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, and can thus use their intelligence to defeat itself with great efficiency. They argue against the truth extremely convincingly, and can still feel like they’re winning while running away from the goal at top speed. Whenever I come away from an 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 even 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. The universe rarely arrives at your doorstep to speak in grave tones, “this is an Important Decision, make it Wisely”; 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.

That’s a big assertion to make without an example, so here’s one.

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 stupid, 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 you are dying for anything you spend significant time on, because you are dying. And it was here that rationality was my saving grace. I knew about the sunk cost fallacy, and I refused to be irrationally bitter. 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 too bad. 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 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“.

I Want To Cure Mortality.

Do you want to live forever?

No? Okay, let me phrase it another way. Do you want to live tomorrow?

Most people answer yes to this second question, even if they said no to the first. (If you didn’t say yes to the second, that’s typically called suicidal ideation, and there are hotlines for that.)

This doesn’t quite make sense to me. If I came to you tomorrow, and I asked the same question, “Do you want to live tomorrow?”, you’d probably still say yes; likewise with the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. Under normal circumstances, you’ll probably keep saying yes to that question forever. So why don’t you want to live forever?

Maybe, you think that the question “do you want to live forever” implies “do you want to be completely incapable of dying, and also, do you want to be the only immortal person around”. Not being able to die, ever, could be kind of sucky, especially if you continued to age. (There was a Greek myth about that.) Further, being the only person among those you care about who can’t die would also suck, since you’d witness the inevitable end of every meaningful relationship you had.

But these sorts of arbitrary constraints are the realm of fiction. First, if a scientist invented immortality, there would be no justifiable reason that it wouldn’t be as available to those you care about as it would be to you. Second, it’s a heck of a lot easier to just stop people from aging than it is to altogether make a human completely impervious to anything which might be lethal. When I say “yes” to “do you want to live forever”, it’s induction on the positive integers, not a specific vision whose desire spans infinity.

Even after I’ve made sure we’re on the same page as to what exactly real immortality might look like, some people still aren’t convinced it would be a good idea. A decent amount of the arguments are some variant on “death gives meaning to life”.

To this, I’ll borrow Eliezer Yudkowsky’s allegory: if everybody got hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, soon enough people would start coming up with all sorts of benefits associated with it, like, it makes your head stronger, or it makes you appreciate the days you’re not getting hit with a truncheon. But if I took a given person who was not being hit on the head with a truncheon every week, and asked them if they’d like to start, for all these amazing benefits, I think they’d say no.

People make a virtue of necessity. They’d accept getting hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, just as they now accept the gradual process of becoming more and more unable to do things they enjoy, being in pain more often than not, and eventually ceasing to exist entirely. That doesn’t make it a good thing, it just demonstrates peoples’ capacity for cognitive dissonance.

These are the reasons I’ve made it my goal to cure mortality. The motivation is extremely similar to anyone’s motivation to cure any deadly disease. Senescence is a terminal illness, which I would like to cure.

It disrupts the natural order, but so does curing any other disease. Cholera was the natural order for thousands of years, but we’ve since decided it’s bad and nowadays nobody is considering the idea of mixing sewage with drinking water to bring it back. There were tons of diseases that were part of the natural order right up until we eradicated them. We don’t seem to have any trouble, as a society, deciding that cancer is bad. But death itself—the very thing we’re trying to prevent by curing all these diseases—is somehow not okay to attack directly.

Here’s the bottom line. I know for a fact I’m not the only one with this goal. Some of the people at MIRI come to mind, as well as João Pedro de Magalhães. I’d personally love to contribute to any of these causes. If you know someone, or are someone, who’s working towards this goal, I’d love to join you.

Intuition Is Adaptable

Or, why “X is counterintuitive” is just a way of saying “I haven’t seen any sufficiently intuitive explanations of X”.


As a kid, I was a huge science nerd. In particular, I loved Stephen Hawking’s work. He had a TV show at some point, which I watched whenever I got the chance. One of the first books I remember reading was “A Brief History of Time”.

The main reason I loved reading his writing is that it didn’t seem very complicated to me. Not in the way Richard Feynman’s work seems un-complicated—Feynman just seems like he’s dicking around all the time and happens to love dicking around in physics specifically, so much so that he got a Nobel Prize in it. (I’m aware this isn’t remotely what happened, but that’s the sense you get from reading his writing.) Instead, I found Stephen Hawking’s writing to be un-complicated in the way that I later found Eliezer Yudkowsky’s and Daniel Kahneman’s writings to be un-complicated: it just makes sense.

The best physical example of Stephen Hawking’s influence on kid-me is a sheet of sticky paper that’s still stuck to the wall of the library in my parents’ house, on which I wrote an explanation of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

You’d think I was joking, but…

The easy way to explain this is just to say that I was a genius, or if you don’t feel like giving me that much credit, you can say that I was able to do a lot of book-learning because I had no social life. (This assessment isn’t wrong, by the way.)

But I’m actually going to give myself even less credit than that. I don’t think I’m a genius, and I also don’t think that the extra time I gained by skipping recess to read the encyclopedia (I already told you I was a nerd, get off my back) actually contributed in any meaningful way to my comprehension of “A Brief History of Time”. I don’t think it had anything to do with me at all; rather, it was almost entirely a property of the authors.

Which authors are particularly poignant to you has a decent amount to do with you: I know a girl who thinks that Jen Sincero’s book You Are A Badass is the best book on the planet; I read the first paragraph and immediately put it back down again. But all other things being equal, a human brain is a human brain, and an intuitive explanation is an intuitive explanation.

Assuming you’ve got some very basic algebra, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’s Theorem will almost certainly make sense to you. (Whether or not you care is a function of your preferences in reading material, separate from whether or not you could understand it if you did care.) Even if you suck at math. I know, because at the time that I read the Explanation, I sucked at math. (I’ve since gotten much better through deliberate effort.) There are books in every discipline that make things make sense to people, that clarify cloudy issues, that provide intuitive explanations.

This is very good news for those of us who think we are just bad at something, and we have no way to get better. I grew up thinking I was bad at math, since I hate algebra and I hate trig and I’d always give up before I finished a problem and it was generally just the dullest drek on the planet. And yet, I have no difficulty calculating conditional probabilities with Bayes Theorem. All I had to do was read a good enough explanation. If you think you’re irreparably bad at something, don’t give up on it, just keep reading.

This is moderately poor news for those of us who are in the habit of writing explanations, though, because we can’t blame our readers’ lack of comprehension on the difficulty of the subject matter. It may partially be about the subject matter—neither all subjects nor all readers are created equal—but there is always some way that we could be better writers, better explainers, and thus have our explanations make more sense.

Personally, I choose to take this as a challenge. If no subject is imperceptibly counterintuitive, no subject is outside my domain, if I’m good enough. I just need to get stronger.

Book Review: Methods of Rationality

It’s high time I did a real review of my favorite book in the universe. I read it for the first time at the age of 13, and it triggered an utter obsession with cognitive science, rationality, and artificial intelligence that has not disappeared to this day. (It has, however, become more mature: I no longer write shitty romantic poetry about cognitive science.)

I will attempt to describe this masterpiece of literature; more than once since I will absolutely fail several times.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a 122-chapter parallel-universe Harry Potter fanfic in which Lily Evans married an Oxford professor, Michael Verres, and Harry was adopted and raised in a loving home filled to the brim with books. It is written by one Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, who writes frequently for the blog Less Wrong, which I’ve cited here before, and is best known for popularizing the idea of Friendly AI.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book about an eleven-year-old who knows both magic and calculus and wants to take over the world using Science so he can get more books.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book that successfully taught a 13-year-old girl—who wasn’t and still isn’t a genius—the underlying fundamentals of cognitive psychology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and Bayesian probability theory. If you read it, you will also learn these things, without ever realizing you have learned them. It will simply make sense, in a way that makes you wonder how you ever didn’t understand it.

While reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, you will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Harry is the villain or the hero. You will frequently have absolutely no idea whether Draco Malfoy is the villain or the hero, either. This goes for most of the characters, with the exception of Hermione and McGonagall. It does not exclude Voldemort.

This book will make you laugh, cry, learn, and question human existence. It will make you very aware of the sound of snapping fingers, and the shape of the night sky. It will show you the best and worst of humanity, and make both understandable. If you let it, it will teach you some of the most valuable life lessons you might ever learn.

Find the completed book at hpmor.com. You can read it in however much time you like, but given the length, it takes a fast reader about three or four days to binge straight through, so you probably can’t read it any faster than that. In any case, when you do finish it, please leave a comment telling me what you thought! And of course, give the author some feedback and leave reviews on however many chapters you like.

As an end note, in case you might not have believed me, here is only one of the shitty romantic poems I wrote about rationality. Please be nice to the author, she was a little girl who fell in love with science, not a poet, and she was doing her best.

Be skeptical, not cynical;
be open, but not gullible.
Be curious, not clever;
no rationalization, ever.

Accept the truth for what it is;
and look for contradictions
in all arguments, yours included;
you’re more confused by fiction.

A word is just a label
before you know the referent;
a lie gets told a long time,
if someone’s to protect it.

Certain kinds of people
truth they wrongly construe,
but they’ll do it in the name of
who they think is watching you.

Humans tend to think
they could predict things in advance
but that’s some hindsight bias
when really there’s low chance.

Don’t explain all this all at once,
mind inferential distance,
plus the illusion of transparency,
and all peoples’ heuristics.

People don’t like weird ideas,
or saying they don’t know;
but even with our biases,
There’s a long way we shall go.

How To Bake Industrially

Got a big baking spree coming up? Be it a Christmas dinner, a local bake sale, or anything else, if you need to do a lot of baking in a short amount of time, this post will tell you how to do it. Even if you have a more moderate amount of baking to do, following these tips will make the entire process that much more effortless, so you can make perfect, delicious cookies every single time.

Here are my baking credentials. First, I worked in a restaurant for three years, and during that time, I baked more pies, cakes, and cookies than most people will probably ever bake in their lives. Furthermore, every year, my family bakes an absolutely absurd number of cookies for Christmas. I’m taking 12+ batches, each of which makes multiple dozen cookies. We give bags of assorted cookies to coaches, teachers, and instructors of all varieties, then have enough left over to feed our household of seven for over a week.

To start you off, here’s your minimally adequate amount of equipment for any industrial baking spree. You can always have more than this, but here’s what you need to get started.

  • Electric mixer
  • Two sets of beaters for it, optionally also a whisk but you can whisk almost anything except meringue by hand without much difficulty
  • Four cookie sheets: at any given time, there should be two in the oven and two out of the oven being prepped with more cookies
  • At least two of each measuring implement (cups, spoons, etc.)
  • Sifter
  • Large bowls, a few of which are microwaveable
  • Other miscellaneous kitchen necessities: plastic and rubber spatulas, wooden spoons, oven mitts, cookie sheets, etc etc.

For any large baking spree, preparation is of the utmost importance. You need to make sure you have enough of all the ingredients, preferably on only one grocery store run. In order to do this preparation efficiently, run through every recipe you’re making (being sure to double, triple, quadruple, etc. the recipe as you’re planning on making it), note down every ingredient in its correct amount, and create a comprehensive tally. Then, take that list and check it against what you have in your house. Making conservative estimates, subtract the amount you have from the amount you need, and note down the delta. Create a shopping list from all those deltas for the ingredients, then shop from that list.

Great! You’ve prepared your ingredients, now prepare yourself.

First, make sure you have the right attire. You’ll want a short-sleeved shirt, a decently sized apron, and close-toed shoes. Here’s why, in order. You don’t want batter on your sleeves and you don’t want sleeves in your batter. Flour always makes a gigantic mess and there’s nothing you can do about that, also, it’s more convenient to have a place to dust off your hands. You will absolutely spill something or other on the floor and you don’t want to have the impulse to wipe off your feet, thus dirtying your hands.

After you’re wearing the right stuff and you’ve washed your hands, consider putting on some kitchen gloves. If you’re making multiple hands-on recipes (that’s any recipe that requires you mould dough with your hands), it’s way easier to change pairs of gloves than to wash your hands thoroughly.

Finally, set out all the ingredients for your first recipe. Organize primarily by the order the ingredients are used in the recipe and by what tools are required to complete that portion of the recipe. For example, all the ingredients which need to be sifted together should sit together next to the sifter itself; all the ingredients which need to be directly mixed together using the electric mixer should sit next to the mixer and the outlet it plugs into, and all the ingredients for the icing should sit off to the side with the piping bags.

I’m not being so anal about all of this for no reason. You’re going to run out of both time and counter space really fast, so it’s important to be hyper-efficient with both while you still have the mental bandwidth.

We’re ready to start baking now! Here are a few tips for preparing your recipe, before it goes in the oven.

When I worked as a prep cook in a restaurant, I had a tiny room—about the size of a home kitchen—to prepare nearly every dish that went through the restaurant. This is what I had. A counter along two walls with a sink and a gigantic electric mixer, a shelf containing dishes and measuring implements, and two 1.5*2.5 foot tables. I got really good at space efficiency. The biggest thing I learned, in addition to what I said earlier about grouping ingredients together, was that no matter how many recipes you have going at the same time, whether it’s one or ten, organization matters. If you’re not using an ingredient, put it away. I don’t care if you’re getting it right back out in an hour for your next set of recipes. Put it away.

Make sure you follow the recipe exactly. If it says to put the eggs in one at a time and mix well after each addition, you had better do that. The recipe isn’t telling you to do it for no reason. Note that I’m not trying to say you can’t experiment yourself and change the recipe—actually, you should absolutely do that, because what works for everyone else might not work for you, and further, the person who made the recipe might have some kind of an agenda (the recipe for chocolate chip cookies that you find on bags of Nestle chocolate chips requires far more chocolate chips than you should justifiably put in, because that’s what they’re trying to sell you). I’m trying to say that your reason for changing the recipe should be something better than “eh, it can’t be that important”. I make the best chocolate chip cookies anyone I know has ever had and the only reason is because I follow the damn recipe.

To conserve measuring implements, measure out dry ingredients before wet ones. Measure baking soda before vanilla extract, flour before milk, etc. As a special rule, if you’re measuring molasses for your recipe (ex. if you’re making ginger snaps), swish a bit of vegetable oil around in the cup measure before you put the molasses in. It will make the molasses stick to the cup measure less.

Here’s my final prep tip: take a sizable swath of counter space and lay out some parchment paper. If you’re like most normal people, you have nowhere near enough counter space for even a few dozen cookies on cookie sheets. Further, you probably don’t have enough available cookie sheets for that. However, if you snug the cookies up next to each other once they’re cool enough to scoop off the cookie sheet, you can fit a ton more in the same amount of space, and you don’t use up your cookie sheets.

While the first batch of cookies are in the oven, prep the next two sheets. I promise, the bake time is long enough for you to be able to do this. I’ve made two sheets of cookies in less than six minutes before. See, nobody cares what the cookies look like so long as they’re tasty, so you can be fast. Your literal only constraint is to make sure all the cookies in the oven at any given time are roughly uniform in size.

When you take a batch out of the oven, cool them on the racks for only a few minutes, then scoop them off and stick em on that parchment paper you laid out earlier. They’ll cool the rest of the way there, and you’ll have the trays freed back up to put more cookies on.

The baking is always the hectic part, since the perpetual cycle of bake-cool-transfer-prepare takes up every available moment. If you’ve done the previous organizational and preparation steps correctly, though, you can minimize the hecticness.

That’s it! My comprehensive list of steps for industrial baking. May your endeavors be successful, and your cookies be sweet. Good luck!