Books that have had the biggest impact on my life/thought

In roughly chronological order:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings
2. Eliezer Yudkowsky: The Less Wrong Sequences
3. Michele Boldrin & David K. Levine: Against Intellectual Monopoly
4. Olivia Fox Cabane: The Charisma Myth
5. Marshall Rosenberg: Non-Violent Communication
6. Eugene Gendlin: Focusing; Connirae Andreas & Tamara Andreas: Core Transformation

Tolkien, because he got me really into fantasy.

The Sequences woke me from a certain super-postmodern thought, where I basically felt that I could believe in anything as long as I came up with a sufficiently clever argument for it. They made me realize that there are actual mathematical laws regarding the kind of evidence I must have witnessed in order to start believing in something, if I wish to have correct beliefs. Also convinced me about AI being the biggest thing in the history of humanity, and got me on the career path that I’m still on.

Against Intellectual Monopoly bolted me from a very strong, principled “all online piracy is wrong” mindset to one where I later ended up as one of the founding members of the Finnish Pirate Party. It was also my first introduction to pro-market thinking and theories, with me having grown up in a climate that was very left economically.

The Charisma Myth got me to realize that one can be charismatic without being extroverted, and that being charismatic doesn’t necessarily mean saying interesting things all the time. It made me understand that just being present and paying genuine attention to the other person were things that could already give you considerable charisma, and furthermore these were some skills that I already possessed. It meant the start of my conversations with people going from the constant question of “oh now what do I say next?!?” to actually being present in the moment and not worrying so much.

Non-Violent Communication started me on the path where I can actually usefully work with the underlying needs and beliefs behind my emotional reactions, instead of treating them as atomic reactions that I can do very little about.

I’m bunching Focusing and Core Transformation together, as I think of them as two books that discuss variants of what’s fundamentally the same technique. I’ve found the Core Transformation version of it really powerful during some of the last few months, on the order of taking maybe half an hour to permanently cure psychological issues that had plagued me for decades. That said, I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to properly use the technique had I not first read Focusing and practiced with the instructions there.

Honorable mentions:

* David Friedman: The Machinery of Freedom. The book which further shook my very leftist thought, and got me to realize that libertarians also have some pretty damn compelling arguments, and that I’m not really qualified to say who’s right. Decided that I’d avoid taking any strong positions on economics from now, given how complicated the whole thing is. (have had varying levels of success with this decision)

* Pema Chödrön: The Wisdom of No Escape: How to love yourself and your world. Only read this book in the beginning of this year, but it has been very powerful in changing my thought and putting me on a path of greater self-compassion and self-acceptance.

* John Yates & Matthew Immergut & Jeremy Graves: The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. The best book on meditation that I’ve ever read. This is also something I started reading *very* recently (many thanks, Juha!), but I’m already provisionally ready to nominate it for an honorable mention, because it’s meditation instructions have been super-useful. They’ve helped install an automatic habit of my mind automatically dropping any lines of thought that will only be harmful (e.g. worrying about things that I have no control over); time will show whether that habit will last.

Cognitive Core Systems explaining intuitions behind belief in souls, free will, and creation myths

A book I’m currently reading, Cognitive Pluralism, cites research suggesting that human infants as well as many non-human animals (particularly primates) are born with four “hard-coded” core reasoning systems:

  • A Core Object System which identifies cohesive and continuous objects (as opposed to say liquids or heaps), enables tracking of such objects, and causes us to expect that objects will follow some specific properties: they will preserve their boundaries, move as a unit, interact with one another only through contact, and be set into motion only when acted on through direct contact. Has some signature limitations, such that we can only attend to about 3-4 objects at the same time.
  • A Core Number System which allows for numerical comparisons, such as by saying that a set with thirty stimuli is larger than a set with ten. Unlike the core object system, the core number system is nonmodal and not limited to contiguous objects; it can compare the number of e.g. sounds or actions.
  • A Core Agency System that causes us to intuitively treat humans, animals, and other things exhibiting signs of agency as being different from objects, liquids, or heaps. Things that are classified as agents are expected to exhibit autonomous, goal-directed behavior; and they will activate social behavior, such as when an infant imitates their actions.
  • A Core Geometric System which represents space and environment according to geometric properties such as distance and angle, while ignoring non-geometric properties such as color and smell. Does things such as constructing perspective-invariant representations of geometric layouts, or predicting how objects will appear when turned around or look at from a different perspective.

Now one particularly intriguing hypothesis which the book mentioned was that the intuitive human belief in souls or consciousness continuing after death, may come from the Agent and Object systems having different classification criteria. In particular, objects are assumed to only move when acted upon, while agents are assumed to exhibit independent, goal-directed motion.

Apparently the psychologist Paul Bloom has proposed that seeing or thinking about a human causes us to perceive there being two entities in the same space: a body (object) and a soul (agent). While the book did not explicitly mention this, this would also explain the origin of many intuitions about free will and mind-body dualism. Under this model, the object system would classify the body as something that only moves when being ordered to by an external force, requiring an agent in the form of a mind/soul being the “unmoved mover” that initiates the movement. One could also speculate on this being the intuition that motivated Aristotle’s unmoved movers in the celestial spheres, to say nothing about all the different creation myths, if we have an inborn intuition for movement requiring an agent to set it going.

Also, as a fun implication: if you were to design an AI to have the same core reasoning systems, then it might also have an intuitive belief in free will, souls, and creators.

Further reading: Cognitive Pluralism cites Spelke & Kinzler (2007), Core Knowledge, in Developmental Science 10:1, as well as Paul Bloom’s 2004 book Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, which based on its title sounds absolutely fascinating and which I probably want to read soon.

Relationship compatibility as patterns of emotional associations

Much of relationship compatibility comes down to a fuzzy concept that’s variously referred to as “chemistry”, “clicking”, or just feeling good and comfortable in the other’s presence. This is infamously difficult to predict by any other means than actually spending time around the other. OKCupid-style dating sites, with their extensive batteries of questions about values and preferences, are good at predicting a match in values and preferences but almost useless at predicting this kind of compatibility.

What I think is largely going on is that it’s about compatible patterns of emotional association. Each of us has deep in them various patterns of emotional associations that are hard to predict by an outsider because they seem to follow little “sensible” logic: rather they are formed by a combination of a person’s life experiences and their inborn temperament. Somebody fears abandonment and will freak out whenever they hear an expression that their parent used when angry; for another person that very same expression was used as one of affection, and has the opposite meaning. (Or the same expression might be associated with both fighting an affection: there’s a possibly apocryphal tale about a couple who made sure that whenever they’d been fighting so that their children had witnessed it, they’d make sure to call each other “love” and “dear” to let the children know that they still cared about each other. This lasted until the day that their kids came running to them, complaining that “He called me ‘love’!” “She started it, she called me ‘dear’!”…)

These are relatively superficial examples: typically the patterns go deeper and subtler. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that some of the people with whom I’ve had mutual attraction have exhibited sub-clinical signs of something like avoidant personality disorder, and I feel like exhibiting sub-clinical signs of AvPD has also been the case for myself. There have been few obvious signs of this at the time, but whatever those subtle signs were, some intuitive part of each of us picked up on them, thought this person is like me, and felt attracted without the rest of our minds knowing more than I feel good around this person.

Many failed relationships can be explained as a pattern of emotional compatibility that was a match in one situation (such as when you were going out on dates) but a mismatch in another (such as when you tried living together). Sometimes exactly the same traits cause opposite emotional reactions in different situations. Someone who is hard-working and has lots of impressive achievements can feel like a very appealing partner when you’re just getting to know each other, but feel much less desirable when you realize that they will never have much time for you and that their work will always come first.

The discouraging implication – for those of us who are single or otherwise looking – is that even if you manage to hit off on a date, that’s no guarantee of long-term compatibility. The encouraging implication is that we may already happen to be friends with someone who could be our dream partner: we just haven’t realized it yet. The yet-again-discouraging implication is that it’s pretty hard to find out who that hidden dream partner might be, without spending a lot of time in their presence.

“Love” is a word with many meanings, but maybe the deepest form of love is when you come to genuinely care about the other, in the same way as you care about yourself. Not just caring about the other so that they’ll like you in return, but putting intrinsic value on their well-being, the same way you put intrinsic value on your own well-being.

You ultimately get here, I suspect, by having enough smoothly-going interactions to experience increasing synchrony. Situations where your patterns of emotional association are so compatible that each of you intuitively acts in a way that promotes positive feelings in the other. My guess is that you start caring about the other as much as you care about yourself because some part of your mind comes to actually believe, on a level of emotional logic if not fact, that the two of you are the same.

This feeling of two people becoming one may actually be correct in a very concrete sense, as studies of people who co-operate and like each other show that their behavioral patterns, body language and spoken language, and neural patterns tend to become synchronized with each other. I am once again reminded of this quote from Michael “Vassar” Arc:

> In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. […] People with whom you are interacting […] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]

The opposite of synchrony, when things get really bad, is described as “walking on eggshells” or “being constantly unsure of what the other wants”. It is when the other person’s emotional associations are so out of sync with yours that it feels like anything you say or do may trigger a negative response, or when they really crave from you some behavior that would trigger in them a specific positive response – but you don’t know what that desired behavior would be. Because your patterns of emotional association are dissimilar, you have no idea of what is expected of you, and have no way of intuitively simulating it. “Put yourself in the other’s shoes” does not work because the two of you have different-sized feet: the kinds of shoes that feel comfortably tight to you feel excruciatingly small for your partner, and vice versa.

If a situation gets described as walking on eggshells, it has likely to do with a pattern of mutual incompatibilities that has become self-reinforcing and spiraled out of control. He is expecting a bit of peace and quiet and time for himself; she does not realize this and seeks his company. He tries to make her back away but she doesn’t understand the signals, until he lashes out in frustration. She experiences this seemingly-out-of-nowhere reaction as inexplicable rejection and is shocked to silence for a while, until she can no longer hold it in and bursts out – at which point he is shocked by this seemingly inexplicable hostile reaction that to him came out of nowhere. Afterwards, she feels insecure about their relationship so she pursues mutual closeness more aggressively, while he feels like his independence is at risk so he tries to get more distance. The pattern repeats, getting worse each time.

It does not help that having a negative emotional association triggered is experienced as a threat: it is not actually a matter of life and death, but the way people often react, it might as well be. The ideal thing to do at this point would be for both to draw deep breaths, mutually work to dispel each other’s reactions of panic, and figure out what actually happened and what both meant. The thing that commonly happens instead that both are in too much pain to think clearly and do everything they can to just make it hurt less. This often includes blaming the other and trying to make them admit that they were in the wrong, so that the other would promise to never do anything like that again.

Besides the other obvious problems in using this as a persuasion tactic, there is the fact that even if one partner did manage to force such a promise out of the other, the other still does not know what exactly triggered the reaction in the other. In other words, one person has promised to avoid doing something, but they don’t actually know what it is that they’ve promised not to do. They may know some specific things that they should avoid, but not understanding the emotional logic behind that rule, they are likely to do something else – to them seemingly different – that will trigger the same reaction. And when that happens, their partner will be even more upset at them, because “they broke their promise”.

This is why some people feel that a relationship having explicit rules is a warning sign. Not because having rules would be a bad thing by itself, but because needing to have codified rules means that one of the partners doesn’t understand the other’s emotions well enough to be able to avoid trouble just on an intuitive basis. In the worst case, the number of rules will bloat and get out of hand, as more and more of them will need to be added to cover all the different eventualities.

On a more encouraging note, it’s not actually necessary to solve all the incompatibilities. It’s possible to get away with just accepting that in some situations you will always have incompatible emotional patterns, and then have both partners tacitly avoid getting into such situations. Successful couples don’t actually resolve all of their problems: rather they just get good at dealing with them. In the meanwhile, couples who feel that they should be able to agree on everything end up worse and worse off.

Many if not most people crave a feeling of being understood. They want to feel that their desires and emotions are both understood and also accepted by the people who are important for them. Possibly this desire is so strong in us because of everything above: mutual emotional understanding allows us to have relationships (romantic or otherwise) where things just work, and where each partner can trust the other to understand the emotional logic driving them and can trust the other not to accidentally set off any emotional landmines. It may also be the reason for the thing I mentioned at the beginning of the article, where I’ve experienced mutual attraction with people who share some of my psychological issues: an intuitive part of our minds looks for emotionally similar people.

Fixing the 4X end-game boringness by simulating legibility

4X games (e.g. Civilization, Master of Orion, for this discussion I’m also counting Paradox-style grand strategy like Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Stellaris) have a well-known problem where, once you get sufficiently far ahead, you’ve basically already won and the game stops being very interesting. There have been various attempts to fix this, but the problem remains. (Extra Credits had a good discussion of why this is difficult to design around.)

One idea for fixing it could be to change the victory conditions as the game moves on.

Consider that the Civilization series has traditionally been very focused on warfare and conquest, even though they have introduced a lot more peaceful content in the recent versions. But it still tends to be profitable to take over your neighbors if you can.

Now a game that’s very focused on conquest and warfare makes sense if it’s a game set in the period of say Ancient Rome, where “will a more powerful ruler conquer my empire” was a very real threat and something that a ruler in those times *would* realistically have been concerned about. And this remained true for a long time.

But the closer that we get to the modern day, the less true this becomes. Being taken over by an invading army simply isn’t something that the rulers of most countries would be concerned about, these days; the things that they do care about are entirely different. So for a nation-management game set in the modern day, unless it was also set in one of the few conflict-ridden areas that still exist today, warfare being a major focus simply wouldn’t make much sense. Things like economic competition and maintaining the quality of life for your citizens are much more important.

So you might be able to have a design that emulated this. In the early parts of the game, you would want to focus more on conquest and growing bigger to avoid being taken over by your neighbors, as in the current games. But as technology developed, conquest would slowly cease to be a viable path, as entirely new game mechanics took its place. This would gradually eliminate the advantages that you got from your early-game success, but it shouldn’t do it so fast as to make them meaningless. Rather it would give you a leg up as you raced to adapt to the changed conditions, and pivot your old advantages to match the changed conditions before they became just a burden. (In the end, if you didn’t play your cards right, your big huge country would definitely still be around, but losing in score to those pesky little Nordic-analogue countries with small homogeneous populations that kept topping all the quality of life scores.)

I recall seeing some board and card games that simulated something like this: early-game, early-history advantages which give you a leg up but don’t guarantee victory if you don’t keep up in the tech race and changing conditions. Innovation comes to mind as one.

One interesting way of doing this in a computer game might be to take a page from the book Seeing Like A State and its discussion of legibility. Early nations were not very legible to their rulers: the rulers might have only had a very poor idea of how many people lived in the nation, or how much food different farmers might have been capable of producing (and thus how much you could tax them). The book argues that much of history has been a constant drive by rulers to increase the legibility of their realms, by implementing things like a census, standardizing measures, forcing people to adopt family names, and so on.

This ties nicely to what Extra Credits considers the two main problems in making strategy games interesting in the long term: accumulating bonuses, and the constant reduction in uncertainty. In a game like Civilization, you start with a lot of uncertainty, as the whole map is unexplored and you don’t know anything about your local terrain or where your opponents are. As the game advances, there’s less and less that you don’t know and which you would have to address in your planning, and the game essentially becomes a puzzle where you can just figure out the best strategy and then execute it.

Now consider a game that implemented legibility as a game concept. What this might mean was that at first, the game would only model the things that you as a ruler roughly knew about. For example, you wouldn’t know the exact crop yields produced across your empire, so each city would produce the same amount, simulating the fact that you only basically know the nation-wide average and couldn’t do much to affect it.

When you developed technologies that increased the legibility of your empire, the game would randomly assign the different cities a number of variables (e.g. properties of local terrain) that collectively determined how much the different cities actually produced. This would then be revealed to you, letting you start managing them more closely, and thus making your realm more powerful. It would also force you to rethink possible existing plans for the locations of future cities, since the more detailed information about local terrain and its impact on crop yields would now become generally available. Thus what looked like an excellent city site might turn out to be a horrible one, and vice versa.

This would maintain a kind of strategic uncertainty throughout the game, as on each step that your realm got more legible, you would get a bunch of totally new information thrown at you that you had to adapt to and rework your plans around in order to stay competitive. And as there was more and more peaceful economic stuff that you as a ruler could start getting involved in, the military stuff would gradually start declining in relative importance.

Kalle Viiri mentioned the Colonization games as a nice slightly different approach to this: given that the goal is to be the first colony to become independent, being the biggest isn’t necessarily the thing that wins you the game. Rather, being big and powerful does benefit you in colony vs. colony wars, but a smaller colony is easier to defend when you declare independence and end up in a war against your home country. Similarly, the mechanics of how independence support works means that a big colony has a harder time getting to the point where you could actually declare independence. That’s another take on a similar idea: that growing larger and bigger gets you advantages in some areas, but that doesn’t win you the game by itself, and in some ways it’s even actively harmful to winning the game.