Monthly Archives: September 2015

Looking at your story, looking at the world

This is a kind of prequel to Iterated Self-Improvement.

Reading Bonds That Make Us Free, it occurs to me that it, Ayn Rand, Games People Play, and The Last Psychiatrist are all talking about the same vision of evil, and proposing different alternatives to it.

Bonds That Make Us Free calls it self-betrayal, when you tell a story about how you can’t help it, how it’s really other people who are responsible for your failures and if it weren’t for them, you’d be good. It proposes as an alternative a genuine outward orientation of love towards others.

Ayn Rand calls it social psycho-epistemology, where the opinions and feelings of people are what are truly real and the material world is a social construct or matter of opinion, and contrasts it with rational selfishness where you orient yourself towards the world outside, and try to make it the way you want it without worrying about justification or conformity. Other people's thoughts shouldn’t be as real to you as the material world, and the life you want to live in it. You can only pick one - living in your own world, or living in the world of other people's intentions. Similarly, you can trade your need for their justification and vice versa - or you can trade value for value. Rereading Atlas Shrugged was able to temporarily pull me out of a days-long downwards spiral recently - because it suddenly seemed boring to present my needs as a claim check. It seemed contemptible. It seemed like a betrayal of self and integrity. So I stopped - at least for a bit. I started thinking again about how to provide value for my friends, even as it seemed nearly impossible to succeed at.

The Last Psychiatrist calls it narcissism - the desire to be seen as good, and as fitting your role, rather than the intention to be good to others, to fulfill one’s responsibilities, to discharge one’s duties.

Games People Play doesn’t really have a vision of the good, but it talks about how people set themselves up in situations where they can show that they’re justified, instead of acting towards their nominal goals, because what they care about is the justification.

I think I’ve been struggling with this problem. In mid-August I was too worried about how I was failing in one of my relationships to take responsibility for my own experiences. I’ve been too worried about being a responsible, conscientious worker to think about what kind of rhythm of life I actually want and am willing to accept. I wasted thought cycles on how the house I'd just moved into with friends wasn’t good yet and I’d been incompetent, instead of trying to make it good for myself in immediately achievable ways.

But I also seem to have something like the opposite problem more often.

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Verbal communication

"She sent me a signal; just a subtle one, that someone not used to reading verbals would miss. Most people are terrible at reading verbals."

Verbal vs nonverbal communication

Until fairly recently, I had little ability to read nonverbal communication, which meant that I had little wiggle room on one of the principal axes of communication. But I still needed to communicate with people. So I looked for patterns in their behavior. Tried to remember explicit preferences they’d stated, notice when they responded positively or negatively to a thing, and infer the preferences revealed by the things they sought out or tried to avoid. I formed explicit mental models of how people behaved, which were generally modifications of my model of how people in general behave. This is the story of how I learned that this ability is not universal.

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Vision, Hearing, and Autism-Like Symptoms

Lots of people have suggested to me that I'm on the Autism spectrum. I have a hypothesis that the true cause of my vaguely Asperger's-like symptoms isn't neurological in my case, but comes from other contingent circumstances

My poor eyesight caused me to have glasses, which cause me to get visual data and feedback only from places near the center of my vision. This made me better at narrow-focus activities like reading, computer use, one on one social interaction, and strength training (because peripheral visual info wasn't good enough to be distracting) and worse at awareness-based activities like navigating larger social groups, or sports. A friend recently noted that when he switched from glasses to contacts, widening his effective field of vision, all of a sudden the outdoors became appealing. This seems like it's probably generalizable.

A narrow field of vision made direct eye contact more overwhelming than usual because a larger percentage of my effective visual field was dominated by someone's face than usual, so subjectively for me it was as if we were staring at each other from much closer.

This also meant I was basically never getting incidental social feedback through face or body language when my gaze was elsewhere.

Asymmetric hearing loss (almost no hearing in one ear, diminished hearing in the other) also contributed. It meant I would miss softer audial cues, again penalizing awareness-based activities more than narrow-focus ones. It also meant that I'd often want to turn my good ear towards people when conversing with them instead of looking at them, which meant I got even less feedback from their face, and accustomed me to paying attention to the words and not the expressions.

This may also be why I, like my mother, have persistent shoulder and lower neck tension more than anywhere else in the body: because we're always straining our necks, turning to hear and see things or lean in to listen.

I doubt that the whole story is true, but it's an interesting hypothesis to play with. It's certainly caused me to prioritize improving my vision and hearing correction equipment.

Iterated self-improvement - a worked example

The motivational use of causal narratives

One of my core skill gaps is that I don't have a system 1 level understanding of how I cause good outcomes in my life. I tend to forget my successes and remember my failures. I have often said, “nothing bad ever happens to me,” and this is a true account of the world I experience - but not because I have such incredibly good luck (which, to be clear, I do - but other people with good luck still know that they're responsible for some things that happen!). It’s because when I work towards a goal, I think of this as normal and forget about it. Then it seems like every so often the universe randomly gives me some reward, and occasionally people attribute the causality to me - but I wasn’t doing anything extra, I just kept doing normal things and got lucky! This isn’t just true of longer-term stuff my relationships - that the friendships and career I’m building feel like inexplicable repeated bouts of good luck even though I can point to the deliberate work and planning I did over an extended period of time to make them happen - but of things like ordering something i need online. It still feels like I have no control over what stuff I have. I do normal sensible things, and every once in a while a box randomly arrives from Amazon.

But when I fail - well, then I can remember. I can remember the wrong assumptions I made, the times I was too greedy for short term gains, the things I should have been able to do better. I can remember seeing that the house was nowhere near painted a few days before we moved in, and then deciding that the painters knew their business better than I did and besides my personal assistant was responsible for managing them. I remember agonizing over time management and choosing, repeatedly, not to talk as openly as I could with my partner, with my friends, with my manager about it, not to accept myself where I was and build on that.

This is especially bad when a plan has uncertain benefits and some intermediate step breaks. It's hard for me to see when I've failed because the plan wasn't sensible, and when got most of the way through a reasonable plan and then something unexpected happened. It's hard to reward myself for partial success, for getting most of the way to the goal, when it's invisible to me.

One thing I'm doing about this is narrating to myself, when I see a good thing happen in my life as a result in part of things I've done, exactly how I did it, with as much detail as I can stand, all the steps filled in, no "and here a miracle happened" - if it was just chance, but I did a thing to make the miracle more probable, then I give myself credit for that.

(I'm also doing the mirror image of this - if I take an action for future benefits, narrate to myself all the things that are going to happen, in as much detail as I can stand, to get it from here to done, so that I'll notice when intermediate progress points are reached. A simple example is to literally, every day, check the status of the Amazon packages I’ve ordered so I can remember that I caused a thing to arrive when it does.)

In that spirit, I recently made a few life system improvements, and decided to narrate to myself how they happened. It turned out that they were the result of a very long series of life improvements and investments in myself and my life, most of which were pretty abstract, generalized, or otherwise high-level, and I'd on some level thought were mostly pretty futile projects that I'd given up on. It turns out I was wrong - I stopped working on them because I was done!

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Werewolf feelings

An Euremembered Story

One of the students at a magical school is a werewolf. Every full moon, he transforms into a dangerous monster that attacks anyone around him. He sneaks out once a month to undergo this painful and terrifying involuntary transformation in secret, because he doesn't want to hurt anyone. But he is terribly lonely.

He has friends, but they don't know that he is a werewolf. He wishes they would come with him and help him through his terrible night, but it would be dangerous to them. It's not something he can ask of them. It's okay to be lonely and hurting. It's not okay to injure your friends.

Can he simply tell them his secret and let them make the choice? That would be wrong too. If it were guaranteed to fail at obtaining help, it would just make his friends feel selfish and guilty about abandoning him in his night of pain. If it were guaranteed to succeed, then it's coercing his friends into doing something dangerous for them, that may not be worth the good it does for him. And if two options are immoral, a coin flip between them is also immoral.

Can he hint at it? Can he let people see him going out off the school grounds, away from people, to lock himself into a hidden shack for his transformation? No, for the same reason. If telling people is immoral, so is giving them evidence.

So he keeps his secret. He actively keeps his secret. Every full moon, he prominently goes to the school healer's office, and sneaks out the window. If someone asks, he was sick.

And a few other students wonder why their friend gets disappears from the dormitory one night every month. Then they wonder why he gets sick every month. He won't tell them. He won't even hint at it. He gets angry and tells them to mind their own business.

So they do what a true friend does:

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Why I ask for feedback

Here's what it feels like.

I've been shipwrecked. As the waves toss me back and forth, I'm clinging to a small piece of floating debris. In the far horizon I see something that might be sure, but maybe my eyes are tricking me. But I know that staying here is pretty bad.

Nearby, there are people on a full lifeboat, so I can't get on safely (I know, I've studied the safety specs), but what I can do is ask them to help me understand which way the shore is, and to give me some pointers on my swimming technique.

And sometimes they say, "Wow, you're so brave! Swimming is pretty hard, and it's impressive that you want to do it! Also, I really admire your willingness to accept feedback!"

Other times, they say: "You seem pretty stressed. Are you sure you're not taking on too much? Maybe you should relax for a few months, and swim once it seems pleasant to you."

Sometimes people in another lifeboat come by and say, "Maybe the people in the first lifeboat don't know how much you want to come aboard. I'm sure they'd make room if they knew how much you needed it!"

I believe that this is well-intentioned, and I know that there are other people in other situations to whom this advice makes sense. Thank you for trying.