Paul Graham has a new essay out, The Lesson to Unlearn, on the desire to pass tests. It covers the basic points made in Hotel Concierge's The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. But something must be missing from the theory, because what Paul Graham did with his life was start Y Combinator, the apex predator of the real-life Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. Or it's just false advertising. Continue reading
There are a lot of senses in which I or the people around me can be considered unsafe. Many-tonned hunks of metal whiz by us on the same streets we have to navigate on foot to buy our groceries. The social infrastructure by which we have access to clean drinking water is gradually being adulterated. Our country is run by increasingly nasty white nationalists. And, of course, The Bomb. But when I hear people talk about feeling unsafe, they are almost never describing a concrete threat to their physical well-being. (As usual, life may be different for the less privileged classes, who have reason to fear the authorities, and behave accordingly.) "Safety" does not come up as a motive for actions taken or avoided in order to mitigate such threats. Instead, it seems that "safety" nearly always means a nonjudgmental context (the exact opposite of what I would naively expect to be able to ensure clean drinking water or keep the cars from colliding with us), and "feeling unsafe" is generally used to explain only why they're trying to withhold information (mainly "vulnerable," i.e. relevant-to-their-interests, information) in a way that seems out of proportion to actually existing risks and opportunities. Continue reading
We suffer from alarm fatigue. Targeted alarm of the kind, "Hey! This person is blatantly lying!" is for finding the occasional, rare bad actor. The kind of alarm that needs raising for self-propagating patterns of motivated reasoning is procedural or conceptual. People are mistakenly behaving (in some contexts) as though certain information sources were reliable. This is often part of a compartmentalized pattern; in other contexts, the same people act as though, not only do they personally know, but everybody knows, that those sources are not trustworthy.
To take a simple example, I grew up in a household with a television. That means that, at various times in the day, I was exposed to messages from highly paid expert manipulators trying to persuade me to consume expensive, poor-quality, addictive foods that were likely to damage my mind and body by spiking my blood sugar and lowering my discernment. I watched these messages because they were embedded in other messages exposing me to a sort of story superstimulus with elevated levels of violence and excitement, but mostly devoid of messages from my elders about what sorts of time-tested behaviors are adaptive for the community or individual.
If you try to tell people that TV is bad for kids, they'll maybe feel vaguely guilty, but not really process this as news, because "everybody knows," and go on behaving as though this was fine. If you manage to get through to them that TV ads are Out to Get You, this might get their attention, but only by transmitting an inappropriately concentrated sense of threat - or an unproductive general paranoia. Continue reading
A lot of people, including me, are worried about the punching of Fascists, real or imagined, because it sets a bad precedent. But I'm also worried about the arguments being offered for this point of view.
Here's how it goes. They say that "we" have a fragile norm against punching people for political reasons, that engaging in street violence threatens to shatter this norm, and that this could get very bad.
Here's what they (and I used to) leave out: Continue reading
Mala: But then why do people get so indignant about blatant lies?
Noa: You mean, indignant when others call out blatant lies? I see more of that, though they often accuse the person calling out the lie of being unduly harsh.
Mala: Sure, but you can't deny - you've seen yourself - that people actually do get more indignant when they say that, than when they're pointing out a subtle pattern of motivated reasoning. How do you explain that, if "blatant lie" isn't a stronger accusation? Continue reading
Here's a story some people like to tell about the limits of reason. There's this plant, manioc, that grows easily in some places and has a lot of calories in it, so it was a staple for some indigenous South Americans since before the Europeans showed up. Traditional handling of the manioc involved some elaborate time-consuming steps that had no apparent purpose, so when the Portuguese introduced it to Africa, they didn't bother with those steps - just, grow it, cook it, eat it.
The problem is that manioc's got cyanide in it, so if you eat too much too often over a lifetime, you get sick, in a way that's not easily traceable to the plant. Somehow, over probably hundreds of years, the people living in manioc's original range figured out a way to leach out the poison, without understanding the underlying chemistry - so if you asked them why they did it that way, they wouldn't necessarily have a good answer.
Now a bunch of Africans growing and eating manioc as a staple regularly get cyanide poisoning.
This is offered as a cautionary tale against innovating through reason, since there's a lot of information embedded in your culture (via hundreds of years of selection), even if people can't explain why. The problem with this argument is that it's a nonsense comparison. Continue reading
Stories such as Peter Singer's "drowning child" hypothetical frequently imply that there is a major funding gap for health interventions in poor countries, such that there is a moral imperative for people in rich-countries to give a large portion of their income to charity. There are simply not enough excess deaths for these claims to be plausible.
A parable on the difference between motives and ecological niches. Continue reading
On Twitter, Freyja wrote:
Things capitalism is trash at:
- Valuing preferences of anything other than adults who earn money (i.e. future people, non-humans)
- Pricing non-standardisable goods (i.e. information)
- Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)
Things capitalism is good at:
- Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
- Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
- The obvious: making value fungible
Anyone know of work on -
a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or
b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?
This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.
Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.
The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.) Continue reading