A Simple Ethics Model

Hi! This is probably the last post of mine you’ll read on WordPress, I’m halfway done moving this blog over to a personal site. Subscriptions should transfer over cleanly. 

Disclaimer #1: I am probably reinventing the wheel. However, reinventing the wheel is good. 

Disclaimer #2: This post probably fundamentally misunderstands non-consequentialists. 

I’ve been thinking about normative ethics lately. There are three major schools. Consequentialism, deontology (“rule-based morality”), and virtue ethics. These are typically said to be in opposition, but I think it’s simple for consequentialism to subsume the other two. Let me know if you find this framework helpful, or if it’s missing something important.

Consequences

Consequentialism at its simplest looks like this: perform the action that achieves the best consequences. 

Unfortunately, predicting consequences is really hard. It’s even harder to predict nth-order consequences. We often default to only considering immediate consequences because they’re easier to calculate and predict. However, long-term consequences are typically much more important. Thus, approaching decisions as though we can calculate the best consequences will often lead to worse decisions. 

Not only that, we have complicated values we attempt to satisfy. While calculating is great when values are relatively simply (QALYs), it’s often infeasible within our common constraints (especially time: “Do you want this job or not?”)

So even though we’re consequentialists, it’s hard to function consequentially. This isn’t a blow to consequentialism though, it’s a sign that our model of human decision-making is missing something.

Rules

The alternative to brute calculation is the use of rules or heuristics. Not eating meat is simpler (meaning: easier, faster, and cheaper) than calculating the negative utility of each meal and finding the equilibrium between personal pleasure and animal suffering. 

Rules also have the benefit of counteracting biases and poor calculation capability. For example, people make worse decisions while drunk. Having a rule like “I never drive drunk” routes around the risk of calculating utility badly. 

When time and processing power permit, calculations allow for superior decisions. When they don’t permit, rules allow for superior decisions. 

Virtues

Where do virtue ethics come in? Consider virtues like courage, humility, and temperance. These are habits of action. They’re important for three reasons:

  1. The decision-making machine in your head, the one that calculates or checks rules, only delivers knowledge of your preferred action. Whether it’s delivered quickly or slowly, it’s still only knowledge. Execution remains. Execution can be hampered by outside factors like fatigue, resentment, or fear. Virtues are those habits that allow us to execute ethical decision-making in spite of those factors. 
  1. We think about rules when we don’t have minutes to calculate. But sometimes we don’t even have seconds to think about rules. Our habits kick in before we have time to access our decision-making. A virtue is whatever habit lends itself to better responses–this includes things like reacting instantly to cruelty (before timidity can set in) or reacting humbly to praise (before scheming can set in). 
  1. Even thinking to apply rules or to calculate is a habit. It takes wisdom to think

Usage

The ethical process is two-fold:

  1. Develop toward superior values
  2. Act toward achieving those values

I think that using this framework helps me with #2 in a few ways. 

Firstly, by categorizing different approaches, it helps me choose between rules and calculations. Sometimes I apply rules when I could be calculating (to better ends). Keeping in mind that calculations are sometimes an option will improve my decision-making. I think this is a far more common failure mode than the alternative, choosing to calculate when heuristics would be superior. 

Secondly, it helps me figure out the point of virtue. Why should those of us who want to do the most good we can do think about virtue? Because there will be moments in our lives when we can do significant good and it will come down to habits instead of careful decisions. 

Thirdly, in the past I’ve gotten hung up on how to achieve my values. Should I just focus on being a good person? Should I follow good heuristics? Should I always do what seems to have the best consequences? In practice, I, like everybody, use all three methods, and have worried that this means I’m being inconsistent (which I’m sure I am in other ways!). It doesn’t though. They’re just different components of the same ethical machine. 

let’s go 2020 woooo

This year sucked! 

Programming

However, I was lucky to spend most of it learning. 

The reasons are probably worth their own post at some point, suffice to say that after a lot of thought last year, I decided to become a web developer. In March I began Harvard’s CS50 course and loved it. I finished it in May and switched to the Odin Project. Around this time, I went part-time at my job. I wanted time for this and work was slow enough (and budget concerns probably big enough) that it worked for my library as well. Over the last 10 months, I’ve gone from thinking of functions as spells you could use in Excel, to rebuilding Twitter

I think this is the main highlight of the year. I’ve luckily avoided a lot of the existential problems people have had to contend with in lockdown and I suspect it’s because I’ve been focused on learning. I cannot sufficiently recommend becoming a student of something to solve problems of aimlessness.

I’m just about finished the Odin Project (wrapping up using RESTful endpoints on the back-end, testing back-ends and databases). What comes next is either a large project I’m excited for or cleaning everything up (Fake Twitter needs, at the least, email verification…), making a portfolio, and starting the job hunt. 

Challenge Trials

In what now feels like years ago, I signed up with 1Day Sooner to express interest in participating in a human challenge trial (I “pre-volunteered”). 

But it didn’t happen! Leaders and decision-makers (Adrian Hill aside) lacked the sense of urgency. I think there are still plenty of use cases right now where we would prefer a month-long challenge trial over a longer traditional trial. 1 dose or 2 doses for the mRNA vaccines? Half > Full dose or Full > Full dose for the Oxford vaccine? Do the approved vaccines protect against transmission? Questions like these are huge, would have been useful to know a month ago, would still be useful to find out a month from now, and we probably won’t learn for a while. 

My big hope is that we’ve laid the groundwork for a faster response to future pandemics. Moderna’s vaccine was created in two days in January. Once we got the dosing right, we theoretically could have done challenge trials months ago and had results much earlier. But instead of risking a hundred or so people, the authorities decided it was more ethical to let tens of thousands of people die. Omission vs commission, babyyy. 

Anyway, I did a lot of interviews! That started out surreal but became pretty comfortable. There were only a few leading questions and when quotations were fudged it wasn’t terrible. Most of the interviews were similar enough that they were great practice by repetition. 

I played a small part (whipping citations into shape) in this paper coming out, which was very cool. 

Blogging

I wrote eight posts this year on: 

  • Life advice
  • Programming
  • Challenge trials
  • Poetry
  • Smash
  • Existential risk
  • Tribalism
  • Arguments

That sums up my interests fairly well! I made inroads against my constant feeling that I have nothing useful to say–many thanks to everybody who offered kind feedback, you helped! I hope to write a lot more next year.

Thoughts

This year has left me with two changes to my worldview:

  1. A profound hatred of bureaucracy. 
  1. A heightened suspicion of how much suffering lies just outside our awareness. Covid has exposed so much existing pain we didn’t know about or chose to not know about. The loneliness, the care homes. 

Regrets

Other than blogging, I’m not happy with the amount of writing I did. Poetry dried up, fiction didn’t happen. These will be a priority next year. 

I spent a lot of January and February learning Spanish and unfortunately it feels like it’s all floated away. I’m not sure what to do about this. My girlfriend is Honduran and I want to be able to talk to her mom in her native language. To do so I need to figure out a way to retain what I learn better. 

Fortune

Perhaps the worst thing that happened to us was getting evicted in the fall (our landlord decided to sell the house we were renting). The resulting sense of precarity kind of took over everything else and made for a very flurried Aug-Oct. My most 2020 moment was waiting in the car while our home was toured because we couldn’t go outside due to the wildfire smoke and couldn’t go to a cafe due to the pandemic. 

But that’s all resolved now and other than that, I had a tremendously lucky year. I haven’t lost anybody to Covid or to isolation. I didn’t have to attend a funeral over Zoom. Friends mostly kept their jobs or were cushioned (CERB) and didn’t have to panic. I lived with my girlfriend and her family so I was never alone. I got to play Mario Kart with her brother almost every day. I got really good at Resident Evil 5 with my best friend, four provinces away. 

Here’s to a beautiful 2021. The first few months are going to be painful. But it will get better, whether that’s by fall or by spring (A few countries are even taking it seriously enough to be done before winter is over!). And then I have a lot of hugs I owe people. Let’s hope the post-Covid world is more compassionate, more purposeful, and more prepared.

100 Tips For A Better Life

The other day I made an advice thread based on Putanumonit’s from last year! If you know a source for one of these, shout and I’ll edit it in. 

Possessions

1 .If you want to find out about people’s opinions on a product, google <product> reddit. You’ll get real people arguing, as compared to the SEO’d Google results.

2. Some banks charge you $20 a month for an account, others charge you 0. If you’re with one of the former, have a good explanation for what those $20 are buying.

3. Things you use for a significant fraction of your life (bed: 1/3rd, office-chair: 1/4th) are worth investing in. 

4. “Where is the good knife?” If you’re looking for your good X, you have bad Xs. Throw those out. 

5. If your work is done on a computer, get a second monitor. Less time navigating between windows means more time for thinking. 

6. Establish clear rules about when to throw out old junk. Once clear rules are established, junk will probably cease to be a problem. This is because any rule would be superior to our implicit rules (“keep this broken stereo for five years in case I learn how to fix it”). 

7. Don’t buy CDs for people. They have Spotify. Buy them merch from a band they like instead. It’s more personal and the band gets more money. 

8. When buying things, time and money trade-off against each other. If you’re low on money, take more time to find deals. If you’re low on time, stop looking for great deals and just buy things quickly online. 

Cooking

9. Steeping minutes: Green at 3, black at 4, herbal at 5. Good tea is that simple! 

10. Food actually can be both cheap, healthy, tasty, and relatively quick to prepare. All it requires is a few hours one day to prepare many meals for the week. 

11. Cooking pollutes the air. Opening windows for a few minutes after cooking can dramatically improve air quality. 

12. Food taste can be made much more exciting through simple seasoning. It’s also an opportunity for expression. Buy a few herbs and spices and experiment away.

13. When googling a recipe, precede it with ‘best’. You’ll find better recipes. 

Productivity

14. Advanced search features are a fast way to create tighter search statements. For example:

img html 

will return inferior results compared to:

img html -w3
 

15. You can automate mundane computer tasks with Autohotkey (or AppleScript). If you keep doing a sequence “so simple a computer can do it”, make the computer do it. 

16. Learn keyboard shortcuts. They’re easy to learn and you’ll get tasks done faster and easier. 

17. Done is better than perfect. 

18. Keep your desk and workspace bare. Treat every object as an imposition upon your attention, because it is. A workspace is not a place for storing things. It is a place for accomplishing things. 

19. Reward yourself after completing challenges, even badly. 

Body

20. The 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes of screenwork, look at a spot 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This will reduce eye strain and is easy to remember (or program reminders for). 

21. Exercise (weightlifting) not only creates muscle mass, it also improves skeletal structure. Lift!

22. Exercise is the most important lifestyle intervention you can do. Even the bare minimum (15 minutes a week) has a huge impact. Start small. 

23. (~This is not medical advice~). Don’t waste money on multivitamins, they don’t work. Vitamin D supplementation does seem to work, which is important because deficiency is common. 

24. Phones have gotten heavier in the last decade and they’re actually pretty hard on your wrists! Use a computer when it’s an alternative or try to at least prop up your phone. 

Success

25. History remembers those who got to market first. Getting your creation out into the world is more important than getting it perfect.

26. Are you on the fence about breaking up or leaving your job? You should probably go ahead and do it. People, on average, end up happier when they take the plunge. 

27. Discipline is superior to motivation. The former can be trained, the latter is fleeting. You won’t be able to accomplish great things if you’re only relying on motivation. 

28. You can improve your communication skills with practice much more effectively than you can improve your intelligence with practice. If you’re not that smart but can communicate ideas clearly, you have a great advantage over everybody who can’t communicate clearly.

29. You do not live in a video game. There are no pop-up warnings if you’re about to do something foolish, or if you’ve been going in the wrong direction for too long. You have to create your own warnings. 

30. If you listen to successful people talk about their methods, remember that all the people who used the same methods and failed did not make videos about it. 

31. The best advice is personal and comes from somebody who knows you well. Take broad-spectrum advice like this as needed, but the best way to get help is to ask honest friends who love you.

32. Make accomplishing things as easy as possible. Find the easiest way to start exercising. Find the easiest way to start writing. People make things harder than they have to be and get frustrated when they can’t succeed. Try not to. 

33. Cultivate a reputation for being dependable. Good reputations are valuable because they’re rare (easily destroyed and hard to rebuild). You don’t have to brew the most amazing coffee if your customers know the coffee will always be hot.

34. How you spend every day is how you spend your life. 

Rationality

35. Noticing biases in others is easy, noticing biases in yourself is hard. However, it has much higher pay-off. 

36. Explaining problems is good. Often in the process of laying out a problem, a solution will present itself. 

37. Foolish people are right about most things. Endeavour to not let the opinions of foolish people automatically discredit those opinions. 

38. You have a plan. A time-traveller from 2030 appears and tells you your plan failed. Which part of your plan do you think is the one that fails? Fix that part. 

39. If something surprises you again and again, stop being surprised. 

40. Should you freak out upon seeing your symptoms on the worst diseases on WebMD? Probably not! Look up the base rates for the disease and then apply Bayes’ Theorem 

41. Selfish people should listen to advice to be more selfless, selfless people should listen to advice to be more selfish. This applies to many things. Whenever you receive advice, consider its opposite as well. You might be filtering out the advice you need most. 

42. Common systems and tools have been designed so everybody can handle them. So don’t worry that you’re the only one who can’t! You can figure out doing laundry, baking, and driving on a highway. 

Self

43. Deficiencies do not make you special. The older you get, the more your inability to cook will be a red flag for people.

44. There is no interpersonal situation that can’t be improved by knowing more about your desires, goals, and structure. ‘Know thyself!’ 

45. If you’re under 90, try things. 

46. Things that aren’t your fault can still be your responsibility. 

47. Defining yourself by your suffering is an effective way to keep suffering forever (ex. incels, trauma). 

48. Keep your identity small. “I’m not the kind of person who does things like that” is not an explanation, it’s a trap. It prevents nerds from working out and men from dancing. 

49. Don’t confuse ‘doing a thing because I like it’ with ‘doing a thing because I want to be seen as the sort of person who does such things’

50. Remember that you are dying. 

51. Events can hurt us, not just our perceptions of them. It’s good to build resilience, but sometimes it isn’t your fault if something really gets to you. 

52. If you want to become funny, try just saying stupid shit (in the right company!) until something sticks. 

53. To start defining your problems, say (out loud) “everything in my life is completely fine.” Notice what objections arise. 

54. Procrastination comes naturally, so apply it to bad things. “I want to hurt myself right now. I’ll do it in an hour.” “I want a smoke now, so in half an hour I’ll go have a smoke.” Then repeat. Much like our good plans fall apart while we delay them, so can our bad plans. 

55. Personal epiphanies feel great, but they fade within weeks. Upon having an epiphany, make a plan and start actually changing behavior. 

56. Sometimes unsolvable questions like “what is my purpose?” and “why should I exist?” lose their force upon lifestyle fixes. In other words, seeing friends regularly and getting enough sleep can go a long way to solving existentialism. 

Hazards

57. There are two red flags to avoid almost all dangerous people: 1. The perpetually aggrieved ; 2. The angry. 

58. Some people create drama out of habit. You can avoid these people.

59. Those who generate anxiety in you and promise that they have the solution are grifters. See: politicians, marketers, new masculinity gurus, etc. Avoid these. 

60. (~This is not legal advice!~)
DO NOT TALK TO COPS. 

61. It is cheap for people to talk about their values, goals, rules, and lifestyle. When people’s actions contradict their talk, pay attention! 

62. “If they’ll do it with you, they’ll do it to you” and “those who live by the sword die by the sword” mean the same thing. Viciousness you excuse in yourself, friends, or teammates will one day return to you, and then you won’t have an excuse. 

Others

63. In choosing between living with 0-1 people vs 2 or more people, remember that ascertaining responsibility will no longer be instantaneous with more than one roommate (“whose dishes are these?”).

64. Understand people have the right to be tasteless.

65. You will prevent yourself from even having thoughts that could lower your status. Avoid blocking yourself off just so people keep thinking you’re cool. 

66. Being in groups is important. If you don’t want to join a sports team, consider starting a shitty band. It’s the closest you’ll get to being in an RPG. Train with 2-4 other characters, learn new moves, travel from pub to pub, and get quests from NPCs. 

67. It’s possible to get people to do things that make you like them more but respect them less. Avoid this, it destroys relationships. 

68. Think a little about why you enjoy what you enjoy. If you can explain what you love about Dune, you can now communicate not only with Dune fans, but with people who love those aspects in other books.

69. When you ask people, “What’s your favorite book / movie / band?” and they stumble, ask them instead what book / movie / band they’re currently enjoying most. They’ll almost always have one and be able to talk about it.

70. Bored people are boring. 

71. A norm of eating with your family without watching something will lead to better conversations. If this idea fills you with dread, consider getting a new family. 

72. If you bus to other cities, consider finding a rideshare on Facebook instead. It’s cheaper, faster, and leads to interesting conversations. 

Relationships

73. In relationships look for somebody you can enjoy just hanging out near. Long-term relationships are mostly spent just chilling.

74. Sometimes things last a long time because they’re good (jambalaya). But that doesn’t mean that because something has lasted a long time that it is good (penile subincisions). Apply this to relationships, careers, and beliefs as appropriate. 

75. Don’t complain about your partner to coworkers or online. The benefits are negligible and the cost is destroying a bit of your soul. 

76. After a breakup, cease all contact as soon as practical. The potential for drama is endless, and the potential for a good friendship is negligible. Wait a year before trying to be friends again.

77. If you haven’t figured things out sexually, remember that there isn’t a deadline. If somebody is making you feel like there is, consider the possibility that they aren’t your pal.

78. If you have trouble talking during dates, try saying whatever comes into your head. At worst you’ll ruin some dates (which weren’t going well anyways), at best you’ll have some great conversations. Alcohol can help. 

79. When dating, de-emphasizing your quirks will lead to 90% of people thinking you’re kind of alright. Emphasizing your quirks will lead to 10% of people thinking you’re fascinating and fun. Those are the people interested in dating you. Aim for them. 

80. Relationships need novelty. It’s hard to have novelty during Covid–but have you planned your post-Covid adventure yet?

81. People can be the wrong fit for you without being bad. Being a person is complicated and hard. 

Compassion

82. Call your parents when you think of them, tell your friends when you love them.

83. Compliment people more. Many people have trouble thinking of themselves as smart, or pretty, or kind, unless told by someone else. You can help them out. 

84. If somebody is undergoing group criticism, the tribal part in you will want to join in the fun of righteously destroying somebody. Resist this, you’ll only add ugliness to the world. And anyway, they’ve already learned the lesson they’re going to learn and it probably isn’t the lesson you want. 

85. Cultivate compassion for those less intelligent than you. Many people, through no fault of their own, can’t handle forms, scammers, or complex situations. Be kind to them because the world is not. 

86. Cultivate patience for difficult people. Communication is extremely complicated and involves getting both tone and complex ideas across. Many people can barely do either. Don’t punish them.

87. Don’t punish people for trying. You teach them to not try with you. Punishing includes whining that it took them so long, that they did it badly, or that others have done it better. 

88. Remember that many people suffer invisibly, and some of the worst suffering is shame. Not everybody can make their pain legible. 

89. Don’t punish people for admitting they were wrong, you make it harder for them to improve. 

90. In general, you will look for excuses to not be kind to people. Resist these. 

Joy

91. Human mood and well-being are heavily influenced by simple things: Exercise, good sleep, light, being in nature. It’s cheap to experiment with these.

92. You have vanishingly little political influence and every thought you spend on politics will probably come to nothing. Consider building things instead, or at least going for a walk. 

93. Sturgeon’s law states that 90% of everything is crap. If you dislike poetry, or fine art, or anything, it’s possible you’ve only ever seen the crap. Go looking!

94. You don’t have to love your job. Jobs can be many things, but they’re also a way to make money. Many people live fine lives in okay jobs by using the money they make on things they care about. 

95. Some types of sophistication won’t make you enjoy the object more, they’ll make you enjoy it less. For example, wine snobs don’t enjoy wine twice as much as you, they’re more keenly aware of how most wine isn’t good enough. Avoid sophistication that diminishes your enjoyment.

96. If other people having it worse than you means you can’t be sad, then other people having it better than you would mean you can’t be happy. Feel what you feel. 

97. Liking and wanting things are different. There are things like junk food that you want beyond enjoyment. But you can also like things (like reading) without wanting them. If you remember enjoying something but don’t feel a desire for it now, try pushing yourself.

98. People don’t realize how much they hate commuting. A nice house farther from work is not worth the fraction of your life you are giving to boredom and fatigue. 

99. There’s some evidence that introverts and extroverts both benefit from being pushed to be more extroverted. Consider this the next time you aren’t sure if you feel like going out. 

100. Bad things happen dramatically (a pandemic). Good things happen gradually (malaria deaths dropping annually) and don’t feel like ‘news’. Endeavour to keep track of the good things to avoid an inaccurate and dismal view of the world. 

40 Programming Questions / 6 Months In

I started teaching myself to program about six months ago — I see I registered for CS50 on March 1st. It’s been incredibly rewarding. Part of what I love about it is how endless it is: every question leads to more. So for a few days, I decided to write down my web development questions instead of immediately googling them. In another six months I’ll do it again and I’ll revisit these, which should be neat.

1. What is a webpack loader doing with css that makes it different from link hrefing?

2. What even is caching?

3. What is treeshaking? How good is it?

4. How do I use service workers?

5. When languages create GUIs, what are they using? My only comparison is how javascript uses the DOM.

6. What’s the cut-off point for complexity for when you should start incorporating a JS framework?

7. How do javascript components get reused across different pages?

8. Can we minify html the way we can minify css and js?

9. Can we see the load that css animations put on a computer?

10. Why is inheritance hell a thing? How many levels of class could you need?

11. How do shared rooms for messaging and games even work? At 60fps!

12. If Python can be compiled into C, why is Python known for being slow?

13. How does BaaS work? Do you sacrifice speed?

14. What is an apex domain?

15. What are the other BaaS besides netlify?

16. What is the LAMP stack?

17. What are the exact benefits of using a built website over squarespace or wordpress when you don’t need much functionality?

18. What exactly is a CDN? What is the point?

19. What are the common security failure points?

20. Are there disadvantages to garbage collection?

21. Why is the ‘maximum wait limit’ 3 seconds?

22. Is the main issue with having yr very own local server having it on all the time and the electricity costs?

23. Why do people refer to code as ‘ergonomic’?

24. What are interfaces in typeface and why do they matter?

25. What fraction of web development solutions are ‘hacky’? Will that fraction change in the future? Is it better than in the past?

26. What are these media query ‘levels’?

27. What are the advantages of different object creation patterns?

28. What is gzipping? If we zip stuff, does that mean the client has to do the work of unzipping it before using it? If so, is the idea that it’s a cost to their data usage but a save to ours?

29. Does caching mean that if a client accesses a framework-based site, when that framework is used on another site the client doesn’t have to redownload it? What if they use different versions of the framework?

30. Does using Babel make for longer and thus longer-to-download code? Does supporting IE slow things down for everybody??

31. People talk about how frustrating it is that features of websites that could be entirely html5 are javascript-dependent. Are they whining, or is that a legitimate concern for poor access?

32. A few years ago phones apparently had to do more work to handle javascript. Is that still a thing?

33. Why would that be a thing?

34. Why are nested child selectors in css less efficient than class or id? Is there a winner between class and id?

35. If you’re using a local image (or even a foreign image) again and again, is there a more efficient method than requesting it with src in each element?

36. How does supporting different languages work? Does all your text have to access variables from language files?

37. What the heck is a curry function!

38. What are ‘host objects’ and ‘native objects’?

39. What’s up with this CORS thing? Why can I easily scrape with Python, but get blocked when scraping via JS / a browser?

40. Does SEO ever lead to worse user experience?

Now to google…

Pregnancy? Experts Divided.

In confronting the problem of mortality and the falling human population, a radical solution has been floated: Allow women to deliberately become pregnant and give birth. NewLives, an advocacy group in favor of the motion, is coordinating campaigns in multiple countries. It’s not just advocates though–thousands of women have signed up, willing to risk their lives. The campaign has support in over a hundred countries, and multiple national governments are set to debate legalization within the coming months.

We spoke to Alexis McPhearson, 23, a volunteer and student at the University of Toronto, about why she would want to take such a risk. She says there are multiple reasons, including not only bolstering the population, but also the potential for deep personal meaning. She says that the disappearance of several cultures in the last decade sent her into a deep depression and the idea of creating new life gave her a sense of purpose.

When asked about the risks, she says that the probability of her dying is so low, the chance of creating new life is worth it. “It comes down to the math of it. The risk of death is about as low as dying from donating a kidney. If we can get support for childbirth, I’ll receive the best medical care in a devoted facility, in which case it will be even lower. For me, the substantial probability of adding one life to the world is worth the small risk of losing one.”

Not all people think of it in terms of probabilities, however. Bioethicists are split on the merits of pregnancy. Brian Garcia, MD, a tentative supporter, calls it a necessary evil. “Now, this isn’t something you’d normally consider,” he says over the phone. “But given the slow cratering of the earth’s population, sometimes you have to allow altruists to take risks.”

On the other hand, Jacob Strickland, MD, is skeptical. “Obviously, new life would be beautiful. But even with the best medical care there is still the chance of death during childbirth. So I just don’t see how you ethically could allow a pregnancy.”

Strickland goes on to detail the potential effects that can result from even a successful pregnancy, based on studies in the animal world. “Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, weight gain, bladder dropping, rectocele. We also suspect there can be ongoing psychological effects. It’s not clear to me that volunteers are fully cognizant of all the risks they’d be taking on.”

McPhearson, for her part, says she knows of and accepts the risks, considering them to be worthwhile compared to the potential gains. NewLife has proposed limiting pregnancy to those in the lowest risk bracket. This means women in their late 20s. It is also formulating what it calls a strong informed consent procedure. “We are very aware of the risk, and we believe that if a volunteer is also fully aware, then it’s their choice to make and we want to advocate for them,” says John Swift, the director of NewLife. “We certainly don’t want to downplay the risk and are working to create a process that would rigorously inform potential volunteers.”

Even so, the fraught history of pregnancy has many observers worried. “There have been many cases in the past where women didn’t know about the risks they were getting into with pregnancy. There wasn’t informed consent. Women have died because of it,” says Strickland. 

If childbearing is to become legal, it will only be after concerns like these have been adequately addressed. This means extensive vetting by medical professionals and potentially bitter debate in national legislatures. McPhearson is hopeful that she can ‘conceive’ (become pregnant) by the end of the year. In the meantime, she is planning out what she would do during her pregnancy. She ends our phone call by telling me the probability of twins (0.45%).


…Luckily, we live in a world where the idea of pregnancy being illegal is both ridiculous and horrifying. Unfortunately, we live in a world where such a campaign is necessary for human challenge trials, which could help end the pandemic sooner. While we accept that people can take a small risk of death in order to create a life, we are much, much more cautious about letting people try to save lives. If you would like to learn more about advocacy efforts for challenge trial volunteers, please check out 1Day Sooner and consider joining! 

Poetry With Heart

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro was a Japanese waka (tanka) poet who lived during the late 7th century. Wikipedia says he was known for his elegies for imperial princes but his poems within 100 Poems from the Japanese are by and large about love, loss, and longing. He is considered one of the great Japanese poets. 

Rupi Kaur is a contemporary Canadian Instagram poet. Her topics include love, trauma, and self-care. Though she is intensely popular, critics have called her work lazy, shallow, and simplistic. 

I don’t think I’m being cheeky when I say the above two poems have the exact same energy, separated by thirteen centuries. During that time, simple emotionality became unacceptable (insufficient) as poetry, so that now one poet is venerated and the other ‘isn’t a real poet’. To be fair, these are completely different cultures, and I don’t know what Japan likes in its contemporary tanka. But still, I’m left with questions. 

Past

Was such poetry regarded as equal in quality to ‘deeper’ poetry? Consider this other poem from Hitomaro: 

A strange old man

Stops me,

Looking out of my deep mirror 

This is such a perfect poem. It captures the jolt upon seeing oneself aged in a mirror, the disquiet of it, how it briefly removes selfhood–the reflection becomes a challenging foreigner, ‘stopping’ the narrator. 

In this collection, Hitomaro’s poems are a mix of these thoughtful and beautiful poems and of simple expressions of angst. Were they all regarded equally? If so, what made them equal? 

Future

A century from now, will there be any poets from the 2010s remembered besides Kaur? I’ve seen it proposed that a millennium from now, Tolkien will be the one author remembered from the 20th century (much the same way Dante is the author we know from the 14th century). This has to apply on the century level too, when we’ll only remember one poet per decade. Maybe Anne Carson will claim the 1990s. But it seems to me that outselling Homer ten to one will snag the 2010s for Kaur. Will she be remembered the way we remember Hitomaro? 

Present

Consider this quote from Ariana Reines, one of my favorite contemporary poets:

I want to say something about bad writing. I’m proud of my bad writing. Everyone is so intelligent lately, and stylish. Fucking great. I am proud of Philip Guston’s bad painting, I am proud of Baudelaire’s mamma’s boy goo goo misery. Sometimes the lurid or shitty means having a heart, which’s something you have to try to have.

Do we like bad writing? Does it have heart? What does it say about our culture that our good writing doesn’t? 

The Virtues of Melee

This post comes at an awkward time. 

Two weeks ago, improvements to the netcode for Super Smash Bros Melee (Melee) dramatically expanded the potential for online play. I’ve started playing again and it’s gotten me thinking about the virtues of competition. From 2014 to 2016, Melee’s tournament scene was how I came to appreciate competition: the joy of it and the demand of it. 

One week ago, the Smash scene exploded as accusation after accusation of sexual misconduct rolled in concerning top players and accusation after accusation was verified. This has largely affected Ultimate, the latest entry in the series, though there are a few players in Melee who have also been revealed to have done terrible things. 

Amidst the brutality of all the revelations, I wanted to write this post to remind myself of what I love about Melee, competition, and tournaments. The community is now having an important and complicated discussion about how to make events safer. I don’t have much to add as I only attend a tournament once every few months. Mostly I hope people go through with steps to improve the scene rather than settle for just catching the current crop of abusers. 


What I want to talk about is the virtues that Melee inculcates. We don’t intuitively connect virtue and gaming, but Melee (or any other sport or complex game) requires virtue in order to improve. What happens to those who can’t accept losing? They’re forced to cultivate virtue. 

To get in the right mindspace imagine that you play a video game for fun. It’s a good time, you know some tricks, you can beat most of your friends. Then you meet somebody you can’t beat. Imagine that it bugs you. For some reason, you can’t stand losing. For some reason, you really, really want to win. Maybe you know why, maybe you don’t. Whatever it is, you have to win.  

This is where it begins. You start by being dissatisfied. You start by not being happy unless you win. The fire is lit. It only gets worse when you find out you’re not only not the best among your friends, there are whole tournaments where everybody is much, much better than you. 

There are two things you can do here. You can keep losing and stay salty or you can make the choice to improve. And if you choose the latter, you begin building 

Scholarship

You find communities and you start asking questions. Questions like “why do I lose to Marth?” gradually refine themselves into questions like “what’s the optimal punish when I grab a 0% Marth?” You start analyzing match after match. Why did that work? Why does he make this look easy? Maybe I could try… You save replays of your matches and religiously go over your mistakes. I always hesitate there. Maybe instead of panicking, I should… Maybe you even pay top players to analyze your matches. You memorize the frame data for your character. You learn minutiae that never comes in handy until it does. (Sheik’s needles do 16-18% damage depending on how far she is from an enemy).

Discipline

At the same time, you’re becoming disciplined. You start practicing situation after situation. Frame-perfect ledge-dash after ledge-dash, losing a stock if you don’t have frame perfection. Waveshining Peach back and forth across FD. 

You start entering tournaments. At first you can’t beat anybody, week after week, until you take your first game. Then your first set. You watch as you slowly move out of the flotsam of bottom-seeds. You even start taking tournament days seriously. This used to just be for fun and now you’re making decisions like ‘get good sleep’ and ‘eat a healthy lunch’ to make sure you don’t crash mid-tournament. 

Stoicism

Oh shit, my girlfriend is watching and I’m getting wrecked, I have to turn this around.

Oh shit, I’m on stream, me getting bodied is going to be recorded forever, I wonder what the commentators are saying (Bonus: the commentators are feet away and you can actually hear them). 

Oh shit, he taunted, he thinks he’s better than me and I have to show him and right after I get a sick combo I’ll taunt him back. 

I’m a way better player, I should be winning, what the fuck is going on?

If I lose this game I’m out of the tournament and didn’t even make top 8.

If I win this game I know I’ll make my region’s power rankings. 

If I lose this game I’m out of the tournament and my sponsor might drop me. 

If I win this game I’ll make fifty bucks.

As your tech skill improves the mental game becomes that much more important. As you improve at relinquishing intrusive thoughts like these you gain the edge over everybody who has the skill but no mental self-control. Notice the commonalities between my examples. Many of them have to do with status: how your partner / community / opponent / self perceives you. Many of them involve entering a mode where you feel you must win. 

Part of stoicism is making peace with what is beyond your control and focusing on the task at hand. You cannot control what is not on the screen in front of you, and to the extent you are thinking about them, you are not thinking about what’s inside that screen. Consider the expressions “He’s in his own head” and “he’s in his opponent’s head.” These highlight the ways in which your mind can (and will) be hijacked by thoughts and concerns beyond your control that take away from your ability to focus on what is within your control. 

Responsibility

Take responsibility for your losses, even to water bottles.

A fake conversation can illustrate this virtue better than an intensional definition. 

Q: Why did you lose?

A: He played so lame, he–

Q: No. Why did you lose?

A: It’s a bad matchup for my character actually–

Q: No. Why did you lose? 

A: Well, it was my first match of the day and my hands were cold from the harsh Canadian winter, so–

Q: No. Honestly, I don’t think you are hearing my question. 

A: I don’t know what you’re looking for! If any of those were different–if he didn’t play like that, if it was a different matchup, if I had time to warm-up–I would have won. 

Q: A, do you think you could have won that match? That if things in the match had gone differently, you could have won? 

A: Well, yeah. There were some things. 

Q: Then I’ll rephrase: What did you do that made you lose? What could you have done differently, to make you win? 

A: Well, I guess I could have gotten there earlier to warm up. And if I had edgeguarded him better I would have actually finished off his stocks. And…

Play to win

These are the virtues of Melee. Scholarship, discipline, stoicism, responsibility. But the most fundamental of these is responsibility because it encompasses the others. What happens if you stop cultivating virtue? Then you stop improving. You don’t stop winning–but you plateau.

To sum up, one of the reasons Melee is awesome is that it forces you to become a stronger person if you want to win.  I don’t play Melee competitively anymore but I think it left me more disciplined, more ready to take responsibility, and more able to let go of what I can’t control. That doesn’t mean that I recommend that you go out and become a nerd–but if you aren’t interested in physical sports, competitive gaming is one incredibly fun way to cultivate the above virtues. And if you ever want to play, I can be reached on Slippi at KAY#863. 

Second-Order Existential Risk

[Epistemic status: Low confidence]

[I haven’t seen this discussed elsewhere, though there might be overlap with Bostrom’s “crunches” and “shrieks”]

How important is creating the conditions to fix existential risks versus actually fixing existential risks? 

We can somewhat disentangle these. Let’s say there are two levels to “solving existential risk.” The first level includes the elements deliberately ‘aimed’ at solving existential risk. This includes researchers, their assistants, their funding. On the second level are the social factors that come together to produce humans and institutions with the knowledge and skills to even be able to contribute to existential risk. This second level includes things like “a society that encourages curiosity” or “continuity of knowledge” or “a shared philosophy that lends itself to thinking in terms of things like existential risk (humanism?).” All of these have numerous other benefits to society, and they could maybe be summarized as “create enough surplus to enable long-term thinking.” 

Another attribute of this second level is that these are all conditions that allow us to tackle existential risk. Here are a few more of these conditions:

  • Humans continue to reproduce. 
  • Humans tend to see a stable career as their preferred lifepath. 
  • Research institutions exist.
  • Status is allocated to researchers and their institutions. 

If any of these were reversed, it seems conceivable that our capacity to deal with existential risk would be heavily impacted. Is there a non-negligible risk of these conditions reversing? If so, then perhaps research should be put into dealing with this “second-order” existential risk (population collapse, civilization collapse) the same way it’s put into dealing with “first-order” existential risk (nuclear war, AI alignment).

Reasons why second-order x-risk might be a real concern:

  • The above conditions are not universal and thus can’t be taken for granted.
  • Some of these conditions are historical innovations and thus can’t be taken for granted.
  • The continued survival of our institutions could be based more on inertia than any real strength.  
  • Civilizations do collapse and due to our increased interconnectivity a global collapse seems possible. 
  • A shift away from ‘American values’ over the coming decades could lead to greater conformity and less innovation. 
  • Technology could advance faster than humanity’s ability to adapt, significantly impacting our ability to reproduce ourselves. 

Reasons why second-order x-risk might not be a real concern:

  • Civilization keeps on trucking through all the disruptions of modernity. Whether or not the kids are alright, they grow up to complain about the next kids. 
  • Whatever poor adaptations people have to new technology, they’ll be selected against. Future humans might develop good attention habits and self-control. 
  • The bottleneck could really only be in funding. You don’t need that many talented people to pluck all the significant x-risk fruit. They’re out there and they’ll be out there for years to come, they just need funding once found. 

When considering whether or not second-order x-risk is worth researching, it’s also worth looking at where second-order existential risk falls in terms of effective altruist criteria: 

  • Scale: Impaired ability to deal with existential risk would, by definition, affect everybody. 
  • Neglect: Many people are already working on their version of preserving civilization. 
  • Tractability: It is unclear what the impact of additional resources would be. 

My suspicion is that second-order x-risk is not as important as ex-risk. It might not even be a thing! However, I think the tractability is still worth exploring. Perhaps there are cheap, high-impact measures that maximize our future ability to deal with existential risk. It’s possible that these measures could also align with other EA values. Even decreasing disease burden in developing countries slightly increases the chances of a future innovator not dying of starvation. 

I am also personally interested in the exploration of second-order x-risk because there is a lot of overlap with conservative concerns about social and moral collapse. I think those fears are overblown but they are shared by a huge chunk of the population (and are probably the norm outside of WEIRD countries). I’m curious to see robust analyses of how much we realistically should worry about institutional decay, population collapse, and technological upheaval. It’s a ‘big question’ the same way religion is: if its claims are true, it would be a big deal, and enough people consider it a big deal that it’s worth checking. However, if it is rational to not worry about such things, then we could convince at least a few people with those concerns to worry about our long-term prospects instead.

Three Ways to Think Less Stupidly About Groups

[Epistemic status: Confident]

On simple ways to think better about groups. 

There are three common ways I see people reasoning poorly about groups. Both they and their solutions have a lot of overlap. 

Three dumb ways to think about groups:

  1. “Group opinion is monolithic”

This sounds obviously and intuitively foolish but I think it’s one of those common-sense things we forget when it’s convenient to forget it. I see this way of thinking often come out politically. Imagine Alice (a liberal) and Bob (a conservative) arguing about Black Lives Matter. At some point Alice, frustrated with Bob, says “You should listen to black people.” This sounds like a pretty big own but it’s more or less dysfunctional. Black people are not a monolith. Obviously they, like any racial group, have a wide range of opinions and beliefs. However, this kind of statement isn’t an uncommon play in debate. 

Just what does Alice mean? Imagine that Bob replies, “I do! I listen to black conservatives!” Now, imagine Alice sighing and clarifying: “What I mean is, you should listen to black people who agree with me.” This doesn’t sound so impactful, but it’s really what’s being said! A group is being used as a stand-in for its authority and to sneak in Alice’s opinions.

Note that this way-of-thinking is somewhat fair when applied to political groups, which actually are nominally united in beliefs. To be fair, political groups don’t have the slam dunk emotional appeal. I’ve never heard, say, “Maybe try listening to some neoliberals.

It also gets more complicated when somebody says to just “listen to the experts”. Experts, for obvious reasons, are more likely to agree on sets of beliefs than entire identity groups (and can be trusted to get there over time). So sometimes you really can appeal to expert opinion, though ideally you’d appeal to actual arguments (to be fair, life is short)! Problems emerge when experts don’t agree! Consider the fact that Sweden’s herd immunity strategy was developed by their public health officials: if you were to argue with a Swede about the necessity of lockdown both of you could pull the “experts recommended my nation’s strategy” card. Furthermore, on occasion, expert opinion can shift rapidly (see: masks and COVID). There isn’t really a replacement for a functional brain. 

Anyway, I don’t think there is really a solution when somebody is telling you to shut up and listen to their preferred opinion-stand-in. However, I do think it’s possible to catch and stop yourself in this habit of thinking. Groups are not monolithic! They are not strong enough to shut down having to actually debate arguments!

  1. “Groups are their worst members”

The simplest explanation is to just link to Cardiologists and Chinese Robbers*, but it bears repeating. Every group large enough to be noticed is large enough to have bad apples. Pointing out the excesses of a few nuts (ideally, all miscreants could be identified as something small and edible) is not enough to condemn the larger group. This applies to political groups but it also applies to any group. Consider a “reporter” whose game is to just retweet news about migrant crime! Obviously if you focus on the worst of your outgroup, you’ll see a lot of bad. And conversely, obviously if you only focus on the best of your ingroup, you’ll come out rosy. This should be an easy one to avoid!

“But Ideopunk!” you cry. “Some groups really are bad! The alt-right actually does suck!”

Yes! Some groups do suck! But that will be clear even when we look at members besides the worst 5%. 

“But Ideopunk!” you cry. “Even though most of my enemies don’t commit crime and abuse justice themselves, they covertly support the worst of the group!”

You know what, pal, you’re totally right. That does happen (police culture is a great example). However, you should be very careful before assuming: 

1) That this is a coherent group you’re describing,

2) The majority really haven’t condemned the worst offenders,

3) The standards you’re holding the outgroup to are standards you hold yourself to. 

Catch yourself doing this and catch parts of your beliefs that rely on this way of thinking. If somebody is citing anecdotal evidence of some group doing something terrible (Migrant crime!) ask them for base rates or for evidence of the larger culture being devoted to covering up said terrible thing. 

  1. Names are nebulous

I think this is one is hard to stop using. You have to stop treating political labels as information-rich and consistent. If you don’t know what I mean, here are a few examples:

  • “Like all utilitarians, he’s short-sighted.”
  • “You’re a conservative, so you hate poor people.”
  • “Socialism is just communism in disguise. You want to take away my rights.”
  • Bonus: Being confused about why a conservative supports a liberal policy.

All of these are ridiculous, and few would actually think them out loud, but I think it’s largely implicit. I suspect that most people feel they’ve learned a lot as soon as they’ve heard somebody name their political belief system. This is a mistake. People have complex (or confused!) definitions of their identities and complex (or confused!) reasons for why they chose that identity! Even if they were simple and straight-forward, they could vary wildly from one person to the next. 

I’m not saying that you’ve learned nothing upon hearing that a person identifies as a libertarian. But you are more likely to make the mistake of overconfidence in your new assumptions than underconfidence. You should update your guesses on his beliefs. You should not (yet) chuckle having confirmed him for a bitcoin-obsessed polyamorist who wants to raze the poor.

Like I wrote at the beginning, these are all related, and sometimes they intersect in the most annoying ways. Consider this combination of #1 and #3:

The idea is that the outgroup’s beliefs are modified or put away when it becomes inconvenient. One reason I find this template so frustrating is that it so neatly parallels one of my favorite gotchas: barefaced personal hypocrisy. For example: 

[Via Ari Schulman]

The “person” version is valid because it’s an example of hypocrisy. The “outgroup” version is an example of different people with the same label having different beliefs, the most normal thing in the world. This should not be astounding.

What should you do if you notice yourself being annoyed by the hypocrisy of a group, but not by any one person? Just remind yourself that these are probably different people. Maybe you can give yourself permission to be very annoyed if it does turn out to be one person. 

All of these solutions involve reminding yourself that even though these are convenient ways of thinking, they’re convenient because they’re cheap. They avoid the work of actually dealing with arguments or the complexity of people. That’s harder, but will lead to more interesting questions and will make it easier to engage with people you disagree with–assuming, of course, that that’s what you want.

* This is, unfortunately, no longer possible

The Values of Others

The Values of Others

[Epistemic status: Mildly confident, not surprised if missing important component]

Not to be confused with the value of others!

The other day I was asked to provide a short clip explaining why I’ve (pre-)volunteered for human challenge trials. I’ve talked about it in a few different places at varying lengths but here they just wanted a sentence or two to go in a story on HCTs alongside clips from other volunteers on a show. Neat!

The org rep asking for the clip mentioned that the show is right-leaning and what immediately came into my head was Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory — what values should I appeal to to convince conservatives that HCTs are a good idea? I have a number of reasons I’m volunteering, there are a number of reasons that are valid, and there had to be a great gem that fit both of those!

In the end I decided against it. Instead I said what I’ve basically said to everybody: that the benefits to everybody far outweigh the personal risk. I could have tailored something to appeal to conservative values: “The economy is fucked, our children will be paying for it for years, every day counts.” But I didn’t. I felt weird appealing to the values of others. 

Is that the right call? It seems like common-sense to appeal to the values of others, in a Dale Carnegie way. Show people why they should agree with you! People don’t care about your values, they want you to appeal to theirs! 

On the other hand…

Interactions this condescending don’t happen often outside of memes but I think it points to something in how we try to talk across political tribes. I feel less and less convinced by this approach and more concerned that it’s slimy.

Here’s how I currently see it: It’s not fair to ask misguided people to be a bit less wrong in a way that benefits you instead of asking them to stop being wrong. Imagine that you walk in on somebody stealing from the shared cookie jar–something you would never do–and you tell them that you’re not a thief, but if the thief you just encountered could pass you a cookie you’d appreciate it.

What would be better? Just tell them to stop being a thief! 

Some caveats apply: 

  1. If you share values, this doesn’t apply. If you think taking extraordinarily large quantities of cookies from the jar is fine, then there’s nothing wrong with asking a fellow thief to pass you one. The problem is in trying to exploit belief systems you don’t respect. 
  2. Obviously there’s something like this that’s totally neutral. “You hate running, I love it. But you want to lose weight, so you should join me!” In case it needs explaining, the problem is in appealing to values you don’t hold yourself. If you think losing weight is a stupid value (perhaps you are fat-positive!) then you are condescending to your friend. You either don’t care about whether they actually achieve their goal, or you simply think it’s a goal that can’t be achieved, or what’s most likely: You just don’t think about it–Other people’s values are a means to an end. 
  3. There’s a lot of overlap in values and often the difference is really in degree. Thank god, because otherwise negotiation and reasoning between value-sets would be much harder. Nonetheless, it still happens that we encounter people whose value sets we disagree with but we try to benefit from anyway. 

Think about the common dichotomy of ‘speech’ and ‘violence’. There’s trying to smack your opponents and then there’s trying to convince your opponents. But there’s also a third option: trying to exploit your opponents. The best metaphor here might be a network security one. When you try to convince your opponent you are trying to upgrade their system, in whatever way. Your version is more efficient, more secure, whatever, and you think the network is better if any node is better. In contrast, when you try to use people’s values against them, you are treating their values as a back-door exploit to use their resources. 

There are nicer and less nice ways to convince, of course, and there are meaner and less mean ways to exploit. But there aren’t any good ways. 

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the main character, teleported back in time, uses his knowledge of a historical eclipse to trick the King into believing he has immense power. I don’t see a difference between this form of exploiting beliefs and what people do to each other when they tell each other something is “really in their interest”. If you think somebody is wrong, don’t appeal to their wrong values. Maybe instead it would be more decent to tell them that their value system just doesn’t work. 

This might explain why I like liberalism and dislike acting like every perspective is valuable. I like the idea of everybody having to convince each other instead of hitting each other. But I don’t like the idea of finding the value in every position because some positions are fundamentally misguided and everybody but the believer knows it. Desiring for people to retain dysfunctional beliefs is a lot like not wanting your children to grow up. 

So go forth! Stop treating people’s values as means to your own values. Either be honest about what you want or leave them be!