Culture, interpretive labor, and tidying one's room

While tidying my room, I felt the onset of the usual cognitive fatigue. But this time, I didn't just want to bounce off the task - I was curious. When I inspected the fatigue, to see what it was made of, it felt similar to when I'm trying to thread a rhetorical needle - for instance, between striking too neutral a tone for anyone to understand the relevance of what I'm saying, and too bold of a tone for my arguments to be taken literally. In short, I was shouldering a heavy burden of interpretive labor.

Why would tidying my room involve interpretive labor?  Continue reading

Model-building and scapegoating

When talking about undesirable traits, we may want to use simple labels. On one hand, simple labels have the virtue of efficiently pointing to an important cluster of behavioral predictions. On the other, they tend to focus attention on the question of whether the person so described is good or bad, instead of on building shared models about the causal structure underlying the perceived problem.

Slate Star Codex recently posted a dialogue exploring this through the example of the term "lazy." (Ozy's response is also worth reading.) I think that Scott's analysis itself unfortunately focuses attention on the question of whether assigning simple labels to adverse traits is good or bad (or alternately, true or false) instead of on building shared models about the causal structure underlying the perceived problem.

When I call someone lazy, I am doing two things. The first is communicating factual information about that person, which can help others avoid incurring costs by trusting the lazy person with some important tasks. This is shared model-building, and it's going to be more salient if you're focused on allocating resources to mitigate harm and produce things of value. In other words, if you're engaged in a community of shared production.

The second is creating a shared willingness to direct blame at that person. Once there's common knowledge that someone's considered blameworthy, they become the default target for exclusion if the group experiences a threat. This can be as simple as killing them and taking their stuff, so there's more per survivor to go around, but this can also take the form of deflecting the hostility of outsiders to the supposed one bad apple. This dynamic is called scapegoating, and it's going to be more salient when zero-sum dynamics are more salient.  Continue reading

There is a war.

Households vs markets

The first symptom was the clutter on the kitchen counter. One cutting board, two pans, one knife. My colleagues had arrived at the rented house the day before, so they'd had plenty of time to arrange things to their liking. I was sure the clutter was not to their liking, if they noticed it at all.

A teachable moment. Instead of tidying the counter myself, and accreting a small amount of resentment, I suggested to one of them that she think of the things on the counter as things that were in her power to arrange however she liked, to suit her taste, selfishly. (“Just as you might optimize your text editor to suit your workflow,” my other colleague chimed in.) She took this suggestion, and spent a few minutes arranging and rearranging the items on the counter. She put away the knife in the knife block.

A puzzle. She noted that she doesn’t usually think of the items in her home this way. Instead, household chores feel as though they are impositions from an abstract, outside authority. She was capable of accessing this other, more pleasant way of working on the things around her. Why wasn’t it natural for her to feel that way in her own home?

An hypothesis. In our usual mode of life, there is a separation between a job - which is done for someone else, to satisfy someone else’s standards, outside the home - and consumption, which is at least ostensibly done to suit one’s own taste. One of the goods you can buy with an income from a job is a nice place to live, and you can also buy services to keep the place clean and tidy. For the most part, you maintain the place you live by leaving it, and entering the domain of an outside authority. Household chores are the remainder that cannot efficiently be outsourced, or an echo of a previous era in which such outsourcing was less common. Continue reading


For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
- The Gospel according to Matthew

r > g
-Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

From Jesus to Piketty, it is a commonplace that wealth is a positive feedback loop.

Under one model, differential ability to steward capital, plus compounding gains, implies that perfectly benevolent people with more money than most should keep it more often than a naive expected utility maximization would suggest. On the other hand, conquering empires also experience compounding gains; the ability to leverage force into more force implies that this is a harmful positive feedback loop.  Continue reading

Oops Prize update

I'm overdue to publish an update on the Oops Prize. It fell off my priority list because I received exactly one nomination. I followed up with the nominee and couldn't get enough clarification to confirm eligibility, but my sense was that while the nominee clearly changed their mind, it wasn't a particularly clear case of public error correction as specified in the prize criteria.

Since the Oops Prize remains unclaimed, I'm offering it again this year. To clarify, I don't think the prize amount is enough to incentivize overt error-correction on its own, but it might be enough to give people an incentive to bother informing me if such error correction is in fact happening.

If anyone at an EA Global conference this year publicly repudiates an old belief, and the efforts they made and asked others to make on this basis, and explained what they're doing differently, then I'd like to celebrate this. Since talk is cheap, I'm offering $1,000 in prize money for the best example of such error-correcting; $900 to the person who most clearly reports changing their mind about something big they’d already invested their time or money or credibility in and asked others to invest in, and $100 to the first person to nominate them. Self-nomination is encouraged.

To qualify, an entry has to have the following attributes:

  • It is explicitly error correction, not an account that spins things to look like a series of successes evolving over time, or "I used to think X, and now I think X'."
  • The nominee successfully encouraged a public commitment of resources based on the original belief (e.g. funds raised or volunteer hours).
  • There is a record of the error-correction statement. If it's not a recorded talk, an independent witness (neither the nominator nor prizewinner) is enough evidence.
  • It happened at EA Global, and either was part of a scheduled talk, or an independent witness (neither the nominator nor the nominee) believes that at least ten people were present.

Anyone who speaks at EA Global this year is eligible for the prize, including leaders of EA organizations such as CEA, EAG leadership, and GiveWell / Open Philanthropy Project staff. If no qualifying entries are submitted, then no prize will be awarded. I am the sole, unaccountable judge of this, but will get people to check my work if I don't think anyone's eligible or feel like I'm too close to the person I think should win.

You can send nominations to me by email at If the error-correction is already publicly available, or if the nominee gives me permission, I’ll announce the winner by the end of the year. If there is no public recording and the nominee isn’t OK with the error-correction being publicized in this way, then I reserve the right to award them only a partial prize or none at all.

Humans need places

If, when you try to improve the world, you think about people but not about communities, you will tend to favor unsustainable net outflows of resources from your community. I wrote about this in Why I am not a Quaker. Effective Altruist (EA) and Rationalist communities such as the one in the San Francisco Bay Area suffer from this problem. Occasionally individuals - more often than not women, more often than not uncompensated and publicly unacknowledged - do something constructive about this problem. I’m now aware of one such effort where the person involved (Sarah Spikes) is publicly willing to accept support: The Berkeley REACH. The fundraiser page is here.

Continue reading

Kidneys, trade, sacredness, and space travel

To the trader mindset, sacred values are nothing but a confusion; if you don’t like the deal, you just haven’t been offered a high enough price.

There’s something important the trader mindset can’t see. Its modus operandi is to take two different representations of value and profits from resolving discrepancies. It is agnostic as to the validity of those representations. Thus, the trade orientation tends to collapse the map-territory distinction, and in particular confuse exchange rates (i.e. prices) and stores of value.

Consider this music video:

The protagonist is fixated on an image that's been marketed to her by someone wealthy enough to control a planet. The image isn't very detailed, and she's willing to undertake a dangerous and arduous journey, which implies that things aren't very good back home.

She's in a world where travel is expensive. Somehow, improbably, in outer space, she has to pay a toll. This should clue us in that something sketchy is going on. Continue reading

What strange and ancient things might we find beneath the ice?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

Nature is not good, only proto-good.
-Paolo Soleri

Epistemic status: literally a dream

I awaken.

I am in the desert, alone.

I see the ribcage of a long-since-dead animal. I see a long row of such bones, twisted in a way that reminds me of - but is definitely not - the double helix.

I know what this means.

Evolution, on the margin, always eats free energy, to make more energy-eaters. It is a race with no upper bound, and there will be no victory. Instead, the cosmic commons will be exhausted by resource-claimers with no plan to do anything with the resources. Not that there will be anything left when the race is over.

If I do not take the next step in the dance of life, my line ends. I am just a corpse along the way.

If I do take the next step in the dance of life, then I do no better than life.

And if not now ...

Then I look again. Instead of bones I see a railroad. For longitudinal bones, metal tracks laid by the hand of industrial humanity, stretching in a straight line towards infinity. For ribs, the crossties that allow the uneven ground to support those even rails.

I know what this means.

The economic logic of global capitalism. Another race towards infinity, leaving nothing. Quarterly returns. Goodhart's law. Accountability and automation replacing judgment wherever they can, culminating in a Disneyland with no children. The symbol of this, the train, no natural place for the line of tracks to end, stations but no terminals, stretching on forever.

I look again. I see a road.

I awaken.  Continue reading