23 October, 2016

An Unusual Place

At Animal Charity Evaluators, we have a monthly "water cooler" meeting. We all get together on Skype and talk for an hour about non-work topics. It's a team-building exercise that supposedly helps teams that only work together remotely.

This month, the topic was "a favorite place", and each team member talked about some wonderful place that they had been to. Some spoke of gorgeous landscapes, others of meeting wild animals up close, and still others of self-built structures in the middle of nowhere.

When it was my turn, I decided to speak about a half remembered memory from when I was young. I had only just started to drive on my own, and, being the adventurous sort, I tended to go wherever fancy took me. Often I would go down a dirt road just to see what was at the end, or take a few wrong turns on purpose to see if I could get myself lost.

On this particular occasion, I was driving along a state highway in Alabama, just north of Saraland, where I grew up. The highway had double lanes going in each direction and the sides were covered with dense forests. Traffic along the road was continuously 55mph or higher.

As I drove along at the pace of traffic, I noticed a small clearing on the side of the road. It was almost invisible, and was gone in a moment, so I nearly missed seeing it. I certainly missed any opportunity of stopping at it; there's no way you could know it was there unless you knew in advance where you were going. So I turned around at the next exit, retraced my route and slowed, pulling over at the clearing.

The clearing was literally just big enough for my car to park. Any less of a clearing would mean I'd need to park on the shoulder of the road. The forest surrounded this area just like it did any other, but there was a trace of a path leading away from the road here, into the woods. It was unmistakenly a path, even though it was overgrown with young trees, vines, and brush of all sorts. The woods on either side looked untouched for decades, but the path before me appeared like it had once been cut down completely, and had only overgrown since then.

I went back to my car to gather my walking stick, which I kept with me just for adventurous situations such as this. I used it as a blunt machete, hacking my way through the brush, following the trail as best I could.

Eventually, I reached a clearing. The ground was set in concrete, so no brush could overgrow the area. A pedastal, also of concrete, stood in the center, and atop it lied a statue. It was about the size of my torso, and it depicted a naive american in a sad repose. I can't recall what the statue was made of, but it was clearly quite worn.

The pedastal that held it had a plaque with a date of 1950 or so. It said that the statue above it was placed on this spot a hundred years earlier, in 1850, to commemorate the a tribe that had been forced from this place during the trail of tears. To the side was a picnic table, also made of concrete. None of this looked as though anyone had seen it in decades. There were no other visible paths leading away from the clearing.

This memory is from nearly twenty years ago. At the time, I had no camera. No mobile phone. No GPS. I wonder if the local government is still aware of it. Clearly, they made an effort to create a clearing for it in the 1950s, presumably around the same time that this state highway was constructed. But it looked almost as though since then it had been left untouched.

The next time I return to Alabama, I would like to revisit this statue, mostly because I tried to find a photo to accompany this blog post and was unable to find a reference to this monument on the internet. Perhaps when I do, I can upload a photo to the wikipedia page of whatever tribe it commemorated.

31 March, 2016

My Great Aunt Margaret

Yesterday, I learned that my great aunt Margaret died.

According to my sister, who has taken care of her recently, Margaret had not been doing well. She was disoriented often, and angry most of the time she spent with my sister. But this is not how I remember my great aunt Margaret, because the last time I saw her was 2007 (or maybe 2006), nearly a decade ago.

At the time, she was kind and nice. We had a cordial relationship. When I saw her, I'd give her a hug and say hello; she'd return the greeting, and then I'd go sit elsewhere in the house. It was a neutral relationship.

It wasn't always like that. I have fond memories of being close to my great aunt Margaret. I remember being so excited to go to her house in Pensacola, Florida, and listen to the waves on the beach. I remember sleeping upstairs in the guest bedroom and reading The Lord of The Rings for very first time. I remember how she'd buy her meats and cheeses sliced much more thinly than any other person I know, and how I adored the sandwiches she'd make for lunch. I remember the strange-looking ashtrays she had in her house, and the air purifier that ran constantly. I remember the organ I used to play on, and the deck from which my uncle Michael threw me into the Gulf against my screaming protestations, all while he claimed that this was the best way for me to learn how to swim. I even remember watching my sister crawl for the first time while my great aunt Margaret sat looking on in her rocking chair with a smile on her face.

I have all these great memories. But at the same time, I can't be sure that any of them are really true.

They certainly feel true. They feel as real to me as when I ate at a restaurant yesterday, or as the time that I first went to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas.

But I have good reason to doubt my older memories. I have a clear vision in my head of a wishing tree in my backyard as a child, through which I threw coins and made wishes that inevitably came true. I only ever wished for small things, like getting to go out to eat that evening, or getting some small toy that I wanted (I was a kid, after all), but I have a very clear memory that after dozens upon dozens of secret wishes I made at that tree, every single one came true. This seems unreasonably accurate, so my current guess is that I'm misremembering the times when my wishes did not come true.

When it comes to my great aunt Margaret, I have even stronger evidence that my memories are faulty. Every memory I have as a kid involving her is exceedingly positive. I recall going to her house and having fun every time. I remember it clearly as something that happened repeatedly and always positively.

So, in my teenage years, when I began to have very strong negative feelings about life and did not know where to turn, I found myself retreating to the family member for whom I had the most positive associations: my great aunt Margaret.

I came to her doorstep in tears, hoping for affection, love, and understanding. I don't know exactly what I needed back then, nor even what I wanted, but I did know that whatever it was, I needed it badly. My life felt like it was tumbling down around me at the time, and I was starting what would turn out to be a lengthy (but temporary) bout of depression.

I knocked on her door. She greeted me. I think she was uncomfortable with my tears. I just asked for a hug.

After a short while, she asked: "Why have you come to me?" She was wondering, I think, why I would choose her company over others. So I explained how I had so very many memories of being around her. Of coming to her house and enjoying her company. Of the board games we would play on her glass table, and of all the times that family would come and visit all at once, for some holiday or another.

She looked at me strangely as I said these things. By the time I stopped talking, she looked like she was scared for me -- or maybe scared of me. She told me that we had only met two or three times, because she lived in Florida, and I had lived in Alabama. She told me that my memories were wrong, and that I was expanding a few short visits into the mistaken idea that I had come to see her often as I grew up.

Today, when I relate this story to others, they ask: "Did she have dementia?" or "Maybe she just wanted to be mean." But no, she was not like this. She had a sound mind at the time. She was a nice person. It was my memories that were at fault here, not her.

So I don't even know what to say about my relationship with my great aunt Margaret. On the one hand, I have such strong memories of so many happy times with her. But when I think of them, an image of her from my teenage years beckons, telling me that I am wrong, that we are not close, that it is weird for me to come to her crying in such a state as I was in.

I am sad to know that she has died. I feel like I loved her as a close family member. But maybe it was all in my head. I don't know how to tell the difference. Either way, I mourn her passing.

27 March, 2016

Gender Identity & Cis by Default

I mean the other kind of cis/trans distinction.
I've been having a lot of thoughts about feminism lately, but hadn't written anything on my public blog because a friend asked me to refrain. Later, when I felt it was appropriate to post thoughts, I ended up writing a number of drafts that I just can't justify posting. I keep cringing at whatever I write, even ten minutes after writing it. This is probably indicative of my needing to think even more deeply about these issues.

But there's at least one issue for which I feel certain enough to be able to post my thoughts: my personal gender identity.

I don't have a strong sense of my own gender in terms of internal mapping. But I do have a moderately strong sense of my male gender as a social construct that I've latched onto.

If I awoke tomorrow, finding that I was female, and everyone just already thought of me as female, so that there were no issues with respect to the change itself, then I don't think I'd particularly mind. I don't have any internal drive that tells me that I should be a man, but I also don't have any kind of feeling that I should be a woman. Neither do I have any stake in the concept of being agender. When it comes to gender, I just don't really care one way or the other.

So I'm cis by default. I was born male, so I "identify" as male, but I have no strong internal mapping saying "I am male".

Yet: at this point, I have lived so long as a male that I identify strongly with my maleness in regard to social situations. I feel about my maleness the way I do about my skills with percussion: If I were reborn as a horn player, I wouldn't think to myself that really, I'm a percussionist at heart, but I'd still lament the fact that all that time was wasted perfecting percussion when now I'd have to don a trumpet.

It's not just that I'm familiar with my own male identity, but that I have invested in my male identity such that it feels like home to me. When I dream, my dream identity is male. (And wears glasses.) But I don't feel strongly that it is important to be male. (Or have glasses.) When I play rpgs, I choose a female avatar as often as a male one.

But maybe all of the above theorizing is mistaken, and the reason I don't feel a strong sensation one way or the other about gender is because I am cis. As in, maybe the whole reason that my gender preference doesn't occur to me is the same reason a fish might be less aware of water. But I don't think this is the case. I think that at heart, I don't really care about what gender I happen to be, and am cis not because I feel like my gender is correct, but because cis is just the default thing to be in our culture.

Meanwhile, I am fascinated that there is an internal experience of gender that lots of other people are having that I just don't seem to have at all. I feel sort of similar to how I feel about tetrachromats; I'm apparently missing out on an internal experience that others have. But unlike tetrachromats, the number of people with an internal gender identity seems fairly high. I don't know of any research that verifies this, but anecdotally, internal gender identity is much more common than I'd previously suspected.

All of this is to say that finally I have a post I can write about a feminism-adjacent topic that I don't feel hopelessly stupid for writing some ten minutes after composing the initial draft.

22 January, 2016

Kissing, Self-Modification, & CEV

I have a strange relationship with kissing. I don't consider myself a good kisser, I don't particularly enjoy kissing, and I tend to feel a bit squicky about kissing.

This is odd. I don't really know anyone else who shares similar feelings about kissing on all these fronts. I've mostly dealt with it by avoiding kissing when appropriate, and 'doing my duty' when needed. Most either don't notice or at least pretend not to notice, but there have been a few that have questioned me about it.

It started when I was young -- younger, I think, than I can reliably remember. I think that my mother held her hand in front of my eyes whenever people would kiss on television, and this gradually turned into a habit of averting my eyes whenever an onscreen kiss would occur. To this day, if I am watching television and two actors kiss, I am immediately taken out of the story and have to consciously use willpower to not turn my head away from the screen. For me, kissing ruins otherwise good stories, though I do look past it when I can. (Similar to how I notice and am annoyed by superheroes that ignore newton's laws of motion or space battles with audible explosions that should be silent; I look past these as well and try to engross myself in the story whenever possible, but these things always take me out of the storyline at least temporarily.)

This is especially weird when watching porn. I have no problem seeing many sex acts, but as soon as the actors kiss, I feel squicky. I suppose this is because I was trained to look away from kisses, but I never had a parent make me look away from actual sex acts, since I never had a parent in the room when those sex acts occurred on screen.

And then there was N—. She wasn't the first I'd kissed, but was still one of my first. She broke up with me for one reason or another, as young people sometimes will, and I asked her why. Looking back, it wasn't a particularly good question to ask, because she was annoyed with me at the time, and was very likely to lie. But for some reason, when she said it was because I was a terrible kisser, I believed her. I was barely a teenager at the time. Now, I know better. She was just being mean, or at the very least rude. But the thought stuck in my head anyway, and never really went away.

Of course, there's also the issue of my teeth. Today, I like my teeth. I like their distinctiveness and I have grown quite fond of the shape of the hole I make when biting into an apple. But it may be easy to understand why I haven't always felt this way. Those who know me in person will no doubt have noticed that one of my front teeth skews forward at a slight angle. It's significant enough to not be easily missed by anyone who talks with me in person, let alone any who kiss me. For a long time, I felt embarrassed by it, and even though I now like it for its many benefits (distinctive whistling sounds, ease of dental identification should I die in a fire), it is nonetheless something I consciously think of whenever I kiss someone, and that's not really a good feeling.

So today, whenever I kiss someone on the mouth, it is quite a conscious experience. It is never 'in the moment'. Like with tv, if I kiss someone lips to lips, I am very much aware of what I am doing, how I am doing it, and what the other person might be thinking of the experience. It is not sexy, nor romantic, nor in any way a positive experience for me. It takes me out of the experience and very much turns me off. Nevertheless, I usually just soldier through it, which isn't particularly difficult to do. I do kiss; I just don't really enjoy it.

What makes all of this even more strange is that I'm the sort of person who will kiss new people I meet on the cheek. It's a kind of greeting that I've inherited from my family, for whom kissing is the most appropriate way to greet any person you're saying hello or goodbye to. But as this is the cheek, not the mouth, it doesn't bother me at all.

In fact, most kissing does not bother me. I enjoy kissing others, and being kissed in return, just as much as I love close contact with friends and family. So long as it is not on the mouth, I'm very much in favor of kissing, whether it is with a partner or a family member. But the thought of kissing someone I'm romantically involved with on the mouth.... Even as I write that last sentence, I found myself shudder involuntarily (though only slightly).

It's not really a rational preference. I get that. I'm sure that with practice and a little self-reflection, it's the kind of thing that I could 'fix'. But I've never really felt a desire to fix it, just like I have never really felt a desire to 'fix' my distaste of brussels sprouts, or the fact that I'm sapioromantic rather than someone who feels romantic attraction to others for more physical qualities. It's never really been a problem -- at least it hasn't been in the past.

But, for some people, kissing is important. Important enough that my enjoyment of kissing (on the mouth) would be required for them to enjoy any kind of romantic contact. So the question arises: what level of brain modification am I okay with?

When I first learned about the horrors of industrial agriculture, I felt compelled to abstain from eating meat. When I fully realized the impact I could make through effective altruism, I began donating a significant amount of my income. When I learned about my own invisible privilege, I took steps to try to make that privilege more visible so that I could act more appropriately. Each of these were a beneficial type of information hazard that spurred me to action once I learned the underlying truth of reality. In each case, I felt it was appropriate to modify the normal behavior of my own brain so that I could become a better person. I anticipate making many more such changes in the future, and a large part of my idle thoughts go towards predicting what my coherent extrapolated volition might be once I become aware of more beneficial information hazards. (Infohazards are quite well named, given that they demand immediate self-modification when viewed, even if that change is 'beneficial', since, from the point of view of the pre-changed mind, that change is, by its very definition, hazardous.)

Yet this is a peculiar situation. This is no beneficial infohazard. This case is more like someone asking me to self-modify to enjoy the taste of brussels sprouts. It is a lateral change; not a positive one (from my perspective). Sure, were I to self-modify to enjoy kissing, it would give the other person utility -- and, in a way, I'd gain utility by creating a new way for me to enjoy reality (plus, I'd gain the utility from enjoying being with this person) -- but if I were to accept this kind of self modification as being acceptable, then I should also be okay with self-modifying to like brussels sprouts.

In Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there is a cow that wants to be eaten. Much has been written about the idea of a rational being that places utility in others doing something to it that we would otherwise consider harmful, but I'd like to focus on the part where this being was effectively made to desire something that we would ordinarily expect it to not desire at all. In the book, others made the cow to be born with such a desire -- but imagine, instead, that it self-modified to have such a desire.

If I were to be taken as a slave, and had access to an oracle AI that informed me that I'd be a slave for the remainder of my life, then would it be rational for me to self-modify my utility function to desire being enslaved? If yes, then surely I should also be willing to self-modify to enjoy brussels sprouts or enjoy kissing. But I think the answer is no, which doesn't necessarily mean I should or shouldn't self-modify for lateral utility changes.

I'm a consequentialist, but I have no desire to permanently enter Nozick's experience machine, mostly because I place some value on being hierarchically higher when choosing between a simulation and reality (or between two simulations). (Friendship is Optimal is a horror story, no matter what anyone else tells you. It is most definitely not in my CEV.) So if entering the experience machine is bad, then doesn't that imply that self-modifying to enjoy brussels sprouts would also be bad?

I don't know. I'm not sure I'm really thinking straight about this, because I'm tempted to think that maybe self-modifying to be vegetarian would be bad from my own point of view, and is only justified because of others' points of view (like the harmed animals). But if that is the justification for why it is good to become vegetarian, then I shouldn't I also self-modify anything that would cause more good overall? Like maybe undergoing plastic surgery, or losing weight, or having less extreme political views, or even wearing orange less often. Let's not bring up gay conversion therapy, which is much more serious than these other ideas. Yet even these other ideas seem terrible to me. They seem obviously wrong, and so something has surely gone awry in my thinking on this topic.

(In any case, I should point out here that none of the above thinking applies to situation of getting children to try out vegetables they don't at first like. From what I understand, humans evolved to have children find sweet things pleasurable and bitter things unpleasurable at a first taste, but to grow to like bitter things after repeated eatings, so that parents can get children to eat the farmed vegetables while still having them avoid poisoning themselves on wild plants. On this theory, children are primed to learn to eat new bitter tastes after a few tastings, even though adults have a much more difficult time of learning to like the taste of something they previously disliked.)

07 January, 2016

The Double-Crux Game

One of the greatest joys I've personally experienced is that feeling you get when you genuinely change your mind. It's especially rewarding when you can feel the dominoes falling as each step in a logical sequence causes you to change your mind on increasingly complex lemmas after a basic premise's truth value switches.

In everyday life, this kind of thing is somewhat of a rare occurrence. But it doesn't have to be.

The double-crux game originated at CFAR.
I first learned about the Double-Crux game when McKenzie Amodei and Andrew Critch of the Center for Applied Rationality taught a workshop on it at EA Global 2015 in Mountain View. The idea is to get you and someone you disagree with into a situation such that hopefully one of you will be able to change your mind. It is genuinely one of the most awesome experiences I've ever had, and it is well worth the amount of effort that is involved in really and truly thinking it through.
  1. First, you need a friend who's willing to do this with you. It only works if you're both intellectually honest, willing to change your mind if presented with sufficient evidence, and excited about the progress of getting closer to truth, even if that means that one's current view is incorrect.
  2. Second, you need to identify an intellectual disagreement that you have between the two of you that you'd like to focus on. The process doesn't always work, but if it does, one of you will be changing your mind on this issue. The first time you try this, it will work best with a binary boolean of the form A or ~A. But once you get the hang of it, you can also use it for non-binary disagreements, like believing A is true with 90% confidence or 60% confidence.
  3. Third, you might want some paper to write down your thoughts. It's not strictly necessary if you have a good memory, but it's definitely helpful at least the first time you attempt it.
To start, write out statement A, for which the two of you disagree. For your first attempt at this game, one of you should think A is true; the other should think A is false.

From Richard Acton.
Now you must find a double-crux of A. Let's say that you think A is true. Then you need to find a crux B of A such that you also think B is true, but if you could be persuaded that B were false, then it would also cause you to change your mind about A. Meanwhile, your partner will be trying to find her own crux, where they will believe B to be false, but if they could be persuaded that B were true, then they'd change their mind about A. Your goal is to find the exact same statement B that serves as a crux for both you and your partner, hence the term "double-crux".

If you've done this correctly, then you will find that there are now two statements that the two of you disagree on. You think both A and B are true, while your partner thinks both A and B are false. Further, you honestly believe that, if B were false, then A would be false, too -- and your partner believes that, if B were true, then A would be true as well. This means that if either of you were to change your mind about B, then that person would also change their mind about A.

Now we can recursively go through the above steps, replacing A with B. The two of you find a double crux for B which will be called C. Then a double crux of C called D. And so on. At each step, write down the double crux statement. Each time you do so, make sure it is a genuine double crux. This doesn't work if you grudgingly accept a statement as a crux; it only works if you honestly believe that the truth value of the crux is causally related to the truth value of the former statement.

Eventually, the two of you may reach a double crux statement Z for which data can be looked up. This is the goal of the cooperative game. It should be an issue that is easy for the two of you to agree upon, perhaps because you can look it up directly in Wikipedia, it might be easily computable in Wolfram Alpha, or it might be easy to simulate on Guesstimate. Once this happens, the two of you will agree on statement Z. For one of you, this means that you have effectively changed your mind on Z.

Because Z was a crux of Y, that person should also change their mind on Y. And X, W, V, U, etc., all the way to A.

If you are both intellectually honest about what really does consist of a double crux each time, then once you reach the end condition of finding a checkable statement Z, it means that one of you will correspondingly change your mind about A.

The experience of changing one's mind through this method is absolutely breathtaking. Being able to watch as your brain goes through each step, legitimately changing your mind on increasingly complex lemmas until you reach the main statement of disagreement is literally awe inducing. It is one of my favorite feelings, and I highly recommend trying it out for yourself.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. I've often gotten into situations where my partner and I can each find a crux, but not a double crux. And sometimes when working with people new to the double crux game, we run into the issue of someone claiming something is a crux when it actually turns out not to be. But even in these "failures", I've found the double crux game to be an immensely rewarding experience, because it usually helps both sides to understand the perspectives of each other much more.

  • It can be easier to look for your individual single cruxes first, then to check with your partner to see if it might be a double crux with them.
  • You can find your single crux by asking "what things could, in principle, change my mind on this topic?"
  • Cruxes are better when you make the claim concrete and specific. Vague claims might be legitimate cruxes, but it will be very difficult to recursively work with something too vague. Be specific; quantify your claim; put a percent of likelihood on your predictions. That way you won't run into a situation where you won't be able to find a double crux for a too-vague statement.
  • Once you understand how to do this with a boolean statement, feel free to move on to more complex disagreements. If you believe A is 90% likely while your partner believes it is 60% likely, that disagreement can be resolved by the double crux game as well.
From Regex.
The games flows more smoothly if both people are familiar with Bayesian priors/posteriors, and if every statement has a degree of belief listed, but I've successfully played the game with non-Bayesians using Boolean statements with only 100%/0% degrees of belief and it has nevertheless worked well.

If you're having trouble finding double cruxes, Regex has come up with something called the Duct Tape Contention technique that helps to identify a double crux by explicitly graphing out the reasons for each of your beliefs. It takes a long time to do it this way, but it can be helpful if you find yourself stuck without knowing how to find a double crux. You may want to check out this sample duct tape graph that Regex provides to show how the technique can identify double cruxes.

Richard Acton has created a presentation that gives a great example of two players playing the double-crux game. It's short, but it can be helpful to see a real life example of finding a double crux from a statement of disagreement.

Once you're familiar with the double crux game, PeteMichaud points out that you can use the game to resolve cognitive dissonance by examining your internal epistemic rationality, or even to build deep, sustainable caring by playing between the parts of you that thinks some part of the world matters and parts of you that are afraid to look in that direction. Of course, this requires that you first know how to notice and parse out these parts of yourself, and it might not be helpful to people who believe they have an intuitive grasp of value. But for those of us who are moral anti-realists that wish to construct value anyway, this seems like a promising technique to get the entirety of your brain on board with a consistent ethical position.

If you want to learn more about the double-crux game, or if you want to experience it first hand in a setting with others that are similarly interested in better navigating intellectual disagreement, you may be interested in going to one of the Center for Applied Rationality's workshops. Or, you might want to invite me to work through a mutual disagreement. Regardless, I heartily recommend playing the Double-Crux game. It's well worth the effort needed to work through each level with a trusted friend.