Games of My Childhood: The Troops

The Troops (Finnish “joukot”, could also be translated as “the armies” or “the forces”) was a game of pretend that I played the most with my friend Eero; I believe Aleksi also joined in.

The central premise was that each time that you played a video game and killed, recruited, rescued, built, or otherwise destroyed/obtained an enemy, character, or unit in that game, it went into an alternate dimension where it became loyal to you. In other words, it joined your troops in that dimension. The same was true for buildings that you built or destroyed, equipment that you found or bought, cities that you conquered, etc..

This meant that whenever we were playing a game, we were not just playing a game: we were also accumulating resources that persisted between games. We could also combine resources from different games. For example, I might kill a number of soldiers in a game such as Snake’s Revenge on the NES, and then produce a number of laser rifles in a game such as X-Com for the PC. I could then decide that the soldiers I’d gotten from Snake’s Revenge were now armed with the laser rifles from X-Com, making them significantly tougher.

At first, my and Eero’s troops were separate, and we would occasionally trade units. For example, he had beaten the game Star Wars on the NES and destroyed a Death Star; I had beaten the game Snake’s Revenge and destroyed a Metal Gear, a walking robot armed with nuclear missiles. We agreed to trade one of his Death Stars for one of my Metal Gears. He later commented with amusement that this was probably not a great deal for him, given how much more powerful a Death Star is.

I took these trades seriously. Once, I traded a number of tanks from the NES game Top Gun: The Second Mission for something that I’ve forgotten. After we had already agreed on this trade, I became worried – exactly how many tanks had I destroyed while playing Top Gun? I wasn’t sure if I actually _had_ as many tanks as I had agreed to give to Eero. So then I had to load up the game and start destroying tanks in it, until I was sure that I had at least as many as I had agreed to trade. This clashed against my bedtime, but when I explained the situation to my mom, she somehow agreed to let me play until I had satisfied my objective (though I’m not sure if she really understood what it was all about).

Different games had different scales, which was an obvious problem. Unlike me, Eero wasn’t very much into strategy games. He complained that it wasn’t particularly fair that in a strategy game, you might acquire lots of units such as tanks at the click of a button, while in an action game you might need to spend a lot of time fighting them one by one.

I agreed that this wasn’t fair. But I still wanted to keep the units that I got from the strategy games. I thought that as compensation, units acquired from strategy games would be weaker than corresponding units acquired from action games. How much weaker? Compared to action game units, strategy game units would be able to take one less hit from the weakest weapon in _any_ video game.

Of course this was a ridiculous “weakness” that wasn’t actually any compensation at all. So I’m not sure if I actually ever told Eero of this compensation, since he would obviously have objected. It can be that I just thought of it in my head and figured the matter settled that way, even while feeling slightly guilty about it.

We both knew a bit about programming and used QBASIC to make simple text adventures. By mutual agreement, it was forbidden to just make your own game where you could kill 99999999999999999999 planets at the click of a button, or whatever. However, any units or resources gained from “real” games while using cheat codes or the Game Genie cheating device still counted, because we did cheat a lot and liked to keep those resources. Though I suggested a special case where, if you used a cheat code to instantly create resources from thin air, those didn’t count. I think this was mostly for the Heroes of Might and Magic II cheat code that instantly gave you 5 black dragons, which felt a bit too cheap even for me.

There were some other special case rules too. I think that unique named characters (such as Grand Admiral Thrawn from the PC game Star Wars: Rebellion) could only join your troops once, even if you played the game multiple times. But more generic “unique” units, like the end boss of a particular level, could be acquired many times if they didn’t have very much of a unique personality specified. I think the intent here was just something like, would it feel weird if there were several instances of a particular unit running around? Having several Grand Admiral Thrawns running around would feel weird. But having several different Killer Moth assassins (a level boss from the Batman game for the NES) would not feel weird, we could just think of them as generic Killer Moth assassins. However, troops belonging to different people could each have their own copies of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Any units acquired directly from a game would always be completely loyal to us, even if that game had some kind of loyalty mechanic where units could become traitors. However, once they were a part of our troops, some of them might have children together. Any children born this way would _not_ be automatically loyal, but would just have their views and loyalties determined by normal psychological factors.

I think it was also so that any units or technology acquired from a game would not need active maintenance or food, but anything that was separately built or otherwise created by our troops would require it.

Eventually me and Eero agreed to join our troops together, so we no longer needed to trade and any games we played would benefit both. (I don’t think we ever thought about what happened to overlapping unique characters when we merged our troops. Possibly they got merged, too.) This led to a common joke when playing a game together – “what use will our troops have for X”, where X was some silly thing that really only made sense within the context of that particular game, or was obviously very underpowered. Later we also merged our troops with those of Aleksi; we also explained this thing to a few other kids in our neighborhood and asked if they wanted to join their troops to ours, and they agreed. This was often an easy gain, since they weren’t actually invested in our game so they might just say “oh okay whatever”, and then we’d have everything from the video games they played.

One kid who we did _not_ join our troops together with was a particular boy who was a bit of a bully. Neither of us liked him very much. Instead, we thought of different ways in which we would attack his troops and completely destroy them. (We never told him about this game nor about the fact that we were destroying his troops within that game, but rather just kept our revenge to ourselves.) I forget most of the different ways in which we destroyed him – nuclear missiles might have been involved in one – but at one point we decided that he had rebuilt his surviving forces in an underwater base. I remember the mental image of us sending submarines to that underwater base and shooting torpedoes right through its windows, destroying it as well.

The scale issue from strategy games caused some other conceptual issues as well. The original idea was that everything we acquired from games, we collected into a single enormous base on a massive planet where the units from everyone’s games went. But what about strategy games like Master of Orion II or Star Wars Rebellion, where you could get entire planets from? Or for that matter games like Civilization II, that would give you cities? I don’t think I ever reached a fully satisfying answer to this question, and instead just concluded that those planets and cities were located “somewhere else” in the Troop Dimension, outside the Main Planet.

I also remember thinking about the fact that different games clearly had different laws of physics (or different laws of magic). How would e.g. technology from two different sci-fi games with different underlying physics work, if they were both brought to the same dimension? The answer I settled on was that each unit would basically create its own pocket universe that moved with it. So that the laws of that universe applied to that unit while laws of other universes applied to other units. I also had some thoughts about how damage by weapons from different universes would be converted to a common scale, but I don’t remember what I concluded about this.

Finally, we ourselves could also travel to the dimension where our troops were located. I don’t think we made much use of this, but I did have a text document where I had compiled a list of various equipment that I personally carried with me while in the Troop Dimension. Some items included various magic items from Might & Magic VI, a portable shield generator from X-Com Apocalypse, a lightsaber from a QBasic “lightsaber creator” program I’d written (slightly bending the prohibition on text adventure gains here), as well as a plasma pistol from either Fallout 2 or the original X-Com. Had to be ready to defend myself, after all.

Indecision and internalized authority figures

trauma book I was reading had an interesting claim that indecision is often because the person looks for the approval of an internalized authority figure (the writer is a Jungian therapist so attributed it to looking for the approval of an internalized parent, but I think it can be broader) but is unable to predict what action they would approve of.

I feel like that has some intuitive truth to it, in that when I don’t care about anyone’s opinion (or if nobody ever finds out) then it’s much easier to just pick one action and commit to it even if it might go badly. But one of the main reasons why I might struggle with that is if I fear that anyone would judge me for doing things incorrectly.

Or it can be a conflict between different internalized authority figures. “If I do this then X will be angry at me but if I do the other thing, then Y will be angry at me”. Or just the expectation that X will be angry at me no matter what I do.

This also reminds me of the way I think a big part of the appeal of various ideologies and explicit decision-making systems is that they give people a clear external ruleset that tells them what to do. Then if things go wrong, people can always appeal (either explicitly or just inside their own mind) to having followed The Right Procedure and thus being free of blame.

The most obvious external example of this is people within a bureaucracy following the rules to the letter and never deviating from them in order to avoid blame. Or more loosely, following what feels like the common wisdom – “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”.

But those are examples of people trying to avoid blame from an existing, external authority. I think people also do a corresponding move to avoid blame from internalized authority figures – such as by trying to follow a formalized ethical rule system such as utilitarianism or deontology.

Of course, if the system is one that easily drives people off a cliff when followed (e.g. extreme utilitarianism demanding infinite self-sacrifice), this isn’t necessarily helpful. Now what was supposed to give relief from the pressures of constant inner judgment, turns into a seemingly-rigorous proof for why the person has to constantly sacrifice everything for the benefit of others.

At one point I also wondered why it is that being very confident about what you say makes you very persuasive to many people. Why should it work that you can hack persuasiveness in that way, regardless of the truth value of what you’re saying?

Then I realized that extreme confidence signals social power since others haven’t taken you down for saying clearly wrong things (even if you are saying clearly wrong things). And that means that siding with the person who’s saying those things also shields others from social punishment: they’re after all just doing what the socially powerful person does. And given that people often project their internalized authority figures into external people – e.g. maybe someone really is trying to avoid their father’s judgment, but when seeing someone very confident they see that person as being their father – that allows them to avoid internalized blame as well.

Links and brief musings for June

Links in English


Schrödinger’s Ursula

Apparently the concept of Schrödinger’s cat got popularized thanks to Ursula Le Guin.

Schrödinger originally invented the cat image as a gag. If true believers in quantum mechanics are right that the microworld’s uncertainties are dispelled only when we observe it, Schrödinger felt, this must also sometimes happen in the macroworld – and that’s ridiculous. Writing in a paper published in 1935 in the German-language journal Naturwissenschaften (23 807), he presented his famous cat-in-a-box image to show why such a notion is foolish.

For a while, few paid attention. […] there were no citations of the phrase “Schrödinger’s cat” in the literature for almost 20 years. […] The American philosopher and logician Hilary Putnam (1926–2016) first learned of Schrödinger’s image around 1960. […] In his 1965 paper “A philosopher looks at quantum mechanics” Putnam called it “absurd” to say that human observers determine what exists. But he was unable to refute the idea. […]

It was to be another decade before the cat and its bizarre implications jumped into popular culture. In 1974 Le Guin published The Dispossessed (1974), an award-winning book about a physicist whose new, relativistic theory of time draws him into the politics of the pacifist-anarchist society in which he lived. […] she read up on relativity theory to make her character’s “theory of simultaneity” sound plausible.

Le Guin, it appears, seems to have read Putnam’s article in about 1972. “The Cat & the apparatus exist, & will be in State 0 or State 1, IF somebody looks,” Le Guin wrote in a note to herself. “But if he doesn’t look, we can’t say they’re in State 0, or State 1, or in fact exist at all.” […]

In “Schrödinger’s cat”, which Le Guin finished in September 1972 but didn’t publish for another two years, an unnamed narrator senses that “things appear to be coming to some sort of climax”. […] Le Guin’s story was soon followed by other fictional and non-fictional treatments of quantum mechanics in which Schrödinger’s cat is a major figure. Examples include the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy (Robert Anton Wilson, 1979); Schrödinger’s Baby: a Novel (H R McGregor, 1999); Schrödinger’s Ball (Adam Felber, 2006); Blueprints of the Afterlife (Ryan Budinot, 2012).

Parenting advice

Thing of Things: Non-Parents Give Crappy Parenting Advice. Ways in which the common thought of “I’ve been a child so I can give good parenting advice” is misleading:

Children change radically over time, and it’s very easy to assume that if something was good six months ago it’s also good now. Therefore, many people remember chafing at particular rules or feeling patronized by particular ways of talking—but those rules or ways of talking were completely appropriate for them when they were younger, their parents just failed to change strategies quickly enough. However, because of childhood amnesia, those people don’t remember being younger, and therefore assume that the rules are naturally too strict or the way of talking naturally patronizing.

Even if you have an opinion about an age you remember well, you might have forgotten other important details. I spent many years wondering why on earth my mother dragged me to so many activities I hated when I regularly had screaming, crying, miserable meltdowns about how much I hated them. “How hard is it to notice that your screaming, crying child doesn’t want to do that allegedly fun thing?” I thought.

And then I had a child. I realized that small children—at least ones with my genes—melt down a lot. They melt down because a situation is unfamiliar, or a plan changed, or they misunderstood something, or they’re just tired and grouchy. I didn’t remember all meltdowns of that sort I had, because they didn’t make a huge impression on me. I remembered being forced to do things I hated, but not all the times I had an equally dramatic response before being introduced to something I really loved. […]

Of course, you should also refrain from taking your child to fun activities they actually hate. But figuring out which is which is hard and requires good judgment, and it’s easy to err in both directions—something I didn’t appreciate before I had a child.

Further, when a person with little experience of children gives parenting advice, she’s generalizing from the experiences of one person—herself. […] all kinds of completely normal people assume that, if they would have liked to be treated a particular way as a child, all children would like to be treated that way.

Children are as diverse as adults. Some thrive on schedule and routine; others prefer it when things are more flexible. Some are anxious and frightened; others are reckless and fearless. Some love trying new foods; others would prefer a diet of buttered pasta and white bread. Some thirst for knowledge; others would rather do nothing but play Minecraft. […] You might generalize from your experiences of your friends, but remember that your friends tend to be like you. Advice that works great for a bright, driven, curious child works poorly for a child who is slow in school and unmotivated to learn. […]

Finally, a lot of non-parents aren’t really aware of the constraints that parents are under. […] I promise you, no parent is happy about their baby crying on an airplane. […] Even if you’re the best and most empathetic and most devoted parent in the world, sometimes your baby will cry and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. […]

Similarly: my child is running around the BART station because they need to get their energy out somehow or we’re all going to have a bad time; my child is watching a noisy YouTube video because my phone doesn’t have a headphone jack and it was this or a meltdown; my child is crying in the grocery store because I was three-quarters of the way through checking out when they saw the Skittles and I just want to be done […] I think some childfree people don’t quite realize that their preferred norms for children’s behavior amount to “children shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house at all.”

Secret languages

@slimepriestess on Twitter:

there is a “secret language” spoken by children and animals that uses the whole body as a way to send signals, this language is nonverbal and vibes-based, it’s emotional, felt, and intuitive. […]

one claim of the “pre-contact consciousness” model is that humans used to communicate very deeply like this, and then the norms broke down somewhere and people lost the ability to perform this felt dialog. They learned to distrust the channel and ignore what it said to them.

[…] that channel still exists, it didn’t go anywhere, and it still contains a ton of information being transmitted creature to creature, below the level of actual dialogue, often in a state of intense contradiction with what someone says with words.

An example is someone saying “I’m fine” in a way that is obviously not fine. Or insisting they’re okay with something their body is obviously not okay with. The social reality expectation is that you take people on their literal words, even when you observe this contradiction.

And people will take advantage of that, ignoring obvious things on that emotional channel, “well she didn’t SAY she didn’t want it”, that’s only true if you ignore the sublinguistic channel and only look at the literal words, but isn’t doing that awfully convenient?

And then once something IS made legible in english, it can be argued about and it’s fair game for ‘convincing’ them that they’re wrong, that they’re confused about their felt sense, or that it’s irrational and should be ignored. guys do this ALL THE TIME.

Some of it is actually emotional illiteracy or dissociation from one’s felt senses, but not all of it is, and people do use that claim of unseeing as a way to intentionally ignore those signals when you can plausibly say you just didn’t notice them. […]

Being around people who can interact with this channel feels really nice and safe, it lets you feel seen.

converse, being around someone who is unable to see this channel, or who is actively ignoring it, feels like they’re ignoring you, or that you’re invisible to them and the only thing they can see is words from a disembodied ghost, and it doesn’t feel safe or secure. […]

i absolutely don’t think people should ignore the verbal component of communication, or pick one channel over the other, but to notice when they are contradicting and (eheh) delve deeper into their state


David R. MacIver – This is important.

You were born with wings.

This doesn’t make you special. Everyone was born with wings. This is normal.

You see small children flying about sometimes. Their parents smile tolerantly. It’s perfectly normal, children do that.

They don’t show their children how to fly better though. Instead, they teach them how to walk.

Adults don’t fly you see. Oh, maybe some do. Artists and degenerates, maybe. But it’s childish. We’ve outgrown that.

You are no different to anyone else. You have wings, but you don’t fly.

It’s hard to fly you see. It was easy as a child, but children are small and light.

As an adult, you are weighed down by your larger adult body, and there isn’t really room. You live in the city, with high walls and lines above-head. You’d hurt yourself if you tried to fly. Where would you even start?

Your wings haven’t been used in so long, they’re weak and flabby. You doubt they could support your weight even if you let them.

But they itch. They know what they’re for, and they want to be used.

You talk about this with your friends and colleagues.

“Oh yes,” they say. “I remember when I was young and thought flying was the greatest thing ever. But I’ve outgrown that. These days I’ve got both feet on the ground, too many responsibilities to be flighty don’t you know. Ha ha.”

Everything but the laugh sounds sincere.

You talk about it some more, and are reliably informed that it’s impossible for an adult to fly, that it would be too much work, that it wouldn’t be worth it even if you could.

You don’t believe them.

So one day, you leave the city, and find a nice empty space to try to fly in. You stretch your wings, you jump… and you fall.

Your wings haven’t been used in so long, they’re weak and flabby. They can’t support your weight even if you want them to.

But that? That is just a problem. You can solve it.

It takes you less time than you think. You find ways to stretch your wings and strengthen them without flying. You watch videos, you read instructions, you get the basics down.

You go back out there every week, and you practice your running jumps, your glides.

And then, one day, you catch the wind just right, and you soar. The sublime arrives as you head skywards. It stays as you crash down to the earth.

Because this was just a first success. You barely flew, but you flew. And now you’ve done it once, you can do it again. Better.

I am trying to show you that you have wings. Rise.

[if you liked this, see the whole article for more of the same]

Why not unschool

Kelsey Piper on reasons not to unschool.

I know a lot of parents who unschool – homeschool with no curriculum or set goals for what the kids learn, in favor of the kids learning whatever interests them. It’s popular among people who care a lot about not coercing children unnecessarily and people who are often really thoughtful about children’s independence and happiness, so I take it pretty seriously, and some people have asked me why we’re not doing that.

Broadly, we’re not unschooling because adults I talked to who were unschooled often had very mixed feelings about it, I think as often implemented it ends up limiting kids’ freedom by making it hard for them to access some methods of learning, and because the culture around unschooling that I ran into bothered me in various ways.

(much more behind the link)

Musings in English


Survey answers

In 2017 I was putting down important information in surveys.

The survey had more than one of these fields.

Litany against stones

I’m sure I’m not the first one to think of this, but it occurred to me that the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear is also applicable to kidney stones:

I will face my kidney stone.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the stone has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Incidentally, it seems like I had my first one ever in early June. I count myself lucky since it was a relatively mild one, meaning that the pain only ranged from “unpleasant but bearable” to “has me on the floor basically immobilized”. Still, this is one achievement that I could’ve gone without unlocking.

In The Beginning

Conversation elsewhere got me to look up what the illustrious and awe-inspiring start of my blogging career was


The Buddha and friendship

The Buddha on how to treat your friends; this seems like a nice set of principles:

There are five ways in which a man should minister to his friends and companions as the northern direction: by gifts, by kindly words, by looking after their welfare, by treating them like himself, and by keeping his word. And there are five ways in which friends and companions, thus ministered to by a man as the northern direction, will reciprocate: by looking after him when he is inattentive, by looking after his property when he is inattentive, by being a refuge when he is afraid, by not deserting him when he is in trouble, and by showing concern for his children.

(From DN 31: Sigālaka Sutta, reprinted in “In the Buddha’s Words“)

Two types of Buddhist texts

Social engineering

Feeling like a clever social engineer because my gym was like “would you like this special offer to renew your membership more cheaply, only available for a limited time, respond by Monday if you want it” and then I missed the first email about it and only saw their reminder late during Monday

And then I finally got around emailing them around half an hour after the deadline with a “hey I missed the deadline by half an hour but could I still get this deal” knowing that of course I would, these kind of limited-time things are basically fake and no salesperson would miss their chance to make a sale because of enforcing an arbitrary deadline

All the while also thinking about the way that “make your mark think that they’re being so clever by cheating the conman” is by itself a classic element in a con and the end result of this “clever social engineering” was just that… they got me to do what they wanted me to do in the first place

But whatever, I’ll still feel clever about it anyway

(Oh and yes they did agree to give me the deal despite me missing the deadline)

The notifications you get these days

Suomeksi / Links and musings in Finnish


Pelottavan hyvä tietojenkalasteluyritys

Milla Sallinen:

Minulle soitti päivällä mies Omalainasta. Kertoi, että lainahakemukseni on hyväksytty, ja lainasumma voitaisiin maksaa minulle jo saman päivän aikana. Halusi puhelinsoitolla vielä varmistaa, että on varmasti oikea hakemus kyseessä, koska laina oli määrätty maksettavaksi toisen henkilön tilille, nimi oli Ahmed- jotakin.

Sanoin, etten ole hakenut mitään lainaa. Mies vaikutti hämmästyneeltä, ja sanoi että 8500 euron lainan hakemiseen oli tunnistauduttu minun pankkitunnuksillani. Kysyi olinko klikkaillut linkkejä tai olisivatko tunnukseni päässeet muuta kautta jonkun toisen käyttöön.

Kielsin, koska näissä asioissa olen mielestäni varsin tarkka. Mies pahoitteli ja kertoi, että olen ilmeisesti kuitenkin joutunut rikoksen kohteeksi. Sanoi, että minun kannattaisi ottaa nyt viipymättä yhteyttä pankkiini, jotta he selvittävät kuinka paljon tunnuksiani on jo käytetty ja pääsisin tekemään rikosilmoituksen. Kysyi asiointipankkini ja lupasi kääntää puhelun sinne heti. Pyysi minua kirjoittamaan ylös lainahakemusnumeron, jota voivat pankissa kysyä.

Puhelu kääntyi, ja odotin hetken. Danskebankista vastasi nainen, joka kysyi kyseisen lainahakemusnumeron ja kertoi, että näitä tapauksia oli nyt ollut valitettavan paljon. Ilmeisesti jossakin oli tapahtunut tietovuoto ja he selvittelevät asiaa. Hänen mukaansa nimissäni oli tehty myös toinen lainahakemus Norwegian Bank tms. nimissä. Aikoi nämä peruuttaa.

Kysyin, pitääkö minun nyt toimia jotenkin, ja hän suositteli että pankkitunnukset kannattaa varalta sulkea ja tilata uudet. Hän lupasi sulkea tunnukset heti ja sanoi että tarvitsee käyttäjätunnukseni, minkä jälkeen minun tulisi vahvistaa tunnistautumiseni Danske ID- tunnuksella.

Tässä vaiheessa sanoin, että en halua antaa tunnuksiani puhelimessa. Sanoin, että kirjaudun mielelläni itse ensiksi omaan pankkiini ja asioin sen kautta. Virkailija oli ymmärtäväinen ja sanoi, että voin hoitaa asian toki myös niin, mutta minun olisi toimittava viipymättä. Sanoin, että teen niin, en anna tunnuksiani puhelimessa. Nainen lupasi laittaa uudet tunnukset tulemaan expresspostina, niin homma olisi sitten nopea hoitaa konttorissa. Päätin puhelun siihen.

Soitin Danskebankiin. Ja niinhän se oli, että tämä on taas yksi uusi tapa huijata ja kalastella pankkitunnuksia. Kukaan ei ollut käyttänyt tunnuksiani yhtään mihinkään, eikä nimissäni oltu haettu lainoja. Pankin asiakaspalvelijat eivät kysy koskaan asiakkaiden käyttäjätunnuksia. Jos puhelu vaatii tunnistautumista, se tapahtuu yleensä automaattitunnistuksessa puhelun alussa, silloin kun asiakas itse soittaa suoraan pankkiin.

Soitin myös Omalainaan. En ollut ainoa joka oli soitellut. Heille oli tullut lyhyen ajan sisällä yhteydenottoja useilta muiltakin, jotka eivät ole edes heidän asiakkaitaan. Minäkään en ollut. He toivoivat rikosilmoituksen tekemistä, jotta poliisikin kiinnostuisi. Harkitsevat sen tekemistä myös itse.



Jos turkulainen uskoo että Styks-virta erottaa tuonpuoleisen ja tämänpuoleisen, ovatko ne sitten tuol ja täl pual jokkee?

Links for May

In English

What would happen if a superintelligent AI was aligned with your values?

The details here are a little too much in the “superintelligence is magic that can achieve anything” direction to my taste (I don’t think that anything will just be instantly teleported into safety, superintelligent AI or not), but I don’t doubt that the same results could be achieved via more mundane means. And it’s nice to have some more uplifting visions of the future.

The Choose Your Own Adventure Book or Ghost Ship Model of Will

I first put the core idea into words when someone I met at a workshop said she often had trouble being on time for things. She would notice that it was time to go a meeting soon but that she still had three minutes, so she could, keep reading her novel. And then, ten minutes later she’d actually stop and end up late, which she didn’t like. To this, I said something like “Ah. Apparently, your choice points don’t happen very often when you’re reading a novel. So, if you want to avoid being late, maybe you should seize choice points shortly before you need to leave, because you probably won’t get another one in time.”

The metaphor here is that your agency has a structure somewhat more like a choose your own adventure book than the completely free “I can do whatever I want whenever I want” which we often see it as. Of course, the chose your own adventure book metaphor is too constraining; it offers too few choices compared to one’s experience of the real world. Nonetheless, it captures the sporadicalness of the choice points.

Patri Friedman on political views.

In a comment someone implied that one should have “a stable set of political views that are interrelated and coherent to some degree.”

I think I might disagree with this, and thought y’all might find it interesting.

So my claim is that to the degree that political views are describing mechanisms and outcomes in the real world, the real world is so complex that I’m actually not sure that an accurate description would be “interrelated and coherent” to a significant degree.

In fact I’ll hypothesize that most of the time when people choose view B partly based on how related and coherent it is with view A, they are making a worse choice (for building an accurate model of reality) than if they chose view B solely based on how it seems to empirically fit the world.

Coherence is beautiful and appealing, our mind likes simpler models, but except in the few cases where reality has a strong simplicity orientation (laws of physics), generally a move towards simplicity is a move towards a smaller, more impoverished space of models which is thus less likely to be an accurate description of complex reality. You are throwing away degrees of freedom when trying to fit a very irregular curve.

I think the laws of physics & mathematics have spoiled us because they are so universal, present everywhere, extremely important when they apply, and have so much simplicity and elegance. And I feel like I may be becoming (through a combination of reflecting on past idiocy, and getting really into meditation) such a radical empiricist that I view the desire to find simple models for the world as an omnipresent human foolishness.

I will caveat that the legibility & computational tractability of simple models do matter, our brains can only manage a certain size of model, I just think we will generally understand reality better by viewing it with curiosity and openness to it being modeled by incoherent, unrelated sub-models, rather than trying to force it to conform to our current set of (imperfect and incomplete) models.

On Anchor Collapse and Actually Deciding

Say you’re afraid of dogs. You don’t want to be afraid of dogs, of course, because you like dogs and everyone knows that only some dogs are mean. […] and you don’t want to be stupid, so you deny that the other side of the argument even exists. “There’s no reason for it”/”its irrational”/”I have a phobia”. […]

But let’s be real here. Dogs bite. I’ve been bit. If you’re phobic, you’ve probably been bit too. If you give yourself some room to not worry about looking stupid and look at the facts, there’s a reason to be afraid of dogs. You can’t guarantee you won’t get bit again, and getting bit really freaked you out. You really don’t want it to happen again. Once you admit this you can start to frame it as a decision. […]

So you’ve admitted that yes, the dog might bite you, and that would be really bad. But you still want to pet the dog! So you tell me “jimmmy! I want to not be afraid of dogs so I can pet them!”

“So pet the dog”

“But it might bite me!”

“It might”

“But I don’t want it to bite me!

“You don’t. And if it does, it will be real hurty. Have you considered that maybe you shouldn’t pet the dog?”

“But I want to pet the dog!”

“Then pet the dog”

“But it might bite me!”

…And we can go on all day like this. You’re wanting to pet the dog and not be afraid, but you’re also not wanting to get bit. As if there’s anything I can do about it. The risk is part of the territory. […]
And the way people often handle these is to just get sick of the struggle and suppress one side. “Okay, I know its a nice doggy so I’m gonna pretend that I’m okay with risking getting bit when really I’m not and I’ll just suppress that”. Only what they actually say to themselves is more like “I know its safe. I already decided. The fear is irrational and I want it gone.”

But that’s not shitting or getting off the pot. That’s not collapsing the anchors. The two desires are still separate, so that’s not actually deciding. […]

But that’s nonsense. Of course you don’t want to get bit. Who wants to get bit? Getting bit is hurty and bad. And you want to pet the doggy. At the same time. Of course you want to pet the doggy. Doggies are cute and nice. And you haven’t let yourself go there because “I can’t have it so I’m not allowed to think it” but you really wish you could pet the dog with no risk of it biting you. It’s the best of both worlds. It would be really nice to pet the dog with no risk of it biting you. […]

The interesting thing is what happens the moment you stop holding the desires apart and experience them both simultaneously. This is collapsing anchors.

And it goes something like this…

I want to pet the doggie, and if I do, I might get bit.

(Seriously, give it a moment. Shit takes time.)

Is it worth it?

Am I willing to stick my hand out and pet that dog knowing that there is some chance that the dog is going to bite it?

And then you sigh a bit. And then you’re silent. And you picture not the separate issues of petting (good!) and being bit (bad!) but the combination package of getting to pet the dog but maaaaaybe getting bit. […]

If your answer is yes, then you can say “yes, I want to pet the dog, even knowing that I might get bit. I still want to pet the dog because it’s worth it. I want that package deal where my hand gets bit sometimes.”

Or if your answer is no, then you say “No, I don’t want to pet the dog. It’s not worth the chance of getting bit”. And that’s the end of it. It’s not “but I wish I could pet it and it wouldn’t bite me!” because you know that comes with the territory – it’s a dog and you can’t predict them perfectly. […]

And either way, there’s no conflict. No two separate desires. Just a congruent choice coming from a decision you had not made before.

See also:

Adam Davis on a student with an apparent trauma history.

This semester’s unusual student experience was an office hour in which I heard “I can’t be told I’m wrong. It upsets me, and I freak. I shut down. You have to say things like, ‘there’s another way of looking at it,’ or ‘have you thought about it this way?’”

I tried “You might not know about this… (?)” Nod.

If you were expecting a rant on the lines of “Ach! These young snowflakes today!” keep scrolling. There’s plenty out there.

There is not the least question that this was a person already fragile, damaged, subjected to sustained abuse, who cultivated withdrawal as a firstline coping mechanism. Also not in doubt: without her courageously frank explanation and clear request, I and my colleagues would surely have done something to drive her away. Years ago, when no such conversation would have been imaginable, she’d simply have quit showing up one day, and we’d maybe have wondered, briefly, why.

Oh stop. There’s no prospect of my building her “resilience,” “grit,” whatever word we use to make it feel all right to be callous, by asserting my right — and I do indeed have the right, and the privilege — to say whatever I want to say, however I want to say it. The world is better, not worse, because she declares a need for accommodation, and gets it. We are not weaker. Our precious bodily fluids are just fine.

She’s finishing the semester. That’s big. That’s a real thing.

And here’s another real thing: it occurs to me that what she was asking wasn’t, actually, the least bit unreasonable. In fact, although I can’t specifically recall telling a student, in so many words, “you’re wrong,” mmm, there are lots of things we quite routinely say that come close enough, and there are many fully functional alternatives that get us through the necessaries just fine. Her request makes me reflect on how I communicate with all kinds of people who maybe don’t have the kind of guts and poise and self-understanding she has.

Oh, she is not weak.

Somebody said, “we’re all just walking each other home.” When kindness does not come to us easily or naturally, as it assuredly does not come easily or naturally to me, noop, it’s all the more important to sink effort into it.

There was a lot of debate of this on my Facebook.

Some people were saying that “we should get this person to work on her problem rather than accommodating her in this way”. But actually accommodating her can be an important first step in helping her fix the problem!

Often people with these kinds of issues experience strong shame about it because others send the message that it’s unreasonable/not okay. That shame then makes it harder to deal with the original issue because it’s painful to think about.

If there are people who communicate with their behavior that the person doesn’t need to feel deep shame about their problem, then that actually makes it easier to work on the problem itself.

There was also a bunch of debate about whether this was reasonable, whether it’s even possible to finish a degree without being told you’re wrong, etc.. I think this was a bit ambiguous from the original post. My interpretation was that the specific phrasing of “you’re wrong” was triggering to the student, but she was open to having the same point communicated with a different phrasing, and that e.g. having assignments marked down for problems wouldn’t be an issue. The fact that her lecturer didn’t consider there to be an issue would be in line with this interpretation.

Some people with experience in education also chimed in, pointing out that they’ve never had a reason to say “you’re wrong” to a student – that there’s always a better way of expressing it, and it just seems like common decency not to embarrass a student.

In any case, even if it was the case that “she can’t realistically expect people to accommodate her this way”… if someone has this issue, it’s likely due to something like cPTSD, which can easily take years to recover from. So it’s simultaneously true that it will be a major problem for her until she gets over it, and that getting over it may take very long and require accommodation and external support to get there. That combination of facts sucks, but just saying “she should get over it” isn’t going to solve anything.

How the incels warped my research

I have generally tried to ignore the manosphere. But as an evolutionary psychologist, I’ve found that hard to do. You can hardly read two paragraphs of incel ideology without coming across references to my field.

Louis Bachaud and Sarah Johns recently published a content analysis of manosphere messaging in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences, explaining the ways in which our research gets appropriated by manosphere circles.

For example, incels maintain a wiki page of scientific citations they claim support their worldview — an annotated bibliography of misogyny. In one case, in a sort of Russian nesting doll of misrepresentation, the incel wiki quotes a paper citing a study of mine as demonstrating that women prefer dominant men — which they further twist into the incel notion that women actually prefer violent men as romantic partners.

Reading this entry, I thought, “That’s odd, I don’t remember ever publishing on dominance preferences — do the incels know my work better than I do?” No. I double-checked: That study didn’t even mention dominance preferences.

Curiously overlooked in this whole wiki section on women’s preferences is the fact that kindness is repeatedly found to be among the most desired qualities in large-scale, cross-cultural studies of mate preferences. […]

Like any biological approach to behavior, evolutionary psychology has always been controversial. In part, this is owing to some truly bad actors in the field. All it takes is some thoughtless tweets or blog posts for the entire field to earn a reputation as a safe space for provocateurs. […] This allows the manosphere to sell its audience a scientific consensus around its ideology that simply does not exist. Its members appropriate and mischaracterize the literature on evolutionary psychology to lend a scientific patina to their hateful, misogynistic, and dangerous ideas.

For instance, incels are obsessed with the “dual mating strategy” hypothesis, a divisive idea that interprets fluctuations in women’s sexual desire as evidence that women have evolved to seek out men with “good genes” at the most fertile point in their menstrual cycle. Incels use this hypothesis to explain, in their eyes, why relationships are doomed: No matter how good a partner you are, women will always be looking to sleep around with someone better.

Part of the problem is that the dual mating strategy hypothesis was indeed a popular idea among evolutionary psychologists until about 2016. After that, it became one of the more prominent epicenters of psychology’s replication crisis, which revealed that large swaths of psychology research were based on unreliable findings. But even before this major setback, the dual mating strategy hypothesis was critiqued by some evolutionary psychologists like my friend and colleague Jim Roney. Nonetheless, Jim’s work gets hardly any play in manosphere circles, and the hypothesis has since morphed into a version quite unlike the one promoted by incels.

At the end of the day, incels attempt to draw from evolutionary theory a power it does not have. Evolution is not destiny. It is a powerful tool for explaining how we came to be who we are today, but it cannot tell us who we should be today or who we can be tomorrow.

“I lost trust”: Why the OpenAI team in charge of safeguarding humanity imploded

Ilya Sutskever and Jan Leike announced their departures from OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, on Tuesday. They were the leaders of the company’s superalignment team — the team tasked with ensuring that AI stays aligned with the goals of its makers, rather than acting unpredictably and harming humanity.

They’re not the only ones who’ve left. Since last November — when OpenAI’s board tried to fire CEO Sam Altman only to see him quickly claw his way back to power — at least five more of the company’s most safety-conscious employees have either quit or been pushed out. […]

… the real answer may have less to do with pessimism about technology and more to do with pessimism about humans — and one human in particular: Altman. According to sources familiar with the company, safety-minded employees have lost faith in him.

“It’s a process of trust collapsing bit by bit, like dominoes falling one by one,” a person with inside knowledge of the company told me, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Spurious Correlation

Compare enough statistics, some of them are going to correlate closely just by random chance. For example, the popularity of the first name “Eleanor” in the US closely correlates with the amount of wind power generated in Poland, r=0.993, p<0.01.

Apparently I organised a student protest against a teacher

This is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. Autistic child who has problems understanding social norms reacts to a mean teacher, without realizing it ends up organizing a student revolt and causing the teacher to get replaced.

A military historian speculates on the in-universe design intent of the Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyer

First, we need to understand what kind of polity the Old Republic – and thus the Empire – is. And here, the phrasing I go to (somewhat imprecise) is that the Republic was a ‘Republic of Princes’ in the same sense that the Holy Roman Empire was an empire of ‘princes’ or more technically ‘imperial states. […]

In short, the Republic was not a democracy of people but a republic of states, the ‘princes’ which in turn governed their own territory internally. These ‘princes’ could be any form of government. And indeed, the imperial states of the Holy Roman Empire could be noble rulers, but also bishops ruling cities (the ‘prince-archbishops’), monks running abbeys (Imperial prelates), grandmasters running holy orders, and even cities governing themselves (free and imperial cities). So too with the Republic, which is why the Trade Federation can sit on the Senate alongside democratic Naboo and monarchic Alderaan. […]

… what I think a historian of this period, looking back would conclude about the Star Wars story would be this: the Clone Wars were essentially a civil war between the princes of the Rim territories against the princes of the core regions (as the later effectively ruled the senate). That civil war produced political momentum among some of the core princes towards centralization, which fuels the career of Palpatine. Palpatine’s reign and the Empire in general is thus understood as a reaction to the Clone Wars primarily aimed at centralizing power at the expense of the princes. […]

[…] now there are simmering tensions which the Imperial Navy is supposed to tamp down. As a result, imperial designers reach for escalation dominance in their designs, aiming to build ships which can, on their own, intimidate the militaries of the princes – because remember, the ‘princes’ (planetary governments of whatever form) all have their own small navies – in order to avoid a conflict. The [Imperial Star Destroyer] is the end result of that design philosophy: a gun-platform powerful enough to be effectively beyond the ability of any planetary princely navy to fight effectively.

The One Essential Quality

Certain days driving home in Hanoi, metis would take me.

The hundreds of bikes and cars moving unpredictably required of me an intense focus in all directions at once, a broad awareness and an intense focus working as one. If I couldn’t track the speed, direction, and distance of every vehicle behind and ahead of me, and stay open to noticing potholes, sudden braking cars, or swerving buses – I might not survive the drive home. I’d seen enough dead bodies and broken bones on the roads to know that traffic was powerful and indifferent to me, the way the ocean is to sailors, the way the jungle is to hunters.

On certain magic days, when the traffic and my focus merged into a liquid exchange, something would happen and I’d be beyond focus and awareness. Beyond my self and my neck-swiveling calculations of swerving trajectories. On those days, I was a fluid entity of sensory intuition – heat on the side of my face and the thick tang of stale diesel exhaust told me without looking that I had a bus to my left. The honks and revs around me, the way each one muffled, or grew shriller, or faded, became an internal picture of the vehicles around me – how they were rushing up on me, turning to a side street, falling behind… The flicker of red reflection off the edge of my glasses told me the car ahead had tapped its brake lights. The sudden drop of the bike’s engine a few feet away told me they were suddenly braking in reaction.

Wordlessly, thoughtlessly, acting simply as an aspect of the situation pouring around and through me, I banked left and revved to get ahead of the bus, before it could block me off from the gap between it and the truck in front of us. I couldn’t see the traffic ahead, but everything I could see, hear, feel, and smell (the exhaust got a touch thicker, didn’t it?) told me there was a blockage in traffic ahead on the right side – and my experience with these roads told me obstacles like that don’t stay on one side of the road for long, they spread quickly until only a trickle of traffic can make it through the gridlock. I could either break ahead of the mess right now, from the left, or I’d be stuck here for 10 minutes waiting. I slipped through the gap just before the bus closed it, and sped out ahead. Me and the 2 or 3 others who had banked left rushed out into open road as the knot behind us tightened. […]

I wish I didn’t have to say that those dangerous, exhaust-fume-reeking days in Hanoi were some of the greatest peak experiences of my life, but here we are. I have journal entries from that year, long winding devotional prose poems to the Goddess of the Gap – an embodiment of that perfect gap in traffic that moves with divine smoothness, if you can just devote yourself to it and prove yourself worthy of staying in it. […]

I came literal inches from death over and over again in pursuit of it. […]

I drove around Hanoi without a helmet for a long time. I didn’t really understand why. It was stupid, I knew it was stupid. I felt really Alive without it though, and I couldn’t figure out how I could be so smart in so many ways, and so deadly stupid about this – and how even while knowing all this and thinking about it, I kept not wearing a helmet, because some blood-deep devotion to the Goddess of the Gap was somehow making me Alive, waking up some latent essence that had been sleeping inside me my whole life.

The arrow doesn’t fly if the bowstring is never pulled taut. Without tension – true, dangerous tension – you never even get the opportunity to hit the target.

A Woman Who Left Society to Live With Bears Weighs in on “Man or Bear”

When I’m alone in the backcountry and come across a man, I feel a very low level of vigilance. Depending on the situation, I might even be happy to see him. He’s a fellow human! Maybe we’ll be friends! I’m likely to smile genuinely and say hello.

I don’t feel afraid, but I am aware. As we chat, my intuition absorbs a thousand things at once. His body language. His tone. How he looks at me and interacts. Most of the time, this produces an increased sense of security. Most men are friendly, respect my boundaries, and don’t want to hurt me. Most of the time, I feel very safe around men.

But not all the time. Sometimes, my intuition absorbs things that increase my level of vigilance. […] It could be something he says. Maybe he makes a comment about my body or my appearance. Or he asks if I’m carrying a weapon and then presses for details about where I’m camping that night. Sometimes, it’s a shift in his tone, a leer, the way he puts his body in my space. But, usually, it’s a combination of things, a totality of behaviors that add up to a singular reality: this man is either not aware that he’s making me uncomfortable, or he doesn’t care. Either way, this is the danger zone. Even if he has no intention of harming me, the outcome of that intention is no longer possible for me to assess or predict.

In this moment, my mind snaps into a single, crystalline point of focus. My intuition rises to the surface of my skin. I become a creature of exquisite perception. The world is a matrix of emotional data: visceral, clear, direct.

I need to get away from the man. But I need to do it in a way that doesn’t anger him. This is the tricky bit. Men who lack social awareness or empathy often also lack other skills in emotional management. And usually, what men in these situations actually want is closeness. They’re trying to get closer to me, physically or emotionally, in the only way they know how. That combination of poor emotional skillsets and a desire to get closer is exactly what puts me in danger.

If I deny his attempts at closeness by leaving or setting a boundary, he could feel frustrated, rejected, or ashamed. If he doesn’t know how to recognize or manage those feelings, he’s likely to experience them as anger. And then I’m a solo woman stuck in a forest with an angry man, which is exactly what women are most afraid of.

There’s no time to think, so I operate on instinct. My task is ridiculously complex. I need to deescalate any signs of aggression, guide the man into a state of emotional balance, and exit the situation safely, all at once. This process requires all of my attention, energy, and intellect. It’s really hard.

I’ve been in this position so many times that it exhausts me just to write about it. Sometimes, it’s not that I’m afraid of men; I’m just really, really tired.

Spencer Greenberg on distributions and personality traits

Important but often overlooked: when groups differ a small amount in their means, they may differ *dramatically* in their tails.

For instance, in a personality study, we found males to have a little bit lower average compassion score than females (1.4 vs. 2) […]

Small differences like this in averages are typically not noticeable or important. Most people are somewhere near the middle.

If you knew only someone’s compassion level and had to guess their sex from it, you’d be wrong more than one-third of the time (predicting optimally)!

However, small differences in means can lead to much bigger differences in the “tails” (i.e., way on the right or way on the left of the chart). In other words, whereas the percentage of people just above the mean (or just below it) may come from the two groups in roughly equal proportions, the percentage of people who have very high levels of the traits (or very low levels of it) may come from just one of the two groups most of the time.

To see this happening for the example of compassion: despite only a small difference in mean compassion levels between males and females, among just the most compassionate people in our study, there were about 2x more females than males […].

Moreover, the least compassionate people […] were almost all males! […]

Similarly, on average, females usually test only a bit higher than males on peacefulness and forgiveness.

But, if we look at the tails of behavior, we see extreme differences. Males accounted for 96% of U.S. mass shootings and 90% of homicide convictions.

I suspect that one reason so many people believe that groups differ much more, on average, than they really do (and engage in dichotomizing and stereotyping) is that tail behavior is sometimes much more visible than typical behavior.

When you meet most people, you don’t really think about whether their compassion level is slightly above average or slightly below average (and then correlate it with sex). You just wouldn’t even notice one way or the other.

But when you see that the vast majority of serial killers are male, that stands out.

Most males are not very low in compassion. But most people who are very low in compassion are males!

For instance, ~4x more males than females have psychopathy/sociopathy.

Suomeksi (In Finnish)

Paljon puhetta tyhjästä – Tekoäly ja tunteet, vieraana Kaj Sotala.

Olin vieraana Paljon puhetta tyhjästä -podcastissa, kolmena isona pääteemana tekoälyn uhkakuvat, tekoälyn mahdollisuudet, sekä mielen rakenne ja toiminta. Ei tullutkaan kuin neljän tunnin keskustelu.

Karkea sisällysluettelo:

0:00:00 – Intro
0:04:14 – Transhumanismi, teknologinen singulariteetti, tekoälyn uhkakuvat
2:06:03 – Tekoälyn myönteiset mahdollisuudet
2:46:40 – Mielen rakenne ja toiminta

(Käytänpä mä paljon “silleen” -sanaa.)

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