Want like want want

“I want a donut”

“Ok, I’ll buy one for you”

“Oh, I don’t mean that on consideration I endorse purchasing one—I’m just expressing my urge to to eat a donut.”

There are two meanings of ‘want’ in common usage. A feeling of desire, and an endorsed intention. ‘I want a baby tiger!’ is not analogous to ‘I want to work more on my taxes tonight’.

These ‘want’s are basically the input of a decision process and the output. I feel desire for a baby tiger and utter ‘I want it!’, and my brain considers that desire plus some other stuff about baby tigers and my life, and decides that on reflection I do not intend to acquire one. On the other hand, I feel no positive attraction toward my taxes at all, yet my aversion to prison and lawyers and generally being disagreeable in any way, once fed through my decision process leave me ‘wanting’ to work on them.

It is hard to be confused about the baby tiger and tax cases, but other times I think this leads to genuine confusion. The donut case above was a genuine confusion, but one of no importance. I think it leads to more important genuine confusions when one talks to oneself, and lacks two distinct concepts.

Luckily I waited ages before writing this blog post, and so came across David Wong of Cracked talking about something similar, as the #1 Way you are sabotaging your own life (without knowing it), which I’ll just quote here in full (the section, not the whole post, though I don’t agree with all of):

#1. Lying to Yourself About What You Actually Want

Hlib Shabashnyi/iStock/Getty Images

Off the top of your head, say something you’ve always wanted to do. Then, follow it up with why you’ve never done it.

So, maybe you said something like, “I’ve always wanted to start a little business selling cupcakes! But I wouldn’t even know how to get started!”

Aaaaand … 90 percent of you just lied.

I know you did, because if you actually wanted to do the thing, then the second part — the obstacle — wouldn’t exist. For example, if that person up there actually wanted to start their cupcake business, they wouldn’t be confused about how to get started. They’d be a freaking walking encyclopedia of information about how to get started, because they’d have spent every single day reading up on it and calling other cupcake-shop owners for advice. They don’t do that because they don’t actually want it. They don’t have the invisible gun to their head.

BrandlMichaela/iStock/Getty Images
“The cupcake is a lie.”

This, right here, is at the heart of every unfulfilled ambition in your life. We use the same word — “want” — to mean two completely different things, and the constant confusion between those definitions is why so many people are disappointed in how their lives turned out. Depending on the context, “want” can be:

A) A statement of intended action (“I want to mow the lawn before it rains.”)

B) A statement of general preference (“I want everyone to live a long and happy life.”)

It sounds simple enough, but the confusion of those two uses of the word is everything. We switch between the two definitions sometimes in the same sentence. This morning, I was driving to Five Guys to get a burger and an entire grocery bag full of french fries to go with it (that is, the “small”). I passed a guy who was jogging, shirtless, who had a torso like Matthew McConaughey. I said to myself, “I want a body like that!” And, if I’d pulled over and asked the guy why he runs and works out, he’d have said the same thing, almost word-for-word — “It’s because I want a body like this!”

Same phrasing, meaning two completely different things. I used “want” in the same way I say I want world peace — a wistful statement about something I actually have no control over. If it’s the same effort either way, sure, I’ll take the rock-hard abs — give me an ab pill and I’ll swallow it. Otherwise, no, it ain’t happening. That jogging guy, on the other hand, used “want” as a statement of intended action — he “wants” to run five miles every day because he “wants” to be fit.

desertsolitaire/iStock/Getty Images
“Also because there’s a guy with a gun pointed at me. Please, call the police.”

Now look around you — look at all of the minimum-wage people who “want” to be rich and/or famous, with some vague notion of, I don’t know, being on a reality show some day or getting “discovered” for some talent they didn’t know they had. Now look at all of the MBAs working 100-hour weeks on the trading floor because they “want” to be rich. The difference in the two is night and day, but in many cases the former group doesn’t realize it. They just stay poor while the other group starts shopping for vacation homes.

And I’m starting to think that the world really is divided between those who have a clear idea of what it means to want something — including the total cost and sacrifices it will take to get it — and those who are just content to leave it as an airy “wouldn’t it be nice” fantasy. The former group hones in on what they want and goes zooming after it like a shark. The latter looks at them, shakes their head and says, “How do they do it?” As if they have a cheat code, or a secret technique.

Eldad Carin/iStock/Getty Images
“That son of bitch and his Konami code.”

“What, you’re saying we should all be douchebag stockbrokers working hundred-hour weeks?” No. I’m saying that while some of you are sitting around the coffee shop talking about how you “want” the system to change, that douchebag is accumulating money so he can actually run for congress. Because when he “wants” something, he doesn’t sing a song about it. He prices that shit and makes a down payment. And when that relentless BMW-driving douche has kids, he’ll teach them, too, what it really means to “want” something — to be single-minded, and voracious, and to pursue it to the ends of the Earth. Instilling that lesson goes just as far toward preserving wealth and power in a group as the actual inheritance they’ll leave behind.

Are you scared of those people? Are you imagining them as cold-blooded stock brokers and lobbyists and swindlers, the Wolf of Wall Street types who are eating away at the world like a cancer? Well, they scare you because it’s a glimpse at what accomplishing great things actually costs. You know Steve Jobs was a fucking psychopath, right? So the next time somebody asks you if you want to be rich, really stop and think about it. Think about what it will take. Think about what kind of person you’ll need to become.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images News/Getty Images
“I would literally make them from the blood of orphans if it could save me five cents on the per-unit cost.”

And that’s the point of all this — I’ve found, as time goes on, that everybody gets what they want. Not what they say they want in order to make themselves look good to others, or what they tell themselves they want so they feel better about the current state of their life. No, I’m talking about what they really want. And to find out what they really want, you don’t need to ask them. You just need to look at what they did today. You want to change, start there.

He has a more complicated thesis, and is saying things I don’t necessarily agree with, but his central point is that mistaking one kind of ‘want’ for another is something like the number one way you are messing up your life, which suggests that he considers it an important confusion.

He thinks it is related to the strange discrepancy between our imagined prospects in five years, and what we do right now. You say to yourself ‘I want to be a classical guitarist’—and it arises as an idle positive urge toward playing classical guitar, which arises due to letting your mind wander while listening to classical guitar one time. Then you just kind of figure that you do in fact want to, but don’t know how to right now or there are some obstacles or something, and hopefully you’ll figure it out in the vague future and probably one day be a great classical guitarist.

I claim that part of what is going on here is that you are observing your urge to play classical guitar, and thinking of it as ‘I want to play classical guitar’. Then you fail to distinguish this input to a decision from an actual decision. So either you sign up for a classical guitar class, but feel kind of bad about it and like you have too many things going on in your life, or you say to yourself that you want to, but you don’t, and you figure there is something wrong with you.

So maybe you ask yourself, ‘do I really want to play classical guitar?’ and you look inside your heart and see that you do really feel warmly about playing classical guitar, and you don’t notice that that is the answer to a different question than the one that is relevant to whether you should play classical guitar. You are checking that the input really is ‘classical guitar is nice’, rather than that the output really is ‘learning to play classical guitar is what I want on net, given the costs, and that it is nice’.

In some sense, if you fail to distinguish the input to your decision from the output, and confusedly use the input where you would rationally use the output, you are in fact correct that they are the same. It’s just that you are missing out on making a decision where you could benefit from doing so. Like, if you mistakenly treat ‘potato chips taste delicious’ as logically identical to ‘I endorse eating potato chips’ because you call them both “I want to eat potato chips!”, then you are missing out on a great chance to take into account considerations other than the flavor of potato chips in your diet, some of which may be important to you.

I have seen myself making this error. I remember it happening when I’m mostly thinking about something else, but idly appreciating something in my surrounds. For instance, I’m likely to see a cool startup and think ‘mmm, yeah I should have a startup’ or see a nice blouse and think ‘ooh, I should get a blouse like that’. And if I was really thinking about the issue, I would remember that things have costs, but if I’m not then the part of my brain that says ‘ooh’ at stuff also registers them as tentative decisions. I go away assuming that I now intend some day to have a cool startup.

This seems to parallel other useful distinctions I have seen people talk about in recent history. ‘Impressions’ and ‘beliefs’, and ‘what words are being said in my head’ versus ‘what I believe and stand for’ for instance. These are similarly inputs and outputs of decision processes, and by naming them as such, we can remember to actually stick a decision process between them. Much like if we label ‘raw pasta’ and ‘cooked pasta’ different things, it is easier to notice that cooking is an important step, and we are less likely to end up with pasta that is weirdly ill suited to being eaten half the time. Instead of just citing our impressions as beliefs, and then arguing with other people, or being confused that our ‘beliefs’ aren’t updating when other people tell us theirs (and we can tell they aren’t, by checking our impressions), we can just have some impressions and then consider them when deciding what we believe. To me these distinctions sound so obvious in retrospect that it is weird to even hypothesize that a moment ago you might not have made them. But relatedly, I think pointing them out has been pretty useful.

I’m not sure why we don’t make clear conceptual distinctions in these cases. Perhaps making distinctions is just hard. I think maybe these things are not so obvious because we didn’t always do so much intelligent decision-making. Presumably in goodest oldest days, ‘this food tastes good’ was closer in meaning to ‘I have decided to eat this food’ and ‘I feel like this plan is going to fail’ was closer in meaning to ‘this plan is probably going to fail’, and it is only later that considerations like health at age fifty and outside view evidence became sufficiently worth manually adding to one’s decision calculus to bother having a decision calculus to add them to, beyond unreflective feelings and intuitions.

Wong’s post also discusses people’s failure to connect their plans with the costs of those plans. They plan to learn the classical guitar, but don’t think of themselves as ‘planning to learn the classical guitar instead of spending so much time with their friends’ or ‘planning to learn the classical guitar instead of spending one of their two daily outside-of-work intentional-action-slots on reading’ or whatever the bottleneck may be. I don’t think he explicitly connects the two, though he clearly thinks they are part of a larger related structure. They are at least related in that people are wrong about what they want in part because they are not considering the costs. In his story, he wants to be fit, but only if he completely ignores the costs. Which is to say, if he just checks whether he likes the idea of being fit. He describes being confused, and going on to tell himself that he wanted to be fit in the ‘intending to do it’ sense, while mysteriously not being inclined to.

My model gives a straightforward reason for these errors to be related. Suppose you are making a cost-benefit analysis. If you confuse a single entry in the ‘benefits’ column with the output of the entire analysis, this reliably undercounts costs, to put it mildly. That is, if you ‘decide’ to learn Japanese by just using ‘liking the idea of knowing Japanese’ as a proxy for making a decision, then your decisions will be independent of what will be lost by learning Japanese. You will do the same thing whether it takes three hours or three million hours to learn Japanese. And you will find yourself with some very bad decisions that you can’t bring yourself to actually uphold.

I was told at a CFAR workshop that it is useful to say to yourself ‘if I write this paper it is going to be super annoying, but worth it’ rather than just ‘writing this paper is worth it’. This seems probably related. For instance, maybe you are just using ‘I want a tiger’ to decide to acquire one, and then if you say ‘I want a tiger, but it will be very messy, oh wait maybe I don’t’ or ‘I want a tiger, and it will be very messy, and still worth it’ then in the latter case you believe yourself more, or something.

Anyway, maybe more distinct terms would be helpful. For now I’m going to use ‘yearn for’ and ‘intend’, like ‘I yearn for a donut but I don’t intend to get one’. Better suggestions welcome.

Why read old philosophy?

I’m going to try to explain a mystery that puzzled me for years. This answer finally dawned on me in the middle of one of those occasional conversations in which non-perplexed friends patiently try to explain the issue to me. So I am not sure if mine is a novel explanation, or merely the explanation that my friends were trying to tell me, in which case my contribution is explaining it in a way that is at all comprehensible to a person like me. If it is novel, apparently some other people disagree with it and have an almost entirely satisfactory alternative, which has the one downside that it is impossible to explain to me.

The puzzle is this:

Why do people read old philosophers to learn about philosophy?

We read old physicists if we want to do original research on the history of physics. Or maybe if we are studying an aspect of physics so obscure that nobody has covered it in hundreds of years. If we want to learn physics we read a physics textbook. As far as I know, the story is similar in math, chemistry, engineering, economics, and business (though maybe some other subjects that I know less about are more like philosophy).

Yet go to philosophy grad school, and you will read original papers and books by historical philosophers. Research projects explore in great detail what it is that Aristotle actually said, thought, and meant. Scholars will learn the languages that the relevant texts were written in, because none of the translations can do the texts the necessary justice. The courses and books will be named after people like ‘Hume’ as often as they are named after topics of inquiry like ‘Causality’ and larger subject areas will be organized by the spatiotemporal location of the philosopher, rather than by the subject matter: Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Continental Philosophy.

The physics situation makes a lot more sense to me. Hypothetically, who would I rather read an explanation of ‘The Alice Effect’ by? —Alice, the effect’s seventeenth century discoverer, or Bob, a modern day physics professor authoring a textbook?

Some salient considerations, neutrality not guaranteed:

  • Alice’s understanding of the Alice effect is probably the most confused understanding of it in all of history, being the first ‘understanding of the Alice effect’ to set itself apart from ‘confusion and ignorance about the Alice effect’.
  • In the billions of lifetimes that have passed since Alice’s time, the world has probably thought substantially more about The Alice Effect than Alice managed to in her lifetime, at least if it is important at all.
  • Alice’s very first account of the effect probably contained imperfections. Bob can write about the theory as it stood after years of adjustment.
  • Even if Alice’s account was perfectly correct, it was probably not perfectly well explained, unless she happens to have been a great explainer as well as a great physicist.
  • Physics has made many discoveries since Alice’s time, such as Claire forces, Evan motion and Roger fields. It might be easier to understand all of this by starting with the Roger fields, and explaining the Alice effect as a consequence. However literature from the likes of Alice is constrained to cover topics chronologically by date of discovery.
  • Bob speaks a similar version of English to me
  • Bob can be selected for having particular skill at writing and explanation, whereas Alice must be selected for having the scientific prowess to make the discovery.
  • Bob is actually trying to explain the thing to a 21st Century reader, while Alice is writing to pique the interest of some seventeenth century noblemen who lack modern intellectual machinery and are interested in issues like whether this is compatible with religion. An accurate impression of a 21st Century reader would probably cause Alice to fall over.

I think Bob is a solid choice.

How might philosophy be different?

Some pieces of explanations I heard, or made up while hearing other explanations:

  • You have to be smarter than the original philosopher to summarize their work well, so there are few good summaries
  • The translations are all terrible for conveying the important parts
  • Philosophy is not trying to communicate normal content that can be in explicit statements, of the kind you might be able to explain well and check the understanding of and such.
  • Philosophy is about having certain experiences which pertain to the relevant philosophy, much like reading a poem is different to reading a summary of its content.

I don’t find any of these compelling. If I understood some material well enough to make use of it, I would generally expect to be able to summarize it or describe it in a different language that I knew. So if nobody is capable of summarizing or translating the material it is hard to believe that I am getting much out of it by reading it. ‘Some content can’t be described’ isn’t much of an explanation, and even if it was, how did the philosophers describe it? And if you found it, but then couldn’t describe it, what would be the point? And if philosophy is about having certain experiences, like poetry, but then it would seem to be a kind of entertainment rather than a project to gain knowledge, which is at least not what most philosophers would tell you. So none of these explanations for learning philosophy to involve so much attention to very old philosophers seemed that plausible.

Ok, so that’s the mystery.

Here’s my explanation. Reading Aristotle describe his thoughts about the world is like watching Aristotle ride a skateboard if Aristotle were a pro skater. You are not getting value from learning about the streets he is gliding over (or the natural world that he is describing) and you should not be memorizing the set of jumps he chooses (or his particular conceptualizations of the world). You are meant to be learning about how to carry out the activity that he is carrying out: how to be Aristotle. How to do what Aristotle would do, even in a new environment.

An old work of philosophy does not describe the thing you are meant to be learning about. It was created by the thing you are meant to be learning about, much like watching a video from skater-Aristotle’s GoPro. And the value proposition is that with this high resolution Aristotle’s-eye-view, you can infer the motions.

There is not a short description  of the insights you should learn (or at least not one available), because the insights you are hopefully learning are not the insights that Aristotle is trying to share. Aristotle might have highly summarizable insights, but what you want to know is how to be Aristotle, and nobody has necessarily developed an abstract model of how to be Aristotle from which summary statements can be extracted.

So it is not that the useful content being transmitted is of a special kind that is immune to being communicated as statements. It is just not actually known in statements. Nobody knows which aspects of being Aristotle are important, and nobody has successfully made a simplified summary. What we ‘know’ is this one very detailed example. Much like if I showed you a bee because I thought I couldn’t communicate it in words—it would not be because bees are mysteriously indescribable, it would be that I haven’t developed the understanding required to describe what is important about it, so I’m just showing you the whole bee.

On this theory, if someone doesn’t realize what is going on, and tries to summarize Aristotle’s writings in the way that you would usually summarize the content of a passage, you entirely lose what was valuable about it. Much as you would if you summarized a video of a skater in motion into a description of the environment that they had interacted with. I hypothesize that this is roughly what happens, and is why it feels like summaries can’t capture what is important, and probably why translations seem bad always. Whenever a person tries to do a translation, they faithfully communicate the content of the thoughts at the expense of faithfully communicating the thinking procedure.

For instance, suppose I have a sentence like this:

We have enough pieces of evidence to say that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

If not quite the same words were available in a different language, it might get translated to:

We have seen enough evidence to know that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

Which tells us something very similar about whether friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

But something subtle is lost about the process: in the initial statement, the author is suggesting that they are relying on the accretion of many separate pieces of evidence that may not have been independently compelling, whereas in the latter that is not clear. Over a long text, sentences like the former might give the reader an implicit understanding of how disparate and independently uncompelling evidence might be combined in the intuition of the author, without the issue ever being explicitly discussed. In the latter, this implication is entirely lost.

So I think this explains the sense that adequate summarization is impossible and translation is extremely difficult. At least, if we assume that people either don’t know what is really going on.

As an aside, I explained my theory to Ben Hoffman, and also asked him what on earth Plato was trying to do since when I tried to read him he made some points about fashion and sports that seemed worthy of a blog post, but maybe not of historical significance. Ben had a neat answer. He said Plato is basically doing the kind of summarization that a person who knew what was going on in my theory would do. He listened to Socrates a lot and thought that Socrates had interesting methods of thought. Then instead of summarizing Socrates’ points, he wrote fictionalized account of conversations with Socrates that condense and highlight the important elements of thinking and talking like Socrates.

This doesn’t explain why philosophy is different to physics (and basically all of the other subjects). Why would you want to be like Socrates, and not like Newton? Especially since Newton had more to show for his thoughts than an account of what his thoughts were like. I suspect the difference is that because physicists invent explicit machinery that can be easily taught, when you learn physics you spend your time mastering these tools. And perhaps in the process, you come to think in a way that fits well with these tools. Whereas in philosophy there is much less in the way of explicit methods to learn, so the most natural thing to learn is how to do whatever mental processes produce good philosophy. And since there is not a consensus on what they are like in the abstract, emulating existing good philosophers is a plausible way to proceed.

I was in the CMU philosophy department, which focuses on more formal methods that others might not class as philosophy—logic, algorithms for determining causality, game theory—and indeed in logic class we learned a lot of logical lemmas and did a lot of proofs and did not learn much about Frege or Gödel, though we did learn a bit about their history and thought at other point in the program.

(This story would suggest that in physics students are maybe missing out on learning the styles of thought that produce progress in physics. My guess is that instead they learn them in grad school when they are doing research themselves, by emulating their supervisors, and that the helpfulness of this might partially explain why Nobel prizewinner advisors beget Nobel prizewinner students.)

The story I hear about philosophy—and I actually don’t know how much it is true—is that as bits of philosophy come to have any methodological tools other than ‘think about it’, they break off and become their own sciences. So this would explain philosophy’s lone status in studying old thinkers rather than impersonal methods—philosophy is the lone ur-discipline without impersonal methods but thinking.

This suggests a research project: try summarizing what Aristotle is doing rather than Aristotle’s views. Then write a nice short textbook about it.

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.