How to ride a skrode

Now that it’s been a few weeks since my posts on phoenixes and skroderiders, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some responses:

  • Doesn't skroderider virtue require an unreasonable amount of effort?
  • Aren’t crises objectively the best times to help someone?
  • I’m a phoenix. Is that bad?
  • I’m a phoenix. Can I do skroderider things?

Doesn't skroderider virtue require an unreasonable amount of effort?

I can see how a phoenix might imagine this to be the case. If your way of accessing caring is to have a burning fire active in your soul, then doing something characteristic of skroderiders might seem extremely expensive, like permanently allocating a working memory slot to every single person you care about. It’s very expensive for phoenixes to do anything but what their burning sense of urgency is pulling them towards, and to have to feel that while you go about your day-to-day activities for days, months, or years before you can act on it sounds exhausting.

But I wasn’t kidding when I used object permanence as a metaphor for how skroderiders care. And object permanence is not effortful. When a magician summons a rabbit from an apparently empty hat, or makes a ball vanish under a cup, the audience does not expend conscious mental effort to notice the discrepancy - they are effortlessly surprised. Similarly, when a skroderider acts for a friend the day, or week, or month after they found out about the need, it doesn’t feel like they had a reminder in their head the whole time. It feels like they built an affordance for this kind of caring.

Here’s an example of what it’s like to be a skroderider. When I was trying to buy bigger glasses, a friend of mine mentioned that she should really buy sunglasses, because she is highly sensitive to light, but hadn’t gotten around to it. There wasn’t much I could do at the time beyond encourage her to do it, but I learned that she needed and didn’t have sunglasses. At some point I probably idly fantasized about buying sunglasses together, but the opportunity never came up. A couple of weeks ago, we spent a day together. We were going to be in San Francisco for part of it. Since she was physically present, I had an elevated affordance for connecting things with her needs, and remembered that we both needed sunglasses - so I suggested we go sunglasses shopping together. She told me that she had just lost her wallet, so she couldn’t spend much money on things beyond cash on hand. I expressed some perfunctory sympathy, but my mind was elsewhere. In particular, I was thinking about whether I should offer to lend her the money for sunglasses (probably not, because we’re still new friends and it seemed somehow like too much pressure to put on the friendship), and committing this fact about her to longer-term memory. Then I stopped thinking about it, since it didn’t seem like there was anything else to do about it. Later in the day we went out to dinner, and the place turned out to be expensive. Since I’d already learned that buying expensive things was not something she should do given her situation, I said, “dinner’s on me, because you’re on a cash budget right now.” She was surprised and delighted that I remembered. But of course I remembered! I’m a skroderider. It’s what I do. I’m still waiting for good opportunities to remind her to buy sunglasses. (I just sent her a reminder, because why not?)

At no point in the process did I expend conscious effort. I just learned things about my friend, so that when relevant things about the world came up later, they reminded me of opportunities to take care of her. I don’t know how to teach this, because I don’t know how to learn it - I wish I could, not least because then I could learn more of it - but it’s a skill, habit, or mental disposition, not an extra effort. It's not about more things constantly buzzing about in your head, but building more extensive, enduring models of the world, that you can consult later.

Aren’t crises objectively the best times to help someone?


For some people, crises are the times they most need help and attention. They are stressed and upset and feeling alone and trapped, and having another human being around to share the load at their time of greatest need can be invaluable. Sometimes just even having someone sympathetic around can help them feel like they’re not alone. Phoenixes and people with strong empathetic cognition tend to be in this category.

On the other hand, when I am visibly in a crisis, it tends to be because some huge immovable things are colliding, and things are going to come crashing down around me regardless of what I do. If someone tries to empathize at me starting at that moment, I don’t trust that they’ll be around later, to help me clean up the wreckage. If someone tries to help me during a crisis, I typically don’t have the spare executive function to even tell them what’s going on or what I need.

Typically, the thing I second most need in the moment of crisis is to be able to count on future help, so that I can clean up the mess and avoid having that crisis again, or at most help triaging urgent from nonurgent problems to clear up my attention. If someone is mainly trying to relate to me empathetically, then I imagine they'll go away as soon as I stop having a visible salient crisis, so I don't really perceive them as a reliable resource.

The thing I most need in a crisis is to have been helped earlier so that the crisis didn’t happen.

I’m a phoenix. Is that bad?

There's a reason I liken the virtue I don't have in this pair to a magical bird of intrinsic goodness. I don't have a full explicit account of this, though I'd like to, but my intuition is that phoenix-virtue is both beautiful and necessary for a healthy and whole human being. When your mundane activities or existing plans aren't in line with your highest values, the fiery call of the phoenix can be what wakes you up to what is most urgently deeply needed.

This is a classic tactic of activism: from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Direct Action Everywhere to Nick Bostrom, we owe a large part of our moral intelligence to those who wake up our moral sentiments by making abstract issues vivid, urgent, and personal.

I’d like to see a proper phoenix write a better praise of phoenix virtue than I can do from the outside, because I think there’s really something there and I don't think I fully understand it yet.

I’m a phoenix. Can I do skroderider things?

I’m not perfectly happy with the skroderider metaphor, but I made my bed and now I’ll travel to the stars in it. Much like the original skroderiders of fiction used their skrodes to act as short-term memory, the key to acting like a skroderider when you don’t have the underlying cognitive habits is to use artificial systems to substitute for long-term learning. Construct an anti-skrode.

The main way to do this is through trusted systems. David Allen’s Getting Things Done has lots of examples of these. The point is to push all your long-term memory things into a system designed well enough, and kept clear enough of irrelevant information you won’t use, that you’re actually sure you will see the information when you need it. You can use Boomerang to fake reliably following up on emails. You can use a calendar to remember friends’ birthdays. When your friend tells you about a long-term problem, you can take notes and schedule future times to talk about it with them. You can write to-dos when you think of a way to help a friend that you can’t act on now but might be able to in the future. You can keep a written list of food allergies and preferences whenever your friends mention them, and consult the list when you invite people over for dinner.

These aren’t just good for helping phoenixes act more like skroderiders, though - they’re good for helping skroderiders act more like phoenixes. When my long-term tasks are delegated to trusted systems, when I know I’ve already scheduled time for my long-term projects, then I’m more willing to reallocate attention in the short term if something new and important comes up.

None of these are perfect, but they help.

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