I like this a lot! It dovetails with all my writing and introspection on visualization and learning, which has been the most important insight for my learning process this year. Concept handle: “visual babble” or “visual brainstorming.”
Paying your dues
I’m in school at the undergraduate level, taking 3 difficult classes while working part-time.
For this path to be useful at all, I have to be able to tick the boxes: get good grades, get admitted to grad school, etc. For now, my strategy is to optimize to complete these tasks as efficiently as possible (what Zvi calls “playing on easy mode”), in order to preserve as much time and energy for what I really want: living and learning.
Are there dangers in getting really good at paying your dues?
1) Maybe it distracts you/diminishes the incentive to get good at avoiding dues.
2) Maybe there are two ways to pay dues (within the rules): one that gives you great profit and another that merely satisfies the requirement.
In general, though, I tend to think that efficient accomplishment is about avoiding or compressing work until you get to the “efficiency frontier” in your field. Good work is about one of two things:
Getting really fast/accurate at X because it’s necessary for reason R to do Y.
Getting really fast/accurate at X because it lets you train others to do (or better yet, automate) X.
In my case, X is schoolwork, R is “triangulation of me and graduate-level education,” and Y is “get a research job.”
X is also schoolwork, R is “practice,” and Y is learning. But this is much less clear. It may be that other strategies would be more efficient for learning.
However, since the expected value of my learning is radically diminished if I don’t get into grad school, it makes sense to optimize first for aceing my schoolwork, and then in the time that remains to optimize for learning. Treating these as two separate activities with two separate goals makes sense.
This isn’t “playing on easy mode,” so much as purchasing fuzzies (As) and utilons (learning) separately.
Thanks, I didn’t know this series existed and it looks like it covers a lot of my questions in an accessible way!
And here I was calculating the EV of a Biden bet.
FWIW, after taking fees into account, you’d need to think Biden has better than a 70% chance to win the election to make it a rational bet at the current price of $0.64/share. If the average of 538 and The Economist’s forecast (90% chance of Biden victory) is right under the assumptions of their model, then you’d need to think there was a less than 22% chance of some sort of Black Swan.
Could be electoral shenanigans (fraud, incompetence, interference, successful legal challenge) or catastrophe (Biden has an aneurysm) unaccounted for by the models of PredictIt and The Economist makes Trump win the electoral college, or makes neither of them/nobody win.
Certainly that chance is not 0%. But if it were, your EV for a $1,000 bet under these assumptions would be winning $287.
If you think there’s a 5% Black Swan chance (85% chance of Biden victory), your EV is $216.
If you think there’s a 10% Black Swan chance, your EV is $144.
If you think there’s a 15% Black Swan chance, your EV is $73.
If you think there’s a 20% Black Swan chance, your EV is about nil.
From the supplementary comment to the rules for this bet:
Note to traders: As of this time, the contracts for Joe Biden and Donald Trump have reached the limit for the allowable number of traders.
In thinking about this, it seems to help me to use the following framework:
“What does one step better/worse look like in category X?”
“How fast could we take those steps?”
It’s tempting to try and describe a variety of worst case scenarios and the winding paths by which we might get there. There’s a sort of Sorites paradox behind Wei_Dai’s fear. When do we go from “things are getting worse” to “it’s probably to late” to you’re on a train to the gulag?
That’s impossible to say. It’s also impossible to sum all the negative trends and say “how bad is it?” Since each trend is hard to compare, we also can’t say “are things getting worse or better overall?”
But there are two things we can do.
One is to designate an arbitrary threshold at which we commit to making a plan for fleeing the country and opening that conversation with our loved ones, and another one at which we actually follow through on it. A good threshold needs to be simple to determine and compelling enough to motivate action—your own and that of others. It might be a good conversation to pre-game without being too serious or specific about it.
The other thing we can do is pick one or two individual trends that we happen to care about, and monitor for whether they’re individually getting better or worse. I think part of why politics kills minds is because we try and take in everything, all at once, and synthesize it all.
In that endeavor, perhaps the US Crisis Monitor can be a useful tool.
I want to know what my prior should be for a US coup. Sure, perhaps these factors you cite make it more likely to have one than it would otherwise and ceterus paribus, but what’s the base rate of coups in a multi-century, presidential, wealthy, resource-rich democracy?
That makes sense, but doesn’t pattern-match very well onto the concerns people like Wei_Dai have about our present moment. What are the trends that people tend to focus on when they’re worried about “where this is all heading?”
Attacks on reputation: cancel culture, conspiracy-peddling
Street violence: some significant looting, occasional murder, arson, not with impunity but sometimes treated with tolerance by those not directly responsible for enforcing the law
Polarization: accusations against individuals, institutions, and groups within society as being evil/complicit in evil or inherently good/trustworthy due to their label/affiliation/demographic/job; calls for radical restructuring of society; open division of civil society
Grasping for power: major political rule-breaking, disparaging basic democratic process, open attempts at voter suppression, cult of personality
Division and disorder: between generals and President, constant churn in the White House
Encroachments: Federal law enforcement getting involved in local protests
Questionable loyalties: the President’s refusal to divest and upcoming debts, “Putin’s puppy” meme
It’s tempting to jump to the worst-case nightmare scenario, but it’s a more tractable and, to me, more interesting question to ask “what does one step worse look like?”
Here are some possibilities:
Weaponized false/manufactured accusations against high-status people increase in frequency and acceptance
Protests intensify. Shaming people in their houses at night for not joining protests turns to trespassing and home invasions. Property destruction and looting is the norm, not the exception. The rate and size of protests, the frequency of deadly protests, and the number of deaths increases 50% over the course of 6 months to a year, assassination attempt
Polarization intensifies: Defaming categories of people becomes a part of official school curriculums a la “teach the controversy,” more intense restrictions/bans/grassroots censorship on taboo topics or more categories of taboo topics, colleges see increasing proportions of local students as regional differences solidify
Grasping for power: open rejection of election results, major violent counter-protests by defeated side even with landslide victory, shocking repeat victory by Trump drives unprecedented protests and counter-protests along with continued corruption within the White House
Division and disorder: disputed election leads to unanswered questions about military’s role in settling a dispute
Encroachments: Surprise Trump victory/election stealing leads to state of emergency declaration ongoing in multiple states
Questionable loyalties: selling of state secrets by insiders in the Trump White House, Trump defects to Russia
Having done this exercise, my two main fears are:
A surprise Trump victory leading to military policing in liberal states. This will be obvious.
Intensification of protests and polarization. Less immediately concerning, but also sneakier. I would like to see attempts to quantify size and scale of violence at protests and track it over time, shifting curriculums and academic norms, and examples of accusations of violence that seem manufactured not for attention but to eliminate a specific political figure.
That’s not a bad idea, though I already know that it’s beyond me to execute such a synthesis. It’s one I would read with great interest, however.
These are in line with what I was asking for, thank you for providing! On reading this list, I realized what I was envisioning was more like an internal revolution or government takeover by a homegrown grassroots militaristic organization. Something that started like one of our current social movements here in the USA that developed into a power akin to the Cultural Revolution.
When COVID started, I made a checklist for what to look for to predict a global catastrophic pandemic based on the mechanisms of transmission and harm and historical outcomes in various outbreaks.
It would be interesting to make a checklist for what to look for when expecting the rise of a totalitarian state from a democratic one, vetted for sensitivity and specificity against historical regimes.
Do we have any examples of such an event in the last century?
What about not wearing them? It’s hazardous to your health and that of others. We can clearly see that not wearing masks at large social gatherings is functioning as a universally acknowledged tribal signal. It’s not the masks, but the lack of masks, that is a sacrifice to the gods.
Although what’s interesting is that when one side sacrifices to the gods, the other side gets a “free” signal. If one side rejects masks, the other side gets to adopt masks—which are already good for them—as a symbol of loyalty, which just makes the mask wearing even better.
Does this mean that the mask-wearing side needs to find alternative sacrifices? Perhaps by refusing to see friends even when they would be able to safely? Or does it mean they get a freebie?
I do chalk a lot of dysfunction up to this story-centric approach to life. I just suspect it’s something we need to learn to work with, rather than against (or to deny/ignore it entirely).
My sense is that storytelling—to yourself or others—is an art. To get the reaction you want—from self or others—takes some aesthetic sensitivity.
My guess is there’s some low hanging fruit here. People often talk about doing things “for the story,” which they resort to when they’re trying to justify doing something dumb/wasteful/dangerous/futile. Perversely, it often seems that when people talk in detail about their good decisions, it comes of as arrogant. Pointless, tidy philosophical paradoxes seem to get people’s puzzle-solving brains going better than confronting the complexity of the real world.
But maybe we can simply start building habits of expressing gratitude. Finding ways to present good ideas and decisions in ways that are delightful in conversation. Spinning interesting stories out of the best parts of our lives.
Sometimes, our native curiosity is a poor guide to the questions we should really be asking.
The Roman will have to see the lack of temples to Annona, read the histories of ancient Rome, experience a whole lot of people making fun of his toga and the police doing nothing to stop it, and marvel at the magic that the common citizens of this new land carry in their pocket.
But even that might not work if the cherished belief is infectious enough. People will lead miserable lives, commit unspeakable acts, deny their own senses, and go to an early grave in order to maintain a false belief or avoid an uncomfortable thought.
Steelmanning only helps in the fortunate case where curiosity and intuition are fairly trustworthy guides in our pursuit of a meaningful truth.
Man, I really tried to read this article. I don’t even have an opinion on it. It’s like wading through fly-covered carrion at the end of a battle. Not fun, nothing of value to find, and you can’t draw an opinion on who was right and who was wrong in the skirmish from the mouths of the dead.
We do things so that we can talk about it later.
I was having a bad day today. Unlikely to have time this weekend for something I’d wanted to do. Crappy teaching in a class I’m taking. Ever increasing and complicating responsibilities piling up.
So what did I do? I went out and bought half a cherry pie.
Will that cherry pie make me happy? No. I knew this in advance. Consciously and unconsciously: I had the thought, and no emotion compelled me to do it.
In fact, it seemed like the least-efficacious action: spending some of my limited money, to buy a pie I don’t need, to respond to stress that’s unrelated to pie consumption and is in fact caused by lack of time (that I’m spending on buying and eating pie).
BUT. What buying the pie allowed me to do was tell a different story. To myself and my girlfriend who I was texting with. Now, today can be about how I got some delicious pie.
And I really do feel better. It’s not the pie, nor the walk to the store to buy it. It’s the relief of being able to tell my girlfriend that I bought some delicious cherry pie, and that I’d share it with her if she didn’t live a three-hour drive away. It’s the relief of reflecting on how I dealt with my stress, and seeing a pie-shaped memory at the end of the schoolwork.
If this is a correct model of how this all works, then it suggests a couple things:
This can probably be optimized.
The way I talk about that optimization process will probably affect how well it works. For example, if I then think “what’s the cheapest way to get this effect,” that intuitively doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to be cheap. I need to find the right language, the right story to tell, so that I can explain my “philosophy” to myself and others in a way that gets the response I want.
Is that the darks arts? I don’t think so. I think this is one area of life where the message is the medium.
You are right.
For others, here’s what I talked myself into while trying to argue with habryka/Zvi in writing this comment:
Sacrifices to the gods are an ineffective or harmful waste of resources. People make sacrifices because they expect that their sacrifice will earn them status points with their in-group.
Why does a sacrifice need to be portrayed as an effective action? Because that’s the whole point of the sacrifice. You have a problem. I have a solution: sacrifice. And some malarkey to explain why my sacrifice will solve the problem.
Sacrificers tend to prevent others from taking effective actions. Why can’t sacrifices to the gods and effective actions peacefully coexist? Because that would prove my malarkey was false, the sacrifices I called for were in fact harmful and unnecessary and self-serving, and I will lose tremendous status.
Why does sacrifice and malarkey so often win out, when we have such a vested interest in effective action? Because malarkey can optimize for simplicity, and give the consolation of in-group status for people willing to participate. The truth can only optimize for the truth, which may be complicated. Sometimes, the necessary work and attendant rewards only achievable by elites or an unpopular subgroup.
Why does sacrifice have to be costly? This operates under the theory that we use sacrifice as a heuristic to tell who’s doing the most to help out our side—or as a self-signaling mechanism to remind ourselves about how loyal we are to our own team.
This model predicts that in any given complex crisis, simple, stupid, symbolic sacrifices will be heavily represented in speech and action. While this is an uncharitable explanation for behavior we disagree with, it’s still kinder than the alternative (conflict theory) and more epistemically responsible than questioning our own judgment just because some alternative authority sez so. When a behavior appears to be easily explained as a stupid symbolic sacrifice, our prior in a complex novel circumstance should be that that’s exactly what it is.
Zvi, I really appreciate your posts on COVID.
One of the things I notice in your style is your recurrent meme of “sacrifices to the gods.” This seems like a classic example of the “dark arts.” It’s using shame and uncharitable argumentation to tear down your opponents’ argument and advance your own. It’s unusual to see in writing here.
On the other hand, when confronting Very Serious People, who aren’t interested in listening to a contrary argument that might damage their status, perhaps this is necessary. “You’re not listening to me, so I’m not going to make your (stupid) argument for you: I’m just going to call you out.” After all, I agree with you in your assessment of these arguments. They’re pretty stupid. And it’s a relief to hear them described as such.
Sometime I’d love to hear your thoughts on the tension here—if you see it as tension at all. Thanks for your continued work.