Work as if you live in the early days of a better world

I just finished reading Semiosis, a novel by Sue Burke, which follows the story of a group of humans colonizing a new planet over the first 100 years. It reads a lot like The Martian — science and survival — but replace The Martian‘s solitude and desolation with community and competition.

It’s a deeply hopeful book about the prospects for the flourishing of sentient and intelligent life. The quote in the title of this post is not from Sue Burke, but it resonates for me as an attitude that, if held, is likely to make our present and future moments better.

Keep the channel open

James Clear shared a wonderful quote in his recent post.

This is Agnes de Mille, an American choreographer, recalling what her friend and mentor, the legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, had to say when de Mille asked Graham why a piece of her work that she considered merely mediocre had received so much attention while works that she considered superior were largely ignored:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Martha Graham, as recalled by Agnes de Mille in de Mille’s biography of Graham.

Concepts related to the 80/20 principle

The 80/20 rule or “Pareto Principle” says that for many phenomena, a majority (eg 80%) of the effects come from a minority (eg 20%) of the causes. For example, if you’re a lawyer, the top 20% of your clients probably generate around 80% of your revenue. Also, the worst 20% of your clients probably generate around 80% of your headaches.

What’s powerful about the concept is that if we can successfully distinguish the super-potent causes from the less-potent causes, we can prioritize our efforts and get a lot more bang for our buck.

There are a number of related concepts that I find super useful. Here are some.

  • Compounding returns — interest on interest for exponential growth
  • Matthew effect or law of accumulated advantage — the rich get richer
  • Leverage — any influence which is compounded or used to gain an advantage
  • Force multiplication — a factor that increases the effect size of a cause
  • The 1 Percent Rule — “over time the majority of the rewards in a given field will accumulate to the people, teams, and organizations that maintain a 1 percent advantage over the alternatives.”
  • Power law or “heavy tailed” distributions — “a relationship between two things in which a change in one thing can lead to a large change in the other, regardless of the initial quantities”
  • Return on investment — the ratio of benefit out to cost in

Virtue signaling and moral grandstanding

When we accuse someone of “virtue signaling”, we mean that they’re trying to make a showy display of how good they are — how pure their intentions, how spotless their record, how woke their views —, without necessarily doing the work to be good. We don’t like it because we want people to represent themselves authentically, so that we can judge them for what they really are, not what they’ve mis-represented themselves to be.

But as Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith think tank points out, the term “virtue signaling” is problematic. To “signal” is to provide credible information. A bank might situate its offices in a big grand building to signal that it has lots of money. It wouldn’t be able to afford the fancy building if it didn’t. When we separate the signal from the noise, we’re locating the valuable information in the sea of static. But when we accuse someone of “virtue signaling”, we want to say that the information they’re providing is not credible.

Justin Tosi, a philosopher at Michigan, offers a better term: “moral grandstanding”. To “grandstand” is to seek favorable attention, and the term doesn’t carry the implication that one’s displays are credible.

Fun fact: James Bartholomew claims to have coined the term “virtue signaling” in 2015. Google Trends backs up the timeline:

Peter Thiel’s contrarian thought exercise

Mr. Thiel shows, again and again, how he likes to “flip around” issues to see if conventional wisdom is wrong, a technique he calls Pyrrhonian skepticism.

“Maybe I do always have this background program running where I’m trying to think of, ‘O.K., what’s the opposite of what you’re saying?’ and then I’ll try that,” he says. “It works surprisingly often.” He has even wondered if his most famous investment, Facebook, contributes to herd mentality.

When I remark that President Obama had eight years without any ethical shadiness, Mr. Thiel flips it, noting: “But there’s a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring.”

When I ask if he is concerned about conflicts of interest, either for himself or the Trump children, who sat in on the tech meeting, he flips that one, too: “I don’t want to dismiss ethical concerns here, but I worry that ‘conflict of interest’ gets overly weaponized in our politics. I think in many cases, when there’s a conflict of interest, it’s an indication that someone understands something way better than if there’s no conflict of interest. If there’s no conflict of interest, it’s often because you’re just not interested.”

When I ask if Mr. Trump is “casting” cabinet members based on looks, Mr. Thiel challenges me: “You’re assuming that Trump thinks they matter too much. And maybe everyone else thinks they matter too little. Do you want America’s leading diplomat to look like a diplomat? Do you want the secretary of defense to look like a tough general, so maybe we don’t have to go on offense and we can stay on defense? I don’t know.”

Maureen Dowd, NYT interview with Peter Thiel

Yoshua Bengio on Integrated Information Theory

At NeurIPS this year Yoshua Bengio gave a great talk on research directions towards general intelligence.

While the deep learning paradigm has made major progress this century beyond classical symbolic AI, it has not accomplished its original goal of high-level semantic representations grounded in lower-level representations, which would enable higher-level cognitive tasks like systematic generalization of concepts and properties, working with causality, and factorizing knowledge into small exchangeable pieces.

Bengio thinks that there are pathways from current deep learning to high-level semantics that do not require a return to, or an interleaving with, classical symbolic approaches. One element of the picture he paints is that if we want to get to high-level representations we should drop the “disentangled factors” goal (assumption that each variable should be independent) and instead think of thoughts as best represented by a sparse factor graph.

This leads a questioner to ask about the difference between this model and IIT’s model of integrated information as the measure of consciousness.


The other major theory of consciousness is of course IIT, which measures consciousness by this phi quantity. which is essentially a measure of the mutual information of the parts of a system. and the higher the mutual information, the more consciousness you have. Which seems like the polar opposite of your sparse factor graph hypothesis. How do you reconcile the two?

Yoshua Bengio:

I don’t. I think the IIT theory is more on the mystical side of things and attributes consciousness to any atom in the universe. I’m more interested in the kind of consciousness that we can actually see in brains. [….] There is a quantity that is being measured [in IIT] but I don’t think that it is related to the kind of computational abilities that I’ve been talking about.

Ray Dalio: good synthesis requires successful navigation of levels

For Ray Dalio, making good decisions requires maintaining a true and rich picture of the realities that will affect your decision. To do that, you have to be able to synthesize an enormous amount of information. And to do that, you have to be able to successfully navigate what Dalio calls “levels”. 

Reality exists at different levels and each of them gives you different but valuable perspectives. It’s important to keep all of them in mind as you synthesize and make decisions, and to know how to navigate between them. 

Let’s say you’re looking at your hometown on Google Maps. Zoom in close enough to see the buildings and you won’t be able to see the region surrounding your town, which can tell you important things. Maybe your town sits next to a body of water. Zoom in too close and you won’t be able to tell if the shoreline is along a river, a lake, or an ocean. You need to know which level is appropriate to your decision.

To synthesize and communicate well, we learn to keep track of the high-level narrative. Dalio has a nice diagram:

Sometimes we need to go into the lower level details — but only when necessary, and we return to the high-level thread when we’ve accomplished what we need to at lower levels. Here’s what that might look like:

But sometimes things go awry. For example, we might get lost in the weeds:

Or, we might lose the thread entirely:

To avoid these pitfalls, Dalio recommends these four steps:

1. Remember that multiple levels exist for all subjects.

2. Be aware on what level you’re examining a given subject.

3. Consciously navigate levels rather than see subjects as undifferentiated piles of facts that can be browsed randomly.

4. Diagram the flow of your thought processes using the outline template shown on the previous page.

From his book Principles: Life and Work (p. 250).

Can you explain cognitive dissonance on a neurological level?

Unfortunately the answer to all questions of the form “Can you explain [some phenomenon that we observe on a psychological/experiential level] on a neurological level?” is “no”. We’re pre-copernican in our understanding of the mind/brain and all we can do today is say things like “well, activity in x region is associated with y phenomenon”. Which is like asking what “war” is and getting an answer that there’s statistically more physical heat in regions where war is occurring.

But we do have lots of perspectives that you might find helpful or interesting. One that is applicable here is multi-agent models of mind. For example, there might be at the same time a part of me that wants a cheeseburger, and a part that wants to eat healthily. In that kind of picture, cognitive dissonance would be characterized in the same way you’d characterize dissonance between two agents in any system. More about multi-agent models of mind here.