Category Archives: Life

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Deserving trust / grokking Newcomb’s problem

Summary: This is a tutorial on how to properly acknowledge that your decision heuristics are not local to your own brain, and that as a result, it is sometimes normatively rational for you to act in ways that are deserving of trust, for no other reason other than to have deserved that trust in the past.

Related posts: I wrote about this 6 years ago on LessWrong (“Newcomb’s problem happened to me”), and last year Paul Christiano also gave numerous consequentialist considerations in favor of integrity (“Integrity for consequentialists”) that included this one. But since I think now is an especially important time for members of society to continue honoring agreements and mutual trust, I’m giving this another go. I was somewhat obsessed with Newcomb’s problem in high school, and have been milking insights from it ever since. I really think folks would do well to actually grok it fully.

You know that icky feeling you get when you realize you almost just fell prey to the sunk cost fallacy, and are now embarrassed at yourself for trying to fix the past by sabotaging the present? Let’s call this instinct “don’t sabotage the present for the past”. It’s generally very useful.

However, sometimes the usually-helpful “don’t sabotage the present for the past” instinct can also lead people to betray one another when there will be no reputational costs for doing so. I claim that not only is this immoral, but even more fundamentally, it is sometimes a logical fallacy. Specifically, whenever someone reasons about you and decides to trust you, you wind up in a fuzzy version of Newcomb’s problem where it may be rational for you to behave somewhat as though your present actions are feeding into their past reasoning process. This seems like a weird claim to make, but that’s exactly why I’m writing this post.

A story about Bayes, Part 2: Disagreeing with the establishment

10 years after my binary search through dietary supplements, which found that a particular blend of B and C vitamins was particularly energizing for me, a CBC news article reported that the blend I’d used — called “Emergen-C” — did not actually contain all of the vitamin ingredients on its label. Continue reading

A story about Bayes, Part 1: Binary search

When I was 19 and just beginning my PhD, I found myself with a lot of free time and flexibility in my schedule. Naturally, I decided to figure out which dietary supplements I should take. Continue reading

A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in the East Bay starting January 19

Summary: I think the standardized 8-week MBSR course format is better designed than most introductory meditation practices, and have found David Weinberg in particular to be an excellent mindfulness instructor. Since something like 30 to 100 people have asked me to recommend a way to learn/practice mindfulness, I’m batch-answering with this post. Continue reading

Red-penning: rolling out an experimental rationality / creativity technique

Note: I’m writing about this technique to (1) reduce the overhead cost of testing it, and (2) illustrate what I consider good practices for “rolling out” a new technique to be added to a rationality curriculum. Despite seeming super-useful in my first-person perspective, experience says the technique itself probably needs to undergo several tests and revisions before it will actually work as intended, even for most readers of my blog I suspect. Continue reading

Break your habits: be more empirical

Summary: The common attitude that “You think too much” might be better parsed as “You don’t experiment enough.” Once you’ve got an established procedure for living optimally in «setting», be a good scientist and keep trying to falsify your theory when it’s not too costly to do so.

Why I want humanity to survive — a holiday reflection

Life on Earth is almost 4 billion years old. During that time, many trillions of complex life forms have starved to death, been slowly eaten alive by predators or diseases, or simply withered away. But there has also been much joy, play, love, flourishing, and even creativity.

Embracing boredom as exploratory overhead cost

(Follow-up to Fun does not preclude burnout)

Sometimes I decide to spend a few weeks or months putting some of my social needs on hold in favor of something specific, like a deadline. But after that’s done, and I “have free time” again, I often find myself leaning toward work as a default pass-time. When I ask my intuition “What’s a fun thing to do this weekend?”, I get a resounding “Work!” Continue reading

Fun does not preclude burnout

As far as I can tell, I’ve never experienced burnout, but I think that’s only because I notice when I’m getting close. And in recent years, I’ve had a number of friends, especially those interested in Effective Altruism, make the mistake of burning out while having fun. So, I wanted to make a public service announcement: The fact that your work is fun does not mean that you can’t burn out. Continue reading

What’s your vision of a beautiful life?

After releasing my Robust Rental Harmony algorithm, I felt a certain sense of satisfaction, like my friends and I had built something wholesome and beautiful.  Reflecting on this,  it occurred to me that I might want my life to feel like an artistic creation… like a beautiful substructure of mathematics that reflectively self-appreciates wherever it arises. This felt different from my desire to help the world at large, and also from my desire for moment-to-moment enjoyment. Continue reading