Sunday, 19 June 2011

You are not as agenty as you think and Magic

Friday morning was taught by Luke Muehlhauser, who most people reading this probably know as lukeprog. I don't know why, and it probably means that I wasn't actually paying attention when I read his posts, but my image in my head of Luke before I got here was a 40-something academic-y type... this was probably entirely because he mentioned academic philosophy favourably once. This is not true, Luke is mid 20s 6' something (I'd guess not as tall as me, but he certainly carries himself taller) well-dressed and confident. If you are willing to believe his claims about how shy he was 6 years ago, then you really should pay attention whenever he gives advice on changing attitudes about things like that.

Incidentally, one of the things that has most surprised me since I got here (although maybe it shouldn't have) is the homogeneity of the SIAI crowd - pretty much everyone I've met who is involved with SingInst directly is 18-35, white, male and a programmer or some other technical type. Partly for the reasons I will discuss below under the section when I talk about my involvement with an Iraq War protest group, this is at least slightly worrying.

Anyway, the lesson was essentially a summary of some of Luke's blog posts. Luckily, he broke his presentation down into 7 nice, easy headings, which I can report most of here, as I was awake enough to take notes at the time.
Name causes of actions, not justifications!

This was something Anna had already talked to us about, and is an important idea that I've been trying to practise for a while. If you actually know why you did something, rather than telling yourself a nice story about why the person you want to be would do a thing like that, you are much more likely to be able to predict, and thus control, the things that you will do in the future.
Recognise that you have done dumb things for bad reasons. Resist rationalising!

This is an important step in the above process - remember that you have done stupid things, and try to learn to be ok with this. We came up with some ideas for techniques that might help with this idea, one of the key ideas was:

Try to think of reasons why people in your situation would do the thing that you just did. That is, do not introspectively try to figure out why you did them, just think of yourself as a character in a story. You are a person!

We tried to come up with examples for ourselves of situations in which our justifications for our actions were different from their actual causes. I have one classic example from my first year at college, which I think many people will have at least some identification with: I was a member of an Iraq war protest group. quite an active member - I was a steward on a bus trip to a large protest in London, and involved in several minor protests around Birmingham (including one in which we draped a 30m banner from the university's 100m tall clock tower). Had you asked me at the time why I was involved in the group, or even if you were to ask me at an off-guard moment now, I would probably say that it had something to do with caring about whether Britain went to war with Iraq. While I did feel something about that, it is now quite clear to me that my actual involvement in the group was guided much more by status concerns (I was bright, eloquent, often selected as a spokesperson for the group) and the simple desire to be around people who liked me. My guess: these sort of concerns actually govern most people's decisions to be involved in most groups they decide to be involved in.
Take your emotions as information and think about their causes.

This is, obviously, linked to all of the above. If you are feeling angry about something, this is information - you shouldn't refuse to update on this information, just because the anger is likely to make you make bad decisions. However, you should, if possible, attempt to avoid being controlled by the anger. This is an idea Luke will be talking more about later, and for which Academian's ideas from the first Friday session seem particularly useful.

Finally, there was one of Luke's points which rang particularly true with me, and which I think is worth writing a bit more about:
Respond to existential angst by fixing your daily life.

I exercise regularly. Particularly regularly for someone in the tech/maths/CS cluster, (incidentally, so does everyone else in the house - we have a squat rack in the yard, and there are only 3 RBCers who are not doing regular workouts... about half of those who are are doing Tim Ferris' 4 hour body, so we have a mini-experiment going on on that front...). I sometimes find myself lethargic and not thinking particularly well if I haven't exercised for a while. However, at the time, it is quite difficult for me to remember that this is the reason. On a similar note, when I was 21, I spent a year in France studying maths. One of my main goals for the year was to learn to speak French fluently. When I had not made progress in this goal for a while (ie, had spent a week or two speaking only English) I would start to get a general feeling of malaise. Again, it was hard for me to recognise the reason for this at the time, but remarkably easy to fix.

One of the Mini-campers, Michael Curzi, had taken this idea one step further: he and his business partner had actually written out a list of potential anger triggers... in Michael's words:
When we got irritable, we would run down the following list to root out the problem. It was effective in extinguishing conflict within 15 minutes, every time.


Something on mind?
Unclear objectives?
Relationship/outside issue?
Discomfort with recent decision?
No weekly review?

The afternoon was the first camper-taught lesson. Rahul, Julian and I tried to teach people magic tricks. This was quite difficult, as pretty much no-one at RBC is a good audience for a magician: they are all the sort of person who thinks of magic tricks as a puzzle, rather than enjoying the feeling of being mystified: these people are invariably unimpressed the first time they have tricks explained to them, as (and this was the lesson that I was hoping everyone would get from the session) just about every conjuring trick in the world has a depressingly simple explanation once you know how to do it...


  1. I don't think you got around to explaining why the homogeneity of the SIAI crowd is worrying.

  2. Mitchell, sorry, I think I intended to do so explicitly, but then decided against it... I take the homogeneity of the crowd as evidence in favour of the proposition that most of the people involved are mostly involved in the group of social reasons (this must be true, as if the group was more diverse, then this would provide evidence against the idea that they are all involved for social reasons, at least according to my naive models of human social groups).

    This is not a major worry, obviously, but is at least some evidence against the very strong claims that SIAI make about their efficiency as a charitable organisation (I have made no effort whatever to actually calculate the magnitude of the update I should make on learning this new evidence... I haven't been trying to think in terms of odds ratios for very long).

  3. "I take the homogeneity of the crowd as evidence in favour of the proposition that most of the people involved are mostly involved in the group of social reasons (this must be true, as if the group was more diverse, then this would provide evidence against the idea that they are all involved for social reasons, at least according to my naive models of human social groups)."

    This appears to be the fallacy of denying the antecedent. Surely you can think of other reasons why the group might have the composition that it does, some PC (white male privilege offering superior access to scientific education), some not PC (higher male genetic variance producing a larger population of high-IQ individuals).

  4. Mitchell, I can think of lots of other reasons for the homogeneity (note, incidentally, that I'm mostly surprised by the lack of variety in age, rather than the dominance of white males), I am simply making a statement about how I updated on the available evidence: let A be the statement, "Most members of SIAI are members for mainly social reasons", and let B be the statement "the SIAI cluster is fairly homogeneous in age". I claim simply that P(A|B) > P(A|¬B). It is possible that I'm wrong, but I doubt it. Given this it is clearly more likely that A is true given an observation of B than it would be had I not observed ¬B. In other words, B is evidence for A.

    I make no claim whatever about the strength of the evidence, other than the implicit claim that I think it is enough to be worth mentioning (my intuitions say, quite strongly, that A is, in fact, true, but I don't have much explicit reasoning to back that up, so don't trust it very much).

    I would further make the claim that P(SIAI is the most efficient charity in the world|A)> P(SIAI is the most efficient charity in the world|¬A). This is not quite as clear cut, but I think is at least more likely to be true than not, however, this doesn't appear to be the part of my explanation that you disagree with, at least, it's not the part of my explanation that your post relates to.