Responses to Tyler Cohen on Rationality

In his recent podcast with Ezra Klein (recommended), Ezra asked Tyler his views on many things. One of them was the rationality community, and he put that response on Marginal Revolution as its own post.

Here is the back and forth:

Ezra Klein

The rationality community.

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

Julia Galef published a response to this, pushing back on the idea that rationalism is just another ethos or even another religion. Her response:

My quick reaction:

Basically all humans are overconfident and have blind spots. And that includes self-described rationalists.

But I see rationalists actively trying to compensate for those biases at least sometimes, and I see people in general do so almost never. For example, it’s pretty common for rationalists to solicit criticism of their own ideas, or to acknowledge uncertainty in their claims.

Similarly, it’s weird for Tyler to accuse rationalists of assuming their ethos is correct. Everyone assumes their own ethos is correct! And I think rationalists are far more likely than most people to be transparent about the premises of their ethos, instead of just treating those premises as objectively true, as most people do.

For example, you could accuse rationalists of being overconfident that utilitarianism is the best moral system. Fine. But you think most people aren’t confident in their own moral views?

At least rationalists acknowledge that their moral judgments are dependent on certain premises, and that if someone doesn’t agree with those premises then it’s reasonable to reach different conclusions. There’s an ability to step outside of their own ethos and discuss its pros and cons relative to alternatives, rather than treating it as self-evidently true.

(It’s also common for rationalists to wrestle with flaws in their favorite normative systems, like utilitarianism, which I don’t see most people doing with their moral views.)

So: while I certainly agree rationalists have room for improvement, I think it’s unfair to accuse them of overconfidence, given that that’s a universal human bias and rationalists are putting in a rare amount of effort trying to compensate for it.

Bryan Caplan, on the border of the rationality community as noted in the question, also offered a response:

Here’s how I would have responded:

The rationality community is one of the brightest lights in the modern intellectual firmament.  Its fundamentals – applied Bayesianism and hyper-awareness of psychological bias – provide the one true, objective vantage point.  It’s not “just another kind of religion”; it’s a self-conscious effort to root out the epistemic corruption that religion exemplifies (though hardly monopolizes).  On average, these methods pay off: The rationality community’s views are more likely to be true than any other community I know of.

Unfortunately, the community has two big blind spots.

The first is consequentialist (or more specifically utilitarian) ethics.  This view is vulnerable to many well-known, devastating counter-examples.  But most people in the rationality community hastily and dogmatically reject them.  Why?  I say it’s aesthetic: One-sentence, algorithmic theories have great appeal to logical minds, even when they fit reality very poorly.

The second blind spot is credulous openness to what I call “sci-fi” scenarios.  Claims about brain emulations, singularities, living in a simulation, hostile AI, and so on are all classic “extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence.”  Yes, weird, unprecedented things occasionally happen.  But we should assign microscopic prior probabilities to the idea that any of these specific weird, unprecedented things will happen.  Strangely, though, many people in the rationality community treat them as serious possibilities, or even likely outcomes.  Why?  Again, I say it’s aesthetic.  Carefully constructed sci-fi scenarios have great appeal to logical minds, even when there’s no sign they’re more than science-flavored fantasy.

P.S. Ezra’s list omits the rationality community’s greatest and most epistemically scrupulous mind: Philip Tetlock.  If you want to see all the strengths of the rationality community with none of its weaknesses, read Superforecasting and be enlightened.

This provoked a Twitter reaction from Bryan’s good friend and colleague Robin Hanson:

@RobinHanson: @bryan_caplan says group w/ views “more likely to be true” is too open to sf. To him is an axiom that weird stuff can never be foreseen (!)

@RobinHanson: Seems to me “that scenario seems weird” just MEANS “that scenario seems unlikely to me”. Its a restatement of claim, not an argument for it.

@bryan_caplan: How about “seems unlikely to almost all people who aren’t fans of science fiction”?

@bryan_caplan: I said “weird AND unprecedented,” not just “weird.” And replace “never” with “almost never.”

@RobinHanson: if it were “stuff re computers that seems less weird to computer experts”, that would be argument in its favor. Same if computer -> physics

@RobinHanson: Almost everything in tech is unprecedented on long timescale. That’s way too low a bar to matter much.

Now, my response to all of the above.

The first thing to note is that Tyler’s and Bryan’s responses are both high praise. They then offer constructive criticism that deserves a considered response. If some of the reason for that criticism is to balance out the praise to avoid too closely associating with the rationality community too closely or seeming to endorse it too much, that does not make the criticism invalid, nor does it overwhelm or invalidate the praise. On a fundamental level, I’ll take it all.

I think that Tyler’s criticism goes too far when it uses the term ‘just another kind of religion,’ the same way it is not correct when others call Atheism a religion. That is not what religion means. Tyler knows this, and he was speaking in an interview rather than a written piece. I believe ‘a different set of ethoses’ however is perfectly fair, and the claim that we represent something like ‘the true, objective vantage point’ does tend to get rather obnoxious at times. As Tyler notes, some of us are worse offenders at this than others.

Julia and Bryan both push back hard, and push back well, but I think they are a little too quick to take on an adversarial stand. To say that our fundamental principles ‘provide the one true, objective vantage point’ as Bryan does goes too far. Yes, Bayesianism is simply how probability and the universe work, and hyper-awareness of psychological bias is key to properly implementing Bayesianism. Any effort that is not Bayesian, or that is unaware of our psychological biases is doomed to fail hard outside of its training set.

That does not mean that we have it right. On the contrary, we have it wrong. We know we have it wrong! Our community blog is called Less Wrong. When we are being careful, we call ourselves Aspiring Rationalists, since no one can be fully rational. This is why Tyler’s suggestion of calling it the Irrational Community did not strike me as so crazy. We basically do that already! We are the community of people who know and acknowledge our irrationality and seek to minimize it. The name rationalist is one we  have debated for a long time. It has big advantages and big disadvantages. At this point, we are stuck with it.

Julia responds, quite reasonably, that at least we are trying to do something about the problem whereas basically no one else is even doing that. Among those who believe there is a right answer, we may be the least overconfident ones around. Yes, there are those whose models treat all perspectives as equal/legitimate, and thus are self-refuting, but I do not feel the need to take that perspective seriously. The fact that you do not know which parts of which perspectives are right, and which ones are better or worse than others, is a fact about you, not about the universe.

What it does mean, which I will stand by, is that we are claiming is that if others are not Bayesian and aware of bias, everyone else has it wrong, too. Other calculation methods won’t get the right answer outside their training sets. That does not mean that other traditions cannot have great metis. They absolutely can, and we have much to learn from them. One series I keep planning to start is called ‘the models’, covering various different models of the world and/or humans and/or social dynamics that I have in my head and pull out when they are appropriate. All of them are, of course, wrong, but they are also useful. You want to get in everyone’s head, figure out what they know that you do not know.

This is where travel, and being culturally specific, come in as well. I think these are definite areas for improvement. Tyler is a huge fan of travel, and judges harshly those who stay in one place. I had the opportunity to travel around the world a lot back in the day, and no question it helped with perspective, although I did not investigate the places I was going as much as I should have. Living in even different American cities (I have resided in Denver, Renton and Belmont, in addition to New York City) and renting testing houses in others can provide perspective.

Wherever you live, the area seeps into your brain. You take in its memes, its values, its ambitions, its industry. Living in Denver working for a gaming start-up with people from a different social background, on no money, meant everything felt different. Working at Wizards in Renton for seven months was another. Living in a suburb of Boston, working out of an apartment and trying to find connection from that base was another, even if that did not last so long. Tyler says the year he spent in Germany was the year of his life he learned the most, and I believe him.

This is a lot of why I feel like our concentration in the Bay Area has been a mistake. Yes, I have a personal bias here, as I have watched many of my best friends, the core of my community, leave me behind, each claiming the pull from the last person who decided they couldn’t hack it in the Big Apple so they would move to the Bay and pretend it was their dream all along (or just wanted to hang out with a lot of rationalists and work in a start-up). They’re even about to do it again! Yes, I fought that every step of the way. And yes, I find the Bay to be a toxic intellectual environment – again, different places have different attitudes.

What I am objecting to here however is not the particular unfortunate choice of the Bay. I am objecting to our choice to concentrate at all! By placing so many of us in the same place, we get to interact more cheaply, which is great, but we also seep most of our best people in the same culture, the same ideas and memes, the same reality tunnel. We need to maintain different perspectives, to draw from different cultures, and moving us all together to a new different place would free us from The Bay, as well as its expense, but it would not solve the deeper problem.

We are, as Julia notes, excellent (but far from perfect!) at soliciting and considering criticism and new ideas, but if you keep looking in the same places, you lack perspective. We need to, as a wise member of our community said, eat dirt, to find the things we do not realize that we need.

Tyler Cohen is holding us to an unreasonably high standard. And that is great! This is exactly what we are trying to do: uncover the truth, overcome our biases, get the right answers. We are not trying to be less wrong than others. We are trying to be less wrong than yesterday, the least wrong we can be. Nature does not grade on a curve, and Tyler is challenging us to do even better, to incorporate all the wisdom out there and not only our narrow reality tunnel. Challenge accepted!

Bryan gives us even higher praise than Tyler does, but points to what he sees as two blind spots. On one, I somewhat agree, and on the other I strongly disagree.

His first objection is to Utilitarian/Consequentialist Ethics. Ethics is certainly a hard problem, and I have thought about it a lot but not as much as I would like to. I am certainly not confident I have it right! As Julia notes, we wrestle with the flaws, and there are certainly flaws, although calling them ‘devastating’ counter-examples does not seem right to me. I also think that being able to describe a system in one sentence is a quite legitimate advantage; we should judge simpler theories as more likely to be correct.

I read Bryan’s link, and these objections are good and worth thinking about, but they do not seem to be ‘devastating’. They seem to basically be saying “not so fast!” and “solving these problems properly is hard!” but if there is one group that would readily agree with both of those propositions, we’d be it. Yes, figuring out what actions would have the best consequences is hard! We spend most of our time trying to figure that one out, and have to use approximations and best guesses, and rightfully so. That’s what I’m up to right now. Yes, figuring out what things are how good is hard too. Working on that one too, and again going with my best guesses. Yes, you have to define utility in a way that incorporates distributive justice if you care about distributive justice. Yes, people who act according to different principles will tend to produce different future levels of utility, yes you need to figure out how to honor obligations to those close to you. The response that other systems reduce to utility seems right for the last challenge.

The reason I somewhat agree with Bryan is that I do not only lack confidence in utilitarianism; I think utilitarianism is the right way to start thinking about things, but I also think act utilitarianism is wrong. I do my best to follow Functional Decision Theory, and I believe in virtue ethics, because I believe this is the way to maximize utility both for oneself and for all. I even view many of the problems that we face in the world, and as a community, and with technology, follow from people and systems following act utilitarianism and/or causal decision theory, and leaving key considerations out of their equations, resulting in poor optimization targets run amok, failure to consider higher-order and hard-to-measure effects, and inability to cooperate. I think this is really, really bad and fixing this is ridiculously important. I will keep working on how to make this case more effectively, and on how to fix it.

I am very interested in talking about such matters further, but this is not the place, so moving on to Bryan’s second objection. I wish Bryan would give us a little more credit here. I think Robin’s answers are strong, but if anything too kind. These are not ‘carefully constructed sci-fi scenarios.’ In many cases, quite the opposite; if you do not have Hostile AI in your sci-fi world, you need to explain why (and the real reason is likely because ‘it would ruin a good story’)! These are, for the most part, generic technological extrapolations from what exists today. Rationalists tend to think about the future more than others, and consider what technologies might occur in the future. Those who are not even familiar with sci-fi at all largely do not think about potential future technological developments, and would consider any new technologies to be ‘weird.’ Even further than that, most people on Earth (and certainly most people who have died) would consider many current, existing technological developments to be ‘weird.’ It seems very strange to base one’s prior on whether those people would consider artificial intelligence to sound weird or not.

I see Bryan rejecting these possibilities, ironically, exactly for aesthetic reasons, the very reason he accuses us of falling for them – they are weird to him. That does not mean that we do not need evidence for such claims, or that the priors should start out high! It is easy to forget all the evidence and analysis that one has already put in. Everyone who is interested should look carefully at the arguments and the evidence, and reach their own conclusions. Whether or not you consider us to have fulfilled our burden to provide extraordinary evidence, we do indeed work to provide exactly that. Many of us are happy to discuss these matters at length, myself included. In particular, I would be interested in hearing Bryan’s reasons why AI is so unlikely, or why AI is unlikely to be hostile, and would hope that the answer is not just ‘that sounds like sci-fi so I don’t have to take the possibility seriously’.

While I was writing this, a third response came in from Noah Smith, called Are Rationalists Dense?

It starts out describing the discussion as a “interesting food-fight,” which again does not match my view of what is going on – we are not perfect, there’s nothing wrong with calling us out where we need improvement, and it is good and right to push back on that when we feel the criticism has gone too far.  He has speculations on why we may be ‘rubbing others the wrong way’ and comes up with three hypotheses: The name, the leaders and the fans.

The name, as has been noted here and many times before, is in some ways unfortunate. I wish it didn’t have the implication that those not explicitly in our community were therefore irrational whereas we were already rational; we do not actually believe this, or at least I hope most of us do not. We also, I hope, do not believe that one must care about Effective Altruism and/or A.I. Risk in order to be rational; rather, we hope to spread rational thinking in the hope that some of those who receive it will then realize such causes are important. But again, it also got and gets us attention and focus, and a rallying cry, which is why a lot of groups end up with names that rub some people the wrong way (he notes Black Lives Matter, Pro-Life and Reality-Based Community, all of whose names give attention, focus and a rallying cry, and all of whose names understandably piss off some others)

The leaders have been known to rub some people the wrong way, for sure. Yudkowsky, Hanson and Alexander are not the most conflict-free bunch. What he calls the fans are often not that friendly, and can come off not so well in online interactions. None of that is unusual.

If I had to add a fourth reason, it is simply because we are, as Noah put it, a ‘seemingly innocuous online community mostly populated by shoe-gazing nerds’ and people generally do not like nerds, especially nerds who are making claims. We do not need super-complex explanations!

Noah’s suggestions are definitely good areas for us to work on, if we seek broader acceptance and a better image – work on the image of our leaders, work on our general interactions, consider describing ourselves in softer language somehow. To some extent, these things are worth seeking, and I certainly strive to improve in this area. What I am even more interested in, is making us better.




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Avoiding Emotional Dominance Spirals

Follow Up to: Dominance, care, and social touch

One thing Ben said in his latest post especially resonated with me, and I wanted to offer some expanded thoughts on it:

Sometimes, when I feel let down because someone close to me dropped the ball on something important, they try to make amends by submitting to me. This would be a good appeasement strategy if I mainly felt bad because I wanted them to assign me a higher social rank. But, the thing I want is actually the existence of another agent in the world who is independently looking out for my interests. So when they respond by submitting, trying to look small and incompetent, I perceive them as shirking. My natural response to this kind of shirking is anger – but people who are already trying to appease me by submitting tend to double down on submission if they notice I’m upset at them – which just compounds the problem!

My main strategy for fixing this has been to avoid leaning on this sort of person for anything important. I’ve been experimenting with instead explicitly telling them I don’t want submission and asking them to take more responsibility, and this occasionally works a bit, but it’s slow and frustrating and I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

This resonated on multiple levels.

There is the basic problem of someone dropping the ball, and offering submission rather than fixing the problem on some level. As someone who tried to run a company, this is especially maddening. I do not want you to show your submission, I want you to tell me how  you are going to fix what went wrong, and avoid making the same mistake again! I want you to tell me how you have learned from this experience. That makes everyone perform better. I also want to see you take responsibility. These are all highly useful, whereas submission usually is not. However, you have to hammer this, over and over again, for not only some but most people – too many people to never rely on such folks.

Different people have different reactions they want to see when someone lets them down or makes a mistake. I have one set of reactions I use at work, one set I use at home, another I use with other rationalists, and so on, and for people I know well, I customize further.

The bigger problem, also described here, is the anger feedback loop, which the main thing I want to talk about. Ben gives an example of it:

A: Sorry I let you down, I suck. And other submissive things.

Ben (gets angry): Why are you doing that? I don’t want that reaction!

A (seeing Ben is mad): Oh, I made you mad! So sorry I let you down, I suck. And other even more submissive things than before.

Ben (get angrier): Aaaarrgggh!

…and so on, usually until A also gets angry at Ben (in my experience), and a real fight ensues that often eclipses by far the original problem. This is Ben’s particular form of this, but more common to my experience is this, the most basic case:

A: You screwed up!

B: You’re angry at me! How dare you get angry at me? I’m angry!

A: How dare you get angry at me for being angry? I’m even angrier!

B: How dare you get angry at me for being angry at your being angry? Oh boy am I angry!

When things go down this path, something very minor can turn into a huge fight. Whether or not you signed up for it, you’re in a dominance contest. One or both participants has to make a choice to not be angry, or at least to act as if they are not angry. Sometimes this will be after a large number of iterations, which will make this task very difficult, and it plays like a game of chicken: One person credibly commits to being completely incapable of diffusing the situation before it results in destruction of property, so the other now has no choice but to appear to put themselves in the required emotional state, at a time when they feel themselves beyond justified, which usually involves saying things like “I’m not angry” a lot when that claim is not exactly credible. Having to do all this really sucks.

The only real alternative I know about is to physically leave, and wait for things to calm down.

Then there are the even worse variations, where the original sin that you are fighting over is failure to be in the proper emotional state. In these cases, not only is submission demanded, but voluntary, happy, you-are-right style submission. You can end up with this a lot:

A: I demand X!

B: OK, fine, X.

A: How dare you not be happy about this? 

B: I’m happy about it.

A: No you’re not! You’re pretending to be happy about it! How dare you!

B: No, really, I am! I am blameworthy for many things, but for this I am not blameworthy, I have the emotional response you demand oh mighty demander!

A: I don’t believe you.

And so on – and it can go on quite a while. With begging and pleading. B was my father. A lot. It is painful even to listen to. It was painful to even write this.

So essentially, and I have been in situations like this including at various jobs, you end up on constant emotional notice. You must, at all times, represent the right response to everything that is happening. So you try hard to do this at all times, and perhaps often this is helpful, because people acting cheerful can make things better. But what happens the moment this facade starts to break down? Too many things push your buttons in a row? This happens at exactly the moment when it has become too expensive to keep this up. Then they detect it.

They tell you this is bad. You must be happy about this; you have no right to be upset! And of course, now you’re also mad about them telling you what you have no right to be mad about… and the cycle begins. Cause your job just got a lot harder, and if you slip again, it’s going to get really ugly.

Even when reasonably big things are at stake and there is actual disagreement, this is where most of the real ugliness seems to come from – one party decides the emotional response of the other party is illegitimate and their reaction to this reinforces the reaction.

This is something we need to be super vigilant about not doing.

Within reason, and somewhat beyond it, people who want to be upset need to be allowed to be upset. As long as they can do it quietly they need to be allowed to be angry. If the person is being disruptive and actively wrecking things, that is something else, but if someone decides to let the wookie win, and you are the wookie, you need to let them let the wookie win. The argument really is over. If you’ve got what you want on the substance, that has to be good enough.

They also need to be allowed to be submissive. People instinctively are going into this mode in order to avoid these fights and dominance contests. Yes, it’s not the most productive thing they could be doing right now. You can explain to them later in a different conversation that this isn’t necessary with you. Eventually they might even believe it. For now, let them have this. If you do not, what is likely to happen is, as Ben observes, they interpret your being upset with them as them not being submissive enough. That is a reasonable guess, and more often then not they will be right.

Rising above this is, of course, even better. Here’s something along those lines that happened to me recently.

For a while I had been busy, and therefore mostly out of rationalist circles. I had been spending a lot of time in other good (if not quite as good) epistemic circles, and I’d learned the habit, when someone calls you out on having screwed up, of acknowledging I had screwed up, apologizing, fixing it to the extent that was still relevant, and assuring that I knew how to not have it happen again. If everyone in the world started doing that, I would take that reaction in a second, and life would be a lot better.

It’s not as good as understanding on a deep level exactly why you made the mistake in the first place. So the other person got frustrated, expecting better and holding me to a higher standard, and I was then called out on my reaction to being called outbecause the other person respected me enough to do that: I don’t want your apology, I want you to figure out why you did that and I think you can do it. I then caught myself doing the same submission thing a second time, which resulted in me realizing what was wrong in a much more important sense than the original error. As a result, instead of simply putting a band-aid over the local issue, I got a moment that stuck with me.

We should all strive for such a standard – from both sides.

Cross-posted to Less Wrong Discussion. Comments are always encouraged at either location.

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If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Pick one. There will be a quiz.

ADT – Acausal Decision Theory. Figure out what other agents want and do it, even if you can’t talk to them and they might not exist, if and only if they would do the same for you even if you don’t exist. Which hopefully you do.

BDT – Because Decision Theory. Do whatever you were going to do anyway, and justify it with “because decision theory.”

CDT- Causal Decision Theory. Take the action that will causally bring about good outcomes. Crazy talk.

DDT – Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Don’t do anything or let anyone do anything, because it might kill an eagle.

EDT – Evidential Decision Theory. Perform the action that would be the best indication of a good outcome. Even crazier talk.

FDT – Functional Decision Theory. Decide as if choosing the logical output of your decision algorithm, and you have read the latest MIRI paper, whether or not you have read Arbital.

GDT – Greatest Decision Theory. Do what you were going to do anyway, and proclaim it insanely great.

HDT – Hardass Decision Theory. Refuse to cooperate when you obviously should, then when challenged, mumble something about decision theory. See CDT.

IDT – Information Design and Technology. Do whatever your phone tells you.

JDT – Jewish Decision Theory. Come up with lots of options, argue about them until they are no longer relevant, then don’t pay retail.

KDT – Kantian Decision Theory. Act as if you are deciding the logical output of everyone’s decision theory, even though you don’t.

LDT – Logical Decision Theory. Decide as if choosing the logical output of your decision algorithm, and you read Arbital but haven’t read the latest MIRI paper.

MDT – Misleading Decision Theory. Make up a lot of nonsense decision theories to confuse your enemies.

NDT – Naive Decision Theory. Act like human beings normally do. Surprisingly good at ultimatum games and putting on pants.

OCDT – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Decision Theory. Keep frantically looking for something better. Let that missing D drive you crazy.

PDT – Passive Decision Theory. Hope someone else makes the decision so no one can blame you for the outcome.

QDT – Quantum Decision Theory. Make every decision in a different universe, so you at least do the right thing somewhere. For bonus points, if you choose wrong, destroy the universe.

RDT – Random Decision Theory. Roll again.

STD – Sexually Theory Decision. Do whatever gets you laid.

TDT – Timeless Decision Theory. Decide as if choosing the logical output of your decision algorithm, and you haven’t read Arbital or the latest MIRI paper.

UDT – Updateless Decision Theory. You know that agent that has the best algorithm – the best mapping from observations to actions – across a probability distribution of all world-histories? Yeah, that guy. Do that.

VDT – Valueless Decision Theory. Laugh out loud, nothing matters, eat at Arby’s.

WWJDDT – What Would Jesus Do Decision Theory. Another popular one.

XKCDT –XKC Decision Theory.  It’s not like it stood for anything anyway. Might want to check the mouse-over text. That’s always handy.

YDT – Yukon Daylight Time. It’s getting late, so we’re phoning this one in.

ZDT – Zvi Decision Theory. Call me.

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Meditations on Mexico City

As I begin writing this, I am on a flight back from Mexico City to New York (I finished the next morning back in the city). It has been a good one-week trip. Most of the time outside of the hotel was spent walking around the city, until either me or my wife Laura could walk no further, or at least had less than no interest in doing so. While it is still fresh, I figured I would write down my impressions.

If I had to summarize my take in one word, it would be healthy.

By that I certainly do not mean sanitary. Yes, even without drinking the water (aside from the ice they give you with your bottled water in restaurants, which seems like someone made a grave mistake somewhere), by the end Montezuma had his revenge, and it is not hard to see why given how the food is prepared and sold. We have rules about such things for a reason.

I also do not mean the economy, which is almost invisible in much of the city. We did try to check out the stock exchange, which is an adorable tiny circular building with a price scroll on top of it, but the guards were not interested in letting us take a closer look. I didn’t press the issue. The scroll seemed out of place, like someone was trying to be a symbolic version of a stock exchange building. I would be surprised if one person per hour who did not work there looked at the prices. The spirit of commerce was alive, but on a human scale. There were not taco trucks on every corner, because they don’t believe in trucks, but oh boy were they selling tacos.

We also checked out the markets. Walmart seems to be the place people go when they want an American-style supermarket, or an electronics department and so forth. When I lived in Renton I was very happy to have access to one, and in Mexico City it felt like the store was providing access to a variety of manufactured goods rather than offering goods on the cheap. Instead you got standardized, reliable goods and an American experience at a moderate additional cost. Context is everything.

The alternative was open air markets. They always make me smile, even if I don’t see them as that useful, and Laura loved seeing what they had to offer. The problem with such places is that a few things sell much, much better than other things. As a result, you see the same few things over and over, and they aren’t typically things I want. This is a problem markets are bad at, where offering something unique provides a lot more consumer surplus but you can make more money fighting for your share of the essentially fixed sale-of-staples pie. It is an underappreciated problem.

A few fast food chains did scatter the landscape, although not too many beyond Oxxo, which seems to be the 7-Eleven of Mexico. I did utilize two American restaurant locations, Maison Kaiser and Fogo de Chao, both of which should be welcome anywhere, but most of the American places were utter junk. Often when I saw an outlet, it felt profane. This seems odd, because I very much did not get the sacredness vibe from the city, but it still seemed to want to scream: We are good, decent people, and you are not welcome here. It is clear that when we send our commerce to Mexico, we are not sending our best.

That is what I mean by healthy. People seemed grounded in reality, in the now. Everything was practical. Those on their phones seemed like they had a purpose, rather than doing it to kill time. No one was in a rush to get anywhere. Which is good, and not only because the traffic was terrible around our hotel. I love that it is rude to get the check without asking for it, letting people relax, and also making it not rude to ask for the check either. Despite being relaxed, service was good everywhere, which is not what I am used to in other relaxed places – in my experience, if it is all right to spend two hours in a place, truly all right rather than tolerated, they are not about to let you spend much less. I still dread trying to get anyone I don’t know in Curacao to do anything.

We stayed at the hotel Marqis Reforma. It was a work of art in places and had a lovely little spa (once we found it, you had to go through the gym to get there). The place did everything a hotel is supposed to do, and that was a welcome refuge when we needed down time. Without a nice base, there is a lot of pressure to constantly be rushing off somewhere, whereas both of us needed some time to relax more than anything else. The first thing Laura said when she walked in was that if we spent the whole vacation at the hotel, that would be completely fine.

No question that it was nice, but now that I look back on it, there was something about it that didn’t belong in Mexico City. The vibe was different. Every day we would walk into our room to see infinite pillows. They were at least five deep. The first thing we had to do was toss the majority of them onto the floor. Somehow I feel like that just shouldn’t happen here. No one would do something actively impractical like that. The hotel offered free bottled water, with two little bottles that got restocked, and more available at the front desk, and prominently displayed two giant bottles of water for absurd amounts of money – not just mini-bar levels, we are all numb to the mini-bar by now, the level above that. Which is hard to do with a straight face, out in the open like that. People constantly jumped to help us even when there was obviously zero need for it.

It had that hotel vibe of we are trying to ‘get’ you. All of it was easy to avoid, but harder to quite put fully out of my mind, and the rest of the city said very clearly to me that, aside from assuming you want bottled water rather than the free filtered water we never quite figured out how to successfully ask for, we are NOT trying to ‘get’ you.

The exchange rate helps a lot, too, since even if someone does manage to get us, it barely even matters. It took the better part of the week for my brain to stop having momentary sticker shock at every price, because Mexico uses the dollar sign for pesos. It is remarkable how much I was wishing they would use any other symbol! Aside from that moment, and worrying a little about the language barrier, we could relax, really relax.

That is such a relief. Modern life is full of people and things trying to get you – I’ve been semi-forced to look at Facebook lately to see the comments people are making on my posts (yes I see them, probably, but if you want me to respond to them, post them here), and it is impossible for me not to see that the entire site is out to get us. Netflix used to feel like an ally in my entertainment quest, now it feels like an enemy. I gave up playing mobile games not only to be more productive with my time, but also because they are completely focused on getting you. It isn’t always money, often it is time, which if anything is worse. I feel like I’m on lookout all the time, and making choices to make that not quite as true as it might otherwise be. Even then, it is hard to understand how big a disutility this is until you get to witness its absence.

An even bigger relief is that Uber worked, and allowed us to use cabs across the language barrier. Laura speaks a bit of Spanish, and I speak almost none. There were some problems with the location sensor, but once we started entering our address manually, that problem too was solved.

The city is also gorgeous. If there is one thing I learned from Cities: Skylines it is that roundabouts are terrible, and being a pedestrian trying to cross them drove that point home even more, but Mexico City views them as opportunities to put up fountains and monuments. There are monuments everywhere, and they were cool, varied and joyous. Fountains were common. Having seen this done, it seems obviously correct, but such a thing is hard to fix once the damage is done. I love Central Park but it does feel like New York spent too many of its pleasantry points on the place.

Our one day trip was to the Pyramid of the Sun. It was big. The ancients knew how to build a giant pyramid out of rock. I bought a two dollar sombrero to block out the sun, and we climbed up the whole way. After we came back, the phone said we had climbed twenty floors. The view at the top was magnificent, including the Pyramid of the Moon, which seemed like it was in the worst possible location. Anywhere else it would have been damn impressive, here it was just the moderately smaller side show.

Outside advertising was mostly contained to billboards. There were a lot of billboards, but the market for their content does not clear. The result is that about half of all billboards contain eight numbers and nothing else. We quickly figured out these were phone numbers, but it took a while to realize the numbers were so people could rent the billboard. My first guess was that they were selling something else. Part of me still hopes they are all a giant spy operation, or an augmented reality game of some kind.

The first day, both Laura and I had the same thought: that if we were so inclined we could live here. It was a happy place, a healthy place. By the end of the week, we realized that wasn’t true, because Laura is allergic to the sun, and what I loved about the place wouldn’t really sustain me for months or years even if I did learn Spanish, but if a community was looking for a place to go en masse, you could do a lot worse. More than anything, it inspired me to hold onto as much of the positive vibe as possible now that I am back. I am quite glad we came.

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Book Review: Eisenhorn Trilogy

Spoiler Status: Very mild spoilers before the fold, full spoilers after the fold

I read the Eisenhorn Trilogy on the recommendation of my friend Raymond Arnold, who bought me the first book as a birthday present, presenting it as worth reading and as providing insight into Lovecraftian horror, and as something that would be fun for us to talk about.

I did not love the books as much as he did, but that is to be expected. What I found was a fun romp through numerous action sequences that slowly starts asking interesting questions in between action sequences. In the Warhammer 40K setting, the warp allows travel through space, and also offers lots of other benefits if you are willing to engage with it, but also has the side effect of being full of mind-corrupting demons that drive you into becoming an insane murderous servant of chaos, so the Empire has to deal with people continuously going insane and forming cults that worship chaos demons and try to kill everyone. In response, they have the Inquisition (think the Spanish Inquisition, except the demons are real, have mind control powers and are the most efficient source of physical power) which goes around trying to keep down chaos, including all the Inquisitors who get a little too close to the chaos and turn insane, which happens a lot, and arguing over how engaged with chaos they should be willing to be in order to fight it.

Inquisitors also go around fighting with energy guns and specially engraved swords, killing huge numbers of chaos-enhanced enemies while mostly dodging any attempts to kill them, and looking dope doing it.

There is an obvious story one would tell about such an Inquisitor in this universe. If you’d like to read that story, the books aren’t bad.

Beyond the fold, SPOILERS in the service of discussing the trilogy’s slash universe’s practical and ethical dilemmas.

Continue reading

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On Automoderation

Follow Up to: Trio Walks, Duo Talks

Response to: Automoderation (Ferocious Truth)

Hat Tip: Automoderation (Agenty Duck)

In my post Trio Walks, Duo Talks I laid out the thesis that the key to a high-quality discussion with more than two participants is to organize the group such that it takes on many of the features of a two-person conversation, because the back and forth between two parties allows complex ideas and paths to be considered and the discussion kept on track, whereas conversations not so organized render this extraordinarily difficult. One implication of this is that a good interaction relies on situational inequalityAt the end, I did note that group discussions sometimes need to be run with an emphasis on equality, so everyone can contribute and feel included, but that the results tend to be disappointing.

The Columbus rationalists have developed a system designed to maximize what is good about an equality-based conversation. The system is well-thought out, well-presented by J Thomas Moros and has many elements that seem correct to me, so please do read the whole thing. I especially appreciate the spirit in which it is offered:

This post was written in the hope that other rationalist communities will find it useful and spread and improve the system. Take whatever parts seem useful and apply them as seems best.

Write-ups of such systems are valuable even if the systems themselves prove not to be, because they provide insight into what people are thinking about and trying. I want to see more like this!

Their write-up starts out with its justifying thesis that equality is the path to truth:

Group discussions can easily become unwieldy. Certain individuals have a tendency to dominate the conversation, limiting others’ ability to contribute. When the goal is collaborative truth seeking, this is counter productive. Those who are excluded from the discussion may be exactly the ones with the necessary insights to advance the dialogue toward the truth.

Automoderation embodies a wait rather than an interrupt culture. Interrupt culture may be fine for a causal fun conversation, but collaborative truth seeking is aided by a wait culture.

There are many bold claims here that I do not agree with, but I approve of stating such assumptions up front and explicitly even when justification is not provided, as this makes it clear where the system is coming from. Automoderation presumes that given a person’s inclusion at all, that person should be presumed an equal contributor, and that some people dominating the conversation is bad. The Duo Talks system implicitly assumes the opposite, and says that some people (temporarily) dominating the conversation is often actively good! While there is the risk that this will cause important insights to be missed, those who feel they have sufficiently important insights can still speak up, and trying to balance the scales seems far more likely to effectively cause important insights to be missed or never thought of in the first place; the prior over locations of valuable insights is highly uneven in the best of times, and often becomes more uneven with the discovery of some of those insights rather than more equal.

Automoderation also assumes that wait culture is better for collaborative truth seeking than interrupt culture. It even gives ‘promoting wait culture’ as one of its advantages. If you had to pick one of these two approaches in its purest form, without trying to fix the associated problems, I would be inclined to mostly agree that wait culture is the way to go. Waiting is key to a quality discussion, to allow people to gather and to finish their thoughts. The problems with interruptions, and interrupt culture, are at the center of the Duo Talks system. Automoderation says that the solution to this is for everyone to wait their turn. Duo Talks responds instead that the solution is to protect circumstantially key participants from interruption, both by raising the bar for interruption and by giving them a way to ‘recover’ from that interruption and still get where they were going. What Duo Talks does not want to do is stifle action and lose access to a lot of implicit communication and knowledge by making all of this too explicit, because one of the big purposes of Duo Talks is to increase the bandwidth of the conversation. Automoderation attempts to compensate for this with innovative hand signals and a rigid priority order.

Automoderation seems on first reading to be an excellent iteration on an equality-based, wait-based discussion system, and has components less formal systems may want to steal.

Automoderation: My Summary

The fundamental idea of Automoderation is that by default discussion goes in a circle, giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak, but with priority order for special types of statements. The rest are some extra hand gestures to allow more explicitness in silent communication, and some special case logic to keep priority at the proper place in the circle when questions are being asked.

Here is the list, with the bottom (Meta) having top priority, and the top (Change Topic) having low priority:

Automoderation Hand Signals Chart

The extra hand gestures are thumbs up/down for approval/disapproval, the OK sign, which means you are paying attention and interested, and the palm down hand pointing towards the speaker while fingers are squiggled, which here means “I feel you” or “this resonates with me.” That last one deserves its own post, perhaps in combination with a few other similar signals, as it keeps having interestingly different meanings to different people, and indeed was on my list of ‘topics that want to be posts.’

My basic judgment is that having an explicit system for giving priority to Meta Points and Clarifying Questions is clearly a good innovation, whereas Probing Question as its own category (which they are considering eliminating as not useful) illustrates what is bad about this type of system/discussion. It is generally true that Meta Points (as in, ‘we need to open a window’) are allowed priority to interrupt discussion if a reasonable time to do so exists, and it seems good to have a signal that you have such a point. The same goes for clarifying questions. If something is unclear it usually needs to be cleared up right away, if it is going to be cleared up at all. That does not mean that every term or idea that is unclear to any participant needs to be clarified, but if someone decides it is necessary, right away is best. Again having a hand signal is valuable. I would even go further than the original design, and say that these are priority interrupts, with the person speaking getting control of the floor back afterwards. If there is an opening, the point shouldn’t wait. If there is no opening, the signal then tells the person talking to stop, at the end of their current sentence if possible, and resume after resolution.

I also mentioned the basic raising of one’s hand in Duo Talks. One of the advantages given for the Automoderation system is the ability of someone in a non-automoderated conversation to raise their hand to indicate they want to speak and are not being given an opportunity. I think this is just good. It sends the message ‘I have something to say and I feel it is important that I say it, but I am not being given a natural opportunity, so please place me in the queue as soon as possible even though we don’t normally have a queue at all.’ This gives those who are otherwise being shut out of an interrupt equilibrium the chance to speak when they need to, without giving up on the advantages of a naturally flowing conversation.

Change Topic, which they are considering turning into a signal rather than a request to speak, I see as worryingly explicit for something so inherently rude. The existence of a binary signal could effectively crowd out implicit signals and force people to send the explicit signal, since the lack of the explicit signal is evidence and once you have an explicit signal there is less motivation to pay attention for the implicit ones. This then results in an awkward decision (since I am strongly guessing the explicit signal is often socially costly, even if there is a convention that it isn’t, but other dynamics push for sending the signal quickly), and forces people to either give the signal with a low threshold, in which case weak opinions get to dominate strong opinions, or give the signal with a high threshold and often have a null signal crowd out a useful one. There is also the question of what counts as a change in topic. I do see the value in communicating this desire explicitly, especially in groups where implicit signals are unreliable, so I am somewhat sympathetic.

To me, Probing Question illustrates the core issue with the whole system. Probing Question is given lower priority than Expand, where Expand is pretty much anything someone wants to say that is relevant to the subject at hand. That means that probing questions only get asked when no one wants to make a comment. Back and forth exchanges are considered bad (again, the mindset of equal time as inherently valuable) so they have the lowest priority. In practice, that means probing questions rarely get asked and Columbus may eliminate the category to save on complexity costs.

It would be hard for me to disagree more with this perspective. Probing questions and back and forth discussion are the hallmark of a high quality conversation. The Duo Talks system essentially maximizes for probing questions assuming good things will then happen. The whole goal is to dig deep. If no one is asking probing questions, my experience says the chance of discovering new and important things goes way down. If it was practical, I would go so far as to give probing questions priority over expansions, but due to how people would respond to that incentive, this is not viable.

Also illustrative is this, which is listed as one of the system’s advantages:

Many raised hands and other signals can indicate to a speaker that others wish to speak and it may be a good idea to bring their current remarks to a close to allow others to speak. This is made more palatable by the knowledge they will have another chance to speak when it comes around the circle again.

If I see many hands raised, all of whom will be given the chance to speak before I can speak again, I have no expectation that I will be able to speak again before the topic has effectively mutated enough to move past what I want to say, and I would be inclined to say more rather than less if I feel my point is important. If only one hand is raised, that can actually makes me more willing to yield rather than less. Many hands raised does indeed give the message ‘get on with it’ but in a noisy and potentially bad way; I worry that the people who will be cut off this way are those who are saying something more valuable and interesting – they gave everyone else an idea!

The Automoderation write-up does acknowledge the biggest disadvantages of its system, even if we disagree on their importance; first on the list of disadvantages is the inability to enable back and forth. The suggestion is that a moderator can sometimes help with this, essentially saying that one needs to know when to stop using the system, which seems right except that I see wanting back and forth as the default rather than the exception. On similar notes, it is observed that topic drift is difficult to prevent.

I find the sizing and related applicability notes at the end to be especially interesting:

  • Automoderation breaks down in large groups. While it has been used with some success in groups of 15 to 20 that was only because not many participants actually wished to speak. Had all of them wished to speak, it likely would not have gone well.

  • Automoderation is probably best suited for groups of 5 to 10 people.

  • Automoderation is best suited for groups where all members are cognizant of the degree to which they can genuinely contribute to the discussion.

These size estimates match my experiences and intuitions for equality-based discussions. You can have a group of 10 and give everyone a fair chance to speak, have most of them actually speak, and end up with something worthwhile. A group of 15 is pushing it and 20 is impossible, unless the bulk of the participants are silent. It is great when we hold a discussion meetup in New York and get 20 people, I wish we could do that reliably, and at least half of the 20 are reliably silent any given night with that kind of turnout, but it still feels overwhelming. Of course, if everyone understands that you talk once a year, you can sort of do 400, but that is clearly not a participatory format.

The last note is worth pondering as well, since it is a key to and a central problem for all good discussions. Often the right thing to say in a conversation is nothing, or very little, or at least not too much. I definitely struggle with recognizing this and acting upon it, and am grateful to those friends who remind me of this from time to time. The other side of the coin, how to make sure others are made aware when they are talking too much or out of their depth, is hard. At best, it is an advanced social skill. Automoderation makes this problem harder rather than easier, by setting an implicit expectation that everyone can contribute equally. It also raises the question: If everyone knows how much they should be contributing, do we need an explicit framework at all?

While this post contains a lot of disagreement with Automoderation and its underlying ideas, that is because I feel the system is sufficiently worthy and well thought out as to be worthy of this level of attention and engagement. As such things go, it is pretty freaking cool, and I don’t want the tone of the details to give the wrong impression on this front. I definitely intend to steal a bunch of the good stuff.

P.S. A side note: There is an underlying pattern here that by reducing bandwidth and flexibility in exchange for clearer rules and the ability to maximize a few explicit target metrics, one wins when the target metrics describe the important thing, but when the metrics miss something, or keep you tied to a local maxima, you lose, and you can lose hard. I keep seeing similar things everywhere lately, and am working on making the central point but finding it difficult. Goodheart’s Law is an even worse problem than you can think it is.

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Restaurant Guide 2: Pizza

Continuation From: Restaurant Guide 1

Epistemic Status: Hungry

Pizza is a special case that is worthy of its own attention, so this section will do that. There isn’t as much of a boarder thesis here, and the judgments are more subjective. Part 1 was about more than just restaurants, but Part 2 is almost entirely about pizza.

Pizza has distinct sub-genres. I will refer to them into six: New York, Italian, NYC-Italian Hybrid, Chicago, Acceptable Chain and Not Pizza.

New York Style

Also known as real pizza.

Reviews of New York style places are unusually unreliable. People evaluate on all the wrong things, so you can’t count on even quite high ratings to signal great pizza (they do reliably mean good service and solid pizza).

Go in and look at the pies! One of the great advantages of New York style is that one look tells you almost everything, and any self-respecting place will have pizzas on display for your perusal. Look at the plain pie even if you plan to order toppings, as it contains the most information.

Notice whether the pizza is fresh. If the pizza is right out of the oven, that’s pretty great. If it has been lying around for hours, it should be obvious, and that is terrible. New York pizza can survive reheating (Sicilian/Grandma tends to survive best), and still be acceptable eating in an emergency, but it is still never the same afterwards. Reheating any pizza is a tragedy, and a strong argument against getting toppings on individual slices, since they must then almost always be reheated. If you do decide to order plain slices, there is a reasonably large range where it is correct to stop the place from reheating your slices and take them as is.

The plain pizza not being hot means the place can’t sell plain pizza, which is basically death.

Next you want to look at the details. There is no substitute for experience in knowing how to read those details, but some of them are easy to spell out. The biggest thing to look for is the color and texture patterns, which should be diverse. The pizza should feel alive. You want a richness of layers, with uneven heights that are not crust bubbles (bubbles are fine, but not what you are looking for here) representing an organic mixing of elements. You want to see a rich tapestry of colors, a blending of tomato sauce and cheese, and the primary color should be red rather than white. You want to see this:

Image result for new york pizza

Or at least this:

Image result for new york pizza Image result for new york pizza

Whereas you do NOT want to see this:

Image result for new york pizza

Or this:

Image result for new york pizza

And definitely not this:

Image result for new york pizzaImage result for 2 brothers pizza

On that last pizza, you’re pretty sad, but if you have to choose, that small slice at about 11:00 with the red tip doesn’t look too bad, if the pizza is hot and you are hungry enough.

Some signs of light burning are good, but not required. Signs of areas that have only cheese, areas that are monochrome, are death. Walk away. There is also a look that you can see that says, we are only adding the minimum amount to the crust in order to symbolically represent pizza. That means you are dealing with Dollar Pizza, which is usually Not Pizza but is sometimes just bad pizza. There is no way to actually create a good pie for that price and still make rent.

Crust and ingredient quality are harder to judge from appearances. I can get an intuitive read that a place is going to have quality crust because it seems more ‘real’ and less generic, with more texture and varying colors, but this is not that reliable. Ingredient quality does show up some in the visual signals, and too low a price can give away a problem, but the only way to know for sure is to try the pizza.

New York places often offer Grandma or Margarita pizzas that use better ingredients than their basic pie, so keep an eye out for those. Also check to see if their Sicilian looks better than their standard pie; the same visual standards can be used. As for toppings, that is a matter of taste.

Other Special Signals

Names matter. You want the place named for a real person associated with the place, ideally an Italian, or failing that a particular pizza sub-style. A fake name like Ray’s or Luigi’s means a low ceiling, although it also does raise the floor slightly, as you can count on what they are going for.

There is no economic reason for a high quality New York style pizza place to be large. Smaller is better, and hole in the walls are often great. Cash only and/or not being on standard delivery services can be annoying to deal with, but bodes very well.

Displaying an unusually large number of (very much not fresh) pizzas is a bad sign. Such places are saying ‘look at the variety, we have what you want!’ at the expense of having quite old pies out. Much better to make exotic slices on request. Pizzas should be laid out functionally, not primarily for display. Lack of optimization in any aspect of presentation pretty great. The more things they have written by hand with markers, the better, with bonus points for writing on pizza boxes. The true specialist knows how to make pizza, not nice signs! In general, anything that makes a place look old or unique matters even more for pizza places than it does normally.

Easy availability of Parmesan cheese, oregano and garlic is a positive sign. Red pepper should be assumed, and not seeing it is a very bad sign.

Extensive menus, especially non-pizza menus, are unusually bad. If they are signaling general Italian, or generic American, ignore the pizza offerings. Never order pizza from a place that does not specialize in pizza.

If a New York style place is in a place with plenty of foot traffic and refuses to serve slices, that’s almost a guarantee of quality.

Speed Kills

Pizza needs to be consumed in a timely manner. Pizza delivery is a sacred trust and will soon be one of the four things Americans are any good at. For the best experience, order a full pizza and eat it in the restaurant, or wait to actually see a pie come out of the oven before buying slices from it. My friend Seth does his best to only eat pizza this way, and there is a lot to be said for that.

A few places churn fast enough to offer hot pizza reliably, which as noted above is a huge plus. Do not underestimate the value there, even if the place is otherwise unimpressive.

Second best is delivery, as New York style gives you enough time for that, but once you get it, you must eat your first slice immediately, and finish up within ten or at most fifteen minutes. If you are hungry enough to eat it later, I can’t stop you, and it can still be all right, but it is a real shame. Sometimes life calls for sad pizza, but keep it to a minimum.

Having a warm or if necessary reheated slice or two is third best and usually a mistake.


Italian style pizza looks like this (note that the more NY-style mimics this crust look the better):

Image result for italian style pizzaImage result for italian style pizza

Italian pizza is an inferior form in terms of allocating its ingredients, but makes up for it with a lighter feel, excellent crust, top quality ingredients and extreme freshness. You always order your own pizza and eat it right away in the restaurant; if you are offered Italian style pizza any other way, just say no, because it does not survive any other way. Similarly, you are counting on them to have rich flavorful sauce, real Buffalo Mozerella and to know how to make a real crust. If any of the steps fail, the result will fall flat. It also costs more.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad product. When done right, it is worthwhile, getting out of the way and letting its components shine. I especially like how light the meal is compared to New York style.

Italian places are harder to read than New York places because you can’t just look at the pie. Positive signs in my experience are being cramped with tables squeezed in everywhere in a way that feels improvised, being cash only, and feeling old school Italian without any sign of actively trying to look old school Italian (e.g. red and white checkered tablecloths are a very bad sign).

The reviews are more reliable here than they are for New York style, since this style is higher status, and other indications are less reliable, so lean on the reviews more. If a place is exceptional, critics will note it. If you don’t see anyone signing a place’s praises, the place is not that good.

New York-Italian Hybrids

Done right, this combines the advantages of Italian style lightness, ingredients and crust with the tomato/mozzarella blending and smoothness of New York style, creating the best product of all.  It will ideally look like this:

Image result for grimaldi's pizza nyc

Image result for grimaldi's pizza nyc

This is the good stuff. When you see pizzas that look like this, and a sign that says no slices and no delivery, you have probably hit the jackpot. Often there will be a line; it will be worth it! Once you get the pizza, eat at once, as this style keeps as poorly as Italian style.

An alternate hybrid form offers square pies that look like this:

Image result for harry's italian nyc

Image result for adrienne's pizza bar

In my experience, this square format has a high floor, above average mean but low ceiling. Ingredient quality is good, but never brilliant, and the pizza overall is similar. When it is bad it is still all right, but it will never get to the top level. These places call themselves “pizza bars” and if you want the bar part of that, the pizza will serve, and keeps similarly to New York style.

Chicago Style

I have no sage words about this style. It can be done well (although not without an expensive hit to your diet) but it is not for me. If you like huge amounts of melted cheese and calories are not a limiting factor, this can be right for you.


New York has some minor chains like Grimaldi’s, Bravo and Harry’s Italian. Perhaps some day they will perform The Upgrade on pizza chains the same way Starbucks upgraded our coffee and Shake Shack and Five Guys are upgrading our burgers, but for now we are stuck with pre-Upgrade fare.

They even have a presence in New York City. To which I say: If you patronize these places within city limits, you’re still better than Hitler, but I did have to think about it.

It’s not great, Bob. But some of it is less not great than others. A quick look at the top 10 chains by size:

Pizza Hut is underrated. It makes great breadsticks, and the crust of its pizzas is made out of those breadsticks. The marinara sauce is much better than one would expect. The problem with Pizza Hut is that its cheese is reasonable when hot ages especially poorly. They used to focus on a relaxed, slow restaurant experience where you could get their pizza at its best, and in that context you could do much worse. Now, they are focusing on delivery (which they are not good at), ‘express’ locations and buffets, none of which are good ideas. If you can find an old-school, sit down Pizza Hut with table service, that is not a bad choice in many places. Anything less and you should avoid. Ask for extra marinara sauce.

Domino’s Pizza is overrated. I realize how lowly it is rated, and that being overrated at that point is hard, but they did it. There is a reason their ads say “yes, we know our pizza used to be the actual worst, but look, it’s less awful now and contains things from actual cows!’ People claim their new version is not as bad, and I believe them because how could it not be, but if you look at it, you know that there is still a long, long way to go. Not Pizza.

Papa John’s Pizza is correctly rated. It has been described by someone I know as ‘for when you have given up on life.’ This seems about right. If you have given up and no longer want anything good to happen to you, I guess Papa Johns can provide you with calories without being as bad as Domino’s or Little Caesars.

Little Caesar’s Pizza is overrated, and is on the level of old Domino’s. Not Pizza. They offer a pizza below what pizza needs to cost and try to make it up on volume. You are not this hungry.

Papa Murphy’s is highly underrated. Take and bake works well, they can keep in the freezer for a while if necessary, they are reasonably priced, no skill is required and you get a fresh out of the oven pizza exactly when you want it. By default there is too much cheese but that is easy enough to fix. Most frozen or take-and-bake pizzas are dreadful, but by not-in-New-York standards Papa Murphy’s rises to perfectly acceptable.

California Pizza Kitchen is overrated and there is no reason to go there, but I think I remember that it is not as bad as the chain status and name would imply. Photos back this up, as the pizza is somewhat lifeless but at least is trying.

Sbarro is properly rated. Sbarro is attempting to make New York style pizza. It sort of half succeeds. When you are at a rest stop along the highway grabbing a slice here is forgivable.

Chuck E. Cheese’s is in no way focused on making real pizza, so it was never at risk for that. Probably Not Pizza. Overrated, but not because anyone is getting their facts wrong.

Round Table Pizza is underrated. It does a good job of letting customers get what they want and consume the pizza at the right time, which goes a long way, and it makes the most of what it has to work with. I ate here a lot with other Wizards employees when I lived in Renton. This isn’t a great pizza but it is surprisingly solid.

Not Pizza

Beware the things that claim to be pizza, but that are not pizza. The family term for this is a PSO, or Pizza Shaped Object, but usually they are not quite even that – they are too small, cut the wrong way, not think enough to plausibly pass. Nominally, they include the three central ingredients, but do not be fooled. They fall into a few categories.

The first are the non-pizza chains. You can tell these because their pizzas present as masses white, with two for one specials.

The second are the 99 cent pizza places, the scourge of modern New York. I used to think it was drug stores or banks, but I was wrong. It is dollar “pizza.” At its best, this is a way to eat lousy on the cheap, and usually it is not even that.

The third are the convenience products. They are offered at places one would not naturally expect pizza from. Your natural instincts are correct. This includes when pizza is on the menu in an otherwise respectable restaurant, but this comes as a surprise. This also includes almost all frozen ‘pizzas’.

Pizza! Pizza!

That is all. Tip well.

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