Friday, April 25, 2014

Observing Cthia

I have a pretty awful memory. I've installed all the memory techniques I teach at workshops to mitigate the damage of this. But all the work is done on the encoding end rather than the recall end, so things that happened before I started studying mnemonics, or that I simply fail to encode skillfully, are largely lost to me. 

One of the upsides is that I can read books several times and be surprised by each plot twist again and again. I usually feel a sort of comfortable familiarity when I re-read a book, but that is very often the closest thing to a memory of past readings I retrieve. An effect of that particular phenomenon is that I sometimes completely forget major intellectual influences, and really have no idea how I came to think the way that I do. But I read constantly as a child and teenager, so I know the majority of it has come from books.

For the past few days I've been reading a familiar-seeming Star Trek book called Spock's World, by Diane Duane. I was not completely certain until today that I had in fact read it before.

I was sort of stunned by a particular passage and wanted to share it, because it seems to encompass--and, given I must have read it as a teenager, foreshadow--so much of what's been going on in my life recently. Though this isn't canon, the Vulcans really are rationalists in at least some versions of the Trek universe. I think adopting the term discussed may make my daily life slightly more efficient and meaningful.

[Spoilers: I give away some of the plot of Spock's World below. But honestly, it's not exactly a plot-driven novel, so I wouldn't worry too much.]

Background: Vulcan is considering withdrawing from the Federation, and Sarek, Spock's father and Vulcan's ambassador to Earth, has been called back by T'pau to speak in favor of withdrawing. At this point, he has relatively little information about T'pau's motives and reasoning, so he's not decided whether to oblige her or to resign and be exiled. Upon meeting with members of the Enterprise, the following conversation ensues. [Emphasis mine.]
"This I will say to you Captain: I find being forced to speak against the planet of my embassage immensely distasteful, for reasons that have nothing to do with my history there, my marriage, or my relationships with my son and Starfleet. My whole business for many years has been to understand your peoples and to come closer to them; to understand their diversities. Now I find that business being turned on its ear, and all the knowledge and experience I have amassed being called on to drive away that other diversity, to isolate my people from it. It is almost a perversion of what my career has stood for." 
"But if you feel you have to do it," McCoy said softly, "You'll do it anyway." 
"Of course I will, Doctor. Here, as at many other times, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. What if, as the next few days progress, I become certain that my own people would be more damaged by remaining within the Federation than by leaving it? Must I not then preserve the species of which I am part? But the important thing is that this matter be managed with logic." He blinked then, and spoke again, so that a word came out that did not translate. "No. Cthia. I must not be misunderstood. Cthia must rule this, or we are all lost." 
Jim looked puzzled. "I think I need a translation. It's obviously a Vulcan word, but I'm not familiar with it." 
Amanda [Sarek's wife] looked sad. "This is possibly the worst aspect of this whole mess," she said. "It's the modern Vulcan word which we translate as 'logic'. But what it more correctly means is 'reality-truth'. The truth about the universe, the way things really are, rather than the way we would like them to be. It embraces the physical and the inner realities both at once, in all their changes. The concept says that if we do not tell the universe the truth about itself, if we don't treat it and the people in it as what they are--real, and precious--it will turn against us, and none of our affairs will prosper." She sighed. "That's a child's explanation of the word, I'm afraid. Whole books have been written trying to define it completely. What Sarek is saying is that if we don't handle this matter with the utmost respect for the truth, for what is really needed by everyone involved in it, it will end in disaster." 
"And the problem," McCoy said softly, "is that the truth about what's needed looks different to everybody who faces the situation..." 
Sarek nodded once, a grave gesture. "If I find that I must defend the planet of my birth by turning against my many years on Earth, then I will do so. Alternately," he said, "if I can in good faith defend the Federation in my testimony, I will do that. But what matters is that cthia be observed, without fail, without flaw. Otherwise, all this is useless."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Make Rationality Delicious

I've been thinking about Eliezer's suggestion to "Leave a Line of Retreat". The gist is this: Scary possibilities can be hard to think about, but it's easier to consider evidence for and against them once you know how you'd respond if the scary thing turned out to be true. In his words:
The prospect of losing your job, say, may seem a lot more scary when you can't even bear to think about it, than after you have calculated exactly how long your savings will last, and checked the job market in your area, and otherwise planned out exactly what to do next. Only then will you be ready to fairly assess the probability of keeping your job in the planned layoffs next month. Be a true coward, and plan out your retreat in detail—visualize every step—preferably before you first come to the battlefield.
Maybe we should practice finding lines of retreat in random situations occasionally. Then when we go to do it in a situation where we might actually need to retreat, our brains will be less likely to go, "Hey now, I see what you're up to." Suppose that every time you consider the question, "What would I do if the scary thing were true?" you end up facing the scary thing for real immediately afterward. Then you're classically conditioning yourself to not look for a line of retreat.

For example, I walked into an ice cream shop today*, and before entering I was already considering which flavor to get (which for me means weighing all the alternatives against chocolate). Because I happened to recognize the opportunity, I practiced leaving a line of retreat by asking, "Oh no, what if they don't have chocolate?" and answering, "Well, I'll either get vanilla instead, or I'll go to a different ice cream shop." Then I ordered chocolate.

Unlike in most cases where it's important to apply this skill, there was no reason to suspect they wouldn't have chocolate in the first place. So instead of applying the technique and then experiencing the punishment of actually settling for vanilla, from a classical conditioning perspective, I was immediately rewarded for my practice session with chocolate ice cream.

It's great to recognize a difficult rationality technique as wise, virtuous, and resulting in positive outcomes in the long run. But on the level of moment-to-moment decisions, my actual behaviors are much more strongly driven by chocolate than wisdom. Ideally, I'd also be driven by chocolate to be rational, right?

*This is a lie. What I actually walked into was a parable.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Truth-Powered Mind Hacking

Two days ago, I experienced a flash of social anxiety, which is something that hasn't happened in months.

I was trying to better understand odds and why they're better than probabilities for Bayesian reasoning, and I was writing with a marker on large sheets of paper. Then Eliezer came home and opened the door right behind me, and I panicked. I think System 1 doesn't want him to know that I struggle sometimes with really basic math in addition to provability theory and topology; it doesn't look impressive to re-learn how to translate between odds and probabilities. So I felt this huge spike of embarrassment (which used to be so familiar) and quickly hid my work.

Last night at a party, I noticed myself fearing that panic from before, and imagining the anxiety made me anxious. It was mildly discouraging. I notice now that I tried to hide from that.

If my freedom from social anxiety depends on nothing ever going wrong with that part of my brain, it'll be extremely fragile, and I don't want that. Alternately, it could depend on my ability to ignore or rationalize problems when they do happen.

Although I clearly have that ability, I think I don't want to exercise it. I want to learn to stare into frightening problems and discern the truth about them so I can bring all my powers to bear on solving them once certainly understood. I want all of me to believe true things about my challenges, and I'm confident that if I can meet them with self deception, I can meet them at least as well without it.

A couple months ago I'd not have written this post, because I'm explicitly acknowledging a fact that I fear may indicate a sudden and complete slide back into constant anxiety. It sounds dangerous for self-fulfilling-prophesy reasons. But I know that if I lied to myself, that slide wouldn't happen. I believe that if I believe that I won't relapse, then I won't relapse, so by Lob's theorem, I believe that I won't relapse. So, in full knowledge of having been anxious, I now declare it an isolated event.

Will I triumph, or will this happen with increasing frequency until I return to my previous state of constant crippling fear? Place your bets!

P(free of anxiety in 1 month)

P(free of anxiety in 4 months|free in 1 month)

P(free of anxiety in 4 months)

Don't refrain from betting against me because you're afraid it will discourage me and affect the outcome. The whole point is to demonstrate that I can direct my self-modification by embracing the truth.


What is true is already so. 
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse. 
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away. 
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with. 
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived. 
People can stand what is true, 
for they are already enduring it. 
—Eugene Gendlin

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Löbian Motivation Isn't Doublethink

Recently, my friend Malcolm was carrying very heavy bags of groceries home from the store, and taking much longer than he wanted to. He kept pausing to set them down, and at one point thought, "I can't do this". Then he asked himself, "If someone was going to reward me with a million dollars if I could get home in 8 minutes with all of these groceries intact, would I be able to do it?” and the answer was, "Um, duh, yes."

Then a brilliant thing happened.

He thought, "If someone was going to reward me with the abstract knowledge that I’m able to motivate myself to do really hard things using only hypothetical rewards, would I be able to do it?” After that, he kept up his usual light-grocery-load pace all the way home, and made it there in 6 minutes.

Notice the wording of that. I'll modify it a bit to make my point.

If I do this, I will have justified belief that I can motivate myself to do really hard things using only hypothetical rewards, which itself counts as a hypothetical reward. I've seen people do amazing things via Löbian reasoning in the past, so I'm about 80% confident it'll work. Now I shall test this hypothesis.

Notice what he didn't say. He didn't say, "Am I the kind of person who can do this?" and then lie to himself in the hopes of becoming that kind of person. Nor did he say, "Do I want to be the kind of person who can do this?"

No part of you needs to believe false things--or even exaggerated truths--about personal identity to make stuff like this work when you have timeless decision theory. You can just believe true things about your brain and mammalian behavioral psychology and manipulate the world accordingly.

Scientia potentia est.


Further Resources

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cuddle Orientation

I recently gained an extremely useful social concept that I'd like to propagate. It's called "cuddle orientation".

Different people experience cuddling differently. Some people love to be held, pet, and massaged by others. They're most satisfied with cuddling while taking on the more passive role. These are "cuddle bottoms" (analogous to the BDSM "bottom" orientation). Some people love to hold, pet, and massage others, and they're most satisfied with cuddling when they're doing the active part. These are "cuddle tops". As with sexual orientation, most people probably fall somewhere in the middle. There are likely a lot of true "cuddle switches" who are equally fulfilled by the active and receptive roles, but I expect people cluster toward the poles.

[The following description of my pre-cuddle-revelation experiences should be taken as System 1 attitudes. These phenomena never made it to System 2 consideration, so please don't think I thought hard about it and then went on believing dumb things.]

I am very strongly a cuddle bottom. For a long time, I was not aware of the existence of cuddle tops. I typical minded so hard that I assumed everyone played the active roll for one of three reasons. Either they're counting on reciprocity to bring them passive cuddles in the future, they feel socially obligated to do their time as the active cuddler, or they're just really nice people who tend to prioritize others' pleasure before their own.

I never once took seriously the hypothesis that they might derive pleasure directly from cuddle topping. Given my immersion in BDSM culture, this was a pretty silly mistake. I should have known better.

It was also a costly mistake. I developed an aversion to cuddle puddles, because the more I let myself enjoy being held, pet, and massaged, the more completely I felt I'd bought into an implicit promise to be an active cuddler later. I thought I was building up cuddle debt. I also thought I was costing the other person/people hedons while they waited for their turn. I find this kind of social pressure very painful, so despite my love of being cuddled, I consistently turned down cuddle invitations. (Incidentally, I went through an "I'd really rather not bother with sex" period for exactly the same reason before learning that I'm sexually submissive and that dominants exist.)

When discussing this with a friend recently, I learned that cuddle tops can experience something similar. What he really wants is to keep doing the active cuddling, but he's constantly worried that the other person wants him to stop or isn't enjoying it any time they're not giving very clear "I like this, please keep doing it" signals. And I, for one, am not especially vocal when I'm completely relaxed.

But now that we know these things about each other, cuddling together will be awesome. I'll be completely guilt free and able to relax into the experience, and he'll know that this is exactly what I want. Furthermore, we've set a precedent for open communication on this topic, so if either of us wants to change anything in the moment, we'll be comfortable saying so.

You don't have to guess at this stuff. Don't behave as though we're all expected to read minds. Know yourself, volunteer that knowledge when it's useful, and ask questions when you want to learn about others.

Here's what I want everybody to do, especially if you're in one of my social circles where casual cuddling happens a lot. Figure out your cuddle orientation. Maybe you're a-cuddley (not really into cuddles), maybe you're a top or a bottom, maybe you always want to give and receive simultaneously (don't know what to call that, but I know it exists), or maybe you're a cuddle switch who's happy whenever any sort of cuddling happens.

Then establish a norm of briefly negotiating your cuddle puddle beforehand. If cuddling looks like it's starting--or if you'd like it to start--just say, "I'm a cuddle top. Would anybody like to be cuddled by me?" and then "Bottom, switch, or what?" if they haven't already told you.

This isn't any more difficult than asking for permission before touching someone, which is already an established practice (at least among my friends). It's also an excellent time to find out who likes what kind of touch. Very light caresses in the same area set me on edge after less than a minute, for instance, while deeper pressure and scratching make me melt.

If there are two bottoms, two tops, and three switches, some cuddle puddle configurations will lead to much greater satisfaction than others. The tops might focus on each other, which wouldn't be much fun at all. But even when the complementary roles happen to pair up nicely, common knowledge of cuddle preferences leads to less anxiety, faster and clearer feedback, and therefore much more efficient cuddles.