The Center of Conversation

In every group discussion where people are free to move around, people always form an approximation of a circle or simple polygon around a central point. This “center of conversation” is not a tangible thing, but it’s very visible in the dynamics of groups.

Today, I’d like to talk about this social concept, and for those of us who don’t utilize this important source of positive social vibes, explain how to start.

What I call the “center of conversation” is the point that’s on average equidistant from each participating conversation member. Even people who don’t use this concept have an intuitive understanding of it, to an extent that social interactions feel more awkward when all parties involved are not standing at appropriate distances around the center (that is, on average equidistant from both the center and each other), and likewise they feel smoother when all parties observe this rule.

People who understand this concept will find themselves shifting around the center as people walk around, leave or join the conversation, or as the group dynamic otherwise shifts. People who really understand this will find themselves glancing toward the conversation center whenever they need to break eye contact.

The center of conversation doesn’t dictate that people have to stand in perfect circles all the time. Peoples’ personal preferences and convenience always take precedence over the center. But with preferences accounted for, people arrange themselves according to it. Given a choice of two places on a couch, people will choose the one closest to their appropriate place relative to the center. If an outlier in a group doesn’t understand the center and moves counter to it, the rest of the group will likely shift around to readjust the center.

If you’re the social butterfly type, try to find the center of conversation that you’re subconsciously moving around. If you’d like to make yourself more likable, once you find that center, try glancing at it instead of away from it whenever you need to break eye contact. Eyes are powerful indicators of attention – looking in a direction has the same weight as pointing in the direction. If you look toward the center, you’re pointing toward the other people, toward your conversation together, and you’re indicating that both of those things are important to you. Even if the other people don’t realize what you’re doing, they realize that you are doing it and they feel appreciated.

If you’re the kind of person who probably breaks this rule all the time, don’t sweat it. You can teach yourself to pay attention to the center of conversation just like you can teach yourself any other skill. Next time you talk to anyone – in a group, one on one, whatever – think about where the center is. It’s easy to find between two people, it’s just the point right in the middle of the space between you. Among larger groups it’s slightly harder, but not much. Think about the middle of the space between you and pinpoint whatever you think is closest to the center of that space. You don’t have to be perfect – it’s a vague area that you indicate by moving around it or glancing at it, not a point you have to precisely identify on a graphing calculator. Just get the vague gist and you’ll be golden.

It could take a while to get the hang of doing this, but in doing so, you’ll make people more comfortable around you. In this modern, segmented, isolated world, comfort is the single most important thing, in both our personal and professional lives. When clients buy a service, they’re primarily buying their comfort with the people providing that service. And what more could anyone want than to be comfortable around the people they care about? Any way you can make those around you feel comfortable is an advantage you have – not over them, but with them.

12 Things I’ve Learned from My Apprenticeship So Far

…In approximately chronological order.

I’ve learned a lot about jobs and the work world from my Praxis apprenticeship thus far. I could just keep this knowledge to myself, but why would I? I can make no guarantees that these insights are generalizable, but I’ve tried to explain them.

  1. Pay attention to the vibes you get off the people interviewing you. Vibes/auras/senses/whatever are just other words for “thin slicing”, when your subconscious knows something based on a well-trained intuition that you simply don’t know consciously yet. You don’t get much time in an interview and you need to take every opportunity to understand your potential future bosses. Knowing whether you’re going to like a job starts with knowing whether you’re going to like the people, and knowing that starts with thin slicing, aka, vibes.
  2. Interviews are a two-way street. At the same time that you’re being interviewed, you should be interviewing. Come up with your own sly interview questions that get your interviewer to tell you more about the job and the company than the simple words they say, just as they’re asking you sly interview questions to get you to reveal more about yourself than you say. At the same time that you’re making yourself look more appealing to them, they’re making themselves look more appealing to you. Know this and use it to your advantage.
  3. That ‘welcome lunch’ is not just a friendly gesture. In fact, this is another interview with a slightly different purpose: gauging your interpersonal skills. Nobody wants a new hire who doesn’t get along with the whole team, and that’s what this lunch is for. Understand that purpose and ace this test.
  4. The only way to survive at a startup is to train hard and train fast. The best way to thrive in any company is to do the same. The quicker you bring yourself up to speed, by actively asking questions, by reading job materials in your off hours, by immersing yourself fully into your role, the quicker you can become indispensable.
  5. Don’t speak, just do. I read in one of many brilliant business books that a great leader never has an off day. The same is true of any great employee. Even if you have off days, you’re tired, you’re achy, you don’t feel great, you’re stressed, you don’t say anything about it. You buckle down and you get the work done and you say nothing to anybody about how hard you’re working. They will see the results and it will be worth more than a million words.
  6. Always be “on”. An actor “on” from the instant they step into their character. A gymnast is “on” from the instant they begin their routine. And an employee is “on” from the instant they step into the office. In all these areas there is an energy that you must project, and the act of projecting that energy is what us performers call being “on”. You deliberately cultivate this energy – it doesn’t happen naturally. It’s tiring at first, but you get used it; it’s a muscle like any other and you have to use it to improve it. Presidential candidates are absolute beefcakes in this area: they’re “on” nearly every minute of every day. Fortunately for you, all you’ve gotta do is be “on” in the office.
  7. The “I’ll do it myself” mindset is just fine, but avoid it while training. “Doing it yourself” while you don’t know what you’re doing is a huge waste of your time and your company’s. Take the time to learn, then do it yourself correctly.
  8. Your boss isn’t always right, but pretend they are. This is especially true if your boss is insecure, which some are. If, for example, your boss throws a hissy fit over a remark you made, don’t defend yourself: just stop doing whatever it was that pissed off your boss. Your second quickest ticket out the door of any office is a pissed-off boss. (Your quickest ticket is a pissed-off client.)
  9. Your clients aren’t always right, but they’re right more often than you might think. At least in marketing, there’s this idea that we marketers know better than everyone. And we do – about marketing. But most of us know jack-shit about programming, which makes our technical clients furious sometimes. Cut your clients some slack when they correct your usage of their industry jargon. Also, make super ultra sure it never happens again.
  10. Nobody should ever have to correct you in the same way twice. The single most frustrating thing on the planet is to have to tell somebody something multiple times. It’s an incredibly silly idea that everyone could pay enough attention to everyone else all the time to always remember everything they say, but we all have such inflated egos that we can’t help feeling like that’s the way it should be. Your boss and your clients have this feeling too. Humor them. Never forget anything they say and never need to be corrected more than once.
  11. Humility isn’t a mere confession of your fallibility; humility is actions taken in anticipation of your failure. “I could be wrong” and a buck fifty will buy you a coffee. The only useful declaration of fallibility is the one followed immediately by action. Preparing for your failure will make it way less sucky when you succumb to being a normal human and failing at something at some point.
  12. Your career path determines how hard you work at your job, and vice versa. If your plan is to advance in your role, work super hard at that. If your plan is to move into another role, perform to a solid level and spend your spare time moving toward your next career with as much vigor as you can muster.

These are the things I can give handy advice for; there are of course some things I haven’t sorted out yet. I hope that given another three months I’ll be able to give handy advice for those, too.

How to Be Happy

Growing up, my mom used to tell my siblings and I that when we were upset and didn’t want to be, we could choose to be happy instead. The whole concept seemed ridiculous to me. “I can’t just flip my emotions on and off like a light switch,” I remember telling her.

But the problem was, she was right. It’s entirely possible to “flip your emotions on and off like a light switch”. There’s a lot of research backing up that statement—not surprising, my mom graduated with a Master’s in psychology, I should have known she didn’t pull this idea out of nowhere. Further, though it took me longer than I would care to admit, I did personally realize the wisdom in her two-word advice, “choose happy”.

Many experiments show that if you smile, you’ll feel happier. It’s not even entirely about the conscious decision to feel happy – merely moving your facial muscles or even forcing a smile using chopsticks can do the trick. Your brain just has an association between smiles and happiness and so smiling can make you happy.

So the research says. But I doubted it. For years, until I realized the truth of it independently. Today, I’m going to dissect the reasons I doubted it, because I feel many people probably have the same doubts when reading articles like this one.

I had two reasons to doubt “choose happy”. The first was that I was afraid people would look at me weird if I went from crying to laughing in the span of less than two minutes. The unaltered procession of human emotions is a slow ebb and flow, and a drastic change would make people ask uncomfortable questions.

They probably would have done that. But I wish someone had told me that there are things much more important in life than seeming strange. Spending a majority of my time feeling depressed and anxious for no reason was dramatically worse than it would have been to have some people think I was odd. I should have weighed the pros and cons of feeling the emotion versus letting it go.

The second reason I doubted the wisdom of “choose happy” was that I thought all emotions were important. I thought that they were always there for a reason, even if I couldn’t find what that reason was. It was a gradual realization that led me to the simple fact that some emotions don’t make sense – they’re the result of hormonal imbalances, meaningless stressors, mental overstimulation, and many other things which don’t need to be dwelled on.

Nowadays, I think about emotions in the context of net utility. Is feeling this emotion useful to me? If I’m feeling embarrassed about a stupid mistake, that feeling can be useful, to prompt me to fix the mistake immediately. But after I’ve done everything I can to fix the mistake, including making the appropriate social reparations, I can let the emotion go, because it’s served its purpose. Continuing to feel embarrassed even when I can no longer do anything about the mistake, including learn from it, is pointless.

And if the emotion didn’t have any purpose to begin with – say, if I’m feeling angry because I’ve had a long difficult day at work, which is not even slightly connected to any particular problem that can be solved – I can analyze the cause, decide it’s pointless, and let go of the emotion.

How do you let go of emotions? After your brain stops intuitively holding on because it thinks they’re important, or that it would be weird to let go, it’s typically as simple as focusing on something else. If just passively thinking about something else doesn’t completely fix it, try smiling, putting on a fun or silly song, deliberately focusing on happy thoughts, or even closing your eyes and imagining a pleasant location to hang out for a while. (I’m deliberately giving advice that doesn’t require getting up, because I personally don’t like advice that says “get up! stretch! jog! sweat!” – it does genuinely work, but it’s always delivered in a very pushy way. That being said, if you haven’t already heard this advice from a hundred thousand people, being outside and/or exercising does in fact make you healthier and happier, so try it if you feel inclined.)

So the list of question to ask when you feel any emotion is:

  1. What emotion is it? Is that really what I’m feeling? Emotions are frequently very transparent, but they can become tangled. Further, some emotions can mask others: a lot of men have a tendency to express anger when they’re truly sad, for example. If your emotions are unclear, sort them out.
  2. What probably caused this emotion? Go over salient events in your mind and find the proximate cause. It doesn’t have to be anything major and it frequently isn’t. You’re looking for a cause, not a good reason.
  3. Does this emotion have net positive utility? Feeling negative emotions has inherent negative utility, but that may be outweighed by the positive utility of the action it makes you take: learning from a mistake, apologizing for a misdeed, fixing an internal or external problem, etc. Figure out if the emotion is prompting you to do anything useful, and if it isn’t, if you really need to keep it. Compute the net utility.
  4. An important note about these utility evaluations: A common trap I’ve seen many people fall into is where they keep a negative emotion around because they believe it prompts them to do something good which, in fact, they would do anyway. In particular, a lot of high-achievers end up with the misconception that being miserable is what prompts them to achieve things, when in fact, they would achieve more if they were happier. Therefore, strongly doubt any utility evaluation that leads you to the belief that you need to be miserable all the time in order to get things done.
  5. If you determined that the emotion has net positive utility, keep it around, but only as long as it continues to be useful. As soon as you’ve done everything useful that the emotion was prompting you to do, throw it away. There is no reason to be miserable longer than necessary.
  6. If you determined that the emotion has net negative utility, toss it immediately, using any of the tricks described above.

A final note about the utility of positive emotions: feeling good is a good thing. I’ve seen people be happy but wonder whether they really should be feeling happy. You can dissect the emotion and what actions it makes you take to figure this out, but don’t decide you need to be unhappy because it’s uncommon to see sane adults who visibly care about anything. Emotions are good to keep if they’re useful, and being happy uniformly makes your life better, so ceteris paribus, happiness is useful, and therefore, happiness is almost always good to keep.

In conclusion:
Choose Happy.

Thoughts from Planet Earth

Sometimes I look at the sky and I think, how high can I jump? Like, half a foot or so. And then I think, how high can I get in an airplane? That’s the kind of delta that human ingenuity gives us. And it’s not even the limit: how high can you get in a rocket ship?

But even so, the stars that I’m looking at are so much further away. If Earth was a word, the nearest star is ten times every word you’ll ever say in your life. And yet, we humans went from the half a foot we can jump to the upper stratosphere, where the tallest mountains are vague outlines of purple and white.

It took a lot of work. Not with our muscles, which can only get us about five feet up if we train relentlessly for years, but with our brains. Thousands of ordinary human brains, no smarter or greater than you or I, made the airplanes and the rocket ships. In fact, human brains did a whole lot more than that. They created the entire modern world.

I wake up in the morning to an alarm app that comes installed on my smartphone, which gets its data from a clock which runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of quantum physics and syncs with all the other phones via a network which runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of binary logic. I get dressed in clothes that came directly from somebody I’ve never met who donated them to a Goodwill on the opposite side of a continent from my current residence, and that person got them from a store which got them from a country I’ve never been to. I take a train to work which moves through a huge tunnel under the ocean at upwards of ten times the speed I can run. Humans made all of this! Some of it is pretty suboptimal—the fact that I have to get up at 6am certainly comes to mind—but you can’t deny that it’s incredibly cool.

If thousands of ordinary human minds were able to make all these things, I think that with a few thousand more, we’ll be able to make it all the way to those stars and to the planets that might orbit them.

What might we find there, on those distant worlds? Maybe nothing more than we minimally expect. Some interesting places, both habitable and hostile, to which we can add the beauty that comes with perception by intelligent life. And this isn’t a loss! Improving the diversity and span of human experience across the galaxy is one of the best futures I can imagine for us.

But maybe, just maybe, we might find someone else out there. Not humans in funny suits, like in sci-fi movies, but things which are more different from us than we are from petunias—because we and petunias both evolved on Earth, though our evolutionary branches separated aeons ago. Sentient things made of complex configurations of silicon, crystal, liquid, metal, or things even stranger. Sentient things which are further from humans than anything we know, but that we can still call people, because though they may not have human thoughts, emotions, or biases, they have goals and they don’t want to die and this is all we really need.

Think how similar we are to each other, compared to the others we might find out there. All humans look the same—bipedal ape-like things made of flesh and built from DNA. We think the same—simple animals which evolved higher thought, planning, and consciousness by a constant competition with one another that produced predictable patterns and errors in reasoning. We act the same—pack animals inclined to organize into social groups and gatherings who are practically mandated by our development process to use syntactic combinatorial language along with specific nonverbal gestures and facial expressions to communicate. We feel the same—emotional creatures motivated primarily by fear and secondarily by joy, sadness, anger, and love. We’re as alike as peas from the same pod.

And maybe this is the part of my mind that grew up on Star Trek talking, but it doesn’t make any sense, if we could find and cooperate with these others—and I think we would, judging from how badly we want to not be alone in the universe—that we would still have such silly things as the various -isms and -phobias which are manifestations of inter-human hate and insecurity. How could we hate a fellow language-using, emotion-feeling, hairless ape built by DNA, when we can get along with electrically-charged systems of fractalized crystal and gaseous blobs of pulsating color?

If our distant ancestors could gradually build our modern world and our distant descendants could get along with these impossibly different aliens, how could it make sense for me—operating in a flawed modern world but made of the same stuff that made up the humans before me and will make up those after—to hate another human?

These are the things I think of, looking up into the sky at night.

De Formae

Latin: With Regards to the Subject of Beauty

How many beautiful things just evaporate into the wind?

One day on my way home from work, I descended the elevator onto the train platform, listening to music. I forget which song I was listening to, but whatever it was, it definitively clashed with the noise of the station. Because this was not ordinary station noise—footsteps, chatter, rustling of paper maps and bags. As soon as I placed the sound, I quickly removed my headphones and stuffed them into my bag.

There was a man playing a beautiful, haunting, nostalgic melody on an electric keyboard. He had a sign up next to him, a whiteboard on a stand. “I hope everyone is having a wonderful day!” it said. “Just trying to get my music out. Hopefully my music will be heard. Feel free to let me know what you think!” This was followed by his Venmo information and, below the sign, a red cloth bag. Until my train came I stood and leaned against a pillar, listening to the music. It was the most amazing music I’ve ever heard, and I wanted to record it, but I hardly had two minutes before my train came and I had to leave for home. I never did let him know what I thought, but I did drop a twenty into the cloth bag.

My fiancé is an artist, but not like me. He didn’t “draw”, he did literally everything else. Anything on the border of that word was fair game—typography, topology, graphic design, architectural sketches, blueprints, you name it—but never proper art. At least, not anymore.

For a long while I had the nicest handwriting (don’t look all envious, it’s a thoroughly useless skill to be good at, in fact it winds you up addressing a lot of envelopes), but then I met him and that changed. Whenever he would come to visit, and for a while even after he was living with me, he would leave me little notes. “Good morning, love. Have a nice day today.” “So you know, I’m headed out to buy some groceries, I’ll be back in an hour or so.” “Hey, darling, would you mind putting a can of soda in the freezer for me so it’s nice and cold when I get home?” I used to keep all his notes. Then there got to be too many and I stopped. When we moved, I left them at my parents’ place.

My youngest sister is a writer—among other things, she does wear other hats—and I used to have frequent conversations with her when I had yet to realize that amateur fiction is something I am neither good at nor particularly enjoy. She has a way of beautifully crafting circular metaphors, where a person does a thing and the thing is blue, and then through the course of the story it shifts colors to gold and then to red but then finally, and usually this comes after the character dies, it shifts back to blue and it’s wonderful and reflective and sad and I am not doing it justice with this poor artist’s description.

I used to want to write down her eloquent phrasings and plots, but then at one point, I was driving her to an event of some description, and she said something particularly eloquent, something about golden braids. I wanted to write it down but I couldn’t pull over to do so as we were pressed for time, and I asked if she could write it down for me and she said, no. I asked why and she said, maybe it’s better to let some words just become air.

There is so much beauty in this world and much of it is unobserved, or, perhaps worse, unnoticed. I wonder who else who heard that man at the station is still haunted by his music. I wonder who else saw my fiancé’s doodlings and notes and the way he organized our bedroom and thought of Sen no Rikyū’s ideals of simplistic natural beauty. I wonder who else read my sister’s metaphors and plots and was moved by their eloquence. It’s entirely possible that I’ll never know.

But why is it even my first impulse, when I see something beautiful, to capture it? Why is it humanity’s first impulse—for this I presume is the reason people put pretty birds in cages? We desire to possess what is beautiful. My justifications involve a desire to experience the beauty more than once and my memory’s inadequacy at satisfying this desire, but they’re just that, aren’t they? Justifications. If you have a seemingly different thought process but it still winds you up with the same result, chances are you wrote the bottom line before the arguments above it.

I’ve tried to deliberately give up this impulse to capture beauty, because I’ve noticed the capturing detracts from the observation. If you’ve already seen something a million times but are trying to preserve the memory for a later date when you’re liable to have forgotten many of the details, this is a good time for capturing. But if this is perhaps your only chance to see the beauty, just see it. “I want to look at it” clashes violently with “I want a picture” and leads to a poorer overall experience of the beautiful thing, and it seems to me that a faulty memory fully utilized is still better than that same memory mostly half-assed plus a blurry photograph. If you don’t see it again you have one good memory; if you do, you can take the photo next time.

I think the man at the station knew that. Besides the message, he only had his Venmo information on the sign: nowhere people could find his music to listen to more, no Soundcloud or Youtube username. Perhaps my fiancé knew it too, though it’s possible he’s just dismissive of his talents: in a society built on self-deprecation and humility, and among humans for whom words shape reality, it’s not surprising that many people are chronically undervalued. I know my sister knew. Recently, I learned. And now, you know too. I hope it is of use to you.

Places, Past and Future

We met in Baltimore
when the hot lights of the dance floor drove us out to the gardens
before the pouring of the rain drove us back in.

We got engaged in Pittsburgh
under the warm yellow glow of artificial lamplight
and I handed him the ring I’d bought with less ceremony than I’d like
though he seemed to love it anyway.

We’ll get married in San Francisco
surrounded by the warm California sun
by new and old friends
and by possibilities for our future spent together forever.

We’ll grow old among the stars
with the distant descendants of humanity at our side
accomplishing feats and forging friendships we can’t even dream of today.

And we’ll die
if in fact we must die
after impossible problems have been solved
after incomprehensible battles have been fought
after amazing spoils have been wrought:
we’ll die knowing that whatever else has come to pass
humanity has won.

5 Tips for Living On A Budget in San Francisco

I just moved to San Francisco for a new job at a digital marketing startup, which means I’ve been living in the single highest cost-of-living city in the United States. And, I’m making about 100k less than that article says you should be to “live comfortably”. If you’re moving to SF anytime soon, if you’re living in SF and you’d like to be more financially stable, or if you just want an entertaining read about how living in SF works, here are 5 tips for that.

#1: Want Less Stuff

This is kind of a meta-tip for making your whole life better, not just compensating for the crazy cost of living in San Francisco. It’s based on this article by Mr. Money Mustache, which is generally a great blog I’ve been reading that has excellent financial advice, and that I’ll be citing multiple times in this post.

Essentially, it is what the heading says. Instead of denying yourself things you want, which uses up mental energy, just want less stuff. Decide that you’re happy with how you’re living right now. There are a ton of tricks to do this, such as closing your eyes and imagining you had suddenly gone blind, imagining your entire life while adjusting to being blind, and then suddenly miraculously regaining your sight. The general concept here is remarkably similar to Classical Stoicism.

A similar idea, if you’re a bit further along in your career, is getting rid of “I can afford this now” mindset. My mom tells a story of a friend she had in college. When the two of them met, they both got appliances from the Scratch and Dent and clothes from Goodwill and generally did all the things that broke college students do. But after they both became established in their careers, my mom’s friend stopped buying cheap. She started getting clothes from Target and even more expensive stores, buying brand-new cars, and overall spent a lot more money on luxuries. Meanwhile, my mom was still shopping at Goodwill and buying used cars. And they were both a little incredulous! My mom’s college friend said something like, “Why are you still shopping like you’re broke, you can afford to get nicer things now”, and my mom said something like, “Why don’t you have a million in the bank yet”.

Paying $20 for a t-shirt at Target instead of getting it at Goodwill for $3 adds up, and paying $25k for a brand-new car instead of getting a comparable older used one $12k adds up faster. You get to a million in increments of ten, and savings is critical to both current and future survival.

#2: Get Roommates

If you’re on a tight budget, or even if you’re just being financially sensible, you are not going to afford your own apartment. The sooner you come to terms with that and optimize for it, the better. Even if you make enough dollars to afford it in principle, if it would cost more than a third of your income, you can’t afford it. Unless you want to be living hand-to-mouth and perpetually spinning that hamster wheel, you can’t afford to not save at least a third of your income.

Here’s my current budget, because you might not believe me otherwise. Through my Praxis apprenticeship, I’m working full-time and making $17 an hour. My fiancé is making $15 working as a manager at a local grocery store. Multiplying that out, we get around 5k a month gross revenue. We have a roommate situation set up, where we have one small bedroom in a house with five bedrooms (that presently houses seven). We pay a little under 1k a month in rent. Other budgets include transit (I take BART to and from work, which adds to about $200 a month), food (we all take turns buying groceries so a very generous food budget is $500 a month), my fiancé’s student loans and my Praxis payment (~$600 a month total), and a few other things. In total, we spend a little more than half our total income, and save the other half.

One-bedroom apartments in California start at $1700 a month, with a shared bathroom, if you’re lucky. If you want your own private bathroom, you’ll be spending $2200 or more. That’s roughly as much as my mom is paying for a mortgage on her five-bedroom three-bath family home! So give up on the idea of having your own place, and optimize for roommates.

I found our current group house through a Facebook group meant for rationalists and effective altruists living in the East Bay. There are many such groups for many different people-types, and if you go looking, you can find one for a type which matches you pretty well. That will be your best place for house-hunting, or more aptly, roommate-hunting. You’ll want to shop around before you arrive if you can, but if you can’t, it’s not a big deal: stay at a hostel (there are many people-type-specific hostels as well; I’m staying at one for rationalists called Berkeley Reach) or an Airbnb as you shop around in person.

Find a group house you like and roommates you enjoy spending time with. Don’t worry about proximity to your work or to a BART stop – you probably won’t get it, so just walk or get a bike (/electric scooter/electric skateboard /etc). Do worry about price, though, because private rooms range between $1500 for a bit of a pricey one all the way down to $950 for a really awesome find. If you’re moving out here as a single person on a tight budget, your best bet is to find a shared bedroom; I’ve seen some for less than $700.

#3: Find All the Cheapest Places for Food

There are several ways to do this, so I’ll mention them all, since I’ve used them all. First, you can look on Google Maps around the areas you’re considering staying and look at their prices online; second, you can look up keyword phrases like “cheapest places to buy groceries around [location]” and read articles and watch videos about it; third, you can go around to the local stores with a list of all your common staples and make a price-comparison spreadsheet; fourth, you can keep all your receipts and cross-check prices for things you buy often. I did all four, in that order.

Looking on Google Maps was a bit useful for pre-moving planning, but not all that useful; I noticed that a lot of stores, especially the small ones that turned out to be the cheapest, didn’t have their prices listed online anywhere. Still, in terms of figuring out what’s in your area, this is a good first step; just don’t spend too much time on it. Reading blogs and watching videos is very useful for finding insider info: there’s a 99 cent store around here that I found on a Youtube video. Don’t get too caught up in it and forget your other moving plans, though.

I highly recommend a spreadsheet as a way to figure out prices for staples, but don’t get too carried away in comparing prices for things you don’t buy often, because then your spreadsheet will be brutally long and you won’t want to actually go around and compare things. I also recommend keeping receipts, because actual after-tax price is not the same as the price listed on the price tag, and prices can change, etc etc.

#4: Don’t Own a Car

Cars are really expensive, especially in SF. They’re expensive to drive, expensive to park, and expensive to insure. In addition, if you so happen to live and work on different sides of the bay bridge, you’re going to spend a huge amount of time in traffic. I saw an ad in a BART car once that said “because walking to BART beats sitting in traffic” and I’ve found that very accurate. If you live near work, walk or bike or whatever to work. If you don’t, walk or bike or whatever to BART and take BART. Either way, cars are expensive. (And, like, also, saving the earth and stuff.)

#5: Track Your Finances

The best thing you can do when you have a tight budget is keep track of it well. There are a few ways to do this, but they all boil down to a simple concept: spend your money on paper before you spend it in real life. If you’ve already allocated—”spent”—every dollar before you ever pull out your wallet, you’ll know exactly how much you can spend and what you can spend it on, and thus, you’ll never have to worry about whether or not you can afford something.

There’s a simple paper-and-pencil strategy for this, and then there’s a financial tracking app I use now that I can recommend. With the paper-and-pencil strategy, start with your current funds, then mark down your foreseen future revenues and expenses and make a short calendar with important dates (paydays, bill due dates, etc.) and mark how much you’ll have after those points. Then, using those numbers, calculate how much to spend and save. If you want something quick and dirty you can do in five minutes so you can stop freaking out about money, this is a perfect strategy.

If you have a bit more time and would like a comprehensive long-term solution, you can try Fast Budget. It’s an excellent financial planning app available for iPhone and Android which separates your financial world into categories and sub-categories. First there are sets of incomes and expenses, and then each income or expense can have components for individual things you’d like to keep closer track of than usual. Say you have a budget for groceries, but you know you tend to over-spend on soda, so you create a sub-budget for soda under the groceries category to track your spending on that one particular thing.

You can constantly re-arrange this budget to suit your needs, and even sync your credit cards and bank accounts (though I haven’t personally needed to do this, I just keep receipts in my wallet and input everything into the app at the end of the day). Also, you get a nice-looking Overview page with neat pie and bar charts. Everyone loves pie and bar charts.

And That’s All!

These are the most important things I’ve needed since moving to San Francisco. There are a handful of other things relating to the process of moving in particular, but I’ll cover those in another post. If this helped you out, please comment it below!

Why Rationality?

I’ve identified as a rationalist for about five years now. The dictionary definitions are a bit off from what I mean, so here’s my definition.

Epistemic rationality: believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory.  The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible.  This correspondence is commonly termed “truth” or “accuracy”, and we’re happy to call it that.

Instrumental rationality: achieving your values.  Not necessarily “your values” in the sense of being selfish values or unshared values: “your values” means anything you care about.  The art of choosing actions that steer the future toward outcomes ranked higher in your preferences.  On LW we sometimes refer to this as “winning”.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, “What Do We Mean By ‘Rationality’?”, LessWrong

Of course, these two definitions are really subsets of the same general concept, and they intertwine considerably. It’s somewhat difficult to achieve your values without believing true things, and similarly, it’s difficult (for a human, at least) to search for truth in absence of wanting to actually do anything with it. Still, it’s useful to distinguish the two subsets, since it helps to distinguish the clusters in concept-space.

So if that’s what I mean by rationality, then why am I a rationalist? Because I like believing true things and achieving my values. The better question here would be “why is everyone not a rationalist?”, and the answer is that, if it was both easy to do and widely known about, I think everyone would be.

Answering why it isn’t well-known is more complicated than answering why it isn’t easy, so, here are a handful of the reasons for the latter. (Written in the first person, because identifying as a rationalist doesn’t make me magically exempt from any of these things, it just means I know what they are and I do my best to fix them.)

  • I’m running on corrupted hardware. Looking at any list of cognitive biases will confirm this. And since I’m not a self-improving agent—I can’t reach into my brain and rearrange my neurons; I can’t rewrite my source code—I can only really make surface-level fixes to these extremely fundamental bugs. This is both difficult and frustrating, and to some extent scary, because it’s incredibly easy to break things irreparably if you go messing around without knowing what you’re doing, and you would be the thing you’re breaking.
  • I’m running on severely limited computing power. “One of the single greatest puzzles about the human brain,” Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote, “is how the damn thing works at all when most neurons fire 10-20 times per second, or 200Hz tops. […] Can you imagine having to program using 100Hz CPUs, no matter how many of them you had?  You’d also need a hundred billion processors just to get anything done in realtime. If you did need to write realtime programs for a hundred billion 100Hz processors, one trick you’d use as heavily as possible is caching. That’s when you store the results of previous operations and look them up next time, instead of recomputing them from scratch. […] It’s a good guess that the actual majority of human cognition consists of cache lookups.” Since most of my thoughts are cached, when I get new information, I need to resist my brain’s tendency to rely on those cached thoughts (which can end up in my head by accident and come from anywhere), and actually recompute my beliefs from scratch. Else, I end up with a lot of junk.
  • I can’t see the consequences of the things I believe. Now, on some level being able to do this (with infinite computing power) would be a superpower: in that circumstance all you’d need is a solid grasp of quantum physics and the rest would just follow from there. But humans don’t just lack the computing power; we can believe, or at least feel like we believe, two inherently contradictory things. This concept is, in psychology, called “cognitive dissonance”.
  • As a smart human starting from irrationality, knowing more information can easily hurt me. Smart humans naturally become very good at clever arguing—arguing for a predetermined position with propositions convoluted enough to confuse and confound any human arguer, even one who is right—and can thus use their intelligence to defeat itself with great efficiency. They argue against the truth convincingly, and can still feel like they’re winning while running away from the goal at top speed. Therefore, in any argument, I have to dissect my own position just as carefully, if not more carefully, than I dissect those of my opponents. Otherwise, I come away more secure in my potentially-faulty beliefs, and more able to argue those beliefs against the truth.

This is a short and incomplete list, of some of the problems that are easiest to explain. It’s by no means the entire list, or the list which would lend the most emotional weight to the statement “it’s incredibly difficult to believe true things”. But I do hope that it shed at least a little light on the problem.

If rationality is really so difficult, then, why bother?

In my case, I say “because my goal is important enough to be worth the hassle”. In general, I think that if you have a goal that’s worth spending thirty years on, that goal is also worth trying to be as rational as humanly possible about. However, I’d go a step further. Even if the goal is worth spending a few years or even months on, it’s still worth being rational about, because not being rational about it won’t just waste those years or months; it may waste your whole career.

Why? Because the universe rarely arrives at your doorstep to speak in grave tones, “this is an Important Decision, make it Wisely”. Instead, small decisions build to larger ones, and if those small decisions are made irrationally, you may never get the chance to make a big mistake; the small ones may have already sealed your doom. Here’s a personal example.

From a very young age, I wanted to go to Stanford. I learned that my parents had met there when I was about six, and I decided that I was going to go too. Like most decisions made by six-year-olds, this wasn’t based on any meaningful intelligence, let alone the full cost-benefit analysis that such a major life decision should have required. But I was young, and I let myself believe the very convenient thought that following the standard path would work for me. This was not, itself, the problem. The problem was that I kept on thinking this simplified six-year-old thought well into my young adulthood.

As I grew up, I piled all sorts of convincing arguments around that immature thought, rationalizing reasons I didn’t actually have to do anything difficult and change my beliefs. I would make all sorts of great connections with smart interesting people at Stanford, I thought, as if I couldn’t do the same in the workforce. I would get a prestigious degree that would open up many doors, I thought, as if working for Google isn’t just as prestigious but will pay you for the trouble. It will be worth the investment, the cached thoughts of society thought for me, and I didn’t question them.

I continued to fail at questioning them every year after, until the beginning of my senior year. At that point, I was pretty sick of school, so this wasn’t rationality, but a motivated search. But it was a search nonetheless, and I did reject the cached thoughts which I’d built up in my head for so long, and as I took the first step outside my bubble of predetermined cognition, I instantly saw a good number of arguments against attending Stanford. I realized that it had a huge opportunity cost, in both time and money. Four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars should not have been parted with that lightly.

And yet, even after I realized this, I was not done. It would have been incredibly easy to reject the conclusion I’d made because I didn’t want all that work to have been a waste. I was so close: I had a high SAT, I’d gotten good scores on 6 AP tests, including the only two computer science APs (the area I’d been intending to major in), and I’d gotten National Merit Commended Scholar status. All that would have been left was to complete my application, which I’m moderately confident I would have done well on, since I’m a good writer.

That bitterness could have cost me my life. Not in the sense that I would die for it immediately, but in the sense that everyone is dying for anything they spend significant time on, because everyone is dying. And it was here that rationality was my saving grace. I knew about the sunk cost fallacy. I knew that at this point I should scream “OOPS” and give up. I knew that at this point I should lose.

I bit my tongue, and lost.

I don’t know where I would end up if I hadn’t been able to lose here. The optimistic estimate is that I would have wasted four years, but gotten some form of financial aid or scholarship such that the financial cost was lower, and further, that in the process of attending college, I wouldn’t gain any more bad habits, I wouldn’t go stir-crazy from the practical inapplicability of the material (this was most of what had frustrated me about school before), and I would come out the other end with a degree but not too much debt and a non-zero number of gained skills and connections. That’s a very optimistic estimate, though, as you can probably tell given the way I wrote out the details. (Writing out all the details that make the optimistic scenario implausible is one of my favorite ways of combatting the planning fallacy.) There are a lot more pessimistic estimates, and it’s much more likely that one of those would happen.

Just by looking at the decision itself, you wouldn’t think of it as a particularly major one. Go to college, don’t go to college. How bad could it be, you may be tempted to ask. And my answer is, very bad. The universe is not fair. It’s not necessarily going to create a big cause for a big event: World War I was caused by some dude having a pity sandwich. Just because you feel like you’re making a minor life choice doesn’t mean you are, and just because you feel like you should be allowed to make an irrational choice just this once doesn’t mean the universe isn’t allowed to kill you anyway.

I don’t mean to make this excessively dramatic. It’s possible that being irrational here wouldn’t have messed me up. I don’t know, I didn’t live that outcome. But I highly doubt that this was the only opportunity I’ll get to be stupid. Actually, given my goals, I think it’s likely I’ll get a lot more, and that the next ones will have much higher stakes. In the near future, I can see people—possibly including me—making decisions where being stupid sounds like “oops” followed by the dull thuds of seven billion bodies hitting the floor.

This is genuinely the direction the future is headed. We are becoming more and more able to craft our destines, but we are flawed architects, and we must double and triple check our work, else the whole world collapses around us like a house on a poor foundation. If that scares you, irrationality should scare you. It sure terrifies the fuck out of me.

Book Review: The Humans

Matt Haig’s “The Humans” gains the dubious title of “most frustrating book I’ve ever read all the way through”.

Before reading this review, please read the book yourself and come up with your own ideas about it. I very much don’t want this review to spoil it for you, and I’m about to lay out and thoroughly dissect the plot. Despite the fact that some of its meta-elements frustrate me in particular, the book is immensely well-written and beautiful, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of it before they’ve even gotten the chance to read the original.

That being said…

I’ve found a number of books frustrating. The overwhelming majority, I didn’t bother to finish. Some of these books were badly-written, some espoused ideologies I strongly disagree with, some were internally inconsistent. I won’t name the specific books on this so-frustrating-I-didn’t-finish-them list, because you’ll probably think I’m making a value judgement against those books, or that I want to make you feel bad if you enjoy them. I’m not, and I don’t: my frustration with these books is an attribute of me, not of the books. Likewise, my frustration with “The Humans”.

Here’s a quick plot synopsis – as a refresher for the bits I’ll be talking about; if you haven’t read the book, read it.

There is a highly advanced alien species who finds out that a particular human has found out a thing they don’t want him to find out. As such, they kill him and send one of their own to impersonate him, to delete the evidence, including that which happens to be represented within human brains. The aliens are not concerned with the fact that humans tend to call this “murder”. The one they send has a difficult time adjusting to life as a human for a number of reasons, but gets out of some tough scrapes using magi- I mean alien technology. In the process, he gets attached to the family of the man he’s impersonating, who he was sent to kill, and also somewhat to humanity in general. He has an existential crisis over it all, and ends up relinquishing his life in his hyper-advanced home civilization to spend the rest of his life as a human mortal.

Here are my two specific points of frustration with that.

#1: The author is so focused on the main character’s journey to the end state which he understands (poetic sympathy with the modern human condition) that he doesn’t adequately demonstrate the beginning state, and the whole journey is cheapened as a result. Essentially, he writes a story from the perspective of someone who comes from an entire society whose entire purpose in existence is math, and yet there isn’t much actual math in it. Not even for the purpose of making decisions. I know from experience that when you really care about the math, you sort of become the math. It isn’t just a tool you use, it takes over your thoughts. Part of the beauty of stories like HPMOR is that they’re really, honestly about science – you couldn’t remove the science without removing the story.

There is a fundamental disconnect when you try to write a book from the perspective of someone in love with math, without yourself actually being in love with math. Really being in love with math doesn’t look like having a favorite prime number. It doesn’t even look like recognizing the importance of math to the structure of the universe, though this is in fact a piece of insight more people could do to have. Really being in love with math looks like having the thoroughly amazing realization that the question “what should I believe?” has an empirically proven correct answer. It looks like finding beauty in a proof like an artist finds beauty in a flower. It looks like loving the universe more because of its mathematical roots; finding more joy, not less, in a rainbow once it has been explained.

In short, I’d like to see this book’s premise rewritten by a mathematician.

#2: The ending of this book generally makes the transhumanist in me want to scream.

I don’t think it’s terribly hard to see why death is a bad thing. A decent portion of humans have already decided on it. It would be even easier to decide that death is bad if you came from a society which didn’t have any such thing: the only reason that many humans think it’s okay is rationalization, anyway. You could make people rationalize reasons why getting hit on the head with a truncheon every week was actually a good thing, if they thought it was inevitable. (It makes your head stronger! And makes you happier on the days you’re not getting hit on the head! No, really!) But if I asked you, dear reader, who are presumably not subject to such a weekly annoyance, if you’d like to start, for all the amazing benefits, I think you’d say no.

And yet this alien, who comes from a society which has no such thing as death, and furthermore no such thing as permanent physical injury, accepts mortality in exchange for becoming one of The Humans.

I mean, I get it, humans are cool. That’s the whole “humanist” bit. I love humans too. I think we’re capable of greatness. But exchanging immortality for us? Without so much as putting up a fight?

I think I’d at least try to apply my superior intelligence to figure out exactly how the relevant bits of alien technology worked, and find out how to apply them in humans. Yet he fails to take a trip down that line of discovery. Further, the alien is small-scale altruistic without ever considering the concept of large-scale altruism. He spends a lot of time agonizing over the fact that he can’t help the humans since they’d realize he wasn’t one of them, and yet he spends a non-negligible portion of the book helping the family of the man he’s impersonating. I think if I had a magic left hand that I didn’t want anyone to know about, I would still go around using it to cure people. Just, when I got asked how it worked, I’d say “Science!” – it’s a curiosity-stopper for a lot of people. On the whole, if I was really intent on abandoning my home planet for Earth, I would at least try to steal as much useful stuff as possible before I left, and use it to the best of my ability.

So why didn’t the alien do this? Simply, because he was written by a human who had not thought of it. The writer must encompass his characters, and so no character can go beyond the knowledge of the writer. If you consider what an immortal alien would do, that doesn’t let you magically climb outside your own brain to generalize from knowledge that isn’t yours. If you accept death as the natural order, who says that an immortal alien wouldn’t accept it too?

I do. It doesn’t make any sense. I wouldn’t do that, and I grew up with death. Within the past year, two of my relatives have died, along with hundreds of thousands of strangers, and I find that completely unacceptable. I have reason to believe that an immortal alien would probably think a bit more like me than like Matt Haig – assuming the alien were capable of thinking like a human at all.

So, I suppose, this book is frustrating because it accepts what, to me, is unacceptable, without putting up a fight at all. It’s one long exercise in the Mind Projection Fallacy, and a demonstration of the fact that to write true science fiction you need to actually know science. I read it all the way through anyways because it’s beautifully written and incredibly interesting.

Language: A Cluster Analysis of Reality

Cluster analysis is the process of quantitatively grouping data in such a way that observations in the same group are more similar to each other than to those in other groups. This image should clear it up.

Whenever you do a cluster analysis, you do it on a specific set of variables: for example, I could cluster a set of customers against the two variables of satisfaction and brand loyalty. In that analysis, I might identify four clusters: (loyalty:high, satisfaction:low), (loyalty:low, satisfaction:low), (loyalty:high, satisfaction:high), and (loyalty:low, satisfaction:high). I might then label these four clusters to identify their characteristics for easy reference: “supporters”, “alienated”, “fans” and “roamers”, respectively.

What does that have to do with language?

Let’s take a word, “human”. If I define “human” as “featherless biped”, I’m effectively doing three things. One, I’m clustering an n-dimensional “reality-space”, which contains all the things in the universe graphed according to their properties, against the two variables ‘feathered’ and ‘bipedal’. Two, I’m pointing to the cluster of things which are (feathered:false, bipedal:true). Three, I’m labeling that cluster “human”.

This, the Aristotelian definition of “human”, isn’t very specific. It’s only clustering reality-space on two variables, so it ends up including some things that shouldn’t actually belong in the cluster, like apes and plucked chickens. Still, it’s good enough for most practical purposes, and assuming there aren’t any apes or plucked chickens around, it’ll help you to identify humans as separate from other things, like houses, vases, sandwiches, cats, colors, and mathematical theorems.

If we wanted to be more specific with our “human” definition, we could add a few more dimensions to our cluster analysis—add a few more attributes to our definition—and remove those outliers. For example, we might define “human” as “featherless bipedal mammals with red blood and 23 pairs of chromosomes, who reproduce sexually and use syntactical combinatorial language”. Now, we’re clustering reality-space against seven dimensions, instead of just two, and we get a more accurate analysis.

Despite this, we really can’t create a complete list of all the things that most real categories have in common. Our generalizations are leaky in some way, around the edges: our analyses aren’t perfect. (This is absolutely the case with every other cluster analysis, too.) There are always observations at the edges that might be in any number of clusters. Take a look at the graph above in this post. Those blue points at the top left edge, should they really be blue, or red or green instead? Are there really three clusters, or would it be more useful to say there are two, or four, or seven?

We make these decisions when we define words, too. Deciding which cluster to place an observation happens all the time with colors: is it red or orange, blue or green? Splitting one cluster into many happens when we need to split a word in order to convey more specific meaning: for example, “person” trisects into “human”, “alien”, and “AI”. Maybe you could split the “person” cluster even further than that. On the other end, you combine two categories into one when sub-cluster distinctions don’t matter for a certain purpose. The base-level category “table” substitutes more specific terms like “dining table” and “kotatsu” when the specifics don’t matter.

You can do a cluster analysis objectively wrong. There is math, and if the math says you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If your WCSS is so high that you have a cluster that you can’t label more distinctly than “everything else”, or if it’s so low you’ve segregated your clusters beyond the point of usefulness, then you’ve done it wrong.

Many people think “you can define a word any way you like”, but this doesn’t make sense. Words are cluster analyses of reality-space, and if cluster analyses can be wrong, words can also be wrong.


This post is a summary of / is based on Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay sequence, “A Human’s Guide to Words“.