As I said before, I’ll be posting book reviews. Please let me know if you have any questions and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability.
Book Review: The AI does not hate you by Tom Chivers
The title of this book comes from a quote by Elizier Yudkowsky which reads in full: “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms which it can use of something else”. This book covers not only potential risks from AI, but the rationalist community from which this evolved and also touches on the effective altruism movement.
This book fills something of a gap in the book market; when people are first learning about existential risks from AI I usually recommend the two-part Wait by Why post (https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-1.html) and then I’m not really sure what to recommend next. The sequences are ridiculously long and Bostrom’s Superintelligence is a challenging read for those not steeped in philosophy and computer science. In contrast, this book is much more accessible and provides the right level of detail for a first introduction, rather than someone who has already decided to try entering the field.
I mostly listened to this book to see if I could recommend it. Most of the material was familiar, but I was also pleasantly surprised a few times to hear a new take (at least to me). It was engaging and well-written throughout. Regarding what’s covered: there’s an excellent introduction to the alignment problem; the discussion of Less Wrong mostly focuses on cognitive biases, but also covers a few other key concepts like the Map and Territory and Bayesianism; the Center for Applied Rationality is mostly reduced to just double crux; Slatestarcodex is often quoted, but not a focus; and Effective Altruism isn’t the focus, but there’s a good general introduction. I also thought he dealt well with someone of the common criticisms of the community.
Even though there are notable omissions, these are understandable given the need to keep the book to a reasonable length. And it could have been possible to more fully capture the flavour of the community, but given how hard it is to describe the essence of a community with such broad interests, I think he did an admirable job. All in all, this is an excellent introduction to the topic if you’ve been hearing about AI Safety or Less Wrong and want to dive in more
Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport:
This book makes an interesting contrast to The 4 Hour Workweek. Tim Ferris seems to believe that the purpose of work should be to make as much money as possible in the least amount of time and that meaning can then be pursued during your newly available free time. Tim gives you some productivity tips in the hope that it will make you valuable enough to negotiate flexibility in terms of how, when and where you complete your work, plus some dirty tricks as well.
Cal Newport’s book is similar in that it focuses on becoming valuable enough to negotiate a job that you’ll love and downplays the importance of pursuing your passions in your career. However, while Tim extolls the virtues of being a digital nomad, Cal Newport emphasises self-determination theory and autonomy, competence and relatedness. That is, the freedom to decide how you pursue your work, the satisfaction of doing a good job and the pleasure of working with people who you feel connected to. He argues that these traits are rare and valuable and so that if you want such a job you’ll need skills that rare and valuable to offer in return.
That’s the core of his argument against pre-existing passion; passions tend to cluster into a few fields such as music, arts or sports and only a very few people can ever make these the basis of their careers. Even for those who are interested in less insanely competitive pursuits such as becoming a yoga instructor or organic farmer, he cautions against pursuing the dream of just quitting your job one day. That would involve throwing away all of the career capital that you’ve accumulated and hence your negotiating power. Further, it can easily lead to restlessness, that is, jumping from career to career all the while searching for the “one” that meets an impossibly high bar.
Here are some examples of the kind of path he endorses:
Someone becoming an organic farmer after ten years of growing and selling food on the side, starting in high school. Lest this been seen as a confirmation of the passion hypothesis, this was initially just to make some money
A software tester making her way up to the head of testing to the point where she could demand that she reduce her hours to thirty per week and study philosophy
A marketer who gained such a strong reputation that he was able to form his own sub-agency within the bigger agency and then eventually form his own completely independent operation
Cal makes a very strong argument. When comparing pursuing a passion to more prosaic career paths, we often underestimate how fulfilling the later might eventually become if we work hard and use our accumulated career capital to negotiate the things that we truly want. This viewpoint resonates with me as I left software to study philosophy and psychology, without fully exploring options related to software. I now have a job that I really enjoy as it offers me a lot of freedom and flexibility.
One of the more compelling examples is Cal’s analysis of Steve Jobs. We tend to think of Job’s success as a prototypical case of following your passion, but his life shows otherwise. Jobs’ entry into technology (working for Atari) was based upon the promise of a quick buck. He’d been traversing around India and needed a real job. Jobs was then involved in a timesharing company, but he left for a commune without telling the others and was replaced by the time he made it back. So merely a year before he started Apple, he was hardly passionate about technology or entrepreneurship. This seems to have only occurred as he became more successful.
This is prototypical of Cal’s theory: instead of leveraging passion to become So Good They Can’t Ignore You (TM), he believes that if you become So Good They Can’t Ignore You (TM) that passion will follow. In evidence, Cal notes that people often passionate about many different things at different times, including things they definitely weren’t passionate about before. He suggests this is indicative of our ability to develop passions under the right circumstances.
Personally, I feel that the best approach will vary hugely depending on individual circumstance, but I suspect Cal is sadly right for most people. Nonetheless, Cal provides lists three exceptions. A job or career path is not suitable for his strategy if there aren’t opportunities to distinguish yourself, it is pointless or harmful to society or if it requires you to work with people you hate.
Towards the end of the book, Cal focuses on strategies for becoming good at what you do. While this section wasn’t bad, I didn’t find it particularly compelling either. I wish I’d just read the start of the book which covers his case against focusing on pre-existing passion, as that was by far the most insightful and original part of the book for me. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was how he found spending 14 hours of focused attention deconstructing a key paper in his field to have been a valuable use of time. I was surprised to hear that it paid off in terms of research opportunities, but I suppose it isn’t so implausible that such projects could pay off if you picked an especially important paper.
Further notes:- If you are going to only read this or Four Hour Workweek, I’d suggest this one to most people. I feel that this one is less likely to be harmful and is applicable to a broader range of people, many who won’t immediately have the career capital to follow Tim’s advice. On the other hand, Tim’s book might be more useful if, unlike me, you don’t need to be convinced of Cal’s thesis.- Cal points out that if you become valuable enough to negotiate more freedom, then you also become valuable enough that people will want to stop you. The challenge is figuring out whether you have sufficient career capital to overcome this resistance. Cal suggest not pursuing control without evidence people are willing to pay you either in money or with something else valuable; I find his position reductive and insufficiently justified.- Cal believes that it is important to have a mission for your career, but that it is hard to pick a mission without already being deep inside a field. He notes that discoveries are often made independently and theorises that this is because often a discovery isn’t likely or even possible until certain prerequisites are in place, such as ideas, technologies or social needs. It’s only when you are at the frontier that you have sufficient knowledge to see and understand the next logical developments
FWIW I think this and maybe some of the other book review shortforms you’ve done would make fine top level posts.
Thanks, I’ll think about it. I invested more effort in this one, but for some of the others I was optimising for speed
+1 for book-distillation, probably the most underappreciated and important type of post.
Book Review: Civilization and its discontentsFreud is the most famous psychologist of all time and although many of his theories are now discredited or seem wildly implausible, I thought it’d be interesting to listen to him to try and understand why it sounded plausible in the first place.At times Freud is insightful and engaging; at other times, he falls into psychoanalytic lingo in such a way that I couldn’t follow what he was trying to say. I suppose I can see why people might have assumed that the fault was with their failure to understand.It’s a short read, so if you’re curious, there isn’t that much cost to going ahead and reading it, but this is one of those rare cases where you can really understand the core of what he was getting at from the summary on Wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_and_Its_Discontents)Since Wikipedia has a summary, I’ll just add a few small remarks. This book focuses on a key paradox; our utter dependence on it for anything more than the most basic survival; but how it requires us to repress our own wants and desires so as to fit in with an ordered society. I find this to be an interesting answer to the question of why there is so much misery despite our material prosperity.It’s interesting to re-examine this in light of the modern context. Society is much more liberal than it was in Freud’s time, but in recent years people have become more scared of speaking their minds. Repression still exists, it is just off a different form. If Freud is to be believed, we should expect this repression to result in all kinds of be psychological effects, many of which won’t appear linked on the surface.Further thoughts:- I liked his chapter on methods humans deal suffering and their limitations as it contained what seemed to be found evaluations. He points out that that the path of a yogi is at best the happiness of quietness, that love cannot be guaranteed to last, that sublimation through art is available only to a few and is even then only of limited strength, ect. He just didn’t think there was any good solution to this problem.- Freud was sceptical of theories like communism because he didn’t believe that human nature could really change. He argued that aggression existed in the nursery and before the existence of property. He didn’t doubt that we could suppress urges, but he seemed to believe that it was much more costly than other people realised, and even then that it would likely come out in some other form- Freud proposed his theory of the Narcissism of Small Differences, that the people who we hate most not those with values completely foreign to our own, but this who we are in close proximity to. He describes this as a form of narcissism since these conflicts can flare up over the most minor of differences.- Freud suggested that those who struggled the most with temptation were saints, since their self-denial led to the constant frustration of their desires- Freud noted how absurd, ” Love your neighbour as yourself” would sound to someone hearing it for the first time. He imagines that we’d skepticalky ask questions, “Why should I care about them just as much as my family?” and “Why should I love them if they are bad people or don’t love me?”. He actually goes further and argues that “a love that does not discriminate does injustice to its object”
This is the first classic that I’m reviewing. One of the challenges with figuring out which classics to read is that there are always people speaking very highly of it and in a vague enough manner that it makes it hard for you to decide whether to read it. Hopefully I can avoid this trap.
Book Review: Animal Farm
You probably already know the story. In a thinly veiled critique of the Russian Revolution, the animals in a farm decide to revolt against the farmer and run the the farm themselves. At start, the seven principles of Animalism are idealistically declared, but as time goes on, things increasingly seem to head downhill…
Why is this a classic?: This book was released at a time when the intellectual class was firmly sympathetic to the Soviets, ensuring controversy and then immortality when history proved it right.
Why you might want to read this: Short (only 112 pages or 3:11 on Audible), the story always moves along at a brisk pace, the writing is engaging and a few very emotionally impactful moments. The broader message of being wary of the promises made by idealistic movements still holds (especially “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”). This book does a good job illustrating many of the social dynamics that occur in totalitarianism, from the rewriting of history, to the false confessions, to the the cult of the individual.
Why you might not want to read this: The concrete anti-Soviet message is of little relevance now given that what happened is common knowledge. You can probably already guess how the story goes: the movement has a promising start, but with small red flags that become bigger over time. The animals are constantly unrealistically naive, maybe this strikes you as clumsy, or maybe you see that just as how satire is?
Wow, I’ve really been flying through books recently. Just thought I should mention that I’m looking for recommendations for audio books; bonus points for books that are short. Anyway....
Book Review: Zero to One
Peter Thiel is the most famous contrarian in Silicon Valley. I really enjoyed hearing someone argue against the common wisdom of the valley. Most people think in terms of beating the competition; Thiel thinks in terms of establishing a monopoly so that there is no competition. Agile methodology and the lean startup are all the rage, but Thiel argues that this only leads to incremental improvements and that truly changing the world requires you to commit to a vision. Most companies was to disrupt your competitors, but for Thiel this means that you’ve fallen into competition, instead of forging your own unique path. Most venture funds aim to diversify, but Thiel is more selective, only investing in companies that have billion dollar potential. Many startups spurn marketing, but Thiel argues that this is dishonest and that PR is also a form of marketing, even if that isn’t anyone’s job title. Everyone is betting on AI replacing humans, while Thiel is more optimistic about human/ai teams.
Some elaboration is in order, I’ll just mention that might prefer to read the review on Slatestarcodex instead of mine (https://slatestarcodex.com/20…/…/31/book-review-zero-to-one/)• Aren’t monopolies bad? Thiel argues that monopoly power is what allows a corporation to survive the brutal world of competing to survive. This means that it can pay employees well, have social values other than making profit and invest in the future. Read Scott’s review for a discussion on how to build a company that truly is one of a kind.• Thiel argues that monopolies try to hide that fact by presenting themselves as just one player in a larger industry (ie. Google presents itself as a tech company, instead of an internet advertising company, even that this aspect brings in essentially all the money), while those firms competing try to present themselves as having cornered an overly specific market (ie. isn’t clear that British food in Palo Alto is its own market as opposed to competing against all the other food chains)• In addition to splitting people into optimists and pessimists, Thiel splits people into define and indefinite. You might think that a “definite optimist” would be someone who is an optimist and 100% certain the future will go well, but what he actually means is that they are an optimist and they have an idea of what the future will look like or could like like. In contrast, an indefinite optimist would be an optimist who has no idea how exactly the world might improve or could change.• Thiel argues that startup returns are distributed according to a power law such that half of the return from a portfolio might be just one company. He applies it to life too; arguing that it’s better to set yourself up so that they’ll be one career that you’ll be amazing at, rather than studying generally so that there’ll be a dozen that you’d be only okay at.• While many in the valley believe in just building a product and figuring out how to sell it later, Thiel argues that you don’t have a product if you don’t have a way of reaching customers
I’m not involved in startups, so I can’t vouch for how good his advice is, but given that caveat, I’d strongly recommend it for anyone thinking of going into that space since it’s always good to have your views challenged. But, I’d also recommend it as a general read, I think that there’s a lot that’d be interesting for a general audience, especially the argument against acquired a broad undifferentiated experience. I do think that in order to get the most out of this, you’d need to already be familiar with startup culture; ie. minimum viable products, the lean startup, ect. as he kind of assumes that you know this stuff.
So should you read the book or just Scott’s review? The main aspect Scott misses is the discussion of power law distributions. This discussion is basically the Pareto Principle on steroids; when a single billion-dollar company could make your more profit than the rest of your investments combined all that matters is whether a company could be a unicorn or not (the essay Prospecting for Gold makes a similar point for EA https://www.effectivealtruism.org/…/prospecting-for-gold-o…/) But besides from that, Scott’s review covers most of the main ideas well. So maybe you could skip the book, but if you’re like me you might find that you need to read the book in order to actually remember these ideas. Besides, it’s concise and well-written.
I really like the short-form feature because after I have articulated a thought my head feels much clearer. I suppose that I could have tried just writing it down in a journal or something; but for some reason I don’t feel quite the same effect unless I post it publicly.
Book Review: The 4 Hour Workweek
This is the kind of book that you either love or hate. I found value in it, but I can definitely understand the perspective of the haters. First off: the title. It’s probably one of the most blatant cases of over-promising that I’ve ever seen. Secondly, he’s kind of a jerk. A number of his tips involve lying and in school he had a strategy of interrogating his lecturers in detail when they gave him a bad mark so that they’d think very carefully assigning him a bad grade. And of course, while drop-shipping might have been an underexploited strategy at the time when he wrote the book, it’s now something of a saturated market.
On the plus side, Tim is very good at giving you specific advice. To give you the flavour, he advises the following policies for running an online store: avoid international orders, no expedited or overnight shipping, two options only—standard and premium; no cheque or Western union, no phone number if possible, minimum wholesale order with tax id and faxed in order form, ect. Tim is extremely process oriented and it’s clear that he has deep expertise here and is able to share it unusually well. I found it fascinating to see how he thought even though I don’t have any intention of going into this space.
This book covers a few different things:- Firstly, he explains why you should aim to have control over when and where you work. Much of this is about cost, but it’s also about the ability to go on adventures, develop new skills and meet people you wouldn’t normally meet. He makes a good case and hopefully I can confirm whether it is as amazing as he says soon enough- Tim’s philosophy of work is that you should try to find a way of living the life you want to live now. He’s not into long-term plans that, in his words, require you to sacrifice the best years of your life in order to obtain freedom later. He makes a good point for those with enough career capital to make it work, but it’s bad advice for many other who decide to just jump on the travel blogging or drop-shipping train without realistic expectations of how hard it is to make it in those industries- Tim’s productivity advice focuses on ruthlessly (and I mean ruthlessly) minimising what he does to the most critical by applying the 80⁄20 rule. For example, he says that you should have a todo list and a not todo list. He says that your todo list shouldn’t have more than two items and you should ask yourself, “If this was the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied?”.- A large part of minimising your work involves delegating these tasks to other people and Tim goes into detail about how to do this. He is a big fan of virtual assistants, to the point ofc even delegating his email.- Lots of this book is business advice. Unlike most businesses, Tim isn’t optimising for making the most money, but for making enough money to support his lifestyle while taking up the least amount of his time. I suspect that this would be great advice for many people who already own a business- Tim also talks about how to figure out what to do with your spare time if you manage to obtain freedom. He advises chasing excitement instead of happiness. He finds happiness too vague, while excitement will motivation you to grow and develop. He suggests that it is fine to go wild at first, jumping from place to place, chasing whatever experiences you want, but at some point it’ll lose it’s appeal and you’ll want to find something more meaningful.
I’d recommend this book, but only to people with a healthy sense of skepticism. There’s lots of good advice in this book, but think very carefully before you become drop-shipper #2001. And remember that you don’t have to become a jerk just because he tells you to! That said, it’s not all about drop-shipping. A much wider variety of people probably could find a way to work remotely or reduce their hours than we normally think, although it might require some hard work to get there. In so far as the goal is to optimise for your own happiness, I generally agree with his idea of the good life.
Further highlights:- Doing the unrealistic is easier than doing the realistic as there is less competition- Leverage strengths, instead of fixing weakness. Multiplication of results beats incremental improvement- Define your nightmare. Would it really be permanent? How could you get it back on track? What are the benefits of the more probable outcome?- We encourage children to dream and adults to be realistic
Book Review: Communist Manifesto
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”
Overall summary: Given the rise of socialism in recent years, now seemed like an appropriate time to review the Communist Manifesto. At times I felt that Marx’s writing was keenly insightful, at other times I felt he was in ignorance of basic facts and at other times I felt that he held views that were reasonable at the time, but for which the flaws are now obvious. In particular, I found the first-half much more engaging than I expected because, say what you like about Marx, he’s an engaged and poetic writer. Towards the end, the focused shifted into particular time-bounded political disputes for which I neither had the knowledge to understand nor the interest to acquire. At the start, I felt that I already had a decent grasp of the communist impulse and I haven’t become any more favourable to communism, but reading this rounded out a few more details of the communist critique of capitalism.
Capitalism: Despite being its most famous critic, Marx has a strong appreciation for the power of capitalism. He writes about it sweeping away all the old feudal bonds and how it draws even the most “barbarian” nations into civilisation. He writes about it stripping every occupation previously admired of its halo into its “paid wage labourers”; and undoubtedly some professions are affected far too much by market concerns, but this has to be weighed up against the increase in access that has been brought. He even writes that it has accomplished “wonders far exceeding the Egyptian Pyramids, Roman Acquaducts and Gothic Cathedrals” and his willingness to acknowledge this in such strong terms increased my respect for him. Marx can’t see capitalism as anything, but exploitation; for those who would answer that it lifts all boats, I don’t think he has a strong reply apart from denial that this occurs. To steelman him, even if people are better off financially, they can be worse off overall if they are now working only the simplest, most monotonous jobs. That would have been a stronger argument when much more work was in factories, but with increasing automation, these are precisely those jobs that are disappearing. Another argument would be that over time the capitalists who survive will be those who are best at lowering wage costs, by minimising the use of labour and ensuring that the work is set up to use as much unskilled labour as possible. So even if people were financially better off in the short term, they might be worse off over the long term. However, history seems to have shown the opposite, with modern wages far greater than in pre-industrial, pre-capitalist times.
Class warfare: Marx made several interesting comments on this. How the bourgeoise were often empowered by the monarchy to limit the power of the nobility. That the proletariat should be thought of as a new class, separate from the peasants, since their interests diverge with the later more likely to try rolling things back than to support creating a new order. How the bourgeois would seek help from the proletariat against aristocrats, dragging the proletariat into the political arena. How the proletariat were not unified in Marx’s time, but how improved communication provided the means for national unification. And that a section of the bourgeois who were threatened with falling into the proletariat would join with the proletariat. I definitely think class analysis has value, but I worry how Marxists often don’t be able to see things in any way other than class. We are members of classes; that is true; but we are also individuals and no one way of carving up the space captures all of reality. For example, Marx includes masters/apprentices in his oppressor/oppressed hierarchy, even the though most of the later will eventually become the former
Personal property: It was interesting hearing him talking about abolishing personal property as that is an element of the original communism that seems to be de-emphasised these days, with the focus more on seizing the means of production. I expect that this is related to a change in context; Marx was able to write that private property is done away with for 9/10s of the population, I don’t know how true it was at the time, but it certainly isn’t true today. Nonetheless, I found it interesting that his desire to abolish bourgeois property was similar to the bourgeois desire to abolish feudal property; both believe that the kind of property they want to abolish is based upon exploitation and unearned privilege.
False consciousness: For Marx, the ideas that are dominant in society are just the ideas of the elites. Law, morality and religion are just prejudices of the bourgeois. People don’t structure society based upon ideas, rather the ideas are determined by the structure of society and what allows society to be as productive as possible. Marx doesn’t provide an exact chain of causation, but perhaps he believes that the elites benefit from increases in production and therefore always push society in that direction, in order to realise their short-term interests. The question then arises: if everyone else has a false consciousness why then doesn’t Marx also? Again speculating, perhaps Marx would say when a system is on its last legs, the flaws and contradiction become too large for the elite ideology to remain cover up. Alternatively, perhaps it is only the dominant ideas in society that are determined by the structure of society and other ideas can exist, just without being allowed any real influence. I still feel Marx overstates the power of false consciousness, but at least I now have an answer to this question that’s somewhat reasonable.
One thing I’m finding quite surprising about shortform is how long some of these posts are. It seems that many people are using this feature to indicate that they’ve just written up these ideas quickly in the hope that the feedback is less harsh. This seems valuable; the feedback here can be incredibly harsh at times and I don’t doubt that this has discouraged many people from posting.
I pushed a bit for the name ‘scratchpad’ so that this use case was a bit clearer (or at least not subtly implied as “wrong”). Shortform had enough momentum as a name that it was a bit hard to change tho. (Meanwhile, I settled for ’shortform means either the writing is short, or it took a (relatively) short amount of time to write)
“I’m sorry, I didn’t have the time to write you a short email, so I wrote you a long one instead.”
Can confirm. I don’t post on normal lesswrong because the discourse is brutal.
I’m going to start writing up short book reviews as I know from past experience that it’s very easy to read a book and then come out a few years later with absolutely no knowledge of what was learned.
Book Review: Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope
To be honest, the main reason why I read this book was because I had enjoyed his first and second books (Models and The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck) and so I was willing to take a risk. There were definitely some interesting ideas here, but I’d already received many of these through other sources: Harrari, Buddhism, talks on Nietzsche, summaries of The True Believer; so I didn’t gain as much from this as I’d hoped.
It’s fascinating how a number of thinkers have recently converged on the lack of meaning within modern society. Yuval Harrari argues that modernity has essentially been a deal sacrificing meaning for power. He believes that the lack of meaning could eventually lead to societal breakdown and for this reason he argued that we need to embrace shared narratives that aren’t strictly true (religion without gods if you will; he personally follows Buddhism). Jordan Peterson also worries about a lack of meaning, but seeks to “revive God” as someone kind of metaphorical entity.
Mark Manson is much more skeptical, but his book does start asking similar lines. He tells the story of gaining meaning from his grandfather’s death by trying to make him proud although this was kind of silly as they hadn’t been particularly close or even talked recently. Nonetheless, he felt that this sense of purpose had made him a better person and improved his ability to achieve his goals. Mark argues that we can’t draw motivation from our thinking brain and that we need these kinds of narratives to reach our emotional brain instead.
However, he argues that there’s also a downside to hope. People who are dissatisfied with their lives can easily fall prey to ideological movements which promise a better future, especially when they feel a need for hope. In other words, there is both good and bad hope. It isn’t especially clear what the difference is in the book, but he explained to me in an email that his main concern was how movements cause people to detach from reality.
His solution is to embrace Nietzsche concept of Amor Fati—that is a love of one’s fate whatever it may be. Even though this is also a narrative itself, he believes that it isn’t so harmful as unlike other “religions” it doesn’t require us to detach from reality. My main takeaway was his framing of the need for hope as risky. Hope is normally assumed to be good; now I’m less likely to make this assumption.
It was fascinating to see how he put his own tact on this issue and it certainly isn’t a bad book, but there just wasn’t enough new content for me. Maybe others who haven’t been exposed to some of these ideas will be more enthused, but I’ve read his blog so most of the content wasn’t novel to me.
Further thoughts: After reading the story of his Grandfather, I honestly was expecting him to to propose avoiding sourcing our hope from big all-encapsulating narratives in favour of micro-narratives, but he didn’t end up going this direction.
Book Review: Awaken the Giant Within Audiobook by Tony Robbins
First things first, the audiobook isn’t the full book or anything close to it. The standard book is 544 pages, while the audiobook is a little over an hour and a half. The fact that it was abridged really wasn’t obvious.
We can split what he offers into two main categories: motivational speaking and his system itself. The motivational aspect of his speaking is very subjective, so I’ll leave it to you to evaluate yourself. You can find videos of his on Youtube and you should know within a few minutes whether you like his style.
Instead I’ll focus on reviewing his system. The first key aspect Robbins focuses on what he calls neuro-associations; that is what experiences we link pleasure and pain to. While we may be able to maintain a habit using willpower in the short-term, Robbins believes that in order to maintain it over the long term we need to change our neuro-associations to link please to actions that are good for us and pain to actions that are bad for us.
He argues that we can attach positive or negative neuro-associations to an action by making the advantages or disadvantages as salient as possible. The images on packs of cigarettes are a good example of that principle in action, as would be looking the scans of people who have lung cancer. In addition, we can reward ourselves for success (though he doesn’t discuss the possibility of punishing yourself for failure). This seems like a plausible method for affecting change and one that seems worthwhile experimenting with, although I’ve never experienced much motivation from rewarding myself as it doesn’t really feel like the action is connected to the reward.
The second key aspect of his system is to draw a distinction between decisions and preferences. Most of the time when we say that we’ve decided to do something, such as going to the gym, we’re only just saying that we were prefer that to happen. We haven’t really decided that we WILL do what we’ve said, come what may.
Robbins see the ability to make decisions that we are strongly committed to as key to success. For that reason he recommends practising using our “decision muscles” to strengthen them, so that they are ready when needed. This seems like good advice. Personally, I think it’s important to be honest with yourself about when you have a preference and when you’ve actually made a decision in Robbin’s sense. After all, committed decisions take energy and have a cost as sometimes you’ll commit to something that is a mistake, so it’s important to be selective about what you are truly committed to as otherwise you may end up committed to nothing at all.
There are lots more elements to his system, but those two particular ones are at the core and seemed to be the most distinctive aspects of this book. It’s hard to review such a system without having tried it, but my current position is as follows: I could see myself listening to another one of his audiobooks, although it isn’t really a priority for me.
Here’s one way of explaining this: it’s a contradiction to have a provable statement that is unprovable, but it’s not a contradiction for it to be provable that a statement is unprovable. Similarly, we can’t have a scenario that is simultaneously imagined and not imagined, but we can coherently imagine a scenario where things exist without being imagined by beings within that scenario.
If I can imagine a tree that exists outside of any mind, then I can imagine a tree that is not being imagined. But “an imagined X that is not being imagined” is a contradiction. Therefore everything I can imagine or conceive of must be a mental object.
Berkeley ran with this argument to claim that there could be no unexperienced objects, therefore everything must exist in some mind — if nothing else, the mind of God.
The error here is mixing up what falls inside vs. outside of quotation marks. “I’m conceiving of a not-conceivable object” is a formal contradiction, but “I’m conceiving of the concept ‘a not-conceivable object’” isn’t, and human brains and natural language make it easy to mix up levels like those.
Writing has been one of the best things for improving my thinking as it has forced me to solidify my ideas into a form that I’ve been able to come back to later and critique when I’m less enraptured by them. On the other hand, for some people it might be the worst thing for their thinking as it could force them to solidify their ideas into a form that they’ll later feel compelled to defend.
Despite having read dozens of articles discussing Evidential Decision Theory (EDT), I’ve only just figured out a clear and concise explanation of what it is. Taking a step back, let’s look at how this is normally explained and one potential issue with this explanation. All major decision theories (EDT, CDT, FDT) rate potential decisions using expected value calculations where:
Each theory uses a different notion of probability for the outcomes
Each theory uses the same utility function for valuing the outcomes
So it should be just a simple matter of stating what the probability function is. EDT is normally explained as using P(O|S & D) where O is the outcome, S is the prior state and D is the decision. At this point it seems like this couldn’t possibly fail to be what we want. Indeed, if S described all state, then there wouldn’t be the possibility of making the smoking lesion argument.
However, that’s because it fails to differentiate between hidden state and visible state. EDT uses visible state, so we can write it as P(O|V & D). The probability distribution of O actually depends on H as well, ie. it is some function f(V, H, D). In most cases H is uncorrelated with D, but this isn’t always necessarily the case. So what might look like the direct effect of V and D on P might actually turn out to be the indirect effects of D affecting our expected distribution of H then affecting P.
Or to summarise: “The decision can correlate with hidden state, which can affect the probability distribution of outcomes”. Maybe this is already obvious to everyone, but this was the key I need to be able to internalise these ideas on an intuitive level.
Book Review: The Rosie Project:
Plot summary: After a disastrous series of dates, autistic genetics professor Don Tilman decides that it’d be easier to just create a survey to eliminate all of the women who would be unsuitable for him. Soon after, he meets a barmaid called Rosie who is looking for help with finding out who her father is. Don agrees to help her, but over the course of the project Don finds himself increasingly attracted to her, even though the survey suggests that he is completely unsuitable. The story is narrated in Don’s voice. He tells us all about his social mishaps, while also providing some extremely straight-shooting observations on society
Should I read this?: If you’re on the fence, I recommend listening to a couple of minutes as the tone is remarkably consistent throughout, but without becoming stale
My thoughts: I found it to be very humorous. but without making fun of Don. We hear the story from his perspective and he manages to be a very sympathetic character. The romance manages to be relatively believable since Don manages to establish himself as having many attractive qualities despite his limited social sills. However, I couldn’t believe that he’d think of Rosie as “the most beautiful woman in the world”; that kind of romantic idealisation is just too inconsistent with his character. His ability to learn skills quickly also stretched credibility, but it felt more believable after he dramatically failed during one instance. I felt that Don’s character development was solid; I did think that he’d struggle more to change his schedule after keeping it rigid for so long, but that wasn’t a major issue for me. I appreciated that by the end he had made significant growth (less strict on his expectations for a partner, not sticking so rigidly to a schedule, being more accomodating of other people’s faults), but he was still largely himself.
Doublechecking, this is fiction?
I think I spent more time writing this than reading the book, as I find reviewing fiction much more difficult. I strongly recommend this book: it doesn’t take very long to read, but you may spend much longer trying to figure out what to make of it.
Book Review: The Stranger by Camus (Contains spoilers)
I’ve been wanting to read some existentialist writing for a while and it seemed reasonable to start with a short book like this one. The story is about a man who kills a man for what seems to be no real reason at all and who is then subsequently arrested and must come to terms with his fate. It grapples with issues such as the meaning of life, the inevitability of death and the expectations of society.
This book that works perfectly as an audio-book because it’s written in the first person and its a stream of consciousness. In particular, you can just let the thoughts wash over you then pass away, in a way that you can’t with a physical book.
This book starts with the death of Mersault’s mother and his resulting indifference. Mersault almost entirely lacks any direction or purpose in life—not caring about opportunities at work, Salamano abusing his dog or whether or not he marries Marie. Not much of a hint is given at his detachment, except him noting that he had a lot of ambition as a young man, but gave up on such dreams when he had to give up his education.
Despite his complete disillusionment, it’s not that he cares about nothing at all. Without optimism, he has no reason to plan for the future. Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on the moment—being friends with Raymond because he has no reason not to, being with Marie because she brings him pleasure in the present, more tragically, shooting the Arab for flashing the sun in his eyes with a knife.
In my interpretation, Mersault never formed a strong intent to kill him, but just drifted into it. He didn’t plan to have the gun with him, but simply took it to stop Raymond acting rashly. He hadn’t planned to create a confrontation; he just returned to the beach to cool off, then assumed that the Arab was far enough away to avoid any issues. When the Arab pulled out his knife, it must have seemed natural to pull out his gun. Then, with the heat clouding his judgement, his in-the-moment desire to make the situation go away; and his complete detachment from caring, he ends up killing a man when he didn’t need to as he was still far away. Then after he’s fired the first shot, he likely felt like he’d made his choice and that there was then nothing left to do but fire the next four.
While detachment involves no optimism in the emotional sense, in terms of logic it isn’t entirely pessimistic. After all, someone who is detached by their lack of care assumes that things cannot become significantly worse. Mersault falls victim to this trap and in the end it costs him dearly. This occurs not just when he shoots the Arab, but throughout the legal process where he shows what seems like a stunning naivety, completely unaware of what he has to lose until he is pretty much told he is to be executed.
I found his trial to be one of the most engaging parts of the book. A man is dead, but the circumstances relating to this death are almost tangential to the whole thing. Instead, the trial focuses much more on tangential factors such as whether he had felt a sufficient amount of grief for his mother and his association with a known low-life Raymond. This passage felt like a true illustration of human nature; in particular our tendency to fit everything into a particular narrative and also how “justice” can often end up being more about our disgust at the perpetrator as a person than about what they’ve done. Mersault undoubtedly deserves punishment for pulling the trigger early, but the trial he was given was a clear miscarriage of justice.
This book does a good job of illustrating the absurdity of life. How much of our daily lives are trivial, the contradictions in much of human behaviour, the irrationality of many of our social expectations and how our potential sources of meaning fail to be fundamentally meaningful. But then how also how we can find meaning in things that are meaningless.
Indeed, it is only his imprisonment that really makes him value life outside and it is only his impending execution that makes him value life itself. He survives prison by drawing pleasure from simple things, like seeing what tie his defence later will wear and that his happiness does not have to be constrained by his unfortunate circumstances. Mersault ultimately realises that he has to make his own purpose, instead of just expecting it to be out there in the universe.
Further thoughts: One of the most striking sub-plots in this book is that of Salamano and his dog. Salamano is constantly abusing his dog and complaining about how bad it’s behaviour is, but when the dog runs away, Salamano despairs about what will happen to him now that he no longer has the dog. This is a perfect example of just how absurd human actions can be both generally and particularly when we are in denial about our true feelings.
What does it mean to define a word? There’s a sense in which definitions are entirely arbitrary and what word is assigned to what meaning lacks any importance. So it’s very easy to miss the importance of these definitions—emphasising a particular aspect and provides a particular lense with which to see the world.
For example, if define goodness as the ability to respond well to others, it emphasizes that different people have different needs. One person may want advice, while another simple encouragement. Or if we define love as acceptance of the other, it suggests that one of the most important aspects of love is the idea that true love should be somewhat resilient and not excessively conditional.
As I wrote before, evidential decision theory can be critiqued for failing to deal properly with situations where hidden state is correlated with decisions. EDT includes differences in hidden state as part of the impact of the decision, when in the case of the smoking lesion, we typically want to say that it is not.
However, Newcomb’s problem also has hidden state is correlated with your decision. And if we don’t want to count this when evaluating decisions in the case of the Smoking Lesion, perhaps we shouldn’t count this in the case of Newcomb’s? Or is there a distinction? I think I’ll try analysing this in terms of the erasure theory of coutnerfactuals at some point
Does FDT make this any clearer for you?
There is a distinction in the correlation, but it’s somewhat subtle and I don’t fully understand it myself. One silly way to think about it that might be helpful is “how much does the past hinge on your decision?” In smoker’s lesion, it is clear the past is very fixed—even if you decide to not to smoke, that doesn’t affect the genetic code. But in Newcomb’s, the past hinges heavily on your decision: if you decide to one-box, it must have been the case that you could have been predicted to one-box, so it’s logically impossible for it to have gone the other way.
One intermediate example would be if Omega told you they had predicted you to two-box, and you had reason to fully trust this. In this case, I’m pretty sure you’d want to two-box, then immediately precommit to one-boxing in the future. (In this case, the past no longer hinges on your decision.) Another would be if Omega was predicting from your genetic code, which supposedly correlated highly with your decision but was causally separate. In this case, I think you again want to two-box if you have sufficient metacognition that you can actually uncorrelate your decision from genetics, but I’m not sure what you’d do if you can’t uncorrelate. (The difference again lies in how much Omega’s decision hinges on your actual decision.)
Yeah, FDT has a notion of subjunctive dependence. But the question becomes what does this mean? What precisely is the difference between the smoking lesion and Newcombs? I have some ideas and maybe I’ll write them up at some point.
The sad thing about philosophy is that as your answers become clearer, the questions become less mysterious and awe-inspiring. It’s easy to assume that an imposing question must have an impressive answer, but sometimes the truth is just simple and unimpressive and we miss this because we didn’t evolve for this kind of abstract reasoning.
I used to find the discussion of free will interesting before I learned it was just people talking past each other. Same with “light is both a wave and a particle” until I understood that it just meant that sometimes the wave model is a good approximation and other times the particle model is. Debates about morality can be interesting, but much less so if you are a utilitarian or non-realist.
I used to find the discussion of free will interesting before I learned it was just people talking past each other
I used to find the discussion of free will interesting before I learned it was just people talking past each other
Semantic differences almost always happen, but are rarely the only problem.
There are certainly different definitions of free will, but even so problems, remain:-
There is still an open question as to whether compatibilist free will is the only kind anyone ever needed or believed in, and as to whether libertarian free will is possible at all.
The topic is interesting, but no discussion about it is interesting. These are not contradictory.
The open question about strong determinism vs libertarian free will is interesting, and there is a yet-unexplained contradiction between my felt experience (and others reported experiences) and my fundamental physical model of the universe. The fact that nobody has any alternative model or evidence (or even ideas about what evidence is possible) that helps with this interesting question makes the discussion uninteresting.
So Yudkowsky’s theory isn’t new?
Not new that I could tell—it is a refreshing clarity for strict determinism—free will is an illusion, and “possible” is in the map, not the territory. “Deciding” is how a brain feels as it executes it’s algorithm and takes the predetermined (but not previously known) path.
He does not resolve the conflict that it feels SOOO real as it happens.
He does not resolve the conflict that it feels SOOO real as it happens.
That’s an odd thing to say since the feeling of free will is about the only thing be addresses.