“Should” considered harmful

My cliff notes from “Should” considered harmful:

We enter this phase of the series with a pointed guilt about not doing something in particular, having dispensed with listless guilt.

Now, the pattern is simple: You think there’s something you should be doing, you aren’t doing it, and you feel guilty about that.

I claim that the word “should” is causing damage here.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the way that most people use the word “should,” most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves.

“Should” set you up for self-judgement as incompetent, akratic, or bad if you don’t do what you “should”. This is divorced from why you “should” in the first place, substituting that baseline “why” that first motivated the “should” for an obligation with ugly, meaningfully consequences.

The solution is to keep the reason attached to the task, by stating the why and considering consequences for doing or not doing the thing as tradeoffs. This allows you to make a rational choice to not do or be something, accepting the consequences as a reasonable tradeoff instead of disobeying a “should” and incurring a value judgement against yourself.

Should motivations set you up for a lose-lose: even if do what you “should” and avoid the bad self-judgement, you’ve potentially suffered through something painful to do so. Considering the tradeoffs instead allows you to choose one set of tradeoffs for another on the basis of optimizing to minimize suffering.

Nate’s example is someone who’s sick and “should” go to the pharmacy for meds. If you “should” do it, and you do it, then you may’ve suffered through painfully social awkwardness to get there, plus you had to get dressed, leave the comfort of home, and apply your limited energies to driving or navigating transit, all while feeling miserable.

It may have been a preferable set of consequences to feel the pain of not having the medicine from the comfort of bed, and avoided all of that other kind of suffering. This recognizes the decision isn’t between “suffer or be bad”.

But the actual options aren’t “suffer” or “be bad.” The actual options are “incur the social/time costs of buying meds” or “incur the physical/mental costs of feeling ill.” It’s just a choice: you weigh the branches, and then you pick. Neither branch makes you “bad.” It’s ok to decide that the social/time costs outweigh the physical/mental costs. It’s ok to decide the opposite. Neither side is a “should.” Both sides are an option.

When breaking a “should” down into options with tradeoffs, be careful to avoid confusing others’ preferences for you with your own. Another difficulty to avoid is fear of even considering failure, which can drive you to irrationality. A third difficulty to avoid is trading one negative-infinity (I do this or I’m bad, period, end of story) for another, for example by substituting “I should” with “I need to”.

To avoid each of these, seriously break down the tradeoffs. Don’t be afraid to do so. Alternative options might truly be bad, but define and evaluate them concretely, then make your choice about what to do — instead of rounding up to “I do this, or I’m bad”.

When you should yourself without looking at the alternatives, you run a high risk of making yourself feel obligated and resentful. When you lay out all the options you can think of and choose the best, then it’s much easier to work with yourself rather than against yourself — sometimes you have to settle for the best of a bad lot, but this is much easier once you’ve actually looked at the whole lot.

If this is hard, focus on becoming mindful of when you are guilt-motivated. Keep track of how many times a day you “should” do something. When that becomes a habit, start trying to break down those moments of “should”, into options with tradeoffs, and then celebrate building that habit.

If this seems like a lot of work, or an exercise that seems likely to lead to the same outcome of motivating one choice or another, recall that the whole reason we are doing this is to move toward guilt-free lives, by removing guilt as a motivation. We aren’t there yet, but this is a step in the way.

It’s not necessarily easy, either: Once you’ve “cashed out” shoulds into tradeoffs, your interests amy conflict, you may be left with a hard choice, and you may still find yourself doing the worse thing. So this isn’t a fix-all, but it is a strategy.

I’ve found it very helpful to treat almost all shoulds as a toxic attempt to blind me to the alternatives. Be careful: the thoughts you can’t think do you harm, and the options you can’t weigh cost you dearly.

So cash out your shoulds, and weigh all your options on the scales — and then choose what is best, free of obligation.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

You don’t get to know what you’re fighting for

My cliff notes from You don’t get to know what you’re fighting for:

Knowing what specifically you are working towards is hard.

It is easy to specify what you want negatively — what outcomes don’t you want — but that only tells you want you don’t want, not what you do want. It’s much harder to positively state what you want.

Then, it’s often true that when pursuing a specific goal, our goals shift. For example “help the poor” can turn into “get rich to donate a lot”.

With our current understanding of philosophy, it is highly likely if not inevitable that even simple altruistic goals will shift as we progress toward them or as we investigate our philosophies that underpin them.

[This shakiness of philosophies Nate points at to question several example goals is why I’ve limited the time I spend investing in philosophical understanding. It’s always seemed to be the further down philosophical trails I go, the less it helps with anything.]

Even when you think you know what you’re fighting for, there’s no guarantee you are right, and since there’s no clearly established objective morality, there’s likely to be an argument against your stance.

There is no objective morality writ on a tablet between the galaxies. There are no objective facts about what “actually matters.” But that’s because “mattering” isn’t a property of the universe. It’s a property of a person.

There are facts about what we care about, but they aren’t facts about the stars. They are facts about us.

Then it is also possible that our brains are lying to us about our intentions. We don’t have enough introspective capability to truly understand our motivations, which are often grounded in hidden and arbitrary rules of natural selection.

My values were built by dumb processes smashing time and a savannah into a bunch of monkey generations, and I don’t entirely approve of all of the result, but the result is also where my approver comes from. My appreciation of beauty, my sense of wonder, and my capacity to love, all came from this process.

I’m not saying my values are dumb; I’m saying you shouldn’t expect them to be simple.

We’re a thousand shards of desire forged of coincidence and circumstance and death and time. It would be really surprising if there were some short, simple description of our values. […]

Don’t get me wrong, our values are not inscruitable [sic]. They are not inherently unknowable. If we survive long enough, it seems likely that we’ll eventually map them out.

We don’t need to know what motivates us or what we want exactly; “The world’s in bad enough shape that you don’t need to.” We can have something to fight for without knowing exactly what it is. We have a good enough idea of which direction to go. Depending on what we are pretty sure of is good enough for us to decide what to do next.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Why care for the world when it is so bad?

My cliffs notes from Caring about something larger than yourself:

People are terrible and annoying, so it doesn’t go without saying that we should care about each other — and many people simply don’t, questioning why they should. (I suspect I have in large part because I was taught to intellectually, and because I feel a compelling emotional connection with people striving against oppression. I’ve never really thought through whether the intellectual concept I was taught is rationally defensible.)

Some people confuse feelings with caring. Caring for the remote masses broadly can be dispassionate. Caring is “about not having the emotional compulsion and doing the right thing anyway”. But you can care for strangers just as much as you do for friends.

My default settings, roughly speaking, make it easy for me to feel for my friends and hate at my competitors. But my default settings also come with a sense of aesthetics that prefers fairness, that prefers compassion. My default feelings are strong for those who are close to me, and my default sensibilities are annoyed that it’s not possible to feel strongly for people who could have been close to me. My default feelings are negative towards people antagonizing me, and my default sensibilities are sad that we didn’t meet in a different context, sad that it’s so hard for humans to communicate their point of view.

My point is, I surely don’t lack the capacity to feel frustration with fools, but I also have a quiet sense of aesthetics and fairness which does not approve of this frustration. There is a tension there.

I choose to resolve the tension in favor of the people rather than the feelings.

Why? Because when I reflect upon the source of the feelings, I find arbitrary evolutionary settings that I don’t endorse, but when I reflect upon the sense of aesthetics, I find something that goes straight to the core of what I value.

What we feel helped our genes navigate evolution; it isn’t about what’s deeply good or true.

So I look upon myself, and I see that I am constructed to both (a) care more about the people close to me, that I have deeper feelings for, and (b) care about fairness, impartiality, and aesthetics. I look upon myself and I see that I both care more about close friends, and disapprove of any state of affairs in which I care more for some people due to a trivial coincidence of time and space.

We can examine this deeply and conclude that the feelings are tribal vestiges; while the aesthetics reflect deep values, which wins the argument. We are capable of acting on realizations like this to change not necessarily what we feel, but how we act on what what we feel.

Thus we can choose to care even for others we don’t feel for.

For those unswayed, who still see too much bad in humanity to be mustered to care, an uneasy thought experiment: Consider how much easier it is to sympathize with a mistreated animal (for example, a dog) than for a mistreated human. Does that default setting for our feelings seem correct?

(Nate presents quotes a description of the “Machiavellian Intelligence’ hypothesis from Sue Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”, a theory that explains our brains’ makeup as the result of a spiraling biological ‘arms race’ of power through social political maneuvering.

I’ve already quoted excessively from the source essay, but this is too good to pass up:

I mean, look at us. Humans are the sort of creature that sees lightning and postulates an angry sky-god, because angry sky-gods seem much more plausible to us than Maxwell’s equations — this despite the fact that Maxwell’s equations are far simpler to describe (by a mathematical standard) than a generally intelligent sky-god. Think about it: we can write down Maxwell’s equations in four lines, and we can’t yet describe how a general intelligence works. Thor feels easier for us to understand, but only because we have so much built-in hardware for psychologically modeling humans.

We see in other humans suspicious agents plotting against us. When they lash at us we lash back. We see cute puppies as innocent, and we sympathize with them they are angry.

Which is why, every so often, I take a mental step back and try to see the other humans around me, not as humans, but as innocent animals full of wonder, exploring an environment they can never fully understand, following the flows of their lives.

Other analogies for humans: Angels who missed their shot at heaven. Monkeys struggling to be comfortable out of the comfort of the trees.

Why care about others? Separate your feelings from your aesthetic judgements that are in tension, follow where that leads, and choose to care (not feel) as seems right to you.

Incidentally, this is from the introduction:

As with previous posts, don’t treat this as a sermon about why you should care about things that are larger than yourself; treat it as a reminder that you can, if you want to.

Nate assumes this posture throughout this essay series. Arguing the reader should take his advice would be antithetical to a part of his argument (that’s coming soon). All he needs to is point out the reader can choose to think a certain way. That’s compelling enough.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

You’re allowed to fight for something

My cliffs notes from You’re allowed to fight for something

This series is all about removing guilt. But certain forms of guilt are easier to remove; others are easier to first shift to these easier-to-remove forms. And to that end:

‘Tis better than to feel guilty for a specific reason — say, playing video games all day instead of practicing resistance — than to feel “listless” guilt for no particular reason — guilt that maybe there should be something to feel guilty for not doing.

The listless guilt comes from intuitively knowing there can be something more — more good that you’d like to do, for non-selfish reasons. The Nihilist trap convinces some that it is impossible to want to take some altruistic action because you care about others, without any selfish reasons, but listless guilt is the disproof of this.

A thought experiment: Imagine someone offered you a deal to shoot your pet, erase your memory of the pet (without any fallibility; they would also alter the memory of those around you and your environment), and give you a dollar. You don’t take the dollar. Why? That’s proof you can care for something outside yourself, when there’s no selfish motivation.

And you are allowed to want something for non-selfish reasons, without needing to understand or explain.

To shake the listless guilt, ask what you’d like to be different in the world, and look for ideas that compel you to make a difference if you can.

The listless guilt is a guilt about not doing anything. To remove it, we must first turn it into a guilt about not doing something in particular.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Let altruism be altruism

My cliffs notes from The Stamp Collector:

This is an argument against nihilism, the belief that nothing does or can matter. Dispensing with nihilism is necessary to make altruism accessible as a source of intrinsic motivation, to offset listless guilt — the guilt of doing nothing when it seems like there should be something more to life.

People will tell you that humans always and only ever do what brings them pleasure. People will tell you that there is no such thing as altruism, that people only ever do what they want to.

People will tell you that, because we’re trapped inside our heads, we only ever get to care about things inside our heads, such as our own wants and desires.

But I have a message for you: You can, in fact, care about the outer world.

And you can steer it, too. If you want to.

Evidence for this are the analogy of the stamp collector — a robot designed to take actions that increase the number of stamps in its inventory — and the analogy of human altruists working from the same principle.

“Naïve philosophers” fall to the homunculus fallacy when attempting to understand the robot. They refuse to see what it is in fact doing: Taking actions that result in the outcome it seeks, with its best available information. Differentiating between its internal representation of its inventory and its actual inventory is fallacious, because it doesn’t have any more meaningful access to its internal representation of inventory than its external inventory.

Similarly, the naïve philosophers mistake human altruistic behavior as pleasure-maximizing. But behaviors such as giving away all of your money to charity, or jumping in front of a moving car to save a child, stress that theory to the breaking point.

We can and do choose to care about things outside of our heads. Don’t get bogged down in whether altruism is real; just accept that it’s accessible to you.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Don’t Fail with Abandon

My cliffs notes from Failing with Abandon:

If you tend to miss a goal and think “willpower has failed me; I might as well over-indulge” — and girl, do I! — the author call this pattern “failing with abandon.”

You don’t have to fail with abandon. “When you miss your targets, you’re allowed to say ‘dang!’ and then continue trying to get as close to your target as you can.”

When you’ve missed a target, instead try to miss it by as little as possible.

Failing with abandon is like treating your Past Self as an unjust authority setting impossible mandates. Instead of doing that,

remember who put the target there, and you can ask yourself whether you want to get as close to the target as possible. If you decide you only want to miss your target by a little bit, you still can.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Avoiding the Slacker/Tryer Dichotomy

Thanks to the Beeminder blog, I stumbled on MindingOurWay.com’s Replacing Guilt series. It’s long, which is a bit daunting, but it captured my interest. To make digesting it easier, I created a Beeminder goal to consume it one article at a time, over the next forty days.

In what would normally be unrelated news, I’m also experimenting with a write-more-words goal. Blogging my cliffs-notes versions of the Replacing Guilt articles should help me retain what I read, and help me with that write-more goal. Nothing fancy here, just notes for my later reference.

So here goes, beginning with the first entry, Half-assing it with everything you’ve got.

remember what you’re fighting for

Apply only the optimal effort required to accomplish your goal (no more, no less). That requires a clear idea of your goal (what you’re fighting for), which requires establishing your own goal, not simply accepting what others assume or expect of you.

Specific examples include: If determined goal is to get an “A” in the class, and your overall grade is already high enough to earn the “A” if you only get a “C” on the paper, aiming for an “A” on a paper will result in wasted effort. Conversely, if your determined goal is to learn as much as you can from a class, you may want to put in significantly more effort than is required to earn an “A” on the paper, due to grade inflation.

[T]oo many people automatically assume that, when an authority figure describes a quality line, they’re “supposed to” push as far right as possible. They think they “should” care about quality. This is silly: real world problems are not about producing the highest-quality products. In all walks of life, the goal is to hit a quality target with minimum effort. […] I’m not telling you that you should be scraping by by only the barest of margins. […] What I am saying is, don’t conflate the quality line with the preference curve. […] Remember what you’re trying to achieve, identify your quality target, and aim for that: no higher, no lower.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Stop using 4 digit numeric passwords on your phone

a 4-digit numeric passcode would only take 34 minutes to brute force, while an 8 digit alphanumeric passcode would still take over a million years

Source: [FREE] Apple Versus the FBI, Understanding iPhone Encryption, The Risks for Apple and Encryption – Stratechery by Ben Thompson

This is a very good read on Apple’s fight with the FBI over what are appropriate measures to access data on an alleged terrorist’s phone.

What’s new in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As I walked out of my first viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the many thoughts going through my head was how familiar everything was.

Everyone’s noticed this, of course. JJ Abrams has even been explicit that this was their intent.

Well, it’s also the root of most of the criticism for the film. Some people think there are too many identical story beats and symbols from the original trilogy. You know what I mean: A third Death Star, really?

I read this piece from The Verge and it summed up my thoughts better than I could’ve. It argues that The Force Awakens is an object lesson in how nostalgia can be great, but only takes you so far. The film is diminished because it didn’t construct enough of its own originality.

The second time I saw the film, I wasn’t bothered by this at all.

Even conscious of what I considered to be a flaw, as I noticed every familiar beat, somehow it just didn’t matter. The film worked, and didn’t leave me feeling empty or shortchanged.

After my third viewing, I started to realize that all of those familiar elements distract from what are in fact many fresh and original ideas that we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars film.

The idea that Episode VII is just a rehashing of the first three Star Wars films falls apart on close inspection.

We have never seen such wonderfully empowered and bad ass women and people of color in a Star Wars movie before. This alone is worth a lot of celebration.

But we’ve also never seen Kylo Ren’s prodigious abilities with the Force before. He can restrain a person, suspend a blaster bolt, and probe minds for interrogation. And we’ve never seen anyone resist the power of the Dark Side the way Rey can resist his mind probe.

We’ve never seen a TIE fighter that seats two, heroes stealing enemy ships, or melee combat with quarterstaffs and riot batons (that can spar with a lightsaber!). We’ve never seen scavenger camps, starships flying through the ruins of larger ships, entering hyperspace from inside of a hangar, or exiting it inside of a planet’s atmosphere.

We’ve never seen a stormtrooper remove their helmet and become a character, let alone defect. We’ve never seen someone so committed to the Dark Side being so conflicted or vulnerable. We’ve never seen someone murder a member of their own family.

There is plenty of new stuff to sink your teeth into here.

Some of those things — say for example, the two-seater TIE fighter — may seem minor. But even small differences like that go a long way toward making a work of fantasy an original.

That’s right: Star Wars is a fantasy. It only looks like science fiction.

It has all of the classic elements of fantasy. It completely and totally disregards physics, and makes magic very important. Epic quests revolve around delivering precious information or mythic items. There are heroic characters, super villains, overt Good versus Evil themes. Exotic locations season the story. An exclusive order of knights wield swords and wizard-like power, with their own code and arcana…

Works of fantasy are marked by their very specific vehicles, items, quests, and heroes. The specifics are what make a work rise above the genre’s tropes to stand on its own.

So together, The Force Awakens’ new bits, major and minor, add up to a fresh, original work.

By the same token, some of these symbols need to be familiar for the story to be Star Wars. The existence of the Millennium Falcon and our old heroes, etcetera provide continuity. The familiar elements make this fit better as a Star Wars movie than the prequels did.

Below, I’ve made a longer list of things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film.

I haven’t listed everything we have seen before, so I’m not sure what the ratio of familiar to fresh is. But whatever it is, that balance works well to make The Force Awakens both joyfully familiar and excitingly new.

Things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film


  • Rathtars, the bad beasties aboard Han’s freighter
  • Dozens of new alien races


  • Black stormtroopers
  • A lead black character
  • A female villain
  • A female stormtrooper
  • Female officers serving on an Empire / First Order ship or facility
  • A featured female character using the Force (by “featured” I mean minor/nameless Jedi characters in the the prequels don’t count)
  • A featured female character using a lightsaber
  • A featured female character piloting a starship
  • A female character being an expert mechanic
  • A female sage

Weapons, Items, and Ships

  • BB class droids
  • A two-seater TIE fighter
  • A quarterstaff
  • A sought-after star map
  • Han discovering the power of Chewie’s bowcaster
  • A lightsaber whose blade extends crossways to form a hilt (which makes perfect sense)
  • A riot control baton that can spar with a lightsaber

The Force

  • Using the Force to halt the forward motion of a blaster bolt, suspending it in midair
  • Using the Force to restrain others, paralyzing them where they stand
  • Using the Force for interrogation, to rip information out of others’ minds
  • Using the Force to resist interrogation
  • Learning to use the Force without training, in the heat of the moment
  • Using the Force to put someone to sleep

Locations and settings

  • A scavenger camp
  • The inside of a large crashed starship
  • Starships flying through the ruins of larger ships
  • A planet covered by lake-dappled forests (Takodana, the setting for Maz’s watering hole)
  • A misty yet un-swamp-like rainforest planet (D’Qar, the setting for The Resistance’s HQ)
  • A planet featuring stunning rocky islands rising from a global ocean (Ahch-To, where Luke’s been in exile)

Characters Doing Things

  • Pilot a stolen TIE fighter
  • Scavenge to make a living
  • Attempt a droid-napping
  • Fight with a quarterstaff
  • Dogfighting starfighters inside of an atmosphere
  • Battle with lightsabers in the snow

Villains Doing Things

  • A stormtrooper removing their helmet (I’m not counting clone troopers from episodes II and III)
  • A member of the Empire / First Order defecting
  • A dark lord committed to the Dark Side being conflicted and vulnerable
  • Stormtroopers slaughtering an entire village (of humans, on screen)
  • Disciplining stormtroopers through “reconditioning”
  • Conscripting children into stormtrooper ranks
  • Stormtroopers wielding melee weapons
  • Flametroopers wielding flamethrowers

Events and Plot Points

  • A quest for a missing hero
  • The heroes having information that the villains are trying to obtain (distinct from leaked information the Empire is trying to recover, as in the Death Star plans in Episode IV)
  • Introduction of the Knights of Ren, an order of Dark Side baddies distinct from The Sith
  • A roguish hero developing into a character willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for others
  • Someone murdering their own family member
  • A superweapon draining a star to power up
  • The sound a TIE fighter makes when starting up its engines
  • A ship entering lightspeed from inside of another ship’s hangar
  • A ship exiting lightspeed inside of a planet’s atmosphere

Thanks to my brother Dan and my partner Catherine for providing feedback on drafts of this post. The Force is strong with them. Just imagine our family gatherings.