Content note: scrupulosity triggers
I conceived of the following piece last saturday, on my way into the Iron Ring Ceremony, a.k.a. the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer.
The iron ring is to remind engineers to care more about human welfare than following orders or doing what’s convenient.
I’m intending to frame it personally as being about heroic responsibility. Which is, I think, the natural extension of the ritual.
The concept of heroic responsibility comes from the brilliant fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It’s from chapter 75, but the spoilers are vague enough that unless you’re at chapter 70 or something then I wouldn’t worry about it:
The boy didn’t blink. “You could call it heroic responsibility, maybe,” Harry Potter said. “Not like the usual sort. It means that whatever happens, no matter what, it’s always your fault. Even if you tell Professor McGonagall, she’s not responsible for what happens, you are. Following the school rules isn’t an excuse, someone else being in charge isn’t an excuse, even trying your best isn’t an excuse. There just aren’t any excuses, you’ve got to get the job done no matter what.” Harry’s face tightened. “That’s why I say you’re not thinking responsibly, Hermione. Thinking that your job is done when you tell Professor McGonagall – that isn’t heroine thinking. Like Hannah being beat up is okay then, because it isn’t your fault anymore. Being a heroine means your job isn’t finished until you’ve done whatever it takes to protect the other girls, permanently.” In Harry’s voice was a touch of the steel he had acquired since the day Fawkes had been on his shoulder. “You can’t think as if just following the rules means you’ve done your duty.”
The myths say that the original iron rings were made of materials from the twice-collapsed Quebec Bridge of the early 1900s (which took 88 lives during its construction). There’s no evidence that the rings were forged from its ruins, although the disasters definitely helped forge the ceremony itself. It was designed by Rudyard Kipling, who wrote its oath and also this relevant poem. The ceremony is understood to be private, so I will not be discussing anything that was not available to me prior to attending. Which makes this excerpt of the oath fair game, since it’s public on the internet:
I […] bind myself upon my Honour and Cold Iron, that, to the best of my knowledge and power, I will not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer, or in my dealings with my own Soul before my Maker.
Let’s ignore the soul part for the purpose of this post, and look closer at this one:
“in aught that concerns my works”
But what does concern my works? What works do I concern myself with? Through the broad lens of heroic responsibility, it’s not just about the deaths I might be responsible for by designing a faulty bridge that collapses. I can still hold myself responsible for the deaths that occur as a result of the technology I fail to develop or even fail to conceive of. In order for this to be at all sane, I need to keep in mind that I have finite resources and that each action therefore has opportunity costs. There’s also a risk of this just feeling overwhelming, because of all of the deaths I would understand myself to be responsible for.
Two keys to this:
1. Framing effects: remember the thing where people choose [a certain chance of saving 200/600 people] over [a 1/3 chance of saving all 600 people], but choose [a 2/3 chance of all 600 people dying] over [400 people certainly die], even though those are exactly opposite decisions?
So I’ll frame it as “lives I’m responsible for saving” rather than “deaths I’m responsible for”. Obviously it’s a bit more complex than this, but this points at the thing.
2. Avoiding self-judgment: I want to honestly appraise my own impact on the world, but I don’t want to kick myself unnecessarily when I fail. I just want to do better. This is especially important in a context where so many outcomes are probabilistic anyway—i.e. even if something turns out poorly, it may still have been the best decision. The oath includes:
For my assured failures and derelictions I ask pardon beforehand of my betters and my equals in my Calling here assembled…
One important aspect related to this is where to go on the risk-reward spectrum. It’s easy to have guaranteed small positive impact, by e.g. volunteering at a homeless shelter. But since we’re facing risks to the survival of the entire human race, and I am responsible for lives not yet created as well, I will be aiming at whatever I deem to be the most likely leverage point towards averting these and colonizing the stars.
The remainder of the post will be a brief reflection on my thinking around oaths and behaviour change, focusing on this one in particular.
I learned this lesson early. At age 15, I found myself in a kind of long-distance relationship. As we parted ways for what we knew would be months, she left her hair elastic around my wrist. I decided to keep wearing it, and wrote her an email describing some personal change that she’d inspired me to undertake:
i’ve been wearing your hair elastic on my wrist since you gave it to me, and i’m going to leave it there as a kind of reminder that i want to change
6 months later, she stumbled across that old email, and sent it back to me, suggesting “i think you should rate yourself of how well you held up to all that stuff this far into the year!” In my response I remarked that I had done pretty well, but that I was “completely ashamed of forgetting that the elastic is for change, and not just for you… because I had completely forgotten until I saw this email again”.
In other words, it had become a kind of wedding band, and I had completely forgotten my vows.
But, at the time, FollowUpThen didn’t exist, so I couldn’t tell that email to return to my inbox every few weeks to remind me of my original purpose. FUT will likely form part of how I keep this in my consciousness long-term, though I may also incorporate some daily rituals.
The problem is that once you’ve committed to “do the right thing all day, every day,” you’ve given yourself a powerful incentive to rationalize whatever you do do as being the right thing.
It’s generally hard to change behaviour suddenly, even when that change is relatively concrete. But it’s even harder to accurately assess something like whether you’ve been “doing the right thing”, meaning that you’re likely to mess it up a lot of the time and it’ll be hard to notice when you do. And that’s without a firm commitment to doing the right thing. With a firm commitment, depending on how it’s framed, you may become actively averse to noticing evidence that you might be failing. To some extent this makes sense: if you think you’re failing, then whatever you swore that commitment on must clearly not matter that much to you. So it’s a bind.
I have lots of thoughts on this particular subject, but for now suffice it to say that this is definitely a context within which you want to commit to trying, rather than to succeeding. As long as you don’t forget, of course, that the goal is to succeed, and that that’s the ultimate metric that matters.
So given everything above, how am I actually framing this for myself?
I’m going to regularly (daily to begin with) take some time to reflect on the following statement, periodically revising the words so they point more directly at the meaning I have in mind:
I commit myself to focusing the lens of heroic responsibility and using it in as much of my decision-making as feels reasonably possible. I am not merely responsible for following my object-level role in a context, nor the meta-level role of one-who-does-the-ethical-thing. I am responsible for doing whatever it takes to protect the world, permanently. I am not holding myself to be forced to perform any particular actions, simply that I do not accept any limit to my responsibility: no point when I can pass matters off and say “I did my job; it’s out of my hands now.” I may delegate, but I remain responsible for the outcomes.
Sometimes it might make sense to me to take a breather; I’m responsible for what happens in my absence.
Hang on, that last bit is not quite right—if the thing I need most in order to be effective for the world is rest, then there is no absence. So let me try to rephrase that:
Sometimes I might observe that I have, senselessly, distracted myself from my responsibility towards the world. I remain, in the other sense of the word, responsible for what happens as a result.
I am responsible for acting, at all levels, as best I can towards the continued survival and thrival of humanity.
This ring and I are new to each other. I feel like I’m still developing a relationship with it. But it’s going to stay on my finger, and my responsibility is going to stay in my consciousness.
This post is a lightly-edited transcript of part of the recording of the Monday evening gathering of culture-nudgers. I’m sharing it because a lot of people are curious about the workings of the intentional community that I’m involved with, and I think this exploration of my own thought patterns provides an excellent window into our context. I also think that it can stand on its own as a powerful example of mental control… being able to step back and look at my thoughts as they arise. In some ways, this is Mindfulness Field Training 3. Read one and two.
Things you may need/want to know, for context:
Malcolm, with a grin: I’m noticing a lot of shit come up around this.
Jean: Cool! As you would say—cool!
Heather: I like…that you can smile about that.
Jean: Ohhh, he’s been practicing! » read the rest of this entry »
Growing up, you make decisions, but it’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.
Finally, you reach grade 12. It’s time to choose which university to attend after high school!
- To check out the prestigious university where your dad went, turn to page 15.
- To visit the small campus nearby that would be close enough to live at home, turn to page 82
- To take a road trip with friends to the party college they want to go to, turn to page 40.
That’s a decent set of choices. And you know, there exist hypothetical future lives of yours that are really awesome, along all pathways. But there are so many more possibilities!
Both personal experience and principles like Analysis Paralysis agree that when you have tons of choices, it becomes harder to choose. Sure. But, to the extent that life is like the hypothetical Choose Your Own Adventure Book (hereafter CYOAB) above, I don’t think the issue is that there aren’t enough options. The issue lies in the second sentence, which contains a huge assumption: that in grade 12, it’s time to choose a university to attend. Sure, maybe later in the book is a page that says something about “deferring your offer” to take a “gap year”, but even that is presented as just an option among several others. And so it goes, beyond high school and post-secondary education and into adulthood.
What you don’t get to do, in a CYOAB, is strategize about what you want and how to get it. » read the rest of this entry »
I’m writing this a post because a friend and I were talking about how I’ve removed several words from my idiolect (the particular set of words used by an individual—kind of like your personal dialect). I mentioned that there are a number of factors that affect how hard it is to do this, and he was really curious to hear my advice on the subject.
Also, in attempting to do some research for this post, I googled how to eliminate a word from your vocabulary, and… nobody was really answering that question—nearly all of the posts were instead just lists of words to eliminate, with various justifications. So I thought I would step up!
There are tons of potential reasons to ditch words from your vocab. Off the top of my head:
Thought patterns, are, I think, the most exciting one. » read the rest of this entry »
I’m excited, because it’s working.
I’ve been trying for years to develop my sense of mindfulness and mental control, and I’m starting now to get a very direct taste of what that feels like.
And it’s thrilling.
So here’s what happened: last night, I was having a conversation with Jean (my friend, housemate, mentor and project partner) and the subject of epistemological arguments came up. I’ve had some conflict with some of my other housemates in this area, and while part of it is theoretical there is also a practical concern, because ultimately we base our decisions on what we (think we) know, and so has felt threatening to the relationships to be unable to use certain ways of communicating information. Threatening, I think, for both sides.
I want to note that this conflict isn’t a shallow one. I wrote last year about how I overcame some of my stress around the subject of astrology. It had been a hot topic for me for several years due to heated arguments with girlfriends-at-the-time-of-the-arguments. At my first CFAR workshop, I brought up some of this stress, in a controlled environment and then worked to calm myself down, and it gave me a strong sense of what this concept of againstness feels like. (The relevant post contains a video, if you want to see it in action.)
Have you ever been talking with someone, and the two of you essentially agree about the topic at hand, but you still find yourself arguing your point violently? You know what that feels like? That feeling is againstness. And it takes mental skill to extricate yourself from the mode of vehemently asserting the thing you believe so strongly, and to instead have a productive conversation about it. And that’s the skill I’m learning. » read the rest of this entry »
Flow and Deliberate Practice are rather popular concepts these days. This shouldn’t be surprising, as everyone wants to be fulfilled in their work and play, and many people want to become an expert in some domain. However, proponents of each approach appear to be in conflict a lot of the time. On top of that, some people think they are the same thing! I believe that they are separate but compatible: two aspects of the same consistent model.
In an email thread among alumni of CFAR’s rationality workshops, one member commented with a few paragraphs to this effect:
What good SNS* looks like is being in a Flow state. A Flow state is a state in which you are intensely pushing yourself, to the limits of your abilities, toward a goal you are intrinsically motivated to pursue, and receiving frequent and immediate feedback on your progress.
*SNS: for a relevant discussion of the Sympathetic Nervous System, see my earlier post on Againstness Training from a few months ago.
I responded with
I do agree that good SNS looks like what’s described here. At the very least, anything that feels “intense” is almost certainly SNS, and this state you describe is clearly good.
However, I don’t believe this is flow. I think the term you’re looking for is deliberate practice. The turbocharging class/concept [taught by CFAR] is basically a framework for turning anything into deliberate practice.
A fascinating look into a very fundamental part of the psychology of happiness and life satisfaction.
What this exchange reveals, however, is the ambiguity in the word “flow”. » read the rest of this entry »
This is a response to Can You Condition Yourself? on Slate Star Codex. Upon hearing about the “Propagating Urges” technique taught by CFAR, Scott was doubtful that humans could indeed successfully train themselves using operant conditioning. This is my response, which was also posted as a comment. I agree with him for some things but note that the technique has still been personally valuable to me and could be much more so.
I don’t know about big complex tasks, but I tried this once for a bad habit, and it worked impressively well. I used to pick my nose as a kid… and then I didn’t stop when I grew up. When I heard about the inner pigeon idea, I thought I’d give it a shot. Every time I noticed an inclination to reach my hand up, or that I was anywhere in the process of nose-picking, I would pump my fist and go “YES!” (this is my happy gesture-button).
The idea was to reinforce my own noticing. Since this action is generally considered gross and/or shameful, my brain generally tried to avoid thinking about it, which meant I definitely would never notice I’d done it until it was too late. By rewarding myself for noticing (whenever it happened) I taught my brain that it was a good thing to think about. When doing the opposite (cringing when noticing) we train our brain not to notice because it produces discomfort. This is likely punitive justice: it teaches people not to get caught.
I think perhaps this functions in a slightly different way than Skinner’s pigeons though. It’s almost like I’ve made a game out of noticing my brain’s urge, and I get an (uncounted) point every time I successfully do so. Regardless, this made me more aware of these urges, which meant I started noticing more and more when it was just my nose feeling itchy or my hand moving up. I would then reward myself and not bother actually doing it.
Within the first day, this almost completely eliminated the habit, although I forgot to go back for vaccines 2 and 3 so I confess that it’s not quite gone. However, during this comment I noticed once during the act, and YES’d. Then, not a minute later I noticed beforehand and YES’d again.
I believe this could work for a number of these sorts of impulses, although I haven’t yet tried (upon reflection, this would be really valuable; adding near top of queue)
In addition to helping notice these urges, it could also be valuable for noticing thoughts to the effect of “this may not be a valuable use of my time” or “I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing”. Normally, my brain shies away from those, because if that’s true, it means I’ve been wasting my time. However, like being wrong, the only way to fix that is to admit it (to yourself, at least). This ranges from:
… and of course any ugh field or thought about a belief that’s generally aversive.
Since there can be a fair bit of cognitive overhead to this at the start, I would recommend starting by focusing on only one type of thought or urge at a time, but it’s fun to do. I had to leave for a few hours in the middle of typing this and my attention to it while writing made it really easy to apply it to both the original unhygenic habit mentioned and also to the email-checking impulse when I came back.
Writing this post has made me realize that there’s a lot of really low-hanging fruit for me here, and so I’m going to try adding a new noticing every few days for the next while. Will report back in later this summer with results. I suspect this can work with positive urges too but I’ll look into that later.
Here’s a video of me. It might be helpful to read the text below before watching the video. Actually, on second thought, this post was adapted from an email to a friend who said “I am grinning ear to ear from watching the video on your wall. I’d love to hear more about it!” so maybe watch it first. Your call.
So, in late January I was at a 4 day Applied Rationality workshop, which was absolutely amazing. The first 3 days were classes, and the 4th was to practise what we’d learned already. That’s when this video happened. The relevant class is called Againstness, and the practice session is fondly referred to as “Torture Court.” The againstness class is about the two halves of the Autonomic Nervous System (the part of your brain you don’t consciously control directly) which are the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.
The idea is that while againstness (or SNS dominance) was effective back when stress = wild animal or armed opponent, it isn’t when stress = fight-with-your-partner or performance anxiety. As mentioned, you don’t have a sense of empathy when you’re in that state, so it’s basically impossible to consider that the other person might be right, or to even think of how the situation might be resolved peacefully. We were taught several techniques to release from againstness and shift to PNS dominance… basically:
Then. We come to the question of how exactly I came to be standing up there freaking out about astrology. I’ve historically not really liked astrology, but I was mostly indifferent. Sometime (I’m not sure where) in the past few years I developed a deep frustration with it. It really hit a peak this past summer when I had a very heated argument about it with my partner at the time. This had come up with past partners as well, although not so intense. Anyway, in another class at the workshop, called Winning at Arguments, we were asked to think of a heated argument, so I thought of that one. We looked into the word “winning” and how it can mean a variety of things, but that the most useful definition is that both (all) people involved achieve their goals. The next step there was to pause and think “what is my goal? what is their goal?” and I realized that ultimately she was trying to understand me and I was trying to be understood. Pretty compatible, eh? And yet it was one of the most intense arguments I’ve ever had.
However, despite having that understanding on Sunday, there was still a lot of pent-up negativity surrounding the subject of astrology. Very silly. Like, no matter how much I ultimately dislike it, there is nothing to be gained by being angry or stressed about it. Hence, the torture court exercise. I was one of the last people to go from our group, and a lot of the other people had been doing pretty tame things like singing I’m a Little Teapot—the main source of stress there was uncertainty surrounding the lyrics, not fear of performing. Another participant had to sidestep a punch from Val (the male instructor you can hear) but do so without flinching—just moving relaxedly. A lot of this is actually related to Aikido, but that’s another topic.
The other instructor running the Torture Court was Cat, who was also the one who did the arguments class, so when I finally went up I had this anticipation (a scary but hopeful one) that it would be astrology-related. If it had come up as something else that was boring, actually, I would have suggested it be revised as such. Anyway, I had given my phone to a friend to film me, and so then Cat proposed what she did and man it was overwhelming! One of the profound realizations I had was that I use laughter as a stress response. Like, I sort of knew this, but I didn’t realize how obvious and dramatic it was. Where others became frozen or defensive, I became, well, as you see in the video.
Immediately following the session I was walking around in a very intense physical, emotional, and mental state. My body felt… kind of tingly. I was feeling totally drained but simultaneously full of life. It was kind of like being dizzy but I wasn’t off-balance. This lasted maybe 10-15 minutes. It has, however, substantially reduced my aversion to astrology. Again, I still don’t care for it, but it doesn’t get me worked up anymore. At least, it hasn’t yet.
Malcolm, the Aries
Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of being able to attend an Applied Rationality workshop held in Berkeley, CA. I can say without a doubt that it has had a serious effect on the trajectory of my life. I want to talk briefly about this more specifically. I do have much more to say about the workshop when I get a chance, and I’d love to talk about it either privately or in the comments.
So, my life’s trajectory: those familiar with calculus will understand the following in terms of derivatives, but I’m going to use the analogy of a moving vehicle. If you want to describe the vehicle, you can talk about several things. The most obvious (and most immediately useful) is “where is it?” which often called displacement. The next most obvious/useful is “how fast is it going and in which direction?” also known as the car’s velocity. But, unless a wall or gas shortage stops the car before the relevant moment, the most useful thing to know about a car is how far down the gas pedal or brake is. This is the acceleration and ultimately it will tell you a lot more about how far the car will have gone by tomorrow than the velocity or displacement. You need to know roughly where the car was and how fast it started, but smaller changes in acceleration are much more important.
At the rationality workshop, I learned some things that definitely took me beyond where I’d been before (displacement / location). While at the workshop, I was definitely growing faster than usual, but right now I might be slower than usual as I focus on consolidating everything. Here’s why I’m not worried: what I definitely increased was my ability and propensity to assess how fast I’m going and to go faster still. Have a look at the chart to the right:
It should be clear that the yellow line on the top is increasing much faster than the others. It begins just as slow, but because it’s not only getting faster but getting faster faster, it quickly takes the lead. This is the model I’m adopting. Short-term, it’s fine if my displacement and velocity are taking a hit. In the long run, by getting better at getting better (by applying my rationality skills to becoming even more rational) I can easily overtake my hypothetical other-self and never look back.
However, I’d like to think that I haven’t just increased my acceleration but that I’m increasing the rate at which I’m increasing my acceleration, and increasing that rate as well, and so on indefinitely. This resembles an exponential function, which is shown by the yellow line above. If I were just accelerating at a constant rate, I’d be the red line in the middle, and if I were just holding steady at a certain speed I’d be the shallow blue line. One fascinating principal is that no matter how many layers you do this acceleration like xbigNumber, the exponential curve always has more. That means that if I were to ask “who will win the race?” between x1234567890 and ex, then ex will always win as time goes on. I plan to do the same.
How am I going to do this? I have some general thoughts on this which involve developing personal scaffolds that will make it easier to install what I learned at the workshop as habits, but I’ve modified my environment as well. Or rather, I’ve decided to put myself into a different environment. I’m working at a software startup in San Francisco right now, but rather than live in SF I’ve decided to spend the next 3 months living in Berkeley. This will make me much more likely to attend various free training events held by CFAR (the Center for Applied Rationality, who ran this workshop) and will also make it easier for me to hang out with some of the people I met at the workshop, encouraging me to focus on these various aspects of my life. By investing the time and effort now to make my next 3 months more fruitful, I hope to ultimately set up self-reflection habits that are exponentially powerful. I’m not sure how I’d tell success from a close approximation, but honestly I think that if I get the first 5 or so layers than there really isn’t much to be gained at that stage.
I was surprised by the variety of rational techniques that were relevant to my decision to live in Berkeley rather than SF. They included not only a substantial consideration of my preferences and goals, but also a recognition of how I’m not as rational as I’d hypothetically like to be, and therefore I can predict that if I’m living in SF I won’t go to as much CFAR stuff. Similarly, while I might generally enjoy not having a 1h-each-way bus commute, I expect to be able to devote a lot of that time to this work, where previously I felt like there was a bit of imbalance such that most of my waking hours were directed towards working on things for the company I’m at. Then, when deciding if I wanted to accept a certain sublet option, I also weighed factors like, “how much more valuable of a place do I expect to get by waiting / more effort, and is it worth it?” I decided it wasn’t, so I accepted. Personal happiness is hard to judge, but we do our best.
One could also consider a function of personal utility. Again, I expect to slow down briefly but ultimately go so much faster/further. This is fairly easy to measure but very hard to judge cross-domain.
What’s a moment that not just changed your life, but changed how you approach it?