Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Pantheon is a storytelling game. It's made to be played with friends as a role playing game, but can also be played alone as a writing exercise. By the end of it, you’ll have created the plot of an entire novel, to do with as you please.

I can’t seem to find the quote, but some author or other (maybe one of the Orsons?) said that a good plot is a combination of something ordinary and something extraordinary. The Hero’s Quest is one of the seven basic story plots [CN: That's a link to TV Tropes], as old and familiar as storytelling itself. In Pantheon, the ordinary comes from the tried and true story structure, while the extraordinary comes from the Vision cards, and from competition for control of the plot.

The Basic Idea

There are three roles for Pantheon players: The Hero, The Pantheon, and The Muse. Any number of players can form teams as The Hero and The Pantheon, but there is only one Muse.

The Muse’s goal is to inspire the Pantheon to send a worthy Hero on a quest so grand that it will outlive the gods themselves in song and legend.

The Pantheon’s goal is to torment the Hero so he gives them a good show, and reveals himself to be worthy of their attention.

The Hero mainly wants to survive all of this.

The Pantheon can contain any number of gods, each of whom may choose which human motivations they embody. There might be a God Of Love, who wants to pull the story toward romantic interests, or a God Of Chaos, who delights in giving the Hero particularly surreal experiences, and struggles against the Muse’s notion of an orderly plot.

The Hero can also be played by any number of people. He has an Inner Coalition, multiple values and interests making up his personality, all tugging his actions in different directions. Precisely what those are is determined in game, but once established, different players can represent different parts of the Hero.

For example, perhaps one player represents the Hero’s desire to stay close to home so he can care for his ailing mother, and tries to convince the rest of the Coalition to take safer actions less likely to get him killed. Another player responsible for the Hero’s preference utilitarianism pulls toward actions most likely to benefit the greatest number of people. A third is on the side of the Muse, an aesthetic part that wants nothing more than a glorious tale to tell to his grandchildren. The caretaker part and the aesthetic part will probably spend a lot of time in direct conflict, while the utilitarian part tries to pull the rope sideways.

Game Play

The Muse has much lighter responsibilities than Game Masters of most tabletop RPGs - once you've got the deck, there's no prep-work required - but she guides the players in two ways. One, she has a deck of Story Cards representing essential plot elements, like setting and conflict, which she presents in the right order to send game play through a solid story structure.

Two, she sends the players Visions, depicted on a second deck of Vision Cards. I have cards with interesting pictures from a game called Dixit, but a Taro deck would also work beautifully.

At the beginning of a round, the Muse looks at the next Story Card in her sequence, but doesn’t reveal it to the other players yet. She draws three Vision Cards, and chooses the one she most wants to send the players in this round. She plays her chosen Vision Card, and then sets a timer for thirty seconds (or, preferably, turns a very small hour glass).

Everyone who's active that round (the viewpoint characters, if you will) looks at the Vision card, not yet knowing what exactly it’s for, and spends thirty seconds free associating with the image. I imagine everyone shouting out whatever thoughts come to mind, but the players can also brainstorm by silently writing if they prefer.

Next, the Muse plays a Story Card. The players then use their inspirations from the Vision to fill in concrete details of the story they’re creating.

For example, suppose it’s the Pantheon’s round. The vision the Muse sent was of a rhinoceros covered in feathers, and she’s just played the Inciting Incident card. On the back of the Inciting Incident card are some questions: “How do the gods make their plans known to the Hero? What event acts as The Call To Adventure?” The Pantheon collaborates to answer these questions in a way that they somehow associate with a rhino covered in feathers. Having already established that the Hero’s Quest is to steal the Terrible Weapon from the Evil Emperor, maybe they decide that the Hero will learn of his quest when he happens to be on safari in the same place as the Emperor, sees him test his contraption on an innocent rhino, and recognizes how much destruction will inevitably ensue if the mad old man is allowed to wield such a powerful device.

Once the gods have exerted their mysterious influence, it is time for the Hero to respond. The Muse places Story Cards (usually preceded by a Vision card) that work as leading questions. Example: The Story Card “The Adventuring Party” asks the Hero, “Who will accompany you on your quest? Must you raise an army? Convince one loyal friend to join you? How do you do that?”

Gameplay progresses through chapters, beginning with “Prelude”, in which the Character and Setting are established, and ending with “Resolution”. This is what the game might look like halfway through Chapter Two.

You'll see there are three Vision cards on a single Story card at the end of Chapter One. Most rounds will just get one Vision card, but a few - Internal Coalition, in this case - get some other number. The appropriate number of Vision cards is written at the top right corner of each Story card.

Most chapters consist of four rounds. For example, “The Call” is the chapter in which the Pantheon designs the Hero’s Quest. It includes “Adversary”, “The Hero’s Goal”, “The Inciting Incident”, and “Or Else…” (which asks the gods what incentives they’ll offer if the Hero resists his call to adventure).

In some chapters, a single team plays four rounds back to back. In others, such as The First Challenge, the teams alternate, usually with the gods throwing things at the Hero and the Hero trying to bat them away or catch them to use as projectiles later. (Metaphorically speaking. Maybe.)

Here's the full list of chapters as they currently stand:

  1. Prelude
  2. The Call
  3. The Quest
  4. First Challenge
  5. Second Challenge
  6. Nightmare
  7. Resolution
  8. Ending

And here's all the Story Cards laid out in order. The cards on the far left are just chapter titles, and would be part of the game board if I had one. Each of the other cards represents a round.

During the Challenge and Resolution chapters, the round structure dissolves somewhat, with the Hero and Pantheon duking it out organically. The Muse presents Visions whenever she sees fit, and decides when the Hero has adequately overcome the Pantheon’s obstacles. If she’s not satisfied with the story, the chapter continues.

Divine Intervention

Finally, there is a Divine Intervention option. Any time the Hero's active, he can pray to the gods for a miracle. The gods can choose from two types of responses: “Yes, but…” and “No, and furthermore…”. The Muse, of course, inspires their answers with a Vision. The Hero never gets a straight “yes” when the gods answer his prayers - that would be bad story craft - but sometimes he can trade one problem for another (though of course he might just get extra problems on top of the one he hoped to dodge). Perhaps if he tries bargaining with the gods, they’ll respond to his prayers more favorably? It’s entirely up to the gods.

Your Turn

Here's a spreadsheet with the full list of Story Cards and everything the Muse needs to know to play them. Just write it all down on index cards, or print it out, and get yourself a Tarot deck or some clever alternative.

This version is for alpha testing, and can surely be dramatically improved. If you make up a deck and try this yourself, please do leave comments and let me know how it goes! Feel free to ask questions about the game here or through email (

May you live happily ever after.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

CTAPS for Speedy Fiction, and

I'm trying to learn to write quickly for NaNoWriMo.

I’ve always written very slowly. For NaNoWriMo, I’ll need to write 50,000 words in November. That’s an average of 1667 words per day. To me, that’s a lot of words.

Since I’ve started studying fiction (a month or two ago)*, I’ve become convinced that no matter how much theory I pack into my head, I’m not going to see much improvement until I’ve written a bunch. I don’t think this because of the standard writing advice, which claims competence in writing happens after a million words. I don’t buy that claim.**

But efficient practice requires fast feedback loops. One way or another, feedback loops in writing will consist of words. So to get fast feedback loops, I need to write words quickly. That’s not the same as writing a bunch of words, but it does result in a bunch of words.

I’ve tried to practice writing quickly in three ways: Daily free writing, one exercise a day from Story Starters, and one kata cycle a day from Writer Kata. I did free writing for about three months, Story Starters for about three weeks, and I’ve so far done Writers Kata for about a week.

The first two methods didn’t do much for my speed, but Writer Kata is working.

Every day, or almost every day, I perform one “kata cycle”. A kata cycle is a total of ten writing prompts.

  1. The first four prompts ask you to write a sentence: “Write a sentence containing a metaphor describing a walk through a snow storm.”
  2. The next three prompts ask you to write a paragraph: “Write a paragraph where an argument breaks out in an inappropriate place.”
  3. Then there are two prompts for “sketches”, essentially tiny fictions with little or no plot that are all about description. “Write a sketch, containing dialogue, describing two women who find a baby in a basket next to the river.”
  4. Finally, there’s a story prompt: “Write a story, containing mono no aware, where a Roman boy walks through a bloody battlefield somewhere in the middle East.”

You gain experience points for completing kata, and you can spend experience points to skip prompts you don’t like. The prompts change every day - they’re user-generated and then curated, and you can gain XP by creating prompts that get accepted - but the form is always the same. Four sentences, three paragraphs, two sketches, and a story. You can also gain XP by making your writing public.

A week ago, it took me three hours to complete a kata cycle. Three days ago, it took me one hour. Today, it took me twenty-eight minutes.

Why is this working?

First of all, there’s a warm up. By the time I’m actually writing a story, my mind’s already worked itself into a creative mode, and I’m not paralyzed by a blank sheet of paper. It’s a lot easier to write the first sentence when it’s the only sentence. So I start with pressure almost as low as in free writing, and only increase the pressure after establishing momentum.

Secondly, the existence of a constant form allows me to time myself meaningfully, and therefore to know whether I’m progressing and by how much.

I’ve tried timing simple word count while free writing or doing other writing exercises, but that doesn’t seem to work as well. By timing free writing, the thing I’m actually practicing is putting any kind of word whatsoever on the page. I have written whole paragraphs that say “dog dog dog…” just to keep my pen moving. Yes, it teaches me to get words on paper - and that’s proved somewhat useful - but the skill fails to transfer the moment it matters at all what the words are.

By timing other kinds of writing exercises, the thing I’m actually practicing is filling the paper with words related to that specific prompt. That sounds good at first, but there are two problems. One, I’m not practicing completing the prompt. In fact, I might be practicing blabbering on well past where the end of the story should have been, which may be actively counterproductive. Also, if I try to solve this by “completing as many exercises as possible in an hour” and my exercises vary a lot in form, then my exercise counts by day aren’t comparable.

Maybe on Monday I completed five exercises that were about as difficult as “describe ten different ways of killing someone with a helium balloon”, while on Tuesday I completed only one exercise, but the exercise was “write five sketches, each depicting a different character learning to ice skate for the first time”. Did I write faster on Monday, or on Tuesday? Writing speed isn't as straightforward as it may seem at first.

Timing simple word count isn’t the only way of measuring “how fast I write”, and I suspect it’s not the best way. I don’t know how many words I wrote in my last kata cycle, and I don’t care very much. I’m not exactly practicing writing words. I’m practicing writing sentences, paragraphs, sketches, and stories. I’m practicing imagining and then immediately articulating ten completely unrelated fictional circumstances as quickly as possible, with increasing amounts of story content as I progress through the cycle.

Timing simple word count trains brute speed, while kata cycles train both brute speed and creative agility. The thing that slows me down is something like, “I hold onto my current thought too tightly, and use my attention to perfect it instead of to capture it on paper and flow forward to the next thought.” When I’m fixated on one thought, quickly writing it down results in a few words, followed by a lot of staring at the page and thinking of other ways to arrange the words, or other ways to express the same thought. When I can have a fluid stream of thoughts, quickly writing each down as it happens results in a lot of words.

The third reason Writers Kata works is that there are fast feedback loops within individual kata. This is why I’ve been able to develop a specific mental motion that lets me write quickly. There’s a feeling of searching for exactly the right word to use, or exactly the right idea to have. If I realize I’ve just spent thirty seconds searching for exactly the right word to use in Sentence One, then if I feel the same pausing, searching, weighing sensation while writing Sentences Two, Three, or Four, I’ll match it up immediately with the mistake still hanging in short term memory.

So now I have a speed-writing Cognitive Trigger-Action Plan: If I notice a pausing, searching, weighing sensation while trying to write quickly, then I’ll write down whatever thought I’m having and run with it.

I've needed to add an extra CTAP to support the last that goes, “If I feel worried that the thing I wrote down doesn’t make sense, I’ll move on anyway.” Today I wrote the sentence, “My toes tingled with cold, and my boots bit the snow.” My boots bit the snow? I thought. What the hell is that? And then I noticed I was worrying that the thing I wrote made no sense, so I moved on.

I’ll need further speed-writing skills to complete a 50,000 word novel in a month, which I expect will involve running with ideas at the level of large story arc and character. Developing those is much of why I want to do NaNoWriMo in the first place. With any luck, the relevant mental motions will prove similar to the ones I’m learning from the kata cycles.

*I haven't been blogging a lot because I've been studying fiction, because I'm tired of trying to teach things in the form of non-fiction, because the things I want to teach involve imagined experiences, which are best conveyed through fiction.

**It seems that how you practice matters at least as much as how much you practice, and I don’t expect that the people experiencing the “competence after a million words” phenomenon were practicing very well, since people practice poorly by default. It’s not going to take me a million words to become a competent fiction writer. Furthermore, given that I think more than ten percent of published novelists have written greater than ten novels worth of words in their lives, and I consider less than one in ten randomly selected novels to include “competent” writing, writing a million words is not sufficient for competence. So I’d be focused on more than just “writing a bunch of words”, even if a million words were my goal.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Cattle Barn

They tore down the cattle barn. Nobody asked my permission.

Not that permission would have been mine to give. I was a twelve year old kid who couldn’t be said to own much of anything. But the barn had belonged to my family for years and years, standing tall on our acres of rolling hills that were covered in forest and meadow, sprinkled with creeks, ponds, and sink holes. Until Grandpa had a another heart attack, and had to sell the farm to strangers.

He’d given my father a small corner of the property to build on a few years back. I would tiptoe over across the ravine sometimes to play on the “neighbor’s land”, even though I wasn’t supposed to anymore. I figured nothing had changed but the imaginary thing called “ownership”, and nobody could see you from the house in most places anyway. I trusted the deer not to tell.

I hiked over, down the ravine and up the other side, to sneak around back of the cattle barn. I crowned the steep hill panting, thinking of climbing hay bales behind the barn.

And it was just gone. Where the barn should have been, there was solid nothing. A hundred cubic meters of it, gaping wrongness ripped out of space and time. They might have seen me from the house, but I couldn’t care. I couldn’t breathe.

I staggered into the wreckage, chest tight and cheeks hot, burning with betrayal. Dust puffed up around my bluejeans as I fell to the earth and sat in stunned silence, breathing hard, surrounded by the shattered remains of memories a century older than I was. My throat ached, and water filled my eyes, blurring the lack of walls or feed troughs, as the reality of my loss swam into view at last. A sudden deluge.

I thought of the Middle Meadow, where the absent cattle had grazed. God, that meadow was drenched in sunlight, like nothing else I’ve known. The smell of morning dew rising from freshly cut hay, soaking into my socks around my ankles. Honeysuckle wafting down from the hills no matter which way the breeze was blowing. Sweet tartness of wild black raspberries well worth the bite of multiflora rose thorns, which always seemed to guard them. Lying in the sun on a pillow of grass, like nothing could ever change but the shapes in the clouds.

I thought of the creeks, bubbling up from icy springs, where Dad taught me to hunt for fossils. Plunk-splash of a heavy boulder lugged into the swimming hole. Shocking turquoise on black of a skink’s tail, scurrying beneath a new rock for cover. Wet grit washing from my hands into clear water. Damp and earthy musk of the ancient oak that gradually decomposed, having fallen across the stream before I was born. Its rough bark under my bare feet as I ran across, sat, and stretched onto my back, limbs spread over its solid enormity, gently expanding my torso on curved surface. Lazy swaying of the younger branches above us, rustling their leaves, whistling and creaking in the gusts. Gurgling water falling in a dozen pitches, echoing in deep hollow caverns or tinkling sharp against shards of shale and limestone.

I thought of the forests, feeding fertile soil, reaching up toward the sun. High call of the redtailed hawk who’d nested in the tallest tree at the top of the tallest hill since Dad was sixteen. Tracing the lines in the scarred bark at its the base where his initials, and those of his high school crush, proclaimed their love. Spongy crack of a morel mushroom plucked from beneath its leafy mayflower umbrella. Tag with my brother, dodging and climbing, swinging from thick grape vines. Smoke in the cold evening seeping into our clothes as we traded ghost stories and laughter around a camp fire. Singing folk songs in harmony above the symphony of crickets and spring peepers. Warmth of the fire at my feet as I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag, just my nose poking out chill in the open air. Stars twinkling through the treetops. The grownups speaking in hushed whispers, pretending not to know we only pretended to sleep. The scent of Grandpa’s pipe.

My right hand shifted, and I felt the prick of a splinter. The ground was covered in shards of wood, everywhere I looked. I imagined gathering them all up, carrying them home, and gluing them back together, one by one. Restoring the whole from every sacred piece.

I pulled the splinter from my hand, and pocketed the shard it came from. Then I stood, wiped my face on my sleeve, and walked back across the ravine for the last time.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Mirror Dance Dilemma

[Mild Vorkosigan spoilers]

In the Vorkosigan saga, wealthy people can buy clones into which they transplant their brains when their original body is about to die of old age. The clone's brain, which stays with the body for the first 14 or so years, is destroyed at the time of transplant. There are no alternatives for indefinite age extension. In the novels, this is portrayed as terribly evil, and some of the plot involves saving the clones.

This business model gives me the willies, as it's meant to.

But upon reflection, I'm not sure my reaction makes much sense. Let's assume the clones spend their 14 years having a pretty good time. That assumption isn't quite in line with the book. But for the thought experiment, assume everybody's having fun.

Here are the possibilities.

  1. If we don't create the clone in the first place, some old man who would otherwise have paid for the clone lives 80 years and then dies. Total of 80 life years.

  2. If we do create the clone but then someone rescues them, taking them to a different planet to live their own life, then the old man that paid for the clone lives 80 years and then dies, and the clone lives 80 years and then dies. Total of 160 life years.

  3. If we create the clone and everything goes as planned, an old man lives 80 years in body number 1, a clone lives 14 years in body number 2 and then dies, and the old man lives another 66 years in body number 2 and then dies. Total of 160 life years.

Preferring 1 to (2 or 3) is pretty straightforwardly silly, unless the wealthy old man uses his money to support a brand new human non-clone that would not otherwise have existed. (This looks straightforward to my reasoning parts, not my emotion parts.)

There are two obvious-to-me reasons to prefer 2 over 3.

The first is probably the one that's responsible for most of the willies: "Someone who only lived 14 years didn't live long enough, and a life cut short is worse than no life at all". I don't buy that objection. Dying after 80 years is also cutting a life short. The only reason it seems sort of ok is that as things stand, people lose quality of life just before dying because their bodies wear out. If I wouldn't prefer a lack of life to a healthy life cut short at 80, I don't think there's a principled way for me to prefer a lack of life to a life cut short at 14.

The other reason to favor 2 over 3 is "I value multiple experiences of the 80 year version of the human life process more than I value the 146 year version". And I don't buy that one either. I think people get better at using life years as they accumulate experience. In fact, I think I heard in a psychology class once that there's strong evidence that older people are happier, that people keep getting happier as they get older until they start having big problems with their aged bodies. Brief Googling supports that. So actually, I think someone who's had 80 years to figure out how to do awesome things with human experience, and who had to go through a whole 80 years of life to get things as figured out as they've got them now, is going to turn the next 66 healthy years into more awesomeness than a person starting the same 66 healthy years at age 14 could. The person starting the 66 years at age 14 begins with the same total lack of having-figured-things-out-ness we all remember from age 14, and doesn't reach the wealthy old guy's level of proficiency at life until the end of the 66 years.

I feel a little bit of pull from "but there's something valuable in the learning process of growing up from 14 to 80, and preferring 3 to 2 means that process happens once instead of twice", to which I respond "I becha there's something valuable in the learning process of growing up from 80 to 146, and preferring 2 to 3 means that process happens zero times instead of one".

The main problem with the clone business, then, is not that it exists, but that it isn't designed to maximize the children's enjoyment of life. They don't torture the children, but they do lie to them and focus mainly on keeping their bodies in spectacular health, paying fairly little attention to their minds. I think I'd fight for reform in the clone business, rather than fighting to shut it down.

Facebook discussion here.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Eva Vivalt Did Not Show QALYs/$ of Interventions Follow a Gaussian Curve

(Epistemic status: I have zero statistics background, but damned if I won’t give this a shot anyway.)

In a recent blog post, Robin Hanson said Eva Vivalt's data indicate that the distribution of charity impacts is close to Gaussian, and is not a fat-tailed power law like Effective Altruists claim. If that's true, it pretty much undermines Effective Altruism altogether, because it means that there's not a big difference between a decent intervention and the best intervention.

Suppose the following three interventions had identical effect sizes: feeding people carrots, handing out chess strategy manuals, and deworming.

I hope you're currently wondering what the hell I just asked you to suppose, because the previous sentence was nonsense. You can only talk about the “effect size” of carrots if you’re measuring an additional thing besides carrots. The additional thing is probably not “handing out chess strategy manuals”, because then the effect size of carrots would be a measure of how good carrots are at handing out chess strategy manuals.

How about if I’m studying “feeding people carrots to make them taller”, “handing out chess strategy manuals to make them smarter”, and “deworming to eliminate intestinal parasites”?

That’s much better! Now it makes sense to talk about effect sizes for these things. There’s some amount of taller people get when you give them carrots, some amount of smarter people get when you give them chess strategy manuals, and some amount of dewormed people become when you give them wormicide.

Now what does it mean for these things to have identical effect sizes?

There are actually several reasonable answers, but here’s the one I’m seeing in Eva’s slides.

Say that the average height is 5’7”, and most people are between 5’5” and 5’9”. So the usual variation in height is “within 2 inches of average”, or a range of 4 inches. When I give somebody a bundle of carrots, they grow an inch. 5’8” plus bundle of carrots equals 5’9”. We can express the effectiveness of carrots in terms of variation in the general population: If everybody gets their Height stat by rolling a four sided die to adjust away from human average of 5’7”, eating a bundle of carrots gives you a plus one to your Height roll. It’s like a 25% bonus to randomness.

Now say that the average IQ is 100, and most people are between 95 and 105: the usual variation in IQ is “within 5 points of average”, or a range of 10 points. When I give somebody a chess book, they gain two and a half IQ points. We can express the effectiveness of the book in terms of variation in the general population: If everybody gets their Intelligence stat by rolling a ten sided die to adjust away from human average of 100, reading a chess book gives you a plus 2.5 to your Int roll. It’s a 25% bonus compared to randomness.

Then we can (sort of) compare the effect sizes of carrots and chess books: Carrots give a 25% bonus, and chess books also give a 25% bonus.

Is that useful information, though? Why does it matter if carrots give the same size of bonus to growth that chess books give to IQ?

Now if carrots happened to also make people smarter, then comparing effect sizes would be useful. We’d be talking about two different interventions aimed at the same outcome. Furthermore, we could dispense with the standardized statistical effect size stuff, and look directly at the absolute number of IQ points gained from a dollar’s worth of chess books, and the number of IQ points gained from a dollar’s worth of carrots.

If it turned out that all intelligence interventions gave the same Int bonus per dollar, then we might as well flip a coin to decide between carrots and chess books. Same thing if it turned out that we weren’t good enough at measuring things to tell the difference between the effects of carrots and chess books on intelligence. Any time spent “picking the best one” would be wasted.

But what if you don't know how much chess books and carrots cost? And what if you don't know how many carrots are in a bundle? Maybe you know that a "bundle of carrots" - whatever number of carrots the charity is distributing per person - has the same effect as a chess book, but you don't know that the chess book costs four times as much as the bundle of carrots. It would be premature to say that time spent choosing between carrots and chess books is wasted, because if you learned the cost, you'd fund the carrots.

It might even be that the effect of carrots only seems to match the effect of chess books because the carrot people kept putting more carrots into the bundles until a bundle was as good as a chess book, and then they stopped. (Because that's where they reach some socially agreed-upon level of 'statistical significance', perhaps?) Maybe if you put twelve carrots into the bundle instead of six, you get twice as many IQ points as a chess book causes, and for half the price! But you don't know; you just know that as things are now, the carrot charity is making people about as much smarter as the chess charity.

And that, it seems to me, is what Eva's data actually say. When I emailed her for clarification, she said that, "Most of the interventions can't be statistically distinguished from each other for a given outcome." She also said cost wasn't factored in yet (though she suspected it wouldn't change much). So if she's right, then as far as we can tell, all the deworming interventions are currently equally good at killing worms, all the microfinance interventions are equally good at alleviating poverty, and so on for the top 20 international development programs.

If it’s true that the top 20 international development programs are just as good at whatever they do as all the other programs they’re directly competing with, even when you factor in cost, this has significant implications for Effective Altruism. It means we can stop evaluating individual charities once we've identified the "pretty good" ones.

But there’s a stronger claim it’s easy to confuse this with. (Eva’s presentation was called “Everything You Know Is Wrong”, and a couple of her slides said, “Anyone who claims they know what works is lying”. I tend to expect confusion when such strong System 1 language accompanies abstract statistical analysis.) The stronger claim is “the top 20 interventions are equally good at saving lives, regardless of how they go about it”. If that were true, it would chuck the premises of Effective Altruism right out the window.

If you want to compare two interventions with different outcomes - medicated mosquito nets vs. microfinance - you’re going to need some way of converting between malaria and poverty. When we’re talking about altruism, the common factor is Quality Adjusted Life Years.

There’s some amount of better a person’s life is when they don’t have malaria, and some amount of time they remain malaria-free after you give them mosquito nets. There’s also some amount of better a person’s life gets when they’re fifty bucks less poor, and some amount of time they stay fifty bucks less poor after you give them fifty bucks. So you can compare bug nets to microfinance through QUALYs once you've got data on 1) effect sizes, 2) how nice it is to be healthy or less poor, 3) how long people stay healthy or less poor once they get that way via bug nets or microfinance.

You need all three of those things. The fact that the effect sizes are identical doesn't matter if a medicated mosquito net is worth orders of magnitude more QUALYs than fifty bucks. Eva's data only include effect sizes.

It doesn't make sense to compare "how many worms a deworming intervention kills" with "how much AIDS a box of condoms prevents" until you know how much those problems affect quality of life, and for how long. So even if all deworming interventions are equally effective, the choice between “deworming” and “condoms” could still be massively important.

And that’s the central claim I take EA to be making.

Eva's analysis says nothing about distribution of QUALYs over all EA interventions under consideration. Maybe it’s Gaussian after all, but this isn’t new evidence either way.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Uninhibited Fancy Feet

Helpful context: Tortoise Skills page, Effective Rest Days, Inhibition: Game Plan, Tortoise Report 3: Empathy

I was thinking about ways to trick my brain into being more like it is on a rest day, even though there’s specific work I plan to do today, when I noticed a feeling of "not being allowed to do that". I inferred that I must have just wanted something and shut down the wanting without even being aware of it. So I examined my recent memory, and found a desire to get a pedicure. (That counts as “noticing an impulse”, at this stage, so I tapped my fingers together.)

My natural reaction was to wonder whether it makes sense for me to indulge the impulse, and why I shut it down to begin with. Why am I "not allowed" to get a pedicure? This isn't a new thing; I really like getting pedicures, but I hardly ever do it.

Money is one reason, but it's not sufficient to stop me getting the occasional pedicure just because. Doing things that make me happy is what having money is for. Even System 1 believes that at this point, so it's not where most of the "not allowed" is coming from.

Actually, I'm embarrassed about how beaten up my feet are from running. Although I’m not missing any toenails, the bottoms of my feet are covered in calluses and blisters. I’m averse to making the manicurist deal with them. (I note that this inhibition falls under “taking care of other people”, which I've hypothesized is the main kind of inhibition that wears me out.)

What does a manicurist experience when a runner comes in? If I imagine the situation from my own perspective, looking down from my chair, I simulate her with a disgusted look on her face, as though I've been terribly inconsiderate, coming to a nail salon with feet like that. She does her work as quickly as possible, with reluctance and resentment.

Empathy time (gosh, that one's turning out to be so useful!): If I imagine the situation from her perspective, looking at me and my feet, she thinks, "another runner," and goes about her business, doing as much as she can and not worrying about the rest, just like she does every time a runner comes in. Or anytime anyone comes in, really. It changes literally nothing in her routine.

If I try to color in the simulation with a specific emotion, it’s the one I'd feel in her position; something like "Her poor feet! I'm glad she came to me to have them cared for properly." When I offer that feeling to my brain with an interrogative tag, beside the “disgust/resentment” hypothesis, it clicks as a correctness feeling, while the other is rejected with a “that’s not the real world” feeling.

But back to inhibition: Even if she is disgusted and inconvenienced, I'm paying her to care for my feet. I never signed a contract saying I'd only bring in feet that are already in perfect condition.

This is not an inhibition I endorse. Getting a pedicure is a perfectly good way to help me into a more rest-day-like frame of mind. Decision:

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inhibition: Game Plan


  • I benefit a lot from “rest days” that are more about acting on my immediate impulses than about resting physically or cognitively.
  • Sometimes a rest day is an emergency, because I’ve completely exhausted myself in a particular way that makes the prospect of serving others feel threatening.
  • On rest days, I often find that I’ve suppressed an impulse that I should obviously have acted on, or that I’m in the process of suppressing such an impulse. (Example: I realize that I’ve been thirsty for the last half hour and have repeatedly denied the urge to get a glass of water because I wasn’t done reading an article I set out to read.)
  • I find social interaction exhausting, especially social interaction with large groups of strangers, even when I’m enjoying myself.
  • I find social interaction much less exhausting when I drink alcohol.
  • I am happier when I drink alcohol in a way that feels more like a barrier to emotion being removed than like any particular extra sensation being pleasant. (I sometimes end up sadder if I start out sad.)
  • I am smarter, in a certain sense, when I drink alcohol. Ideas come more easily, combine with other ideas more easily, and inspire actions (like expressing ideas) that I immediately execute.
  • A successful rest day feels a lot like being slightly tipsy.
  • Both rest days and the effects of alcohol feel like they have something in common with the creative state of mind I enter when thinking of a mnemonic image.

Inferences and Speculation:

  • I ordinarily waste a lot of cognitive resources inhibiting impulses unnecessarily.
  • Social exhaustion is caused, at least in part, by the same inhibitory patterns that can cause rest days to be emergencies.
  • I have gained a little control over inhibition under some circumstances (rest days and mnemonics).


  • I will be substantially happier, smarter, and more socially resilient if I learn to be less inhibited.
  • I can learn to be less inhibited.


What does a failure to apply the skill look like? It looks like subconsciously exerting control to prevent an action whose outcome would be neutral or beneficial. Concretely: I’m riding my bike when I see a certain plant, and want to know what it looks like up close. I don’t slow down to find out, even though I don’t have any time constraints or other reasons not to slow down besides “I am biking”.

(Hm, this suggests I’m attached to my current activity, whatever that might be, by default. And looking at that thought is slightly painful. I’m afraid that if I believe my problem comes from being attached to my current activity, I’ll start to frequently tear myself away from my current activity, which will hurt. Message received: If this comes down to needing to frequently pull myself away from my current activity, I’ll be sure to find a pleasant, non-damaging way to do so. And I don't actually expect this to be a big problem. Remember what rest days are like? They're happy, not painful. Am I still clinging to being attached to my current activity even given that? No, I think I trust myself with this.)

Success will probably come in two stages. In the first stage, I’ll bring my impulses into direct conscious examination, choosing deliberately whether or not to act on them. That would be like noticing I want to know what the plant looks like up close, asking myself whether I should stop to look at it, and then stopping to look at it if I get a “yes”. In the second stage, I’ll have eliminated the bias toward inhibiting impulses, and I’ll act on impulses that seem beneficial or neutral without need for conscious effort. That would look like a smooth motion from wondering what the plant looks like to stopping to look at it.

My first hypothesis for a trigger is “wanting something”. I’ll tap my fingers together every time I notice myself wanting something (even when I’m not taking the day off). I expect this to be sufficient for the first stage of success; once I’m aware of wanting something, I expect deliberately choosing whether to have it will be easier than not deliberately choosing.

I'll also try exploratory study pf the phenomenology of wanting and inhibition under the influence of alcohol, and during a mnemonics exercise.

I won’t be surprised if the second stage of success just comes with practice, but training may turn out to suggest faster or more reliable ways of internalizing the habit.

Do I risk losing important abilities I won't be able to get back if I succeed at this? Yes. I risk automatically acting on impulses it would have been better to inhibit. But this only seems like a risk with the second stage of success, and not with the first. With the first stage I'll be deliberately choosing. To mitigate this, I'll look for sensations that can distinguish helpful inhibition from harmful inhibition that happen before I have an opportunity to notice actual wanting. My goal will eventually be to be able to predict when an impulse I should deny is about to occur, and when an impulse I should indulge is about to occur. The risk isn't obviously worse than the current state of affairs. I'm happy to cross that bridge when I come to it, so I'll go ahead and begin to train "noticing wanting".

Results will be in the next Tortoise Report.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Tortoise Report 5: Defensiveness

What's a "Tortoise Report"? See the Tortoise Skills page.

Habit: Staying Sane While Defensive

Duration: 2 Months (This one took some time to get a handle on.)

Success: 7/10

Trigger: A feeling of being drawn into my solar plexus and closing a shield around myself for protection from attacks during interactions with other people

Action: Empathy

Result: I’m not sure I’ve reduced the frequency with which I get defensive very much, which is my long-term goal with this. But the feeling doesn’t get the chance to do nearly as much damage.

If I’m defensive and Eliezer says “that sounds like a bad idea,” I hear, “your idea is bad and you are bad and you should feel bad”. So I fear that he’s updated toward “I am bad”, and want to persuade him that he’s made an error, and in fact I am good. (My attempt is extremely clumsily given my state of unreflection and confusion, of course, and I end up completely undermining it right from the start). I fear he’ll enforce “you should feel bad” with further statements that will make me feel worse, so I feel I need to convince him that it’s false that I should feel bad. All of that defending, of course, gets tied up with a defense of the idea itself.

It’s a giant mess.

He never actually means anything like “your idea is bad and you are bad and you should feel bad”. When he says “that sounds like a bad idea”, he means something like “I predict that acting on the expressed beliefs and inferences will result in outcomes neither of us wants”. Which is blatantly obvious to me the moment I bother to simulate his mental state at all.

Empathy works surprisingly well against defensiveness for me. When I’m defensive, I tend to interpret everything that’s said to me as indicating a value judgement, which seems to be where most of the insanity comes from. Now, when I realize I’m defensive, I imagine what it might be like to be the other person, and what states of mind are most likely to be motivating their behaviors. I usually find my defensiveness-motivated interpretation was completely ridiculous, and I have the opportunity to check when it’s not so clear. I also have the opportunity to say, “I’m feeling defensive,” which can lead to having the rest of the discussion when I’m feeling more secure, or when I’ve eaten or exercised. But even when, upon reflection, I simulate the other person as actually wanting to hurt me, I end up feeling more compassion for them than any need to protect myself.

I don’t yet have an action that reliably leads to me leaving the defensive state of mind, nor a trigger that might allow me to prevent defensiveness in the first place. But being able to not suddenly go completely bonkers when I feel defensive is a pretty big deal.

Side note, one of my main methods when it comes to cognitive habit training is “seek opportunities to practice”. That does not seem to work for me with defensiveness. I had a Facebook thread where I asked people to post about a few topics I consider more or less “emotionally triggering” for me, or to post about things they expected would make me defensive, and it totally failed. Lots of great posts, no defensiveness. There was exactly one minor success, which caused something more like “competitiveness” than the thing that makes me crazy. (I felt compelled to spend many hours defending a certain interpretation of Indian Buddhist doctrine and my inferences from it, and to intellectually dominate the people who were wrong.) But for the most part, I felt a lot of closeness and trust with everyone in that thread, especially the people who expressed negative emotions about me specifically. I felt like, “This is beautiful, I wish I’d done this a long time ago!”

Then I tried reading internet criticisms of Eliezer through Tumblr and Rationalwiki. It all felt silly and actually made me kind of happy, I’m not totally sure why but maybe because I’m proud to be serving someone who gets such strange and outrageous criticisms. “I don’t get the impression that he’s really an earth-shatteringly good mathematician.” Also, did you know? Less Wrong “hopes to make humanity more rational, protect the universe from the development of evil(or "unfriendly") AI and usher in a golden era where we will all be immortal deathless cyborgs having hot sex with sexbots on a terraformed Mars.” There’s some great stuff out there.

I think defensiveness is one of the things that mostly dissolves under scrutiny. I noticed big improvements in my reactions long before I felt like I had any idea what to do with the things I was feeling. There must be some kind of feedback loop in defensiveness that relies on my attention being elsewhere. And if I’m actively expecting to become defensive, the cycle can’t even complete its first loop.

Edit: This report should really contain detailed descriptions of my usual experience of defensiveness before training, and my usual experience of defensiveness now.

Unfortunately, my memories of defensiveness before two months ago are far less detailed, since I'd never explicitly paid attention to those experiences. But I do have some vague memories of, for instance, reading one of Person's blog posts criticizing the LW community about a year ago, and I recall stuff like this: Reading the title, I feel a flash of fear/foreboding, plus a strong attraction. While reading the article, I feel compelled to continue reading, the way I'm compelled to keep looking at a car accident for as long as possible while I drive by it. I feel sort of poised to pounce, on high alert for phrases and claims I might be able to use as ammunition. I also feel almost overwhelming "wanting to move away from the possibility of harsh criticisms that might be true". Afterward, it's like there's a movie playing on repeat in my head, containing bits and pieces of the article, anger directed at Person, counterarguments, and fantasies of publicly stomping on them intellectually while everyone else cheers. I probably don't actually write anything (or at least I don't recall ever having done so), but the thoughts themselves feel totally out of my control. There's definitely an absence of awareness of that fact as well, but that's just a retrospective observation about the memories, of course, not a particular thing I felt at the time.

And here's an experience of defensiveness from last night: Late at night I started talking about a thing with Eliezer. He told me that there's a pattern he'd like to break, where I keep waiting until he's much too sleepy to think clearly before I try to talk to him about anything interesting. I started trying to explain why I think it sort of makes sense for that to happen, emphasizing things more under his control than mine, like "whenever you're not tired, you're usually either working or reading, and I don't want to interrupt you at those times". As I was talking, I noticed that I'd been feeling the following sensations: "wanting to hide inside myself for safety", "holding onto something", "fear of losing something", "needing to protect something", "not having a very clear view of what was happening in my mind". I stopped explaining why it made sense for me to end up talking to him late at night, and became curious about what I was afraid of, what I was holding onto, and reasoned that there's probably something I cherish that part of me believes I can only get by talking to Eliezer late at night. The thing I wanted to protect was probably the cherished thing, and being slightly aggressive - convincing him that the things he wants lead to me talking to him late at night, suggesting that he'd have to give up things he wants if he forced me to stop talking to him late at night - served to reduce the risk that I'd lose my grasp on the cherished thing. I offered this hypothesis to my brain with an interrogative tag, and it responded with emotional sensations of "correctness" and "mild relief/security at having been understood". I mostly paused the conversation since he didn't want to talk late at night, but a fantasy version of the conversation continued in my head, and the topic changed to "what exactly do I think I can get only from talking to him late at night, and are there actually ways to get that elsewhere?" This was accompanied by a mild feeling of frustration and maybe indignation that I couldn't have the fantasy conversation out loud at that moment. The fantasy conversation felt deliberate, not obsessive, and it was easy to let go of when I decided to do that.

Tortoise Report 4: Verbal Processing

What's a "Tortoise Report"? See the Tortoise Skills page.

Habit: Verbal Processing

Duration: 1 Week

Success: 2/10

Trigger: Distress or loss of concentration when hearing more than one verbal stream at once, or when reading while people are talking nearby or music with lyrics is playing

Action: Reflective attention (didn't get any farther than that)

Result: I’m much more likely to invite conversation partners away from larger groups, and to immediately put in earbuds playing rain when trying to read or write while hearing music with lyrics. (Previously I’d waste time and attention attempting to focus despite distraction.)

This continues to not look like low-hanging fruit. It’s important and I hope to make progress on it eventually, but there are more important things right now.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Walking Meditation

There is a road stretching from here to a future I imagine.

In that future, there are experts of domain-general reasoning, of prediction, and of cognitive boot-strapping toward accuracy and effectiveness. Many of them have explicit knowledge of how to masterfully wield human intelligence, in the way a present-day fencing instructor knows how to wield a foil. The children there can become such masters in a single lifetime (though to be fair, a single lifetime is probably a lot more than 80 years).

What do you think the bricks on that road are made of?

These bubbles represent possible bricks you yourself could lay on the road to the future I imagine - things that might carry you toward it. What happens when you arrange them in order from the smallest, least important brick to the largest, most important brick?

What are the implications of the fact that you have an answer to that question, even if you're not very confident in your answer?

What is the largest brick you could lay right now?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Effective Rest Days

Today is my day off.

I’ve been really good at days off recently. I used to be terrible at them. I used to not have much of a strategy, and I'd basically end up forcing myself to stay put and not do anything strenuous or work-like. I often ended up feeling sort of depressed, and the next day I wasn't at all ready to work.

On my most recent day off, I climbed a mountain, ran several miles, and got some chores done. I felt excellent and ready to work hard the next day.

Here's how my new strategy has played out so far today.

When I woke up this morning, I thought I should have breakfast, and that I should treat myself to something extra tasty and extravagant, like bacon and a fancy omelet, or perhaps a souffle.

I snapped my fingers. That, I realized, had been one of my flags: an image of how my day off should be, according some stereotype of a “day off”. I asked myself, “What do I actually want, right now?” posing the question as an invitation, a desire-shaped door held open for any nearby desires that might like to wader in. Does “bacon and souffle” fit through that door? No, actually. That’s not a desire-shaped thought. It's a day-off-shaped thought.

On days off, [if I feel like I'm playing out the role of a character taking a day off] --> [then I ask myself what I actually want right now.]

My gaze happened across a box of cookies-and-cream protein bars, and a new image sprang to consciousness: a heated protein bar sitting on a plate beside a glass of milk and some Soylent. I felt warm and happy thinking about it, and it went right through the desire-shaped door I’d created. I snapped my fingers, recognizing another flag - a sensation of desire - and then hesitated, mildly confused.

2: “Really? A protein bar and Soylent?”

1: “Yes. And milk.”

2: “That sounds like the kind of breakfast we’d have if we were clumsily motivated by body image. Are we sure we wouldn’t rather have bacon? Even if we could push a button to summon it instead of having to cook? Even if it had no effect at all on our body, besides giving us energy and satiating hunger?”

1: “summons an image of biting into a warm, gooey cookies-and-cream protein bar Yes, definitely.

2: “Well, ok then. We genuinely want this right now, and it doesn't cost anything. We’ll have that.”

On days off, [if I feel a sensation of desire] --> [then I check whether I genuinely want it right now, and if so I give it to myself, provided it costs less than ten bucks].

Later, I was walking down the street toward a coffee shop I like, when I felt another flagged sensation: the cognitive aftertaste of a recently suppressed desire. I stopped, snapped my fingers, and invited desires from recent memory to present themselves. Nothing was forthcoming. I looked around, hoping to jog my memory, and quickly locked onto a men’s clothing store on the corner.

2: “What? Why would we want to go in there?”

1: “We're curious.”

2: “Oh right, we’ve been curious every time we’ve passed here for like a year and a half, haven’t we.”

1: “Yep. Let’s go.”

2: “But we can tell from here that it won’t have anything we want to buy. It’s mostly blue jeans and flannel button-downs.”

1: “You say that every time, but we’re still curious.”

2: “Hm, yeah, that's strange. What are we curious about?”

1: “We want to see what it looks like, know how big the inside is, touch all the furry coats on that rack outside.”

2: “Oh. I guess whether we’ll buy anything is completely irrelevant then. That was a silly reason to suppress a desire.”

1: “Yep. Let’s go.”

2: “Ok.”

On days off, [if I notice I've suppressed a desire] --> [then I excavate that desire for further examination].

My plan when I got to the coffee shop was to read fiction. The thought of reading fiction at the coffee shop was what caused me to leave the house in the first place, and I looked forward to it the whole way here. Reading more fiction is something I’d like to do, and rest days are good times for that. But as soon as I sat down in this chair and started reading, I felt a desire to write. Specifically, I desired to write about this recent change in my approach to rest days that has so greatly increased their value.

2: “But we told all those past time-slices we’d get to read fiction when we got to the coffee shop.”

1: “But we are here now, and we want to write, not read.”

2: “Yeah but, what about reflective cooperation across the intertemporal coalition? Our past selves had our future wellbeing in mind when they desired that we read. They thought we needed to spend more time reading fiction, and we agree with them. They’d be disappointed to hear their decision was overpowered by an unreflective impulse,

(translation: summons image of trying to stick to a diet, yet succumbing to the immediate temptation to have a cookie every time a cookie desire happens)

which would damage the power of our future selves’ intentions to motivate our actions

(translation: summons image of a future self deciding to try a new diet, while the memory of all the past times with the cookies plays through their head and reduces their confidence in the intertemporal coalition’s ability to stick to diets).

That’s most of what ‘being responsible’ means to us.”

1: “Oh, I see. But you’ve forgotten something: The intertemporal coalition, including the recent past time-slices of which you speak, has consented to privilege my needs. Remember why?"

2: “Yes. We have a bias toward privileging the desires of certain other people and our future selves. It leads to fatigue when not occasionally counter-balanced. Privileging our own current selves is a necessary condition for successfully recharging on a rest day. That’s what ‘taking a day off’ means to us. All of our time-slices since February have been clear on that. Sorry, my mistake.”

1: “It’s ok. We also forgot to snap our fingers when we felt the sensation of ‘feeling like the responsible thing is to override an impulse’.”

2: “Indeed. snaps fingers Ok, let’s write.”

On days off, [if I feel like the responsible thing is to override an impulse] --> [then I'll remember why I've chosen to privilege the desires of my present self today.]

It's not the case that I recharge best by "not doing work" and "physically resting". The part of me that needs rest is neither my body nor my concentration. The part that needs rest is the part of me that manages my impulses to makes sure the people around me and my future selves get what they need.

This is not surprising in retrospect, given I spend all the rest of my time in a service role.

So my new strategy for effective rest days is all about attention to a few key sensations that indicate it might be time to put my own present needs first, despite my instincts:

  • desire
  • noticing I've suppressed a desire
  • playing the role of a character taking a day off
  • being responsible by overriding an impulse

If you're not getting much out of your days off and also happen to be in a service role (like nursing, teaching, or leading an organization), maybe this approach could help you, too.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Training CTAPS, Part 2

Kevin helps us train an epistemic CTAP for responding to fearful doubt.

Training CTAPS, Part 1

My imaginary friend Kevin helps us learn attention techniques that improve our ability to notice things.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

CTAPs and The Miracle Question

I've so far talked a lot about the "trigger" part of trigger-action planning (which I've often called "noticing"). Here's a tip that can help identify not just the correct trigger, but also the correct action.

“Tomorrow, you wake up to find that the thought pattern you want has miraculously established itself. What’s the very first thing you notice that’s different?”

This is called “The Miracle Question”.

The habit of thought I’m currently working on is defensiveness. At this point, all I’ve got is a trigger I’m part way through refining. I’ve studied my default pattern of thought and feeling, the one that’s causing me problems. But I don’t have any idea what to do about it yet, so this is a great time to ask The Miracle Question.

I ask myself this question via simulation, not conceptualization. I don’t just think the words or activate the abstract concepts in my mind. Rather, I pose the question by vividly imagining the experiences of a version of myself who miraculously wakes up possessing the skill I want (even if I'm not quite sure what the skill is yet).

Playing through that movie in my mind, what is the first thing to tip me off that I must be imagining her instead of me?

Ok, so I wake up. Then what? I roll over, open my eyes. I grab my phone, push the on button, and see some Facebook updates. I click through and start to read a comment where someone has criticized my idea - and this is where I feel surprise. Reading the comment, I’m still feeling just about as pleasantly languid as I was before, modulo the added focus needed to understand the comment. I feel the difference while imagining this, because ordinarily I'd respond to this situation with some sort of stress.

So what have I gained from this exercise?

I now have a concrete image of the world I hope to steer myself toward, on the scale of moment-to-moment experiences. Before, I just had a thought like "I want to spend less time being defensive." That's different from knowing in precise, concrete detail what it would look like to spend less time being defensive. I don’t know how to get to that other world yet, but I know precisely what gap I'll need to bridge: The specific change I’m after is one that will allow me to read a Facebook criticism when I’ve just woken up while feeling calm engagement.

My search for correct actions is now constrained to things that would plausibly cause that outcome - that would transport me into The Miracle World. Any potential action that would fail to bridge at least part of the gap between here and there is a step in the wrong direction.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Primitive Introspection

[Epistemic status: This is my working model. I think something like this is probably happening irl. Some of my details of neurology, anatomy, and evolutionary biology are probably wrong. I'd be only slightly surprised if I converted from HOPs theory to some sort of HOTs theory in the next year, but I don't think that would have strong practical implications.]


Trigger-action plans exist on a spectrum. Over on the left, you have TAPs like "If I enter my house through my front door, I'll put my keys in the box on the side table." On the right you have TAPs like "If I'm confused, I'll stop and compare what I expected to happen to what happened instead."

keys <-----------------> confusion

Roughly speaking, the stuff on the left is physical, and the stuff on the right is cognitive.

The stuff on the right seems to be harder. Why is that? This post is about my attempt to answer that question.

How do you know when you've just opened your front door? You saw the door in front of you, felt the knob turn in your hand, heard a creaking sound as it opened, and now you see a hole where the door used to be.

How do you know when you've just felt confusion? In my case, I'd know because I'd have noticed feeling a sudden burst of surprise followed by a lack of resolution that's now developed into a hanging that's-not-rightness.

But I know that because I spent a long time studying my own reactions to confusing situations. I attended strategically to confusion. If you asked me five years ago how I know when I'm confused, I might have said, "Well, I just... know, you know?"

And if you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have been wrong. The truth would have been, "I usually don't know when I'm confused."


I think of human introspection as analogous to the parietal eyes of lizards. Lizards (and some other animals) have a light sensor atop their heads that can't detect anything more specific than the presence or absence of light.

If you took away a lizard's true eyes and left it with just the primitive third eye, it would have something almost but not quite entirely unlike vision. It could distinguish night from day, but certainly not knights from daisies. In other words, it would be about as blind as its distant ancestors who had just begun to develop sight. Lizard-relevant parts of the world would be way more complicated than its vision could handle.

My best guess about why introspection is harder than outrospection is this: We're in an awkward evolutionary stage where the human-relevant goings-on inside our brains are way more complicated than our shiny new prefrontal cortices can handle.

We have an organ that lets us perceive high-order cognitive algorithms like "my inferences from what my model of Karen's brain predicts I will say", or "the thing happening in my auditory cortex when I hear E above middle C".* But we still have the primitive version of the organ. We've not yet evolved true introspection. So we can perceive our thoughts and feelings, maybe for the first time in evolutionary history, but our perception tends to be vague, fuzzy, and weak. Night and day, not knights and daisies.


But there's a funny thing about perception of cognitive algorithms.

Imagine you're playing Where's Waldo...

...but instead of carefully scanning through the chaos, you can turn everything without red stripes into a perfectly blank white background. Suddenly, the game wouldn't push your visual processing to its limits. Finding Waldo would be easy.

You can't change a physical image just by thinking about it - but you can change your cognitive algorithms by thinking. That's what thinking is.

So introspection is hard because our PFC is primitive, but there are still things we can do to make it easier. If I want to train a thoroughly cognitive trigger-action plan, my strategy should make it as easy as possible on my primitive PFC.

The art of streamlining thought for successful perception seems to consist of strategic use of attention, as far as I can tell. Attending in ways that make the most of a human PFC will be the subject of an upcoming post.

*Considering introspection to be a "sense" is a minority position among philosophers of mind (I think?). I recommend the SEP article on higher-order consciousness theories if you're curious about other perspectives.

Cognitive Trigger-Action Planning For Epistemic Rationality

I suspect that the overwhelming majority of good epistemic practice is best thought of as cognitive trigger-action plans to customize and internalize.

[If I'm afraid of a proposition] → [then I'll visualize how the world would be and what I would actually do if the proposition were true.]
[If everything seems to hang on a particular word] → [then I'll taboo that word and its synonyms.]
[If I flinch away from a thought at the edge of peripheral awareness] → [then I'll focus my attention directly on that thought.]

Before looking back through some of the Lesswrong Sequences, I installed the trigger-action plan "[If I notice that something I read feels important] --> [then I'll ask myself, "In what real-life situations is it important?" and design a trigger-action plan to impliment the insight.]" Sometimes I fail to identify a correct action, but I at least come up with some hypothesis for what the right trigger would be, so I can study my own experience of relevant situations.

(When I train a trigger well, I often find I'm done, anyway.)

You can gain a lot of abstract insights by reading, which can re-orient your mind and shift your whole approach to the world. You can learn some great hacks for problem solving by taking the right classes and workshops. But when it comes to advancing your own art in the ongoing context of daily life, CTAPs is the name of the game. It is the way to change your default responses to sensations of thought and emotion.

[If something feels key to advancing your art as a rationalist] → [stop, drop, and trigger-action plan.]

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Why Mere Noticing Solves So Much

I was at first astonished by how often my pesky cognitive mistakes were solved by nothing but skillful use of attention. Now I sort of see what's going on, and it feels less odd.

What happens to your bad habit of motivated stopping when you train consistent reflective attention to "motivated stopping"? The motivation dissolves under scrutiny.

What happens to your disputes over definitions when you train consistent attention to having lost sight of what you really disagree about? You gain sight of what you really disagree about.

What happens to your neglect of base rates when you train consistent reflective attention to the sensations of base rate neglect? You start thinking about base rates at the times when you need to most.

If you recognize something as a mistake, part of you probably has at least some idea of what to do instead. Indeed, anything besides ignoring the mistake is often a good thing to do instead. So merely noticing when you're going wrong can be over half the battle.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Art Of Noticing

There's a super short distilled version of my method for training cognitive habits, and I call it "The Art Of Noticing".

Skills I have so far trained using Noticing, with very little reliance on any other technique, include empathy, not trudging uselessly ahead when I'm trying to learn something but have gotten lost, and anti-"guessing the teacher's password".

The Art Of Noticing goes like this:

  1. Answer the question, "What's my first possible clue that I'm about to encounter the problem?" If your problem is "I don't respond productively to being confused," then the first sign a crucial moment is coming might be "a fleeting twinge of surprise". Whatever that feels like in real time from the inside of your mind, that's your trigger.

  2. Whenever you notice your trigger, make a precise physical gesture. Snap your fingers, tap your foot, touch your pinky finger with your thumb - whatever feels comfortable. Do it every time you notice that fleeting twinge of surprise.

Noticing is not the end of the story. But I am astonished by how much of the story it appears to be. In many situations, merely Noticing is well over half the battle, and what's left automatically works itself out on the fly.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Against Being For Or Against Tell Culture

Ever since I posted about Tell Culture a year ago, people have been debating whether direct or indirect communication is better.

(One day I will learn to frame my important points in a way that is controversial enough to popularize them.)

I find this frustrating.

The concept of "communication cultures" is a kind of cognitive first aid. It's better to have tourniquettes than to not have tourniquettes, because otherwise people bleed to death. But there's a lot more to medicine than first aid, and a tourniquette will never reattach a severed arm.

What kind of cognitive first aid is "communication cultures"? What does it prevent people from dying of before they make it to the hospital?

Harmful misunderstandings can happen when people from one communication culture interact with people from another communication culture without recognizing that the other group employs different assumptions, and relies on a different skillset. That's the thing knowing about "communication cultures" saves you from.

But that's first aid, no more or less. If "Tell Culture vs. Guess Culture" is all you know about communication and you want to communicate effectively, you're alive, but you're a long damn way from "healthy".

There are skills, techniques, and insights you have to gain before you can communicate well, in a way that satisfies the values of everyone involved.

To master communication, you can't just be like, "I prefer Tell Culture, which is better than Guess Culture, so my disabilities in Guess Culture are therefore justified." Justified shmustified, you're still missing an arm.

To reattach a limb, you need lots of medical knowledge and advanced surgical skills. To master communication, you have to actually learn things that empower you to communicate.

My advice to you - my request of you, even - if you find yourself fueling these debates, is to (for the love of god) move on. If you've already applied cognitive first aid, you've created an affordance for further advancement. Using even more tourniquettes doesn't help.

A better use of your resources would be identifying what you most want to do with communication, and what factors are most important for accomplishing that. What is the next thing you need to learn in order to get what you want out of communication? What is the most important problem in the art of communication, and what can you do to solve it?

If you're comfortable with direct communication, it may be that what you need most right now is one of the central Guess Techniques. Basic empathy, maybe. Go talk to someone who thrives in Guess Culture, and instead of picking a fight, try to learn something.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Tortoise Report 3: Empathy

What's a "Tortoise Report"? See the Tortoise Skills page.

Habit: Empathy

Duration: 2 Months

Success: 9/10

Trigger: Curiosity directed at another person

Action: Pushing the curiosity through their external presentation to penetrate their internal experience

Result: I enjoy socializing with people I like. (!!!) I'm giving this 9/10 because of how surprising and useful the success is, not because I feel like I've almost mastered the skill.

ETA 6/30/15: I went to a party last night where I saw someone who hadn't interacted with me in person for a year. He said I seemed a lot different socially, and in particular he described me as "warm". That's definitely a first.

ETA 2/18/2016: I retained the ability to empathize deliberately, but as my motivation to practice a new skill simply because it was new skill faded, I exercised that ability less and less frequently. By November I was back to avoiding socialization completely. In the past month, I've gained a supporting skill (or property or something) that makes me feel motivated to empathize pretty much all the time: I've gained human connection as a terminal value. I feel motivated to understand people merely because I want to understand them. It feels like a direct urge, not a deliberately calculated tactic. As a result, it's pretty easy to initiate and maintain empathy. I'll write more about this later, but it seemed important to note that a second piece was needed.

A dialogue, in which I teach this skill to myself from a year ago.

In addition to being a Tortoise Report, this is an experiment in gaining pedagogical content knowledge by imagining the most efficient way to bestow a skill I now possess on my pre-skilled self.

Potentially Interesting Person: No, I'm in the Bay Area now. I'm working through Code Academy. Been volunteering for CFAR and sleeping on Tilia's couch.

Me: thinks: Ugh, why am I at this party. I hate this hate this hate this. How do other people enjoy socializing???

Me: So you're planning to Earn To Give?

PIP: Yeah, that's the plan.

Me: Cool.

PIP: What about you? I follow you on Facebook but like I don't know what you actually do with most of your time.

Me: Suppresses a sigh. Oh, this and that. I do some stuff for CFAR myself, and I just got back from giving a series of mnemonics workshops in the Midwest.

PIP: Right, I remember you posting about that! How'd those go?

PIP freezes in the middle of a hand gesture. The party around us goes quiet. Standing beside PIP is another version of me, slightly plumper and with longer hair.

Future Me: Hi! I'm you from a year in the future, and I'm going to teach you about empathy.

Me: "Empathy?" That sounds boring.

Future Me: It isn't.

Everything plays backward briefly.

PIP: Right, I remember you posting about that! How'd those go?

Me: The first one went exceedingly well. I was shocked, actually. The second one was so-so, though people seemed pretty happy with it.

PIP: Cool! What did you teach?


Future Me: How are you feeling right now?

Me: Trapped, bored, tired, like I'm wasting my time. I'd rather be at home reading. Why do I even go to these parties?

Future Me: If I recall correctly, you think that since you no longer have social anxiety, you should be participating in socialization like ordinary humans.

Me: That does sound sort of silly doesn't it. Just because I'm not terrified doesn't mean I'm actually benefiting from this. Maybe I should just stop going to parties.

Future Me: That might be wise. But what do you think would happen if you declined literally every invitation to any kind of socialization, even coffee, that you expected would make you feel bored and tired?

Me: ...Well then I guess I just wouldn't interact in person with anybody but Eliezer.

Future Me: Indeed. Why do you think you feel this way in social interactions so frequently?

Me: looking a bit sad and helpless I guess I probably just... don't like people. I mean, I know I like People, as an abstract category, at least sometimes. My whole life is about making sure People continue to exist for a very long time. But whatever it is that makes other people enjoy in-person socialization, I just don't have it.

Future Me: You think that you never care about individual people in physical proximity, that you're not a compassionate person, right? Like you have some long-range compassion, or at least long-range aesthetic appreciation for humanity, but no short-range compassion, no empathy.

Me: That sounds about right, yeah.

Future Me: So first of all, I want to point out a problem with your conception of self.

Me: I don't really have much of one of those anymore. I mean I know I used to, I used to have a solid story about who I was and I didn't think the central features of it could change much. Now I think my properties are fluid and dynamic.

Future Me: Yes, that's much better than before. But you say that your properties are "fluid and dynamic". I know you think you're bad at visualization, but you don't realize yet how much skill you've gained in that area recently. Use the same mental motion you'd use to solidify an association, and tell me how you visualize your properties being fluid and dynamic.

Me: Hm. I'm seeing this picture of the inside of my head, and it's full of cloud puddles of different colors all swirling around making whooshing sounds When I learn something, a new one flows in through my skull, and sometimes one of them leaves.

Future Me: So when mnemonics gave you the ability to visualize like that, a new skill flowed into your head and you became "someone who can visualize things".

Me: Sure.

Future Me: Doesn't that sound awfully essentialist to you?

Me: ...No?

Future Me: No?

Me: Well I'm just a collection of abilities and aversions and goals and a bunch of other things, and things in that mix can change at any time. If I were essentialist, I'd think I had a single solid soul-like thing that was Who I Really Am, and I think that's bullshit.

Future Me: I see. What I meant is that you're an essentialist about personality characteristics, not about personalities.

Me: Huh. Ok, I'm listening.

Future Me: Imagine yourself as an algorithm in a neural network. (Have you read those parts of the Sequences yet? I think you probably have.) Can you picture that?

Me: Sure. There's a series of orange marble-like nodes with lots of wispy connections to other nodes. I use this image a lot. I am a brain, after all.

Future Me: Oh right, you're all about "association networks" for mnemonics. I never realized that's where this understanding came from. Ok, so tell me about association networks. What happens when you think of a "horse"?

Me: A group of nodes representing "horse" fires, and the things that are highly connected to the "horse" cluster are likely to fire. Strongly connected ones, such as "hung like a horse", are more likely to fire than weakly connected ones, such as "horseradish".

Future Me: Suppose your ability to do the Shim Sham dance steps is a result of having strengthened the right series of connections in your association network.

Me: startled pause of realization I've been thinking of "associations" as limited to "experiences".

Future Me: But experiences affect behavior, don't they. And most of the things that happen in your brain don't make it to the conscious level. Your association network is firing all the time -

Me: And when I do the Shim Sham, I don't have to think about it anymore because I've strengthened the connections through repetition so thoroughly that the right series of nodes fires in the right order without my attention ever focusing on that process. The only thing that makes it to my attention is a feeling of effortlessness and satisfaction as I move.

Future Me: I'll give you a minute to process the implications.


Me: That's what a skill looks like in a neural network isn't it.

Future Me: Uh huh.

Me: And not just a physical skill whose output is movement. Mental skills are the same way. They just output further cognitive processes instead.

Future Me: Yep.

Me: This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with my boring conversation with PIP and my relationship with empathy?

Future Me: Empathy is a collection of skills.

Me: You're going to have to spell it out more than that.

Future Me: Highly empathetic people have developed very strong pathways through their minds that input certain social experiences and output certain emotions. Or perhaps they were born with brains organized like that. Contrast this to your "swirling soup of personality traits" model.

Me: Your version involves a manipulable causal mechanism. It suggests I can identify and strengthen key associations and end up with new patterns of thought and behavior without gaining "empathy" all at once as an essential personality trait. Just like when I memorize stuff.

Future Me: You can indeed. Let me tell you an interesting fact about my current self. In the past week, I've had three one-on-one conversations. They happened on different days. Two of them were with people you've tried and failed to interact with productively before. All of them were over an hour long, and one lasted an entire afternoon. I agreed to these meetings because they seemed like fun. In the moment, they were fun. At no point did I feel any of the things you're currently feeling toward PIP. No boredom, no exhaustion, no trapped feelings, no annoyance, no wishing I were somewhere else. Instead I mostly felt a wide range of positive emotions. That thing that causes other people to want to interact with each other on purpose? There's a very good chance I felt that.

Me: That's... astonishing. It's hard to believe that happened to me. I honestly cannot imagine what that might have been like.

Future Me: Haha, you can, actually. You just don't have a lot of practice imagining being other people from the inside. Even future versions of yourself.

Me: And you say this startling change is caused by strengthening neural pathways comprising empathy?

Future Me: Yep.

Me: How? I'm not seeing that.

The sound of the party returns, and everything plays backward again for a moment.

PIP: Cool! What did you teach?

Me: I taught people how to deliberately strengthen associations between ideas. If you want to remember "pen" and "orange juice", you explain to System 1 that pens and orange juice have a relationship it considers extremely important.

PIP: You mean like a funny story involving a pen and some orange juice?

Me: That would work. "Funny" and "story" are both things System 1 pays attention to. There are a lot of other things it pays attention to as well, like hedonic rewards, rhyme and rhythm, and strong emotions of almost any kind. Primed with the techniques "funny" and "story", I'm currently imagining a puddle of orange juice and a pen trying to walk to the store together. Though the pen's just hopping right along, the orange juice is struggling to keep up because every time it manages to gather itself into a solid shape, it collapses back onto the pavement with wet squishy sounds. The pen is exasperated by this inefficiency and is trying to drag the orange juice along, but there's not really anything to hold on to and it doesn't like the smell of oranges. The orange juice feels guilty that it can't keep up with the pen. And then... well, stuff like that.

PIP: laughing I'm definitely going to remember "orange juice" and "pen" now! I don't know why I'd want to but I bet if you see me in a year and ask me what goes with "orange juice" I will know.

Everything freezes again.

Future Me: I would like to point out that you just experienced your model of the puddle of orange juice so vividly that you became uncomfortable and ended the story.

Me: ...Maaaaybe.

Future Me: You totally did. I was there. You felt it struggling to pull itself together and you felt a whole complex bundle of unpleasant emotions when the pen started yelling at it.

Me: Yeah ok fine.

Future Me: How do you think PIP is feeling right now?

Me: Um, I'm not sure. I hadn't considered it.

Future Me: Yeah I know. That's ok. Consider it.

Me: I guess maybe he's feeling sort of happy, and probably nervous to be talking to me.

Future Me: Whatever you did to generate that answer, did the process involve feeling any of those emotions? Or even simulating them as more than abstract ideas?

Me: I... don't think so. They just seem like the most likely things given the context and his body language and so on.

Future Me: Correct me if I'm wrong. (I'm not.) You pretty much see everybody as mindless walking bags of meat.

Me: Well no I don't actually think that -

Future Me: I know you don't think it. What you explicitly think is that their internal experiences are as rich and interesting as your own. But your models of them are not nearly as rich in emotion or sensory experience as your model of the orange juice or the pen.

Me: That makes me sound like a terrible person. Not that it's inaccurate.

Future Me: Whether you're a terrible person is irrelevant. You're thinking in essentialist terms about personality traits again. Tell me what is fun about walking bags of meat.

Me: Nothing. Bags of meat are boring.

Future Me: That they are. System 1 does not find walking bags of meat the least bit important.

Me: You're saying that if I could use the same processes to model conversation partners that I use to model orange juice, then people would suddenly feel a lot more interesting.

Future Me: It seems to be working pretty damn well for me so far.

Me: I see. I'm... not sure I know how to do that.

Future Me: I'm sure you don't. It'll take about two months of practice.

Me: jawfloor Two months is not a long time.

Future Me: Well you'll have developed the method first, and that part will take a lot longer. But since this is a fictional reenactment of something that never happened, I'm going to cheat and get you started right now. The first step is curiosity.

Me: That seems to be the case for an awful lot of things.

Future Me: Verily. I'm still not quite sure what that's about, but I'm pretty sure it's important. Anyway, you don't know it yet, but you spend a fair amount of time being curious about people.

Me: If I don't know it, how do you?

Future Me: The next thing you need to learn is how to identify high-leverage intervention points in your default cognitive patterns. Places in a string of firings where you can intervene to strengthen one crucial connection over another. I identified "curiosity about other people" as a high-leverage intervention point, and started paying attention to sensations of curiosity about other people.

Me: How can you pay attention to something that's below the level of conscious awareness?

Future Me: You can't. But you can build bridges that draw it up toward conscious awareness. For example, close your eyes, and tell me the color of the paint on the walls.

Me: I'm... not sure. Blue maybe?

Future Me: Now open your eyes and look around.

Me: They're pink. I definitely saw them but their color failed to register. Your point is that... No, I'm not quite sure what your point is.

Future Me: My point is that if I hadn't said anything, you'd have gone through the whole party seeing the color of the walls and not being aware of it. But I prompted you to search for your experience of the color of the walls in future consciousness. I flagged that experience as important, and flagging things as important, as something to watch for, does two things. I'm not quite sure how it does them. But it both leads your attention to the experiences you're searching for, and it probably causes you to have more of them (you'll spend more time looking at the walls when you're trying to find out what color they are).

Me: I can become aware of things that usually remain beneath the level of conscious awareness just by paying attention to them.

Future Me: Exactly. And you've just dismissed a thought about observation bias because you know it's not actually relevant. Good job. Now look around the room at all of these people, and when you notice anything even vaguely like a feeling of curiosity about any of them, tap your fingers together.

Me: Looks around. Sees someone who looks familiar. Taps fingers.

Future Me: What happened right before you tapped your fingers?

Me: I wondered whether I'd seen that girl over there in person before, or if she'd just commented on my Facebook wall at some point. But I think I only wondered it because you primed me to be curious about people.

Future Me: That will often be the case: You'll only notice the thing you're watching for when you're explicitly thinking about the fact that you're watching for it. You might only do the thing you're watching for because you're thinking about it. That's ok. It still strengthens the relevant pathways. Surprisingly quickly, in my experience. Empathy took a comparatively long time. Other cognitive habits I've learned by this method took a couple weeks or even days.

Me: So I just... tap my fingers whenever I'm curious about somebody?

Future Me: Yep. For now. I started with trying to tap my fingers whenever I noticed that I was experiencing empathy, but this turned out to be a prerequisite. You'll eventually realize that you've been trying to answer your curiosity about people by making System 2 inferences about their external appearance and behaviors, and that you get a lot farther a lot faster if you activate System 1 the way you do while making mnemonic associations and then just let it do the thing it evolved to do.

Me: Wouldn't that give me a lot of wrong answers? I mean, people are complicated. If I project a bunch of rich experiences into their heads I'm going to be mostly wrong most of the time.

Future Me: Yes, but you're not going to forget that while you're doing it. Also it's not exactly the same as "projecting a lot of rich experiences". There are extremely important sensations of "possibility" and "uncertainty". You'll see. And you're also going to be able to update your models way more quickly.

Me: looks incredulous

Future Me: That shouldn't surprise you; you'll be sticking your neck out and making riskier predictions. Furthermore, you really did evolve to model the minds of other humans accurately enough to predict incredibly complex behaviors. Those instinctive tools are a hell of a lot more powerful and accurate than you currently realize. Do you remember the second time you took Val's Againstness class, the one where you didn't have social anxiety?

Me: Yeah, that was super weird. He had somebody stand in front of the group and asked them to do something uncomfortable, like sing "happy birthday", while relaxing. Then he just watched them and told them all about their internal experiences based on ridiculously subtle external cues of anxiety or concern or whatever. And I predicted everything he said before he said it.

Future Me: Yep. You were doing the thing. You let System 1 be in charge of modeling the other person.

Me: Why do you think I was able to do that?

Future Me: Probably you were hypnotized.

Me: Heh, well Val was in the room, so yeah probably.

Future Me: Anyway, do the curiosity thing first. Tap your fingers when you're curious about other people. I'll get back to you.

sounds start again

PIP: laughing I'm definitely going to remember "orange juice" and "pen" now! I don't know why I'd want to but I bet if you see me in a year and ask me what goes with "orange juice" I will know.

Me: It's not unlikely. It depends a lot on how strong your emotional response to the story was. But I suppose - taps fingers - this is your first big party in the Bay Area right? First time meeting a bunch of people you've wanted to meet for a long time? You're probably already in a context where your emotions will solidify a lot of memories. ...Hey, snaps fingers, can I ask you something sort of personal?

PIP: Sure!

Me: What are you feeling right now?

PIP: Um... sort of nervous, excited, extremely happy, slightly drunk, worried about how you're judging me, concerned I won't display enough introspective skill in this answer to gain your respect, a few other things that aren't as obvious right now.

Me: Heh. I love it that you can answer that so transparently. Rationalists are great.

PIP: I've read some of your things about Tell Culture. I consider you one of my allies, so I want to be as transparent to you as possible.

Me: That's... really incredibly touching, actually. Thank you.

PIP: smiles

scene freezes

Me: That was... different.

Future Me: How was it different?

Me: When I noticed I was curious about him, I found that I cared more about his answer, that I paid more attention to what it meant.

Future Me: To get the next part I had to practice just this "noticing curiosity about other people" thing for a month. But if I can selectively freeze time, then I can also accelerate your learning process. Let's put your brain in a state where it's mastered noticing curiosity about people, and pick up from there.

a small popping sound

Me: Woah...

scene unfreezes

PIP: smiles

Me: taps fingers Why do you want to save the world?

PIP: That's an interesting question!

scene freezes

Future Me: Tell me what happened just before you snapped your fingers.

Me: I wondered why he wanted to save the world.

Future Me: What was it like to wonder why he wanted to save the world? What was happening in your head that you translated into the words "I wondered why he wanted to save the world"?

Me: I imagined him doing tasks for CFAR, I imagined him sitting in front of a computer coding and then donating money to FHI, I imagined him smiling while doing these things, and I felt an emotional sensation I want to call a "question mark".

Future Me: What is it like to know why I want to save the world?

Me: If you haven't changed too much, you have feelings of joy and fulfillment when you imagine tiling the universe with flourishing sentience, and you have feelings of loss and despair when you imagine none of that sentience coming to exist.

Future Me: When you thought about PIP wanting to "save the world", you had a visual simulation of his body going about world-saving tasks, and you imagined a smiling facial expression. You then thought about me wanting to "save the world". What's the crucial difference?

Me: I imagined you from the inside, and him from the outside!

Future Me: Yes.

Me: With him, it's like I'm interacting with his mechanical interface. I think that even my model of him is actually mostly of his mechanical interface. When I wonder about him, when I feel curiosity, it doesn't penetrate his exterior. taps fingers

Future Me: What was that tap for?

Me: I just wondered what it's like to be PIP from the inside. What it's like to be the thing that produces all of those behaviors and experiences all of those situations. What internal experiences motivate the activities of the mechanical interface. I wondered who is inside the machine.

Future Me: What's it like, the kind of curiosity that penetrates the exterior?

Me: The question mark sensation is there again, but I also have this almost spacial sensation where my attention is located about where his head is, and it's flipped to look out from that perspective at the world. There's a feeling of... not of specific emotions, but of something like the possibility of emotions, and the possibility of other kinds of experiences. And now I'm automatically starting to try to answer the question of what it's like to be him, and I'm filling in the "possibilities" with specific emotions and experiences, and I'm experiencing those things as I do it in just the way that I experience my memory palace when I walk around in it. It's all actually there in my head.

Future Me: Congratulations! You are empathizing.

Me: Really?

Future Me: I think so. You're doing the thing that I do when I interact with people and feel the human connection that makes interactions worth having. Call it whatever. You're imagining him as a person, instead of a walking sack of meat.

Me: It's a little bit difficult and uncomfortable.

Future Me: It takes practice. ... Though not for you, I guess.

another small popping sound

Me: ...I know Kung Fu.

Future Me: grins Show me.

Me: So you want me to start tapping my fingers when I notice I'm empathizing?

Future Me: Yep.

Me: I can do that.

Future Me: How would you feel about it if I left you alone at this party to talk to some random rationalist you've never met before?

Me: I'd... I'd like that, actually. I really want to know more about him. More about what's inside his head, I mean. It would be fun to try to learn. looks around I'd probably like to talk with any of these people, really.

Future Me: That's what I thought. I'll leave you to it then.

scene unfreezes