Category Archives: Skills

Exploitation as a Turing test

A friend recently told me me that the ghosts that chase Pac-Man in the eponymous arcade game don't vary their behavior based on Pac-Man's position. At first, this surprised me. If, playing Pac-Man, I'm running away from one of the ghosts chasing me, and eat one of the special “energizer” pellets that lets Pac-Man eat the ghosts instead of vice-versa, then the ghost turns and runs away.

My friend responded that the ghosts don't start running away per se when Pac-Man becomes dangerous to them. Instead, they change direction. Pac-Man's own incentives mean that most of the time, while the ghosts are dangerous to Pac-Man, Pac-Man will be running away from them, so that if a ghost is near, it's probably because it's moving towards Pac-Man.

Of course, I had never tried the opposite – eating an energizer pellet near a ghost running away, and seeing whether it changed direction to head towards me. Because it had never occurred to me that the ghosts might not be optimizing at all.

I'd have seen through this immediately if I'd tried to make my beliefs pay rent. If I'd tried to use my belief in the ghosts' intelligence to score more points, I'd have tried to hang out around them until they started chasing me, collect them all, and lead them to an energizer pellet, so that I could eat it and then turn around and eat them. If I'd tried to do this, I'd have noticed very quickly whether the ghosts' movement were affected at all by Pac-Man's position on the map.

(As it happens, the ghosts really do chase Pac-Man – I was right after all, and my friend had been thinking of adversaries in the game Q-Bert – but the point is that I wouldn’t have really known either way.)

This is how to test whether something's intelligent. Try to make use of the hypothesis that it is intelligent, by extracting some advantage from this fact. Continue reading


In early 2014, as I was learning to be motivated by long-run considerations and make important tradeoffs, I started to worry that I was giving up something important about my old self - that some things that had been precious to me, would never quite be worth the price of holding onto, so the parts of my soul that cared for them would gradually wither away, unused, until it wasn’t even tempting to try and reconnect to going to the opera, translating classical Greek, or any of the other things in my life that I chose for their beauty but not their utility.

It turned out that I was right, though not quite in the way I expected.

This is my story. It is an honest report of that story, but that is all it is.

This is the story of how, over the past year and a half, I died and was reborn. In it, you'll find the ways I had to learn to model the world to effect this transformation. I hope that some of them are useful to you. Continue reading

The engineer and the diplomat

I used to think that I had poor social skills. So I worked hard to improve, and learned a lot of specific skills for interacting with people more effectively. My life is a lot better for it. I have deeper friendships, and conversations go interesting places fast. I'm frequently told that I'm an excellent listener and people seek me out for emotional support, and even insight into social conflict. But I'm told that I have poor social skills more often than before.

Not everyone means the same thing by social skills. It's important to distinguish between the social skills that are valued for their own sake – the social skills people identify themselves with – and the social skills that are a means subordinated to some other specific ends. Continue reading

Be secretly wrong

"I feel like I'm not the sort of person who's allowed to have opinions about the important issues like AI risk."
"What's the bad thing that might happen if you expressed your opinion?"
"It would be wrong in some way I hadn't foreseen, and people would think less of me."
"Do you think less of other people who have wrong opinions?"
"Not if they change their minds when confronted with the evidence."
"Would you do that?"
"Do you think other people think less of those who do that?"
"Well, if it's alright for other people to make mistakes, what makes YOU so special?"

A lot of my otherwise very smart and thoughtful friends seem to have a mental block around thinking on certain topics, because they're the sort of topics Important People have Important Opinions around. There seem to be two very different reasons for this sort of block:

  1. Being wrong feels bad.
  2. They might lose the respect of others.

Continue reading

On writing more

It took me a while to figure out how to write regularly. I had to do a lot of iterated troubleshooting before I figured out how to reliably generate output. It's possible that none of those are the insight you need, or that internalizing them is mostly not about having the words for the thing - but I figured it was low-cost to share anyway. Plus I want to write this up and now seems as good a time as any to put it in writing. Continue reading

Yell at Mars to call swans

GLENDOWER. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

HOTSPUR. Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

- Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1

Calling swans

Recently a dear friend invited me to join them as they took their wedding photos, at the Palace of Fine Arts. There's a pond next to the structure, and across the pond we saw one of the swans who reside there. Someone observed that it would have been nice to take a picture with the swan. So I called out, in a loud and clear voice, "Excuse me! Would you come over here?" and beckoned. Repeatedly.

I was pretty sure that it wouldn't work. Swans don't understand spoken language. Even if they did, as far as I could tell they have no plausible motive to respond.

The swan turned towards us and swam halfway across the pond. As it slowed down, my companions thought of more ways to get its attention, ways that seemed more likely to work on a swan, like tossing things into the water. But my plan did more than nothing.

It's an important skill, to be able to come up with plans like that. Sometimes you need to notice when things are impossible, and give up. But other times, it's worth at least trying the plan "yell at the swan."

What heuristic was I using? I'm not sure, but I think it has to do with noticing that my model of the world is incomplete. Continue reading

Why have my parents gotten wiser as I have gotten older?

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” - Attributed (probably spuriously) to Mark Twain

The usual explanation for this is that teenagers are too foolish to understand the advice of their elders. But there’s another obvious explanation: their parents accumulate life experience that makes them wiser over those seven years.

Not all experience is created equal, and the rearing of a child all the way to adulthood is likely a substantial source of new wisdom and experience that are difficult to acquire in other ways beforehand.

When I was a child, I felt like my grandfather had a lot more perspective to offer than my father had. Some of this might just have been a different context for our interactions; most of my interactions with my dad were about day-to-day stuff. But some of this might have been that my grandfather actually had more experience.

As I talk with my dad now, it seems more and more clear that he has some sorts of wisdom and perspective I wasn’t aware of earlier. For instance, it seems like he’s more aware than before that when you have a child, you’re not buying into some set lifestyle, but instead you’re buying a chance at a highly uncertain set of outcomes. This makes me more relaxed about talking with him, because it feels more like if I do things he doesn’t agree with, he knew this was part of the deal in advance.

My mom has also talked about acquiring wisdom that she didn’t have before, in ways that have made conversations with her go better. For instance, I think we’ve both recently learned a lot about setting boundaries.

If this hypothesis is true, then the natural thing to do is to tell kids, not to listen to their parents more, but to listen to people of their grandparents’ generation more, to the extent that they’re available. It also seems like I should prioritize making more friends who are at least a few decades older than I am.

To the extent that this hypothesis is true, we should expect the last child in a long series to report this effect less than firstborns. So, my questions for you are:

  1. How many years between your parents’ firstborn and your birth? (0 if you were a firstborn.)
  2. How true does Twain’s observation seem for you, that parents seem to get wiser over time?

Solve your problems by fantasizing

The problem with most goal-driven plans is that most goals are fake, and so are most plans. One way to fix this is to fantasize. Continue reading

Reading, writing, and thinking, with your brain

In a recent blog post I pointed to the idea that your brain has a sort of implied query language, and there are more and less efficient ways to ask it questions:

I think an important abstraction here is that when you ask your brain a question, it’s often not enough to ask it something that specifies logically what you want – you also have to give it some clues as to where to look for the answer. I call this shaping the query.

This is a roundup of principles I’ve found helpful for using my brain effectively - committing things to memory, finding ideas, and thinking about things. Continue reading

Review: Vipassana Center silent meditation retreat

On my pleasure practice nature walk, I formed the hypothesis that excessive attachment was preventing me from noticing my preferences, desires, and feelings, and that meditation might help with this. I signed up for a free 10-day Vipassana center meditation retreat.

When I decided to go on the retreat, I had two main benefits in mind:

  • Learn to perceive my desires, preferences, and emotions more reliably, by means of being more aware of bodily sensations.
  • Learn to be able to look at these and fully perceive them without feeling compelled to act on them.

I got these, and more. Continue reading