Ice

What you’re looking at is a geological formation called Dry Falls, in the Sun Lakes-Dry Falls state park in my home state of Washington. The Dry Falls are a series of escarpments and cliffs near Grand Coulee, deep in Eastern Washington’s channelled scablands region. These are four hundred foot high cliffs in the middle of the desert, how did they get here? What secrets does this terrain hold? What can the strange rock formations and alien landscapes of eastern Washington state tell us about the future of our planet?

During the end of the last ice age, a massive amount of glacial ice in continental Europe and North America melted away. During the period from 25,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Laurentide, Cordilleran, and Fennoscandian ice sheets completely melted, leading to a 120 meter rise in the global sea level. The rise in sea levels from this melting is estimated to have averaged in at roughly one meter per century while being augmented by two intense periods of melting between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago, and between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago.

While the current consensus among paleoclimatologists is that this melting was relatively gradual and steady, occurring at a linear rate over the course of 15,000 years, there is some evidence beginning to surface both in our current ice sheets and in the geologic records on the last one, that a gradual and linear melting rate is not what we should expect to see going forward.

In this post, I’ll look at recent melting trends in Antarctica and Greenland as well as at paleoclimate data from ice and seabed cores to propose a model of continental ice sheet collapses as rapid and potentially cataclysmic historical events which we should be aware of as potentially civilization destabilizing. Most of our current population, our largest cities, and most of our power and industry facilities, are all located in low lying areas susceptible to coastal flooding. If the water levels rise at a rate faster than can be mitigated by a slow withdrawal from the coastline over the course of many decades and centuries, it could cripple human civilization and bring an end to our current way of life.

The first piece of evidence to note here is that the geologic record of the last ice age is littered with superfloods and seemingly cataclysmic sea level rise events. Water topped over earthen berms and flooded into lowlying areas, Doggerland and Sundaland vanished beneath the waves and the Bering Strait cut Asia and North America apart. These events have left scars on the surface of the Earth which you can see from space, you just need to know what to look for.

This is the North Fork of the Toutle River as it flows across the soft dried mud and ash of the Mount Saint Helens lahar zone, I provide this image just to given an example of stream braiding, the lahar zone gives a nice canvas on which you can really see how the water carves all these winding channels through the surface material. This happens in rivers around the world though, there are dozens of examples of this sort of river braiding I could show you. The important thing to note here though is the scale of this landform. The lahar zone is less than a kilometer across, and we can see roads and trees and houses at this level of zoom.

So now lets zoom out and look east across the Cascade range.

This is the channelled scablands from far above. At the height which satellites orbit, the mass scouring of hundreds of square kilometers can clearly be seen. braids tens of kilometers across and hundreds of kilometers long draw tracks across all of eastern Washington before spilling into the Columbia River Valley to flow onward toward the Pacific. This event, or events, geologists aren’t sure, is referred to as the Missoula Megafloods, and was the source of the Dry Falls pictured at the beginning of this post. At their peak flow, the Dry Falls were twice the height of Niagara Falls and five times the width. So much water poured into the Columbia River that it backfilled and flooded most of the Willamette Valley.

According to current consensus, these massive floods were caused when a proglacial lake formed in what is now Missoula, Montana. The leading theory is that a fifty mile long ice dam formed across the Clark Fork River which caused the waters of the receding Cordilleran Ice sheet to back up and pool around Missoula. This presents the first problem with the current consensus and is where a rather peculiar group of individuals become involved.

There are a group of slightly kooky geologists and historians who call themselves the Catastrophists. They hold that a moderately advanced civilization in North America was destroyed during the Younger Dryas period around 12,000 years ago and have found all sorts of interesting things to lend credence to their theory.

The Catastrophists looked at the story of the Missoula Megafloods and said, “That doesn’t work.” They pointed out that an ice dam the size of the one proposed cannot possibly have held back the amount of water under the head pressure that Glacial Lake Missoula was under, long enough for the lake to each its maximum historical depth of over 600 meters. Glacial Lake Missoula is estimated at having held 2,500 cubic kilometers of water, and the catastrophists say that there’s no way that could have happened with an ice dam triggered outburst flood, the ice would give before that much water could build up.

Instead, the Catastrophists propose that glacial lake missoula wasn’t a long term lake, but formed temporarily as a result of water flowing in from further north pooling and backfilling around Missoula as it interacted with the chokepoint in its flow along the Clark Fork River Valley.

The Catastrophists also have other evidence of rapid melting which they have found from seabed cores. Most of the seabed is composed mostly of decaying organic material, crushed up tiny organisms that rain down to the bottom in an ever present snow. However, there are notable strata lines within seabed cores, which contain mostly rocks, pebbles, sand, and other inorganic debris. These layers are called Heinrich Events, and it is believed that they are caused by large masses of icebergs breaking off, carrying rocks and sediment with them, and then dropping these bits of rock and sediment as they melt away. All of these things come together, according to the catastrophists, to seemingly support their theory of a cataclysmic event during the Younger Dryas period, 12,900 years ago.

So the Catastrophists look at all the data for speed of melting, heating from sunlight, atmospheric C02 levels, and conclude that the melting just happens too fast to be explained without an outside source. They claim there simply wasn’t enough energy available for the math to work out unless you added a bunch of extra energy from somewhere outside the climactic system.

The solution to this problem, they say, is that around 12,900 years ago, a comet or asteroid struck the top of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, triggering a massive pulse in melting which we observe in the form of megafloods and Meltwater Pulses and Heinrich Events. The evidence for this is shaky, but I sincerely hope they end up being correct. And they might actually be, late last year a 19 kilometer wide impact crater was discovered under the Hiawatha Glacier in Greenland. This impactor, if it occured at the right time period, might actually be the catastrophists smoking gun.

However, I am not particularly confident that they are correct. Because it’s under a glacier, we don’t yet know how old the crater at Hiawatha actually is. It could be significantly older than 12,000 years, and if it is, than we’re once again left with too much melting to fit our model and no discernible cause. The currently dominant theory is that a combination of increased insolation on the glaciers and high C02 levels at the time caused their final retreat and collapse. However, the effect seems to have exceeded the cause and the extremity of the events, especially the large pulses of meltwater, seem to imply some other mechanism was present. 

Without invoking some outside event like a volcanic eruption or an extraterrestrial impact, the only explanation we’re left with is the ill-understood climate feedback mechanisms which we are currently engaged in setting off en-masse.

The impact theory is in some senses comforting. We have big telescopes, we can see into space now, in theory, if we knew an impact event was coming, we could prevent it. If it takes an impact to cause a catastrophic melting and sea level rise event, then we’re mostly safe from it happening. If the melting was caused by an impact, then it means our current climate models which estimate around a meter of sea level rise by the year 2100, are largely accurate. 

But if these melting spikes were not caused by an impact, then it means something on earth which we currently do not understand triggered them. Something caused the ice sheets to suddenly and rapidly destabilize and release a large quantity of meltwater over a relatively brief period. If such an event were to occur today, the effects would be globally catastrophic. If an event caused a one-meter sea level rise over the course of a few years, it would render many of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable. 

Scientists have posited that the West Antarctic Ice sheet, which is sitting on bedrock below sea level, could potentially experience a catastrophic collapse event if sea water was able to access the roots of this glacier. Although computer models have been unable to construct the timeline of events in detail, the possibility remains that the entire ice sheet could collapse over a period as short as a few years, which, if the entire thing went, would lead to 6 to 9 meters of sea level rise, enough to submerge a large number of urban cores around the world and utterly remake coastlines. 

The possibility of this catastrophic melting event is often left out of the climate change conversation, with the assumption being that melting will be a nuisance and force the eventual abandonment of low-lying areas or construction of new seawalls, but is not an existential threat to civilization by itself.

If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet was to collapse over a five year period, it would lead to a global crisis as populations were forced to relocate and cities were rendered unlivable. In many ways, the predictions that the ice sheets will last for centuries more and take a thousand years to melt away are overly optimistic and based on older and less accurate models of past climate events. A recent paper has provided evidence that melting may not be linear in nature but exponential, and if recent trends in accelerating melting are extrapolated out, we could see multimeter sea level rise within the next fifty years.

This would not by itself be an X-Risk, but would represent a major case of cranking up the pressure that humanity is put under, and make other X-Risks such as nuclear wars and pandemics more likely. It is my opinion that the possibility of catastrophic ice sheet collapse should be carefully considered and studied as a real possibility. It’s unlikely we could prevent such a collapse from occurring, but by anticipating such an event we may be able to save many lives and livelihoods.

The Queen of the Damned

A short story set in the EVE universe. Read other short stories by me and by other members of the Alexylva Paradox at Alexylvaparadox.wordpress.com/chronicles

“They played you like a fiddle Metz.” The woman was everything Metz wasn’t. He was tall and lanky, rough, ragged on the edges, with a normally relaxed and carefree demeanor, dust worn and weather beaten. He was scruffy, with eyes that made him look older than he actually was, those dark eyes had seen a thousand little tragedies. Murders, execution, torture, and worse.

In contrast, Endorsei Edlrif looked like a paragon of the world of professional business. She was polished and sharpened, from her perfectly pressed suit to her immaculately brushed hair, the tasteful but understated jewelry she wore and the smooth and confident manner she carried herself with. She radiated an almost innocent poise, and with a face had hid her years, she would have fit in anywhere from a boardroom to a college campus.

She absolutely terrified Metz. The crimes, the inhumanities, the deaths, they weighed on Metz like a heavy stone around his neck, he felt the weight of his deeds with every step he took. He saw the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes. He wasn’t a good person, but he felt the cost of his sins, the barbs embedded in his soul. In contrast, Endorsei had an almost insane lightness to her. She was happy, cheerful, even chipper. He’d seen her squeal with glee and clap like a little girl when a group of traitors was strung up in front of her, none of the horror seemed to phase her in the slightest, on the contrary, she seemed to revel in it.

Metz Jerindold was a fixer, he made problems go away, but he was also a leader, he took responsibility for his actions, he might be a murderous bastard, but Skarkon was his system and he was still very protective of it. He was an Angel first, but he was a Skarkon native second. He was a matari, even if many in the republic would be loath to admit he was one of them.

Endorsei Edlrif on the other hand, was a monster. Metz had trouble believing she was actually human at times, much less Matari. The slaver’s fangs voluval appearing beneath her lips marked her as an outcast even among outcasts. She was the Cartel’s razor, gleaming in the darkness, the Queen of the Damned.

“I had to do something,” he said, nervously taking a drag of his cigarette, “ we couldn’t just let the Krullefor continue muscling into our turf.”

Endorsei looked out the panoramic windows of their meeting room aboard her custom Machariel. The deserts of Skarkon were like a painted canvas far below them. She watched a dust storm moving across the world with only the faintest hint of disgust.

“And so you set off a nuke in the middle of the city they were basing out of, killing a bunch of random people and giving the RSS an excuse to escalate the conflict further.” She shook her head, gesturing with the sucker she’d been slurping on,  “They played you Metz, they wanted you to react so they could say they were bringing justice and restoring order, and you reacted exactly the way they wanted. Now they get to bring the hammer down and play the heroes.”

“They won’t be seen as liberators,” Metz told her, following her eyes out the windows towards the planet, “Not in Skarkon. You don’t wipe away decades of bad blood and abandonment with a few soldiers and rations. They’d have to kill half the people down there to even begin to contest our grip.”

“You think the republic would give a fedo’s arse if half the people on that dustball died tomorrow?” She said, raising an eyebrow.

“They couldn’t…” he said, his voice trailing off, “That’s a bad look, even for them. I doubt they would want that much negative PR.”

“They’re going to put thousands of troops on the ground down there and turn that planet over for months,” Endorsei told him. “Long term occupations of hostile worlds are never pretty, just look at Caldari Prime.”

“What makes you so sure they’re going to stick around?” Metz asked her.

“Because they’re trying to find something,” she said, grinning darkly, “and they won’t leave a stone unturned if they think what they want is under it.”

“I know they’ve got people looking for Archeotech,” Metz told her, “What are they after?”

She giggled, “Sorry love, but that’s above your paygrade. All you need to know is that they won’t find it. We found it and took everything out over a decade ago.”

“So why are you here then Endorsei?” Metz said apprehensively, wondering if he was about to eat a bullet.

“Oh, I’m just tying up loose ends,” she said, skipping up to the window and peering out it with a wide eyed childlike fascination, “Ooh, look at that!” She jumped up and down, pointing at something out in the desert.

On the planet below, as if on queue, a trio of atomic explosions twinkled silently on the Ngelgneig, followed a few seconds later by five more. As far as Metz knew, there was nothing out there in the desert worth nuking. Just some mobile bases operated by various cartel backed corporate outfits.

“There!” She said happily, “No more loose ends, no one left alive who could say anything and no easily accessed evidence. It will take them months to find out that what they’re looking for isn’t on Skarkon II anymore, and you Metz, I have big plans for you!”

She put an arm over Metz’s shoulder, and the big man tried not to wince. She ran her fingers across his back and he had the sickening feeling of being sized up as a meal by some sort of giant predatory insect.

“You’re going to make sure the RSS’s stay on Skarkon II is an extra special one. I want you to pull out all the stops. Hold protests, throw rocks, arrange strikes, send gift baskets with grenades in the bottom, plant roadside bombs, hit squad leaders with snipers, everything you can do to turn that planet into as much of a slaver trap as possible, I want you to do it. Feel free to tap into the local discretionary fund. Fight smart, make the republic afraid of absolutely everyone on that damned planet. I want you to make it abundantly clear to them that Skarkon is not and will never be their planet, and that the people of Skarkon will never pledge loyalty to them. If they want Skarkon II, they’ll have to plant their flag in a pile of children’s corpses. Do I make myself clear?”

“Abundantly,” Metz said, carefully removing Endorsei’s hand from his back like one might remove a venomous snake.

“Just one last thing,” he said, “That necklace you’re wearing,” he pointed to the faintly luminescent sky blue pearl hanging by a simple silver chain from her neck, “There was a girl, a capsuleer, from one of the groups operating warclones on the planet. She had a jewel like that, said it was spiritually significant to her people and wanted to know what the Angels knew about them.”

Endorsei frowned faintly, looking at Metz and then down at her necklace. She shook her head, “That’s also above your paygrade Metz. But since I’m feeling…generous, here, give her my card.”

She held out a small piece of paper containing Endorsei’s neocom address. He knew the card also contained some nasty malware and a tiny sliver of antimatter which could be remotely detonated, he took the card carefully, handling it like the bomb it was.

Metz looked like he wanted to say something else, and then thought better of it, he wanted to be out of the room and away from Endorsei Edlrif as fast as possible.

“Now take care love,” she said, giggling and shooing him out of the meeting room, already bored of the sebiestor, “Make sure to give the RSS our best welcome, and give your girlfriend that card, we’ll see about getting her a nice trinket.”

Metz let himself be pushed out the door and practically ran back to his shuttle.

The Devil You Know

A short story set in the EVE Universe. 

The air was thick with smoke and shit. It smelled like oil and rot, rust and decay and desperation. Between the market and the river lay the slums. Between the tank farms and the market stalls rose a shantytown of ill fortunes and shattered dreams. Young people came to the city from all around the countryside, but the city wasn’t a place where poor men became rich, it was a place where rich men became richer and poor men became criminals if they were lucky and corpses if they weren’t. 

Metz chewed on the end of his cigarette, breaking the bulb in the end as he stood in the entrance to the nondescript hovel. The only barrier from the outside was a grimey sheet hung across the hole in the building. The beat down old building reflected upon the structure’s beat down old inhabitant. Metz lit his cigarette and leaned against the frame. A show of force, they couldn’t touch him, not Metz Jerindold. The people of Kor’ali knew better than that, if those Krullefor thugs hadn’t realized it, so much the worse for them. 

“Metz please, be reasonable,” the hobbled old man who ran the ghetto was trying to tell him, “We can’t pay protection to two gangs, the Krullefor are everywhere, they won’t take no for an answer!” 

Metz smiled and shook his head, taking a drag of his cigarette. He was a tall and lanky man, attractive in his own bushwhacked and weatherbeaten way, with dark hair and darker eyes. “You’ve known me for a long time Pardin,” he said to the man. 

“Since you barely came up to my waist,” Pardin confirmed. 

“Did I ever give you the impression that this was an optional arrangement that we had here? That you could simply choose to do otherwise if you so wished?” Metz sneered at the ramshackle dwelling, stepping further into the dimly lit interior, looking like he’d stepped in something foul. 

“The Krullefor…” the old man started. 

“We’ll deal with them like we dealt with everyone else,” Metz said simply, “The Krullefor, the CBD, the capsuleers sticking their noses where they don’t belong. None of them will be here forever. They’re vultures circling a fresh carcass, but in time, they’ll wander off when they get bored, when it’s no longer in their interests to care what happens to this place. But us? we’ll still be here, and where will you be then?” 

“The council decided…” Pardin started, but Metz cut him off.

“I’m well aware of what the council has decided, and so the Angels have decided as well. You made the wrong choice Pardin, you pissed off the wrong fucking people,” He flicked his cigarette but into a corner, where it began smouldering amidst the trash and refuse. Pardin made to stand and put it out, but before he could finish rising from his chair, Metz had crossed the room in a flash and kicked the old man in the chest hard enough to crush the chair under him and pin him to the ground, knocking the wind from him. 

“What’s that old saying Pardin?” Metz said as he ground his heel into the man’s chest. “Stick with the devil you know? Well, I’m the devil you know, and since it seems like you losers have forgotten that, I’ll have to remind you all. This planet belongs to the Angel Cartel. We gave you everything you have, and just like that, can take it all away.” 

Metz snapped his fingers in front of the terrified Pardin’s face. He was still struggling to get enough of his breath back to speak as the fire from the cigarette slowly began to spread, creeping up the greasy curtains that kept out the afternoon sun. 

“Traitors to the Cartel don’t last long, Pardin, and that’s what you all are now. You, and Mex, and Codaj, your lousy little neighborhood council, and this whole thrice cursed city.

“T-Thrice?” Pardin stammered out. 

“Yes,” Metz said with a sly smile, “After today, Thrice cursed.” The fire continued to spread as Metz removed an object from his pocket and tossed it at Pardin. It bounced off his face and rolled somewhere out of sight. 

“What is…?” Pardin gasped out. 

“It’s about 100 milligrams of antimatter,” Metz explained, “See I know all about your little smuggling operation Pardin. I know about the plutonium fuel cells you have stashed here and I know how much you’re making off them. I know roughly how many there are and I know how far the radioactive particles will be carried when that bomb goes off. What a tragic, tragic loss of life, and to think that it was all your fault for not properly storing one of your antimatter mines.” 

Pardin tried to shove Metz off his chest but the younger man was stronger and had leverage, “Metz please don’t do this, please, this isn’t you, you’re…”

“What?” Metz laughed, “A good person? I don’t know where you got that idea Pardin, you think this shithole raised me to be a good person? I was raised to get a job done, to do what the Cartel needed, to fuck up the people who needed to get fucked up, and today, Pardin, your number came up buddy. Nothing personal. The Angels remember their debts, you should have done the same.” 

“Metz!” Pardin hissed and struggled through gritted teeth, but the gangster was unmoved. He calmly removed his firearm and put a round through Pardin’s head before turning and strolling out the door. The fire had spread to the wall and was climbing up the side of the building, its smoke mixing with the haze from the rest of the cooking fires. He lit another cigarette and shoved his hands in his pockets, strolling off down the crowded street past a group of children playing ball and a group of old women crocheting. He didn’t warn them, he didn’t say anything. Everyone who it was worth warning had already fled Kor’ali weeks ago. 

He was already on his way out of the city when the bomb went off.

Song for a Red Planet

This is the first original filk song I’ve written, it’s not derived from anything. I’ll be recording myself singing it if I can find a decent microphone because I don’t really think my webcam mic is up to the task. ( I might do a webcam mic version anyway just to get the basic idea, we’ll see). It’s sung as a duet and features call and response, although it can also be sung alone. 

Verse 1:
I am just a son of men,  I walk upon the earth
I am just a boy trying to – prove – my – wo – rth
I am just a passenger aboard a ship without a berth
but if there’s one thing that I know it’s that I know i’m leaving earth

Ar – ca – dia – plan – i – ti- a – a – a
That’s where – I’ll lay my he – ad
Where sunsets are blue
And the domes are too – oo – oo
And the skies, are pai- n – t – ed re – ed

Chorus:
Ar – ca – dia – plan – i – ti- a – a – a
That’s where – I want to be
To red rock plains
I’ll sail my shi – i – i – p
Across – the highest se – as

Verse 2:
I am just a girl born to a ship without a har – bor
I am just a passenger please take –  me – far – ther
I am just a messenger and I am here to say,
Although I was born upon the earth on earth I cannot stay

Ar – ca – dia – plan – i – ti- a – a – a
Is where – I’ll make – my – ho – o – me
Through jet black space
That highest pla -a – a – ce
Is where –  I want – to – ro – o – am

Chorus:
Ar – ca – dia – plan – i – ti- a – a – a
That’s where – I want to be
To red rock plains
I’ll sail my shi – i – i – p
Across – the highest se – as

Bridge:
I don’t wanna go (don’t wanna go)
To hot bangkok (to hot bangkok)
I don’t want to go to the ei – f – fel – to – wer’s – top
I don’t wanna swim (don’t wanna swim)
In the gulfstream waters (in the gulfstream waters)
I want a land – not – of – our – fa – ther – s
I don’t wanna go (don’t wanna go)
To New York City (to New York City)
I want to be in the mariner valley.

Ar – ca – dia – plan – i – ti- a – a – a
A plea, – Please take me the – e -re
We’ll lay a course – We’ll board our shi – i – i – p
Soaring on a wing – and – a – pra – a – yer

Chorus:
Ar – ca – dia (Ar – ca – dia ) Plan – i – ti- a – a – a (Plan – i – ti- a – a – a)
That’s where (that’s where) – I want to be
To red rock plains (to red rock plains)
I’ll sail my shi (I’ll sail my shi – i – i – p)
Across – the highest se – as

Ar – ca – dia (Ar – ca – dia ) Plan – i – ti- a – a – a (Plan – i – ti- a – a – a)
That’s where (that’s where) – I want to be
To red rock plains (to red rock plains)
I’ll sail my shi (I’ll sail my shi – i – i – p)
Across – the highest se – as

A Brief Update on Updates

I have a lot of essays currently in my pipeline and a lot more things I want to talk about, however, I’ve realized that my self-imposed weekly update schedule was negatively impacting the quality of those posts. I’d rather not just write a bunch of useless material so I can say I’ve written something, so I’m going to be stopping that and only updating when I actually feel like I have something good to say. This will hopefully mean better if more sporadic content. It will also probably mean that sometimes content comes in rapid bursts as I finish going through research material and suddenly have a lot to write about. Sideways in Hyperspace will be the exception to this, I will still be maintaining an update schedule for that, but it will be reduced in frequency from weekly updates to biweekly updates. This will give me more time to write and edit and hopefully produce something with fewer errors and poor writing. The next chapter of SiH will be posted this Sunday, and then every other Sunday there will be an update.

I currently have four essay series in the pipeline:

The Death Series – Where I talk about Terror Management Theory, Becker, and how death interfaces with human cognition and society, along with how to overcome the fear of life, annihilation, and disempowerment, and how to gain and maintain agency in the face of the madness of the universe. I have probably three or four more essays to go before this series is completed, but it’s currently the furthest along.

The Truth Series – Where I go back through a history of rationality and attempt to distill down the essence in as short a format as I can manage, and building off that history in order to develop a high powered set of practices for those interested in world-saving. This essay series is maybe half-finished and I’m not sure how long it will be in the end.

The Extinction Series – Where I actually talk about X-Risk, the end of the world, and the threats humanity is facing. I’m the least far along on this series and it currently only contains one essay.

Those three series will be compiled afterward into what I’m currently calling The Eschatologist’s Handbook: A Guide to the End of the World.

The final essay series I’m working on is the Confessions of a Transhumanist series, which also currently has only one essay. This will discuss my personal views on things like politics, justice, death, morality, and society. These posts will be fairly varied and not particularly connected to each other but are essentially attempts to make my worldview legible in the broad and general sense. This is a lower priority than the other projects so the posts for it will come more sporadically as I’m feeling inspired.

Beyond that, I have a bunch of stand-alone essays I’ve been meaning to write, such as one on various high-variance strategies and their use and their risks, as well as low-variance alternatives to them. I also want to go back over all of my material on plurality and identity and rewrite it. I still think plurality applications could be useful mental tech, but it is itself a high variance strategy with lots of places to mess yourself up using it. 

I don’t know when my next posts will come up, but hopefully, it will be fairly quickly. I’d rather not go on a long hiatus again, I just don’t want to lock myself on a schedule and have my content suffer as a result of it.

Edit: correction, SiH will return May 10th, not May 3rd, Hofstadter’s law is in full effect this week it seems.

What is Your Goal Hive?

Note: At the request of people on LW I’m trying to be more precise with my infohazard warnings, which is why they are longer in this post. I’m still playing with formating for them.
Content Warning:  Evocation Infohazard, Neuropsychological Infohazard, Debiasing Infohazard, this post points out how we all participate in corrupt systems and has the possibility of causing mental turmoil over noticing that fact. 
Recommended Prior Reading: The Matrix is a System, There is a War, Boundaries enable positive material-informational feedback loops

Squeegily made the following comment on my last post. Reproduced here:

I know you’ve already read Ziz’s The Matrix is a System, but I find that worth re-reading along with the two essays it links under “closed loops”.

I’ve been blessed to be intrinsically interested in / find enjoyable skillsets reasonably well-aligned with the needs of the USG’s military-industrial/cyber complex; so, in terms of that model of money, I’m “in the service of the emperor” nearly directly, with the ability to commission more resources for my own projects/discretion/recreation than I’ll ever produce in my life / would have access to in a non-coercive economic system. Ultimately speaking, I’m still just a fly on the wall/windshield of the emerging future, but you describe acutely in this post the failure-mode I’ve always been unable to articulate, yet relieved at having avoided—the urge to escape which without a free pass, I think I’ve noticed in Ziz.

Is there any way you could get some more agency?

Can you find a path to “self”-sufficiency, from where you are now, circumstances and all?

What’s your endgame?

Your Patreon transfers are acquired at a friction lossm you’re gaining resources from people sympathetic to your cause, who got their resources either from a similarly lossy process, or (more likely) sacrificing themselves to a larger, less-transhumanism-aligned economic sphere.

What are you planning on doing to honor and make good on the sacrifice of resources from aligned people you plan/intend/are currently fueling your mere existence with? It’s stressful for literally everyone involved for one to be living paycheck-to-paycheck off donations; triply so if a supermajority of these “sacrificed” resources are being immediately handed-over to your landlords, Amazon, and the local grocery store; all for…what, exactly? A sci-fi webserial and LW-tangent blog? Are these the ends to which these resources are being commissioned?

I was operating under the impression that this sort of mode of existence as yours “””normally””” uses the blog mainly to iron out the author’s thoughts, as an ongoing conversation with the Wired, as some personal exploration as a means to increase the chances of accomplishing whatever they find out their goal is.

What is your goal, Hive?

  1. my comment on TMiaS

I thought this was such a good comment that I wanted to give the response to it an entire post. This comment gave me an awful lot to think about and sent me down a rabbit hole in terms of how I approach my objectives and long term strategies. There are a couple of parallel mental tracks that were generated by all of this, I’ll go through them one by one. 

Achieving Financial Stability Within the Current Paradigm

To start with I agree that it’s problematic that I’m persisting off of donations from other value-aligned people without producing contributions commensurate with the money I’m getting. This is a big problem and I want to stop doing it as soon as I can, either by producing more value or by asking for less help. 

Fortunately, thanks to my union I’ll eventually be getting my job back, so I shouldn’t need to rely on donations for much longer. I’ve also started doing some contract work through a friend’s startup; for now, this just provides some supplementary income but the business is doing well and expanding steadily. If everything goes according to plan it will grow into something full time in the near future. Between those things and the fact I’ve been getting a lot better at budgeting and saving, my overall financial situation is finally starting to look decently healthy. 

I hadn’t ever really intended my Patreon to be primarily sourced from members of the community, my long term goal as a writer is to produce popular content which brings more people into alignment from outside, particularly using things like fiction given the success of HPMOR. If I can manage this, it would be largely positive-sum from the perspective of the project of rationality and I wouldn’t be taking donations that would have otherwise gone to AGI research or X-risk mitigation. (And yes, I know there are some who think spreading rationality to a wider audience would be negative. I obviously am not one of them but that particular disagreement is beyond the scope of this post). 

While I deeply appreciate all the support I’ve been getting, I really don’t want to be taking resources that would have been going to more important causes. The last thing I want is to be a financial drain on the community. I want to make the world better and using the community to support myself without giving back in a commensurate way is completely opposed to that goal. 

The Problems with the Paradigm

Squeegily asks:  

Is there any way you could get some more agency?

Agency, in terms of the ability to take actions that affect the world, is constrained by Slack, which, for most people in western society, is constrained by money. Getting more agency requires getting more slack which requires getting more money. So the easy answer is that I’m getting better at getting money, and thus I’m well on my way to having more slack and thus more agency. 

However, as Ziz points out in The Matrix is a System, money in our society is bound up in DRMs installed by forces gunning down innocent people in the street in the middle east and shooting innocent people in their homes in America. Money only provides a limited sort of agency contingent upon your not questioning or challenging the systems you get your money from. I know this all too well from having challenged the system in my workplace and very nearly being fired for it. This is the normal operating mode which keeps the wheels of oppression turning all across society. Everyone is too afraid to actually take a stand on their own and getting everyone to stand up at once is a coordination problem that we haven’t found a solution to yet. 

The agents of the matrix conspire to ensure that no one who actually has the power to solve problems has the incentives to do so and that nobody who has the incentives to solve problems has the power to do so. Trying to change the system from within the system is a crank that unwinds itself. Power corrupts, and the more of it you have, the less desire you have to fight the systems granting you that power. Trying to amass power within society to bring about positive change will turn you into someone incapable of resisting the harm and abuse inherent in your source of power. This neatly brings us into the next question: 

Can you find a path to “self”-sufficiency, from where you are now, circumstances and all?

And again, the easy answer is that, sure, I’m well on my way to being financially independent and thus “self-sufficient” in some shallow monopoly money sense that doesn’t question the social reality. But since I want to be able to question the social reality and I already addressed my personal finances in part one, let’s go deeper

To really answer this question properly we have to ask what self-sufficiency means in a world where the Benevolent Golden Empire is always taxing your income and your land. Being a farmer and living on the land and hunting and farming in order to feed yourself and your family isn’t good enough because you also need to make enough of a surplus to pay off the mobsters who will come and take away your house and your land and your farm and leave you to die in a ditch if you don’t. And that’s before you get to the part where you’re trying to make a positive impact on humanity. 

Thus in order to actually make a meaningful difference, you have to, as Ziz points out, construct a closed loop, an isolated positive-sum system not constrained by the larger forces of society. Of course, as Ben Hoffman points out the government will always extract it’s pound of flesh so no matter what you do you’re never going to have a completely non-lossy solution, and as Jessica Taylor points out most of Effective Altruism is run on rather lossy and negative feedback loops (including this blog!). Most of the resources being generated for world-saving are leaking out to landlords and grocery stores and taxes collected by the Benevolent Golden Empire. 

Perhaps even more critically though, even if you did plug all of those leaks it would just get you to “isolated village that cares for its people,” you wouldn’t be in a position to further improve things. If you want to actually change the world, you need to do better than perpetual motion, you need to achieve over-unity.

So what does that look like? 

Well, it probably doesn’t look like living in a giant metropolis where the cost of living is sky-high and all the resources to live are bound up by wealthy landlords. Even if you think you’ve managed to construct something positive in such an environment, it’s a positive thing you’ve built using factory farms and drone strikes and bank foreclosures and environmental destruction. It’s a positive thing where you’re holding hostage all of the people working with you and thus they’re holding you hostage with their livelihoods. You’ll be strongly incentivized to see yourself as a net positive and ignore all the externalities and the places where your generated value is leaking out to landlords and big businesses. 

Building Zion outside the matrix probably looks much more like an Amish or Mennonite community than like the current incarnation of the Effective Altruist community. These are groups that for the most part live off the land and make most of their own goods using communities of mutual aid in order to generate positive resource coefficients. They do this so that they can, to as great a degree as possible, avoid participating in the systems of oppression that control society. 

But this is still just breaking even, the Amish aren’t solving AI alignment or ending factory farming or reducing global poverty. So we need to do even better if we want to make a meaningful global impact. Also, perhaps obviously, the Amish are not one person or even one family, they are entire communities bound up in their own group ontologies and supporting each other with non-monetary arrangements of mutual aid and community organization. Recreating these systems and bonds outside of a Christian ontology is no small feat. 

So can we do better than the Amish? Can we do well enough to create something that grows and snowballs over time in a virtuous cycle that creates meaningful and positive change in humanity? 

I initially tried to answer these questions, but doing so sent me down another rabbit hole and they are kind of big questions with a lot of moving parts, so I think it’s best to save them for another post. 

Attempting to do so did also force me to ask: Can I actually solve this problem myself? Am I the sort of person who can generate a workable solution here and actually answer these questions? People with better thinking and stronger rationality and greater discernment than me have tried and failed already, why do I think I can do better? Well, I really don’t, honestly. At least not as the person I am today. Maybe with a lot of work and research, I can turn myself into that person but I don’t think I’m there at the present. So, to answer this question:

What’s your endgame?

In the short term, my goal is to just get myself into a stable situation where I don’t have to beg value-aligned people for money to stay afloat. I’m making good progress on this and expect to be in a stable position rather sooner than later. In the long term, I think it really depends on a lot of other factors. 

Given my skills and where I am right now as a person if I can find someone who would consider me a useful part of their project, working for them would probably be a more effective use of my talent than trying to play catchup and turn myself into yet another commander in a community that already has too many commanders. Barring that, I’ll continue on my own and keep working on my attempts to spread the rationality memeplex via popular media.

And as for escaping from the system to a sufficient degree to not end up epistemically distorted by it? I have some ideas, but they’re rather underdeveloped and I need to do a lot of research before having a good enough answer to post. I do think it’s an important problem to solve, so if someone better positioned to try and tackle them beats me to a workable solution I’d consider that a win for the project. 

Confessions of a Transhumanist: On Life in Known Space

Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard, Suicide, and Self Harm
Part of the Series: Confessions of a Transhumanist

When I was young, I didn’t want to save the world, I just wanted to escape from it. My life wasn’t the hardest, but it was such that by the time I was sixteen I was struggling with suicidal ideation fairly regularly. Between my parents and school, I didn’t often feel like I had a place in the world. I felt like I had places that were expected of me, roles I was forced into, but beyond that, I didn’t really have anything that motivated me in and of itself. I had no drive, except to get away from the pain and uncomfortableness that was most of my life, most of the time.

Thus, I got really good at dissociating into video games. I started playing EVE Online when I was 16, and it’s probably the thing that saved my life. The friends I made in EVE talked me out of suicide when I was probably the closest to it I’ve ever really been. Those first EVE friends in a real sense taught me how to want things on my own, how to actually be a person at a time when most of the adults in my life wanted me to be a posable figurine. They did this in a sort of assholish way, and I haven’t spoken to most of that group in over five years, but I still think of them somewhat fondly despite them being kinda awful people. 

This was also around the time that I first learned about the idea of transhumanism. The first place that I ever encountered the word ‘transhumanism’ was in a webcomic called Dresden Codak. I didn’t really have a firm grasp on what being a transhumanist was but I quickly decided it was what I wanted to be. I talked about wanting to have a robotic body, wanting to live forever and wanting to explore space. With the help of my assholish eve friends I came out as trans and talked about how being transgender was an inherently transhuman experience. 

Fairly soon afterward, my desire to act out my transhuman fantasies and explore my gender while not out to my parents led me to start exploring the roleplay scene in EVE for the first time. I was not a good roleplayer at first, and were it not for the link rot I would love to find you some examples of just how bad I was. If you find the right veteran roleplayers I’m sure you could get them to tell you if you knew how to ask. 

This desire to explore the roleplay scene created the first real conflict which I was able to stand up for myself in. The group I was flying with at the time were kind of awful people, and climbing out from under them and starting my own group was the first of a long series of steps I took in becoming an independent person, either in the real world or in EVE. I learned to stand up to my old corpmates and used that to stand up to my parents. 

I then went through a number of intermediary phases and identities in the process of figuring myself out. I spent a while exploring my spirituality and made an eve character to reflect this, leaving behind another group I had made and then ruined along the way. It was during this phase that I met my best friend, Streya Jormagdnir. That was over eight years ago now. 

The EVE Roleplay community was my first real home on the internet. The friends I made in the EVE roleplay scene are people I’m still friends with to this day, a decade later. I think about them surprisingly often. Graelyn, Havohej, Ava Starfire, Morwen Lagann, Verone, Vincent Pryce, Stitcher, Katrina Oniseki, Kalaratiri, Mizhara Del’Thul, Aria Jenneth, Valerie Valete and so many others. More names than I can remember but never want to forget. More memories than I have space for in my mind. Even the people I always sort of hated ingame like Valerie Valete, who I had pretty much nothing but animosity towards, are all incredibly important to me and I care about all of them more dearly than I can put into words. My life has been touched by so many people in so many ways and I can never do enough to thank them all for being there for me for all those years as a community. 

The EVE roleplay community is also the place that I first discovered Less Wrong. My desire to win arguments with internet spaceship theists led me to quote this post and this guy bunch at people, and that led to Stitcher linking me to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

And it was from this that I became attached to the idea that transhumanism was good and that it should win. Not just that it was the correct thing to think to win arguments, or that it was a cool identity goal to have, but that it was right, period, that it was something worth striving towards in the real world. That the world could be saved at all, that something better than this was actually possible outside of science fiction.

I still had no way to actually act on those desires, and I was still very much trapped in my own head, in my own pain, which led to the creation of Saede Riordan of the Alexylva Paradox. Saede tried to achieve in EVE what I couldn’t in real life. She set out to found an independent colony of radical transhumanists, a nation where AIs had equal rights to humans, where everyone had mind backups, where everyone was taken care of, and where no one had to die unless they wanted to. 

It was around this time that I had to drop out of community college. I had hoped to get a degree in environmental science and help fight climate change, but because of my life circumstances, I stopped being able to pay for my classes. I was living on my own and working part-time while trying to attend college at multiple satellite campuses and commute two hours by bus to take labs and it all sort of conspired against me and I ended up with a bunch of debt and no degree. So, I gave up on school and traveled across the country from Dunkirk, New York to Seattle, Washington with my best friend. 

I spent a while nearly homeless, fell in with a group of canvassers, and became involved in political activism. In EVE our system was besieged multiple times and we were eventually burnt down completely by a fleet of russians in rattlesnakes. Somewhere during all of that, I started writing Sideways in Hyperspace. From there I found my way via the /r/rational subreddit’s discord server into the online rationalist community. That brought along its own huge box of trauma which I’ll be avoiding getting into in this post, but which among other things forced me to really consider for the first time if there was anything I could actually do to bring Origin into the real world. And well, that takes us up to the start of this blog

It took this long and roundabout journey through a huge amount of trauma and bad things happening before I was able to piece together enough things to make a coherent ideology for myself and to even begin to consider that maybe I could make a difference in the world somehow

I still don’t really know if I can actually make a difference. I want to try, but here’s the really insidious thing about all of this: part of the thing that keeps me writing is that it keeps me fed. People read my writing and donate to my Patreon, so I have a direct incentive to produce content. 

We live in a consumer culture and I produce a product (the contents of this blog) and try to sell it to you (my readers), in order to buy delicious poptarts (the kind without frosting are vegan, so you know). Given that incentive structure, it’s really hard for me to know how much good anything I’m doing actually is. I’m incentivized to make content at all costs in order to try and sell myself as a useful member of the rationalist community. I know that being useful to the project of saving humanity increases the chances someone will help me out of my horrible life of crushing poverty and looming homelessness, so I’m incentivized to try and make myself look useful. 

And I like to think I actually am useful, that in all of my life’s events I’ve been turned into someone sufficiently value aligned to be helpful in immanentizing the eschaton, that my desire to instantiate Origin can manifest into an ability to do useful work. But also because of all my life’s events, it’s hard to know how useful I would really be without that abusive incentive structure encouraging me to think that and to try and sell myself as such, because I have pretty much always had the abusive incentive structure looming over me.

I have never really lived in Origin. If I did, would I really be willing to venture outside it and brave the harsh world to help it grow and flourish? I like to think I would, but I have never lived in Origin, so I have no way of knowing. Until and unless someone uplifts me I can never really know for sure. Until then I’m just another lost soul trying to eke out a living on the margins of Known Space. 

Kintsugi

Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard, Suicide, and Self Harm

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver, Summer Day

I turned thirty this week, I’m still trying to process that fact. Ten thousand nine hundred and sixty two days on this Earth on the day this post is published. Three hundred and sixty months. Two hundred and sixty three thousand six hundred and thirty five hours.
Parts of me are shocked that we made it this far, while other parts of me are angry and bitter that we’ve wasted so much of the limited time we have on this Earth. My life is not where I wish it was, I’m not the
person I hoped to become. So much has happened to me, life has been at many times been harsh and unforgiving, and time has a way of catching up with us. 

I was treated poorly as a child, and I’m also still trying to process that fact. I’m sure my parents will argue that they did the best they could, and maybe they did. I probably have undiagnosed autism, which I’m also trying to come to terms with, and if no one including me realized that then I of course that couldn’t be taken into account by my caregivers…Not that our society is particularly kind or good to autistic children who are identified young either. 

I don’t want to start some sort of fight with them or blame them for the trauma I experienced, but they also made lots of mistakes and to this day seem rather detached and oblivious to the world I inhabit. They grew up in a very different time and their expectations of how the world works have never fundamentally been updated from those times. They seem trapped in the just world fallacy and willfully deny the horrors of reality, taking shelter in the blind faith that everything just has to work out in the end somehow.

It doesn’t. It really really doesn’t. 

I had different and contradictory demands put on me by school and my parents, I wasn’t ever really allowed as a child to explore or express my own preferences and for a long time, even into my young adulthood, I didn’t really know what I wanted. None of the things I was allowed to want were appealing and when I was punished for exploring the things that did seem interesting to me, I learned to just stop trying and stop wanting things. Contradictory demands to have preferences I didn’t have were poured into me until I shattered and became a husk of a person. I had a lot of people tell me that when they knew me as a child or teenager that I seemed like this empty shell to them. That didn’t really improve until I moved out of my parents’ house and was finally able to start considering what I actually wanted out of life. Of course, by then the damage was already done and I wasn’t remotely in a place where I could intelligently pursue those desires. 

I entered adulthood armed with a broken sense of agency and an incoherent view of reality that metamorphosed itself to appease all the authority figures I interacted with. I was pushed into college and pushed into taking out loans without any real idea of what was happening to me. I didn’t understand the world or my place in it, I was just dragged through one awful experience after another while being told that the world was magical and wonderful and everything always worked out for good people who followed the rules. 

For a long time I wasn’t able to form a coherent worldview because I was getting told one set of facts by my parents, another alternative set of facts by my teachers, and yet another alternative set of facts by popular media. I would be yelled at if I said the wrong set of facts to the wrong people, so I had to learn to code switch before I learned how to actually recognize which of the facts I was getting were true. The answer: almost none of them. 

The nineties were characterized by a culture of everyone aggressively lying to children, of telling us we could be anything, do anything. It was thought that children had to be eased into reality and that we couldn’t handle the truth so we had to be lied to and told the world was more just, more kind, more fair, and easier to navigate than it actually was. Not only were we ill prepared for the real world because of these lies, but our ability to respond to the truth when we finally started to see past them was also stomped on by forcing us to sit in classes and have our sense of curiosity and agency destroyed because ‘learning obedience’ was more important than becoming knowledgeable people prepared to confront a rapidly changing global landscape. I still remember an art teacher saying to my mother at one point “It’s not about art it’s about discipline” when I was punished for not following the instructions closely enough.

It might have been better if I’d had friends, but I was a shy socially anxious kid who quickly became the magnet for bullying and ostracization, so I couldn’t even find support from my peers. Worse, I was kind of naive and gullible and the kids around me realized they could offer to do things like trust falls with me and then let me hit the ground, and it was funny to see my confusion and horror at being betrayed. I’d be invited to things and then ditched, told I was welcome somewhere just as everyone else decided to leave, and generally treated like a punching bag because I was small and seen as an easy target. I know a bunch of them later became worried I would become some sort of school shooter. I admit, I had some fantasies about ‘getting even’ against those bullying me, but most of them involved me having magical powers so it was never particularly realistic. 

The few places I was able to find solace from the world was to dissociate into useless tasks like video games and television. I was taught to hate learning, to distrust authority, to assume kindness was a sign of someone tricking me or expecting to get something out of me, and I entered adulthood on a path where I immediately collapsed in on myself as soon as the external pain driven demands were removed. I had no intrinsic motivation so as soon as the pain-conditioned motivation was gone I was left completely adrift and spent the next several years playing EVE Online and bombing out of community college. 

I was set up to fail, then collapsed into a hole and was left there to die. This is where the surprise that I didn’t comes in. My priors up to this point featured betrayal after betrayal by those charged with teaching and caring for and protecting me, and as such, I didn’t really trust anyone at all. I didn’t know how to trust anyone. It seemed very strongly like the entire world was out to use me and take advantage of me, which was why I was great at EVE. 

But something funny happened, starting in EVE of all places. Sometimes, for absolutely no reason and without benefit to themselves, people started being nice to me at times. For a long time I just flat out didn’t know how to deal with this. I didn’t trust it, there had to be a catch. When I started dating my first serious partner I continuously thought that it was only a matter of time before the rug was pulled out from under me. That relationship probably would have gone better if I had been capable of trusting people, but it took probably another five years before my ability to trust anyone at all finally started to heal enough to not expect my friends to turn on me. 

My twenties were mostly spent trying to recover from the damages of childhood and piece myself back together. While I was doing that, I let myself slip deeper and deeper into the hole I’d fallen in. I didn’t really have a choice, I was too shattered to think much beyond the next day, so I couldn’t plan for the future or work to improve myself. It was only within the last two or three years that I healed enough to actually think about who I was and what I wanted. 

This presented its own form of pain, because I found myself down a mineshaft with the surface lost to the gloom above. I wasn’t starting from zero, I was starting from negative three thousand six hundred and fifty, in a place in my late twenties that most people entered in their late teens. I still don’t know if I’ll ever really be able to reach the surface, much less build anything new. I constantly struggle with not simply giving up and letting the world roll over me, and sometimes it’s really hard. The bottles of pills on my desk whisper of the possibility of escape and the razor blades sing their own sad song of pain and release. I don’t want to go but sometimes staying is the hardest thing I can do. 

However, there is something working in my favor, which keeps me going seemingly in spite of everything else. I’m not the child I was before I shattered into a million pieces. That person is gone and is never going to be recovered. The thing about trauma is that it never really goes away. Even if you reassemble all the pieces the cracks remain in the material, the structural discontinuities and weaknesses are all still there. You can’t really fix that, but you move on anyways. Just because something is broken doesn’t mean it’s useless or trash. 

In Japan, a technique called kintsugi (金継) developed to repair broken pottery by using a lacquer mixed with gold to reassemble the broken pieces. The end result isn’t the original, the damage remains, but instead of being hidden or treated as a bad thing, the flaws are emphasized and highlighted, adding to the beauty and history of the piece. You might not be able to undo what happens, but skin heals in spite of scars. 

You might not be able to be who you were, but at least you can be someone. Put one foot in front of the other and step forward into life as something whole, something new, something better. 

kintsugi21

Occam’s Guillotine

Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Part of the Series: Truth
Previous Post: Gods! Robots! Aliens! Zombies!
Cowritten with: Namespace

There are two ways to slide easily through life: Namely, to believe everything, or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.
 – Alfred Korzybski, The Manhood of Humanity

For most of human history, cultures and individuals held to the idea that there was one truth that could be discovered or divined. While different tribes and traditions might disagree strongly on whose truth was correct, no one particularly objected to the idea that there was a truth to the world which you either had or did not have. Both the priest and the shaman believed their worldviews were correct, but neither one of them put stock in the notion that they were both somehow correct. Contradictory statements could not both be true, someone was right and someone was wrong. However, as competing cultures began to interact with one another more extensively this began to change, and not for the better. 

Eclecticism may be defined as the practice of choosing apparently irreconcilable doctrines from antagonistic schools and constructing therefrom a composite philosophic system in harmony with the convictions of the eclectic himself. Eclecticism can scarcely be considered philosophically or logically sound, for as individual schools arrive at their conclusions by different methods of reasoning, so the philosophic product of fragments from these schools must necessarily be built upon the foundation of conflicting premises. Eclecticism, accordingly, has been designated the layman’s cult. In the Roman Empire little thought was devoted to philosophic theory; consequently most of its thinkers were of the eclectic type. Cicero is the outstanding example of early Eclecticism, for his writings are a veritable potpourri of invaluable fragments from earlier schools of thought. Eclecticism appears to have had its inception at the moment when men first doubted the possibility of discovering ultimate truth. Observing all so-called knowledge to be mere opinion at best, the less studious furthermore concluded that the wiser course to pursue was to accept that which appeared to be the most reasonable of the teachings of any school or individual. From this practice, however, arose a pseudo-broadmindedness devoid of the element of preciseness found in true logic and philosophy.
Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings Of All Ages

Eclecticism and its descendent postmodernism raise the idea that the ultimate truth of the world can never really be known. The world is subjective down to its roots, reality is just like, your opinion man. This has had disastrous effects on the wider pursuit of truth. Hard science has been inundated by limp wristed subjectivity and the notion of a plurality of contradictory truths all being correct has become the norm across much of the humanities. How could a proper art and science of human engineering ever come out of this potpourri of nonsense? 

You can’t design a bridge without actually knowing the tensile strength of steel and the compressive strength of concrete, these facts are not open to interpretation. Designing a society is no different and pretending that all viewpoints are equal, that all truths are just as valid as one another, is a dangerous precedent that has brought the development of the humanities to a screeching halt. If we truly want to advance the art of rationality, this notion must be stamped out with extreme prejudice. 

This is easily the most important concept that Eliezer discusses in The Sequences. Reality actually exists and has properties you can determine through study and experimentation. Conclusions follow from their premises and it’s unreasonable to expect a plurality of truths. Our universe is consistent and your understanding of the pieces should fit together. The truth isn’t just your opinion. There is one truth and you find it or you don’t:

But it was Probability Theory that did the trick. Here was probability theory, laid out not as a clever tool, but as The Rules, inviolable on pain of paradox. If you tried to approximate The Rules because they were too computationally expensive to use directly, then, no matter how necessary that compromise might be, you would still end up doing less than optimal. Jaynes would do his calculations different ways to show that the same answer always arose when you used legitimate methods; and he would display different answers that others had arrived at, and trace down the illegitimate step. Paradoxes could not coexist with his precision. Not an answer, but the answer.

The universe operates on rules, and the rules continue to apply to you whether you believe in them or not. The rules are not optional, they are not open to interpretation, they do not care about your feelings. The universe exists, and it cannot be negotiated around. That’s not fair? Doesn’t matter. But that’s injust! Doesn’t matter. But– 

What can a twelfth-century peasant do to save themselves from annihilation? Nothing. Nature’s little challenges aren’t always fair. When you run into a challenge that’s too difficult, you suffer the penalty; when you run into a lethal penalty, you die. That’s how it is for people, and it isn’t any different for planets. Someone who wants to dance the deadly dance with Nature does need to understand what they’re up against: Absolute, utter, exceptionless neutrality.

Eliezer discusses this mostly in the context of physics and Bayesian reasoning. If conclusions follow from their premises, and the premises always lead to the same conclusion, we can say that conclusion is necessary. Valid methods of thinking will reliably produce the same answer (modulo some noise in real world thinkers) given the same priors and evidence. Two and two make four, matter cannot be created or destroyed, the probability of two independent events occurring is always less than the independent probability of either. Curiously, necessity is discussed frequently in The Sequences but never given a name. This is to their detriment, as necessity is one of the hardest concepts in rationality to master.

Most basic failures of rationality are some form of refusal of necessity. This is unsurprising, because necessity is the dream killer. As children, we dream of being veterinarians, astronauts and mad scientists, not the lawyers, accountants, and grocery store clerks we actually grow up to be. We’re told all sorts of things about the world and ourselves that we don’t want to hear, so we deny them. Everyone else might have to get a job but not me, when I’m older I’ll eat all the candy I want, I’m not going to die. Over time, this reflex becomes automatic and we stop even noticing the denial. 

For example, I recently saw a discussion of necessity on a ‘rationalist’ forum where someone pointed out that it was impossible to fly unassisted. A Buddhist replied that it was only impossible to fly unassisted in consensus reality. They argued that it’s possible to fly in a lucid dream, so their real complaint is that they can’t do it where it will affect others. The entire process of thought that is capable of generating this objection betrays an extreme level of disassociation; where the default is a personal, private universe separated from the underlying physics which allow it to exist. That dream world is the thing necessity takes away from us, what people are afraid of losing by restricting themselves to what is there to be experienced in reality. The refusal of necessity is synonymous with the refusal of reality, which Buddhism provides a framework for. In Buddhism, the aspiring Arhat dismantles their attachments to the material world and turns their survival hardware into a substrate to run a personal paradise for a certain amount of time before being annihilated into a welcomed nothingness. This is one way of dealing with the problem of necessity, but it’s not one we can sanely endorse and still consider ourselves rationalists. 

Our private symbolic universe is not the only thing we’re looking to guard by refusing necessity. Often we resent the effort we’d have to go through if we took our beliefs seriously, supported by an implicit meta-belief that life should never be too hard. In many ways, a 1st world childhood is a very bad introduction to life because it sets you up for a lifetime of unreasonable expectations. 

Conditions are so good that it becomes easy to imagine in our childish naivete that life can be an indefinite sleepwalk through an introvert’s dream world or a never ending play session in an extrovert’s favorite field. Eventually, we are pulled away from these delusions, but the expectations set by that tutorial stay with us for life. Bennett Foddy writes about the process of building a game meant to show players their unreasonable expectations about challenge and difficulty:

Anyway when you start Sexy Hiking, you’re standing next to this dead tree that blocks the way to the entire rest of the game. It might take you an hour to get over that tree, and a lot of people never got past it, you prod and you poke at it exploring the limits of your reach and strength trying to find a way up and over. And there’s a sense of truth in that lack of compromise. Most obstacles in video game worlds are fake, you can be completely confident in your ability to get through them, once you have the correct method or the correct equipment or just by spending enough time. In that sense, every pixelated obstacle in Sexy Hiking is real. . . . A funny thing happened to me as I was building this mountain. I’d have an idea for a new obstacle, and I’d build it, test it, and I would usually find it was unreasonably hard. But I couldn’t bring myself to make it any easier, it already felt like my inability to get past the new obstacle was my fault as a player rather than as the builder.

I heard a story from the recent COVID-19 outbreak that illustrates this well. A man living with relatives noticed they were still buying bananas from the grocery. When he inquired about whether they’d been washed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he got a very strange answer. They had not been washed, but that was okay because bananas had a skin on them. The relatives insisted he should peel the banana and then carefully avoid letting the outside peel touch the meat of the fruit on the inside. So long as he didn’t touch it with his fingers then he wouldn’t be putting his face in contact with the virus. This is the sort of thing you think is okay when you aren’t taking ideas seriously. He wasn’t very hungry for bananas after that. 

At the core of the difficulty people have with necessity is uncertainty. It’s obvious that two and two make four, but when things become less obvious than that, when they get abstract or there’s incomplete information suddenly magical thinking gets introduced. Our biases take over, and whether in the direction of pessimism or optimism our beliefs become hallucinations premised on a smaller and smaller proportion of evidence to analysis and speculation. What Eliezer tries to get across with his insistence on a Bayesian foundation for epistemology is that your beliefs should still be necessary even under conditions of uncertainty. It is the duty of every serious philosopher to learn to feel gradations of necessity and to intuit how necessary their beliefs are. What degrees of freedom remain in their ideas, what hypotheses are still left to be considered, exactly how much weight does it make sense to put on a given hypothesis given the available evidence? There are exact, precise answers to these questions even if they are outside of your current awareness. 

Failing to accept the world as it is, failing to take ideas seriously, makes us a danger to ourselves and others. In this, the current pandemic gives us a rather fantastic (albeit horrifying) window into the limits of the dream worlds that most people inhabit. College students openly defy public health experts because they’re entitled to spring break. The health minister of Iran gets the virus and still insists that quarantine is an outdated method of controlling an epidemic. President Trump tells the public that the disease is comparable to the flu until it’s too late for us to contain it. If this were a movie it’d be panned by critics as unrealistic b-film trash.

trump-reddit-coronavirus-statements

It’s quite impressive how far people will go to protect their worldview at the cost of their wellbeing, but even this has its limits. Eventually too much predictive error will build up and the whole edifice will come crashing down. What will it take to make you look? How much harm do you have to come to? How many people close to you have to die before you’ll actually look at the world as it is? Over the coming weeks, we can expect to see a lot of deeply held worldviews fracture as the illusion of safety is rudely torn away. The safety blanket of childhood won’t protect you from bullets or viruses, only true knowledge of the universe has any hope of doing that.

You can get a lot of mileage out of willful ignorance, but eventually your fake beliefs will come back to bite you. For example, in the Iranian city of Qom, a number of religious shrines remained open and busy even as the coronavirus tore through the city, because religious leaders believed the shrines had magical healing properties. They don’t. Iran is now digging mass graves. When magical beliefs come up against the cold face of unflinching reality, reality wins. Thus, in order to protect these magical beliefs they have to be socially insulated from reality, challenging them has to be verboten. However when this happens, from the outside it looks rather obvious that the deck is being stacked against truth, and it can’t hold up forever. However uncomfortable the truth may be, as a certain mad titan says, you can dread it, run from it, but destiny arrives all the same. 

Most people are familiar with the incident where Catholicism lost credibility by insisting that the sun revolved around the earth when it did not. I suspect that part of why we single out this episode as a decisive triumph of science over religion is that it represents more than just the loss of Catholicism’s control of cosmology. Rather, it is a prelude to the more personal and uncomfortable revelation that humanity is not the center of the universe. We are a marginal force in nature which exists on a ‘pale blue dot’, and the rest of creation stretches out for an unfathomable distance around us. It is when we fully internalize this, along with Darwin’s revelation that humanity is a product of nature and arose from adaption to the natural world (including other humans, who are also part of the natural world) that we understand the absurdity of denying death. 

In the what-if world where every step follows only from the cellular automaton rules, the equivalent of Genghis Khan can murder a million people, and laugh, and be rich, and never be punished, and live his life much happier than the average.  Who prevents it?

Were it “within the stars” so to speak, nature would discard us like you discard so many used tissues. Life is not sacred to the universe, let alone human life. If sleeping really did end your thread of experience nature would have no problem letting that happen. It would allow you to die thousands of deaths over the course of your life so long as it made no difference to reproduction. Observing this vast cosmos and the amoral gears of creation, it becomes abundantly obvious that there is no afterlife. Nature, which seems to care about nothing else and has seen fit to save nothing else, has almost certainly not set aside a special preserve for the sake of your experiences and feelings. You are not special in the eyes of creation, you are a blob of animate matter that will one day become a blob of inanimate matter and that is that. In the second law of thermodynamics, the house always wins; at best you can hope for some unforeseen development in physics which allows us to defeat entropy. In the meantime, there is no life after this one. The expectation that you will see lost loved ones in the hereafter, that you will have eternal life through Jesus Christ, that when you die you will wake again from your lifelong dream is unreasonable. Your expectation of eternal life has always been unreasonable, nothing else lasts forever: why would you?

Part of the Series: Truth
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Gods! Robots! Aliens! Zombies!

Epistemic Status: Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Part of the Series: Truth
Previous Post: Time Binders

Rationality From AI to Zombies is a sprawling six-volume compilation of two years worth of daily(!) rationality blogging by autodidactic scholar Eliezer Yudkowsky. My apologies to Yudkowsky if this comes off as vaguely negative about him. As I was doing research there were a lot of places where I kept being surprised by certain things he did. I tried to get an interview out of him to see if my beliefs about his beliefs were actually correct interpretations of his worldview, but he never got back to me. If he does and his answers update me towards a more charitable view of his views, then I can always come back and rewrite this essay later.

So once more let’s start with the man. Like Korzybski, Yudkowsky was raised by well educated and relatively well to do parents and like Korzybski, he’s mostly self-taught in the areas that interest him. Something that happened between Korzybski and Yudkowsky however, was an explosion in the popularity of science fiction as a genre. His parents seemed to like science fiction and introduced him to science fiction and what he calls traditional rationality at a young age. There are actually a lot of entertaining parallels between Korzybski and Yudkowsky, although I think Korzybski wins the contest of who is the most extra. (Unless Eliezer took up sword fighting and fought in a war and never told anyone). 

While his parents were modern orthodox Jews, Yudkowsky himself was raised more within American culture than within traditional Jewish culture to the point where, in one interview, he recalls a realization that Judaism was never really his childhood religion, space travel was. 

This is interesting to remark upon because I think it describes a lot of people raised in religious households. Unless your parents deeply insulate you, chances are you’re going to spend more time being more exposed to modern secular American society than you are being exposed to the traditional religious cultures of your family’s past. Church/Synagogue only comes once a week, but Star Trek is on TV every day. There’s only one Torah/Bible, but there are lots of science fiction books. 

Yudkowsky’s parents were also both employed in science-oriented technical fields. His father was a physicist and his mother was a psychiatrist which is where he got his introduction to what he calls traditional rationality. He specifically namedrops early skeptic Martin Gardner, debunker of the supernatural James Randi, physicist Richard Feynman, and disciple of Korzybski S.I. Hayakawa. 

However Eliezer also comes off as rather dismissive of traditional rationality and aside from those few namedrops (particularly Feynman, who he namedrops a few times despite him not being, in my opinion, a very central example of traditional rationality) he spends very little time talking about where he came from in either in his writing or his interviews, much to their detriment I think.  His treatment of General Semantics is especially egregious in this regard, he never refers to it by name, never mentions Korzybski, and in the entire volume of his writing, he references Hayakawa twice.

With the way Yudkowsky talks about science and his ideas, the way he references catgirls and other literary and anime tropes, and the way he fails to identify where he got the ideas that he didn’t invent, it wouldn’t be a surprise if someone thought the primary source of these ideas was Yudkowsky and TV Tropes. Without discussing the intellectual traditions that led him to where he is, thinking that he came up with ideas like The Map and Territory would be an easy mistake to make. 

Yudkowsky takes from traditional rationality things like empiricism, (the virtue of performing your own experiments) falsifiability, (make predictions that can be proven wrong) and warrant, (the importance of justifying your beliefs). He then applies probability theory and decision theory to traditional rationality in the service of creating the juggernaut that is within the rationalist community colloquially referred to as The Sequences. 

Rationality From AI to Zombies shouldn’t really be thought of as a book. Literally speaking it’s a book of course, you can buy physical copies with pages made of paper you can leaf through. However, it is really still just a collection of essays. It lacks a lot in the way of a central thesis and mostly just throws rationality flavored spaghetti at the wall and hopes some of it sticks. As of the time of this writing, I’ve done four read-throughs of his material and with each pass have become somewhat less favorable in my viewing of it. 

The biggest weakness of the sequences is that it doesn’t do a very good job of keeping itself organized in sections or focused on a theme or sorted by topic. One day Eliezer will talk about identifying truth, then the next he’ll talk about that time he totally pwned a religious person in an argument by bringing up Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, then the next he’ll talk about cognitive biases. I was hoping when he compiled all of his writing into Rationality from AI to Zombies that he would produce a more coherent and focused work, one with a central thesis, but Rationality from AI to Zombies is just the sequences arranged into book form with some of the weaker essays removed or rearranged. 

Yudkowsky does bring some things to the table, in particular incorporating rigor, probability, and quantifiability into what was previously a mostly qualitative field. This is important for a number of reasons, but maybe not the ones you might expect. There are definitely important things to take from the sequences, but a lot of them are concepts he either doesn’t name or obliquely references without pointing directly towards. 

Reading the sequences as they’re written and missing the important between-the-lines reasoning probably won’t lead you to the place he wants. It’s possible to get to that place, but it requires a lot of reading between the lines. Without that, they’ll lead you somewhere vaguely adjacent but with critical pieces missing, malformed, or underdeveloped. This is a rather big problem with the sequences because Eliezer clearly intends them as a step by step instruction manual for finding the holy grail of good thinking. But as Scott Alexander says 

The thing about grail quests is – if you make a wrong turn two blocks away from your house, you end up at the corner store feeling mildly embarrassed. If you do almost everything right and then miss the very last turn, you end up being eaten by the legendary Black Beast of Aaargh whose ichorous stomach acid erodes your very soul into gibbering fragments.

There are lots of people who manage to take useful things from the sequences, but there are also lots of people left stranded on the side of the road in really weird epistemological traps that they thought themselves into and then couldn’t find their way out of. We’ll be attempting over the following essays to sketch out the most important and underspecified parts of the sequences and hopefully build some ladders out of those potholes. Along the way, we’ll crash through most of the important concepts and principles, and hopefully, you’ll come away from it with a bit more grounded understanding of what this is all about. 

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Next Post: Occam’s Guillotine
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