Jul 172017

The Welcome To Night Vale live show came to Denver yesterday. It was great fun, I loved it! And one of the best things about it is that everyone in the audience is the sort of person you want to know. There’s a very strong “these are my peeps!” feel there. :)

The show, as usual, involves a bit of audience participation. A friend sitting by me didn’t participate very much, for which I teased them a little right afterwards (the participation makes it so much more fun!!). They responded that they don’t participate in ritual lightly, and weren’t comfortable joining in this one. My initial reaction was “lol, audience participation isn’t ritual,” but after about ten seconds of reflection I realized “Oh yeah… it kinda is.”

Which got me to thinking.

Rationalists are aware of the power and importance of ritual, and there are ongoing attempts to harness that power. They meet with various levels of success, depending on group and area. In Denver they haven’t taken hold. A fair number of us here are rather allergic to the trappings of religion. Personally I have no problem with anyone else doing it, but to me it feels forced and hokey. Like putting on your parents’ clothes as a kid and pretending to be adults. Religious ritual works because the participants think it really does tap into a higher power. Mimicking the form without believing in the substance feels… uncomfortably silly.

A different friend has recently asked if Universities could take the place of Churches in the secular community (after reading the excellent “Man As A Rationalist Animal” post by Lou Keep). I think that if they could have, they would have by now. They’re halfway there. They have the instinctive respect of the populace, the arcane credentialing and clergy, and of course the miracles. But they’re missing the interface with the common man–the language of ritual and community.

Welcome To Night Vale has that. WtNV is the start of a church for the modern urban/suburban areligious person. It tackles the fundamental question that plagues the educated proletariat–the meaninglessness of existence in a post-community capitalist society, where everyone is interchangeable and replaceable. And it answers it not with speeches or therapy or advise… it answers it by giving us a mirror made of myths. Modern myths, spun just weeks ago.

The podcast creates the foundation of myth that informs the spiritual layer of all its listeners. On its own it doesn’t do much. It is interesting art, of varying quality, that can sometimes touch deep emotions. The true power of WtNV comes about in its live shows. Here they take the common base of myth that the audience shares and they do something wonderful with it. They transform it into ritual. They bind the audience together, guiding their emotions down the tracks of a mythical story, until it resolves in a catharsis and an instruction (“be good to each other”) that means something.

But VERY importantly – it does it tongue-in-cheek. It is funny, self-referential, and irreverent. Because that is what it means to be areligious in a world that doesn’t need you. Taking things seriously simply does not work. Life is a farce, and we all know it. So the absurdity is played up. We are here to have fun. To make jokes and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about how stupid all this is. And when the merriment is high enough we can all join hands are jokingly chant to a story book character, because in it’s fun to do so in the spirit of the story. And if, along the way, we manage to say something deeper and more important, and feel uplifted at the end, well, so much the better. We came for the lols, and we left having touched something within that united us all for a few hours.

It only worked because no one comes SEEKING a deep experience at WtNV. We came for fun, and the masterful story led to something deeper. It’s like dating–if you’re seeking a relationship, it is apparent, and it doesn’t work. It’s only when you’re just dating around for the pleasure of an evening with interesting company that you are in a state where a relationship can begin.

This is what Rationalist Rituals get wrong. They are trying for deep experience and wonder, like we had in our childhood when our parents took us to church. That is not available via the same route of reverence and worship that the religious rituals used. The mindset of one who doesn’t instinctively revere the greater power being channeled is inimical to that sort of ritual. The ritual of the educated areligious must start in a different place. Our priests are comedians as well. Our religion must laugh first, or be rejected by our immune system.

Someday a Welcome To Night Vale community theater will form at a university. A group of fans have a lot of fun reenacting favorite WtNV episodes, and form strong bonds, and the university institution will lend them support and prestige in other aspects of life. And maybe, a couple generations down the line, their children will have a fully-formed religious life tailored for the concerns of an early 21st century proletariat, which fulfills their emotional needs with myth and community, while slowly becoming less relevant as the centuries grind on. And it’ll all have started with people needing to laugh at the absurdity of this sort of thing happening in the first place.

Until that happens, check out the live Welcome To Night Vale show “All Hail,” even if you aren’t a listener of the podcast. It’s good, and it’s instructive. Likely even if you don’t listen to the podcast.

May 092017

Guys, I’m totes gonna solve discrimination today.

People are complicated and hard to get to know in a short amount of time. But sometimes you need to make quick a judgement without the time to really get to know someone. So people often use simple heuristics based on what they can see. Things like clothing, race, accent, etc.

This kinda works, because in the aggregate there are statistical difference between groups. If you pick a random man from the population, statistically he’s likely to be taller than a random woman. There are a lot of these sorts of statistical correlations, the most controversial of which deal with intelligence and criminality, which I won’t get into because you already know them.

The most important thing about statistical correlations is that they are SUPER fuzzy. A few percentage aggregate difference between groups that measure in the hundreds of millions, or possibly billions, leaves for astounding variance between individuals. I’m tall-ish for a man, and I’ve met a number of women taller than I am. The tremendous variance between individuals makes it unfair for someone to be pre-judged based on a group they fall in. It is claimed that “Research in human genetics has highlighted that there is more genetic variation within than between human groups, where those groups are defined in terms of linguistic, geographic, and cultural boundaries.” Statement 2. Guiding principles on using racial categories in human genetics (Soo-Jin Lee et al., 2008)

So we’re left in a tough dilemma — the information available to us is crappy and unfair to any given individual. But it’s based on aggregate statistics, and when that is the ONLY information someone has to go on, they will go on that, because even unfair data is often better than nothing at all. IE: if you want to optimize your group for tallness, you’re better off rejecting all female applicants (if the only info you have on applicants is their sex), despite the fact that a mixed group picking from the tallest candidates from both sexes would be taller.

But you know what groups actually have a very low degree of variance within them? Families. Specifically, children to their parents.

When I was a wee one, I believed strongly in blank-slate-ism. Almost everything was Nurture, in my opinion. To the point that I argued very strongly on Xena forums that it was evil for Xena to try to murder the infant child of Satan, because if it was raised by Gabrielle it could have totally grown up into a kind, caring, productive member of ancient Greek society. I still do think that it was probably wrong for Xena to have attempted that particular bit of child-killing, but I’m now far more sympathetic to the side of “Look, her dad is literally the embodiment of evil.” Turns out genes really do make a lot of difference, and everything is at least partially heritable.

This has been floating around in my head for a while, but I was recently reminded to post about it due to someone saying:

if you have a kid with some kind of horrifying predatory criminal, and now your kid is a horrifying predatory criminal, and you have no idea how this happened because the father left before he was even born and your new husband is a great guy and you’ve both always done your best to raise your kid well and give him a good home, your kid’s psychiatrist will listen empathetically to your story, and then empathetically give you a copy of The Nurture Assumption.

Also, “But we’re his foster parents! And he was taken away from his biological parents at age two weeks old! And we’ve given him the best home and every advantage you could imagine!” Lady, as soon as my next bulk shipment of The Nurture Assumption copies come in, boy do I have a book for you!

If someone wanted to eliminate all practical reasons for discrimination in situations where there’s enough time to run a quick database look-up on someone, I think by far the best way to do so would be to implement a strong genealogical record and make it entirely legal to look people up at will and base decisions on the results. Now the black kid with a teacher mother and an electrician father has a FAR better chance on his job application than the white kid with a mom in-and-out of rehab, and a dad who’s been in jail twice for assault.

Yes, it’s STILL unfair. Popular fiction would be full of stories of the kid who’s parents are horrifying predatory criminals, but the kid is kind and gentle and doing his best to cure cancer or break the lightspeed limit, and he’s almost there, but The Man is judging him based on a past that he had no hand in creating and couldn’t control. But it would be FAR MORE fair than what we have right now, because the correlation between parent-child is far stronger than within-racial/religious/sex/etc-group. It would help decision makers as well as applicants in almost all cases.

There would be ways for people to get around the stigma of awful parents, just like there are ways to get around the stigma of being poor, or female, or the wrong race or religion nowadays. But instead of every single member of groups that measure in the billions being forced to use these techniques for proving themselves, the numbers would be restricted to those who have problematic parents. Which I (naively?) assume is much lower.

I have this silly dream that it would drastically reduce the prevalence of racial/etc stereotypes if this sort of thing was widespread. People would grow used to accepting that there’s no real difference between races, or religions, at all. The difference is between parents, and families. This has the benefit of being closer to the the truth than the current status-quo, even if it isn’t the actual truth. And it’s much harder to paint an entire country/race as subhuman monsters that your nation needs to subjugate in a Just War if no one believes those are a natural grouping we can generalize about, and instead asks “Look, how many of the families in that country are known to be horrifying predatory criminals? And is there some way we can target just them, rather than wiping out the whole nation?”

I’m looking forward to a future where “Who are your parents?” is consider due-diligence rather than rude.

Feb 102017

When I worked for The Man, I often had long periods of enforced idleness. Accounting is cyclical by nature. We’re busy at month-end, and very busy at quarter-end and year-end, but 8 months out of the year there’s a couple weeks were the work volume is just very low. But due how employment laws and norms work in the US, I still had to be in the office 40 hours a week, even during those weeks when there was only 15 hours of work to be done.

I thought this was stupid as shit. To be honest, from a business perspective I still think it’s stupid as shit. You’re literally paying your employees to burn away hours of their life on nothing. As long as their work gets done, I think they should be free to leave the office on slower weeks. But hey, some places have it worse. I hear in Japan you’re expected to put in 12+ hour days every day and often work weekends, which results in office workers who literally sit at their desks doing nothing at all for more than half their time in the office. And everyone knows it, and everyone still does it anyway, cuz expectations.

I’ve come to miss that Enforced Idleness. Because it’s not like I literally did NOTHING during that time. I spent a lot of time reading–specifically, surfing the web. This idle time is how I discovered Overcoming Bias. It’s how I got most of my econ knowledge (seriously, the two classes I took at college level ended up just being review. They were only 100-level classes, of course. But it’s cool that anyone with the interest can get an entry-level college education from dedicated reading of economist blogs). It’s how I gained most of my history knowledge, and kept up on advances in tech fields and some sciences. I read the entirety of the Less Wrong sequences, and SSC, and so many other things. If it wasn’t for this enforced idleness, I likely would never have read the Transdimensional Justice Monster post, which was a major inspiration for Of All Possible Worlds. I’ve greatly deepened my knowledge, and broadened my horizons, becoming a better and more thoughtful person. Because I was being paid to waste time.

Now that I’ve been “working” for myself for a number of months, I have much less idle time. I chisel it out for the stuff I find really important (like SSC). But I can’t stand to have hours every day where I’m merely reading interesting things about the world, because those are hours that I am not being paid anything, and not producing anything that will maybe help me pay my rent some day in the future. I don’t feel I can afford idleness, for the most part. I don’t follow many of the blogs I used to follow, nor podcasts. I’m worried I’m missing a lot, and it’ll come back to bite me, and some day I’ll just be an old man yelling at a cloud because the world has left me behind.

So I guess what I’m saying is, maybe that Enforced Idleness was a much better thing than I’d given it credit for at the time. It basically forced me into boredom regularly, and we all know how productive boredom can be. Maybe Enforced Idleness will be the future of work, once the robots have taken everything else.

Jan 022017

(text of pic: You and some other guy are glued to the tracks. Any of you can pull the lever, releasing the trolley and killing the other guy. You told the other guy that you’ll pulll the level if he does, hoping he won’t kill you. After a long time, he finally pulls the lever. Do you keep your promise and lead to 2 deaths instead of 1?)

This is prob common knowledge, but hey, here’s my answers
1 – Yes. If someone’s killing me, sure as hell I’m gonna do everything in my power to kill him back. Screw that guy.
2 – Yes. If you don’t follow through on precommitments, it leaves you open to exploitation by defectors. Slightly less important for you personally if there’s only one of you but…
..2a – could still be very important if someone has access to your source code, OR if you’re actually a simulation being simulated by a predictor to see what the real-you would do in this situation so they know if it’s safe to defect or not, and
..2b – even if this is the real world rather than a simulation, your actions will reflect on those who are similar to you, which likely includes many of your friends and loved ones. If you don’t pull the lever, this is weak-to-moderate evidence that your loved ones also wouldn’t pull the lever if put in the same situation, and that leaves them open to exploitation.
3 – This would be much harder to apply in the case of actual nuclear weapons. But fortunately these are trolleys, so I don’t have to think that hard :)

The more interesting question is… if you’re glued to the tracks and have nothing else to do for your entire life (and you can’t talk to the other guy)… should you pull the lever just for the excitement of seeing what he’ll do?

Feb 262016

invasive-ads-300x168A comment in a previous post brought up a privacy concern that I’ve seen a lot, but never understood. I’ve met a number of people who don’t want the stores they shop at to keep a database of what they typically buy. For example:

>I’ve heard stories of people buying diapers for a friend and later getting mails targeted at young parents.. So even if I can’t make it impossible for that to happen I’d at least make it as difficult as possible.

I don’t really understand that hesitation. When I think about it, I can see no downside to the store knowing that I buy lots of diapers. This isn’t sensitive info. Tons of people buy lots of diapers. Why is it bad if my customer account number includes the “Diaper-Buyer” tag?

And I can see the upside – being directly mailed coupons that I find useful. Twice a week I get a huge pack of coupons in my mailbox, which goes directly into the trash without me looking at it, because it’s the same scattershot pack that is sent to EVERYONE and 98% of the time there is nothing in there that will benefit me. But once every few months I get a nice direct mail from my supermarket with coupons in it for things that I buy very regularly. It saves me a lot of money, and takes almost no effort. I appreciate it a lot.

Every now and then I see an advertisement for something I am REALLY glad I saw. A Paul & Storm concert sneaking through my city, in one case. I had a great time. I would love for more advertising to actually tell me about things I want to know about. I would even be willing to pay for useful advertising!

Right now I have AdBlocker installed, because the internet is a giant flashing billboard that is always yelling in your face. The advertising makes many sites unusable. To me it feels like a personal violation, and an assault. My time is being wasted, my attention is being stolen, and my concentration is being disrupted. This is the sort of thing that would make me suspect intentional, malicious sabotage if I didn’t know better. I despise it.

But I can imagine a world were the only ads I see are the ones that I am extremely happy to see! The ones that tell me about an upgrade to my car, or a game I’ve been dying to play is on sale, or a band or podcast I love is coming to my town. The sort of thing I would literally pay an assistant to keep track of and notify me about, if I had the money. These are good ads. And I don’t understand why I would want to make that world harder to achieve. If using a customer card can help make my life better in this way, I’m all for it.

Am I missing a strong counter-argument?

Feb 242016

thecaldera_by_rationalparadox-itunesBecause projects seem to multiply over time, I am now part of a new podcast on Rationality! It’s a conversational podcast for people familiar with Less Wrong/SSC and the new Rationalist movement, but who don’t consider themselves Black-Belt Bayesians.

I expect the few first episodes to be a bit rough, but give it a listen if you’re interested. We’ll be smoothing out the rough edges and getting better as we figure out how to drive this thing. :)

Home or iTunes

Feb 092016

tumblr_o21tjdhKDn1uuik1zo1_1280Today there is a parade in my city (Denver) to celebrate a Super Bowl victory. I caught a few glimpses of the prep on the TV, and it strikes me how similar this sort of behavior is to the Ancient Roman practice of the Triumph. It made me very happy. Because a Triumph necessitated the previous murder of tons of people. We’ve managed to replace it with a civilized competition with structure and rules instead of carnage and destruction. This is a huge step forward.

I consider this a form of civilizational bio-hacking. There is an innate violence in our species. We long to destroy our enemies and see them driven before us (and hear the lamentation of their women, etc). It’s a wonderful feeling to revel in the shared rushed of crushing a foe and celebrating your mastery over them. In the absence of the tools needed to remove this sickness from our psyches, we found a way to get that rush while removing the harm.

It’s similar to the way that the introduction of easily-available pornography reduces sexual violence. Or how violent video games allow people to indulge their aggressive tendencies without actually harming people (at least for a little while).

So next time someone disparages the stupidness of sports, remind them that they fulfill a biological need with a clever hack that makes all of our lives comparatively better.

Jan 272016

THIS+IS+FINEI posted this on the /rational subreddit, but I’m mirroring it here as well. I want to finally talk about Three Bodies at Mitanni, now that the people I talk to most have access to it. :)

Lots of spoilers below!




I’m still into themes of consciousness, specifically as discussed in Meditions on Moloch and Peter Watts’s Blindsight. I find them deliciously frightening. But what I really like about 3BM is that it makes me really freakin’ worried about myself.

Take Bayesians vs Barbarians which makes the case that, if an actual Rational Society was attacked by fanatics, the Rational survival action is to delegate the amount of people and resources necessary to defeat the fanatics and convert them to war-making purposes until victory is assured. People would likely be selected based on some combination of effective fight ability and lottery. This would include whatever self-modification is necessary in order to WIN as efficiently as possible.

I completely agree. I would hope such a lottery wouldn’t choose me, but if it did I would submit to warrior-modification for the good of my society. This IS what I want.

Which sounds suspiciously like the horror-punch of 3BM.

Which also leads me to realize that any time I give up any immediate pleasure for the promise of future utility (saving money to invest rather than spending on hedons; working on podcast or writing rather than going out with friends; etc) I am in effect saying “This is fine. This is what I want.” And it really is! A life of pure in-the-moment hedonism would suck, I want to make things that last, and to have future financial security! But, well, how far am I willing to push that before I become Mitanni-esque? Before I’m not really working for me anymore, I’m just benefitting “the system” and deluding myself that it’s for me?

Basically, anytime my core values are convincingly attacked like this, I feel really creepy and shivery, and I like that feeling.

Aug 042015

more-carved-book-sculptures-by-guy-laramee-oTldr: What really matters is connecting to our readers. And you can’t connect to people if they can’t even read your work.

There are three major Speculative Fiction periodicals in the USA that still print on dead trees – Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog. They’ve been around for a very long time, and due to their longevity and physical presence, they are considered the most prestigious to be published in. Most of the authors I know want to be published in them more than anywhere else, and send their new works to them first.

I respect this and I’m impressed when friends make sales to them.

But they are not my first choice for publication. None of them are even in my Top 3. Because when I get published in a print magazine NONE OF THE PEOPLE I LOVE CAN READ MY STORY!

It isn’t easy getting a copy of one of these magazines. I have to find a Barnes & Noble in my area (or one of the very rare non-B&N brick-and-mortar bookstores), root around in the neglected corners of their hidden magazine racks for a half hour (seriously, the SF lit stuff is almost impossible to find), only to find out that the June Issue of the magazine doesn’t actually come out in June!! (wtf print publications?) I’m too late! Then I find out I have to pay an amount approaching the cost of many eBooks for what is in effect a single short story, since I don’t care about any of the other stuff in there. And then on top of all that, I’m doing all this for a story I haven’t even read yet. I may not even LIKE it!

And no, I can’t buy an e-copy of a single issue, at least not without spending a half hour trying to figure out how to do that without buying a full-year’s subscription as well, and I’m not gonna be hassled into that.

So, how many authors am I willing to go through this process for? Exactly three: Chiang, Watts, and Dickinson.

I hate that I can’t recommend some of my favorite stories to my friends, because there’s no way for them to read them. I didn’t bother posting about “Three Bodies at Mitanni” at /r/rational,  because how would anyone there get to read it anyhow? I have the same problem with “Liking What You See”. I am insanely happy that I can recommend “The Things” to everyone, because that’s available online! I do so all the time, and it always makes me all excited inside, imagining what they’ll be feeling the first time they read it.

For that reason I generally go with the online publications first, whenever I can. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If I get published in one of these, I can actually link to it. I can tell my friends, my family, my podcast listeners, and even the sometimes the guys on /r/rational, that I have written something, and here it is! Come take a look! :) I can’t do that with the Big Three paper publications.

Perhaps even more to the point – paper disappears quickly. It’s on the shelves for one month, and then it’s gone forever. The internet offers some modicum of permanency. Your story will still be available for people to read after two months, or two years, or even fifteen years later!

So yes. I respect the prestige of the paper publications. I am honored to have been in one. But I think that given another decade, maybe two at the absolute outside, paper and subscriptions will lose their luster. More and more authors choose to have their works appear in the free-to-read online publications whenever they can. Because for most of us, what really matters is connecting to our readers. And you can’t connect to people if they can’t even read your work.

All of which is to say – now that the rights for the story I sold to Asimov’s have reverted to me, I’ve put it online so that people can read it.


Although I will give print publications this – they are willing to look at works longer than 7,500 words. It is really hard trying to find a home for anything longer than that online. :(

Aug 012015

THIS+IS+FINEI just read “Three Bodies At Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson.

Oh my god.

At first you think it’s about Hanson-style Ems. Then you think it’s about p-zombies. Then you think it’s about pathological altruism. Then you make the connection to Meditations on Moloch. Then you realize it’s the story-fication of the picture to the left. And then, in the end, you realize it isn’t about any of those things. Or rather, it isn’t *just* about those things. It is about you.

This is Rational Fiction by a Rationalist that is a Cautionary Tale About Rationalism. And it’s really fucking good. Seth Dickinson continues to be one of the most important writers of our generation.

I only wish it was available in a format that people in my generation could ACTUALLY READ. Right now you can only get it by tracking down a June 2015 dead-tree copy of Analogy Science Fiction (the special 1000th issue!).

But if you get a chance, I highly recommend it. Hopefully Seth will make it available online someday.

[EDIT 8/23/22] – This is now available online in epub form, from Forever magazine, issue 67. Still gotta pay for it, but at least it’s super easy! Thank you Ross Presser!

I also created an audio version with Seth’s permission