Category Archives: Uncategorized


They’re not unfriendly - they’re afraid: People

I mentioned to a friend that I didn’t see myself as someone people particularly wanted to hang out with, and she was surprised. She’d thought of me as a cool high-status person, and therefore felt like she should wait for me to reach out to her instead of the other way around.

If enough other people feel this way towards someone who presents as high-status but doesn’t feel that confident on the inside, what they end up seeing is a bunch of people who accept their invitations, but never reciprocate. So they feel low-status, since it looks like no one affirmatively wants to hang out. Continue reading

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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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.

On doing more good than war is bad

War is pretty bad. The whole point is to kill people, destroy infrastructure, and break down the state in the target area. Also it uses a lot of money.

That's why I was surprised to learn that - according to Vox (archived here) - one program promoted by George W Bush, 43rd President of the United States, seems to have done as much good as, and perhaps more good than, his two major wars did bad:
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On Nature

I had lots of exposure to The Outdoors, much of it on school trips, much of it involved being an unfit kid having to keep up with a group of fitter kids or grownups, and one or two grownups who'd subtly chide me for not trying hard enough. I was in fact pushing my body through substantial fatigue.

Then after college I decided that I was a grownup and no one could make me go see nature if I didn't want to. I was a city boy and that was it. No trees or hills or dirt or bugs or lakes or anything. Just cities and bookstores and coffee shops and offices and apartments and museums and restaurants and subways. (One note of discord I might could have noticed earlier - I was always pretty happy when visiting California, to see the hills and trees and stuff, or whenever I was somewhere I could see mountains.)

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How I travel

I'm a planner. I don't cope well with travel where I have to make major decisions every day. I like to look up in advance what the major points of interest are, which ones are close to each other, and plan out efficient days based on this. I also care about actually enjoying the local food when traveling, so I use Chowhound and Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide (as well as the recs in guidebooks like lonely planet, recommendations from locals, and even Yelp if need be.)

I think this is related to my mood regulation - I can get excited about planning a vacation, and then about going and following the plan - but if I wake up in the morning and ask myself, "What do I want to do today?", I'm going to sit in my room bored and hungry and annoyed at myself for wasting time until something like 1PM.

While this is my native mode of travel, two alterations have made vacations much better for me:

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How to find a job like a privileged person with lots of options

Here are the things I've seen work well from both sides of the hiring process, and from talking with a bunch of people about career choice.

If you are thinking of going to school for a couple of years to qualify you for a job, apply for that job today to find out whether you actually have a skill gap. If you don't know exactly what job it is you want, figure out what the fastest way to find this out is - it probably isn't going to school for years.

If you don't get job interviews (or even if you do), ask people for informational interviews. Ask your friends or acquaintances for introductions to the most relevant people you can find. Ask those people for a 30 minute phone call or coffee meeting. Ask them all the questions you're actually curious about.  "Based on my experience, does it look like I'd be qualified? If not, what would I have to do to be a good candidate?" Ask for feedback on your resumé. If you're not sure you want to work in this field, make a list of all the things that would persuade you one way or the other if you found out about them, and ask those questions. At the end of the interview, ask, "whom else should I talk to?" If they're doing X and you want to do related thing Y, ask whom they know who does or knows about Y. Finally, if you think you want a job in their field, ask, "Who do you know who's hiring?"

If you're trying to decide whether a company/job is a good fit for you, that's what the job application process is for. Make it clear what you're looking for in your cover letter. If not having X is a dealbreaker for you, mention that you're looking for X. This way you waste less of your and their time, and if it is the perfect job for you, they have some evidence that you're an unusually good fit. Go into the interview with a list of all your actual, genuine reservations about the job; that's what you should ask in the "any questions for me?" part.

To illustrate, here's the cover letter I sent to GiveWell:

Hi there!

I want to do the best thing to help the world, but need to be able to judge competing claims to even know which interventions do the most good, and which skills I need to contribute to them. GiveWell and GiveWell Labs are doing that kind of work - I want to get practice with this.

I don't know if the best thing is for me to work for GiveWell, volunteer, or something else, but I'd like to start the conversation.

Personally Working With GiveWell

I currently manage an analytics team at Fannie Mae, I've built predictive models, and done empirical research to identify credit and collateral value risk. I've presented work to senior management a few times, so I have experience communicating quantitative results in clear plain language too.

I haven't done much work on closely related problems to the ones GiveWell works on, but here's my first public attempt to get a handle on comparing the magnitude of existential risk with other problems one might want to solve.

My resume is attached.

DC EA Involvement

On a related note, Matt Dahlhausen, a member of the DC Effective Altruists group and an organizer of the Effective Altruism group at the University of Maryland, has expressed interest in a group project doing research for GiveWell.

I don't know if GiveWell has gone in for this sort of thing before, but it seems like it has two possible advantages. Free labor (disadvantage: possibly poor coordination and QC), but maybe more importantly, building connections with effective altruists in DC. I think a strong active group of DC effective altruists might be able to do a tremendous amount of good, and having a real project to work on would help with group cohesion. Please let me know if you're interested in pursuing this.

I'm in the San Francisco area over the next few days (leaving on the 16th)--I'd love to meet if this is convenient for you.

Ben Hoffman

The Art is Like a Well-Ordered Ship

The Art is like having a well-ordered ship. You need sailors who can row or adjust the sails, you need strong oars or sails, you need a captain who can direct the ship, a navigator who can orient yourself by the stars, a plan to get to your destination, and a sound hull.

If you lack any of these things, it will make it hard to get to your destination. So if trying to get somewhere can often look like trying to have an awesome ship.

If you just care about having an awesome ship, you might not get anywhere interesting. You might decide that it's cold night and your sails can be better used as extra bedsheets, and cut them up - or build a second story with the oars. You might decide that it's more fun to party than to row. You might even light the mast on fire so you can see better at night, for a bit. But in the end, you'll still be adrift at sea.

And yet, if you just focus on the destination, you may not do much either. If there's a leak in the hull, or the captain is too cruel or too lazy to command the sailors well, or the sailors don't do their work, or the sails are loose, or the navigator is ignored, or your maps are wrong, then just doing the same things harder to get to the destination faster won't work very well either. If you have a leak and you're miles from shore, don't just row faster or keep staring at the stars to figure out which way to go - repair the leak immediately!

The Art is to have a well-ordered ship because that's how you get to your destination. To understand how the order of your ship promotes this goal. To teach your navigator about the stars and correct your maps, to keep discipline among the crew, to tend to the body of the ship - and yet, to know that these things, and not others, are what makes a well-ordered ship, makes much more sense if you know what the ship is for.

This is partly stolen from Plato's Republic (archived here), partly inspired by a conversation with Brienne.

Say it wrong first

I used to believe that it was good to be smart, and the smart people were the ones who had great ideas. So I came up with some ideas, and then decided to believe in them very strongly, so that they would be great.

Later, I learned that believing strongly in big, bold ideas isn't so great when they're wrong. I noticed that the smartest people often considered and rejected many appealing ideas, and could explain why they were wrong. So I learned how to be very, very skeptical of ideas. I didn't have any big ones of my own, but I was sure that when I did, if it survived my own skepticism, it would be great.

Then I realized that in order to have great ideas, I needed to have any ideas - and that I could only make an idea better, if I knew what it was. My skepticism had taught me to throw away my ideas before they entered consciousness. So I learned how to entertain an idea before believing it, play with it, ask what about it wasn't quite right - and then try to mend its flaws instead of throwing it away.