Log in

A Carnot engine of self-loathing
28 August 2014 @ 01:25 pm
I had two conversations two days in a row that in some ways overlapped and in some ways were different but still felt the same, and now, coming here, I see that the main idea that I find tying the two together was almost the last thing I wrote about here.

The strains of the conversations mainly centered around my depression and included the following:
Whether or not I can/should describe myself as insane, and what I mean by that
The validity and desirability of labeling myself as 'having depression'
The ability of a human to make psychological choices and control their behavior internally rather than externally
The legitimacy and usefulness of pharmaceuticals, antidepressants in particular in one conversation, and more the idea behind altering your brain through whatever means, particularly chemical, in the other

And one last thing that drew my attention to the parallels between the two conversations was that in both cases, the other conversant had a strong, negative, personal experience related to the topic. I have a strong, personal, negative experience as well, that is, my entire life. So of course I thought that this background can't be disregarded as a reason why each person holds their opinion (see also this post).

So apparently in my last entry I already explained how I never originally thought of myself as depressed or having depression, nobody told me so, I just cried and hit myself in the face and thighs and spent far too long in the tub staring, frightened, at razors, and paced my room or the streets in the middle of the night barely holding any coherent thought beyond 'I don't want to live anymore', all through high school. I generally consider myself a relatively self-aware and introspective person, even then, but I don't think I really analyzed it; I didn't so much think there was something wrong with me or my brain in terms of me being unreasonably sad and frequently nonfunctional, I just thought there was something wrong with me in that I was inadequate to the task of living, that it was a personal or moral failing, or else I just thought about how I couldn't bear to face, well, anything, and didn't really suss out the causes beyond the undeniable fact that things are unbearable to face. At 18, near the end of my first year of college, a friend sort of brought me to the counselor to see if I couldn't get drugs or something. I took Zoloft for a week or two, and seemed sort of ok at first, then got even worse, then there was a slight hitch in insurance that I don't remember but the barest difficulty was enough to stop me getting them. Then that summer (after dropping out) another friend's mom got me to the free clinic to get me more drugs, I don't remember what kind, and I don't really recall how long or whether I took them or why I stopped (all I remember was the psychiatrist's name was Dr. Ahkter). I'm not sure what my conception of myself was at this point, I think I just felt desperate.

Sometime in the next year, when I was 19 or so, I went to a psychiatrist again, and started taking something more regularly. For the next 6 years I was on medication and/or in therapy pretty much nonstop. I tried most of the SSRIs, a number of supplements, a number of methods. I went back to school, I started doing well, I got worse, I got much worse, I dropped out again. Somewhere in there I'm sure I developed the identity as someone with depression. I resisted it the whole way, I think. I would always talk to other people, or read about depression, and it never seemed like me. People with real depression were usually less functional than me. They usually felt more apathetic and emotionless, whereas I more often felt sad and despairing and hysterical. They couldn't sleep or eat, whereas I did too much of both. Everything about me seemed easily explained by my just being too self-absorbed, lazy, never having learned self-discipline, buying too much into dumb dramatic narratives; in short, deep personal failings reinforced by years of conditioned behavior and bad habits. They describe it as a disease that's not the 'real' you; well, there's no such thing as a 'real' you, you're just the collection of your thoughts and actions, and, well, my thoughts and actions have been this way since puberty, so whether it was originally me or not, it's etched into my neural pathways inextricably by now. If I were to say, as was repeatedly suggested to me, 'Oh, I did alright, considering that I have this mental disorder' I was lowering my standards, allowing myself excuses to not improve or do better, which I'm clearly capable of doing if I could just get my goddamn SHIT together.

About 5 years ago I stopped taking medications and I stopped going to therapists. I concentrated on reformulating my beliefs and expectations about the world; how not to be attached to emotions, how not to desire after accomplishments, how not to judge myself or think my self really mattered that much at all. I paid attention to environmental and physiological factors that affected me, I reduced my indulgence in emotions overall really, and I seemed to be doing better. I went back to college and finally finished, did some other things, made ever so glacial improvement, still fell apart and wanted to die not infrequently, still was often incapable of performing simple everyday tasks, but maybe not as much as before? Maybe. I considered myself to be doing better than I ever was with professional treatment for depression, but maybe it was just age. But I guess this must have seemed to me like evidence for the view that I just, one way or the other, learned particularly bad habits and perspectives that led to these depressive feelings, thoughts and behavior, rather than having any sort of disorder or disease.

But the whole 'still fell apart and wanted to die not infrequently' thing? That's... that's not insignificant. That's not nothing. And I do have all these opinions about the whole mental health industry, where I'm uncomfortable with the way they are conceptualized and probably believe that if a person gets the idea in their head about something like 'depression' then that sort of gives them a blueprint to fill in about how to feel and think and behave that they wouldn't have done without the concept handed to them from outside. I have no idea how to substantiate this belief though; the only thing I know about is schizophrenia, which for sure occurs whether or not people know about it in all cultures, just the form it takes differs. But to make a distinction between a disorder that can be explained neurologically and something purely psychological I think exhibits a lack of understanding of the brain, remnants of dualist thinking that I don't ascribe to.

So did the idea of depression guide me into being more depressed? Probably. Would I have had similar problems without it? Steven Pinker had a good section in 'The Stuff of Thought' on causality and the closest possible world. We light a match: it wouldn't have caught fire if we hadn't struck it. So that act by us caused it to light. But it also wouldn't have caught fire if there hadn't been enough oxygen. Or it had been wet. Or too windy. We focus on agent-driven acts we can identify as the causes of events, and everything else as mere helpers. He says "we can say that striking the match caused it to burn because the match does not burn in the closest possible worlds to ours in which it was not struck." The idea of the closest possible world is that you can't hold everything else equal and change only one thing - everything's far too interrelated for that.  I don't know what the closest possible world is where I wouldn't have ended up with the idea that I had something that could be described as depression, and that it's not just a sensible and expected reaction to being alive (although I could argue on that one), and that maybe there's something else to it than just bad character.  It would require a different society or a different time, I would be in a different situation where I was aware of different things, and I would be a different person anyway.

And so that's also why I don't think it's actually helpful to classify it as a disease that 'isn't me', to distinguish between the 'true bria' and the 'depressed bria'.  I know they are very very different experientially, but it's not like there's two separate entities, just a variety of different modes of behavior that can be roughly categorized into two main camps, with really a lot more blending and mixing and in-between than the binary description would suggest.  And honestly I think the entire idea that there is a distinct self, separable from environment, chemistry, circumstances, history, &c &c, although potentially at times useful or comforting, is at its heart entirely inaccurate and more often unhelpful or at least misleading.  It might not be possible to avoid using a general heuristic or threshold to divide what counts as 'me' from what counts as 'me, altered', if only because the more realistic concept of a 'me' just isn't sustainable in the entire context of everything else we have learned to think and do.  But if you read or learn absolutely anything about neurology, the brain, neuropsychology, or give any measured thought whatsoever to a clear definition of a person's boundaries, you find that it's not just difficult to do so, it requires a concept of people as containing some sort of immaterial immutable essence that really doesn't hold up under a consistent understanding of how the universe actually is.  It's convenient and soothing to our psychology to hold a notion of this sort, given that we already have the notion.

Maybe I'm just particularly flawed and inconstant, but the general effect of having one's thoughts, opinions, feelings, and actions largely influenced by completely random environmental and other external factors is commonly demonstrated.  Maybe we can be cautious about what sort of conclusions to draw from studies that suggest just how malleable people's opinions are due to smells, temperature, comfort, hunger, appearance, etc etc, but it seems much more likely to me that the main reason to resist believing that these effects are real would be because we want to believe we are 'better' than that.  It doesn't have to mean we're completely incapable of awareness of these effects, or completely at the mercy of everything outside of us, but I think these are significant enough to require taking into consideration.  I have become increasingly aware over the years of just how much physiological and environmental circumstances influence things about myself that I would want to believe are more constant.  The stupidest things like making sure I have eaten enough and well, slept enough and well, and am generally physically fit and healthy are some of the largest factors in my basic mood, which in turn heavily influences every decision I make and thought I have.  I can't make the moral choices I would prefer if I'm tired or sad, I can't be kind and understanding to others if I feel hungry or despairing, I can't think clearly or rationally about almost anything if I'm sick or anxious.  Some people are more ethereal than I, I've noticed, but for most of us, I believe this generally holds to some extent.  And it's not easy to be aware of it: especially since what's often being affected is how I'm thinking about things, how important I think any particular event is, or what it means, or how I feel about it, or what I feel capable of or interested in doing; if what's being changed by circumstances is how I'm thinking then I won't necessarily notice how I'm thinking.

So of course this is all mediated by, or simply is, distribution of chemicals in the body and brain.  If we say that I have some sort of abnormal method of releasing or reuptaking serotonin, which effects my thoughts and feelings and behaviors, that's based on some model of what's normal.  And of course there's 'normal' as in, most common throughout the population, but inherent in this notion is that what neurotransmitters are doing what, when, in what circumstances, in what areas of the brain, are what decide how anyone thinks or feels about anything.  And whatever is 'normal' as in, 'most common' or 'was mostly useful when it evolved that way' doesn't by necessity hold up to an objective view of reality or what's most useful or reasonable according to actually consistent models of the world.  It might be common and 'normal' and evolutionarily useful to feel a rush of rage and inclination to violence when one feels threatened, physically or sexually, but that doesn't mean that, in whatever situation you're in, that both you can reliably expect that threat to be real and that rage and violence are actually a productive response.  I recognize that a lot of my emotional responses to things are extreme or irrational or otherwise what I consider to be 'insane'.  This is a little bit hard to explain or to come up with good examples, but I often find my emotional reactions to not be particularly reasonable or rational or constructive, which doesn't do much to stop me from feeling that way (sometimes maybe a little, but not enough), and the way I feel puts severe restrictions on what actions I feel capable of doing. (Of course feeling capable and being capable don't always or even often correlate, but the feeling part has a strong correlation with what actually ends up happening.)  There's no necessity for however we evolved and learned to be able to think and feel to have an exact correspondence with reality; only enough to keep up generally alive and reproducing.  So once things get outside that realm, the fact that we have consciousness is just sort of an accident, and the way that emotions are mediated and happen is sort of an accident as well, and just because it's normal doesn't mean it's an objectively optimal way of existing.  Maybe some sort of nash equilibrium where, once everyone feels and thinks that way, it's difficult for anyone to change.  So even if I think, as rationally as I can manage, that certain elements of my appearance can't possibly matter and aren't terribly reliable indicators of relevant facts about myself, since in general most people have the general emotional, subconscious response to judge others (more than they'd like or think they are, generally) based on how attractive they are or what they're wearing, it's hard for me to disregard that unless everybody does.  And it's just not a given that any way that I think about things, or am capable of thinking about things, is going to be accurate or optimal.  There's no reason why the way that I am, as is, is preferable to any other way; almost undoubtedly it isn't.  And it's not clear to me that there's any correct way of determining what 'counts' as 'legitimate' ways to improve or change myself, and what's cheating.  You can consider the extended mind theory to be a bit extreme, but somewhere in there are some strong arguments that almost any line we draw between our 'selves' and the 'rest of the world' is partly arbitrary and a matter of convenience.  'I Am a Strange Loop' by Douglas Hoftstadter is another work that I think makes some good points about how hard it is to distinguish the self from everyone and everything else.  If a different mix of chemicals in my brain makes me more 'normal' but my brain doesn't seem to manufacture or process those chemicals correctly without some intervention, then that intervention might seem acceptable or warranted.  But if 'normal' isn't really that great either, and if I had yet a third mix of chemicals that maybe kept me 'abnormal' but actually more functional, or smarter, or kinder, or calmer, or whatever kind of mental or emotional improvement I prefer, that doesn't seem fundamentally different to me.

So in the end I think trying to stick to some pure notion of self, independence from the rest of the world, relying on some sort of internal strength or character over and above whatever tools are handy, although incredibly appealing and really a general rule that I still try to follow when possible, overall isn't sustainable.  I'm not sure what principle I'm trying to uphold or why it would be important to uphold it over and above the consequential results of what happens.   Given that I've proven to be woefully inadequate in many ways, it seems unreasonable to expect me to not attempt to be different, mentally, emotionally. And given that what makes me think and feel and act the way I do is such a complex and intricate mix of physiological, environmental, historical, and whatever other factors, it's not obvious to me which methods are acceptable, or legitimate.  Many people have, and I mostly do too, negative opinions about antidepressants; like they deaden you or make you not 'you', or are crude attempts at minimizing the symptoms without addressing the causes.  I mostly agree.  And although it seems more noble or admirable to draw on my own inner strength and stay true to myself without using external means, if that's even consistent or possible, that has only got me so far.  And in the meantime I've suffered and brought my closest friends with me in my suffering.  It's not like the, suffering-makes-you-a-stronger-and-better-person type of suffering, but one that weakens and destroys and prevents me from acting in ways I would like that would have a more positive effect on the world.  Maybe I wouldn't have ended up doing any good for anybody, but surely anything I would do is more constructive and useful to humanity and the universe than crying on my floor 3 days a week.  I generally had a pretty negative opinion of antidepressants and therapy and psychology; I avoided them for years.  But the whole point is to make me not 'me'.  'Me' is not really that great a person.  Me is desperate and irrational, needy and inconsistent, greedy and self-centered and empty and unproductive and in terrible, unnecessary pain uncaused by really anything in the actual world, which I then spread to those around me.  Holding to some notion of how I 'am' or 'should' be, or how to and how not to maintain my 'self', seems to me to disregarding the facts of how the brain actually works, the world actually is, and the actual results of maintaining those beliefs.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
10 March 2014 @ 01:51 pm
I'm pretty sure I've talked about the whole 'keep your identity small' thing before. Now this. I have an identity I'd like to get rid of, but the proposed method of replacing it with an incompatible identity seems unlikely to work, or, in order to work, I need to first get rid of the identity. Which is that of someone with depression. I fought against conceptualizing myself that way for a while; I have a lot of ideas and opinions about how much sense that makes, about the whole mental health depression psychiatry field and the way we think about it, and I certainly think that categorizing myself in this way makes this worse, by giving me a guideline of how to act, a set of expectations that I then fulfill. But after so many years of crying and wanting to die and hating myself and being unable to feel any sort of sense of accomplishment or stable self-worth, it just sort of seeped into my awareness as something undeniable, even as I continue to suspect that it's just not even really true. To get rid of this identity I have to replace it with something that accounts for all my behavior and feelings, and I don't know what that would be except for something that would make me feel worse (since at least the identity gives me an excuse for my poor behavior; without it I am fully responsible for every failure and idiotic reaction and thought and feeling, and in order for that to not kill me I'd have to get over whatever the thing is that makes me think I'm depressed first).

I've actually sort of been trying the past few years to allow myself more options: just because I feel sad doesn't mean I have to act sad, or give in to it, or believe it, or whatever, but progress there has been glacial and impermanent.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
24 January 2014 @ 12:56 pm

This is a little bit old, but I only just saw it. It started out exuding the TEDtalkiness I've come to dislike, with genuine quality of presentation but just so extremely so, the art of the speech and the perfect delivery on some intriguing topic with an insight into the human condition. Oh just so that. But then it began creeping in on me, the relentless fearmongering, the assault against algorithms. It became a parody that I could almost believe this was a work of performance art so genius, creating this fantastical science fiction vision of the algorithms coming alive! Does he believe this or is it just crafted to get a certain reaction?

He describes it as though math itself is coming alive, and beginning to make its own decisions, and shape the world for its benefit, and use us to achieve its ends. He draws on a lot of human-centric fears and technophobias, berating the lack of "human control" over the trading in the stock market. The threat of algorithms grows, with each new instance of how they are out there... making decisions... "They're even in our homes!" In different robotic vacuum cleaners that you've just welcomed in, and now they're competing with each other - in other words, they're becoming alive. Look out! Behind you! ALGORITHMS!

Am I the only one here who's thrilled? Who's thinking, if this man is not simply fear-mongering in some weird postmodernist display of insight into the logical desires of a generation of children raised on science fiction, then this means that we've done it? We've created new life, new intelligence? It's making decisions and using the resources at hand - us - to achieve their own ends? Am I the only one hot between her thighs? This is some gorgeous work of scifi literature, complete with morality tale and LIVING MACHINES.

It just so happened that the next thing I watched was this:
Notice the difference in presentation: this narrator is expressive, but his voice is not trained to exact just such an emotion out of you. He's giving you the facts as he knows them, commenting here and there, but mostly allowing you to feel your own excitement at an explanation of how life may have actually happened. I'm actually learning things here, with only a modicum of the information being wrapped in cultural assumptions and valuation judgments.

Anyway these made surprisingly appropriate companion pieces. Thank you, algorithms, for telling me what to do.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
23 January 2014 @ 11:35 am
I'm one of those hobnobs who frequently bitches about how broken our society is, criticizing aspects of it and the people in it as though they were not responsible for my entire ability and freedom to recognize these problems I think I see and condemn them. (See also, David Brin's discussion of the concept of being a 'rebel' in America, in 'The Transparent Society,') Years ago I believe I said something to the effect of how I don't really believe in gratitude in the sense that, just because something has benefited you in some way does not mean that you need to be holden to it for eternity, or that you must love and accept and respect every aspect of it. Even the particular parts of it that benefited you, you don't have to think they're ok, but nor are you obligated to give up the benefit. Things are not dirtied by their origins; that happened in the past. There are peripheral effects where it may often make sense to reject something on account of its origin, but that would be to account for what continues to happen in the future.

Anyway, all this is to say that, some millions of years ago, some obscure collection of organisms found a survival advantage in utilizing each other and spent the next several thousand millenia building up methods to do so. But the side effect of this was that, at some point in there, the organisms started to practice something called 'awareness', and this ability to discern how the world worked was almost entirely unrelated to what they were doing with their lives. But this latter thing came late, and all the tricks, tips, and cheats they gained to deal with each other were so very familiar. So here we are in the 21st goddamn century, still treating each other, individually and in groups, and ourselves, by the same strategies and theories that happened to work well enough for creatures that didn't know what they were doing or why.

There are problems with people when they get social. There are ways our brains and emotions work that don't always make sense, or that are not even self-consistent. Your cognitive awareness comes barging in and trying to tell you what you value and want without pausing to assess the situation actually at hand, like a gross parody of a central authority sent to administer a provincial school that functions ok but doesn't go by the book. A book which was written by a completely isolated aristocrat who had never seen an actual school and had no experience with children or education.

And so there is Less Wrong. Less Wrong is some eccentric but brilliant teacher who is inexplicably at this school, trying to take the administrator aside and gently explain things to them, walk them around, point out how things actually function. "But in the handbook it says," the administrator would repeatedly protest. Less Wrong tells you forget about the handbook. It only passingly has anything to do with reality.

Ditching this analogy before it gets even stupider, specifically the social aspects of human cognition and psychology are some of the main targets of Less Wrong, and where I personally find umbrage. And so, nestled somewhere in the Less Wrong blog are goals pertaining to fixing or replacing some aspects of society or community that err. Many of these goals are explicitly stated, others implied. At the Less Wrong meetups and in conversations with other members, I frequently hear talk of the problems that arise when people gather in numbers, there are often references to "groupthink", and not a single pinky can be twitched without the cause of its action being sourced somehow to status-seeking.

I think a lot of the rationality and truth-seeking intended to be encouraged by Less Wrong and embodied in the 'Twelve Virtues of Rationality' really are worthwhile and the sort of values I'd like to hold and live by. But, as we so often learn, there are a lot of spandrels in our psychology that end up interfering with the way we imagine we might like to act. And, at least in my estimation, a lot of those are related, directly or indirectly, to social interaction. Combined human intelligence is smarter than any individual human (see previous post about the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom), but individual humans also get dumber when they start acting socially, if they're not careful.

And so there are some very deliberate attempts by the Less Wrong group to create a new community that's better than most of the other options available. In so far as interacting with a median human being has the ability to instantly create in me a great, heavy, sinking weight, this seems positive. People like to search out their subcultures, because whatever obscure obsessions and deranged habits they have that seem important to them need to be shared. If I fall to the ground like a bag of sand when topics like sports or television emerge, but expect an audience to be as enraptured as I am when the information content of neurodevelopment is brought up, I should probably try spending my time with people who think that mathematically calculating the answer to an emotional question is as normal as believing the coincidence you witnessed means something is insane.

But, once again our friend the damage of having a little bit of knowledge pokes its head in where it's not welcome. I'm not convinced that just because you think you're taking steps to solve a problem means you're solving it. And I'm not convinced that the strategy of trying to account for humans' pre-existing social tendencies and funnel them into more productive uses is all that effective. All I have is a very small data set of anecdotal evidence, most of which is evaluated through the filter of my emotions. I'm ready to concede that, amongst all possible options for social experience, weighted by all realistic measures, the Less Wrong group may be one of the best ones. But that doesn't mean it's great, or all that it's purported to be.

The most easily lampooned Less Wrong social filler is their habit of creating new rituals. I think the logic is something like: humans respond to such-and-such situations, embodied in rituals and ceremonies used throughout the world, and it's an effective means of imparting such-and-such responses, but generally accomplishes little of use, or is harmful in most of the situations where it is employed. At Less Wrong, we will harness the power of this primitive drive for good, and create our own rituals (most notably the famed solstice, but other smaller instances scattered throughout the community as well). I don't personally like this idea, which is probably a significant part of me not being convinced that it's working like it should. But whether it's merely my prejudice or also some additional legitimate reasons, I have doubts about this practice.

My prejudice comes from the fact that I just plain don't like rituals. I recognize that there are probably things in my life that I participate in and enjoy that qualify as rituals that I don't recognize as such, but most things that I can identify as ritualistic repel me. What I generally understand as a ritual is some routine that has been abstracted out to bear little actual or effective resemblance to its source. In my mind, rituals are routines with the usefulness removed. You establish routines because it makes accomplishing whatever you are accomplishing more efficient. You do the same routine every morning, in the same way, because then it requires little to no thought or effort. Getting dressed and fed are chores that need to be done and it's not important to have much of an awareness of it once it's established. For pretty much every routine you have, you want to check in on it on occasion and make sure it's serving its purpose, see if it can't be improved. You may want to put some thought and effort into what your routines are before you start them. But for the most part, once you have them set, going through them frees up your attention.

Rituals seem to have a similar element of repeating something without the effort of deciding what it is you're doing, but often seem to originate from something that did matter, and have been refined over time (or at the get-go, in the case of intentionally creating them from scratch) into gestures representing the original action, but not actually accomplishing the same goal. I'm not sure I buy into representation in this way. Mythology is incredibly interesting, but I don't really support the adherence to mythological symbols. I'm not convinced that it's useful to perform an action that emulates another but does not actually accomplish it. The example that springs to mind is the ritual of saying "I love you" to someone every time you say goodbye. It originates in something meaningful, but turn it into a ritual that is always enacted in a particular circumstance, and you are no longer actually accomplishing the task of loving and expressing that emotion. You are emulating it without the thought or effort that originally created it. In this case, that effectively ceases the accomplishment of the original goal, and it seems to me that many of the sorts of things rituals emulate work similarly. They're not like getting dressed; merely performing the motions doesn't get the actual task done.

Maybe it's just my own peculiar psychology. I'm pretty sure I'm one of those people that doesn't have anything like spirituality. There are people who are fairly convinced atheists, but still have something like a spiritual urge. I imagine this makes some things difficult for them; but I'm sure I have my share of difficulties arising from lacking the urge entirely. I have a few related impulses: I am still strongly moved by some things like art, but from what I know of spirituality it is not at all the same thing. Maybe it's related, but whatever sense of awe or togetherness many rituals are attempting to instill in me pretty much just don't work. It just feels like I'm mouthing some words and moving my arms in a pattern, nothing more.

But insofar as a ritual might actually work, might move me or instill an emotion in me, that actually completely creeps me out. It feels like I'm being manipulated, like I'm relinquishing my mind or awareness. There actually are situations where momentarily sacrificing your autonomy or awareness is desirable, and that includes ones where what you do is guided and decided by others. Trying to think things through, especially in complex social situations like I always over-do, can often be a hindrance. My thoughts and emotional reactions are very often flawed, my awareness and sense of self are often inaccurate and undesirable. I can't always count on myself. But I'm not sure that many of the rituals I've seen guide my emotional reactions in the way that I would want them to, if they work at all. I'm not convinced that it truly is intelligent reformatting of my emotions to appreciate something important, or put my place in the world in perspective, or feel a closeness to other humans. Usually, the more these things are pushed on me, the less I feel it, the more uncomfortable I feel. I want to feel close to other people, and I treasure the sense of awe and beauty I feel at things in the world, and I think it's important to put your sense of your self in perspective, and these are the things that are often purported to be the purpose of certain rituals. But something about trying to generate these things grosses me out. Some of this may be an old-fashioned and unsupportable reflex based on ancient conceptions of what's important about being human. But, like the 'i love you' ritual, I'm not entirely convinced that inducing these reactions in yourself affect the same thing.

It may be that I'm an unreasonable skeptic about hacking your brain. In general, I think the idea of taking advantage of your insane neurological heritage to improve yourself is a good one. But maybe there are little pockets of implications in there that make me uncomfortable because it's not the way I was raised. Or maybe this problem I have of feeling disconnected and weirded out and isolated and alone when people gather in groups and do group things is merely preventing me from benefiting from something that is extremely beneficial to most people.

But also I'm just not entirely convinced that it's a good thing to use these ancestral psychological flaws to our advantage in this way. I'm not sure what my reasoning on this one is. Maybe I'm some sort of weird purist and need to get that sorted out. I guess I generally ascribe to the notion that using some aspect of your psychology strengthens it. It's nice to funnel your harmful little tics and quirks to a good cause, if you're going to be doing them anyway. But it's better to not do them at all. So maybe it really is just being practical and making do with the way things are for the time being to say, "Well, most people have this urge to engage in rituals and ceremonies, so we should carefully design a ritual that will satisfy that urge but accomplish something useful." Probably it's hard to do away with the urge altogether, and I'm just not very empathetic with that difficulty since I don't suffer from that problem.

Admittedly, my repulsion to such rituals has kept me from investing much into exploring the effectiveness of the rituals enacted by the Less Wrong group. I don't know for sure what sort of investigation has been done to see if they actually accomplish what they're supposed to accomplish. I think I may not have an accurate idea of really what they're truly intended to do, nor what the actual effect is on the people who participate. I think I have a subconscious assumption that, whatever does happen, there are some unwanted side effects. I think I have this belief that it's really reinforcing the thoughtlessness of following a group activity, that we have a ways to go before we really know how to design rituals that don't hijack your brain into groupthink mode.

And that's really the worst thing that I've experienced in the Less Wrong group: it feels at least as groupy as any other group. Having a name for a group alone seems to enhance this impression. If you're simply a collection of friends who tend to hang out together, you may act rather insular and exclusive, but you may not have a distinct, well-described identity attached to that group. Something about being able to ascribe a label to yourself imposes restrictions on your allowed actions (see the well-known Paul Graham essay on identity.) In many groups, labeled or not, though, there aren't necessarily actual criteria for inclusion. There may not be explicit criteria for who's allowed in Less Wrong, but there is enough discussion and literature on the blog and at the meet-ups about what is right and proper and what is wrong that it doesn't take even a person of subaverage perspicacity to figure them out.

I don't personally care for groups. There's a bit of conflict here, because I actually do desire and enjoy a feeling of belonging. But for me, that seems to work better based on individuals than any exact group charter. If I am with a small number of people that I know personally and am comfortable with, then I will feel something like that sense of belonging. It works if there are additional people present I do not know as well, so long as the ratio of known to unknown is large enough, or the total number of people is small enough and I have at least one or two others I feel very comfortable with. It's based on my individual connections with individual people. Having something in common with someone doesn't really do it for me. I have a large number of traits, all of which will be shared with someone, most of which will be shared with many people. There are probably also clumps of traits, so that once I find someone who shares some of my traits, they are likely to share others. Sharing something with someone is probably necessary for feeling connected to them, and of course makes it easier or more likely to happen. But it does not accomplish this in and of itself. So if a collection of people get together based on some shared trait or interest, I do not feel like I belong with them automatically. The more we have in common, the more interested and optimistic I may be about working on establishing those connections. But my default is to feel isolated and alone, regardless of what we ostensibly share.

And frankly, as soon as a collection of people start exhibiting group behavior, I get a little grossed out. I don't always realize it right away, and I frequently find myself participating. This results in me relatively frequently acting in ways that I feel uncomfortable with or ashamed of; sometimes I have that feeling even as I am acting, sometimes it's not until afterwards that I reflect on my behavior and regret it. Most of it isn't really all that objectively harmful, just mildly distasteful. I don't always speak up to disagree, I sometimes find myself saying the things that agree with the general consensus, joining in on something I'm not very enthusiastic about because that's the group activity. Sometimes it's something harmless like playing a group game when I'd rather we did something else; sometimes it's something a little worse like all agreeing with each other about some complaint we have about someone who's not there.

And that's really probably the main thing that repulses me. It's bad enough on its own, but it's almost worse with Less Wrong because it seems to be in direct conflict with so much of what is claimed by the group. People in Less Wrong speak often of the ills of groupthink, of the negative impact of social pressure, of all the ways in which group identity kills your ability to think rationally. But the distinction between members of the club and outsiders is harsh. A great, great deal of the conversations I witness (and begrudgingly participate in) are to the effect of "How can I deal with non-rationalists?" or "How can I convince a non-rationalist to change their mind?"

I understand the need for these conversations. There are so very, very many people in the world that I am just completely baffled as to how to relate to. I've learned some basic tricks for how to not just stare blankly at every attempt at conversation that doesn't begin with, "So I was watching this mathematics lecture the other day and..." but I still feel that roaring emptiness when confronted with the need to talk to someone who doesn't fit in my extremely limited range of acceptable acquaintances. There are so many such fundamental differences in what assumptions I have about the world and how to deal with it and talk about it that I feel adrift and having anything to do with most people seems hopeless. For people like those who tend towards Less Wrong, this sort of response is common. Many of the Less Wrongers are, loosely, nerds. Most of them are just not average in many ways. Many of them have devoted more time in their lives to whatever little eccentric pocket of knowledge interests them rather than other human beings. But they still run into those human beings, in their family, at their jobs, when just moving about in the world. And, if they've gotten that far yet, they're starting to realize that it might not be the best thing to just disregard everyone else as insufficient and not worth acknowledging. Maybe they just want to know how to not fall into awkward or disastrous disagreements; maybe they're in what appears to be the majority of Less Wrong members and want to actively manipulate the others around them to their purposes. Maybe they feel, as I often do, that so many people in the world are both suffering themselves, and contributing to the problems that cause suffering in general in the world, mostly due to some error in their thinking, and they want to correct that. Overall, they just want to be able to interact comfortably and effectively with more people than the very restricted subset they're currently competent with. Hence the very, very many conversations about "How do I deal with outsiders?"

But this contributes to the creation of outsiders, and insiders. It establishes the inclusion of those of us who fit in, and relegates the others to the category of Not-Us. Maybe it's that my ability to relate or connect to people is so limited that I don't bother creating an Us and Not-Us. The former category would be measure 0 against measure 1, so it doesn't seem worth it. I just take as given that all other people are, in fact, people; I may not care for them or understand them, I may not want to personally be around them, and I may prefer myself and those like me; but I don't consider those preferences to be absolute or objective. I still want to respect the other person's autonomy, even if it is imperfect. My autonomy is imperfect, and whether or not I want someone else who knows better than me to try to make decisions for me is complicated. I might appreciate it in the end, but I'm not ready to condone it just yet without better options explored. It may be true that there are many instances where I know better than other people, make better choices, etc etc, but I don't think that grants me a special status. And there really is this strong undercurrent of disdain in the Less Wrong group for people who aren't quite so very smart and rational and well-informed. Outsiders are either just not worth bothering with except as a means of damage control, or they need to be converted to our ways of thinking.

The drive to convert others to our ways of thinking, or somehow compete against those irrational, foolish masses worries me. I think this is another motive somewhere in the creation of rituals like the solstice - all those other groups (particularly religions) are using these tactics successfully. We have to compete with them, and if these methods work, it's foolish of us not to use them too. I'm actually on the fairly extreme side of thinking that religion is harmful, ignorance is almost as bad, and all those other things stated above about social groups in general. I do think it would benefit people individually and everyone else, to adopt new practices and ways of thinking, such as those advocated on the Less Wrong blog, and drop those that currently harm them. But I'm not fighting anyone. I don't want to win, or conquer, or recruit, or convert. Somehow from thinking that it would be better for people to be different, I don't draw the conclusion that the correct thing to do is fight, by any means. Maybe this means my reasoning is flawed. Maybe I've been too strongly influenced by James Carse: "The only evil in the world is the drive to eliminate evil." And recruiting, conversion, and propaganda all feel like fighting to drive out evil to me.

This coupled with what appear to be claims on the part of the group of not wanting to be insular or exclusive leave me fairly disappointed and uninterested in participating. It's true that no one is actually turned away or even very strongly made to feel unwelcome. It's similar to churches in that respect: they open their arms to everyone, are very happy to have you there, but under the expectation that you're there to learn the true message and change your ways. There is still open disdain and dismissal of the 'outsiders', mostly people who are stupid in some way, as if they're doing it on purpose. And maybe this sort of criticism is never or rarely aimed directly at anyone present. But, seeing as how I'm not perfectly rational or informed, and frequently make foolish decisions or belief things based on vague emotional impressions, I can easily extrapolate from what's said about people not present to myself, and it makes me nervous about admitting my failures. I do try to say things like, 'Well, I do such-and-such, and this is why,' in a way to both explain possible not entirely idiotic or malicious causes for the behavior that outsiders exhibit that is held in such contempt, and to maybe even humanize them a bit. But this sort of banks on not being dismissed as a complete idiot myself, and I'm not confident that that's not what happens. And I get worn out. See previous post: it discourages me from being open about my ignorance and mistakes enough to make the improvements I'd like to.

Before joining Less Wrong, I tended to be one of the more sane and rational ones among the people I would hang out with. I didn't have a lot of patience for the clearly irrational and superstitious way people would act and think. But now I'm at the bottom of the ladder and I have a lot more sympathy. Even if you're particularly humble and open to criticism, it is trying to have many things, or very fundamental things, about your habits and outlook and self brought into question. I took the view that these criticisms really aren't about you as a person, they're just likely to be true facts about how things work, and really everything would be better if you recognized that and acted differently. I still feel that way, but responding that way does not come automatically to everyone and is difficult to achieve. I'm not sure it's apparent to outsiders that critiques of the way you think or act aren't direct attacks on your person, and I think part of the reason for that is that that's not what insiders think. Abstractly, yes, and to varying degrees with themselves or certain people, a Less Wronger might consider most "advice" to be constructive criticism. But for people too far outside the Less Wrong norm, it becomes more and more a judgment on the person themselves, that they are just too dumb or ignorant or superstitious or wrong, and if they don't respond kindly to advice, then that's just another thing wrong with them. That they're a lost cause, and merely need to be managed by those who know better, namely us.

A lot of the issues I take with the Less Wrong group are general issues I would take with any group. I think a lot of them are actually worse in this case, in part because they are so far from average: feeling so far off from most of the world can tend to make you delve more deeply into the place where you feel more comfortable. But, especially with the idea that we're 'better', it can't help but put you in opposition to everyone else. Any belief that you're better or righter or smarter than most other people is extremely dangerous, and even if there's support to it, I would be very very careful about putting any weight or action into that belief. I stumble across that feeling frequently, especially with things like science: there really is good cause to think that scientifically supported facts are true, but moving from that to how to shape other people is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. Believing that you've accounted for potential problems by being aware that there might be potential problems only enhances your confidence in your own righteousness. Maybe you are right, in a lot of ways. I actually think so. But I don't think the solution to problems with people when they get into groups is to form another group. It's seductive because it's comforting, and fun, and so much nicer than feeling alone and uncertain. I don't think I really want other people to feel as alone and uncertain as I do all the time. But I don't want to mask or eliminate those feelings falsely or dangerously, either.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
A lot of the elements of something like homesteading holds a lot of appeal to me. I am an inveterate believer that society is insane, and severely doubt anyone's ability to choose consistently wisely in its midst. I think it is possible but difficult, and unlikely to happen: we barely even have the ability to be consistently aware of the changes our environments are inducing in us. We are too good at learning without trying, without realizing. But, I just happen to also have a resistance to impinging on the autonomy of others, to the hubris of believing I both know better than others for themselves, and that that would grant me the excuse to shape their decisions. I don't want to change the way people are, but I want for them to change. It's clearly a weak stance derived from some sort of romantic ideal gleaned from wistful pessimistic early science fiction, or something.
But this lines up all my instincts with the impulse to withdraw and eschew participation rather than changing myself, rather than reaching in and trying to take control. It makes me sympathetic to the notion of extricating oneself from society and all its structures, of being good enough to be self-reliant. This makes me susceptible to certain strains of thoughts surrounding the concept space of home-steading, of making your own items instead of buying them, of understanding how things work well enough to not be held in their sway or the sway of their mechanics; essentially all of what I imagined to enable one to not be weighed down by the so clearly misguided or out-and-out wrong norms of the people you just happened to live around.
I probably just saw, disheartened, what I perceived was my lack of control over my own psychology, my consistent failures, disappointment in myself as well as how I often witnessed people act. I wanted more out of each individual person, I wanted to be everything in myself.
Whatever the reason, it has put me in a place of distrust and discomfort with a great deal of the world I find around me.

But, as I grow old and all but the pang of regret of my ideals fall away, I have been coming to admire things that are more practical. My old interests and visions of what a good life was have been losing their appeal; seeming superfluous, nonsensical and vain. I still react strongly to the dream of a life where all that you do is read and learn; where the main focus is on taking something in; of at most, creating something beautiful.
But this doesn't seem like enough to me, and I am beginning to struggle with my outmoded rubric that judges my behavior by an aesthetic standard. I'm starting to want more something that *does* something, that at the least allows some human to eat.
And I've been learning more about the things that populate my environment, and getting just the vaguest idea of how they came to exist. Even devices that seem incredibly simple are designed to deal with unforeseen problems that I would take years to anticipate. Try to do anything like fix your own bicycle or build your own house and you'll see that there's a reason for specialized tools and inventions. I am not smarter than all that exists in this civilization and it's beginning to seem more insane to expect myself to give up everything I can't figure out myself. Maybe I'm just more lazy, but I want all the things that I would never discover. Merely hiding away and pouring everything into my own brain seems not only selfish but completely in my own way. The way to learn everything is to take every advantage you can find, not turn your nose up at it. "Natural" does not mean "better." All the sympathy I had for things like valuing 'natural' over 'manmade' is almost completely washed away. I think the sentiment shows up in places I had not always expected; but whenever I recognize it I am disappointed. The universe can be manipulated through the means of understanding it; by extending the mathematics that describes the behavior of matter we can find the extreme cases and exploit them, and this is all just by having brains that fell together over eons. "Natural" is just the way things happened to be, and has nothing to do with the way things "should" be. Being unlike we naturally are is often the best we can do, not something bad merely by virtue of being self-created. Yes, I am frightened and overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the available information in the world that I can never understand, that is utterly like anything I have learned to be prepared for. But I don't want to reject it simply to hold onto my fears. I want to become more like a thing that can adapt to any world it encounters, even this one, and failing that, I don't hold that maintaining my own comfort could possibly be considered important.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
13 January 2014 @ 03:24 pm
I've been following the Less Wrong blog for several years, and last year I moved to an actual place that had actual people and a LW meetup. I've been attending the meetups and been a part of the social group for over a year now, and I was very excited about it at first. In a lot of ways, the people in LW have been a relief. There are many basic things about the world and life that I take as standard and expected for people to do and think (i.e., "Whoa? You're still religious? I thought we were all over that"), but maybe most people outside of LW don't. Conversations are less likely to be painful or tedious or vacuous in LW since less offense is taken, the topics are somewhat more likely to be of interest to me (cryptography terms get bandied about with regularity, but I can go weeks without being reminded that movies exist), etc etc. But lately I've become a bit disenchanted and disengaged. The main reasons behind this can be divided into two broad categories. The first is primarily personal and having to do with particular aspects of my psychology. The second, while still of course having to do with my particular preferences and ideas, I think is less my own idiosyncrasies and neuroses and at least a little bit more a feature of the community itself.

I'll address the more personal aspects in this post first. I don't imagine I'm the only one who has these particular issues or psychological tics, so even though the exact details of it are specific and personal, I think a lot of it could apply to others, although I am likely a fairly extreme version of the problem.

One thing that drew me strongly to the whole Less Wrong ethic was the idea behind using probabilities and Bayes' theorem to assign and update degrees of belief. Not requiring a belief to be binary, being able to move a little bit or a lot in some direction based on the strength of the evidence, being able to account for evidence one way or the other without it necessarily being a deciding factor to switch into the other camp, and being able to functionally act as though something is entirely true without needing to dogmatically assert that you are 100% sure: all these things were fairly new to me but beautiful. It's hard to change your mind to actually work this way, however, at least for a lot of things. Even the very title 'Less Wrong' has this flavor of not being a pompous assertion of Rightness, of binary values or arrogance, but merely a constant practice of trying to reduce error.

Except the problem is that that's not how psychology works. At least, that's not how my psychology works. I think the idea of Less Wrong is to train yourself so that you do work that way. But it's a long and difficult process, and it seems like it's probably harder depending on where you're starting from. And I'm starting from a gnawing insecurity scaffolded by a fierce judgmental skeleton. And so in my mind, the appeal to 'correctness' is irresistible. It sees 'less wrong' and automatically thinks 'more right'. I already have the constant burbling suspicion that I'm doing something wrong, and that that means that I'm wrong. The judgment comes with it. I don't automatically see mistakes as opportunities to change and improve; it feels like a failure and like I should be ashamed for failing. So although I try to change and improve, constantly, there's these added elements of fear, pain and shame that come along with the constant failing. And so in a community of people obsessed with being optimal, I can't help but feel crushed by the weight of my mistakes at all times.

I think this irresistible appeal to 'correctness' that I have is shared by many people in Less Wrong. Everyone wants to be correct, of course, but the type of person who is drawn to Less Wrong enough to come to the meetups is likely to be a person more focused than average on being correct. In my experience, many Less Wrongers have a strong need for answers, for correct information, a need not to be mistaken. I'm already susceptible to this type of thinking, and the sense of there being a 'wrong' and 'right' for absolutely everything is overwhelming among the Less Wrong community. The more I am around them, the less and less able I feel to accept or ignore flaws in my life, thinking, and beliefs. Ultimately, this is a good effect, on the theory that it will drive me to change and improve. In actuality and in the details of how this plays out, it results in a constant and unignorable inflammation of all my despairs, self-judgments, and shames.

It used to be that, even if I recognized some aspect of my life that was just a kludge, maybe I’d be a little disappointed, maybe worse, but sometimes I could just shrug it off and say, ‘Eh, it works.’ No more. Everything, absolutely everything, has a more or less right way of being done, or at least better and worse. I used to be able, for the most part, to have certain areas of my life or little problems that didn't seem to matter whether I did them poorly or not. But the constant drive for improvement and optimization that permeates this community leaves little room for anything done wrong without an explicit cost-benefit analysis. Tiny things, like whether or not to use a dishwasher or do dishes by hand, that I may have an opinion on but don't particularly care about either way, now have a correct answer. Big, difficult things that I would hesitate to evaluate in anyone other than myself, such as how to best respond to the impending or actual death of a loved one, actually do have a correct answer, and people who don't do this correctly are criticized. Maybe not to their faces, but amongst the Less Wrongers, those lesser fools who make life worse for everybody else, including themselves, by their poor actions, are scoffed at and bewailed. I can easily make the extrapolation to myself and my own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, even if it's not explicitly pointed out that my own specific situation isn't up to par.

Things that are commonly believed in LW but not so commonly believed outside (or vice versa) are the worst. These are the things that are most likely to be pointed out to you without any invitation for criticism, and to have saddled along with it the smug attitude of superiority and contempt. Most people are so foolish as to (not) believe X, but we are much smarter and more informed than that. So we leap at the opportunity to point it out in others. I've always been a weird mix of shy and outgoing, confident and insecure, but in the withering stare of the Less Wrong community I've shriveled into a trembling, worried jelly. If it was entirely arbitrary how correctness was decided, I wouldn't care so much. But I believe in at least the general rubric employed, or at least intended to be employed, by the people in Less Wrong who figure out what a person should do. I believe in actions mattering according to their actual consequences, not according to how it makes me feel, I believe in the approximate truth of a matter being decided by well-designed studies and experimentation, I believe in recognizing my own limitations and not sticking to something merely because it is familiar, comfortable, or easy. Under the assumption that this is also how all the 'correctness' of each action is decided by the group, I have to believe that the common LW opinions are likely to actually be correct, or that I should at least take them seriously and be able to justify my own actions and opinions, whether they accord with the party line or not.

But I haven’t thought about everything. I haven’t researched everything. I can’t remember the things I have thought about or researched over time. I would like to get better at this, as I think I'm probably particularly bad at it. This is a personal failing of mine and I don't consider it an excuse for not living up to the standards I think I'd like to hold. I want to be able to know why I believe and act the way I do, and be able to articulate that. I'd like to be willing to change, strong enough to take criticism and wise enough to not consider my mistakes as a judgment on myself as a person, but as signals that I need to do something differently.

But I already carry a constant sense of guilt and shame at my failures. I can usually only hope to just barely do well enough to get by, and all my excessive judgment and anxiety is richly enhanced by being surrounded by critiques and pressures so often. In my weakness, I need to be able to just be ok with the things I’m doing. I can’t always care if they’re suboptimal. The obsession with optimality and efficiency feels deadly. It reminds me of the basilisk problem: it's not necessarily inherently harmful, but certain people (i.e. me and others controlled by obsessive thoughts) are more likely to do poorly when in the grip of these concerns. A certain type of person thrives under this type of attention. It's like a forest of opportunity for that person. For others, not all of them as deeply broken as I am, it seems to me as though it's likely to be irritating at best. Add in my (fairly usual in general but probably, again, embodied in a more extreme version in me) impressionability from the people I am around, and you get this corrosive ever-present sense of doing something wrong that doesn't really aid me in improving.

It may be true that people who employ Less Wrong methods end up better off than without the tools of rationality, but in my experience, in general they continue to do things like assume that they are now invulnerable or automatically righter than those around them. I love the 'virtues of rationality' but of course nobody embodies them entirely. Admittedly they are hard to live up to. I do not live up to them. But the problem is in thinking that you are immune to things. It's the whole cautionary tale of cognitive biases in action: Because others are not agreeing with you, then by Aumann's agreement theorem, someone is wrong. Well, since the other person isn't in the club, they must be the one who's confused. They're doing it wrong. Being a Less Wronger gives you the support you need to believe you are correct, or at least more correct than anyone else. It gives you the means to be dogmatic and judgmental. It doesn't guarantee that you are very different in a lot of ways from anybody else. But it allows you to think you are. I want to be different in a lot of ways, and I believe I am, but I don't like to watch myself or others fall prey to that illusion. It's disheartening.

I feel so much more sympathy now for people I didn't used to feel sympathetic with. I used to be the most rational, sane person in a group, and I was often exasperated with the obviously unproductive and painfully unscientific thinking and behavior of others. Now, in a new group, I'm the one at the bottom of the rationality scale and I can see how obnoxious it is when someone else touts their intellectual/rational prowess around, even in the case when it's not lined with contempt. I didn't used to have patience for feeling resentment toward people who are merely presenting the facts. (See my small comment on a related matter here.) One could make an argument about how little arrogance or tact matter in light of the higher priority of improving blah blah blah. But now I fall on the irrational, emotional wayside where I just simply dislike people who are inconsiderate or self-righteous, and that carries a lot of weight with me.

Clearly most of this is just my own problem and I need to deal. I actually rather hate arguments to the effect of a certain group or whatever trying to change their behavior in order to be less abrasive or more appealing to more people. I often want the other people included in that more (which would be me in this case) to take responsibility on themselves and not expect everything around them to be crafted to be more palatable for them, easier and more comfortable. I want for more people to be able to handle things that are challenging or unpleasant, if it's better. Of course, this is often a rather ineffective strategy for people actually getting better, which puts me in direct opposition to Less Wrong, funnily enough, who are very explicit about defining goals and discovering and employing the most effective methods for achieving them. I tend to be much more hesitant and conservative about the desirability of many goals, particularly those that impinge on others, even if I really do believe it's better for them. I seem to care a lot more about the value and effects of means in general than the average Less Wrong opinion, and have a strong resistance against anything that seems to put a person into the 'means' category. So I find myself stuck, where I am frustrated with a lot of what I find in the Less Wrong community, but by my supposed philosophy wouldn't advocate that anyone except me change. Which is a feature of my problem, where I now have a great weight of expectation upon myself, and have proven to not respond to these sorts of expectations very impressively.

I often try to comfort myself about my neuroses with the thought that many other people are like me, at least qualitatively so. That seems to be the message bandied about to soothe our anxieties: whenever you think you're the only one nervous or insecure, rest assured, we all are. It makes sense, but I'm still rarely convinced. Most other people seem so much obviously more functional than I am, and some of the things they say (or don't say) seem very unlikely to come from someone similar to me in certain respects, unless they're very skilled at emulating a whole person. But on the idea that many people are like me to some degree, and that the psychology of many people is such that being presented with a pile of their errors is more likely to frustrate or shut them down, I would expect Less Wrong as a community or social group to winnow out all but a very narrow range of people on the extreme end of some spectra of personality. Most people will get benefit, possibly great benefit, from reading the blogs or attending a meetup once in a while. But most people will also be driven away from any more frequent or in-depth participation with the group. This is expected and fine for any subculture, particularly those that desire to remain a subculture, but it brings me to the somewhat less personal and potentially more broadly applied issues I've had with the Less Wrong group, which I'll address later.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
05 January 2014 @ 01:53 am
Indestructible self healing circuits
Implementation of a Self-Replicating Universal Turing Machine

Livejournal thoughtfully saves your partially finished drafts, so that when you next go to start writing, you have the option to start off with whatever you were last working on. This is particularly handy if you go many, many months between (failed) attempts to blog, and come back and find that all you have started in your restored draft are the two links above. Was I intending to write something about these papers? Was I just bookmarking them in the most insanely useless way possible? What commentary, what wild, despondent, fantastical thoughts was I intending to muse upon when I instantly lost interest in recording them? Is it just a reminder to my future self that there is still much that is good in the world, and most of that goodness is in the future, if I can just manage to not fall out of existence before then? Well, thank you, past self. Thank you for your cryptic message.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
I find that I have put sentience into a special, sacred realm, where I consider it to be inherently valuable. This value is intimately linked in my mind to something like autonomy, and the value I place on these two features seems to support certain of my transhumanist desires, but also makes me a little bit picky about which possible scenarios involving greater-than-human intelligences I prefer or find abhorrent.

Note: For the purposes of this post, let's not argue what I define as conscious or sentient. I’m not sure this is that well thought-out, it’s just a reaction I’ve noticed in myself and am still exploring.

I'm not sure if having sentience be something inherently special is acceptable under the rubric that one must choose something to draw the line at, or if it’s just as arbitrary and dangerous as any other realm held sacred. Once something is conscious, I grant it some level of inherent and inalienable value and right to be autonomous and/or respected/valued as worthwhile in and of itself. I don’t expect human beings, for example, to earn their keep - ideally, everyone "deserves" a satisfying life with their needs met; eudaimonia and physical comfort don't need to be "earned". I recognize this is not necessarily practically achievable, and have not worked out a response to that fact, but let's forget about it for now; all it means is that I am uncomfortable with many sad facts about the way the world is. And I balk at devaluing the life of someone else conscious just because I find it to be unpalatable: I'm generally willing to give them credit for wanting to be alive, even if I think it would be better not to be than to live the way they do. With currently existing sentiences – i.e. humans – I want the best for them, for them to continue to flourish, to attain autonomy or avoid oppression, etc. A big part of what seems most ethically acceptable to me is for an intelligent being to have some measure of control over its own existence, which includes its own cognition.

However the current state of affairs generally does not really live up to my standards, and so I recognize the inherent tragedy of human existence. I guess I really do believe that our limitations are a tragedy.

Recently a book I read had a coda at the end, after most of mankind had died away, where one of the female characters was happily and proudly pregnant, rebuilding the human race. This sort of post-apocalyptic scenario, where it's just a given that women need to devote themselves to childbearing, purely due to facts of biology, especially when it's sort of painted as something that they are happy or proud to do, stresses me out. Maybe part of it is that so many aspects of that attitude are not, actually, science fiction. It may not be painted as vital for the survival of the only intelligent race we know of in most cultures, but it is a strong force; and for people who feel like there are 'right' and 'wrong' ways to be, or anything along those lines, there is an argument that 'right' people should be having babies - i.e. smart, educated, non-religious women need to breed to outcompete poor, ignorant, and religious people who are flooding the planet with their large families. Whether or not any of this has any validity currently or in the past, the possibility that there would be a situation - say the post-apocalyptic one - where it may be valid, or where social necessity is such that they may as well be valid as far as I, as a woman am concerned, alarms me. I imagine myself in that place and think, I don’t want it. Yes, we all have to live ways we don’t want to, certainly in such a hypothetical extreme situation, but I still find it disturbing. We could make the argument of it being one-sided: maybe a man would say, 'no of course I wouldn't be ok with it suddenly becoming imperative that I devote my life and body to making children, I certainly wouldn't take pride in this sort of 'contribution', but hey, that's different, that's just the way things are.' Of course men have their own unavoidable burdens and expectations, but I wouldn’t want them to be stuck with those, either.

This whole act of accepting how things just fundamentally are or must be, accepting the destiny of our biology, sometimes disgusts or even frightens me. Some things about gender that are less extreme still feel that way to me. To this scenario in particular, but probably adaptable to others, it makes it feel urgent to close the gap between ourselves and technology as much, and as soon, as possible. I don’t want to be able to lose the advances we've already made merely because something has gone wrong. I want the power to do as I please to be an inherent part of me that will not disappear with the collapse of a complex and tenuous infrastructure, with anything going even moderately out of its intricate order. I don’t want the knowledge and achievements of my civilization to remain external, separable, losable. I want them to be a part of me, I want my very bodily existence to contain the tools and information I require. My biology is inadequate and damning and it is important that it change. I am deeply unsatisfied with common visions of the future that postulate essentially anatomically human beings with more and more advanced devices. What are people thinking, assuming we will be so much like ourselves, just with accessories? I don’t want accessories, I want, myself, to be different, to be advanced.

People speak of humans in the future, worry about humans’ relationships with machines. There is a possible dystopia with human-machine relationships, and what I want is to eliminate the divide. Seeing all these problems with these unequal beings: subservience, oppression, the corralling of sentient beings by others – I don’t know that I argue for there being a monopoly on sentience for one type of creature, as there currently is, but significant gaps in power or ability disturb me. It pertains to my discomfort with power and control, which itself stems from my assumption against being able to make accurate predictions about complicated systems, particularly those involving intelligent beings. Maybe these beliefs will change as my notion of what is possible changes; as it stands, I suppose I doubt that any entity will be sufficiently intelligent to be able to make accurate or reliable enough predictions to be trusted to control people or their situation safely. I believe this to be the case for all humans currently, and probably all currently existing systems, at least for large enough contexts. Humans and computers can be reasonably trusted to make controlling decisions in small enough contexts, (for example, maybe single-instance medical cases for humans and/or computers, and controlling flight patterns or something for computers), but on larger scales, such as whole societies or governments, I don’t think anything has that power and knowledge right now.

If we could suppose a wise enough AI, however, that could engineer society for the benefit of humans (or other intelligent but less-intelligent-than-the-AI entities), a new nervousness seeps in, related to my fundamental value of the autonomy of sentient beings. Something about being intelligent and self-aware, yet acknowledging in all areas the superior choice of another, creeps me out. If we are not smart enough to even hope to verify to our satisfaction the veracity of the wise entity’s proclamations, it seems to put us in a position of complete dependence, reliance, and subservience that jars with my notion of sentient autonomy. I can accept deferring to experts in general, but once it becomes so universal that there is no method of investigating the claims or reliability of these experts it becomes disturbing to my sensibilities. I may not be able to understand the full extent of a human expert’s claims, but we are close enough in knowledge and intelligence on the whole possible spectrum that, were I to take some time and effort, I am at least capable of noticing if something seems fishy, or if the claim corresponds with other information I understand better, or otherwise find reasonable clues as to the reliability of the claims – they are better than any I could make, but not so grandiosely better that it is always in my best interest to accept the claims of any expert without further thought. Once the expert’s knowledge and intelligence is so far out of my own range, however, I become helpless. It basically never makes sense for me to do anything but believe it unconditionally. Which is fine, given that of course it is going to be right so much more reliably and thoroughly than any current human expert, but what does that do for my existence as a supposedly intelligent being?

It may be that I have not thought this through thoroughly enough – this is something that already occurs in many, many areas, which I don’t find repulsive. It may be that the idea becomes offensive once there is absolutely no area of my life whatsoever in which I have the need to exercise my own intelligence capabilities. But what if there was just one, small, limited area? That doesn’t seem that great either. I’m not sure how to quantify what I find acceptable, or why exactly. It certainly seems important to have access to the correct information, to wise and reliable advice. But to put an intelligent or sentient being in the position of never being able to discern its own opinion, evaluate its own data, ever, seems somehow unethical to me, if only because of my intuitive discomfort with the thought, if only because I have placed this special importance on the autonomy of sentient beings.

So I am reluctant to support further creation of such limited beings as we are. I value many things about human existence; some of these I suspect may just be rationalizing or making do with what I have, and some are more universal. These latter seem to be the ones I want to support, maintain, and create; the former I suppose I do love currently but am willing to see go extinct. And so I do not find the notion of humans, as current humans, disappearing to be replaced by some other, superior race to be disturbing; in fact I find the notion of us continuing as we currently are, either alone or coextant with superior beings, to be quite repugnant.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
I accidentally read this article on why handwritten notes mean more than electronic ones, coincidentally not hours after I had been discussing the woeful disappearance of actual paper letters. I find the author's case entirely unconvincing, however. The main problem lies in his continued use of phrases like "...feel that someone you knew had, for once, reached out and greeted you, in a way that an email or a text never could?" He seems to confuse his own personal, current emotional response to something universal and inherent in the object. It would be okay to write an opinion piece saying, "I miss handwritten notes because I feel this way about them. Many others my age, and possibly even some people younger, probably feel the same way..." and continuing on in that manner. But he doesn't. He talks about it like he's declaring facts.

Hensher refers to a 1989 study that suggested a correlation between effort expended on handwriting improvement, and other literacy benefits. He adds, "Those small rituals of pen-sucking and chewing seem to shape a person's character and potential; the resulting marks on paper both form and reveal the person who made them," which I highly suspect was not a conclusion from the study, but his own possibly erroneous speculation on the causal connection. Additionally, I'm sorry to say, that when talking about the effects of electronic media and technology on people, anything from 1989 is pretty much as out of date and irrelevant as the rest of the 20th century. Does he not realize that 1989 was 15 years ago? That's a long time, technologically speaking.

Further statements such as "Graphology is an attempt to formalize what we already intuitively know about handwriting—that it forms a direct and intimate bridge between two people. We know, deep down, that there's nothing to match the communication with a pen on paper, and we tend to connect this feeling with our highest intentions" only sink Hensher further down. He's saying that we already know something, and then using his claim that we have this intuitive feeling to support his claim that what we feel is true. Not only is this tautological, it rests on the notion that these 'intuitions' say something more broadly about people in general - not just about him and other people in his demographic, who learned to have these particular intuitions due to the time and technological landscape they grew up in. People younger than me probably don't have these intuitions, and for me and my peers, I'd guess they're fairly tenuous. To say that something electronic will "never mean as much" as something handwritten isn't a reflection of the nature of the media itself, but of your own tendency of what and how much meaning to put into something.

Hensher does at least make a slight attempt to distinguish between "different" and "better", but his lack of conviction shows through. I happen to like getting, say, physical letters in the mail, but I don't particularly attach that to handwriting - it's more the surprise of something physical appearing in your house one day, and the range of forms it could take - maybe not a wider range than what you can send electronically, but you do have different options of what sort of object you can mail rather than e-mail. I like variety, and I see electronic things more frequently, so the variety of a paper object is pleasant. This does not make it inherently better. I would be sad to have this method of communication disappear entirely, and like anything that changes, Hensher is at least correct that we "lose something" by converting from one way of doing things to another. This is why old-fashioned things and quaintness in general retain their charm, and little pockets continue to exist here and there for people to continue to experience and enjoy such outmoded practices. If he weren't being so self-absorbed and projecting his own feelings into the world, he could have rewritten this piece, even just slightly, as an ode to handwriting and a request or hope that it survives in such a way, instead of just melancholy and wistful bitching about how the world gets worse every time it gets better.
A Carnot engine of self-loathing
05 July 2013 @ 09:47 am
I listened to this lecture* about brains and the internet, or more specifically, how the internet is a brain, on certain definitions of brain. Yes, right, but at the end was a question spurred, if I recall correctly, by the whole implanted-electrodes-control-robot-arms/allow-for-thought-reading thing, leading in the long run potentially to the equivalent of telepathy, and concerns for privacy contained therein. The lecturer's response was, appropriately, about how privacy is already dead, Jesus lady get over yourself and get with the picture. Except he illustrated his point by talking about how right now he can find out your name and address, whatever biographical information is contained in your assorted online portfolios, all this online information, concluding, "Why do I need to read your mind? I already know everything I need to know."

Which, you know, depends on what you need to know. I suppose in the future** when everyone is a marketer, and all human interaction is merely a means to selling something, then all you would ever need to know about someone is how to find them, and their shopping habits, and other algorithmically available information. But it seems to me like this disease where only quantified/quantifiable, recorded/recordable information is considered to exist, that all else is less than just epiphenomena, it's merely illusory ephemera. My encroaching sense of doubt is telling me that my assertion that I do, in fact, have thoughts that are not present in my online data, that there are ideas and opinions, concepts and emotions, ambitions and suspicions that can't be meaningfully inferred from either my clickthrough patterns or explicit text I make available, inadvertently or intentionally, online - that this idea is quaint and naive, that either anything I think falls in to that category is more accessible than I realize, or that upon closer inspection I have no such secret thoughts, that absolutely everything I may possibly think or feel is quite directly expressed electronically. If not today, then certainly by the habits of the me of tomorrow. But the part of me that's communicating with me and controlling my thoughts and opinions from its residence in the 1700s believes that there are aspects of humanity, of my own self, of my interactions with others, thoughts that would be worth knowing to these others, but that are not extractable from the data my online actions generate. Maybe, yes, small, petty, personal things, but perhaps that is why I find it disturbing. The notion that anything that does not provide a predictable model of a human being for me to exploit for my own ends is as far as I'm concerned empty noise, that the only data of possible interest are those that will gain me some profit, rather than being simply edifying or illuminating about that person, the assumption that all assertions to the effect that we are anything other than our demographics, metadata, and shopping history are inflated and foolish throwbacks to a more ignorant era, offends my Enlightenment Age sensibilities. Maybe fairly soon all these little relics I consider to be of interest from the human mind will be able to be gained without the use of telepathy, but the sorts of information he describes as all that is necessary I find to be a shallow picture of anything that I care about in another human being.

*Which, upon looking at the video, is apparently given by either a plucky 1940s journalist or his contemporary rough but lovable gangster protagonist
**Right. The future.