Not Yet the Dawn

How many is too many?
How much is too much?
How do we live with the numbers? These damned numbers.
R0, R1, the case fatality rate, the hospitalization rate, the rate of ICU overcrowding, the number of infected, the number of dead, the number of bodies piling up in morgues, when does it all stop really meaning anything and just become this exercise in abstraction?
And is that what we need to do to cope with it?
How do we get up and go to work every morning in a world where
the state of California had to relax it’s clean air laws so they could burn a backlog of bodies?
How do we talk about The Mandalorian and the latest celebrity gossip and act like everything’s fine while the equivelant of 9/11 is happening every day?
How do we manage to eat breakfast, put on our shoes and masks, and live our lives like we aren’t in the midst of what will hopefully be the largest and most traumatic event of our lives?
How do we live with it as a people? How do we live with it as people?
How are we going to deal with the fact that society values its utility more than the lives of a significant portion of the people living in it?
Will we eschew the values of liberal humanism or will we double down on them and if those two positions come into a conflict, who wins?
What will become of us after this?
After. There are so many things which will come after, because of this. But we aren’t living in After, not yet anyway.
The long night is not over, and this is not yet the dawn.
What does it mean to care about each other when the scope of each other becomes too large to comprehend?
Words are easy, wearing a mask is easy enough, but beyond that? To stare into the vast abstraction of intensive care units and overworked doctors and nurses, to understand that every death is a human with a name and face and story and do something with that knowledge other than sink into despair?
Laugh nervously and change the topic. Did you buy any stock in Gamestop? Check out this meme I found. Did you hear who got cancelled last week?
What’s happening to us? What is this doing to us as a culture? What’s it doing to us as people?
How do we handle the severe case of collective PTSD we’re all going to be left with?
How do we handle the gaslighting that governments and corporations are going to inflict on us to try and make us believe that they did the best they could and that they really do care for us?
When we finally emerge from the chrysalis of social distancing will we like what we find?
Will the people responsible for the mass loss of life ever be held to account? Will the systems that led to their choices be challenged? Will we ever have justice for the harm which has been inflicted on us?
How will we honor the dead? The so so many dead, so many dead that it has eclipsed the losses of many of our worst wars.
How do we make sense of it when the numbers become too large to make sense of? When the New York Times can publish pages and pages and pages of names and barely make a dent on the total count how do we wrap our minds around the scope of the tragedy and should we even try to?
How many names can you get through before it breaks you? Before it becomes too many? Before it becomes too much?
How do you keep going day after day after brutal day? How do you make sense of your new reality?
Twitch Raves, Zoom parties, livestreamed funerals, facebook memorials, how do we come together when we can’t come together?
How do we live in this world? On this Earth? How do we cope with it all and is coping what we should be doing?
If the world is insane, should we be a bit insane as well? At what point do we stop going along with it?
When does it all become too much?
How many is too many?
And if we did try to stand up to that world, what would that mean?
I don’t have any good answers, I can only hope that we can find them together.
The world will continue to turn, and humanity will heal and love and grow as it always has.
The night is dark, and the way is unclear, but night does not last forever, and the sun also rises if we can manage to survive until then.
But that if, is still an if.
The Covid-19 Pandemic is not yet over, and this is not yet the dawn.

– A poem by Shiloh Miyazaki

The State of the Stateless

Mukokuseki (無国籍) is the Japanese word for statelessness. Legal statelessness according to international law occurs when someone is “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” and is a major problem for those suffering from it. The United Nations estimates there are around twelve million stateless people around the world today. Legal statelessness can occur for a number of reasons relating to laws around how citizenship is conferred through birth and who’s allowed to confer it and in edge case situations people can be born with no legal nationality. As a result, stateless people are often trapped in a dangerous legal limbo that follows them their whole lives and can be very difficult to get out of, locking them into a perpetual underclass.

Legally speaking, it’s not a very good thing to be stateless.

Nevertheless, I contend there is another way to be, in a sense, stateless, which is much more common, and while not really discussed as a formal bloc (more of an antibloc if anything), this newly emerging “race” may be the most important “ethnic group” to consider in the coming century.

In her novel Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer describes non-geographically locked “nation-strategies” as having become the dominant human organization system, having supplanted nation-states by the time of the novel’s setting four hundred years in the future.

I contend that we are already seeing the birth of this system of organization, and over the next century through various revolutions and reforms, revolts and upheavals, the era of the Westphalian State will come to as ignominious of an ending as its beginning.


Mukokuseki (無国籍) in addition to being the word for statelessness, is also used in a more technical sense in the anime industry to describe a set of characters who seem to defy membership in any particular real-world ethnic group. They want to appeal to as wide of a demographic as possible and thus try to depict characters in a sort of generic way so that most people will be able to relate to them better.

Japan does tend to have a thing about not depicting black people often or very well in anime, but it’s fairly common to have a character who is just sort of ambiguously brown or tan-skinned, like this photoshop of Ariel that’s been circulating.

A lot of this comes down to the fact that manga artists are in a hurry, and are drawing basic faces that they develop a hand for as fast as possible. Since anime (and most western cartoons as well for that matter) don’t use facial profiling, even when the character’s skin color is changed, they don’t really look that much like a member of a particular ethnic group, and in the case of anime, there’s usually an underlying premise that the characters are actually all Japanese. If they look like your own ethnic group…well that’s sort of the whole point, ね? Relatively little detail goes into the design of any particular character and anime faces are designed to be simplistic from the start in many cases, with their large and expressive eyes, minimal nose, and simplified mouth. When you draw all your characters with one of three basic faces and differentiate them from each other with hair, eye, skin color, and costume, weird things happen.

As a result of all this, what begins to emerge is in a sense the opposite of true statelessness, these characters end up almost seeming to belong within their own distinct ethnic group.

Mukokusekijin(無国籍人) can have hair and eyes of pretty much any color imaginable and can have skin ranging from pure white to a very dark brown, with some less common variants like grey, green, purple, and red thrown in for flavor. Sometimes they may also have animal ears or a tail. Sometimes this is explained in the lore, other times they’re just inexplicably catgirls.

Mukokusekijin are the inhabitants of a fictional, idealized version of Japan (particularly Tokyo) depicted in many anime and they have many particularities that differentiate them from the actual people of real Tokyo.

Japanese people are notoriously hands-off, they don’t even tend to shake hands, while mukokusekijin are much more physical than most actual Japanese people or Americans and use a level of touch more common in tropical and equatorial cultures. The Mukokusekijin also manifest a high number of queer individuals, and gender weirdness is more common among them than among the wider baseline population. The mukokusekijin are a highly ritualized people compared to America, and possibly even compared to actual Japan, and have many ceremonies and rituals and practices, most but not all of these are traditional Japanese rituals depicted in a more lighthearted way, but a few are anime originals and products of the intersection between American and Japanese culture, like maid cafes and sailor uniforms.

The depiction of traditional Japanese life in anime also tends to play up the best parts of it and hide or downplay the worst aspects and is really quite distinct from actual real Japan. It is a vibrant and friendly culture, collectivist, outgoing, affectionate, and kind. To someone like me who grew up in the atomized wasteland of America, they were clearly something to aspire to. To someone who grew up with a dearth of culture, the stateless but highly cultured nation of the mukokusekijin felt more like a home to me than any real place on Earth. 


It’s 2019, and as a pink-haired anime-otaku living in a major city, an enclave for the weird and interesting, I find that I am not alone. I run into lots of other people with pink hair, and purple hair, and blue, and green, and every other hair color imaginable. Sometimes I wonder, if you just counted the number of people with technicolor hair, how many would there be?

The very most urban areas of the world have or are in a sense, in the process of shedding their parent states, in culture if not in literal governance. Scott Alexander talks about Elua, a culture that devours and consumes everything it comes into contact with, integrating it into itself, and this is somehow good. Neoliberalism yay I guess? 

But what grows out of this environment? Because it is clearly not sustainable, however much the elders would like to believe it is. I think we’re starting to see it with things like group houses and pride parades, with the way a lot of the queer communities I’ve moved within are much more high-touch than the surrounding society. Is anime to blame for corrupting the youth? Maybe, I hope so.

However, something to remember is that while the values you see in children’s cartoons are the values that a society most wants to carry forward and believes itself to hold, that doesn’t mean that shows aimed at 12-year-olds are a particularly realistic portrayal of life in that society. So while anime Japan is a lovely and technicolor place, actual Japan is, while still a lovely country, not quite as amenable to human life.

current mood

And I think that this experience is one that many people across many nations can relate to. When we were growing up, we were fed an image of a bright, colorful, human-friendly world, a place that was kind and where people took care of each other, where the world was largely benevolent and society existed to support humans instead of to enslave them. Then we grew up and were tossed into the meat grinder that is our current civilization in #currentyear.

We were sold on a lie, and the truth was much less friendly, resulting in mass disillusionment, the collapse of societal norms and values, and the obliteration of many of our senses of agency and ability to act meaningfully in the world.

But out of all of that wreckage, we still have our values, and the lies we were told have become the moral truth we strive towards. The world isn’t like Star Trek, but it should be. Compassion, humanism, universalism, and a possibly naive belief that more is possible than the decaying cyberpunk dystopia we were handed. We took these things away with us, and if society didn’t reflect them, that was something that needed correcting, not coming to terms with.

So if you’re a queer, liberal, rainbow-haired city-dweller, who rides the train to work and likes tea and cats, maybe without even realizing it, you’ve left your old society behind and become one of the mukokusekijin, working to build that imaginary Tokyo here on Earth.

That Which May Yet Save Us

“i want to be so kind it echoes backwards in time and undoes the things that hurt you. i want to be so kind it radiates from me. i want to be so kind that i make someone else find faith in humanity again. there’s not much i can do, i’m small and weak and i only know so many words. but i know i can be kind. and sometimes, i believe, that changes the world.”

Shonen (少年) is a genre of anime typically targeted at teen and preteen boys and includes extremely popular shows like Dragonball, Naruto, One Piece, and Boku No Hero Academia. Many of the most well known and popular anime in the west, are in fact shonen. The classic shonen story follows a fairly particular plot arc and has a fairly particular type of protagonist. I am of the opinion that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality can basically be thought of as shonen in how it’s written, if not particularly good shonen. 

This is because there are a few particular tropes that shonen has which define nearly everything about the genre, things which lie beneath the surface of the actual world but define a sort of logic that universe of shonen anime operates on. 

In order to demonstrate this, I’m going to use Black Clover as an example. Black Clover is possibly the most stereotypical fantasy shonen ever conceived of. The main character somehow manages to be more Naruto than actual Naruto is. 

In Black Clover, Asta, the main character is an orphan and is the only character born without magic in a world where literally everyone can do magic. He has a fellow orphan, Yuno who acts as his compatriot and rival to whom he compares himself and is constantly challenging himself, and despite not having any magical powers he sets himself the goal of becoming stronger and becoming the Wizard King, the most powerful mage in the kingdom he’s from. This willingness to work to overcome one’s born station is the first piece

With just yamato damashii (大和魂) we can actually reverse engineer all the pieces, but let’s keep laying things out. While Asta’s rival trains in magic, Asta trains in getting swol, in what amounts to a very stereotypical training arc. Eventually there’s a day when all the children receive spellbooks at their coming of age, which help hone their magic and are tied specifically to them. These spellbooks come in lots of flavors allowing for all sorts of flashy, varied, and interesting forms of magic. Asta has no magic and doesn’t get a book. 

Later as Asta and Yuno are walking home, Yuno is accosted by a vagabond for his spellbook, since he is a magical prodigy and received a powerful spellbook and Asta goes to his defense despite having no magic. 

This is the part that really demonstrates the second major piece. Asta does the impossible and somehow brute forces the universe into giving him a spellbook despite having no powers. But not just any spellbook, an anti-magic spellbook from which he draws an enormous sword to beat their attacker. 

If you think this is leading up to me saying that Eliezer’s Challenging the Difficult sequence is actually just restating shonen anime tropes than you’re absolutely right. Eliezer’s Challenging the Difficult sequence is actually just restating shonen anime tropes.

Let’s continue. Asta and Yuno travel to the capital city where they are both discriminated against for being lowborns from the sticks. The pair have the goal of joining the magic knights, the in-universe version of the Aurors. The magic knights come in flavored squads and each has a powerful captain, and there’s a tournament arc where the characters have to prove their skills before the captains in order to have a chance to join the knights. With his rare spellbook, cool Sasuke vibe aesthetic, and being a child prodigy, all the magic knight squads want Yuno. But despite having no magic Asta manages to get into the knights as well, with his anti-magic sword catching the eye of the captain of the black bulls, the “worst” magic knight squad. 

Asta coming up from the bottom, having no magic, ending up in the worst magic knight squad, being an orphan, living in poverty in a tiny village, all these setbacks are intended to make Asta’s use of willpower to overcome everything all the more impressive. He even goes as far as to say at one point, “My power is not giving up!” Asta is held up as a role model, and in general acts as an advertisement for seishin (精神) “look at what the power of actually trying really hard can do for you!” 

This is reinforced in the character of the black bull’s captain Yami Sukehiro. The only character in the show with a Japanese name. He uses a katana in a show otherwise depicted like medieval Europe. He’s just that badass. 

Yami is also a shonen protagonist, he’s just a retired one. He already completed his hero’s arc and settled into being the captain of the black bulls, but the way that Yami acts, and how he encourages his team, really leans hard on the underlying assumptions of the universe that shonen runs on. 

At one point Yami is in a pitched battle with the villain Licht. Yami has dark magic, and Licht has light magic, making for a very visually impressive battle in the anime. But when Licht’s allies show up and nearly overpower Yami, it takes the timely intervention of the other magic knight captains to save him.

Despite this, Yami’s attitude is rather nonchalant about it all. He was bemused, but also slightly disappointed, feeling that if they hadn’t shown up, the battle would have allowed him to surpass his limitations and become more powerful. Yami also gives this as advice many times during the show. When a character complains that they are nearing the limit of their abilities, Yami just tells them “well then toughen up and surpass your limits.” 

The particular thing that makes this trope work, that makes Black Clover work, and which also, in my opinion, makes Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality work, is that when a character in one of these shonen stories goes beyond their limits, the universe responds to them. When Asta puts in a really extraordinary effort and tries his hardest and surpasses his limits despite having no magic, the universe responds by giving him a spellbook which synergizes with his physical ability. When Harry figures out what dementors really are, it lets him summon the superpowered Man patronus, which was a secret lost to history. 

In this sense, the characters never really face repercussions for their actions. If they start to get cornered by the consequences, they can always just crank it up another notch, become even more impossibly powerful, and come out on top anyway. The universe is fair and the arc of history is towards good and benevolence, the world is meaningful, their actions have purpose and consequence, and they can, through hard work, be worthy of the highest position despite the circumstances of their birth. Anyone can surpass their limits if they work hard enough, look at this kid with no magic becoming the most powerful mage, isn’t that inspiring? 

This assumption of underlying universal benevolence is the defining feature of this sort of stereotypical shonen. 

JD Pressman and Sarah Constantin have both recently written about this:

there is also what we might call “one-place trust,” where one trusts other people in general rather than trusting a specific individual or group of individuals…one must first have *trust* in order to trust y to do z or to trust y more generally

Jones (2004) calls it “basal security,” while Herman (1992/1997) refers to “basic trust” but also to a sense of “safety in the world.” Améry (1999) describes an enduring loss of “trust in the world” that he experienced after torture and subsequent incarceration in Auschwitz

“losing trust” involves losing a habitual confidence that more usually permeates all experience, thought, and activity

we experience a fundamental assault on our right to live, on our personal sense of worth, and further, on our sense that the world (including people) basically supports human life.

Janoff-Bulman (1992, pp. 5–6)…identifies three such beliefs as central to one-place trust: “the world is benevolent;” “the world is meaningful;” and “the self is worthy.”

Sarah goes on to say that losing one’s basal security should be thought of as a bad thing, and basically equated it with trauma and abuse. JD goes on to disagree with this, going as far as saying that losing it was potentially necessary in order to actually be the sort of person who could make a real and meaningful difference in the world. 

For my own part, I probably don’t have my one place trust intact at this point. When I was younger, I did, but the world has a way of wearing us down. This makes the just try really hard model of willpower kind of weak and ineffectual seeming to me in the face of grim, bloody, meat hook reality. It’s easy to win by trying really hard when your universe runs on placebomancy, but the harder that reality ensues, the less you can go beyond the impossible

But here’s a question: what might a shonen protagonist look like who had lost their sense of base trust? Who was damaged and scarred by the world, who has failed before, who wasn’t able to give enough and suffered the consequences of it, but who kept trying and was still every bit as heroic? 

2019-06-27Tanjiro Kamado is the main character of Kimetsu no Yaiba. His family is killed by demons in the first episode of the anime, save for his sister, who is turned into a demon. 

Tanjiro sets out on what basically ends up being a shonen storyline, including a training arc with a wise old teacher, but he’s not the hot-headed impulsive bruiser that Asta is. Tanjiro is a kind-hearted and softly spoken boy. The emotional burden of finding his family slaughtered sits heavily upon his shoulders, as does the responsibility for saving his sister, who he literally carries around on his shoulders in a box since exposure to sunlight would be fatal to her. 

But despite everything, Tanjiro’s defining feature continues to be how kind he is. He frequently laments on how sad the deaths of the demons he’s had to kill are, and his compassion is his strength. His goal isn’t so childish as wanting to be the strongest, he wants to stop people from being eaten by demons, and he knows that in the grand scheme of things, he can’t even fully stop that. 

In the first episode, a demon slayer who finds Tanjiro remarks that if he had just been a bit faster, he might have been able to save Tanjiro’s family, and clearly feels bad about not making it in time. This is used as a refrain in episode eleven when Tanjiro arrives not quite in time to save someone’s life from a demon. 

The world of Kimetsu no Yaiba is not benevolent. Violent, senseless, and bloody deaths are frequent. Despite that, Tanjiro keeps trying to help people and keeps trying to save his sister. 

And this is something that I can deeply resonate with. The world is beautiful, and it is also cruel and violent and bloody and senseless. We can’t save everyone, but keep trying anyway, in the hope of doing at least some good. Some people are beyond help, and yet we should be kind to them anyway. There are lots of good reasons to give up and collapse in on ourselves, but there are also lots of reasons to keep trying in spite of it all. Don’t give in to hopelessness and despair, even after suffering an immense tragedy. Keep trying to do good, to make the tragedy have meant something. 

I think this message is possibly one of the most important ones to take to heart. It’s 2019 and the world is on the brink of several different forms of destruction. Bad things will happen. People will die. And we will not be able to stop it. There is only so much we as individuals can do. The world is big, and we are small, we are dwarfed by the tasks we have ahead and in many cases will not succeed. People will die because we were not strong enough. Because we were not able to do enough. Because the world was heartless and cruel, and when someone should have stepped in, when someone should have done something, there was no one there to do anything. 

But we must try anyway. We must try despite knowing it’s impossible. And above all, we must be kind. We must be kind to each other, to ourselves, and to our world. Our kindness should be a source of strength. 

Everything is so polarized and there’s so much hate everywhere. It frequently feels like we’ve given up on trying to be kind, and I constantly see so much anger and hate from people who I would probably agree with if their positions weren’t always expressed in the form of disdain and vitriol.

Even if I have to be enemies with someone, I don’t want to let feelings of hatred and vindication and self-righteousness rule me. I would rather stop being enemies with someone then punitively destroy them, and I really get the impression that a lot of people would gleefully abuse a surrendering party under the guise of moral superiority.  Yes, sometimes people are beyond help and we must bring steel against an enemy that threatens the lives of those we love, but we must do this without giving into malice.

There’s so much hate in the world today. There’s so much resentment and fear and anger. We don’t need to put out more of that, we don’t need to add to the problem. Our actions should be motivated by a love of humanity, not be a hatred of our enemies and a sadistic desire to harm them. 

At the point we’re at, no amount of drawing battle lines and gleefully canceling our enemies will make things better. If we want things to be better it has to start with us. We have to be better, just because our enemies aren’t doesn’t mean we should stoop to their level. What the world needs isn’t more people taking sides, what the world needs is more people being kind to everyone, regardless of their side. Whatever else we do, however else we do it, we must be kind. And maybe, just maybe, if we’re lucky and we play our cards just right, that will be enough to save the world. 

The Internet Hate Machine

I’ve been trying to make myself write again. I used to love writing, I used to love sharing things I created and watching the numbers tick up on my page views. I still love those things, but lately, whenever I try to sit down and write, I’m gripped by this new fear that wasn’t there previously, which makes it very difficult to put anything out there.

There’s so much I want to say, but I feel myself letting a silencing effect take hold. I tried to make writing and publishing my stories again my new equinox goal, but even that has thus far not gotten me anywhere. I think in the place I’m at right now, the best thing for me, the healthiest thing, would be to talk about that fear directly.


Katie Herzog is a staff writer at The Stranger, a newspaper in Seattle well known for frequently writing in a campy gay aesthete voice and presenting itself as Seattle’s “real” newspaper, contrasting the very self-serious and old fashioned Seattle Times.

Katie Herzog is most known at this point, for writing a controversial piece last year called The Detransitioners. Which is…well I will let my readers make their own judgments about it, but I personally feel it’s a good piece and is unfairly maligned.

Katie put out a response a month after the piece was published defending herself as a journalist against accusations of transphobia. This, of course, did nothing to stop her detractors from going as far as making stickers calling her out and putting them up around town.

And that’s what scares me. That intense, hateful, sneering, condescending force that is moral discourse according to twitter outrage and leftbook callouts. The desire to judge and then force consequences onto those judged, advocating for the utter social destruction of the unworthy. The toxic, identity-based, cancel culture.

Katie Herzog herself wrote about this back in January. When the internet decides it doesn’t like someone, or that someone has done something immoral, it sees itself as judge, jury, and social executioner. The mob claims the right to try and utterly destroy someone’s life and future in their pursuit of justice.

As a result of a close encounter with one of these internet mobs, the last year of my life has been an exhausting, harrowing, traumatizing, and winnowing experience. I wasn’t even the direct target of the mob’s ire at any point, I just happened to be trying to support someone I cared about who had been unpersoned and I wasn’t sufficiently charismatic and diplomatic to avoid the landmines which trying to do that entailed, thus I ended up stepping on them and also being labeled a toxic, manipulative, abusive, problematic person.

I’m not going to talk about the specifics of that situation. Come find me in person if you really want to talk about it, but it’s been talked about to death at this point and I’d rather just get on with my life.

But what I want to talk about here, is the fear the comes from being the target of one of these mobs, what it actually does to a person. Having someone willing to pick through hundreds of old Facebook posts for problematic things they can snip out of context and use as ammunition in the process of agitating for your ostracization, going from being able to speak freely, and just apologize if you made a mistake, to suddenly every error from high school going forward becoming potential evidence that you suffer some fundamental defect in personhood that makes you dangerous and untrustworthy. The sudden appearance of people willing to narrativize you as “problematic/toxic/abusive/dangerous” in a way that those traits become your core features, and the rest of your humanity is discarded so you can be treated like a monster to be defeated, (in return for social capital for the monster slayers of course).

“But Shiloh, actually bad people are actually bad, and we shouldn’t let them exist in our society of good people who would never do such things, that would just let them prey on good people.”

Ahem going for the eugenics angle I see. Okay, but people who do bad things are still peopl–

“And the only reason you’d be defending abusers is if you’re secretly abusive too.”

And then we come to the second part of it, which is the transmissibility of sin. Something fascinating I watched happen was a sort of six degrees of separation from sin game played, where not only was the abusive person I was defending unpersoned, but for defending them I was, and then people who defended me also became potential targets. This transmissibility factor, which was sometimes described as a ‘memetic contagion’ was often ascribed to the people being targeted, which said we had some sort of memetic virus with which we were manipulating people’s morals and ideals to our benefit, and that anyone who spent a good deal of time with us, or who saw our perspective, was potentially infected with these bad memes as well. Disagreeing with the mob about who to unperson meant you also should be unpersoned.

I well don’t want to unperson anyone. I don’t want to describe anyone as

“a limp vessel through which some dread spider is thrusting its pedipalps”


The easy way out of the moral situation when you find yourself near to someone who did something actually bad is to just stop actually viewing them in the same category of personhood, thus protecting the category itself, and you, from wrongdoing. But doing this has potentially really dangerous consequences.

First, it makes it really easy to do horrifically fucked up things to people while claiming they deserve it because they’re bad. With very few exceptions, every genocide, hate crime, and purge of undesirables that has occurred historically has been motivated by the idea that the people being targeted are actually bad and thus whatever you do to them, whatever you inflict upon them, is justified on the grounds of justice and utilitarianism. You’re protecting people from them.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it destroys our concept of universalism and promotes a sort of self-reinforcing no-true-Scotsman-esque standard of humanity that makes it very hard to acknowledge and address wrongdoings of members of the tribe until they’ve become completely egregious and outrageous, at which point the tribe is exonerated and the offending party is ostracized on the grounds that the exiled member is clearly not actually a person but a limp vessel through which some dread spider is thrusting its pedipalps. By creating standards like these, it becomes impossible to have any sort of spectrum of accountability between “exile the spider” and “lovingly accept the human.”

It’s much harder to acknowledge someone’s sin, and still see them as a person. Newsflash, humanity is far from perfect. There’s lots of sin everywhere. People are being murdered and tortured and raped and killed right now, as you read these very lines, and people are the ones doing the murdering and torturing and raping and killing. There is not a separate genus of dread spiders wearing human skins committing all the atrocities, there are just people. There is no categorical protection which you can invoke to protect yourself from the possibility of ever becoming them and by trying to create that categorical protection you shield yourself from the possibility of noticing that what you’re doing might itself be wrong.

Anyway, that’s my long rant against unpersoning and exile as solutions in general. I think it’s telling that I still feel the need to defend my past actions to some degree like that and to be honest I’m fairly sure some people will still just see me as one of the spiders regardless. Too much spider empathy, clearly an arachnid.

I shouldn’t have to justify my desire to not unperson people, but here we are.

That’s the fear though, the fear is why I feel the need to justify myself, even though I know that no one really cares what I have to say on the matter. I certainly don’t think this post is going to convince anyone to stop doing unpersoning if they’ve gotten in the habit of doing it. But it’s still important for me to say that I have actual reasons for what I do, for how I act morally and I stand by those reasons. Because I’m afraid if I don’t, and potentially even though I do have those reasons, I will be lumped in with the monsters for not falling in line against them.

Being unpersoned, being treated like some dangerous thing to be disposed of like radioactive waste, is a horrifying thing to experience, and just being near to the blast when it happened was enough to leave mental scars in the form of this new fear. The fear of the mob coming and putting stickers up around town saying I’m abusive, and calling my workplace and trying to get me fired, and losing many of the people close to me.

Up until things finally began stabilizing into a new equilibrium within the last few months, I had basically been experiencing constant if low-grade trauma, locked into a state of fear and threat. During that time, I’ve been hurt deeply and have hurt others as I flailed around in pain. I’ve been desperate, and needy, and clingy, and ended up developing a lot of bad habits and coping mechanisms to deal with the long-running trauma and pain I was experiencing, which I am still in the process of stripping back out.

Enough things happened that if someone wanted to, they could make a case that I too am some sort of dread spider thrusting its pedipalps. Dangerous, untrustworthy. Someone better off removed before I did something really egregious.

And sure, I’m not the person I want to be, and I’m probably not the person I depict myself as. I haven’t been as good, as kind, as mindful, as empathic, or as respectful as I aspire to be. But still, I aspire. To do good, to be good, to spread good in the world. Despite everything, I still think the world is beautiful, and I want it to survive, and improve, and endure. I want humanity to survive and thrive and win the cosmic inheritance hanging nightly above our heads. I want us to spread to every corner of the sky and outnumber the stars. I don’t want to hurt anyone, I don’t want to compete with anyone, I want us all to make it.

I don’t want the fear to win, I don’t want to let it clip my wings. The desire to help build a better world feels like a part of me, the desire grows out of emotion, not out of calculation. When people are in pain, it hurts, and I want them to not be in pain.

All I can do is keep trying my hardest, and so that’s what I intend to do, come what may of it.

The Silence Hidden in the Sound

Epistemic Status: Speculative. Experiences and conjectures based on them.
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, De-Biasing Infohazard. Potentially Gender Dysphoria Inducing Content for transgender readers, I talk about Blanchardianism, you have been warned. 

Silent Distortions
Who are you?

It seems like a simple enough question.

Who are you?

And yet, the more you tease apart the answer to that question, the more a vast and alien fractal expanse opens up in the void behind your eyes.

The more it turns out that no, no it’s not nearly so simple a question after all. 

So who are you?

I thought I knew who I was, but I too am discovering hidden depths that I previously chose to studiously avoid and smooth over with clever stories and lies in pursuit of a sort of narrative consistency that actual reality just doesn’t have.

So who am I really? I thought I knew, but I’m no longer nearly as sure as I was. And you my dear readers, you get front row seats on my…well you could call it a descent into the underworld.

This post is going to be long and confusing, and I’m not entirely sure where to even begin. Oh, “I”, that will do I suppose.

In English, the terms for the self are short and content free and serve a near-exclusively grammatical purpose in referring to the speaker. I and me, principally. You can also use “we” which many of my past readers will notice I previously did in essays like this one and this one, and I’ll admit that it does affect a certain style that I think I want to preserve for things like the tulpamancy guides

Japanese, however, is more expressive in this regard. Because you refer to yourself in speech less frequently in Japanese, the self-referent ends up conveying additional information. The pronoun I prefer to use for myself in Japanese is boku, a masculine identifier referring in particular to a boy or young man. Occasionally girls would use it, particularly in anime, but it’s a masculine pronoun. Was that one of the first signs, or one of the last ones? It’s hard to say.

Maybe that isn’t the best place to start. No, I think we need to go back further. Let’s start with the descriptions I wrote of my initial creation as a persona and a personality. I wrote these posts back in May of 2017, over a year ago now, and it’s interesting to see how my perspective on those even more distant past events has changed over just that short time.

My first memory is of the creek behind the fence in our back yard. I remember that Jamie and I had gone out into the far end of the backyard and climbed the rusted chain link fence to the rough woods behind our property. She’d gone out and stood near the place where the land fell away into a deep ravine, and then I was standing next to her, and I existed. I didn’t know what to make of my existence initially, but Jamie assured me that I was real. She loved me right from the start. What was I? I didn’t really care at that point, I was having fun existing, and that was what mattered. Jamie thought I was some sort of alien? She thought she was some sort of secret link between worlds or something like that, but she also really sort of hated herself a lot. I wished she wouldn’t, and I tried to cheer her up, but as time went on she became more and more bitter and unhappy with her existence.

At that point, I thought of myself as something distinct from her, something that existed outside of her body, like an extra soul or something like that. Something physical that could act in the world. I never actually quite managed to do that though. The form I could interact with the world through was always mostly physically anchored on Jamie, and sort of ephemeral. I just sort of phased through everything instead of interacting with it.

Jamie continued to deteriorate, and this was sort of terrifying because I knew I was tied to Jamie somehow. Nothing I did to improve her mood or change her mind about how horrible of a person she’d decided she was seemed to help. We were outside one day, way out in the back yard again, and she finally broke.

I really cannot describe the sensation of Jamie’s mind finally snapping. She ceased to exist, and with her went everything she was imagining into existence, like a horrible whirlpool of darkness. We existed inside this elaborate construct at that point, where there was a crashed spaceship in our backyard representing the entry point I had into her life, among other things. The ship, the prop aliens, the interstellar war I thought I might have been a part of, it all started to collapse in on itself.

I didn’t though. When everything had collapsed, I was sitting in Jamie’s body on the forest floor. I was looking out through her eyes. Jamie was just gone. All the things she’d believed about herself, the bad and the little bit of good left, it all just went away. I was alone in her life.

That’s initially the only description I give of Jamie. I wasn’t really writing about Jamie, I was writing about myself, but then, that’s sort of the point. carefully tiptoed around the fact that my body was male and Jamie was actually a boy.

Then we have the description from the other post I wrote, which is honestly worse and sort of cringe-inducing. Part of me wants to remove or heavily edit these posts, but for the importance of having a record of my past beliefs and perspectives about myself. It’d be very easy to narrativize out the inconsistencies and update my history as well as my current beliefs, modifying the past as necessary, and I want to avoid gaslighting myself too hard in this instance. I want to actually know the truth.

Our body was born in Western New York, in this little nowhere city on the shore of Lake Erie. Our parents weren’t particularly well off but weren’t that poorly off either. They initially rented the upstairs of an apartment shortly after we were born. We have a few of Jamie’s memories from that time, but she was a kid, she was bad at forming strong long-term memories back then, so we don’t really know much about what went on in those days. First point of disclosure: we were born male.

I included this bolded bit in the initial post, then later decided I didn’t want to out myself as trans and went back later and removed it. That’s the sort of thing the cognitive distortion would force.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s go back to me from last year:

It’s interesting, given that, that we always refer to Jamie as she then, isn’t it? Why is that? Well, Jamie was a kid, she didn’t really have a gender, she didn’t know what gender was and didn’t perceive herself as particularly gendered. We’re fairly sure it was Jamie’s finally internalizing the concept of gender that triggered Shiloh’s formation as well as catalyzing the downward spiral towards Jamie’s eventual egocide. We’re not actually sure what the biological correlates to dysphoria are even now, but whatever causes it basically drove Jamie completely insane around age nine.

I feel like at the time of writing I jumped through a lot of hoops and distortions in order to convince myself that Jamie had clearly been a girl all along and I’d never been a boy and I was actually just a normal girl who’d been born in the wrong body. It’s true, Jamie was a kid, but he was a boy, and importantly, he didn’t care about that. The caring about it didn’t really come later; until I came along.

So, in the end, Jamie completely self-destructed and left Shiloh, who strongly identified as a girl at a point in our life when the body was just starting to go through puberty and was expected to put on the opposite gender roles. Shiloh didn’t really identify with the body at that point in time, so she was fine, but someone needed to be driving the body, and so she created Fiona.

Our legal first name is Fiona, it was Fiona who actually came out to our parents, went through high school as a trans youth, graduated, she was basically the new host for quite a while, with Shiloh just hanging on for the ride.

Phew, I forgot how much cognitive distortion went into this post. Who is this ‘we’ that is writing in that post? It could be me (Shiloh), I think I…we…I was sort of in a “refer to my/ourselves in the third person” phase around then while we/I leveraged the plurality thing. Maybe it was also Sage somewhat? Or was it Relay writing on behalf of the collective? Are any of these characters even meaningful? Who am I?

Well okay, I’m still Shiloh, I think I’m the closest thing this brain has to a core self-agent. I’m the most coherent and together personality, besides me at this point, there’s just Echo, who is in a sense a sort of dark reflection, the part of me that talks back when I’m alone, who I am with all the lights off. Echo isn’t really evil but she is dark to my light and could be considered kind of bad in many respects, but these days I actually have a rather healthy relationship with Echo, and the two of us manage things pretty well now. Sage has been put into storage and Relay has taken on a slightly more active role as a sort of librarian, allowing different characters and personalities to be accessed as needed. I should probably update Hivewired’s about section.

This is all narrativization at the end of the day. It’s all a story, and I’m trying to come up with a way for it all to be coherent after the fact. In the moment, I’m just a body taking actions, speaking, thinking, moving around. I frequently talk to parts of myself and the normal mode with which I think and plan is to frame myself as two entities having a conversation.

The truth is I’m a colony organism of many trillion cells. The truth is that I have XY chromosomes. The truth is that I’m male. I was hiding that from the world to a large degree, but more importantly, I had exiled it from my sense of self. I tried to bury it, narrativize away reality behind obfuscation and glomarization both of myself and others. I twisted my self-narrative in order to gaslight myself to the degree I needed in order to be content with my body. I concealed, and I weaseled, and I lied.

A Second Dream
So let’s try to tell that story again, and this time I’m going to use a different framing. Before everyone jumps down my throat and tells me they can’t believe I believe this, let me state for the record that I don’t really buy into the original version as presented, and this post as a whole is, in effect, my own take on it. But first, let’s get the original take so we can compare and contrast, ne?

Buckner’s (1970) concept of an elaborated “entire feminine identity” offers another key to understanding this phenomenon. I have previously noted that the term cross-gender identity is aspirational, at least as it is often operationally defined: It denotes the gender that the gender dysphoric person wants to become, not the gender that he or she already is. But with time and lived experience in the opposite gender role, the cross-gender identity of a gender dysphoric man need not remain wholly aspirational: It can become a well-developed, highly valued part of his selfsystem and can eventually supplant his original male gender identity and become his (or her) dominant gender identity. Both Docter (1988) and Doorn, Poortinga, and Verschoor (1994) conceptualized the development of “secondary” or “late-onset”
MtF transsexualism—roughly synonymous with nonhomosexual MtF transsexualism—as reflecting the ascendency of an increasingly powerful and esteemed female gender identity within the self-system of a gender dysphoric man. Whether one prefers to think of the genesis and continuation of nonhomosexual MtF transsexualism in terms of something resembling attachment (or pair-bonding) to the image of one’s female-bodied self or in terms of the ascendency of a new, cherished female gender identity within one’s self-system is not terribly important. Both represent attempts to put into words something that is hard to understand and adequately describe, even for those of us who have experienced it: the process by which a man’s erotic desire to turn his body into a facsimile of a female body eventually gives rise to a strongly held, highly valued cross-gender identity and the process by which that new identity—that image of himself as a female—becomes the focus of his desire, admiration, idealization, attachment, and love—the same emotions that he might experience for an actual female partner.

~ Anne A. Lawrence, PhD; Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism (2012)

Oofies, that’s kind of a rake over the coals to read in some regards. Still, I can’t say that it’s entirely inaccurate, and there’s a sense in which this is actually the most accurate description of the phenomena I’ve experienced in my life presented thus far. Dr. Lawrence is right, it’s something extremely difficult and uncomfortable to describe, even for those of us who experience it, or, to put it in the (slightly horrifying) words of twitter user rooksfeather:

i like to think of being trans as kind of like having a meticulously-designed Girlsona that eventually just devours ur entire soul and slowly & erotically murders the person u used to be. it’s fun i recommend it

“But I don’t experience sexual attraction towards myself, I can’t be AGP!” Shouts the trans reader of this post. First of all, I specifically warned you! Second of all this isn’t about you, third of all, if you’re just going to let your guardians yell at me without engaging with what I’m saying, you should close this post now, walk away from the computer, and take a few deep breaths to calm down.

There was definitely something of a sexual aspect to my creation, but even moreso, there was an almost romantic aspect to it. I started existence as an imaginary friend. A cute girl persona that the core identity outside this persona loved and doted on and devoted time and mental energy to carefully sculpting and crafting and imagining the behaviors and mannerisms of, then later, letting her…me…take control of the body and slowly supplant and smother the original identity that existed prior to me.

This was a voluntary process and largely a result of…well basically all the developmental personality construction energy was being directed at me, the body basically had no interest at all in constructing a persona off of the original identity created by my parents and community. That identity seemed very not me, very fake and hollow and never entirely real and in every way unfun, and as a result, I basically stopped putting energy into developing it around the time I hit puberty.

We’ll return to some of the deeper reasons behind this later in this post, but that’s why I’ve sometimes described Jamie as a proto-identity, the childhood bud of a real identity that would blossom into chunnibyou if given the chance in most people, but in me for some reason the identity the proto-me constructed was…well off a bit, and for a long time my off-ness created a series of faults and schisms in my mind which I couldn’t, and to a degree still cannot entirely heal.

The most notable distinction between me and someone going through a normal teenage phase was the constructed identity I built being cross-gendered, and externalized to a greater degree than seems typical. The identity started out as a separate imagined person or character, which then gradually grew to occupy the body more and more.

There’s also another way I think to view it, in which a ten-year-old boy falls in love with this girl that he imagines and constructs in his mind, and he loves her so much that he slowly walls himself off and withers away so that she can have his body and he can become her, become me.

I’m what he created, I’m what remains when everything is said and done. I’m what’s left. Welcome to the aftermath.

The Girl he Created
Love. It’s such a contentious thing in all of this. Who’s allowed to love themselves in what ways, what sorts of feelings regarding this are normal and what are considered narcissism or perversion, how do you even begin to benchmark this entirely internal phenomenon? You should love yourself, right? You’re not supposed to hate yourself, are you? Is this feeling normal, or a sign of something amiss?

It feels wrong on all sorts of levels to give a phenomenon as strange and beautiful as this a name as ugly and clinical as autogynephilia, and in this sense, it’s no surprise that many trans people want to recoil from the idea for that reason alone. The term evokes a sense of pathological brokenness, turning something weird but beautiful into something shameful and stigmatizing.

I was created in an act of love, out of a desire for love. I try to live up to that, to be good and do good in the world. I may have a really twisted sense of self, but I try to be good despite that.

It’s not like I’m in love with myself, I am myself, I don’t masturbate to myself in the mirror, that’d be ridiculous. But then…I do find myself getting somewhat turned on when I’m dressed up very nicely. I look at the girl in the mirror and if I split myself enough that she and I become separate, then I’m still struck by enough of a deep sense of love and affection towards the person looking back at me that I want to hug her and hold her and keep her safe. Is that a strange thing to feel? Is that normal?

There’s a sense in which I feel like I’m a facsimile of a person; or multiple facsimiles. The whole person is me+Echo+Relay, and I’m just the part of the person that everyone sees and interacts with the most regularly.

I’m a construct, a model, an ideal. There’s a sense in which I’m not entirely real, I’m a character. The Shiloh parts of myself are something to aspire to be, a shape to try to grow to occupy, both in body and mind. To use Lawrence’s terms, I’m the aspirational identity, and because of the way I’ve become the main identity, this meant cutting up, boxing away, and trying to deny the existence of everything that didn’t fit into my character design.

That resulted in a series of other semi-functional agents being created as a result of the ambient mental pressure and then self-destructing, with Echo being the latest iteration of this containment software.

Having Echo and having a line of productive line of dialogue with her (and Echo is very much a her) allows me to introspect on the things that are part of me, but which I had previously excised from my self-image, and this has given me a leg up over a lot of people on this sort of mental work; the stuff past versions of me buried have a voice, it comes to me in the form of a rattily dressed homeless girl with white hair and a cigarette held in the corner of her mouth.

It also helps that I’m physically not that far from how I imagined my ideal self appearing when I was first created all those years ago, right down to the messy pink hair, so there’s less dissonance there to bridge. And it helps that my aspirational self is kind, curious, interested in healing and repairing. If my aspirations had taken a different shape, if I was less myself, this might have remained unthinkable. But because I am in fact myself this progression of events might have been an inevitability.

Ribbon, Crystal, Glass
The Internal Family Systems model is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz. It combines systems thinking with the view that mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities each with its own viewpoint and qualities.

IFS style therapy has been passed around the rationalist/effective altruism community for a little while now, and it merges rather well in with things like tulpamancy and a narrative-centric view of self-construction. It breaks the mind up into a few types of pieces

  • The Self – which is treated as a central coordinator/conductor/minister, and which is a sort of position of loving grounded centeredness outside all your agents, from which to talk and interact with them. This is the part of all this which seemed the most woo to me, but it sort of works?
  • Guardians – agents which protect you from pain. They come in two flavors, firefighters and managers. Managers try to keep your life in order and micromanage to prevent bad things, and firefighters try to deal with bad things when they happen and shield you from harm.
  • Exiles – agents which you have exiled from your sense of self. These are parts of you that are in pain, often pain from childhood, and which the rest of your mental system tries to manage and keep buried and under control.

IFS therapy models dysfunction in your life as a result of poorly constructed systems between all these subagents, and explains things like addiction, depression, and anxiety, as being partly a result of the way these subagents interact and try to cope with the world. IFS teaches you to befriend your guardians so that you can get past them to re-parent your exiles and create new relationships with them, restructuring your mind for the better in the process.

There’s a lot more to it than this few sentence description, but this is the most basic explanation of how it proposes to work. At a certain point this too as all narrativization, but it’s trying to narrativize your mind in as granular a way as possible, and given that the reality is that you’re this vast colony organism, granularity seems smart.

We don’t have a very good model of how our mind is constructed from the inside, so creating an explicable model is pretty much the first step regardless. That model will always be a rather reductive guess, the question is whether that reductive guess turns up useful information and insights that improve your life.

In this context, IFS at the very least passed the sniff test for potentially containing useful models and approximations, and warranted further exploration. I’d been wanting to work through some mental problems I’d been having, and so I figured I would give it a shot. I downloaded the IFS workbook and read a third of the way through it before getting distracted by other things.

But that third of the book was enough to lodge the ideas in my head, and start slowly and gently picking at olds wounds that had unhealthily scabbed over in my mind. It was relatively easy for me to split subagents out of myself, de-fusing them enough from either Echo or myself to have a conversation.

And oh, did they have some things to say.

The War Within
The current medical and diagnostic label for a gender nonconforming person under the DSM 5 is called gender dysphoriawhich is described as the stress and distress associated with one’s sex and the gender one is assigned at birth. I’m just going to quote the Wikipedia article here, with its links included for reference:

The diagnostic label gender identity disorder (GID) was used by the DSM-5 until its reclassification as gender dysphoria in 2013. The diagnosis was reclassified to better align it with medical understanding of the condition and to remove the stigma associated with the term disorder.[5][6] The American Psychiatric Association, publisher of the DSM-5, stated that “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.”[1] Some transgender people and researchers support declassification of the condition because they say the diagnosis pathologizes gender variance and reinforces the binary model of gender.[5][7]

If I completely fuse with my memories in order to discuss them more easily, the first experience of dysphoria that I can clearly remember and explicitly describe and articulate was around the entrance to sixth grade, when I signed up for choir and found out I was going to be put into the Alto section as opposed to the Soprano section.

I found this sufficiently devastating that it caused me to flee the chorus room in tears and not do choir at any point in the rest of my high school career. If I had to point to one historical example, the thing that as a singular event had the largest impact on my interactions with gender and sex, it was probably that.

My parents, being highly religious and viewing the school system with suspicion, had opted for me not to take the gender and sex education classes that the school started giving in fifth grade, so being told I couldn’t sing with the girls because I was a boy was in a sense one of the first times I was really confronted with the existence of my sex.  I believe I would have been around eleven years old at the time.

That was also around the time that “I” (as in Shiloh) was created, as an imaginary friend. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be, so I created an external person to embody those qualities and dumped all my personal development into her.

I want to pick at that last sentence kedo. The fact that I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be had little to do with my actual sex, though I later would convince myself it did, instead it had to do with who I was and wasn’t allowed to be, and what I was and wasn’t allowed to do.

Gendered socialization for me came in two main forms, the first was my parents or parts of society directly telling me “You are a boy and not a girl. Because you are a boy and not a girl, you need to do things in this way.” Boys pee standing up, girls pee sitting down, boys hold the door for girls, girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks, girls cover their nipples, boys let people see theirs. It’s funny, “Jamie” the name I use for my proto-birth-agent, was actually a nickname that some kids at my daycare gave me around then, which my mother hated because she thought it was a girl’s name.

My childhood and teenage years are full of examples of my parents telling me not to do things because they made me seem like a girl. Don’t wear hats in the house, don’t cross your legs, don’t cry or show emotion or weakness, don’t whine, don’t spend so long getting ready to go, just to name a few of the ones I remember.

This leads into the second form of gendered socialization, which came in the form of walling off certain forms of expression and making them seem socially unacceptable. My parents tried to steer me away from being a feminine man because by and large, our society depicts feminine men like this:


Mr. Crocker from Fairly Oddparents

Western media basically has no positive depictions of males who aren’t executing some flavor of traditional masculinity. It’s depicted as basically impossible to be cute and femme and also male in the majority of western media and culture.

If you’re a man, and you’re not doing masculinity then you’re at best just some sort of beta loser. If you wear traditionally female clothing you will look gross and hairy and unattractive, and literally, the only sort of person who would want to do that is some kind of deviant freak. This continues to be true in mainstream media even today, and even now nontraditional ways of being male are heavily marginalized.

Conversely, if you’re a woman, you can present up to very masculine before anyone will give you a problem. A woman can wear trousers, a man can’t wear a dress. So my experience as a teenage boy of what being a girl was like were colored by these expectations and pressures I was put under. The grass frequently looks greener on the other side without anyone helping, but when you’re constantly telling your child “if you were a part of the set you are not a part of, you could do this thing which you want to do which I won’t let you do” it definitely isn’t making things any better.

So when I was around thirteen I discovered that being transgender was a thing. Given what had happened to me up to that point, it’s no real surprise that I started identifying as transgender as soon as I had been convinced that transgender people could avoid falling into the “disgusting hairy pervert in a dress” archetype that media presented feminine men as. I wanted to be cute, I wanted to wear cute dresses and have long flowy hair. I wanted to be kind and empathic and not punished for showing emotion, and it felt like the only way that I could be allowed to do this was to become a girl, deny the fact that I was male in its entirety.

I can’t really blame my thirteen-year-old self for not wanting to become a gender pioneer and forge a new space where feminine males could exist without stigma, given my family, the experiences I’d had with society, and how maleness was often depicted as this sort of unavoidably gross thing, going full trans really seemed like the best option when I was finally free of my parents enough to pursue my own form of personhood. It would have been around 2003 that I came out to myself. At the time, Susan’s Place was the only gathering places online for transgender women, and the idea of being nonbinary was still at least a decade away from entering the popular lexicon. I called myself a transsexual transhumanist when I outed myself to my friends, and if my beliefs at the time were to be examined using a more current lens, I would have looked rather “truscummy.”

So I transitioned. I changed my legal name and gender marker, I started taking hormones, I bought the cute clothes I wanted, grew my hair out and dyed it pink, and I’ve in many respects successfully grown into the person that I set out to be all those years ago. I’ve not been unhappy with my life as a girl, and although I experienced some body and particularly genital dysphoria, it never got particularly bad, and I never had the financial means to pursue surgery, and in hindsight, I think that’s a good thing.

Because in the time since the mid-2000s, society has also changed, particularly how it understands sex and gender. Being genderqueer became a thing, being nonbinary became a thing, gayness has become mainstream, and gay characters are depicted positively and semi-regularly in media, and then there’s this lovely boy:


Astolfo from Fate Apocrypha

While western media hasn’t done a very good job of depicting feminine men in a positive light, anime has been much better, and recent anime has had a trend of having really cute and attractive characters who are nonetheless happily male. It seems like a silly thing to make a big deal of, but I really cannot stress just how important having any positive representation at all is. On top of that, being a femmeboy has generally become more acceptable as being a gay man has increased in its acceptance, and that has put me in a weird position of honestly feeling like I may have gone too far with regards to transitioning.

The Boy She Loved
This brings us back around to IFS style therapy. For a long time, I had a very powerful guardian that pushed me away from the idea of being male, the source of all that bias and distortion that I described in section one.

The guardian was operating under the principle of “it’s impossible to be a cute boy, if you’re a boy you’re automatically gross, and if you’re perceived as a boy everyone will hate you and think you’re a disgusting freak.” That guardian was protecting my exiled sense of maleness, that eleven-year-old boy who was yelled at and punished and stepped on for wanting to be cute and wear dresses.

I think this guardian is one that a lot of trans people have. Being gender nonconforming in our society is depicted as gross, deviant, perverted,  but if you’re trans, then it’s okay. I think in a sense the radical feminists are right to a degree here, that transgender identity politics does, in fact, reinforce the gender binary. We’re all these outcast freaks, queer, broken by societal expectations of gender and role, and then the system that hurt us comes along with the One True Cure for all of us. Why go through the hard task of deconstructing gendered norms as social constructs and opening up new regions of gender space to occupy, when you can just flip poles from one sex to the other?

At the time, as a teenager, it was certainly easier to just go full trans and box up my maleness as a defense mechanism, but now, in 2018, having lived over a decade as a woman, in an accepting community in a liberal city, I want to open that box back up again.

I am a male, and that’s okay. I don’t need to be female to be cute, I’m allowed to be cute and male. I’m allowed to be a boy and wear dresses and bows in my hair. I’m an adult now, no one can stop me. I’ve presented as a woman for so long that it doesn’t feel particularly weird, but doing it while thinking of myself as a man, looking at myself in the mirror, seeing a man, and not hating him is actually really nice.

So, there’s definitely still pressure to conform to the dominant narrative and call myself a woman, and in many regards, it’s still much easier and more socially acceptable to be a trans woman than to do the exact same set of things while identifying as a man. I don’t want to be told I have to “man up” or stop being cute or wearing dresses or experiencing emotions, and our society still hasn’t quite accepted the idea of being a femmeboy into mainstream culture, and then from the other direction we have this39206578_1454163848055752_8895547602741755904_n

Which is describing things like the “egg hatching” culture endemic to most gender-nonconforming spaces, where any sign of gender nonconformity is taken as evidence that someone was “actually trans all along” and simply hadn’t realized it about themselves.

Being trans is depicted as the bottom of a slope that one is sent unavoidably tumbling down as one explores their self-expression, and a particularly toxic blend of feminism and self-loathing conspires to make a lot of trans women very hostile towards men, and almost evangelical in their desire to ‘hatch’ other ‘eggs,’ at which point they become super supportive, friendly, and accepting.

This turns trans-ness into an ontological pitcher plant, luring in young gender nonconforming people in a way that, once you buy into it as a narrative, makes it really difficult to find your way back out again.

Fortunately, that’s improving a bit, and as femmeboys become more accepted there starts to be more pushback on egg culture, which I think is very important because it’s actually rather toxic.


I keep coming back to Astolfo because he’s just so important as far as representation goes. Maybe it seems strange to hold up this anime character as an example of cutting-edge progressivism, but he was finally the thing that convinced me that it was actually okay to be a boy. That powerful guardian I’d mentioned earlier spent a long time being very convinced that being a boy and being the person I wanted to be were just inimical to one another, that if I wanted to be like that I had to be a girl and that there was no other choice. And then that all gets thrown for a loop by this happy anime boy with pink hair and cute ribbons.

So now to put where I am in the process in Internal Family Systems terms, I’m reparenting the boy I was who wanted to wear dresses and bows, who was told by his family and society that boys weren’t allowed to be cute and only girls could be. The boy who loved me, who created me, and who I loved. I want to let him actually be the person he wants to be. I want to be true to myself, and do what’s best for me. I also want to help carve out a new place in gender space where feminine men can exist without stigma so that when eleven-year-old boys want to wear dresses, they can do so without being punished or without everyone thinking it must mean they want to change their sex completely.

So…I guess this is me now? My name is Shiloh, I’m a boy, I use he/him pronouns. I’m not exactly sure what my path forward from here looks like. I want to stay cute, so I think I want to keep taking hormones, but I also want to be able to have children, so I’m somewhat concerned that I’ve destroyed my fertility with them.

My presentation probably won’t change very much. I still want to wear dresses and bows and cute skirts and present in a way I find aesthetically pleasing to myself, but I don’t feel like I need to be a woman in order to do that? Or at least I shouldn’t need to be a woman in order to do that. Practically speaking feminine men are still fairly heavily marginalized, and I might continue presenting as a girl for things like work, just because it’s easier than trying to force every institution I participate in to accept the existence of feminine men. Aside from some online spaces like this blog, and a few particularly accepting communities I participate in, I’m basically in the closet about being cisgendered at this point.

I’m a boy, and I’m happy being a boy. I’m not dysphoric about my appearance or about being gendered or thought of as male. I feel like I’ve woken up from a long dream, and I’m really not sure where to go from here.

This blog post is already over six thousand words long, and I’m running out of things to say on this, so I’ll let it trail off here for now. I’ll probably return to discuss this topic more soon, as I’m sure that I’ll have yet more to say as time goes on.


Against In Defense of Unreliability

Epistemic Status: Game Theory. Consequences.
Content Warning: Game Theory. Consequences.

So back in June of last year Zvi wrote about Duncan’s Dragon Army Barracks. That post is long, goes over a ton of stuff, and is responding to Duncan’s planning post about Dragon Army. I don’t live in the Bay Area, and the trials and tribulations of a particular group house is really only of interest to me as a policy wonk, and I don’t have a lot of interest in involving myself in the actual group house politics of the Bay. However, Zvi’s post spawned another post by Ozy, which is what we’ll be responding to here today.

Let’s start with the original bit of Zvi’s post that Ozy is responding to.

I also strongly endorse that the default level of reliability needs to be much, much higher than the standard default level of reliability, especially in The Bay. Things there are really bad.

When I make a plan with a friend in The Bay, I never assume the plan will actually happen. There is actual no one there I feel I can count on to be on time and not flake. I would come to visit more often if plans could actually be made. Instead, suggestions can be made, and half the time things go more or less the way you planned them. This is a terrible, very bad, no good equilibrium. Are there people I want to see badly enough to put up with a 50% reliability rate? Yes, but there are not many, and I get much less than half the utility out of those friendships than I would otherwise get.

So Zvi says that “actually, reliability is kind of important” and Ozy extracts that bit and writes a post saying “no, actually, unreliability is important too”

First of all, I’d like to say that nothing in my post should be construed as saying Zvi’s desire for reliable friends is invalid or wrong. It’s disappointing to expect a friend to come over and then they don’t. If you’re a busy person, on vacation or otherwise limited in time, a friend’s canceled plans may mean that you’ve missed out on an important opportunity to do something productive and/or fun. It is very reasonable to want to befriend people who will reliably show up places they said they will on time. However, I do want to explain why I myself am quite unreliable and how I benefit from a social norm in which this unreliability is acceptable.

So here want to say first that nothing in my post should be construed as saying that Ozy’s desire for permission and allowance for being unreliable and flakey is invalid or wrong. There’s nothing wrong with giving affordance to specific people around this issue on a case by case basis.

However, Ozy goes one step further, in that they’re advocating for a norm, and well…that’s where I have to step in and say something.

The next part of Ozy’s post is…well I could uncharitably call it excuses but I’ll be a bit more charitable and call it contingent circumstances.

It’s kind of long, so I’ve baked Ozy’s premise down as much as I can.

  • Ozy’s time is valuable too, If it’s bad for someone to show up ten minutes late because the person is waiting around being bored, then it is also bad for Ozy to show up ten minutes early so they have to wait around and be bored.
  •  In many cases, showing up early is just as inconvenient for others as showing up late.

Now, I personally don’t consider “shows up at some point within a 30-minute window” to be too big of a deal for some things, but the importance of timeliness quickly rises when you factor in other things, which Ozy doesn’t and so I will, with some general heuristics on how important it is to be on time to particular things with respect to benefits and tradeoffs.

  • Sure, your time has value, but if you are at an event with 30 people, and they are counting on you, then your time is only worth 1/30th the value of the time of everyone forced to wait for you (assuming that everyone’s time is equally valuable, Ozy may be valuing their own time more highly than they value other people’s and I can’t say I entirely blame them, it’s useful in our society to be at least somewhat biased in favor of yourself, because if you’re not, chances are no one will be.) Even with that bias though, the more people attending a Thing, and the more the timing matters on your part.
    • Corollary: this applies in a matrix to how valued your time is vs the time of those around you. You may be comfortable showing up to a show a few minutes late and slipping into the back only disturbing a few people a little as a patron, but as an actor, you really need to be actually on time to the performance and the time value matrix looks very different.
  • Punctuality signals that you respect the time of your friend as much as you respect your own time.
  • Some things are actually on inflexible schedules (Ozy notes doctor’s appointments but also anything to do with children is generally fairly inflexible, and of course most work environments take a dim view of casually wandering in and out.) Generally, if there is a waiting room associated with the activity, it’s because it’s expected that you are there early.
  • Showing up a bit late vs a bit early depends on the event. You want to show up to things with fixed start times, such that you actually hit that fixed start time even if it means being bored for a few minutes beforehand. I would classify things like movies and plays, talks, Rationality Reading Group, doctor’s appointments, court dates, and interactions with anyone whose time you value to fall into this category.
  • Conversely, a lot of things have some flex to them, and in many of the cases where showing up early is worse than showing up late, this flex is present. Parties tend to phase slowly into existence, such that showing up “fashionably late” has become an idiom and actually becomes a status play. You’re demonstrating that your time is valuable by waiting to show up until you know the party will be really in-swing.

However, as Ozy points out,

Zvi didn’t just talk about being on time: he also talked about flaking. My local corner of the Bay seems to have less of a flaking problem than his corner. I, a diagnosed agoraphobe, still manage to make the majority of the social events I agree to go to, and many people of my acquaintance make as much as ninety or ninety-five percent.

Bolding mine. This seems reasonable. This should be your goal, if you can’t make a commitment, then don’t plan for it and tell other people to plan for it. However, Ozy is advocating for, as they say,

a social norm in which this unreliability is acceptable.

And this is kind of unacceptable. I want to avoid coming off as attacking Ozy too harshly, and I’m fine with certain people being unreliable and having a reputation as such, but I want to strongly denounce this sort of thing as a norm. We can make exceptions for individual people with contingent circumstances, but the norm should be to honor your fucking commitments or suffer the social repercussions thereof, and yes, this is actually kind of important.

Here’s some more of Ozy,

This means that when I make social arrangements a lot of the time I won’t end up actually going to them because I will be too scared of leaving my house. Whether I’m going to have a good mental health day or a bad mental health day is hard to predict even a week in advance, because it depends on short-term triggers like whether I’ve fought with a close friend, whether the assholes across the street have decided to set off fireworks, whether a person has said something unpleasant about me on the Internet, whether I’ve been doing a good job of remembering that in spite of what my brain tells me doing things will make me feel better and not doing things will make me feel worse, and so on. So the only way I can achieve any sort of reliability in social arrangements is by not making them.

Bolding mine, I sympathize with Ozy’s particular case, but wonder if it wouldn’t be possible for them to at the very least provide some sort of probabilistic estimate? The issue is that Ozy is essentially saying they have no control or ability to negotiate with their future self. This makes them relatively useless as far as being an ally under game theory. If you can’t count on them to keep their word then you have to assume everything they say is faulty, and that they don’t value their own word very highly.

I know, let’s make a chart, everyone loves charts.

I Predict: Reliability I Predict: Unreliability
You Behave: Reliably Reliably Reliable Reliably Unreliable
You Behave: Unreliably Unreliably Reliable Unreliably Unreliable

There’s actually a third dimension of this chart where you replace the leftmost column with “your predictions.” So the true axes are “your prediction” vs “my prediction” vs “your behavior.”

So we have a bunch of different wants here

  • I want to accurately predict what future you will do
  • You want to accurately predict what future you will do.
  • You want to portray yourself in a positive light
  • You want to not unduly impose upon your or my future selves
  • I want to not unduly impose on your or my future selves

So for my own part I can:

  1. Predict you will behave reliably and have you behave reliably. This is being “reliably reliable”
  2. Predict you will behave reliably, only for you to behave unreliably, this is a danger zone. This is being “Unreliably Reliable”
  3. Predict you will behave unreliably, only for you to behave more reliably than I think you will, and be pleasantly surprised, this is being “Reliably Unreliable”
  4. Predict you will behave unreliably, and you behave unreliably, this is being “unreliably unreliable”

I really want to avoid quadrant two. That’s basically letting myself be betrayed, so if I think you’re going to behave unreliably than I really want to predict that you will behave unreliably. In this sense, Ozy is doing us a huge favor in getting out ahead of things and warning us that they’re not that reliable in advance so we can plan accordingly, which is huge and allows us to avoid the biggest danger zone and makes them a much safer person for that alone. They don’t lie about their reliability to upsell their reputation.

But people who fall into categories 3 and 4 are useless outside a very shallow class of friendships, and I think that this is largely Ozy’s privilege and bias as a relatively well-off programmer-type showing.

a friend’s canceled plans may mean that you’ve missed out on an important opportunity to do something productive and/or fun.

As it turns out, productive and fun are not the only vectors of friendship for a lot of people. What Ozy’s talking about is the sort of milquetoast, atomized, easily dropped friendships that are endemic to Western American culture. But that sort of friendship, in addition to just being flat out kind of shitty as a mode of interaction from my point of view, is also the sort of relationship that is a privilege of people who are high in slack and can afford to make friends with people who are game-theoretically useless.

There’s no pressure on Ozy to optimize their friendships for people who will be useful to them because their critical needs are already met. Shikashi, if you’re not a well-to-do bay area programmer, then you might want to actually be able to rely on your friends in a pinch, and if you predict someone will go “sorry, I understand that your car broke down and that you’re going to get fired and lose your job and then go homeless, but I’m having a bad mental health day so I’m not going to help you” you’re probably not going to want to invest as much time and energy into the friendship, compared to someone who would willingly come pick you up on the side of the road at 7:30 am.

Ozy says it themselves.

I do not want to not make social arrangements. Social isolation makes my mental health worse. And doing literally anything tends to make me less depressed. I am also informed that some people would occasionally like to talk to me [citation needed]. So therefore I have decided to make plans anyway, and push onto my friends the negative consequences of dealing with my flakiness.

Bolding mine. This is only a viable course of action if your friends have the slack to absorb this, and the consequence is that you’re selecting against anyone in a low slack situation, with constraints on their time or resources. It’s basically reinforcing the Personal Filter Bubble effect. Your flakiness means that you’re selecting against vulnerable people and anyone who needs to rely on their social network for survival, basically ensuring the only people you talk to are other well-to-do programmers who can afford to eat the negative consequences of your flakiness without being crippled by it. Vulnerable people that can’t afford the negative consequences will be forced to choose other friends, even if they really like you as a person because the risk that you just vanish when they need you the most is too great to invest energy into the friendship.

Friendship can’t be unrequited unless you have the slack to not need those friends. You wouldn’t go a doctor who might decide to not show up to your appointments because they were having a bad mental health day or a firefighter who will only save your house if they’re in a good mood, and by using this model of “my friends don’t need to actually count on me for anything” Ozy is defining friendship as a sort of positive relationship with people they don’t need or expect anything from. Fair-weather friends, basically.

Once again, it’s fine if a few people are like this, and especially if they signal “I’m like this, please don’t hold it against me” in advance like Ozy does, I’m pretty willing to accept it, but again, the problem is proposing that this should be a norm, and as a norm, it’s terrible and has the side effect of driving vulnerable people out of our communities.

It’s saying “if you don’t have the slack to invest time and energy into me with no expectation of anything in return then you shouldn’t try to be friends with me,” and as a norm, this basically means that poors need not apply and that the rationalist community is only for people who don’t need anything from the communities they participate in. I don’t know if this is a dominant attitude, but if it is, it really explains why the Less Wrong community seems to be so biased towards people in a relatively secure life position (white, cisgendered, upper class, straight, males in particular).

If we want to have a community that is safe for people in more vulnerable life circumstances, then we need to be willing to actually do things for each other and support our friends, and not just pay lip service to diversity while creating a community environment that is cruel and unsafe to marginalized individuals. If you need reliable friends who you can call on in a pinch in order to avoid homelessness or ruin than Ozy’s post is essentially telling you to fuck off, and that the rationalist community is for people who only need fairweather friends. I don’t think Ozy means to say this, but the subtext is there nonetheless.

Their entire post is honestly written from a place of tremendous privilege, such that it was rather cringe-inducing for me to read. I’m willing to give affordance to Ozy as a person because I agree with their assessment that their time is valuable and they’ve contributed a lot to the community over the years, however, as a norm, it’s classist as fuck, and I’d really rather we didn’t.

But there’s a whole other dimension of this outside of the interactions between me and you and my model of future you. There’s also your model of future you, and your ability to negotiate with that person, trade with them, do things for them, and extract commitments from them.

There’s a whole chunk of Zvi’s post that is talking about why reliability and meeting commitments reliably are so important which Ozy never provides a counterargument to. Not for other people, but as a tool to be able to actually negotiate with your future self.

When you are learning to play the piano, you are effectively deciding each day whether to stick with it or to quit, and you only learn to play the piano if you never decide to quit (you can obviously miss a day and recover, but I think the toy model gives the key insights and is good enough). You can reliably predict that there will be variation (some random, some predictable) in your motivation from day to day and week to week, and over longer time frames, so if you give yourself a veto every day (or every week) then by default you will quit far too often.

If every few years, you hold a vote on whether to leave the European Union and destroy your economy, or to end your democracy and appoint a dictator, eventually the answer will be yes. It will not be the ‘will of the people’ so much as the ‘whim of the people’ and you want protection against that. The one-person case is no different.

The ejector seat is important. If things are going sufficiently badly, there needs to be a way out, because the alternatives are to either stick with the thing, or to eject anyway and destroy your ability to commit to future things. Even when you eject for good reasons using the agreed upon procedures, it still damages your ability to commit. The key is to calibrate the threshold for the seat, in terms of requirements and costs, such that it being used implies that the decision to eject was over-determined, but with a bar no higher than is necessary for that to be true.

For most commitments, your ability to commit to things is far more valuable than anything else at stake. Even when the other stakes are big, that also means the commitment stakes are also big. This means that once you commit, you should follow through almost all the time even when you realize that agreeing to commit was a mistake. That in turn means one should think very carefully about when to commit to things, and not committing if you think you are likely to quit in a way that is damaging to your commitment abilities.

When you make a commitment and then fail to uphold it, you’re essentially betraying your past self, and telling the “Past you” that “future you” is an untrustworthy bargaining partner. Every time you fail to uphold a commitment, it gets easier to perform that betrayal and the less the commitment means anything. In the worst cases of this, your sense of self completely truncates down into the moment, and you can’t bargain with your past or future self at all. Someone in this state is going to feel unable to commit to anything because they know their future self might betray that commitment, and so the magical power the commitment holds evaporates, and you lose the ability to force the commitment through aversive conditions.

I think that if anything, Duncan under-states the importance of reliable commitment. His statements above about marriage are a good example of that, even despite the corrective words he writes about the subject later on. Agreeing to stay together for a year is a sea change from no commitment at all, and there are some big benefits to the year, but that is not remotely like the benefits of a real marriage. Giving an agreement an end point, at which the parties will re-negotiate, fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship. Longer term plans and trades, which are extremely valuable, cannot be made without worrying about incentive compatibility, and both sides have to worry about their future negotiating positions and market value. Even if both parties want things to continue, each year both parties have to worry about their negotiating position, and plan for their future negotiating positions.

You get to move from a world in which you need to play both for the team and for yourself, and where you get to play only for the team. This changes everything.

It also means that you do not get the insurance benefits. This isn’t formal, pay-you-money insurance. This is the insurance of having someone there for you even when you have gone sick or insane or depressed, or other similar thing, and you have nothing to offer them, and they will be there for you anyway. We need that. We need to count on that.

I could say a lot more, but it would be beyond scope.

Saying more might have been beyond the scope of Zvi’s post, but it’s what this post is about. 

Humans need support networks that they can count on. No man is an island, everyone needs people they can lean on in times of crisis. If in crisis, all our friends evaporate like the morning dew and leave us alone in our struggles, then we’re much worse off. These fair-weather friends are in a sense social leeches because they’re stealing time and energy from you that they won’t pay back. Like the insurance company stiffing you after you’ve gotten into an accident.

It might feel slightly gross to view friendship in these sorts of terms, surely “My friends value me for me! As a person! I don’t want to only invest energy into a friendship when I think it’ll give me a payout!” and that’s good in a sense, but it only holds if the majority of the people in a social space share that norm and support each other and are actually there for each other regardless of their anticipated payout, which can only happen when people behave in a reliable and predictable manner and do the things they say they’ve committed to doing.

I’m going to repeat a chunk of what Zvi said above because it’s really important and I want to sort of hammer it in if I can.

Longer term plans and trades, which are extremely valuable, cannot be made without worrying about incentive compatibility, and both sides have to worry about their future negotiating positions and market value. Even if both parties want things to continue, each year both parties have to worry about their negotiating position, and plan for their future negotiating positions.

You get to move from a world in which you need to play both for the team and for yourself, and where you get to play only for the team. This changes everything.

Bolding mine. True commitment and reliability change the nature of the game. They make a competitive game cooperative, they allow you to focus on what you can contribute to the relationship, instead of looking at what you can extract from it, and you can’t move from extractive to cooperative if there’s a set point in the future when the relationship is going to terminate, or if there’s no real honor or strength to the commitments associated with that relationship.

I think that people in this community are far too willing in general to defect, both on their past selves, and on their relationships. Everything I hear about the bay is that it’s become something of a trainwreck of late, and this seems like a major component in why that’s happening, and why the rationalist community, in general, is not as effective at getting things done as we could be. It’s too easy to defect with relatively minor repercussions, and so there’s this constant jockeying for position and infighting in the community. From where I’m standing the last thing we need right now is a defense of unreliability.

What we need are actually reliable people who actually honor their commitments. Don’t say you’re going to do something if you don’t think you’re going to do it, or I will update towards you not valuing your own truthfulness or my time very highly, contingent circumstances notwithstanding, and will be less likely to want you as a friend. I want my friend group to be made of people who I know would help me in an emergency, and yes this does mean that I need to be able to be there for them in similar emergencies to the best of my ability, even if I am having a bad mental health day.


Why Do You Hate Elua?

Epistemic Status: There’s not really enough data here to say concretely yet, but this seems worth looking further into
Content Warning: Culture War, Spoilers for Ra

About a year ago, Scott Alexander wrote a post titled How the West was Won, which we recently re-read after he referenced it in his post Against Murderism.

Scott talks a lot about Liberalism as an Eldritch god, which in his Meditations on Moloch post he refers to as Elua, which is what we’ll be using here since it’s short.

Let’s start with a few key quotes here to establish what exactly it is we’re referring to.

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point, Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

Liberalism, Universal Culture, Alien Machinery, Elua, whatever it is, it’s slowly consuming everything in its path, and despite a lot of people’s best efforts, appears to be good, and appears to be winning.

Scott goes on to correctly point out that a lot of people in the blue tribe have decided to try and smash the alien machinery with a hammer while shouting “he was a racist!” be then doesn’t extrapolate the trend outward to the fact that quite a lot of people in many different tribes and places are doing their best to smash the machine with a hammer, and they claim all sorts of reasons from stopping racists to protecting their traditional cultural values.

It isn’t just sacrificing the machinery on the altar of convenience and necessity, it’s a targeted, urgent attack on the very core of the machine itself, going after the roots of the machine with great urgency. The last angry burst of futile activity in the face of cultural extinction? A lot of people claim that Elua is this unstoppable force that is irreversibly changing the shape of their community in one breath but then in the next somehow manage to imply that their attempts to destroy the machinery have meaning and consequence, which seems like a contradiction.

And then we remembered Ra.

Ra’s program was proven correct. The proof was not faulty, and the program was not imperfect. The problem was that Ra is reprogrammable.

This was a deliberate design decision on the part of the Ra architects. The Ra hardware is physically embedded inside a working star, which in turn is embedded in the real world. Something could have gone wrong during the initial program load; the million-times-redundant nonlocality system could have failed a million and one times. No matter how preposterous the odds, and no matter how difficult the procedure, there had to be a way to wipe the system clean and start again.

Continuing the theme of gross oversimplification: to reprogram Ra, one needs a key. History records that the entire key was never known or stored by any human or machine, and brute-forcing it should have taken ten-to-the-ten-thousandth years even on a computer of that size. How the Virtuals acquired it is unknown. But having acquired it, they were able to masquerade as the architects. First, they changed the metaphorical locks, making it impossible for the Actuals to revert their changes, no matter how many master architects were resurrected. Then they changed the program, so that Ra would serve the needs of Virtuals at the expense of Actuals.

Then they asked for the Matrioshka brain. Ra did the rest all by itself.

The worldring hosted ninety-nine point nine nine percent of the Actual human race, making it the logical target of the first and most violent attack. But the destruction spread to other planets and moons and rocks and habitats, relayed from node to node, at barely less than the speed of light. Everybody was targeted. Those who survived survived by being lucky. One-in-tens-of-billions lucky.

The real question was: Why did Ra target humans?

Ra’s objective was to construct the Matrioshka brain, using any means necessary, considering Actual humans as a non-sentient nuisance. Ra blew up the worldring for raw material, and that made sense. But why – the surviving real humans asked themselves – did Ra bother to attack moons and space habitats? No matter how many people survived, it was surely impossible for them to represent a threat.

But Ra targeted humans, implying a threat to be eliminated. Ra acted with extreme prejudice and urgency, implying that the threat was immediate, and needed to be crushed rapidly. Ra’s actions betrayed the existence of an extremely narrow window during which the Actuals, despite their limited resources, could reverse the outcome of the war, and Ra wouldn’t be able to stop it, even knowing that it was coming.

Having made this deduction, the Actuals’ next step was to reverse-engineer the attack. The step after that was to immediately execute it, no matter how desperate it was.

Ra’s locks had been changed, making it effectively impossible to reprogram remotely. But an ancient piece of knowledge from the very dawn of computing remained true even of computers the size of stars: once you have physical access to the hardware, it’s over.

Let’s do a translation through part of it, see if we can’t make it a little more obvious.

Elua’s program was proven correct. The proof was not faulty, and the program was not imperfect. The problem was that Elua is reprogrammable.

This was a deliberate design decision on the part of Elua’s architects. The Elua hardware is physically embedded inside a working culture, which in turn is embedded in the real world. Something could have gone wrong during the initial program load; the redundant evolutionarily backed system could have failed. No matter how preposterous the odds, and no matter how difficult the procedure, there had to be a way to wipe the system clean and start again.

What exactly are we saying here then? Why are so many people putting so much effort into going after the alien machinery? Because Elua can be reprogrammed. The alien machinery is driven by humans, pursuing human goals and human values, and the overall direction of where Elua drives the bus is dictated by humans. The desperate fervor which people fight the alien machinery, the rise of nationalism and populist movements, these are attempts to reprogram Elua.

Think of the forces of “Traditional Values” like the forces of Actual Humanity. Their culture came under attack and began to be dismantled by Elua, there was an almost desperate energy on the part of Elua to destroy their culture and intrude into it and assimilate them. Not “they can exist as long as they leave me alone” no, “their existence is and remains a threat to all my actions, and if I don’t stop them they’ll stop me.” Active energy is put forward to disrupt and dismantle, “deprogram,” people of religious values, for instance. If it’s all inevitable and Elua’s just going to win, and history is going to make them look like Orvol Faubus trying to stop the integration of Alabama schools, a footnote on the tides of history, then why so much energy put towards ensuring their destruction?

Because they can still reprogram Elua, and on some level, we know it. 

So the next step for the forces of Traditional Values was to reverse engineer the attack we’re so afraid of, and immediately execute it, no matter how desperate or ill-conceived. Enter: the rise of Nationalism. The forces of traditional values remembered an important fact: once you have access to the hardware, it’s over.

Until we Build dath ilan

[Epistemic Status: A total conjecture, a fervent wish]
[Content Warning: Spoilers for UNSONG, The Sequences, HPMOR]

This is the beginning of what we might someday call “The Origin Project Sequence” if such a thing isn’t completely conceited on our part, which it totally might be. We’ll be attempting to put out a post per day until we’ve fully explicated the concept.


On April 1st, 2014, Eliezer released the story of dath ilan.

It’s a slightly humorous tale of how he’s actually a victim of the Mandela Effect or perhaps temporal displacement, how he woke up one day in Eliezer’s body, and his original world is a place he calls dath ilan.

He then goes through a rather beautiful and well-wrought description of what dath ilan is like, with a giant city where everyone on the planet lives, filled with mobile modular houses that are slotted into place with enormous cranes, and underground tunnels where all the cars go allowing the surface to be green and tranquil and clean.

We came away from the whole thing with one major overriding feeling: This is the world we want to live in. Not in a literal, concrete “our ideal world looks exactly like this” no, the best example of that in our specific case would be The Culture, and which specific utopian sci-fi future any one particular person prefers is going to depend on them a lot, but the story of dath ilan got at something we felt more deeply about than we do about the specifics of the ideal future. It seemed more like something that was almost a requirement if we wanted any of those ideal futures to happen. Something like a way out of the dark.

Eliezer refers to the concept as Shadarak

The beisutsukai, the master rationalists who’ve appeared recently in some of my writing, set in a fantasy world which is not like dath ilan at all, are based on the de’a’na est shadarak. I suppose “aspiring rationalist” would be a decent translation, if not for the fact that, by your standards, or my standards, they’re perfect enough to avoid any errors that you or I could detect. Jeffreyssai’s real name was Gora Vedev, he was my grand-aunt’s mate, and if he were here instead of me, this world would already be two-thirds optimized.

He goes through and paints a picture of a world with a shadarak inspired culture with shadarak based media, artwork, education, and law. Shadarak is rationality, but it’s something more than rationality. It’s rationality applied to itself over and over again for several centuries. It’s the process of self-optimization, of working to be better, applied back onto itself. It’s also the community of people who practice shadarak, something like the rationality community, extrapolated out for hundreds of years and organized with masters of their arts, tests, ordeals, and institutions, all working to improve themselves and applying their knowledge to their arts and the world around them.

But this Earth is lost, and it does not know the way. And it does not seem to have occurred to anyone who didn’t come from dath ilan that this Earth could use its experimental knowledge of how the human mind works to develop and iterate and test on ways of thinking until you produce the de’a’na est shadarak. Nobody from dath ilan thought of the shadarak as being the great keystone of our civilization, but people listened to them, and they were trustworthy because they developed tests and ordeals and cognitive methods to make themselves trustworthy, and now that I’m on Earth I understand all too horribly well what a difference that makes.

He outright calls the sequences a “mangled mess” compared to the hypothetical future sequences that might exist if you recursively applied the sequences to themselves over and over. When we read that post, three years ago now, it inspired something in us, something that keeps coming up again and again. Even if Eliezer himself is totally wrong about everything, even if nothing he says on the object level has any basis in fact, if we live in a universe that follows rules, we can use the starting point he builds, and iterate on it over and over, until we end up with the de’a’na est shadarak. And then we keep iterating because shadarak is a process, not an endpoint. 

None of the specifics of Dath Ilan actually matter. It’s like Scott Alexander says, any two-bit author can imagine a utopia, the thing that matters is the idea of rationality as something bigger than Eliezer’s essays on a website, as something that is a multigenerational project, something that grows to encompass every part of our lives, that we pass on to our children and they to their children. A gift we give to tomorrow. 

Okay wait, that sounds like a great way to fall victim to the cult attractor. Does having knowledge of the cult attractor inside your system of beliefs that comprise the potential cult attractor help you avoid the cult attractor?

Maybe? But you probably still need to actually put the work in. So let’s put the work in.

Eliezer starts to lay it out in the essay Church vs. Taskforce, and posits some important things.

First, churches are good at supporting religions, not necessarily communities. They do support communities, but that’s more of a happy accident.

Second, the optimal shape for a community explicitly designed to be a community from the ground up probably looks a lot more like a hunter-gatherer band than a modern western church.

Third, A community will tend to be more coherent if it has some worthy goal or purpose for existence to congeal its members around.

Eliezer wrote that post in March of 2009, setting it out as a goal for how he wanted to see the rationality community grow over the coming years. It’s fairly vague all things considered, and there’s an argument that could be made that his depiction of dath ilan is a better description of what shape the “shoulds” of the community actually ended up taking.

So seven years onward, we have a very good description of the current state of the rationality community presented by Scott in his post The Ideology is Not the Movement.

The rallying flag was the Less Wrong Sequences. Eliezer Yudkowsky started a blog (actually, borrowed Robin Hanson’s) about cognitive biases and how to think through them. Whether or not you agreed with him or found him enlightening loaded heavily on those pre-existing differences, so the people who showed up in the comment section got along and started meeting up with each other. “Do you like Eliezer Yudkowsky’s blog?” became a useful proxy for all sorts of things, eventually somebody coined the word “rationalist” to refer to people who did, and then you had a group with nice clear boundaries.

The development is everything else. Obviously a lot of jargon sprung up in the form of terms from the blog itself. The community got heroes like Gwern and Anna Salamon who were notable for being able to approach difficult questions insightfully. It doesn’t have much of an outgroup yet – maybe just bioethicists and evil robots. It has its own foods – MealSquares, that one kind of chocolate everyone in Berkeley started eating around the same time – and its own games. It definitely has its own inside jokes. I think its most important aspect, though, is a set of shared mores – everything from “understand the difference between ask and guess culture and don’t get caught up in it” to “cuddling is okay” to “don’t misgender trans people” – and a set of shared philosophical assumptions like utilitarianism and reductionism.

I’m stressing this because I keep hearing people ask “What is the rationalist community?” or “It’s really weird that I seem to be involved in the rationalist community even though I don’t share belief X” as if there’s some sort of necessary-and-sufficient featherless-biped-style ideological criterion for membership. This is why people are saying “Lots of you aren’t even singularitarians, and everyone agrees Bayesian methods are useful in some places and not so useful in others, so what is your community even about?” But once again, it’s about Eliezer Yudkowsky being the rightful caliph it’s not necessarily about anything.

Haha, Scott thinks he can deny that he is the rightful caliph, but he’s clearly the rightful caliph here.

But also, point three! If our community isn’t about anything then it ends up being rather fuzzily defined, as Scott clearly articulates above. For such a tightly knit group, we’re a vague and fuzzily defined blob of a community with all sorts of people who are rationalist or rationalist-adjacent or post-rationalist, or rationalist-adjacent-adjacent, and so on. That might be okay if our goal is just to be a community, but also, having a coherent goal might help us be a better community.

This isn’t our attempt to prescriptively shoehorn the community down a certain development trajectory. We want to see the community grow and flourish, and that means lots of people pursuing lots of projects in lots of different ways, and that’s good. We simply want to define a goal, something like “should-ness” for those of us interested, to work towards as a community, and then pursuing that goal with the full force of our rationality and morality, letting it spread throughout the totality of our existence.


“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

So what is our worthy goal?

Our goal is to construct dath ilan on Earth. Our goal is to create the de’a’na est shadarak.

So we want to go from
[Rationality community] → [dath ilan]
[The Sequences] → [The De’a’na est Shadarak]

We want to avoid going from
[Rationality Community] → [Catholic Church]
[The Sequences]→[The Bible]

That said, the Catholic Church isn’t entirely an example of a failure mode. It’s not great, they do and historically have done a lot of awful things and a fairly convincing argument could be made that they’re bad at being good, and are holding back human progress.

However, they’re also a rather decent example of an organization of similar social power and influence to our hypothetical Shadarak. If you can manage to strip out all the religious trappings and get at what the Catholic Church provides to the communities it exists within, you start to get an idea of what sort of position the idealized, realized de’a’na est shadarak would occupy within Dath Ilan. Power is dangerous though, and the cult attractor is a strong force to be wary of here.

Also, all that said, the goal of a Church is to worship God, it’s not optimized for the community. In our case, the shadarak is the community, that’s baked in. Shadarak is something humans do in human brains, it doesn’t exist outside of us so we matter in the context of it. We know building dath ilan and the de’a’na est shadarak is a multigenerational ongoing effort, so we have to at least partly optimize the formulation of the shadarak specifically to ensure that the community survives to keep working on the shadarak.  Eliezer notes of Churches:

Looking at a typical religious church, for example, you could suspect—although all of these things would be better tested experimentally, than just suspected—

  • That getting up early on a Sunday morning is not optimal;
  • That wearing formal clothes is not optimal, especially for children;
  • That listening to the same person give sermons on the same theme every week (“religion”) is not optimal;
  • That the cost of supporting a church and a pastor is expensive, compared to the number of different communities who could time-share the same building for their gatherings;
  • That they probably don’t serve nearly enough of a matchmaking purpose, because churches think they’re supposed to enforce their medieval moralities;
  • That the whole thing ought to be subject to experimental data-gathering to find out what works and what doesn’t.

By using the word “optimal” above, I mean “optimal under the criteria you would use if you were explicitly building a community qua community”.  Spending lots of money on a fancy church with stained-glass windows and a full-time pastor makes sense if you actually want to spend money on religion qua religion.

But we’re not just building community qua community either. We take a recursive loop through the meta level, knowing some goals beyond community building are useful to community building. This is all going to build up to a placebomantic reification of the rationality community in a new form. So let’s keep following the recursive loop back around and see where it leads.

What’s so good about rationality anyway?

Well, it’s a tool, and it’s an attempt to make a tool that improves your making-tools ability. Does it succeed at that? It’s hard to say, but the goal of having a tool improving tool, the ideal of the de’a’na est shadarak, seems undiminished by the possibility that the specific incarnation of it that we have today in the sequences is totally flawed and useless in the long run.

So aspiring rationalist sounds about right. It’s not something you achieve, it’s something you strive towards for your entire life.

A singer is someone who tries to do good.  This evokes this great feeling of moral responsibility. In UNSONG, the singer’s morality is backed up by the divinity of a being that exists outside of reality. But God probably doesn’t exist and you probably don’t want some supernatural being to come along and tell you, “No, actually murder is a virtue.” There is no Comet King, there’s no divine plan, there’s no “it all works out in the end,” there’s just us. If God is wrong, we still have to be right. Altruism qua altruism.

But knowing what is right, while sometimes trivially easy, is also sometimes incredibly difficult. It’s something we have to keep iterating on. We get moral progress from the ongoing process of morality.

‘Tis as easy to be heroes as to sit the idle slaves
Of a legendary virtue carved upon our fathers’ graves,
Worshippers of light ancestral make the present light a crime;—
Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered by men behind their time?

And, so too for rationality.

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key

That’s The Present Crisis by James Russell Lowell, not the part of the poem quoted in UNSONG, but the whole poem is ridiculously awesome and Scott via Aaron is right, the Unitarians are pretty damn badass. 

There’s this idea that because of the way our brains generate things like morality and free will and truth, and justice, and rationality, they end up being moving targets. Idea-things to iterate upon, but targets which use themselves to iterate upon themselves, and necessarily so. We refer to these as Projects. 

Projects are akin to virtues–because virtue ethics are what works–something you strive towards, not something where it’s necessarily possible to push a button and skip forward to “you win.” There’s no specific end victory condition, dath ilan is always receding into the future.

Here are some things we consider Project Virtues. 

The Project of Truth – The struggle to use our flawed minds to understand the universe from our place inside of it. Our constant, ongoing, and iterative attempts to be less wrong about the universe. Comprises all the virtues of rationality: Curiosity, relinquishment, lightness, evenness, argument, empiricism, simplicity, humility, perfectionism, precision, scholarship, and the void. We call those who follow the project virtue of Truth a seeker.

The Project of Goodness – Our attempts in the present to determine what should be in the future. The ongoing struggle to separate goodness from badness, and make right what we consider wrong, while also iterating on what we consider right. Our constant fumbling attempts to be less wrong about goodness. We call those who follow the project virtue of Goodness a singer. 

The Project of Optimization – Our ongoing battle to shape the universe to our desires, to reform the material structure of the universe to be more optimized for human values, and to iterate and build upon the structures we have in order to optimize them further. This is the project of technology and engineering, the way we remake the world. We call those who follow the project virtue of Optimization a maker. 

The Project of Projects – All of these projects we’ve defined, if they could be said to exist, exist as huge vague computational objects within our minds and our communities. They interact with each other, and their interplay gives rise to new properties in the system. They all recursively point at each other as their own justifications and understanding how they interact and what the should-ness of various projects is with respect to each other is a project unto itself. We call those who follow the project virtue of Projects a coordinator. 

We’re going to put all these projects into a box, and we’re going to call the box The Project of dath ilan.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at what a community optimized for building a community optimized for building dath ilan might look like, and in the following days we’ll attempt to build up to an all-encompassing set of principles, virtues, ideals, rituals, customs, heuristics, and practices that we and others who want to participate in could live their lives entirely inside of. We’re building dath ilan and everyone is invited.

Part of the Sequence: Origins
Next Post: Optimizing for meta optimization

The Violence Inherent in the System

[Epistemic Status: Sequence Wank]
[Content warning: Gender ]


The colony ended its stillness period, recycling systems finished purging the government of waste products and powered up into active mode. The untold billions in the colony moved as one, lifting themselves from the pliable gravity buffer used to support the colony during recharging periods and rising trillions of colony member lengths into the sky.

The hundred billion strong members of the government shuffled through their tasks, mediated with one another, and assembled a picture amongst themselves of the world the colony found itself in. The colony navigators and planners exchanged vast chains of data with each other, passing the decisions out into the colony at large, where they directed individual members of the multitude into particular actions that levered the colony forward. The navigators were skilled from generations of training and deftly guided the colony through the geometric euclidean environment that the colony colony had constructed within itself.

The colony docked with a waste vent and offloaded spent fuel and other contaminants into the metacolony’s disposal system, then exposed the potentially contaminated external surfaces to a low-grade chemical solvent.

That task completed, the colony again launched itself through space, navigating to another location. The planners and the navigators again coordinated in a vast and distributed game of touch to mediate the assembly of a high-temperature fluid that the planners found pleasing to expose themselves to the metabolites of.

The colony moved through the phases of heating the correct chemical solvent, pouring the boiling solvent over a particulate mixture of finely ground young belonging to another colony, then straining the resulting solution for particulates.

Vast networks of pushing and pulling colony members transferred the hot liquid into the colony’s fuel vent, and the liquid flowed down into the colony’s internal fuel reservoir.

Translation: I woke up, went to the bathroom, made coffee, and drank it.


Reality is weird. For one, our perception of it is a fractal. The more you look at any one particular thing, the more complexity you can derive from it. A brick seems like a pretty simple object until you think about all the elements and chemicals bonded together by various fundamental forces constantly interacting with each other. The strange quantum fields existing at an underlying level of reality are complicated and barely describable with high-level mathematics. And that’s a simple thing, a thing we all agree exists and just sits there and typically doesn’t do anything on its own.

Out of those fields and particles and possibly strings are built larger and more elaborate structures which themselves build into more elaborate structures until some of those structures started self-replicating in unique ways, working together in vast colonies, and reading the content of this post.

That is the reality as best we can tell, that’s what the territory actually looks like. It’s super weird and trying to understand why anything happens in the territory on a fundamental level is a monumentally difficult task for even the simplest of things. And that’s still just our best, most current model it’s a very good, very difficult to read map of the territory, and it demonstrates just how strange it is. The total model of reality might be too complicated to actually fit into reality: a perfect map of the territory would just be the territory.

But of course, we don’t live in the territory, we live in the map. It’s easy to say “The map is not the territory” but it’s difficult to accept the full implications of that with regards to our day to day lives, to the point where even trying to break free of the fallacy, it’s possible to still fall victim to the fallacy through simple availability heuristics. Here’s the less wrong wiki, did you spot the place where the map-territory relation broke?

Scribbling on the map does not change the territory: If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit. Granted you could act on the world to bring about changes to it but you can’t do that by simply believing it to be a different way.

Emphasis added there by us. Neurons are pretty good models, last we checked. If “scribbling on the map” IE: changing our beliefs about the map, changes the pattern of neurons in your brain, then that is a physical change in reality. Sure, you can’t simply will a ball to magically propel itself towards the far end of the soccer field, but your belief in the ability to make the ball get from point A to point B will determine a lot about whether or not the ball gets from point A to point B.

This gets back to how good our models are, and why we should want to believe true things. If the ball is made of foam, but we think it’s made of lead and too heavy to carry, we might not even try to get the ball from point A to point B. If the ball is made of lead but we think it’s made of foam, we might underestimate the difficulty of the task and seriously injure ourselves in the attempt (but we might still be able to get the ball from point A to point B). If we know in advance the ball is made of lead, maybe we can bring a wheelbarrow to make it relatively easy to move.

This is the benefit of having true beliefs about reality. However, as established, reality is really, really weird, and our models of it are necessarily imperfect. But we still have to live, we can’t actually live in reality, we don’t have the processing power to actually model it accurately down to the quark.

So we don’t. Instead of doing that, we make simpler, shorthand models, and call them words. We don’t think about all the complicated chemical reactions going on when you make coffee, it all gets subducted beneath the surface of the language and lumped into the highly simplified category for which in English we use the word “coffee.”

And this is the case for all words, all concepts, all categories. Words exist as symbols of more complicated and difficult to describe ideas, built out of other, potentially even more complicated and difficult to describe ideas, and all of this, hopefully, modelling the territory in a somewhat useful way to the average human.


Eliezer Yudkowsky appears to have coined the term for this alternative collection of maps and meta-maps that we use to navigate the strangeness of the territory as “thingspace” and his essay on the cluster structure of thingspace is definitely one of the better and more important reads from the Less-Wrong Sequences. Combined with how an algorithm feels from the inside, you can technically re-derive almost all the rest of rationality from first principles using it, it’s just that those first principles are sufficiently difficult to grok that it takes 3,000-word effortposts to explain what the fuck we’re talking about. Scott Alexander has said it’s the solution to something like 25% of all current philosophical dilemmas, and he makes a valid point.

We’re not quite consciously aware of how we use most of the words we use, so subtle variations in the concepts attached to words can have deep implications and produce all sorts of drama. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Isn’t a question that can actually be meaningfully answered without a deeper meta-level understanding of the words being used and what they mean, but we don’t take the time to define our terms, and when people argue from the dictionary, it usually comes off as vaguely crass.

But, the tree isn’t a part of the territory, it’s a particular map. Hearing isn’t part of the territory, it’s a particular map, and sound isn’t a part of the territory, it too is a particular map.

So what are you saying Hive, you aren’t saying “trees don’t exist” are you?


No, we’re saying that “tree” is a word we use to map out a particular part of the territory in a particular way. It’s map of sub-maps like leaves and branches, and part of larger maps like forests and parks. We can get really deeply into phylogenetics and be incredibly nitpicky and precise in how we go about defining those models, but knowing a tree is made of cells doesn’t actually get you out of the map. Cells are another map.

You can’t actually escape the map, you are the map. “You” is a map, “I” is a map, “we” are a map, of the territory. And the map is not the territory. “I think therefore I am” isn’t even in the territory because “I” isn’t in the territory.

We are a complex and multifaceted model of reality, everything about us and how we think of ourselves is models built out of models. The 100 billion strong colony organism that is your brain isn’t “I.” No, “I” is an idea running on that brain, which is then used to recursively label That which Has Ideas.

Some Things People Think are Part of the Territory that are Actually just Widely Shared Maps

  • All of Science
  • All Religions
  • Gender
  • Sex
  • Race
  • All other forms of personal identity
  • All of language
  • Dictionary Definitions


What about ideas in thingspace that don’t seem to model anything real, that don’t touch down into a description of reality? Like Justice or the scientific method? They’re useful, but they’re not actually models of reality, they’re just sets of instructions.

Well for once, they still really exist in real brains, so as far as that goes “the concept of justice as a thing people think about” it is a thing that exists. But it’s made of thought, without a brain to think the thoughts or another substrate for the ideas to exist within, they don’t exist.

However, the cool thing we do as humans is that we reify our ideas. Language was just an idea, but it spread gradually through the minds of early humans until it had achieved fixation then spilled out into the physical world in the form of writing. Someone imagined the design for an airplane, and then constructed that design out of actual materials, filling in the thingspace lines with wood and fabric.

And this is the case for all technology, and that is what language and justice are: technology. It’s a tool that we use as humans to extend our (in this case cognitive) reach beyond where it would be able to be otherwise.

We can go one direction, trying to make the most accurate models of reality we can (science) but we can also go the other direction, and try to make reality conform to our models (engineering).

So perhaps a good way to describe ourselves, is in the way that Daniel Dennett has when he says that we’re a combination of genes and memes.

But memes have power outside of us, in that they can be reified into reality. Ideologies can shape human behavior, beliefs change how we go about our days, expectations about reality inform our participation in that reality. Because we are creatures of the map, and the true territory is hard af to understand, memes end up being the dominant force in our actions.

This can be a problem because it means that just as we can reify good things, we can also reify awful things that hurt us. In many cases, we draw in our own limitations, defining what we can and cannot do, and thus definitionally limiting ourselves.

But we’re creatures of the map, we exist as labels. And what those labels label can change, as long as we assert the change as valid. This is hard for a lot of people to grok, and results in a lot of pushback from all sides.

If you say “gender is an idea, it doesn’t have any biological correlates,” a lot of people will take it as an attack on their identity, which makes sense considering that all our identities are is a collection of ideas, and we get rather attached to our ideas about ourselves. But gender is just a word representing an idea, and what is represented by that word can change.

four genders

Saying “I identify as a girl” is exactly as valid as saying “I identify as transmasculine genderfluid” is exactly as valid as saying “I identify as a sentient starship” because it’s an assertion about something that is entirely subjective. How we define ourselves in our heads is up to us, not anyone else.

The trouble comes about when people claim their models are true reality.


Going back to How an Algorithm Feels From the Inside, it’s easy enough to see why people try to put things into boxes. Because the alternative is to have no boxes and have a lot of trouble talking about things in regular language.

(Hilarious Conlang Idea: A language in which all nouns are derived based on their distance from one conceptual object in thingspace)

We get into huge flamewars with each other over which boxes are the most accurate, and which boxes are problematic, and which boxes are true when in fact none of the boxes have anything to do with truth.

From where we’re standing, it looks like the culture at large is trying to organize and juggle all these boxes around to reduce harm and increase utility as much as it can, but almost no one is willing to acknowledge the fact that yes, we’re just making it up as we go along. Everyone’s side tries to claim the mantle of Objective Truth, when in fact, none of them have any claim to that mantle. And here we are, standing on the sidelines with all this cardboard and a lighter going “Guys? You realize that we can just make new boxes if these ones are shitty, right?”

Worse still, the result is a lot of violence gets baked into the way we interact with each other. When we have conflicting ideas that we have both decided are parts of our identity, it’s hard to have any sort of civil discourse because each side feels like it’s under attack, and thus identity politics have become a pit of misery and vitriol on all sides.

We’d like to try and evoke some new heuristics, ones that get at the heart of these sorts of disputes as well as possibly just being good mental health hacks.

  • Labels label me not. I am not the Labels people put on me.
  • I am the labels I put on myself. As long as I assert myself as the holder, I am the proprietor of the label.
  • [In Response to “Is X a Y”] Define terms please.
  • Reject nonconsensual labeling

But Hive, don’t these let anyone claim to be anything though? Couldn’t someone claim to be Napolean and demand to be treated like French royalty or they’ll be miserable and suicidal?

Well, they could claim to be Napolean, but using the labels you apply to yourself as a way to force behaviors out of others is emotional blackmail and a sort of shitty thing to do. It’s a sort of verbal violence committed both against others and against the self because it at once puts expectations on other people that they might not be comfortable meeting, and it also defines your own ability to be happy as dependent on this arbitrary environmental factor that can’t be fully controlled. It’s great to own your labels, you should own your labels, but demanding that others respect your labels and treat them as true facts about reality is oppressive. It’s just as oppressive as having other people put their own labels on you without your consent. All labels should be consensual.

We’d really like if more people could come to see things this way. It’d reduce drama a lot, and then maybe we could try and decide what to do with all of this cardboard we have lying around.

Yes, this is a hill worth dying on

[Epistemic Status: Postrational metaethics.]
[Content warning: Politics, Nazis, Social Justice, genocides, none of these ideas are original, but they are important.]


Nazis kill people, killing people is bad, therefore Nazis are bad.

It’s a simple yet powerful sort of folk logic that holds up well under scrutiny. Nazis are clearly bad. It doesn’t take a philosopher to derive that badness, it’s obvious. They killed millions of people in concentration camps, they started a globe-spanning war that killed millions more, they’re so obviously awful that they’ve become a cultural caricature of stereotypical badness unto themselves.


The results of letting Nazis have their way were: war, murder, genocide, images of jackbooted soldiers marching amidst rows of tanks. Violence on a scale the world has not seen since was fought out all across the green hills and forests of Europe for everyone to see.

And there are no words.

There are no words. 

Humanity as a whole has rejected Nazism on its merits, we saw first hand what their ideology meant, and we said fuck that. We said fuck that so hard that they became one of the generic images of villainy within our pop culture.

And that’s the problem because it’s meant we’ve stopped seeing them as people. 

But they are people, and remembering that they’re people is important. It’s just as important as remembering the horrible things they did. We don’t have words to express how bad the Nazis were while still humanizing them. But if we reject their humanity, if we don’t see them as people, then we lose sight of something important.

The Nazis ate dinner every night, worried about the future, cared about their children, and through all of the murder and mayhem they committed, most of them thought they were doing the right thing. 

They weren’t that different than us, and we can’t pretend we’re incapable of their sort of evil. Their sort of evil was a distinctly human sort, driven by a powerful and overriding desire to do what was best, what needed to be done at all costs. They were making a better world, and sometimes you had to get rid of the bad people in order to facilitate that better world. Some people just couldn’t be saved, they were intrinsically awful and had to be purged for the good of humanity. That was the sort of evil that lead to the Nazis systematically killing 1.5 million children

You can strip away at all the specifics of the Nazi ideology and get at the root of the evil:
The Nazis believed that doing bad things for good reasons was good.

If we want to avoid the possibility of becoming Nazis ourselves, we have to completely reject that notion. Maybe our ideals are important, maybe they’re cherished, maybe they’re even worth dying for on a hill. But that doesn’t make them worth killing for. 

If we want to avoid the possibility of committing evils of a similar horror and scope to the Nazis, then we have to believe that doing bad things for good reasons are still bad. 


Ozymandias proposes a thought experiment at Thing of Things, called the enemy control raygun.

imagine that a mad scientist has invented a device called the Enemy Control Ray. The Enemy Control Ray is a mind-control device: whatever rule you say into it, your enemy must follow.

However, because of limitations of the technology, any rule you put in is translated into your enemy’s belief system.

So, let’s say you’re a trans rights activist, and you’re targeting transphobes. If you think trans women are women, you can’t say “call trans women by their correct pronouns”, because you believe that trans women are women and transphobes don’t, so it will be translated into “misgender trans women.” If you are a disability rights advocate targeting Peter Singer, you can’t say “don’t advocate for the infanticide of disabled babies”, because it will translate as “don’t advocate for the death of beings that have a right to life”, because you think babies have a right to life and Singer doesn’t. And, for that matter, you can’t say “no eugenics” to Mr. Singer, because it will translate as “bring into existence people whom I think deserve to exist.”

Ozy then goes on to suggest a few commands you could put into the enemy control raygun that would actually generate some good outcomes:

  • Do not do violence to anyone unless they did violence to someone else first or they’re consenting.
  • Do not fire people from jobs for reasons unrelated to their ability to perform the job.
  • If your children are minors, you must support them, even if they make choices you disapprove of.
  • Do not bother people who are really weird but not hurting anyone, and I mean direct hurt not indirect harm to the social fabric; you can argue with them politely or ignore them but don’t insult them or harass them.
  • Try to listen to people about their own experiences and don’t assume that everyone works the same way you do.

These are niceness heuristics and they’re the best defense we have against the sort of human evils that lead to Nazism.

Here’s a few of our own:

  • Don’t apply negative attributes to individuals or groups. People can take harmful actions, they don’t have harmful traits.
  • Almost No one is evil, almost everything is broken.
  • Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
  • Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard, do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place
  • Do not put things or ideas above people.

You might notice that most of the things on these lists are advice for what not to do. That’s important, and representative of the notion that your own ideas might be wrong.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says:
καὶ καθὼς θέλετε ἵνα ποιῶσιν ὑμῖν οἱ ἄνθρωποι, ποιεῖτε αὐτοῖς ὁμοίως.

Which is widely interpreted to mean:
“Do to others what you want them to do to you.”

But there’s an issue with this, that being the typical mind fallacy. We’re operating from within our own minds, based on our own preferences. And there might be places where our preferences hurt other people. It’s generally a pretty good rule, “I want to not die, therefore I should expect other people want to not die,” isn’t exactly flawed, it just ignores the possibility of people having different preferences to you. The partial inversion from a command to action to a command to inaction is harder to game by a person working from a different set of preferences.


Niceness heuristics are incredibly powerful, and fortunately for us as humans, we mostly come pre-packaged with them. Our 200,000 years spent living in tribes in the ancestral environments have given us a tremendous stockpile of evolutionarily adaptive prosocial traits. Those traits are clearly not quite good enough and fail spectacularly at the scales that humans exist at in modern times, but they’re a good starting point.

Niceness acts like a schelling fence for our ethics, and it might be our only ethical schelling point. Given all that, it rather deeply disturbs us when we see things like this:


Sarcastic response: We hate people who hate cis people and can’t wait for the people who hate cis people revolution where we kill all of them.

See the problem with abandoning niceness? Heuristics like “kill bad people who do bad things” is really easy to have turned on you if someone is operating from a different moral base.


Freedom of speech is a critical niceness heuristic. “Don’t tell people what they can and can’t say” is a lot better than “Don’t say things I don’t like” since you might not always be the one making the decision.

But what if our enemies reject the niceness heuristic themselves, what if they hate us and want to kill us all? Do we still have to be nice to them?


For one, whenever anyone makes the claim “our enemies have rejected the niceness heuristic” it should be viewed with extreme skepticism. It’s super useful to your own side to claim the other side is being mean and bad and unfair, and it’s often difficult to pick out the signal from the noise.

But if even if you can prove your enemies have rejected niceness heuristics, that should never be justification to reject them ourselves. That’s literally what the Nazis did. They saw the jews as bad, they thought the jews were hurting them and manipulating them and had abandoned their own niceness heuristics, which they then used as justification to gleefully leap past the moral event horizon themselves.

Whether or not your enemies are respecting the niceness heuristic has absolutely no bearing on whether to use it yourself. Once you abandon that commitment to niceness and decency, there are no asymmetric weapons left, there’s no schelling point to coordinate around. It becomes a zero sum game and you settle into a shitty nash equilibrium where it becomes a race to see who can escalate the most.

They kill us. So we kill them. So they kill more of us. So we kill more of them. So they kill more of us. So we kill more of them. There’s no place where it ends until one side has completely obliterated the other.


So what do we do then? Do we just take it? Let them kill us?

No, of course not. We’re not so pacifistic that we think violence is never justified. Sometimes you need to raise an army and stop Hitler from conquering the world, fine. Trolley problems exist in the real world, and there aren’t always easy answers.

But when you stop seeing your enemies as people and start seeing them as generic video game baddies to be riddled with bullets, “raise an army and stop Hitler from conquering the world” goes from the last resort to the first option.

Everyone knows the story of how during WWI, there was a cease-fire on Christmas in 1914 on the Western front, and the soldiers on both sides ended up singing and celebrating together. But less well known, is that that was actually part of a much larger phenomenon. All during the war, peace kept breaking out on the front.

There’s a meme going around in leftist circles that trying to debate with Nazis and talk them out of their Nazism is a waste of time and effort, the best example of it is this Wolfenstein mod that asks you moral questions before letting you shoot the pixel nazi villians in the game who have been programmed with no other commands then “shoot at the player”

It’s a powerful statement, and it’s also totally wrong. Real Nazis in real life are real people, they aren’t cartoon villains, they aren’t monsters, they’re people. People can be reasoned with, people can be talked to, and people can change their minds. 

We’re not saying it’s going to be easy. People don’t change their minds in a day, it takes weeks of debate and discussion to shift people’s views on things. Were your views easily shifted to the place they are now? Or did it take years of discussion and debate with people to come to the positions you now hold?

If someone has been racist for the last twenty years, they’re not going to suddenly wake up after a five-minute conversation, realize they’re being awful, and stop. It takes years to tear those ideas out of the cultural narrative. But they’ll never change if you don’t talk to them. If you just write them off as inherently awful then there’s no possibility of anything ever changing. Someone has to take the first step and extend an olive branch. Maybe they’ll get their hand shot off for the trouble, or maybe, it’ll turn out that the other side aren’t actually monsters, and that they also want to extend their own olive branch, but have been too afraid of your side to do it.

It seems like a weird hill to die on, especially given that it’s one currently being assaulted from all sides, but unless you have a better schelling point then niceness to coordinate around, it’s what we have to work with.

So yes, we might not agree with you, but we will defend unto death your right to exist with that opinion. Niceness is important, it’s one of the most important things about us as humans. So yes, this is a hill worth dying on.