Making nothing out of a big deal

I recently asked my boyfriend how he heats water, given that he apparently doesn’t use a kettle. He said you can in fact heat water in a pot on the stove. Heating water in a pot sounds arduous to me, which is a bit strange because it’s not obviously more complicated than heating water in a kettle (assuming there is a clean pot, which is maybe a strong assumption). I wondered if maybe the issue is that once you have a pot on the stove, you are cooking. And cooking is a big deal. I’m not going to make a cup of tea if it involves cooking!

I have actually learned to cook a bit recently, and I think perhaps an important thing going on in ‘learning to cook’ for me is internalizing that you can achieve the same outcome as you might by cooking—which is perhaps too big a deal to carry out just to get some food— by merely doing some physically easy actions that are not a big deal, like picking up objects and putting them on other objects and turning knobs. Sometimes when I turn a knob and fire appears or something it seems like I might be doing something that is a big deal, but overall its going ok.

I remember hearing the advice that if you have an ‘ugh field’, around filling out a certain form at the faculty office say, it can be pretty helpful to do it just once. Then you have ‘an affordance’ and can do it more times easily. An affordance means roughly that it is an action you see as feasible. Taken literally, this might seem strange—surely you thought it was feasible to fill out the form previously. If someone had offered to bet with you about what would happen if you tried to fill out the form, I claim you would have  bet confidently on your success conditional on trying.

I speculate that what ‘an affordance’ often means is seeing something that was a big deal as a set of actions that aren’t. And that in general, when people see actions as abstract ‘big deals’ they expect the actions to be harder and take longer than when they see them as constellations of non-big-deal component actions.

So, you get an affordance for starting a company if you feel like it involves writing some things in boxes and sending some emails rather than somehow moving things at the abstract level of ‘companies’. You get an affordance for punching people in the face when punching someone in the face becomes a known physical action to you instead of an abstract sin. You get an affordance for Tweeting when you feel like it involves typing something into the address bar in your browser, and then typing something else into a box and pressing enter, rather than somehow coming to exist and exert forces in the abstract world of social media communications you have heard about.

I haven’t said what a ‘big deal’ is on this picture really, or how abstractness bears on any of this, and whether it isn’t just the whole thing going on. But I’m not going to elaborate at the moment, because I started to think it through and it seemed involved, and I want to know first whether this kind of thing rings true to other people at all.

Experience diets

Imagine you have a part of your mind that just keeps track of which visceral experiences you have how often, and then expects more experiences in that ratio. So if you look at pictures of crocodiles, it feels like crocodiles are a bigger part of what is going on in the world. And then if you watch ten youtube videos of people slapping each other in the face, it feels like it is more normal for people to slap each other in the face.  If you get up late in the day for a while, it tells you that the world is mostly dark. If you see starving people, it populates its simulated world with starving people (rather than just those magazine pictures of starving people it previously knew about).

‘Visceral’ is vague, but let’s say there are some kinds of experience it can understand, and some it can’t. Anecdotes and pictures and direct experience are intelligible, but it interprets more abstract datasets as ‘sometimes there are abstract datasets’. Like a reinforcement learner which can perceive a large subset of the stimuli that other parts of our minds can respond to, though not all of them.

And suppose that you can even intellectually notice that you are responding badly to seeing a few crocodile pictures, but the kinds of mental parts that can ‘intellectually notice’ things don’t speak any languages that the other part knows, so they can’t just directly fix the problem with explicit efforts. The best they can do is choose to look at a bunch of the most compelling non-crocodile stuff they can find until the other mental part gets the picture. And the whole time you would feel like you have an accurate account of the world.

My impression is that this is what humans are like to some extent, but I don’t know the extent or exact nature of the interaction between this and other ways that humans are. I also don’t know whether this is all a thing that experts have an excellent understanding of, because this is not currently the kind of blog where the blogger does a bunch of research before they write things.

Anyway, if this picture captured an important part of what was going on in the human mind, I might expect a key issue for humans would be strategizing around what kinds of experiences to consume for worldview warping purposes. For instance, this might come up when you are deciding whether to watch ten videos of people slapping each other on YouTube.

People do strategize about this kind of thing a bit. Though I think mostly about people’s behavior, in really extreme cases, or seeking happiness rather than truth. Here are examples I can think of:

  • Whether people should watch porn is often considered to rest heavily on how it might change the viewers’ perceptions of normal sexuality and relationships
  • Some people argue that others should not play violent video games, on grounds that it might normalize or encourage violence.
  • There are a variety of arguments about whether the media or advertising should be different, to change various norms.
  • People sometimes avoid experiences that will be substantially upsetting or unpleasant at the time, sometimes in part because it will change their perceptions. For instance, they will feel a bit like they are in a post-apocalyptic world, or they will get the sense that people usually end up destitute in gutters.
  • I have heard of people not looking at Facebook because it gives them the impression that every past classmate of theirs just got engaged to a billionaire they met while they were shooting a (critically acclaimed) movie about how exciting their life is, making the prospectiev Facebook viewer’s mixed success at life less bearable.
  • People often seek to ‘cheer themselves up’, which arguably means intentionally making their own perception of the world rosier. For instance, they might be cheered up by reading about how a boy saved his father’s life, or looking at fifty pictures of maximally fluffy and small animals. The former is often described as ‘will restore your faith in humanity’, which suggests it is intended to change your understanding of the world, and I hypothesize much more tentatively that the latter is also intended to actually change your perception of how much of the world consists of baby rabbits.
  • People sometimes change things in their environment to change their perception of things in their environment, such as themselves. For instance, they put on their pearls and remove the tower of empty soup cans from their floor, to feel like the kind of sophisticated adult who owns expensive jewelry and doesn’t live in a garbage dump (or a modern art museum). This seems related, though changing your perceptions of your environment by changing your environment does actually cause your environment to be different, so it seems like a marginal case.
  • I think I sometimes try to interact with some intellectual sphere a bit in order to feel like it is a happening place, to encourage myself to interact with it more. Though this is not very explicit. For instance, if I want to think about the kinds of things I might blog about, I might look at some other related blogs and remind myself that that corner of intellectual cyberspace is real and exciting.

These cases are all either involve very extreme and immediate corrections, desire to meddle with someone else’s behavior,  or efforts to feel better about the world rather than to view it more accurately. The kinds of things I have in mind would be more like:

  • Thinking twice about being entertained by fiction that depicted the world inaccurately, especially in subtle or harmful ways. For instance, TV shows in realistic settings where most people are untrustworthy, cooperation is doomed to fail, and reasonable people invest a lot in watching their backs. Or where things always work out too tidily. Or where ‘romance’ and ‘friendship’ are different nebulous bundles of behaviors and commitments and such to the ones you would want to think of them as.
  • Thinking twice about being entertained by fiction that merely depicts the world as conforming to story norms.
  • Even in non-fiction, avoiding habitual interaction with framings, emphases and narratives that you don’t want to increase your own belief in the importance of. For instance, if you don’t want to wonder if the world is full of leopard seals, or think that the world is full of people who are interested in the question of whether the world is full of leopard seals, don’t watch the crazy ‘all of our problems are caused by leopard seals’ channel, even ironically or in the intellectual knowledge that you had to search the whole internet to find such an oddity.
  • You might preferentially associate with people who discuss the world around them in terms of stories that you prefer believe in. For instance, if you are around people who often draw attention to the world’s mystery, this might push your model of the world toward being intrinsically incomprehensible. While conversation partners who habitually talk about everything as if it has intelligible parts, that might teach you very different expectations.
  • If you haven’t seen any failure in some arena because it seems so unimaginable that you don’t take risks, you might try failing a bit intentionally or closely observing someone else’s failures, to acquire a sense that failing is a thing you can actually do, with some specific non-world-ending consequences.
  • If you experience a weird corner of the world relative to other humans, you might just try to spend some time on a more representative sample of activities or places or company. You might look up how other people spend time, note that about 1% of people in Amercia are truck drivers, and try to ride in a representative truck one time.
  • If you think a lot of the world is unpopulated and you spend your time in populated areas almost exclusively (probably true, due to the observer selection effect), you might go to the empty bits if you want a realistic impression of what the physical world is like.

I think I occasionally hear these kinds of considerations raised, and maybe acted on, though it is hard to think of examples, other than people sometimes intentionally spending more time with people who nebulously seem like good influences, which might embody some such things.

In the wake of the recent US election, I have heard people talking about mingling more with people from different bubbles. Which also sounds maybe close, but I think they are mostly suggesting talking to political rivals about their explicit views and trying to understand where they are coming from and to empathize with them. I’m not talking about anything so intellectual or socially virtuous—I’m just talking about bumping into people who vote differently often enough that your intuitions register their existence. Which is arguably less of a big deal for characteristics that define political divides, because you are probably aware of your political rivals’ existence by the time you are rivaling them. And if not, the media will probably tell you about them. Whereas if you never see any truck drivers, you could easily forget to consistently imagine that there are three million of them around here somewhere. Even if you read a statistic about it once, and could maybe figure out a decent guess if someone directly asked you ‘how many truck drivers are there in America?’ And the existence of three million truck drivers probably comes up sometimes, like when speculating about the implications of self driving cars.

So anyway, I claim that this kind of strategizing about experience consumption mostly comes up in fairly extreme or immediate cases, or cases where the costs are to someone else, or in order to improve the enjoyability of one’s worldview rather than its accuracy. I’m not very confident about this. But supposing this is true, it might be because the effects are too small to make it worth thinking about (and other people know that, while I don’t). It could also be that other people are thinking about these things a lot more than I think they are, and they don’t discuss them much, or I forget the good examples.

An interesting explanation is that such strategizing would indeed be very useful, but we mostly don’t do it because it is only strategic from the perspective of the more intellectual parts of our minds. Those parts would like to correct our crazy instinctive picture of the world in pursuit of their own abstract goals. However the part we have been talking about—the ‘visceral picture of the world based on direct observations and stories’  part— doesn’t have any picture of a gap between an accurate abstract world model and its own model. That’s too abstract for a start, and representing “model X is badly inaccurate” inside model X is at least a bit complicated. And our more intellectual mental parts have trouble finding any experience that would really hammer home the fact of this gap. So we don’t really feel like it is a big deal, though it seems like it might be intellectually. This also matches the way people discuss this kind of thing intellectually, but don’t seem to do much about it.

“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.

mistakseandrectitudes

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.