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Sun, 19 Nov 2017 5:25:20 EST

Many people (including me) claim that we eat food and drink water because without nutrition and fluids we would starve and dehydrate. Imagine this response:

No, people eat food because they are hungry, and drink water because they are thirsty. We don’t need abstract concepts like nutrition and dehydration to explain something so elemental as following our authentic feelings and desires.

Yes hunger and thirst are direct proximate causes of eating and drinking. But we are often interested in finding more distal explanations of such proximate causes. So almost no one objects to the nutrition and dehydration explanations of eating and drinking.

However, one of the most common criticisms I get about signaling explanations of human behavior is that we are instead just following authentic feelings and desires. As in this exchange:

If you are high status, others care about your views on wide range of topics. If low status, hard to get them to listen even on the topics on which you are most expert. So folks often express opinions on many topics, to try to seem high status.

— robin hanson (@robinhanson) November 14, 2017

No, people just naturally care about a lot of shit. It takes discipline to focus tweets on just one subject. https://t.co/qXzVDPPV82

— jwindz (@jwindz) November 15, 2017

Yes, people don’t need to consciously force themselves to express opinions on many topics. That habit comes quite naturally. Even so, we might want to explain that habit in terms of more basic distal forces.

I’m an economics professor, and the vast majority of economic papers and books that offer explanations for human behaviors don’t bother to distinguish if their explanations are mediated by conscious intentions or not. (In fact, most papers on any topic don’t take a stance on most possible distinctions related to their topic.) Economics are in fact famously wary (too wary I’d say) of survey data, as they fear conscious thoughts can mislead about economic behaviors.

Yet I’ve had even economics colleagues tell me that I should take more care, when I point out possible signaling explanations, to say if I am claiming that such signaling effects are consciously intended. But why would it be more important to distinguish conscious intentions in this context, compared to the rest of economics and social science?

My best guess is that what is going on here is that our social norms disapprove mildly of consciously intended signaling. Just as we aren’t supposed to brag, we also aren’t supposed to do things on purpose to make ourselves look good. It is okay to look good, but only as a side effect of doing things for other reasons. And as we usually claim other reasons for these behaviors, if we are actually doing them for signaling reasons we could also be accused of lying, which is also a norm violation.

Thus many see my signaling explanation proposals as accusing them personally of norm violations. At which point, they become vastly more interested in defending themselves against this accusation than in evaluating my general claims about human behavior. Perhaps if I were a higher status professor publishing in a prestigious journal, they might be reluctant to publicly challenge my claimed focus on distal explanations of general behavior patterns. But for mere tweets or blog posts by someone like me, they feel quite entitled to read me as accusing them of being bad people, unless I explicitly say otherwise. Sigh.

For the record, the degree of conscious intent of any behavior is a mildly interesting facet, but I’m less interested in it than are most people. This is in part because I’m inclined to give people less of a moral or legal pass on the harms resulting from behaviors if people do not consciously intend such consequences. It is just too easy for people to not notice such consequences, when they find it in their interest to not notice.

Sun, 19 Nov 2017 5:16:29 EST

Noah asks:

I feel so incredibly much better when I don’t procrastinate, and yet I still procrastinate regularly. Why am I so resistant to classical conditioning in this context? What further questions should I ask myself / demands should I make of myself, to attack this problem?

I suspect that this is a paradox that almost everyone has encountered on some level. People want to be productive. It feels good to have a really fruitful day.

This is something we often forget, when we frame our self-improvement efforts as a fight between what we should do and what we want to do.

And note that it’s not just that people want-to-have-been-productive. It generally feels pretty good while you’re doing it too. There are exceptions, of course—some work is a grind—but in general it’s at least satisfying, if not fulfilling, to be doing good work. And even with relatively aversive work, it usually feels better to be actually making progress than to just be stewing in the feeling that you should be working but aren’t.

So here’s the million-dollar question: if it feels good to be productive, why aren’t people productive more? “Million-dollar” is an understatement, actually. If you can come up with a good, practical answer to this question, it’s worth an enormous amount of money. (The market for business and productivity apps is over $60B, to say nothing of books and courses and so on.)

Do you have any answers? This is a puzzle worth thinking about, I think. But don’t fall into the trap of planning to do that before you read on and never doing it and never reading on. That would suck. Either do it now or just keep reading.

…okay! Here’s my answer:

The reason most people procrastinate even though it feels good to work is that most people are not actually navigating by what feels good. They’re telling themself they should do certain things, and then either doing them out of fear of self-blame, or not doing them and then indeed feeling bad.

Blame is how our society does interpersonal motivation, at large, and so this is how we learn to do it with ourselves.

But how do you get out of this? Many people have tried turning off the self-blame, but then they find that they don’t actually do things—including things that they enjoy doing! I wrote this summer on the challenge of being purpose-driven without fighting myself and a lot of people resonated with that challenge.

So our quest is for some sort of scaffold for building a sense of navigating by what feels good instead of by fear, that allows us to be reliably productive in the meantime. Here’s one of my most powerful tools to that end. I’ve used it to avoid distractions—temporarily or permanently—and to stay focused on challenging, aversive projects.

Self-Referential Motivation

I developed the concept of Self-Referential Motivation several years ago when I noticed a commonality between several other blog posts, along with a recent win. I’m going to lay the source material out first, and again let you think about it first before I explain my take.

In How to start on the most important thing every day, talking about my morning routine, I remarked:

Now that I’ve done this for awhile, I’ve noticed that I’m so much more productive when email is off the table that I want to extend that morning focus block as long as possible, because I know I’ll achieve more things if I do.

In Mindfulness Field Training 2: Motivation, I asked myself:

“If someone was going to reward me with the abstract knowledge that I’m able to motivate myself to do really hard things using only hypothetical rewards, would I be able to do it?”

Nick Winter writes in Spiraling Into Control:

…the real cost of failing a goal is not the loss of your Beeminder pledge money. It’s the loss of confidence that you will meet all future goals that you perceive as similar to the current goal. You will trust yourself less.

Again, if you want, here’s a pause for you to consider what these have in common.


Having a working motivational system is motivating

The motivation in each of these examples comes from knowing that if the motivational technique works, then it works! And it’s valuable to have a working system.

I felt silly typing what I just typed, but that’s basically it.

Seriously: the reason that these systems work is because they tap into the part of you that really wants the system to work, and gets that part to strategize on your behalf. I’ve had coaching clients say “I mean I can try to do that, but my brain will sabotage me.” This is the opposite.

But which kind of opposite is it?

One form of opposite is to create in yourself a sub-agent that is a very effective theoretically-benevolent dictator, and is able to get you to do what you want. Ziz called this Self-Blackmail:

I once had a file I could write commitments in. If I ever failed to carry one out, I knew I’d forever lose the power of the file. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since any successful use of the file after failing would be proof that a single failure didn’t have the intended effect, so there’d be no extra incentive.

I used it to make myself do more work. It split me into a commander who made the hard decisions beforehand, and commanded who did the suffering but had the comfort of knowing that if I just did the assigned work, the benevolent plans of a higher authority would unfold.

This works… on some level. It can cause you to do a bunch of things that you set out to do, and it can even sort of remove the unpleasant experience of second-guessing. But in this sort of scenario, you’re aiming for a kind of absolute authoritarian control of your behavior. This is hard to maintain, and when it breaks it can break very violently. Even if it breaks without TK-extra-casualties, it still basically stops working forever once it does.

It’s also very rigid. Sometimes the reason you don’t want to follow the plan you made yesterday is that you have more information today and you can make a better plan. This sort of structure disrupts the ability to improvise and respond creatively.

One way to use this sort of thing that still allows for plenty of creativity is to only use it to get yourself not to do specific things that would get in the way of your flow. I posted the following about one of my early experiments in self-referential motivation:

Lately I’ve been having decent success with “I swear on my ability to use this kind of vow again, that today I will not [specific distracting thing I spent a bunch of time doing yesterday]”
I get urges to do it, but then I’m like “noooo, if I follow the urges then this pledge will lose its power.” Interestingly it seems I have to make this pledge out loud for it to work. In particular, considering making it, or even thinking “it would be a good idea if I made it” does not work.

It’s telling that the first comment on that post got half as many likes as the post itself. It reads:

I find that often I refuse to make such a vow… because it works.

This comment highlights that Self-Blackmail is powerful, but as stated so far… it’s missing that key part where it feels good. It’s just another form (albeit a clever and useful one!) of the classic authoritarian motivation strategy.

Interestingly, Self-Blackmail does sort of let you build a certain kind of self-trust: the trust that you can decide to do a thing and then do it, even in the face of internal resistance. Even if the thing is actually a bad idea at that point. This is a thing worth having, despite its limitedness.

Internal conflict doesn’t feel good

Self-Blackmail is the opposite of self-sabotage in that it creates a self-control system that works hard to make sure your plans aren’t sabotaged. But it’s still based on this internal conflict.

We can do better.

Something that’s the opposite of both self-sabotage and self-control is self-trust.

So how can we make a self-referential motivation system that isn’t fear-driven and has the long-term effect of increasing internal integration and self-trust?

Instead of motivating yourself towards “if this system works, then I’ll have a system to control my behavior arbitrarily”, shift the frame so that it’s “if this system works, then I’ll have a way to do what I want to do without fighting myself about it.”

So the aim isn’t to be productive all the time. It’s to be productive at the times when your internal society of mind generally agrees it would be good to be productive. It’s not to be able to motivate yourself to do anything. It’s to be able to motivate yourself to do anything it makes sense to do.

What this distinction represents is taking an collaborative stance. Wars are nothing if not costly, and whatever competing parts you have would rather not be destroying shared resources by fighting. But they don’t know how to get their needs met without doing so. The authoritarian part thinks, “If I didn’t boss myself around, then I wouldn’t be productive, and I wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of [whatever external authority you’re orienting towards]”. The rebellious part thinks, “If I didn’t resist arbitrary attempts at motivation, then I would never have any fun or be able to read my favorite webcomic. Also I would end up doing bullshit work that isn’t actually worth doing at all.”

And both of these systems are reasoning accurately, as long as the other is also reasoning that way. It’s like how two countries with troops at their border have a good reason for wanting to keep their own troops present as long as the other country does.

Building trust in a conflict zone is a matter of gradual mutual disarmament.

My SRM technique: Self-Trust Bet

My explicit technique also involves a kind of vow, so on the surface it looks a lot like Self-Blackmail. I want to get clear terminologically for a sec:

Self-Referential Motivation (SRM) is the general principle that the desire to have a functioning motivational system is itself a major source of motivation.
Self-Blackmail (SB) is a technique that leverages SRM to control behavior to execute plans, in an authoritarian way.
Self-Trust Betting (STB) is a technique that leverages SRM to align behavior to execute plans, in an integrated way.

The STB technique is approximately what I described in the post above. I declare out loud or in writing, “by the power of Self-Trust Bets, I shall not play this game for the rest of the day.” I literally say phrases like that.

The integrated part of STB has two elements. One is the matter of when I make such vows. I don’t just immediately say them when my inner taskmaster first notices that I’m doing something other than working. Nor do I commit to finishing projects that I’m not sure are worth it. I first try to check in on how my whole system feels about the thing, and I only say it if I can really get behind it.

And then because I’m feeling aligned, if I notice the urge to play the game or whatever, I have a kind of excited energy towards the importance of squashing or setting aside that urge. It makes it easy, and even fun. It’s an opportunity to build self-trust.

It’s also an opportunity to damage self-trust. This is the other reason why it’s important to find things you’re aligned about—you want to make sure that whatever you’re committing to actually happens!

What you’re doing here is getting your conflicting parts to find a thing they think they can cooperate on, and then collectively betting that they’ll succeed. These shared bets are how trust is built—in this case, self-trust. This also means that if you’re feeling uncertain about using STB for something, then don’t! Whether it’s because you’re still partially conflicted, or because you sense that the situation is one that calls for more flexibility, follow your sense that this is not the right moment. That builds a different kind of self-trust.

When there’s good alignment, I feel a sense of coherent excitement to be deciding to do a thing. That thing might be to avoid a distraction, for the rest of the day or in one case forever (I just realized that particular game I was addicted to wasn’t actually that satisfying and I’d be better off quitting it. I still get urges periodically, but each time it’s a chance to build more self-trust by not playing the game, and I know that I value that more than I value the game itself.).

You can also use this to align yourself around something like “I’ll focus intently on this project tomorrow until it’s done.” This is slightly harder, because it’s less clear what it means to focus intently on the project, but since you’re trying to build a sense of self-trust and self-efficacy here, exploiting loopholes doesn’t really work. There’s nothing to “get away with“.

What to do if you fail to do the thing you used STB on on?

This has basically never happened to me. I pretty much always followed the explicit declaration that I’ve made, even if “I won’t go back to bed after I get up” led to passing out on the couch once. And this is the point. If you think you might fail even once declaring IV, don’t do it! Start smaller!

(If your internal war is so heated that you’ll predictably self-sabotage any attempt at disarmament, then perhaps such a vow is not the technique for you and you probably want to start with some other kind of self-compassion. This post may be helpful to you.)

I generally assume in these cases that either I didn’t manage to really get fully aligned, or I failed to clarify exactly what the plan was, or something else happened that shifted the landscape so that my intention no longer made sense.

Rather than focusing on my past declaration of intent or on who’s fault it was, I continue to focus on what will yield the most alignment and self-trust going forward. This might involve a post-mortem and a strategizing-for-next-time, but as best I can I try to avoid being mad at myself. If become mad at myself, I’ve lost sight of the whole point: navigating by what feels good. Not getting mad is the other element that makes Self-Trust Bets integrative, unlike Self-Blackmail.

(If you’ve read my post on the third kind of expectation, that’s the kind of response towards yourself that I’m talking about here.)

What does it mean to say “I mean it”?

I’ve been actively working with this SRM concept for a couple years now, and was thinking about it again today because I found myself doing something that was kind of the opposite of an Self-Trust Bet, but it also wasn’t Self-Blackmail. Nor was it self-sabotage, per se. It was just silly.

I was using my Captain’s Log to reflect as I went about my day, and at one point I wrote that I was going to meditate, then I ended up doing other stuff. About an hour later, I wrote

I’m going to actually meditate for a few minutes, and feel if it makes sense to try to nap.

When I returned to my log after I’d napped, I laughed as I realized that I totally still hadn’t meditated! I then wrote the following reflection (lightly edited):

I think this is a remnant of authoritarianism. The laughter feels integrative! But the “actually” feels… ugh.

It feels judgmental, perhaps, of my oh-so-naïve past self, who thought he would meditate and didn’t, and my current self thinks he knows better. I think that was the main source of the humor: there was so much emphasis on the “actually” and it still didn’t happen!

I recall feeling slightly conscious of the tone of my use of actually at the time, but didn’t quite flag it. That’s fine—I’m looking at it now. It feels good to link the current investigation with more more in-advance consciousness of the thing.

I think it’s fair to say that this use of “actually” has not been healthy for my self-trust. Both in little instances like this and in larger situations where I have said things to myself like “I just need to actually get my shit together here.” This is a channel on which I have primarily judged and blamed myself. I have also perhaps motivated myself using it, but not in a way that builds ongoing self-trust.

In fact, it’s a way that I’ve said “I mean it” without checking to see if I really mean it, which makes my meanings not-trustable. It’s a form of crying wolf. This “actually” thing, actually, undermines self-trust.

I’m now noticing something about the way that I’ve used Self-Referential Motivation vows [Note: I didn’t come up with the Self-Blackmail / Self-Trust Bet name distinction until writing this post]. The gravity of the use of these vows means that I always first make sure that I really mean it. This means getting my whole self on board. Whether it’s avoiding something for some period of time, or staying really focused on a task or project until it’s finished, I don’t explicit SRM for a vow unless I feel good about it. And I also don’t mach such a vow unless I genuinely mean it.

So if I had said, hypothetically, “by SRM, I shall now meditate” then it would have happened. Or I wouldn’t have said it.

So another way to think about SRM is that if you’ve got a history of saying things like “this year I’ll actually go running every day”, such that you can no longer really trust that you mean it, then SRM is a way to rebuild that, by only saying it when you mean it.

Tips and next steps

A motivational structure doesn’t have to have vows in it to be self-referential. Vows (ie Self-Blackmail or a Self-Trust Bet) are the most overtly self-referential scenario, but any time you design a system for yourself where part of your motivation comes from the desire to have the system work, this is a form of SRM. I think this is actually most systems, and that paying attention to your desire to have your systems work can help in general, even if you never use vows like this.

Also note that using Self-Trust Bets is intended over the long term to build your general sense of self-efficacy. So you can expect to find yourself being more able to decide to do things and follow through with them, without having to formally declare that you definitely will. Hell, you might even just find yourself doing saner things without needing to have decided in the first place—sanity feels good.

Another thing to know: placing regular Self-Trust Bets is a particular meta-structure, but you still need good habit techniques. If you get yourself feeling aligned, and say “STB: I shall go running every day this year”, but you don’t do things like…

  • make sure you’ve got running clothes that you like
  • decide what time of day you’ll run by default
  • set up some sort of simple system where you can check off “yep I ran today” so that you’re always sure
  • devise a plan for if you’re travelling

…then it’s going to be way harder. What an STB does though is it suddenly makes all of those actions feel very important! Because you’ve gotten yourself aligned around wanting to succeed, so you need to actually bring all of your tools to the table. Some habit-failures come from a lack of knowing good habit techniques, but on some level most of them come from some internal conflict. The conflict either prevents you from deploying those techniques or ensures that you manage to fail despite them.

You might be thinking “this all sounds great but how do I actually do that getting-aligned part?” It’s a good question! I think there are actually a lot of techniques for this, which is why I haven’t focused on it. The powerful thing that an STB offers is a way to turn alignment into powerful action. Techniques you can use for getting aligned include:

  • a Captain’s Log, morning pages, or some other journalling system
  • a self-designed meditation towards “what would be really satisfying & meaningful to do right now?” (I have done this and found it very fruitful)
  • talk about your internal conflict with a friend or counsellor who is able to hold space for you
  • Internal Family Systems (IFS) or other parts-based introspection tools
  • Internal Double Crux (IDC) as taught by the Center for Applied Rationality

Note that some alignment techniques (particularly IFS and IDC) may encourage you to make some sort of compromise or bring your parts into “agreement”. It might surprise you to realize that this is often unnecessary! The crux of the conflict often isn’t about an actual disagreement about what’s important. Your inner YouTube Addict might not actually want to watch youtube that much, they just don’t want to be told what to do, and so you might find that you can make a Self-Trust Bet by just saying “hey, wouldn’t it feel awesome if we were really productive? what if we did that instead?” as a genuine question, and having it go “okay!” (rather than needing to negotiate with it about hours-spent-on-youtube-per-week).

You’re in this for the long-haul—where by “this” I mean your relationship with yourself. Building self-trust not only feels good but can yield better and more consistent performance. It’s work, but it’s worth it. If you feel resistance, is probably because you’re still thinking of it as a way to build self-control, and so you’re also feeling a sense of needing to rebel.

Be that as it may, unlike much of my writing, where I lay out a distinction and say “I think that this half has sufficient flaws that I’d recommend avoiding it altogether”, in this case I actually think that (despite the name Ziz gave it) Self-Blackmail is both more effective and less damaging than many motivational strategies people would otherwise be using, so if you’re not attracted to the integrative techniques, but you think Self-Blackmail sounds worth trying, I say go for it!

(If you’re curious where some of my thinking around this is coming from, two books to check out are The Guru Papers and Making Sense of Behavior: The Meaning of Control, which both have really powerful things to say about internal conflict and self-control.)

MC Escher's etching "drawing hands", which depicts a left and right hand drawing each other

(On a process-level I want to note that I’m excited to have published this, because it’s been a major mental model in my own thinking, and I’ve kind of got a backlog of further things that I can now publish and reference this piece. One of the main things sticking up my writing has itself been self-reference, in a different form! I feel like I have 5 things I’m excited to write about, but each of them requires me to have already written about 2 or 3 of the others. I’m gradually finding ways to do it anyway though!)


Thu, 16 Nov 2017 8:54:34 EST

[See previous post here; read book online here.]

Question I’d never thought to ask before: are we sure it’s a good idea to let people know what the laws are?

The Chinese legal system originated somewhat over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, legalist and Confucianist. The legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, advocated harsh penalties to drive the equilibrium crime rate to near zero. They supported the ideas of a strong central government, equal treatment under law, and written law available to all. Confucianists saw the issues in terms of morality rather than law and the objective not to modify by behavior by punishing and rewarding but by teaching virtue. They feared that a written law code generally available would lead to rules lawyering and supported unequal treatment based on the unequal status of those to whom the law applied…Some early writers argued against making the law code publicly available.

Not that knowing what the laws were in ancient China would necessarily help:

Where the offense did not seem to fit any category in the code, the court felt free to find the defendant guilty of doing what ought not to be done or of violating an Imperial decree — not an actual decree, but one that the Emperor would have made had the matter been brought to his attention.

Actually, the ancient Chinese legal system just sucked in general – but suckiness might have been the active ingredient:

Another way of dealing with the disproportion between the [vast] population to be controlled by the legal system and the [few] resources commanded by that system was to discourage resort to law. One way in which this was done was to make the private practice of law, in effect, a criminal offense; individuals who wanted help with their legal problems were expected to get it from the district magistrate and his staff. Another was by making involvement with the legal system potentially unpleasant for all concerned. There was no equivalent of our tort law by which an injured party could use the legal system to compel restitution—all law was, in our terms, criminal, and all prosecution public. It was legal to torture witnesses in the process of extracting information from them. Participants in the legal process were expected to act as humble petitioners, recognizing the vastly superior status of the officials they were interacting with.

Making it costly to interact with the legal system was one way of reducing the amount of work required of the bureaucracy but risked providing an individual with the opportunity to injure an enemy by accusing him of an offense. It was a risky tactic, since both accuser and accused would be imprisoned, and if the accusation was found to be false the accuser was subject to the penalty that would have been imposed on the accused if found guilty. The obvious solution was to make the accusation anonymous. That problem was dealt with in a straightforward fashion by Ch’ing law; for an official to read an anonymous accusation was a criminal offense.

Continuing on the theme of “ancient Chinese law sucking”:

There remained a fourth category, convicts “deserving of capital punishment.” Their names were written on a sheet on which the Emperor drew a circle, separating those who would be executed from those to be held over for another year; it is unclear whether being inside or outside the circle implied execution. A defendant guilty of family offenses who survived this process twice had his sentence commuted to deferred execution; for other offenses it took ten times.

More variations on the same theme:

There are multiple cases where someone commits an offense on orders from a superior member of his extended family; the attitude of the court seems to be that although he must obey the order he is still criminally liable for the act; there appears to be no assumption in the legal system that an individual always has the option of acting in a way that does not violate one rule or another. That again might be interpreted as a policy driven by religion, the fear that if cosmic balance was not maintained by punishing someone for a violation of the cosmic rules, the result might be an increased risk of natural catastrophes.

On Jewish courts:

Until the reestablishment of the State of Israel in the 20th century, the Jewish population consisted of dispersed communities living under the authority of non-Jewish rulers. Such communities were subject from time to time to persecution or even expulsion. But for the most part, they enjoyed judicial autonomy. Gentile rulers, Christian and Muslim, found it convenient to subcontract the job of ruling and taxing their Jewish subjects to the local Jewish authorities. The ruler set the total tax burden to be imposed on the community, the local authorities were responsible for allocating it among the residents and settling disputes among the community’s members. Thus Jews in the diaspora lived largely under Jewish law. In some cases, the delegation of authority seems to have been carried to extraordinary lengths. Under Jewish law, “informing,” giving gentile authorities information about a fellow Jew injurious to him, was a crime. At some times and places, informing three times was a capital offense. Someone convicted of a capital crime was executed by the (gentile) mundane authorities. It follows, if Elon’s account of the situation in Spain is correct, that under some circumstances the gentile authorities were willing to execute a Jew for the crime of betraying information about other Jews. Betraying it, presumably, to the gentile authorities.

In Jewish law, someone with a terminal disease can theoretically murder (or commit any other crime) with impunity:

One of my favorite bits of legal logic concerns someone dying of a fatal organic disease. Maimonides starts by saying that the killer of such a person is legally exempt—although, of course, one must be very sure that the disease is incurable and fatal. He goes on to add that if someone suffering from such a disease kills he is to be put to death, provided he is so considerate as to do the killing in the presence of a court.

What if he doesn’t? Convicting him then depends on witnesses. Witnesses can only be trusted in a capital case if they themselves are at risk of punishment if their testimony is false. In this case, conspiring to use false testimony to convict someone who is innocent would result in no legal penalty, since the victim would be someone dying of a fatal organic disease and there is no penalty for killing such a person. Since the witnesses are at no risk of being put to death if their testimony is false their testimony cannot be trusted. Since their testimony cannot be trusted, there is no way of convicting the murderer. So someone dying of a fatal organic disease can commit murder with impunity, providing he takes care not to do it in the middle of the courtroom.

Jewish law says that community authorities have control over worldly but not religious law. But marriage is considered a matter of religious law, and community authorities have a strong interest in regulating marriage and divorce. How do they do it?

One ingenious solution hit upon by the communal authorities was to argue that while the marriage was [religious], the wedding ring, being a piece of property, was [worldly]. If a marriage was celebrated without satisfying their requirements, the communal authorities held that the ring was forfeit to them. Since the groom did not own the ring, the requirements of biblical marriage had not been satisfied, hence the bride was not married and was free to marry someone else.

Some religious law, like Jewish Torah law or Islamic Sharia, prescribes draconian or otherwise ill-advised punishments. Believers have long wanted to “correct” these errors, but hesitate at openly contradicting the word of God. There are multiple traditional means for solving the problem, like saying they will only implement the religious punishment if the prosecution meets an impossibly high standard of evidence, or if the offense satisfies an unsatisfiably high number of requirements. Eg:

Consider the case of the disobedient son. The Torah prescribes death by stoning for a child who defies his parents. Some legal authorities chose to read into the wording of the biblical verse requirements that could not in practice be satisfied―for instance, that the mother and father bringing the accusation must have identical voices and be identical in appearance. Maimonides argued that a boy below the age of thirteen could not be held responsible, that a boy of thirteen might impregnate a woman, a fact that would be known in another three months or so, at which point he would be a father not a son, hence that the prescription could only apply to a boy aged more than thirteen and less than thirteen and a quarter. In his view, the combined effect of the restrictions that could be read into the biblical passage was that the stated rule never had been and never would be applied.

Islamic sharia law famously demands that thieves’ hands be cut off, but this seems to be the same sort of more-honored-in-the-breach-than-observance kind of affair:

The hadd offense of sariqa is defined as theft, but theft that meets a variety of requirements. The thief must be a competent adult; the theft must be intentional, accomplished by stealth, of an item of more than a specified minimum value. The item must be one protected by its owner, so stealing an animal grazing at a distance from its barn does not qualify, nor does stealing from a house where you are an invited guest. Stealing perishable food does not count, because it is presumed that the theft is out of hunger and so permitted. The victim of the theft must attend both trial and execution.8 Arguably the list of requirements is so extensive because legal scholars, like many non-Muslim commentators, regarded the punishment―amputation of the right hand―as excessive. Since the punishment was Koranic it could not be changed, but it could be hedged around with enough qualifications so that it was unlikely to be applied―the same approach that Jewish legal scholars applied to the rule about stoning a disobedient son. A theft that did not meet the requirements for the hadd offense could still be prosecuted and punished under ta’zir [law less directly based on the Koran].

More on sharia:

An important feature [of this system] was the separation of law and state. Law, at least in theory, was not made by the ruler but deduced by legal scholars. In the view of at least some modern scholars, that was largely true in practice as well. After the first few centuries, rulers in the Middle East were frequently foreigners to the populations they ruled, often Turkish princes who had made the transition from mercenaries in service to Arab dynasties into de facto rulers. What they wanted from the legal scholars was support for their legitimacy; while they might occasionally meddle in some legal question of immediate relevance to themselves, they were willing for the most part to leave the legal system itself in the hands of the scholars. They were even willing to subsidize the scholars by endowing mosques and madrissahs, colleges, which provided employment for legal scholars. Think of the system as what Anglo-American common law would be if law professors ran the world, defined not by the precedents set by judges but by the medieval equivalent of law review articles.

The four schools of law are all Sunni; the Shia have their own legal rules, in most respects similar. A medieval Muslim city would have had separate courts for the four Sunni schools, the Shia, and the other tolerated religions. It was a polylegal system; disputes within each community would go to that community’s courts.

In Hallaq’s view it was the breakdown of this system in the 19th and 20th century due to the rise of the nation state, itself a result of western influence, that effectively destroyed the traditional system. In Islamic territories under colonial rule, such as India, Indonesia, and Algeria, the colonial rulers replaced the traditional system of decentralized law independent of the state with a system of statutory law incorporating elements of traditional law, in some cases elements interpreted in ways favorable to the ruling power. After the end of the colonial period, the newly independent states followed the same path. Thus, in his view, modern “islamists” who view themselves as wishing to reinstitute Shari’a are in fact proposing something quite different and less desirable, a centralized system of state made law with rules to some degree modeled on traditional fiqh.

Another perspective on polylegal systems I hadn’t considered before:

The same issue exists in current U.S. law, which is in its own way polylegal. Each U.S. state has its own system of legal rules. Most disputes have an unambiguous location in a particular state, but not all; consider the case of a customer in California who purchases a product produced in Massachusetts from a seller in Texas. What court gets to decide the resulting product liability dispute? U.S. legal theory includes an elaborate set of rules for solving such “conflict of law” cases. One of those rules is diversity jurisdiction. A civil case that would normally be under state law can be heard by a federal court instead if the plaintiff and defendant are from different states, under different state laws. Think of it as a modern version of the rule that sends cross cases to the ruler’s court.

On medieval Icelandic government:

Laws were made by a “parliament,” seats in which were a marketable commodity [called a godord]…the godord itself was in effect two different things. It was a group of men – the particular men who had agreed to follow that godi, to be members of that godord. Any man could be challenged to name his godord and was required to do so, but he was free to choose any godi within his quarter and to change to a different godord at will. It was also a bundle of rights–the right to sit in the lögrétta, appoint judges for certain courts, etc. The godord in this second sense was marketable property. It could be given away, sold, held by a partnership, inherited, or whatever. Thus seats in the law- making body were quite literally for sale.

Some interesting principles of Somali law:

The Somali system is ultimately a feud system, one in which law is enforced by the private application of force or the threat of force, but a feud system with institutions for avoiding violence via widely respected mechanisms to arbitrate disputes. Part of what makes it successful, according to Van Notten, is that families are obligated to help defend their kin but not to help attack their opponents, with the result that armed conflicts are likely to lead to stalemate, and from there to arbitration.


One such oath consists of the oath-giver swearing by his marriage; if it later turns out that his oath was false, the marriage is dissolved.


If the convicted defendant refuses to pay within the specified time, he is subject to penalties ranging from a fine in honey to having one of his animals slaughtered, cooked, and eaten by the villagers each day.


For intentional murder, the penalty is a life for a life; if the murderer succeeds in fleeing abroad, a member of his family of equal status may be put to death in his stead, a rule that gives his family a strong incentive not to help him escape. In most cases the victim’s family can choose to accept blood-money instead, at a rate of 100 camels for a man and 50 for a woman, although if the murder was sufficiently outrageous the court may insist on execution of the murderer.

On the English pardon system, which usually involved the offender’s relatives pleading to a noble or other high official to plead for mercy, and the judge granting it if and only if a sufficiently impressive noble made the plea:

Pardons procured in this way substitute an efficient punishment-a fine-for a less efficient punishment-execution. In doing so, they provide resources to the state and those who control it. Officials who give out pardons are selling them for non-pecuniary payments. Thus the legal system, in addition to providing a mechanism to reduce crime, also increases the ability of the state to maintain its authority. Considered from the standpoint of public relations, it is an elegant way of doing so. Nobody is threatened save the guilty convict. The squire is not oppressing his tenants but doing them a favor, at their request. The knowledge that such favors may occasionally be needed gives everyone in the village an incentive to be polite to the squire.

On clergyable offenses in early modern England, definition creep, and how juries interpret dumb laws as damage and route around them:

Offenses fell into three categories according to their possible punishments: minor offenses, clergyable felonies, and non-clergyable felonies. Minor offenses such as petty larceny-theft of goods worth less than a shilling-were typically punished with punishments designed largely to shame the offender, such as public whipping or exposure in the stocks.

The distinction between the second and third categories was whether or not offenders could claim benefit of clergy. Benefit of clergy originated as a legal rule permitting clerics charged with capital offenses to have their cases transferred to a church court, which did not impose capital punishment. By the 18th century, the application of the rule had changed in two important ways: The definition of clergy had been broadened to include anyone who could read (and, after 1706, any defendant whether or not he could read), and the church courts had lost their role in dealing with serious crimes. The result in many cases was that a defendant convicted of a capital felony could plead his clergy, be branded on the thumb, and be sent home.

Under a Tudor statute, a defendant who pled his clergy could be imprisoned for up to a year. But that appears to have been done only rarely.[10] Defendants who were not actually clergymen were supposed to be allowed to plead clergy only once; branding on the thumb may have originated as a device to identify those who had pled clergy once and so could not do so again. But this restriction does not seem to have been enforced very often. Presumably the brand had some stigmatizing effect. That, plus the costs born by the defendant prior to his conviction, seem to have been at some periods the only penalty actually imposed on someone convicted of a clergyable offense.


While hanging was, during much of the century, the only punishment that a judge could impose for serious non-clergyable felonies, that did not mean that everyone charged with such a felony, or even everyone charged and guilty, was actually hanged. A substantial fraction of defendants were acquitted. Of those convicted, many were convicted of a lesser offense. A jury might find a defendant guilty of an offense that was punishable by whipping or the pillory either in order to keep the offender from pleading his clergy and being released or to prevent him from being convicted of a capital offense and hanged. After 1717, they might find him guilty of a clergyable rather than a non-clergyable felony in order to convert the punishment from hanging to transportation.

In some cases the verdict was clearly an act of “pious perjury” by the jury. The fiction was clear when a jury found a defendant guilty of stealing from a house goods of value 39 shillings, although the goods were obviously worth much more than that; 40 shillings was the value that would make the theft non-clergyable. In other cases, the jury failed to include in its verdict features of the crime, such as the fact that the theft was from a house at night or involved breaking and entering, that would have made it non-clergyable. The combined effect of acquittals and convictions for a lesser (non-capital) offense was that, in the sample examined by Beattie, fewer than 40% of those charged with capital property felonies and fewer than 25% of those charged with murder were actually convicted of those offenses.

On the ancient Icelandic solution to class-action lawsuits:

Transferable tort claims could solve another problem in our system as well. Consider a tort that does a small amount of damage to each of a large number of victims, small enough so that no individual victim or small group will find it worth the trouble of suing. The current solution is a class action; an enterprising lawyer gets himself named as attorney for the class of all victims, sues on their behalf, and collects damages or accepts an out of court settlement. One problem with that solution is that there is nothing much to keep the attorney from acting in his own interest instead of that of his imaginary clients, settling on terms that give him a substantial sum in real cash and them compensation in the form of discounts on their hypothetical future dealings with the defendant. Transferable claims make possible a better solution. The lawyer purchases a large number of small claims, perhaps with the assistance of middlemen, then sues on his own behalf as their owner.15 In this respect, at least, our legal system is a mere eleven hundred years behind the cutting edge of legal technology.

Some gypsy customs:

The Kaale, the Finnish gypsies, a small population isolated for centuries, carry this attitude even further, refusing to openly admit the facts of human reproduction.3 They have no institution of marriage; couples that wish to reproduce are expected to first leave their family households, flee a substantial distance away—far enough so that their kin cannot find them and retrieve the woman—and return only when the child is weaned and so no longer requires a visible association with its mother. On returning, the father is expected to show the humility appropriate to one who has violated the norms of his society while the women of the mother’s generation smuggle mother and child back into the household, where the child will be expected to treat all the women of his mother’s generation as equally mothers.

One result of the Kaale rejection of sexuality is to eliminate many of the taboos associated with it among other Gypsy groups. There can be no restrictions associated with menstruation since enforcing them would require recognition of the fact of menstruation, and similarly with pregnancy. A Kaale woman living in the household of her (or her partner’s) kin conceals the fact of pregnancy until shortly before delivery, and arranges for it to happen somewhere outside of the household—in modern times in a maternity hospital.

More on Gypsies, paging James C Scott:

A third approach to enforcing an embedded legal system, also employed by gypsy communities, is to use control over information to substitute for control over physical force. I started this chapter by reporting a range of estimates for the world population of gypsies. That the estimates range over almost an order of magnitude is not an accident. Gypsies do not wish to be controlled by gaije. It is hard to control people if you cannot count them, and it is hard to count people when there is no one to one correspondence between person and name—Gypsies treat a name, more generally an identity, as fungible, property belonging to the extended family to be used by any member who finds it useful. By this tactic and others, modern gypsies make it difficult for the states that claim authority over them to monitor and control them, and so increase the range of alternatives available to gypsies and gypsy law.

One of my all-time favorite Friedman passages, this time on the Amish:

In an earlier chapter, I suggested that in North America toleration might eventually destroy the status of gypsies as self-governing communities by making it too easy for unhappy or ostracized members to defect. Along similar lines, it is arguable that the emancipation of European Jews, starting in the late 18th century, was responsible for the decline of the Jewish communities as distinct and effectively self-ruling polities. Yet the Amish have maintained their identity, culture, and ordnung, enforcing the latter by the threat of ostracism, despite the lack of any clear barrier to prevent unhappy or excommunicated members from deserting. Such desertion is made easier, in the Amish case, by the existence of Mennonite communities, similar to the Amish but less strict, which Amish defectors can and sometimes do join.

A critic of the Amish might argue that their upbringing, with schooling ending at eighth grade, leaves potential defectors unqualified for life in the modern world; the obvious response is that there are a lot of jobs in the modern world for which the willingness to work and the training produced by an apprenticeship starting at age fourteen are better qualifications than a high school diploma. As some evidence of the adequacy of Amish education, Amish seem to do quite well at starting and running their own small scale businesses.

One might more plausibly suggest that a social system in which courting your future mate may start as early as fourteen leaves many young people locked into a future marriage well before the point at which they have to decide whether or not to accept the Ordnung and commit themselves to the Amish lifestyle—and it is a future marriage with a spouse raised Amish. It would be interesting to know whether, when Amish do choose to leave prior to baptism, they usually do it one by one or in couples.

One could also argue that the close bonds of Amish families create a form of lock-in. Social interaction between committed Amish and relatives who have chosen not to commit is not forbidden—shunning applies only to those who have sworn to obey the Ordnung and been baptised, but then fail to live up to their commitment—but given how much of the pattern of living of the Amish is determined by their religion and culture, refusing to commit must create a substantial barrier. The barrier is higher still for those who have been baptized, and so would face shunning if they left the church.

Finally, one might interpret the low defection rate as evidence of successful indoctrination, not only into the principles of Amish life but into the negative view held by the Amish of the lives lived by non-Amish. Reading books on the Amish, all positive, all written by sympathizers,34 one is struck by how dark their picture of the outside world is. It is a world where people spend most of their efforts in competitive endeavor and display, in keeping up with the Joneses, where lives are divided among the almost wholly separate circles of work, family, and church, where little meaningful happens or can happen, a world of boredom and alienation.

There is, of course, one other possibility. Perhaps the Amish are correct in believing that they have a superior life-style, as judged by most of those who have lived it and observed the alternative—albeit a life style superior only for those who have had the good fortune to be brought up in it.

Plains Indian wife stealing:

Wife stealing was illegal and done openly, so guilt was not an issue. Compensation was. The husband was expected to confront the wife stealer and demand generous compensation, with the amount an increasing function of the wealth of the stealer and the prowess of the husband, a decreasing function of the prowess of the stealer. There being no government to enforce the law, the threat that backed the demand was the private use of force. Pay or I’ll kill you.

Carrying out that threat was neither desired nor likely, since if the husband killed the stealer (or vice versa) the victim’s kin would take revenge by killing the killer. The intended result of the threat was to set off the game that economists call “bilateral monopoly,” a bargaining game in which the parties have a common interest in a peaceful resolution of their dispute but a conflict over the terms, in this case over how much will be given in compensation to the wronged husband.

What if the stealer was clearly the more dangerous man of the two—not unlikely, since a prudent man in search of status would prefer not to steal from too able a husband? The husband had the option of calling in his brothers or other kin to support his threats. The stealer, having set off the conflict in order to prove his status, had no such option—asking for help would be to admit that he had bitten off more than he could chew, and besides, he was on what everyone saw as the wrong side of the (unwritten) law. So at that point the stealer backs down and agrees to pay substantial damages, which damages are collected not by the husband but by his helpers.

Suppose the husband had no brothers? His option then was to find a champion, a brave, generous, well thought of warrior willing to take over the case and face down the stealer. This time the damage payment went to the husband. The champion’s payment was the status gained by his willingness to risk himself in defense of the right and his success in forcing another warrior to back down. Much the same pattern appears in some of the Icelandic sagas, where a bully who relies too heavily on his and his friends’ strength to let him violate the rights of weaker men is brought down by someone still more formidable out to establish his own status.

On Athenian juries:

Each year, 6000 jurors were selected by lot from those who volunteered; the only qualification was being a male citizen and at least 30 years old. The size of the jury for a case varied over time and according to the nature of the case, but seems usually to have been about 500. Jurors were paid 1/2 drachma for each day they served, about half the wage of a rower, so jury service provided a sort of low end welfare.

More on Athens:

The ordinary procedure was for the case to be privately prosecuted by any male citizen who chose to do so. If prosecution was successful and led to to the defendant paying a fine, the prosecutor would, for many but not all sorts of cases, receive a substantial fraction of the fine, sometimes as much as half, as his reward. Similarly, if the case was based on the claim that the defendant was holding property that properly belonged to the state, a successful prosecution would result in half of the property forfeiting to the state, half to the prosecutor. Such a system raises the risk of suits against defendants believed to be rich, unpopular, or both—whether or not they have broken any laws. One solution was a provision of the law under which a prosecutor who failed to get at least a fifth of the jurors to vote for conviction was himself fined, as well as barred from any future suits of the same kind.

Still on Athens:

The victim of theft was was entitled to get back both his stolen property and a sum equal to twice its value. We worry about police planting drugs on a suspect in the process of search; the Athenians worried about a private party planting his own property on someone in order to accuse him of stealing it. They had a simple, solution. The accuser was allowed to search the house where he suspected his stolen property was hidden. But he had to do it naked.

And my favorite section on Athens:

The Athenians had a straightforward solution to the problem of producing public goods such as the maintenance of a warship or the organizing of a public festival. If you were one of the richest Athenians, every two years you were obligated to produce a public good; the relevant magistrate would tell you which one.

“As you doubtless know, we are sending a team to the Olympics this year. Congratulations, you are the sponsor.”

Or: “Look at that lovely trireme down at the dock. This year guess who gets to be captain and paymaster?”

Such an obligation was called a liturgy. There were two ways to get out of it. One was to show that you were already doing another liturgy this year or had done one last year. The other was to prove that there was another Athenian, richer than you, who had not done one last year and was not doing one this year. This raises an obvious puzzle. How, in a world without accountants, income tax, public records of what people owned and what it was worth, do I prove that you are richer than I am? The answer is not an accountant’s answer but an economist’s — feel free to spend a few minutes trying to figure it out before you turn the page.

The solution was simple. I offer to exchange everything I own for everything you own. If you refuse, you have admitted that you are richer than I am, and so you get to do the liturgy that was to be imposed on me.

Sun, 12 Nov 2017 4:53:00 EST

Imagine that you have a large pool of cases, where in each case you weakly suspect some sort of villainous stink. But you have a limited investigative resource, which you can only apply to one case, to sniff for stick there.

For example, you might have one reporter, who you could assign for one month to investigate the finances of any one member of Congress. Or you might have one undercover actor, whom you could assign to offer a bribe to one member of the police force of a particular city. Or you might assign a pretty actress to meet with a Hollywood producer, to check for harassment.

Imagine further that you are willing to invite the world to weigh in, to advise you on where to apply your investigative resource. You are willing to say, “Hey world, which of these cases looks stinky to you?” If this is you, then I offer you villain markets.

In a villain market, some investigative resource will be applied at random to one case out of a set of cases. It will report back a verdict, which in the simplest case will be “stinky” or “not stinky”. And before that case is selected for investigation, we will invite everyone to bet anonymously on the chances of stickiness in each case. That is, anyone can bet on the probability that the verdict of case C will be found stinky, given that case C is selected for investigation. So if you have reason to suspect a particular member of Congress, a particular police officer, or a particular Hollywood producer, you might expect to gain by anonymously betting against them.

Imagine that we were sure to investigate case C87, and that the market chance of C87 being found stinky was 2%, but that you believed C87’s stinkiness chances were more like 5%. In this situation, you might expect to profit from paying $3 for the asset “Pays $100 if C87 found stinky”. After your bet, the new market chance might be 4%, reflecting the information you had provided the market via your bet.

Now since we are not sure to investigate case C87, what you’d really do is give up “Pays $3 if C87 investigated” for “Pays $100 if C87 investigated and found stinky.” And you could obtain the asset “Pays $3 if C87 investigated” by paying $3 cash and getting a version of this “Pays $3 if C investigated” investigation asset for every possible case C.

So you could reuse the same $3 to weigh in on the chances of stinkiness in every possible case from the set of possible cases. And not only could you bet for and against particular cases, but you could bet on whole categories of cases. For example, you might bet on the average stinkiness of men, or people older than 60, or people born in Virginia.

To get people to bet on all possible cases C, there needs to be at least some chance of picking every case C in the set of possible cases. But these choice chances do not need to be equal, and they can even depend on the market prices. The random process that picks a case to investigate could set the choice chance to be a strongly increasing function of the market stinkiness chance of each case. As a result, the overall chance of the investigation finding stink could be far above the average market chance across the cases C, and it might even be close to the maximum stinkiness chance.

So far I’ve describe a simple version of villain markets, but many variations are possible. For example, the investigation verdict might choose from several possible levels of stink or villainy. If the investigation could look at several possible areas A, but would have to choose one area from the start, then we might have markets trading assets like “Pays $100 if stink found, and area A of case C is investigated.” The markets would now estimate a chance of stink for each area and case combination, and the random process for choosing cases and areas could depend on the market stinkiness chance of each such combination.

Imagine that a continuing investigative resource were available. For example, a reporter could be assigned each month to a new case and area. A new set of markets could be started again each month over the same set of cases. If an automated market maker were set up to encourage trading in these markets, it could be started each month at the chances in the previous month’s markets just before the randomization was announced.

Once some villain markets had been demonstrated to give well-calibrated market chances, other official bodies who investigate villainy might rightly feel some pressure to take the market stinkiness chances into account when choosing what cases to investigate. Eventually villain markets might become our standard method for allocating investigation resources for uncovering stinking villainy. Which might just make for a much less stinky world.

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 8:25:03 EST
There is a pattern to the most influential business writing, in The World is Flat league. Especially writing that CEOs seem to like enough to exhort their organizations to read. Every such work offers one big, unqualified, unquantified, universal proposition. Usually with an obvious black-and-white moral assessment attached as an implied parenthetical [and this is a good […]

Tue, 7 Nov 2017 5:43:05 EST


When I wrote about my experiences doing psychotherapy with people, one commenter wondered if I might be schizoid:

There are a lot of schizoid people in the rationalist community from what I can tell. The basis of schizoid is not all the big bad symptoms you might read about. There are high functioning people with personality disorders all the time who are complex, polite and philosophical.

You will never see this description because mental health industries center entirely around people Failing At Life, aka “low-functioning”. As many radicals have noted, mental health tends to constitute itself mostly around “can’t hold a job” or “can’t hold a marriage”.

The only thing you need to be schizoid is to dislike contact with other egos, and to shave off the experience of those other egos ruthlessly before they can reach the fantasy world you retreat to.

It doesn’t mean you’re evil. It doesn’t mean you stalk people and plan to harm them. It doesn’t mean you’re over-reactive or even bizarrely delusional. You could call it a form of delusion, but really the basic descriptions of perception like top-down processing and culture could all be called delusional thinking if you want to be properly pointed about it. It’s schizoid. It’s often quite gentle. And I’ve noticed from interacting with various people in high IQ communities that if you have sufficiently high enough intelligence, despite the inherent defined tendency to retreat from reality, you can in fact become aware you have a personality disorder.

Anyway, my guess based on projection (I’ve never met you) is that people aren’t being emotional around you because you can’t be reached by them emotionally, and they know that on some level.

I feel like I experience emotions and genuine human connection. You would think that ‘not experiencing emotions or having genuine human connection’ is hard to miss. But then I think of the stories in What Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It?

In the first, Francis Galton discovered that some people didn’t have visual imagination. They couldn’t see anything in their “mind’s eye”, they couldn’t generate internal images. None of these people knew there was anything “wrong” with them. They just assumed that everyone who talked about having an imagination was being metaphorical, just using a really florid poetic way of describing that they remembered what something looked like.

In the second, a user on Quora described their experience with anosmia – not having a sense of smell. They didn’t realize there was anything wrong until college. Until then, “I teased my sister about her stinky feet. I held my nose when I ate Brussels sprouts. In gardens, I bent down and took a whiff of the roses.” Though they didn’t say so explicitly, it sounds like they thought smell was just a metaphorical way of saying something was disgusting or delightful.

And in the third – well, this is awkward – I went years without realizing I didn’t have any emotions. I was getting treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder with high dose SSRIs. When these work well they dull your depression and anxiety; when they work less well, they dull all your emotions. For me they worked less well, but I never realized it until I came off them after five years and was suddenly overwhelmed by emotions I’d almost forgotten it was possible to have. In the interim, I’d understood that getting a birthday present was a positive and desirable event, and said it made me “happy”, without realizing something was missing. This was particularly inexcusable since I’d felt the full range of emotions before I started the drugs, but I guess the hypothesis “I have stopped feeling emotions” is a hard one to consider and collect evidence for.

So if someone says I’m incapable of genuine human relationships – well, I should stress that I think my relationships are genuine. But if they weren’t, maybe I wouldn’t notice. There would be something I was capable of, I would call that “genuine human relationships” since it was my only example of the concept, and I would never have anything else to compare it to.


This post isn’t about relationships. This post is about ideas.

In high school I took a sociology class, and the teacher talked about how modern society was atomized and there were no real community bonds and so on. And I thought this was dumb. I didn’t live in an atomized society! My family knew our next-door neighbors, and we’d even been over at their house once for dinner. There was a Community Center a few blocks away, and when I was a kid I would go there a couple of times a year for some kind of Neighborhood Art Night. Sometimes my mother volunteered at my school, and my dad was too busy to volunteer but probably would have if he could. We weren’t devoid of community at all.

And then three things happened. Number one, I read some good anthropology about primitive and medieval societies, which actually described pre-atomized life and the way that there was barely even an individual identity and the community determined everything you ever did. Number two, I spent a little time in an honest-to-goodness Third World village and saw a little of what life was like there. And number three, I got involved in some good subcultures – including Bay Area rationality – which were slightly but noticeably less atomized than the neighborhood where I grew up. I realized that I’d mistaken the existent-but-weak forms of community in my suburban neighborhood for the really-strong forms of community that people complaining about atomization say we’re missing, because I had so little experience with the latter I couldn’t even imagine them.

This is a similar error as the SSRI/emotions problem. People talk about emotions/community. I have something sort of similar occupying that space. So I reasonably assume it’s the same thing everyone is talking about.

I think I’ve figured out the whole “atomization” thing. But I’m not sure. What if there’s some real non-atomized community that even second-hand anthropology plus some good subcultures can’t point to? Am I just making the same mistake as I did as a high schooler, only one level higher?

Some of these same sociologists worry about advertising and consumerism. They think capitalism turns people into perfect consumers who overwork themselves at jobs they don’t like to buy products they don’t need. They think people’s entire identities revolve around brands and consumption.

And once again, I think: “Good thing this isn’t happening to me.” I don’t really watch TV and I tune out online ads. I buy things occasionally, usually things that I need or things that I occasionally enjoy. But I don’t own much “clutter”. And I don’t care about brands, except ones that really signal high quality.

Is this the same kind of mistake as “I met the neighbors once, so I’m not atomized”? I don’t know!

Either understanding “consumerism” was so easy for me that I got it immediately and effortlessly, and I live a charmed life that has prevented me from ever encountering that problem.

Or I have only a superficial fascimile of understanding it, and when I actually understand it, it’ll seem profound and important, the same way “atomization” did.

When I see other people making a big deal out of seemingly-minor problems, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’ve avoided them so easily I missed their existence, or fallen into them so thoroughly I’m like the fish who can’t see water.

And when I see other people struggling to understand seemingly-obvious concepts, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’m so far beyond them that I did it effortlessly, or so far beneath them that I haven’t even realized there’s a problem.


Last week, some people proposed it was useless to steelman/understand post-modernism. It was just people being stupid or having garbled thinking. Maybe. There are some post-modernists who even the other post-modernists say are probably just pulling it out of their asses.

But how would we know? There are concepts nobody gets on the first reading, concepts you have to have explained to you again and again until finally one of the explanations clicks and you can reconstruct it out of loose pieces in your own head.

And there are concept-shaped holes you don’t notice that you have. You can talk to an anosmic person about smell for years on end, and they’re still not going to realize they’ve got a big hole where that concept should be. You can give high-school me an entire class about atomization, and he can ace the relevant test, and he’s still not going to know what atomization is.

Put these together, and you have cause for concern. If you learn about something, and it seems trivial and boring, but lots of other people think it’s interesting and important – well, it could be so far beneath you that you’d internalized all its lessons already. Or it could be so far beyond you that you’re not even thinking on the same level as the people who talk about it.

I’m looking back on my book review of After Virtue, a seminal philosophy book which won a bunch of awards and recognition from important philosophers. My review was that it seemed very confused. It kept claiming to have an important insight, but every time it said it was going to reveal the important insight, it actually said a bunch of platitudes and unrelated tangents. This is a huge red flag. Which makes more sense – that I was the lone genius able to see that the emperor had no clothes and Alasdair MacIntyre is really dumb? Or that he’s saying something really hard to understand, and I haven’t understood it yet?

Maybe there are fields doing the intellectual equivalent of gaslighting, insisting they have really profound points when they’re just vapor. But err on the side of caution here. Most of us have some hard-won battles, like mine understanding atomization. Where after a lot of intellectual work, a concept that seemed stupid suddenly opens up and becomes important. Sometimes it’s about anarchism, or reactionary philosophy, or privilege, or religion as benevolent community-building institution. Erring too hard on the side of “that’s dumb, they’re probably just gaslighting” closes off those areas to you forever.

I don’t think it’s always worth delving deep into a seemingly-meaningless field to discover the hidden meaning. That rarely works – if you had the concepts you’d need to understand it right now, you would have done so already. But I think it’s worth leaving the possibility open, so that later if something clicks you’re not too embarrassed to return to it.

Mon, 6 Nov 2017 4:13:38 EST

Related to (Eliezer Yudkowsky at Less Wrong): An Equilibrium of No Free Energy

Related to (Satvik Beri at Less Wrong): Competitive Truth Seeking

Follow-up to: Leaders of Men



Suppose you have an insight about Google. The efficient market hypothesis says you can’t make a profit. Your insight is not a new insight. The market has already priced it in. You know no more about Google’s future price than you did before.

That’s the bad news. That’s also the good news: If you didn’t have that insight , you wouldn’t know any less about Google’s future price. Efficient market!

I call this zeroing out. Your ignorance is not punished.

This means any unique knowledge you do find will be rewarded. If you get good Google news first, you don’t need to know anything else. Buy, buy, buy!

From Leaders of Men:

It is much, much easier to pick out a way in which a system is sub-optimal, than it is to implement or run that system at anything like its current level of optimization.

A corollary of this:

It is much, much easier to find a bias in a complex model, than it is to build an equally good model.

“I built a better model of Google’s future profits than the market” is a hard sell. “I found a factor the market isn’t properly accounting for” or “I got this news and figured out what it means before the market could price it in” is still a tough sell – it’s Google – but it’s less impossible.

Taking difficulty down, consider odds on the winner of a football game. Both tasks are now realistic. You would still have a much easier task figuring out “Alabama wins more often than people think” than “Alabama is 95.3% to win.”

The easiest way to beat consensus opinion is to use consensus opinion as an input.

It’s easy to beat the wisdom of the crowd a little – average your opinion into the crowd.



Hiring an engineer is trickier. Assume a consensus interview process.

Satvik suggests focusing on finding candidates like Bob, who does poorly on interviews but is an excellent employee, rather than candidates like Alex, who is an excellent employee and also an excellent interview. Alex likely won’t take the job, but Bob will. Alternatively, demand for Alex is higher, so Alex’s market price is higher than Bob’s. Optimize for finding Bob.

The problem is Charlie. Think this guy. Charlie interviews badly and he’d be a terrible employee. You do not want to hire Charlie, and he’ll take any job he can get. The consensus interview process correctly exposes Charlie’s awfulness. Your process failing to reject Charlie would be very bad, and most applicants are Charlies.

If you started with a standard ‘consensus interview process score’ from a central interviewing firm, you could look for signs of bias in that process without understanding the process. You don’t have that.

If a flaw is caught by the consensus process, and you don’t check for it, you’ll end up with a lot of people with that flaw. Sometimes that’s good – the flaw is quirky and meaningless – but usually this is bad. By checking for such flaws, the consensus forces you to check for them, even if they are rare. If everyone else tests for cocaine addiction, and you don’t check, you’ll hire a lot of cocaine addicts.

You get favorable selection for Bobs, but adverse selection for Charlies.

So you ask coding questions, check references and so on. You redo all the work to regain the missing signal from the consensus. You also need to identify the kind of ‘bad at interviewing’ or other feature that the consensus punishes more than it should.

You have to build the entire model of Bob to know he’s Bob and not Charlie. Much harder.

The ‘score of 0’  from using the consensus method starts to look good. You can do better, but doing even that well is hard!


Buying Cereal

You decide to buy Cheerios. There are three box sizes.

If the boxes are priced ‘correctly’, you know that the small box costs more per ounce than the medium box, which costs more per ounce than the big box.

Knowing the price is ‘correct’ simplifies things greatly. If you currently have a high value on a small box – maybe you have little storage space, or are trying a new brand – you can buy a small box. If you can properly use a bigger box, you can buy a bigger box and save. No math required.

Then one day producers realized we were relying on such heuristics, so they started using mixed strategies. Usually they would price the boxes naturally, but sometimes the bigger box would be more expensive per ounce, or the small box would cost almost as much as the big box.

In the first case, we could rely on bias – which solution worked relatively better for us? In the second case, we have to build a value model complete with numbers. Much harder.



One to Zero

Zeroing out is a wonderful thing. Where you have measures and signals that are sufficiently credible, you can abstract all aspects of a problem away except the ones you care about.

In the Google example, we can zero out everything at the start, allowing us to safely bring in genuine new information (if we somehow had that), or to decide whether we want to own shares in a company like Google.

In the cereal example, we could zero out everything except box size versus price per ounce. Products were identical. We prefer to zero that out too, but found we couldn’t safely do that.

In the hiring example, our goal is to zero out employee quality so that we can isolate and model interviewing skill. What we actually care about is interviewing skill given employee quality. We must establish the virtual market price for the employee’s quality first. Then we look at skill.

This illustrates the danger of adverse selection when modeling prices. We can think of interviewing as generating a fair price for the new employee, and comparing to market price. If Charlie is a cocaine addict, and you don’t know that but the market does, you’ll reliably overpay for lots of Charlies.

Attempting to form a model from scratch creates a burden of omniscience. You have to throw out all the social information. Every mistake you make and everything you overlook punishes you. Combined with negative selection this leads to many costly and embarrassing errors. Thus it is often right to abstract away as much as you can, or copy the consensus view or method in most aspects, to focus where you can improve. Often one must fully model the existing system, even its mistakes, to understand what its outputs mean – if you know that something costs $50 but ‘should’ cost $75, you’ll know something is up, and shouldn’t decide how much you value the product until you’ve found that missing information.











Fri, 3 Nov 2017 7:30:04 EDT

Epistemic status: I’m being emphatic for clarity here, not because I’m super confident.

I’m noticing that a large swath of the right-of-center infovore world has come around to a kind of consensus, and nobody has named it yet.

Basically, I’m pointing at the beliefs that Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind , The Happiness Hypothesis), Jordan Peterson (Maps of Meaning), and Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind) have in common.

All of a sudden, it seemed like everybody “centrist” or “conservative” I knew was quoting Haidt or linking videos by Peterson.

(In absolute terms Peterson isn’t that famous — his videos get hundreds of thousands of Youtube views, about half as popular as the most popular Hearthstone streamer. There’s a whole universe of people who aren’t in the culture-and-politics fandom at all.  But among those who are, Peterson seems highly influential.)

All three of these men are psychology professors, which is why I’m calling the intersection of their views psycho-conservatism. Haidt is a social psychologist, Peterson is a Jungian, and Miller is an evolutionary psychologist.

Psycho-conservatism is mostly about human nature.  It says that humans have a given, observable, evolved nature; that this nature isn’t always pretty (we are frequently irrational, deceptive, and self-centered); and that human nature’s requirements place limits on what we can do with culture or society.  Often, traditional wisdom is valuable because it is a good fit for human nature. Often, utopian modern changes in society fail because they don’t fit human nature well.

This is, of course, a small-c conservative view: it looks to the past for inspiration, and it’s skeptical of radical changes. It differs from other types of conservatism in that it gets most of its evidence from psychology — whether using empirical experiments (as Haidt does) or evolutionary arguments (as Miller does).  Psycho-conservatives have a great deal of respect for religion, but they don’t speak on religious grounds themselves; they’re more likely to argue that religion is adaptive or socially beneficial or that we’re “wired for it.”

Psycho-conservatism is also methodologically skeptical.  In the wake of the psychology replication crisis, it’s reasonable to become very, very doubtful of the social sciences in general.  What do we really know about what makes people tick? Not much.  In such an environment, it makes sense to drastically raise your standards for evidence.  Look for the most replicated and hard-to-fudge empirical findings.  (This may lead you to the literature on IQ and behavioral genetics, and heritable, stable phenomena like the Big Five personality dimensions.) Look for commonalities between cultures across really long time periods.  Look for evidence about the ancestral environment, which constituted most of humans’ time on Earth. Try to find ways to sidestep the bias of our present day and location.

This is the obvious thing to do, as a first pass, in an environment of untrustworthy information.

It’s what I do when I try to learn about biology — err on the side of being pickier, look for overwhelming and hard-to-fake evidence, look for ideas supported by multiple independent lines of evidence (especially evolutionary evidence and evidence across species.)

If you do this with psychology, you end up with an attempt to get a sort of core summary of what we can be most confident about in human nature.

Psycho-conservatives also wind up sharing a set of distinctive political and cultural concerns:

  • Concern that modern culture doesn’t meet most people’s psychological needs.
  • A fair amount of sympathy for values like authority, tradition, and loyalty.
  • Belief that science on IQ and human evolution is being suppressed in favor of less accurate egalitarian theories.
  • Belief that illiberal left-wing activism on college campuses is an important social problem.
  • Disagreement with most contemporary feminism, LGBT activism, and anti-racist activism
  • A general attitude that it’s better to be sunny, successful, and persuasive than aggrieved; disapproval of the “culture of victimhood”
  • Basically no public affiliation with the current Republican Party
  • Moderate or silent on “traditional” political controversies like abortion, gov’t spending, war, etc.
  • Interested in building more national or cultural unity (as opposed to polarization)

Where are the weaknesses in psycho-conservatism?

I just said above that a skeptical methodology regarding “human nature” makes a lot of sense, and is kind of the obvious epistemic stance. But I’m not really a psycho-conservative myself.  So where might this general outlook go wrong?

  1. When we actually do know what we’re talking about.

If you used evolved tacit knowledge, the verdict of history, and only the strongest empirical evidence, and were skeptical of everything else, you’d correctly conclude that in general, things shaped like airplanes don’t fly.  The reason airplanes do fly is that if you shape their wings just right, you hit a tiny part of the parameter space where lift can outbalance the force of gravity.  “Things roughly like airplanes” don’t fly, as a rule; it’s airplanes in particular that fly.

Highly skeptical, conservative methodology gives you rough, general rules that you can be pretty confident won’t be totally wrong. It doesn’t guarantee that there can’t be exceptions that your first-pass methods won’t reach.  For instance, in the case of human nature:

  • It could turn out that one can engineer better-than-historically-normal outcomes even though, as a general rule, most things in the reference class don’t work
    • Education and parenting don’t empirically matter much for life outcomes, but there may be exceptional teaching or parenting methods — just don’t expect them to be easy to implement en masse
    • Avoiding lead exposure massively increases IQ; there may be other biological interventions out there that allow us to do better than “default human nature”
  • Some minority of people are going to have “human natures” very different from your rough, overall heuristics; statistical phenomena don’t always apply to individuals
  • Modern conditions, which are really anomalous, can result in behaviors being adaptive that really weren’t in ancestral or historical conditions, so “deep history” or evolutionary arguments for what humans should do are less applicable today

Basically, the heuristics you get out of methodological conservatism make sense as a first pass, but while they’re robust, they’re very fuzzy.  In a particular situation where you know the details, it may make sense to say “no thanks, I’ve checked the ancestral wisdom and the statistical trends and they don’t actually make sense here.”

2. When psycho-conservatives don’t actually get the facts right.

Sometimes, your summary of “cultural universals” isn’t really universal.  Sometimes, your experimental studies are on shaky ground. (Haidt’s Moral Foundations don’t emerge organically from factor analysis the way Big Five personality traits do.)  Even though the overall strategy of being skeptical about human nature makes sense, the execution can fail in various places.

Conservatives tend to think that patriarchy is (apart from very recently) a human universal, but it really isn’t; hunter-gatherer and hoe cultures have done without it for most of humanity’s existence.

Lots of people assume that government is a human universal, but it isn’t; nation-states are historically quite modern, and even monarchy is far from universal. (Germanic tribes as well as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists around the world were governed by councils and war-leaders rather than kings; Medieval Iceland had a fairly successful anarchy; the Bible is a story of pastoralist tribes transitioning to monarchy, and the results are not represented sympathetically!)

It’s hard to actually compensate for parochial bias and look for a genuinely universal property of human nature, and psycho-conservatives deserve critique when they fail at that mission.

3. When A Principle Is At Stake

Knowledge of human nature can tell you the likely consequences of what you’re doing, and that should inform your strategy.

But sometimes, human nature is terrible.

All the evidence in the world that people usually do something, or that we evolved to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it.

The naturalistic fallacy isn’t exactly a fallacy; natural behaviors are far more likely to be feasible and sustainable than arbitrary hypothetical behaviors, and so if you’re trying to set ideal norms you don’t want them to be totally out of touch with human nature.  But I tend to think that human values emerge and expand from evolutionary pressures rather than being bound wholly to them; we are godshatter.

Sometimes, you gotta say, “I don’t care about the balance of nature and history, this is wrong, what we should do is something else.”  And the psycho-conservative will say “You know you’re probably gonna fail, right?”

At which point you smile, and say, “Probably.”

Thu, 2 Nov 2017 9:23:19 EDT

My actual literal nightmares about civilizational collapse somehow manage to be insanely optimistic about human nature.

I dreamt that in response to the news of the Trumps’ probable successful intimidation or bribery of their New York prosecutors, the US devolved into a lawless hellscape, since the last shreds of pretense of “we’re punishing you because it’s what the law says” were gone. In my dream, I successively wished I’d transferred more of my assets to paper, then money, then gold, then firearms, as I realized how far things had gone.

If I’d been thinking sanely, the thing I should have wished I’d accumulated is the only real source of safety in a state of war: a bigger, better gang. But fundamentally, I should have known better than to imagine that things would collapse quickly.

What was I getting wrong? I was tacitly assuming that the majority of people were perfectly principled.

The rule of law and the structure of power

The crazy thing about my nightmare was that it assumed that we had rule of law in the first place, that most of the sorts of people who vote for “law and order” politicians meant the same sort of thing I do by law. In practice, at least for decades, they’ve meant whatever “we” can get the police to enforce, to preserve a civil order that keeps the right sort of people on top.

The normal attitude towards police officers, soldiers, and other authority figures entitled to use coercive force, is to feel safe if they seem like they’re on your side, and unsafe if they seem like they’re the enemy. Police are presumed to follow the laws insofar as there is a custom to do so, and they feel that the power structure they’re embedded in wants them to; exceptions are judged on the basis of whether they locally cause harm.

But my intuitions about whether I am protected by police are quite different. The motive I imagine for following legal procedure is a transcendent commitment to following the law in full formality, because it is the law laid down in the civil code.

This explains how other people - especially other people in groups comparatively unlikely to be the targets of state violence - can read stories about cops and courts colluding to screw over some group or other and maybe feel vaguely guilty, but not personally unsafe. My intuitions are basically always that if we have a good shared set of protocols / laws, then it doesn’t matter whether we’re friends, we’ll do the right thing anyway, and if we don’t, then it’s hopeless. But these intuitions are not terribly common, and they’re not a good match for how rules are actually enforced in our society.

In particular, I’ve systematically underestimated how OK things can look to a privileged person without proper rule of law, bc predatory structures still want to allow production that can be taxed.

Law as command structure

If you’re a predatory institution or other extractive coalition, you will often want to be able to coordinate local action. To do so, you’ll need some sort of standard data structure and corresponding behavior schema. If you’re not fastidious about making statements that are literally universally true, you’ll often end up making universal statements that are locally true. In addition, if you’re trying to do this efficiently, you’ll often pick up schemas someone else left lying around, such as legal frameworks invented by systematic thinkers who were trying to be consistent. But since you’re trying to make local decisions, not report on your structural model of reality, you won’t be overly distressed by the fact that sometimes you just know that the rules don’t apply, without a formal articulation. All that matters is that you’re consistent where that is important to the performance of your coalition.

This resembles Wittgenstein’s idea of a command language, which can easily superficially resemble pure structural language. If you can get the people who believe in true rule of law to join your coalition under the misapprehension that that’s what you’re doing, so much the better.

Verbal consistency as submission to official narratives

You could draw a quadrant diagram with 2 axes. One describes the public account people give of their actions - the extent to which they try to fit into an intelligible system (with corresponding defensibility), or explicitly endorse acting based on feeling (with corresponding unaccountability). Call these Ordered and Subjective, respectively. The other describes how formal reasoning and models fit into their internal decisionmaking process - whether they have a variety of unintegrated ad hoc models, or a single, integrated model. Call these Opportunistic and Autonomous.


When I say that I was tacitly assuming everyone was perfectly principled, I mean that I was assuming that everyone was either Ordered Autonomous or Subjective Opportunistic. Basically I was assuming that all the people talking about law and order, police/courts ever not abusing their power Because Of The Law, etc are in Structured Autonomous, following the law as written because they are personally committed to following the law as written. That they have internalized the law so that they follow it autonomously. This outlook is basically Kantian.

But in fact they are Ordered Opportunistic, trying to work within the context of power structures, and taking refuge in their ordered system when challenged, but not acting based on an internalization of the full formal structure. They engage with the words and procedures because those are part of the apparatus of power dynamics, part of how things are done here, which means that they're locally consistent, but they don’t report their true underlying model of what's going on, and maybe don’t have one. If the power dynamics shift, their sense of what is lawful shifts accordingly, to adapt to the new ruling coalition. Law is just a way coalitions work together to hold onto power. Call these Collaborators.

How does this relate to the desire to pass tests?

Most people in developed countries spent much of their formative years in contexts where they were explicitly evaluated, by authority figures whom they could not physically escape, on the basis of their ability to verbalize officially endorsed narratives. For people with an autonomous disposition, this can lead to fully internalized domination; in order to recite the desired phrases, they need to alter their sole internal model of how things are, to match. But for people with an opportunistic disposition, they can simply spin up a sandboxed narrative to recite the teacher’s password, and drop the narrative when the test is over.

This helps explain part of why hedgehogs so often make poor predictors. One commonly discussed result of Philip Tetlock’s research on forecasting skill is that “hedgehogs” - people who reason based on a single integrated model - underperform “foxes”, who mix together multiple considerations.

Some people who verbally report a single explicit model have an autonomous disposition. But they’ve spent a long time in situations in which some narratives are favored for reasons other than truth-tracking. Since these narratives are not sandboxed, they have to be reconciled with the rest of their narratives, achieving consistency at the expense of predictive accuracy and explanatory power.

For opportunists reporting a single model, the situation may be even worse. Their single explicit narrative is not constrained by their need to function in the world, since they make pragmatic decisions using a different mental module entirely. So their reported beliefs track a convenient consistent worldview, but they don’t use the vast majority of their practical knowledge and life experience, and can’t change their mind when it’s not socially convenient to do so.

Defensive irony

So, what is an autonome to do?

One solution is to speak the truth despite social incentives to do otherwise. The problem with that approach is that social incentives are powerful. Most likely you end up deluded anyway - but also socially unsuccessful. However, this approach might be able to work, if you take into account the way in which you’re handicapping yourself, and take active steps to overcome this handicap. For instance, you might form a truth-seeking community with explicit understanding that you’re not seeking the approval of outsiders, and willing to forfeit the goods that would come with such approval.

Another is to simply lie. To keep two sets of narrative books - a public one and a personal one. This is cognitively expensive, but it makes it easier to see the pressures your external narrative is under. Another problem with this strategy, of course, is that you’re collaborating with the pressure on other people to conform to the official narrative, and you lose out on the chance to locate potential intellectual partners.

A third strategy is irony. The Socrates of the Platonic dialogues clearly had a specific, structured critique of Athenian discourse - but often fell back on the claim that he knew nothing. That his only wisdom was knowing how little he knew. This is the famous "Socratic irony." Nietzsche proposes a related sort of irony, in which he says that the truly creative person will often want to hide, dissemble, wear masks, that innovators will claim to merely be old-fashioned. More recently, I talked with someone who claimed that her moral philosophy was “fuzzy utilitarian” - but when I probed for details, it turned out that her problem with most attempted implementations of utilitarianism was that they themselves were too “fuzzy”. Her self-deprecating description as “fuzzy” secretly meant that she thought her thinking was more precise.

Irony occupies the Subjective Autonomous quadrant. Internally, you keep accounts. Externally, you disavow claims to lawfulness, so as to avoid attaching yourself to structures of predation.


Then there's the last quadrant, Subjective Opportunistic. This is the other honest quadrant. People following this strategy distrust external systems of accounting sufficiently to simply avoid any accounts, as they (correctly) see most lawful systems as power grabs. Unlike the Ordered Opportunistic, they don't try to claim credit for being part of a lawful system - the strategy is defensive. Shapeshifters are hard to grab a hold of.

Principles and education

Going back to my nightmare, it seems like it’s not a coincidence that Ayn Rand has the same unrealistic assumption in her fiction that people are perfectly principled, and also tacitly expected a rapid civilizational collapse, as shown by her fiction.

(Her idea of perfectly selfish people make herculean efforts to hold up their end of contracts regardless of incentives. Her perfectly selfish business owners are happy to be competed out of business by someone with a better product, and freely share their trade secrets. Her perfectly selfish philosopher accepts a humble life as a burger-flipper instead of accepting prestige from a corrupt system and thereby legitimating it. This is not most people’s idea of perfectly selfish behavior.)

It’s also probably not a coincidence that I grew up Jewish. And that Ayn Rand also had a Jewish background. (Or that the US Supreme Court is entirely staffed by Jews and Catholics). I hadn’t noticed just how weird it is that I know lots of people - liberal atheists in liberal atheist communities - who observe some ritual laws specified thousands of years ago, despite no social pressure to do so, that don’t even reinforce current power imbalances, just because it feels right to connect with tradition.

Reverence for the rules is not totally unique, of course - Germans are famous for “but the rules......,” and Scandinavians seem like they have a similar thing going on. But German-Americans and Scandinavian-Americans don’t seem to have the thing.

But I suspect that something about growing up in a context where every Saturday we brought out a holy scroll with a story containing a law code, paraded it around the room, read from it, and sang songs about how it’s a special gift given to us by  god, king of the world, it is the tree of life and all its paths are pleasant, and everyone who holds onto it is made happy, might have had something to do with my attitude towards law. And that not everyone had this experience.

And my exposure to a mixing of ritual law (including things like food taboos) and moral law (including things like charity and fair dealing) may have something to do with how I intuitively expect judges to uphold the law, not because they have a social incentive to do so, not because it accords with their self-image, not because it’s their custom and training, but because it would be unclean to do otherwise.

More precisely, the wrong assumption I made was the assumption that it is common knowledge that everybody is perfectly principled. If I aware of the existence of contingent civil order as a byproduct of power structures, I might expect it to continue for a while, and behave accordingly, even if the judges are unclean.

Engineering and the transcendent

Engineering used to seem impossibly hard to me. Permaculture did not feel impossibly hard. Neither did the tinker trade.

What’s going on?

Basically I took engineer superhero / Robinson Crusoe style stories at face value as honest accounts of what engineers can do.

In practice, engineers do what they to by relating to systems with finite bounded scope & affordances, and copy known techniques. I was assuming they had a true art (techne) in the Platonic sense. It seems impossibly hard to build a modern car or computer from first principles, since that implies knowing how to build a bronze age level civilization with many types of mining and trade.

But of course engineers use the tools they find, including know-how copied from books.

Reading The Martian recently helped me recalibrate, because it did not seem impossible, just hard. But, obviously, the engineer hero in The Martian was not creating a full-stack civilization on Mars. He was completely dependent on a static endowment of tools and materials, the technical skills he already had, and the things he could look up.

Engineers are pragmatists, like tinkers except that they can trade with an industrial base, and have access to more books. They basically don't do anything from first principles, and don't actually do whole-system maintenance. So, when I it seemed impossibly hard to do really know how to do e.g. computer programming or bridge building from scratch, the answer is that they just don’t. No one does.

And that’s OK.

But in some domains, I think we can do better. There’s a reason why the culture that produced an outsized number of science Nobelists is not an engineering culture, but a rule of law one.

Related: Geometers, Scribes, and the structure of intelligence, Be secretly wrong

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 6:55:39 EDT

Related to (Eliezer Yudkowsky): Inadequacy and Modesty

Epistemic Status: Confident. No sports knowledge required.

In 2005, Willie Randolph became manager of the New York Mets.

In his first five games as manager, all of which he lost, Willie made more decisions wrong than I thought possible. If he needed to change pitchers, he waited. Other times he changed pitchers for no reason. Starting lineups made zero sense. Position players bunted. And so on. He cost us at least one of those games. My friend Seth and called for Willie’s head.

He would go on to an excellent 97 win season in 2006, come in second in manager-of-the-year voting, get a contract extension, and only get fired after wearing out our starting pitchers so much that we experienced one of the most epic late season collapses in baseball history in 2007, followed by a horrible 2008.

Willie’s in-game decisions did not improve. If anything, they got worse.

Despite this, we came to understand why Willie got and kept his job.

Willie Randolph was a leader of men.

Players liked Willie. They wanted to play for him, work hard for him, be the best they could be. They put the team first. He created a positive clubhouse atmosphere. He inspired good performances, spotted ways players could improve.

That is what counts in baseball.

Do bad in-game decisions cost games? Absolutely. But not that many games. Maybe they lose you 4 a year out of 162.

If the lineup makes your players unhappy, that costs a lot more. If your pitchers lose motivation or have their rhythms disrupted, that matters more than getting high leverage for your best reliever. Maybe bunting inspires team unity. The reason we hate bunting so much isn’t because it’s a huge mistake. It’s an obvious mistake. A pure mistake. An arithmetic error.

Plenty of people could get those technical decisions right. I could do it.

What most of us can’t do is lead men. Leading men is what counts. That’s the real job, but it comes with these other tasks.

Sometimes these other tasks land in good hands, at other times they land in terrible hands. Those who do the little things right do succeed more, but you can still win championships without them. If you can lead men.

Other sports follow the pattern. Why do football teams employ Andy Reid, who could not manage a two-minute drill if his life depended on it? Why do highly successful basketball players refuse to cooperate with their teammates or practice key skills?

Because those are small mistakes. The things those people do right matter more.

Could Willie Randolph hire someone to micromanage the game? Could Andy Reid hire someone to manage his two minute drills?

No. The people who are capable of that, are not leaders of men, and how they make those decisions is part of how they lead men.

Even if you could do that, fixing such penny-ante problems is too disruptive. You want their eyes on the prize. 

This generalizes.

If a position calls for a leader of men, you often find a leader of men. If it instead requires super high levels of another skill, whether it’s coding, raising money, lifting weights, intricate chemistry or proving theorems, you’ll find that. However, if you need rare levels of such skills compared to what you can offer,  you won’t select for anything else. You can’t demand ordinary competence in insufficiently important areas. There aren’t enough qualified applicants. Plus it wouldn’t be worth the distraction.

This helps explain why people in unique positions are often uniquely terrible. They’re not replaceable. Some incompetence and shenanigans are acceptable, so long as they deliver the goods.

The same goes for other groups, organizations, religions, software and most anything else.

If a system has unique big advantages, they’re not effectively competing on less big things. They might be optimizing small things, but they don’t have to, so you can’t assume such things are optimized at all. Even when a system does not have unique advantages, anything insufficiently central is likely not optimized because it’s not worthy of attention.

It is much, much easier to pick out a way in which a system is sub-optimal, than it is to implement or run that system at anything like its current level of optimization.

Thus I generally believe the following two things:

It is relatively easy to find ways in which almost anything could be improved on the margin, were one able to implement isolated changes. Well thought-out such ideas are often correct.

and also

The person making such a correct suggestion would likely be hopelessly lost trying to implement this change let alone running the relevant systems.




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