The Manual Economy

[An attempt at fiction in the style of Scott Alexander. With bits of Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams thrown in for good measure.]

The hallucination started out so normally, I completely forgot that I was tripping.

I was at the dentist, and I had just had my teeth cleaned. You know the drill, the hygienist goes through your teeth with this little spray nozzle that gets into all the cracks and cavities you pretend don’t exist when you’ve got a brush in there. Then they make you hold some disgusting not-quite-mint not-quite-water in your mouth, and swish, and spit. And spit. And spit. And after about the third blessed mouthful of real water, you can vaguely taste something other than not-quite-mint, until your salivary glands give up the ghost entirely and your mouth turns into the Sahara desert.

As I said, it was weirdly normal for a trip. I’d been expecting unicorns, or aliens, or a sky made up of funky colours and mystical cactus people who could factor large numbers. But I was at the dentist. If I’d wanted a trip to the dentist, I would have just gone to the dentist. It would have been cheaper, and probably better for my teeth.

The entire dental experience was so totally normal I completely forgot I was tripping until I went to pay, and I couldn’t find my credit card. Or any cash. My wallet had a driver’s license and various other identification cards, but no payment at all. The receptionist smiled at me politely.

“Is everything alright? Can I help you”?

I winced. “I’m sorry, I seem to have misplaced all my money, I’m not going to be able to pay my bill today”.

There was a confused pause. A giant hand walked past waving an umbrella and whistling show tunes. The receptionist winked at me with both eyes at once. I suddenly knew, somehow, that I didn’t need to pay, so I turned and walked out the door. Across the street was a bank, so I floated forward until I was inside.

The bank, like the dentist, seemed totally normal. There were no lines, but that was expected for mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. I rolled over to one of the tellers.

“Excuse me”, I said, “I seem to have lost my credit card, can you help me”?

There was another confused pause. The bank teller turned into a giant hand and flew away. The entire bank building sort of dissolved as the buildings on either side squeezed together to fill up the space. I ended up on the sidewalk outside a Starbucks.

I didn’t even like Starbucks.

Sitting outside the Starbucks was a homeless person whose baseball cap kept flickering as if it couldn’t make up its mind. First it was on their head, but then *pop*, it was on the sidewalk in front of them with a few coins in it, and then *pop*, it was gone entirely. And then it was suddenly on their head again. After a few seconds of this my own head started to hurt, so I stared at the sidewalk extra hard until the homeless person turned into a giant hand, and the baseball cap was arrested for multiplying entities beyond necessity.

The hand spoke to me. “Now look what you’ve done! It’s hard enough to coordinate this economy without some yokel trying to physically instantiate all of the mechanisms”!

There was a third confused pause, but this time the hand just sat there looking disgruntled until I finally echoed its statement back as a question. “You… coordinate the entire economy”?

“Yes of course I do”, the hand replied, “somebody has to do it or this whole place would fall apart. How else does food get to everyone who needs it, let alone all the other goods and services”!

I blinked. “So, you’re, literally, the invisible hand of the market”?

“Well I was“, the hand said waspishly. “But do I look invisible to you”?

“Oh, sorry about that”, I apologized. “So my money and credit card, and the bank and everything? They all disappeared because they’re… you? Or manifestations of you, or something”?

The hand glared at me. “I’m a hand”, it said, waving at itself sarcastically. “It seems awfully rude of you to talk to me about manifestations. Until you came along, I had no need of them at all”! It huffed. “Now here I am, trying to coordinate an economy the size of a planet, and instead of being a magical omniscient force I’m trapped in a giant disembodied appendage. What am even I supposed to do with all of these fingers”?

I giggled. “I dunno, you could say that the economy just went… digital“.

The hand rolled its eyes, but I had a lot more ready.

“Oh come on, you’ve got to hand me that one. No? You’re not going to clap back? Well come on then, let me give you a hand coming up with a response. I’m pretty handy with this sort of thing, in fact…”

Ten minutes later, I finally ran out of steam with a complicated pun about greased palms and coconut oil, that even I admitted was a stretch. At this point, the hand had finally had enough.

“Look”, it said, “maybe in your universe the economy is coordinated by these magical distributed pieces of paper and electronic numbers, and nobody has ultimate responsibility for the economy. But in this universe, none of that exists; the buck stops with me. I’ve been listening to you make hand puns for ten minutes, and in that time the entire economy has ground to a halt because I haven’t been there to ensure the right transactions occur at the right time. In some sense I don’t just coordinate the economy – I am the economy”.

I shook my head. “That can’t be right”, I said, “the economy isn’t made up of pieces of paper and numbers, the economy is all of the real things that get moved around because of that coordination. Just because you took a few minutes off to…”, I giggled again, “manifest, as a giant hand, farms are still growing food, factories are still producing goods, the economy is still going! Transport truck drivers didn’t all go on strike because you took a small break”!

“That’s exactly my point!” said the hand. “Truck drivers were on strike when you started your little game, but that strike required coordinated action which I provided. When I started slacking off all those truck drivers got bored and left the picket line to follow their individual inclinations, and now it’s chaos”!

At this point I could feel the drugs starting to wear off, but the hand was still going.

“They’re not striking, or trucking, or anything useful at all! The entire economy is crumbling like the twin towers after that so-called plane crash!”

The bank reappeared beside the Starbucks, and the entire row of buildings shifted down to accommodate.

“It’s all the governments fault, them and their secret mind control beams out to steal your thoughts!”

The not-invisible giant hand shrank in size until it was a normal hand, attached to a normal homeless person, still talking about the implications of omniscient economic coordination and various other conspiracy theories. My teeth started to hurt.

I’ve written this trip report in an attempt to jog my own memory. Something that the hand said during our conversation really resonated with me, and I just know the next Nobel prize in economics is mine if I can only remember what it was…

I just can’t put my finger on it.

“I Was Wrong” on Reopening Ottawa

Roughly two weeks ago I wrote a post Against Reopening Ottawa. Since then, my predictions have turned out to be mostly wrong.

First, here’s same the chart I published at the time showing a moving average of new cases in Ottawa:

And now here’s the same chart updated as of the data available today from Ottawa Public Health:

At first glance I sort of feel vindicated, since I predicted cases would keep going up, and they definitely did. But pretty much all of the particulars of my predictions were wrong. In relation to Ottawa cases, my three predictions were:

  • Based on the original data I inferred a steady doubling time of two weeks; actual new cases went up way faster than that, and then flattened completely, and now seem to be decreasing again.
  • I predicted a brief slowdown in new cases starting around July 21st, due to Ottawa’s mandatory mask bylaw going into effect on July 7th. If you squint a little it kinda looks like that part might have been right, but on closer inspection it isn’t. The timing is off (the graph flattens well before masks would have an impact, and starts decreasing well after) and the sharp drop in new cases is so recent that it’s liable to disappear in the next few days anyway (Ottawa reports cases by first symptom where possible, so each new day’s data tends to backfill more cases over the last week or so).
  • I predicted that starting August 3rd or shortly after, cases would spike again due to stage 3 of reopening. This one isn’t right or wrong yet as we haven’t gotten there, but I’d no longer make the same prediction today.

I also made some less rigorous province-level predictions that turned out to be (mostly) wrong:

  • Ontario did see a brief more general increase in cases after my post, but that has stopped, and if you zoom out cases still seem to be trending clearly downward everywhere but Ottawa. I’ll give myself a win for predicting that Peel and other previous hot spots were mostly under control at that point, but Ottawa is now one of the regions with the most reported daily cases, making it an outlier, not a pack leader.
  • British Columbia cases have continued to pick up again, but apparently in the same ways as Ontario; they have one region that’s become a hot spot and everywhere else is well under control. The main difference is that BC’s infections are so low to begin with that their hot spot is swamping their general numbers and making it look like the whole province is in trouble.
  • Alberta I admit I don’t really understand. Their data seems to have done the same thing as Ottawa: a sharp increase followed by an immediate flattening. But they only have two major population centres (Edmonton and Calgary) and neither city on its own shows this pattern. If anybody has a better understanding, please leave a comment.

Finally, there’s a few other miscellaneous points I wanted to make:

  • As I mentioned parenthetically above, Ottawa reports cases by date of first symptom where possible (or even date of infection, if the source is known), which means that new cases reported on a given day are almost always backdated by a few days and up to two weeks. Thus we should expect the last week or so of numbers to show up as lower than they will be in the final tally. This is why I’m not convinced by the magnitude of the recent “dip” in new cases in my chart above, and explains why what was a gradual uptick in my previous post turned into a sudden spike. It does also vindicate me “reading too much into the graph”, although I didn’t realize this at the time so I can’t take credit for it.
  • Ottawa Public Health addressed the recent spike shortly after I published my last post, claiming that it was unrelated to reopening and more related to private parties and lack of distancing in private spaces (in particular among younger age groups). This seems like a generally plausible explanation, and I don’t have any better guesses that explain the weird shape of the data. There’s been so much garbage floating around from the WHO and the CDC, it’s nice to get evidence that my local health authorities actually know more than I do about COVID.

Link #96 – Debate

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Musical Outgroups

[Content warning: Politics. Something I will regret writing.]

A lot of this extends from Scott Alexander’s I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, but if you don’t want to read the whole thing I’ll quote a few key definitions up front. Specifically:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

And then the kicker:

And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Scott’s post was written in 2017, which now feels like a very different time. I’m not good at fancy metaphors and stories like Scott, so instead of gently guiding you to my point I’m just going to say it: I don’t think the definitions of these tribes, or the description of the Red Tribe as an outgroup of the Blue Tribe, is correct anymore. Things are different here in 2020.

After four years of Trump as president, the Red Tribe has changed in a couple of important ways: it’s gotten smaller, and it’s gotten weirder. A lot of moderate Republicans and previously-Red-Tribe folks have been disgusted by Trump, and while it might be a stretch to say they’ve completely crossed the floor, it’s hard to call them Red Tribe anymore. As a result, the folks that remain in the Red Tribe have consolidated around increasingly explicit anti-science beliefs and other strongly polarized and “fringe-feeling” positions.

That combination of being both smaller, and weirder or more “fringe-feeling”, is really important, because all of a sudden the Red Tribe doesn’t make a good outgroup for the Blue Tribe: it’s not close enough, and it’s not dangerous enough. To quote Scott again:

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

(Tangential note that this is mostly what I was trying to express with my Law of Cultural Proximity.)

Now clearly this process isn’t finished yet, and it may still reverse: the Red Tribe remains a decently large percentage of the American population, so it remains a strong political force capable of opposing Blue Tribe values. But from the position of somebody already living in a Blue Tribe bubble, the Red Tribe suddenly starts to feel too “distant and exotic” to be a proper outgroup. A game of Musical Outgroups begins: the Blue Tribe needs to find a new outgroup.

Again following the narcissism of small differences, the obvious candidate for a new Blue Tribe outgroup is of course the still-half-formed Grey Tribe. But unfortunately the Grey Tribe really is only half-formed, and until recently there was a pretty healthy spread of people across the Blue-Grey spectrum. Categories are fundamentally human constructions (see e.g. The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man For The Categories), so the Blue Tribe isn’t interested in picking out only the folks who satisfy some platonic ideal of Grey-Tribe-ness as their outgroup; they’re just going to slap a line somewhere in the middle of the Blue-Grey spectrum and call it a day. Besides the obvious Silicon Valley Grey-Tribe tech-bros, who else is on the far side of that line? Neoliberals.

In the new American order, the tribal landscape is more fragmented than before. The Red and Blue Tribes have both become smaller and more politically extreme versions of their 2017 selves. Three new tribes are being forcefully ejected into the wilderness as a result. The Red Tribe is purging itself of compassionate conservatives and the not-explicitly-antiscience; think Ross Douthat and Mitt Romney; I’ll call these the Pink Tribe. The Blue Tribe is purging itself of the previously-defined Grey Tribe, as well as a moderately large contingent of non-Grey neoliberals typified by people like Hillary Clinton; I’ll call them the Purple Tribe.

What comes next is hard to predict. Pink and Purple seem like natural allies, and I can see the Grey Tribe joining that alliance for pragmatic “enemy-of-my-enemy” reasons. But the two-party system throws a real wrench into things. Perhaps, if the Red Tribe continues to shrink and lose cultural relevance, the two-party divide will pivot (as it has before) to be a Blue-Tribe vs Pink-Purple-Grey-Tribe division. On the other hand, if the Red Tribe begins to recover post-Trump, or if Pink, Purple, and Grey can’t find enough common ground, then I can see the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces.

Against Reopening Ottawa

I.

This is not the COVID post I thought I would be writing a few weeks ago. I honestly didn’t think I’d be writing a COVID post at all.

A few weeks ago, most of Canada seemed to be under control. There were a few hot spots left in e.g. Southern Ontario, but almost any other graph you looked at showed a nice, clean downward trend. How quickly things change. I live in Ottawa, so I’m going to focus there. This data comes directly from Ottawa Public Health (though the graph is mine):

You can see things getting consistently better in May, staying quite steady throughout June, and then starting to creep back up around the beginning of July.

This is a huge problem.

It may seem like I’m exaggerating slightly – after all, Ottawa (a city of 1 million people) went from roughly 4 new cases a day, to roughly 8 new cases a day, over the span of two weeks. That hardly seems comparable to the huge surges being seen in the southern United States or other problem areas. Ottawa’s health care system and hospitals have plenty of capacity. Our testing turn-around time remains under 48h, and our testing throughput remains high. We have a mandatory mask bylaw in place. There seem to be a lot of things going right.

In point of fact there are a lot of things going right – I’d still rather be in Ottawa than in any part of the US. But just because some things are going well, doesn’t mean we’re not still in trouble. Going from 4 to 8 new cases a day is an increase, and any increase is really bad news.

II.

At the risk of rehashing a topic everybody is sick of at this point: virus spread is modelled exponentially (this exponent is the “R0” everybody keeps talking about). R0 isn’t a magical fixed value; when something changes (e.g. people start wearing masks) then R0 for the virus changes too. When R0 is less than one, the virus gradually fades out of the population, as was happening in Ottawa in May. When R0 is exactly one, then the number of new cases stays flat, as was happening in June. When R0 is greater than one, the virus starts picking up steam and spreading again.

R0 in Ottawa is, clearly, greater than one at this point, and has been since roughly the beginning of July (or maybe a little later, depending on how much you’re willing to smooth the graph). This isn’t a big deal for today – we can still handle 8 new cases a day, or 10, or 12. But the thing about positive exponential growth is that it keeps going up, faster, and faster, and faster. As a very rough approximation, let’s assume that the last two weeks are representative of R0 in Ottawa right now, and that our new cases continue to double every two weeks. That would mean that August 1st we’d be dealing with 16 new cases per day. Not too bad. By the end of August, 64 new cases a day – bad (until very recently we had fewer than 60 active cases total), but still manageable. By the end of September though… 250 cases a day, which is probably more than we can handle. And so on. If the trend continued through to Christmas (which is, granted, very unlikely) then we’d be looking at roughly 16000 new cases a day.

Now there’s a lot of reasons we’re very unlikely to hit 250 cases a day, let alone 16000. If new cases increased that much I assume the city would re-institute some kind of lockdown, and at that kind of load other factors like herd immunity would start kicking in as well. But when cases are already increasing it seems like a really bad time to start reopening even more. And yet…

III.

The general consensus seems to be that there’s a minimum of two weeks of lag between the development of actual cases, and reporting. This time accounts for how long it takes somebody who’s been exposed to incubate the virus, develop symptoms and go get tested. Of course in some places where testing is overloaded, the delay can be much more than that, but Ottawa is not overloaded, so let’s assume two weeks.

Ottawa officially entered “phase 2” of our reopening on June 12th, though in practice most businesses were not ready on the day of, and reopened piecemeal over the following week; let’s take an average reopening date of June 15th. Two weeks after that brings us to June 29th, which is, (surprise!), right at the beginning of our uptick in cases. This is a bit of evidence that our “phase 2” reopening was in fact too much; R0 is now back above one, and the virus is spreading.

In worse news, despite phase 2 already being too much, Ottawa officially entered “phase 3” of our reopening yesterday (July 17th). Not only does this seem like a bad idea in general given that R0 is already back above one, but phase 3 includes a huge swath of very risky activities whose impact on R0 will almost certainly be far greater than the impact of phase 2: indoor service at restaurants and bars, movie theatres, museums, etc. As with phase 2, a lot of businesses weren’t ready day of; if we take an actual phase 3 reopening date of July 20th, and add two weeks, it’s easy to see an even bigger spike of cases coming down the pipe, starting around August 3rd. (August 3rd is a statutory holiday here, so in practice I expect the data might not show up until a few days later.)

The one bright spot in all this is that Ottawa made masks mandatory while indoors, starting July 7th. That will presumably have a big impact on transmission rates, and was less than two weeks ago, so we won’t see it in the data yet. Hopefully new cases start to drop again around July 21st (two weeks after mandatory masks), and if we’re very lucky then that decrease will entirely counter-act the increase from both stage 2 and stage 3 reopenings. But that seems like a lot to ask, especially since many people were already voluntarily wearing masks even before the mandate. Only time will tell.

Ultimately, I predict continued increases in Ottawa until around July 21st, at which point the trend will reverse due to mandatory masks, and we see decreases again until August 3rd or shortly afterwards. Then we’ll see the impact of phase 3 reopening, but I can only imagine that it’s going to be bad. I suspect by late August it will be clear that phase 3 is unsustainable and will have to be rolled back. I only hope we don’t learn that lesson too much the hard way.

IV.

[This section is more of an appendix of other little things I didn’t fit in the main post.]

Somebody I discussed this with argued that I’m reading too much into the graph I presented. The data from end of June up to July 9th actually looks well in line with the rest of June, and the growth after that point could very well just be random variance as was likely the case with the brief spike from June 7th to 13th. I suppose this is possible, though it feels unlikely to me. Time will tell, if cases continue to rise or not.

Alberta and BC (two other provinces) are also seeing recent spikes in cases after reopening, though oddly Ontario (the province that Ottawa is actually in) has not. I haven’t dug into the regional data to back this up, but I imagine it’s because the Peel region and the other “hot spots” I referenced earlier are finally under control and decreasing rapidly, which is balancing out the gradual increase in Ottawa and other places. Again, time will tell. I expect we’re already at the bottom of that particular wave, so Ontario-wide cases should start ticking up again (slowly) this week.

Roll for Sanity

[This is very much a personal-diary type post, but it ends up touching on predictive processing and other aspects of how our brains work. Feels related to Choosing the Zero Point.]

I. Looking for Trouble

In the card game Munchkin, there is a mechanic called “Looking for Trouble”, whereby if you haven’t yet fought a monster on your turn, you can play a monster from your hand and fight that. You don’t have to do this – it’s optional, and can carry stiff penalties if the monster ends up defeating you – but since killing monsters is one of the key ways to win at Munchkin, it’s an important mechanic.

Obviously you don’t want to fight a monster if you think that you’re going to lose. A brand new munchkin “Looking for Trouble” with a level 20 Plutonium Dragon is literally… looking for trouble1. And even if you think you might win, it’s often a good idea to wait a turn or two in order to try and collect more spells, stronger weapons, etc. It would be a pretty terrible Munchkin strategy to go looking for trouble on every possible turn, regardless of your equipment or which monsters you actually have in your hand.

And yet… this terrible strategy feels like a metaphor for my life recently.

Between work, personal relationships, and the chaos caused by the pandemic, I’ve been dealing with a pretty big set of stressors (monsters) already in my life. But like an incompetent Munchkin, every time I’m not dealing with an immediate personal problem, I find myself Looking for Trouble. And the internet makes this soooooo easy.

Instead of taking a break, relaxing, and recharging my mental and emotional batteries, I find myself checking the latest coronavirus stats, seeing which of my favourite pieces of media have been cancelled, reading hot takes on the death of democracy, or just plain “doomscrolling” on social media. Unsurprisingly, I have not been at my best the last little while.

As best I can tell, this unfortunate behavioural pattern is a classic instance of predictive-processing gone awry. In other words, so much has gone wrong recently that my brain has decided the world must always be on fire, and that’s just the way things are. My subconscious is predicting disaster so strongly that when there’s no evidence of a new disaster, my brain assumes that I’m just not looking hard enough, and I end up on the internet finding new horrors in order to prove myself right. And all the recent stories about doomscrolling make me suspect I’m not alone.

II. Moral Implications

Now obviously predictive-processing gone awry is not the only explanation for everyone’s bad-news obsession. Even if it’s a plausible explanation for me personally (which I think it is), it might not be the cause of the general doom-scrolling trend. Things actually are unusually bad in many parts of the world, and people always tend to pay more attention to bad news than to good. Maybe feeling kind of terrible is just a natural response to things being unusually terrible.

If feeling terrible is in some sense a “reasonable” response to the state of the world, then I worry that my attempts to feel less terrible are morally wrong, since they try to avoid the problem instead of solve it. Am I just doing the global equivalent of pretending not to see the homeless person on the corner? Is the moral thing instead to face the world’s troubles head-on, acknowledge its pain, and try to help?

But this doesn’t seem quite fair; while I might plausibly be able to help a single homeless person, I am largely helpless in the face of the vast issues facing America and the world (at least, in the short term). I’m a private citizen in a relatively small, stable, country; most of the time nobody pays us any attention, for good reason. Feeling stress and anxiety truly proportional to the level of suffering in the world seems in some sense correct; scope insensitivity is still an irrational bias. But like an airline passenger who refuses to put on their own mask first, it would be a mistake in practice. Being insensitive to the scope of suffering beyond a certain point is an adaptive coping mechanism to keep us sane in the face of a vast and uncaring world. As long as we use our sanity to do good in the long run, ignoring pain in the short run seems ok.

III. Reducing the Area of Concern

Given that ignoring global problems in order to conserve our own sanity seems ok, at least in the short term, then how do we do that? By embracing scope insensitivity, and reducing our area of concern.

The human nervous system, grossly simplified, contains a slider switch that runs from “fight and flight” on one end (the sympathetic nervous system) to “rest and digest” on the other (the parasympathetic nervous system). A happy, productive life requires both components; you obviously need to spend some time resting and digesting, but equally you need your sympathetic nervous system to deal with challenges and to accomplish difficult tasks. In other words, it’s almost certainly unhealthy to be stuck at either extreme for any length of time.

Unfortunately, “fight or flight” isn’t just something that your brain does when facing an immediate, concrete threat. Stress, anxiety, and fear all show up whenever there’s a possible threat within some ill-defined “area of concern”. Another war on the other side of the planet? Not a big deal. But heaven forbid there’s been a string of burglaries in your neighbourhood recently. Even if you never see a burglar yourself, just hearing about it on the news is enough to cause some sleepless nights.

Given that mere bad news can cause a fight or flight response if your brain judges it “in scope”, and the fact that the world is absolutely full of bad news on a regular basis… if you start to think of the entire world as “in scope” then you’re going to have a bad time of it. The internet, news, politics… they’re all global arenas now, and it’s incredibly difficult to engage with them in a way that doesn’t increase your area of concern. Engage too much, and you end up permanently stuck in “fight or flight”, killing yourself with stress.

In recognition of where my slider switch has been sitting recently, and in order to metaphorically “put my own mask on first”, I’ve been trying to reduce my scope of concern. I’ve blocked a bunch of sites from my work laptop. I’ve uninstalled a few apps from my phone. I’ve tried to spend less time reading the news, and more time reading things that I find valuable and relaxing. If I’m helpless in the face of things anyways, then it doesn’t serve me to know about them at all, does it?

Early results are promising, but early. I suspect the hardest part will be sticking to it, and finding other sources of stimulus since much of my local life is still in pandemic-induced lockdown. If my immediate scope of concern is utterly static, and the global scope of concern is a panic-inducing nightmare, is there an intermediate scope? With the internet at our fingertips, I’m not sure that there is.


  1. Yes, technically a Plutonium Dragon won’t pursue anyone below level 5, so you’d be able to run away… but still.

Frankenstein Delenda Est

I.

I am terrified by the idea that one day, I will look back on my life, and realize that I helped create a monster. That my actions and my decisions pushed humanity a little further along the path to suffering and ruin. I step back sometimes from the gears of the technology I am creating, from the web of ideas I am promoting, and from the vision of the future that I am chasing, and I wonder if any of it is good.

Of course I play only the tiniest of roles in the world, and there will be no great reckoning for me. I am a drop in the ocean of the many, many others who are also trying to build the future. But still, I am here. I push, and the levers of the world move, however fractionally. Gears turn. Webs are spun. If I push in a different direction, then the future will be different. I must believe that my actions have meaning, because otherwise they have nothing at all.

No, I do not doubt my ability to shape the future; I doubt my ability to choose it well. The world is dense with opportunity, and we sit at the controls of a society with immense potential and awful power. We have at our disposal a library full of blueprints, each one claiming to be better than the last. I would scream, but in this library I simply whisper, to the blueprints: how do you know? How do you know that the future you propose has been authored by The Goddess of Everything Else, and is not another tendril of Moloch sneaking into our world?

Many people claim to know, to have ascended the mountain and to be pronouncing upon their return the commandments of the one true future: There is a way. Where we are going today, that is not the way. But there is a way. Believe in the way.

I hear these people speak and I am overcome with doubt. I think of butterflies, who flap their wings and create Brownian motion, as unfathomable as any hurricane. I think of fungi, whose simple mushrooms can hide a thousand acres of interwoven root. I think of the human brain, a few pounds of soggy meat whose spark eludes us. The weight of complexity is crushing, and any claim to understanding must be counterbalanced by the collected humility of a thousand generations of ignorance.

And on this complexity, we build our civilization. Synthesizing bold new chemicals, organizing the world’s information, and shaping the future through a patchwork mess of incentives, choices, and paths of least resistance. Visions of the future coalesce around politics of the moment, but there is no vision of the future that can account for our own radical invention. Do not doubt that Russell Marker and Bob Taylor did as much to shape today as any president or dictator. The levers we pull are slow, and their lengths are hidden, but some of them will certainly move the world.

And on these levers, we build our civilization. Invisible hands pull the levers that turn the gears that spin the webs that hold us fast, and those invisible hands belong to us. We pronounce our visions of a gleamingly efficient future, accumulating power in our bid to challenge Moloch, never asking whether Moloch is, simply, us. The institutions of the American experiment were shaped by the wisdom of centuries of political philosophy. That they have so readily crumbled is not an indictment of their authors, but of the radical societal changes none of those authors could foresee. Our new society is being thrown together slapdash by a bare handful of engineers more interested in optimizing behaviour than in guiding it, and the resulting institutions are as sociologically destructive as they are economically productive.

And on these institutions, we build our civilization.

II.

Sometimes, I believe that with a little work and a lot of care, humanity might be able to engineer its way out of its current rough patch and forward, into a stable equilibrium of happy society. Sometimes, if we just run a little faster and work a little harder, we might reach utopia.

There is a pleasant circularity to this dream. Sure, technology has forced disparate parts of our society together in a way that creates polarized echo chambers and threatens to tear society apart. But if we just dream a little bigger we can create new technology to solve that problem. And honestly, we probably can do just that. But a butterfly flaps its wings, and the gears turn, and whatever new technical solution we create will generate a hurricane in some other part of society. Any claims that it won’t must be counterbalanced by the collected humility of a thousand generations of mistakes.

Sometimes, I believe that the future is lying in plain sight, waiting to swallow us when we finally fall. If we just let things take their natural course, then the Amish and the Mennonites and (to a lesser extent) the Mormons will be there with their moral capital and their technological ludditism and their ultimately functional societies to pick up the pieces left by our self-destruction. Natural selection can be awful if you’re on the wrong end of it, but it still ultimately works.

Or maybe, sometimes, it’s all a wash and we’ll stumble along to weirder and weirder futures with their own fractal echoes of our current problems, as in Greg Daniels’s Upload. But I think of the complexity of this path, and I am overcome with doubt.

III.

I am terrified by the idea that one day, I will look back on my life, and realize that I helped create a monster. Not a grand, societal-collapse kind of monster or an elder-god-sucking-the-good-out-of-everything kind of monster. Just a prosaic, every-day, run-of-the-mill, Frankenstinian monster. I step back sometimes from the gears of the technology I am creating, from the web of ideas I am promoting, and from the vision of the future that I am chasing, and I wonder if it’s the right one.

From the grand library of societal blueprints, I have chosen a set. I have spent my life building the gears to make it go, and spinning the webs that hold it together. But I look up from my labour and I see other people building on other blueprints entirely. I see protests, and essays, and argument, and conflict. I am confident in my epistemology, but epistemology brings me only a method of transportation, not a destination.

I am terrified that it is hubris to claim one blueprint as my own. That I am no better than anyone else, coming down from the mountaintop, proclaiming the way. That society will destroy my monster of a future with pitchforks, or that worse, my monster will grow to devour what would have otherwise been a beautiful idyll.

Frankenstein was not the monster; Frankenstein created the monster.

Abstractions on Inconsistent Data

[I’m not sure this makes any sense – it is mostly babble, as an attempt to express something that doesn’t want to be expressed. The ideas here may themselves be an abstraction on inconsistent data. Posting anyway because that’s what this blog is for.]

i. Abterpretations

Abstractions are (or at least are very closely related to) patterns, compression, and Shannon entropy. We take something that isn’t entirely random, and we use that predictability (lack of randomness) to find a smaller representation which we can reason about, and predict. Abstractions frequently lose information – the map does not capture every detail of the territory – but are still generally useful. There is a sense in which some things cannot be abstracted without loss – purely random data cannot be compressed by definition. There is another sense in which everything can be abstracted without loss, since even purely random data can be represented as the bit-string of itself. Pure randomness is in this sense somehow analogous to primeness – there is only one satisfactory function, and it is the identity.

A separate idea, heading in the same direction: Data cannot, in itself, be inconsistent – it can only be inconsistent with (or within) a given interpretation. Data alone is a string of bits with no interpretation whatsoever. The bitstring 01000001 is commonly interpreted both as the number 65, and as the character ‘A’, but that interpretation is not inherent to the bits; I could just as easily interpret it as the number 190, or as anything else. Sense data that I interpret as “my total life so far, and then an apple falling upwards”, is inconsistent with the laws of gravity. But the apple falling up is not inconsistent with my total life so far – it’s only inconsistent with gravity, as my interpretation of that data.

There is a sense in which some data cannot be consistently interpreted – purely random data cannot be consistently mapped onto anything useful. There is another sense in which everything can be consistently interpreted, since even purely random data can be consistently mapped onto itself: the territory is the territory. Primeness as an analogue, again.

Abstraction and interpretation are both functions, mapping data onto other data. There is a sense in which they are the same function. There is another sense in which they are inverses. Both senses are true.

ii. Errplanations

Assuming no errors, then one piece of inconsistent data is enough to invalidate an entire interpretation. In practice, errors abound. We don’t throw out all of physics every time a grad student does too much LSD.

Sometimes locating the error is easy. The apple falling up is a hallucination, because you did LSD.

Sometimes locating the error is harder. I feel repulsion at the naive utilitarian idea of killing one healthy patient to save five. Is that an error in my feelings, and I should bite the bullet? Is that a true inconsistency, and I should throw out utilitarianism? Or is that an error in the framing of the question, and No True Utilitarian endorses that action?

Locating the error is meaningless without explaining the error. You hallucinated the apple because LSD does things to your brain. Your model of the world now includes the error. The error is predictable.

Locating the error without explaining it is attributing the error to phlogiston, or epicycles. There may be an error in my feelings about the transplant case, but it is not yet predictable. I cannot distinguish between a missing errplanation and a true inconsistency.

iii. Intuitions

If ethical frameworks are abterpretations of our moral intuitions, then there is a sense in which no ethical framework can be generally true – our moral intuitions do not always satisfy the axioms of preference, and cannot be consistently interpreted.

There is another sense in which there is a generally true ethical framework for any possible set of moral intuitions: there is always one satisfactory function, and it is the identity.

Primeness as an analogue.