Nazi Swastika, Confederate Flag

This is a must-read, at least for white people. I’m annoyed I’ve never encountered this idea before. It’s so coherent and self-evidently true, but never occurred to me. 

Nazism and the tradition of American white supremacy that is memorialized in monuments throughout the South are the fruit of the same poisonous tree. In this light, the Confederate flag can legitimately be seen as an alternate version of the Nazi emblem.

New York Times

A Newsletter for Podcasts Listeners

“Write about what you know” the saying goes.

I know something about podcasts. I regularly listen to over 70. When discussing favorite shows at cocktail parties, I tend to find myself accidentally holdingcourt. I love the medium. Not only listening to shows: I’be even invested significant (for me) coin in contributing.

So, I’d like to write about podcasts.

I’ve toyed for a while now with the idea of publishing a newsletter about podcasts.  

There are already several excellent resources like this for the professional side (Hot Pod, for example), but I’ve yet to come across anything for fellow connoisseurs, to help spread the word about new things to listen to. 

The problem this would solve for me if someone else were writing it is that I’ve pretty much exhausted my friends’ recommendations for great new shows to try.

In a perfect world I could grow readership beyond just friends, as people appreciate my insight and advice and share the newsletter with their friends. Maybe I could even end up compensated for it somehow, to offset all the time this hobby consumes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Baby steps: I’ll begin devoting posts on this blog to sharing about shows and specific episodes I recommend, and things I’ve learned from them. I’m already devoting time to writing (backed by a Beeminder commitment) and I’m done with the Replacing Guilt series, which frees me up for this, so this is a hittable goal.

What will I write about? For starters, these three ideas should keep me interested for a while:

  • Current/recent episodes reviews, especially to showcase episodes that strike me as particularly worthwhile
  • Best-of listicles — best of genres I care about, or best episodes within a series, etc.
  • Critical reviews of shows

What do you think? Would you be interested in subscribing? Have you come across something like this that I haven’t? What would make you interested to read this series?

Self mob loyalty

My cliff notes for “Productivity through self-loyalty“:

The tendency to act against your judgement or preferences (akrasia) is a thing. To heavily paraphrase several similar (but more nuanced than this) theories, it is as if our “true” desires are a voice trying to control mob of other desires within our brains. When we become fatigued or lose control of the mob, we procrastinate or are otherwise akratic.

To be highly productive in spite of this, like the author, doesn’t require an iron will or especially good command of the mob. “A problem isn’t solved until it’s solved automatically, without need for attention or willpower.” Relying on willpower is exhausting, requires constant effort and success, and is doomed to failure eventually.

The trick is to get the mob on your side — the side of the voice of reason.

A trick that has worked for the author is to show the mob you’re on their side, so it knows you will meet its desires. Self-signal. Examine the desire: “Is this really what I need?” If the answer is yes, then do it. This tempers the mob’s demands by indulging what it truly needs.

Think of George Bailey and the mob in It’s A Wonderful Life. If the mob really truly demands its full account, reason with it, and if it still demands its full account, go ahead and pay it, and do so respectfully: We’re in this together should be your voice of reason’s attitude.

The mob understands the voice of reason is responsible for many good things, but won’t listen to it if it doesn’t feel the voice of reason is loyal to them. Thus, honor your true needs — your need for financial security, your mental health, and so on.

This results in a kind of “compassionate austerity”, indulging the parts of himself that need rest and relaxation, but only insofar as they need it; not overindulging. Reasoning respectfully with your inner mob reduces its demands on you out of their own compassion for you.

This works on a virtuous cycle of self-compassion, and is thus freeing of guilt. Cooperative austerity, when “we’re all in this together”, can feel “happy and warm”.

To channel this to productivity, ask yourself how much time off from productivity you really need, and give yourself that. Don’t be stingy — but give in to your own needs being mindful of their costs, especially opportunity cost of lost productivity. This will help you self-regulate to avoid over-indulging.

Often, when a part of me really needs a break, and throws up its hands feeling overwhelmed, its initial demands are unrealistic—”two weeks with no responsibilities!” So then I ask it again, with the demeanor of George Bailey, what it really needs to get by. And that part of me quickly remembers that all of me is in this together, and that I’m trying to do some very difficult things, and that all parts of me are constrained by scarce resources. Then the part that protested searches for what it really needs, the bare minimum, and it usually answers something like “I can get the rest I need in fifteen minutes.”

Being good to yourself consistently sets up a sustainable pattern of moderating your unproductive time.

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.

Self loyalty

My cliff notes for “Self-signaling the ability to do what you want“:

The sunk cost fallacy can lead us to failures like overeating, where if there’s too little prepared food left to save after we are full, we eat it all, without recognizing that the costs of the food are the same whether we overeat or throw away the leftovers.

Willpower based solutions to this kind of problem, being manual, are weak; better to create a new pattern that consistently lets us see what’s in our best interest. For the above example, pre-committing to save the leftovers, no matter how small, can be an effective pattern interrupt. This worked for Nate (the author) by giving what the side of him urging him to overeat really wanted — food storage to stave off fear of scarcity — thus aligning all of himself toward the same goal.

Failing with abandon — “I’ve already failed a little so I may as well fail all the way and enjoy it” — is related to signaling failures.

The technique I’m describing — self-signalling an ability to do the right thing even if it seems too late — can address this failure mode in general.

Failing a little is a self-signal that you can’t succeed. By stopping after you’ve failed a little, before failing with abandon, you can send a new self-signal: That you can stop and do the right thing, even when it might seem too late.

Consistent self loyalty — doing the right thing by yourself in these situations (for example, being loyalty to the part of you that values not wasting food, over judging looks from waiters and other social norms pressuring you not to take home small amounts)  — builds self-trust. This is a virtuous cycle that disarms the impulse to fail with abandon.

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.

Always be solving the problem

My cliff notes for “Moving towards the goal“:

This is simple advice, but sometimes that can be helpful.

When working towards an ambitious goal — say, ending aging — don’t ask what needs to be done right now, or what can you do right away. Rather, identify a goal. And if you can’t complete it literally tomorrow, identify what obstacles are in your way, and then simply move towards your goal by attacking those obstacles. If the obstacles are still large, break them down into small chunks, and so on.

This doesn’t mean working directly on the goal at all times. For example, perhaps getting out of debt first (focusing on this for years, even) will get you there in a shorter time span overall. There’s always some action you can take.

The challenge of staying motivated and focused when facing large problems makes moving towards the goal difficult.

But we humans can make a difference — when we try, we either succeed eventually, or die trying, having moved efforts closer for others to continue the work. So, to be effective, always be solving the problem, by always be addressing an obstacle between you and your goal.

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.

Fight the dragon

My cliff notes for “The value of a life“:

Putting a price on a life is important for saving lives in our economic world, but this is different from the value of a life.

This post tells the fable of a civilization of happy people living to ripe old ages, highly valuing life, who one day are visited by an evil dragon who collects an annual tax of gold for each citizen in proportion to their age. May old members of society die in the early years, taken by the dragon, until slowly the civilization gets better and better at meeting the tax.

[Spoiler: Reading the actual post is going to be way more entertaining than my cliff notes from here on.]

The dragon is an allegory for death. Even as the people accept their fate, they develop specialization and economics and never stop fighting it. Soon, they push back to only small, old group dying each year. But in the meantime they also value art — because it helps with morale and motivation, etc.

And, in this world, you can calculate the exact economic cost of saving a life. Which leads to a difficult conflict: It is true that we must treat a life as equivalent in value to some amount of some other commodity (like movie tickets). (If the economy is running efficiently, and thus people are buying movie tickets in proportion to their entertainment/motivational value, then if the people producing those files turned their attention instead to mining more gold to save more lives, the society’s net output of lives saved would actually drop!)

At the same time, the value of a human life is priceless, infinite, or at least far beyond compare of the value of watching  a few thousand movies. (The price equivalence between 1 life and 1 thousand movies is definitely not saying their value is equal; to think so is to forget the most important contextual fact driving all of this, which is that the village is plagued by a dragon: In fact, 1 life is worth more than 1 thousand movies, which is why watching those 1 thousand movies to help maximize lives saved through entertainment/motivation is actually a significant value-gain for this efficient economy.)

In our reality, things are similar. (Here, markets on the value of life are inefficient (millions to push back death in developed economies, thousands in poor economies), and frankly we don’t prioritize maximizing lifespans. We also don’t act rationally in myriad ways, and life is about quality as much or more than quantity. But, still.)

Compare a button that pays you $10 when pressed at the cost of a 1 in a million chance of killing someone, with the risks of, say, driving a car, which has a much higher risk of resulting in someone’s death, a price you pay anyway for the value of convenience of driving a care. Press that button and take that $10, and put it toward saving other lives; we come out ahead. This illustrates the value of actually putting a market cost on saving a life.

To repeat: Don’t confuse this cost with the intrinsic value of a life. The gap between the two is because we are plagued by death that we’ve yet to figure out how to stop. That gap is as much a tragedy as it is real.

That gap is a direct measure of the difference between the universe that is, and the universe that should be.

That price difference, the difference between a few thousand dollars and a few thousand suns, is a direct measure of how fucked up things are.

If it weren’t for the dragon coming for us all, we could afford to put a lot more into saving those relatively few lives that would be occasionally, not inevitably imperiled.

This whole piece is a “sermon” preaching pushing back death. Some work the dragon’s mines: work in health care. Some build weapons to fight the dragon: To try and eliminate biological death. Some of us work in the entertainment industry, helping making life worthwhile for the rest.

You can join. You can do the right thing even if you don’t feel care in the proportion. Care for yourself before you care for others; you can do more good that way. Drum up some fury, some resolve, some defiance, etc. — and leave your guilt and shame at home.

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.

Caring is hard

My cliff notes for “On caring“:

Due to the way our brains (fail to) process large numbers, it is possible for us to theoretically care about “all people” but also for us to only be moved to act out of care for very small numbers of imperiled people. We recognize the difference between 2 and 4, but at a certain point, large numbers lose their impact on the way we compute scale. This is a problem.

Caring for the world requires acting as though we felt the suffering of the many in proportion to the suffering for the few, even though we don’t. The stakes are high: All of the future of humanity — which is a potential number of individuals far beyond our own capacity to grok — is potentially impacted by us, now, and how we act. If we save one, or save the world, it feels about the same. Bt it shouldn’t; our calibration of care is broken. This is scope insensitivity.

The amount we give to charity — a proxy for the good we try to do in the world, to avert suffering — is generally driven more by social context than anything. We might give out of pressure, out of guilt, or out of desire to win a charity competition. None of these have to do with the magnitude of suffering in the world, or the value of giving. These factors motivate us to give some of our money when we otherwise wouldn’t give any of our money. Note that the problems in the world are worth a lot more of our money to address, but no one expects anyone else to give all of their money away. Social context matters more than scope.

For a given crisis that needs support, our reaction when approached by a canvaser soliciting donations is one thing; our reaction if we were face to face (or imagined being so) with the effects of the crisis on one individual (depending on the crisis, an animal [e.g. BP oil spill] or a human [e.g. Haiti earthquake]), is another. In the latter, we would generally be moved to help an imperiled individual right in front of us, and moved to pay others some dollar amount to help, as well.

I we further imagine multiplying that dollar amount we would pay others to help a single affect individual, by all affected individuals, that adds up horrifyingly fast, to a very large amount. — And that is just for a single cause. What about all the other crises that also affect animals/humans? If we extend our dollar value for saving an individual to all of those imperiled by all crises everywhere, then we begin to glimpse how bad of a state the world is in, and how much we ought to care.

Paradoxically, you can then realize that we can’t afford to even expend that minimal dollars-per-saved-individual effort, because of the opportunity cost of not saving all the other individuals imperiled (by all crises, the world over). This is independent of the value of their lives — they are worth far more. We come to realize that we cannot possibly do enough!

Originally, we devote our lives to service because no cause seemed pressing enough. Now, we are aware of the pressing importance of acting in service, for so many causes, but we are paralyzed by our inability to make even a dent in any of these problems.

What distinguishes prominent altruists is not that they care more, but that they have learned to distrust how much they care. They have learned that their sense of care is broken, due to scope insensitivity. Our sense of care does not work for large numbers; we feel an inappropriately small amount of care in proportion to all of the world’s problems. But, they also know that feeling care (which they don’t) is not required to acting care (which they do). They’ve switched from being driven automatically to care by their feelings, caring on manual control.

How, then, should we act? Well, it is hard to say. But one answer is that it isn’t enough to think you should do something: You need desperation that comes from realizing the gap between what the world needs and what we can give.

This is NOT about guilt you into giving more money to charity. Philanthropy is harder than we tend to acknowledge: It requires you have a lot of money (hard!), and give most of it away (unnatural!). Plus, guilt isn’t a good long term motivator [hence this whole series]. Try to do good because of intrinsic motivation, instead.

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.

What matters

My cliff notes for “How we will be measured“:

What matters in the end, and how we will be judged, is what actually happens. Intention, intelligence, effort, and goodness don’t matter. It isn’t a social game. Others expectations for us aren’t what’s important. Others aren’t our enemies. Being rich or having status may be useful, but they aren’t ends in themselves. Pursuing retaliation, power, or other goals that are relative to others are tempting as grand objectives, but they are distractions from what really matters.

What matters is affecting the future. We define define desirable outcomes differently, and since all of our circumstances are different, this isn’t a fair game we all get to play equally. But one way or another, changes we can make in the future are what we live for.

Listless guilt comes from recoiling from thinking that nothing matters. Pointed guilt comes thinking everything matters, and falling short of fixing all the broken things. Acting to work towards our desired outcomes is the goldilocks approach. “At all times, act to ensure that our future is bright.”

Guilt has no place when this is the goal. It is backward-looking and unproductive; it does nothing to help ensure a bright future.

Thus, be liberated from guilt! — and play the game of making the future better. Whatever that means for 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.

Defy

My cliff notes for “Defiance“:

Defiance is the third of Nate’s dubious virtues after desperation and recklessness.

Here, defiance doesn’t refer to defiant actions, but a mental state required before you can make defiant actions. It is a reflexive feeling of determination to act out of your own will, out of self-reliance, and without influence from authority, to fight against badness when you encounter it in the world. It is principled.

Defiance is characterized by a lack of hesitation. It needn’t be acted on without strategic thought — a petulant child may give in to eating the broccoli they hate, while cultivating a mental state of a child plotting to get their revenge in the end at the injustice. But, the child’s petulance was automatic, not a calculated decision. There was never a thought of whether or not to defy, whether or not to struggle against. Defiance employed this way should be reflexive.

Be intentional and principled with where to apply defiance. In many situations it can be counter-productive to your goals or an over-reaction.

As a rule of thumb, I suggest that it’s usually healthy to have a defiance reaction towards states of the world, and usually unhealthy to have a defiance reaction towards people.

Defiance as a driver of intrinsic motivation is very much at odds with Taoism or Buddhist notions of acceptance: You’re harnessing your defiant impulse against bad things to power you, instead of tempering your will to the “reality” of what you can accomplish to diminish your frustration. It is powered by channelling negative emotion, instead of transforming negative emotion.

It’s about being able to look at the terrible social equilibria we’re all trapped in and get pissed off — not because any individual is evil, but because almost nobody is evil and everything is broken anyway.

So this is how I suggest motivating yourself in place of guilt: Let the wrongness of the world trigger something deep inside of you, such that the question stops being whether you will capitulate or lose hope, and becomes how you will wrest the course of the future onto a different path. See the current state of affairs as your adversary; see the future as the prize that hangs in the balance. Shake off the illusory constraints, set your jaw, and rebel. Defy.

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.

Recklessness

My cliff notes for “Recklessness“:

This is the second of Nate’s three “dubious virtues”. Recklessness can be negative when in nihilistic, social, or anger-management contexts. Much like desperation, recklessness is virtuous when employed in pursuit of an external goal, and this is rare.

Humans are not delicate, and our lives tolerate radical change. When changes cause problems, we can address those problems effectively. This can include the problem of under-motivation when guilt is removed. So, when doing away with guilt, you don’t need to fear change. This may feel reckless, but go ahead. Recklessly pursue your goal for improving the world even against your comfort, and without guilt to drive you.

Seeing the dark world may feel reckless, have confidence, and dispense with despair. Act in spite of your fears, trusting that you’ll find a way to overcome debilitating effects. Be unrealistic. Fight in spite of the odds. Go beyond not making excuses — fight recklessly against all odds! Odds shouldn’t inform your ability to commit. Ignore low odds, trusting they can be overcome by problem solving. And, don’t worry about disrupting equilibrium. Upset the status quo to make things better.

Act. Be reckless. Know that if you break something, you can fix it. Press onward.

Become the sort of person who can […] give an idea your all, while also being able to see and avoid all the common failure modes. The fact that you are unlikely to succeed is an epistemic fact, you do not need to give it dominion over your motivation. Be a little reckless.

(This seems like a good time to insert a heavy-handed reminder about the law of equal and opposite advice! Many people would do well to gain a little recklessness, but many others need less recklessness and more caution. If you’re in a particularly fragile mental state, consider disregarding this post entirely.)

 

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.