On Dragon Army

Analysis Of: Dragon Army: Theory & Charter (30 Minute Read)

Epistemic Status: Varies all over the map from point to point

Length Status: In theory I suppose it could be longer

This is a long post is long post responding to a almost as long (and several weeks and several controversy cycles old, because life comes at you fast on the internet) post, which includes extensive quoting from the original post and assumes you have already read the original. If you are not interested in a very long analysis of another person’s proposal for a rationalist group house, given that life is short, you can (and probably should) safely skip this one.

Dragon Army is a crazy idea that just might work. It probably won’t, but it might. It might work because it believes in something that has not been tried, and there is a chance that those involved will actually try the thing and see what happens.

Scott made an observation that the responses to the Dragon Army proposal on Less Wrong were mostly constructive criticism, while the responses on Tumblr were mostly expressions of horror. That is exactly the response you would expect from a project with real risks, but also real potential benefits worth taking the risks to get. This updates me strongly in favor of going forward with the project.

As one would expect, the idea as laid out in the charter is far from perfect. There are many modifications that need to be made, both that one could foresee in advance, and that one could not foresee in advance.

My approach is going to be to go through the post and comment on the components of the proposal, then pull back and look at the bigger picture.

In part 1, Duncan makes arguments, then later in part 2 he says the following:

Ultimately, though, what matters is not the problems and solutions themselves so much as the light they shine on my aesthetics (since, in the actual house, it’s those aesthetics that will be used to resolve epistemic gridlock).  In other words, it’s not so much those arguments as it is the fact that Duncan finds those arguments compelling.

I agree in one particular case that this is the important (and worrisome) thing, but mostly I disagree and think that we should be engaging with the arguments themselves. This could be because I am as interested in learning about and discussing general things using the proposal as a taking-off point, as I am in the proposal itself. A lot of what Duncan discusses and endorses is the value of doing a thing at all even if it isn’t the best thing and I strongly agree with that – this is me going out and engaging with this thing’s thingness, and doing a concrete thing to it.

Purpose of post: Threefold. First, a lot of rationalists live in group houses, and I believe I have some interesting models and perspectives, and I want to make my thinking available to anyone else who’s interested in skimming through it for Things To Steal. Second, since my initial proposal to found a house, I’ve noticed a significant amount of well-meaning pushback and concern à la have you noticed the skulls? and it’s entirely unfair for me to expect that to stop unless I make my skull-noticing evident. Third, some nonzero number of humans are gonna need to sign the final version of this charter if the house is to come into existence, and it has to be viewable somewhere. I figured the best place was somewhere that impartial clear thinkers could weigh in (flattery).

All of this is good, and responses definitely did not do enough looking for Things To Steal, so I’d encourage others to do that more. Duncan (the author) proposes a lot of concrete things and makes a lot of claims. You don’t need to agree with all, most or even many of them to potentially find worthwhile ideas. Letting people know you’ve thought about all the things that can go wrong is also good, although actually thinking about those things is (ideally) more important, and I worry from the interactions that Duncan is more concerned with showing that he’s considered all the concerns than he is concerned with the actual concerns, but at a sufficient level of rigor that algorithm might not be efficient but it will still be sufficient. And of course, I think Less Wrong was the right place to post this.

 

What is Dragon Army? It’s a high-commitment, high-standards, high-investment group house model with centralized leadership and an up-or-out participation norm, designed to a) improve its members and b) actually accomplish medium-to-large scale tasks requiring long-term coordination.  Tongue-in-cheek referred to as the “fascist/authoritarian take on rationalist housing,” which has no doubt contributed to my being vulnerable to strawmanning but was nevertheless the correct joke to be making, lest people misunderstand what they were signing up for.  Aesthetically modeled after Dragon Army from Ender’s Game (not HPMOR), with a touch of Paper Street Soap Company thrown in, with Duncan Sabien in the role of Ender/Tyler and Eli Tyre in the role of Bean/The Narrator.

I applaud Duncan’s instinct to use the metaphors he actually believes apply to what he is doing, rather than the ones that would avoid scaring the living hell out of everyone. Less points for actually believing those metaphors without thinking there is a problem. 

I have seen and heard arguments against structuring things as an army, or against structuring things in an authoritarian fashion. As I note in the next section, I think these are things to be cautious of but that are worth trying, and I do not find either of them especially scary when they are based on free association. If our kind can’t cooperate enough to have a temporary volunteer metaphoric army that does not shoot anyone and does not get shot at, then we really can’t cooperate. Ender is a person you may wish to emulate, at least until some point in books that were written and happen later, and may or may not exist.

What should freak Duncan (and everyone else) out is the reference that people seem to be strangely glossing over, which is the Paper Street Soap Company. Fight Club is a great movie (and book), and if you haven’t seen it yet you should go see it and/or read it, but – spoiler alert, guys! – Tyler Durdan is a bad dude. Tyler Durdan is completely insane. He is not a person you want to copy or emulate. I should not have to be saying this. This should be obvious. Seriously. The original author made this somewhat more explicit in the book, but the movie really should have been clear enough for everyone.

That does not mean that Tyler Durdan did not have a worthwhile message for us hidden under all of that. Many (including villains) do, but no, Tyler is not the hero, and no, he does not belong to the Magneto List of Villains Who Are Right. You can notice that your life is ending one minute at a time, and that getting out there in the physical world and taking risks is good, and that the things you own can end up owning you, and even learn how to make soap. Fine.

You do not want to be trying to recreate something called Project Mayhem, unless your Dragon Army is deep inside enemy territory and fighting an actual war (in which case you probably still don’t want to do that, but at least I see the attraction).

Also, if you want to show that you can delegate and trust others, and you’re referring to your second in command as ‘The Narrator’ I would simply say “spoiler alert,” and ask you to ponder that again for a bit.

The weird part is that the proposal here does not, to me, evoke the Paper Street Soap Company at all, so what I am worried about is why this metaphor appealed to Duncan more than anything else.

Why? Current group housing/attempts at group rationality and community-supported leveling up seem to me to be falling short in a number of ways. First, there’s not enough stuff actually happening in them (i.e. to the extent people are growing and improving and accomplishing ambitious projects, it’s largely within their professional orgs or fueled by unusually agenty individuals, and not by leveraging the low-hanging fruit available in our house environments). Second, even the group houses seem to be plagued by the same sense of unanchored abandoned loneliness that’s hitting the rationalist community specifically and the millennial generation more generally. There are a bunch of competitors for “third,” but for now we can leave it at that.

Later in the post, Duncan hits on what third is, and I think that third is super important: Even if you think we’ve got a good version of the group house concept, we are doing far too much exploitation of the group house concept, and not enough exploration. There is variation on the location, size and mix of people that compose a house, and some tinkering with a few other components, but the basic structures remain invariant. The idea of a group house built around the group being a group that does ambitious things together, and/or operating with an authoritarian structure, has not been tried and been found wanting. It has been found scary and difficult, and not been tried. Yes, I have heard others note that the intentionally named Intentional Community Community did ban authoritarian houses because they find that they rarely work out, but they also all focus on ‘sustainability’ rather than trying to accomplish big things in the world, so I am not overly worried about that.

His second reason also seems important. There is an epidemic of loneliness hitting both our community and the entire world as well. Younger generations may or may not have it worse, but if one can state with a straight face that the average American only has 2-3 close friends (whether or not that statistic is accurate) there is a huge problem. I have more than that, but not as many as I used to, or as many as I would like. If group houses are not generating close friendships, that is very bad, and we should try and fix it, since this is an important unmet need for many of us and they should be a very good place to meet that need.

His first reason I am torn about because it is not obvious that stuff should be actually happening inside the houses as opposed to the houses providing an infrastructure for people who then cause things to happen. Most important things that happen in the world happen in professional organizations or as the result of unusually agenty individuals. Houses could be very successful at causing things to happen without any highly visible things happening within the houses. The most obvious ways to do this are to support the mechanisms Duncan mentions. One could provide support for people to devote their energies to important organizations and projects elsewhere, by letting people get their domestic needs met for less time and money, and by steering them to the most important places and projects. One could also do other things that generate more unusually agenty individuals, or make those individuals more effective when they do agenty things (and/or make them do even more agenty things), which in my reading is one of two main goals of Dragon Army, the other being to increase connection between its inhabitants.

Duncan’s claim here is that there are things that could be happening directly in the houses that are not happening, and that those things represent low-hanging fruit. This seems plausible, but it does not seem obvious, nor does it seem obvious what the low-hanging fruit would be. The rest of the post does go into details, so judgment needs to be based on those details.

Problem 1: Pendulums

This one’s first because it informs and underlies a lot of my other assumptions.  Essentially, the claim here is that most social progress can be modeled as a pendulum oscillating decreasingly far from an ideal.  The society is “stuck” at one point, realizes that there’s something wrong about that point (e.g. that maybe we shouldn’t be forcing people to live out their entire lives in marriages that they entered into with imperfect information when they were like sixteen), and then moves to correct that specific problem, often breaking some other Chesterton’s fence in the process.

For example, my experience leads me to put a lot of confidence behind the claim that we’ve traded “a lot of people trapped in marriages that are net bad for them” for “a lot of people who never reap the benefits of what would’ve been a strongly net-positive marriage, because it ended too easily too early on.”  The latter problem is clearly smaller, and is probably a better problem to have as an individual, but it’s nevertheless clear (to me, anyway) that the loosening of the absoluteness of marriage had negative effects in addition to its positive ones.

Proposed solution: Rather than choosing between absolutes, integrate.  For example, I have two close colleagues/allies who share millennials’ default skepticism of lifelong marriage, but they also are skeptical that a commitment-free lifestyle is costlessly good.  So they’ve decided to do handfasting, in which they’re fully committed for a year and a day at a time, and there’s a known period of time for asking the question “should we stick together for another round?”

In this way, I posit, you can get the strengths of the old socially evolved norm which stood the test of time, while also avoiding the majority of its known failure modes.  Sort of like building a gate into the Chesterton’s fence, instead of knocking it down—do the old thing in time-boxed iterations with regular strategic check-ins, rather than assuming you can invent a new thing from whole cloth.

Caveat/skull: Of course, the assumption here is that the Old Way Of Doing Things is not a slippery slope trap, and that you can in fact avoid the failure modes simply by trying.  And there are plenty of examples of that not working, which is why Taking Time-Boxed Experiments And Strategic Check-Ins Seriously is a must.  In particular, when attempting to strike such a balance, all parties must have common knowledge agreement about which side of the ideal to err toward (e.g. innocents in prison, or guilty parties walking free?).

I think the pendulum is a very bad model of social progress. It seems pretty rare that we exist (are stuck) at point A, then we try point B, and then we realize that our mistake was that we swung a little too far but that a point we passed through was right all along. This is the Aristotle mistake of automatically praising the mean, when there is no reason to think that your bounds are in any way reasonable, or that you are even thinking about the right set of possible rules, actions or virtues. If anything, there is usually reason to suspect otherwise.

Even in examples where you have a sort of ‘zero-sum’ decision where policy needs to choose a point on a number line, I think this is mostly wrong.

I guess there are some examples of starting out with the equilibrium “Abortions for no one,” then moving to the equilibrium “Abortions for everyone,” and then settling on the equilibrium “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others” and that being the correct answer (I am not making a claim of any kind of what the correct answer is here). Call this Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.

There are a lot more examples of social progress that go more like “Slaves for everyone” then getting to “Slaves for some” and finally reaching “actually, you know what, slaves for no one, ever, and seriously do I even need to explain this one?” Call this Thesis-LessThesis-Antithesis, and then Anti-Thesis just wins and then we get progress.

There is also the mode where someone notices a real problem but then has a really, mindbogglingly bad idea, for example Karl Marx, the idea is tried, and it turns out it is not only Not Progress but a huge disaster. Then, if you are paying attention, abandon it and try something else, but you learn from what happened. Now you understand where some of the fences are and what they are for, which helps you come up with a new plan, but your default should absolutely not be “well, sure, that was a huge disaster so we should try some mixture of what we just did and the old way and that will totally be fine.”

There is no reason to assume you were moving in the correct direction, or even the correct dimension. Do not be fooled by the Overton Window.

If anything, to the extent that you must choose a point on the number line, moving from 0 to 1 and finding 1 to be worse is not a good reason to try 0.5 unless your prior is very strong. It might well be a reason to try -0.5 or -1! Maybe you didn’t even realize that was an option before, or why you might want to do that.

Problem 2: The Unpleasant Valley

As far as I can tell, it’s pretty uncontroversial to claim that humans are systems with a lot of inertia.  Status quo bias is well researched, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, most people fail at resolutions, etc.

I have some unqualified speculation regarding what’s going on under the hood.  For one, I suspect that you’ll often find humans behaving pretty much as an effort- and energy-conserving algorithm would behave.  People have optimized their most known and familiar processes at least somewhat, which means that it requires less oomph to just keep doing what you’re doing than to cobble together a new system.  For another, I think hyperbolic discounting gets way too little credit/attention, and is a major factor in knocking people off the wagon when they’re trying to forego local behaviors that are known to be intrinsically rewarding for local behaviors that add up to long-term cumulative gain.

But in short, I think the picture of “I’m going to try something new, eh?” often looks like this:

… with an “unpleasant valley” some time after the start point.  Think about the cold feet you get after the “honeymoon period” has worn off, or the desires and opinions of a military recruit in the second week of a six-week boot camp, or the frustration that emerges two months into a new diet/exercise regime, or your second year of being forced to take piano lessons.

The problem is, people never make it to the third year, where they’re actually good at piano, and start reaping the benefits, and their System 1 updates to yeah, okay, this is in fact worth it.  Or rather, they sometimes make it, if there are strong supportive structures to get them across the unpleasant valley (e.g. in a military bootcamp, they just … make you keep going).  But left to our own devices, we’ll often get halfway through an experiment and just … stop, without ever finding out what the far side is actually like.

Proposed solution: Make experiments “unquittable.”  The idea here is that (ideally) one would not enter into a new experiment unless a) one were highly confident that one could absorb the costs, if things go badly, and b) one were reasonably confident that there was an Actually Good Thing waiting at the finish line.  If (big if) we take those as a given, then it should be safe to, in essence, “lock oneself in,” via any number of commitment mechanisms.  Or, to put it in other words: “Medium-Term Future Me is going to lose perspective and want to give up because of being unable to see past short-term unpleasantness to the juicy, long-term goal?  Fine, then—Medium-Term Future Me doesn’t get a vote.”  Instead, Post-Experiment Future Me gets the vote, including getting to update heuristics on which-kinds-of-experiments-are-worth-entering.

Caveat/skull: People who are bad at self-modeling end up foolishly locking themselves into things that are higher-cost or lower-EV than they thought, and getting burned; black swans and tail risk ends up making even good bets turn out very very badly; we really should’ve built in an ejector seat.  This risk can be mostly ameliorated by starting small and giving people a chance to calibrate—you don’t make white belts try to punch through concrete blocks, you make them punch soft, pillowy targets first.

And, of course, you do build in an ejector seat.  See next.

This is the core thesis behind a lot of the concrete details of Dragon Army. Temporary commitment allows you to get through the time period where you are getting negative short-term payoffs that sap your motivation, and reach a later stage where you get paid off for all your hard work, while giving you the chance to bail if it turns out the experiment is a failure and you are never going to get rewarded.

I would have drawn the graph above with a lot more random variations, but the implications are the same.

I think this is a key part that people should steal, if they do not have a better system already in place that works for them. When you are learning to play the piano, you are effectively deciding each day whether to stick with it or to quit, and you only learn to play the piano if you never decide to quit (you can obviously miss a day and recover, but I think the toy model gives the key insights and is good enough). You can reliably predict that there will be variation (some random, some predictable) in your motivation from day to day and week to week, and over longer time frames, so if you give yourself a veto every day (or every week) then by default you will quit far too often.

If every few years, you hold a vote on whether to leave the European Union and destroy your economy, or to end your democracy and appoint a dictator, eventually the answer will be yes. It will not be the ‘will of the people’ so much as the ‘whim of the people’ and you want protection against that. The one-person case is no different.

The ejector seat is important. If things are going sufficiently badly, there needs to be a way out, because the alternatives are to either stick with the thing, or to eject anyway and destroy your ability to commit to future things. Even when you eject for good reasons using the agreed upon procedures, it still damages your ability to commit. The key is to calibrate the threshold for the seat, in terms of requirements and costs, such that it being used implies that the decision to eject was over-determined, but with a bar no higher than is necessary for that to be true.

For most commitments, your ability to commit to things is far more valuable than anything else at stake. Even when the other stakes are big, that also means the commitment stakes are also big. This means that once you commit, you should follow through almost all the time even when you realize that agreeing to commit was a mistake. That in turn means one should think very carefully about when to commit to things, and not committing if you think you are likely to quit in a way that is damaging to your commitment abilities.

I think that if anything, Duncan under-states the importance of reliable commitment. His statements above about marriage are a good example of that, even despite the corrective words he writes about the subject later on. Agreeing to stay together for a year is a sea change from no commitment at all, and there are some big benefits to the year, but that is not remotely like the benefits of a real marriage. Giving an agreement an end point, at which the parties will re-negotiate, fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship. Longer term plans and trades, which are extremely valuable, cannot be made without worrying about incentive compatibility, and both sides have to worry about their future negotiating positions and market value. Even if both parties want things to continue, each year both parties have to worry about their negotiating position, and plan for their future negotiating positions.

You get to move from a world in which you need to play both for the team and for yourself, and where you get to play only for the team. This changes everything.

It also means that you do not get the insurance benefits. This isn’t formal, pay-you-money insurance. This is the insurance of having someone there for you even when you have gone sick or insane or depressed, or other similar thing, and you have nothing to offer them, and they will be there for you anyway. We need that. We need to count on that.

I could say a lot more, but it would be beyond scope.

Problem 3: Saving Face

If any of you have been to a martial arts academy in the United States, you’re probably familiar with the norm whereby a tardy student purchases entry into the class by first doing some pushups.  The standard explanation here is that the student is doing the pushups not as a punishment, but rather as a sign of respect for the instructor, the other students, and the academy as a whole.

I posit that what’s actually going on includes that, but is somewhat more subtle/complex.  I think the real benefit of the pushup system is that it closes the loop.

Imagine you’re a ten year old kid, and your parent picked you up late from school, and you’re stuck in traffic on your way to the dojo.  You’re sitting there, jittering, wondering whether you’re going to get yelled at, wondering whether the master or the other students will think you’re lazy, imagining stuttering as you try to explain that it wasn’t your fault—

Nope, none of that.  Because it’s already clearly established that if you fail to show up on time, you do some pushups, and then it’s over.  Done.  Finished.  Like somebody sneezed and somebody else said “bless you,” and now we can all move on with our lives.  Doing the pushups creates common knowledge around the questions “does this person know what they did wrong?” and “do we still have faith in their core character?”  You take your lumps, everyone sees you taking your lumps, and there’s no dangling suspicion that you were just being lazy, or that other people are secretly judging you.  You’ve paid the price in public, and everyone knows it, and this is a good thing.

Proposed solution: This is a solution without a concrete problem, since I haven’t yet actually outlined the specific commitments a Dragon has to make (regarding things like showing up on time, participating in group activities, and making personal progress).  But in essence, the solution is this: you have to build into your system from the beginning a set of ways-to-regain-face.  Ways to hit the ejector seat on an experiment that’s going screwy without losing all social standing; ways to absorb the occasional misstep or failure-to-adequately-plan; ways to be less-than-perfect and still maintain the integrity of a system that’s geared toward focusing everyone on perfection.  In short, people have to know (and others have to know that they know, and they have to know that others know that they know) exactly how to make amends to the social fabric, in cases where things go awry, so that there’s no question about whether they’re trying to make amends, or whether that attempt is sufficient.

Caveat/skull: The obvious problem is people attempting to game the system—they notice that ten pushups is way easier than doing the diligent work required to show up on time 95 times out of 100.  The next obvious problem is that the price is set too low for the group, leaving them to still feel jilted or wronged, and the next obvious problem is that the price is set too high for the individual, leaving them to feel unfairly judged or punished (the fun part is when both of those are true at the same time).  Lastly, there’s something in the mix about arbitrariness—what do pushups have to do with lateness, really?  I mean, I get that it’s paying some kind of unpleasant cost, but …

I think the idea of closing the loop being important is very right. Humans need reciprocity and fairness, but if the cost is known and paid, and everyone knows this, we can all move on and not worry about whether we can all move on. One of the things I love about my present job is that we focus hard on closing this loop. You can make a meme-level huge mistake, and as long as you own up to it and fix the issue going forward, everyone puts it behind them. The amount to which this improves my life is hard to over-state.

It is important to note that the push-ups at the dojo are pretty great. They are in some sense a punishment for present me but are not even a punishment as such. Everyone did lots of push-ups anyway. Push-ups are a good thing! By doing them, you show that you are still serious about trying to train, and you do something more intense to make up for the lost time. The push-ups are practical. In expectation, you transfer your push-ups from another time to now, allowing the class to assign less push-ups at other times based on the ones people will do when they occasionally walk in late or otherwise mess up.

This means that you get the equivalent a pigouvian tax. You create perception of fairness, you correct incentives, and you generate revenue (fitness)! Triple win!

I once saw a Magic: The Gathering team do the literal push-up thing. They were playing a deck with the card Eidelon of the Great Revel, which meant that every time an opponent cast a spell, they had to say ‘trigger’ to make their opponent take damage. They agreed that if anyone ever missed such a trigger, after the round they had to do push-ups. This seemed fun, useful and excellent.

The ‘price’ being an action that is close to efficient anyway is key to the system being a success. If push-ups provided no fitness benefit, the system would not work. The best prices do transfer utility from you to the group, but more importantly they also transfer utility from present you to future you.

 

Problem 4: Defections & Compounded Interest

I’m pretty sure everyone’s tired of hearing about one-boxing and iterated prisoners’ dilemmas, so I’m going to move through this one fairly quickly even though it could be its own whole multipage post.  In essence, the problem is that any rate of tolerance of real defection (i.e. unmitigated by the social loop-closing norms above) ultimately results in the destruction of the system.  Another way to put this is that people underestimate by a couple of orders of magnitude the corrosive impact of their defections—we often convince ourselves that 90% or 99% is good enough, when in fact what’s needed is something like 99.99%.

There’s something good that happens if you put a little bit of money away with every paycheck, and it vanishes or is severely curtailed once you stop, or start skipping a month here and there.  Similarly, there’s something good that happens when a group of people agree to meet in the same place at the same time without fail, and it vanishes or is severely curtailed once one person skips twice.

In my work at the Center for Applied Rationality, I frequently tell my colleagues and volunteers “if you’re 95% reliable, that means I can’t rely on you.”  That’s because I’m in a context where “rely” means really trust that it’ll get done.  No, really.  No, I don’t care what comes up, DID YOU DO THE THING?  And if the answer is “Yeah, 19 times out of 20,” then I can’t give that person tasks ever again, because we run more than 20 workshops and I can’t have one of them catastrophically fail.

(I mean, I could.  It probably wouldn’t be the end of the world.  But that’s exactly the point—I’m trying to create a pocket universe in which certain things, like “the CFAR workshop will go well,” are absolutely reliable, and the “absolute” part is important.)

As far as I can tell, it’s hyperbolic discounting all over again—the person who wants to skip out on the meetup sees all of these immediate, local costs to attending, and all of these visceral, large gains to defection, and their S1 doesn’t properly weight the impact to those distant, cumulative effects (just like the person who’s going to end up with no retirement savings because they wanted those new shoes this month instead of next month).  1.01^n takes a long time to look like it’s going anywhere, and in the meantime the quick one-time payoff of 1.1 that you get by knocking everything else down to .99^n looks juicy and delicious and seems justified.

But something magical does accrue when you make the jump from 99% to 100%.  That’s when you see teams that truly trust and rely on one another, or marriages built on unshakeable faith (and you see what those teams and partnerships can build, when they can adopt time horizons of years or decades rather than desperately hoping nobody will bail after the third meeting).  It starts with a common knowledge understanding that yes, this is the priority, even—no, wait, especially—when it seems like there are seductively convincing arguments for it to not be.  When you know—not hope, but know—that you will make a local sacrifice for the long-term good, and you know that they will, too, and you all know that you all know this, both about yourselves and about each other.

Proposed solution: Discuss, and then agree upon, and then rigidly and rigorously enforce a norm of perfection in all formal undertakings (and, correspondingly, be more careful and more conservative about which undertakings you officially take on, versus which things you’re just casually trying out as an informal experiment), with said norm to be modified/iterated only during predecided strategic check-in points and not on the fly, in the middle of things.  Build a habit of clearly distinguishing targets you’re going to hit from targets you’d be happy to hit.  Agree upon and uphold surprisingly high costs for defection, Hofstadter style, recognizing that a cost that feels high enough probably isn’t.  Leave people wiggle room as in Problem 3, but define that wiggle room extremely concretely and objectively, so that it’s clear in advance when a line is about to be crossed.  Be ridiculously nitpicky and anal about supporting standards that don’t seem worth supporting, in the moment, if they’re in arenas that you’ve previously assessed as susceptible to compounding.  Be ruthless about discarding standards during strategic review; if a member of the group says that X or Y or Z is too high-cost for them to sustain, believe them, and make decisions accordingly.

Caveat/skull: Obviously, because we’re humans, even people who reflectively endorse such an overall solution will chafe when it comes time for them to pay the price (I certainly know I’ve chafed under standards I fought to install).  At that point, things will seem arbitrary and overly constraining, priorities will seem misaligned (and might actually be), and then feelings will be hurt and accusations will be leveled and things will be rough.  The solution there is to have, already in place, strong and open channels of communication, strong norms and scaffolds for emotional support, strong default assumption of trust and good intent on all sides, etc. etc.  This goes wrongest when things fester and people feel they can’t speak up; it goes much better if people have channels to lodge their complaints and reservations and are actively incentivized to do so (and can do so without being accused of defecting on the norm-in-question; criticism =/= attack).

It brings me great joy that someone out there has taken the need for true reliability, and gone too far.

I do not think the exponential model above is a good model. I do think something special happens when things become reliable enough that you do not feel the need to worry about or plan for what you are going to do when they do not happen, and you can simply assume they will happen.

A lot of this jump is that your brain accepts that things you agreed to do just happen. You are not going to waste time considering whether or not they are going to happen, you are only going to ask the question how to make them happen. They are automatic and become habits, and the habit of doing this also becomes a habit. Actually being truly reliable is easier in many ways than being unreliable! This is similar to the realization that it is much easier and less taxing to never drink than to drink a very small amount. It is much easier and less taxing to never cheat (for almost all values of cheating) than to contain cheating at a low but non-zero level. Better to not have the option in your mind at all.

There is another great thing that happens when you assume that getting a ‘yes I will do this thing’ from someone means they will do the thing, and if it turns out they did not do the thing, it is because it was ludicrously obvious that they were not supposed to do the thing given the circumstances, and they gave you what warning or adaptation they could. Just like you no longer need to consider the option of not doing the thing, you get to not consider that they will choose not do the thing, or what you need to do to ensure they do the thing.

It is ludicrously hard to get 99.99% reliability from anyone. If you are telling me that I need to come to the weekly meetup 99.9% of the time you are telling me I can miss it one time in twenty years. If you ask for 99.9% it means meeting every day and missing once in twenty years. Does anyone have real emergencies that are that rare? Do opportunities that are worth taking instead come along once every few decades? This doesn’t make sense. I believe we did manage to go several years in a row in New York without missing a Tuesday night, and yes that was valuable by letting people show up without checking first, knowing the meetup would happen. No single person showed up every time, because that’s insane. You would not put ‘Tuesday meetup’ in the ‘this is 100% reliable’ category if you wanted the ‘100% reliable’ category to remain a thing.

There are tasks that, if failed, cause the entire workshop to catastrophically fail, and those cannot be solely entrusted to a 95% reliable person without a backup plan. But if your model says that any failure anywhere will cause catastrophic overall failure then your primary problem is not needing more reliable people, it is engineering a more robust plan that has fewer single points of failure.

If you abuse the ‘100% reliable’ label, the label becomes meaningless.

Even if you use the label responsibly, when you pull out ‘100% reliable’ from people and expect that to get you 99.9%, you have to mean it. The thing has to be that important. You don’t need to be launching a space shuttle, but you do have to face large consequences to failure. You need the kind of horribleness that requires multiple locked-in reliable backup plans. There is no other way to get to that level. Then you work in early warning systems, so if things are going wrong, you learn about it in time to invoke the backup plans.

I strongly endorse the idea of drawing an explicit contrast between places where people are only expected to be somewhat reliable, and those where people are expected to be actually reliable.

I also strongly endorse that the default level of reliability needs to be much, much higher than the standard default level of reliability, especially in The Bay. Things there are really bad.

When I make a plan with a friend in The Bay, I never assume the plan will actually happen. There is actual no one there I feel I can count on to be on time and not flake. I would come to visit more often if plans could actually be made. Instead, suggestions can be made, and half the time things go more or less the way you planned them. This is a terrible, very bad, no good equilibrium. Are there people I want to see badly enough to put up with a 50% reliability rate? Yes, but there are not many, and I get much less than half the utility out of those friendships than I would otherwise get.

When I reach what would otherwise be an agreement with someone in The Bay, I have learned that this is not an agreement, but rather a statement of momentary intent. The other person feels good about the intention of doing the thing, and if the emotions and vibe surrounding things continue to be supportive, and it is still in their interest to follow through, they might actually follow through. What they will absolutely not do is treat their word as their bond and follow through even if they made what turns out to be a bad deal or it seems weird or they could gain status by throwing you under the bus. People do not cooperate in this way. That is not a thing. When you notice it is not a thing, and that people will actively lower your status for treating it as a thing rather than rewarding you, it is almost impossible to keep treating this as a thing.

For further details on the above, and those details are important, see Compass Rose, pretty much the whole blog.

Duncan is trying to build a group house in The Bay that coordinates to actually do things. From where he sits, reliability has ceased to be a thing. Some amount of hyperbole and overreaction is not only reasonable and sympathetic, but even optimal. I sympathize fully with his desire to fix this problem via draconian penalties for non-cooperation.

Ideally, you would not need explicit penalties. There is a large cost to imposing explicit large penalties in any realm. Those penalties crowd out intrinsic motivation and justification. They create adversarial relationships and feel bad moments, and require large amounts of time upkeep. They make it likely things will fall apart if and when the penalties go away.

A much better system, if you can pull it off and keep it, is to have everyone understand that defection is really bad and that people are adjusting their actions and expectations on that basis, and have them make an extraordinary effort already. The penalty that the streak will be over, and the trust will be lost, should be enough. The problem is, it’s often not enough, and it is very hard to signal and pass on this system to new people.

Thus, draconian penalties, while a second best solution, should be considered and tried.

Like other penalties, we should aim to have these penalties be clear to all, be clearly painful in the short term, and clearly be something that in the long term benefits (or at least does not hurt) the group as a whole – they should be a transfer from short term you to some term someone, ideally long term everyone, in a way that all can understand. I am a big fan of exponentially escalating penalties in these situations.

What is missing here is a concrete example of X failure leading to Y consequence, so it’s hard to tell what level of draconian he is considering here.

Problem 5: Everything else

There are other models and problems in the mix—for instance, I have a model surrounding buy-in and commitment that deals with an escalating cycle of asks-and-rewards, or a model of how to effectively leverage a group around you to accomplish ambitious tasks that requires you to first lay down some “topsoil” of simple/trivial/arbitrary activities that starts the growth of an ecology of affordances, or a theory that the strategy of trying things and doing things outstrips the strategy of think-until-you-identify-worthwhile-action, and that rationalists in particular are crippling themselves through decision paralysis/letting the perfect be the enemy of the good when just doing vaguely interesting projects would ultimately gain them more skill and get them further ahead, or a strong sense based off both research and personal experience that physical proximity matters, and that you can’t build the correct kind of strength and flexibility and trust into your relationships without actually spending significant amounts of time with one another in meatspace on a regular basis, regardless of whether that makes tactical sense given your object-level projects and goals.

But I’m going to hold off on going into those in detail until people insist on hearing about them or ask questions/pose hesitations that could be answered by them.

I think these are good instincts, and also agree with the instinct not to say more here.

Section 2 of 3: Power dynamics

All of the above was meant to point at reasons why I suspect trusting individuals responding to incentives moment-by-moment to be a weaker and less effective strategy than building an intentional community that Actually Asks Things Of Its Members.  It was also meant to justify, at least indirectly, why a strong guiding hand might be necessary given that our community’s evolved norms haven’t really produced results (in the group houses) commensurate with the promises of EA and rationality.

Ultimately, though, what matters is not the problems and solutions themselves so much as the light they shine on my aesthetics (since, in the actual house, it’s those aesthetics that will be used to resolve epistemic gridlock).  In other words, it’s not so much those arguments as it is the fact that Duncan finds those arguments compelling.  It’s worth noting that the people most closely involved with this project (i.e. my closest advisors and those most likely to actually sign on as housemates) have been encouraged to spend a significant amount of time explicitly vetting me with regards to questions like “does this guy actually think things through,” “is this guy likely to be stupid or meta-stupid,” “will this guy listen/react/update/pivot in response to evidence or consensus opposition,” and “when this guy has intuitions that he can’t explain, do they tend to be validated in the end?”

In other words, it’s fair to view this whole post as an attempt to prove general trustworthiness (in both domain expertise and overall sanity), because—well—that’s what it is.  In milieu like the military, authority figures expect (and get) obedience irrespective of whether or not they’ve earned their underlings’ trust; rationalists tend to have a much higher bar before they’re willing to subordinate their decisionmaking processes, yet still that’s something this sort of model requires of its members (at least from time to time, in some domains, in a preliminary “try things with benefit of the doubt” sort of way).  I posit that Dragon Army Barracks works (where “works” means “is good and produces both individual and collective results that outstrip other group houses by at least a factor of three”) if and only if its members are willing to hold doubt in reserve and act with full force in spite of reservations—if they’re willing to trust me more than they trust their own sense of things (at least in the moment, pending later explanation and recalibration on my part or theirs or both).

And since that’s a) the central difference between DA and all the other group houses, which are collections of non-subordinate equals, and b) quite the ask, especially in a rationalist community, it’s entirely appropriate that it be given the greatest scrutiny.  Likely participants in the final house spent ~64 consecutive hours in my company a couple of weekends ago, specifically to play around with living under my thumb and see whether it’s actually a good place to be; they had all of the concerns one would expect and (I hope) had most of those concerns answered to their satisfaction.  The rest of you will have to make do with grilling me in the comments here.

Trusting individuals to respond to incentives minute to minute does not, on its own, work beyond the short term. Period. You need to figure out how to make agreements and commitments, to build trust and reciprocity, and work in response to long term incentives toward a greater goal. Otherwise, you fail. At best, you get hijacked by what the incentive gradient and zeitgeist want to happen, and something happens, but you have little or no control over what that something will be.

It’s quite the leap from there to having a person prove general trustworthiness, and to have people trust that person more than they trust their own sense of things. Are there times and places where there have been people I trusted on that level? That is actually a good question. There are contexts and areas in which it is certainly true – my Sensei at the dojo, my teachers in a variety of subjects, Jon Finkel in a game of Magic. There are people I trust in context, when doing a particular thing. But is there anyone I would trust in general, if they told me to do something?

If they told me to do the thing without taking into consideration what I think, then my brain is telling me the answer is no. There are zero such people, who can tell me in general what to do, and I’d do it even if I thought they were wrong. That, however, is playing on super duper hard mode. A better question is, is there someone who, if they told you I know that you disagree with me, but despite that trust me you should do this anyway, even if I didn’t have a good reason to do the thing other than that they said so, I would do the thing, pretty much no matter what it is?

The answer is still no, in the sense that if they spoke to me like God spoke to Abraham, and told me to sacrifice my son, I would tell each and every person on Earth to go to hell. The bar doesn’t have to be anything like that high, either – there might be people who could talk me into a major crime, but if so they’d have to actually talk me into it. No running off on Project Mayhem.

Wait. I am not sure that is actually true. If one of a very few select people actually did tell me to  do something that seemed crazy, I might just trust it, because the bar for them to actually do that would be so high. Or I might not. You never know until the moment arrives.

Duncan, I hope, is asking for something much weaker than that. He is asking for small scale trust. He is asking that in the moment, with no ‘real’ stakes, members of the house trust him absolutely. This is more like being in a dojo and having a sensei. In the moment, you do not question the sensei within the sacred space. That does not even require you to actually trust them more than you trust yourself. It simply means that you need to trust that things will go better if you do what they say without questioning it and then you follow through on that deal. In limited contexts, this is not weird or scary. If the sensei did something outside their purview, the deal would be off, and rightfully so.

I even have some experience with hypnosis, which is a lot scarier than this in terms of how much trust is required and what can be done if the person in charge goes too far, and there are people I trust to do that, knowing that if they try to take things too far, I’ll (probably, hopefully) snap out of it.

In short, this sounds a lot scarier than it is. Probably. The boundaries of what can be asked for are important, but the type of person reading this likely needs to learn more how to trust others and see where things go, rather than doing that less often or being worried about someone abusing that power. If anything, we are the most prepared to handle that kind of overreach, because we are so (rationally irrationally? the other way around?) scared of it.

Power and authority are generally anti-epistemic—for every instance of those-in-power defending themselves against the barbarians at the gates or anti-vaxxers or the rise of Donald Trump, there are a dozen instances of them squashing truth, undermining progress that would make them irrelevant, and aggressively promoting the status quo.

Thus, every attempt by an individual to gather power about themselves is at least suspect, given regular ol’ incentive structures and regular ol’ fallible humans.  I can (and do) claim to be after a saved world and a bunch of people becoming more the-best-versions-of-themselves-according-to-themselves, but I acknowledge that’s exactly the same claim an egomaniac would make, and I acknowledge that the link between “Duncan makes all his housemates wake up together and do pushups” and “the world is incrementally less likely to end in gray goo and agony” is not obvious.

And it doesn’t quite solve things to say, “well, this is an optional, consent-based process, and if you don’t like it, don’t join,” because good and moral people have to stop and wonder whether their friends and colleagues with slightly weaker epistemics and slightly less-honed allergies to evil are getting hoodwinked.  In short, if someone’s building a coercive trap, it’s everyone’s problem.

Power corrupts. We all know this. Despite that, and despite my being an actual Discordian who thinks the most important power-related skill is how to avoid power, and who thinks that in an important sense communication is only possible between equals, and whose leadership model if I was founding a house would be Hagbard Celine, and I still think this is unfair to power. It is especially unfair to voluntary power.

Not only are there not twelve anti-vaxxers using power for every pro-vaxxer, there are more than twelve pro-vaxxers trying to get parents to vaccinate (mostly successfully) for every one that tries to stop them (mostly unsuccessfully). For every traitorous soldier trying to let the barbarians into the gate, there are more than twelve doing their duty to keep the barbarians out (and violations of this correlate quite well to where barbarians get through the gate, which most days and years does not happen). Think about the ‘facts’ the government tries to promote. Are they boring? Usually. A waste of your taxpayer dollar? Often I’d agree. The emotions they try to evoke are often bad. But most of the time, aside from exceptions like the campaign trail, cops investigating a crime (who are explicitly allowed and encouraged to lie) and anything promoting the lottery, their facts are true.

Yes, power encourages people to hold back information and lie to each other. Yes, power is often abused, but the most important way to maintain and gain power is to exercise that power wisely and for the benefit of the group. This goes double when that power exchange is voluntary and those who have given up power have the ability and the right to walk away at any time.

A certain amount of ‘abuse’ of power is expected, and even appropriate, because power is hard work and a burden, so it needs to have its rewards. Some CEOs are overpaid, no doubt, but in general I believe that leaders and decision makers are undercompensated and underappreciated, rather than the other way around. Most people loathe being in charge even of themselves. Leaders have to look out for everyone else, and when they decide it’s time to look out for themselves instead, we need to make sure they don’t go too far at the expense of others, but if you automatically call that abuse, what you are left with are only burned out leaders. That seems to be happening a lot.

That does still leave us with the problem that power is usually anti-epistemic, due to the SNAFU principle: (Fully open and honest) communication is only possible between equals. The good news is that this is an observation about the world rather than a law of nature, so the better frame is to ask why and how power is anti-epistemic. Social life is also anti-epistemic in many similar ways, largely because any group of people will involve some amount of power and desire to shape the actions, beliefs and opinions of others.

SNAFU’s main mechanism is that the subordinate is under the superior’s power, which results in the superior giving out rewards and punishments (and/or decisions that are functionally rewards and punishments). This leads the subordinate to not be able to communicate to the superior, which in turn makes the superior in turn engage in deception in order to find out as much of the truth as possible. This gets a lot more complicated (for more detail, and in general, I recommend reading Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising and many of his other works) but the core problem is that the subordinate wants to be rewarded and to avoid punishment, as intrinsic goods. The flip side of that is if the superior wants to give out punishments and avoid rewards.  

Wanting to get rewards and avoid punishments when you don’t deserve it, or to give out punishments and avoid rewards to those who don’t deserve it, is the problem. If the student wants to avoid push-ups, the student will deceive the master. If the student wants to be worthy and therefore avoid push-ups, treating the push-ups as useful incentive and training and signal, then the student will remain honest. In an important sense, the master has even successfully avoided power here once they set the rules, because the student’s worthiness determines what happens even if the master technically gives out the verdict. The master simply tries to help make the student worthy.

Power is dangerous, but most useful things are. It’s a poor atom blaster that can’t point both ways.

That’s my justification, let’s see what his is.

But on the flip side, we don’t have time to waste.  There’s existential risk, for one, and even if you don’t buy ex-risk à la AI or bioterrorism or global warming, people’s available hours are trickling away at the alarming rate of one hour per hour, and none of us are moving fast enough to get All The Things done before we die.  I personally feel that I am operating far below my healthy sustainable maximum capacity, and I’m not alone in that, and something like Dragon Army could help.

So.  Claims, as clearly as I can state them, in answer to the question “why should a bunch of people sacrifice non-trivial amounts of their autonomy to Duncan?”

1. Somebody ought to run this, and no one else will.  On the meta level, this experiment needs to be run—we have like twenty or thirty instances of the laissez-faire model, and none of the high-standards/hardcore one, and also not very many impressive results coming out of our houses.  Due diligence demands investigation of the opposite hypothesis.  On the object level, it seems uncontroversial to me that there are goods waiting on the other side of the unpleasant valley—goods that a team of leveled-up, coordinated individuals with bonds of mutual trust can seize that the rest of us can’t even conceive of, at this point, because we don’t have a deep grasp of what new affordances appear once you get there.

2. I’m the least unqualified person around.  Those words are chosen deliberately, for this post on “less wrong.”  I have a unique combination of expertise that includes being a rationalist, sixth grade teacher, coach, RA/head of a dormitory, ringleader of a pack of hooligans, member of two honor code committees, curriculum director, obsessive sci-fi/fantasy nerd, writer, builder, martial artist, parkour guru, maker, and generalist.  If anybody’s intuitions and S1 models are likely to be capable of distinguishing the uncanny valley from the real deal, I posit mine are.

3. There’s never been a safer context for this sort of experiment.  It’s 2017, we live in the United States, and all of the people involved are rationalists.  We all know about NVC and double crux, we’re all going to do Circling, we all know about Gendlin’s Focusing, and we’ve all read the Sequences (or will soon).  If ever there was a time to say “let’s all step out onto the slippery slope, I think we can keep our balance,” it’s now—there’s no group of people better equipped to stop this from going sideways.

4. It does actually require a tyrant. As a part of a debrief during the weekend experiment/dry run, we went around the circle and people talked about concerns/dealbreakers/things they don’t want to give up.  One interesting thing that popped up is that, according to consensus, it’s literally impossible to find a time of day when the whole group could get together to exercise.  This happened even with each individual being willing to make personal sacrifices and doing things that are somewhat costly.

If, of course, the expectation is that everybody shows up on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and the cost of not doing so is not being present in the house, suddenly the situation becomes simple and workable.  And yes, this means some kids left behind (ctrl+f), but the whole point of this is to be instrumentally exclusive and consensually high-commitment.  You just need someone to make the actual final call—there are too many threads for the coordination problem of a house of this kind to be solved by committee, and too many circumstances in which it’s impossible to make a principled, justifiable decision between 492 almost-indistinguishably-good options.  On top of that, there’s a need for there to be some kind of consistent, neutral force that sets course, imposes consistency, resolves disputes/breaks deadlock, and absorbs all of the blame for the fact that it’s unpleasant to be forced to do things you know you ought to but don’t want to do.

And lastly, we (by which I indicate the people most likely to end up participating) want the house to do stuff—to actually take on projects of ambitious scope, things that require ten or more talented people reliably coordinating for months at a time.  That sort of coordination requires a quarterback on the field, even if the strategizing in the locker room is egalitarian.

5. There isn’t really a status quo for power to abusively maintain.  Dragon Army Barracks is not an object-level experiment in making the best house; it’s a meta-level experiment attempting (through iteration rather than armchair theorizing) to answer the question “how best does one structure a house environment for growth, self-actualization, productivity, and social synergy?”  It’s taken as a given that we’ll get things wrong on the first and second and third try; the whole point is to shift from one experiment to the next, gradually accumulating proven-useful norms via consensus mechanisms, and the centralized power is mostly there just to keep the transitions smooth and seamless.  More importantly, the fundamental conceit of the model is “Duncan sees a better way, which might take some time to settle into,” but after e.g. six months, if the thing is not clearly positive and at least well on its way to being self-sustaining, everyone ought to abandon it anyway.  In short, my tyranny, if net bad, has a natural time limit, because people aren’t going to wait around forever for their results.

6. The experiment has protections built in.  Transparency, operationalization, and informed consent are the name of the game; communication and flexibility are how the machine is maintained.  Like the Constitution, Dragon Army’s charter and organization are meant to be “living documents” that constrain change only insofar as they impose reasonable limitations on how wantonly change can be enacted.

I strongly agree with point one, and think this line should be considered almost a knock-down argument in a lot of contexts. Someone has to and no one else will. Unless you are claiming no one has to, or there is someone else who will, that’s all that need be said. There is a wise saying that ‘those who say it can’t be done should never interrupt the person doing it.’ Similarly, I think, once someone has invoked the Comet King, we should follow the rule that ‘those who agree it must be done need to either do it or let someone else do it.’ As far as I can tell, both statements are true. Someone has to. No one else will.

I do not think Duncan is the least unqualified person around if we had our pick of all people, but we don’t. We only have one person willing to do this, as far as I know. That means the question is, is he qualified enough to give it a go? On that level, I think these qualifications are good enough. I do wish he hadn’t tried to oversell them quite this much.

I also don’t think this is the most safe situation of all time to try an exchange of power in the name of group and self improvement, and I worry that Duncan thinks things like double crux and circling are far more important and powerful than they are. Letting things ‘get to his head’ is one thing Duncan should be quite concerned about in such a project. We are special, but we are not as special as this implies. What I do think is that this is an unusually safe place and time to try this experiment, but I also don’t think the experiment is all that dangerous even before all the protections in point six and that Duncan explains elsewhere (including the comments) and that were added later or will be added in the future. Safety first is a thing but our society is often totally obsessed with safety and we need to seriously chill out.

I also think point five is important. The natural time limit is a strong check (one of many) on what dangers do exist. However, there seems to be some danger later on of slippage on this if you read the charter, so it needs to be very clear what the final endpoint is and not allow wiggle room later – you can have natural end points in between, but things need to be fully over at a fixed future point, for any given resident, with no (anti?) escape clause.

Section 3 of 3: Dragon Army Charter (DRAFT)

Statement of purpose:

Dragon Army Barracks is a group housing and intentional community project which exists to support its members socially, emotionally, intellectually, and materially as they endeavor to improve themselves, complete worthwhile projects, and develop new and useful culture, in that order.  In addition to the usual housing commitments (i.e. rent, utilities, shared expenses), its members will make limited and specific commitments of time, attention, and effort averaging roughly 90 hours a month (~1.5hr/day plus occasional weekend activities).

Dragon Army Barracks will have an egalitarian, flat power structure, with the exception of a commander (Duncan Sabien) and a first officer (Eli Tyre).  The commander’s role is to create structure by which the agreed-upon norms and standards of the group shall be discussed, decided, and enforced, to manage entry to and exit from the group, and to break epistemic gridlock/make decisions when speed or simplification is required.  The first officer’s role is to manage and moderate the process of building consensus around the standards of the Army—what they are, and in what priority they should be met, and with what consequences for failure.  Other “management” positions may come into existence in limited domains (e.g. if a project arises, it may have a leader, and that leader will often not be Duncan or Eli), and will have their scope and powers defined at the point of creation/ratification.

Initial areas of exploration:

The particular object level foci of Dragon Army Barracks will change over time as its members experiment and iterate, but at first it will prioritize the following:

  • Physical proximity (exercising together, preparing and eating meals together, sharing a house and common space)

  • Regular activities for bonding and emotional support (Circling, pair debugging, weekly retrospective, tutoring/study hall)

  • Regular activities for growth and development (talk night, tutoring/study hall, bringing in experts, cross-pollination)

  • Intentional culture (experiments around lexicon, communication, conflict resolution, bets & calibration, personal motivation, distribution of resources & responsibilities, food acquisition & preparation, etc.)

  • Projects with “shippable” products (e.g. talks, blog posts, apps, events; some solo, some partner, some small group, some whole group; ranging from short-term to year-long)

  • Regular (every 6-10 weeks) retreats to learn a skill, partake in an adventure or challenge, or simply change perspective

All of this, I think, is good. My worry is in the setting of priorities and allocation of time. We have six bullet points here, and only the fifth bullet point, which is part of the third priority out of three, involves doing something that will have a trial by fire in the real world (and even then, we are potentially talking about a talk or blog post, which can be dangerously not-fire-trial-like). The central goal will be self-improvement.

The problem is that in my experience, your real terminal goal can be self-improvement all you like, but unless you choose a different primary goal and work towards that, you won’t self-improve all that much. The way you get better is because you need to get better to do a thing. Otherwise it’s all, well, let’s let Duncan’s hero Tyler Durden explain:

This is importantly true (although in a literal sense it is obviously false), and seems like the most obvious point of failure. Another is choosing Tyler’s solution to this problem. Don’t do that either.

So yes, do all six of these things and have all three of these goals, but don’t think that down near the bottom of your list is doing a few concrete things every now and then. Everyone needs to have the thing, and have the thing be central and important to them, whatever the thing may be, and that person should then judge their success or failure on that basis, and the group also needs a big thing. Yes, we will also evaluate whether we hit the self-improvement marks, but on their own they simply do not cut it.

Credit to my wife Laura Baur for making this point very clear and explicit to me, so that I realized its importance. Which is very high.

Dragon Army Barracks will begin with a move-in weekend that will include ~10 hours of group bonding, discussion, and norm-setting.  After that, it will enter an eight-week bootcamp phase, in which each member will participate in at least the following:

  • Whole group exercise (90min, 3x/wk, e.g. Tue/Fri/Sun)
  • Whole group dinner and retrospective (120min, 1x/wk, e.g. Tue evening)
  • Small group baseline skill acquisition/study hall/cross-pollination (90min, 1x/wk)
  • Small group circle-shaped discussion (120min, 1x/wk)
  • Pair debugging or rapport building (45min, 2x/wk)
  • One-on-one check-in with commander (20min, 2x/wk)
  • Chore/house responsibilities (90min distributed)
  • Publishable/shippable solo small-scale project work with weekly public update (100min distributed)

… for a total time commitment of 16h/week or 128 hours total, followed by a whole group retreat and reorientation.  The house will then enter an eight-week trial phase, in which each member will participate in at least the following:

  • Whole group exercise (90min, 3x/wk)
  • Whole group dinner, retrospective, and plotting (150min, 1x/wk)
  • Small group circling and/or pair debugging (120min distributed)
  • Publishable/shippable small group medium-scale project work with weekly public update (180min distributed)
  • One-on-one check-in with commander (20min, 1x/wk)
  • Chore/house responsibilities (60min distributed)
… for a total time commitment of 13h/week or 104 hours total, again followed by a whole group retreat and reorientation.  The house will then enter a third phase where commitments will likely change, but will include at a minimum whole group exercise, whole group dinner, and some specific small-group responsibilities, either social/emotional or project/productive (once again ending with a whole group retreat).  At some point between the second and third phase, the house will also ramp up for its first large-scale project, which is yet to be determined but will be roughly on the scale of putting on a CFAR workshop in terms of time and complexity.

That’s a lot of time, but manageable. I would shift more of it into the project work, and worry less about devoting quite so much time to the other stuff. Having less than a quarter of the time being spent towards an outside goal is not good. I can accept a few weeks of phase-in since moving in and getting to know each other is important, but ten weeks in only three hours a week of ‘real work’ is being done.

Even more important, as stated above, I would know everyone’s individual small and medium scale projects, and the first group project, before anyone moves in, at a bare minimum. That does not mean they can’t be changed later, but an answer that is exciting needs to be in place at the start.

Should the experiment prove successful past its first six months, and worth continuing for a full year or longer, by the end of the first year every Dragon shall have a skill set including, but not limited to:
  • Above-average physical capacity
  • Above-average introspection
  • Above-average planning & execution skill
  • Above-average communication/facilitation skill
  • Above-average calibration/debiasing/rationality knowledge
  • Above-average scientific lab skill/ability to theorize and rigorously investigate claims
  • Average problem-solving/debugging skill
  • Average public speaking skill
  • Average leadership/coordination skill
  • Average teaching and tutoring skill
  • Fundamentals of first aid & survival
  • Fundamentals of financial management
  • At least one of: fundamentals of programming, graphic design, writing, A/V/animation, or similar (employable mental skill)
  • At least one of: fundamentals of woodworking, electrical engineering, welding, plumbing, or similar (employable trade skill)
Furthermore, every Dragon should have participated in:
  • At least six personal growth projects involving the development of new skill (or honing of prior skill)
  • At least three partner- or small-group projects that could not have been completed alone
  • At least one large-scale, whole-army project that either a) had a reasonable chance of impacting the world’s most important problems, or b) caused significant personal growth and improvement
  • Daily contributions to evolved house culture

 

 

Or longer, as noted above, is scary, so this should make it clear what the maximum time length is, which should be not more than two years.

The use of ‘above-average’ here is good in a first draft, but not good in the final product. This needs to be much more explicit. What is above average physical capacity? Put numbers on that. What is above average public speaking? That should mean doing some public speaking successfully. Calibration tests are a thing, and so forth. Not all the tests will be perfect, but none of them seem impractical given the time commitments everyone is making. The test is important. You need to take the test. Even if you know you will pass it. No cheating. A lot of these are easy to design a test for – you ask the person to use the skill to do something in the world, and succeed. No bullshit.

The test is necessary to actually get the results, but it’s also important to prove them. If you declare before you begin what the test will be, then you have preregistered the experiment. Your results then mean a lot more. Ideally the projects will even be picked at the start, or at least some of them, and definitely the big project. This is all for science! Isn’t it?

It’s also suspicious if you have a skill and can’t test it. Is the skill real? Is it useful?

Yes, this might mean you need to do some otherwise not so efficient things. That’s how these things go. It’s worth it, and it brings restrictions that breed creativity, and commitments that lead to action.

Speaking of evolved house culture…

Because of both a) the expected value of social exploration and b) the cumulative positive effects of being in a group that’s trying things regularly and taking experiments seriously, Dragon Army will endeavor to adopt no fewer than one new experimental norm per week.  Each new experimental norm should have an intended goal or result, an informal theoretical backing, and a set re-evaluation time (default three weeks).  There are two routes by which a new experimental norm is put into place:

  • The experiment is proposed by a member, discussed in a whole group setting, and meets the minimum bar for adoption (>60% of the Army supports, with <20% opposed and no hard vetos)
  • The Army has proposed no new experiments in the previous week, and the Commander proposes three options.  The group may then choose one by vote/consensus, or generate three new options, from which the Commander may choose.
Examples of some of the early norms which the house is likely to try out from day one (hit the ground running):
  • The use of a specific gesture to greet fellow Dragons (house salute)
  • Various call-and-response patterns surrounding house norms (e.g. “What’s rule number one?” “PROTECT YOURSELF!”)
  • Practice using hook, line, and sinker in social situations (three items other than your name for introductions)
  • The anti-Singer rule for open calls-for-help (if Dragon A says “hey, can anyone help me with X?” the responsibility falls on the physically closest housemate to either help or say “Not me/can’t do it!” at which point the buck passes to the next physically closest person)
  • An “interrupt” call that any Dragon may use to pause an ongoing interaction for fifteen seconds
  • A “culture of abundance” in which food and leftovers within the house are default available to all, with exceptions deliberately kept as rare as possible
  • A “graffiti board” upon which the Army keeps a running informal record of its mood and thoughts

I strongly approve of this concept, and ideally the experimenter already has a notebook with tons of ideas in it. I have a feeling that he does, or would have one quickly if he bought and carried around the notebook. This is also where the outside community can help, offering more suggestions.

It would be a good norm for people to need to try new norms and systems every so often. Every week is a bit much for regular life, but once a month seems quite reasonable.

In terms of the individual suggestions:

I am in favor of the house salute, the interrupt and the graffiti board. Of those three, the interrupt seems most likely to turn out to have problems, but it’s definitely worth trying and seems quite good if it works.

Hook, line and sinker seems more like a tool or skill to practice, but seems like a good idea for those having trouble with good introductions.

Call and response is a thing that naturally evolves in any group culture that is having any fun at all, and leads to more fun (here is a prime example and important safety tip), so I encouraging more and more formal use of it seems good at first glance. The worry is that if too formal and used too much, this could become anti-epistemic, so I’d keep an eye on that and re-calibrate as needed.

The anti-Singer rule (ASR) is interesting. I think as written it is too broad, but that a less broad version would likely be good.

There are four core problems I see.

The first problem is that this destroys information when the suitability of each person to do the task is unknown. The first person in line has to give a Yes/No to help before the second person in line reveals how available they are to help, and so on. Let’s say that Alice asks for help, Bob is closest, then Carol, then David and then Eve. Bob does not know if Carol, David or Eve would be happy (or able) to help right now – maybe Bob isn’t so good at this task, or maybe it’s not the best time. Without ASR, Bob could wait for that information – if there was a long enough pause, or David and Eve said no, Bob could step up to the plate. The flip side is also the case, where once Bob, Carol and David say no, Eve can end up helping even when she’s clearly not the right choice. Think of this as a no-going-back search algorithm, which has a reasonably high rate of failure.

The second and related problem is that Bob has to either explicitly say no to Alice, which costs social points, so he may end up doing the thing even when he knows this is not an efficient allocation. Even if David is happy to help where Bob is not, Bob still had to say no, and you’d prefer to have avoided that.

The third problem is that this interrupts flow. If Alice requests help, Bob has to explicitly respond with a yes or no. Most people and all programmers know how disruptive this can be, and in this house, and I worry no one can ‘check out’ or ‘focus in’ fully while this rule is in place. It could also just be seen as costly in terms of the amount of noise it generates. This seems especially annoying if, for example, David is the one closest to the door, and Alice asks someone to let Eli in, and now multiple people have to either explicitly refuse the task or do it even though doing it does not make sense.

The fourth problem is that this implicitly rewards and punishes physical location, and could potentially lead to people avoiding physical proximity or the center of the house. This seems bad.

This means that for classes of help that involve large commitments of time, and/or large variance in people’s suitability for the task, especially variance that is invisible to other people, that this norm seems like it will be destructive.

On the other hand, if the request is something that anyone can do (something like “give me a hand with this” or “answer the phone”) especially one that benefits from physical proximity, so the default of ‘nearest person helps’ makes sense, this system seems excellent if combined with some common sense. One obvious extension is that if someone else thinks that they should do the task, they should speak up and do it (or even just start doing it), even if the person requesting didn’t know who to ask. As with many similar things, having semi-formal norms can be quite useful if they are used the right amount, but if abused they get disruptive – the informal systems they are replacing are often quite efficient and being too explicit lets systems be gamed.

The culture of abundance is the norm that seems at risk of actively backfiring. The comments pointed this out multiple times. The three obvious failure modes are tragedy of the commons (you don’t buy milk because everyone else will drink it) and inefficient allocation (you buy milk because you will soon bake a cake, and by the time you go to bake it, the milk is gone), and inability to plan (you buy milk, but you can never count on having any for your breakfast unless you massively oversupply, and you might also not have any cereal).

The result is likely either more and more exceptions, less and less available food, or some combination of the two, potentially leading to much higher total food expenses and more trips to supermarkets and restaurants. The closer the house is to the supermarket, the better, even more so than usual.

Of course, if everyone uses common sense, everyone gets to know their housemates preferences, and the food budget is managed reasonably such that buying food doesn’t mean subsidizing everyone else, this can still mostly work out, and certainly some amount of this is good especially with staple supplies that if managed properly should not come close to running out. However, this is not a norm that is self-sustaining on its own – it requires careful management along multiple fronts if it is to work.

Dragon Army Code of Conduct
While the norms and standards of Dragon Army will be mutable by design, the following (once revised and ratified) will be the immutable code of conduct for the first eight weeks, and is unlikely to change much after that.

  1. A Dragon will protect itself, i.e. will not submit to pressure causing it to do things that are dangerous or unhealthy, nor wait around passively when in need of help or support (note that this may cause a Dragon to leave the experiment!).
  2. A Dragon will take responsibility for its actions, emotional responses, and the consequences thereof, e.g. if late will not blame bad luck/circumstance, if angry or triggered will not blame the other party.
  3. A Dragon will assume good faith in all interactions with other Dragons and with house norms and activities, i.e. will not engage in strawmanning or the horns effect.
  4. A Dragon will be candid and proactive, e.g. will give other Dragons a chance to hear about and interact with negative models once they notice them forming, or will not sit on an emotional or interpersonal problem until it festers into something worse.
  5. A Dragon will be fully present and supportive when interacting with other Dragons in formal/official contexts, i.e. will not engage in silent defection, undermining, halfheartedness, aloofness, subtle sabotage, or other actions which follow the letter of the law while violating the spirit.  Another way to state this is that a Dragon will practice compartmentalization—will be able to simultaneously hold “I’m deeply skeptical about this” alongside “but I’m actually giving it an honest try,” and postpone critique/complaint/suggestion until predetermined checkpoints.  Yet another way to state this is that a Dragon will take experiments seriously, including epistemic humility and actually seeing things through to their ends rather than fiddling midway.
  6. A Dragon will take the outside view seriously,maintain epistemic humility, and make subject-object shifts, i.e. will act as a behaviorist and agree to judge and be judged on the basis of actions and revealed preferences rather than intentions, hypotheses, and assumptions (this one’s similar to #2 and hard to put into words, but for example, a Dragon who has been having trouble getting to sleep but has never informed the other Dragons that their actions are keeping them awake will agree that their anger and frustration, while valid internally, may not fairly be vented on those other Dragons, who were never given a chance to correct their behavior).  Another way to state this is that a Dragon will embrace the maxim “don’t believe everything that you think.”
  7. A Dragon will strive for excellence in all things, modified only by a) prioritization and b) doing what is necessary to protect itself/maximize total growth and output on long time scales.
  8. A Dragon will not defect on other Dragons.

There will be various operationalizations of the above commitments into specific norms (e.g. a Dragon will read all messages and emails within 24 hours, and if a full response is not possible within that window, will send a short response indicating when the longer response may be expected) that will occur once the specific members of the Army have been selected and have individually signed on.  Disputes over violations of the code of conduct, or confusions about its operationalization, will first be addressed one-on-one or in informal small group, and will then move to general discussion, and then to the first officer, and then to the commander.

Note that all of the above is deliberately kept somewhat flexible/vague/open-ended/unsettled, because we are trying not to fall prey to GOODHART’S DEMON.

Bonus points for the explicit invocation of Goodhart’s Demon.
That feeling where things start to creep you out and feel scary, the walls are metaphorically closing in and something seems deeply wrong? Yeah. I didn’t get it earlier (except somewhat when Duncan mentioned he was looking admirably at the Paper Street Soap Company, but that was more of a what are you thinking moment). I got that here.
So something is wrong. Or at least, something feels wrong, in a deep way. What is it?
First, I observe that it isn’t related at all to #1, #3, #4 or #7. Those seem clearly safe. So that leaves four suspects. On another pass, it’s also not #8, nor is it directly #6, or directly #5. On their own, all of those would seem fine, but once the feeling that something is wrong and potentially out to get you sets in, things that would otherwise be fine stop seeing fine. This is related to the good faith thing – my brain no longer is in good-faith-assuming mode. I’m pretty sure #2 is the problem. So let’s focus in there.
The problem is clearly in the rule that a Dragon will take responsibility for their emotional responses, and not blame the other person. That is what is setting off alarm bells.
Why? Because that rule, in other forms, has a history. The other form, which this implies, is:
Thou shalt have the “correct” emotional reaction, the one I want you to have, and you are blameworthy if you do not. 
Then some of the other rules reinforce that feeling of ‘and LIKE IT’ that makes me need to think about needing to control the fist of death. With time to reflect, I realize that this is a lot like reading the right to privacy into the constitution, in that it isn’t technically there but does get implied if you want the thing to actually function as intended.
These things are tough. I fully endorse taking full responsibility for the results as a principle, from all parties involved, such that the amount of responsibility is often hundreds of percents, but one must note the danger.
Once that is identified and understood, I see that I mostly like this list a lot.
Random Logistics
  1. The initial filter for attendance will include a one-on-one interview with the commander (Duncan), who will be looking for a) credible intention to put forth effort toward the goal of having a positive impact on the world, b) likeliness of a strong fit with the structure of the house and the other participants, and c) reliability à la financial stability and ability to commit fully to long-term endeavors.  Final decisions will be made by the commander and may be informally questioned/appealed but not overruled by another power.
  2. Once a final list of participants is created, all participants will sign a “free state” contract of the form “I agree to move into a house within five miles of downtown Berkeley (for length of time X with financial obligation Y) sometime in the window of July 1st through September 30th, conditional on at least seven other people signing this same agreement.”  At that point, the search for a suitable house will begin, possibly with delegation to participants.
  3. Rents in that area tend to run ~$1100 per room, on average, plus utilities, plus a 10% contribution to the general house fund.  Thus, someone hoping for a single should, in the 85th percentile worst case, be prepared to make a ~$1400/month commitment.  Similarly, someone hoping for a double should be prepared for ~$700/month, and someone hoping for a triple should be prepared for ~$500/month, and someone hoping for a quad should be prepared for ~$350/month.
  4. The initial phase of the experiment is a six month commitment, but leases are generally one year.  Any Dragon who leaves during the experiment is responsible for continuing to pay their share of the lease/utilities/house fund, unless and until they have found a replacement person the house considers acceptable, or have found three potential viable replacement candidates and had each one rejected.  After six months, should the experiment dissolve, the house will revert to being simply a house, and people will bear the normal responsibility of “keep paying until you’ve found your replacement.”  (This will likely be easiest to enforce by simply having as many names as possible on the actual lease.)
  5. Of the ~90hr/month, it is assumed that ~30 are whole-group, ~30 are small group or pair work, and ~30 are independent or voluntarily-paired work.  Furthermore, it is assumed that the commander maintains sole authority over ~15 of those hours (i.e. can require that they be spent in a specific way consistent with the aesthetic above, even in the face of skepticism or opposition).
  6. We will have an internal economy whereby people can trade effort for money and money for time and so on and so forth, because heck yeah.
I’ll leave the local logistics mostly to the locals, but will note that five miles is a long distance to go in an arbitrary direction – if I was considering this, I’d want to know a lot more about the exact locations that would be considered.
The one here that needs discussion is #6. You would think I would strongly endorse this, and you would be wrong. I think that an internal economy based on money is a bad idea, especially considering Duncan explicitly says in the comments that it would apply to push-ups. This completely misunderstands the point of push-ups, and (I think) the type of culture necessary to get a group to bond and become allies. The rich one can’t be allowed to buy off their chores and definitely not their punishments. The activities involved have a bunch of goals: Self-improvement and learning good habits, team bonding and building and coordination, and so forth. They are not simply division of labor. People buying gifts for the group builds the group, it is not simply dividing costs.
The whole point of creating a new culture of this type is, in a sense, to create new sacred things. Those things need to remain sacred, and everyone needs to be focused away from money. Thus, an internal economy that has too wide a scope is actively destructive (and distracting) to the project. I would recommend against it.
I feel so weird telling someone else to not create a market. It’s really strange, man.
Predictions
Now that we’ve reached the end (there are many comments, but one must draw the line somewhere), what do I think will actually happen, if the experiment is done? I think it’s likely that Duncan will get to do his experiment, at least for the initial period. I’d divide the results into four rough scenarios.
I think that the chances of success as defined by Duncan’s goals above are not that high, but substantial. Even though none of the goals are fantastical, there are a lot of ways for him to fall short. Doubtless at least one person will fail at least one of the goals, but what’s the chance that most of the people will stay, and most who stay will hit most of the goals and the group, such that victory can be declared? I’d say maybe 20%.
The most likely scenario, I think, is a successful failure. The house does not get what it came for, but we get a lot of data on what did and did not work, at least some people feel they got a lot out of it personally, and we can if we want to run another experiment later, or we learned why we should never do this again without any serious damage being done. I’d give things in this range maybe 30%.
The less bad failure mode, in my mind, is petering out. This is where the house more or less looks like a normal house by the end, except with the vague sense of let down and what might have been. We get there through a combination of people leaving, people ‘leaving’ but staying put, people slowly ignoring the norms more and more, and Duncan not running a tight enough ship. The house keeps some good norms, and nothing too bad happens, but we don’t really know whether the idea would work, so this has to be considered a let down. Still, it’s not much worse than if there was no house in the first place. I give this about 25%.
The other failure mode is disaster. This is where there are big fights and power struggles, or people end up feeling hurt or abused, and there is Big Drama and lots of blame to go around. Alternatively, the power thing gets out of hand, and outsiders think that this has turned into something dangerous, perhaps working to break it up. A lot of group houses end in this way, so I don’t know the base rate, but I’d say with the short time frame and natural end point these together are something like 25%. Breaking that down, I’d say 15% chance of ordinary house drama being the basic story, and 10% chance that scary unique stuff happens that makes us conclude that the experiment was an Arrested Development level huge mistake.
Good luck!
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Persona 5: Spoiler-Free Review

Epistemic Status: Spent 101 hours finishing the game, and similar amounts on finishing Persona 3 and Persona 4.

Short Version: Strongly endorse the game, the best Persona experience yet, but in the most important ways Persona 3 is still the best. If you would consider playing a Persona game, you should play one.

There are some minor spoilers here because it’s impossible to review a game without them, but I have done my best to make sure none of them impact the game experience. The tips at the end strike a balance between minor spoilers and helping you get the most out of the game.

Persona in General (Skip if you have played Persona 3, 4 or 5)

Playing a Persona game is a big commitment. A lot of what the games do is immerse you in their world and what it feels like to inhabit the life of the main character, and build his relationships with other characters. The passage of time, both in game time and real world clock time, is integral to that. Persona 5 does not need 100 hours to make its point (and I could have cut 10 of those out by doing less unnecessary grinding), but I think it genuinely does need 50.

The basic mechanic of Persona is that you decide how to spend each afternoon and each evening. You can spend that time in a variety of ways, all of them beneficial, and the game’s key events happen on their own schedule no matter what you do, so your time is precious. The two key types of actions are going into dungeons (the game can call them whatever it wants, they’re still dungeons), and doing everything else, where you are preparing for those dungeons.

In the dungeons, which in this game are called palaces, you are trying to accomplish as much as possible each trip. You want to gain as many levels and make as much money as possible, and get through as much of the palace as possible, so you don’t waste extra days you can use for something else. The combat is a lot like other RPGs, with the unique mechanic being the main character’s personas.

You get various personas in combat (and can pay to get back one you have had in the past), and can then combine them to make new personas. Your persona determines your attributes, which elements you are strong and weak to, and what skills (basically spells) you can use. You will be trying to keep your personas strong, which means continuously combining them into higher level personas, while keeping access to a variety of valuable skills, combining the need for different elements, hitting single and multiple targets, and having low cost and high cost versions so you pull out the big guns if and only if you need them. There are other things to think about as well. It has lots of interesting trade-offs and is quite the puzzle.

Outside of the dungeons, your primary concern is to deepen your connection (links) to a variety of confidants, which brings you a variety of benefits. You will also need to raise your five life skill levels, since there are threshold requirements to various actions including many confidants. You want to take efficient actions to improve your skills and links, and plan so that you always can take an efficient action each afternoon and each evening. You can only get each confidant to level 10, and each life skill to level 5, and only some of your best options are available each turn, so you want to spread your efforts around to avoid wasting time later, but you want to focus your efforts to unlock important benefits faster.

The most annoying part of the game is that you will often be presented with dialog choices during these events, with some choices being right and giving you more points, and others being bad and giving you less or no points. Sometimes all the choices give no points, so you can’t ever be sure you did anything wrong unless you reload and check all the choices, or look online. If you don’t maximize on these choices, it will make these choices more meaningful, but it will cost you a huge amount of time and you will miss out on some of the story (and the dungeons will be harder). It is up to you whether to look up the right answers online.

All Persona games follow the same core structure, and impart a lot of the same lessons and experiences. If you have played one before, you have a good idea if you want to play another.

Is Persona Worthwhile?

Yes. I think these games are pretty great. They come together in a way that is far more than the sum of their parts. However, you do have to enjoy and be invested in both major sections of the game, or you will spend a lot of hours on things you do not enjoy, and that isn’t worth it. A lot of Persona is effectively a TV series that has interactive elements, and if you don’t want to watch that show, then the games aren’t worth it. A lot of the other half is about grinding as efficiently as possible. The games do a lot of interesting things with this, but if you do not want to spend a lot of time trying to win RPG-style fights as efficiently as possible and working on the persona puzzle, then again the games are not right for you. Both halves are done quite well, but both need to work for you.

If both halves do work, and you buy in, the payoff is pretty great. If approached in the right way, the games can even inspire you to improve your life. Persona well played is time well spent.

The argument against playing (other than simply not enjoying it, once you try it) is long game is long and life is short.

How does Persona 5 compare to Persona 3 and Persona 4? What is different?

Persona 5 is a more modern and polished game, in addition to being for a more advanced system and having better graphics. That is mostly good, but not entirely.

There are some important flaws in the past games that have been fixed.

Fast travel has been improved, and makes it much easier to get where you want to go. The central map tells you which confidants are available each turn, and which of them would level up if you spent time with them, which saves a lot of otherwise wasted time. The confidants themselves will even text you to let you know they are available, which is great.

The confidants now grant you thematic abilities as you level them up, in addition to the boost to Persona fusion, making them distinct so your choices matter and you get more meaningful rewards.

When you fuse personas, you used to have to constantly re-roll the result until you figured out what was possible, and then do it again until you got the combination you wanted, which was quite frustrating, whereas in Persona 5 you get to choose the outcome. Fusion by result also gives you an easier way to see what is possible.

Getting your personas by negotiating with the enemies you fight, rather than with a card game you play after the battle, feels and plays much better. This isn’t costless, but it is definitely worth it.

When you study, you no longer randomly sometimes get double the effect. This used to force you to either reset repeatedly or accept the loss of time, so this is quite a welcome change.

The dungeons/palaces are now mostly designed rather than random, which makes them richer and more interesting places to travel through. The extra effort is appreciated, especially when it gets contrasted with the random dungeons the game still has.

The game will be clear when you are making important choices, and even double check with you if you are about to do something consequential the game does not expect.

The move to eliminate wasted time and make your actions more impactful is appreciated. If there was one change I would make to the game, it would be to do more things along these lines, skipping other things that are too repetitive once you had seen them enough times, and eliminating the last few random elements (crafting infiltration tools and strengthening personas, both of which still have random outcomes for no good reason).

Similarly, while Momentos (a huge random dungeon you can go to at any time) is in some ways a good idea, the fact that you are trying to minimize days spent there, and the huge number of levels to get through, means you end up spending lots of time against enemies that pose no threat to you, in gigantic chunks. The place is way too large, and could do with some amount of scaling to player level or getting harder over time.

I see three downsides to Persona 5 when comparing it to previous efforts.

The first is that the game makes time management too easy, and the later combat too easy.

I was maximizing my responses, but not otherwise doing too great a job, and still managed to maximize all the confidants with a substantial buffer at the end. In the past that required you to plan carefully and play close to optimally, but now it only requires that you follow some basic principles, and that makes the whole optimization puzzle feel a lot less pressing. In many places, you can trade money for time, and the game gives you a lot of money once you get into the mid-game. Persona 3 was the opposite, where you were always strapped for cash and had to make difficult choices. That went slightly too far, but was much better. Persona 4 was somewhere in the middle.

Early on, the combat is challenging, but later in the game it became increasingly difficult to die even without much grinding, provided you were doing well with the confidants and knew what personas to aim for. By the late game, it was easy to not only win combats safely but to do so without spending resources. Persona 3 and 4 both made this much harder, and provided a real challenge. This problem can be solved by playing on a harder difficulty level, so to some extent I suppose I have no one to blame but myself, and I will simply recommend moving up a difficulty level after the first few months, and not giving yourself permission to grind.

The second problem is that the game contains a number of ‘puzzles’ that seem like the game making work for you. Some of them can be cute or interesting, but they did sometimes feel like busywork and took me out of the experience. It is hard for a non-puzzle game to do puzzles that are worth your time. Similarly, often the actual puzzle was ‘find the place to press the button’ which is not especially fun.

The third problem is the central theme, where they still have not matched the high bar they set with Persona 3. They do pull off what they are going for, and I was not disappointed by where they went with things, but things still seem amiss. I do not want to get into spoilers for any of the games here (I may write a spoiler-rich version that does). I will say that I found some elements of what was going on, and the message that was being sent, to be disturbing, and its presence to be saying something deeply troubling about where we are as a culture and civilization. The more I reflected on it, the more something was wrong in a deep way, but I don’t want to say any more than that. Spoilers, and all that. After all it is up to the player to draw their own conclusions.

 

Which Persona to Play?

There are no spoilers across games, so you can play them in any order, but they benefit from being played in order. As with most series, once you see the slicker and smoother later interface, it becomes much harder to put up with the flaws in earlier games, and there are some nice payoffs for prior knowledge in Persona 5. If you knew you were going to play all three, I would say to go in order, and take substantial breaks between the games, at least several months each.

All three is a three hundred hour journey, so most will simply want to know which game is best if you only play one. I know it is not Persona 4; that is quite a good game, but also clearly dominated by your other choices. I would say that the best game to play is Persona 5, but the best game to have played is Persona 3. Persona 5 has higher Quality, and a smoother experience, as our ability to make games improves over the years, but Persona 3 is a bigger, more important game and a better and more important message (and finale). Persona 5 is just too much better of an experience minute to minute for me to tell you to go back into the past… but I want to do that anyway. Especially if you are still impressionable, at-risk youth.

You can be the judge, having heard that, of which game is right for you, or whether to continue the series if you have played before.

Tips for Maximum Enjoyment

Note that while these tips will help you win, I did not say tips for winning. If you want tips purely for winning or you want to go trophy hunting, read an FAQ or other online guide. This is a series of heuristics and house rules that will help you make the most of your experience, which does involve doing well and finishing the game, but does not mean maximizing every little thing. It does mean giving you some important tips for what to prioritize, but I won’t explain why so as not to spoil things.

Play on either Average or Hard difficulty level, and consider starting on Average and moving up to Hard a few months in.

It is fine to go online if you spend many minutes and can’t find the vent they want you to crawl through or place they want you to click on. Don’t give up right away, but life is short.

When you have a trade-off between money and time (the explicit trade-off will be money and life stats, or money and confidant points, which is the same thing), you usually want to spend the money and save the time, but do not feel obligated to spend 5,000 yen on a single extra point early in the game, as you will get better opportunities. Money starts off tight and you have some key big purchases later.

By contrast, you want to focus on making money from fights rather than getting items.

Always be fusing new Personas and keep higher base level Personas in your arsenal, rather than trying to level up those that start out lower level. Using those that start lower level will cause you problems down the line.

Keeping a wide array of low-SP elemental spells is important, to preserve SP. The really big late game guns aren’t even that good.

While you need to preserve SP, and you should not avoid fights, you should not need to double back and seek out extra fights in order to grind, nor should you need to grind extra in Momentos. Shin Megami Tensei games in general, and Persona in particular, punish you hard for trying to grind beyond where you are ‘supposed’ to be, so don’t waste your (real world) time doing that.

Having a matching persona for confidants you hang out with is almost always worth it, to the extent that you likely shouldn’t spend time with them if you don’t have one.

Choose the extent to which you will be using guides for the choices you make. The game is still highly winnable if you make choices blind and stick with them, and it makes the experience better in many ways.

If you can level up a confidant, that is almost always time well spent. If you spend time with a confidant without leveling them up, that is sometimes necessary later in the game, but is by default not time well spent.

When you get the ability to go out at night, you need to do certain things or you will lose a key confidant permanently. It’s not hard to figure out what to do, but you need to know that this is time sensitive.

The most important confidants to level up quickly are Sun, Temperance and Fortune. All three should be pursued whenever you can. Arguments can also be made for Moon, Star, Strength and Death. You will likely need a guide to get Strength 10, which is a huge jump in your power level when you get it.

 

 

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Book Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

Epistemic Status: Minus One Million Points

Shortness Status: Long (this is a proposed new norm I want to try out, in the sense of ‘apologies for writing a long letter, I did not have enough time to write a shorter one.’ By contrast, Against Facebook was longer in words, but would be short.)

Weapons of Math Destruction is an easy read, but a frustrating one.

The book claims to be about the misuse of big data and machine learning to guide decisions, how that harms people and leads to bad outcomes, and how to fix it. The distortions of aiming at and rewarding what we are measuring rather than what we actually want worries me more and more. It is one of the biggest issues of our age, so I was excited to read a new take on it, even if I expected to already know the bulk of the facts and ideas presented.

There is some of that in the book, and those parts provide some useful information, although if you are reading this you likely already know a lot of it.

I.

What the book is actually mostly about on its surface, alas, is how bad and unfair it is to be a Bayesian. There are two reasons, in her mind, why using algorithms to be a Bayesian is just awful. 

The first objection is that probabilistic algorithms are probabilistic. It is just awful that predictive algorithms are used to decide who should get or keep a job, or get cheaper credit, or see certain advertisements, because the algorithm might be wrong. Look at this example of someone the algorithm got wrong! Look at this reason the algorithm got it wrong! Look how wrong it is! Clearly we need to rely on humans, who get things wrong more often, but do so in a less systematic fashion so we can’t prove exactly why any given human got something wrong.

The second objection is that algorithms rank people and options likely to be better above people and options likely to be worse. It is just awful that an algorithm notices that people who have bad credit, or live in a certain zip code, or shop at a certain store, or share some other trait, are either a worse or a better business proposition. You see, this is not fair and probably makes you a racist. This is because the people who are ranked either worse or better tend to be poor, and/or they tend to be not white, and that is just awful. If the resulting system gives them more attention in some way – say, by marketing to them to sell them things they might want and offering them discounts, or providing them with more government attention – then you are taking advantage of them, being a predator and destroying their lives, which you should at least have the common decency to do without an algorithm. If the resulting system gives them less attention in some way, by not marketing to them and charging them more, or by providing them with less government attention – then you are discriminating against them by denying them opportunities and services, which is not fair. Once again, you could at least have the decency to do this without an algorithm so no one can be sure exactly how you made your decisions. And again, since this is likely correlated with race, that also makes you a racist. Which is of course just awful. 

These evil algorithms are sneaky. If you give them race as an input, they’ll pick up on the correlations involved and show how racist they (and you) are. Since you of course are not racist, you hide that data (but of course she will blame you for that too, since if you hide that data, we can’t see just how racist you truly are). So instead the evil algorithms notice things that are correlated with race, like income or zip code, and use those instead. So then you try to hide those, and then the algorithms get even sneakier and start picking up on other things that correlate in less direct ways. Or even worse, perhaps they do a good job of figuring out the actual answer, and the actual answer happens to be correlated with some trait you have to be fair to and therefore the algorithm is just awful. 

She also doesn’t like it when humans make similar decisions without the use of algorithms, but somehow that makes it better, because you can’t point to the rule that did it. Besides, did you really expect the humans to ignore data they have and act against their own interests? Well, yes, she and similar people do expect this, or at least think not doing so is just awful, but they understand that there are limits.

She never uses the term, but basically she is arguing against disparate impact when compared against completely random decisions – that in the end, for a given set of groups, if a system does not result in equal outcomes for that group, it is not fair to that group, and for some groups this is just awful and means we need to ban the system, and force people to use worse systems instead that are bad proxies for what you are trying to measure. Then you complain about how the proxies are.

That is not the most charitable way of describing the argument being made, but I do not think it is a straw man, either. This is what the author explicitly claims to believe.

II.

In something that is not a coincidence, the way I react to such arguments was brought home by Sarah’s excellent recent post, The Face of the Ice. There are man versus man stories, where we are competing for resources including social and sexual status, and then there are man versus nature stories where we are talking about survival. When dealing with potentially big issues, ones that can threaten our very survival, the temptation is to refuse to realize or admit that, and instead focus on the man versus man aspects and how you or the groups you like are being treated unfairly and how that is just awful. 

Thus, people talk about the unemployment that will be caused by self-driving cars instead of thinking, whoa, this will transform our entire society and way of life and supercharge our ability to move around both people and goods and maybe we should be both super excited and super worried about that for bigger reasons. People see that we are developing artificial intelligence… and worry about whether it will be racist or sexist, or our plans for income redistribution, rather than what to do with orders of magnitude more wealth and whether it will wipe out the human race because we are made of atoms it could use for something else, and also wipe out all utility in the universe. Which are questions I spend a lot of time on, since they seem rather important.  But if you admit that the problems are that big, you would have to stop playing zero sum status games.

III.

The good news is that the author does provide some good starting points to thinking about some of the real problems of big data. Rather than discard the facts that do not fit her narrative, she to her credit shares them anyway. She then tends to move on without noticing the implications of those thoughts, but my standards are low enough that I consider that a win. She also has the strange habit of noting that the thing she is talking about isn’t really a ‘weapon of math destruction’ but it has the potential to be one if things went a little farther in the direction they are headed.

One could even engage in a Straussian reading of the book. In this reading, the real problem is the distortions and destructive games that result from big data algorithms. The constant warnings about the poor are real enough, and point out real problems we should address, but are more important as illustrations of how important it will be for us to get good treatment from the algorithms. At its most basic level, you are poor, so the algorithm treats you badly, and you fix that by not being poor. Not being poor is a good idea anyway, so that works out well. If we start using more and more convoluted proxies? We might have a much bigger problem.

(The unspoken next line is, of course, that if we use these proxies as optimization targets or training data for true artificial intelligence, that would be infinitely worse, but I do not think she gave such issues any thought whatsoever.)

This is why her best discussion is about college rankings. She makes the case that it is primarily the US News & World Report college rankings, and the choices those rankings made, that have caused the explosion in tuition and the awful red queen’s race between different colleges. While I am not fully convinced, she did convince me that the rankings are a much more important cause than I realized.

My abstraction of her story is simple. Before the ratings, everyone knew vaguely what the best universities were (e.g. Harvard and Yale), and by looking carefully one could figure out vaguely how good a school was, but it was very difficult to know much beyond that. The world silently cried out for a rating system, and US News & World Report made the first credible attempt at creating such a system. They chose a whole bunch of things that one could reasonably assume would correlate with quality, such as selectivity of admissions and the accomplishments of graduates, along with a few things that one could at least hope would be correlated with quality, especially if you were measuring and thus controlling for other factors, such as graduation rates. Then, to make sure the ratings had a shot at looking reasonable rather than weird, they included a survey they sent out to colleges.

What they did not include was the cost of tuition, because higher tuition correlates with higher quality, and they wanted the ‘high quality’ colleges like Harvard to come out on top, not whatever state university turned out to be the best value for your dollar.

The result of this was a credible list that students and potential faculty and those evaluating students and faculty could use to evaluate institutional quality. Eventually, the ratings evolved to include less weight on the surveys and more on various measurements. Students used the guide as a key input in choosing where to go to college, which was reasonable since their alternative measurements were terrible. Those evaluating those students also used the guide, especially since admission rates were a key input, so going to a top rated college became an advantage in and of itself, even if the rating wasn’t based on anything.

Since everyone in the system was now using the ratings as a key input in their evaluations, colleges then started devoting a lot of attention to moving up in those ratings, and other similar ratings that came later. A lot of that effort meant improving the quality of the university, especially at first. Some places (she uses the example of TCU) invested in athletics to attract better students and move up. Others worked to make sure students did what they needed to do in order to graduate, or helped their students find good jobs, or even just tried to improve the quality of the education their kids got.

Then there were those who tried to pass the test without learning the material. Some tried to get more applicants to look more selective. I had a personal experience with this. Stanford University sent me a nice card congratulating me on my qualifying for the USAMO, and asked me to consider their fine educational institution. This was before I had started my ongoing war with San Francisco, so I would have welcomed a chance to go to that institution, but my high school only allowed us to apply to seven colleges, and my GPA was substantially below the lowest GPA anyone at my high school had ever had while being accepted to Stanford. My rough math put my chances of admission at 0%, so I had no intent of wasting one of my precious seven slots on them instead of a place I might actually gain admission.

My parents did not understand this. All they saw was that Stanford had asked me to apply, and Stanford was awesome so I was applying to Stanford, whether I liked it or not. This led to me having an admissions officer from Stanford on the phone, telling her that both of us knew Stanford was never going to accept me, and would she please just tell my parents that for the love of God. I didn’t want to plead my case for admission because I knew I had none, I knew that and she knew that, but of course revealing this doesn’t help Stanford so she kept saying that of course every application is carefully considered and we hope you can welcome you to the class of 2001.

This was the first time someone from San Francisco decided to act superficially nice while screwing up my life for the tiniest possible gain to themselves. It was not the last.

In any case, this problem has since gotten much worse. At least back then I knew my safety schools would accept me, whereas now schools that notice you are ‘too good’ for them will reject you, because you’re not going to attend anyway, so why not improve their numbers instead of holding out the vain hope that they were the only place not to notice your criminal record, or worse, your sexist Facebook post? Thus the game gets ever more frustrating and complicated, and punishes even more those who refuse to play it.

All of these games cost money to play, but you know what the schools aren’t being rated on? That’s right, tuition! So they are free to spend ever more money on all the things, and charge accordingly, and the students see this as another sign of a quality institution. She doesn’t mention student loans, which massively contribute to this problem. This is consistent with her other blind spots, since student loans are good and increased tuition is bad, but that story does not conflict with the story being told here, and I did update in favor of tulip ratings mattering more and tulip subsidies mattering less.

Would a lot of that have happened anyway? Certainly, especially given that other ratings would have come out instead. But it seems logical that when a decision can be distilled down into a pretty good number that considers some but not all factors, then people will focus on gaming that number, and the factors that don’t improve that number will be ignored even if they matter more. Goodhart’s Demon will win the day.

IV.

Other sections are less convincing, but I will go over them quickly.

She talks about getting a job, and how bad it is that there are algorithms evaluating people. Even more than elsewhere in the book, it felt like she was writing the bottom line. This resulted in some confused arguments that she knew were not good, but that she used either because she believes her conclusion or because you should be using a Straussian reading.

The first argument against algorithms in employment is that sometimes they miss out on a good employee. While obviously true, this isn’t saying much, since every other method known to man does this, and most do it far more often, so this objection is like calling self-driving cars unsafe because they might kill people 10% as often as human drivers, instead of human drivers who I am confident do it 100% as often.

The second argument is that the algorithms are used in many different places, so different decisions will be correlated, and those who score poorly won’t be able to find a job at all, whereas in the old method different places used different systems so you could just keep applying and eventually someone would take a liking to you and give you a chance. This does point to the paradox that it seems like it is easier to get a job if everyone’s ratings are different, despite the fact that the same number of people end up with jobs, so it cannot be easier in general to find a job, rather than increasing the returns to perseverance: The randomized ratings make it harder to find a job on the first try, because you face more other applicants that will be rated highly (since they do not automatically find jobs due to the random factor). However, if you apply a lot more than others, your chances go up, whereas if every job uses a common application, more tries does not help you much, and a low scorer is drawing dead.

In some sense this change is good, since it means less time wasted with job applications and results in better matching, but in another sense it is bad because it cuts out the signal of how much the applicant cares. Having to apply for lots of jobs in order to find one means that those who want jobs the most will get the jobs (or the better jobs) since they will send the costly signal of applying more often, whereas in the algorithmic world, that confers no advantage, so those who need a job the most could be shut out by those who don’t care much. Costly signals can be good! So there’s at least some argument here, if it is too hard for the algorithm to measure how much you want the job.

The problem of a mistake-making algorithm is also self-correcting in a free market. If the algorithm makes mistakes, which of course it does, and enough of your competition follow its recommendations, you can get great employees at discount prices with high motivation by having humans look carefully to find the good employees the algorithm is turning down. This is especially true if the algorithm is using proxies for race, class, sex or other such categories (argument three that she uses) since those are known to throw out a lot of great people. She answers her own third objection by pointing out that the old system of ‘get a friend to recommend you’ is overall more discriminatory in the bad sense, on every axis both good and bad, than any algorithm being used in the wild.

Her talk about what happens on the job is similar. Yes, these algorithms make mistakes and sometimes evaluate good teachers as bad teachers. Yes, some of them have tons of noise in them. But what is the alternative? If these systems are not on average improvements why are corporations (and governments) using them more and more? The argument she relies on, that sometimes the algorithms make dumb mistakes, is very weak. Humans make really, really dumb mistakes all the time.

What she does not mention in either section, but is the real issue with such things, is that the system will be gamed and that gaming it might take over people’s lives. This is even more glaring due to her using teachers as an example, as teaching to the test is rapidly taking over all of primary and secondary education (or so I am told). Teaching was already a thankless job, and it seems like it is becoming more and more of a hell every year.

If there is an algorithm that will determine who can get hired for entry-level jobs, how long will it take before people learn what it is looking for? How long after that do they start sculpting their resumes and answers to that algorithm? How long after that do they start to post on Facebook what the system wants to see, take the classes it wants them to take, buy the products the algorithm wants to see them buy? Where does it end? Do we all end up consulting a get-hired strategy guide before we choose a pizza place, unless we already have a job, in which case we consult the get-promoted guide?

Then how does the algorithm respond to that action, and how do we respond in kind? How deep does this go?

Those questions terrify me. They don’t keep me up at night, because I belong to the General Mathis school of not letting things keep me up at night (this is why I had to quit the online game of Advanced Civilization), but they are a reasonable choice if you need something to do that for you.

She also notes that a lot of this involves using increasingly convoluted and strange measures, such as mysterious ‘e-scores’ and personality tests, that do not correlate all that well with results, and which she assumes tend to be discriminatory. She contrasts this to IQ tests and credit scores, which are much better predictors and tend to discriminate less and be more ‘fair’ because they only measure what you have done and what you can do, rather than what category of person your past signals that you belong to. She then demands that we do something about this outrage.

I agree with her that IQ tests and credit scores sound way better. It is a real shame that we decided to make it illegal to use them in hiring decisions. So if we want better measures, there’s a solution. I don’t think she is going to like it.

The section on insurance brings up the paradox of insurance. As the purchaser, you have a bunch of knowledge about how likely you are to need insurance. As the insurer, the company has some information it can use to estimate how likely you are to need it, and how much it will cost them when you do. There are then two problems. The first is that if many people only buy when your hidden information says you will need the insurance, and/or when you intend to engage in behaviors that make the insurance more valuable, then it becomes very hard to sell anyone insurance. That’s classic and she doesn’t talk much about it, because it is the consumer benefiting at the expense of a corporation, but if there was a big data algorithm that the consumer could use to decide how much insurance to buy, what would that do to the insurance market? What would happen if it was illegal for the seller of insurance to look at it, or the calculation required too much private data? Could insurance markets collapse? Is this in our future?

Instead she talks about problem two, which is if the insurer uses the information they know to decide who is likely to need insurance, they might start charging different amounts to different people. This would result in people being effectively charged money for their life histories and decisions, which is of course just awful. If poor people cost more to insure, for example (and she says that in many cases this is true), they might have to pay more. As you might guess, I am not sympathetic. This sounds like people paying for the additional costs that their decisions and lifestyles create. This should result in people making better decisions. If this has bad distributional consequences, which it might, the right answer is progressive taxation and redistribution (to the extent that you find this desirable).

Again, she misses that the real problem would be if people started trying to change the outcome of the algorithm and whether the system would be robust enough to get them to do this via ‘do thing that actually decreases expected insurance payouts and is socially good’ rather than ‘do thing that manipulates the system but does not actually accomplish anything.’ She does hint at this a bit when she talks about wellness systems put in place by employers, and how they are sometimes imposing stupid lifestyle costs on employees, but she thinks of this as corporations trying to steal wages by charging some employees more fees, rather than as corporations trying to use algorithms to improve employee health, and the problems that result from that disaster.

This pattern is quite frustrating, as she keeps touching on important and interesting questions, only to pull back to focus on less interesting and less important ones.

One real concern she does point out is that some insurance companies use their systems to figure out who is likely to do more comparison shopping, and give higher prices to those likely to do less comparison shopping. Humans do this all the time, of course, but that does not make it a good thing. When an algorithm makes something easier to do, it can increase the harm and force us to confront something that wasn’t previously worth confronting. If everyone does this to you, and all the companies raise your prices by 10%, you’re paying 10% more no matter how much you shop around. Then again, it would be very much to a company’s advantage to have a way for you to tell them that no really you did comparison shop, since figuring out what that signal is represents a costly signal that you will actually put in the work to comparison shop, so this equilibrium also seems unstable, which makes me worry about it less. There’s also the issue of comparison websites, which also credibly signal that the user is doing comparison shopping.

Finding credit, another of her sections, is another place where we are already at the phase of everyone gaming the system all the time. When I moved out to Denver, I couldn’t get any credit. This made me quite angry, since I had always paid all my bills, but it turns out that the algorithms think that if you have not borrowed money, you might not pay borrowed money back. As a human, I think that if you never borrow money, it’s a great sign that you don’t need to, so of course you’ll pay it back (and thought this was obvious logic, and that the way you convince the bank to give you a loan is to prove that you don’t need one).

As a result, I had to get a pre-paid credit card so that I could explicitly owe someone money and then pay them back, even though I didn’t really ever owe anyone anything, so that I could then get a regular credit card with a tiny limit, so I could actually owe someone money for real, and pay that back, and so on in a cycle until a few years later when I get periodic new credit card offers in the mail with giant credit lines. We pay our bills on time in large part to protect our credit ratings, and also do other things to help our credit ratings. In this case, the system seems stable. If we decide that group of things X gives you a high credit rating, then the willingness to do lots of X is a great sign that you are worthy of credit even if X has nothing to do with anything! If you take the time to make sure your credit report looks good, I do in fact trust you to pay your bills.

This is an example of a great outcome, and it would be good to put more thought into how we got there. A strong argument she could make, but does not make (at least explicitly) is that we got there because credit ratings exclude lots of data they could use, but choose not to thus giving people control over those ratings in important ways, and preventing those ratings from intruding on the rest of our lives. Of course, the right way to respond to this is to allow people to use credit ratings for more things, thus crowding out other measures that use data we would rather not involve, instead of banning credit scores, which invites the use of whatever data we can find.

The sections on online advertising and civic life did not seem to raise any new and interesting concerns, so I’m going to skip over them, other than to echo her and issue the periodic public service announcement that for profit universities are almost all scams or near scams, you should never, ever, ever use them, and anything that gives them access to potential victims is scum and deserves to burn in hell.

V.

I would say that given my expectations, the book was about a 50th percentile result. That’s not a disaster, but it is a failure, because book utility has a huge fat positive tail. Given you have read this far, I can’t recommend that you read the book, since I do not think you would get much more out of reading the whole thing. If you are especially interested, though, it is a quick and mostly painless read and does have some useful facts in it I glossed over, so you could do a lot worse. I certainly do worse with my time reasonably often.

Posted in Death by Metrics, Economic Analysis, Personal Experience, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

How to Destroy Civilization

Epistemic Status: Parable. Can’t tell to what extent I am being serious but it’s not zero.

I.
Recently I made a huge mistake. At heart, I am a gamer. Playing games is fun and makes me happy, whereas not playing games often enough is less fun and makes me sad. I especially love high level competitive board and card games, with two of my favorite vacations being at the World Boardgaming Championship.
I’ve spent many days at conventions playing Advanced Civilization and enjoyed them all, from the early round games I won easily to my last place finish in the finals at AvalonCon and getting blown out by calamities early in the finals at WBC. Some day when I have the time to do so, I will go back and try again.
So when board gamer extraordinaire (and Magic: The Gathering Hall of Famer) Randy Buehler approached me about playing in an online Advanced Civilization game, that sounded like a lot of fun. It also sounded dangerous. Would I end up spending way too much time and attention on the game? Spoiler alert: Hell yes. He assured me that I would only need to check the game twice a day, and that seemed like a reasonable schedule and a good time, but would I be capable of that? Spoiler alert: Hell no. I would stay up nights to finish up trade negotiations. I would lay in bed unable to sleep thinking about what would happen two or three turns down the line. Actions in the game, including both others’ decisions and my own mistakes, would threaten to fly me into rages. My sleep and work suffered, and when I had an otherwise awful week on top of everything, things got pretty bad. Luckily they found a replacement, and I was able to leave the game without breaking it up – the others are still having fun and have the entire last third of the game to play, although I was far from the only one who got pulled in too deep!
You may be wondering whether this contributed to my not updating the blog for several weeks. You would be correct. Pro Tour: Amonkhet was also a major contributor to that. Hopefully I can get back in a good groove.
If you are interested in checking out the website, it is: http://civ.rol-play.com. Advanced Civilization is one of the all-time great games, and I am strongly considering writing a guide, but just remember that it is super, duper, ridiculously long (both the game, and any guide I would write) and with the extra information you get in an online game you can get wrapped up in the game far more than you might think. I do still intend to try a real-time, one-day game online sometime, and to play games in real life. So in some sense I’m giving it a very high recommendation, but in another sense I’m warning you to stay away. It is up to you to decide which end of this should win.
II.
There are a lot of stories I could tell about the game, but the one I want to tell is a parable of how Trump won the Republican nomination.
To be clear, this is only a parable. I have nothing against anyone who played. The guy playing Crete, as far as I can tell, was a nice guy trying a strategy out in a game, and was actually very considerate of everyone in other ways, such as helping us track public knowledge about what cards were where. Would game with him again, and that goes for the other players as well. No matter how mad I was at him in game, that does not reflect badly on the person and stays in the game. The game is always self-contained. That is (part of) the Gamer’s Code of Honor by which I got 10 points to spend on other skills. That’s a lot of why we play. The fact that I was losing the ability to keep it self-contained was the whole reason I had to stop.
Because it all hit me a little too close to what’s left of home. Again, this is a parable.
Crete, played by a player who credibly was willing to fight a war even if it meant going down in flames (partly because he was going down in flames by default regardless), decided to start attacking other players. He had the choice to attack, and therefore hurt, whoever he wanted. At first, the motivation was to do what was best for Crete. When that first attack brought no retaliation, he attacked again where he would benefit most and also took a cost-less opportunity to hurt my position. No one wanted to do anything about it, because that would motivate Crete to attack them instead of other players. The next turn, he attacked two more players, and did his best to hurt people’s positions even when it didn’t help him, counting on his credible threat to retaliate against anyone who stood up to him. Out of the six other players, he had now hit five of us.
Given that this is a trading game, we had an easy solution to this: If we all just stopped trading with Crete, no amount of war would do him any good, and he would be left in the dustbin of history.
Despite that, everyone else seemed content to sit there and take it, other than one of them trying to retake the city Crete had raided. People thought Crete was weak, and could not actually win the game, so better that he not turn his eyes and fleets in their direction.
I decided not to take it. It was a matter of principle. Madmen cannot be allowed to win the day by threatening to engage in destructive behavior and destroy those who stand in their way. At some point, one must retaliate and stand up to bullies, or bullies will rule. We are told that what they are doing is ‘irrational’ but if it works, why is it irrational? We are told that striking back against this is ‘irrational’ but if it is clear the good people of the world won’t stand up to this behavior, they are asking to be curb-stomped by it over and over again – and we would basically deserve it. Decision theory says we must fight now, so that we did not have to fight in the past and do not need to fight in the future; pacifism is a losing strategy. Our desires for justice, for revenge, for retaliation sometimes gets out of control, but it is that risk that keeps the bullies and evildoers in check. We remain civilized in part because everyone has their breaking point, and you can never be sure where that point is.
And again, all we had to do was agree to stop trading with the pirate king. If you can’t agree to stop trading with a bunch of pirates who are raiding your cities, in a game with no stakes, what hope do we have standing up to real bullies in real situations with real stakes? Will evil always triumph over good because good is dumb?
So I declared an embargo against Crete and called upon the other victims of his aggression to join me. When Crete explicitly threatened to attack anyone who joined, I promised to help defend the cities of those who cooperated, and to give better pricing to embargo members than non-embargo members, with my intention to be slightly nicer than normal to allies and much less nice than normal to those who were attacked and yet wouldn’t join.
What did the others do?
Illyria, who Crete hadn’t attacked, announced they wouldn’t cooperate. I’d expected that, but had hoped for better.
Africa joined the cause, but was already on really bad terms with Crete and the two of them basically never traded, then demanded I give him increasingly better terms even when we’d already agreed on terms, because I’d said that embargo members get a ‘good deal.’
Assyria outright asked to be bribed to join the coalition.
Egypt didn’t even give me a chance to bribe him and just traded with Crete.
Only Babylon agreed to cooperate, and likely only because he absolutely needed to do a large trade with me that turn or we both would suffer, and even that was as part of our deal.
Around this point, I managed to find a replacement, so the story will continue without me. I hope the new Iberian president can brig home the victory, but I fear that everyone will just keep being nice to Crete and he will find a way to catch up and maybe even win.
III.
In case it isn’t clear yet, the nations of the game are the candidates, and Crete is Trump. No one thinks he can win, but he’s good at hurting others, so everyone treats him nicely and cooperates, hoping he’ll clear a path for them to win. He hits more and more people, and when anyone starts hitting back, he threatens to hit them even harder instead of hitting others. If someone threatens a fight, he says bring it on, cause he’s got nothing to lose.
When someone does stand up to him, others refuse to cooperate, because they figure staying out of the fight means watching others destroy each other. So no one can afford to stand up without falling behind the field, and everyone learns not to poke the bear, even though the bear is busy poking everyone in sight, with or without that being a metaphor for something else. At some points, everyone looks around to see if coordination is going to happen, but it never gets off the ground in time. Everyone thinks there’s plenty of time for that later, if need be.
Then, by the time everyone realizes that wait a minute, that guy is actually going to win, and honestly they’d prefer any other result, it’s too late. He wins. People like him win. They get the job. They go on television. They scam investors. They start and run business after business, as I have seen up close. They take leadership roles, then take advantage of people like you and me, over and over again. They use this leverage, and their willingness to hurt others on a whim  and break deals, to gain further power and leverage, and do it again on a bigger scale. Everyone tells you to put those guys in charge, to do business with them, to pitch them for their investments. If you don’t make the deal, others will blame you. Screw them. If you did make the deal, you would have inevitably been thrown you under the bus, because that’s who they are.
They enslave our children’s children who make compromise with sin.
No matter what they are offering, it is not worth it, because all they will do is eat you last. Walk away. Stand up, say no, fight back, and take the consequences.
Posted in Games Other Than Magic, Personal Experience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Help Us Find Your Blog (and others)

Previously: Against Facebook – Call to Action, Against Facebook – Details

Note (5/2): Due to my need to prepare for Magic: The Gathering’s Pro Tour: Amonkhet, updates to this blog and progress exploring new blogs will be slow for the next two weeks. I will still get to the full list in time, and anticipate finishing in May.

Inspired by posts by and conversations with Alyssa Vance, and the desire to do some tangible things beyond laying out my case, this post will attempt to start fixing the biggest problem that personal blogs have: by default, no one knows about them.

Ideally, this problem is addressed gradually over time, as those who do see such blogs post links to their best posts, and those who follow those links then discover the blogs, resulting in growth. Also helpful is the blogroll, which allows those who like one blog to discover other similar blogs that the author recommends. This is not the worst system, but it is not great either, and right now I am not even doing my part in having a proper blogroll.

I can at least fix that, and while doing so, give those who have blogs I do not know about a chance to find me. So here is the plan:

If you have a blog, comment here with your name, the name and concept of your blog, and a link to either your blog and/or what you consider your best post. I will then read at least one of your posts (at least a few thousand words, unless it is unreadable), leave one comment, and consider adding you to my RSS feed and blogroll.

If you don’t have a blog, but you want to start one, this post will still be around, and I get an email whenever anyone comments. Email me when you feel you have hit your groove and have a few good posts. If we are personal friends, one post is enough to get you on my RSS.

Whether or not you have a blog, you are also encouraged to name and link to one to three additional blogs that you feel are great that no one has mentioned yet, and I will check them out.

If something is R-rated (as in actually inappropriate for kids, not just dropping an occasional f-bomb) please say so. If something is X-rated, do not link to it here, as this is neither the time nor the place.

Note that for now I have turned off approval-first comment moderation for this blog. Let’s make sure I do not regret that!

To avoid getting in too far over my head: These commitments are good for the first 100 people to comment here, although if it gets into the 100-person range it may take me a while to catch up. It is also good for anyone I am friends with regardless of how many people post. If this exercise seems productive, I will keep doing it even beyond 100 people, but I am very careful not to commit to things if I am not willing to follow through.

Posted in Best Laid Plans, Facebook Sequence | Tagged , , , | 39 Comments

Against Facebook: Comparison to Alternatives and Call to Action

Previously: Against Facebook: Details

Take Action: Help Us Find Your Blog (and others)

Epistemic Status: Shouting from the rooftops. For further details, see previous post.
This post is my recommendations for how to communicate online. If you need details and/or detailed justifications of my view of Facebook’s awfulness, check out Against Facebook: Details. I recommend reading it if either the details would interest you for their own sake, or you do not understand what I mean when I say that Facebook is out to get us.

I consider the non-obvious goals of a unified system to be

1: Minimize check-in requirements

When you feel the need to constantly check something or risk missing important things, that is very bad. You should minimize the number of places you need to check in, and the cost to checking in at those locations. You do not want that Skinner Box addictive drive to constantly hit refresh, but if you need to have it, have it in one place where you know right away if there is indeed something new and what it is. When Facebook is the source of important information and interaction, it adds another check-in point without taking away the need for others.

2: Know what you are responsible for seeing, and what others are responsible for having seen

There needs to be agreement that communication in some forms means you are responsible for seeing that information within a reasonable time frame, and equally important, you need agreement that communication in other forms does not carry this same obligation. Facebook operates in a grey area where people assume you have seen anything important, sometimes (in my personal experience) even if they have been explicitly told multiple times you never look at Facebook at all, but there is a real danger that any given post was never in your News Feed at all, let alone seen. Facebook needs to be in the second category, of things that no one is assumed to have seen unless they explicitly tell you (via a like, a response, or otherwise).

3: You need to be able to see everything you want to see, and know you have seen it, with a minimum of stuff you do not want

Advertisements are a negative, but so is being forced to see stuff you do not want along with stuff you do want, and having to sort through all of that. Ideally low-quality stuff is there when you want it but not mixed in too much with high-quality. You need a reasonable record of what you have and have not read, and to avoid unnecessary duplication. You absolutely, positively need to be able to know that you have not missed anything. On Facebook, this option is not available at this time except for the See First option.

4: You need to not be punished if you leave things for later

The worst is when things actually vanish from the internet entirely; anything that does this or gives daily rewards is automatically in the out to get you camp and needs to be treated accordingly. Almost as bad is if failure to read the entirety of your feed now effectively means you cannot reasonably recover that information later. A Twitter feed is strictly chronological, so although you have to scroll down a lot, you can reasonably pick up where you left off, making it the worst acceptable situation for this requirement – anything worse is really bad. Once you let time pass, any sort of attempt to recover what has been lost on Facebook is quite time consuming.

5: You need to be in control and avoid things that are out to get you 

This means both the sense of ‘this Facebook habit is out of control and ruining my life’ and the more basic sense of ‘Facebook does not give me control over the News Feed.’ Facebook fails horribly on both counts. Staying in control is tough, but we strive to give ourselves a fighting chance!

Even if you avoid getting got by things that are out to get you, the need to do so almost always has a severe negative impact on the experience.

6: Contribute all worthy material to the collective commons

Anything you contribute, that might be of use to the world in the longer term (where the world can mean your friends up to the actual entire world) should be in a form where the world can use it and refer back to it, to build upon it. Facebook is very bad for this.

7: Reach those you want to reach

This one is tricky and situation-dependent, and the reason a lot of people who know better end up using Facebook anyway. I understand if this requires a little compromise.

Given that, what are our choices?

Known alternatives to using Facebook include actually meeting people in person (yes, it can be done!), phones, texting, Skype, chat rooms such as Discord or Slack, email, email groups, personal blogs, community blogs, forums and other social networks such as Twitter and Tumblr. Some things are hybrids of these (e.g. a Tumblr is a personal blog inside a social network).

What should we do?

Everyone should have an RSS reader of some kind. I use Feedly. If you do not have one, get one, and move as much of the internet that you follow onto your RSS reader. RSS readers allow you to quickly and easily know what has new content, track what you have and have not seen, and let you look at the parts of the world you are interested in today and not the ones you are not. They are a known great technology, and what makes it viable to follow all your friends’ personal blogs.

Use Facebook only for events, sharing contact information and messenger, and when absolutely necessary viewing of Facebook groups. For the few accounts that you simply have to keep watch over, use See First. With See First, they have given you a not out to get you tool, so use it while it lasts. View and use Facebook Groups the bare minimum amount you are socially forced to, and keep in mind that for posting that amount is probably zero.

You can also make a using-Facebook exception for posting links to your own posts elsewhere, but you have to feel bad about doing it. Do not consider this a ‘free action’ and strive to avoid it, but I understand if you feel it is necessary.

Use blogs to engage in discourse and to post anything public that will be of value more than a week in the future. Use an RSS reader to read other people’s blogs. If you are seeking truth, and that truth is longer lasting than ‘where shall we have lunch’ then help us create an archive and stand on the shoulders of giants. If you don’t have a blog, WordPress has been great for me and gives you an easy way to start.

Post your long form stuff to appropriate community blogs whenever possible. Again, this is the best thing for the long term, but it is important to make sure that the content fits where you are putting it. General note: If you ever feel that something I post here belongs on another site, ask me in the comments and I will likely be happy to share.
If you need to contact someone in real time, do it in person. If that is not practical, set up a video chat or phone call. If that is not practical, use email, text or messenger. Text and messenger are better for actual real time talk than email, but email prevents diversification of communication methods, so if it is almost as good, it should win. And in particular, go see your friends and family in person, or failing that call them. It is better.
If you need the people you know to know something, but not in real time, use email. Period. Email wins all ties. Email is the place-you-are-responsible-for-checking-periodically. If it reaches your email, and you do not see it after a reasonable amount of time, that’s on you. If it does not reach your email, it is on me. End of story.

 

Use email lists or Google Groups to coordinate among friends, even if there is a Facebook event. These technologies are known and they work well, and they invoke the rule that email equals awareness. Those not interested can easily mute the thread.

 

 

Use Twitter, optionally, to follow worthy accounts, engage in real time talk, and to share small things. Twitter is not out to get you and that is important, while the character limit enforces brevity, and it allows people to easily engage in conversation reasonably even if they do not know each other. If you tweet at high-status people they are likely to see it, you often get a response. This has its limits if you were to talk to Lady Gaga or Barack Obama, but you can absolutely get the attention of a Tyler Cohen or Marc Andreessen. If something pertains to them you can often get a retweet to call attention to a post or concept. My handle on Twitter is @TheZvi.
Read the good parts of Tumblr via RSS. It is much better than the dashboard and allows completionism. The world does not need more Tumblr blogs, as the comment/discussion methods are atrocious.
Avoid other social networks except for consumption via RSS. Adding more such places will only do even more damage than Facebook alone. Some more recent networks have some especially out to get you features that I basically can’t even. Definitely don’t get sucked into anything that disappears after 24 hours.
Use forums where they exist and are useful. They are not out to get you, but make sure nothing involved will force you to check in on them constantly – if so you will need email notifications that fix the issue. Otherwise, that would be bad.

 

 

Use other online communication methods sparingly. Slack, discord and other such things are fine in principle, but you want to minimize the number of such places, especially if they force you to check in. Assume there is a larger cost for using additional communication methods that your instincts would suggest.

Posted in Facebook Sequence, Good Advice | Tagged , , , , , | 20 Comments

Against Facebook

Leads to: Against Facebook: Comparison to Alternatives and Call to ActionHelp Us Find Your Blog (and others)

Note: WordPress seems to be eating line breaks. I hope I have them all fixed at this point.

Epistemic Status: Eliezer Yudkowsky writing the sequences. They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom. Galileo. This army. Chris Christie to Marco Rubio at the debate. OF COURSE! A woman scorned. For great justice. The Fire of a Thousand Suns. Expelling the moneylenders from the Temple. My Name is Susan Ivanova and/or Inigo Montoyo. You killed my father. Prepare to die. Indeed. It’s a trap. Tomfidence. I swear on my honor. End this. I know Kung Fu. Buckle up, Rupert. May the Gods strike me down to Bayes Hell. Compass Rose. A Lannister paying his debts. The line must be drawn here. This far, no farther. They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom. Those who oppose me likely belong to the other political party. Ball don’t lie. Because someone has to, and no one else will. I’ve always wanted to slay a dragon. Persona!

 

This post is divided into sections:
1. A model breaking down how Facebook actually works.
2. An experiment with my News Feed.
3. Living with the Algorithm.

4. See First, Facebook’s most friendly feature.
5. Facebook is an evil monopolistic pariah Moloch.
6. Facebook is bad for you and Facebook is ruining your life.
7. Facebook is destroying discourse and the public record.

8. Facebook is out to get you.
A second shorter post will then lay out what I believe is the right allocation of online communication. Some readers will want to skip ahead to that one, and I will understand.
I felt I had to document my explorations and lay out my case, but I trust that most of you already know Facebook is terrible and don’t need to read 7000 words explaining why. If that is you, skip to the comparison to alternatives or the call to action at the end. I won’t blame you.

 
A Model Breaking Down How Facebook Actually Works

 

Facebook can be divided into its component features. Some of these features add value to the world. I will start with those, because they form the foundation of the trap. These are the friendly parts of the system, that are your friends. They are not out to get you. If the rest of the system was also not out to get us, or we had it under control, I would use the good and mixed parts more.
The good:

 

Contact Information

 

Facebook’s best reason to exist is as a repository of contact information. If you know someone’s name, you have a simple way to request access to their email and their phone number. If you are already friends with them, that information is already waiting for you without having to ask. Effectively we have a phone book that only works at the right times. This is a very good thing.

 

Event Planner

 
The Event Planner is quite handy. Note the structure that it uses, because it will contrast with other sections. If you are invited to an event, it is easy to find under events or your notifications, as it should be. If you go to the event page, it prominently contains the key things you need most, allowing you to easily see name, time, location, who is going and details in that order (I would swap details and who is going, but this is a quibble). There is a quick button to show a map. If you want to search for events with similar descriptions, or at the same location, that’s a click away, but it is not forced upon you. Related events are quietly and politely listed on the right side.

 

 

 

The only downside is that there are people who feel it is appropriate to invite hundreds or thousands of people to their event without checking to see if they even live within a few hundred miles or might plausibly be interested. Facebook seems to lower the psychological and logistical barriers to doing this, but also makes it easier to turn an invitation down, without asking people to use an additional similar planning system.
Overall, good stuff, and I wish I felt comfortable using it more.
The bad:

 

Messenger Service

 

Facebook’s messenger service is perfectly serviceable in a pinch. I strongly prefer to use other services, because they are not associated with the evil machine, but that is the only real reason (other than Signal’s encryption, or wanting to move to video) this is effectively any different from chatting over text, Skype, Google, WhatsApp, Signal or anything else. On my phone, I use Trillian to unify a whole bunch of such services, which I used to use a lot, but I no longer find this worth bothering with on desktop.

 

 

Groups

 
Groups are a good idea. Who doesn’t like groups?

 

The first problem is that literally anyone on your friends list can add you to any group at any time unless you explicitly block them group by group. This is our first (mild) hint that Facebook might be out to get us. A system that was not out to get us would simply ask us, do you want to join? There would be a button marked “Yes” and a button marked “No.” Instead, the system presumes you want in, so there will be more content to throw at you.

 

The second problem digs deeper, and is a less-bad version of the problems of the News Feed: The groups are horribly unorganized. All you have is a series of posts you can try to endlessly scroll through. If people want to comment on something, there are unthreaded comments on the posts where it is not obvious what is and isn’t new.

 

If your goal is something like have the discussions of a Magic team, you’re screwed. You have to constantly go check for new things. Even if you do, you have little confidence that any new thing will be noticed. If there are types of things you care about, you have to scroll through pick them out of the scroll of fully expanded items like this is the Library of Alexandria, scanning for new comments.

 

Except wait. Even then, you are still screwed. See this thread. 

This means:
You cannot count on the posts being in chronological order.
You cannot count on the posts being in the same order as last time.
There is no depth of search that assures you that you have seen all the posts.
There is no depth of search that assures you that you have seen all the new comments.
Each post you see needs to be carefully scanned for new comments, since the order does not tell you if any comments are new. If you don’t remember every comment on every post, good luck not wasting tons of time.
There is no way to know that your friends have seen a post or comment you make, no matter what procedure your friends commit to doing.
Because Facebook is willing to silently change such rules, other than maybe carefully scanning the entire archive of the group, you cannot count on anything at all, EVER. Even if you did find a solution, you could not assume the solution still worked.

 

This may sound like a quibble. It is not. When my Magic team Mad Apple teamed up with some youngsters, we agreed to try their method of using a Facebook group for discussion instead of using e-mail. This was a complete and utter disaster. I spent a stupid amount of time checking for new comments, trying to read the comments, trying to see answers to my comments. When I posted things, often I would refer to them and it was obvious others did not know what I was talking about. Eventually I gave up and went back to using email, effectively cutting discussion off with half of my team, because at least I could talk to the other half at all. I did not do well in that tournament.

 

I even heard the following anecdote this week: “When browsing a group looking for a post, I have even seen the same post multiple times because there was enough time while scrolling for Facebook to change its algorithm.”

 

How did things get so bad? I have a theory. It goes something like this:

 

Facebook uses machine learning in an attempt to maximize the number of posts people will view, because they think that ‘number of posts viewed’ is the best way to measure engagement, and determines the number of advertisements they can display. At first glance, this seems reasonable.

 
They then run an experiment where they compare groups that are in a logical order that stays the same and is predictable, to groups that are not in a logical order and are constantly changing.

 

Some people respond to this second group by silently missing posts, or by only viewing a subset of posts anyway; those people barely notice any difference. Other people are using groups to actually communicate with other people, and notice. They then feel the need to scroll a lot more, to make sure the chance of missing anything is minimized. They might want to change group platforms, but groups are large and coordination is hard, so by the time some of them actually leave, the algorithm doesn’t think to link it back to the changes that randomized the order of the posts – by now it’s changed things ten more times.

 

The more the algorithm makes it hard to find things, the more posts people look at. Thus, the algorithm makes finding posts harder and harder to find, intentionally (in a sense) scrambling its system periodically to prevent people from knowing what is going on. If people knew what was going on, they would be able to do something reasonable, and that would be terrible.

 

To be fair to Facebook, this is not automatically a problem. It is only a problem if you want to reliably communicate with other people. If you do not care to do that, it does not really matter. Thus, if your selected group is “Dank EA Memes” then you could argue that this particular problem does not apply.
The high ad ratio applies.
The problem of ‘you have to look at entire posts and can never look at summarizes’ applies.
The problem of ‘your discussions have no threading’ applies.
The problem of ‘tons of optimization pressure towards distorted metrics that destroy value’ applies.
The problem of ‘Facebook is evil’ still, of course, applies.
The problem of ‘They have made efficient navigation impossible’ though, is one that this type of group can tolerate. I will give them that.
We’ll talk about those other problems in other sections, since they all apply to the News Feed.
Games and Other Side Apps
Technically Facebook still offers games and other side apps, but my understanding is that people have learned not to use them, because they are the actual worst, and for the most part Facebook has learned that everyone has learned this, and quit bothering people on this front. I will at least give the site credit for learning in this case.

 

 

The News Feed
The News Feed is the heart of Facebook. When we talk about Facebook, mostly we are talking about the News Feed, because the News Feed is where everything goes. You post something, and then Facebook uses a machine learning based black box algorithm to determine when to show the post and who to show the post to. When composing, you think about the box. When deciding whether to respond, you think about the box. You click boxes all over the place trying to train the algorithm to give you the information and engagement you want, but the box does not care what you think. The box has decided what is best for you, and while it is willing to let you set a few ground rules it has to live by, it is going to do what it thinks is going to addict you to the site and keep you scrolling.

 

There is one feature that actually kind of works, which is the “See First” option you can select for some people. Facebook will respect that and put their content first, allowing you to (I think) be reasonably confident that if they post, you will have seen it the first time, and see it before other things. That does not give you any reasonable way to keep tabs on ongoing discussions, but it does at least mean you won’t miss anything terribly important right off the bat.

 

Beyond that, the system does not respond well to training, or at least to my attempts to train it, as this will illustrate.

 

This is a random sample of my news feed. Before I write the rest of this I pre-commit to cataloging the next 30 things that appear after the ad I just saw (to start at the beginning of a cycle). I will censure anything that seems plausibly sensitive.

 

1. Nathanial Mark Price was tagged in a photo.
Facebook thinks that when Ben Baker, who I have never heard of, posts a photo containing one of my thousand friends, that I should see this. My attempts to teach Facebook that I could not possibly care less (e.g. actively clicking to hide the last X of these where X is large) do not seem to work. It thinks the problem is Ben Baker, or the problem is Nathanial Mark Price. Neither of them are the problem. Is this pattern really that hard?
Seriously, if anyone understands why a machine learning algorithm can’t figure out that some people generally don’t like to see photos of their friends that are posted by people who are not their friends, when those people are explicitly labeling examples for it, then I can only conclude that the algorithm does not want to figure this out. If there is an actual reason why this might be hard, please comment.

2. Diablo: In case you missed it: Patch 2.5.0 is live!
Useless, since I finished playing a long time ago, but I did follow them at one point when I was trying to use the site. Or at least, I’m assuming that this is true. All right, my bad, I’ll unfollow. Oh wait, there is no unfollow button? So that means either I wasn’t following and they put this here anyway, in which case either this was an ad and pretended not to be, it actively thinks I would want to know about a patch to a game I bought several years ago (I’ll give it credit for knowing I own Diablo III), or I was following and they didn’t give me an unfollow option. Instead I chose to hide all posts from Diablo, so if they announce Diablo IV, I’ll just have to figure that out one of twenty other ways I’d learn about it. I can live with that.

3. John Stolzmann was tagged in this. (This is a photo and video by Beryl Cahapay, who I have never heard of, called ‘Day at the races’).
Facebook seems to believe that being tagged in a photo is an example of a post being overqualified to be shown to me. All you really need is that one of my friends was tagged. That friend being John Stolzmann. Who? Since I did not actually remember who he was before I Googled, I unfollowed John Stolzmann, although normally I prefer to wait until the person actually posts something before doing that.

4. Nicole Patrice was tagged in a photo.
Note that the photo does not, in fact, contain Nicole Patrice. The photo was posted by Nora Maccoby Hathaway, who is not even listed as having mutual friends with me when I hover over her name. Great filtering, guys.

5. An actual post by a friend! Giego Calerio says: “Given cost 3.5 G-happy-mo’s…what’s the Exp life gain of freezing bone marrow now?”
I decline to click on the link because if I do that, Facebook’s algorithm might get the wrong idea, but I’m not sure how it could get much worse, so maybe I worry too much. Giego is at least asking a valid question. He does seem to be making some bad calculations (e.g. he is treating all hours of life as equal, when youthful hours should be treated as more valuable than later hours, from a fun perspective) and is considering a surgical procedure where his expected ROI is 3.6 months of life in exchange for 3.5 months lost, which to him says “obvious yes” and to me says “obvious no” because you don’t do things like let someone do a costly surgical procedure unless you think you are getting massive, massive gains due to model error, risk/reward of being right/wrong, precautionary principle and other similar concerns. It is certainly not a ‘no brainer.’ But I don’t want to signal boost when someone is being Wrong On The Internet, and also I don’t comment on Facebook, so I say nothing. Except here.

6. Hearthstone Ad
All right, I basically never play anymore, but good choice. Points.

7. Tomoharu Saito says in Japanese, according to the translation: “There’s an American GP in the next camp.”
I think something was lost in translation.

8. Tomoharu Saito says in Japanese, according to the translation: “Rishi, I’m too tired, w. I’m tired, w. I got a barista from RI.”
Either the man is a poet and doesn’t even know it, or more likely Facebook needs to make a deal with Google Translate. Either way, looks like I can’t follow people posting in Japanese.

9. Adrian Sullivan posts he “is now contemplating a new Busta song featuring a zen-like feel, “Haiko ‘couplets’”, with Russiagate and Michael Flynn as its subject!
Go for it?

10. Ferret Steinmetz notes that “It is now officially impossible to preorder Mass Effect Andromeda”
Which makes sense since it was released last Tuesday.

 

11. Arthur Brietman posts something about shipping apps I saw on Twitter and I don’t know enough technical details to grok.
I’m sure it is thought out, though.
12. Kamikoto Ad for a stainless steel knife at about 85% off!
Swing and a miss.
13. Michael Blume asks: “I think I’m starting to be out of touch – can anyone tell me why people keep photoshopping the same crying person onto Paul Ryan?”
Can’t help you, sorry.
14. Tudor Boloni links to a Twitter post that links to a paper, saying “it’s hard to interpret.”
Oh yeah, that guy. I really should unfollow him. Done. Paper could in theory have been interesting I guess.
15. Robin Hanson posts: Ancient Hebrews didn’t believe in immortal soul, nor do most Christian theologians/philosophers today.
Saw that earlier on Twitter, which makes sense, he likely cross-posts everything. I put him in the See First category anyway just in case since his Twitter posts on average are very good and perhaps the discussions are good here, or some posts are not cross-posted. I guess Points.
16. Mandy Souza posted two updates. One is ‘lingerie model reveals truth about photoshoots by taking ‘real’ photos at home.’ The second is from Thug Life Videos.
I admit that the video was mildly amusing. The article is obvious clickbait. Hid them both.
17. Ferrett Steinmetz posts “Perfect for all your Vegan Chewbacca” needs and a picture.
OK then. Told it to show less from Twitter.
18. Nate Heiss shared The Verge’s video. It seems Elon Musk’s solar glass roofs can be ordered next month.
So, congrats, Elon?
19. Mack Weldon Ad for airflow enhanced underwear.
I’ll get right on that. One for three.

 

20. Brian-David Marshall thinks he has found the best ice cream scoop for hand to hand combat.
You can always count on Brian for news you can use.

 

21. Michael Blume retweeting Sam Bowman saying: My politics in a tweet: Use free markets to create as much wealth as possible and redistribute some of it afterwards to help unlucky people.
That idea sounds great. Glad he’s endorsing it, I suppose.

 

 

22. Phil Robinson wishes Happy 113th Birthday to Joseph Campbell.
And a very happy unbirthday to you, sir.

 

 

23. Teddy Morrow started a tournament on [some poker app]
How obnoxious. Hide all posts from the app, please.

 

 

24. Jelger Wiegersma is 6-3 at GP Orlando, shares his deck.
Points. I’m guessing David Williams gave him a B+ on the photo?

 

25. Teddy Morrow spun the Mega Bonus wheel on [same poker app as #23]
That’s even more obnoxious.

 

 

26. “Remarkable” add of a tablet you can write on like paper.
I guess if you gotta give me ads that’s not obnoxious.

 

 

27. Rob Zahra posts a link to “People Are Really Conflicted About This Nude Claymation Video” and says “it’s not sketchy…”
I choose to remain unconflicted.

 

 

28. Mike Turian posts: At the Father Daughter dance! Stopping for a quick arts and crafts break!
This one made me smile. Points.

 

 

29. Adrian Sullivan is suddenly craving grilled cheese…
He’s in Wisconsin, so I think this will work itself out.

 

 

30. Ron Foster posts photo and says “Sculpture seen in downtown Kirkland. Look familiar, Brian David-Marshall?”

 

 

The good news is I do remember who Ron Foster is. That’s all of the good news.
So let’s add that up:
Number of posts that got ‘points’: 3, or 10%. I could argue that this should be as high as 4 or 13.3%.
Number of posts I would have regretted missing or provided meaningful news about someone: 0
Number of posts that attempted to provide intellectual value: 4 if you want to be really generous.
Number of posts that provided intellectual value: 0 or 1 depending on if you count duplication
Number of ads: 3 or 4, hard to tell. Not too bad?
Number of posts that 100% I should never see but can’t figure out how to stop: 7 out of 27 non-ads (so 1/3 of posts are this or ads).

 

That went… better than I would have expected given my other experiences, but I am attempting to be a good and objective scientist, and will accept the sample.
Now think about whether you see that list and think “I want to take something like that, and hide our community discourse inside a list like that, and leave what to display up to a black box algorithm that is maximizing ‘interactions’!”

 
Great idea, everyone.

 

Living with the Algorithm

 

Now that we have seen the algorithm in detail a bit, it is time to ask how the algorithm actually works and what it does. Since it is constantly changing this is not an easy problem. One can do this by observing the results, by theorizing, or by reading up on the problem. My strategy here will be a mix of all three. I’ve already done some theorizing with respect to groups. Similar logic will apply here. I have also taken a sample of the feed and analyzed it, and generally looked through a large number of posts looking for other patterns. This is also where I stopped writing in order to Google up some articles on how the algorithm works, in the hopes of getting a more complete picture that way.
First principles say, and both reading and casual observation confirm, that Facebook’s primary tool will be to use interactions. If you interact with a post, that is good. That means engagement. If you do not interact with a post, that is bad, it means you did not engage. Thus, posts are rewarded if they create interaction, punished if they do not.

 

 

Time for another experiment! Let’s see how big this effect is. For the next 20 posts, excluding advertisements since those are paid for, let’s record the number of interactions (likes/reactions plus comments) and then compare those 30 posts to the 6th-10th posts in the same person’s timeline (excluding the original post, and only by the person in question, that second requirement added after I realized other people’s stuff appears in timelines a bunch); the delay is so that people have time to react and new posts are not overly punished by comparison. Note that in the first experiment, the feed was close to ‘looping around’ to the start of another session, which is why it turned out to ‘improve’ somewhat in the later half, and this is unlikely to be the case here.
While running the experiment, let’s also rate posts by how happy I am to have seen them (on an arbitrary scale of 0 means I would not have missed at all but I am not actively unhappy to have seen it, -5 means OMG my eyes or fake news, +10 means big win, +20 means they got married or something. System 1 has final say.

 

Our prediction is that the interaction numbers will be higher, but with large uncertainty as to how much higher, and that a similar thing will happen for ratings. Note that whose posts are shown is also not random, and we are intentionally taking that out of the equation for now, so sorting is much stronger than this would suggest on its own.

 

 

Since I will be evaluating entire timelines, I will not include names. If two posts come from the same person, the second will be skipped.
Also excluding what I consider ‘Facebook spam’ stuff like ‘reacted to a post.’ Note that the average post in the timeline (even without ads) is lower than the average rating this system will generate, but it is not hugely lower.

 

Post 1: 15 interactions. Rating 0. Mildly amusing tweet. Was #8 in timeline.
Timeline posts 6-10: 6 (-3), 1 (-3), 24 (+2), 9 (0), 5 (-3). Negatives here come from person’s need to do constant political commentary.
Post 2: 2 interactions. Rating +1. Mildly amusing video. Was #9 in timeline.
Timeline posts 6-10: 5 (-1), 1 (1), 4 (0), 22 (+2), 2 (-1). Person mostly posts little things intended to mildly amuse.
Post 3: 161 Interactions. Rating +3. Personal message related to actual life event. Was after #10 in timeline.
Timeline posts 6-10: 50 (-2), 34 (+1), 40 (0), 15 (0), 15 (0). Someone figured out how to get people engaged!
Post 4: 9 Interactions. Rating -5. Fake Magic spoiler.
Edit: Well, it is April 1 as I write this. But still. Not cool.
Timeline posts 6-10: 11 (+2), 78 (0), 34 (+1), 39 (0), 9 (-1). Mostly Magic content.
Post 5: 0 interactions. Rating 0. Wikipedia link. Was beyond #10.
Timeline posts 6-10: 0 (0), 5 (+5 for actual intellectual interest), 3 (+1), 1 (+4 again!), 18 (+2).
He posts links to science and philosophy stuff I would otherwise miss and seem worth investigating! No way I would have known if I hadn’t looked at the timeline. Promoted him to See First.
Post 6: 101 interactions. Rating +2. Important life PSA (for others who need it, I did not need it). Was beyond #10.
Timeline posts 6-10: 25 (0), 110 (+1), 28 (0), 70 (+3), 85 (0).
Person lives in The Bay, uses Facebook largely to coordinate events. If I was local and looking to hang out, this would be very good, but I am more of a thousands-of-miles-away person who has met her once.
Post 7: 95 Interactions. Rating +1. Magic preview card. Was before #6.
Posts 6-10. 14 (0), 61 (0), 66 (0), 24 (+3), 42 (+1).
Posts links to his Magic articles and activities.
Post 8: 48 Interactions. Rating -1. Was beyond #10.
3 (-1), 24 (0), 215 (+2), 159 (+1), 30 (+2).
Has interests that do not overlap with mine, also some that do.
Post 9: 14 Interactions. Rating -1. Was #10.
Posts 6-10: 4 (1), 3 (1), 13 (0), 4 (0), 2 (0).
Shares AI-related articles. They do not seem like they are worth reading.
Post 10: 12 Interactions. Rating +1. Was beyond #10.
Posts 6-10: 21 (0), 10 (+3 because F*** California), 21 (+1), 17 (+2), 39 (+3).
Post 11: 51 Interactions. Rating +1. Was #5.
Posts 6-10: 6 (+1), 7 (0), 9 (+1), 19 (+3), 12 (-1).
Placing bets!
Post 12: 15 Interactions. Rating +1. Was beyond #10.
Posts 6-10: 38 (+3), 51 (0), 30 (+1), 12 (0), 10 (0).
Always the jokester.
Post 13: 38 Interactions. Rating -1. Was beyond #10.
Posts 6-10: 9 (0), 44 (-3), 8 (-1), 15 (0), 21 (+1).
Confident opinions, confidently held. Negative is for political echo chambering.
Post 14: 4 Interactions. 0 Rating. Was after #10.
0 (-1), 5 (0), 11 (0), 2 (0), 2 (0).
No interest overlap. Got an unfollow.
Post 15: 6 Interactions. 0 Rating. Was after #10.
14 (-1), 10 (0), 2 (-3), 2 (-3), 10 (-1).
Political screaming.
Post 16: 3 Interactions. 0 Rating. Was #7.
1 (-5), 6 (0), 1 (-3), 2 (-3), 2 (-1).
Video guy.
Post 17: 7 Interactions. 0 Rating. Was #4.
9 (-1), 12 (0), 18 (0), 8 (0), 1 (-2).
A friend who is a lot smarter in person than they appear online, including about politics. Sometimes in these situations I wonder which one is real…
Post 18: 15 Interactions. 0 Rating. Was beyond #10.
4 (0), 8 (+2), 23 (0), 26 (0), 20 (0).
Magic related.
Post 19: 1 Interaction. -1 Rating. Was beyond #10.
2 (-1), 1 (-1), 0 (0), 0 (-1), 0 (-5).
I’ll just say this one is basically on me.
Post 20: 16 Interactions. +1 Rating. Was #6.
10 (+1), 0 (0), 2 (0), 4 (0), 2 (0).

 

 

Before examining the data statistically, it seems like the algorithm is not adding much value. It certainly was not adding as much value as some simple heuristics would have, depending on how easy it would be to determine post types. If you wanted to predict interactions, that too seems pretty easy, although I wasn’t studying this so it didn’t show up in the data: The big numbers all revolve around a few types of posts.
If nothing else, the algorithm of “choose all the posts of the top X people” seems like it would crush the algorithm if combined with the right amount of exploration, even if you did nothing else to improve it.

 

The obvious counter-argument is that my refusal to interact with Facebook, other than to tell it what I do not want to see, is preventing the algorithm from getting the data it needs to operate correctly. This seems like a reasonable objection to why the system isn’t better in my case, but it should still be better than random or better than blindly obvious heuristic rules. It certainly does not take away my curiosity as to what the system does in this situation. In addition, Facebook is known to gather information like how long one takes to read a post, so the data available should still be rather rich.

 

Some Basic Statistics

 

The average rating of a post was 0.07 if it was not selected by the algorithm, or 0.1 if it was. That’s not a zero effect, but it is a damn small one. The standard deviation of all scores was 1.67 and the difference in average rating here was 0.03, also known as 3% of the difference between “my life is identical to not seeing this post except for the loss of time” (score of 0) and “I found this slightly amusing/annoying” (score of 1 or -1).
The number of interactions was different: 30.65 for selected stories versus 20.33 for non-selected, versus a standard deviation of 33.65. If we use a log scale, we find 2.66 vs. 2.34, with a standard deviation of 1.25, so this effect is not concentrated too much in very large or very small numbers.

 

What happens if we use the algorithm “show the 20 posts with the most interactions, from anyone”? We see 20 posts with a mean of 80 interactions versus 10 for unselected, and we see a much more dramatic rating differential: 0.6 average rating for selected posts, -0.03 for unselected! At first glance, it looks like not only is the algorithm not doing much work, if you control for number of interactions, it is doing negative work! Even if you need to take half your posts from the non-interaction section in order to figure out what posts people interact with, that’s still a much better plan.

 

What about if we use “show the top interaction-count post from each of the 20 people”? Now the posts shown will average 51 interactions (vs. 16 for other posts), and still have an 0.6 average rating. That is an even stronger result, and it makes sense, because different people have different friend groups and tendency for people to interact with their posts.

 

It is also worth noting that within-person ratings were highly correlated, which implies that some combination of the system and my own filters on top of the system needs to get rid of more people who do not provide value, and put more focus on the ones that do. This is a slow process, as like many of us, I have a lot of Facebook friends and they need to be tuned one by one.

 

Whenever you have a complex multi-factor algorithm, the first step should be to test it against simple baselines and see if it can at least beat those. Here, the system has failed to do that.

 

Reading Up

 

I started my reading with this story. It confirms the basic elements of the system, and includes such gems as:

 

The news feed algorithm had blind spots that Facebook’s data scientists couldn’t have identified on their own. It took a different kind of data—qualitative human feedback—to begin to fill them in.

 

Really. You don’t say! What is worth noting is not that the algorithm had blind spots in the absence of qualitative human feedback. What is worth noting is that this is something that had to be realized by Facebook as some sort of insight. How could one have presumed this to be false?

 

 

This may prove to be part of the problem:

Facebook’s data scientists were aware that a small proportion of users—5 percent—were doing 85 percent of the hiding. When Facebook dug deeper, it found that a small subset of those 5 percent were hiding almost every story they saw—even ones they had liked and commented on. For these “superhiders,” it turned out, hiding a story didn’t mean they disliked it; it was simply their way of marking the post “read,” like archiving a message in Gmail.

Thus, even though hiding is usually a strong negative signal, if you cross a certain threshold, the system now thinks you are no longer expressing an opinion. Or maybe it is this gem that follows soon thereafter:

Intricate as it is, the news feed algorithm does not attempt to individually model each user’s behavior. It treats your likes as identical in value to mine, and the same is true of our hides.

Dude. You. Had. One. Job.
They also do not understand how impact works:

Even then, Facebook can’t be sure that the change won’t have some subtle, longer-term effect that it had failed to anticipate. To guard against this, it maintains a “holdout group”—a small proportion of users who don’t see the change for weeks or months after the rest of us.

Facebook is an integrated system. Keeping a small number of people on the old system isn’t quite worthless, but if the changes you make lead to long term effects that destroy the Facebook ecosystem, or damage the world at large, a reserve will not prevent this.
Thus we get ‘insights’ like this:

The algorithm is still the driving force behind the ranking of posts in your feed. But Facebook is increasingly giving users the ability to fine-tune their own feeds—a level of control it had long resisted as onerous and unnecessary. Facebook has spent seven years working on improving its ranking algorithm, Mosseri says. It has machine-learning wizards developing logistic regressions to interpret how users’ past behavior predicts what posts they’re likely to engage with in the future. “We could spend 10 more years—and we will—trying to improve those [machine-learning techniques],” Mosseri says. “But you can get a lot of value right now just by simply asking someone: ‘What do you want to see? What do you not want to see? Which friends do you always want to see at the top of your feed?’ ”

Yes, it turns out that people actually want to see posts by some friends more than other friends, and it only took years for them to figure out that this might be a good idea. People have strong, simple preferences if you let them express those preferences. The stupidity here is mind boggling enough that it seems hard for it to be unintentional. The reason why they do not let you fine-tune the news feed is not because doing so would not make the feed better. The reason why is because it would make the feed better for you, and they are invested in making it worse for you instead. Everyone knows that a proper Skinner Box needs to avoid giving away too many rewards if you want to keep people pressing the buttons and viewing the advertisements.

 

 

Facebook’s case is that this is not what they are up to, because they understand that in the long term people realize they are wasting their lives if they don’t have good experiences doing so:

There’s a potential downside, however, to giving users this sort of control: What if they’re mistaken, as humans often are, about what they really want to see? What if Facebook’s database of our online behaviors really did know us better, at least in some ways, than we knew ourselves? Could giving people the news feed they say they want actually make it less addictive than it was before?
Mosseri tells me he’s not particularly worried about that. The data so far, he explains, suggest that placing more weight on surveys and giving users more options have led to an increase in overall engagement and time spent on the site. While the two goals may seem to be in tension in the short term, “We find that qualitative improvements to the news feed look like they correlate with long-term engagement.”

The author notes that “That may be a happy coincidence if it continues to hold true” which I think is not nearly cynical enough. There is the issue of whether the long-term goals are indeed aligned, but there is the bigger problem that even if Facebook wants in some sense to focus on the long term, the tools it has been given push all parties away from doing so.

 

What the Algorithm Effectively Does

 

The algorithm attempts to find those things that promote interaction. It then rewards them with a signal boost, allowing the best to go viral. In response, people got to work optimizing their posts so that Facebook would predict people would want to interact with them, and so that people would in fact interact with them, so that others would see their posts. Professional and amateur alike started caring about approximations of metrics and got to work creating de facto clickbait and invoking Goodheart’s Law.

 

There is some attempt by Facebook to define interaction in good ways, such as measuring how long you spend off site on articles you click on, and there is some attempt to crack down on the worst offenders. Links to spam sites filled with advertising are being kept down as best they can. Obvious fake news gets struck down some of the time, and so on.

 
However, there is still a double amplification effect going on here. I choose who I want to follow based on what I think I will like, and then Facebook subfilters that based on what it thinks I will like. No matter how much Facebook wants to stay in control of things, at a minimum I can choose who my friends/follows are on the site. I will attempt to create a mix that balances short term payoff with long term payoff, safe with risky, light with dark. Facebook will then take that mix, and do its best to return the most addictive stuff it can find. I can observe this and ideally adjust, creating a pool of potential posts that is full of deep stuff with only a small number of cute videos, and perhaps that will work, but no one is going to make it easy for me.

 

Everything anyone write gets warped by worrying about this. Those who rely on Facebook then get triply filtered. They choose who to follow, those people choose what to share based on what is likely to get traction (as Josh says on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, got to keep up the LPPs, or likes per post), and then Facebook filters with the algorithm.

See First, Facebook’s Most Friendly Feature

If you must use Facebook to follow certain close friends and family, and chances are that you feel that you do need to do this, there is a solution: See First. See First is a recently introduced feature that turns the news feed from something that is out to get you into something that is not out to get you. This is because

Facebook is an Evil Monopolistic Pariah Moloch

 

When I think about posting anything, anywhere on the internet, such as here on this blog, I have to worry about what the algorithm will say. If someone shares my post on Facebook, will anyone see it? Will then comment about it?

 

Then, people comment on Facebook instead of commenting on your post, in order to help ‘signal boost’ the share, which then leads to more comments being on the share. The majority of all discussion of this blog takes place on Facebook right now. The conversation becomes fractured, impossible to find and hard to follow, and often in a place the author does not even know about. We are forced into this ecosystem of constantly checking Facebook in order to have a normal conversation even if we never post anything to Facebook in any way at all.

 

In the long term, this means that Facebook ends up effectively hosting all the content, controlling what we post, how we discuss it, who sees what information, what memes spread and which ones die. It does this in the service of Moloch rather than trying to make life better for anyone, slowly warping us to value only what it values. Meanwhile, we are then forced to endure endless piles of junk in order to have any hopes of seeing what is going to or what any of our friends are doing or talking about.
Well played Facebook, I guess? Very bad for the rest of us. We cannot permit this to continue.

 

Facebook is Bad for You and Is Ruining Your Life

 

I could rattle off a bunch of links, but there is no need. I was going to say that this is the most recent study I have seen and it in turn links back to previous research. Then today I saw this one. I have not examined any of them for rigor, but would welcome others to share their findings if they do examine them. Either way, my opinion here is not due to research. My opinion is due to witnessing myself and others interact with Facebook, and also the opinion all of those people have about those interactions.

 

Without exception, everyone who uses Facebook regularly, who I have asked, admits that they spend too much time on Facebook. They admit that time is unproductive and they really should be doing something else, but Facebook is addictive and a way to kill time. They agree that it is making their friendships lower quality, their social interactions and discourse worse, but they feel trapped by the equilibrium that everyone else uses Facebook, and that it is there and always available. If anything is on Facebook and they do not see it, they are blameworthy. People still assume I have seen things that were on Facebook until I remind them that I don’t use it. Facebook then hides those morsels of usefulness inside a giant shell of wastes-of-time that you are forced to wade through, creating a Skinner Box. Fundamentally, Facebook is out to get you.

 

Facebook warps our social lives around its parameters rather than what we actually care about, and wastes time better spent on other things. That is not to discount its value as a way to organize events, share contact information, as a messenger service, or the advantages of being able to stay in touch. That is to point out that the cost of using that last one is that it does a bad job of it and will incidentally ruin your life.

 
Facebook is Destroying Discourse and the Public Record

 

Most things I read on the internet are public. When something is public, others can repost it, extend off it, comment upon it and refer back to it. The post becomes part of our collective knowledge and wisdom, and we can make progress. The best thing about many blogs is that they have laid the foundations of the author’s world view, so Scott Alexander can pepper his work with links back to old works without having to repeat himself, and if someone wants to soak up his writing there is an archive to read. When something is especially interesting, I can link or respond to that interesting thing, and see the responses and links from others.

 

I can’t deny that most words posted to the internet are not great discourse, but some of them are, and those are a worldwide treasure that grows by the day. When we take our conversations to the semi-private realm of Facebook, we deny the world and even our friends that privilege. I have seen a number of high quality posts to Facebook that I would like to link to or build upon, but I cannot, because that is not how Facebook works, and their implementation of comments is rather bad for extensive discussions.

 

When we look back a few years from now, we will not remember what was posted to Facebook. It will be as if such things never existed. That is fine for posting what you ate for lunch or coordinating a weekend trip to the ballgame, but we need to keep important things where they can be shared and preserved. It is the internet version of The Gift We Give Tomorrow.

 

 

Facebook is Out To Get You

 

 

Some things in the world are fundamentally out to get you. They are defecting, seeking to extract resources at your expense. Fees are hidden. Extra options you do not want are foisted upon you unless you fight back. The service is made intentionally worse, forcing you to pay to make it less worse. Often you must search carefully to get the least bad deals. The product is not what they claim it is, or is only the same in a technical sense. The things you want are buried underneath lots of stuff you don’t want. Everything you do is used as data and an opportunity to sell you something, rather than an opportunity to help you.

 

 

When you deal with something that is out to get you, you know it in your gut. Your brain cannot relax, for you must constantly be on the look out for tricks and traps both obvious and subtle. You can’t help but notice that everything is part of some sort of scheme. You wish you could simply walk away, but either you are already bought in or there is something here that you can’t get elsewhere, and you are stuck.

 

 

Their goal is for you not to notice they are out to get you, to blind you from the truth. You can feel it when you go to work. When you go to church. When you pay your taxes. It is the face of both bad government and bad capitalism. When you listen to a political speech, you feel it. When you deal with your wireless or cable company, you feel it. When you go to the car dealership, you feel it. It’s a trap.

 

 

Most things that are out to get you are only out to get you for a limited amount. If you are all right with being got for that amount, you can lower your defenses and relax, and you will be in a cooperative world, because they have what they came for. The restaurant wants you to overpay for wine and dessert but it is not trying to take your house. Sometimes that is the right choice, as the price can be small and one must enjoy life.

 

 

The art of deciding when to act as if someone or something is out to get you, and when to sit back and relax, is both more complex and much more important than people realize. Most people are too reluctant to enter this mode, but others are too eager, and everyone makes mistakes. I intend to address this in more depth in a future post, and ideally that one would go first, but I want to get this one out there without further delay.

 

 

If you remember one thing from this post, remember this: Facebook is out to get you. Big time.

 

 

Facebook wants your entire life. It wants you to spend every spare moment scrolling through your feed and your groups, liking posts and checking for comments, until it controls the entire internet. This is the future Facebook wants.

 

 

Fight back.

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