Make Your Own Rules

We seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of rules for life. Not since Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten (1987) and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (1989) has there been such a peak of interest in such rules. Then, as now, we were going through a period of deep global changes, and everybody was very anxious because nobody knew what the new rules for the new normal were.

The proximal trigger of this current wave is I think, Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, as well as the late John Perry Barlow’s 25 principles, which have both been doing the rounds. But the root cause is growing market demand for anomie-busting.

Well of course if there’s a gold rush of this sort on, I have to sell pickaxes. And my pickaxe is a DIY template for making your own set of life rules. Here’s an in-progress snapshot of the pickaxe in action in my own notebook (cleaned-up version with readable annotations key further down, but I wanted to share the working version, which includes several technical mistakes). My model may be a bit hard to grok if you haven’t been reading me for a few years, but the good news is, it’s color-by-numbers easy to use. And all it takes is pen and paper.

I only have one actual imitable rule to offer in the marketplace of life rules: Make Your Own Rules. But I do think I have a good theory of life rules, and a meaningfully systematic procedure for generating them that I’m hoping to sell to the Deep Mind team for making well-behaved AIs.

In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works.

Because, to snowclone what Eisenhower said about plans, rules are nothing, but rule-making is everything.

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Justice Fantasies

Justice is seen mostly clearly in its absence. It is easier to notice injustice than justice, and when people talk about experiencing justice in positive terms, they usually mean that a previous injustice has been remedied.

The experience of injustice spans behaviors ranging in severity from rudeness and negligence to violent crime. But it can also include the distribution of property, as when it is alleged to be unjust that some are very wealthy while others are very poor. If justice is what is revealed by negotiations of injustice, then it is a very broad category, including not only all behaviors, but also the distribution of income, wealth, roads, transportation, housing, food, clothing, fresh water, pollution, education, art, fun, and much more. Bad actions may be judged to be unjust, but even good actions are targets for justice talk when they are considered suboptimal; consider how many people berated Elon Musk for frivolity in sending a car into space, implying that he had a duty to use his resources to solve certain social problems instead (such as buying houses for poor people). Injustice is simply the state of a misfit between the fairness expectations of a group of people and reality.
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(Don’t) Be the Gray man

The is a guest post by Patrick Steadman

A few days after Trump was elected, one of my friends tweeted that he was going to buy a gun. Six months later, another friend quoted the tweet, gently dragging him for not actually buying the gun.

While such virtue signaling is a bit cringeworthy, I think it’s a type of behavior we should expect and encourage in a functioning democracy in which people have healthy feelings of belonging and connection.

It would’ve been much worse if my friend had bought the gun, learned how to use it, and told no one, blending in with his creative professional peers among whom gun ownership is uncommon.

That would have made him a gray man, which is like normcore for preppers, except in the ways that it isn’t.

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The Elephant in the Brain

Long-time contributor and editor-at-large Kevin Simler has a great new book out, The Elephant in the Brainco-authored with Robin Hanson. A bunch of us over here in the refactoring lair have been reading it of course, so you can expect to see the ideas in the book seeping into future posts. There’s a couple of excellent reviews out already if you want to get oriented in the snowballing conversation around the book (the book website has a running compilation) .

The book tackles our blindspots regarding our own motives:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains are therefore designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means.

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better. And thus we don’t like to talk — or even think — about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain,” an introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behavior.

Kevin of course needs no introduction for long-time readers, but for those who came in late, he’s the author of past hits like Minimum Viable Superorganisms and Anthropology of Mid-Size Startups. His home blog, Melting Asphalt, has been one of our oldest blogosphere neighbors (some of my favorite posts there include Neurons Gone Wild and Personhood).

So go grab the book. It’ll be required reading around these parts. And while you’re at it, go poke around in Kevin’s other writing. You’ll thank me later.

Glitches, uh, find a way

Core scientific theories often sound tautological, yet we keep them around because they lead to useful ideas. The prime theorem of biology is that life comes from life. Life coming from life doesn’t mean that spontaneous generation is impossible. It had to have happened at least once. But it’s so much less efficient than reproduction that it no longer has a chance. Before two amino acids can start rubbing together in just the right way on the road to making Life 2.0, some version 1.0 bastard comes along and eats it. That leads you to the idea of natural selection, evolution, dimorphic sex, and the rest of it.

The prime theorem of computing is that any computer can simulate any other. But for all of the talk about “artificial life”, the two mechanisms are subtly different. Lifeforms compete by turning each other into food. Computerforms compete by turning each other into memes. [Read more…]

The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit

In 1986 Harry Frankfurt published the first edition of On Bullshit, the essay that, in the years that followed, was to become the authoritative take on the topic. In it, he lamented the amount of bullshit plaguing every aspect of public life, arguing that production of bullshit was tightly correlated with the increase in opportunities and (perceived) obligations for people to speak their mind, even in the absence of a strong “apprehension of reality”.

Thirty years later, this trend is anything but receding. The web in general, and social media in particular, have multiplied the number of channels where we can exercise our fundamental need to be consulted. At the same time, ‘reality’ is an increasingly opaque concept, challenged by fake news on one side and the genuine unintelligibility of a world in the midst of a technological, social and political revolution on the other.

How do we navigate in this situation? Frankfurt, as we will see later, argues for self-restraint in lack of certainty. In a previous post, I have also put forward what I defined a ‘precautionary principle’: when faced with common talk (a sub-category of bullshit) it is better take the safe option and trust our common sense. But the more I think about methods and tools to resist bullshit, the more I become  forgiving of it.

It is easy to dismiss bullshit as pure noise. To treat it as the inevitable, and yet insufferable, exhaust of a world in decline. In doing so, however, we risk falling in an excellence trap: the belief that progress is a smooth climb towards the highest peak.

Maybe, a perfect world would not be a world without bullshit, but rather one where there is just the right amount of it. Maybe, to reach higher peaks of truth we sometimes need to descend into bullshit valleys. Traverse a knowledge fitness landscape, in other words, where bullshit can be adaptive.

Can we make an unapologetic case for bullshit, without descending into post-truth relativism?

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Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences

When I first started writing about religion for Ribbonfarm, I argued that humans have the capacity for interesting mental states that have become harder to access during the transition to modernity. Here, I focus on the core mental state at the heart of religion, the sacred experience.

When I first read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I was disappointed by his focus on “personal religion” (the subjective experience of conversion or of the divine), rather than on ritual, tradition, and organized religion. After many years, I now think his focus on subjective experience is exactly correct. Rituals vary and evolve because the sacred experience is itself the success criterion for the ritual, and as the context changes, the form of rituals must change to continue to produce sacred experience.

I define the sacred experience as follows:

Sacred experience: a subjective experience of unusual emotional arousal, especially in a social ritual context, potentially including negative emotions such as terror, guilt, or hopelessness, followed by unusual calm or euphoria, in the presence of a sensed metaphysically problematic entity or principle.

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Boat Stories

Last year, I discovered Ursula LeGuin’s fascinating talk, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, (transcript) by way of Donna Haraway’s equally interesting talk Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene. Both have been nagging at me for a year now.

The theory, building on the significance of containers (bags, baskets) to early humans — the default human here is female of course — in forager societies, offers a model of narrative as a “carrier bag” of community context and its evolution. It is a model that stands in radical opposition to the hero’s journey model of narrative.

Panels from Asterix and the Great Crossing, a boat story.

Thinking about the two opposed theories, it struck me that between the carrier bag story and the hero’s journey, there is a third kind of story that is superior to both: the boat story. A boat is at once a motif of containment and journeying. The mode of sustenance it enables — fishing, especially with a net, a bag full of holes — is somewhere between gathering and hunting ways of feeding; somewhere between female and male ways of being. It at once stands for the secure attachment to home and a venturesome disposition towards the unknown. It incorporates the conscientiousness and stewardship of settled life, and the openness to experience of nomadic life. A boat is a home, but a home away from home. A boat story is a journey, but one on which you bring home, and perhaps even Mom, along with you. But it isn’t an insular home, even though it has a boundary. It is a territory but it is not territorial. It is socially open enough to accommodate encounters with strangers, and is in fact eager to accommodate them. Xenophobes do not generally go voyaging.

Boat stories, like hero’s journeys and carrier-bag stories, are a good way to understand the human condition. They are especially good as a mental model of blogging.

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Complete 2017 Roundup

It’s been a disorienting pivot year of mayhem and chaos here at ribbonfarm. I am going to pretend it was entirely by design. I decided at the beginning of the year that since I was personally feeling rather annoyed and upset by all the disturbances in the Force, I ought to spread the cognitive pain around. If I can’t enjoy a pleasant, harmonious life of the mind, why the hell should you? We practice grievance-driven blogging around here. “With malice towards one and all” as my old writing idol Khushwant Singh used to put it.

And since we observed (“celebrated” seems like a stretch) our 10th anniversary this year, it was high time anyway to blow things up and put the pieces back together in a new way. Mission 50% accomplished. We’ll get to the “put together again” next year.

Main symptom of the blowing-up: After years of cautious growth in number of contributors, we had a whopping jump: 32 contributors bringing in 62 posts (not counting administrative ones), with traffic holding miraculously roughly steady. By comparison, in 2016, we only had 13 contributors for 57 posts. Much of the increase was due to the spectacular output (in terms of both quality and quantity) from the longform writing course Sarah and I taught twice in the last 12 months. That course may or may not have benefitted participants, but it sure helped stir things up for us.

One effect of this step-function increase in the number of contributors is that I have effectively lost the editorial plot. In a good way though. To create a new order, you first have to create chaos.

Read on for a tour of the debris and a big list of the 62 posts.

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A Glitch in the Theocratic Matrix

When I was a kid — I was about 12 I think —  and relatively new to atheism and its social burdens, I had a little run-in with a sincerely religious classmate. He simply would not believe that my non-belief in religion was even possible. He was sure I was lying or being provocative for the hell of it. As a test, he pulled out a little picture of his favorite god from his wallet, and dared me to tear it up. I did, and he was suitably shocked. After a moment of stunned speechlessness, he said something weak, like “err… oh wow!”

I was reminded of this little episode when a little clip from CNN did the rounds a couple of days back. It features a religious conservative being visibly stunned speechless by the revelation that you do not need to swear on the Bible to assume an elected office in the United States. Ted Crockett really appeared to believe that a Muslim politician could not hold office because “You have to swear on a Bible to be an elected official in the United States of America…a Muslim cannot do that, ethically, swearing on the Bible.”

Like my old schoolmate, this guy was genuinely shocked to learn he was wrong in a fairly trivial way. Unlike my old schoolmate, however, we’re not talking about a 12-year old boy. We’re talking about a man who appears to be in his late fifties or sixties, and has held an elected office.

Like many others, once I was done chuckling, I found myself wondering: how is it even possible to arrive at, and hold, this particular sort of bizarre false belief, about swearing-in ceremonies being necessarily tied to the Bible in a non-theocratic state?

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