Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book Recommendation: How To Win Friends and Influence People

I'm finally reading How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which has been on my list for a year now. So far, I'm completely loving it, and I understand why it has remained so popular for most of a century.

Here is how the book works. I'll use Chapter 3 as an example.

Each chapter begins with a straightforward claim about successful socialization.

The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.

It then goes through many concrete examples, some taken from famous bits of history, others from students in the author's classes or from his own experiences.

At one time I rented the grand ballroom of a certain New York hotel for twenty nights in each season in order to hold a series of lectures.
At the beginning of one season, I was suddenly informed that I should have to pay almost three times as much rent as formerly. This news reached me after the tickets had been printed and distributed and all announcements had been made. 
Naturally, I didn't want to pay the increase, but what was the use of talking to the hotel about what I wanted? They were interested only in what they wanted. So a couple of days later I went to see the manager.
'I was a bit shocked when I got your letter,' I said, 'but I don't blame you at all. If I had been in your position, I should probably have written a similar letter myself. Your duty as the manager of the hotel is to make all the profit possible. If you don't do that, you will be fired and you ought to be fired. Now, let's take a piece of paper and write down the advantages and the disadvantages that will accrue to you, if you insist on this increase in rent.'
Then I took a letterhead and ran a line through the center and headed one column 'Advantages' and the other column 'Disadvantages.' 
I wrote down under the head 'Advantages' these words: 'Ballroom free.' Then I went on to say: 'You will have the advantage of having the ballroom free to rent for dances and conventions. That is a big advantage, for affairs like that will pay you much more than you can get for a series of lectures. If I tie your ballroom up for twenty nights during the course of the season, it is sure to mean a loss of some very profitable business to you.
Now, let's consider the disadvantages. First, instead of increasing your income from me, you are going to decrease it. In fact, you are going to wipe it out because I cannot pay the rent you are asking. I shall be forced to hold these lectures at some other place.
There's another disadvantage to you also. These lectures attract crowds of educated and cultured people to your hotel. That is good advertising for you, isn't it? In fact, if you spent five thousand dollars advertising in the newspapers, you couldn't bring as many people to look at your hotel as I can bring by these lectures. That is worth a lot to a hotel, isn't it?' 
As I talked, I wrote these two 'disadvantages' under the proper heading, and handed the sheet of paper to the manager, saying: 'I wish you would carefully consider both the advantages and disadvantages that were going to accrue to you and then give me your final decision.'
I received a letter the next day, informing me that my rent would be increased only 50 percent instead of 300 percent.
Mind you, I got this reduction without saying a word about what I wanted. I talked all the time about what the other person wanted and how he could get it.
Suppose I had done the human, natural thing; suppose I had stormed into this office and said, 'What do you mean by raising my rent three hundred percent when you know the tickets have been printed and the announcements made? Three hundred percent! Ridiculous! Absurd! I won't pay it!'
What would have happened then? An argument would have begun to steam and boil and sputter--and you know how arguments end. Even if I had convinced him that he was wrong, his pride would have made it difficult for him to back down and give in.

Interspersed are actionable instructions summarizing the methods illuminated by the examples.

Tomorrow you may want to persuade somebody to do something. Before you speak, pause and ask yourself: 'How can I make this person want to do it?'

Each chapter concludes with a concise statement of the principle discussed.
Arouse in the other person an eager want.

I do have one worry about this book.

Up through my first year of college, I was mostly horrible with people, and I was proud of it. I didn't like people, I didn't want them to like me, and suggestions that being nice would make things easier offended me. I was cold and arrogant. I did seem to have a surprising amount of a certain kind of social success anyway, for I was always leading groups of various sorts, and people always insisted that my leadership was irreplaceable when I spoke of leaving. But my domain of social success was severely limited, and I was crippled by that.

I began to change when I finally concluded that my extreme arrogance would prevent me from befriending a worthy peer in the unlikely event that I might encounter one in college. I certainly didn't decide to become "good with people", but the resolution to become less arrogant, and my subsequent success (yes, believe it or not, I'm vastly less arrogant than once I was), began a success spiral that led me into a growth mindset where dramatic change seemed possible.

Toward the beginning of my second year of college, I decided to get very good at socialization. It was a time in my life when I was terribly excited to dive into Impossible Projects, and this was one. And I'm still in the midst of this one, but I've come a long way. I still have a few gaping holes in my social education. But I've taken the project seriously, and I really have learned a lot.

Recently, I began working on an essay summarizing what I've learned. The principles I've so far outlined are very nearly identical to those set forth in Carnegie's book.

Therefore, while reading this book, I respond to most of what he says with a feeling of, "Yes!!! This is so obviously right. Why didn't anyone ever explain this to me back when I needed it?"

There was a period of a few years between when I began the project and when I gained sufficient proficiency to generate these principles on my own when this book might have given me a giant boost. I might have shot ahead by as much as three years if it were perfectly timed. But before that period, it would have been useless to me. It would have been an imposition, one more person telling me the Right Way To Live as though I had any inclination to mar my personal aesthetic with their ugly morality. I wouldn't even have had the capacity to understand what "Give honest, sincere appreciation" meant.

So my worry is this. I don't know to what extent people might be able to use this book to actually grow rather than to merely feel either validated or offended.

I do suspect, however, that there exist many people in precisely the right stage of social development to benefit enormously. If you think you might be receptive to the sort of advice given above, I wholeheartedly recommend that you read How To Win Friends and Influence People, and in fact I suggest that you move it as near the top of your reading list as you can possibly stand.

These principles are powerful. When understood and practiced, they change everything, including your efficiency in accomplishing the things you'll waste a lot of time on before reading this book if you put it off. And I do think there's a good chance that reading the book will lead you to practice the principles, and thereby to understand them.

The Kindle version is $2.99, and it's a quick read. You'll know by the third chapter if it's for you.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cuff Links and Nail Polish: How Gender Roles Hurt Everyone

Ever since I first realized that people consider me to be a woman--that as a further fact beyond having visibly female sex characteristics, they think I belong in the female gender role--I've been struggling with how to respond to that information.

It's clear that I shouldn't try to hate mall shopping just because my culture has put much more pressure on me to enjoy that than it has on my brothers. For whatever reason, I do enjoy it, and if I stopped I'd have one fewer thing in life from which to derive pleasure. Which would be sad. But it's also clear that I shouldn't feel guilty for being assertive as a result of similar pressures, if I can avoid it.

So I'm trying to become more conscious of when my motivations spring from implicit beliefs along the lines of, "This will preserve my social points, because women are supposed to make themselves sexually appealing to straight men, and this makes me sexier." (Note: Men can gain social points for looking extra sexy, though men's social points aren't usually conceptualized that way. But women lose social points when they don't make a special effort to look sexy. Because pleasing men is what we're really here for, right?)

Sometimes it's pretty clear-cut. For instance, it's usually easy for me to tell when I'm not doing something merely because I would be perceived as less feminine/more masculine, and I'd lose social points for it. It feels like longing. I notice myself going, "I love men's dress shoes so much; I wish I could get some really dashing men's dress shoes and coordinate my outfit around them." For a while in college, when I felt that way my response was, "Fuck this shit, that's exactly what I'm going to do!" But now I'm in a new environment where I don't feel quite so high status. When I went shoe shopping the other day, I found myself gazing longingly at the men's shoes while spending my allotted shoe money, with resignation, on women's shoes. (Much sadder to me than the shoes: Men's cologne. Oh my god I love it so much.)

There are also clear-cut cases where I wholeheartedly adore doing the traditionally feminine thing, and would definitely still want to do it if I were male. I love having painted nails--though having someone else paint them is better--and if a male version of me wouldn't go in for a mani-pedi, it would be for the same reason that female me is reluctant to be visibly masculine. Transgressing gender roles comes with a price, regardless of your sex.

The areas that give me trouble are the ones where I sort of want to do something that falls in the female gender role, but also sort of don't want to do it. 

For example, I sort of want to wear a tight dress that shows off my breasts and hips, and I sort of want to wear heels that show off my calves. For a while I thought this was because I want to appear well groomed, since that makes me feel like I command attention and respect (thus increasing my confidence), and this is simply the way to do it when you're in a female body. (I do, by the way, like my female body, and I usually don't like the idea of becoming physically male.) But a female body in a suit and tie neither appears nor feels any less well groomed. Indeed, I'd feel a lot better groomed that way, since in men's clothes I can dress to the nines without worrying that it's "too slutty". I would feel elegant, in charge, and handsome.

Tight dresses and heels aren't about authority and respect. They're about sex. The part of me that wants to wear them loves being sexy, loves the idea of turning on strangers when I walk down the street. The part of me that doesn't want to wear them wants attention and respect with no dependence on my utility as a sperm receptacle.

If I were young, fit, and male in a post-gender society, I'd often go out dancing in skimpy head-turning dresses that showcase my physique. But I'd go to conferences with a tie clip and cuff-links, because that's how I roll. And color coordinated nail polish, of course. If I were female? Same.

How I expressed myself, how I interacted with others, and how I made my way in the world would have everything to do with who I am and nothing to do with which behaviors society associates with which body parts. How other people interacted with me would be similarly gender-free.

I chose to talk about clothing here because it's a concrete, simple, vivid illustration. But it's also relatively trivial. Gender roles do not stop at attire, and it's the more subtle things that really hurt us.

It's the way the pizza delivery person always addresses my male companion instead of me when we answer the door together, because priors say women are submissive and men are dominant. It's the way I have to publish twice as many articles in journals twice as prestigious to be academically competitive with a man, because priors say women are simple-minded and men are intelligent. It's the way I'm interrupted far more often than my male discussion partners, and the way I'm perceived as bitchy and pushy rather than confident and authoritative when I do insist on speaking up, because priors say women are quiet and men do the talking. Men are agenty, and women are at their service.

If you want to better understand exactly how gender roles work, I highly recommend the talk below by Virginia Valian. Alternately, check out her book Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women. In the latter, you'll find citations of and notes on all the source material she mentions in the talk.

P.S. The longer version of this is the most important lecture I've ever listened to.

Edit: Shortly after I wrote this, a New York Times article featured a clothier called Bindle and Keep, which has been making men's suits for female bodies for over a year now. I am SO excited about this, and I really hope the meme spreads rapidly through the clothing industry. Hopefully, I'll eventually get to schedule a fitting for my dream suit in the Bay Area.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ars Memoriae

I sense that more is possible in the art of memory.

There was a time when everyone remembered. There was a time before smart phones, before computers, before widespread literacy, and before writing, when there was nothing to do with a thought besides remember it. If you failed in that task, there would be no external reminder to fall back on--no index to browse, text message to dig up, no crumpled-up post-it at the bottom of your purse--and the thought would be lost forever. That time comprises the vast majority of  human history.

It's easy to imagine that members of pre-literate societies must have lived almost entirely in the moment, with no libraries or photographs to hold onto their past thoughts for them. But that is only because the art of memory has been so thoroughly replaced by external mnemonic technologies. Few of us have ever been prompted to explore the potential of internal memory.

Before the printing press, people were taught from childhood the powerful, ancient techniques of memory. How powerful? Powerful enough to create and pass down the 15,963-line Iliad for at least a hundred years before it was finally committed to paper. People in pre-literate societies were constantly immersed in their history, oral tradition, and the products of their previous mental labors. For all the incomprehensible breadth of humanity's new external memories, it is we who are bound to the present.

If you haven't heard of linking, memory palaces, or the Major System, the most basic introduction to mnemonics will demonstrate that you needn't be limited by the tiny capacity of your working memory once you've learned to embed information directly into long-term memory. I remember the first time I learned a twenty item list in just a few minutes. The encoding took effortful concentration (though it gets much easier with practice; I can now complete the same task in about 30 seconds), but the surprise and excitement I experienced with each item effortlessly recalled shattered deep resignations about my own cognitive limits. That was my first taste of the possibility in the art of memory.

I've since learned of the subculture of mnemonists, people who compete in the memory circuit. They travel all over the world to find out who can learn the longest string of random digits, lines of poetry, and shuffled decks of cards. I've learned that the only difference between myself and mental athletes is that I've never deliberately trained my skills. I could perform such feats if I tried, as could you.

I've not tried, though I have made my life much more efficient (I was once terribly forgetful and absent minded) by storing information in my very own brain for reliable recall any time I want to. If I don't want to lose my keys, I simply remember where they are. If I want to remember which bus stop I'm looking for, I needn't leaf through my notebook while standing in the cramped isle or pull up the right screen on my phone. I just remember. I never forget passwords, names, or my credit card number--not once I've decided to remember, anyway. These conveniences alone are well worth the half hour of study needed to become proficient in elementary mnemonics.

But there's just no way that this is all there is. About 2,600 years have passed since we began writing things down. And rather than putting to revolutionary use the internal memory software responsible for the Iliad by harnessing the ability to remember more important and different kinds of information, we're still mostly using it to remember our shopping lists while our hands are full? That can't be right.

Or can it? After all, there's no reason for most of us to know that a mole of carbon atoms is 6.022*10^23 atoms of carbon: In the unlikely event that you need to do stoichiometry, Wolfram Alpha will answer all of your questions. This much is certainly true. But in the context of a discussion of mnemonics, something about it feels off. "We don't need internal memory because our external memory is so much better" misframes the relationship between memory and learning.

If you take a 400 level college course, it probably has prerequisites. You must first have taken a related 300 or 200 level course. Why?

Because often, in order to learn things you first must know things. Human memory is a massive network of associations, and recognizing relationships among concepts requires each concept be located somewhere in that network. Without well-traveled pathways, the memories will get lost. They will find neither conscious awareness nor each other.

You cannot innovate, you cannot invent, and you cannot seamlessly integrate information stored only externally. Creativity is not a magical spell for creating something out of nothing. It's the ability to make new associations among old ideas and new data. To be creative, the raw materials must reside in internal memory. Wikipedia is simply not available to the subtle workings of fluid intelligence.

We should not allow technologies like writing to cause our memories to languish and atrophy. Rather, they should enrich our memories with much higher leverage information than was available to mnemonists past.

Our society has lost the art of memory because we can get away with being lazy. But how might the world be if each of us had a sprawling memory palace as lavishly furnished as that of an erudite Greek of 660 BCE? Imagine if it contained the most important information we encounter now.

This is the vision of a liberal arts education, after all; but while we spend longer than ever before--18 years at least--memorizing only to forget, we are no longer taught how to learn. If we all learned to think memorably, to keep the most important parts of past experience close at hand, how much more creative might we become? And what might we gain the ability to learn?

Further Resources

  • This half-hour lecture/audiobook by Derren Brown is the best introduction to the basic mnemonic techniques I've found so far.
  • For a look at how it was done in the good old days, check out Cicero's Rhetorica ad Herennium (Latin background optional). Though there's been some innovation, this is still basically an accurate description of how the professionals do it.
  • There is much to learn of the remembering mind in Homerian verse. As Milman Parry established in the 1920's (at the age of 18), what was captured by Homer in heroic hexameter was not merely a story, but the inner workings of literary thought 'ere dawn of the written word.
  • Joshuah Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein is a riveting tour of mnemonic subculture, as well as an introduction to the history and theory of the art of memory. The Kindle version's only ten bucks, but if you can't spare the resources, at least watch his TED talk on the same.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Press "A" To Jump

"You're becoming a very specific kind of guru," my best friend divulged after one of those long conversations that only happen on road trips. "You're like that character at the very beginning of a video game when there's a tutorial that teaches you things like, 'navigate with the arrow keys' and 'press A to jump'. Nobody will even survive for very long, let alone defeat the final boss, with just those skills. But if it weren't for knowledge like this we'd get stuck in corners and never regenerate more than a few feet from where we started."

The things I said to him that day are things I'd never before articulated outside of my own head, because they seem too obvious to me to be worth saying. I said them in this case because I was exasperated, couldn't think of any other reason he seemed to be running directly into a corner over and over again, and wasn't having much luck with asking simple questions. I was expecting him to respond with, "Duh, I know that; the actual problem is x," which would finally allow access to the actual problem.

But no, the truth is that sometimes very smart people intent on winning the game simply never learn how to use the controller. So, just in case you happen to be button mashing at the moment, here are the things I said that have helped him take much more control of his life.

You have values. Winning means fulfilling those values. Fulfilling values requires identifying and accomplishing causally relevant goals.

If your goals have not already been accomplished, it means that the universe is not in your preferred configuration yet. Since there are a whole lot of possible configurations of the universe, unless you have extremely general goals, the odds are pretty small that the universe will just happen to end up in your favorite one if you simply wait. That doesn't mean, "Don't get too set on specific goals, 'cause you'll probably be disappointed." It means, "Don't wait." The basic game mechanics consist of learning to manipulate causal chains to increase the odds that the universe ends up in the configurations you like, and doesn't end up in the configurations you don't like. Manipulating causal chains means trying to understand them and then reaching out and actually acting on them accordingly.

In other words, figure out what you want, figure out how to get it, and then do that.

It sounds so obvious that I'm embarrassed to say it. But people really do seem to spend most of their time not doing this. They just sort of stand around waiting and hoping that things will go their way. They waste a lot of time lamenting the cruelty of fate when bad things happen, and feeling blessed when good things happen. When Karma shits on them even through they tried really hard, they feel helpless instead of wondering whether they're trying the wrong thing.

So when you're stuck in a corner, make sure you're holding the controller and not button mashing: Figure out what you want, figure out how to get it, and then do that.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Running Without Lying (To Ourselves Or Each Other)

The truth about barefoot running is that the truth about barefoot running is hard to find. But so far, it really does seem to be better than running in cushy-motion-controlling-arch-supporty shoes. So let's be honest: Barefooters hurt their feet a lot, more research is needed, and we should be a bit confused about all of this in the mean time.

I've been running for about five years now. But I wasn't really a runner until four years ago when, like many, I read Born to Run and fell deeply in love. Immediately upon finishing the book, I started training barefoot, transitioned to minimalist running shoes (specifically Vibram KSOs), and vowed to one day run an ultramarathon. I even brainstormed ways of testing out persistence hunting for myself.

For those who've never heard of this stuff, here are the central claims that came to fuel the barefoot running movement.
  1. Distance running is central to human evolutionary history. We evolved to run great distances--as in a good hundred miles or so at a time--pursuing prey relentlessly and forcing it to trot until it keels over from exhaustion. While we're certainly not built for speed, we're good enough at endurance to be deadly.
  2. The cushy footwear you'll find on display at any athletics store--arranged according to arch support, motion control, and activity type--is largely responsible for the majority of running injuries. It encourages landing on the heel rather than the front of the foot; it enables weak, atrophied, useless foot muscles (the true nature of "flat feet"); and it prevents pronation of the foot, which is a biomechanical feature rather than a defect to be corrected by orthotics. As a result, shod runners collide with the ground much harder than do barefoot runners, and most of the shock goes straight through the heel and knee, rather than into the foot and calf muscles that have evolved to take it.
  3. Running is good for you. Shoes and poor form are not. Everyone should run like the Tarahumara: barefoot or in minimalist footwear, in short, quick steps, with a forefoot strike instead of a heel strike, and probably not on concrete.
I originally set out in this post to write a well-reasoned discussion of the evidence for these claims. Last time I looked, no such thing existed; there was an awful lot of cheering, hype, and speculation, but almost no evaluation of actual evidence not taken directly from Born to Run. To my delight, this time I discovered that someone has already done it for me--and done it well.

The barefoot running sequence at Condensed Science has three main parts. The first discusses the evolutionary basis for barefoot running. The second is about biomechanics. Third is an analysis of injury rates in running, and it's the one wherein the author seriously impressed me by explaining what we actually do and don't know at this point rather than merely arguing for her favorite side.

In Summary

Yeah, we may well have been "born to run". Given that, runners are injured at surprisingly high rates: Somewhere around half of us are injured each year. You're more likely to end up with joint injuries if you run in conventional athletic shoes, and you're more likely to injure your feet if you run barefoot-ish (You don't say!). You're definitely less likely overall to be injured if you run barefoot, so even though Vibrams do not in fact prevent all injury, they're better by comparison. Biomechanics is complicated, and relevant studies are sparse; it is ok to be uncertain and to make the least bad guess based on whatever evidence is available.


ETA: Just to be clear, I'm making no claims here about walking.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Availability: Imaginations Gone Wild

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut we use in place of time-consuming statistical algorithms when making decisions under uncertainty.

When we estimate the likelihood of being eaten by a grumple bug, we substitute for other statistical methods a subjective measurement of how easy it is to imagine being eaten by a grumple bug. If I live in a small nomadic tribe where no one has ever recounted the tale of how his great aunt was eaten by a grumple bug while out hunting--indeed, a tribe where no one has ever even heard of a grumple bug--I'll understandably estimate the likelihood of being eaten by a grumple bug to be low. As a result, I'll spend very little time worrying about grumple bugs, and will instead devote my resources to watching for dangers I hear about all the time, like tigers, rival tribes, and poisonous mushrooms that take your soul to the afterlife even before your body bites the dust. Grumple bugs aren't very available in memory compared to tigers.

If, however, the tale of the time great aunt Cathy was eaten by a tiger while out on a hunt is told over and over again around the camp fire, I may begin to spend more of my time watching out for tigers than avoiding heat exhaustion. Never mind that heat exhaustion is actually much more likely and equally deadly. When that happens, the availability heuristic dons its other masque: the availability bias.

Ease of Imagery

Availability, as both a heuristic and a bias, apparently comes down to ease of imagery. By "imagery", I mean something broader than "how easy it is to conjure up a visual representation". When you imagine a tiger, you probably don't just see a still photograph or painting of a tiger in your mind. Imagination can be fully immersive; imaginary tigers are big and orange with black stripes, but they also growl, slink stealthily while stalking prey, drip wet blood from their fangs, and smell of musk and raw meat.

Several things contribute to ease of imagery. One is actual frequency in the local environment, which might  or might not match global frequency. Maybe grumple bugs are a thing a couple hundred miles south, and I'll be caught unaware if the tribe heads that direction. Another is repetition. It's useful to rely on ease of imagery when I'm unlikely to hear about grumple bugs very often in a place where there are no grumple bugs; on the other hand, I'll probably hear about tigers more frequently than the occurrence of tigers in the local environment warrants, because tiger stories are way more gripping than heat exhaustion stories. They have conflict, protagonists, antagonists, narrative arcs, and often social drama. That's the formula for deep significance to a human brain. "Tom died 'cause he got too hot" doesn't measure up. As with tigers on the ancestral savanna, so too with cougars in the modern American Midwest, alligators in the sewers of New York, and kidney theft.

Tigers seem more at home in the imagination than does heat exhaustion, don't they? I can come up with an equally detailed description of heat exhaustion if I try, but it takes more work. There's something more going on with ease of imagery than frequency of exposure and narrative structure. Since I'm cheating with the picture of the tiger in the top right, imagine instead a human-sized duck holding an umbrella while playing a kazoo.

Got it? Ok, now imagine the availability heuristic. Very different sort of experience, right?

Here's what's up with the wacky duck. The duck is simple, concrete, vivid (for multiple sensory modalities), and emotionally engaging (humorous, specifically, and also surprising due to its strangeness). The availability heuristic, by contrast, is complicated, abstract, murky, and boring (at least at first blush).

To recap, the core of availability is ease of imagery, which is a combination of frequency of exposure (repetition), meaningful narrative context, concreteness, vividness, and emotional impact.

It's not true, of course, that drugged travelers sometimes wake up in bathtubs full of ice to discover that their interanal organs have been stolen for sale on the black market. But it's a concrete, vivid, meaningful story oft repeated for emotional impact, so people accept it as fact before System Two ever gets a chance to go, "Wait a minute, you want me to believe what?"

Further Resources

Monday, November 4, 2013

Salvaging Sacraments

I'm a recovering Catholic. Although I don't believe in God and don't attend Mass except on rare occasion for the purpose of singing, I miss the Sacraments dearly, and in particular I miss the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I get that Confession seems kinda weird at first blush. You're telling someone who may or may not be a total stranger about all of the bad things you did, highly personal and otherwise, possibly in great detail, in order to receive imaginary forgiveness from an imaginary god, and then you're letting the stranger dole out a punishment that might not be at all related to your actual sins. I can understand why that would appear creepy, pointless, and horribly unpleasant, perhaps even to a pseudo-Catholic let alone to an atheist and total outsider.

Let me see if I can explain why anyone would ever be motivated to go to Confession out of something besides obligation or fear of damnation. Catholics often say that the Sacraments are "outward signs of inward grace". When I was little, coming to understand (some of) what they meant by that had a pretty profound effect. Abstract ideas like contrition, forgiveness, devotion, and faith are invisible and elusive. It's not always easy to get your brain around them enough for them to impact your daily life.

It's a bit like when you genuinely believe that it's a good idea to learn calculus, but "calculus" feels like such a murky, distant, impenetrable concept that you're not sure how to do anything about it. Sacraments are concrete symbols for abstract ideas and events that help you get a handle on similarly murky things like your relationship with God.

If I made a Catholic-style sacramental rite out of calculus, it would go something like this.

  1. Recite: "Mathematics is vast and immaculate. My understanding is meager and flawed. May studying the Calculus one day unite me with Mathematical perfection. Amen."
  2. Open a Calculus textbook. Read a section. Do the exercises. Reflect on what I do and don't understand, what I could have done better, and what flaws in my pre-existing understanding are preventing me from progressing further.
  3. State my current understanding of what I read to a professor. Show them my exercises. Listen to their feedback. 
  4. The professor recites: "Mathematics is vast and immaculate. May your understanding advance toward perfection. In the name of the Calculus, I grant you your next assignment." (I receive the assignment.)
Reconciliation is similar.

  1. Examine my conscience. Call to mind the sins I've committed, and reflect on them.
  2. Recite (something along the lines of): "Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry, and I humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen."
  3. Go to a priest and tell him what I've done wrong. Maybe talk to him about it a bit so I better understand why I did what I did and why I am sorry.
  4. The priest says, "Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life." Then he assigns a penance, an actionable plan for atonement, and I carry it out.
Inasmuch as reconciliation can have positive effects--and I think it can(1)--what we're dealing with here is a sort of urge propagation.

Through concrete actions and carefully designed rituals, you are forcing yourself to encounter something you'd rather flinch away from, and you're grappling with it right now instead of leaving your future selves to endure a vague and undirected sense of guilt over mistakes you don't even think about let alone correct. Religious or not, nobody benefits from ignoring problems that need solving, and nobody's as good at allowing abstract ideas like "being a good person" to transform their day-to-day lives as they are at making incremental improvements via specific actions (though those actions may be motivated by abstract ideas). Lofty resolutions are not effective without well-designed mechanisms of action, and rituals are awesome at being that.

I don't think you'd need to change much to salvage the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Try this, and see how it goes. (And if you do try it, tell me how it went.)
  1. Pick a regular time to think about what mistakes you made that week.
  2. Write them down. Consider why each was a mistake, and why you made it. For the most important ones, think of plans for mitigating or repairing the damage if possible, and for preventing the mistake in the future.
  3. If you know someone who would be willing to help you with this, tell them some of your thoughts, and request advice for improving your plans. If you're the sort of person who's likely to benefit from it, choose a highly respected mentor instead of a peer. Make sure you know precisely what specific action to take next for each mistake you want to address. (This is something like, "This evening, ask Cathy whether what I said hurt her, and actually listen to what she has to say about it." It is not something like, "Be nicer to Cathy.")
  4. Take the actions on your list. After each action, punch the air and shout "VICTORY!" When your whole list is done, call up your friend so they can tell you YAY!

What other parts of life might be improved by secular rituals?

1) Don't get me wrong; I'm aware that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is harmful overall--as are all the Sacraments--since it propagates and reinforces a destructive memeplex. And probably for other reasons.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Perceptual Editing

In a practice run of his CFAR unit called “Narratives”, Val brought to my attention a pretty awesome skill, and I’d like to share the basics with you. His class includes some more advanced techniques that build on what follows, but I want to try to highlight their foundations.

You may be familiar with the idea that we view reality through a flawed lens. Our experiences do not convey information about the external world with perfect accuracy. For example, there is a blind spot in your visual field that your brain automatically fills in with its best guess (sometimes wrong) of what’s actually out there.(1)

The technique I want to talk about relies on the fact that our experiences comprise not only things that have passed through the perceptual lens, but also content we personally contribute. In cognitive biases called “selective perception” and “attentional bias”, for example, what we already expect to experience and where those expectations direct our attention prevent us from perceiving an accurate reflection of what’s happening. If you've tried this attention test, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

How Thoughts Feel From the Outside

But not all of our personal contributions to experience are so drastic, and they certainly aren’t all harmful. Every time I let a judgement, evaluation, or attitude affect how the world seems to me, that’s something that’s coming from inside my own head, not outside of it. Even if my judgement is totally accurate and instrumentally valuable, it’s nevertheless a process occurring strictly inside my own mind. Many Buddhists strongly emphasizes this point, and prescribe terminating such contributions so we can become more directly acquainted with reality. (I’m just pointing out that it’s been a topic of interest for thousands of years, not suggesting you follow those instructions.)

“Perceptual editing” (my term) is the ability first to recognize when you’re making a personal contribution to experience, then to decide whether it’s a contribution you actually want to make, and finally to leverage the opportunity and deliberately choose what contribution you’d rather make, if any.

Perceptual contributions often happen in the form of verbal narration (a process called “subvocalization”). When you read these words, it’s likely you’re hearing them spoken by a little imaginary voice inside your head. Unless, I suppose, you've eliminated that in the course of learning to speed read, in which case I ask that you slow down so you can play along. That voice is your very own creation. Once you've noticed that it exists and that it’s neither part of the world nor identical with whatever is listening to the voice, you’re most of the way to gaining some degree of control over it. You can, for example, re-read this sentence and replace your internal narration of the words in red with a narration of “popsicle”. (Humor me and give it a try.)

Similarly, this same internal voice narrates nearly all of our experiences (at least for most people). It’s so ubiquitous that we hardly ever notice it, like a fish unaware of the water. For example, I just thought, “I’m getting hungry. I wonder if Robby wants to get lunch.” Had I not deliberately distanced myself from my inner narration in order to examine its contents as though from the outside, that thought would have drifted on by and been erased from my memory before I ever so much as attended to its existence. If you don’t believe me (or if you want a better grasp on this idea), try the following.

Noticing, Distancing, Editing

Set a timer for two minutes. Just sit there and attempt, for those two minutes, not to subvocally narrate your experiences. Ready, set, go.

To the extent you were successful, you probably had to exert effort to squash verbalizations the moment they began to arise in consciousness. It may have felt like pushing something down.

Now try that exercise again, but this time don’t try to prevent subvocalization. Simply notice when it happens. More importantly, pay attention to how being aware of your inner narration feels different from your usual experiences. Notice how it feels like there’s more distance than usual between yourself and your thoughts.

Finally, sit silently just long enough to notice the next subvocalization that arises. Then pick something to change about it, and then think that instead. For example, if I noticed myself thinking, “I really love chocolate ice cream,” I might edit that phrase to “I really like chocolate covered strawberries”. (The purpose here is merely to observe the sensation of making decisions about what you think.) 

How quickly can you edit? Can you feel the gist of what you're about to think and change the course of your thought before it's over? It's not easy at first, but neither is it impossible.

It's Sort Of a Superpower, Actually

Subvocalization is not, of course, the only kind of contribution we make to experience. We contribute all sorts of things, such as moods, attention, and interpretations. Although you can eventually gain direct control over other kinds of perceptual contributions, you may find that narration is the easiest one to get a handle on. Fortunately, changing the content of your narration can cause changes to your mood, attention, and interpretations as well.

Why is that fortunate? Because our personal contributions to experience do not always help us. Sometimes they do--if I’m working on a difficult problem and I think “I can totally do this”, it might keep me motivated to find a solution--and sometimes they have no noticeable effect at all. But sometimes they harm us, adding aversive aspects to an experience that would be easier to deal with otherwise.

Harmful subvocalization is especially pronounced in clinical depression. Depressed people tend to get in these feedback loops where they feel bad, they tell themselves about how they’re feeling bad, it makes them feel worse, and they become more likely to say things to themselves about how bad they feel as a result. Phrases that contribute to this sort of problem include “I’m worthless” and “I’ll never be happy”.

But you don’t have to be depressed to benefit from the ability to edit your thoughts. Whenever you notice yourself thinking something, if you can distance yourself from it enough to consider it from the outside, you can decide whether it’s a helpful thought or not, and choose, if you prefer, to think something else instead.

The process of noticing, distancing, and editing takes practice, and I think time spent practicing this ability is probably time very well spent indeed. The better you get at shaping the contents of your experiences, the less you are at the mercy of contributions you did not choose to make.

(1) Not everyone thinks this is how the optical blind spot works. Dennett's view is quite interesting (and here Ramachandran summarizes it and argues against it).

Edited to add: 

Distancing is also useful all by itself without editing. I just tried it on a strongly aversive experience. 

The simple facts (without much contribution from me) are: I committed a faux pas, my friend pointed it out to me, I understood both my error and how to prevent it in the future, and I apologized. Since I committed it in the course of helping him with something (at which I was successful overall), he went on to thank me after asking me not to make the mistake again.

But I personally contributed most of what I actually ended up experiencing. The moment I saw the subject line of the email, which said "Please do not [mistake I made] again," I interpreted it as being scolded, and thus felt a huge wave of shame and embarrassment. Fortunately, since I'd just written the above, I noticed that I was responding with emotions that I seldom find useful (though I am beset by them frequently, alas).

So I created some distance between myself and the thought. From there, I was able to separate out the externally derived components of the experience from the components I'd imposed on it myself. The strong emotional reaction was a response caused by my interpretation of the situation, and not by the email itself. 

I determined that not only was my interpretation almost certainly false (since a more likely motive than punishing me is causing me to not repeat the mistake by merely requesting it), but even if it did reflect reality it was unlikely to have a positive effect on my actions. Since the interpretation (and my reaction to it) no longer felt like an inextricable part of the experience--in fact it had already been extricated--I just let it drift away like a subvocalization that doesn't interest me. 

Now the only remaining effects are new knowledge of how to do better, resolution to act on it, and very mild remnants of shame and embarrassment that are quickly fading since they're no longer being fed by the harmful contribution to experience that I did not choose to make. All of this took around 30 seconds (though I expect it would have taken a lot longer were it not for my background with meditation).

This is huge for me. I've possessed all the sub skills for a long time, but I had no idea they could be so potent when combined and purposefully directed.  I don't think I've ever felt this much power over the effects of my social anxiety.

The Vagabond of Tragedy and Triumph

Something important happened to me tonight.

On the train home, an old black man with patchy gray hair was slumped pathetically across the seats in clear view of where I sat. With a torn and dirty jacket draped over his shoulders, he cradled his head in his hands, propped up on the armrest while his legs stretched out to the seat opposite him.

He was not in good shape. He was trembling slightly, and his long yellowing fingernails tapped against the armrest. Every couple of minutes, he would lean over slightly and spit a thin stream of vomit onto the floor of the train. Once when he shifted, the left arm of his jacket fell down into the puddle.

His unwashed, tattered appearance suggested he was riding the train more for the shelter than to go anywhere in particular. Anything looks more comfortable than his awkward position across those seats, but I suppose the concrete must get awfully cold and hard after a while.

I've never been one to reach out and help strangers whose lives have fallen apart, even when all they ask of me is a dollar for some food. I once felt at least a little bit of empathy for them. Mostly, though, what I felt was helpless.

Making one person's day slightly less horrific just isn't a very good use of my money, time, or emotional energy. To be mumbling paranoid nonsense on a street corner while you slowly starve and freeze is to live a life so shattered that picking up any one of the pieces will not restore wholeness. My dollar will not save anyone, and, more saliently to me, will not bring an end to the conditions that allow such misery to exist in the first place. I do believe that I can bring an end to those conditions, but not by helping any individual person in misery. So I've learned to feel very little at all when I pass them without more than a brief glance.

But I was seated beside him for several minutes, so I could not walk past. I probably could have ignored him anyway if I'd chosen, but for some reason, this time I engaged my thoughts and emotions. I guess I was curious. I wondered what it might be like to be inside his head.

And this is when the important thing happened. As soon as I felt the first pang of empathy, I imagined the world I was trying to create. I felt suffering with him (tiny though  mine was), and immediately, automatically, I envisioned a future free of suffering. It wasn't so much like flicking a switch as like being the flicked switch. I did not participate deliberatively in this event.

It was familiar to feel responsible for his pain, and for all the pain in the world. I've long been wired that way. Yet I felt neither helpless, nor guilty, nor even charitable confronting the experience. I just knew, more plainly and clearly than I ever have, that the future of humanity will not be so ugly as that present moment in which a tragic old man failed to sleep above a growing puddle of vomit.

And simultaneously I knew that it would not be that way because I would not let it. On one side was the man on the train, on the other the salvation of all sentient beings, and bridging the two states of affairs was a solid progression of cause and effect consisting of precisely the kinds of actions I take every day.

There's a CFAR unit called "propagating urges" in which students learn to take their desires to accomplish long-term goals and use them to fuel motivation for the individual actions required to accomplish those goals. For instance, I might propagate the urge to grade all 70 essays so I can successfully complete my degree by imagining receiving my diploma every time I reach for a new page.

I think I may not need to propagate urges when it comes to my work anymore. The drudgery of carrying out the kind of altruism I consider maximally effective is saving the world. It's suddenly become a simple fact of my life. The world will be saved, and I will save it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What is "Effective Altruism"?

Effective altruism is altruism that attempts to be maximally effective. An effective altruist chooses her charitable actions not, for instance, by thinking of what she's most passionate about (helping the homeless, say) and then taking the most obvious, readily available actions, or those with the most emotional impact for her (like volunteering at a soup kitchen), but instead tries to take into account all the possible ways she might have of affecting the world, and then picking the one she expects, based on empirical evidence and careful thought, to cause the most good.

Some people's answer to, "What's the most good I can do?" is "Donate to the charity that's most cost-effective at saving lives." (It's orders of magnitude more effective to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation than to donate to your local children's hospital, for example.) Some take non-human animals into account and end up with very different kinds of answers, as you can imagine given how many more non-humans there are than humans. Some think the answer is to choose a career that will make them as much money as possible while doing relatively little harm so they'll eventually have lots more money with which to do good. Some think preventing the sudden extinction of all of humanity ("reducing existential risk") is more effectively altruistic than any specific short-term act of charity we could perform for an individual.

The effective altruists focused on the far distant future are those who value future people as much as current people, and who believe that the distant future is likely to to contain vastly more people than the present. This is the category I fall into. A focus on the far distant future can look even less like conventional charity, because some methods of affecting the future of humanity can be extremely unintuitive. Some people intend to eradicate death caused by aging. One organization called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute intends to build and artificial intelligence that understands and cares primarily about human values, can modify its own code in order to get better at effective altruism, and by this means ends up way better than any human could ever be at making the entire future awesome.

So effective altruism is extremely diverse. It can be giving a dollar directly to someone who needs it, or it can be researching how to teach a computer what humans care about. What matters is the motivation: effective altruists want to be effective, and they try to know something about how to do that.

A few organizations in what's recently become know as "the EA movement":

For a somewhat more in-depth look at the EA movement, check out lukeprog's summary on, written shortly after the very first Effective Altruism Summit in July, 2013. Or see Peter Singer's Ted Talk on the topic if you're tired of reading.

Monday, September 23, 2013

At the very least, use your enemies wisely.

Guns don't kill people. The boundary conditions of the universe kill people.
A friend of mine shared this image on Facebook, and it showed up in my feed. I have some things to say to all of you, pro-life and pro-choice alike, about it.

I feel like we're talking past each other. And by "we" I mean everyone. This image really bothers me, not because there are guns pointed at a fetus, or because I strongly support Planned Parenthood, but because it reinforces the misrepresentation of the pro-choice position as anti-life. This really is not so far from an image of pro-choicers eating babies.

If we want to make progress, we have to be willing to communicate and collaborate rather than antagonize, and that means making an honest effort to understand the beliefs and motives of those who disagree with us. The terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are already a huge barrier, because they frame the issue confusingly and counterproductively.

If I understand correctly, and I've made an honest effort to, people who support legislation that denies a women the right to kill a fetus, should one begin growing inside her body, do so because they believe fetuses are a type of child, and therefore a moral patient toward whom we are responsible as we would be any other person.There are variations, of course: Some believe fetuses have human souls, and that the same religious doctrines apply to them as to any other child of God. Some are concerned that since we can't currently be certain at what point a developing human becomes capable of suffering, we're obligated to behave as though even a zygote can suffer. But by and large, those who want to restrict reproductive rights in favor of the rights of fetuses believe that humans are people regardless of their age, be that three days, three months, or thirty years. The right of a person to live is more fundamental than the specific rights a person has over her body. Not only does this make good sense to me, but I agree on that final point, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't.

But it is inane, petty, and intellectually dishonest to suggest that we can rightly conclude from knowledge of someone's anti-abortion beliefs that she therefore does not highly value women's reproductive rights. Let alone that she therefore hates women and wants the government to dictate everything that happens to her body.

The implicit claim of this image is similarly inane, petty, and dishonest. It suggests that if a person doesn't support legislation that limits women's access to medical procedures that kill fetuses, she therefore thinks such specific rights should be valued above the right of a person not to be killed. It shouldn't take more than five seconds to see the problem here. Perhaps one need be a monster to murder another person in cold blood, but that's not even in the ballpark of concluding that embryos don't have enough of the relevant properties to be thought of as people.

If we didn't childishly divide ourselves along these lines into the good people and the evil people, the humanists and the misogynists, the godly and the baby killers, both sides could make progress toward what they value at the same time. If we saw each other as people instead of as murderers who hold guns to the heads of unborn babies, we could join forces to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, to support mothers who do want children, to ease the burden of caring for an infant so the prospect of carrying to term isn't so devastating when things don't go as planned. And all the while, we could continue talking about the core issue, which is what a fetus really is and what rights it ought to have, and people will be a hell of a lot more willing to change their minds when recognizing the truth doesn't mean joining The Dark Side.

So regardless of your position on abortion, it is not in your interest, or the interest of those whose rights you want to protect, to promote hatred, misunderstanding, and the desire to Defeat the Enemy. Instead, promote kindness, promote understanding, and promote collaboration toward shared goals. Do not post this garbage. If you're on my feed or reading this blog, you're almost certainly above it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Polyphasic Sleep: Reprise

(Original post on the polyphasic sleep experiment here.)

Welp, this got a little messy. The main culprit was Burning Man, though there were some other complications with data collection as well. Here are the basics of what went down.

Fourteen people participated in the main experiment. Most of them were from Leverage. There were a few stragglers from a distance, but communication with them was poor. 

We did some cognitive batteries beforehand, mostly through Quantified Mind. A few people had extensive baseline data, partially because many had been using Zeos for months, and partly because a few stuck to the two-week daily survey. Leverage members (not me) are processing the data, and they'll probably have more detailed info for us in three months(ish).

With respect to the adaptation itself, we basically followed the plan outlined in my last post. Day one no sleep, then Uberman-12, then cut back to Uberman-6, then Everyman-3.

Most people ended up switching very quickly to Uberman-6 (within the first two or three days), and most switched to Everyman-3 after about five to seven days on Uberman-6. Three people tried to hold the Uberman schedule indefinitely: One person continued Uberman-6 for two full weeks, and two held out for twenty-one days. Afterwards, all three transitioned to Everyman-3. 

During the originally planned one-month period, five people dropped out. Nine were on some form of polyphasic for the whole month. One returned to monophasic at the end of the official experiment with only partial adaptation achieved. 

Then Burning Man disrupted everybody's sleep schedule. Afterward, one person continued experimenting with less common variations of the Everyman schedule. Three went back to Everyman-3. One switched to Everyman-2. Two people have flexible schedules that include two hours less sleep per day. One person's schedule was disrupted by travel for a while after Burning Man, and they're now re-adapting.

Now that all is said and done, eight of the original fourteen are polyphasic.

I'll hold off on concluding very much from this until I see the results of the cognitive battery and such, plus the number who are still polyphasic after three months. In the mean time, I'll just stick with this: Some people are capable of going polyphasic and staying that way (probably?). Sleep is complicated and confusing. I don't know how it works. I don't think anyone else really does either. More research is desperately needed.

My next post, which will probably happen in the next two weeks, will discuss what I think we did poorly, what I think went really well, and how you and your friends can improve upon our work. In the mean time, here's a video of what zombie-Brienne is like during the really difficult stretches, and here is how she entertained herself when she could manage to do things besides pace. (I was one of the few who bailed out early :-p)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Polyphasic Sleep: Stand Back, I'm Going to Try Science.

A group of my friends (7 so far) will all be going polyphasic over the next month. By that, I mean we'll be adopting a sleep schedule that gets us 4 extra hours of productive work or play time per day, or two whole month per year (or a decade over 60 years). If you want to tell me all about why it's a bad idea, feel free to post comments. I don't plan to use this space to sell you on polyphasic sleep. That might be another post, depending on how this goes.

I'm going to be collecting some very simple data through this here form. I invite you to join us!

This will be hard. It will hurt. You'll probably need a buddy to follow you around and keep you awake. If you don't have a lot of self-discipline, I don't recommend even trying.

Still with me? If you're in by the time you're done reading this, email me at so I know who you are. Here's the plan.

  1. Stop using caffeine RIGHT NOW. If you try to maintain a caffeine addition during this process, you will fail. I promise.
  2. Data collection starts on July 10th. Fill out the form once every 24hrs (whenever it's convenient) until August 10th.
  3. Pick a time to take a 20min nap each day from Monday, July 15th through Sunday, July 21st. You probably won't actually sleep during this time, but you can use it for mindfulness meditation if you stay awake. The goal is to practice napping. This is important.
  4. On Monday, July 22nd, begin fasting immediately after lunch.
  5. On the night of Monday, July 22nd, skip sleep. No naps, then an all-nighter. This is the official adaptation start date. The idea is to make you sleep deprived so your naps the next day are more likely to take.
  6. Eat breakfast on the morning of Tuesday, July 23rd. This should be the first time you've eaten anything since Monday lunch.
  7. Starting on the morning of Tuesday, July 23rd, take a 20min nap every 2hrs (for a total of 12 naps per day). DO NOT oversleep. Use an obnoxious alarm or whatever other means necessary. "Nap" counts as lying down trying to sleep; take your naps on a strict schedule regardless of how long you successfully sleep.
  8. Start to cut your naps down toward 6 a day as quickly as you can without it hurting too much. Beginning to dream during your naps is a good indicator that you're ready for this part.
  9. Once you're down to one nap every 4 hours, you're on what's known as the Uberman schedule.
  10. Matt Fallshaw informs me that the next part is a little tricky.
    1. If you managed to reach the Uberman feeling good, you'll probably start getting really tired again shortly thereafter. This flavor of tired will be different from what you've suffered for the past week, and by that flavor you will know that you have hit SWS deprivation. If this is what happens to you, the new kind of sleepy is your cue to transition straight to the Everyman 3 schedule, which means a 3 hour block of core sleep plus three 20 minute naps spaced evenly throughout the day. And that's it!
    2. If you're unlucky, you'll not quite have reached Uberman in the space of a week--that is, you'll still be hanging on to some extra naps on July 30th. Then you'll be wolloped by a new bout of sleepiness. This flavor of tired will be different from the last. If it's is tolerable, drop straight to full Uberman and try to hold out for at least 24hrs, then convert to the Everyman 3. If the new flavor of tired is intolerable, convert to E3 as soon as the new tired hits, and expect the next week or so to be tougher on you than on the lucky ones.
Why are we doing this weird naptation adaptation plan thing instead of just going straight for the Everyman 3? Mostly because Matthew Fallshaw said to. If you know Matt, that's enough. In case you don't: It takes people about a month to adapt to the Everyman 3, but only about a week to adapt to the Uberman. The Uberman forces your body to learn to get its REM and SWS in those tiny 20 minute naps. If you're still giving it core sleep time, your body won't take the fullest possible advantage of naps right away.

If you think you can keep the Uberman schedule indefinitely, go for it! But keep me informed about it so I know what's up with my data.

You can read about how this panned out in my next post.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Check Out the Badassest Baby Book Ever. Baby.

What Makes a Baby, by Cory Silverberg, is an introduction to human reproduction written and illustrated for kids as young as 4. The awesomeness: It doesn't assume that the reader is biologically related to his (exactly) two parents, both of whom are cisgendered and straight, and both of whom are married and monogamous. It explains the plain facts of the biology in a way children can understand, and it otherwise leaves the narrative of how the reader came to her current family for the family to tell. Check it out!

"When an egg and a sperm meet, they swirl together in a special kind of dance. As they dance, they talk to each other. The egg tells the sperm all the stories it has to tell about the body it came from."

You can order a hard copy through Amazon, or read the Kindle version right now, and the 60 page accompanying reader's guide for adults is available as a free PDF.

But instead of just buying it, what I really want you to do is make sure your local library orders it if it hasn't already!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Instability of Values Over Self Modification: Why Babies Creep Me Out

(Inspired by "Schelling fences and slippery slopes" by Yvain.)

Dear everyone who keeps human larvae as pets,

I am sincerely happy if you've found a way to satisfy your central values and if your children make you happy. Honestly, there are central terms for the preferences and happiness of others
 in my utility function. So please only read the following in light of that. I am not criticizing you for choosing to spawn, and, indeed, your kids are adorable and I like watching videos on Facebook of them playing with puppies and eating cake with their entire faces, so keep it up.

Here's what's bothering me. When I look at the walls of my friends with children, almost every post involves the kid. This is perfectly understandable. I also post almost exclusively about the things that interest me most (namely rationality, dance, and math), and of course your kid is the most important thing in the entire world. If I had a kid, I'd almost certainly think the same thing about it. I would love it more than I knew I could love, and everything else would be at least second place.

And I find that ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING. It means that there exists a parasite that can first implant itself in the lining of my uterus, with or without my consent, and use me as an incubator before torturing me for hours or days as it extricates itself from my body.

And that's not the scary part.

It can then begin to covertly re-write the foundations of my personality, undermining my adherence to beliefs about the significance of my own happiness, the happiness of my friends, self-optimization, world-optimization, and anything whatsoever not directly necessary for its own survival. In fact, it would make sure that I'd not even hesitate to die (or kill) protecting it, regardless of whether its continued existence would most likely help or hurt the other things I (used to) care about.

From my perspective, this strikes me as a completely insane thing to desire. It's like wanting to take a pill that won't satisfy your values, but will change your values such that current circumstances already satisfy them, never mind that it means replacing yourself with SOMEONE ELSE ENTIRELY.

How the hell do people just take that in stride???

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Powerful History of a Popular Hymn

You have definitely heard "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at some point. It's the one with the chorus that goes "Glory, glory, halleluiah, etc., His truth is marching on." I heard the melody at a swing dance last night, and as all three lyrics of the chorus that I knew were playing incessantly through my head on the way home, I started to wonder what the rest of them might be. When I finally looked them up, I was shocked by how strange, powerful, and violent the verses really are. "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword" is not something I generally expect to hear in an apparently upbeat popular song.

Until today, there's been no better way to put me to sleep than to start talking about American Civil War history. Boy has this changed things! I now feel an overwhelming pride to be the same species as the creatures who took part in creating this song--mixed, of course, with crushing disappointment that my American history classes failed so spectacularly. In case yours did too, here's why The Battle Hymn of the Republic is awesome.

Julia Howe

Just before the cold dawn of a November morning in 1861, poet and activist Julia Howe awoke from a dream. Beating against the cage of her skull were lyrics begging to be committed to paper. Stumbling in the dark for the nearest pen, frantically she wrote. Her verses were first published in Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862, about a year after the beginning of the Civil War.

The day before that dawn, she'd attended a public review of troops just outside Washington, DC. While the soldiers were gathered, they began to sing. They sang these words, to the tune of a snippet from an old campfire spiritual called "Canaan's Happy Shore", and Howe listened to their song.

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
But his soul keeps marching on

Who is this John Brown, 

and what has he to do with the meaning of Howe's song?

Some consider Brown a terrorist, others a hero. To the troops through which first "John Brown's Body" and then "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" shot light lightning, clearly he was a martyr.

Five years earlier, during the Bleeding Kansas border war, Brown distinguished himself from other abolitionists by insisting that passive resistance to southern slavery advocates would do nothing but protect the complacency of free northerners. If the Good Guys are to win, he thought, they'll have to actually do something. And he knew that it would have to involve violence.

His biographers say he believed he'd been sent to visit God's justice upon slaveholders and those who supported them. Whatever his motivation, he caused people to ask themselves, "How much do I care about what I believe? What will I do if I'm called to act? Would I fight for freedom? Would I kill? Would I die?"

In 1859, under Brown's command, some proved that the answer was "yes". His very own army set out to raid a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their objective: Arm the local slaves for insurection. The raid was unsuccessful, and Brown was captured by the forces of Robert E. Lee.

In the following months, it became apparent that many more really would fight for freedom with their own hands. A year after John Brown's death, the song of his vision coursing through the northern air, half of a country went to war to save four million people they'd never even met.

This is the story Julia Howe immortalized when she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Why is this my new favorite song?

Because it means that when it matters enough, when a strong enough leader arises, sometimes--not always, but sometimes--humans will abandon personal comfort to fight for a better world.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Reflections On Reflection

Note: A shorter version of this post will appear at A Moment Of Science very soon. If you're interested in my extra sciencey stuff, that's where to watch.
Alice peers through the looking glass.

When I was a little baby freshman philosopher, one of my very first professors asked me this question: Why do mirrors flip images left and right, but not up and down? 

At first, I didn't understand what this had to do with philosophy (not that I knew what philosophy was--which was exactly his point!). It sounded like physics to me, and answering surely required knowledge of optics that I didn't possess.

Today, I consider the process of working out the answer to this question one of the very best illustrations of philosophical methodology I've ever seen. This an ode to figuring things out.

Understanding the Question

First, let's make sure we know what the problem is.

Imagine that you're you. (This is either very easy or very difficult, but I'm not sure which.) Or go find an actual glove and just be you. Either way. Now put a glove on your left hand, leave your right hand bare, and stand in front of a mirror. What do you see? You see an image that looks just like you, except she’s wearing a glove on her right hand while her left hand is bare.

This is what we mean when we say that mirrors seem to flip images left and right. But if they flip left and right, why don’t they reverse up and down as well? Why isn't your mirror image standing on her head? How does the mirror know which way is “up”?


Let's try making a few guesses. Guessing give us something to work with.

  1. Maybe it has to do with binocular vision. You can draw an imaginary line from one eye to the other, and that line is horizontal. Could that be responsible for the strange asymmetry?
  2. Or maybe the molecules in the mirror somehow constantly re-orient themselves according to the nearest large source of gravity. If your last chemistry or physics class was in high school, this is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. Maybe some feature of the molecular orientation causes the asymmetry. Mirrors would have to do it really quickly so that if you flip a mirror 180 degrees, the molecules will have already adjusted before you could see an upside-down image.
  3. Or perhaps mirrors are made of thousands of long thin tiles laid side by side. Each one reflects light both up-down and left-right, but they’re so thin in the up-down flipping direction that the big combined reflection is only flipped left-right.


We've got some guesses above, and we want to know if any of them is correct. Let's see how far we can get with just thinking before we have to turn the problem over to professional scientists.

  1. Suppose it's true that mirrors do what they do because of binocular vision. What does that mean exactly? It means mirrors seem to know which way is "up" because our eyes are two points defining a line. A line can be an axis, and we think of this particular one as horizontal. If you have one axis, you can imagine another that's perpendicular to the first, and in this case we'd think of that one as vertical. Now we've got a reference frame for what is "left" vs. what is "up". The guess is that this reference frame determines our perception of our reflection in the mirror.

    What could we predict if we knew that were true? Well, we'd expect to be able to change what the mirror seems to count as "up" by changing the orientation of that horizontal axis defined by our eyes. So let's check.

    While standing in front of the mirror with the glove on your left hand, spread your arms and lean over so that your left hand is up in the air, your right hand is reaching toward the floor, and your head is tilted 90 degrees from to its usual position. What do you see?

    The mirror hasn’t fallen for your trick, has it? Your reflection is still wearing a glove on her right hand, which is reaching up--but her feet are exactly where they were before despite being to the “right” from the perspective of your head rather than “down”. So binocular vision can't be the answer.
  2. Our second guess was that the molecules re-orient according to the location of the nearest large gravity well. This one's harder. To test this, it seems you’d either need a gravity well more massive than Earth (which I really hope you don’t have handy), or you’d need a rocket ship headed for the moon with a camera mounted on it filming a mirror as the Moon’s gravity took over. That’s not an impossible test, but it’s not a cheap one either. And it just doesn't quite feel right, does it? But that's not enough to dismiss the hypothesis.

    We've mostly escaped the realm of thought experiments at this point. But that doesn't mean it's time to stop thinking. Let’s assume, just for now, that this won’t give us the answer and try some other things first.
  3. The third guess is that mirrors are made of zillions of long thin tiles. Each strip flips the image up/down as well as left/right, but they're so thin you don't see the up/down part. I'm pretty fuzzy on how zillions of thin tiles would end up making a single, cohesive, life-sized image. Perhaps that's a problem for another day. But let's take that for granted and see what happens.

    This is much easier to test. If the tile hypothesis is correct, you should be able to make an up-down flipping mirror by turning a left-right flipping mirror sideways. But that's not actually what happens, is it? So this can't be the answer either.

Time For a Closer Look

It’s looking even more now like the mirror somehow knows which way is “up”. As a general rule of problem solving, when you end up more sure that household items are conscious than you were when you began, it’s time to re-check your assumptions.

We assume two key things when we ask, “Why do mirrors flip images left and right, but not up and down?” First, we assume that mirrors flip images left and right. Second, we assume that mirrors don’t flip images up and down.

Let’s start with the second. What would it mean if you, out in the real world and not in mirror land, flipped yourself in the up/down direction? It would mean you were standing on your head. You’d have rotated yourself 180 degrees around the (horizontal) x axis. Mirror images don’t stand on their heads when we stand on our feet, so assumption two is correct. Mirrors really don’t flip images up and down.

But what would it mean if you flipped yourself left/right? If flipping up and down means rotating 180 degrees around the x axis, then flipping left and right must mean rotating 180 degrees around the (vertical) y axis. 

Rotating around the y axis is what we usually call “turning around”. Is that actually what mirrors do? Do they make turned-around pictures of us?

Imagine that you make a perfect, flesh-and-blood copy of yourself. She, too, is wearing a glove on her left hand. Place her in front of you so that you’re looking at her back. Now, while you stay perfectly still, rotate her 180 degrees around the y axis--that is, turn her around to face you.

Where is her glove? Why, it’s still on her left hand! To shake gloved hands, you’d have to reach across your body. If she were a mirror image, it would be on her right hand, not her left. So the first assumption must be wrong. Mirrors do not, in fact, flip images left-and-right.

So what’s really going on?

Mirrors don’t flip up and down, and it turns out that they don’t flip left and right either. But there’s some sort of flipping or reversing happening. Otherwise ambulances would just have “AMBULANCE” written on them instead of the odd backward version you can read normally in your rear-view mirror.

There’s only one obvious dimension left for flipping. If it’s not up and down, and it’s not left and right, then it must be back to front. But what would that mean?

Take off your glove, and hold it so the thumb is on your left and the palm is facing up. If you turn it upside down, the palm is facing down. If you turn it around from the starting position, the thumb is on your right.

Now, again from the starting position, turn the glove inside out without turning it in any other direction. The wrist part of the glove, which used to be closest to you, is now farthest away, while the the fingers are pointing toward you. It has not flipped upside down. It has not turned left or right. The glove has flipped front-to-back, and it now fits on your right hand instead of your left. 

If that’s what mirrors were doing, then what would you expect to see?

Suppose you’re looking at a mirror while facing North. The part of you that’s farthest South in reality, namely your bottom, would seem farthest North in the image--and, indeed, it does. The part that’s farthest North in reality, namely your nose, would seem farthest South in the image--and, indeed, it does.

You wouldn’t expect, however, to have to reach across your body to shake gloved hands, and you wouldn’t expect your image to do a headstand without your help.

That’s it, then! Mirrors don’t know which way is up after all. They just flip images front-to-back.

The Beauty Of Confusion

To review: 
  • We asked a question. 
  • We took some time to understand what was being asked. 
  • We made a few guesses. 
  • We tested them in our heads when we could, and pinned down how to go about testing them outside our heads when we couldn't. 
  • When none of that gave us the answer, we doubled back to check our assumptions. 
  • In the end, we solved the problem by dispelling a simple misunderstanding hidden in the question. 
Misunderstandings hide in questions all the time. If you're impatient and epistemically reckless, that's horribly frustrating, and it probably causes you to waste a lot of time trying to answer questions that don't make sense. This is much of why a healthy helping of philosophy is a tasty and nutritious side-dish even when science is your main course. If you're patient and rigorous, if you enjoy taking the time to simply think, you can learn all kinds of new things just by reflecting on them. 

Nifty, huh?

"Hang on a minute here, you're thinking. "At first we wanted to know why mirrors flip images left/right but not up/down. Turns out we were confused about that. But now I don't know why mirrors flip images front/back but not left/right or up/down!"

Impressive. Most impressive. But you are not a Jedi yet.

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