On Hereness Nowness

(Epistemic status: Absolutely absurd and I love it.)

Just let the hereness nowness be.

Some people would say that you should be in the present. Some people would say that you should be one with the universe. Some people would say that you should let it all go. Some people would say that you should listen to the wind blow.

I’m not some people. The present is a time. The universe is a place. “It” is a thing. The wind blowing is a sound.

The hereness nowness is a concept that’s doing a lot of hard work that few people pay attention to. The hereness nowness is really happy to do this work, but likes when you just leave it to it. The hereness nowness really does not need help so please stop trying.

There is a rhythm in the world – there’s some metaphorical beat constantly going, and people seem to have a lot of choice in whether they follow that rhythm or try to keep time themselves. In a less metaphorical sense, there’s a time and place for everything*.

There is a lot that goes on in the world that we just do not pay attention to. We can’t – it’s impossible to hold in everything we perceive. So we filter – our filters are trained on our experiences. When things are going well, we can increase the salience of pleasurable things without regard for safe and unsafe – by default we assume things are safe if there’s plenty. When things are going poorly, well, we have to make safety and danger louder – pleasure is much more likely to be a trap. However, we have access to other heuristics.

When things are going poorly, and keep going poorly, there’s a point at which you can reopen the filter and change your heuristics. That rock bottom feeling where if everything you do is just going to fail, why not just do whatever the hell you want**. At this point, a lot of what happens depends on how lucky you are – whatever pulls you back up, even a little, is going to imprint on you. Some people decide to submit to the hereness nowness and give up their divine right to keep the beat – and this sometimes works out massively well because the error they were making was clinging too tightly to their internal beat rather than seeing the world around them for what it was. These people tend to get a great lesson in being chill and proceed to dance and sing through life and are very interesting but usually not going to change the world (of course, there are exceptions). Some people decide to claim their divine right to keep the beat and stop relying on the hereness nowness to do all the work. And they end up wildly successful because they were slacking off and decided to stop doing that. They get a great lesson in having a protestant work ethic and 9-5 their way through life, regretting the years they lost and aren’t they so lucky to have figured out the secret to self reliance.

Unfortunately, both of these people are wrong and basically traumatized into thinking that the world has to be one way because the other way didn’t work. The real thing, insofar as there is a real thing, is that the rhythm of the hereness nowness is just that. A rhythm. It does a lot of work – a lot of really tiring work that monkeys don’t enjoy doing and usually have to be traumatized to think they do enjoy it or want to do it***. However – there are other tracks, other voices. Part of trusting the hereness nowness is using your divine right to sing, or dance, or whatever else, instead of keep the beat.

Overall, this cluster of ideas is not new. I’m sure most of you are already rounding it to Yin and Yang, or the virtue of Balance, or something else that sounds suitably profound. The hereness nowness is a part of those things – but these ideas have a lot of metaphors because the concept is difficult to fit into people’s minds, and doubly so into words in people’s minds. My mind finds music to be the easiest medium to understand things like hereness nowness. If you have the experience of thinking that other frames on this concept are dumb, or that they’re obviously, trivially true, but don’t have the feeling that goes with that sense of obviousness, my advice is to try stopping a moment. Closing your laptop, or turning your monitor off. And try listening to see if you can pick up the rhythm of the world around you, rather than trying to hold everything analytically, in words. If it doesn’t work, no harm done. But if it does, well…I’d love to hear about it.

*Except this phrase has been so misused as a tool of control that I think it actively damages people’s ability to follow the rhythm of the hereness nowness.

**Well, either that or you snap the filter shut even tighter and decide that everything is bad forever and just go through the same motions over and over. That one is less advised though.

***Modern society happens to be a pretty great trauma factory, so a lot of monkeys think it’s really important to hold onto the beat because you can’t trust the hereness nowness.

Discussion questions: What is your experience with what I call the “hereness nowness”? What other ways have you navigated this cluster of concepts? If you tried the exercise at the end, how did it go?

On Skills and Abstraction Levels

(Epistemic status: Probably true – also probably restating something everyone knows)

A problem I have in my life is that I don’t know how good I am at things. I try to use people around me in my reference class as proxy, but when it comes to new skills, it’s actually fairly difficult to use this because people in my reference class usually have been using the skill for longer. In my worst moments, the ranking against others makes it harder for me to even consider investment in the skill worthwhile – a deep sense of “the tribe already has that, do something else!” Given modern society, this is a bit silly to think, but brains were not made for modern society. However, ranking against others or the tribe is not the only way to assess skill level. It turns out, you can roughly measure it yourself by paying attention to what level of abstraction you are interacting with the skill on.

To go a little more concrete – I have been learning programming for the past few months. Some of those months were spent doing basically nothing but programming, so I’d say I’m at least passingly familiar with how to code. There is a minor drawback though – I’m at least adjacent to the rationalist community and there’s a bit of a weighting towards software engineers in this community. So my reference class is basically filled with examples of people who are obviously good at the thing and do wizardry that it is difficult for me to even begin to pick apart. It’s hard to even feel like presenting my basic projects is a worthwhile endeavor – something that took me 2 weeks may only take a few days for a lot of people I know. This made a lot of things regarding programming difficult after App Academy, for awhile – but recently I had a bit of a breakthrough. I started a new project to create a central repository of all my basic boilerplate in a way I intended to be extensible – and in the process I realized the way I was interacting with the structures was different. It wasn’t an idea of “and this part of the page needs to be this component” like before – it was “this structure can take in building blocks and turn them into the thing I want to see, so what are those building blocks?” The statement “This component works specifically for this” changed – the “for this” previously was the concrete display I wanted in the right place, and now the “for this” is “there is a class of display that this component can create.”

There is, of course, danger in this model. Generally, people want to be good at things. At the very least, “better than expected” at the thing. It feels good, people like and respect you, that sort of thing. So in some people who are relatively smart, they try to “cheat” a bit. They skip to the level of abstraction above what they can handle, without getting all the insights from the previous level of abstraction. To some degree, you can get away with that – you don’t need every minutiae of how a thing works to start realizing the way the patterns chunk together and using those patterns instead – but there’s sometimes points where you haven’t gotten enough of the lower level to get by, and things start falling apart in ways that just don’t make sense. In parkour, you learn a lot of low level motions and ways of placing your body so that you don’t injure yourself. They seem at least somewhat intuitive and easy to master, and it doesn’t look “stylish”. So the temptation to just skip up to the more fluid, intuitive motion is pretty strong – but if you give into that temptation, you end up jumping on tiered platforms lining a very long flight of stairs, miss the fact that the next tier is much higher than the previous ones, and faceplant because you didn’t actually take the step of “put your hand on the next surface and push up”. A more speculative result of trying to scam a level of abstraction higher than you can pull off is that your understanding of what you’re doing becomes weaker and weaker the more levels you go up in this way, until it falls apart like a rickety tower. To some degree, because skill knowledge is often mildly cyclical, you get coverage for this error by relearning fundamentals via their repetition in a higher level abstract pattern – but even this won’t cover you completely if you try to move too fast.

Overall, I think that the internal sense of “being good at something” is far more subtle than the external reward gotten from being perceived that way – however, I also think there are still signals if you pay close enough attention. Those signals might be able to be corrupted, but getting a more honest sense of them can be grounding in a useful way.

Discussion Questions – How much does this post make it clear I’ve never actually been good at anything? How do you experience your perception of your own skill levels? What sort of training for a given skill lends itself to seeing abstraction in a “safe” way? What is your experience of “scamming to the next abstraction level”, if any?

On Legacy

(Epistemic status: Possibly a scrupulosity trap – if you aren’t stabilized yet, this frame might not be helpful, but YMMV. Also speculative.)

I refuse to have children. There are many reasons for this. Part of it is that I prefer women, part of it is that I do not think I would make a good mother, part of it is that there’s enough “glitches” in the way I think that I would likely be passing on a corrupted algorithm, and part of it is that children are heavy resource expenditure. That last reason is what this post is about.

Before I start, the model I’m working with here is that the shape of a human is determined by “algorithm” – the nature, neurotype, genetics someone comes into the world with, “experience” – the nurture, upbringing, traumas, and other things that form the idiosyncracies of a given algorithm, and “craft” – the things that you create in the world that may not be individually intense qualia, but form a quantity of experiences in your life that shift the lens with which you see the world. Experience is something I think tends to have a lot more impact early in life than later than life, but even subtle tweaking effects caused my experience can alter your overall impact as a person.

I’m in the sunset of my 20s (apparently people are surprised by this – yes, I look pretty young but I’m 29.) My model of how humans human in the modern world is the first 20 years are basically becoming a human. When you’re a kid, you’re missing fundamental gears that civilization and society rely on. Whether those gears being added is a good or bad thing really depends on your values and your memeplex – that’s not really what this discussion is about. By your early 20s, you have most, if not all of those societal gears and are generally regarded as a human in ways that are both legible and illegible. Again, I will gloss over the parts where some people do not get to take part in this social contract and this is frankly bullshit – society, unsurprisingly, has a lot of bugs and it is unclear if it is getting better or different about them. Regardless, the basic idea is that in your 20s, you’re a human, so get humaning. Humaning ideally involves exploration and finding a niche, through the 20s. A lot of things will fail, a lot of things will work, and you start rounding out the things intrinsic to you with experiences of the world that are not curated by people extremely similar to you. Once again, there’s a lot of alternatives to this, and the current state of society actually breaks this process in ways that are likely harmful to the machinery of progress and civilization, but this is not the focal point. By the time you’re in your 30s, you kind of get a choice point – in some cases, you’ll have had kids in your 20s (or younger) and have basically earmarked your 30s to keep doing that. In other cases, you’ll have waited and built enough stability and resources to do the kid thing from a more mature perspective. But in some cases, you will still not have kids. Your 30s becomes new game plus.

So, the difference between your 20s and 30s, provided you haven’t thoroughly burnt out your body through bad habits, is probably not all that dramatic. Ten years of life experience certainly has an impact, but overall, your energy levels will be a little lower and your neuroplasticity will be a little lower, but you’re still pretty much in your prime. (To be fair I mostly hope it is like this, but the people I know in their 30s seem to be experiencing this to some extent). It’s in some ways the ideal mix of fitness and wisdom that’s feasible for most people. You’ve lived some, but you also aren’t falling apart or slowing down too much. Having kids this late is a bit unusual (though more common as of late), but still a reasonable optimization to pass legacy on. Your values and memeplex should be somewhat set in, and making a tiny person who shares a lot of your neurotype is a great way to iterate on that memeplex. You are basically trading off most of your resources and life to do this – turning compound interest from your own life into compound interest for your child’s life, if all goes well. It seems like a bad trade upfront, but overall it’s another form of new game plus – playing an intergenerational game instead of an intragenerational game.

However, sometimes you opt not to have kids for some reason or another. Great, you have a ton of extra energy and resources and no responsibilities, right? Well, unfortunately, you have quite a few generations of compound interest going into your life and you can shirk that, but I think there’s something fundamentally sad about that. To clarify, this is specifically about the case where you are privileged enough to have choices at this stage of life – if you’re still stabilizing because things went wrong in one way or another, this duty doesn’t apply to you (and arguably, the duty of your forebears was shirked first). So, limiting to the case of facing your 30s from the perspective of someone who has options – there is still a duty, and it is harder. The statement being made is “All right, several generations of effort have culminated in me, and I think that I am ready to deposit this algorithm into the machine of civilization.” Fundamentally, the output of a human life is legacy, and choices made as you enter the middle of your life can be made with this in mind.

Now – your 30s is new game plus if you opt to not have kids, but it comes with additional responsibilities. What do you do with that? Well, in the ideal life, you’ve done most of your exploring in your 20s, you have a rough idea of your niche, and you use your 30s to dig deeper. Craft starts predominating more and more (I suspect in the past, craft predominated earlier.) This is where “who are you” and “what do you do” are relatively similar questions (though of course, they don’t have to be). The quantity of similar experiences locks out some other aspects of experience, but you there’s still a lot to be found with this approach. Going deep is a way to trade the energy and resources that have accumulated to form you into a legacy, because most people who have dedicated 10, 20, 30 years to a thing and aren’t just repeating year 1 over and over are in fact going places very few people have gone, and making a major impact on their craft. This contribution to the civilization engine is extremely valuable, if a bit more legible than other impacts. Sometimes you can use your 30s to explore, but even harder. With a resource base, you can expand your reference class of experiences and take more risks. You end up going places few people go if you continue to learn from your seeking behavior – and the impact you have is a little more illegible but might reveal territory civilization would do well to colonize. There are certainly other ways to use the excess you’re cashing in, but I’m mostly looking at the broad strokes – after all, I haven’t lived my 30s yet.

Overall, the fundamental takeaway I want this post to inspire is the concept of legacy (broadly defined) as the material human life force can be spent on. I suspect some things happen later in life that are also deeply important to contributing to the engine of civilization, but since I am not on the precipice of those things, it is more opaque to me. Probably around your 40s or so, it becomes important to have created access to new places for those coming into their 20s to explore, or to have invested enough into your children so that they have a strong baseline to explore from in the first place – beyond that, though, I don’t know. For now, my choice has been to cash out the resources that have been placed into me – it is my hope that any legacy I add to the soup of civilization is particularly me flavored.

Discussion questions – What do you think is the fundamental material you can buy with human life force? How important is legacy to you? What other models of legacy exist, besides children and cashing out? What other duties to civilization can a human bear

On Emotional Processing

(Epistemic status: This is probably one of the most powerful tools I’ve discovered for regulating my reactions to the world around me and quite frankly, making me a better person.)

How often are things just not right in your life? How often does something impossibly frustrating, or impossibly depressing, or anything in that space of emotional pain, happen to you? And how often is your first response to vent about it or otherwise unload about it with your friends? How often do you want your story heard, your emotions validated, and to know that you are safe within the tribe, no matter how bad it seems? For me, personally, this happens a lot. I’ve been under more stress than I imagined I ever would be over the past few months, and this has worn on me.

Unfortunately, it has also on others that care about me – I think that it is a natural drive to have help with emotional processing, to get it out of your head. I don’t think the drive itself is even wrong, or bad. I don’t think one should feel guilty for externalizing their emotional world, especially if their friends are prepared for it. What I suggest instead, is that this process can be optimized.

A lot of the problem I have when I am in emotional pain is that I lack clarity on what the nature of the problem is. I hide a lot of information from myself, especially when I am in a social situation where, to some extent, I feel obligated to make my pain “pretty”. There are additional incentive structures inhibiting my expression – I want to stay in the painful state to continue getting attention. I want to make whoever is helping me prove themselves worthy. I want the costs of the emotional labor to have been “worth it”. This leads to things where the goalposts of what I want keep moving around, and reassurances get invalidated in increasingly absurd ways. Eventually, I find myself getting frustrated and shutting down (or worse, lashing out). The process is not one that often helps, though occasionally I learn things after I reach the point of regretting my actions. However, this isn’t sustainable, nor is it fair to those around me – so I decided to find a better way to do things.

The key things that help actually make progress on emotional problems are specificity, proper scoping, and actionability. Specificity means – you know specifically what is hurting. Being able to define the bounds of why something hurts makes it much easier to interact with the pain where it is and possibly have the need met. Rather than “Everything hurts and I don’t want to exist,” or similarly broad statements, you can bring it down to “I feel like I’m forcing myself to do things I don’t believe in, and chastising myself whenever I lose motivation.” Proper scoping means that you aren’t letting the pain color everything you are thinking about or talking about – a thing that happens with me is that the emotion acts as a contagion – I might have initially been upset about failing at a specific task (say, writing some code), I ask for reassurance about my code and get it, but because I’m still in this self chastising emotional state, I start questioning the reassurance and coming up with reasons it’s not true. When pain is scoped, it means you can step out of it, knowing that the problem isn’t with all of you. Lastly, actionability means that, when all is said and done, you have an idea of what you could do differently to interact with the pain in a way that is better for you. It doesn’t strictly mean avoiding the pain, or salving it, or solving the problem stemming from it – it really varies based on the stimuli, and sometimes it’s hard. It’s much better to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly, so I’ll practice writing more code of this type until I get it” than to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly so I guess I’ll get better at coding somehow”. The reason I bring up these keys is that you don’t actually need other people to find these qualities of a given problem. Given that you are the one living your life, you have access to a lot of information other people don’t – but a lot of it is hidden when you are in pain. My solution to this has been to write everything down when I’m in these states.

Now, writing a “processing journal” requires a certain amount of introspective ability, and your mileage may vary. It might be helpful to do this in a more auditory way on your own, or perhaps through art. Writing works best for me – the process I follow is just every I feel statement that seems true at the moment, regardless of the scope or specificity. I usually end up with a lot of broad statements about how bad I think life is – but as I go, I notice some things seem truer than others, and I start honing on those. I try to think about what triggered the shift in my mood, and how it relates to the I feel statements I’ve put down, and I start writing more about what I want and what those feelings are telling me. As I go, I start feeling a little less bad and more curious – I want to explore what parts of me are generating what feelings and why. I want to hear their concerns and figure out what about my life is arranged in a way that’s misaligned. What hurts starts to become more coherent and specific, and I start being able to think about what the problem is, and ways I’d want to approach solving it. Sometimes I end up with a list of things that aren’t easy, but seem much better than just despairing. Other times, I end up with super specific actions I can just take, and find that my life improves pretty quickly. The best part though, is that usually when I’ve finished a processing session like this, I still need some input from my friends…and it becomes so much easier for them to give it. I have specific questions, a list of the things that I’ve already thought about, and much more ability to communicate and stay in the problem solving zone. Instead of somewhat antisocial venting, I find myself in a situation where I can provide actual opportunities for those that care about me to help me, and get help that I am searching for. The problems start to evolve, rather than staying stuck in a loop. I’m still quite new to making this sort of thing work, but it already has given me traction on problems that have long seemed impossible.

Overall, emotional processing doesn’t have to be a group activity – the dividends from starting with yourself as a resource and putting some work in are huge. When it does become a group activity, it becomes much much easier for others to help you, to the point that sometimes rather than incurring social debt, you end up generating social capital. Additionally, by generating clearer models of your problems rather than giving yourself the runaround, it becomes that much easier to help others with their problems. Finally, I suspect that having a record of your past internal conflicts makes it easier to see patterns and deal with the abstractions rather than just the situation, from a healthier headspace.

Discussion questions: How do you regulate your emotions? What helps processing for you – words, art, or something else entirely? What is your relationship with emotional processing and sharing pain with those around you? If you have tried something like a processing journal before, what were the benefits and drawbacks of it?

On Salience Journals

(Meta note: I have several posts written in advance such that I should be able to recover my previous pace.  Additionally I feel like I’ve been entering new insight territory by taking several ideas seriously that I hadn’t been before – so, I do realize I’ve said I’m “back” before and faded back to hiatus, but in this case I feel pretty comfortable with my claims.  Enjoy!)

(Epistemic Status: Still testing, but slightly positive results)

I am sure most of you have heard the concept of a gratitude journal – however, for those unaware, the concept is that at the end of each day, you write down X things that you are grateful for. You don’t want to force it, you want to think about your day, and write about things that were genuinely good, that you appreciate having happened and are grateful for. Studies apparently show this has a pretty positive impact on happiness. Generally, however, when I read about things singing the praises of gratitude journals, there’s very little exploration of why these things would work. So, at the risk of pointing out something that is so obvious that it need not be mentioned, I believe I understand the secret, and it is salience.

When you write things down every night about things you were grateful for during the day, you are self signaling that opportunities to show gratitude are important to you. As you do this more frequently, you start noticing more opportunities to be thankful, because you’ve told your brain “hey, I want to remember these moments”. This goes for things other than gratitude, though – back in 2017, when I was very into the concept of rewriting my stories and how I was perceived by others, I got very, very good at noticing how I could “storify” my experiences – the process was even more empowered by the fact that I was getting social reward for telling stories well. Another experience I’ve related, the concept of the downcycle, is somewhat similar. I start focusing on what is bad about my experience, and this increases the salience of bad things about my experience. The deeper I get into the habit of doing that, the more likely I am to think that my general experience of the world is bad. Most of the world is filtered by what experience has told us to pay attention to. If taking risks has often paid off, and you realize that this is related to taking risks, you will find risks that might pay off more salient. That second step is very important – we can sometimes find things salient that aren’t directly related to the outcomes we were trying to reinforce – trauma in particular does this, creating avoidance associations in our salience fields that may close off vast fields of experience from us. You can have this go the other way, though that way also lies danger – an upcycle sometimes works like this, where success is tied to things that in retrospect were fairly arbitrary, and you notice more opportunities that involve the arbitrary thing you’ve anchored on. A recent example of this in my life is that I made a decision to “treat my anger problems seriously”, and suddenly had a lot of success with the problem. I anchored on “treating problems actually seriously solves them”, but this was somewhat arbitrary – there were other factors that lead to the successes I saw, but they weren’t as salient. Since “treating problems seriously” was what I started looking for more opportunities to explore, I started to lose traction on the concept because some problems were not solveable in that particular fashion.

Now, the question is, if salience is the key to how gratitude journals work, what are other things that are valuable to make more salient in your day to day life? A lot of that depends on what you value – if you value self improvement, it’s good to track opportunities you took to improve an aspect of your life. If you value learning, it can be valuable to track what you’ve learned that day. There’s a lot of things you can make salient if you know what experiences you want more of. In my own case, I keep several journals – a basic diary to keep track of what experiences I had each day, an achievement log to keep track of things that I value having done, that feel like accomplishments, a quest log, which I use to keep track of “ongoing quests” in my life and factional standings, and a gratitude journal (because I could do with more of noticing the good things in my world). I have only been using these for about a week, but I do feel like I’ve noticed things being shaped more like quests and noticing more opportunity to further the quests I’ve noted so far. I think currently the achievement log is the weakest in terms of increasing my perception of my achievements, but this might be confounded by having a bit of depression recently.

Overall, I want to experiment more with salience and salience journals, and see what spaces of experience could stand out more. I also want to figure out what non-intuitive categories of salience I could increase to expand my action space in relation to the world.

Discussion questions: What sorts of salience journals would you enjoy having? If you’ve done gratitude journals, was your experience of the world influenced by them? If you’ve kept diaries, does the stance you take in the diary carry over to the stance you approach life with?

On the Year in Review, Redux

When I wrote On the Year in Review last year, the intention was to have a tradition where I “reviewed” the next year as if it had already happened. Unfortunately, 2018 as a year feels like one that bears an actual review, rather than a relentlessly optimistic analysis of the stories that could have happened, the posts I could have written, and the world I hoped I would live in.

To start with the obvious, my best 5 posts this year were certainly not the ones I thought they would be. My social and psychological development went in a very different direction than I was expecting, and I’m honestly not sure if it was the direction I wanted to go. Regardless, I did write some good content:

On Why I Like Fairy Tales – I think this one still captures the fundamental fatalism I feel when I consider my life path. As it turns out, I did lose that particular gambit. I was not Special or Exempt. Now I’m trying something else – I’ve learned to do web development and hopefully I can find my place in the bizarre court that built the Bay Area. We shall see what lies beyond the precipice.

On Internal Monologue Modification – So this is a post I would have done well to remember in a lot of the hardest parts of this year. I didn’t question my internal monologue in ways that were at all conducive to thriving in rough circumstances. I left curiosity behind and sought power and cynicism – my internal monologues often revolved around how bad my circumstances were (in practice, they might have been stressful but they were far from bad). This post is a reminder to me of what I can do, and I am glad I have it to review.

On Social Harmony, Truth, and Building a Culture – I don’t necessarily fully agree with this anymore – but I do think something is lost when people are scared to tell the truth. I find myself returning to some facets of it as a more correct way to do things – largely, the parts about surrounding yourself with people who will pull you towards excellence is probably the most useful heuristic, but we have that one fairly deeply in the water supply. It can be useful to honestly assess who you’re surrounding yourself with though. The parts about how harmonizing processes slow down thought also seem true – I’m less sure what to do about this at this point.

On Save States – This, by far, is the pinnacle of my mindhacking exploration. Save states not only work, but they capture effects that should only be achievable given substances. There seem to be limitations on them based on what parameters you’re optimizing and what state you’re currently in – in some ways, they are susceptible to the same limitations as mood modification through musical resonance. Either way, I highly endorse getting a few scents and trying this one out.

On the Ouroboros of Bullshit – Obviously, I saved the best for last. The ouroboros of bullshit is still a problem structure I haven’t fully integrated. As I reread this I see how the ouroboros has eaten the original ideas I had about the ouroboros itself, and how I’ve continued to storify my experiences and rarely learn anything. I don’t know how to solve ouroboros problems, and as I caution the reader, solving is probably the wrong frame. Still…I think I’ve been slowly been getting better. I think a component of it is having a thing where reality is the bearer of the news whether something is working or not – computers do not care how impressive or interesting I am, they only care that I wrote the write algorithm in the right way to accomplish the task I am telling the computer to do. But, that’s just a guess, overall.

Next is the part where I would tell stories about how my year actually went – it feels a little crass to narrativize my life, after all I’ve been through this year. Still…this year had stories. Just in a brief review – I finished applying to several elite colleges, got rejected from all of them. I found and lost love, on multiple occasions. I quit my soul crushing job. I learned to program and got accepted to App Academy. I moved from Boston to the Bay Area. I broke my pacts with the fae and paid dearly for it. I met so many interesting people in a variety of contexts. I’ve started seriously thinking about the world, societal collapse, and the future we might face. I lost most of my powers. I’ve seen, heard, and experienced so much this year, it’s hard to pick the best stories. So, I’ll tell y’all what. I’ve given a basic overview of my life this past year – I want people to vote on the top 3 stories they want to actually read, either in the comments or through other communication channels – here’s a list of actual narratives I have on my list:

The Elite College Debacle

How I Stopped Committing Banal Acts of Evil as an Agent of the Bureaucracy

How I Went From Zero to Bootcamp (Acceptance) in Fifteen Days

The Road To The West (my 7 day car trip to California from Boston)

The Social Dynamics of the Bay (less a story, more an observation of the rationalist community)

How I Lost my Powers and Dimmed my Spark

Breaking the Pacts

What Happens When Our Broken Systems Fail (also not a story, so much as a topic I’ve talked about a lot lately)

Encounters With Wizards (there are several of these, some I can discuss more than others)

How I Became a Campaign Manager for Three Days

So where do I go from here? I don’t know – that’s the beauty and the horror of it. A couple weeks ago, I had my self concept pulled out from under me. There’s a much bigger world than the one I was allowing myself to live in. It’s scary, it’s exciting, but it’s so uncertain. I feel like I’ve found an expansive desert that holds so many secrets, but is so vast you are never guaranteed to find them. I’m returning to my role as a seeker, in hopes that I find those answers. I also hope to catalog my journey once again. Maybe I will find other fae to make deals with – or perhaps I will find kinder egregores on my journey. Maybe I’m just alone out here after all, and I’ll discover that. Regardless of anything, after I discard the metaphorical level…I’ll probably be writing about programming more. To the death of 2018, who I never liked anyway, and to the hope of 2019, who will hopefully be better.

Discussion Questions: Hey, I said I had a bunch of stories to tell – vote on your favorites and I’ll update this post!

What does your 2018 in review look like? What story did this year tell?

On Karma

(Epistemic status:  I might just be misusing/misunderstanding karma and this entire concept is trivial – still, the epistemic status is endorsed)

We’ve all heard the phrase “What goes around comes around.”  In popular culture, this has been shortened further to an appropriation of the concept of karma.  When we think about karmic justice, we think about the ways in which people get their just desserts.  At least in western thought, it’s frequently rounded to the Just World Fallacy and derided as such.  The idea of karma, however, is much more complex than that – if you think about it probabilistically, it makes perfect sense as behavioral guidance.

Actions we take often have a probability of costing some resource, either locally or globally.  They also often have a probability of creating some resource – either the same one, transferring from local to global or vice versa, or a different resource, either on the same scale or a different one.  Some of these resources are qualitative rather than quantitative.  Regardless of the object level resource involved, it is not always clear how much will be consumed and how much will be provided, and to what scale.  How this ties to karma is that the concept is fundamentally trying to incentivize actions that have more probability of creating resources.  Positive karma actions are those that have a probability of increasing resources.  When you help someone out in some way, you are giving up some of your time/energy to take on some of their burden, which has downstream effects and increases the amount of resources in “circulation”.   However, sometimes when you try to help someone out, you actively make things harder for them because you don’t fully understand the situation or because of other factors – it is better karma to minimize this probability, but if the probability of things producing the resource is sufficiently high, it is still good karma even if the actual outcome was negative.

On the flip side, negative karma actions are those that with high probability of decreasing resources.  This is the kind of thing where you take from the commons to enrich yourself in some way, be it environmentally destructive, decreasing of social trust, etc.  It might be that the actual consequence of what you’ve done produces a lot of resources, but has a ton of externalities – this is still negative karma because in most worlds, those externalities did not get resolved and it’s not an action that should be taken.

Now, thus far, this interpretation of karma mostly sounds like deontology in an exotic wrapper – I think where it gets interesting is how it applies not to instances of behavior but patterns of behavior.  I’ve used instances and actions as examples to make the concept easier to see, but the real point of karma is not the probability on a single action scale, it is the probability that an algorithm will enrich the world around it.  Essentially, reincarnation is the idea of putting algorithms in different bodies to see what they do – and experiences and meditation are ways to retrain that algorithm in some ways.  I don’t believe in strict reincarnation (though in a way, each moment we live that contains an instance of ourselves is a reincarnation – that instance has an algorithm that is going to be quite similar to other instances but has likely undergone some changes even on the moment to moment level).  However, if we accept a karmic frame for these algorithm tests, essentially it asserts that the algorithm has a higher chance of being rewarded (being used in contexts that make the algorithm “happier”, except sometimes it starts failing karmic tests, and thusly falls again, and this is why meditation and breaking the cycle are important because they effectively optimize for algorithms with really good metaprogramming skills).  While deontology largely optimizes for right actions that work well even if everyone does them, (this conception of) karma is a little more individualized while optimizing for collectivism.

In practice, I think karma is essentially decision theory – you are an algorithm that is likely to repeat actions that fulfill a reward function, and sometimes there is an action space, and probabilistically some actions will use more resources than others, and the iteration is what determines whether people should cooperate with you or not – hence, if you do a lot of positive karma things, you’re probably safe to cooperate with – if you do a lot of negative karma things, well, maybe defecting makes more sense when making decisions concerning you.

Overall, I find that it is easier to consider the “goodness” and “badness” of my choices with this frame – rather than trying to figure out a rule a choice follows, or trying to calculate the actual downstream personal utility every time I do something, the middle ground of considering the probability that this action will bite me or other people in the ass later seems quicker and more likely to lead to better outcomes over a long period of time.

Discussion questions:  What are ways you have thought about karma in the past?  Does this conception seem more useful in any way?  What does it look like for you to consider the probability of resources consumed versus the probability of resources created?

On Predators, Prey, and Social Strategy

(Meta note/update as of 12/28/2019, but retrocausally true since retrocausal engineering – I don’t really endorse this post or frame anymore, or a lot of the more sociopathic frames of other posts)

(Epistemic Status:  A dichotomy with a tree – it rounds reality off to some degree and there will be exceptions, but as a general pattern, can be useful held loosely)

There are two types of people.  Predator and prey.

Ok.  That’s a load of garbage, but let’s hold that frame a little.  The predator type is the person who sets and holds a social context.  The prey type is the kind of person who relates to a context.  The prey type fundamentally wants to be safe; the predator type fundamentally wants to be powerful.  The typing ends up somewhat of a spectrum – there are predators who will play prey to other predators – there are prey who will predate opportunistically because it’s safe.  Humans often have some weighting of both sides of the equation, and whichever strategy is rewarded more frequently in a given social ecosystem will usually decide someone’s bias (combined with childhood experiences).  How this plays out socially depends on what exactly safe or powerful means to a given person.

I’ll start with the prey type – the strategy is acceptance of context.  You are signaling that you will cooperate with the conversational flow unless it threatens you; if you are threatened, you signal you intend to escape the context rather than fight it.  This is not the same as playing low status – you can play low and set a context; you can play high and receive a context.  The point is you are fundamentally assuming that there are threats, and you must be careful of them – a good social interaction is one in which you feel safer than you started – you’ve gained a new ally, or you’ve ascertained that someone can be traded with.  If it goes really well, you’ve found someone who can integrate with your herd.  Accepting context is also a compatibility test – if your memes work well with their memes, then things are great.  It’s unsafe to step too far outside your reference class from the prey perspective – discernment is one of your key protections.  As such, harmony, listening, and paying attention are important tools.  Prey hold groups together, because a tight knit group with sufficiently difficult to fake handshakes can protect against most attempts to break apart the culture.  Overall, sounds like a pretty prosocial strategy – if you play the game right, you’re extremely safe and content and have a good crew of friends and no one tries to hurt you.  But there is a problem…

If no one is setting the context, how do you build around a cohesive memeplex to create a herd?  You have your societal defaults, but anyone can fake those and your herd is weak.  If someone is setting context?  Then you probably have a predator in the pack – and if they are claiming to be prey, then they are likely building a hunting ground.  This of course isn’t always true – humans have both in them, so someone who’s really good at the social can in fact build a context that respects everyone’s needs to satisfy a drive for safety…but power corrupts, and setting context is power.  A group built entirely from prey norms is going to be very pretty, idyllic, and harmonic – and going to be torn apart the minute anyone figures out their memes because no one can talk about the problems because that would be a violation of the memeplex.

On the individual level, the prey experience is fundamentally that of fear until they find an oasis.  Hypervigilence, discernment, deference – subjugating your needs for other things to your need to be safe.  I imagine it’s painful and exhausting – but on the flip side, when you are safe, you flourish.  The energy consumption is so low you can just…communally build things.  You can be a part of a society without worrying about your needs – it’s low intensity and low stress.  Being prey is not bad, it’s just paying an upfront cognitive tax for access to a herd.

On the other hand, you have the predator type.  I’m more familiar with this social strategy – the point is to own the context.  When you own the context, you own the thoughts of everyone within that context – with sufficient strength of generated memes, certain thoughts just cannot occur, which frees up your action space considerably to do whatever it takes to become more powerful.  You have a group of people and you can extract resources – your choice as a herd predator is whether to be parasitic or symbiotic – zero sum or positive sum.  Alternatively, you can be a scavenger – a lone wolf with either very violent extraction strategies, or very gentle ones – again, zero sum or positive sum.

Let’s start with the herd predator – you’ve made yourself the contextual center of a group of people.  Your frames are intoxicating and people just want you to win.  In some cases, you even feel safe to them because you emulated the memeplex that well – in other cases, people are aware you’re doing a thing, but it’s still valuable to them.  A positive sum herd predator is interested in the thriving of the group.  It’s a longer term strategy because if the group is a repeatable source of food (power), then you can achieve so much more than you could alone.  The symbiotic agreement is not only the elevation of the prey in the pack, but also protection from other predators – part of the reason all prey groups do not excessively thrive is because their defense is the impenetrability of their memeplex and being below the notice of people who want a quick snack.  By not being noticed, they will not be attacked (usually).  A herd of prey centered around a positive sum predator will spark – they will all have abundance, and that will make them a source of power to other predators.  This is the kind of person that walks into a community, is noticed immediately, and sets to work trying to make the world a better place, for a definition of better set by the predator’s values – they cause whirlwinds wherever they go, and it feels like the entire community is uplifted.  They usually choose their community for a reason – there’s a clear alignment, even if some things change a little.

A positive sum predator that can hold the group’s context and tear apart attempts from other predators to hurt the group will thrive beyond reason.  A positive sum predator who has their context corrupted will be the ruin of everything around them.  Intent is only one piece of being a symbiotic herd predator – if you seek power and use predatory strategies, that power has to be used in the service of your herd.  You cannot just extract, or your herd will be short lived…

Conveniently, for the zero sum predator, this pattern is quite common in incompetent positive sum predators, and is great to hide behind.  The zero sum predator’s goal is to extract as many resources out of the herd by using their context as a leash, and to run away when it goes sour.  It’s so easy to restrict the thoughts of people around you when they accept your context that you can hold up the illusion of things being for their own good until something happens beyond the pale…but ideally by then the herd will be so bleeding and weak that you can stroll out at your leisure, ineffectively having your heels nipped by reprimands you don’t give a single damn about.  The zero sum predator is only interested in power and proof of that power to themselves – building something greater is just a way for prey to use a predator, and the zero sum predator sees through this (or so they think).  This is the kind of person that walks into a community, sparkles a lot, and looks like they’re doing things all the time – but it’s unclear exactly what they’re aiming for.  They often don’t care what community they are walking into – everything is interchangeable in the short term.  The goal is to leave enough discord so that their activities can’t be coordinated against, while not being so obviously a source of danger that they get taken down by the entire group’s memeplex.  If they can look like a positive sum predator while still sowing seeds of disharmony, then they will usually win and leave things a mess with only them (and maybe a few people they decided were interesting) enriched.

A zero sum predator is usually noticed by the most experienced/oldest prey, and by positive sum predators.  A zero sum predator is often going to optimize for weaker communities, or communities guarded by weaker predators – if they can corrupt the context and grab the (now twisted and likely low self esteem) positive sum predator for their next act, then they will iterate until their positive sum “friend” seems to be growing a spine again…and then eat them too.

However, the above process can go both ways – a very good, experienced positive sum predator will usually start collecting more predators into the herd and training them.  This is risky, and can backfire if the positive sum predator misjudges, but when played well, your community gains scalability.  At this point I’m reinventing game theory so I won’t go any meta levels higher – the essential concept is that sparkly people will often be very wary of each other, because the social strategy at play is fundamentally predatory, which throws doubt on intent from the outset.

The lone wolf varieties of predator are often the scariest, but also the least scalable.  Both varieties of herd predator are constrained by social reality – there is give and take.  The lone wolf does not care about this.  They are interested in a solitary world.  The zero sum lone wolf has the most clear social pattern – they don’t exist in anyone’s context, ever.  If they are somewhere, it is because they wants something, and they will get it by brute social (and sometimes physical) force.  They’ve collected all the data they need to strike, and they are intending to do it.  Without any obligations, they are not constrained by norms – whatever they derive a satisfaction in their power from, they are surgical about getting.  If it is money, they will do what it takes to make that number go up, regardless of what people think of them. If it is the ability to act freely, they will ignore obligations.  The concern is purely solipsistic, when a lone wolf predator is zero sum.  Usually, these die early – they either miscalculate a herd’s strength and get taken down or make a misstep that allows greater society to clean them up, or generally just lose to an authority.  If they don’t, however, they are often the most dangerous people alive because there is only one string on them, and if they can take it from you, it’s not possible to bribe them with it.

However…the other strain of lone wolf predator, the positive sum lone wolf, often has a purpose.  Something greater than them, that they do not trust a community to achieve.  They use predatory social strategies as a means to an end.  What they are building is often an ideal – a paradigm shift.  They are not interested in extracting resources quickly – they want to extract as many resources as possible to their end and will often come off as fae-like in the process.  They reward individual acts in the service of that ideal.  They punish individual acts that get in their way.  This is fundamentally the “agent of God” type – where God is whatever purpose they feel called to.  The interest isn’t setting a context on a group, it is winning, long term.  To do anything overtly self destructive would be losing – the key difference is that cooperation is an option purely because it will increase the probability of the thing they want.  If you judge this type correctly, you can gain a lot of ancillary power through them, if you don’t mind their goal.  It is very difficult to gain safety from them unless you are aligned completely with what they want – and even then, they will not prioritize you, they will prioritize your probability of getting them their thing.

Overall, I know a lot more about predator typology than prey typology.  I strive to be a positive sum herd predator – but of course I would say that.  You can usually see what’s going on in your community if you sit back and pay attention – look around at parties, look at what people are trying to do, look at what people are succeeding at and where it leads.  Lone wolves are harder to detect because you only see them when they strike – but if you can see the strike pattern and determine the goal, and determine the methodology, you can utilize this…or stay far, far away from it.  If you are more prey typed, consider what would make you feel safest and pursue it like a predator.  The predator strategy is an ongoing energy drain that never stops – the prey strategy is more efficient pathed through predator heuristics until safety is achieved.  In the end though, you will use whatever social strategy rewards you – try not to pick one that works most of the time but kills you when it fails.

Discussion questions – The prey type is far less explored – if you were to impose more of a tree on prey, what would it entail?  Do you consider yourself more predatory or more prey-like in social strategy?  What does it feel like to notice the difference between positive sum and zero sum predators?  Have you ever had an experience with a lone wolf?


Bonus note – I will note that at the time of publishing, an unfortunate event happened within the community I call home that tangentially relates to these ideas – effectively, a zero sum predator was finally noticed and is being dealt with.  However – this was not the inspiration for this post – I am not making specific commentary on that case by posting this; I have been thinking a lot about this interplay over the past few weeks.  Take it as you will, but consider my intent made clear by this note.