To trust or not to trust is NOT the question

This post was adapted from a comment I made responding to a facebook group post. This is what they said:

Trusting isn’t virtuous. Trusting should not be the default. Care to double crux me?

(I believe that this was itself implicitly responding to yet others claiming the opposite of it: that trust is virtuous and should be a default/norm.)

My perspective is that it’s not about virtue at all. It’s just about to what extent you can rely on a particular system (a single human, a group of humans, an animal, an ecosystem, a mechanical or software system, or whatever) to behave in a particular way. Some of these ways will make you inclined to interact with that system more; others less.

We are, of course, imperfect at making such discernments, but we can get better. However, people who are claiming it’s virtuous to trust are probably undermining the skill-building by undermining peoples’ trust in whatever level of discernment they do have: is it wrong if I don’t trust someone who is supposedly trustworthy? The Guru Papers illustrates how this happens in great detail. I would strongly recommend that book to anyone wanting to understand trust.

If I were to gesture at a default stance it would be neither “trust” nor “distrust” nor some compromise in between. It would be a stance of trust-building. » read the rest of this entry »

Acts of Speech and States of Mind

Much of this post was originally drafted a couple years ago, so the personal stories described in here took place then. I’m publishing it now in part because the novella that inspired it—Ted Chiang’s Story of your Lifehas recently been made into a feature-length movie (Arrival). In some contexts, it might make sense to say that this post may contain spoilers for SOYL; in this particular one, that would be hilariously ironic. Even after reading this post, the story will be worth reading.

This post begins, like so many of mine, with a conversation with Jean, the founder of the Upstart Collaboratory, where she and I and others are practicing the extreme sport of human relating. Jean remarked that a conversation she’d had earlier that day had been really good, then noted that she’d already told me that.

I replied, “Well, yes, and it was meaningful to me that you said it again. On the most basic level, it implies that on some level you felt you hadn’t yet conveyed just how good the conversation had been.” Then I shared with her something I’d heard from Andrew Critch, at a CFAR workshop. (Quote is from memory)

If someone says “something” to you, then that doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that that person believes that “something” is true. Incidentally, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they think that you don’t already agree with them that “something”. It really just means that, at the moment they said it, it made sense to them to say “something”. To you.

» read the rest of this entry »

Selling to friends (and telling crushes you like them)

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, who remarked:

I’ve got a question for you… I’m working at this company where I get a referral bonus for new hires or new customers, and when I told some of my coworkers that I was friends with the CEO of [Company], they said that I should try to get them to sign up.

…and I was like “whoa, that feels really aversive”. So I was wondering if you have any tips on selling to your friends.

Turned out this is a question I had pondered before, myself. Specifically, last October I found myself puzzling over the question:

“Why was it easy to ask friends for money when I was starting Complice, but not now?”

Fortunately, most of the conversations in which that had happened were recorded in the form of chat logs, so I was relatively easily able to investigate the question framed as such. First, I made a list of relevant factors that were different at the nascent stages of my company versus several years in:

  • in 2013 in was kind of an exclusive offer: you couldn’t just decide to sign up without me contacting you… and I was only looking for ~10 people to start. Not only that, but if I hadn’t messaged them, they probably wouldn’t have even known that it was happening… so there was a sense in which I was giving them valuable information. Whereas now, many of my friends have heard of Complice already.
  • » read the rest of this entry »

Deconstruction of “Criticism”

Earlier this week, Julia Galef posted a brief piece to facebook on unsolicited criticism. I started to reply, and then semi-accidentally wrote something blog-post length and somewhat tangential to the original discussion. Note that I didn’t start out with a specific point to make, so my post doesn’t exactly have a coherent structure or direction to it.

“Criticism” seems like a complex term, which might be worth deconstructing.

Wikipedia says “Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.” This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, and also seems to imply that criticism is inherently ~essentialist. If A is criticizing B’s behaviour, that basically implies there’s something wrong with B (and that A has the right to judge B).

This is naturally going to put people on the defensive.

Broadly speaking, criticism is part of a larger set of things we might call “feedback”. In a really abstract sense, what “feedback” is is information flow between parts of a system. Even if we assume that all criticism is negative (which seems roughly but not strictly true of the usage of the english word “criticism”, outside of artistic contexts) it’s still not the case that all negative feedback is criticism: for instance, if your house gets too warm in the winter, a negative feedback loop from the thermostat to the furnace will cause the furnace to stop.

To take a human example, sometimes I’ve been talking excitedly and then someone has told me (with words or gestures) to be more quiet. This is clearly negative feedback: it responds to increased voice volume on my part with something intended to decrease voice volume. Often this volume feedback feels like a helpful and connective signal, but at other times it feels like criticism—like they think I’m incompetent for not already speaking more quietly. Especially if they’ve told me in the past.

What makes the difference?

» read the rest of this entry »

Expectations: Entitlements & Anticipations

Expectation is often used to refer to two totally distinct things: entitlement and anticipation. My basic opinion is that entitlement is a rather counterproductive mental stance to have, while anticipations are really helpful for improving your model of the world.

Here are some quick examples to whet your appetite…

A gif from Rocky Horror Picture Show: "I see you shiver with antici..."

1. Consider a parent who says to their teenager: “I expect you to be home by midnight.” The parent may or may not anticipate the teen being home on time (even after this remark). Instead, they’re staking out a right to be annoyed if they aren’t back on time.

Contrast this with someone telling the person they’re meeting for lunch “I expect I’ll be there by 12:10” as a way to let them know that they’re running a little late, so that the recipient of the message knows not to worry that maybe they’re not in the correct meeting spot, or that the other person has forgotten.

2. A slightly more involved example: I have a particular kind of chocolate bar that I buy every week at the grocery store. Or at least I used to, until a few weeks ago when they stopped stocking it. They still stock the Dark version, but not the Extra Dark version I’ve been buying for 3 years. So the last few weeks I’ve been disappointed when I go to look. (Eventually I’ll conclude that it’s gone forever, but for now I remain hopeful.)

There’s a temptation to feel indignant at the absence of this chocolate bar. I had an expectation that it would be there, and it wasn’t! How dare they not stock it? I’m a loyal customer, who shops there every week, and who even tells others about their points card program! I deserve to have my favorite chocolate bar in stock!

…says this voice. This is the voice of entitlement.

» read the rest of this entry »

Introducing the Cast (of Malcolm Ocean)

Hi! I’m Interface. You may remember me from A ritual to upgrade my Face. I’m the part of Malcolm that navigates most social situations, and represents the bulk of his personality. I also like self-expression in the form of blog posts. You’ll meet the rest of the cast on the Malcolm show in a bit. Although most of the characters aren’t that visible from the outside, usually.

The rest of this intro will just be in first person as Malcolm.

Brief context—feel free to skip ahead—as a result of the sci-fi novel Crystal Society (it’s fantastic, go read it) the CFAR alumni list got talking about modeling one’s society of mind. One alum linked to a blog by someone named Mory Buxner, in which he plays a game where he has 8 different parts, each of whom gets a particular kind of score for the kind of thing that they do, and they take turns being in charge of what Mory is up to.

I shared this post on Facebook, which prompted Brienne Yudkowsky to try breaking down her different Drives to Action in this way. She did so by having a dialogue between the different parts, in which they try to map out who all of the parts are, by figuring out which parts were attracted towards different activities. Activities that she’d done while spending a week doing whatever she felt like doing. Her blog post.

And yesterday/today, what I felt like doing was following her lead and doing this myself. I didn’t spend a week doing whatever I felt like—this seems to not actually work very well for me. But I made a list, from intuition. Then I clustered it into groups (some of these will end up merged). Then I talked to myself a bunch and managed to create a decent list of motivations—including a part that had been kind of hidden until now!

Without further ado…

A list of activities I’ve felt drawn towards recently, organized into clusters.

Cluster A: read fiction, watch movies (and occasionally TV shows), look at art / illusions / trippy videos.

Cluster B: play Dominion, MtG, and other games… cuddle, make out, scroll my facebook newsfeed, watch music videos, wikipedia adventures, random research.

» read the rest of this entry »

Interfacing at the Speed of Thought

There are a lot of interfaces that irk me, not because they’re poorly designed in general, but because they don’t interface well with my brain. In particular, they don’t interface well with the speed of brains. The best interfaces become extensions of your body. You gain the same direct control over them that you have over your fingertips, your eyes, your tongue in forming words.

This essay comes in two parts: (1) why this is an issue and (2) advice on how to make the best of what we’ve got.

Feedback and control systems in the body

One thing that characterizes your control over your body is that it (usually) has very, very good feedback. Probably a bunch of kinds you don’t even realize exists. Consider that your muscles don’t actually know anything about location, but simply exerting a pulling force. If all of the information you had were your senses of sight and touch-against-skin, and the ability to control those pulling forces, it would be really hard to control your body. But fortunately, you also have proprioception, the sense that lets you know where your body is, even if your eyes are shut and nothing is touching. For example, close your eyes and try to bring your finger to about 2cm (an inch) from your nose. It’s trivially easy.

One more example that I love and then I’ll move on. Compensatory eye movements. Focus your gaze at something at least two feet away, then bobble your head around. Tried it? Your brain has sophisticated systems (approximating calculus that most engineering students would struggle with) that move your eyes exactly opposite to your head, so that whatever you’re looking at remains in the center of your gaze and really quite incredibly stable even while you flail your head. This blew my mind when I first realized it.

The result of all of these control systems is that our bodies kind of just do what we tell them to. As I type this, I don’t have to be constantly monitoring whether my arms are exerting enough force to stay levitated above my keyboard. I just will them to be there. It’s beyond easy―it’s effortless.

Now, try willing your phone to call your friend. You’re allowed to communicate your will using your voice, your hands, whatever. Why does it take so many steps, or so much waiting?

» read the rest of this entry »

A laptop employed as a nightlight

This post is kind of from two years ago. I got thinking about it again last night when I was reading Wait But Why’s The Cook and the Chef, an article describing how Elon Musk does what he does, which is a lot. The author, Tim Urban, is using an analogy of chefs as those who actually do something original and cooks who just follow recipes. He remarks that most people think that most people are chefs and then some chefs are just better than others… but that a better model is that most people are cooks (some better than others) and then the main difference between most people and Elon Musk isn’t quantitative (“he’s smarter”) but rather qualitative (“he does things differently”).

It’s like a bunch of typewriters looking at a computer and saying, “Man, that is one talented typewriter.”

Imagine a laptop.
What can you use it for?
That laptop can be used as a paperweight.
It is, in fact, better than some objects (such as a pen) at being a paperweight.
But that’s probably a waste of the laptop.
What else can you use it for?
It can also be used as a nightlight.
It has quite a lot of comparative advantage at being a nightlight—most objects don’t emit light, so a laptop works pretty well there.
However, it’s still a huge waste.
And, if you’re a human, not a computer, it feels terrible to be wasted: to not be used for your full range of capabilities.
» read the rest of this entry »

Wanting to escape the present

I was a huge ZenHabits fan back in high school when he was more habits and less zen. I don’t really follow it these days, but I just happened upon this recent post and found it resonated a lot.

Something I forget a lot, and have to remind myself about a lot: I’m not on my way somewhere.

This moment isn’t just a stepping stone to get to another place. It’s the destination. I’m already here.

I’m not on my way to a more important moment. This current moment is the most important moment.

I’m familiar with the experience of wanting time to move faster because some future event seems better than the present… and I’ve been trying for awhile to figure out how much sense that actually makes.

Why might you want time to move faster?

I mean, the short answer is that the future seems better than the present. This seems to apply really broadly: students who dislike school find themselves wishing they could just fast-forward a few years. On the other end of the spectrum, someone being tortured would also like to fast-forward out of the experience. (This post is aimed towards the boredom thing, not the torture thing.)

But you can’t fast-forward. Especially not in acute situations where you’re already in them. Outside of that, well, you can distract yourself, or even intoxicate yourself, such that you don’t really notice what’s going on as time passes. You can even simply sleep longer—the classic technique known as “make Santa come sooner”.

But if I’m sitting in a boring meeting or meal, I basically can’t fast-forward. And yet I want to. Why?

In particular, why is it associated with such discomfort?

» read the rest of this entry »

Reveal Culture

I have things to say about the Ask/Guess/Tell Cultures model, and an addition/amendment to propose: Reveal Culture. Shifting cultures is hard, so what you’re about to read is not going to have a quality of “let’s all go do this!” I do think it’s worth talking about a lot more, and working on gradually and creatively with others who are game to experiment with culture-crafting.

This post is going to assume that you’re familiar with the Ask/Guess Culture model at the very least. I don’t want to have to explain the whole concept from scratch. The post is written with a Tell Culture familiar audience in mind, although I think it would be worth reading without it. I will talk about each in turn and my understanding of how they work, so you understanding them well is not a prerequisite for this post.

I do want to note that I think it makes more sense to talk about “ask cultures” or even “Guess-based cultures” though, rather than in the singular. This is helpful for keeping salient the fact that there are many very different cultures built upon the platform of Ask or of Guess.

So I’m going to use Majuscule Singular to talk about the platforms and lowercase plurals to talk about the cultures themselves. I think this is just good thinking practice.

Why am I using a new term?

I want to talk about a new cultural platform: Reveal Culture.

It has similarities to Tell Culture, but I’m choosing a new name for three reasons:

  • because I think that people read a lot into the names (for example assuming that if you ask a question then it must not be Guess Culture) (more on this as a general issue)
  • I think the name “Reveal Culture” suits this particular thing better than “Tell” (For what it’s worth, I think that “Infer” probably suits Guess a lot better than “Guess” does.)
  • I don’t want people to associate what I’m putting out with those who are trying to do tell culture with everybody just based on reading Brienne’s post. A culture doesn’t shift overnight: the reveal-based culture that I have experience with has been working at this for over a decade (I’ve been involved for 3 years) and it’s only just now becoming robust.

I’ll talk later about why I’ve chosen the name “Reveal”. Right now I want to talk about the structure of the models.

Why are they called “cultures” and not just “styles” or “strategies”?

In internet discussions, there have been proposals to refer to Ask/Guess/Tell as (variably) styles, strategies, skills, techniques, habits or something else (rather than “cultures”). In some cases, I think that this suggestion arises out of an oversimplification of how they actually work, although Brienne pointed out to me that there’s at least one good reason to avoid the term ‘culture’: “because ‘culture’ is way too close to ‘tribe’, and it makes people focus on cheering or defense.”

Unfortunately, those other terms aren’t sufficiently complex to model the dynamics. » read the rest of this entry »

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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