
    • Laid back
    • Conveniently located
    • Offers a wide variety of food
    • People aren't expected to buy anything
  • Cons:
    • May be loud
    • No privacy
    • May be outdoors and therefore subject to weather

Board game café/store

Again, be aware that you'll be pre-filtering your group by choosing a board game store. It seems fine to have board game meetups as part of a rotation of different meetup types, though.

  • Pros:
    • Low-key
    • Shy and awkward people often appreciate a more structured format of interaction, especially for a first meeting, because it takes a lot of the pressure off
    • Some people really enjoy board games
  • Cons:
    • Not everyone likes board games
    • May be loud
    • Very constrained activity options
    • May cost money

University classrooms

If you're a student this is an obvious and possibly easy venue. If you're not affiliated with a university, it's probably not worth bothering to reserve a university space, unless you're hosting a big lecture or something.

  • Pros:
    • Free
    • Good amount of privacy
    • Often have A/V equipment
    • Often have whiteboards or chalkboards
    • Plenty of seating
    • Convenient for university students
  • Cons:
    • You need a student to reserve a room
    • Setup is often terrible (e.g. a single giant circle of tables, or a lecture hall)
    • Chairs are often uncomfortable

Library

I basically do not recommend libraries.

  • Pros:
    • Intellectual vibe?
    • Convenient location
  • Cons:
    • Your options are pretty constrained
    • Reserving a room may cost money
    • If you don't reserve a room, you basically can't talk
      • Please do not try to have a meetup in the open part of a library, you will have a bad time

Workplace

Some people have meetups at their place of work, either in a private room or after hours. I don't have a lot of data on this as I only know of four cases (a bookshop, a gym, and two different corporate offices), so this section might not be very helpful.

  • Pros:
    • You have a fair amount of control over the space
    • In general, might have many of the same advantages as a home
  • Cons:
    • Your manager might think you're weird
    • People might feel intimidated coming into an office building where they don't work, or a gym if they don't work out
Conclusion

I think that's all the basics! Do you have questions? Did I miss important advice on choosing a venue? What do you want to see a post on next? Let me know in the comments.


 



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Meetup Advice #0: Sequence intro

13 октября, 2021 - 09:21
Published on October 13, 2021 6:21 AM GMT

I'm transitioning into working on global meetup organization as more of a full-time thing, and the lowest-hanging fruit — something many people have asked for — seemed to be writing up all the advice I have on how to run a meetup well. So that's my first project!

Over the past few years I have surveyed more than 500 meetup organizers and attendees, asking what they like and don't like about the meetups they've attended, and what advice they would give to other organizers. This upcoming sequence is simply a writeup of what all of those people have told me.

This sequence will at least start by focusing on the very basics — the four main clusters that people mention are (1) venue, (2) attendance & advertising, (3) activities, and (4) managing the social environment. I will write posts on all of these, as well as things like how to run a first meetup, how to run meetups in cities of different sizes, and some other more exploratory topics. I don't have a sequence outline yet, nor do I have a posting schedule; I'm just going to keep going until I've exhausted the thousands of pieces of advice I've collected — which could take years, who knows? (Probably not.)

Beyond the realm of basic logistics, there are still a lot of unsolved problems, with governance structures and general interpersonal relations at the forefront. I don't know the answers to those problems yet, but hopefully someday I'll be able to give advice on them!

"But wait," you might say, "isn't there already a guide on how to run a meetup?" If you're referring to Kaj's guide, well, that's nearly a decade old, and things have changed quite a bit in the years since it was published. I also find it difficult to navigate since it's a PDF, so I think it's valuable to have something more bullet-point-y and clickable. If you're referring to Maia's meetup cookbook, that is useful and great and totally worth checking out, but it primarily covers activities, and I think there's a lot more to be said. If you're referring to the LW wiki page, that's a good summary, but again, I want to go into a lot more depth. My sequence is going to be thorough as hell. So thorough that you'll be glad it's got so many section headers so that you can click through to only the parts you're actually interested in!

If you're an organizer, or if you're just interested in connecting with other people who are interested in meetups, you can join the Rationality Meetups Discord server. All are welcome!

And if you have requests or suggestions for this sequence, or for what I should do as meta-meetup-organizer in general, let me know in the comments!



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Zoe Curzi's Experience with Leverage Research

13 октября, 2021 - 07:44
Published on October 13, 2021 4:44 AM GMT



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[linkpost] Fantasia for Two Voices

13 октября, 2021 - 05:55
Published on October 13, 2021 2:55 AM GMT

I was surprised and a little disturbed at how much this felt like the real thing while I was reading it.



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Choice Writings of Dominic Cummings

13 октября, 2021 - 05:41
Published on October 13, 2021 2:41 AM GMT

“My own heuristics for working in politics are: focus, ‘know yourself’ (don’t fool yourself), think operationally, work extremely hard, ... and ask yourself ‘to be or to do?’” - DC

Dominic Cummings is fascinating for four reasons. One, he is extremely committed to truth-seeking but from a different perspective than most of LW. Two, he has a shocking amount of real-world “success”, especially for a truth-seeker. Three, he fills the missing niche of trying to describe what government is actually like, to great effect. Four, he has uniquely powerful ideas about how to do project management well and how to fix government. 

At the very least, he is extremely thought-provoking, and provides tons of value to >30% of people around me who try reading or listening to him.

However, most people get rebuffed by the sheer number of words and posts he’s written (or included as block quotes...). This post is to help people get a foothold in reading him, triage his work, and understand the basics of his perspective.

(Pitch: If you end up liking what he has written or even just my summary, consider subscribing to his Substack, even if only for a month and $10. It’s long been hard to capture much of the value from public goods like good opinions/models/writing, leaving them under-incentivized. Now that Substack allows us a convenient way to reward and incentivize good online writers, I want us to do an about-face on our expectations, and not confuse the previous fully-free status quo “is” with the “ought” of a real remuneration scheme. If you really like his writing but are short on cash, reach out to me and I may gift you a subscription.)

If you read nothing else… 

The Brexit Story (20k words = ~1.5 hrs): 

This piece is most him. It touches on many of the themes that come up throughout his writing but in a concrete story. (Warning: you might have to do a bit of research into UK politics to understand what’s going on, or just skip the hard parts. You don’t need to understand everything.)

Highlights:

  • He worked ~18 hours a day for 10 months, and really missed his comfortable life
  • “Discussing politics with people almost never accomplishes anything proximally, but in public debate it can be like “throwing seeds to the wind” and you can be happily surprised down the road”
  • A long meditation on how difficult it is to tease apart “why did X win/lose”, it’s almost always misleading and people tend to make up all sorts of stories that help tie the narrative together and make them look “right all along” when it doesn’t work like that; that’s why this post is named “branching histories” and has a heavy emphasis on how things could very nearly have gone much differently in a zillion ways
  • A diatribe on how politics is like fashion and why almost no one in Remain was voting on the basis of actual understanding of the EU
  • An explanation of how they got the media to still cover their message even though they couldn’t get it to cover serious policy arguments
  • A short fantasy about what better political media (esp TV shows) could look like, involving prediction markets
  • A diatribe on the “delusion of the centre” and how both Tories and Libs think the centre has central views on most things and encourage them a little further toward their side, but actually swing voters tend to side with Libs strongly on some things like health care, white collar crime, and higher taxes on the rich and Tories strongly on some things like violent crime, anti-terrorism, and immigration
  • Politics as a field doesn’t meet the two criteria for true expertise (enough informational structure that real predictions can be made despite complexity, and feedback loops for actual learning), so take everything here with a grain of salt
  • They had such infighting issues that they had to make Potemkin committees to keep all the loitering “political” types tied up in meetings while the core team did the actual work
My next 10 favorite blog posts, not particularly in order:Hollow Men II

The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction

Four great stories about working in government: at one point they couldn’t fix their own elevator. At all points it was an extraordinary mess. Extremely long, you can ctrl+f “Part II” for the stories and don’t need to finish.

 

Effective action intro

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #1: expertise and a quadrillion dollar business

“Plenty of room at the top”—there’s no cap on effectiveness and good management and startup skills, so we might be able to do vastly more impressive things with the right skills and teams. Most concrete points about how to do this are later in the series, but this starts the series that feels to me like it could kick-start a paradigm change.

 

Systems management and lessons from Mueller

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2(b): the Apollo programme, the Tory train wreck, and advice to spads starting work today

A bunch of advice on what he actually means by there being room to be better at systems management, for example matrix management, focusing on people first, Black Saturdays and focus on error-correction, having clear goals set by the top of the org but extreme decentralization of decisions made for how to achieve that, etc. This was better than I had gotten from reading the top management books.

 

Expertise

Effective action #4a: ‘Expertise’ from fighting and physics to economics, politics and government 

“Fundamental to real expertise is 1) whether the informational structure of the environment is sufficiently regular that it’s possible to make good predictions and 2) does it allow high quality feedback and therefore error-correction. Physics and fighting: Yes. Predicting recessions, forex trading and politics: not so much.”

Somewhat old-hat but I still found it surprisingly clarifying.

 

Expertise and Government

Effective action #4b: ‘Expertise’, prediction and noise, from the NHS killing people to Brexit

When do fields exhibit true expertise? Why doesn’t government? And some thoughts on the failure to learn from the simplest and biggest successes (e.g. ARPA/PARC).

 

Odyssean education: 

Some thoughts on education and political priorities

The big essay. The first 5 pages of this are a great summary of his worldview: focused on how scitech is making things move faster and bigger; no one has the knowledge for how to stop or control this; we do have some examples of teams who were effective enough they could plausibly keep up; to get those teams we need a better system of governance and that will require better education for people to meet the requirements; specifically understanding the big pieces from many fields. Skip after page 5 unless you want a deep-dive into tech predictions from 2013 or a re-hash of the scientific worldview.

 

Seeing Rooms

https://dominiccummings.com/2019/06/26/on-the-referendum-33-high-performance-government-cognitive-technologies-michael-nielsen-bret-victor-seeing-rooms/

A cool off-brand essay about the importance of being able to see the important information while you’re working. Gave me some ideas about how to better set-up my own office.

 

(Paywalled from here down)
 Bureaucracy

Afghanistan SNAFU (situation normal all fucked up): 'normal' politics,'normal' results

Finally gets further on-message! Explains how “The government does not control the government”, some laws of bureaucracies, and why most things should just be dismantled and rebuilt rather than reformed.

 

Regime Change

Regime Change #2: A plea to Silicon Valley - start a project NOW to write the plan for the next GOP candidate 

Further explains how the goal is “a government that controls the government” and calls for a bold project of ~10 people to make substantial progress here. 

 

Startup government

Startup government: notes on Lee Kuan Yew #3

Really good look at a very different type of government. Goes pretty in-depth on the ramifications of different ideas like {the press should not actually be totally "free", because ideas/memes spread based not on truth but on how they strike emotional chords within us, and an unfettered press will use this to gradually accumulate power of an odd sort}, or {a serious government should strongly empower standing anti-corruption investigations into itself}, etc. The other LKY notes (1,2,4) are also similarly good.

You can find his index of blog posts here, broken into topic. In general the three areas he blogs about that I find most interesting are:

  • Unrecognized simplicities of effective action
  • How to run governments
  • Many boots-on-the-ground stories about how politics actually went during the Brexit referendum, his stint as Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson 2019-2020, his time in the Department for Education, and other selections. 

I don’t get as much out of:

  • Complexity and politics
  • Cutting-edge science summaries

I haven't read the Education section but it looks interesting as more boots-on-the-ground experience-fodder.

Regarding my biases: the cutting-edge science is well-understood by those around me, so it’s just old-hat. The Complexity series also feels a bit old-hat and just doesn’t capture me that well. So know that those are my biases here, and I’m foisting them onto you because I expect you’re similar to me.
 



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Open Thread: What are you working on? (October)

13 октября, 2021 - 04:42
Published on October 13, 2021 1:42 AM GMT

This is an open thread for people who want to

(1) talk about the work they're doing and/or

(2) find collaborators for a project.

If that's you, feel free to write a comment!

(Thanks for editing help, S)



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What's your plan?

13 октября, 2021 - 04:20
Published on October 13, 2021 1:20 AM GMT

A question I find useful with my kids is "what's your plan?":

  • What's your plan for snack at school today?
  • What's your plan if it gets cold while we're at the picnic?
  • What's your plan for these drawings?

It works well when trying to find a balance on responsibility: the issue is theirs to resolve, but it's not something I can just trust they'll handle unassisted. It acts as both a casual reminder and an opening for me to offer feedback if I end up thinking their plan is unrealistic.

I also like that it's easy to pull back from: I can try not asking, and see how it goes. Over time, as they become more capable, many things have moved out of this intermediate state while others have moved in.

(This is another example of cultivating independence.)

Comment via: facebook



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Bayeswatch 13: Spaceship

13 октября, 2021 - 00:35
Published on October 12, 2021 9:35 PM GMT

"This headquarters will be overrun in an hour. We have to evacuate," said Colonel Qiang.

"Not an option," said Trinity.

"Look. If I throw everything we've got at them―and I mean everything―we can hold off the Baltic forces for perhaps two hours―but that would be suicide. And for what?" said Colonel Qiang.

The intercom rang. "It's Eitan from Jerusalem," said the secretary.

"Put him through," said Trinity.

"You have Vi's access codes but you don't sound like her," said Eitan over the radio.

"Hivemind," said Trinity.

"What do you need?" said Eitan.

"I'm cashing in the favor you owe me for saving the Levant. I need to use your giant space laser," said Trinity.

"You realize you're too far away for us to provide you air defense? The curvature of the Earth gets in the way. Also, I saw those tanks and battlemechs on our satellites. Your options are defeat or Masada," said Eitan.

"What? No. We have our own weapons. We need you to cut a path through the Kessler debris. I'm sending you our launch trajectory," said Trinity.

"It shall be done," said Eitan.

Trinity turned off the radio.

"You're good at keeping secrets. I thought the ship's life support systems wouldn't be ready for another ten years," said Colonel Qiang.

"Then won't be ready. Ever. I scrapped the life support project months ago. It's pure propaganda," said Trinity.

"You mean the reason I'm here, the reason I agreed to work for you, is a lie?" said Colonel Qiang.

"We were born on Earth. We will die on Earth. Space is for our children," said Trinity.

Colonel Qiang's eyes widened. "You're building a von Neumann machine."

"Built. It'll be ready to launch in two hours," said Trinity.

"You will have your two hours," said Colonel Qiang.

"萬歲," said Trinity.

Colonel Qiang bowed, clicked his boots, turned on his heels and left the room.

Credits

This concludes Bayeswatch. Thank you Dov Random for helping to come up with the original idea.



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