Launched my podcast

I can’t believe I forgot to post this to my blog, but I just posted the first episode of my podcast with Ales Flidr, the Turing Test (the podcast of the Harvard Effective Altruism student groups) on Saturday.

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The first guest is Larry Summers and there’s a lot more coming up 🙂

Subscribe here and like our facebook page if you want to support it.

I’ll probably write about lessons learned on this blog soon. Suffice to say that editing a podcast is a great way to become extremely aware of how you sound…

Migraines: the sword of Damocles

“So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?”

When Damocles said that he desired this, Dionysius gave orders that the man be placed on a golden couch covered with a most beautiful woven rug, embroidered with splendid works; he adorned many sideboards with chased silver and gold; then he gave orders that chosen boys of outstanding beauty should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him; there were unguents and garlands; perfumes were burning; tables were piled up with the most select foods. Damocles seemed to himself fortunate.

In the middle of this luxury Dionysius ordered that a shining sword, fastened from the ceiling by a horse-hair, be let down so that it hung over the neck of that fortunate man. And so he looked neither at those handsome waiters nor the wonderful silver work, nor did he stretch his hand to the table. Now the very wreaths slipped off. Finally he begged the tyrant that he should be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be fortunate.

–Cicero’s Tusculan disputations 5.61, translation by Gavin Betts.

Migraines lurk behind every seemingly good thing. The sun is out? Migraine. Done with exams? Migraine. Great workout? Migraine. Exciting travel? You better believe there’s a migraine in store at the end. Do something random like catch a fluorescent light from a weird corner of my eye? Bonus migraine!

My migraines aren’t even that bad or frequent. I only get one or two that last about 6 hours every few months (for perspective, there are 4 million people who have 15 or more migraines per month). I have at least 15 minutes heads-up when I get aura, sometimes longer if I’m really paying attention to how I feel. The pain is manageable if I can get to a dark, quiet room before the headache comes on and not have to talk to anyone while I ride it out. Sometimes I throw up, but only if I had to move too much after the onset.

The worst part is the psychological symptoms. If I’m not mindful of the pain creeping in, it tanks my mood and convinces me the world is nothing but aching and dissatisfaction. Sometimes I get migraines in my sleep and wake up in the headache stage. Waking up is always a relief, even though I’m still stuck with the pain, because it frees me from a limbo of desperate, tortured dreams inspired by the migraine. Even at the best of times– saw the migraine coming, got to safety, maximum pain mitigation– migraines bring me down. They are powerful and fickle god that I have to drop everything and appease.

No, my migraines are just bad enough, preventable enough, and come with just enough warning that worrying about them consumes a big part of my life. They are the sword of Damocles because they attend the good things in life. The threat of migraines tinges the most potent and exciting developments in my world. Throw myself into a project and live a little immoderately? Migraine. Should have seen that one coming. Big performance? What if I suddenly go blind? What if my face goes numb and I can’t even fake my way through? This is not even to get into the worries that my migraine symptoms are actuallly a stroke this time…

It’s easy for the migraine reward schedule to give my intuition the idea that there’s something vaguely sinister about exciting and happy things. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have to work hard to convince myself that migraines aren’t my punishment for getting uppity. (I should have known better than to go outside!!!) Fortunately, that idea doesn’t make any logical sense. Migraines are a nasty god whose power I need to respect, but the god’s jurisdiction is much smaller than the territory I let it occupy. 24-60 hours of my year are forfeit. I will spend those hours in bed (or in hell on earth: heaving up my guts in a train bathroom– whatever the case may be) trying not to provoke my tormentor any further. I don’t need to sacrifice any more of my life to this asshole in the hopes my meekness will move it to pity.

I may be stuck with migraines but I’m hereby opting out of crippling migraine dread. Let the sword fall. Because, in this case, “prevention” is worse than the disease.

 

You only have one life

…and you want to spend it on the couch playing video games???

Well, why not? It’s your only life to do that, too. It’s your only life to daydream, or to sleep in. It’s your only life for instant gratification. Arguably, having limited time is a reason not to delay reward or risk failure.

There are different kinds of pleasures to pursue, and some worthwhile rewards are at the end of long and bumpy roads. Challenges can be intrinsically rewarding. There are good reasons to be disciplined and delay gratification. But the fact that you have only one life isn’t really one of them.

This point has been made much more eloquently before me:

Nordstrom mud jeans: The competitive possibilities are endless

Reblogging my Dad!

Protecting Your Pocket

If Nordstrom’s $425 jeans with fake mud on them are real, they have already succeeded in getting folks talking about the retailer. Well played.

Just the beginning?

Unfortunately, it’s likely to drive jealous competitors to try to cash in themselves, and the results might not always be pretty.

Here are products we believe retailers should AVOID:

Tie with fast-food stain, $69.95. Goodbye stuffy and pretentious. Break the ice as a relaxed, confident Regular Guy with our eye-catching simulated grease stain on classic stripes or dated Paisley. (Barbecue Fan extra-long tie, $79.95.)

Pre-dandruffed blazer, $279.99. No more fretful sidelong glances or brushing for flakes. Put the whole dinner party at ease when your outfit says, “Let it snow!” Stop dreaming about the Aspen slopes and wear them.

Pits-ahoy dress shirts, $115.99. Send the signal you mean business at the office. Armpit stains show who’s putting in the sweat equity and who’s not. Available…

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The remembering self needs to get real about the experiencing self.

The remembering self needs to get real about the experiencing self. Momentary pleasures are not bad– what’s bad is not getting more of them. It seems to me like behavioral economics takes the remembering self at its word too often, especially the remembering self near death. Very often that view of one’s past and future is aspirational and warped. Do you really wish you spent less time on facebook? Or is it more that you wish you could think of yourself as the kind of person who spent less time on facebook? Or is it the wisdom to know that you would have been happier spending less time on facebook even though that’s not what you wanted? There are good reasons for spending less time on facebook, but the remembering self doesn’t have good reasons solely by virtue of being out of the moment. The remembering self exists in its own moment, an experiencing self that is experiencing memories, with its own good and bad incentives. It’s all too easy for the remembering self to want its own junk food– getting the benefits of feeling virtuous or accomplished– when it doesn’t have to do the work.

Delaying gratification is not always the right choice, all selves considered. (Though it’s safer to err in that direction, given that we tend to be drawn to whatever is most salient or enticing in the present.) From the safety of the relative future, the remembering self can judge the decisions of the experiencing self without really weighing present gratification against future gratification. Is the policy that the remembering self advocates really the best from the perspective of past moments?Further future moments? Some accomplishments are not worth the effort or sacrifice. (Again, we can expect “quitter talk” to tend to be a justification for abandoning worthwhile efforts, but that doesn’t make it automatically false.)

A person on their deathbed may wish they had lived a life they could be proud of now, but that’s just a wish to feel pleasure now, often at the expense of earlier selves. When people express regret, it’s just another experiencing self that wants satisfaction in the moment, but blames its dissatisfaction on past selves. If it’s right for the remembering self to want the pleasure/satisfaction of experiencing selves having made different choices in the past, then it’s right for the experiencing self to have wanted similarly “cheap” pleasure in a moment past.

The only way you can arbitrate between the desires of the experiencing and remembering self is to consider what course of action brings the greatest overall happiness across all moments (both perceptions and reflections on past perceptions and thoughts).

I’ve moved toward this understanding in tandem with appreciating the happiness and suffering of others, not as if it was my own, but as if it mattered as much as my own. Future me is not me. Neither is the me who wrote that sentence a few seconds ago. That self is consigned to memory. What matters is not that you experience the same thing as another self, or that from this moment you anticipate experiencing the same thing in the future, or that knowing about other selves’ suffering makes you uncomfortable, though these are all important ways in which we motivate ourselves to take action. What matters is that that happiness or suffering will be experienced. Your self is privileged, just like the present, because that’s where you happen to be. Neither your experiencing nor remembering self is past you. Past you is closed to you in much the same way as other people are. You could interpret this as a reason to feel distant from your past and future, but I think it’s more accurate to interpret it as a reason to feel closer to others by realizing how circumscribed any one experience is. Just like it’s not always right to sacrifice your happiness for others, and this policy would be disastrous if no one ever ended up benefitting from the sacrifice, it’s not always right to delay gratificiation for the pleasure of a future self.

A fairly original complaint about Mass Effect 3’s endings

[Excerpt redacted for spoilers]

If you don’t know me, Hi! I’m a big fan of the Mass Effect video game series. I love the universe, the storytelling, the characters, and especially the fact that you can deeply explore counterfactuals for every moral/philosophical decision you make in the games. I have been thinking of Mass Effect especially often since the release date of the fourth game, Mass Effect Andromeda, was announced (March 21!).

I have seen this trailer^ roughly a million times since it was released a week ago.

Because the events of ME1-3 massively affected the entire Milky Way Galaxy (:P), the next game takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy. In fact, one of the possible endings of Mass Effect 3 irreversibly changes every single aspect of Milky Way. I will now opine about how that option does not make sense.

***SPOILERS for all original Mass Effect games AHEAD***

Many, many, many fanboys were upset with the endings because they were too formulaic.

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And, to be fair…

I am not bothered (at least not as much as the rest of the fans) by the superficial resemblance between all the different endings. I think this is all happening in Shepard’s head anyway (“Indoctrination Theory”). But the Synthesis ending makes no sense on any level. You may ask, “Aren’t they all pretty fantastical?” Yes, but Control and Destroy are consistent with the space magic that we’ve been learning about up until the game’s climax.

Throughout the game we are learning about the Crucible and that it’s a massive source of energy that can, with the Catalyst, be precision-directed against the Reapers. When we find out the Catalyst is the Citadel, it makes sense because we already know that Citadel and the Reapers are intimately connected. It even made sense to view the Citadel as controlling the Reapers in retrospect. So when you get to the starchild, he presents two options: 1. You have passed the test, and now you can control the Reapers instead of him, or 2. you can send the order to Destroy them and the Citadel and the Mass Relays, which makes sense because they are all part of the same network (although he claims this would destroy all advanced technology, too).

Then, with sufficient Galactic Readiness, you get the Synthesis option. The game begs you to choose the Synthesis option, both through the starchild’s exhortations and the fact that no one but you has to die to achieve it (EDI and the Geth can live). The starchild suggests that this is a new possibility that has simply never been available until now, but it WILL solve the values alignment problem.

There are two problems with Synthesis:

1. It wouldn’t preclude the possibility of developing new AI– will it be impossible to make new machines after the Synthesis? If not, then won’t they just run into the same problem eventually given enough time? At least they won’t have the Reapers trying to kill every advanced organic indiscriminately over it, so it’s a better choice for Shepard than the status quo, but how could the starchild think that this is a lasting solution to the problem it was created to solve?

2. It makes no goddamn sense. How can “organic essence” be distributed and worked into machines? How can machine essence be incorporated into all organic beings? For one thing, these “essences” are not uniform among organics or AIs. The Krogan have values that pose a threat to the rest of the galaxy. There is no special sauce in organics that synthetics can’t attain, which means an AI can be fully sapient and become a real person. The Geth can be cooperative, more so than their organic creators. EDI can grow into personhood. This is a major theme of the third game. For another thing, code and DNA aren’t fully analogous. It would make more sense to say organic nervous systems were re-wired, but even plants get the machine essence infusion, as we see from the ending cutscene. The overall implication is that organics and synthetics will understand each other because they will become each other, but weren’t they all just a kind of machine to begin with? What is this sudden uniformity of experience by platform???

With Control and Destroy, there is a mechanism laid out for how they would work. Granted, it is fantastical, but it is within the limits previously established in the game. Synthesis is totally off-the-wall with respect to everything Shepard should know. I guess you could aruge that Synthesis is about aligning the values problem in the heads of all the living sapients, synthetic and organic, so that they will never make misaligned intelligences in the future. That would be all well and good if every being wasn’t literally rippling like a glittery circuitboard.

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It is clearly shown that Synthesis is not a symbolic synthesizing of interests by way of merging systems of thought and value. It is a literal synthesis of the bodies of extant intelligences, organic and synthetic.

***

My gripe probably has more to do with my rejection of elan vital than the internal consistency of the Mass Effect space magic. To be fair, the Mass Effect series up until ME3’s endings never clearly rejects the idea of the “spark of life” or “vital essence,” but I always got the feeling that it did. The first Mass Effect seems to take place in a world where most educated people are comfortable with a mechanistic universe, exploring the possibilities of existence and transcendance with open minds. The idea that distinct organic and synthetic “essences” would turn out to be real and could be merged is, to me, very contrary to earlier themes of the game.

I’m not saying the Synthesis ending is a bad ending or doesn’t belong in the game. On the Indoctrination Theory, it makes sense that Shepard’s Reaper-inspired fever dream is an impossible fairy tale where the values problem is definitively solved without any more bloodshed. The starchild wants you to hesitate to Destroy the Reapers for fear of killing EDI, the Geth, and your cyborg self. In all likelihood, Destroy is your only real choice and the other two are just succumbing to Indoctrination in one form or another.

Synthesis is more appealing to Shepard’s idealism because it means mutual understanding (even though the Control ending has Shepard guiding the Reapers toward benevolent rule, there is still a gulf of incomprehension between the Reapers and the species of the Milky Way). To me, the strongest direct evidence that the Indoctrination Theory is canon is the fact that Destroy option is presented in red, the traditional Renegade color. Control and Synthesis are presented as more compassionate, open-minded endings. The Paragon part of Shepard that resists accepting irreconcilable conflicts of interests is being manipulated. I think the strongest evidence of Indocrination Theory period is that Saren was convinced of the same synthesis solution by the end of Mass Effect 1. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Synthesis is the wrong solution– it could just be that organics are ignorantly prejudiced against their own transcendence– but it is highly suggestive that Synthesis only seems like a good idea to the Indoctrinated.

Whether my criticism of the Synthesis ending is ultiamtely a criticism of poor writing or a subtle insight into the Reapers devious tricks and Shepard’s psyche as revealed by her Indoctrination-fueled dream, I stand by my claim that it makes no sense with respect to the rest of the series.

I don’t care that you haven’t heard of it– what you have or haven’t heard of means nothing

tl;dr: Why is no one talking about what a waste of time it is to complain about why people aren’t talking about particular things?

I made this resolution in June:

resolution

And it has really has cut down on the echo in the chamber of my mind!

I was inspired to renounce generalizations about public opinion based on my facebook feed by, of course, something I saw on my facebook feed. I wish I had screencapped this comment, but it’s too late now. Basically, the top comment on an article Bill Maher posted about the Democratic Primary– it was one of those 1000+ comment threads– said “Supposedly Hillary is winning, but I suspect a conspiracy, because I don’t know A SINGLE PERSON who voted for her.” Except I’m sure I’m remembering it too kindly.

The sad truth is that it’s very difficult to make generalizations about what “people” are saying in the age of social media, because you are seeing personalized content. And with the profusion of online media outlets, I don’t see how anyone feels comfortable saying that “the media isn’t sufficiently covering X.” Most of these complaints are made by news stories themselves. (Apparently, claiming that a story is under-reported is very successful clickbait.) Clearly someone knows about the story if they know to complain about how underplayed it is.

In fact, whether or not you have personally heard of something has never been a great means of assessing how thoroughly discussed some piece of news is. I only care about your impressions if you have some reason to think your ignorance of coverage is evidence of absence of coverage. If you are a well-connected expert in your field and you haven’t heard about something through your normal sources, that’s informative about how well-reported it is, because you would have expected to hear about it. If you are just casually browsing the news, and you see a news story that informs you about an issue, I don’t really care if you think you should have seen more than one of those stories. I especially don’t care if you read a story about how “the media isn’t sufficiently covering X– where’s the outrage?!” and find yourself outraged that a story hasn’t been covered more.

In order to draw valid inferences about public opinion, you need well-done polls. Unfortunately, polls are not perfect and you can’t do a sound poll for every question. Given that reality, I advocate 1) taking your impressions of what people are saying with a handful of salt and, 2) being the change you would like to see in public discourse. If you think a story or topic should be discussed more, discuss it instead of complaining that no one’s discussing it.