Some Excuse for a RustConf 2017 Travelogue

(Previously, previously on An Algorithmic Lucidity.)

Wow, has it already been a year since last RustConf?—give or take the exact date of the event sliding a bit between years—and give a month-and-a-half of procrastination before being truly struck by the mounting realization that my opportunity to blog something about it before the opportunity expires has almost—but crucially, not quite—faded into oblivion. And a year-and-a-quarter since my first contribution to the compiler? I've recently moved into the top hundred contributors by commit count, because GitHub's contributors graph page only goes down to a hundred and my life is controlled by what things GitHub happens to provide graphs for.

So in the evening of Wednesday 15 August, I boarded the Amtrak Coast Starlight at Jack London Square station in Oakland for the long pilgrimage north to Portland to visit friend of the blog Sophia and attend this year's RustConf.

The train was nearly three hours late. (More like Slowest Starlight, am I right?)

On Thursday, I convened a Berkeley Slate Star Codex meetup in exile with Sophia and another local.

I don't think I was very well-prepared to take advantage of the conference itself this time around. I attended the Friday "advanced" training session, but the content was mostly the same as last year (I probably should have chosen the Tock session instead), and I don't actually own a laptop (I used "my" employer-owned laptop last year), and trying to make do with my accessorized phone and the playground was not an optimized experience.

Then the day of the conference itself, I overslept (and left my badge at Sophia's house), and had a high-neuroticism day induced by social-media drama that I had inflicted on myself the previous night, which distracted me from the content of the talks and the challenge of actually connecting with people on the hallway track (the most valuable part of any conference).

But, you know, there will be other conferences. Rust isn't going anywhere. And neither am I.

Except, you know, to Portland or wherever for the occasional conference.

At a Party

At a party! A party with the empirical cluster in personspace! I used to treasure these nights, which seemed then to sparkle with the promise of another world, back during the golden age. The atmosphere feels different now. The same scene, with much of the same people and operating at what should be the same frequency, but I can't help but feel that what was once the promise of a grander mode of existence has decayed, in a decade, into the familiar rhythms of the human.

Has the promise been fulfilled? My disquieting sense of something missing to be attributed to one of the standard heuristics and biases?—hedonic adaptation. Have I grown—and then what am I to make of the exact relative ordering of the automatically returned question-completions old, up, and the empty word? But it stretches credulity to suggest that the true topography of the moral universe would put what I want to call "the golden age" in the past.

As always, I should have rehearsed. People's perceptions of party protocol are predictable, the popular precession of preambles and progress reports—excuse me. What I mean is that there is a limited selection of questions people ask new and old friends at a party, a finite and small repertoire of introductions and catching-ups, and if you know the questions in advance, you would think it would be a matter of the common courtesy of optimizing everyone's experience to prepare answers in advance. It's not just a matter of winning a greater share of the zero-sum component of the party. (Although there is that, which is why both members of the An Algorithmic Lucidity readership are presently gearing up their text editors for the inevitable Well-actually-it-should-be-constant-sum comment. Alright, guys, I was asking for that one—or I might as well have been, up to a positive affine transformation.) It's a matter of the commons. You want to impress at a party, but to parties worth impressing.

Only I never think to rehearse, and my social performance tonight is wild, all over the map, depending on where the bravery spinner is pointing at this particular moment and whether my cache is cold. I manipulate the flow of one conversation deftly with fine rudder movements ("I see my reputation has preceded me"); in another, beyond misplay, I'm a rock ("Um. Stuff").

Resting in a corner away from the crowd, it's these stretches of boredom and wistfulness in the night here at the center of the world that cannot be forgiven, each passing second of seeing marred with not wanting to see, the meaning of these past months' morning sloth and slovenliness, always to be forsworn and always to be repeated, when I meant, I meant—Amenta? I meant to do that, I could claim, but it's not clear that I would be in any way more redeemable if the wastefulness of my abyss had been entirely accidental—or at least not just a matter of simple cowardice.

Do I dare / Disturb the universe? Few remember the face of the man who answered "No"—and ceased to exist.

A woman of wisdom tells me: the thing-that-creates is smarter than the thing-than the thing-that-judges. And all I can do is hope that that's enough.

For science! At a party!

Trade Secret

"The key to retail success is low prices."

"And you make up for that by selling a lot more stuff?"

"Oh, wow, I hadn't thought of that," she said, with seemingly genuine surprise. "Actually, we make up for it by low wages." She patted his arm. "But your idea might work, too—in theory."

I Meant to Do That

I quit my dayjob a few months ago. I said I was taking a sabbatical from my programming career to work on my own projects: there's a lot of math that I've been wanting to learn properly for a long time (game theory, Bayesian networks/structual causal models, analysis), and there's a lot of writing that I fear I must do (although for branding and market-segmentation purposes, I'm pretending that's someone else's story).

I have made some progress on these goals, but—as one would have predicted from an Outside (i.e., No Fun) View model trained on my historical behavior during periods of underemployment- or school-holiday-induced freedom—it's been disappointingly slow on a day-to-day level: it is easier to let an hour blur by in daydreams or low-quality internet reading than it is to actually study or actually write, and a day is only made of so many hours.

My dominant emotions surrounding this observation are guilt and shame. Guilt: that I'm failing my moral responsibility to be intellectually productive, a duty owed to the human spirit and maybe even the Bayes-structure itself. Shame: that a hypothetical adversary could use the fact of my slothfulness as evidence against my beauty, that the failure to live up to the promise of my ideals could be construed to deny or disparage the ideal itself.

Well, I do have a moral responsibility to be intellectually productive which is owed to the human spirit; this cannot be doubted. But I've been wondering lately if it might be better to let go of the shame and even most of the guilt. This not because shame and guilt can't be useful emotions, but rather that I might be thought of as having outgrown them.

I think the shame is born of insecurity: I spent a lot of years resenting school and resenting a culture that didn't have a concept of intellectual life or paths to economic success outside of school, resulting in a desperate need to prove myself: if I don't create given the time and freedom to do so, couldn't pawns of the system use it as ammunition to sneer at me and proclaim that no one can possibly do anything worthwhile without a teacher to command them to do it? And if I don't create, would they even be wrong?

Having something to prove was a useful motivation—it drove me to learn math, at least, to an extent that's probably hard to motivate without a status gradient at work. But now, at age 29—thanks to the software industry for a niche where my talents are economically legible, thanks to the aspiring-rationalist subculture for a community where I feel respected—I think I've exited the world I resented. Whatever I had to prove, I've either proved it by now or have extracted myself from the need to please any doubters.

What, then, should take the place of a desperate need to prove one's value as a source of motivation? What is to be the new emotional reaction to observations of slow progress, if not shame and horror and fear at what my enemies would make of this?

Shame creates an incentive to deny or minimize the culpable action, to distort the map of what actually happened in order to protect oneself: "I didn't do that; it's not what it looks like." I think I would prefer to draw on sources of motivation that don't have this property, that can accept the reality of what actually happened without pain ...


Ayn Rand said that a Spanish proverb said that God said, "Take what you want, and pay for it."

But instructions from God would be redundant. Matter does not obey physical law out of fear of punishment or a sense of moral duty; what we call a "law" is a characterization of that which exists. So too with this.

Making Sense

"... and when we want to look at just a subset of the variables in a joint distribution, we have to sum over all the other variables: the probability that X is blue, is equal to the probability that both X is blue and Y is blue, plus the probability that X is blue and Y is red, plus ... and so on for all the values Y could take. We call this marginalizing over Y to get the marginal distribution for X. Note that you can think about this as taking an expected value. Does that make sense?"

"Ummm ... ye-es?"

"You don't sound very confident."

"The exact referent of the word that in 'Does that make sense?' was ambiguous, because it was preceded by a long, multi-part explanation. Most of the potential referents made perfect sense, but my response had to average over all of them, hence the hesitation and uncertain tone."



Hey. Just so you know.

Today while I was walking to the store to procrastinate from writing a big autobiographical post for my new ("new") secret ("secret") blog, a woman asked me if she could borrow a dollar, and I said, "Sorry, not today," and it wasn't until afterward that the thought even occurred to me that I might have responded by opening up a negotiation about interest rates, or that my saying "not today" could be construed as meaning that I might lend her a dollar on some future day, even though it seemed unlikely that the woman and I would meet again and remember that we were meeting again.

So, I'm not inhuman.

Although, as far as humanity goes, it is interesting to note that in that earlier-blogged incident when I was inhuman, the person asking for money ended up with three dollars, and this time, she ended up with none.

But you shouldn't exonerate me yet. While leaving the store, I overheard a canvasser saying that he was helping the Southern Poverty Law Center fight descrimination, and I didn't resist the urge to look over my shoulder and say, "Discrimination is Bayesian reasoning applied to human beings!"

But not loud enough for anyone to take notice. So, there's that.

Blood and Ice

"Are you eating ice because you're autistic, or because you have an iron deficiency?"

"I think because it's there?—after drinking all of the iced-coffee. Like, Alicorn had an iron deficiency on account of being female and vegetarian, but I don't have either of those problems ... I mean, problems with respect to iron levels."

ADDENDUM (20 May): "Like, I wish I had exactly one of those problems."

Brand Rust

2007–2016: "Of course I'm still fundamentally part of the Blue Team, like all non-evil people, but I genuinely think there are some decision-relevant facts about biology, economics, and statistics that folks may not have adequately taken into account!"

2017: "You know, maybe I'm just ... not part of the Blue Team? Maybe I can live with that?"

Wicked Transcendence III

(Previously, previously.)


On my twenty-second day out of prison, I went to the genderqueer support/discussion group again, but this time with my metaphorical evolutionary-psychology goggles firmly in place.

And just, woooooow

These not-particularly-feminine females and probably-autogynephilc males think that they have something substantive in common (being "genderqueer"), and are paranoid at the world of hostile cis people just itching to discriminate against and misgender them

And their struggle makes sense to them, but I'm just sitting there thinking wooooow

It's all just social-exchange and coalitional instincts. There are no principles. There have never been any principles. The horror is not, "This is a cult." The horror is that everything is a cult.

Religious, Redux

"Shit! Shit! Remember how, the last time this happened to me, I described it as feeling religious?"


"I was wrong! It's actually the feeling of acquiring a new religion, getting eaten by someone else's egregore. It's not that the God-shaped hole was empty before; it's that I didn't notice what it was filled with. It's tempting to describe the psychotic delusions-of-reference/anticipation-of-Heaven/fear-of-Hell state as a 'religious experience' because the process of the God-shaped hole getting filled with something new is so intense. But that's only because once the hole is filled and you feel safe again, it doesn't feel like a religion anymore; it just feels like reality."

The Bayes-Structure in the Form of a Riddle

Left-wingers say torture is wrong because the victim will say whatever you want to hear.

Right-wingers say torture is right because the villain will tell the truth.

Q: What happens when you torture someone who only tells the truth?
A: They'll make noises in accordance with their personal trade-off between describing reality in clear language, and pain.

This is the whole of the Bayes-structure; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.


Or consider the token male cheerleader performing in the pep rally in the afternoon before Game 2 of the Series for Ancient Earth, shouting, "Blue Tribe Values, Red Tribe Facts! Blue Tribe Values, Red Tribe Facts!"

The Reason the World Sucks

"I think we should perform action A to optimize value V. The reason I think this is because of evidence X, Y, and Z, and prior information I."

"What?! Are you saying you think you're better than me?!"

"No, I don't think I'm better than you. But do I think I'm smarter than you in this particular domain? You're goddamned right I do!"

"You do think you're better than me! I guess I need to kill you now. Good thing I have this gun on me!"

"Wait, what?"


A Common Misunderstanding

In a series of papers published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dr. Ray Blanchard proposed that there are two fundamentally different types of rationalists with unrelated etiologies: instrumental rationalists, and epistemic rationalists ...

"You just used language in a way that ignores psychological harm to people whose dysphoria is triggered by that word usage! That's a bad consequence according to the global utilitarian calculus! I thought you were a rationalist, someone who chooses actions based on their consequences!"

"A common misunderstanding. You're thinking of the good kind," I said. "I'm the bad kind."

An Element Which Is Nameless

I had always thought Twilight Sparkle was the pony that best exemplified the spirit of epistemic rationality. If anypony should possess the truth, it must be the ones with high p (p being the letter used to represent the pony intelligence factor first proposed by Charles Spearpony and whose existence was confirmed by later psychometric research by such ponies as Arthur Jenfoal) who devote their lives to tireless scholarship!

After this year, however, I think I'm going to have to go with Applejack. Sometimes, all a pony needs to do to possess the truth is simply to stop lying.

Just—stop fucking lying!