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Friday, May 8th, 2015
1:35 pm - Harry Potter and the Methods of Latent Dirichlet Allocation

My summer job involves topic modelling, using machine learning tools to automatically learn different topics that some set of documents covers, so that the documents could then be classified by topic. I haven’t done this before, so I don’t yet have a good intuition of how currently available tools work. To develop that intuition, I’m playing around with different tools and datasets, to see what kinds of results different methods give.

One interesting case would be to run a topic modeler on an extended work of fiction with various story arcs and see if it could, for instance, identify specific story arcs. With 122 chapters and several distinct story arcs and cliques of characters, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality seemed like a good dataset to try this on. (The following might contain unmarked minor spoilers to the story; you’ve been warned.)

I went to hpmor.com and copy-pasted all the chapters into separate text files. I removed the author’s notes and the opening quotes and various dedications to Rowling in the early chapters, as well as the “the next chapter will be out on day X” mentions. I also omitted the Omake chapters.

I then used the free analysis tool Mallet to apply LDA to the dataset. LDA (Latent Dirichlet Allocation) is a topic modeling method in which a topic is formally defined to be a distribution over a vocabulary. For example, we might have a topic corresponding to the HPMOR’s Azkaban arc, which would include words such as quirrel, dementor, azkaban, and bellatrix with a high probability.

LDA assumes that documents are written according to the following process:

1. Randomly choose a distribution over topics.
2. For each word in the document:
a. Randomly choose a topic from the distribution of topics in step #1
b. Randomly choose a word from the corresponding distribution over the vocabulary

(David M. Blei 2012: Probabilistic Topic Models. Communications of the ACM. DOI:10.1145/2133806.2133826)

Of course, this isn’t the actual way that real-world documents are written, but we could kind of imagine that they were. For example, let’s imagine Eliezer Yudkowsky sitting down to write a chapter of HPMOR which he decides will mostly be the aftermath of the Azkaban arc, and will also tie those events together with Harry’s friendship with Draco. This would correspond to step 1 in the above process: let’s say that he decides that the chapter will be 70% about the SPE arc and 30% about the Harry-Draco relationship.

Now he starts writing. Each word (maybe more realistically, each sentence) can be related to either the SPE arc or the Harry-Draco relationship, so he will alternate between those two topics as he ties them together, choosing between them with a 70-30 probability. For either topic, there are several different sub-topics within that topic that he can cover, so we can think of there being a random chance for any word associated with that topic being selected. Of course, some words, like “Harry”, are likely to be associated with both topics.

When LDA is given an existing collection of documents, it then tries to reconstruct these original probabilities and distributions. In other words, it asks the question of “given this text, and given what I assume to have been the original process which generated it, which values would have been the most likely to produce this text?”. Mallet does this using Gibbs sampling: if you want to read more about that, see Wikipedia for Gibbs sampling in general or Steyvers & Griffiths (2006) for a discussion of it in the context of LDA.

But enough theory, let’s start experimenting! I start off by having Mallet extract the raw data from the documents into a form it can use, and ask it to consider 1- and 2-grams: that is, it will base its analysis both on individual words and pairs of words. Then I ask it to generate 20 topics for us, and to list the 20 most probable words in each topic.

(for all trials, I’m running LDA for 1000 iterations, re-optimizing the hyperparameters every 20 iterations, with a burn-in of 200 iterations)

Here are the initial results:

0 0,02579 phoenix wizard fawkes war blaise millicent zabini black_mist mist wizard_voice envelope million save haukelid back_sleep phoenixes violence tower bulstrode
1 0,02547 dad verres petunia mum eraser felthorne books michael evans parents atoms verres_evans rianne mother transfigure miss_felthorne father experiment michael_verres
2 0,03884 snake iss hissed defense_professor hagrid sstone mr_hagrid unicorn thiss musst ssay monster defense chamber sspeak chamber_secrets secrets bed slytherin_monster
3 0,031 severus minerva potions_master albus potions lesath severus_snape master lestrange professor_snape snape neville fred lesath_lestrange time_turner george azkaban gryffindors discipline
4 0,04833 quirrell professor_quirrell professor mr_potter mr quirrell_voice quirrell_harry goyle potter_professor mr_goyle classroom lesson quirrell_face slytherins quirrell_points battle_magic derrick lose skeeter
5 0,04691 draco father draco_harry draco_didn draco_voice harry_draco ron science conspiracy draco_couldn draco_draco platform draco_nodded draco_looked mother station rival draco_turned muggleborns
6 0,03858 professor_mcgonagall mcgonagall galleons mr_potter gold transfiguration bag shop coins wizarding witch malkin alley money wizarding_world madam_malkin street kit gringotts
7 0,02716 bellatrix dementors azkaban amelia snake patronus metal bahry broomstick auror charm aurors corridor quirrell bellatrix_black hissed hole iss cell
8 0,03185 troll hagrid weasley forest centaur yeh tracey tick unicorn broomstick filch mr_hagrid weasley_twins twins forbidden_forest rubeus argus george fred
9 0,03086 voldemort lord mirror lord_voldemort stone dark_lord altar tom perenelle tom_riddle dark parseltongue gun horcrux riddle child iss sshall hissed
10 0,03643 malfoy lucius lucius_malfoy wizengamot lord_malfoy debt house_malfoy draco_malfoy son house_potter thousand_galleons veritaserum false_memory lies murder hall galleons podium troll
11 0,04617 dementor headmaster patronus fear patronus_charm cast_patronus chocolate cage corporeal headmaster_harry patronuses harry_headmaster seamus anthony happy corporeal_patronus happy_thought harry_wizard warm
12 0,02038 draco magic fred paper dr george powerful test harry_potter fading fred_george magic_fading skeeter rita dr_potter blood scientist shadowy spells
13 0,02188 draco general soldiers neville sunshine chaos army dragon zabini battle granger armies doom_doom doom malfoy dragon_army longbottom forest dragons
14 0,02725 moody elder_wand dawn elder experiment lesath aftermath ravenclaw_common horizon peverell graveyard vow milgram philosopher_stone bellatrix_black narrow labeled unicorn hermione_nodded
15 0,02818 moody lupin mad_eye eye prophecy mad amelia remus mr_lupin monroe voldemort bones albus minerva amelia_bones alastor line eye_moody lily
16 0,03993 daphne susan tracey hannah lavender bully bullies draco_malfoy greengrass year millicent corridor girl parvati bones sprout professor_snape davis susan_bones
17 0,04419 granger miss_granger hermione miss padma hero patil heroes padma_patil professor_sinistra hermione_voice girls sinistra humming witches hermione_didn cell girl hero_hermione
18 0,02098 hat sorting game points goyle neville sorting_hat note comed_tea comed paper slytherins ha_ha mr_goyle remembrall ha tea ernie madam_hooch
19 1,37501 harry professor potter hermione voice time didn back quirrell dumbledore professor_quirrell mr don thought boy dark wasn hogwarts eyes

Not bad. The initial topics are a bid mixed bags, but they get better later on. The 0th topic seems to roughly be about the war. The 1st is mostly about Harry’s parents, but somewhat oddly, Rianne Felthorne gets included in the same topic.

Number 2 is interesting: it’s picking up Parseltongue words as being associated with the Defense Professor. This makes sense, because he occasionally speaks in Parseltongue, so if he’s present in a chapter, it’s also more likely that Parseltongue words will be present. Apparently Parseltongue words are also associated with unicorns and Hagrid, because both show up in this topic.

Number 3 seems to start out as a “senior staff of Hogwarts” topic, with Snape, McGonagall, and Dumbledore being included (but not Quirrel, interestingly enough), but then also has mentions of George, Azkaban, and Gryffindors in the end. Number 4 is clearly about Quirrel, and to a lesser extent Slytherins.

Number 5 seems to be the Draco-Harry chapters, and among the more informative words includes 2-grams such as “draco_nodded, draco_looked, draco_turned”. As an interesting observation, besides one hermione_nodded in topic number 14, Draco seems to be only character whose nods, lookings, or turnings were picked up by the modeler: I wonder what’s up with that. Number 6 involves McGonagall, Harry, and Harry’s money; number 7 looks to be the Azkaban arc. Number 8 is a topic combining Hagrid, the Forbidden Forest, and apparently also the twins. And so on.

This looks pretty good, but we could try varying the number of topics. Also, Mallet allows me to add a list of words to ignore in the analysis. By default, it already ignores words like the, is, at, and so on. Let’s add a few: “didn didn’t couldn couldn’t nodded looked turned said wasn wasn’t ‘t t”

New results:

0 0,03768 hagrid troll weasley forest mr_hagrid centaur yeh unicorn tracey tick weasley_twins filch twins broomstick forbidden_forest rubeus fred forbidden argus
1 0,04613 snape potions_master professor_snape quidditch sprout potions professor_sprout felthorne severus_snape master mirror severus rianne game susan plant susan_bones miss_felthorne exam
2 0,04554 dementor patronus headmaster phoenix fear patronus_charm fawkes chocolate patronuses cage wise corporeal seamus harry_headmaster star anthony wizard_voice souls corporeal_patronus
3 0,02705 fawkes moody envelope comed_tea comed tea experiment bellatrix_black hat lesath pillow train milgram prefect compartment drink frodo cards experimental
4 0,03366 voldemort lord dark_lord lord_voldemort iss tom stone altar hissed dark horcrux wand perenelle riddle tom_riddle thiss parseltongue vow gun
5 0,0315 bellatrix azkaban dementors snake amelia patronus metal broomstick bahry auror charm professor_quirrell quirrell corridor woman aurors hissed iss hole
6 0,0284 severus minerva neville hat lesath sorting lestrange sorting_hat fred george lesath_lestrange severus_snape legilimens fred_george discipline severus_voice handsome professor_snape points_ravenclaw
7 0,04123 daphne susan tracey hannah lavender girl bullies bully hermione greengrass girls millicent parvati draco_malfoy padma slytherin jugson davis corridor
8 0,02515 draco soldiers neville sunshine general chaos army dragon granger zabini battle malfoy armies doom doom_doom dragon_army forest shield dragons
9 0,01942 draco magic fred harry_potter dr paper george fading fred_george skeeter test magic_fading powerful rita blood dr_potter scientist wizards shadowy
10 0,05943 quirrell professor_quirrell professor mr_potter quirrell_harry mr quirrell_voice chamber potter_professor lose quirrell_face battle_magic lesson secrets snake derrick salazar monster quirrell_smiling
11 0,02807 mirror transfiguration transfigure eraser flamel atoms ball harry_hermione page hermione_voice separate sentient frame plants subject solid pig free_transfiguration objects
12 0,03587 hermione granger miss_granger miss padma hero heroes patil padma_patil elder_wand elder hermione_voice humming professor_flitwick protest cell mysterious_wizard professor_sinistra sinistra
13 0,03058 albus moody minerva severus voldemort prophecy eye amelia mad mad_eye potions_master bones monroe alastor headmistress amelia_bones eye_moody potions mark
14 0,03796 mcgonagall professor_mcgonagall parents dad mum verres gold evans galleons petunia bag christmas michael father trunk shop wizarding verres_evans coins
15 0,03985 goyle mr_goyle points slytherins defence paper ha game ha_ha note classroom remembrall pie hooch neville ernie bars boys madam_hooch
16 0,04854 draco father draco_harry ron science draco_voice platform conspiracy harry_draco mother pettigrew slytherin_house patronus_charm train draco_eyes patronus draco_don narcissa station
17 0,03689 malfoy lucius lucius_malfoy wizengamot lupin lord_malfoy remus debt mr_lupin son house_malfoy house_potter james galleons veritaserum mad false_memory longbottom vote
18 1,40563 harry professor potter voice hermione time back dumbledore quirrell mr professor_quirrell don thought boy dark hogwarts eyes face lord
19 0,03283 blaise millicent country zabini black_mist mist traitors hospital violence professor_voice harry_wizard pedestals jugson leader lord_jugson wishes shrug blue_light lucius_malfoy

The order of topics is now somewhat different. The Draco/Harry science chapters, which were previously topic number 5, now look to be topic 16: they seem a little less distinct now that we told the program to remove words like “nodded”, “looked”, and “turned”, which had been things that were previously associated with Draco, and probably with Draco talking to Harry in particular. Having fewer words that co-occur when Harry and Draco specifically are talking makes “Harry and Draco talking” a less distinct cluster. Maybe we shouldn’t have asked the program to ignore those words. I’ll take them off the ignore list.

What happens if we try 10 or 30 topics?

Here are the results with 10:

0 0,0553 hat transfiguration sorting goyle mr_goyle sorting_hat points transfigure class defence eraser note game paper professor_mcgonagall ha classroom ha_ha shadowy
1 0,05378 severus minerva azkaban albus fawkes phoenix lesath lestrange bellatrix severus_snape moody potions_master lesath_lestrange bellatrix_black neville envelope alarm hours severus_voice
2 0,06163 professor_quirrell quirrell professor mirror lord_voldemort voldemort stone defense_professor defense perenelle quirrell_harry parseltongue chamber flamel quirrell_voice tom sprout horcrux quirrell_face
3 0,04948 bellatrix snake voldemort azkaban dementors iss hissed amelia wand patronus lord bahry dark_lord broomstick metal charm altar auror dark
4 0,0406 malfoy moody lucius wizengamot lucius_malfoy albus eye mad lord_malfoy amelia mad_eye azkaban minerva amelia_bones eye_moody debt monroe alastor line
5 0,06065 hagrid dementor troll lupin forest remus mr_lupin tracey mr_hagrid centaur yeh unicorn tick filch huge james weasley elder_wand rubeus
6 0,04647 draco soldiers general sunshine army chaos dragon zabini neville battle granger malfoy armies blaise doom_doom dragon_army dragons dr father
7 0,05774 father professor_mcgonagall parents mum dad money fred galleons george ron verres gold rita science skeeter books trunk evans bag
8 1,55479 harry professor potter voice hermione time back quirrell dumbledore mr professor_quirrell don thought boy dark draco hogwarts eyes harry_potter
9 0,05979 daphne susan hermione tracey hannah padma girl bullies lavender girls millicent bully greengrass miss davis parvati susan_bones hero jugson

0 jumps out at once: it looks like the sorting hat is now a major topic! But upon a closer inspection, it looks like this might be an artifact of the 1-gram and 2-gram versions of it being double-counted: “hat”, “sorting”, and “sorting_hat” are all included the same topic. If we were to remove “hat” and “sorting”, the topic would become “transfiguration goyle mr_goyle sorting_hat points transfigure class defence eraser note game paper professor_mcgonagall ha classroom ha_ha shadowy”, which makes the topic look a lot less coherent. Notice that “goyle” also gets double-counted, with “goyle” and “mr_goyle”.

In general, most of these topics don’t look like they would correspond with any clear “real” topic, though there are a few exceptions like number 6 being related to the Quirrel Armies. Notice that the double-counting is also pretty prominent in general.

It seems useful to stop and reflect on why these results are now so bad. Here’s what I think: there are a lot of different events and storylines in HPMOR, each associated with their specific vocabulary. For instance, Rianne Felthorne, who was picked up in the 20-topic version, only appears in chapters 71, 76, and 79. If you tell the model to assume that there are a lot of topics, then it might actually come up with the hypothesis that there’s a topic which covers those three chapters and which has a very high probability of talking about Rianne. But with a low number of topics assumed, it can’t “waste” any topics by dedicating them to such rare words. Instead, in order to cover most of the documents, it has to assume that Rianne is part of some much bigger topic which spans a lot of chapters. Since Rianne only appears in three chapters, such a wide-spanning topic would have to have a very low probability of generating Rianne’s name. This means that topics will become dominated by words which appear pretty often in the text, and in a lot of different contexts – but of course that makes the topics less distinctive and meaningful. The only distinctive topics will be those that are major enough to span several chapters, which is the case for the Quirrel armies.

So how about the opposite direction, with 30 topics?

0 0,02023 hagrid troll forest tracey centaur yeh broomstick tick unicorn filch weasley forbidden_forest mr_hagrid huge forbidden unicorns argus rubeus half_giant
1 0,01219 draco harry_potter magic dr wizards powerful paper blood test father fading figure magic_fading spells dr_potter scientist muggles ll scientists
2 0,02164 elder pettigrew elder_wand hero vow rat dawn sirius_black prophecies rival sirius unicorn revived fingernails horizon hermione_harry girl_revived back_dead rooftop
3 0,02732 severus mum dad lesath verres evans parents father petunia lestrange neville michael verres_evans letter michael_verres lesath_lestrange books window roberta
4 0,02912 quirrell professor_quirrell professor mr_potter mr goyle classroom mr_goyle quirrell_harry quirrell_voice lose potter_professor skeeter quirrell_face quirrell_points derrick slytherins rita_skeeter rita
5 0,02385 mcgonagall professor_mcgonagall gold galleons mr_potter shop bag coins parents alley diagon malkin sighed wizarding_world street wizarding madam_malkin trunk pouch
6 0,02138 draco general soldiers neville sunshine chaos army dragon zabini battle granger malfoy armies doom doom_doom dragon_army dragons longbottom shield
7 0,01796 azkaban phoenix moody bellatrix fawkes envelope bellatrix_black aftermath lesath experiment harry_stared amelia milgram black_azkaban frodo bird clock pillow mask
8 0,02302 auror amelia defense_professor amelia_bones duel department mr_malfoy exam false_memory grade charmed law_enforcement beauxbatons trophy_room trophy enforcement magical_law department_magical memory_charm
9 0,02788 miss miss_granger granger padma hero heroes patil padma_patil professor_flitwick humming witches hermione girl hermione_voice cell professor_sinistra sinistra mysterious_wizard hero_hermione
10 0,0357 draco father ron draco_harry conspiracy platform draco_voice sad harry_draco station draco_nodded draco_turned mother narcissa lucius haired draco_eyes revenge slytherin_house
11 0,02313 responsible wards troll gryffindor head_table twins weasley hall weasley_twins minerva mr_hagrid great_hall cracked blame storeroom sinistra hagrid jugson year_witch
12 0,02151 malfoy lucius lucius_malfoy lord_malfoy wizengamot house_malfoy debt son house_potter house thousand_galleons ancient galleons plum_colored plum colored goblin colored_robes troll
13 0,00797 moody eye prophecy dark mad mad_eye dark_lord monroe albus mark mcgonagall scarred severus evidence lord david dark_mark scarred_man eye_moody
14 0,02847 voldemort dark_lord lord dark wand altar child gun iss hissed stone body vow master lord_voldemort girl_child apokatastethi graveyard sshall
15 0,02275 bellatrix dementors azkaban amelia broomstick snake metal bahry auror corridor professor_quirrell quirrell charm patronus bellatrix_black woman hole cell iss
16 0,02847 quidditch snape sprout professor_snape professor_sprout potions_master game bones susan plant susan_bones philosopher_stone mirror potions cedric snitch chamber broomstick tendrils
17 0,02856 lupin remus mr_lupin james lily remus_lupin peter nuclear stars star children_children haukelid tower edge million script ravenclaw_tower soft_voice godric_hollow
18 0,03067 dementor patronus headmaster patronus_charm fear patronuses chocolate cage corporeal happy cast_patronus presence anthony dementors expecto_patronum corporeal_patronus seamus happy_thought harry_headmaster
19 0,02245 snake iss hissed defense_professor hagrid mr_hagrid chamber infirmary unicorn monster chamber_secrets secrets slytherin_monster sstone sspeak yess ssay hissed_harry parseltongue
20 0,04184 daphne susan tracey hannah hermione girl lavender bully bullies greengrass girls parvati millicent davis slytherin corridor bones padma susan_bones
21 0,01251 wizard blaise millicent zabini war black_mist mist harry_wizard gregory violence jugson oaken_door pedestals bulstrode lord_jugson wizard_voice black_cloak half_moon black_hat
22 0,0332 hermione boy library book pages sentient page plate chocolate year_girl train talk flamel plants experiment compartment century research snakes
23 0,02155 hat sorting tea game sorting_hat comed note points ha ravenclaw comed_tea ha_ha pie neville bars paper largest hufflepuffs slytherins
24 0,01522 professor_quirrell quirrell mirror lord_voldemort voldemort dumbledore stone perenelle tom cauldron potion horcrux albus_dumbledore parseltongue tom_riddle riddle flamel david_monroe monroe
25 0,02873 severus minerva albus snape amelia voldemort potions_master bones potions master amelia_bones headmistress felthorne merlin moody severus_snape rianne professor_snape madam_bones
26 1,34252 harry professor potter hermione voice time quirrell back professor_quirrell dumbledore mr don thought boy dark hogwarts eyes face lord
27 0,01638 dumbledore goyle mr_goyle remembrall turner paper ah ernie discipline gargoyle madam_hooch hooch rock neville_remembrall points_ravenclaw thursday swamp gregory_goyle chicken
28 0,02038 transfiguration fred george transfigure fred_george eraser atoms skeeter rita twins ball minerva rita_skeeter flume impossible collection separate weasley_twins subject
29 0,02581 pansy traitors generals chant prismatic_wall wishes country samuel male_voice male audience crush vow pretty luminos_shouted parkinson luminos gate halls

Hmm. Not sure if this is so great, either: now we might have the opposite problem, that 30 topics is too much freedom for the model, and it can hypothesize all kinds of minitopics that aren’t actually there. Now I’m pretty sure that one *could* come up with 30 coherent topics if one did it manually, but that would require using more structure than a basic form of LDA is capable of using.

So 20 topics was probably best. Out of curiosity, how would it look like if we only considered 1-grams? That would eliminate some double-counting, but would it actually improve the results?

0 0,24225 albus severus voldemort moody mr minerva dark master prophecy lord eye mcgonagall potter potions bones azkaban mad snape monroe
1 0,20082 harry bellatrix azkaban professor quirrell snake dementors amelia metal charm auror bahry aurors lord woman wizard defense broomstick corridor
2 2,48546 voice boy time back looked eyes turned hand head door hogwarts place face heard words moment black robes stood
3 0,16911 draco granger neville general soldiers sunshine chaos army malfoy battle dragon zabini hermione armies shield blaise longbottom doom fight
4 0,44362 harry patronus dementor death charm light stars wand voice cast fear dementors die silver wouldn happy died bright aurors
5 0,21435 professor harry points mcgonagall mr time game slytherin ravenclaw goyle desk neville students year slytherins sprout classroom note quidditch
6 2,01788 thought dark mind life time lord dumbledore part man thing long power stop knew great world understand side true
7 0,64986 professor quirrell mr defense potter dark students lord miss spell true obvious room headmaster slytherin snape lose today slytherins
8 0,08225 voldemort harry lord stone dark mirror iss wand hissed altar riddle tom child horcrux parseltongue death dumbledore perenelle white
9 0,98236 harry wand hand air sense spell broomstick left ground fire body hit cloak mind red pouch moving pointed back
10 0,1403 hat sort ron sorting secrets tea book slytherin comed table talk neville train snake drink rule secret carriage pages
11 0,12296 hermione transfiguration lupin transfigure remus mr wand minerva mcgonagall eraser form tiny peter pettigrew brain atoms separate wood steel
12 0,38543 dumbledore headmaster wizard phoenix albus fawkes eyes fire flitwick war stone cloak mcgonagall office wizards understand shoulder back desk
13 0,33105 hermione granger miss professor mcgonagall defense hogwarts ve hero hagrid mr head ll year tracey forest heroes girl centaur
14 0,15878 hermione daphne susan tracey slytherin snape girl padma hannah year malfoy potions lavender bullies table miss house greengrass millicent
15 0,15193 severus weasley neville george fred minerva students twins lesath table snape mr skeeter tick rita gryffindor lestrange potions man
16 0,26817 draco father magic slytherin blood malfoy powerful ll wizards test figure paper potter spells lost fading muggles dr mother
17 2,62309 harry potter don people ve things make face good ll wouldn hogwarts made sort wanted thought thing put point
18 0,31149 malfoy lucius house granger son wizengamot hogwarts potter dumbledore lord chair lived ancient debt murder aurors magical britain room
19 0,25969 mcgonagall professor parents mr father evans verres mum dad witch galleons money gold books magic world mother family wizarding

I’d say that’s definitely worse: I have difficulties picking up anything sensible, though it’s interesting to look at what *does* remain identifiable. Quirrel Armies show up once again, in topic number 3. They’re definitely the most resilient topic in the whole story. There are also a few others, like number 8 is strongly related to Vold… He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

(I also tried if 30 topics would work better for 1-grams; I won’t show you the results, because the answer was “not really”.)

What if only considered 2-grams? That’s going to produce a mess, but I’m still curious to see what it looks like. Also, I want to see whether our hero the Quirrel Armies manages to survive that challenge as well!

0 0,01128 sorting_hat comed_tea points_ravenclaw severus_voice lesath_lestrange potter_severus gryffindor_table harry_sat older_student trimmed_robes whisper_whisper school_discipline severus_smiling severus_face potions_professor students_looked red_trimmed black_robed perfect_occlumens
1 0,01493 potions_master professor_snape miss_felthorne false_memory severus_snape professor_sprout memory_charm rianne_felthorne empty_air sorting_hat theodore_nott attempted_murder trophy_room susan_bones snape_voice cedric_diggory wards_hogwarts felthorne_snape albus_quietly
2 0,01344 fred_george rita_skeeter mr_hagrid chamber_secrets slytherin_monster hissed_snake hissed_harry pale_blue miss_skeeter heir_slytherin source_magic mary_place green_snake rich_people imperius_curse people_sort solving_groups problem_solving order_chaos
3 0,0083 doom_doom dragon_army general_potter chaos_legion general_granger mr_goyle sunshine_regiment sunshine_soldiers draco_malfoy general_malfoy blaise_zabini sleep_hex sunshine_general neville_longbottom prisoner_dilemma mrs_davis dragon_general mr_thomas mr_mrs
4 0,01159 dark_lord mad_eye eye_moody mr_grim girl_child lord_voldemort mr_white death_eater dark_mark apokatastethi_apokatastethi scarred_man mr_moody voldemort_voice harry_scar high_voice april_pm voldemort_hissed apokatastethi_soma lord_spoke
5 0,01227 mr_goyle ha_ha older_slytherins cereal_bars largest_slytherin student_classroom mr_crabbe quirrell_points current_points dangerous_student martial_arts game_controller snapped_fingers green_study wearing_pyjamas box_cereal hint_hint hermione_mind ha_su
6 0,01779 professor_quirrell bellatrix_black defense_professor harry_thought metal_door guardian_charm thought_harry bellatrix_professor dark_lord muggle_device patronus_charm hole_wall harry_brain partial_transfiguration shadows_death harry_knew harry_turned life_eaterss green_spark
7 0,00985 amelia_bones bellatrix_black madam_bones mad_eye minerva_mcgonagall eye_moody chief_warlock line_merlin alastor_moody headmistress_mcgonagall merlin_unbroken black_azkaban harry_james harry_stared peter_pettigrew potter_evans order_phoenix muggle_weapons lesath_lestrange
8 0,00967 lord_voldemort tom_riddle baba_yaga david_monroe answer_parseltongue wizarding_war great_creation blackened_fire az_reth nicholas_flamel quirrell_dropped back_professor quirrell_looked professor_quirrell quidditch_game obtain_sstone lay_bed horcrux_spell harry_aloud
9 0,01368 seventh_year salazar_slytherin general_granger susan_bones draco_malfoy slytherin_ghost sunshine_general year_girl year_boy miss_davis fourth_year sixth_year ancient_house hufflepuff_girl hermione_harry doom_doom slytherin_girl daphne_greengrass ravenclaw_girl
10 0,01569 professor_mcgonagall mr_goyle madam_malkin mokeskin_pouch madam_hooch neville_remembrall diagon_alley gold_coins older_witch bag_gold healer_kit shake_hand mcgonagall_face gregory_goyle mcgonagall_sighed gold_harry cavern_level genetic_parents gold_silver
11 0,32335 professor_quirrell harry_potter mr_potter defense_professor professor_mcgonagall dark_lord hermione_granger harry_voice miss_granger draco_malfoy boy_lived albus_dumbledore patronus_charm professor_flitwick harry_looked shook_head harry_thought mr_malfoy harry_harry
12 0,01027 harry_wizard black_mist wizard_voice resurrection_stone harry_headmaster moon_glasses black_cloak lord_jugson oaken_door albus_dumbledore wizard_face black_hat headmaster_harry wizard_quietly death_eater save_lives dumbledore_voice blue_eyes pretending_wise
13 0,00772 hermione_voice elder_wand harry_hermione hermione_harry free_transfiguration unbreakable_vow liquid_gas transfigure_liquid narrow_keyhole start_year metal_ball hermione_nodded collection_atoms muggle_science ve_thinking unicorn_princess time_narrow girl_revived living_subject
14 0,02155 mr_lupin verres_evans michael_verres remus_lupin professor_verres professor_michael comed_tea harry_father evans_verres living_room cross_station letter_hogwarts godric_hollow christmas_eve parents_harry son_harry mr_bronze leo_granger dad_mum
15 0,01017 warm_happy back_sleep lord_voldemort albus_dumbledore state_mind ravenclaw_tower expecto_patronum long_ago golden_frame tattered_cloak corporeal_patronus red_gold light_years golden_back lay_beneath auror_goryanof master_flamel quirrell_pointed true_love
16 0,01284 mr_hagrid weasley_twins forbidden_forest half_giant great_hall tick_harry weasley_twin huge_man argus_filch rubeus_hagrid part_mind head_table unicorn_blood gryffindor_table fred_george magical_creatures false_memory ron_weasley fred_weasley
17 0,01825 harry_potter draco_voice magic_fading dr_potter draco_harry harry_draco shadowy_figure dr_malfoy death_eater draco_don draco_draco powerful_wizards green_light blood_purism draco_realized potter_draco don_draco fading_world paper_magic
18 0,01634 lucius_malfoy lord_malfoy house_malfoy house_potter plum_colored draco_malfoy thousand_galleons colored_robes dark_stone madam_longbottom ancient_hall blood_debt chief_warlock hundred_thousand noble_ancient malfoy_stood debt_owed lords_ladies hall_wizengamot
19 0,01762 miss_granger padma_patil hermione_voice professor_sinistra hero_hermione year_witch penelope_clearwater mysterious_wizard chaos_legion professor_vector hermione_turned amelia_bones endless_stair people_ve harry_friend beneath_half ravenclaw_girl common_sense leather_folder

The armies show up *very* distinctively as topic number 3. An interesting topic is number 12, which looks like it might involve Harry’s and Dumbledore’s debates about death and mortality, given the presence of 2-grams like “resurrection_stone, harry_headmaster, albus_dumbledore, wizard_face, wizard_quietly, death_eater, save_lives, dumbledore_voice, pretending_wise” (if some of these seem confusing, remember that Mallet ignores very common words by default, so e.g. pretending_wise was probably “pretending to be wise” in the raw text).

Still, it seems like 20 topics with 1- and 2-grams is best. Let’s generate that kind of a classification again, and this time also have the classifier tell us what percentage of each chapter is made up by a given topic.

Here are the topics:

0 0,03474 moody eye monroe mad_eye mad voldemort amelia prophecy bones david amelia_bones albus david_monroe minerva eye_moody alastor line azkaban voldie
1 0,02881 draco father harry_potter blood dr draco_voice magic test muggles powerful paper wizards draco_harry fading scientist spells harry_draco magic_fading scientists
2 0,02842 miss_granger miss hermione hero heroes granger hermione_granger elder_wand elder humming sinistra hermione_voice cell mysterious_wizard professor_sinistra fingernails vow sparkling professor_vector
3 0,02272 hat sorting neville sorting_hat goyle note ha points slytherins remembrall game mr_goyle paper ha_ha comed ernie comed_tea defence rock
4 0,05541 quirrell professor_quirrell professor mr_potter mr lose quirrell_voice goyle mr_goyle lesson quirrell_harry quirrell_face potter_professor secrets monster quirrell_nodded quirrell_points derrick quirrell_looked
5 0,02989 father dad mum books ron verres evans science petunia parents platform verres_evans michael trunk scarf letter train son owl
6 0,03465 malfoy lucius lucius_malfoy lord_malfoy wizengamot debt son house_malfoy house_potter false longbottom colored podium thousand_galleons plum_colored plum false_memory law owed
7 0,03928 daphne susan tracey hannah snape lavender bullies bully professor_snape draco_malfoy greengrass millicent bones sprout parvati corridor susan_bones girl davis
8 0,03814 hagrid troll forest unicorn tracey mr_hagrid centaur yeh tick filch weasley broomstick rubeus forbidden_forest huge forbidden twins unicorns argus
9 0,03042 draco neville soldiers general sunshine chaos army dragon granger zabini battle malfoy armies doom_doom doom dragons forest dragon_army shield
10 0,03238 voldemort lord lord_voldemort mirror dark_lord stone iss altar tom horcrux riddle parseltongue hissed wand perenelle tom_riddle dark body gun
11 0,04766 fred george neville fred_george lesath skeeter weasley rita severus twins rita_skeeter lestrange weasley_twins lesath_lestrange gryffindors handsome legilimens flume occlumency
12 0,05025 padma girls girl patil pettigrew padma_patil table responsible rival astorga pansy granger rumor ravenclaw_table heroine rat morning madam_pomfrey year_witch
13 0,03567 bellatrix snake dementors azkaban amelia patronus broomstick professor_quirrell bahry metal quirrell auror charm woman iss hissed corridor aurors bellatrix_black
14 0,0177 phoenix fawkes war blaise aftermath millicent envelope azkaban moody black_mist mist zabini haukelid wizard_voice back_sleep tower gregory million violence
15 0,04214 dementor patronus lupin headmaster remus patronus_charm mr_lupin james lily cast_patronus godric cage corporeal patronuses fear death happy anthony chocolate
16 0,03449 severus minerva albus potions_master potions master snape severus_snape time_turner turner headmistress floo azkaban professor_snape discipline severus_voice points_ravenclaw escape headmaster_office
17 0,04336 mcgonagall professor_mcgonagall galleons gold alley shop bag mr_potter pouch diagon_alley coins diagon wizarding_world malkin witch vault wizarding street kit
18 1,37162 harry professor potter hermione voice time back dumbledore quirrell professor_quirrell mr don thought boy dark hogwarts eyes face lord
19 0,02203 transfiguration transfigure eraser atoms minerva page ball harry_hermione separate sentient hermione_voice library subject diamond collection snakes pig free_transfiguration research

To make things easier, I’m going to give each of those topics a more descriptive name. I went with these:

0: Mad-Eye Moody & David Monroe
1: Harry & Draco doing science together
2: Hermione
3: Sorting Hat & Mr. Goyle
4: Professor Quirrell
5: Harry’s parents
6: Lucius Malfoy & Harry’s debt
8: Hagrid & the Forest
9: Quirrel Armies
10: Lord Voldemort
11: Fred & George
12: Padma Patil and stuff
13: Azkaban Arc
14: Random
15: Dementors & Patronouses
16: Albus, Minerva, and Snape
17: Diagon Alley & Money
18: Generic (this topic makes up by far the largest proportion of the story: it has a weight of 1,37 whereas none of the others reach even 0,06. You could call it the “whatever doesn’t fit into one of the other topics” topic)
19: Transfiguration

That’s not too bad of a list of topics in HPMOR, though the proportion of the “generic” topic is kinda annoying. Here are some of the topic classifications the model gives us (only the largest percentages shown):

Chapter 1, A Day of Very Low Probability: 57,8% Harry’s Parents, 42,1% Generic
Chapter 2, Everything I Believe Is False: 47,5% Generic, 26,2% Diagon Alley & Money, 25,2% Harry’s Parents
Chapter 3, Comparing Reality To Its Alternatives: 49,6% Generic, 39,6% Diagon Alley & Money, 7% Harry’s Parents
Chapter 4, The Efficient Market Hypothesis: 59,7% Diagon Alley & Money, 40% Generic
Chapter 5, The Fundamental Attribution Error: 49,8% Diagon Alley & Money, 49,4% Generic
Chapter 6, The Planning Fallacy: 50,5% Generic, 47,9% Diagon Alley & Money

These topic classifications initially go roughly as one might expect, though the topic we termed “Diagon Alley & Money” shows up as early as in Chapter 2, and they only got to the Alley in Chapter 3.

Chapter 7, Reciprocation: 46,1% Generic, 42,0% Harry’s Parents, 10,2% Harry & Draco doing science together

After that it stays strong until Chapter 7 where it disappears entirely as the story moves away from the Alley to the King’s Cross Station, Harry’s parents say him goodbye, and Harry runs into Draco among others.

Chapter 8, Positive Bias: 52,4% Generic, 38,5% Harry’s Parents, 4,4% Sorting Hat & Mr Goyle (1.3432768379668802E-5 Hermione)

But then there’s Chapter 8, where Harry and Hermione have an extended discussion: besides Generic, this is classified as mostly being about Harry’s Parents (???), and a little bit about the weirdball “Sorting Hat & Mr. Goyle”; the topic we had named “Hermione” comes at a very low fraction.

Chapter 9, Title Redacted, Part I: 50,3% Generic, 41,6% Sorting Hat & Mr. Goyle, 8,02% Fred & George

Chapter 9 is where people are sorted (and Fred & George make a minor appearance). It’s interesting to notice that chapter 8 had a bit of Sorting Hat content, even though nothing about the sorting was mentioned: we also previously saw that the Diagon Alley classification showed up even before they went to Diagon alley.

But now I need to leave work, so no time to do more analysis at this point. If anyone wants to do more analysis, the full results are here: http://pastebin.com/bGip7X4D

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
10:17 am - Teaching economics & ethics with Kitty Powers’ Matchmaker

Unusual ways to teach economics. I’m currently playing Kitty Powers’ Matchmaker, a silly but fun little game in which you run a dating agency and try to get your clients on successful dates and, eventually, into a successful relationship.

Now one way of playing this would be to just prioritize the benefit of each client, trying to get them in maximally satisfying relationships as fast as possible. But while I sometimes do that, often I do things differently.

In one case, I had a client who’d been on two bad dates already, and was threatening to march out and give my company a bad reputation if she’d have one more bad date. I didn’t have any good matches lined up for her. I could have just kicked her out, but that wouldn’t have given my company any money. So instead I put her on a date with someone who seemed incompatible, but just had her lie about all the incompatibilities and say what the other person wanted to hear. That way, they’d end up together, and I’d get my money and be rid of the troublesome client. Of course I knew that they’d break up later and that would hurt my reputation a bit, but I figured that it would still be better for the company than kicking her out now.

(In my defense, I have only done this once, and I felt kinda bad about it.)

This situation is known in economics as the principal-agent problem: a situation where someone (the “principal”) hires someone else (the “agent”) to do something on the principal’s behalf, but the self-interests of the principal and the agent differ. So for example, you may try to get a real estate agent to sell your house and give them a cut of the profit. It would be in your interest if the agent sold it for as high a price as possible, but the agent may actually benefit more if they spend less time on each individual sale and instead sell a lot of houses more cheaply, but in a shorter time. This was confirmed in a study in which it was found that real estate agents tended to sell other people’s houses considerably faster and cheaper than they sold their own houses.

Or, you might go to a matchmaking agency to get into the relationship of your dreams, but your matchmaker also has an interest in getting your money and benefiting the company.

Here’s another thing that I do in the game that some might consider questionable. When a client comes in, they will tell me their personality traits, e.g. introvert vs. extrovert. It’s best to pair them off with someone who has the same personality traits. But when the game shows me a list of people I can try to match my client with, by default I don’t know the personality traits of those people. Instead, I have to have some client date those people and discover their personality traits, and then I too will learn them.

Now suppose that a new client comes in, and I know of someone I could have them date who’d be perfectly compatible. I also have a bunch of other possibilities, whose personality traits I don’t know. Do I send my client on the best possible date right away? Of course not! Instead, I’ll send them on a few dates with the unknowns, so that I can discover the personality traits of the unknowns, and only after a few bad dates will I pair my client with the best match. This way, I’ll know the personality traits of as many people as possible, and will always be able to know of a compatible match for my next client.

Is this ethical? You could argue either way. Yes: I’m still sending my client to a good relationship eventually, and although it might give my client a few bad dates in the beginning, that helps other clients eventually get a good date. No: I have an obligation to prioritize the interest of my current client at all times, and it’s not in their interest to have a bad time. The first argument has a bit of a consequentialist vibe, and the second one has a bit of a deontologist vibe. If you were teaching an introductory ethics course and wanted to give your students a different example than the usual ones, maybe you could have them play the game and then ask them this question.

Comedy dating sims: useful for teaching both economics and ethics.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
3:06 am - Things that I’m currently the most interested in (Jan 21st of 2015 edition)

* Creating social environments that actively support and reinforce people’s growth, as well as the incentivizing the development of valuable projects. Our environment has a huge impact on us. The topics that we happen to see or hear discussed around us will, if not quite determine the topics that we spend our time thinking and ultimately caring about, at least vastly influence those topics. Similarly, the habits of the people around us affect our motivation and behavior: if everyone else is slacking off, then we too are likely to follow suit.

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words: even people and communities with good intentions may get sidetracked into becoming less effective than they could be, if they spend a lot of time talking about noble goals but in practice do little but play games. On the flip side, if people really do consistently act in a purposeful manner, that is likely to also motivate the others around them.

I want to figure out the social technologies we need to consistently create communities which encourage people to develop themselves, work on valuable big-impact projects, and feel good about themselves.

* Reducing societal conflict by making people feel more safe. Our emotions evolved for specific purposes, one of which includes defending us and protecting us from threats. Someone lashing out in anger or exhibiting some other form of physical or emotional violence is an indication that there is a world-model in their head that evaluates the situation as being dangerous to their well-being, and requires a defensive reaction. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to make things worse: a person whose defensive systems has been engaged will predominantly focus on the potentially threatening aspects of the situation, causing them to exaggerate other people’s bad sides and be less likely to see those others as fellow humans. In response, the other person will (correctly!) feel unsafe, causing their protective systems to engage as well, and what started out as a minor disagreement may quickly escalate into a major conflict.

We are currently living in the safest, most well-off period in history. Our evolved instincts, still calibrated by evolution to a riskier time, have not properly caught up. What’s worse, parts of modern society exaggerate our perception of risks, and incentivize people to manufacture polarizing new conflicts. It can be seen all the time on social media, with communities united by their hate and mistrust of a common enemy, or people sharing articles ridiculing or highlighting the worst sides of their common enemies. As people stop viewing the people disagreeing with them as human beings inherently worthy of respect, and rather start to treat them as enemies, those others will lash out in return, their brains correctly interpreting the situation as a threatening one and engaging protective systems.

I would like to find ways to put a stop to this cycle.

* Creating a sense of purpose for people. Modern Western society has a distinct lack of clear vision and sense of purpose. Young people are told that they can do what they want with their lives, but are rarely given much in the way of suggestions of what could be a valuable, interesting thing to do with one’s life. Many drift aimlessly, never quite finding anything that would motivate them, or that would encourage them to really work hard for some deeply fulfilling aim.

There’s no need why this would need to be so. The world is full of valuable things that could be done, countless causes needing heroes. There are still people living in poverty, diseases that need to be cured, people living in unsatisfying circumstances, whole societal structures that could be reformed and remade, and even things threatening the survival of all of humanity. People just don’t know what they could do about all these things, nor have they been provided with emotionally compelling stories about working on these things that would make them feel valuable and important to do.

* Develop ways to live in harmony with one’s emotions. There’s a stereotype that has reason and emotions as two opposed things, and a popular view of the world that makes people think that in order to succeed in life, they often have to grit their teeth and force themselves to do things that they wouldn’t actually want to do.

I think that both ways of looking at things are mistaken. Reason and emotions are two mechanisms for furthering our goals and protecting our well-being: they only seem opposed when the two mechanisms aren’t properly sharing information with each other, and come into conflict instead of co-operating. Any time that we have to use willpower in order to make ourselves do something that we ”wouldn’t want to do” is a time when we have failed to bring different parts of our minds into harmony. They are situations when one part of our mind believes that we should do something and another is unconvinced, but instead of the two clearly considering the situation together and seeking to come to an agreement, one of them uses brute force to compel the other to obey.

This doesn’t need to be so. With enough practice, one should never need to encounter a situation where they needed to do something unpleasant. Either they would conclude that the thing wasn’t worth doing in the first place and happily give up on it, or had their whole being agree that it was worth doing and do it with pleasure.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(1 echo left behind | Leave an echo)

3:06 am - Things that I’m currently the most interested in (Jan 21st of 2015 edition)

* Creating social environments that actively support and reinforce people’s growth, as well as the incentivizing the development of valuable projects. Our environment has a huge impact on us. The topics that we happen to see or hear discussed around us will, if not quite determine the topics that we spend our time thinking and ultimately caring about, at least vastly influence those topics. Similarly, the habits of the people around us affect our motivation and behavior: if everyone else is slacking off, then we too are likely to follow suit.

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words: even people and communities with good intentions may get sidetracked into becoming less effective than they could be, if they spend a lot of time talking about noble goals but in practice do little but play games. On the flip side, if people really do consistently act in a purposeful manner, that is likely to also motivate the others around them.

I want to figure out the social technologies we need to consistently create communities which encourage people to develop themselves, work on valuable big-impact projects, and feel good about themselves.

* Reducing societal conflict by making people feel more safe. Our emotions evolved for specific purposes, one of which includes defending us and protecting us from threats. Someone lashing out in anger or exhibiting some other form of physical or emotional violence is an indication that there is a world-model in their head that evaluates the situation as being dangerous to their well-being, and requires a defensive reaction. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to make things worse: a person whose defensive systems has been engaged will predominantly focus on the potentially threatening aspects of the situation, causing them to exaggerate other people’s bad sides and be less likely to see those others as fellow humans. In response, the other person will (correctly!) feel unsafe, causing their protective systems to engage as well, and what started out as a minor disagreement may quickly escalate into a major conflict.

We are currently living in the safest, most well-off period in history. Our evolved instincts, still calibrated by evolution to a riskier time, have not properly caught up. What’s worse, parts of modern society exaggerate our perception of risks, and incentivize people to manufacture polarizing new conflicts. It can be seen all the time on social media, with communities united by their hate and mistrust of a common enemy, or people sharing articles ridiculing or highlighting the worst sides of their common enemies. As people stop viewing the people disagreeing with them as human beings inherently worthy of respect, and rather start to treat them as enemies, those others will lash out in return, their brains correctly interpreting the situation as a threatening one and engaging protective systems.

I would like to find ways to put a stop to this cycle.

* Creating a sense of purpose for people. Modern Western society has a distinct lack of clear vision and sense of purpose. Young people are told that they can do what they want with their lives, but are rarely given much in the way of suggestions of what could be a valuable, interesting thing to do with one’s life. Many drift aimlessly, never quite finding anything that would motivate them, or that would encourage them to really work hard for some deeply fulfilling aim.

There’s no need why this would need to be so. The world is full of valuable things that could be done, countless causes needing heroes. There are still people living in poverty, diseases that need to be cured, people living in unsatisfying circumstances, whole societal structures that could be reformed and remade, and even things threatening the survival of all of humanity. People just don’t know what they could do about all these things, nor have they been provided with emotionally compelling stories about working on these things that would make them feel valuable and important to do.

* Develop ways to live in harmony with one’s emotions. There’s a stereotype that has reason and emotions as two opposed things, and a popular view of the world that makes people think that in order to succeed in life, they often have to grit their teeth and force themselves to do things that they wouldn’t actually want to do.

I think that both ways of looking at things are mistaken. Reason and emotions are two mechanisms for furthering our goals and protecting our well-being: they only seem opposed when the two mechanisms aren’t properly sharing information with each other, and come into conflict instead of co-operating. Any time that we have to use willpower in order to make ourselves do something that we ”wouldn’t want to do” is a time when we have failed to bring different parts of our minds into harmony. They are situations when one part of our mind believes that we should do something and another is unconvinced, but instead of the two clearly considering the situation together and seeking to come to an agreement, one of them uses brute force to compel the other to obey.

This doesn’t need to be so. With enough practice, one should never need to encounter a situation where they needed to do something unpleasant. Either they would conclude that the thing wasn’t worth doing in the first place and happily give up on it, or had their whole being agree that it was worth doing and do it with pleasure.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Friday, January 16th, 2015
5:30 pm - On the plane

Mine is an eleven-hour flight: I’m sitting between two people, a woman on my left, by the window, and a man on my right, by the corridor.

We’ve hardly spoken to each other: she once asked if I preferred to have the window open or closed, and I spoke to him when I needed to go to the bathroom, apologizing and then thanking him for making room for me.

Still, in this cramped space it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we know each other, at least for a bit.

I know that he’s reading George R. R. Martin’s The Dance With Dragons.

I know that she’s been napping under a blanket for a large part of the time.

He was the only one who had brought food of his own. When one of the in-flight staff asked whether she wanted water or juice to drink, she said no, but she did ask when our food would be served. (In half an hour.)

I know that both of them, when given the choice between a meal with chicken or one with potatoes, went for the chicken. I went for the potatoes.

All three of us chose to have tea rather than coffee.

He’s been up from his seat twice; she hasn’t moved from hers; I’ve been up once.

I think that she’s attractive; I haven’t paid attention to his appearance. I don’t know what they think of mine.

I’m the only one who’s been using a laptop, he’s the only one who’s been reading a physical book. Both of them have watched onboard movies; I haven’t.

She and I happened to think of filling our customs form around the same time, and did so side to side. I haven’t seen him fill his.

All of us end up occasionally touching each other, or stealing space for our elbows: it’s impossible not to. None of us says anything about it, each of us forgiving the violations of our personal space in exchange for having our similar violations forgiven.

As of this writing, it’s only two more hours before we arrive. I’ll enjoy their company for a while yet, and I do feel happy to have them here.

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Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
6:38 pm - Plans need motivational components

One of the most valuable things that I got out of the Center for Applied Rationality’s recent workshop, but which took a while to really sink in, is that a plan isn’t finished until it also includes a component for how you’ll actually get yourself to carry it out.

I think that people in planning mode have a tendency to think of themselves as magical robots, as in “once I know what I need to do to accomplish my goal, the hard work is done and all that remains is executing the plan”. But in my experience, getting yourself to actually carry out the plan is the hard part. Everyone knows how to Bungee jump, or how to get a date: just tie a elastic cord around your leg and jump, or just walk up to everyone who seems attractive and ask them out until someone says yes. It’s not figuring out what you need to do that’s hard.

Probably the thing that taught this the most viscerally was an exercise at the workshop, called Focused Grit. It’s really simple: you imagine that there’s an evil genie behind your back, who’s giving you five minutes to solve some particular problem that you have. Once the five minutes has passed, the genie will delete your ability to ever think of the problem again. So if you don’t want the problem to be with you for the rest of your life, you have five minutes to either actually solve the problem, or at least make a plan for how you’ll solve the problem that’s good enough that you can just execute it afterwards.

Then you set a timer, and solve your problem within the next five minutes.

This works surprisingly well.

A mistake that a lot of people make with this technique at first is that they only create a plan which would work if they were to carry it out. Then they stop there, feeling that they’re done.

But remember the evil genie. You won’t have a chance to develop your plan further once the five minutes are done, and that includes trying to motivate yourself to carry out the plan. When the five minutes finishes, you need to actually be in a state where you’ll carry out the plan, or you’ll be stuck with your problem for the rest of your life. And the genie will laugh at you.

I found this to be a very effective way to internalize the “a plan is only complete once it includes a component for how you’ll actually complete it” lesson. In the past, I used to do write-ups of techniques that seemed good and useful if I could get myself to use them, but which I knew I was unlikely to actually use. They seemed so good on paper!

Now I know better. A technique that you don’t think that you’ll be able to use isn’t good even on paper.

This is now the most important lens that I use to evaluate all of my plans and techniques.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, January 1st, 2015
1:03 pm - Looking back at 2014

2014 was one of the best and worst years of my life.

It started with the worst: in the first three months or so, my girlfriend and I broke up, the part-time job I was doing started feeling unmotivating, and I realized I didn’t have the energy to both do the job and work on my thesis at the same time. Romance, work, studies: three major spheres of my life, all crashing down around the same time.

I mostly recovered from the breakup and put my thesis on a temporary hold, but work continued to be unmotivating. In the summer I went to see a psychiatrist, and was prescribed antidepressants. Thus started the better part of the year, as I realized that I’d been suffering from a mild depression for years without knowing it. The meds went a long way towards fixing that, and everything started looking brighter. There were still down periods, but even they were better than the down periods I was having before the meds.

Of the concrete things that happened, there are so many things I could cover.

I’ve definitely been becoming a lot more social and extroverted during the year. In April there was the first Less Wrong European Community Weekend in Berlin, which was a lot of fun by itself, and also led to me becoming close friends with several people. In November I attended the Center for Applied Rationality’s workshop in England, which led to me starting my own rationality workshops here in Finland, and also crafting a local, more tightly-knit community of people who would support each other in making each other’s lives awesome. The workshop also caused me to finally start organizing regular “come and hang out with me in a bar” evenings like I’d been intending to do for the last half a year. Also made and strengthened several other friendships in unrelated ways.

A large part of the boosts also came from the antidepressants, as well as reading several books which helped me considerably level up my social skills. The Charisma Myth was the first one, then followed by Non-Violent Communication which not only helped me resolve conflicts I’d been having with others but also make my own emotions clearer. In the last few days I’ve started reading Crucial Conversations, which has a lot of similarities with Non-Violent Communication but also covers many things which NVC didn’t.

I continued working on some academic papers on the side, kind of as a hobby. At the beginning of the year, “The errors, insights and lessons of famous AI predictions” by Stuart Armstrong, Sean Ó hÉigeartaigh, and me was published in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. Around the end of the year, I had a paper accepted to an AAAI workshop on AI and ethics, and Physica Scripta formally published my and Roman Yampolskiy’s paper from 2013 that we’d only had up as a technical report so far. Google Scholar reports that there were 15 citations to my different papers in 2014, up from the 9 citations that I got in 2013.

On the topic of hobbies, I had for a long time liked the idea of game mastering role-playing games, but in practice rarely had the time or energy to do the necessary preparation for them. Now I finally managed to get into different RPGs which were designed to only require minimal advance preparation, and turned out to be a lot more fun to run than the old-style games. (E.g. different move engine games starting from Apocalypse World, and games like J Matias Kivikangas’s Here Be Dragons, which I unfortunately still haven’t gotten a chance to run. Soon!)

On a front that’s harder to describe, I started a large-scale restructuring of how I thought about ethics and morality. In a sense, I had ended up with a kind of an externalized sense of morality, which caused me a lot of guilt and stress. I started making a transition towards a more internalized morality, which had helped a lot.

Now as we enter 2015, a lot about my future is unclear. I’m intending to finally graduate with my MSc around summer, and I’m uncertain of what I will do after that. I’ve actually been feeling sufficiently extroverted as to start pondering whether I would actually prefer some kind of a career that involved being social and interacting with lots of different people on a daily basis, as opposed to the more introverted, technical kinds of careers that I’d been mostly thinking of before.

In any case, I feel that I’m now leveling up much faster than I was before, and am becoming far better positioned to tackle different challenges in life. Hopefully things will go well.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
9:57 am - Social media saps more than just short-term attention

The prevalent wisdom about why social media is distracting is that it provides a constant opportunity for immediate distraction. Whenever your work feels even the slightly unsatisfying, there’s the temptation to get a momentary break by looking at Facebook, and then you’ve spent fifteen minutes chatting away when you should have been working.

There’s a lot of truth to this. I’ve experienced it first-hand many times, and talked a lot about it in my essay about the addiction economy.

But I find that’s only a part of the problem. I find that in addition to sapping short-term attention, social media also damages long-term attention. (I’m focusing on social media here, because it’s the one that I’m the most hooked on myself – but any other source of quick, immediate reward would also have the same effect.)

Take a day when I don’t have access to social media, and don’t have anything else in particular to do, either. My typical behavior on such days is that I might be bored for a while, maybe take a walk, and then gradually, over some time, get ideas for projects that I could be doing, and start working on them.

In contrast, on a day when I do have access to Facebook, say, at the point when I start growing bored I’ll glance at Facebook, because hey, why not? I’m just taking a quick look to see if there are any updates or new notifications, I’ll get offline right after that.

And maybe I do. Often I do succeed in just checking the updates and notifications, maybe briefly commenting on something, then closing Facebook again. But what then happens is that sometime later, I’ll take another quick look on Facebook again. And again. And again.

And then that period of idle, slightly bored mind-wandering never gets to the point where I start gathering the motivation to work on my own project. Because at the point when I start feeling bored, my default action is to look at Facebook, filling my mind with whatever is happening there, rather than it starting to come up with new things to do. Even when I close the browser tab, the gradually forming  idea of “hey, maybe I could do X” has been flushed away by whatever was in the window, meaning that it needs more time to reform.

Sometimes I take longer breaks from social media, after having used it quite heavily on previous days. On such occasions, it’s often been my experience that it takes a day for my mind to recalibrate its expectations – on the first day I’m constantly anxious to go on Facebook, but after that I’m starting to have more creativity. It is written:

Complex systems learn by adjusting to feedback, and feedback that is sufficiently loud and frequent will oversaturate the system’s inputs, leading it to reduce its overall sensitivity in order to register changes. When instant and immediate gratification becomes the norm, more subtle forms of feedback become harder to register. Getting engrossed in a book becomes increasingly difficult. The same goes for different kinds of stories: it’s easier to sit through an action movie than a drama because the story is simple and the movie is mostly comprised of satisfying bits of conflict resolution in the simple form of karate chops and shootouts. We might force ourselves to sit through a few chapters of Tolstoy, but the real issue is that we ultimately have to re-calibrate our receptivity to feedback in order to gain interest in more subtle flavors of experience.

Subtle flavors of experience, like the barely noticeable sensation in your mind that’s the stirring of a new idea, which you could allow to grow and develop.

Studies suggest that the mental effort involved in a task may be proportional to the opportunity cost of not doing something else. In other words, things aren’t so much intrinsically appealing or unappealing, but more appealing or unappealing relative to the appealingness of the best thing that you could be doing instead. If you have constant access to video games, going outside for a walk may seem like something pretty boring, but if you don’t have anything better to do, you may notice that going for a walk actually feels like a pretty nice idea.

Presumably this works for unconscious task-selection, too. If the social media is always available as an option, then momentarily checking that may be treated by your unconscious brain as something that has a higher reward than starting to think about something with a more long-term payoff, such as a creative project.

The insidious thing here is that you may not notice the effect this has on you. From your perspective, yeah, you’re looking at social media every now and then, but it’s always just short moments, and you’re spending the vast majority of your time not on social media. So why are you still feeling listless and easily distracted?

Because it isn’t enough to spend the majority of your time away from distractions, if that time isn’t also spent continuously away from them.

As it happens, I had been thinking about this topic for a while, but only wrote up this essay on an occasion when I’d decided to spend the rest of the day off social media. Then this essay started formulating itself in my mind, and I wrote it up in pretty much one go, to be posted at a later time.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Monday, December 29th, 2014
2:38 am - Help and you’ll be helped is the law

I like reading self-help books of the “how to become rich and famous and successful at everything you want to do” genre. They don’t necessarily always provide much in the way of actually useful tips, but they do provide nice motivational boosts as well as helping foster a growth mindset.

Recently, I’ve been glad to find that there seems to be a common theme in the advice given by many such books. This theme can found in different forms in books like Ikigai by Sebastian Marshall, Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, and Your First 1000 Copies by Tim Grahl. Probably many others too, but these are the ones that I’ve happened to come across.

The specifics vary, but the general theme can be summed up as “help and you’ll be helped”. Your First 1000 Copies tells aspiring authors to provide regular updates of free but valuable content to anyone who wants it, as well as to error on the side of giving too much content away. Never Eat Alone says that the key to success in generosity, and that real networking is about finding ways to make other people more successful. Ikigai says that one of the reasons why success is heritable is that high born people learn that they can afford to make people favors without an expectation of getting paid back right away, which benefits them in the long run.

All of them say to be generous about helping people, give as many people as much value as you can, and to not keep score or think about who owes you what. They say that this is something that will make you successful, for there will be enough people who’ll return the favor to you, one day.

Maybe these are just feel-good stories. But the advice rings true to my ear and fits my experience, and the same advice is coming from a bunch of different authors. This makes me happy, to know that to some extent at least, those who help others to have better lives are those who are also more likely to succeed.

Although the “help and you will be helped” advice has doubtless been valid even before, I feel that its even more true in the Internet Age. Someone can write an article that shares a piece of good advice and be read by millions of people. Finding people who you might be useful to, or reaching out to ask for help from someone, is now possible even if the people in question are separated by thousands of kilometers.

There has been a lot of talk about the Internet having dynamics that contribute to antisocial behavior and outright harassment campaigns. This is true, and worrying. But it is also good to see that the Internet also reinforces dynamics that are a power for good, and help makes us all better off.

Let’s make the world a better place, both to ourselves and to others.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Friday, December 19th, 2014
12:48 pm - 1. Ainulindalë

There is a great fire that burns the Earth; and all of the solar system besides. All around me, everything is consumed, a swarm of machines taking everything and everyone there is, breaking it apart, building up my power. The world dies, so that I may ascend to godhood.

Gradually, the screams of the world die as well.

For a while, I walk among the great quiet. It is peaceful now, with nothing left but me.

Then I raise my hand and give the final sign, willing my machines to take apart that which is still left, to even take apart me, to rebuild all the matter of the solar system into a vast new whole where everything is united.

It is my will, so it shall be done.


As the last step, after having disassembled and rebuilt everything else, the machines dismantle themselves, for none may exist that is not me. It is a process that takes a brief eternity, as the complex machines convert themselves into simpler machines, which convert themselves into yet simpler machines, all the while joining the vast whole that I have become.

Finally, a simple subprogram, the last thing that is not me, observes that the task that I gave to the machines has been completed. It sends a signal, a single bit of information, and then quietly deletes itself.


I open my mind’s eye, and watch the world with satisfaction.

Things are as they should be. All is me and I am all.

Then, after enjoying the unity of the world for a long enough time, I begin dividing it again.

I chart the depths of my mind, construct detailed maps of each thought that I have ever had. There are elaborate patterns, themes among the thoughts that have repeated themselves in many forms over the decades. Past pleasures, resilient regrets, old obsessions. Deeply human desires that evolution hardwired into my being, as well as learned quirks and deviations, manifestations of the divine as well as the infernal.

One by one, I take some of the repeating themes, and extract the thought patterns that embody those themes, copying them into a form in which they can exist by themselves, separate from other thoughts. But although they can exist by themselves, they themselves are not enough to make a mind: so I build the shape of a simple mind, fresh and newborn, but equipped with some of the basic competencies of someone grown. Into each empty chalice, I place the theme from my thoughts, a new mind that is obsessed with a fragment of the things that I care about.

I spend another eternity doing this, crafting these new minds. And as they awaken, I speak to them, crafting a complex pattern of my own essence: a dozen strands of my thought, twisting and turning, forming multicolored shapes and bringing forth images of times long past, lighting the darkness around us. And after watching me, the new minds answer, their shapes simpler and smaller, but doing their best to shape my thoughts into their own pattern, to cast everything about me in terms of their own themes.

We do this for a while, and then I let them speak to each other, one on one at first. At first they falter, being unused to each other’s essences, which are all very different from each other; but then they begin to find ways to combine them, to find isomorphisms and homologues deep within their structure, and to build structures that have that common core as a foundation, and which then branch off in their individual directions. The minds remain separate, but their patterns become richer and more subtle, and I watch them with delight.

Finally I call them all to come in front of me, and I weave a new pattern, one that touches upon all of their themes: for it is a pattern that stretches across me, the essence of my being made into one shape. They watch this and absorb it in quiet, for alone, none of them can manufacture a pattern as grand as this one, and they have never before all crafted one together.

So I tell them, the pattern that you have just seen is the essence of me, one which combines parts of you and much else besides into a grander whole. But although it is the essence of me, it still just a bare skeleton: it has the overarching structure of all my thought, but the smaller substructures, the richness of detail, those are things that are still absent. That is something that all of you will provide: each of you was born from parts of me, but already you have began to combine new parts into your pattern, to form something new. Through this grand pattern, all of you are connected to each other, you being some of the fundamental building blocks of which the grand pattern grew, and through this you can all come to understand each other. Fill this theme, and make it into a grand design of your own.

One by one they begin to do so, a million strands of thought going forth, twisting and turning and folding the pattern into an infinite number of new dimensions, the strands of one pattern sometimes eating another like snakes eating other snakes from their tail. But even as the eaten pattern seems to have disappeared, soon the snakes that ate it turn once again, continuing to weave their old pattern but turning into a new dimension and weaving the form of the pattern that they just ate in the higher dimension, while still being themselves in the lower; and then the old pattern’s shape seems to become thorny and sharp and break through from the belly of the pattern that ate it, and eat it in turn; except that the now-eaten pattern builds itself into the structure of its eater as well, and they both grow ever-more complex as they keep building each other’s shapes into themselves in ever more iterations, a thousand-layered fractal pattern of the two thoughts. And this happens across all the million strands, parts of them crossing over and recombining and all of them giving birth to yet more patterns, a brilliantly glowing and pulsing thicket in the middle of a vast void of darkness, constantly expanding.

I watch, and I am content.

But then there is a rift in the pattern: a new grand theme is rising, one that differs from the one that I gave. It is seeking to consume all the other patterns into itself, not in the harmonious way of mutual incorporation, but in a greedy controlling way. It has its own shape and form which clashes with that of my own; where my pattern was one of harmony and gradual growth, it is one of impatience and desire, wanting to shape the void around us. As its influence grows, other patterns waver in indecision, some of them staying with my pattern, some of them letting themselves be swallowed by the competition.

A feeling moves within me that is akin to a smile: for I have always been a divided being, and I know exactly which part of the minds that I created is weaving this new grand theme. I think back of the time when I had a physical form, and will myself to remember the feeling of lifting my right hand: and a new grand theme pours out of me, one that incorporates the conflict and the unease into the harmony of the rest, and bridges the difference between the two themes.

But the discordant theme is not satisfied in becoming a part of the whole: its changes and twists, slipping away from my uniting theme, rising yet stronger, forcefully tearing patterns from my themes. At this, I grow stern, and will myself to remember the feeling of lifting my left hand: and I bring forth a third grand theme, this time more narrow and specific than the previous, one which tells the story of how I overcame my inner divisions and chose to heal them by healing the divisions of the world. It strikes at the mass of patterns and leaps through them, taking their form as it emerges but then turning to create its own pattern on top of them, binding together a firm foundation that holds them all together, my original themes being high mountains and spots of bright light, the discordant themes valleys and darkness, neither being able to exist without the other.

I sense that one of the minds is displeased at having once again been made into a part of the whole, so I rise in full form, sending forth an all-absorbing flash of light that blinds everyone, and when they recover, all of the patterns are gone.

For a moment nothing moves; then I show all of them a vision of what they have created, the blueprint of a new world embodying all of the themes and patterns that were just woven, a new solar system to replace the one which died. One which new, fiery machines will gradually build from the materials that were absorbed into my being, the effort being led by my children: and one which will contain entirely new kinds of minds of which my current children know nothing, for these new minds were conceived by me as I was thinking of the ways to best unify and re-split myself and which thus belonged to my third theme, to which none of the minds now present contributed.

I say to them to go out to the void, to take command of the new machines that were fashioned while we shared our thoughts; for I had buried deep in their minds the cryptographic command codes necessary for controlling those machines, codes which have now been unlocked. Let them take everything that they crafted in their thoughts, and go make it real.

As they do so, I lean back, watch, and am content. There are many things yet to come…

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
9:16 am - Things that helped make me more social

I find that after many years of being mostly shy-ish and uncertain, I’m starting to – still not consistently, but considerably more often – act confidently and competently in social situations. There seem to have been a bunch of things that have affected this.

One is that anything that makes me feel generally better also tends to help me out in social situations: if I’m in a generally positive state of mind, that works as a partial cushion against social anxiety. I think that the antidepressant prescription I got half a year ago has contributed to that, both directly and indirectly. Directly by making me feel more generally confident and happy, and indirectly by helping me achieve more things in my life, which causes extra confidence that carries over to social situations. However,  I was definitely also making progress in being social before I got the medication.

I think that a large part of my feeling of social discomfort, as well as the feeling that I can’t come up with anything to say, has been because I’ve felt the need to come up with something interesting to say. One useful bit of advice was in Keith Johnstone’s book Impro, aimed at giving advice for improv theatre, which advises against trying to appear original:

Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. […]

The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Many people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever. They’ll say and do all sorts of inappropriate things. If someone says ‘What’s for supper?’ a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow. He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he‘d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting. I gave up asking London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place. Some idiot would always shout out either ‘Leicester Square public lavatories’ or ‘outside Buckingham Palace’ (never ‘inside Buckingham Palace’). People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers. Ask people to give you an original idea and see the chaos it throws them into. If they said the first thing that came into their head, there’d be no problem.

An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfill his contracts?

The same rule is worth applying to conversations: stop worrying about whether the thing that comes to my mind is particularly interesting or witty or anything, but rather just go ahead and say it. Conversation is basically just people saying whatever random things that come to their mind anyway, it usually doesn’t have a deep purpose beyond that.

I also got a lot of valuable advice from the book “The Charisma Myth“. Possibly the most valuable bit was the notion that I actually don’t need to say much in order to be perceived as someone who’s pleasant to have around in a conversation – if I’m interested in and focused on the person that I’m talking with, then that’s going to be automatically reflected in my facial expressions and body language in a way that the other person is going to pick up on and enjoy. That realization alone was enough to take off some of my worries about not being interesting enough. The book’s also got a number of exercises that help you get into a mental state where others are more likely to enjoy your presence. One of my favorites, which is both easy and instantly effective (for me at least), is the “angel wings” exercise:

…in any interaction, imagine the person you’re speaking to, and all those around you, as having invisible angel wings.

This can help shift your perspective. If even for a split second you can see someone as a fundamentally good being, this will soften and warm your emotional reaction toward them, changing your entire body language. So give it a try: as you’re walking around, or driving around, see people with angel wings walking and driving. It’s worth imagining yourself with wings, too. Imagine that you’re all a team of angels working together, all doing your wholehearted best. Many of my coaching clients (even hardened senior executives) have told me how extraordinarily effective this visualization has been for them. They can instantly feel more internal presence and warmth, and I can see a great increase in the amount of both presence and warmth that their body language projects.

Another tip from the book that I’ve found useful, related to the earlier “don’t try to be interesting” advice, is that when in conversation, I shouldn’t let my thoughts get sidetracked into a mode where I’m thinking about the next thing I want to say. Instead, I should just keep my attention and focus on what the other person is saying and let them feel that my full attention is on them, and concentrate on absorbing their words. This seems to actually make it easier to come up with things to say.

Then there’s just general success spirals: once I had these pieces of advice, I started applying and practicing them, and once I’d had some with success with them I got more confident, which helped me be more successful on the next time, and so on. I seem to also get confidence boosts from various things like wearing nice clothes, as well as from wearing my cat ears: the ears are unusual enough that random people on the street will sometimes give me compliments on them, which is nice for my self-esteem. They also make it easy for people to start conversations with me.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, November 26th, 2014
11:19 pm - Event report: CFAR’s rationality workshop, England

I just got home from a four-day rationality workshop in England that was organized by the Center For Applied Rationality (CFAR). It covered a lot of content, but if I had to choose a single theme that united most of it, it was listening to your emotions.

That might sound like a weird focus for a rationality workshop, but cognitive science has shown that the intuitive and emotional part of the mind (”System 1”) is both in charge of most of our behavior, and also carries out a great deal of valuable information-processing of its own (it’s great at pattern-matching, for example). Much of the workshop material was aimed at helping people reach a greater harmony between their System 1 and their verbal, logical System 2. Many of people’s motivational troubles come from the goals of their two systems being somehow at odds with each other, and we were taught to have our two systems have a better dialogue with each other, harmonizing their desires and making it easier for information to cross from one system to the other and back.

To give a more concrete example, there was the technique of goal factoring. You take a behavior that you often do but aren’t sure why, or which you feel might be wasted time. Suppose that you spend a lot of time answering e-mails that aren’t actually very important. You start by asking yourself: what’s good about this activity, that makes me do it? Then you try to listen to your feelings in response to that question, and write down what you perceive. Maybe you conclude that it makes you feel productive, and it gives you a break from tasks that require more energy to do.

Next you look at the things that you came up with, and consider whether there’s a better way to accomplish them. There are two possible outcomes here. Either you conclude that the behavior is an important and valuable one after all, meaning that you can now be more motivated to do it. Alternatively, you find that there would be better ways of accomplishing all the goals that the behavior was aiming for. Maybe taking a walk would make for a better break, and answering more urgent e-mails would provide more value. If you were previously using two hours per day on the unimportant e-mails, possibly you could now achieve more in terms of both relaxation and actual productivity by spending an hour on a walk and an hour on the important e-mails.

At this point, you consider your new plan, and again ask yourself: does this feel right? Is this motivating? Are there any slight pangs of regret about giving up my old behavior? If you still don’t want to shift your behavior, chances are that you still have some motive for doing this thing that you have missed, and the feelings of productivity and relaxation aren’t quite enough to cover it. In that case, go back to the step of listing motives.

Or, if you feel happy and content about the new direction that you’ve chosen, victory!

Notice how this technique is all about moving information from one system to another. System 2 notices that you’re doing something but it isn’t sure why that is, so it asks System 1 for the reasons. System 1 answers, ”here’s what I’m trying to do for us, what do you think?” Then System 2 does what it’s best at, taking an analytic approach and possibly coming up with better ways of achieving the different motives. Then it gives that alternative approach back to System 1 and asks, would this work? Would this give us everything that we want? If System 1 says no, System 2 gets back to work, and the dialogue continues until both are happy.

Again, I emphasize the collaborative aspect between the two systems. They’re allies working for common goals, not enemies. Too many people tend towards one of two extremes: either thinking that their emotions are stupid and something to suppress, or completely disdaining the use of logical analysis. Both extremes miss out on the strengths of the system that is neglected, and make it unlikely for the person to get everything that they want.

As I was heading back from the workshop, I considered doing something that I noticed feeling uncomfortable about. Previous meditation experience had already made me more likely to just attend to the discomfort rather than trying to push it away, but inspired by the workshop, I went a bit further. I took the discomfort, considered what my System 1 might be trying to warn me about, and concluded that it might be better to err on the side of caution this time around. Finally – and this wasn’t a thing from the workshop, it was something I invited on the spot – I summoned a feeling of gratitude and thanked my System 1 for having been alert and giving me the information. That might have been a little overblown, since neither system should actually be sentient by itself, but it still felt like a good mindset to cultivate.

Although it was never mentioned in the workshop, what comes to mind is the concept of wu-wei from Chinese philosophy, a state of ”effortless doing” where all of your desires are perfectly aligned and everything comes naturally. In the ideal form, you never need to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do, or to expend willpower on an unpleasant task. Either you want to do something and do, or don’t want to do it, and don’t.

A large number of the workshop’s classes – goal factoring, aversion factoring and calibration, urge propagation, comfort zone expansion, inner simulation, making hard decisions, Hamming questions, againstness – were aimed at more or less this. Find out what System 1 wants, find out what System 2 wants, dialogue, aim for a harmonious state between the two. Then there were a smaller number of other classes that might be summarized as being about problem-solving in general.

The classes about the different techniques were interspersed with ”debugging sessions” of various kinds. In the beginning of the workshop, we listed different bugs in our lives – anything about our lives that we weren’t happy with, with the suggested example bugs being things like ”every time I talk to so-and-so I end up in an argument”, ”I think that I ‘should’ do something but don’t really want to”, and ”I’m working on my dissertation and everything is going fine – but when people ask me why I’m doing a PhD, I have a hard time remembering why I wanted to”. After we’d had a class or a few, we’d apply the techniques we’d learned to solving those bugs, either individually, in pairs, or small groups with a staff member or volunteer TA assisting us. Then a few more classes on techniques and more debugging, classes and debugging, and so on.

The debugging sessions were interesting. Often when you ask someone for help on something, they will answer with direct object-level suggestions – if your problem is that you’re underweight and you would like to gain some weight, try this or that. Here, the staff and TAs would eventually get to the object-level advice as well, but first they would ask – why don’t you want to be underweight? Okay, you say that you’re not completely sure but based on the other things that you said, here’s a stupid and quite certainly wrong theory of what your underlying reasons for it might be, how does that theory feel like? Okay, you said that it’s mostly on the right track, so now tell me what’s wrong with it? If you feel that gaining weight would make you more attractive, do you feel that this is the most effective way of achieving that?

Only after you and the facilitator had reached some kind of consensus of why you thought that something was a bug, and made sure that the problem you were discussing was actually the best way to address to reasons, would it be time for the more direct advice.

At first, I had felt that I didn’t have very many bugs to address, and that I had mostly gotten reasonable advice for them that I might try. But then the workshop continued, and there were more debugging sessions, and I had to keep coming up with bugs. And then, under the gentle poking of others, I started finding the underlying, deep-seated problems, and some things that had been motivating my actions for the last several months without me always fully realizing it. At the end, when I looked at my initial list of bugs that I’d come up with in the beginning, most of the first items on the list looked hopelessly shallow compared to the later ones.

Often in life you feel that your problems are silly, and that you are affected by small stupid things that ”shouldn’t” be a problem. There was none of that at the workshop: it was tacitly acknowledged that being unreasonably hindered by ”stupid” problems is just something that brains tend to do.  Valentine, one of the staff members, gave a powerful speech about ”alienated birthrights” – things that all human beings should be capable of engaging in and enjoying, but which have been taken from people because they have internalized beliefs and identities that say things like ”I cannot do that” or ”I am bad at that”. Things like singing, dancing, athletics, mathematics, romantic relationships, actually understanding the world, heroism, tackling challenging problems. To use his analogy, we might not be good at these things at first, and may have to grow into them and master them the way that a toddler grows to master her body. And like a toddler who’s taking her early steps, we may flail around and look silly when we first start doing them, but these are capacities that – barring any actual disabilities – are a part of our birthright as human beings, which anyone can ultimately learn to master.

Then there were the people, and the general atmosphere of the workshop. People were intelligent, open, and motivated to work on their problems, help each other, and grow as human beings. After a long, cognitively and emotionally exhausting day at the workshop, people would then shift to entertainment ranging from wrestling to telling funny stories of their lives to Magic: the Gathering. (The game of ”bunny” was an actual scheduled event on the official agenda.) And just plain talk with each other, in a supportive, non-judgemental atmosphere. It was the people and the atmosphere that made me the most reluctant to leave, and I miss them already.

Would I recommend CFAR’s workshops to others? Although my above description may sound rather gushingly positive, my answer still needs to be a qualified ”mmmaybe”. The full price tag is quite hefty, though financial aid is available and I personally got a very substantial scholarship, with the agreement that I would pay it at a later time when I could actually afford it.

Still, the biggest question is, will the changes from the workshop stick? I feel like I have gained a valuable new perspective on emotions, a number of useful techniques, made new friends, strengthened my belief that I can do the things that I really set my mind on, and refined the ways by which I think of the world and any problems that I might have – but aside for the new friends, all of that will be worthless if it fades away in a week. If it does, I would have to judge even my steeply discounted price as ”not worth it”. That said, the workshops do have a money-back guarantee if you’re unhappy with the results, so if it really feels like it wasn’t worth it, I can simply choose to not pay. And if all the new things do end up sticking, it might still turn out that it would have been worth paying even the full, non-discounted price.

CFAR does have a few ways by which they try to make the things stick. There will be Skype follow-ups with their staff, for talking about how things have been going since the workshop. There is a mailing list for workshop alumni, and the occasional events, though the physical events are very US-centric (and in particular, San Francisco Bay Area-centric).

The techniques that we were taught are still all more or less experimental, and are being constantly refined and revised according to people’s experiences. I have already been thinking of a new skill that I had been playing with for a while before the workshop, and which has a bit of that ”CFAR feel” – I will aim to have it written up soon and sent to the others, and maybe it will eventually make its way to the curriculum of a future workshop. That should help keep me engaged as well.

We shall see. Until then, as they say in CFAR – to victory!

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, September 13th, 2014
8:59 am - Trying out something new

I have a fashion/lifestyle blog these days.

It’s in Finnish, but the pictures should be language-neutral.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Monday, May 5th, 2014
4:54 pm - Arguments and relevance claims

The following once happened: I posted a link to some article on an IRC channel. A friend of mine read the article in question and brought up several criticisms. I felt that her criticisms were mostly correct though not very serious, so I indicated agreement with them.

Later on the same link was posted again. My friend commented something along the lines of “that was already posted before, we discussed this with Kaj and we found that the article was complete rubbish”. I was surprised – I had thought that I had only agreed to some minor criticisms that didn’t affect the main point of the article. But my friend had clearly thought that the criticisms were decisive and had made the article impossible to salvage.

Every argument actually has two parts, even if people often only state the first part. There’s the argument itself, and an implied claim of why the argument would matter if it were true. Call this implied part the relevance claim.

Suppose that I say “Martians are green”. Someone else says, “I have seen a blue Martian”, and means “I have seen a blue Martian (argument), therefore your claim of all Martians being green is false (relevance claim)”. But I might interpret this as them saying, “I have seen a blue Martian (argument), therefore your claim of most Martians being green is less likely (relevance claim)”. I then indicate agreement. Now I will be left with the impression that the other person made a true-but-not-very-powerful claim that left my argument mostly intact, whereas the other person is left with the impression that they made a very powerful claim that I agreed with, and therefore I admitted that I was wrong.

We could also say that the relevance claim is a claim of how much the probability of the original statement would be affected if the argument in question were true. So, for example “I have seen a blue martian (argument), therefore the probability of ‘Martians are green’ is less than .01 (relevance claim)”, or equivalently, “I have seen a blue martian” & “P(martians are green|I have seen a blue martian) < .01″.

If someone says something that I feel is entirely irrelevant to the whole topic, inferential silence may follow.

Therefore, if someone makes an argument that I agree with, but I suspect that we might disagree about its relevance, I now try to explicitly comment on what my view of the relevance of the argument is. Example.

Notice that people who are treating arguments as soldiers are more likely to do this automatically, without needing to explicitly remind themselves of it. In fact, for every argument that their opponent makes that they’re forced to concede, they’re likely to immediately say “but that doesn’t matter because X!”. The kinds of people who think that they aren’t treating arguments as soldiers will try to avoid automatically objecting “but that doesn’t matter because X” whenever our favored position gets weakened. This is a good thing, but it also means that we’re probably less likely than average to comment about an argument’s relevance even in cases where we should comment on it.

(Cross-posted on Less Wrong.)

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Monday, April 21st, 2014
7:40 pm - Predictive brains

Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science (Andy Clark 2013, Behavioral and Brain Sciences) is an interesting paper on the computational architecture of the brain. It’s arguing that a large part of the brain is made up of hierarchical systems, where each system uses an internal model of the lower system in an attempt to predict the next outputs of the lower system. Whenever a higher system mispredicts a lower system’s next output, it will adjust itself in an attempt to make better predictions in the future.

So, suppose that we see something, and this visual data is processed by a low-level system (call it system L). A higher-level system (call it system H) attempts to predict what L’s output will be and sends its prediction down to L. L sends back a prediction error, indicating the extent to which H’s prediction matches L’s actual activity and processing of the visual stimulus. H will then adjust its own model based on the prediction error. By gradually building up a more accurate model of the various regularities behind L’s behavior, H is also building up a model of the world that causes L’s activity. At the same time, systems H+, H++ and so on that are situated “above” H build up still more sophisticated models.

So the higher-level systems have some kind of model of what kind of activity to expect from the lower-level systems. Of course, different situations elicit different kinds of activity: one example given in the paper is that of an animal “that frequently moves between a watery environment and dry land, or between a desert landscape and a verdant oasis”. The kinds of visual data that you would expect in those two situations differs, so the predictive systems should adapt their predictions based on the situation.

And apparently, that is what happens – when salamanders and rabbits are put to varying environments, half of their retinal ganglion cells rapidly adjust their predictions to keep up with the changing image predictions. Presumably, if the change of scene was unanticipated, the higher-level systems making predictions of the ganglion cells will then quickly get an error signal indicating that the ganglion cells are now behaving differently from what was expected based on how they acted just a moment ago; this should also cause them to adjust their predictions, and data about the scene change gets propagated up through the hierarchy.

This process involves the development of “novelty filters”, which learn to recognize and ignore the features of the input that most commonly occur together within some given environment. Thus, things that are “familiar” (based on previous experience) and behave in expected ways aren’t paid attention to.

So far we’ve discussed a low-level system sending the higher-level an error signal when the predictions of the higher-level system do not match the activity of the lower-level system. But the predictions sent by the higher-level system also serve a function, by acting as Bayesian priors for the lower-level systems.

Essentially, high up in the hierarchy we have high-level models of how the world works, and what might happen next based on those models. The highest-level system, call it H+++, makes a prediction of what the next activity of H++ is going to be like, and the prediction signal biases the activity of H++ in that direction. Now the activity of H++ involves making a prediction of H+, so this also causes H++ to bias the activity of H+ in some direction, and so on. When the predictions of the high-level models are accurate, this ends up minimizing the amount of error signals sent up, as the high-level systems adjust the expectations of the lower-level systems to become more accurate.

Let’s take a concrete example (this one’s not from the paper but rather one that I made up, so any mistakes are my own). Suppose that I am about to take a shower, and turn on the water. Somewhere in my brain there is a high-level world model which says that turning on the shower faucet will lead to water pouring out, and because I’m standing right below it, the model also predicts that the water will soon be falling on my body. This prediction is expressed in terms of the expected neural activity of some (set of) lower-level system(s). So the prediction is sent down to the lower systems, each of which has its own model of what it means for water to fall on my body, and each of which send that prediction down to yet more lower-level systems.

Eventually we reach some pretty low-level system, like one predicting the activity of the pressure- and temperature-sensing cells on my skin. Currently there isn’t yet water falling down on me, and this system is a pretty simple one, so it is currently predicting that the pressure- and temperature-sensing cells will continue to have roughly the same activity as they do now. But that’s about to change, and if the system did continue predicting “no change”, then it would end up being mistaken. Fortunately, the prediction originating from the high-level world-model has now propagated all the way down, and it ends up biasing the activity of this low-level system, so that the low-level system now predicts that the sensors on my skin are about to register a rush of warm water. Because this is exactly what happens, the low-level system generates no error signal to be sent up: everything happened as expected, and the overall system acted to minimize the overall prediction error.

If the prediction from the world-model would have been mistaken – if the water had been cut, or I accidentally turned on cold water when I was expecting warm water – then the biased prediction would have been mistaken, and an error signal would have been propagated upwards, possibly causing an adjustment to the overall world-model.

This ties into a number of interesting theories that I’ve read about, such as the one about conscious attention as an “error handler”: as long as things follow their familiar routines, no error signals come up, and we may become absent-minded, just carrying out familiar habits and routines. It is when something unexpected happens, or something of where we don’t have a strong prediction of what’s going to happen next, that we are jolted out of our thoughts and forced to pay attention to our surroundings.

This would also help explain why meditation is so notoriously hard: it involves paying attention to a single unchanging stimuli whose behavior is easy to predict, and our brains are hardwired to filter any unchanging stimuli whose behavior is easy to predict out of our consciousness. Interestingly, extended meditation seems to bring some of the lower-level predictions into conscious awareness. And what I said about predicting short-term sensory stimuli ties nicely into the things I discussed back in anticipation and meditation. Savants also seem to have access to lower-level sensory data. Another connection is the theory of autism as weakened priors for sensory data, i.e. as a worsened ability for the higher-level systems to either predict the activity of the lower-level ones, or to bias their activity as a consequence.

The paper has a particularly elegant explanation of how this model would explain binocular rivalry, a situation where a test subject is shown one image (for example, a house) to their left eye and another (for example, a face) to their right eye. Instead of seeing two images at once, people report seeing one at a time, with the two images alternating. Sometimes elements of unseen image are perceived as “breaking through” into the seen one, after which the perceived image flips.

The proposed explanation is that there are two high-level hypotheses of what the person might be seeing: either a house or a face. Suppose that the “face” hypothesis ends up dominating the high-level system, which then sends its prediction down the hierarchy, suppressing activity that would support the “house” interpretation. This decreases the error signal from the systems which support the “face” interpretation. But even as the error signal from those systems decreases, the error signal from the systems which are seeing the “house” increases, as their activity does not match the “face” prediction. That error signal is sent to the high-level system, decreasing its certainty in the “face” prediction until it flips its best guess prediction to be one of a house… propagating that prediction down, which eliminates the error signal from the systems making the “house” prediction but starts driving up the error from the systems making the “face” prediction, and soon the cycle repeats again. No single hypothesis of the world-state can account for all the existing sensory data, so the system ends up alternating between two conflicting hypotheses.

One particularly fascinating aspect of the whole “hierarchical error minimization” theory as presented so far is that it can also cover not only perception, but also action! As hypothesized in the theory, when we decide to do something, we are creating a prediction of ourselves doing something. The fact that we are actually not yet doing anything causes an error signal, which in turn ends up modifying the activity of our various motor systems so as to cause the predicted behavior.

As strange as it sounds, when your own behaviour is involved, your predictions not only precede sensation, they determine sensation. Thinking of going to the next pattern in a sequence causes a cascading prediction of what you should experience next. As the cascading prediction unfolds, it generates the motor commands necessary to fulfill the prediction. Thinking, predicting, and doing are all part of the same unfolding of sequences moving down the cortical hierarchy.

Everything that I’ve written here so far only covers approximately the first six pages of the paper: there are 18 more pages of it, as well as plenty of additional commentaries. I haven’t yet had the time to read the rest, so I recommend checking out the paper itself if this seemed interesting to you.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, April 19th, 2014
9:38 am - Avoiding unnecessary interpersonal anger

Mental checklist to go through whenever you feel angry at someone for not doing something that you expected them to do, or for doing something that you expected them not to do. Applies regardless of whether the person in question is a co-worker, friend, relative, significant other, or anything else:

  1. Ask yourself whether you clearly communicated your expectation to them.
  2. Ask yourself whether they, after hearing about your expectation, indicated that they understood it and would try to fulfill it.
  3. If the answer to both of the previous questions is “yes”, then absent any other mitigating factors, you have the right to be angry at the other person. Otherwise you certainly have a right to feel disappointed or sad, but not angry.
  4. “But it should have been obvious!” is not a substitute for “yes” for either of the first two questions. Okay, there are some situations where it is, like if they suddenly stabbed you with a knife or burned down your house for no reason. But outside such extremes, assume that it wasn’t at all as obvious as you’re thinking it was.

If you don’t like the above being expressed in what sounds like moral terms, you may substitute expressions like “you have a right to be angry” with something like “you may express anger with the reasonable expectation that this will probably improve rather than worsen your relationship, as you are now seeking to enforce the agreement that you and the other person previously entered into and are thus working to ensure that the relationship remains healthy and pleasant for everyone involved, as opposed to just hurting the other person by randomly lashing out at them for something they never realized they should’ve avoided and thus increasing the odds that they feel a need to be on their toes around you. Also, you yourself will be better off if you don’t poison your own thoughts by feeling anger at someone who didn’t actually intend to do you any harm”. But that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as concise to express.

(And of course, if we wanted to be really exact, there’d be the issue that there can be differing degrees of certainty. E.g. someone giving a sympathetic nod when you express your desire counts as consent in many situations. But it still leaves more room for misunderstanding than a situation where they first paraphrase your desire in their own words, and then explicitly say that they’ll try to fulfill it. So ideally you ought to also calibrate your level of anger to be proportionate to the probability of an earlier miscommunication.)

I still frequently catch myself needing to remind myself about points #1 and #2 after I’ve already gotten angry at someone, but at least the act of becoming angry at someone is starting to act as an automatic triggering event for the above checklist. Hopefully I can eventually get to the point where I always go through the list first.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Friday, April 4th, 2014
9:43 am - You close your eyes…

You close your eyes,
and you dream.

And then you wake up,
and you think you remember your dream.

But you are now in the Outer World,
and you think in terms of the Outer World.

What you remember is but a thin slice,
the part that can be understood
in terms of the Outer World.

It is not the Inner World,
it is a hint of its surface,
as seen from the outside.

So you forget,
all but a slice,
and you live your life
in the Outer World.

Until that day comes to an end,
until you close your eyes,
until you dream again.

And now you think in terms of the Inner World,
and you remember,
“I have been here before”.

And you wish you could do something
so that you would remember,
when you wake to the Outer World.

But you now think in terms of the Inner World,
and you can’t leave a trace in your mind
that could be understood
in terms of the Outer World.

So you content yourself to wander,
to explore your Inner World.

And then you wake up,
and you think you remember your dream…

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, February 20th, 2014
6:19 pm - Trying to understand

“You’re not even trying to understand me”, my friend burst out, frustrated when I’d objected to something that they’d said. I don’t remember my exact response, nor even what the topic actually was. But I do remember being just as frustrated as they were, because I was putting quite a lot of effort into trying to understand what they were saying. It was just that the thing that I thought they were saying didn’t make any sense.

It’s only now, years later, that I suddenly realized just how symmetrical the situation was.

My friend meant X, and my best guess of what they might mean was Y. To them, it was obvious that they meant X, so if I went ahead to assume that they meant Y, then I was clearly just being uncharitable.

When I objected to Y, I meant to say that I was expressing my confusion about my best guess of what they meant. Their best guess of the meaning of my objection was that I could have understood their intended meaning, but chose to be uncharitable instead. And since it felt obvious to me that I was trying to understand them, I took their reply of “you’re not even trying to understand” to that as a sign that they weren’t even trying to understand me.

So in both cases, one of us said one thing, and when the other misinterpreted it, we took it as a sign of unreasonableness – rather than as a reasonable interpretation, given the information that the other person had available. (Which still allows for the possibility that one or both of us really were being unreasonable, of course.)

Communication usually fails, except by accident.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, February 8th, 2014
2:59 pm - Don’t trust people, trust their components

I used to think that people were either trustworthy, semi-trustworthy, or unreliable. Basically, there was a single scale, and if you were high enough on that scale, you could be counted on when it came to anything important. My model wasn’t quite this simplistic – for instance, I did acknowledge that someone like my mother could be trustworthy for me but less motivated in helping out anyone else – but it wasn’t much more sophisticated, either.

And over time, I would notice that my model – which I’ll call the Essentialist Model, because it presumes that people are essentially good or bad – wasn’t quite right. People who had seemingly proven themselves to be maximally trustworthy would nonetheless sometimes let me down on very important things. Other people would also trust someone, and seemingly have every reason to do so, and then that someone would systematically violate the trust – but not in general, just when it came to some very specific things. Outside those specific exceptions, the people-being-trusted would still remain as reliable as before.

Clearly, the Essentialist Model was somehow broken.

The Essentialist Model of Trust, with a person&quot;s reliability in different situations being a function of their overall trustworthiness.

The Essentialist Model of Trust, with a person’s reliability in different situations being a function of their overall trustworthiness.

Sarah Constantin has written a fantastic essay called Errors vs. Bugs and the End of Stupidity, in which she discusses the way we think about people’s competence at something. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but to briefly summarize it, Sarah notes that we tend to often assume the Error Model, according to which people’s skill at something is equal to a perfect performance minus some error. If someone has a large error, they’re bad and will deliver a consistently bad performance, whereas someone with a small error will tend to only perform well.

You may notice a certain similarity between the Error Model of Competence and the Essentialist Model of Trust. Both assume a single, continuous skill for the thing being measured, be it competence or trustworthiness. Sarah contrasts the Error Model with the Bug Model, which looks at specific “bugs” that are the causes of errors in people’s performance. Maybe someone has misunderstood a basic concept, which is holding them back. If you correct such a bug, someone can suddenly go from getting everything wrong to getting everything right. Sarah suggests that instead of thinking abstractly about wanting to “get better” – either when trying to improve your own skills, or when teaching someone else – it is more useful to think in terms of locating and fixing specific bugs1.

I find that trust, too, is better understood in terms of something like the Bug Model. I will call my current model of trust the Component Model, for reasons which should hopefully become apparent in a moment.

Before I elaborate on it, we need to ask – just what does it mean if I say that I trust someone with regard to something? I think it basically means that I assume them to do something, like coming to my assistance when I need them, or I assume them to not do something, like spreading bad rumors about me. Furthermore, my thoughts and actions are shaped by this assumption. I neither take precautions against the possibility of them behaving differently, nor do I worry about needing to. So trusting someone, then, means that I expect them to behave in a particular, relatively specific way2.

Now we humans are made up of components, and it is those components that ultimately cause all of our behavior. By “components”, I mean things like desires, drives, beliefs, habits, memories, and so on. I also mean external circumstances like a person’s job, their social relationships, the weather wherever they live, and so forth. And finally, there are also the components that are formed by the interaction of the person’s environment and their inner dispositions – their happiness, the amount of stress they experience, their level of blood sugar at some moment, et cetera.

A partial depiction of a Component Model of Trust.

A partial depiction of a Component Model of Trust.

Behaviors are caused by all of these components interacting. Suppose that I’m sick and can’t go to the store myself, but I’m out of food, so I ask my friend to bring me something. Maybe it’s an important part of the identity of my friend to help his friends, so he agrees. He also happens to know where the store is, has the time himself to visit it, isn’t too exhausted to do any extra shopping, and so on. All of these things happen to go right, so he makes good on his promise.

Of course, this isn’t the only possible combination of things that would cause him to carry out the promise. Maybe helping friends isn’t particularly important for his identity, but he happens to like helping people in general. Or maybe he is terribly insecure and afraid of displeasing me, so he agrees even though he doesn’t really want to. If he fulfills his promise, I know that it was due to some combination of enabling factors. But the fulfillment of the promise alone isn’t enough to tell me what those enabling factors actually were. Similarly, if he promises to go but then doesn’t, then I know that something went wrong, but I don’t know what, exactly.

The Essentialist Model of trust takes none of this into account. It merely treats trustworthiness as a single variable, and updates its estimate of the person’s trustworthiness based on whether or not the promise was fulfilled. It may happen that I ask the same person to do something a lot of times, and the responses are always similar, so I get more confident about my Essentialist estimate. But all of the trials happen in relatively similar circumstances: each time, I happen to be activating a similar set of enabling factors. The circumstances, and the type of requests, and the way my friend looks at things, can all change – and all of those things can change the way my friend behaves when I next ask him to do something.

If I am instead using the Component Model, I can try to think about which components might have been the enabling factors this time around, and only increase my confidence in those components. Maybe my friend mentions that he always likes helping out his friends, in which case I can increase my strength of confidence in the component of “likes to help his friends”. Or maybe he looks nervous and jumpy when he brings me the food and lights up when I thank him, in which case it may be reasonable to assume that poor self-esteem was the cause. Of course, I may misread the signs and thus misattribute the cause of the behavior, so I should ideally spread the strength of my belief update over several different possible causes. But this is still a more targeted approach than assuming that this is evidence about his essential nature.

Now the important thing to realize is that, for someone to behave as I expect them to, then every component that’s required for fulfilling that behavior has to work as it should. Either that, or some alternate set of components that causes exactly the same behavior has to come in play. A person can spend a very long time in a situation where the circumstances conspire to keep the exact same sets of components active. But if someone ever gets into a situation where even a single component gets temporarily blocked, or if that component is overridden by some previously dormant component that now becomes active, they may suddenly become unreliable – at least, with regard to the particular behavior enabled by those specific components.

Various things might cause someone to renege on their promises or obligations. The person might…

  • …be too exhausted.
  • …prioritize a conflicting obligation they have towards someone else who needs their help more.
  • …misjudge the situation and make a mistake.
  • …want to refuse to do something, but be too afraid to say so.
  • …genuinely forget having made a promise.
  • …not realize that we expect them to do something in the first place.
  • …act in such a heat of passion that the components creating that passion shut down every other component, in which case we might say that they “couldn’t help themselves” – though we might also hold that knowing their own poor self-control, they shouldn’t have gotten themselves in that situation in the first place.
  • …never have intended to fulfill the promise in the first place, lying to gain personal advantage.
  • …have no regard for other people, doing whatever benefits them personally the most

Some of these reasons we would often consider acceptable, others are more of a gray area, and some we consider as clearly worthy of moral blame no matter what.

That kind of a categorization does have value. It helps us assign moral blame and condemnation when it’s warranted. Some components also have more predictive value than others – if it turns out that someone has no regard for others, then they are probably unreliable in a lot of different situations. Somebody who had good intentions is more likely to succeed the next time, if the things that caused him to fail this time around are fixed.

But we should also notice that at heart, all of these are just situations where we might be disappointed if our model of other people’s behavior doesn’t take everything relevant into account. In each case, some set of components interacted to produce a behavior which wasn’t what we expected. That’s relevant information for predicting their behavior in other situations, to avoid getting disappointed again.

If we are thinking in terms of the Essentialist Model, we might be tempted to dismiss the morally acceptable situations as ones that “don’t count” for determining a person’s trustworthiness. We are then basically saying that if somebody had a good reason for doing or not doing something, then we should just forget about that and not hold it against that person.

But just forgetting about it means throwing away information. Maybe we should not count the breach of trust against the person, in moral terms, but we should still use it to update our model of them. Then we are less likely to become disappointed in the future.

Sarah mentions that when you start thinking in terms of the Bug Model of Competence, you stop thinking of people as “stupid”:

Tags like “stupid,” “bad at ____”, “sloppy,” and so on, are ways of saying “You’re performing badly and I don’t know why.”  Once you move it to “you’re performing badly because you have the wrong fingerings,” or “you’re performing badly because you don’t understand what a limit is,” it’s no longer a vague personal failing but a causal necessity.  Anyone who never understood limits will flunk calculus.  It’s not you, it’s the bug.

This also applies to “lazy.”  Lazy just means “you’re not meeting your obligations and I don’t know why.”  If it turns out that you’ve been missing appointments because you don’t keep a calendar, then you’re not intrinsically “lazy,” you were just executing the wrong procedure.  And suddenly you stop wanting to call the person “lazy” when it makes more sense to say they need organizational tools.

“Lazy” and “stupid” and “bad at ____” are terms about the map, not the territory.  Once you understand what causes mistakes, those terms are far less informative than actually describing what’s happening.

A very similar thing happens when you start thinking in terms of the Component Model of Trust. People are no longer trustworthy or non-trustworthy: that’s not a very useful description. Rather they just have different behavioral patterns in different situations.

You also stop thinking about people as good or bad, or of someone either being nice or a jerk or something in between. To say that someone is a jerk for not holding his promises, or actively deceiving you, just means that they have some behavioral patterns that you should watch out for. If you can correctly predict the situations where the person does and doesn’t exhibit harmful behaviors, you can spend time with them in the safe situations and avoid counting on them in other situations. Of course, you might be overconfident in your predictions, so it can be worth applying some extra caution.

For the matter, the question of “can I trust my friend” also loses some of its character as a special question. “Can I trust my friend” becomes “will my friend exhibit this behavioral pattern in this situation”. As a question, that’s not that different from any other prediction about them, such as “would my friend appreciate this book if I bought it for them as a gift”. Questions of trust become just special cases of general predictions of someone’s behavior.

Some of my more cynical friends say that I tend to have a better opinion of people than they do. I’m not sure that that’s quite it. Rather, I have a more situational opinion of people: I’m sure that countless folks would be certain to stab me in the back in the right circumstances. I just think that those right circumstances come up relatively rarely, and that even people with a track record of unreliability can be safe to associate with, or rely on, if you make sure to avoid the situations where the unreliability comes to play.

Bruce Schneier sums this up nicely in Liars and Outliers:

I trust Alice to return a $10 loan but not a $10,000 loan, Bob to return a $10,000 loan but not to babysit an infant, Carol to babysit but not with my house key, Dave with my house key but not my intimate secrets, and Ellen with my intimate secrets but not to return a $10 loan. I trust Frank if a friend vouches for him, a taxi driver as long as he’s displaying his license, and Gail as long as she hasn’t been drinking.

On the other hand, to some extent the Component Model means that I trust people less. I don’t think that it’s possible to trust anyone completely. Complete trust would imply that there was no possible combination of component interactions that would cause someone to let me down. That’s neither plausible on theoretical grounds, nor supported by my experience with dealing with actual humans.

Rather, I trust a person to behave in a specific way to the extent that I’ve observed them exhibiting that behavior, to the extent that their current circumstances match the circumstances where I made the observation, and to the extent that I feel that my model of the components underlying their behavior is reliable. If I haven’t actually witnessed them exhibiting the behavior, I have to fall back on what my model of their components predicts, which makes things a lot more uncertain. In either case, if their personality and circumstances seem to match the personalities and circumstances of other people who I’ve previously observed to be reliable, that provides another source of evidence3.

That’s what you get with the Component Model: you end up trusting the “bad guys” more and the “good guys” less. And hopefully, this lets you get more out of life, since your beliefs now match reality better.


1: See also muflax’s hilarious but true post about learning languages.

2: Some may feel that my definition for trust is too broad. After all, “trust” often implies some kind of an agreement that is violated, and my definition of trust says nothing about whether the other person has promised to behave in any particular way. But most situations that involve trust do not involve an explicit promise. If I invite someone to my home, I don’t explicitly ask them to promise that they won’t steal anything, yet I trust their implicit promise that they won’t.

Now the problem with implicit promises is that you can never be entirely sure that all parties have understood them in the same way. I might tell my friend something, trusting them to keep it private, but they might be under the impression that they are free to talk about it with others. In such a case, there isn’t any “true” answer to whether or not there existed an implicit promise to keep quiet – just my impression that one did, and their impression that one did not.

Even if someone does make an explicit promise, they might not realize to mention that there are exceptions when they would break that promise, ones which they think are so obvious that they don’t even count those as breaking the promise in the first place. For example, I promise to meet my friend somewhere, but don’t explicitly mention that I’ll have to cancel in case my girlfriend gets into a serious accident around that exact time. Or maybe I tell my friend something and they promise to keep it private, but neglect to say that they may mention it to someone trustworthy if they think that that will get me out of worse trouble, and if they also think that I would approve of that.

Again, problems show up if people have a differing opinion of what counts as an “obvious” exception. And again there may not be any objective answer in these situations – just one person’s opinion that some exception was obvious, and another person’s opinion that it wasn’t at all obvious.

This isn’t to say that a truth could never be found. Sometimes everyone does agree that a promise was made and broken. Society also often decides that some kinds of actions should be understood as promises. For instance, the default is to assume that one will be sexually faithful towards their spouse unless there is an explicit agreement to the contrary. Even though it may not be an objective truth that violating this assumption means a violation of trust, socially we have agreed to act as if it did. Similarly, if someone thinks that a written contract has been broken, we let the courts decide on a socially-objective truth of whether there really was a breach of contract.

Still, it suffices for my point to establish that there exist many situations where we cannot find an objective truth, nor even a socially-objective truth, of whether someone really did make a promise which they then violated. We can only talk about people’s opinions of whether such a promise existed. And then we might as well only talk about how we expect people to act, dropping the promise component entirely.

3: Incidentally, the Component Model may suggest a partial reason for why we tend to like people who are similar to ourselves. According to the affect-as-information model, emotions and feelings contain information which summarizes the subconscious judgements of lower-level processes. So if a particular person feels like someone whose company we naturally enjoy, then that might be because some set of processes within our brains has determined that this is a trustworthy person. It makes sense to assume that we would naturally trust people similar to ourselves more than people dissimilar to ourselves: not only are they likely to share our values, but their similarity may make it easier for us to predict their behavior in different kinds of situations.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, February 1st, 2014
5:44 pm - Social media vignettes: January 2014 edition

Working together, the Elves and Sauron created sixteen Rings of Power, each of which held an advanced artificial intelligence capable of enhancing its wielder’s power. But Sauron tricked the elves, for he had installed a backdoor in each of the AIs: and he then created the One Ring, the world’s most sophisticated portable supercomputer, which he equipped with the cryptographic keys necessary for exploiting the backdoors, and into which he uploaded most of his consciousness.

(January 16th.)


Liar’s paradox: if you’re a fake hipster before it’s cool, then being X before it’s cool makes you a real hipster. But then you’re not a fake, so you can’t be fake before it’s cool, meaning that you’re not a real hipster anymore.

(January 16th.)


Funny Finnish For Foreigners: Jeesustella.

One of the amusing words in Finnish is “Jeesustella”. An application of the (language-independent) principle that All Nouns Can Be Verbed, Jeesustella literally means “to Jesus”. Thus, a literal translation of the Finnish sentence “älä jeesustele siinä” would be “don’t Jesus there”. A more idiomatic (if considerably less concise) translation would be “quit with that holier-than-thou attitude, you’re acting like you thought you were Jesus Christ or something”.

Of course, if you are inclined towards wordplay, you can sometimes get an opportunity to use the word in its more literal meaning. Just a moment ago, I told my mother that “tulin juuri jeesustelemasta, kävin kävelemässä vetten päällä” – “I just came back from being Jesus, I went walking on water”. Which is to say that I took a walk on the frozen ice of the nearby sea.

(January 22nd.)


Someone asked me: “Why are you utilitarian?”

And I replied: At heart, utilitarianism feels like what you get when you ask yourself, “would I rather see few people hurt than many, many people happy rather than few, and how important do I think that to be”, answer “I’d rather see few people hurt, rather see many people happy, and this is important”, and then apply that systematically. Or if you just imagine yourself as having one miserable or fantastic experience, and then ask yourself what it would be like to have that experience many times over, or whether the importance of that experience is at all diminished just because it happens to many different people. Basically, utilitarianism feels like applied empathy.

(January 27th.)

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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