“San Francisco and so forth”

[Content warning: no interesting insights, just random discussion of my past]

It’s been eight years since I came across America in real life. I liked it immediately and have spent most of my time here since. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise, but my guess is that my life would have been pretty different. At least in terms of friends, projects, living arrangements, leisure activities, romantic experiences, proximity to futuristic meal delivery services, intellectual ideas, transit options and weather. I think probably not in terms of approximate personality, ethical views, general life goals, sexual proclivities and height.

My first trip to America was in part a visit to my first boyfriend, so it is also only a little over eight years since I first tried being in romantic relationships. I also liked that, and have also kept it up most of the time since. Which has also substantially influenced many details of my life. Though probably still not my height or approximate personality.

I was talking to a friend recently about how there seems to be an era in their life which they feel continuous with—back maybe a decade—and an era before that which feels more like it belongs to a different person. A nice and similar person, but someone a bit more like a smaller sibling. I said my experience was about the same, including the sense that there was relatively narrow break between eras, rather than earlier and earlier selves just seeming more and more alien. We speculated a bit about how this works (a week after the end of the previous era, did it feel like I had only been myself for a week? Do other people have a similar experience?)

Now I think there are maybe at least a few distinct eras in my own memory, and perhaps they aren’t as crisp as I thought. But probably one changing of the eras was roughly the year or so in which I came to date people, met many of the (tiny) LessWrong/SingInst/etc community in real life, came to America on holiday then moved here months later,  began to hang out with whole crowds of people more similar to me than almost anyone I had known before and talk about things I cared about, finished undergrad, and started working on real projects instead of student essays about globalization or whatever. Probably less important, but adding to the suitability of this as the beginning of an era, I also stopped being a vegetarian, and tried sex, and hung out in four other countries, and was sick for like a month, and someone was much more effectively unpleasant to me via talking than I had maybe ever experienced. So maybe the relatively abrupt change is in the territory.

I recently found this blog draft that I apparently composed quite near the start of the era defined by those changes—after the heady first week in the US, at the end of November 2008. I didn’t get around to publishing it then (or, I hope, editing it much). I post it now for historic value. It isn’t especially interesting, but it feels strange to me to see something from the very beginning of the American Era.

At the moment this is a travel blog. More accurately it’s a not particularly subtle attempt to increase readership of my non-travel blog amongst the people who think I should write to them while I travel. I don’t intend to write about travelly stuff for very long though, because I don’t care that much. It’s a compromise (on your part).

My first glimpse of the land of hope and freedom and chocolate covered sausages was some delicate mountain shaped darkness in the clouds near where I looked for San Francisco. After over 13 hours of not seeing America (well, 21 years, but the last bit stood out), they were welcome mountainous smears. Minutes later, customs were friendly, though in a strangely nosy fashion (so, how did you get the money for this trip? It must be hard while you’re at uni..), so I escaped early, and waited for Anna, who I contacted through Michael, who I contacted through Eliezer, who I didn’t know at all, but had written an email to once. We tried to drive to a place to get food, and succeeded after a slightly embarrassing amount of time, considering that we were is a large city stuffed with food. …  Anna and the other people I met are working onAI risks. For those who don’t follow links, this means ‘preventing robot induced doom’. The next couple of days were conversation mostly, so I’ll skip that, though they were a couple of the better days in recent memory.

I awoke the next day to notice I was supposed to leave for the airport right then, followed closely by the realisation that I was actually supposed to leave an hour before. This cost nothing but time, the rest of which ran away with an evening of finding, catching, un-catching, and re-catching other forms of transport. This resulted in Denver, or specifically the home of a couple of Servas members, who I chose from the book because their interests included ‘stopping coal power plants’, which I thought more interesting than the usual ‘movies, books, travelling..’. They have an impressive veggie garden and greenhouse on a city property with a back garden trailing into a lake, and I had a four poster bed and an invitation to Thanksgiving. And internet! Oh, and the company of really interesting and kind people. So far this travel style seems to be about a hundred times as good as hostels (with a wide variance from mood).

The next evening was Thanksgiving. I met the extended family of one of my hosts. While it was a friendly atmosphere surrounding interesting people I won’t go into it, because I don’t want to write about people – to publicly analyse those you’ve hardly met seems presumptuous, even if it would only be good. On a side note, I was given a tiny chili which I’m told I have to put in a huge pot of food for edibility.

I got around to looking at Denver on my way to the airport out of a car and bus window respectively. There was a mound of cloud erupting from the horizon which my host said was a coal power plant. How much more serious using electricity seems with that sitting in my line of vision. I’d never seen one before in real life.

I missed my plane once more, and spent an afternoon experimenting with the capabilities of my newly received iphone (thank you Mama!)  in the presence of airport wifi. I sat beside a tiny girl on the plane who wanted to play hangman. She couldn’t read, but was tenacious; my loss if presuming words didn’t usefully inform my letter guessing. I got my bag at the airport about ten minutes before the bus left for my much preferred location, Bloomington. Fortunately this was about 10 seconds longer than it took to find it, realise the bus ticket machine wouldn’t accept the some denominations of money, discuss with the bus driver the fact that he didn’t care that much and would go without me, find that nobody behind counters had any money, ask every person in that part of the airport whether they would swap money, tell the guy at the very end of the room I really didn’t care if he was short a couple of dollars, thank him, run back with my 25 kilos of luggage and buy a ticket while waving to the driver not to commit me to another two hours of sitting in airports today.

I got to Bloomington early and sat on freezing stone seats in the pool of light outside the white stone union of Indiana University. It seemed pretty cold, but I wasn’t sure how much I was underestimating the real coldness due to numness. I also wasn’t sure that I was at the right stop. I wandered back and forward and sang just softly enough to not be heard by whoever else might be sharing this lonely foreign night. Apart from being the first chance to sing for days, this kept at least my vocal chords and bottom warm, which shivering on stone seats didn’t. Ramana rounded a corner and everything changed in a second. The rest has been happy so far, but I don’t feel like writing about it.

Clusters in creationspace

Why does each genre of communication have so many characteristics? Like, there are lots of books that are all roughly the same length and have a similar style. But if you wrote a 20-page textbook in verse, I think it would be considered an improper contribution and not taken very seriously.

Unifying stuff is hard

Grognor draws the following picture, and says that we are much more likely to err by treating two things as one than by treating one things as two, because our limited mental faculties make one thing much easier to deal with than two. He praises making distinctions as harder and more important.


The point I want to press upon you is that the situations in the top row are easier or more likely than the situations in the bottom row, due to working memory constraints. An ontology with fewer objects in it is easier to understand, so it’s relatively easy for humans to correctly identify that what they thought was two things is actually one thing, and correspondingly, to mistakenly conflate two things into one. Mutatis mutandis, it’s hard for people to notice subtle distinctions. And likewise people have low propensity to mistakenly think that one thing is two things.

I’m not convinced.

For one thing, seeing two superficially dissimilar things as the same in a useful way requires dealing with large spaces of things and characteristics. So I don’t think the difference between one and two items in the question should be a deciding factor in how computationally hard the problem is for a brain. Figuring out how a raven is like a writing desk is way harder than imagining a raven and also a writing desk.

Also, this argument doesn’t distinguish between the upfront costs of seeing one thing as two or two things as one, and the long term costs. I think there are a very large class of things where there is a substantial upfront mental effort to see two things as the same, so we don’t. You can’t just go around mistaking a field of emus for a corporate office. However if you put careful thought into it, you might find that both represent a similar game theoretic situation. And once that has been noticed, it is relatively cheap to notice again in future. If it is true that seeing two things as one is less mentally taxing than seeing them as two, then those who originally make it easy to see two disparate things as one should get credit for making this easier for others later.

Also, I think it is often much more valuable to see two things as analogous that were not than it is to distinguish two things. Distinguishing things usually means deciding that the way you were treating both of them is not quite applicable to both, and you should treat at least one differently. But if you are only noticing this now, it probably wasn’t *that* inapplicable, and now you have to come up with a new way to deal with the thing. (I don’t have examples here, and I’m probably missing other useful effects of distinguishing things, e.g. relating to understanding them.)  But treating what were previously two things as the same things means you get to port a whole bunch of things that you learned from one context into another context for free.

Grognor says that science means division. Maybe i’m biased, but I like the bits of science more that are about unifying. Physics over taxonomies. Which is perhaps just because our brains are small. But they really are.

Slaves to fashion signaling

I understand the signaling theory of clothes fashions to be something like this: wearing fashionable clothing in spite of fashion changing all the time demonstrates that you are socially well connected and know what is up (not to mention that you have money and are not too weird, much like many kinds of signaling).
However in practice it seems at least some elements of fashion are basically enforced by shops, so you can’t dress unfashionably unless you save up unfashionable clothes from the past, or go to special effort to acquire them. I go out shopping for clothes with not much more than a passing understanding of which twenty year window of fashion I am in—just the kind of person who should not be dressed fashionably on the signaling theory—and then when I set out to buy the kinds of clothes that I want, shops don’t stock them, and shopkeepers say ‘sorry, that isn’t in this season’. In fact my understanding of what is in fashion is mostly based on which things shops will allow me to buy.
I hesitate to claim I am consequently fashionable—presumably I am still failing at a vast many fashiony things. But what is the point of changing which things are in season every few months if you are just going to tell the unfashionable people anyway and refuse to sell them things that aren’t fashionable?
A natural answer is that there isn’t a point, but there also isn’t a single agent behind all this, so there is not much reason to expect a point. Once you have fashion cycles in place for the kind of signaling reasons suggested, then shops have little reason to stock the stuff that’s out of fashion, unless there are a whole lot of unfashionable people and they agree somewhat on which unfashionable things to wear. And there probably are some shops like that.
But should the fashion cycles persist if fashion signaling is so inescapably easy as to be meaningless? Imagine that you are a moderately fashionable person. Once every intrinsically untrendy person is wearing maroon this season because it was the only thing they could buy, why do you even bother with it?
I think the answer is that I am only seeing the very bottom of the fashion signaling hierarchy. And the lowest rungs are indeed being cut off by the market herding the people who would dress without regard to fashion into ‘fairly behind the times’ or ‘looks like they buy their clothes at the supermarket’ levels of adherence. But it still works because there are a bunch of higher levels that I can’t see. The moderately fashionable person indeed does not wear maroon at the time I am doing it—they wear something else that shows knowing observers that they got it somewhere special with their special knowledge. Maybe they were wearing maroon six months ago, which is where the people in the stores I go to got the idea.
This would also explain why my clothes are so great. I just got a comfy, warm, well fitting, aesthetically pleasing top from Target for $15, which seems a bit confusing given that people commonly spend more on clothes and go to fancier stores. It’s maroon though, which I had figured was because maroon is currently considered cool. But if maroon were currently considered ‘cool’ in the sense of ‘not more uncool than you are allowed to be this season without making a real project of it’, everything would make a lot more sense.
So I think my overall story is that the signaling theory still works as far as I know, but that the mass market doesn’t support arbitrary divergences from fashion because it’s just not worth sewing a bunch of women’s cargo pants in a non-women’s-cargo-pant season. Which pushes the least fashionable people to join the lowest level of fashion consciousness that is large enough to support a market. I am in one of these low categories, so all I see is that I am being pushed to join a higher category. I don’t see the categories above, in part because they wouldn’t work if people like me knew too much about them.
I have little idea if any of my picture here is correct. The extent of my knowledge of this topic comes from some amateur economic theorizing and a bunch of confusing shopping experiences while seeking clothes suitable for doing amateur economic theorizing in. And there remain facts about the fashion market this theory does not explain, such as ‘too often when I decide I want some obscure thing, the next place I look sells almost nothing but that’ and ‘department store employees are not necessarily aware of T-shirts’ and ‘when I bought some socks recently, they turned out to have my three letter initials printed on the toes’.

The Tower of Babble

“If you come inside, I’ll show you my etchings”, she said. She looked at him slyly. 

He didn’t want to see any etchings. But the well known implicit meaning is “if you come in, we can have sex”.

He didn’t want to have sex. But these days, talk of ‘sex’ in public places was usually understood to mean using an illicit iRotic machine together under the influence of hypercoke.

He didn’t want to go in the iRotic or use hypercoke. But since they had discussed this earlier, he knew that she knew that he knew that she didn’t either. Specifically, she had said that she was asexual, and that the most she was willing to do in that direction with anyone was smoke pot and cuddle. So she obviously meant to communicate something like, “if you come in, I will smoke pot and cuddle with you”

He didn’t want to smoke pot and cuddle. But he strongly suspected that she was the spy he was looking for, and so her invitation and the context sure made it look like once inside they might go somewhere very private and exchange important secrets.

He wasn’t in the mood for exchanging important secrets. But he knew that the spy he was looking for was a double agent, and that any apparent invitation to confidential discussion was really an invitation to get shot, inconveniently far from witnesses.

He didn’t want to be shot (though frankly this sounded better than going near an iRotic machine). However he had a concealed stunsword, and was confident that he could best her in combat.

He followed her inside carefully, hand on his weapon.

The etchings were of birds. 

He turned around to smile at her, reeling from the depth of his misunderstanding.

She shot him.