Orders of Magnitude

This piece is a speech that I gave for the 2020 SF Bay area secular solstice. Solstice was online this year, and a partial recording can be found here. This speech begins at 46:56. It transitions into the moment of darkness, the traditional “midpoint” of solstice where the stage is dark and you are left with your own thoughts for a brief period of time.

Every year, we gather and think about many different themes that are important to us. Many of these themes are about the very good, and the very bad.

We think about humanity’s past. We sing Bitter Wind Blown and reflect on what it would be like to have to light our own fires for warmth. We try to imagine what it would feel like not to know why it gets cold, or why we get sick, or whether there is anything we can do about it.

We think about the present. We share stories of humanity’s astonishing technological accomplishments and feats of cooperation over the last five thousand years.

And sometimes, we think about the present from another perspective. Beside our achievements we see stretching from the past into the present an unbroken thread of suffering, woven thick with the experiences of countless souls.

So at the same time, we must contend with the fact that we are standing on a rising pedestal, flung exponentially higher by our ancestors, and that also, all around us, unacceptable atrocities continue.

How are we to make sense of this? When confronted with the desire to understand everything, and the compulsion to ensure the prosperity of the far future; how are we to stretch our minds across both the enormous losses and enormous gains?

This is a challenge that is with us in normal times. This last year has brought a further complication to the picture. With pervasive fear of sickness, stuttering economies, and our institutions struggling to keep their heads above the water, it no longer feels like we are at the apex of human history.

To better understand these extremes, we need to deploy the tools of rationality.

In the third century before the common era, a man named Archimedes wrote an essay called The Sand Reckoner. The ancient Greeks, you see, had a term for a large quantity; a “sand hundred”. The idea was that, although one could see with the naked eye that sand consisted of discrete grains, enumerating all the grains in a sand dune, let alone an entire desert, was beyond possibility; beyond human abilities. But the mind of Archimedes soared above such imagined limitations. He invented a means of manipulating large numbers, which today we would call exponents, and with these he calculated upper bounds on the number of sand grains in the whole of the earth, and indeed, the sand-grain volume of the entire universe, as they believed it to be at the time. In this exercise, Archimedes had reckoned the sand. And in bringing the immensity of the sand inside himself, he also unleashed the mind of humanity onto the universe.

One virtue of rationality is precision. And sometimes, precision is less about knowing decimal places, and more about knowing what order of magnitude you’re on. Another virtue of rationality is scholarship. And the way that I know how to reckon with today’s immensities is to do research, and find statistics that tell me something about what order of magnitude we’re on. 

For example, the Spanish flu of 1918 killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million people. For comparison, malaria kills about half a million people per year, and COVID has killed 1.7 million people. 

In the second quarter of this year, the US GDP had the largest decline on record, and then the third quarter had the largest increase on record, although the net of those was negative. 

It took the world about a year to develop and begin distributing a vaccine. The previous fastest vaccine development was four years, in 1967.

These facts can be objects of meditation. They can be devices in your practice to understand the world around you, to orient your mind, and to choose future actions. Despite the clarity of specific numbers, it can take a long time to really understand what they mean. A lot of exposure is necessary to take these numbers inside yourself. My recommendation is to think about it lightly often, and deeply on occasion.

To think about it lightly often, perhaps form some associations that will let you be incidentally reminded of the good and the bad. For example, every time I see a plane in the sky, I just can’t help but stop for a second, follow its path through the sky with my eyes, and imagine all the people on board. It is truly a miracle that for a modest sum, each of those people can be safely hurled across the surface of this great earth, and in the meantime admire the tops of clouds.

In contrast, whenever I walk down the street and see a padlock, it reminds me that we have failed to solve basic coordination problems between people. While there still exist wars and police, or even fences and padlocks, we have not finished our work.

This is a careful balancing game; you don’t want to be so often optimistic that you lose your sense of urgency in building the future, and you don’t want to be so despondent that you lose your will to try. Minds vary in their makeup, so experiment at your own discretion.

For me, these associations are a light reminder, almost a subconscious one, which give me the opportunity to choose how deeply I want to reflect. The more you traverse the orders of magnitude, the more familiar they become, and the more you will be oriented to the exponential reality.

And tonight is a time to consider it more deeply. So for now, I will leave you with one more statistic on which to reflect in silence for the next minute. The global death rate is about 107 people every minute, or just under two people each second. This year, COVID has added about three deaths for each of those minutes.

[A pendulum clock begins ticking in the background. I blow out the candle and fade to darkness.]


One year ago today the Notre Dame caught fire, burning down the entire roof and the spire. It has since been largely secured, but proper restoration work is still a long way off. After the fire, I wrote this short story for a contest. It features a post-singularity mind choosing to have a particular type of experience of the cathedral. It will tell you something of what it means to me, and perhaps some of what it means to humanity.


Throughout all the centuries, there has been no gesture as pure as the creation of the medieval cathedral. Built across so many generations and touched by so many hands, it was humanity itself that came to say, this is who we are.

That caught her attention. Her attention, slightly decentralized as it traversed the mindspace, wrapped up its threads and drew back together toward this one idea. She had been wondering lately, what had it been like to be human before the rise? What had they thought of the world and what it would become? What did it feel like in each moment, to be confronted with a life so bounded? And what did it feel like to be human?

Records of the past, though well-secured by now, were quite finite compared to the deluge of information that was continuously being added to the mindspace. One had to do a lot of analysis and guesswork to draw conclusions about the past.

So why were cathedrals so important to them? She knew about religion; humanity’s attempt to find meaning and purpose, metaphysically and ethically, in a world where they had little control over their environment or even themselves. In part, cathedrals were a concretization of a specific religion and its symbols. But in a bigger way, they had had an enduring and universal appeal.

Her first instinct was to consume all known information about cathedrals. Modern minds, being distributed, could do this very efficiently. But before she started, the thought occurred to her; maybe this would be more fun, and a better learning opportunity, if she tried to make inferences only from the artifacts in question. She could treat the task archaeologically.

She loaded up renderings of all cathedrals that had managed to be information-theoretically preserved. Whether something was preserved in a physical form was not something that modern minds tended to even consider.

One of the most common decisions that a modern mind made was not so much when to parallelize one’s mind, but exactly how to parallelize it. For many tasks, the default was clearly sufficient; partition the new content into pieces, make a copy of one’s mind for each piece, peruse the content, and then merge all the now slightly different mind copies. Many tasks however required a controller copy of the mind to coordinate many other copies. Still further tasks required substantially differentiated copies to start with.

For this cathedral archeology, she decided to split off two different and simplified mind-threads; one that focused on the functional structure of the buildings, and another that focused on the aesthetics.

Having such control over one’s mind leads to some experiences that would be paradoxical to the ancient singleton mind. The older minds tended to either know something, or not know it. Modern minds, being made of countless parts in a hierarchical and interlaced structure, could know something in one part and not another. Alternatively, they could know something with two different parts, and not know that the other parts know it. Worse yet, the two parts could think they know something in different ways. Reconciling these inconsistencies was a major part of being a modern mind. Maintaining the inconsistencies was as well. It could be very efficient to know something one way in one part, and another way in another part, depending on what those parts had to do.

Worst of all, the same part could know something and, in some sense, not know it at the same time. It was in this sense that she first approached the image of a cathedral. In a mind-thread loaded with domain knowledge from physical engineering and some basic retention of human history, the holistic appearance of the Notre Dame de Paris was piped into her simulated visual system, leading to the appropriate reaction: stunned and impressed. In the context of the time and the materials available, this structure was substantial. Using only the most primitive of materials, stone, wood, glass and the like, these people had made a most unearthly structure thrust into the sky. They had clearly done this before; not as individuals, but as a society. The sheer amount of coordination required to raise this form was of comparable impressiveness to the structure itself.

Though this mind-thread was technically skilled, it was not an earth-bound homo sapien, and thus it took an explicit step of recollection to understand the basic directionality of the pieces. This structure was in a strong gravitational field; thus, its pieces had to be arranged in roughly linear stacks against that field in order to envelop a usable space. In other words, it went “up”. The ceiling was not just far away from the floor; it was “high”. This confused her immensely, because the whole thing about gravity was that it was hard to go against. Why did they go against it for so far a distance? Did they need to store very tall objects? Did they somehow need the volume for acoustics? It was unclear. For whatever reason, it seemed to be an externally imposed constraint that the ceiling be extremely high. It was perhaps even an optimization target; given these materials and technologies, make the ceiling as high as possible.

Putting aside the question of why, she went on to discern how. The simplest way to achieve height was to stack stones like the ancient pyramids; mountains are the upper limit here. But these builders clearly had further constraints in mind. She was in awe at their techniques. Internal walls consisted of rows and rows of arches, pointed to transfer more forces downward. This was not the optimal shape, but it was understandable given their lack of computers or even calculus. The ceiling used thicker ribs of stone to transfer its weight onto columns. The surface of the columns was carved in a way that made them look like many columns bundled together; she couldn’t see why.

The external walls were the most elaborate. On first appearance they just looked confusing, but she could see the logic. They needed to illuminate the inside of the building. At this point in human history, there were no sources of light that compared to the sun. Therefore, they got the light through the walls. The taller your walls, the thicker they have to be, and the smaller a window you can squeeze into them. So the builders did something brilliant; effectively, they cut the thick walls into sections and rotated the sections perpendicular to the building. This could support the same weight, but now allows light to pass between the sections. As if that wasn’t enough, they split each section further, and spaced out those pieces with arches in between, letting light stream in from the side. This gave the exterior of the building a spidery, complex appearance; the kind of engineering solution you arrive at if you have substantial material constraints and are willing to put in copious time into the project.

She couldn’t help but feel glee at seeing this system. There was one especially confusing element, though; instead of using clear glass to maximize internal lighting, the glass was all very darkly colored.

The aesthetics mind-thread was loaded with only the most basic understanding of physical reality; just enough to interpret where a human would have even been standing with respect to the rest of the structure. Just enough to know that the internal structure of the stone was not part of the perceivable aesthetics. Besides that, she was given the full human appreciation of aesthetics; preference for symmetry, fondness for certain color combinations, the pleasingness of unspoken connections between parts, an appreciation for the omitted; each explicable and every inexplicable feature of what humans call beauty was packaged in its abstract form into this mind-thread. The thread was initialized standing inside the church under the crossing, in view of the majority of the interior.

Her reaction was not one of being impressed; it was more like being teleported into a typhoon. The visuals and shapes that arrived at her from every angle were more than overwhelming. The intricately polychromatic light streaming from the windows blinded her to any depiction they might carry. The soaring bands of stone made off with any ability she might have had to orient under them. If crying was something a modern mind could do, she would have cried uncontrollably. Instead, her mind fell apart under the bombardment. Its pieces yearned and radiated, trying to grasp what they were experiencing in order to drink in its form, only to be knocked over by the rush.

Modern minds often consider this kind of experience great fun, and it is part of the motivation to partition parts in the way one does.

The pieces sheared and tumbled, rearranging themselves to be able to handle the base level perceptions. For though this mind-thread was optimized for analyzing beauty, she had to do so through the initial responses of the passions. The interior of Notre Dame demanded a strong response. Once they started picking up patterns and regularities, she would start to have the capacity for analysis.

While most of her responses were pure adoration, there were some not entirely positive. One part wonders, “Why does this light have no orange or purple?” Another suggests, “That gargoyle is hideous. Couldn’t they have used a creature as beautiful as the rest?” These thoughts tossed in the torrent, but eventually cohere.

Eventually, the thread’s reactions began to orient, stretched out along one axis of the building. Though two of the axes contained repetitions, one of the axes contained progressions. The overall form seemed to be that of a flat cross, out from which rods rise and eventually bend over to meet one another. This happened in layers until the whole of the stone bent together to form the vaulted ceiling. She had a sudden feeling of realization as she connected this shape to a prominent historical symbol, though she was not exactly aware of the tenants of Christianity.

Between the rising columns were the long, shattered panes of color; the stained-glass windows. Even inside her mind, she was speechless. She wanted to look at every part at once, and thus it entranced her. There was just enough regularity to soothe the eyes, and enough variation to keep them moving. The colors were deeply saturated, yet the sunlight through them was bright enough to make the rest of the interior almost too dark to see in comparison. Countless figures adorned the panels; it was as if they were trying to tell an entire epic of stories within the glass. That they were lit from behind made it seem as though they were lit from within. She decided to stay here for a while.

The merging of intentionally diverged mind threads is an intimate process.

At first, it is similar to the meeting of two entirely different people. In mindspace, you don’t just pass by a person, as if on the street; you get a gestalt summary of what it is like to be them. This maximally humanizes the minds during interactions and makes everyone feel as rich and worthwhile as they really are. Empathy is not so much a skill people practice as a way the world works. You can talk to someone, in the sense of exchanging symbolic linear communication, but you can also increase the gestalt experience exchange. It’s fluid and consensual, in the same way that you can stand closer to a person, give them eye contact, or inspect their face.

In this way, the two mind threads approached one another. They recognized their overwhelming similarities, and then focused on their differences. The engineer thread began to feel the passionate weight of the experience had by the other. She felt intimidated by it, and almost a regret at having missed it herself. Of course, after the merge, it would be as if she had experienced it herself; the transition contained many paradoxes.

The aesthetic thread began to perceive the immense technical complexity, and felt in awe. The engineering thread had noticed so much! The pieces were so interdependent! There was an aesthetic to mathematics, after all, and this came most naturally to her. The builders had done so much to make her experience possible. She felt the gratefulness sink into her.

The engineering thread’s most pressing question — why was the ceiling so high? — was answered immediately. Because it was glorious. It was so unnatural and elegant that it caused the viewer to feel transported, perhaps to the heavens themselves. In this place where sky is earth, most wonderous things could happen.

And the windows! She felt her soul waver at the first re-seeing of the windows. Of course the builders had put so much effort into letting the light pass through the walls. It wasn’t just for internal illumination; it was so that the walls themselves glowed with a life-force. The figures within the panes were thereby animated. Every extra bit of arch reinforcement was worth that.

As each thread began to see what the other saw, they began to lose track of which thoughts were their own reactions to the other’s experiences, and which were simply the thoughts of the other. Their processing locus began to cycle back and forth between the two, and on each pass, more content of their minds was integrated. If, in their creation, they had been imbued with any sense of individuality, this would have felt like a terrifying loss. But as they were always meant to be ephemeral, they instead felt a joyous relief. No longer did they have to hold on to their deliberately constrained ways. Eventually, as their mental representations of the cathedral became one, it also became greater than the sum of the two. Conclusions that neither had reached could be appended; mutual appreciations densified the connections. A distinctly different mind-thread resulted.

The merging of this cathedral thread into the rest of her mind was comparatively straightforward, as the content was not directly overlapping. Having successfully completed the experiment of analyzing the cathedral on her own accord, she could now take stock of it in the fuller context of historical knowledge. Despite being a thousand years old, the motivations for constructing it had been startlingly relatable. And before long, she began wondering what the modern equivalent of a cathedral would look like.

The challenge of modern day was not gravity, but complexity. The amount of information available to humanity was vast beyond reckoning; extracting insight from it was the great challenge. How could she represent the complexity of this data to transport the viewer to another world? What were the flying buttresses that factored out the patterns with such elegant cleverness? And what were the rose windows that iconized the most profound invariants?

All minds are in a neverending act of creation. Some create to perfectly satisfy constraints, some create to bring forth the never before made, some create to make the world in their image. For this act, she would need more hands.

The Wound in the World

This is a speech a wrote for the 2019 Bay area secular solstice, at the request of Claire Wang. It’s an adaptation of this chapter of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It uses most of the same words to extract the spirit from the chapter without needing the context of the story. We ended up not using it, because it didn’t fit into that particular solstice arc. But I’m quite pleased with it, so I’m sharing it here.

Since the beginning, humanity has looked up at the stars, burning terribly bright and unmoving in the silent night. We let the image fill us, knowing it was meaningful, but not knowing how or why. Thousands of years later, through our collective efforts, we added the missing ingredient to the image: the Earth, blazing blue and white with reflected sunlight as it hung in space, amid the black void and the brilliant points of light. It belonged there, within that image, because it was what gave everything else its meaning. The Earth was what made the stars significant, made them more than uncontrolled fusion reactions, because it was Earth that would someday colonize the galaxy, and fulfill the promise of the night sky.

Would they still be plagued by death, the children’s children’s children, the distant descendants of humankind as they strode from star to star? No. Of course not. Death is only a little nuisance, paling into nothingness in the light of that promise; not unkillable, not invincible, not even close. You had to put up with little nuisances, if you were one of the lucky and unlucky few to be born on Earth; on Ancient Earth, as it would be remembered someday. That too was part of what it meant to be alive, if you were one of the tiny handful of sentient beings born into the beginning of all things, before intelligent life had fully come into its power. That the much vaster future depended on what you did here, now, in the earliest days of dawn, when there was still so much darkness to be fought, and temporary nuisances like death.

So the stargazers thought of their friends and their family, the blue sky and brilliant Sun and all bright things, the Earth, the stars, the promise, everything humanity was and everything it would become…

They picked up their tools, and they got to work, letting these thoughts guide them.

Some of them, while they worked, looked straight at that which had been named death. The void, the emptiness, the hole in the universe, the absence of color and space, the open drain through which warmth poured out of the world. The fear it exuded stole away all happy thoughts, its closeness drained your power and strength, its kiss would destroy everything that you were.

But with their tools, they began to see underneath the cloak. They began to see what death was made of, how it worked, and why it was there. They saw past the fear, to the true nature of death.

And then they knew that someday, these tools in their hands would bring about a power greater than death. It was no longer magic. It was no longer unkillable.

And they knew that someday when the descendants of humanity had spread from star to star, they wouldn’t tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they were old enough to bear it; and when they learned they would weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed.

With this new knowledge, and with these new tools, each in their turn faced Death, and said to it;

You are not invincible, and someday the human species will end you.

I will end you if I can, by the power of mind and science.

I won’t cower in fear of Death, not while I have a chance of winning.

I won’t let Death touch me, I won’t let Death touch the ones I love.

And even if you do end me before I end you,

Another will take my place, and another,

Until the wound in the world is healed at last…

And people won’t have to say goodbye any more…

Monument to the Soul

When I was a child, my first fascination, before I found math and science, before I found space and rockets, was famous monuments. I grew up in a tiny town of three thousand people, and when I saw pictures of these vast constructions, I loved them. The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sydney Opera House: instantly and irrevocably, their images went straight to my heart. I cut them out of magazines and taped them on my wall. My parents got me a jumbo-sized pad of graph paper, and I drew my own creations, preparing to become an architect. I didn’t always know what these structures were for, or what their history was, and I didn’t need to. By their very appearance, they were great.

When I was in 7th grade, my teacher brought a television into the classroom, and I saw one of my favorite monuments on fire. The “twin towers”, as I had always called them, were gone over the next two hours. One student in the class had been to the top. The only thing I really understood while watching the events that day is that I never would. No one talked about how sad it was to lose a monument, and they shouldn’t have, because, of course, incomparably more was lost.

When I was around ten years old, I went into our tiny town library and checked out a thousand page tome. It was a book on Notre Dame de Paris. The librarian smiled knowingly as she handed me a book that she knew I would never read. And I didn’t get very far, but it never felt strange then or now for me to have checked out that book. Why would you not want to know all about this majesty? Who wouldn’t see that book and think, yes, this is the size of book that this monument deserves.

Since then I’ve gotten to visit a lot of the icons I had put up on my wall. The Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building. I will never see the World Trade Center towers, but I have seen their successor, and I have seen the stunning memorial in their footprints.

I have never been to Paris. I have never seen the Eiffel Tower, an unparalleled monument to modernity. And today, as I watched the news, I knew that I might have lost my chance to see an ancient monument to that which is timeless in humanity.

Thankfully, the people by the Seine did not mourn the loss of life today. The president of France did not console us on the loss of economic productivity. Instead, everyone knew that what we were losing was what that child had seen; one of the greatest depictions of human exaltation that we have managed to envision. A structure built for no other purpose than to make real our sense that there is something in this world so profound, so beautiful that we cannot just describe it; we must make it.

Fate willing, the damage will be repaired, and I will one day be able to go to Paris and see that monument to the human soul.

The Fragility of Progress

This piece is a speech that I gave at the 2018 SF Bay area secular solstice. It was preceded by several other speeches and songs, most importantly The Goddess of Everything Else. A recording of the 2018 solstice can be found here; this speech begins at 36:17.

It is Tuesday, August 4th. You sit in a cafe, enjoying the morning hours before you head to work.

Yesterday was a bank holiday; some family friends visited you in the city. You took them to Madame Tussauds wax museum, and the little ones wanted to see the science museum downtown. It was a cloudless day. Your friends talked about how strange it was that your city life was surrounded by people, and how did you manage to deal with them all? You joked that mostly you ignored them like ducks walking along a pond. But in your heart, each pair of shoes that walked past you was a kindling soul, a well of potential ready to burst its light out into the world. Every shuffling elder was a life well lived, and every boisterous child was a force that would change the world.

The turning of the last century, during which you were a child, was a symbol of the future that we had all collectively achieved. The startling pace of change has left the world of your parents’ childhood almost unrecognizable to you, as much as your grandparents’ world is unrecognizable to your parents. There is no reason to think that the pace of change will ever stop. To you, just freshly into adulthood, continuous progress is a law of nature.

Your work centers around coordination. You help to lubricate trade between countless other people, located in cities across the globe. You trust your clients and they trust you, a long railway of trust that lies founded on unprecedented international stability. The world is so big and rich that it’s hard for any individual to change it; and this global interdependence has furthered the economic incentive for cooperation. The more we trust, the more we gain; so says the new law of nature. Propelled by this fresh sense of meaning, you head to your office, knowing that what you do matters.

It is Wednesday, August 5th. You walk into the cafe, and pick up the paper. You sit down with your coffee and look at the headline.


You stare at the page. You read the words, but they meet with resistance. Why? Over what? To what end? Sure, Germany has not exactly been Britain’s ally, and every up-and-coming economy needs to do a bit of posturing and teeth baring. But war? Like men running around with bayonets and dueling in a field? It was an anachronism.

Never has your life been touched by a real war. There are always conflicts abroad, somewhere in the world. But you don’t know anyone who has died in a war. Your older brother didn’t serve. Your parents didn’t serve. You don’t recall your grandparents talking about war. It’s been decades. Maybe half a century. You’d have to look it up, that’s how long it had been.

War was a tool we used before we had a sense of what the future could become. Before the Renaissance, before the Enlightenment. We have better ways, now.

You’ve heard that the idea called nationalism is all the rage these days. Each patriot felt the same passion, only with a different subject in their heart. Why couldn’t they see that one country being great did not preclude other countries from also being great? Why can’t they see that the working people in the north are natural allies to the working people in the south? They put on different clothes, they breathe the fresh scent of different forests, but they each love their families the same, and the sun rises and sets on them all. Surely they can see that it is their humanity that makes them great, and that same humanity that unites us. Surely, they won’t march against their mirror image just for the sake of nationalism.

You realize that your cousins will volunteer. They would not miss the chance to defend the glory of Britain for anything. You hope to God that they will be okay. You hope that the war will be short. You get up from your table and head to work, because you do not know what else to do.

It is August 5th, 1914, and the war will not be short.

The First World War is considered to be the first truly modern war. The technological products of humankind had improved so much since the last major conflict that no one really knew what would happen after it started. What happened was that on the very first day, thousands of men died walking straight into the astoundingly effective fire of machine guns. What happened was that 27,000 men died in a single day two weeks later, akin to having 9/11 happen every hour from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. What happened was that the greatest nations of the world spent the next four years draining each other of blood, taking 15 million human lives from the cradle of life.

The momentum of the early 20th century looks very similar to the momentum of the 21st century. Replace planes, trains and automobiles with smartphones and machine learning, and replace Einstein’s miracle year with the discovery of the Higgs Boson and gravity waves.

Somehow, despite all this optimism, despite the works of the Goddess of Everything Else, the momentum of progress was split into parts, the allied powers and the central powers, and those parts were slammed together, their economic prowess consuming each other, whittling down the modern world until so many once-great countries were on the edge of societal starvation.

The war ended, largely from mutual exhaustion, on November 11th, 1918, one hundred years ago. At the time it was called The Great War, or sometimes the War to End All Wars. We do not know it by that name today, because we did not learn our lessons in time.

The efforts of all people since have brought us back from the brink of those two world wars, and the Goddess of Everything Else has worked her ways once more. But her powers are devious and subtle, and we do not know how the story continues. The outside view is our most powerful tool for predicting the future, and yet trends are not laws. There is no particular reason to think that another total war will come, and there is no particular reason to think that the future is assured.


The Saturn V was the biggest hunk of junk to ever loft humanity toward the stars. This mass of piping and wires was just finely tuned enough not to shake itself to shreds. Spewing, shrieking and screaming, it sears into the sky, because searing is all it knows how to do. By brute force, we splash about on the shores of the cosmic ocean.

I love the Saturn V like I love a child’s drawing, for even stick figures betray a fearsome intellect behind those big eyes. No other creature can produce such a powerful abstraction. And whether we are wielding crayon or welding torch, we will slash our way through the present into the future.

One day, our descendants will glide along a gleaming silky space elevator, gaze over their dominion, and wonder how their grandparents ever made it here in their rickety model-T’s.

Child, we got here by burning. We burned all the coal of the carboniferous period, we burned the midnight oil, and we burned within our hearts. We learned to let the sun fuel the fire, and then we burned with our minds. We burned ourselves out, and rested in the arms of lovers. We burned our relationships, and turned ourselves back to our work. The cycle went on, and we raised our collective higher. Though fuel is consumed through action, the soul is not; the soul only grows. Look up, child, and carry the torch.

Call to Arts

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a patchwork palace containing art from all eras. As you move through the labyrinth, your S1 reacts to the themes of different civilizations, the philosophies of various movements. Their memeplexes, long dead on the societal scale, still try to slowly alter you, the viewer.

Limestone sphinxes, straight-backed statues of pharaohs, walls of simple hieroglyphs. Perhaps your S1 hears “The world is regular, clean, noble. There is a grandeur behind what you see, and perhaps if you live as these statues you will live to see it.”

Faces, anatomically perfect paintings of hundreds of Europeans, billowing robes dyed deep colors. Perhaps your S1 hears, “We have reached the height of culture. Our ways are refinements toward the platonic state of elite and luxury.”

The vibrancy and grunge of modern art. The splatters, the angles, the barest resemblances of everyday objects. Perhaps your S1 hears “The world is chaotic. The order is only a result of your attempt to see it. Let go and let the world be what it is.” The precision, the radiance, the colors. Perhaps your S1 hears “The world is ours to shape. The patterns are endless. Forge the beauty you wish to see.”

We are a movement. We want to move the minds of humanity. We want to move the future itself. Thus far we’ve spread our ideas with words. But for many, S1 isn’t moved by words. It’s moved by visuals. These past civilizations have spoken from their systems 1 with visual art.

What say you, rationality? What say we, rationalists? What forms espouse our masochistic love for Truth? What figures flush crimson at threat to their something to protect? What melting clocks display our view of the future of humanity and the stars?

Hell if I know. I’m a miserable artist. But I’ll tell you what I think anyway.
I think we should compel the viewer to act. I think we should instill agency in the viewer. I think we should show the world what is good and great and precious, and what is the very reason for existing. I think we should show them what to fight for.

I think we should show them the deep conflicts that rationality brings about: between love of truths and love of giving up beliefs so easily; between the power of abstraction, and the ultimate authority of empiricism; the value of helping a single soul, and the unspeakable potential of the stars in the sky.

I think we should speak from our systems 1. If need be, use your system 2 to explore plausible post-singularity states. But don’t try to represent them in a way your S1 is blind to. Symbols are not precise, and if they’re also not compelling, they’re worthless. (…But if I see another humanoid robot image I will scream.)

I think we should use the tools of our age. Humans have always adapted and rationalists especially love to throw out tradition. So I’m not really asking anyone to buy an easel and start watching Bob Ross videos. Just as photography became an art after the invention of the camera, so too should photoshop be a legitimate medium. (If only the Met would have galleries of such.)

Yes, I know we have some art. Where would we even be, without Methods or the Solstice? Our movement grows every time I hum “Bitter Wind Blown” on the street. I’m just filling in the gaps here; we have no visual art. None. Not a single facade have we risen, no propaganda posters have we printed, no bronze park memorials have we cast. It’s a big piece missing for me; I’m a very visual person. I want to have a visual sense of our movement in the same way I have a visual sense of the roaring ’20s from art deco.

So go, go create tags on deviant art and register r/rationalistart and figure out how to install GIMP on arch linux. Print t-shirts and make interactive java applets. And, if it feels right, get out oil and canvas or touch pencil to paper.

‘But’ Considered Harmful

“Chickens are fluffy and helpless, but they descended from true dinosaurs.”

Spock: “The engines are likely to fail if we stay in hyperspace, Captain.
Kirk: “But we need to save the planet Empiricus from the supernova!

If someone makes a statement of the form “A, but B.” what they typically mean is that A is true, and — even though A is evidence against B — B is true nonetheless. The chicken statement is of this form. This is a pretty useful bit of English.

But sometimes, it doesn’t effectively mean that. In arguments like the one on the Enterprise, if the first speaker asserts A and the second speaker responds “But B!” this can mean “What you said was irrelevant, because B.” Sometimes this is a legitimate correction, and sometimes it’s an attempt to not have to concede A.

I propose a tiny trigger-action-plan to consider using ‘and’ every time you want to use ‘but’. It’s the epistemically sound kin of improv’s “yes and” technique. You won’t want to replace ‘but’ every time, because one often wants to emphasize the surprise. But when it feels like it would hurt to say ‘and’, consider doing so. The engines are likely to fail if you stay in hyperspace, and you need to save the planet Empiricus. This is more painful to consider, and you are now ready to solve the problem. Can you reverse the polarity of the transducer? No, because that would take thirteen hours. The engines will soon fail, you cannot reverse the transducer, and you need to save the planet Empiricus. What will you do?

The universe is filled with unfortunate facts that are simultaneously true. It’s an essential skill of a rationalist to hold seemingly contradictory facts in their mind until they discover the resolution. Simplifications are instrumentally useful and can be used safely in context. But when the planet Empiricus is at stake, you must know what simplifications are okay and which are fatal. Star Trek is notorious for implausibly successful save-the-day actions; Kirk never gets his fact-denying comeuppance. Nature is notorious for indifference.

To bring it closer to Earth, consider a favored political policy, like minimum wage. Does your stance on the issue have any negative side effects? Does your opponent’s have any positive effects? Minimum wage violates the freedom of business owners — and some good people have trouble finding a job that will pay them a living wage. Are all low-income people lazy and deserving of their strife? Are all business owners greedy or biased in their wage setting? Certainly not; there are just two unfortunate facts, and we only have solutions to fix one of them. Let us remember this, so we know to keep working toward better solutions.

Like the mantra “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”, this is a practice for your own mind. If someone avoids your true statement by responding “But B!” with another true statement, don’t tell them to say ‘and’ instead; repeat “A and B” to yourself first. See whether this loosens your beliefs.

The Boston CFAR alumni workshop

It’s wednesday morning at 8:57. I’ve just gotten into work. Kenzi texts me saying:

Anna in a curriculum development meeting: “My inner Alex Altair is really sad he’s not going to be here this weekend”

The next morning before the sun is up I’m on the BART to SFO. *Obviously* I should have decided to go to Boston for the alumni workshop. I hadn’t even considered it. My brain just filtered it out as not-local.

So why is it obvious? The previous morning, when deciding whether to go, I try to use outside view. I visualize how I think my weekend would go in either case. On one hand, I have a fairly large sample of spending weekends by myself working on projects. They’ve been going pretty well recently, all things considered. I’ve tended to get done the things I set out to do. On the other hand, I have three alumni workshops as my reference class. They were, each of them, exceptional weekends. I developed ideas and concepts, was taught new frameworks, made deeper connections with people and untangled connections in my mind. It’s like having twenty guaranteed excellent conversations in a row, punctuated by solo sessions of high-value introspection and planning. A naive application of Laplace’s law of succession says there’s a 4/5 chance this workshop will be the same.

When I hold up my average weekend next to a CFAR workshop, the deficit is obvious. I’m going. Carpe diem, try things, move fast and break things. This is my calling. The hero’s call to action isn’t a single moment where they decide to or not to follow the fairy into the cave. It’s the repeated choice to steer into the wind, because that’s where the treasure lies.

An alumni workshop is not like the first workshop. There are only about twelve participants (including the staff, because they are equally participatory). We work in one group. You’ll most likely have a significant conversation with each person there. The theme for this workshop was the Hamming question applied to our lives and the community. (That is, what is the most important problem in your field, and why aren’t you working on it?) But I like to call it the “actually” workshop; we tried to understand the nature of actually trying, of actually caring about succeeding. I’m fond of this.

It’s hard to directly measure my progress during the workshops. Or at all really, at least on week timescales. I rarely find that I “fix” a problem in my life, at least compared to the measurability of fixing software bugs or jiggly door handles. I haven’t come out of a workshop having founded an organization yet. But some measures are possible. I always come out with lists of things to try, notes scattered across handouts and notebooks. After the first alumni workshop (titled Epistemic Rationality for Effective Altruists), I hosted a series of group followups. This time, I came out with two major things.

1) For the first time I had strong evidence that my S1’s major wrong belief had changed.

Over the years I’ve accumulated an understanding that a major part of my worldview is a false (!) belief which I nicknamed “world is safe”. It means that to ensure my happiness I only need to take immediate actions. This causes some problems.

I’ve engaged a considerable amount of resources into aligning this belief with reality. But it’s awfully hard to tell whether I’ve made progress. …Am I more motivated now? …How about now? I’ve gotten a few bits of evidence that this belief has shifted, but nothing where I couldn’t chalk it up to small sample size or some other story. Whenever I checked in with S1, it still believed.

One technique for checking S1 beliefs I learned at Leverage. Basically, you just say a statement out loud. If it “rings true”, you believe it. It’s a bit tricky to catch the feeling of “ringing true”, but you can calibrate using statements you already know you believe. Say a statement you definitely believe like “This is my computer.”. Then say the negation, “This is not my computer.”. Actually saying it out loud seems to strongly increase the effectiveness. Feel the difference between them. One of them will feel something like a lie, and the other will feel like “well, yeah, of course”. Once you feel confident you can detect “ringing true”, you can try it with statements which you don’t know whether you believe.

So I sat alone during one of the work periods, and whispered to myself, “The world is not safe.” It rang true. It has never rung true, before.

2) It became clear that my plans were insufficient.

I sat with Oliver, describing my plan for the next phase of my life. He asks, “But how long will that take?”

“Um, I think about two years” I say.

“Two years?! Look how far MIRI, CFAR and FLI have gotten in two years!”

His response throws me two years into the future, imagining myself at 28.5 years old, and thinking All I’ve done in the past two years is [previous plan].

The correct sense of urgency isn’t one where the dementors are scarily approaching, and you have five minutes to figure out how to stop them. The correct sense of urgency is the one where the dementors have already come and gone. They’ve already taken people. There’s more behind them, and they won’t stop coming until you stop them.

God dammit responds my S1. He’s right.

But that which can be destroyed by the truth should be, and thus my plans must be destroyed.

So why do I book a next day flight to go to a CFAR workshop? It resembles the world I want to live in. I walk in the door, and people ask me my most important problem, and how I’m working on it. When I ask for help, they give it. When I ask for examples, they give me five. Conversations end because I have to be deliberate about sleep. I am deliberate about sleep because every hour of the next day is worth alertness and attention. So I go to bed. And when I wake up, I walk downstairs, and we start again. I grab the cereal, and start helping someone figure out how they can save the world. This is how life should be, and so I will get on a plane and make it that way.

Simon & Garfunkel and the Natural Order

One day while strolling around on the internet, I come across a comment; “…hello darkness my old friend.” I’ve never heard this before, but it seems… good. So I google it.

A few months later, I’ve got a playlist with all of their songs which I take around the block almost every day. The first thing about their music that catches my attention is the sound of it. I think Simon and Garfunkel heard a harmony at age 16 and said “hey, that sounded great — let’s do that all time time!” Turns out, that optimization target is basically just awesome. Their songs are what harmonies are for, and make me regret that I have but one voice under my own control.

The harmonies draw me in, but they’re not what make me stay. As I listen, song after song, I start to appreciate how… thoroughly unobjectionable their lyrics are. I’ve more or less given up on being inspired by the words to songs I get stuck in my head. They tend to be vulgar or mindless or downright uninterpretable. Most songs are just ornaments; just another dimension along which to set the scene of my experience. I put them on and they help evoke a mood and I go about what I was doing. But Paul and Art do not play such games. They knock on the door, and my attention is cut. They begin to speak, and I listen, because someone is speaking to me. This music is not just another dimension along which to set the scene.

Their songs don’t wrench my heart; they’re not like Harry from HPMOR speaking the thoughts that bring his true Patronus. They don’t speak about the things closest to my heart and they don’t speak in my own language. But as I listen I can tell that they are minds looking at the same world as me. Their songs span subjects modern and timeless. They speak about loneliness among crowds and the conflict people feel toward the society handed to them at birth. They paint for us life in modern cities or as a rolling stone spirit, and they never let us forget that we are embedded within the natural world. These things are beautiful. But they don’t concern me. There is another theme sewn throughout their work which does.

(If you don’t want to be spoiled or anchored, I’d recommend giving these songs a listen before reading on.)

My Little Town is sung from a character who finds no value in his place of origin. Nothing changes there and nothing has changed. His nostalgia is dull and static, lifeless to the point where the refrain of the song is “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”

Richard Cory and A Most Peculiar Man describe the lives of very different people, at least from the outside. We hear the details of their behavior and how others see them. We sink into their environments, just a bit. Then we are told that they committed suicide. No one reels from shock, and no one says comforting words. Despite heavy references to Christianity throughout their work, we are not told that these people go to heaven. We are just told that the remaining observers are sad and bewildered.

The Sun Is Burning maximizes the contrast between idyllic states of the world and the fate which awaits us all. It does this through the juxtaposition of the summer sun with a nuclear detonation, one giving life and one taking it away. The song opens with the most lulling of guitar picking and never veers. The lyrics veer. We’re welcomed with “In the park the lazy bees are droning in the flowers among the trees.” and departed with my favorite line among others; “Twisted sightless wrecks of men”. Simon & Garfunkel are ’60s hippies through and through, so it’s no surprise they would write a nuclear age song. But they don’t tell us whose fault it is; they don’t use anti-war rhetoric; they don’t tell us we should instead live in harmony, with no religion. They just tell us what life is like, and what could happen.

Sparrow is about a bird who struggles through life. It’s gorgeous and allegorical, personifying elements of the landscape. The plants give various excuses for not helping the sparrow, and when she dies it is asked;

Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth,
“For all I’ve created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be.”

A relationship dies, a raindrop dies, a brother dies. Things don’t “move on” or “pass away” in Simon & Garfunkel songs.

To my ear, their best treatment of this theme is a song which does not mention death by name.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Once my heart was filled with the love of a girl.
I held her close, but she faded in the night
Like a poem I meant to write
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

I threw a pebble in a brook
And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Hello, hello, hello, hello.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
That’s all there is.
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.

Why is it so important what happens to the leaves? Some other song writer might tell us that the leaves are reborn next year, that pleasure requires pain, and that Heraclitus is the man. But a dead leaf will be forever gone, and the new leaves cost us precious negentropy. The song draws no such conclusions. Just that the leaves turn to brown, turn to brown, turn to brown. That’s all there is.

Simon’s corpus of lyrics uses more Biblical allusions than references to death. I’m not sure why; I like to think it’s because the Bible is a powerful source of poetry. It says a thing or two that I agree with, in exactly the way I might want one to say it. Whatever their expressed beliefs, they know that death is not a journey to another land. They know that those who die will never be seen again, by anyone. They know what the natural order looks like, and they do not sing its praises. They sing about the way things are. It does not always end on a major chord. And when the guitar stops and the resonance fades you are left to face the way things are, and judge it for yourself.