Alicorn once told the story of how, when she was younger, she used to think she disliked life. Then she realized she just disliked being a kid, and that after that problem was solved life was pretty good.
In much the same way, I used to think I disliked social interaction. I have since realized – and it blew my mind – that I only disliked social interaction with people who aren’t awesome.
I am leaving California tomorrow for the Midwest, where I have a four-year residency in one of the local hospitals. In a life that has seen more than its share of leaving places to go to other places, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so reluctant to move on.
People in the Bay Area get it. You get a bunch of hippies throwing love into the pot, computer programmers adding brainpower, and entrepreneurs adding competence. Mix and stir and you get people who want to make the world better, know how to do it, and sometimes even get up off their armchair and do.
I’ve recently been thinking about two competing philosophies. The first, which seems to me very conservative, is that you maximize virtue and if you’re sufficiently virtue happiness follows on its own. The second, which seems very hippie, is that you maximize happiness and if you’re sufficiently happy then you naturally want to spread that happiness as far as possible. I have previously been sympathetic to the former view, but the Bay Area makes an impossible-to-ignore case for the latter. All the self-help and spirituality and wacky leftism seems founded in this base of “We’ve maxed out our own happiness meter just by living here! How can we help the rest of you?”
I was privileged to experience a bubble within a bubble, the meta-bubble being the Bay Area “rationalist community”, ie a bunch of people who met through Less Wrong, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Center for Applied Rationality. One of my thoughts in designing Raikoth and other constructed societies is that if you collect nice people beyond a certain concentration it has unexpected emergent effects based on everyone suddenly realizing they can trust everyone else and voluntarily abandoning some of their hang-ups and defense mechanisms. That is exactly what happened in the Bay Area sometime before I moved there.
I am still trying to work out what went right in the hopes of being able to bottle it and export it to other groups of people. There’s the old adage that there are three sides to every issue – your side, their side, and the truth – and the epistemic virtue that allows you to detach from your side in a philosophical debate is exactly the same virtue that allows you to see every side of a quarrel and work through it reasonably. I think a lot of the best self-help – cognitive-behavioral therapy, non-violent communication, that kind of thing – are basically trying to teach this skill that the Bay Area rationalist community has more of than any other group I’ve ever seen.
Beyond that, cynicism can be incredibly liberating. Things that no one would ever admit elsewhere – status motives, sex motives, weird cognitive biases and mental flinches – are all out in the open among Bay Area rationalists. People can say things like “I don’t know why, but that thing you do enrages me, can you please stop?” and instead of getting offended other people will just say “Sure”, because no one makes sense, and mindspace is deep and wide. Overt status contests are really hard to get into, because everyone knows exactly what a status contest is and it would be oddly tacky, the same way that saying “Oh, I like an obscure band, you’ve probably never heard of them” sounds tacky because everyone has absorbed it as a stereotypical example of something pretentious people do.
People seem to accept sex and romance (of all permutations and kinks) as a normal part of life, and can talk about it in a way that I would describe as “like reasonable adults” if reasonable adults showed any signs of being able to talk that way. For almost the first time, I was able to have close female friends without being confused and scared of getting classified as a “creep” or “Nice Guy (TM)”. People of any gender and sexual orientation can ask friends of any other gender or sexual orientation to cuddle, and be met with an enthusiastic “yes” or an immediately-accepted “no” but almost never an outraged “How dare you!”
I have actually used moral philosophy to settle problems, and it has worked – if only because people get much more interested in the arcana of the moral principles involved than on whatever the original point of contention was. I have seen libertarians, socialists, feminists, mens’ rights advocates, transhumanists, and pious Christians get together at the same table, debate their views, and have a totally reasonable discussion that ends with everyone more enlightened and appreciative than when they arrived. I’ve seen a bunch of guys live together with the one girl they are all dating and this situation produce zero conflict.
A long time ago, a discussion on the uses of technical rationality seemed to converge around it probably being more useful for communities than for individuals. I think the Bay Area is a shining and undeniable proof of this, and I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten to live there as long as I did.
…but I should add that it’s not just the rationality and that the people involved are, in fact, wonderful people, and would probably have been wonderful people no matter what memeplex they had been exposed to. I can hardly begin to thank all the great people I have interacted with and learned from over the past year. I probably shouldn’t even try, as I’m sure the jet lag I’m in the process of losing a fight against, not to mention the limitations of finite time and energy, will make me forget people who I love dearly. But I can’t help expressing gratitude to just a couple of the people I got the privilege of getting to know recently.
Mike, I told you before that I use you to ground morality. I have used “Mike Blume does X” in ethical debates as a knock-down argument that X is okay, and the argument always gets accepted. Alicorn says she uses you as a “happiness battery”, and I notice I started doing the same after a few months living with you, and given your central position in so many social circles a better metaphor might be a giant happiness hydroelectric plant powering half of Northern California. The fact that flowers do not spring up everywhere you walk only demonstrates that flowers are wrong
Alicorn, you claimed when we first met that you were “orthogonal to status”, which at the time I thought was ridiculous. I still would be reluctant to use exactly that description. But if you were to say you had solved life, you are practically the only person from whom I would take the claim remotely seriously. You have some mysterious ability to factor situations into simple parts, figure out what you want from them, and then just do that without any drama or self-questioning or hullabaloo. If I had that skill to a tenth of the degree you do, I would just dismiss the rest of the human race as so hopelessly confused as to be not worth your time, but you have somehow managed to stay really nice regardless. You also cook well and have amazing hair.
Luke, I remember getting some social skills advice from a friend in New York. He told me that if I met someone who was obviously amazing along one axis, I should compliment them along other axes, because they will more fully appreciate hearing compliments they didn’t already know. I think his exact words were “If there’s a really pretty girl, tell her she’s smart, and if there’s a really smart girl, tell her she’s pretty”. I remember asking “What if there’s a girl who’s both smart and pretty?” and being told to tell her that she was kind, or had a nice voice, or something. After continuing this several more iterations, we joked that if we ever found someone amazing along every axis, we would be reduced to horrible awkward compliments like “Hi! I’m Scott! You’re really tall! Mind if I sit down?” Well, you not only seem to exemplify this nightmare scenario, but I can’t even tell you that you’re really tall. YOU ALREADY KNOW!
Leah, there’s an old Jewish saying that “everyone wants to serve God, but only in an advisory position”. Probably meant as satire, but if by chance the job actually exists, I think it is a perfect match for you and I will happily write you a glowing letter of recommendation.
Anna, I am constantly amazed by the number of plans that contain or should contain a node saying “Get Anna Salamon’s advice, then do whatever she says”. When people raise irrelevant theoretical objections to thought experiments beginning “Imagine a perfect Bayesian reasoner claimed…”, I just switch to “Imagine Anna Salamon claimed…” and they shut up.
Kenzi, it was incredibly gratifying to be able to tell my parents “I’m dating someone who…” and then list off all your qualities. The only problem was that by the time I got to “…is amazing at pretty much every style of dance, and got accepted to a prestigious medical school but turned it down to pursue her dream job at a non-profit, and can identify all West Coast flora on sight…” I think they might have stopped believing me. But you’re not just a trophy. You’re also the person who can finish a hiking trip with me without giving up, breaking down, or feigning your own death to escape. That (among other things) earns you a permanent place in my heart.
Davis, I still have trouble believing you actually exist.
Vassar, before I came to Berkeley, someone warned me “Vassar is kind of crazy and it’s impossible to have a normal conversation with him”. As a result, I spent several months avoiding you. Then I finally got to meet you and I realized I had made a huge mistake. I mean, you are crazy, and it is is impossible to have a normal conversation with you. But normal conversation is incredibly over-rated compared to whatever the heck you call the thing that interaction with you involves. I regret that we didn’t get more of a chance to talk about stuff and I hope to solve that sometime in the future.
Elizabeth, this is you to a ‘T’. You are a good egg.
Zak, you are nice and helpful and friendly and never gave me any grief about my total failure to answer any of your emails. In case you were wondering, it was because I’m a bad person.
Carl, the last time you commented on my blog, I went around doing a little dance and singing “Carl Shulman reads my blog! This validates my existence!”
Shannon, I admire your fighting spirit and your ability to remain cheerful in the face of adversity and pretty much everywhen else. Thanks for your help explaining IFS to me and for your thoughts on psychiatry which I am going to try my best to learn from.
Kevin, I predict one day I will see your name and picture in a biochemistry textbook. I don’t know whether it will be as a bold pioneer or as a horrible warning. Either way, I’ll be like “Hey, I knew that guy!”
Julia, I am constantly surprised to see you in our community when you could so obviously fit into a much higher-status community where people have class and drink fancy wine and almost never wear shoes with individual toes. But I am delighted that you stick around with us. I remember seeing a video of your “straw Vulcan” speech and wondering who you were and how I had somehow missed knowing about you and how I could correct that. Every time we have talked you have given me really interesting things to think about. I am so glad you are one of us instead of wasting your life becoming Secretary of State or something.
Valentine, I am convinced that if an evil wizard ever tried to attack you with one of those artifacts that turns the target’s insecurities and negative emotions against them, he would end up looking baffled, kicking the artifact to see if it was broken, and eventually giving up in disgust. And then you would kick his ass. Compassionately. And I love the story behind your nickname.
Steven, your sense of humor needs to be declared either a wonder of the world or at least a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You are the only justification the existence of Twitter I will accept. And your explanation of your politics actually was quite helpful to me.
Will Newsome (are you a Berkelian these days? I’m just going to count you) even though you are sometimes irresistibly fun to tease (I still like telling the story of how after I read Breakdown of Will, three consecutive people to whom I mentioned the book title thought I was talking about you) I have a huge amount of respect for your originality as a thinker and for your Taking Ideas Seriously abilities. I continue to wish to subscribe to the newsletter you stubbornly refuse to write.
Paul and Katja, I didn’t really get to see you much or really at all, but I was really impressed by your work organizing the Berkeley altruist community. Even if I cannot yet count you as friends I definitely count you as inspirations. Katja, you are the second of three people I will accuse in this post of having awesome hair.
Nisan, likewise with your community organization work and you actually putting together and holding all those meetups. I am still impressed you tried that Hermeneutics game. Empiricism!
Jonah, there is a passage I remember from Name of the Wind: “Elodin proved a difficult man to find. When I visited Ledgers and Lists, I discovered he only taught one class: Unlikely Maths. However, this was less than helpful, as according to the ledger, the time of the class was ‘now’ and the location was ‘everywhere.'” I cannot think of a more elegant description of being in your social circle.
Will & Divia, if I were doing a meta-analysis of whether all those weird self-help things really make people better, you would be two really really big squares way on the right of the forest plot, and people would get angry and say that I should have dropped you as outliers.
Lindsey, I think I only think of you as a personification of the spirit of California because of that one California-themed party you put on, but the comparison stands.
Nick, of everything that happened that first time I visited Benton long ago, driving somewhere with you talking about ethics is the part I remember most. You are wise and calm and clear-thinking, and my attempts to visualize you getting angry at something fail about the same way my attempts to visualize a square circle do – this vague vision of a square with rounded corners followed by a “screw this, this is dumb” and giving up. You are the last of three people whom I will mention have awesome hair.
Louie, remember that time you came to the California-theme party as a bigshot high-powered studio executive? It took me several minutes of talking to you before I realized you were playing a role. You are so much larger than life at all times that I can pretty much believe anything of you, and so well-rounded you approximate a hypersphere. You’re another one of those people I can’t tell stories about because no one would believe me.
Qiaochu, I don’t know which I am more jealous of – your skill in and enthusiasm about math, or that you’re going to get to live with Mike and Alicorn next year. Whenever I am searching for math-related things on the Internet, I inevitably stumble across your name and things you have written with much greater regularity than the percent the world intellectual community you compose would suggest. There was a three minute window when you were talking to me when I sort of understood the idea of using probability to escape Lobian self-reference. You have a great name and an even better explanation of how to pronounce it, and you are fun.
Eliezer, I was thinking recently about the impact that ideas and people and communities traceable back directly to you have had on my life. I ended up giving you credit for most of my friends, all my relationships, one of my favorite books, the last place I lived, the job I’ve been working for the past year, quite a bit of my philosophy, and, via my work and prizes in MetaMed looking really good on my resume, quite possibly my career as well. If you ever succeed in your grand scheme to initiate a positive singularity and turn the world into a utopia, I’m going to be the one grumbling that I had my life radically improved by Eliezer Yudkowsky before it was cool.