Ideological Fork Bombs

In computing, a fork bomb is a program that recursively spawns instances of itself, rapaciously capturing all available system resources. A similar sort of thing can happen, at least metaphorically, within a human mind, when you get so taken with a particular idea (I expect taken is the right word in more ways than one) that it consumes your conscious thoughts, the arguments and counterarguments and countercounterarguments bubbling up and expanding until you can't do or think about anything else. If that one idea is your lifework, then this is probably a good thing. But if not—if there's something more important you want to do with your life rather than obsess about this one idea—then the cacaphony of cognitive noise is a serious vulnerability, as fatal as entering ":(){ :|: & };:" at a Bash prompt.

Actually Personal Responsibility

Dear reader, you occasionally hear people with conservative tendencies complain that the problem with Society today is that people lack personal responsibility: that the young and the poor need to take charge of themselves and stop mooching off their parents or the government: to shut up, do their homework, and get a job. I lack any sort of conservative tendency and would never say that sort of thing, but I would endorse a related-but-quite-distinct concept that I want to refer to using the same phrase personal responsibility, as long as it's clear from context that I don't mean it in the traditional, conservative way.

The problem with the traditional sense of personal responsibility is that it's not personal; it's an attempt to shame people into doing what the extant social order expects of them. I'm aware that that kind of social pressure often does serve useful purposes—but I think it's possible to do better. The local authorities really don't know everything; the moral rules and social norms you were raised with can actually be mistaken in all sorts of disastrous ways that no one warned you about. So I think people should strive to take personal responsibility for their own affairs not as a burdensome duty to Society, but because it will actually result in better outcomes, both for the individual in question, and for Society.

Continue reading

Counterfactual Social Thought

I keep feeling like I need to study Bayes nets in order to clarify my thinking about society. (This is probably not standard advice given to aspiring young sociologists, but I'm trying not to care about that.) Ordinary political speech is full of claims about causality ("Policy X causes Y, which is bad!" "Of course Y is bad, but don't you see?—the real cause of Y is Z, and if you hadn't been brainwashed by the System, you'd see that!"), but human intuitions about causality are probably confused (and would be clarified by Pearl) much like our intuitions about evidence are confused (and are clarified by Bayes).

Almost every policy proposal is, implicitly, a counterfactual conditional. "We need to implement Policy A in order to protect B" means that if Policy A were implemented, then it would have beneficial effects on B. But most people with policy opinions aren't actually in a position to implement the changes they talk about. Insofar as you construe the function of thought as to select actions in order to optimize the world with respect to some preference ordering, having passionate opinions about issues you can't affect is kind of puzzling. In a small group, an individual voice can change the outcome: if I argue that our party of five should dine at this restaurant rather than that one, then my voice may well carry the day. But people often argue about priorities for an entire country of millions of people, vast and diverse beyond any individual's comprehension! What's that about?

Continue reading

Missing Words III

Loopy is slang for "crazy", but I think it should be repurposed to refer to the quality of thinking the same sorts of thoughts over and over again, never breaking patterns, being stuck indefinitely at the same stage of intellectual development. You could argue that this is a form of craziness compared how an ideal agent would allocate cognitive resources, but I think it's pretty normal and common in our world, not the kind of craziness generally recognized as crazy.

Iff as Conditional Chain

I'm not sure I like how when we want to prove that two statements are equivalent, we typically say "A if and only if B" and we prove it by separately proving "both directions" AB and BA, but when we want to prove three or more statements are equivalent, we typically say "The following are equivalent" and prove a "circular chain" of conditionals (1) ⇒ (2) ⇒ [...] ⇒ (n) ⇒ (1), as if these were different proof strategies. Because really, the "both directions" business is just a special case of the chain-of-conditionals idea: (1) ⇒ (2) ⇒ (1). At the very least, one of my books ought to have mentioned this.

Self-Esteem Is Overrated

Maybe self-esteem makes sense for deontologists who think that being a good person is a matter of obeying some knowable set of rules, but I think that the goodness of a person is a real number, probably bounded but with no known upper bound. Saying "I'm a good enough person just the way I am; I deserve self-esteem" isn't bad so much as it is meaningless: once you know what you've done and how close the results were to (your current estimate of) what the results should have been, then there's nothing left to describe, no further question to be answered.

Missing Words II

We need a word that means almost the same thing as sellout (in the sense of "a person who compromises their principles for financial gain"), but conveys the idea that the problem is not selling out, but selling out for too low of a price. We all have to make trade-offs; there isn't any one principle that takes lexical priority over every other valuable thing in life: sometimes it makes sense to compromise your ideals in exchange for money or power or fame or fitting in.

But you could at least haggle!

Dialogue on Weird Social Movements

"Some of my Facebook 'friends'—that is, distant acquaintances—are political radicals: here's a picture of the words 'KILL COPS' spraypainted on the ground, with five 'Likes.' It would be psychologically interesting to know what that feels like."


"'Weird' really isn't as useful of a category as I typically think it is. These radicals are outcasts from the society that they want to remake, whereas lots of people in our crowd have mainstream jobs and power. And yet I'm usually inclined to think of us as 'weirder,' because destroying capitalism and the corporate state is comparatively easier to explain."

"Is it more common?"

"That probably depends on exactly where we draw the boundaries around social circles? Our group of core supporters is tiny, but the group of people who've read Ray Kurzweil and approved is pretty big. And no doubt I don't have a good model of what the smartest and most serious radicals believe, just as they have no idea what we believe."


"Smashing capitalism also looks more straightforward; it's not clear what a transhumanist analogue of the Occupy movement would do exactly. 'Let's all go spend eight years studying bioinformatics! Death to itself!'"

Seriously Now

"But it's kind of funny how my current idea of morality is so different and so much improved from what I picked up in childhood."

"Is it?"

"Well, funny is the wrong word; maybe it's better to say notable when what I really want is just to note it, just to make it salient, maybe eventually salient enough such that I can actually start to be moral for once, instead of continuing to sit and cry about how I was betrayed."

Can't Break Clean

For five years I've known that at some point I need to stop shouting, "the Authorities lied to me; why why why why did they lie to me?!" and start saying, "Okay, so extant social institutions are flawed in knowable ways, and my parents and teachers didn't tell me. Given my current state of information, this shouldn't actually be surprising, so let's stop crying about it and get on with the whole world optimization thing."

But I don't know how to make the switch; after five years, I still don't know how to break clean. It's so much easier to wallow in the pain. Maybe some amount of wallowing was even justified, this time five years ago. But now, I clearly have much better things to do with my life.

Vast Expanses of Imperfection

Hard Truths from Soft Cats opines that

Your flaws don't make you beautiful or unique. They make you flawed.

While I agree re beauty, technically, your flaws actually do make you unique: the number of ways in which one can be flawed is vastly larger than the number of ways in which one can be perfect; the probability that someone else would turn out to be damaged in exactly the same way you are, is negligible.

It's just that uniqueness is overrated.

Nothing Good in Life Scales

The other day while rehearsing my arguments about how currently-existing social institutions are obviously insane, it became more salient that there's also no clear way to fix anything on a large scale. My perspective on How to Do Things Better is the idiosyncratic result of five years of my thinking; even if my vision is in the 99th percentile of Arbitrary People's Idiosyncratic Visions of How to Do Things Better (and everyone thinks that about herself, so don't take my word for it), it's not very transferable.

"Life Is Worth Protecting Now"

What makes a true story inspirational? I think people usually use that word to describe happy stories, stories that make us think that the world is a better place than we previously thought. But sometimes I want to use it to describe sad stories that remind us that the world is far worse than just the parts of it we're used to seeing firsthand, stories about innocent people being hurt by arbitrary causes. It's inspirational in the sense of a call to action, a reminder that there's still important work to be done in the world: I can't solve this particular problem, but there's a reference class of people containing me (reasonably intelligent, reasonably ambitious people, striving to become more effective) who can help fix a reference class of problems including this one—and that is a sacred responsibility that must not be betrayed. Or however you translate folderol like "sacred responsibility" and "must not be betrayed" into something more basic (Bayes-ic?).

Missing Words I

There are a lot of really important concepts that aren't easy to talk about, because we don't have standard words for them.

Like, there needs to be a word designating the skill or quality of possessing independent judgement—the ability to make decisions without getting distracted worrying about how to explain yourself to people who won't understand. Part of me wants to just call it sociopathy, but that's clearly not the right word.

The problem is endemic. Friend of the blog Mike Blume once lamented that we don't have a gender-neutral equivalent of gentlemanly. And we don't have an atheist equivalent of doing God's work, either.