Impression track records

It is good to separate impressions from beliefs.

It is good to keep track records.

Is it good to keep separate impression and belief track records?

My default guess would be ‘a bit, but probably too much effort, since we hardly manage to keep any track records.’

But it seems maybe more than a bit good, for these reasons:

  1. Having good first impressions, and being good at turning everyone’s impressions into a good overall judgment might be fairly different skills, so that some people are good at one and some are good at the other, and you get a clearer signal if you separate them.
  2. We probably by default mostly learn about beliefs and not impressions, because by assumption if I have both and they are different, I suspect the impression is wrong, and so will make me look worse if I advertise that I hold it.
  3. Impressions are probably better than beliefs to have track records for, because the point of the track records is to know how much to weight to give different sources when constructing beliefs, and it is more straightforward to know directly which sources are good than to know which aggregations of sources are good (especially if they are mostly bad, because nobody has track records).

As in, perhaps we mostly keep belief track records when we keep track records, but would do better with impression track records. What would we do if we wanted to keep impression track records instead? (Do we already?)

What you can’t say to a sympathetic ear

Suppose we live in a society where it is strongly frowned upon to believe that an onion is a fruit. It is ok to disagree about what defines ‘fruit’, or what Allium varieties are onions. But none of this will get you off the hook—you had just better not suggest that an onions is a fruit.

You don’t think about the issue much yourself. If you had to, you would probably agree with the consensus view that the onion is not a fruit, given a few clarifications of the question. If you were allowed, you would probably admit that you don’t care much about the question. And that you would kind of prefer that it was possible to discuss the issue calmly and without accusations of transcendent evil.

However none of these things is relevant in the real world, because you daren’t even advocate for calmer consideration of the onion classification issue. People would infer that (in a sense) you don’t want to punish people who say that an onion is a fruit. And (in a different sense) not punishing it is much like endorsing it. Punishing non-punishers is an important part of cooperation.

Now suppose you and I are chatting over lunch in a work cafeteria, and I glance furtively around and then lean over to you with gleaming eyes, and whisper that I am making fruit soup tonight, and ahem, there are many people who would cry if they watched me cutting up the fruit for it.

You see what I’m saying. Nobody else seems to have heard.  Are you annoyed? Do you think worse of me?

My guess is yes, at least quite plausibly.

And you are not annoyed because you find my comments troubling in their own right. You disagree with them, but don’t find them intrinsically offensive. Outside the context of our society, you wouldn’t mind.

You might be offended that I am willing to suggest an onion is a fruit in your presence in spite of knowing that most people would be unhappy about this. But suppose that we know each other well, and you know I know you are hard to hurt, even with grievous categorization errors.

I think you still have a strong reason to be annoyed. Which is that I am intentionally taking an action that the rest of the world thinks you are strongly obliged to punish—for instance, by threatening to stop associating with me unless I have an amazing excuse for what kind of seizure took over my mouth. Which means you must decide on the spot whether to punish me (at a cost to our relationship) or implicitly collude a bit with my renegade controversial-thing-saying faction. At a cost to your relationship with the world, because if they learned of this, they would hate you.

This makes my implied classification of onions as fruit into an ultimatum: ‘Me or the rest of society?’ If it is intentional, then it is a test of our friendship, at your expense. It’s like randomly saying ‘ok, if you really care about our friendship then steal $10 from your grandmother to prove it’.

Saying that onions are fruit quietly to you is holding our friendship hostage unless you shift your alliances away from the rest of the world and toward me. Or, more likely, it is an accident that still puts you in this position.

And it is very annoying to have your valuables taken hostage, and even more annoying to be threatened on short notice, with a deadline, so that you can’t just put it at the bottom of your to-do list and deal with it another time.

I hadn’t explicitly noticed that this kind of dynamic existed before (and it may not), but I think it might play a large part in my own feelings, on both sides of situations that are a bit like this.

I am sometimes annoyed when people reveal disagreeable views to me, even if I don’t especially disagree with them. Which is a bit surprising, on the face of it. And other times, I find myself in the position of wanting to say things that may sound controversial, and feeling hesitant, in part for the other person’s sake. So I got to thinking about the possible ways that could harm someone. And imagining myself in their shoes, this is the kind of harm I expected. I have not much idea if others feel the same way in these circumstances, or would construe the situation similarly in terms of game theory.

This might all seem pretty unimportant, being as it is a speculative and hand-wavey analysis of an already obscure social situation. But the existence of multiple reasons to be offended by officially offensive statements—even if you are sympathetic to them—means that social bans on views should be more stable than you might think. It’s one of those things where even if everyone comes to privately believe that onions are indeed fruit, and also thinks that nobody should be punished for saying this, and they can all talk to each other, everyone might still end up saying that onions aren’t fruit forever.

This means sanctions on speech aren’t just costly because they make it hard for individuals to hear ideas that might turn out to be true. They are more costly than that, because even if every individual manages to hear the ideas, and they are good, still they might not be able to update their behavior or the social consensus. And if everyone has to talk and behave as if a claim is false, we have lost a lot of the value of knowing that it is true.

To successfully condemn a view socially is to lock that view in place with a coordination problem. We could all freely identify onions as we wanted, but we have to all at once decide to change the norms, or else we get punished. And changing the norms would be hard to arrange at the best of times, but is harder when trying to arrange it warrants punishment.

If this analysis is correct, I think this situation should raise the bar for condemning views, because it makes it even harder for future people to undo our mistakes where we have erred. Condemnation is more permanent.

ETA Sept 3 2017: I am on reflection happy for people to tell me their controversial views if they are interesting—I bring up my slight feeling of annoyance about it as evidence that it is imposing some cost. But I am usually willing to pay the cost.

Critiquing other people’s plans politely

I wrote most of this post last year after spending several days at EA Global, a conference for Effective Altruists. I just went to this year’s, which reminds me I should post it. In good news, I am not writing about how to get around to things.

Many Effective Altruists are trying to do things that are really good with their lives, and EA Global can be an exciting time for hashing out which things those should be. Which brings to the fore some issues with doing this.

It is hard to have good plans for creating large amounts of value in the world, especially if you are an ignorant young person. Happily, lots of people know different things to one another, including many that are relevant to the probable success of everyone’s plans. Unhappily, exchanging this information can be somewhat fraught.

How things go wrong

1. The attack

One kind of bad thing that can happen is Ann says ‘I am starting a student group for minority square dancers because I think it will change the values of the future artificial arachnid civilization that arises in our place’ and everyone else thinks, ‘Oh boy, I know the correct answer to this one’ and they all jump in and helpfully explain that Ann’s plan is terrible in almost every way, and Ann is sad, and maybe thinks she shouldn’t hang out with these people anyway.

There is also a much milder version of this, where Ann says ‘I am starting a student group for open borders’ and Ben argues that open borders might not be that good, and that he thinks it probably isn’t the best thing to fight for. And Ann agrees in principle that it is good to discuss these things, but she admittedly still feels kind of sad about Ben’s willingness to criticize and oppose her, and it makes their friendship a bit worse.

2. The polite sidestep

I am not sure if #1 actually happens. Probably the milder version does, but I don’t remember seeing it much. A different kind of bad thing seems more common. Clara says ‘I’m going to work at and earn money to give to my favorite EA cause—Raising Awareness About Goodness—and at the same time, I’ll be directly improving the lives of thousands of children somehow’. And Dora and Eloise and Freda would not have this plan themselves in a fit, because they can see many reasons it probably won’t work. They have heard bad things about, and they think RAAG is going to receive more money than it knows what to do with from other sources and is bottlenecked on talent more, and they can think of numerous impediments to the bettering of thousands of children’s lives occurring amidst all this. However they are polite and friendly, so they don’t say any of that, and instead say ‘Oh, um, great, that’s very virtuous of you’ and ask if she is looking forward to having a shorter commute.

3. The inadvertent personal question

I saw a third kind of bad outcome at EA Global last time, which was sometimes my own fault. My conversation partner would have views on what it would be strategic for me to do. For instance, to give a talk at EA Global. (I was in a good position to decide to give a talk at the last minute, because there was one in the program with my name on it). So they would suggest this. But my reasons for not giving a talk were not just a person-neutral evaluation of giving talks. They included relatively personal considerations, such as my then high proclivity to anxiety attacks, and my lack of knowledge about how to gracefully flee an auditorium from an initial position of center stage.

Psychological health issues and embarrassing personal fleeing strategy deficiencies are more personal topics than my conversation partner was probably meaning to be asking me about, so this might have been awkward for them.

Furthermore, they aren’t topics that those people have particular expertise on, so it was also unfortunate if we missed an opportunity for them to give me any unique knowledge they have about why giving talks is generally so great.

This particular case is perhaps not a usual problem, because people are usually more given to polite evasiveness than me. And it it wasn’t so bad. But it is a real example that is my own to discuss.

Here is a fictional example where it is a more central issue. Gretel joins the conversation about Clara’s move to late. She says that while many people should be thrilled to be at, she thinks Clara is especially talented and could do better. She suggests Clara consider doing good more directly, perhaps in biotechnology. She suggests some specific places where she knows people.

In fact, Clara agrees that there are probably higher value careers in the abstract, and that biotechnology would be a much better fit for some sort of stylized Clara. But she wants to be at much more than she wants to try to start a career in biotechnology, for several reasons. Firstly, she feels like she can’t do anything at all except pass tests, and longs for even just a few months where she gets to put in effort and have undeniable value come out. Relatedly, she would like her family to know she has this power, even if she ultimately chooses not to use it. Third, she knows her husband is unhappy here, and so they might want to move, and the Startup job is fine to do for a short time, and allows for remote work. Plus, she sort of hates being around everyone in biotech—including some people in this room—for reasons she can’t put a finger on. And if she has to spend every day being told what to do by them, then she suspects she will also spend every day imagining killing them, which will be a distraction, and also kind of worrying.

Probably none of these things will make for mutually enjoyable or informative conversation, since Clara already knows more about these issues than the others, and while the others would not be bored hearing some of the human-interest details, their enjoyment would probably be at the expense of Clara’s, especially in the overall context of defending her apparently poor choices.

In general, people’s decisions about what to do with their lives factor in many details of their lives, which are often personal. If you ask why a person is doing something that doesn’t seem effective to you, the answer can easily be ‘I am not motivated to do anything unless it is located within five miles of this particular human’, or ‘I find moral motivations utterly demoralizing, so I really have to do something that I don’t consider overwhelmingly important, and then redirect earnings to something good after the fact’ or ‘Thinking about the most effective thing is stressful and hard, so I can only do it for an hour per month, and I’m up to the bit where I give some money to a reasonable charity’. Which are perhaps interesting topics for discussion if both parties want to, but since they sometimes don’t—either because it’s uncomfortable, or because there are more interesting things to discuss—it can be bad to end up there accidentally.

I think people often recognize that it is bad to end up in these places accidentally, which often takes them back to a different version of #2.

Proposed improvement

Of these problems, my guess is that #2 is by far the most directly destructive problem for the world, but that #2 is largely caused by fear of landing in #1 or #3, which are locally socially destructive. So it seems worth addressing fear of #1 and #3, possibly by addressing #1 and #3.

I have one speculative suggestion for this kind of situation, which I haven’t actually tested much, but I keep forgetting to, so I’m just going to suggest it: debate beliefs, not actions.

For example, if your conversation partner says they are going to grad school in philosophy, and you think this is a bad idea, instead of saying ‘that sounds ineffective’ or ‘oh, cool, philosophy is interesting’, you should ask about the factual questions that you think you and they might disagree on. For instance, ‘do you think there are high impact questions to answer in philosophy?’ or ‘do you think there will be jobs available in it, or is it more of a high-risk high-reward bet?’

This should help in avoiding #1 because debating a question that is indirectly related to the other person’s choices is less aggressive than debating their choices. And it should help in avoiding #3 because asking about one of the general facts informing their choice, rather than their choice, removes the need to bring up the other more personal facts informing it. My hope is that this makes it possible to talk about such things at all with fewer costs, and so to avoid #2.

On top of that, it means you get to talk more about factual questions of broad relevance, which are arguably more valuable to establish truth about. For instance, it is better to know whether giving talks tends to be helpful in general than it is to establish whether I personally will be able to give a good talk today.

Be my neighbor

(Tldr: If you want a bunch of neighbors like me in Berkeley, this is a good opportunity.)

My own ideal living situation would probably involve a lot of private units containing people who get on well together, around some kind of central place that they could go when they were in the market for seeing other people. And pragmatically, with a lot of shared amenities: someone mowing everyone’s lawn at once, someone cooking for whoever wants it, one amazing washing machines replacing five shoddy washing machines etc. I liked living in a dorm, though I would amend some things.

My impression is that other people also want this kind of thing often, but that very little of it exists for adults. Possibly for good reasons, but I’m not sure.

One relatively close institution is the group house. And while I had mixed experiences in these prior to moving to the Bay, I have loved the slightly modified version, the ‘rationalist group house’. This is like the group house, but with members selected from a social scene whose people are especially likely to be interesting and weird in compatible ways to me.

Two years ago I decided to try to make an extra good (for me) rationalist house, by inviting a list of people I especially wanted to live with to start a new one. This led (via some more complicated algorithmic and experimental shenanigans) to The Bailey, which has indeed been pretty great. It is the sort of place where there is always someone interesting to talk to about something interesting—from gossip to AI to this week’s ambitious world-bettering plans. And where people are busy, but will often stop and eat together, whether it be a bulk-stocked MealSquare, or some delicious and elaborate home-cooked thing. Where people will talk for an hour about how communication works before they lose their temper with you for messing it up. Where the dog is cute and the internal currency is confusing, and the whiteboards are many.

Another nearby institution—a step up in scale from the rationalist house—would be the rationalist neighborhood. And that is what we are starting to try now around The Bailey (on Ward St, Berkeley), to my great excitement.

SSC says more:

SSC is part of a wider movement of philosophy enthusiasts, transhumanists, effective altruists, etc which has somehow ended up with the simultaneously boring and arrogant moniker of “the rationalist community”. We’ve developed a small intellectual/social scene in the SF Bay Area, with a few hundred interesting people who hang out together and cooperate on various projects. Since rent in the Bay is so high, a lot of the rationalists there are living in group houses, which have become nuclei for social events and cooperation.

Four of these have ended out clustered on Ward Street in Berkeley, and we’re thinking we might as well try to accelerate this and turn the area into a center of the community. We’ve been trying to snatch up houses in the area, and we just got dibs on four houses immediately adjacent to the existing rationalist cluster that are currently available for rent:

1. A five bedroom house for ~$5500/month, available now
2. A four bedroom house for ~$4200/month, available now
3. A seven-to-eight bedroom house, cost to be determined, available 9/1/17
4. A three bedroom house for ~$3100/month, available now (not adjacent to existing cluster; a few blocks away)

All of these are owned by the same landlord, who we’ve previously found pretty reasonable. They’re all kind of old and not going to win any Modern Architectural Design awards or even Especially Well Maintained awards, but we think (investigations still ongoing) that they’re basically solid and in good shape. Pictures and viewings available on request.

We’re currently looking for people who might be interested, either in renting entire houses, or in taking single rooms in what will probably become group houses. Existing community members are of course welcome to apply, but so is anyone who’s reading this and who thinks the idea sounds interesting. If interested, contact katja.s.grace[at]gmail[dot]com for more information and to arrange viewings, etc.

(disclaimer: I enjoyed living in the Bay Area, but I can’t deny that the prices are terrible, the local politics absurd, and the density at just the right level to frustrate lovers of big cities and quiet suburbs alike. Experiences with the rationalist community there vary widely, from people who say it was life-changingly good to people who found it disappointing and difficult to get into. The housing situation here might make it easier to get into, but no guarantees)

Readers of this who think the idea sounds interesting are also welcome to apply.

What you should do

  1. If you might be interested in living in the Ward St neighborhood soon, write to me at katja.s.grace[cat]gmail[dot]com. (This is not a commitment.)
  2. Tell me if you have a group of people you want to live with, or if you are looking to be matched up with some others.
  3. Expect me to contact you soon, for instance with opportunities to see the houses beginning next week.
  4. If you want to be contacted about future expansion but don’t want to move soon, or have questions, or want to see photos or be told who else lives here, also write to me.


Anecdotal panic prevention strategies

I have panic attacks somewhere between every few months and multiple times per week. At the moment it seems to be mostly restricted to when I wake up and haven’t got the hang of being a human again yet, so it isn’t a huge problem.

But when it is, I have often found that eating honey vastly and quickly improves the problem. Not sugar, not sugar syrup, just honey. Not after the sugar has reached my bloodstream, but when it touches my tongue. Often not in a ‘hmm, I guess I feel better?’ way, but in a ‘I was tumbling head over heels down a hill, and then it just stopped’ way.

I’m hesitant to point this out much, because 1) it doesn’t make any sense, which suggests it is imaginary and 2) I feel uncomfortable about the whole complicated and murky landscape of people giving often unwanted advice, with various motives, about awkward things, that probably only work for that person, and probably only do so because of the placebo effect.

On the other hand, I caused someone else to try this, who also found that it worked. Plus as far as I can tell having an additional thing to try if you are having a panic attack is good, even if it turns out not to work. And I dislike the equilibrium where people who do have useful advice in expectation are worried about sharing it in case they seem annoying.

So, if anyone else has panic attacks and feels like trying this out, I am curious to hear how it goes. I usually squeeze half a teaspoon of honey or so into a spoon and eat it straight.


Since I already maybe mostly have the attention of people interested in panic attack relief, below is my longer list of things I have found probably-useful over the years (in more expected, explicable, hit-or-miss, or time-taking ways).

Collected panic attack mitigation strategies

  • Honey
  •  Playing DDR (both as a thing to do actually during a panic attack, and as a really good way to get prophylactic exercise if you find leaving your room or committing to more than five seconds of exercise aversive, e.g. because you have an anxiety disorder.)
  •  Saying ‘I can be anxious and still be in control’, and noticing over time that this is true, every time.
  • Estimating how long panic attacks go for, looking at a clock, noting at what time this one will probably be done, and expecting/planning/predicting to feel better then. Maybe kind of thinking of the clock as a machine that is resolving the problem, and will be done when it gets to the seven or whatever.
  • Counting slowly to five during each breath, and holding breath after out-breath while counting to two, about five times.
  • Listening to Au Fond Du Temple Saint sung by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill. If you are looking for music which bears the same relation to you as that song does to me, my guess is that the relevant feature is either ‘literally impedes breathing’ or something to do with feelings. Some other songs that only affect feelings seem to help too, but I think in a different way.
  • Measuring heart-rate repeatedly and trying to make it go down (breathing slowly helps often).
  • Playing Civ IV or some other computer games, though this often seems to just distract me while prolonging the panic attack. Which is useful if you are in an inconvenient situation for freaking out, and expect to be in a better one in three hours.
  • Really engaging and distracting activities in general, e.g. writing a song.
  • Spending time with particular people.
  • Being held tightly or under a weighted blanket
  •  Sipping straight gin
  • Going for a walk
  • Eating food, drinking, lying down, averting pain, becoming the right temperature etc, as needed— (I am weirdly bad at remembering to do these, and admit I have a list of things that animals need to live, that I look at if I am worried that I have forgotten one.)
  • Swearing a lot
  • Setting a five minute timer and ignore it with intent to freak out in five minutes
  • Noting that the situation is not your fault, if it is not. If it is, note determinism.
  • Calculating the probability of any specific concerns, given the evidence. (e.g. ‘it seems like I can’t breathe. how often does that happen without me dying? Every three days, but this time seems different. How often does this time seem different? Every six days… How often does it happen that a person feels like they can’t breathe because they are dying, when they are in their twenties? Well, women in their twenties die about once in three thousand years of living, and probably no more than one percent of those deaths are preceded by feeling like they can’t breathe. So maybe once in three hundred thousand years, versus 60 times per year for non-death causes of feeling like you can’t breathe, for a one in 18 million chance this is the death one. And I’m probably not off by more than three orders of magnitude as a result of hyperventilating impeding my ability to do math, so lets say a one in ten thousand chance very pessimistically.. sounds like I should at least anticipate surviving..)
  • Thinking about how good reason is, and how right it is for it to triumph over feelings (as direct determinant of actions), and how passionately loyal to reason you feel, and what a great strength-giving rock to which you owe everything of value it is (…and how if you were going to trust your feelings over reason, they would just tell you how great reason is anyway, so it is only reasonable to trust reason more, which is good because it is what you feel like…) YMMV.
  • Doing whatever hard to describe mental motions get you into a mental state appropriate for marching up a mountain, or being reasonable, or doing something other than freaking out, if you have different mental stances like this.
  • I have found various drugs useful for being less anxious, notably (at different times) an SSRI and St John’s Wort, though both had confusing effects. I am sure better advice has been written about this.