<![CDATA[ Caleb Ontiveros ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com https://www.calebontiveros.com/favicon.png Caleb Ontiveros https://www.calebontiveros.com Fri, 24 Jun 2022 22:12:31 -0700 60 <![CDATA[ On Plutocracy ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-plutocracy/ 626df9fe89890977f5aa7d27 Sat, 30 Apr 2022 20:10:52 -0700
Plutocracy is an underrated political form.

It’s not a panacea. Like every other form of government, it has obvious flaws. But on the margin, America should be more of a plutocracy rather than less.

The degree to which America is already a plutocracy is controversial. Some work suggests wealthy citizens get their way more than middle class or poor citizens. Here "wealthy" one is wealthy if they are the top 10% of Americans. My sense is that that work has largely been refuted. The wealthy and middle class get their way more than poorer Americans, but many overstate the influence of the wealthy alone.

This may be surprising given the amount of money spent on politics. Yet the amount of money spent in politics is low! The 2020 election spending was ~11 to 15 billion which is in the same ballpark as the annual amount of money spent on almonds by Americans. The NRA spent low hundreds of millions over the past two decades – i.e. the annual marketing budget of a large and well valued company and not even a tenth of the largest company's annual marketing budgets. Counterintuitively, the case that money makes a difference in whoever wins an election is poor. Where money can plausibly make a difference are in issues that are too complicated, obscure, or nonpartisan for the public to care about. Like tax policy.

There are two key reasons why plutocracy may be bad. First, it’s a violation of political rights. Second, it has worse policy outcomes. The first reason is not compelling, but the second contains wisdom.

In modern democracies, many endorse the slogan “one person, one vote”. Behind this is the conviction that each citizen should be enfranchised to make political decisions and that they should have (roughly) as much say as any other citizen.
Supporting this is the idea that the masses ought to determine the future of their polity. Doing so defines the political community, enables self-determination, and promotes egalitarianism.  Plutocracy makes some citizens more powerful than others, which is to day that it allows some to self-determine more than others. Worse, it clearly violates political egalitarianism. Hence, it’s a violation of political rights.

The reason I don’t find this compelling is that people don’t fundamentally have a right to vote. Since they don’t have a natural right to vote, concerns about political inegalitarianism don’t get off the ground. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t posses the legal right to vote – most should – but that’s because giving the right to vote has good consequences. If it turned out that restricted suffrage had better consequences, then I’d favor restricted suffrage.

Remember, that voting is violence. It’s a way of playing a part, no matter how small, of enforcing law. The enforcement of law is, of course, violence. I don’t think people have a right to force others to follow their political preferences. Not in the same way that people have a right to free speech, self-defense or practice whatever religion they please. Indeed, just as one has a right to a competent jury during trial, one has a right to a competent electorate. That bar is largely not met.

What about the second idea, the idea that giving power to the wealthy has bad consequences? The best argument for it is that no one coalition should have vastly more power than others. Republics and democracies are good because they avoid some of the worst cases for the masses. Democracies don’t let their citizens die of famine, autocracies do. The question is whether moves toward plutocracy push us too close to autocracy. All things considered, we should be skeptical of this. The median voter is a moderate nationalist socialist. The wealthy are better informed, more liberal, cosmopolitan, and less hawkish. These are not views that ruin states. The kind of reforms that should be on the table are things like voter competence testing, gerrymandering, and removing campaign spending limits. These are not extreme measures.

This isn’t to say that making America more of a plutocracy is the best intervention for improving governance. I doubt it makes it in the list of the top 10 best proposals. But, in a world where it’s fashionable to hate on the elites, here’s a lukewarm cheer for the rich.

<![CDATA[ Orthodoxy ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/orthodoxy/ 6246872489890977f5aa7cf3 Thu, 31 Mar 2022 22:07:36 -0700 G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is an accurate and digestible depiction of a way of looking at the world.

Perhaps better known for the idea of Chesterton’s fence, Orthodoxy explains why Chesterton is a Christian.

The work is not persuasive as an argument, but often shows good judgment. There are some exceptions to both of these points, Chesterton has good arguments against extreme skepticism, relativism, and existentialism. Consider his take on glorifying insanity for creative reasons:

It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity as in itself attractive. But a moment’s thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease. A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see the picture.

Like the rest of us, he also displays poor judgment. Argument is made a servant of style.

He describes his task as:

This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?

Chesterton is a literary, humanist, and imaginative character. Instead of seeing the world as a machine, he sees it as magic. Christianity captures this feeling best:

I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin.

The book contains many diversions. Some are exceptionally fruitful.

Consider Chesterton on loyalty:

A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.

And on action:

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else.

At times, Chesterton is frustratingly vague or flippant. Consider his take on Marcus Aurelius:

Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion.

Shrill hyperbole and sloppy reasoning. Shortly afterward, however, he says:

That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.

This is a fine critique of certain kinds of spiritualism.

The two passages capture reasonably well what it’s like to read Orthodoxy. When it misses it's superficial and supercilious, when it’s on target, witty and incisive.

<![CDATA[ The Book of All Books ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/the-book-of-all-books/ 621d968089890977f5aa7ccc Mon, 28 Feb 2022 19:50:52 -0800 Roberto Calasso’s writing is, at its best, propulsive. At its worst, it’s performative, inconsequential, wandering, and meaningless.

But it’s better to attain the heights Calasso was able to, even if that means writing so much nonsense.

So in The Book of All Books, one can skip the chapter on Freud. That makes it better than The Celestial Hunter. Perhaps one day, I’ll edit the Celestial Hunter down to the hundred pages it should be.

The Book of All Books is a retelling of the old testament.

The three most interesting ideas from the old testament are election, sin, and sacrifice. Everything else of interest follows from this.

To be chosen by God is to be elevated, defined, and then ground down.

The rise and fall of Saul, David, and Solomon mirror the rise and falls of Israel. Saul is chosen and then abandoned. David is chosen next by God and then forgets him. Divine kings are tempted by riches, power, and women. Largely women.

At once the young man follows her “like an ox led to the sacrifice.

Israel worships Yahweh and then becomes distracted again and again. As Yahweh says in Isaiah:

I brought up children, raised them / and they were unfaithful to me.

What is an election? God selects someone to play a role in his purposes. This choice is not communicated from afar, but nearby from a close and personal distance. God becomes, apparently, invested in his elect.

The prophet plays a different role from the king. Some roles are completely arbitrary.

Abraham, is, in a sense, the most fortunate and faithful of the elect. He is chosen to start a great people. Job, is in a sense, the most unfortunate of the elect. Of this Calasso says “Beings touched by grace find their mirror image in just men who suffer for no reason.”

The tribe of Israel acts in an arbitrary manner that mirrors God’s. Partners find and choose each other. What does it say about the Jealous God that he created the promiscuous tribe?

It’s strange that they could reject a God that was right there. How could they turn to idols when this was the age when Gods were so much closer?

God says to Cain:

Why are you grim and why has your face fallen? For sure, if you do what is right, you will raise yourself up. But if you don’t do what is right, sin is lurking behind the door; it desires you, but you can master it.

Even though the voice of God is there, Cain kills!

Sin is never mastered. The prophet brings the people close to God. But they always move away. Only to return, disheveled.

The final theme is sacrifice. After the destruction of the temple, sacrifice is no longer necessary:

For the Jews there was only one place where the liturgy could be performed, the Temple. Once that was lost, everything must become pure mental gesture.

Calasso suggests that it’s harder to return to God once ritual sacrifice has been removed. The Neoplatonist Salutius apparently wrote: “Prayers without sacrifices are just words, prayers with sacrifices are living words.” Sacrifice must be replaced by study.

The book doesn’t end neatly. It emphatically asserts on one page and raises unanswered questions on another. Recommended for fans of Calasso or philosophical retellings of the old Testament. Otherwise, stay away.

The heir of the Temple was not the synagogue, but the yeshiva, the house of study. The synagogue could never be anything more than the place where the community met together. It would always be lacking the smoke of burned animals and the blood smeared on the four horns of the altar. The yeshiva was an empty room, where nothing was lacking, so long as there was a scroll to read.
<![CDATA[ Don't Look Up ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/dont-look-up/ 61f80dc889890977f5aa7ca6 Mon, 31 Jan 2022 08:35:00 -0800

*** SPOILERS ***

This piece contains spoilers to the movie, Don't Look Up.

Don't read this, if you don't want the movie spoiled.

Looking up.

Don't Look Up follows the scientists who discover a planet killer hurtling towards earth.

It ends with the impact of the planet killer.

In between, the scientists – a professor and graduate student – try to convince the powers that be to prevent the destruction of life on earth.

First, the president and various subordinates blow them off. Then, the president brings them back in to distract from a scandal. The administration decides to destroy the asteroid in cinematic fashion. At the last minute, the powers that be renege on this plan. A corporation takes on the task of destroying the asteroid after it is mining it for valuable assets. When one of the scientists objected to this plan, because it’s clearly dumb, the response was something like, "Oh no what if we're alive and rich."


At the first layer of meaning, there are political implications. The populace and politicians are ignoring the threat of climate change. Both avoid evidence when politics and personal advantage get in the way.

It's a topical movie. The president is very much like a recent president in American history. The corporation is one of the primary funders of the president. The CEO looks like one of the Google guys. The media landscape reflects today's, with depictions of Morning Joe, conspiracy theorists, and science communication.

This reading depicts a cynical, but not entirely incorrect, left wing view of humanity, the internet, media, and politics. The film is about virtuous scientists, corrupt bureaucrats, sensationalist sociopathic media, and a denialist public.


A more general reading, one that abstracts away from the particular, and sometimes heavy-handed leftism, communicates the same lessons.

Humanity faces existential threats. Link to Tweet.

We have not risen to the challenge. Our resources, whether in attention, dollars, or talent are largely spent elsewhere.

Don't Look Up is a description of what will happen if we stay on the current trajectory. If our culture and institutions continue running as they are, humanity's time will eventually run out. Instead of facing the chance of civilization's future doom, we prefer to seek petty advantages.  We're selfish, irrational, and delusional. Our institutions reflect these traits.


My preferred reading of Don't Look Up is that it's a meditation on the human love of spectacle and the inability to face reality. Our attention moves away from external reality and into ourselves. American life is about narrative and performance.

The politicians, entrepreneurs, and ignorant populace of Don't Look Up exemplified this with their blindness. But so too did the scientists. Instead of preventing the end, it happened.

They fumble about the media and political landscape. They had 64 days, like the disciples on Gethsemane, they slept through many of them. Both start new love affairs.

But apart from the characters, the movie is about us. We immediately go to the first reading of the film. The one with easy enemies we're familiar with. Presidential clowns and greedy capitalists. Heavy-handed plotlines written by clueless liberals.

What the film avoids are the boring details. What would it take to get this done? The scientists move to effect change through celebrity. There is no consideration of the tactical or technical details concerning existential risks. Interesting epistemic questions about who to trust and who to ignore are largely overlooked.

On this reading, the superficiality of the film is intentional. It's a way of accosting the viewer. The person who spent 2 hours watching a movie.

The movie ends with one of the scientists saying "at least we tried" – but appearances aren’t what matters.

<![CDATA[ Girardian Pictures of the American Pandemic ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/girardian-views-of-the-american-pandemic/ 61ce865789890977f5aa7c6c Thu, 30 Dec 2021 20:30:39 -0800 What is the meaning of American pandemic politics?

Here are three Girardian answers. An exercise in thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

First, for those uninitiated, what is René Girard’s fundamental view?

In brief, we imitate others. Not just in their manner of speech, clothing, and cultural practices but in desire. We want the same things as our models. This results in conflict. This conflict leaves many with frustrated desires. At some point, this frustration must boil over. The natural way to bring about communal catharsis is with sacrifice. The community must find and punish a victim. Whether the victim is guilty or not is immaterial. After sacrifice, there is peace. The community is bound together. Calm continues until conflict requires another scapegoat. This cycle can span over years or minutes.

With the advent of Christianity, culture began to move away from master to slave morality. Master morality honors the accusers and powerful while slave morality focuses on the victims.. Concern for innocent victims is the ultimate value. We care more about the life of Briseis, than the glory of Achilles. At its best, politics is not about promoting “great” men, but about human rights and equality.

Girard, of course, has a deeper worldview than the above.


One frame.

Some parts of the community, the left, want to protect victims of the virus. So, they advocate for measures ranging from vaccines to physical distancing. There’s disagreement over how to do it. But they try.

Others, the right, care less about victims. These people are on the right – by self-description, they may be more Christian, but by practice, they are not. They don’t take the cost to victims to heart. They either downplay the costs of the virus or don’t care.

David Brooks described this attitude as it revealed itself at the national conservatives conference in Orlando:

Their public posture is dominated by the psychology of threat and menace. If there was one expression of sympathy, kindness, or grace uttered from the podium in Orlando, I did not hear it. But I did hear callousness, invocations of combat, and whiffs of brutality.

Instead of caring for the victims, the right focuses their attention on “elites.” The vague things called “science”, the media, and the establishment spread lies and deserve punishment. The right sees themselves as the victims and accuse the elites of conspiring against them.


Another frame.

Many measures to prevent the virus are ineffective. The left uses the pandemic to justify their righteousness. Here’s a useful example:

A loved one dealing with a serious illness had a doctor's appointment cancelled because she was exposed to someone who was exposed to someone who has Covid, who was not vaccinated. Why not be generous, instead of selfish, and get vaccinated?  It's not just about you.

There are two things interesting here. First, the accused are unvaccinated and impure. These åre the people the mob must condemn. They are endangering the community. Second, the loved one cares deeply about the victims. She pays the cost of compliance and forgoes a serious doctor's appointment.

A reasonable person would go to the doctor anyway. “Serious illnesses” are more dangerous than becoming exposed to someone who was exposed to Covid. But someone who takes the care to quarantine at a serious cost to themselves must truly care about the victim. That is heroic.

We turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts but of raising them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense.

Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

The accusers are not Christian, they are hyperchristian. They distort care for the victim into the weapon of the accuser.

It is out of concern for the victim that there are interruptions to everyday life, disrupted businesses, and the necessary shaming of those who don’t comply.


A final frame.

The first picture takes the cost of the virus to the ill seriously. But the mitigation strategies are a mess. The left exaggerates the cost to healthy individuals and children. They worship an idol of Science – and wield it as a vague weapon of judgment.

True care would have sought a more effective response. Instead, the concern for victims is hijacked by existing cultural battles. This community is hyperchristian and uses victimism as a weapon.

The second picture takes the cost of political interventions to the healthy seriously. But they choose different myths, fictions about the efficacy of vaccines or invisible men with secret purposes running lockdowns.

This community avoids the trap of hyperchristianity, but sees itself as a victim and is hungry for vengeance. Actual victims are invisible.

These two groups are in conflict, but fuel one another.

If the unvaccinated and non-compliant right did not exist, the left could not wield victimism as a weapon.

If the right could destroy the elites, they would not know what to do next.

The victims are the elderly. They have been ignored in nursing homes for decades. Now, many of them have passed, the virus speeding up their death. Sometimes alone.

They continue to be ignored, casualties to a more captivating conflict.

These are just stories about pandemic politics. Much of the truth hangs on empirical details only gestured at here.

This piece was only an exercise. I have the sense that the lessons about imitation and victimism should apply more to one’s personal life than abstract cultural debates.

<![CDATA[ Political Virtualism Requires Sacrifice ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/political-virtualism-requires-sacrifice/ 61a414d789890977f5aa7c26 Sun, 28 Nov 2021 16:18:00 -0800 For a while now, politics has at once been apocalyptic and mundane.

I once heard the following story:

“My friend’s father believes that Obama is a communist who is coming to steal our guns”

“Wow, how has his behavior changed?”

“Well, he’s playing a lot of golf”

This conversation mirrors one I once had – details amended:

“Biden is bringing on the woke totalitarian state”

“How do you spend your time today?

“Playing tennis, Twitter, and the markets”

Another example is the following two ideas some, a former coworker for one, hold in their head:

  • Climate change will end the world in 12 years.
  • We should help people save for their retirement.

When pushed, most people will drop the apocalyptic tale. The world isn’t ending, but things are getting seriously worse.

What’s remarkable is that the disasters of the world usually have nothing to do with people’s personal lives.

For that reason, we shouldn’t take these kinds of political beliefs literally. We’re not incentivized to get macroeconomic trends, culture wars, or foreign policy correct. Instead, we’re driven to have fun and fit in. So, political beliefs take on a social role. Ordinary microeconomics predicts that people will be objectively irrational about politics. Political beliefs won’t be well reasoned, but they’ll be instrumentally rational. The lack of political reason is a rational response to the incentives we’re given. That’s why people are irrational about politics. It once was quipped,

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

For politics today, we may say:

It is difficult to get someone to understand something, when nothing whatsoever depends on understanding it.

This view of politics resembles the philosophy of political virtualism. On this view, political behavior isn’t about reality – instead, it’s about imaginary worlds and experience.

Bruno Maçães describes political virtualism as:

Life in America takes place within constructed fantasies or experiences... Social and political reality does not represent an external reality. It builds imaginary worlds. Reality has been gradually abolished and is now impossible to retrieve, except perhaps through the dangerous exercise of imposing one of these imaginary worlds as inescapable.

As an example, consider social justice activism. Social justice is primarily about experience, symbolism, and acknowledgment. Maçães again:

Racial equality, for example: understood as a political and social principle, it would reach its goal by dropping out of our consciousness. It would become part of the world around us.

Wokeness begins from the realization that there would be some loss in this. If racial equality is a valuable principle, it seems that we should be vividly aware of it. According to the logic of experience, the goal should be intensity, not naturalness.

It’s not enough to achieve equality, one must acknowledge it and become immersed in it. A pleasant example of this is the acknowledgment that kicked off Microsoft Ignite:

Consider the story of the pandemic. It emerged as a catastrophe. But the summer of 2020 brought about the more interesting and captivating story of BLM. Now in 2021, the pandemic, though it’s not over, feels like it’s now at the stage where it only has weekly showings in select theaters. Though a larger rerun effort may kick off soon.

Or consider events of January 6th, 2021. That was not the actions of an uprising proletariat. Instead, they’re a play of streamers, grifters, and conspiracy theorists, most of whom got too carried away. It was dangerous and embarrassing. It was as unorganized as an Occupy protest.

When our cases above speak of the communist state, woke totalitarianism, or the climate apocalypse, they’re living particular stories. These stories are amplified in the virtual world via social networks. They spread, take on a life on their own. Their omnipresence provides a backdrop on which the politically immersed can make sense of their lives.

Not everyone relates to politics in this way.

Virtualism emerges in a relatively affluent world, with sufficient leisure time, where an individual’s political decisions do not shape political reality.

In other words, places like America today.

Virtualism is enhanced through technology. At first, newspapers brought descriptions of the world to our doorsteps. The radio carried voices to share information. Television brought images of reality into our homes. The relative monopoly on these services initially caused them to be shaped by the dominant elite and political interests.

With economic growth and technological progress, media forms forking paths. Politics becomes a matter of choosing one’s own adventure. It’s a fictional and social enterprise. By tuning the channels of one’s personal media stream, one changes the story of one’s life.

Virtualism is peaceful.

As a theory, it predicts that violence will largely fall. Which is what we’ve seen.

Stories about violence, political war, and social punishment act as substitutes against physical violence.

In a way, virtualism solves the problem of making a home for exclusive ideologies. How can the conflicting religious Christian and atheist liberal live in the same state when their diet, entertainment, lifestyles, and values are in direct opposition? Let them live out their idealogy in their own world. Fill it with the necessary villains. But push everything toward the symbolic and away from the material.

Bruno Maçães links religion in particular to television and entertainment in History Has Begun:

On television there are commercials, promos for popular shows, there are all the other shows one flick of the switch away, so that the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment. Religion makes life more interesting, and most Americans, I think, turn to it in that spirit.

The conservative Christians, now a threatened species, do not need to instantiate an American theocracy. Instead, they can simulate the experience of being strangers in their own countries. Of pursuing the good life against their political enemies. Even though they only interact with political enemies through the highways of the internet and television. It’s usually a passive interaction.

As additional evidence of this picture, consider how violence has fallen in states like America. Not just ordinary criminal violence, but the violence of protests and riots. The Black Lives Matter riots were tame in comparison with the LA riots of 1992 where 1,100 builds were burnt and 64 people died. Physical politics exists today, but perhaps not as much.

Yet even though these worlds are virtual, they require substrates. The Stories cannot be completely imaginary.

Coronavirus is real. Black lives matter began with a death and continued with violence from rioters and police. The narrative of climate apocalypse is in one sense overrated, the chance of existential catastrophe over the next one hundred years is low. But even low chances of existential catastrophe are too high. Most people waddling through the white house on January 6th were LARPing, but it doesn’t take much for a mob of LARPers to mutate into violence. This justifies the fear at the event.

Myths require contact with reality for legitimacy. Narratives require sacrifice.

There is no risk of a woke totalitarian state. But there are enough egregious cases of illiberal cancellation to feed the story. Institutions are drifting left.

The state is not communist. But there are enough similarities to feed a storyline. And enough storylines to nourish an identity.

The world will not end in ten years due to climate change. But extreme change over the next century is far too risky. That alone can spur panic.

And on and on. These beliefs, and their believers, have mostly limited contact with the real world. But not none.

Some of these political stories are even true, most of them are not – at least as descriptions of reality. Yet even these possess shreds of truth. That lends legitimacy to the possibility of myth becoming a metaphysical reality. Indeed, it’s all that is needed to make it a virtual reality.

Without incentives constraining stories, political spheres, and bubbles ideological theme parks will continue to proliferate.

But as long as they stay in the virtual world and the amount of required sacrifice decreases, this is good news. If that comes with a looser grip on reality, well, that’s the bad news.

<![CDATA[ The Spectre of Stable Totalitarianism ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/the-spectre-of-stable-totalitarianism/ 617f2e2289890977f5aa7c05 Sun, 31 Oct 2021 17:09:34 -0700 In the 20th century, totalitarian governments of the USSR, Germany, and China claimed the lives of more than one hundred million of their own citizens – outstripping the death toll of even  WWII.

We may not have seen the worst.

Due to increasing technological power, future regimes could be more powerful, stable, and ruthless.

They may last for hundreds or thousands of years.

Totalitarianism is complete authoritarianism combined with an all-embracing ideology. People can, to some extent, live out their own lives in authoritarian states. In totalitarian states, they don’t have any such liberty. The state terrorizes it subjects or transforms them into its instruments.

Totalitarian regimes are terrible for their subjects and neighbors. Torture, toil, and terror are a part of the furniture of life. Consider Christopher Hitchens on North Korea:

My attempt to describe how terrible life is there is one of my greatest failures as a writer because I don't think it's possible to explain to a person living in free society the utter misery and pointlessness and horror and starvation and hell of just one day in the life of a North Korean.

In the totalitarian state, everything must be in the service of the party and dear leader. One’s speech, thought, and actions are not one’s own. There is only room for a single good, and likely short, life – resistance.

Long-lived totalitarianism would be catastrophic and slow human progress.

The risk is remote.

But there are several trends that make powerful and stable totalitarian states more likely in the future.


Triggers For Totalitarianism

The first is that there are good reasons to form a global state.

A global state solves many coordination problems. Currently, market forces, loose agreements, and the threat of armed conflict hold together the global community. There aren't useful mechanisms for tackling global problems like climate change, pandemics, and war. It’s essentially international anarchy and a tragedy of the commons.

A global state would come with a mechanism for better managing coordination between states. If something would be better for the world, a global government could make it happen.

However, such a state also makes mass totalitarianism more likely.

Currently, the roster of nations diversifies the risk of totalitarianism.

A global state may likely make life significantly better in many ways – except it would bring with it the serious risk of an oppressive dictatorship.

This is not a conspiratorial point. Globalism is not some trap set by elites to justify international domination.

It’s the simple idea that there’s some probability that a state turns totalitarian – a global state concentrates that risk.

Technological change drives the second trend. It’s becoming cheaper to run an authoritarian state.

Moreover, technological progress will provide justification for a surveillance state. There is some level of technological advancement at which the world will be destroyed by default.

The cost of destructive technology has fallen over time and it has become more destructive. This trend suggests that there will be some point when destructive technology will be so cheap and destructive that it will be used to cause catastrophes.

As chemical, nuclear, biological, and artificial sciences progress it becomes cheaper and more feasible to construct an existential risk in your bedroom.

An obvious solution to this problem is to institute a surveillance state. There's a short slide from mass surveillance to totalitarianism.

The third reason we may end up with an exceptionally powerful totalitarian state is that we've had several and currently are at risk of having another. China isn't a totalitarian state, but it's certainly authoritarian. However, as growth slows China is at risk of moving to a much more ordinary totalitarian state.


Factors Supporting Stability

Global coordination, dangerous technological progress, and the past totalitarian states suggest that future oppressive states aren’t that unlikely.

But whether the states will be stable is another question. No modern totalitarian state has lasted longer than a century.

There are two primary reasons we don't see stable totalitarian states: they're difficult to administer and they have a succession problem.

Technological progress makes it easier to administer a totalitarian state. Surveillance technology is becoming better. Artificial intelligence and compute power may solve traditional problems with central planning. The cost of an artificial police force may fall, while its abilities rise. The internet and other developments in bits may help the state control communication – depending on the feasibility of a firewall.

As it becomes easier to administer a totalitarian state, we should expect them to be around longer.

Totalitarianism has a succession problem. Both Maoist China and Stalinist Russia became less totalitarian as their respective tyrants perished.

A global state may solve this. If the state is global, there aren't visible alternatives to totalitarianism. It's not a lot of fun to live in a totalitarian state, visible alternatives with economic prosperity and more basic freedoms appeal to the totalitarian elites. Eventually, someone less tyrannical will replace the totalitarian.

However, if there’s no such alternative, the case for destroying the totalizing state is less persuasive.

There are more speculative developments that could solve succession problems. The first is life extension technology. There's no need for another ruler if the current one won't fall. Another is genetic engineering. There's decent evidence that genetic personality traits determine political leanings. A totalitarian elite could create a core elite that is happy to support totalitarianism for ages.


Persist and Resist

Stable totalitarianism would doom many of our descendants to misery.

What makes it a problem worth addressing is that there are several things we can do now.

Here are several that I won't defend in detail:

  • Resist political movements to form a global state
  • Privatize powerful technology that could enable a totalitarian state
  • Work on surveillance technology that doesn't enable totalitarianism
  • Promote differential technological advancement. Ie avoid creating a vulnerable world
  • Promote norms against totalitarianism

Some of these options are an order of magnitude better than the others. There are likely others still.

The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head.
<![CDATA[ Note on the Will to Life ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/note-on-the-will-to-life/ 6156363189890977f5aa7bcb Thu, 30 Sep 2021 15:32:09 -0700 I turned 28 a few months ago. Just before my birthday, I spent 2 weeks writing out my worldview on a number of philosophical and practical questions. I'm sharing the section on the will to life today. It's simple, but, I hope, optimistic.

If you'd like the read the rest, you can read it here.

The typical being embraces their life.

Even if their life is full of suffering, they prefer that they exist rather than not.

Pessimists argue that these behaviors and beliefs are essentially evolutionary programming. That, in many cases, it would still be better for these people to never have been born.

Some argue that most animal lives are not worth living. Nature is completely indifferent, but the results are cruel and capricious.

But if preferences and desires matter at all, the pessimistic view loses its force. The deep preference for survival that all conscious creatures possess is significant evidence against it. Most beings have a will for life. Life's longing for itself is self-satisfying.

The mere preference to be alive, to take part in the onward rush, renders lives worth living.

<![CDATA[ On Heroes ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-heroes/ 612c06f789890977f5aa7bb6 Sun, 29 Aug 2021 15:37:48 -0700 A meditation on saints and role models.

The information tsunami drowns heroes.

Any stain, slip up, or failure is bound to wash up on the shores of discourse.

For every Churchill, there's a famine. For every Mother Teresa, there are political missteps, ineffective altruism, and strange ethics. For every Marcus, there’s a Commodus.

Recently, less serious role models have their mistakes fished up at a pace that's difficult to keep up with.

Many would-be heroes can't help but contribute to their own devaluation by jumping into social media or TV and exposing themselves. They are just like us.

The Martin Gurri thesis is that political and cultural rockiness is the result of having a sea of information at our fingertips.

With knowledge of good and evil: institutions, experts, and authority no longer carry the prestige they once did.

Proximity kills your heroes and the information era brings each hero too near.

There are political implications for this. Expect more turbulence.

But there's something even more fundamental at stake.

Humans form our values from prestigious role models. We are homo imitans. If, on reflection, each role model is no model at all where do we turn? If we can't ask what would our hero do, what do we do?

One route is to turn to fiction.

Myths and novels contain models. Stories of who we wish we were, even if we fall short.

Looking at fictional characters, from Bellerophon to Batman may seem trivial. But it isn't necessarily so.

The unreflective use of any guide, fictional or actual, is a mistake. Weighing up the pros and cons of various characters can be useful. Even when they are immaterial.

Another option is compartmentalization.

There's something disappointing about turning to fiction to solve the problems of reality. Alluring and meaningful, but not sufficient.

Choose real heroes – focus on their strengths. Do not ignore, but do not obsess over their flaws.

From the right angle, nearly every person has something admirable. Emulate the pieces of people.

Still another stratagem is honest realism.

It's hard to be a human being. It's harder as anything else.

Hagiography has short-term benefits. If you're looking to raise support, whether financial, cultural, or social energetic puffery is helpful. The perceived virtue of a leader fuels the movement. Whether political or entrepreneurial.

Regardless of positivity, human imperfection is omnipresent. Everything we do eventually curves back into oneself. This is expected.

A final move is to question the premise.

Extreme altruists, who give away their income and organs or adopt tens of children, are disturbing because we're disturbing.

On secretly hopes that proximity kills one's heroes. If it didn't, one would be left without recourse.

Is goodness really so far away?

<![CDATA[ The Object of Meditation ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/the-object-of-meditation/ 610482fa89890977f5aa7b82 Fri, 30 Jul 2021 16:38:15 -0700 Do we meditate on the world or the mind?

Meditation, of course, refers to a wide variety of contemplative techniques. Let's center on the style of focusing one's attention on an object, like the breath or other sensations.

When meditating this way, one notices how each breath feels precisely and watches sensations come and go. One labels sensations, counts breaths, and catches exactly where an inhalation begins and ends.

This kind of meditation leads to increased concentration. The meditator experiences nothing but the breath. This kind of attention is narrow and stable. Alternatively, this practice leads to mindfulness. Here the meditator is aware of every new sensation and thought. This kind of experience feels broad, expansive, and open.

What exactly is going on here? What is the meditator perceiving?

The object is physical and mental

Here's one picture of perception: there's a physical world and then there's our experience. When we perceive the world, the initial object of our perceptions is some mental representation - a thought or a feeling. It's with this representation that we perceive whatever we're attending to.

Our experience is a mental field. Images, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the like make up the field.

This mental space is a map for the physical one. It's through our perception of it that we encounter the physical world.

So, when we meditate we're involved in a mental and physical affair – at once.

By paying attention to our sensations and thoughts, we perceive mental objects, like thoughts and sensations. And through them, we reach the physical items in the world, like our breath and body.

Meditation, on this framing, is an embodied affair, involving both mind and body.

The object is mental alone

Here is another picture: when one meditates, one focuses on objects within the mental field and those objects alone.

The objects of one's practice are experiential, conscious, and mental. They are not the inhabitants of the external world.

Our experience could be occurring in a simulation, a universe of ideas, an ordinary world of physical stuff, or something else entirely. We do not know. Every time we try to reach out of our minds, we find ourselves still within the mental realm.

Viewed from this perspective, meditation is an exploration of consciousness. What one is attending to is thought and sensation, not physical and objective reality. By resting one's attention on the breath, one perceives the mental representation of the breath, not the breath itself.

Initially, it seems like behind the experience of the tension in my shoulder, lies ordinary physical objects like a shoulder. But stare long enough at the concepts and referents involved and all one sees are mental entities. The idea of a shoulder. Images. The sensation of space. One cannot get out the head.

This view of meditation is like Idealism. On this view, the world is fundamentally made up of ideas. According to George Berkeley, everything is an idea in the mind of God.

When we meditate, everything is an idea in the mind of the meditator.

Meditation, from this point of view, is a cerebral affair.

The object is the world

The idea that one is attending to our experience of the breath and not the breath itself is a strange one.

When we leave the meditative context, it's natural to think that we perceive the world, not our representation of the world. After all, we see physical objects. But mental objects don't see. Sight is a matter of physical objects: light, eyes, and brains. It's not the idea or representation of an eye that is involved in sight, but an ordinary physical eye.

This suggests the following: when we meditate we aren't exploring consciousness at all. We're exploring our bodies and world.

We're attending to the physical properties of the breath - its temperature, force, and speed. We're noticing what's going on in ourselves as organisms – not as ideas.

This idea is at once common sense, but also bizarre.

Wherever you are, there are images and sounds – there's something going on and something it's like to be wherever you are. On the initial framing, all of this requires the light of consciousness. Without consciousness, there are still physical objects, but there'd be nothing it's like to perceive them. On this framing, nothing that's going on now requires the light of consciousness. All consciousness is, is something that allows us to access what's going on.

This entails experiential and phenomenological qualities, like the fact that there's something it's like to be wherever you are now, do not require a mind. They will be there when you close your eyes and still be there when you open them. You are not needed.

Meditation, on this framing, is a worldly affair.

There is no object, there is no subject

So there are three different conceptualizations of  the object of meditation. While meditating one can move between them.

Most forms of guided meditation initially describe meditation in a way that is a combination of the first two.

The third is the most attractive to me.

However, the ultimate purpose of many enlightenment-styled programs is nondualism. Nondualism is the simple idea that there is no deep distinction between the subject and the object.

Meditation, on this framing, is.


Notes on Meditation

Against the Ontological Relevance of Meditation

You See The Territory Or Nothing At All

<![CDATA[ Notes on Meditation ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/notes-on-meditation/ 60d8b67b89890977f5aa7b5f Sun, 27 Jun 2021 10:49:34 -0700 I recently turned 28. Just before my birthday, I spent 2 weeks writing out my worldview on a number of philosophical and practical questions. I'm sharing the section on meditation today.

If you'd like the read the rest, you can read it here.

What is meditation? The world is used in many different ways. There's Descartes Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and then there's mindfulness meditation.

This piece is mostly on mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness has taken up a non-trivial portion of my time since high school. I've attended one silent retreat and had spurts of my life where I meditate from 5 to 60 minutes a day. Currently, I meditate for 10 minutes a day, 6 days a week.

Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on sensations like the breath and doing this in a nonjudgemental way. Broadly, speaking its goals are to increase the stability of attention, one's mindfulness, and insight. Mindfulness here means active perception. When we're actively perceiving the world, we notice what's going on, in more detail. There are several proposed insights from meditation ranging from heuristics for improving one's mood to realizations into the nature of the universe. There's another kind of meditation that is insight-oriented and involves things like "looking for the self" or "realizing that one has no head."

What is mindfulness meditation good for?

There is some indication that mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy is at least as good as standard cognitive-behavioral therapy. This should be flagged by noting that the evidence base is not as strong and that this is only so for patients with depression.

Some simple insights can be had with mindfulness meditation and guidance:

  • You are not your thoughts
  • Judgements are separate from the things being judged
  • The Judgements we make about sensations is relatively flexible

When paired with practices from CBT, ACT, or Stoicism, mindfulness meditation can be exceptionally useful. It provides a noncognitive or nonconceptual component to these practices. Practices from CBT and Stoicism (generally) are discursive, verbal, conceptual and cognitive. Being able to turn to nondiscursive exercises can be useful.

For individuals who don't struggle with depression, mindfulness meditation is in the bucket of 100 or so things one should consider trying to improve one's focus and tranquility. One probably wants to do this for a non-trivial time (10 minutes a day for 3 months). Some people will find it exceptionally useful. I expect that most people will not. There's some tendency to think that one "should" find it useful. This is misguided. Be an empiricist about this kind of thing.

Note that there's a nontrivial opportunity cost to meditation. One could be spending 10 minutes a day:

  • reading
  • walking
  • doing high-intensity workouts
  • journaling
  • doing cbt exercises
  • messaging friends
  • listening to a podcast
  • watching TV
  • Surfing the internet

And so on. For many people, their time would be better spent doing an activity from the above list than meditating.

Another reason meditation is good is related to self-signaling and discipline. Plausibly one way in which it is beneficial to many people is that it shows they have the self-control to sit and do nothing for 10 minutes.

In sum, mindfulness meditation can be a good way to internalize insight, relax, focus, and express self-discipline.

What is mindfulness meditation not good for?

Some claim that the largest benefits from meditation come from meditators who spend at least 45 minutes a day meditating and regularly go on week-long retreats. This can be worth doing if you enjoy meditation and benefit from a spiritual community surrounding the practice. I'm skeptical about the existence and value of the benefits.

Some claim exceptional spiritual, intellectual, and emotional benefits from meditation. I don't see it. Advanced and dedicated meditators are experts at meditating, but, from my limited interactions with such people and reading, are otherwise normal. They may be much more equanimous than others, but there's more to life than tranquility. Given the high opportunity cost, I'd counsel against it.


Some claim that one can come to much deeper insights about the nature of the world through meditation. Consider a handful: there is no self, everything is empty, everything is interconnected.

Let's consider the idea that there's no self. This could mean:

  • One can experience the world in a centerless way - without the sense that there's an agent (you) at the center of everything
  • The experience that you exist somewhere in your head is an illusion
  • There is no self, there are just experiences

Can you learn these through meditation? One can experience the first. But one cannot learn the second or third from meditation alone. They require conceptual argument. If they were true, one could internalize them more from meditation.

One can no more learn these claims from meditation than one can learn:

  • The experience that a chair exists in the corner of the room is an illusion
  • There is no chair, there are only particles arranged chairwise.

Note that earlier I said that one can have insight from mindfulness meditation with guidance.

The guidance matters and provides a conceptual foundation for the practice. What one internalizes and experiences during meditation is heavily dependent on this guidance. It will be different if the guide is a Stoic, Christian, or Buddhist.

Two other points: it's difficult to get a sense of what the experiential claim means. The third is a paragon of a conceptual claim – and it’s false. This is an additional reason why one cannot learn it from meditation.

Similar considerations apply to other potential insights from meditation.

Other kinds of meditation

Loving-kindness meditations

Loving-kindness meditations are overrated. Instead of spending 10 minutes cultivating feelings of compassion, spend the 10 minutes messaging your mother, talking to a stranger, or generally doing something nice.

There are two exceptions to this.

Loving-kindness meditations may be good for people with low levels of narcissism, psychopathy, or empathy. If you don't know what compassion feels like and think that's a blocker to one being compassionate, loving-kindness meditations may help. For most people, however, this is more likely to be rationalization than explanation.

The second exception is for people who have exceptionally low levels of self-esteem and are highly self-critical. I've heard numerous reports of people who fit this description finding loving-kindness meditations useful.

Visualization & Planning

Musicians and athletes obsessively practice in their mind. Typically through visualization and simulating the sensations of play. Practicing in this way can be very useful.

For example, think through one thing you'd like to do today in detail. Focus on what it would look like and feel like – that is do it in a nonconceptual way. When I typically do this kind of activity it's discursive. My sense is that it's much more useful to do in a nondiscursive way, focused on simulating the sensations and visual stimuli.

One can build a meditation practice around this.

The View From Above

The view from above is above expanding one's sense of perspective. It moves above by expanding: space, time, and people. Visualize yourself meditating in a room. Then expand it until you're visualizing the earth. Visualize the span of your life. Then expand the time under consideration: millions of years occurred before you. Millions more will occur after you. Finally, consider your life as an individual, then expand your picture to include hundreds, thousands, and millions of others.

This exercise, though difficult to do in a high-resolution way, is useful for changing one's sense of what is important and what is trivial.

Moreover, it can simulate stepping outside of yourself and getting a more objective sense of what is happening in one's life and who you are.

<![CDATA[ Ten Answers ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/ten-answers/ 60b01c0189890977f5aa7b43 Thu, 27 May 2021 15:26:51 -0700 Here are 10 answers to the familiar question.

Not all of them can be true.

I. Happiness / Pleasure / Selfishness

What do we pursue in each decision apart from pleasure? What is it that we avoid apart from suffering? Nothing.

Lives are short. What else could make a life meaningful apart from what drives your actions every day?

Pause and ask why art, tranquility, friendship, success, and love are valuable. In every case, pleasure grounds our desire.

Sure, some pleasures are more complex or sophisticated than others. Some prefer high, others low, and most would like a hybrid of the two. Regardless, it’s positive mental states that make life meaningful.

Life is about having fun, feeling good, and being happy.

II. Realism / Nihilism / Meaninglessness

Life has no grand meaning.

When we ask for a meaning behind all this, we want to know why we exist, what our ultimate purpose is, and what all this amounts to.

Parts of life can have meaning. Our friendships, joys, projects, pleasures – each of these are meaningful.

But the whole cannot.

In billions of years, everything will end. And for what?

The only response is silence. We are alone. When we leave, we are forgotten. It will be as if every friendship, every joy, every project, every pleasure never happened.

In mundane everyday life, we don’t need to think about this. Life is not devoid of everyday significance. Things matter now.

But ultimately, if we step back, we can see that they don’t matter at all.

III. Epic / Narrative / Megalomania

We live like we’re protagonists in a grand narrative.

And in a sense, we are. We craft the shape and story of our lives.

Lives are as varied as stories.

Like narratives, they are meaningful. Some more than others.

Lives are like any other art. Open to interpretation.

And we are like artists – capable of making what we wish from the canvas of the world.

IV. Devotion / Obsession / Hyperopia

Pleasure is ephemeral. It stays in one’s hand for a moment and then dissolves. Leaving stains. Stories are just that – stories.

Who comes to mind when one thinks of meaningful lives? Heroes. Near-mythical characters. From political activists to philanthropists to saints to warriors – these are people who lived.

Some of them are saints. Others are more ambiguous. None of them lived ordinary lives.

This is no time for mediocrity.

Instead, become obsessed. Bind oneself to a project.

When we do this, we overcome our limits. We transcend the present mundane moment. We lose ourselves in something more.

Whether through art, companies, relationships, inquiry, activism, war – be devoted.

V. Ordinariness / Mediocrity / Myopia

There are dangers with devotion. For many, it’s more about appearance, than devotion. And if you are devoted, how can you know whether you are a zealous villain or a saintly hero?

In the best case, you will have sacrificed for a good cause, but for what? Impact? Honor?

Heroes are the stuff of myth. For every candidate, there is a litany of failures behind hagiography.

Proximity kills our heroes.

You are not important. You will not make much of a difference.

But you can live now.

It’s the ordinary things that are meaningful: family, work, nature, love.

The sight of leaves falling from a tree. Taking a respite from a party, hearing nothing but laughter, and seeing nothing but smiles.

One doesn’t worry about meaning when one is in love.

Stories of heroism and sainthood should not distract you, live now.

VI. Nihilism II / Pessimism / Depression

Nothing matters at all.

VII. Enlightenment / Mindfulness / Nothingness

Meaning is easy.

Rats, pigs, and dogs live meaningful lives.

Each action they take is for some reason or other. They scavenge for food, eat for pleasure, and mate for children.

The same is true for most of our choices.

Each has a purpose, a reason behind it. And through these reasons and purposes, there is meaning.

This is not interesting.

The challenge is to see things as they are.

To pay attention to the blades of grass, the sound of a humidifier, the creaking of the floor for no reason at all.

The ability to pay attention with no purpose or reason in mind is what makes us human.

If you pay attention, you'll learn that the meaning of life resides in things that are not meaningful at all.

VIII. Divinity / Virtue / Elitism

We can rise to the status of the Gods.

Study nature. Be virtuous. Take care of your soul.

If you did these things, you would become divine.

With complete self-discipline and reason, nothing can ever compel you. You would fully align your desires with reality. You would love fate.

You would willingly accept every part of your life over and over for eternity.

You would be free.

You would be a God.

IX. Holiness / Religion / Dogmatism

The pursuit of meaning in life is idolatrous.

To seek anything other than God is to seek a distraction.

Cast aside meaning. Throw away the desire for some grand narrative to your life.


X. The End / Eudaimonia / Obscurantism

One cannot understand what a story means until one has finished.

You cannot know the worth of your life until the end.

<![CDATA[ On Historical Parallels ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-historical-parallels/ 608b722589890977f5aa7b09 Thu, 29 Apr 2021 20:08:10 -0700 We treat historical parallels as fodder for forecasting.

But it's generally more useful to think of them as fuel for generating meaning and ideas than predictions.

Foretelling the future is nearly impossible as it is. Adding historical analogies into the mix doesn't improve one's odds.

Consider the varieties of predictions based on similarities of America and ancient Rome.

At the founding, the comparisons generally had a positive color. Like the Roman republic, the American one would expand and revolutionize the world. The founders were aware of darker lessons from Roman history too: republics can be lost.

Today, the pronouncements are pessimistic, often predicting American decline because it shares a feature or two with the decline of Rome (or declines of Rome). Like the explanations of Rome's declines, the features are numerous. Candidates include increasing political violence, rise in deadlock factions, wealth inequality, imperial overstretch, loss of virtue, elite overproduction, and so on.

For example, here's a warning from Edward Watts referencing Appian's (questionable) account of election violence:

We need to condemn more clearly the insurrectionists' actions, to identify and punish all the perpetrators, and to remove the instigators from our public life. If we cannot do that, sedition, insurrection, and political violence threaten to become the most potent political tools in the America of the 2020s—just as they did in the Rome of the 90s B.C.

The point about the current moment is right, but it's not clear how much additional force it gets from referencing an election where one candidate murdered another. There's American political violence, and then there's Roman political violence – the first may be more expensive, but the latter was more deadly.

Consider another warning, given in 2007, by the former Comptroller General of the United States David Walker:

The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar? In my view, it's time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time.

These comparisons don't have precise character.

One could sharpen them by constructing predictions. Good predictions have clear success criteria (like the dollar will fall to X by Y). Predicting "decline" is nearly unfalsifiable. Forecasting a rise in political violence is more precise. That's a measurable phenomenon, but ideally, one would say more. A prediction like: "Protests will cause an excess of $125 million of damage in 2021" is clear.

As predictions become more precise, the differences between historical periods become more salient. In America, we're predicting the political movements of a larger, richer, and more liberal body politic. America is the pinnacle of a WEIRD society: western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. At times, Rome approached democracy but otherwise is radically different.

Vaclav Smil expresses the gulf of the differences in his helpful, Why America Is Not The New Rome:

Could an average American truly imagine a family life where one out of four newborns would not live to see the first birthday and average life expectancy would be only 20-25 years? Could a young American family contemplate with equanimity the prospect of a life whose physical quality would be inferior to that in the most desperate countries of today's sub-Saharan Africa? Could a young Roman woman, whose prospects of survival at age 20 were no better than to live to her late 40s, imagine a society where women lived on average past their eightieth birthday? And could an ordinary Roman family grasp the full reality of an economy whose annual average income would be 50, 80, or 100 times its own? Negative answers, in every case, are all too obvious.

So that's one problem with using ancient parallels to generate predictions.

Another: if historical analogies were useful tools for generating predictions, we'd expect people who were exceptionally good at forecasting to use them. That's not what we find. Phillip Tetlock and colleagues have cataloged the traits associated with superforecasting. In general, the thinking style is general rather than specific. It is "dragon-fly eyed," instead of seeing the world from the eyes of a specific theory, superforecasters view it through many. In answering the question, will this dictator hold power for an additional year? Superforecasters would often take an "outside view" by considering when dictators lose power instead of an "inside view" that looks at specific features of the situation. It turns out a rather simple rule is reasonably accurate at predicting the answer.

None of these cognitive traits or tools include reasoning through historical analogies. Of course, looking at the past is useful, but through gauging the base rates of events, not by pulling out parallels.

Historical resemblances may not be good for prediction, but that doesn't entail that they aren't valuable.

They add meaning. Looking back to the Gracchi brothers reminds us of broad lessons, like the dangers of populism, the ignorance of elitists, and the logic of escalating violence. One has to be careful to avoid letting stories contaminate one's picture of the present. But they may still serve a useful role. Comparing future successes with past successes make them greater – as if they're following in the same lineage. History is full of heroes and villains that provide aspirational goals and anti-goals – even when the accounts are myth.

The past is also useful for idea generation. Take this example from Razib Kahn:

The social cohesion of the Roman republic was breaking down. Faction began to dominate all of public life.

Into situation stepped Sulla. Sulla is not a contingent man. Sulla is a type. A reaction, usually a vain and futile attempt to hold the past together, and push it into the future, by brutal means. Sulla arises when social elites lose faith in the present, and attempt to recreate institutions from an idealized past.

What would Sulla look like today?

That's a question that admits a wide range of answers.

A related spin from Nick Partyka:

Can we see in the success and popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump alignments of political forces akin to those that marshaled behind Marius and Sulla respectively? If the Roosevelts are the American Gracchi, and Sanders and Trump are the Marius and Sulla, then Whither our American Ceasar? Is our American republic on a similarly downward trajectory as the Roman republic? Do we live in the age of a moribund republic?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I ask them because of the thought they provoke or inspire in the reader.

Return to the past for meaning and perspective, but beware the temptation to play Sibyl.

<![CDATA[ An Approach to Suffering: ACT ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/an-approach-to-suffering/ 6063ff7e89890977f5aa7aec Tue, 30 Mar 2021 21:56:27 -0700 Suffering is a part of the natural furniture of the world. Living here involves encountering tragedy. Seneca once remarked, "What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears."

One of the best ways to understand a life philosophy is to look at how it responds to suffering.

Let's take that approach with acceptance commitment therapy. Although strictly a therapy, the ideas touch fundamental questions about the causes and value of suffering.

The core tenet of ACT is that trying to get rid of pain only amplifies it.

Our minds naturally cause a vast amount of suffering. Human animals just are the kind of thing that produce negative thoughts and experiences for their consumption. Our heads are always thinking and relating things. The content they produce is often unpleasant. And then we insist on fanning the flames. What begins as thoughts about todos transforms into existential angst over one's career, which morphs into judgments about how easily distracted one is and on and on.

The natural response to negative experiences and thoughts is to seek to end them. But often, this feeds the negative cycle. Instead of removing the thoughts, fighting often gives our heads more material to interact with. If fighting doesn't work, the other natural response is flight. This is not a successful strategy:

When we try to run away from a painful thought, feeling, or bodily sensation, it becomes more important and tends to occur more intensely or frequently. Because running away also means that we are taking our fearful thoughts literally, they become more believable and entangling.

Escaping from negative thoughts communicates that the thought is something worth running away from. Fighting communicates the same message.

Instead of firefighting pain and anxiety, we can willingly accept it and get on with living our life.

This requires reframing our beliefs about the badness of pain and anxiety. Negative experiences are only bad when they prevent us from living in accord with our values. Sometimes they distort our vision so much that it becomes impossible to navigate through relationships and work. If we avoid going where we want to go or doing what we've always wanted to do out of fear or rejection - that is the stuff of suffering. Yet, negative experiences not intrinsically bad. They are not undesirable in and of themselves.

Willing acceptance is a skill. Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT, suggests many ways of practicing it, such as through meditation: noticing thoughts and sensations without judgment. One of my favorite exercises involves meditating on every sensation and imagining willing each into existence. Imagine that you're choosing and bringing into being each sensation - whatever it is. In a sense, you are. For you could be doing something else. To up the ante, Hayes suggests holding one's breath for long periods. Notice how the sensation that one needs to breathe loses some of its force when one remembers that one chose to do the exercise.

The other half of ACT, commitment, has much in common with the Stoic idea of virtue. Commitment entails making decisions that align with our values. It does not mean that we must achieve every goal. It's more about freely choosing what is important to us and living according to that than selecting goals and accomplishing them. At this point, ACT is a therapy and not a philosophy - it is not entirely quiet on the matter of what our values should be, but it's not exceptionally opinionated. ACT is a therapy made by therapists for therapists, not for philosophers or priests.

ACT doesn't amount to a full-fledged response to the problem of suffering. But it's a useful tool. These days, I worry that commercial and cultural solutions to suffering involve going further into the head – when life is more about getting out of it.

Acceptance, for managing the turmoil of the external and internal world, commitment, for following through and making the best of it.

<![CDATA[ From Philosophy to Software Engineering ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/from-philosophy-to-software-engineering/ 603994ba89890977f5aa7ad9 Sun, 28 Feb 2021 06:53:00 -0800 Here’s a piece I’ve shared with several friends, philosophers, and former professional philosophers . Since I’ve shared it many times, I thought I’d share it here. Note that it was written in 2018 – everything here seems right to me, but it’s likely that it will become less useful overtime.

I’ve been asked by a number of academic philosopher types how I became a software engineer without any prior programming background. Here’s what I did.

While in graduate school for philosophy, I realized that I didn’t want to continue on the academic path. I considered other career options during the spring of 2016, one of which was programming. I was heavily influenced by this article.

I spoke to a few friends who had made the transition from philosophy to software engineering. They made the path seem feasible and fun – all true and good things.

I learned the basics of a language called ruby through code academy and a few books. I’d recommend beginning with a dynamic language like Python, JavaScript or Ruby. Which one doesn’t really matter. I spent about a month on this while in school.

Once you learn the basics of a language, you’ll want to level up either with more self-study or by going to a coding bootcamp. I estimated that I’d be able to find a job with a coding bootcamp significantly faster than self-study, which made a coding bootcamp worth it to me. I expect that’s true for most people. There are a few exceptions.

If you take this path, I’d be sure to only go to a good coding bootcamp like Hack Reactor or App Academy. Some other bootcamps are reasonable, others are terrible. I know people who have gone on to get jobs by going to other bootcamps.

I applied to App Academy and got in.

Bootcamps like Hack Reactor and App Academy do have interviews – prepare for these. They both give you prep material. Be sure to go through it. Do a practice round or two with a friend. Then ace the interview.

App Academy was great. Being in an environment with motivated people programming all day was energizing. Moreover, it was a lot of fun to quickly level up one’s programming skills. The curriculum was overall good and well-paced.

After App Academy, though they are working to change this, you’re pretty much on your own. Most students I know got their job through directly applying to a given company or through a reference. The mixed strategy of cold applications and references is probably the best way to go. To find references, reach out to people who you have any connections to, whether that is education or interest or anything else really. References are especially valuable as they significantly increase the probability that you’ll get a phone screen.

While applying to jobs, I continued to practice coding interviews. Coding interviews can be high-stakes fun, see if you can get into that headspace. At the beginning of your career the main problem is getting to the phone screen. Once you’ve done that it’s a matter of performing well in the interview.

In the end, the offer I accepted came through a job I cold applied to on stack overflow early 2017.

My anecdotal impression is that it has become slightly harder to be hired as a Software Engineer without any relevant experience or an undergraduate degree since 2017. Yet, it’s absolutely feasible. I’ve talked and worked with people who have done it.

How to think about this

If you’re considering leaving academia for tech, I’d ask the following questions:

  • Why am I leaving academia? Can becoming a software engineer satisfy my goals?
  • Would I enjoy programming?
  • Would I be good enough at programming?
    • If you’re studying philosophy at a decent school and find first-order logic a breeze, the answer is yes. The more relevant question is: "do I like this enough to become good enough?""
  • Should I do a bootcamp, online school, take classes, or self-study?
    • It can be a good idea to take CS classes at a prestigious institution (university) if you can get certification for it. This can help your resume.
    • Estimate the time it will take to be hireable for each option. Look at placement records for the bootcamp, online school. Look at the cost.
    • For self-study you’ll only be able to usefully assess this after you’ve spent at least a month learning how to program, since you won’t understand what it means to be hireable without some technical knowledge. Talking to software engineers will help.
    • Talk to people who have done all three of these things.
  • Should I focus on software engineering?
    • A number of former academic philosophers have focused on the related ontology track and had fruitful careers. Because there are more jobs in software engineering and there’s more optionality, I chose software engineering.

Other Resources

Check out these resources for more:

Haseeb Qureshi has a great series of posts:

Cracking the Coding Bootcamp

How To Break Into The Tech Industry

Peter Hurford’s Guide

Apply to TripleByte when you’re ready to start interviewing. Most self-taught programmers and bootcampers fail, however, they’re a great service. The expected value of applying is high. Basically, they screen you and then put your resume in front of some of the best startups and companies in SF. If you get, the job search will likely be much much easier. They also have an excellent study guide.

Philosophers in Software Engineering Facebook Group.

Get in touch if I can help.

<![CDATA[ On Convincing Oneself ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/self-2/ 6016f1b989890977f5aa7ac6 Sun, 31 Jan 2021 10:15:20 -0800 Those who leave their manners behind them when they come home from the dance or the sherry party have no real courtesy even there. They were merely aping those who had.

C. S. Lewis

Convince through actions, not through words.

Suppose one wants to prove that one is religious. One could say the right words. But that wouldn't be enough. Talk is cheap. Instead, one must pay the costs of the associated actions. Instead, attend religious services, wear the right clothes, stay away from alcohol, memorize texts, and volunteer. Each of these activities carries costs, and the fact that one is willing to pay them is evidence of devotion.

As they say, what you do is who you are.

In Ben Horowitz's book of the same name, he argues that to build a culture, one should create shocking rules, make decisions that express cultural priorities, and walk the talk. These are different ways of saying that one needs to prove to others that you are who you say you are. The value of a message is proportional to the cost paid to deliver it. An email with a list of values is not that persuasive. Being the first to arrive and last to leave –that says something. So does ending every day at 5 pm and taking time off to spend time with one's kids. These are two very different work cultures.

Signaling is not just useful for convincing others. It's essential for convincing oneself. What one says one values is some evidence that the values are genuinely held. Paying a high cost to follow through with one's values is more persuasive. Building a habit is evidence that one is a kind of person, the kind of person who can transform themselves.

There are a few upshots from this idea:

  • Acts are not isolated. Whatever one does, one is providing evidence to himself and others. Evidence that in this situation, he does X. Evidence that he is that kind of person.
  • Build self-trust. Make realistic goals. Follow through. Breaking goals harms one's self-confidence. Achieving them fuels future success. Note that trust is built over years, not days.
  • Go deep. There's towards radically pursuing a goal and going overboard. What does this look like? If one wants to start a new fitness routine, buy fancy clothes, get a personal trainer, listen to podcasts, and go after it. Want one wants to become more Stoic? Immerse oneself in the philosophy, keep daily reminders around, and do the work.
But on my bedside table, no matter what carrier I was aboard, were my Epictetus books: Enchiridion, Discourses, Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates, and The Iliad and The Odyssey. (Epictetus expected his students to be familiar with Homer's plots.)

James Stockdale

There are a few complexities:

  • Don't wear oneself down. Sometimes one should throw in the towel and quit. It's hard to know when. A rule of thumb: in physical exercise, avoid hurting oneself. The same goes for other kinds of work.
  • Directness is key. There's a risk that the message becomes more important than the goal. To create a successful business, the number of hours is an input - it has something to do with it, but it isn't everything. If one wants to get fit, that's what matters, not having fancy gym clothes. Check-in and ensure one is still pursuing the goal that began the work.

What you do is who you are even when no one else is there – perhaps especially when no one else is there.

<![CDATA[ Taking Belief Too Literally ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/too-literally/ 5fee277989890977f5aa7a80 Thu, 31 Dec 2020 16:44:00 -0800 Judging people by their beliefs is not scientific.

Nassim Taleb

Why Believe?

Beliefs play several roles.

Some beliefs are substantive. They possess action-guiding content. They concern mundane physical facts and models of people. We have beliefs about how best to get to work, how to make various foods, what gifts our friends would appreciate whether the people around us are trustworthy, and so on. These beliefs represent the way things are and, as such, are relevant for action. We take substantive beliefs literally - it's the substance or content of the belief that matters.

Other beliefs play a social role. Here, the content of the beliefs is not as important. Instead, it's what we say to others that matters. Stealing economist Robin Hanson's metaphor, these beliefs are like clothes. We communicate and express ourselves through them. My beliefs say something about me. If you share the same beliefs, that says something about us.

Substantive beliefs typically have tight feedback loops. Reality rewards us when we act on true beliefs and punishes us when we're mistaken. If I mistakenly believe that there is no car coming my way while I cross an intersection, that can result in injury or worse. Similarly, with less drastic consequences, mistakes about a meeting's location or a friend's dietary restrictions will make a difference.

Different incentives drive social beliefs. Here other people play the role of praisers and punishers. We're incentivized to seek praise and avoid the taunts of those who matter to us.

How someone wants to be seen and who they want to be with will push them towards holding some beliefs and not others. Believing that everyone has a right to healthcare communicates affiliation with political leftists. Believing that evolution is true expresses admiration for scientists and science generally.

Intuitive and Reflective Beliefs

Substantive beliefs are usually what cognitive scientist Dan Sperber calls intuitive beliefs - beliefs we automatically draw inferences from. We form these beliefs through simple perceptual and inferential processes. We often let them roam freely in our minds and guide action. If you notice there's a table in my room, that belief is intuitive. You'll freely make inferences about what other furniture would fit in my room, how many people could eat at the table, and so on. Similarly, if you notice a car coming before you cross the street, you'll infer that you should wait to cross.

Contrast intuitive with reflective beliefs. Reflective beliefs don't have immediate behavioral or psychological consequences. They tend to have abstract and complex content.

Reflective beliefs are compartmentalized. If I have false beliefs about God's existence, that will have no direct impact on my life. I will not ever know, at least not on this earth, whether or not I am correct. Similarly, if I am wrong about reflective beliefs concerning the justice of the Iraq war, the feasibility of single-payer healthcare, or the theory of evolution, that will make no immediate difference. Neither I nor anyone else regularly uses such beliefs to navigate through the world. It takes serious mental effort to draw out the inferences of each one. And there's little incentive to do the required intellectual labor.

Complex and abstract political, scientific, and religious beliefs are reflective and social. They are not treated literally.

Instead, they are principally about meaning, community, and entertainment.

Believing in Fake News

Let's look at the phenomenon of fake news. In a strange turn of events, many people came to believe that a Washington DC pizza parlor was a host for an elite child-trafficking cabal in 2016.

The conspiracy returned earlier this summer, now merged with other theories:

In the first week of June, comments, likes, and shares of PizzaGate also spiked to more than 800,000 on Facebook and nearly 600,000 on Instagram, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing social interactions. That compares with 512,000 interactions on Facebook and 93,000 on Instagram during the first week of December 2016.

How many people believed this story in the substantive sense? Only a minority.

A few believers rated the store poorly online or left threatening messages on alleged participants' voicemails.

But in general, conspiracy theorists don't act in a way that their beliefs would predict. In their view, the government, the rich, and other influential members are enmeshed in complicated and powerful networks. In response to this, most will share their suspicions with friends, post on the internet, and attend public lectures. That's the extent of their conviction.

Only a handful of 9/11 truthers would share their doubts with a first responder. Conspiracy theorists hound parents of the Sandy Hook massacre, but it's a minority of the actual audience of "believers."

In 2016, one man entered the pizza parlor armed, demanding to know what was going on. He opened fire in a closet.

His actions would make sense if the conspiracy were substantive and action-guiding. But instead, he is a moron who took the game too seriously. Belief in conspiracy theories is reflective, not to be taken literally. Most believers implicitly understand this.

Believing in God

There are significant differences between religion and conspiracy theories, but the typical conspiracy theorist is like the typical religious believer in this respect.

When I was a child, I thought it was odd that other kids in Sunday school didn't read the required passages and struggled to pay attention. We were studying the word of God. If Christianity is true, nothing could be more important! With few close exceptions, many Christians I knew were not seriously devoted to their beliefs. If it were true, how could you afford to be anything but a zealot?

The best explanation for most believers' behavior is that they don't believe that Christianity is literally true.

Consider belief in an afterlife. The afterlife is not something one sees or feels concretely. Instead, it is something one believes in through interpreting testimony, abstract argument, or extraordinary experiences. Even the most confident religious fundamentalists do not believe in an afterlife, in the same way, that we believe in cars or tables. With few exceptions, people who believe in an afterlife do not engage in riskier behaviors or grieve loved ones' death any less. These are indicators of a reflective and social belief.

Religion is about practice, not a substantive belief. The primary role for beliefs like "the Bible is the word of God" and "there is an afterlife" are social ones. Their content does not promote action. Instead, religion is primarily about attending church, participating in Sunday school, tithing, and generally being a good community member. Religious believers are prosocial within their community, but only a minority of them are zealots.

In fact, the zealots are often pushed out. In Sunday school, I was the weirdo who took things too seriously. Later, when I converted to atheism, I made the opposite mistake. I thought religion was primarily about accepting or rejecting substantive beliefs.

Trader and philosopher Nassim Taleb captures this in the aphorism:

Atheists are just modern versions of religious fundamentalists: they both take religion too literally.

Anti-Fake News Powers Fake News

One response to misinformation, whether political or religious, is to insist on stronger epistemic norms. Punish fake news! But this strategy inadvertently elevates the status of fake news.

What these responses miss is that sharing fake news is a social act. When you do so, you're alienating yourself from mainstream orthodoxy and binding yourself to a niche.

Think of it like burning bridges. If someone has nowhere else to go, they're bound to be loyal.

This dynamic explains why some political leaders, like Donald Trump, require subordinates to tell blatant lies. The economist Tyler Cowen explained:

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Recent disputes over the election demonstrate how political talk extracts its value by polarizing.

Skepticism over the election results expressed loyalty to a particular group because it's bound to get you expelled from another one. If it didn't do that, then it wouldn't have any political use.

The value of spreading and consuming fake news value derives from the perceived value of its expression. Or more precisely, the perceived difference between sharing and not sharing fake news. The act of sharing something politically insensitive is, in many situations, relatively risk-free. But if it's perceived as a risky, brave act, there's more value in the ideas' expression. If a messenger pays a high cost to deliver a message, it must be important.

Correcting tweets is one way to increase the cost of a message and clarify where political players stand. So we should expect corrections by social media companies to strengthen loyalties, not to promote the truth.

A recent Cornell study shows exactly this:

Corrections... had dramatically different effects on the beliefs of Democrats and Republicans. Among Democrats, exposure to all three corrections of varying strength decreased belief in mail fraud; in the flagged and Twitter correction the decrease was 10%.

Among Republicans, however, we observe the exact opposite. Belief in voter fraud was actually higher in all three corrections treatments than in the control group baseline – evidence of a backfire effect.

If we promote higher epistemic norms, that raises the cost of sharing misinformation. If there's already a social reason to share the fake news, this cost makes the signal more genuine.

Anti-fake news messaging is fuel for fake news.

If the correction were for a substantive, action-guiding belief, then it would have more force. But by attempting to promote truth through fact-checking, Twitter made the same mistake I did in Sunday school: mistaking a social belief for a substantive one.

Take Me Seriously, Not Literally

Once one realizes that most political and religious beliefs aren’t substantive, believers look less irrational.

By and large, people are not gullible drones or lemmings. Instead, they are ordinary, mostly selfish creatures responding to whatever situation they happen to be in.

For most, the reward for truth and rigor isn’t high for political beliefs.

Instead, we use these beliefs to entertain and bind us to one another.

Thanks to Sachin Maini, Étienne Fortier-Dubois, Dan Stern, Elaine Lin, and Paul Orlando for reading earlier versions of this essay.

<![CDATA[ Into the Head, Out of the World ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/into-the-head-out-of-the-world/ 5fc4306789890977f5aa7a32 Sun, 29 Nov 2020 15:42:00 -0800 In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick asked:

What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?

More and more, we answer this question with: "nothing."

We have moved out of the world and into the head. In America, our lives are more about what we think and feel than what we do. Happiness is feeling happy.

Peter Thiel touches on this with the observation:

In the last 40 or 50 years, there's been a shift from exteriority which is doing things in the real world to the interior world, which can be thought of as a shift from politics to entertainment. (Yoga, meditation, video games, etc.)

The trend has deeper roots than the last 50 years, but Thiel is right about its general direction.

This is not a purely negative change. It's the result of prosperity, compassion, and freedom. Yet, it also sacrifices other values and signals shrinking ambition to change the external world.

A Very Short History of Happiness

What's novel today is the popularity of the idea that happiness is solely a subjective state available at any moment.

The ancient Greeks saw the good life as a matter of virtue and fortune. For some philosophies, like Stoicism, virtue was sufficient. For others, like Aristotelianism, one needed the favor of fortune to live well. United in the conviction that happiness was not a momentary mental state, both held that the virtuous achieved it over a lifetime.

When the rich king Croesus asks the wise statesman, Solon, "tell me whom you consider to be the happiest man in the world?" Solon names three dead men in response. Each achieved happiness because they died honorable deaths. Happiness was about being good, having good things happen to you, and dying well - what could be further from today's vision that happiness is about feeling good?

Early Christians departed even more radically from today's ideas about wellbeing: they promoted the idea that life isn't about happiness at all. Instead, it's about achieving salvation through faith and serving the church. Responding to the ancient Greeks, Saint Augustine said:

Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.

Rejecting the Christian view, out of either hubris or courage, the Renaissance and Enlightenment resurrected the Greeks' idea that we find happiness in this life. The Enlightenment provided the framework for what we value today. Indeed, prominent philosophers put forth pleasure as the ultimate good in human life and insisted on the liberty necessary to achieve it.

The most salient examples of this were the utilitarians, Jeremey Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who promoted the "greatest happiness for the greatest number." Yet, though the nature of the good was internal, the utilitarian’s recipe for achieving happiness focused on external change. The age brought renewed ambition to shape the world, from accelerating science to provoking political revolution. It was political innovation that enabled "the pursuit of happiness."

Today, the influence from each of these traditions, and many more, of course, is clear. Yet things are different.

Happiness Now

Modern culture embraces the concept of bringing heaven to earth. We can feel peace, tranquility, joy, serenity, or immanent bliss. Happiness is here.

Yet unlike the Enlightenment thinkers and their followers, there's less desire to build a paradise today. The focus is on cultivating one alone.

This is a movement of two trends: increased focus on feeling good and the shrinking ambitions of what makes us feel good. It is a change in what we value and a change in what brings us value. We highlight the internal over the external.

The change is evident in several phenomena: media consumption, mental wellness, and politics.

Listening to music has become an internal exercise. Musical production and consumption likely began as a communal activity. Over time it has become less a matter of communal sharing and more about adding a soundtrack to our individual lives. We started by singing together and moved to sharing a radio. From sitting around the radio together, we've plugged in headphones to listen alone.

Technology shaped not just musical consumption but media consumption in general. The town crier fell out of fashion centuries ago. Initially, only 10% of American households contained a television. That number has been hovering around 99% since the 90s. Today, the best (and worst) newspapers, books, and movies are a click away. Each of these changes removed the need to interact with the community. Media is directly available for solo consumption.

In general, technological developments give us more of what we want, faster.  Each of the three activities that Thiel mentioned, Yoga, meditation, video games, are powered indirectly and directly by technology. Meditation is the most recent to form a billion dollar market. From Facebook to Google, Amazon to Netflix, the world-shaping companies of this age have made it easier to live in the head, not harder.

But this trend isn't just a function of technological change. The dominant view concerning mental health makes the connection between how we feel and the good life explicit. In one respect, this is progress. The vast majority of human history has overlooked mental health disorders. With more material luxury came the ability to improve our internal worlds and combat the scourge of depression and anxiety. There is a lot of suffering here, and the world is better now that our attitude towards mental health is far kinder.

However, one side effect is to accelerate the move into the head. The quality of our mental life is raised to the status of health.

"Mental wellness" and "mental wellbeing" companies arose to supplement the demand for living mentally well. The idea they promote is the same: reduce stress, find calm. Very few of them focus on the art of dying well, promoting virtue, or serving the church.

Themes like "the power of popular thinking," "the feel-good effect," and "things mentally strong people do" are prevalent in modern self-help literature. Many books sell strategies for managing stress and achieving happiness. They contain: "practical steps anyone can take every day to live a less anxious, more meaningful life." Little by little, our attention has contracted to the internal.

Many of these books don't explicitly advocate pursuing a mental state. Some appear to argue it. Nevertheless, the kinds of exercises they suggest move us closer to the idea that happiness is a subjective state.

Consider this selection of recommended exercises:

  • Gratitude journaling.
  • Meditation.
  • Yoga.
  • Identifying cognitive distortions.
  • Priming & power poses.
  • Acting as if you're happy.
  • Manifesting.
  • Self-care routines.

Each of these activities are done alone. The objective of each exercise is to improve internal emotions in the moment.

Loving-kindness meditations epitomize the trend. During a loving-kindness meditation, one practices bringing to mind different individuals and feeling compassion for them. Typically, you'll start with people who it is easy to love, like yourself and friends, and then move your attention to more difficult cases, from strangers to enemies to all sentient beings.

Of course, instead of sitting down and cultivating a sense of compassion for your mother in 10 minutes, you could call her. Compassion is, if anything, a disposition to act in a certain way - so it's not clear that you're practicing compassion by deciding to sit down and engender a feeling. The movement into the head cements the idea that the feeling is an important and necessary part of compassion. It helps, of course, but it's not needed. One forms habits by doing, not by feeling.

In addition to our entertainment consumption and focus on mental wellbeing, the move into the internal is evident in politics. Thiel called the shift a move from "politics to entertainment." Yet politics too has become a kind of entertainment. This doesn't mean that it is fun. But it is more about stories than the external world. We encounter political differences face to face less often. Instead, screens mediate our interactions. We have more ability to pick and choose what news and media to consume. As philosopher Robert Talisse says:

Contemporary technology has served up made to order worlds, and most people have made the world they inhabit into their image.

Politics itself conforms to this world-building, as more and more political actors come to agree with JFK that "it is the appearance of things that matters." Political scientist and former diplomat Bruno Maçães describes this form of politics as built on the “the Hollywood theory of truth.” It’s about story, meaning, and appearance. In Maçães’s view, American politics is about replacing fact with fiction:

Social and political reality does not represent an external reality. It builds imaginary worlds.

We moved from changing the world to changing our experience.

What We Value

As a way of teasing out what matters to us, Robert Nozick introduced the thought experiment of an experience machine. The idea:

Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences?... Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think that it's all actually happening... Would you plug in?

The shift to the internal reveals that, yes, many would plug in. Indeed, some may already be in the tank. Today, what ultimately matters is experience, how our lives feel on the inside. In one form, this view asserts that pleasure is the only good. More sophisticated experiences, from inner peace to cerebral thought, have their place as well. But what matters is mental. Value never makes it outside the valuers!

Building Happiness Machines

What explains why more and more people view happiness as an internal state?

Rising rates of anxiety and depression are a candidate. If more people are afflicted with mental disorders, it's easy to see why there's more focus on mental wellness. However, this explanation is unsatisfying since it hasn't been shown that anxiety or depression rates are rising.

The shift towards the internal likely emerges from individualism and prosperity. Well-documented by Joseph Henrich and others' work, western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) people are a historical anomaly. And one feature that makes us anomalous is individualism. For example:

[These] people are particularly biased to attribute actions or behavioral patterns to what's "inside" others, relying on inferences about dispositional traits (e.g., he's "lazy" or "untrustworthy"), personalities (she's "introverted" or "conscientious"), and underlying beliefs or intentions ("what did he know and when did he know it?"). Other populations focus more on actions and outcomes over what's "inside."
Complementing this work, many similar psychological studies allow us to compare Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, and Swedes to various Asian populations, including Japanese, Malaysians, Chinese, and Koreans. The upshot is that WEIRD people usually lie at the extreme end of the distribution, focusing intensely on their personal attributes, achievements, aspirations, and personalities over their roles, responsibilities, and relationships.

Several levers drive this difference. Henrich argues that the primary one was marriage norms (reducing incest and increasing monogamy). Whatever the explanation, cultural changes in America continue to move in the individualist direction. The data show this. From the increase of uniqueness in baby naming to the reduction of multifamily households, from the greater number of adults living alone to smaller family sizes, American individualism has grown.

These behaviors aren't just an expression of what we value. They change what we value. When we interact with others, we don't directly share our minds. We share the world and the objects in it. We desire things in the external world and care less about invisible experiences. Less abstractly, we're more inclined to build shared monuments, work in solidarity, and see ourselves as a part of a higher unit. But when we need to coordinate with fewer people, our attention fails to expand beyond the self. The less we focus on roles and relationships, the less we focus on the world shared with others. And the more we focus on what's in our head. Whether that's someone's private relationship with God or their obsession over mental wellbeing is immaterial.

With the rise of prosperity and additional leisure time comes the ability to live in the head. We can choose where we live and what we consume. Each person can access media that is tailor made for them and the targeted niche they belong to. With this consumer power, American's increasingly make the complacent choice, favoring stability, and the experience they know. We move less, change jobs less often, and create fewer startups. Technological development makes staying at home more convenient and pleasant.

A speculative reason for this change lies in the cerebral nature of the age. Employers and culture at large reward abstract thinking and knowledge work in a historically novel way. People with this temperament may value the mental more than the typical person. Another speculative hypothesis is that what we believe matters less than it did in the past. Beliefs are less about navigating the world and making decisions and more about expressing who we are. Our beliefs are more like clothing than functional tools. This, too, may have brought the focus inward.

Whether these explanations or others play a role is an open question. I'm confident that increasing individualism and prosperity primarily power the shift to the internal.

Will the shift change? We cannot completely retreat inward. Eventually, we will run into reality.

The coronavirus has forced this question for some. Not all that matters is in the head, a vast portion of it is in our communities and shared world. Civil unrest hints at significant change. Lower growth rates may eat into prosperity. Individualism may fall as the demographics of Western countries change.

Yet, some indicators point in the other direction. Lockdowns have, in some sense, accelerated individualism through remote work and digital entertainment. Virtual reality and pharmaceutical drugs have the potential to rapidly change how we feel and remove any dependence on an external reality.

And here we are, with the question, what do you value? Will you unplug from the happiness machine?

Thanks to Sachin Maini, Tom White, Donovan Carberry, Dan Stern, James Quiambao, Carolina Perez, Alan Tsen, and Natalie Toren for reading earlier versions of this essay.

<![CDATA[ The Difference Between Feeling and Emotion ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/the-difference-between-feeling-and-emotion/ 5f9ade6689890977f5aa7a0f Thu, 29 Oct 2020 08:26:18 -0700 Feelings and emotions sound like the same thing, but they aren't. Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists distinguish the two. Yet confusing the two often causes suffering. To see why let's discuss two strategies of responding to negative feelings.

Some ignore or hide the way they feel. Imagine someone who bottles everything up. They seek to be a cold iron fortress, never disturbed by pain or anxiety. They are largely successful and have an emotionally muted existence. But occasionally, their protective wall breaks. You can call this person the repressive.

Then imagine someone for whom every feeling determines their reality. The sensation feeds thoughts like "I am not loved," "the world is unjust and unfair," and "nothing works." When they feel happy, then the world is colored in a much brighter fashion. Thoughts like "I am loved," "the world is beautiful," and "everything works out" fill their day. This person is at the mercy of their feelings. You can call this person the rollercoaster.

These two people are making the same kind of mistake: confusing feelings and emotions.

Given that we use the two words interchangeably, this may be surprising. But the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and modern sciences distinguish them, unlocking a way to avoid becoming either the repressive or the rollercoaster.

The distinction falls out of the realization that our emotional experience is deeply tied to our judgments. It's not just what one feels, but what one thinks that colors our experience. Hence, psychotherapists moved away from analyzing subconscious motives and towards discussing their patient's thought patterns and beliefs. They adopted the cognitive model of emotion. This model predicts that our beliefs shape our emotions. But this is an insight that one can have without the tools and experience of modern psychotherapy. As Roman statesmen, orator, and philosopher Cicero noted:

The mere fact that men endure the same pain more easily when they voluntarily undergo it for the sake of their country than when they suffer it for some lesser cause, shows that the intensity of the pain depends on the state of mind of the sufferer, not on its own intrinsic nature.

In other words, there are feelings and emotions. A feeling, absent a judgment, is a mere sensation. It is only when we judge a pain, whether we judge it unbearable or worth it, that we experience a full-blown emotion. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, politician, and playwright, describes the idea as:

A man thinks himself injured, wants to be revenged, and then — being dissuaded for some reason — he quickly calms down again. I don't call this anger, but a mental impulse yielding to reason. Anger is that which overleaps reason and carries it away.

The mental impulse or feeling are the sensations in the body. The judgment about whether what is going on is ultimately good or bad; this is emotion.

Hence the Stoic slogan:

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.


With the cognitive model of emotion, psychotherapy and Stoicism align. In fact, Stoics' influence on psychotherapy has is well documented. The founders were inspired and influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

Recent work from cognitive science confirms this view. Our emotional responses are not necessarily results of events; rather they are interpretations. There's no single thing "sadness" that is reliably triggered by events in the world. Instead, "sadness" is constructed from our experience. What it is, differs from person to person, from culture to culture.

According to this constructed theory of emotion, emotions are concepts. They are groupings of past experiences, the current state of the world, and the state of one's body. The last bit is surprising but key. Emotions play a role in energy management, and to do this, they need to be responsive to the state of the body.

As behavioral scientist Nick Chater states:

It is our interpretation of the state of our own body that makes us interpret the very same jumbled thoughts as desperate, hopeful or quietly resigned.

Existential dread or rapturous joy may have more to do with the mundanity of managing our body than anything else!

As an example, imagine feelings of warmth rush to one's face. One could interpret it as anger, embarrassment, or affection. We may be more likely to interpret the sensation as anger if we're in a spat, more likely to be embarrassment after saying something awkward, and more likely to experience pride while watching a loved one succeed. Potentially, the sensation may have nothing to do with emotion and more to do with what we eat!

What we think matters. Emotions aren't fated responses to the world. Instead, judgments and experience shape what they are. When asked how much control people have other their emotions, Lisa Feldman Barret, one of the pioneers of the constructed theory of emotion, states:

Your brain is able to take bits and pieces of past experience and combine them in new ways. Think of it like this: if you have a set of general ingredients in your kitchen, you can combine them in novel ways to make new recipes that you've never made before.

In other words, by thinking through our judgments and past experiences, we can control how we respond to the world. So, the Stoic theory of emotion receives support from popular views in contemporary research. There are some differences, of course. The constructed theory of emotion utilizes advances from philosophy, probability, and neuroscience that the Stoics could not access. Further, Stoics may have overemphasized the degree to which we have control over our emotions. Yet the fundamental insight remains: emotions are, in part, the product of reason and judgment.

Now we can return to the repressive and the rollercoaster.

The mistake from the repressive is to treat negative feelings as intrinsically harmful. They do this because they believe that negative feelings are problematic - in other words, they have already constructed the judgments necessary for experiencing negative emotions. The repressive has not taken Epictetus' maxim to heart. By shrinking away from negative feelings, they are affirming the idea that negative feelings are disturbing. This underrates the role that our judgment plays. Further, it ignores the space for simply accepting how we feel.

This strategy has two high costs. First, it encourages avoiding short term discomfort. Sacrificing living according to one's values for the sake of immediate comfort is not a recipe for success. It's optimizing for remorse rather than happiness. Second, the strategy of the repressive also risks ignoring useful information from one's feelings. Feelings and sensations are data, either about the world or the state of one's body - and we become disconnected from them at our peril.

The mistake of the rollercoaster is to treat negative feelings as reality. They move too quickly from feeling to emotion, allowing feelings to dictate their reason. While the repressive life may be emotionally muted, the life of the rollercoaster is out of control. This person is too quick to adopt extreme judgments about the world. Any stress means disaster, while any benefit is a sign of ultimate success. Reality is more complicated.

By handing over the reins, the rollercoaster will make worse decisions than they would otherwise. As Seneca details in On Anger, this is especially apparent in the case of anger and fury, where outbursts can result in irrevocable mistakes. But it can also arrive in more pleasant sensations, as many failed partnerships and marriages show.

Instead of bottling up one's feelings or handing them the keys, the aim is to lives in line with our values. Treat feelings as information. Negative feelings have their roles and uses. They do not always need to be repressed.  Do not be blind to one's feelings if something feels off judge, and act appropriately even if it's difficult to explain. Be cognizant of not leaping too quickly from a feeling to an emotion. Not every mental impulse should overleap reason. When appropriate, reframe the sensations of butterflies in the stomach into excitement instead of anxiousness, warmth into love instead of anger. Avoid the mistakes of the rollercoaster and the repressive.

<![CDATA[ Stoicism and Wellbeing ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/stoicism-and-wellbeing/ 5f923bad89890977f5aa79e1 Thu, 22 Oct 2020 19:30:05 -0700 Stoicism’s popularity has ebbed and flowed through time. It was a dominant philosophy in ancient Rome but fell in prominence while Christianity took over the west. Perhaps the recent growth in popularity has fully blossomed, and now it's time to wilt.

Preprints from a recent study entitle "Stoicism and Wellbeing" were released this month. Is this research the beginning of the end for Stoicism?

Modern proponents of Stoicism have claimed that Stoicism is “an operating system for living in high-stress environments” and that it is a path for “cultivating a good life” - this research potentially calls these claims into question. If Stoicism is so great, why does it negatively predict wellbeing?

In fact, this outcome wasn’t expected by the authors of "Stoicism and Wellbeing", Johannes Alfons Karl and Ronald Fischer. They hypothesized that a Stoic would have less hedonic wellbeing, but would possess more eudaimonic wellbeing. Hedonic wellbeing is all about feeling good in the moment. It’s related to subjective happiness, pleasure, and experience. Eudaimonic wellbeing emphasizes meaning and purpose in life. It’s less about feeling good, and more about being good. Since eudaimonic wellbeing is closer to the Stoic picture of value, the authors predicted that:

"Stoicism is positively related to eudaimonic orientation and negatively to hedonic orientation to happiness."

Karl and Fischer put this hypothesis to the test by administering surveys psychologists use to measure both kinds of wellbeing and a questionnaire for measuring Stoicism called the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale. It turns out that people who agree more with the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale tend to fare poorly on both kinds of surveys. That is, they have less hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing, disconfirming the original hypothesis.

So what should we take away from this? Are the benefits of Stoicism disconfirmed?

I don’t think so. There's no doubt that this research is informative and worth doing. But the main upshot is to highlight the importance of what we should consider the core parts of the philosophy.

First, one crucial aspect to note: this study doesn't show that Pathak-Wieten beliefs play a causal role. It could be the case that unhappy people are drawn to Stoic beliefs to weather the storm. People who attend therapy are likely unhappier than those who don't - but that is because they need therapy!

Nonetheless, the evidence is suggestive. Not complaining, bottling up emotions, and not sticking up for yourself may predict ill-being - at the very least, they're correlated. More work needs to be done to assess the impact of Pathak-Wieten beliefs on wellbeing and the influence of contemporary Stoic beliefs. Doing the latter well requires an accurate picture of Stoicism.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale reflects this. Instead of measuring Stoicism properly, the scale measures a caricatured version. In the study confirming the statistical validity of their approach, Pathak and Wieten surveyed undergraduates and university employees with a battery of questions about emotion, propriety, and death. They found that these four beliefs are correlated to endorsements of stoicism:

  • Taciturnity is the belief that one should conceal one's problems and emotions from others.
  • Endurance is the belief that one should endure physical suffering without complaining.
  • Serenity is the belief that one should refrain from experiencing strong emotions.
  • Death indifference is the belief that one should not fear or avoid death.

These beliefs are much closer to passivity and apathy than Stoicism. Ancient practitioners would push back against these definitions and modern practitioners have. In fact, the tenets are much closer to what opponents of Stoicism have accused Stoics of throughout the centuries. The psychologist Tim Lebon states:

The "fake news" claims that Stoicism is a dour, grim philosophy advocating the repression of emotions — the "stiff upper lip."

In reality, Stoics embrace wisdom, creativity, perspective, and joy. The philosophy is fundamentally about prioritizing the virtues and your character, what you can control. It's less about bottling up and repressing emotions, and more about learning how to live well, whatever feelings arise. Marcus Aurelius captures the essence of the philosophy:

Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance - now, at this very moment - of all external events. That's all you need.

Epictetus describes the three pillars of the philosophy as judgment, desire, and action. Accurate judgment, desire for what is under your control, and virtuous action, that's all that you need. Unfortunately, none of these core aspects appear in the Pathak-Wieten Scale.

How do these misunderstandings emerge?

Philosophy is written by the victors. Encounters with Stoicism are mediated by the influence of Christianity, which in turn was heavily influenced by opponent philosophical schools. The word “stoic” now describes someone who endures hardship without complaining. Another Greek school, The hedonist Epicureans, met the same fate: a “hedonist” now means someone who single-mindedly pursues pleasure. Epicureanism is more sophisticated than this - as the fact that the founder encouraged a diet of bread and water reveals.

Another aspect of this, one that is more important today, is that we’re prone to exaggerate the differences between philosophies. The Stoic emphasis on virtue was shared by the major philosophies in antiquity. Their view of emotion, the idea that our emotional state depends on our judgments was unique. This view is encapsulated by Marcus Aurelius as:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it.

Seneca’s line expresses the same sentiment:

We suffer more in imagination than reality.

A cursory reading of these lines could give someone the impression that Stoics believe that only we are responsible for our predicament. Hence, if we’re suffering we should do so quietly, without complaint. This reading is encouraged by lines like this from Marcus Aurelius:

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable . . . then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.

But a more accurate reading is that there is a time to act and complain and there are times to quietly persist. Likewise, there are times to be vulnerable, and times to ask for help:

Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up?

Marcus Aurelius

So, there’s no universal prescription to be taciturn, to always endure, or to avoid strong feelings in Stoicism. This is not surprising, given that the ultimate goal for the Stoic is to be virtuous, to live according to nature, and exemplify justice, self-control, courage, and wisdom.

Whatever the explanation of misunderstandings, they are likely here to return again. I think the Stoic response to this is to correct them when they arise and return our focus to cultivating virtues in our own lives.

Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.


To learn more about Stoicism, I recommend the work of modern Stoics:

In addition to the classic works:

Thanks to Robert Terrin, Theresa O'Hare, and Étienne Fortier-Dubois for reading earlier versions of this essay.

<![CDATA[ Programming as Metaphysics ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/programming-as-metaphysics/ 5f886f3889890977f5aa7915 Thu, 15 Oct 2020 09:41:16 -0700 One of the fastest ways to become an expert and generate novel ideas is to approach a topic from an unrelated angle.

Want to learn how to program but have never studied it? Approach programming armed with another vocabulary. Whether it's carpentry, biology, or math, each gives you tools and models for understanding. Not just for understanding, but contributing. The best ideas are the result of combining unrelated thoughts and techniques.

So, I want to know the answer to the following question:

What is the object of software design?

I’ll approach this question by relating ideas in philosophy, specifically metaphysics and philosophy of language, to software. I’ll start by introducing distinctions from philosophy and then look at their counterparts in software design. Then answer the question.

Three Levels of Language, Three Levels of Code

Suppose you want to build a meditation app, like Stoa. You’ll start with feature specs, such as enabling users to listen to and track meditations. Once there’s sufficient clarity here, move onto designing the data model. Start by asking, what are the fundamental pieces in the system? Meditations, users, playlists, courses? What are the properties of each of these components? At this step, you’re doing code design. And you’re making important decisions, decisions that could impact you, other developers, and users for years.

But what is the object of design? Another way to ask this is: when you’re designing software, what are you designing? The obvious answer is "code" or “software” — but that's imprecise. A more precise answer offers a better way to think about code design, helping make better decisions.

To show why, let's start with three related but distinct ideas from the philosophy of language: utterances, sentences, and propositions.

What do these mean?

An utterance refers to the saying of a sentence. If I say, "It looks like Dion is programming in Ruby," that would be an utterance of the English sentence. If I message my friend, "Dion is programming in Ruby," that would count as an utterance as well.

Sentences are familiar linguistic items. This is a sentence! Next.

Think of a proposition as what is expressed by a sentence. When I say that Dion is programming in Ruby, then there's a state of affairs represented, namely the state of affairs where Dion is programming Ruby. The proposition is either true or false. Dion is either programming Ruby or not. I can also express the same proposition with a distinct sentence in a different language: "Dion está programando en Ruby." Propositions are not sentences.

So speech has three levels: the utterance, sentence, and proposition. You can think of code as having three levels that map onto the three levels of speech: execution, concrete representation, and abstract representation.

At the first level, the level of execution, code runs with specific parameters and runtime values. Suppose a PATCH request triggers Dion’s endpoint: meditation/:meditation_id/edit. The :meditation_id and request data determine which operations are performed. As the code is executed, it will carry the values (and likely assign new ones) through its execution.

The execution level of code corresponds to the utterance of a sentence. Execution is an instantiation of code (a concrete representation); an utterance is an instantiation of a sentence.

At the second level, you have the concrete representation. Here, think of the written code. For example, if you investigate Dion's web app, you'll find that it has specific classes, methods, and so forth. This representation ignores runtime values and particular parameters. For example, the update endpoint for meditations doesn't assume that :meditation_id is a specific number. You can update a Meditation with any valid id.

This level is concrete because it includes implementation details like the language and syntax of a program. It can be instantiated on different machines, at different times, with different parameters and runtime values. Similarly, a sentence can be uttered in different ways, at different times, in different contexts. Hence, the concrete representation corresponds to a sentence.

Here's a simple example:

class Api::MeditationController
  def update
    meditation = Meditation.find(meditation_id)
    if meditation.update(meditation_attributes)
      render json: meditation.as_json
      render json_error

At the level of execution, this code will have specific values. For example, @meditation will be assigned a particular Meditation object (if one exists), and @meditation.update will have a return value. At the level of concrete representation, we're considering the code as you see it — abstracting away the specific values it may have during execution.

At the third level, there's what I’ll call an abstract representation. Dion's code represents abstract objects like a Meditation. Because a Meditation is abstract, they can be represented by code in another language. In this example, you can think of a Meditation as a cluster of properties represented by a type definition:

interface Meditation {
  createdAt: DateTime,
  updatedAt: DateTime,
  title: String,
  description: String,

Note that this is describing a language-independent object. One abstract representation can have many concrete representations. Additionally, one concrete representation can have many abstract representations. For example, consider:

const isEligible = person => {
  person?.account?.credit > N

This function may be checking whether a person has enough financial credit in their bank account or checking whether a person is eligible for a reward based on a social credit system in a video game. We can't tell. This is unsurprising since sentences can also represent different propositions.

An abstract representation can have many different concrete representations. Language choice and syntax is an implementation detail. Likewise, different sentences in different languages may express the same propositions.

So we have the relations between the three ideas:

  • Utterance => Execution
  • Sentence => Concrete Representation
  • Proposition => Abstract Representation

The Object Of Design

Returning to the original query, what is the object of software design? Some programmers spend most of their time concerned with concrete representation. They'll ask questions like: is my code well-formed? Does it produce the right results when executed? Will it continue to deliver the right results when run with different parameters, in a different context?

This is unlike most philosophical work. The object of philosophy is the world, as represented by propositions. A philosopher wants to know whether invertebrates are conscious, what the nature of explanation is, or whether it's permissible to let others do wrong. They aren't concerned with the analysis of sentences. They're concerned with the propositions the sentences express and whether those states of affairs hold.

Well, that's not entirely right. Ordinary language philosophers sought to answer philosophical questions by looking at our use of sentences. A slogan of the ordinary language philosopher is: use is meaning. This philosopher spends most of their time at level two, the sentence level. They ask questions like, is my sentence meaningful? Will it communicate what I want to in the relevant contexts? Will other language users understand it? And most importantly, they answer philosophical questions by looking at how language is used. Essentially, the programmer who spends most of their time at the level of concrete representation and execution is like the ordinary language philosopher. They're not concerned with what code abstractly represents. They just want it to work!

In philosophy, the ordinary language approach is controversial. Though several philosophical debates and puzzles have the appearance of language games. To name a few:

  • The Ship of Theseus: if we completely remove and replace the parts of a ship over a year, does the original ship persist, or is there a new ship at the end?
  • Puzzles over vagueness: if I slowly remove hair from a person's head, is there a precise moment when they are bald?
  • Swamp man: if a creature was magically zapped into existence who had all the same structural properties as you, would they have beliefs about the world? Or do beliefs require a causal history?
  • Composition: Do particles that are arranged tablewise (in a table shape) form some new additional thing, a table?

The ordinary language philosopher believes that we need to answer (or defuse) these questions by analyzing the language that creates them. While I'm sympathetic towards thinking that each of these questions isn’t substantive, that is a different piece.

More importantly, this controversy doesn't exist in software. Some philosophical questions may solely concern language, but programs are typically about the concrete world. Programmers write apps to move money, analyze behavior, transmit speech, move people from a to b, and more.

Programming As Metaphysics

Ted Sider opens Writing The Book Of the World with the following picture:

There are two ways to divide up this world: as a square with two sides red and blue or as a square with two sides diagonal left and diagonal right:

Dividing up the world into diagonal left and diagonal right is strange. Yet there's a sense in which one wouldn't be making a mistake: you can accurately describe the square by reference to its two sides, diagonal left, and diagonal right. One wouldn't be making a mistake at the level of propositions or sentences.

However, the second picture doesn't "carve reality at its joints." It doesn't describe the structure of the world properly. The square's structure is properly described by red and blue; diagonal left and diagonal right are artificial constructions. Another way to put this is that diagonal left and right are not the right abstract representations.

One way to view metaphysics is as the project of carving reality at its joints. Metaphysicians are aiming for theories that describe the fundamental structure, nature, or entities in the world. They’re trying to develop an account of the world that properly conceptualizes the way it is.

Software design is the same.

Let’s return to the meditation app. Consider the question, how should I represent a meditation in a program? What is the right abstract representation?

A simple design would be something like what we've already seen:

interface Meditation {
  createdAt: DateTime,
  updatedAt: DateTime,
  courseId: Integer,
  title: String,
  description: String,
  filePath: String,
  meditationLengthSec: Integer,

This describes the primary parts of a meditation as a Meditation object. You can imagine loading these into an app and let users play them. However, it may be too broad of a brush. It combines meditation audio and a meditation into a single thing - how would you change this object if you wanted to allow users to change a Meditation's length or speaker? This interface assumes that a meditation has a single file path or length. Yet, these are properties of a MeditationAudio, not a Meditation. Retroactively introducing MeditationAudios would be easy at the interface level, but it would be costly to refactor consumers that assume every Meditation has only one MeditationAudio.

Like Sider's square example, you can assume that the original interface is correct. If you want users to be able to toggle lengths, you could even avoid creating MeditationAudio with:

interface Meditation {
  createdAt: DateTime,
  updatedAt: DateTime,
  courseId: Integer,
  title: String,
  description: String,
  filePath: String,
  meditationLengthSec: Integer,
  filePathII: String,
  meditationLengthSecII: Integer

Note that this will work, but seems inelegant. By treating a Meditation object as something to add arbitrary properties to the program's ontology is unrestricted. It works but isn't carving the world at its joints, like the diagonal world. A better way to do this would be to explicitly distinguish the Meditation from a MeditationAudio object:

interface Meditation {
  createdAt: DateTime,
  updatedAt: DateTime,
  courseId: Integer,
  title: String,
  description: String,

interface MeditationAudio {
  createdAt: DateTime,
  updatedAt: DateTime,
  meditationId: Integer,
  title: String,
  filePath: String,
  lengthSec: Integer,
  narratorId: Integer,

Now that Meditations have MeditationAudios, the data model easily extends to handle the case where a single meditation has multiple audio files or narrators.

Consider two other examples. Suppose you're creating a simple goal tracking app. How should goals and users be related? It depends on the app's purpose, but if it's an app for individuals to privately track their progress, goals should belong to a single user. Now suppose you're creating the next fintech app: you have users and their financial accounts. How should one relate users and accounts? Initially, the answer may be the same; accounts should belong to a single user. But this doesn't adequately describe what financial accounts are. There can be joint accounts! Likely, at the beginning of your startup's lifecycle, you can skate by without them. Later on, it will cost you time and money to change.

The upshot of this is that code design isn't merely getting the internals of a program to fit together. It's about properly conceptualizing the objects that you're working with. Doing this well prevents programmer pain, saves money, and can be sublime. The object of design is the world, not merely code. Programming as metaphysics.

Read the computer science version of these ideas here: The Three Levels of Software by Jimmy Koppel. Recommended.

Thanks to Elaine Lin, Jimmy Koppel, Austin Wilson, Will Larson and fellows from the On Deck Writer Fellowship for reading earlier versions of this essay.

<![CDATA[ Self-defeating Targets ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/self/ 5f7f3f7e89890977f5aa78e1 Thu, 08 Oct 2020 09:45:51 -0700 Some targets are easier to hit without the self-awareness of aiming for them.

This is especially true for emotions. It is difficult to avoid being anxious if you are self-aware of that goal. The dissonance between your goal and your state may even make things worse. Moreover, the goal makes it harder to accept anxiousness willingly:

"I hate being anxious, so I guess I could give it a try. I'll try to be more willing to feel my anxiety so I won't be so anxious."

With that, the thought trap slams down around you, because if you are willing to be anxious only in order to become less anxious, then you are not really willing to be anxious, and you will become even more anxious!

This phenomena may be true for success and happiness as well, from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning:

Don't aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.

And from The Exploration of Happiness:

The more directly one aims to maximize pleasure and avoid pain, the more likely one is to produce instead a life bereft of depth, meaning, and community.

My speculation about this is that aiming for emotional states goes against the grain of what they're for. Emotional states aim to predict or represent our bodies and the world. On appraisal theories of emotion, emotions are evaluations of situations relative to our goals. But if we're aiming to engineer the evaluations of these situations to feel happy, emotions become less of a signal.

For this reason, it may be better to care about what is outside of our heads, rather than inside.

Instead of aiming for success, it's better to be obsessed.

Instead of aiming for happiness, it's better to aim for something outside of yourself.

Don't aim for self-defeating targets, aim for self-sustaining ones.

<![CDATA[ On Reality-centeredness ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-reality-centeredness/ 5f76033489890977f5aa78a9 Thu, 01 Oct 2020 09:41:54 -0700 Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas

The philosopher John Hick stated that all religions express a transformation from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness. Hick was a pluralist and believed that many faiths lead to salvation and liberation. He argued for measuring religions by how reliably they produce people who transcend the self. This is a wonderfully empirical way of assessing a religion: look at its results.

In ancient Greek philosophy, there's this idea of a sage, a perfectly virtuous person. Socrates is one of the primary candidates for sagehood. Plotinus defined sages as having "knowledge of matters human and divine" - and many ancient Greeks thought Socrates possessed those. In Philosophy as a Way of Life, the scholar of ancient philosophy, Pierre Hadot, approvingly quotes Bernard Groethuysen:

The sage's consciousness of the world is something peculiar to him alone. Only the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to his mind. He never forgets the world, but thinks and acts with a view to the cosmos... The sage is part of the world; he is cosmic. He does not let himself be distracted from the world, or detached from the cosmic totality ... The figure of the sage forms, as it were, an indissoluble unity with man's representation of the world.

Part of knowledge and wisdom is seeing the totality of the world as a whole and understanding one's part in it. We see Seneca gesturing at this idea here:

As often as you wish to know what is to be avoided or what is to be sought, consider its relation to the Supreme Good, to the purpose of your whole life. For whatever we do ought to be in harmony with this. No man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose of his life. ... The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole.

In Surviving Death, Mark Johnston has the funny idea that we can survive death without an afterlife. Johnston starts with the question, what are we? Under what conditions am I identical to some future thing? Am I a body, a soul, or a personality? According to Johnston, we are a collection of desires, projects, and plans that support a practical outlook for decision making. This means that I survive whenever my desires, projects, and plans are present to a sufficient degree. Now, if one can bend their desires to be in line with the good and well-being of others, one can persist after death. In Johnston's own words, one needs the "disposition to absorb the legitimate interests of any present or future individual personality into one's present practical outlook, so that those interests count as much as one's own." By transforming one's sphere of concern beyond the ego and into the lives of others, one can persist after the death of your body. Because what you are is a particular collection of desires, projects, and plans supporting a practical outlook. Life after death is unlocked by metaphysics, not technology. Wherever the good is, so are you. This account of personal identity is speculative and technical. What's important here is what gets you beyond the grave: expanding your center of concern to cover others in a deep sense.

Each of these three ideas: sagehood, the recipe for life after death, and the purpose of religion as transcending the self are gesturing at reality-centeredness.

Reality-centeredness is the ability to look at the world as a whole while identifying with and being motivated to promote the good. Seeing the world through all the seers, not merely one's own vantage point.

King Solomon was known for being wise. After resolving a dispute between two women over who was the mother of a boy, Israelites "held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice." Though renowned for judgment over others' affairs, he wasn't in full command of his own. Eventually, a few of his seven hundred wives "turned his heart after other gods." He was the last king of the Kingdom of Israel.

Igor Grossman labels the ability to be wiser with others' affairs than our own, The Solomon Paradox.

In construal level theory, there's this idea of far vs. near perception. One of the core claims is that the distance from which ideas are considered impacts decision making. When you're making a decision, how "far way" it is makes a difference. Distance is greater (or less) on three dimensions: space, time, and personhood. Personhood refers to whether the event is happening to you, in which case it would be near, a family member, in which case it would be further, or a stranger, where it would be further still.

When considering decisions that will be made in the future, far, we tend to be more idealistic, abstract, and less risk-sensitive. When we consider decisions in the present, near, we're more concrete, practical, and more risk-sensitive. The problems of others can be easier to reason through than our own because they're further. Our foibles do not blind us. Hence, like Solomon we may be wiser.

Reality-centeredness is not looking at everything from a distance. Someone who is reality-centered should be able to move between the two perspectives: far and near. Both have their benefits. When viewing decisions from a distance, it is easier to see our values and make decisions that reflect them - ignoring risks we wish we weren't sensitive to. When we view the world up close, it's easier to catch small details and avoid fooling ourselves. Both have their disadvantages. If we view the world from far away, we risk becoming idealistic and unrealistic. Moreover, there's the risk that the ideals we express when viewing the world from a distance are not the ideals we live by. When we consider everything from a much closer frame, we risk overweighing immediate costs and benefits. That can look like indulging in self-gratification or cowardice. The sage never forgets the world (near), but "thinks and acts with a view to the cosmos" (far).

We're now in a position to put the virtue of reality-centeredness onto Aristotle's theory of the mean. For Aristotle, virtues fell between vices. As an example, courage is between recklessness and cowardice. Reality-centeredness falls between the vices of ego-centeredness and rootlessness. The ego-centered person is selfish, while the rootless person carries with them the vice of excessive psychological distance. They've become detached from the world and lost sight of what is essential. The two vices often look the same—rootless abstraction results in speech that sounds reality-centered and selfish actions.

The person who is reality-centered is unified. To become reality-centered, we must see the whole and understand our role in it, internalizing the idea that our lives are not our own.

<![CDATA[ On Urgency ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-urgency/ 5f6cc49a89890977f5aa786a Thu, 24 Sep 2020 09:13:57 -0700 Marcus Aurelius has the following line in the Meditations:

Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.

The motivation for acting with urgency is simple: life is short, and our decisions should reflect that.

Speed in life is a matter of giving everything it's proper due. Valid requests from others are met quickly, displaying their importance. Speed in a career is a way of taking work seriously.

Consider a one on one with a manager. If an employee gives feedback, a great way for the manager to show that this feedback matters and makes a difference is to act on it as soon as the meeting is over.

Unlike other virtues, urgency isn't intrinsically valuable. It is not valuable in and of itself, but rather because it respects all other values. Plausibly, this is not so for other character traits like beneficence or courage.

Also unlike other virtues, urgency is relatively easy to measure. There are several things you can do:

  • Track how long particular tasks take. Before beginning, make an estimate. Then compare the results.
  • Consider whether you can do things two times as quickly when making plans.
  • Check in and ensure that you're not avoiding requests from others or hard conversations.
  • Use a task management system to ensure that you don't have tasks that you're leaving hanging for days, or worse.

Urgency can quickly slide into vice. Thoughtfulness and urgency may be in tension. The urge to do things quickly can cause relevant considerations to be overlooked. Obsession over ensuring that every judgement is correct ensures that little is done. Yet, some decisions are high stakes and irreversible, deserving full attention and time. Even when decisions are of low importance, there comes a point where quality should not be traded off for speed.

As a practical example of this, in programming it's usually the case that the fastest strategy to launch is suboptimal. The fastest way to ship an app is often not the best way to ship an app. If you take the speediest route, you will hear about suboptimal decisions from users (hopefully) and pay the costs of technical debt later.

Nonetheless, on the margin, it seems to me that many parts of our culture could move in the direction of speed. More of us could be acting with more urgency, after all life will not last ten thousand years.

<![CDATA[ On Optimism ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-optimism/ 5f62330089890977f5aa7853 Thu, 17 Sep 2020 06:52:00 -0700 Optimism is a propitious stance towards the universe. One that says there's value to create and appreciate. It's an underrated value in this culture and one that I've underrated in my life.

Of course, not all kinds of optimism are valuable.

Optimism should not be indiscriminately positive. Some paths should not be taken, many projects better to never start, and the world is, at times, truly dark.

Borrowing from [[Peter Thiel]], definite optimism is closer to what I'm after than indefinite optimism. Definite optimism is a positive attitude with a theory and model. It's an optimism that can explain why it's optimistic with detailed plans and pictures of the world.

In the face of doubt, optimism about the world says that we're capable of determining whether or not there are things that are worth doing now and that alone is worth it. No matter how much suffering or uncertainty, we can perceive and act in each and every moment.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus put the Stoic open-door policy as:

Has someone made smoke in the house? If it is moderate, I'll stay. If too much, I exit. For you must always remember and hold fast to this, that the door is open.

If you have some background in Stoicism, you'll know that this quote's most natural reading is dark. But the theme that I take from this is that freedom is available. I can always decide between options. When there's uncertainty, hardship, and doubt, all you need to do is think through possibilities as best as possible and then act.

There's a technique in improv called "Yes And". In a simple exercise practicing the technique, you're given a scenario or line from a partner. You then accept what they've said and say ("Yes") and then continue their scenario no matter how ridiculous ("And"). For example, they may say, "We're cowboys moving through the Amazon". You respond with "Yes, and we're looking for mythical treasure", and they follow up with "Yes, and we're struggling to move through the vines with our horses." As you can see, you don't need to be good to do this! All players need to do is accept the situation and build on it.

This pattern needn't be positive. You can "Yes And" with negativity and spiral downward. On the margin, we could use more positive "Yes Anding".

There are better ways of "Anding." More precision and direct contribution, less vague and contentless support. As in improv, it's better to follow a logical narrative and offer something useful. Definite "Yes Anding" is better than indefinite "Yes Anding". The best improvers are capable of doing excellent work even if their partner struggles.

If you see the world as propitious, you're more likely to continue to work hard to realize your goals.

Suppose you're a gatherer and picking up berries. Here's are two strategies for berry bushes:

  • Pick up every single berry from the bush.
  • Pick up berries from the bush until it becomes difficult, then give up and find another bush.

Suppose you're aiming to maximize the number of berries picked. In that case, the first strategy will perform better when there are enough bushes to pick from. Instead of spending time crawling under bushes to get every last berry, you'll simply move on. The formalized version of this is the marginal value theorem. Basically, you're determining whether continuing to forage in a berry bush is worth additional effort. If it's not, move on.

Sometimes our problems shouldn't receive additional effort. We should move on. Low mood and lack of motivation are useful in the right contexts.

Optimism is consistent with this point. But it pushes back on more pessimistic views of the world. Even when there isn't low hanging fruit, there is fruit that we can pick. It's the kind of attitude that succeeds over the long term. If you have many at-bats, the probability of hitting a home run is higher.

Curiosity is an instance of optimism as propitiousness. The curious have faith that they can figure it out and that the world is worth being figured out. In part, it is justified by the optimistic attitude that there's value to uncover from a further investigation. Which is to say that it's fundamentally optimistic.

The most optimistic have bounds of energy and stamina. Many people at the top of their profession are exceptionally energetic. Some are driven by optimism, other's anxiety. It's better to be driven by optimism than by anxiety.

Interacting with people is better when you believe that there is something worth knowing about each person. If you imagine being on the hunt for what that is, many conversations will become better.

If you find the "Yes And" metaphor useful, think of this is an application. Discover what's great about each person, appreciate, and build on it.

Completely trust your friends. In "On True and False Friendship", Seneca said that "Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal." This is likely true, if risky. Viktor Frankl has a similar line: "if we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming."

Optimism grounds faith. Faith is sometimes taken to be a merely religious concept, but this needn't be true. One can have faith in yourself and others. Faith is not limited to the Gods.

Many morally admirable people had faith that humans possess a good nature. They believed that it was possible to reach every person and turn them towards the light. In Eulogy for the Martyed Children, MLK said: "Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality."

There is no doubt that this can be exceptionally difficult. Difficult to preach, let alone practice.

Faith in humanity expresses the idea that humanity is worth fighting for. Humans are worthy of respect, and the fight is not hopeless.

<![CDATA[ On Doing My Best ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/doing-my-best/ 5f57aed989890977f5aa781f Thu, 10 Sep 2020 06:28:00 -0700 Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment

- James Clear

We spend most of our time living with our habits and character. Echoing Heraclitus: "A man's character is his fate."

Habits and character are shaped by our values, yet it's difficult to pin down what precisely our values are. Determining what we value and what we ought to value is a messy and foggy affair. There aren't clear definitions for abstract notions like justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom. The definitions are more precise in the academic literature on character, but they're also different from each other. The motivation of this series is to make matters clearer for myself. Hopefully, others find it useful as well.

Today I'll focus on the idea of doing one's best.

It is better to look back on a day, year, or life, knowing that you did your best.

Doing your best is not trying your best. It's focused on doing.

If one concentrates too much on effort, then effort becomes the goal. One way we assess people is by how much cost they pay to achieve their goals. Hard work is admirable, but overemphasizing it is a mistake. In a culture that rewards public effort, there's a risk of forcing others to pay a cost to be recognized, essentially taxing everyone to play. We ultimately care about the work, not hard work.

Doing your best is less virtuous if what you were doing shouldn't be done at all. This is obvious when the activity isn't worthwhile or is actively vicious. Doing one's best involves doing what the best you would do. Yet some activities may be worthwhile, but not worth expending serious effort for. This is the lesson of "half-assing with everything you've got." The point is to achieve the goal with minimum effort. The relation between one's best and effort is incidental.

So doing one's best isn't about maximizing effort and isn't about pursuing just any goal. What is it?

Doing one's best is about directly pursuing worthwhile goals.

It's about caring enough about an activity, outcome, or state to pursue it with the required effort. I mean goals in a broad sense. They aren't merely something you check off once and forget. Being a compassionate person or parenting well can be a goal. Forming identities and excellence at never-ending activities can be goals.

Doing one's best becomes a virtue as it ingrained into us as disposition or habit. Ideally, it's a feature of a person. Not a one-off feature of single activities they decide to do.

So far, what I've said is difficult to operationalize. How do you track whether you are doing your best?

One option, is measuring input. Measuring how tired you every day doesn't work because we've broken the tie between your best and effort. Moreover, it's an empirical question whether maximizing inputs, maximizes outputs. At some point, one needs to sleep. You can improve this measurement by measuring quality inputs, such as measuring the amount of time spent doing deep work on a problem. That's an improvement, but likely not the best.

There are a few questions that you can ask yourself:

  • What would I do if I deeply and seriously cared about this?
  • What would more courageous, just, and energetic me do?

Imagine a better version of you dropped into your life. The version of your life that would joyously embrace each day, year. What would they do?

In many cases, it's not clear what the best version of you would do. Ok, what would they do to figure out what to do? What questions would they ask? Who would they talk to? Where would they look for answers?

Another question you can ask:

  • Am I directly pursuing my goal?

Directly pursuing your goal is a matter of doing what is required for the goal and nothing else. If you want to X, X. This seems obvious but is a frequent way people fail to do their best.

Indirectly pursuing a goal often indicates that it isn't a priority. An example of this is the idea of optionality in careers. A career gives you more optionality insofar as it doesn't lock you into a specific path and will unlock future opportunities. A career in consulting will give you more optionality than a PhD in literature. As a consultant, you'll have more jobs immediately available to yourself after a few years. Optionality can be very good, especially if you don't know what path you'd like. But if you think you know what path you'd like to take and you're taking an incidental route, that is a reason for pause.

Nick Winter has a line on this in the The Motivation Hacker:

Bad goals often take the form of intermediate steps. You might want to be rich. If so, then go do something that will make a lot of money—don't go to college, fight your way out of debt, work your way up, and then be rich.

Going to college is likely a fine step on the path to get rich. It depends and isn't straightforward. But the general principle is right.

Still another question you can ask:

  • Am I building the systems necessary for achieving my goal?

Doing one's best is a character trait, not a one-off end. I want to build the systems and behaviors that let me do my best in the long run.

It's often a matter of getting the basics right: Showing up on time, focusing, practicing, never giving in to adversity, seeking feedback, and having a theory of change.

And a final question:

  • Will I tolerate failure?

If you will, that's an indication that you aren't doing your best or don't want to. Which reminds me of the Rudyard Kipling line:

If you don't get what you want, it's a sign either that you did not seriously want it, or that you tried to bargain over the price

Doing one's best can be thought of as deriving from directly pursuing worthwhile goals. It's not an additional thing, above and beyond. It may be something to measure, to check in on every once and awhile. But the primary thing to keep one's eyes on is doing.

One way to put this: instead of asking, am I doing my best to be a good partner, coworker, citizen, focus on being a good partner, coworker, citizen.

<![CDATA[ On Thoughtfulness ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-thoughtfulness/ 5f5116a989890977f5aa780d Thu, 03 Sep 2020 09:20:25 -0700 Measuring virtue is difficult. For one, virtues have vague definitions or are undefined. You don't know what you're measuring if you can't define it cleanly.

Thoughtfulness is a virtue. But what exactly is it?

We call people and acts thoughtful in several different contexts. There's the idea of a thoughtful act, such as giving a thoughtful gift. A thoughtful gift requires knowledge of the receiver and their tastes. There's also an idea of thoughtfulness as a trait that you'd seek in a collaborator or employee. If you say that someone is thoughtful during an interview debrief, it likely not because they brought a gift, but because of the quality of their answers and what it indicated about their decision making. In this context, you may also say that the candidate is considerate, but that would mean something different.

Thoughtfulness is distinct from other positive traits. Someone can be thoughtful without being courageous, compassionate, humble, or just. Is the thoughtful person nice? Not necessarily. Wise? Maybe not. Wisdom is greater attainment than thoughtfulness.

But what is thoughtfulness? One way to answer the question is to think about particular people that are thoughtful and ask what traits they have that make it seem that way. Another way is to consider what behaviors are associated with thoughtfulness. Finally, you can ask about what the results of the disposition are. You can also work from the other direction by bringing to mind people that aren't thoughtful, considering behaviors that reveal a lack of thoughtfulness, and listing the fruits thoughtlessness.

When I think of thoughtful people, they have traits like the following:

  • Clarity of thought.
  • Willingness to explore counter-examples.
  • Care, openness, and precision.
  • Aggressive pursuit of the truth.
  • Openness to ideas.
  • Detail-oriented personalities.
  • Diligence in gathering and weighing evidence.
  • Dispassionate communicators.
  • Patience with people and ideas.
  • Systematicity.
  • Curiosity.
  • Tact.
  • Prudence.
  • Independence.
  • Self-control.
  • Sustained Attention.
  • Honesty about what they understand.

These traits are evident in behaviors like:

  • Explaining thought clearly.
  • Publicly considering evidence against their views.
  • Ensuring that others understand what they say.
  • Tactfully speaking up when they disagree - even in cases where doing so would be uncomfortable.
  • Asking "why" one more time than everyone else.
  • Spending time pouring through spreadsheets and papers to get to the bottom of something.
  • Remaining level headed even when discussing controversial or complicated matters.
  • Willingness to wait to get answers.
  • Having a plan, being prepared, not winging it.
  • Paying attention to others.
  • Using their own words for ideas, not copying others.
  • Asking questions when they don't understand something.
  • Receptiveness to feedback.

The results of thoughtfulness are intellectual and social. On the intellectual side, one is more likely to have a full picture of the relevant pros and cons of an issue or decision—thoughtfulness results in better decisions. On the social side, the thoughtful person has a strong sense of other people around them, who they are, and their value—thoughtfulness results in better relationships.

When I think of people who are not thoughtful, they have traits like the following:

  • Clumsiness.
  • Imprecision.
  • Lack of awareness.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Anxious.
  • Bias.
  • Lack of intellectual charity.
  • Impatience.
  • Conformism.
  • Excessive Combativeness.
  • Lack of interest in the truth.
  • Close mindedness.
  • Obliviousness.
  • Drunkenness.
  • Overconfidence.

Thoughtlessness results in behaviors like:

  • Untactfully or unnecessarily disagreeing with someone.
  • Missing details and asking about them later.
  • Hastily throwing a report together.
  • Not preparing for a presentation.
  • Becoming anxious when confused.
  • Saying things that don't make sense.
  • Communicating only 80% of what was intended.
  • Not being intellectually fair to the other side in an agreement, not being able to understand them.
  • Combative disagreement.
  • Believing something because everyone else in the group believes it.
  • Not considering an idea because the wrong people believe it.
  • Ignoring or forgetting the preferences of your friends.
  • Realizing what was said in a conversation months later.
  • Forgetting to wish someone happy birthday.

The road of thoughtfulness is narrow, while there are many ways to act thoughtlessly. The thoughtless have a shallow understanding, an incomplete view of the world, and other people surrounding them. The fruits of thoughtlessness are more flawed decisions and a tendency to misunderstand others. The thoughtless babble, they repeat and vary what others around them say without understanding. They may act with too much haste, overconfidence or

Each of us will exemplify thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness to some degree or other. Moreover, we may be thoughtful in one domain, but not another. It's easier to act thoughtfully towards our friends, harder to do so for others. Some people are a model of intellectual charity and dispassionate investigation when talking about scientific or philosophical issues, only to turn venomous when talking about politics or a work dispute.

It's not always vice to act in ways that are associated with thoughtlessness. Sometimes people have preferences that are worth ignoring. Or sometimes, they may not warrant our attention or consideration. Sometimes there won't be enough time for thought, and at other times, it's worth saying something that won't make any sense at all.

But in general, it's better to be more thoughtful than not.

Now that we've listed out related traits, behaviors, and fruits of the virtue, are we in a place to group them under a cleaner definition?

I think so; thoughtfulness is a matter of taking the relevant considerations into account.

There's an intellectual component to thoughtfulness and a social one - this was evident from the very beginning with the two cases. They come together in this definition. Thoughtful gifts are thoughtful in virtue of considering the other person, who they are and what they value. Intellectual thoughtfulness is a matter of carefully gathering, understanding, and weighing the relevant considerations.

Aristotle held that virtues fall in between the mean of two vices. As an example, courage falls in between cowardice and recklessness. Thoughtfulness falls in between the vices of thoughtless haste and overthinking. Impatience is a matter of not taking enough of the relevant considerations into account. Perhaps not gathering enough evidence before making a decision or failing to understand a vital part of the decision. Overthinking is a matter of spending too much time trying to gather, understand, and weight considerations. There are diminishing marginal returns on additional information at some point, and one must act - the person who overthinks an issue finds themselves paralyzed. Overtime, considerations become less relevant to the action.

With a cleaner account of virtue, it's easier to take a measure of oneself.

<![CDATA[ No Principled Constraints ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/no-principled-constraints/ 5f47e11a89890977f5aa77d8 Thu, 27 Aug 2020 09:44:07 -0700 There's a kind of argument type that I call the no principled constraints objection. It's a kind of argument that appears in philosophy here and there. But it's not a successful objection.

I'll give three examples and then show why the argument type doesn't work.

The first two have to do with generality.

Here is a simple view about justification: a belief is justified if and only if it is produced by a reliable belief generating process. I believe that there's a laptop in front of me - a functioning visual system produced this belief. If I believe that a pink elephant is in front of me because I took hallucinogenic drugs, that belief wouldn't be justified. Hallucinogenic drugs aren't known for producing accurate perceptual beliefs. So, determine whether a particular belief is justified or not by determining whether the process that produced it is reliable. This view is called reliabilism. Here's a potential problem with this view:

  • There's no principled way to constrain "reliable belief generating process" to play the relevant epistemic role.

Less abstractly, when I look at my laptop, there are many candidate belief generating processes:

  • Perceptual processes.
  • Perceptual processes operating over objects in my house.
  • The perceptual process that is specific to recognizing laptops.

Each of these has different levels of reliability. For example, I'm better at recognizing laptops than at recognizing objects in the world generally. Yet there are likely many different candidate belief generating processes. What's to say that one is the relevant process that matters for justification? In the drug case, is the relevant process my general perceptual process or my perceptual process operating while drugged? The former is generally reliable, while the latter is not. But what principled way is there to handle the many cases like this? Philosophers have used this as an objection against reliabilism.

A similar problem arises for Kantian ethics. Roughly, according to Kant, ethics is about acting under a maxim that can be rationally universalized. This is the first categorical imperative. The second categorical imperative states that one should only treat people, including yourself, as ends and not merely as a means. According to Kant, these are the same in some sense. But let's stick with the first. If you're acting ethically, you're acting under rules that you can rationally endorse others acting under as well. Classically, Kant said that it is always wrong to lie because you can't rationally universalize a maxim that allows for lying. This is silly, but there is a question about what maxim you're endorsing when you lie in a permissible way. Is it:

  • It's permissible to lie to people to stop them from doing grave wrong.
  • It's permissible to lie if you're hiding political fugitives.
  • It's permissible to lie when telling the truth would be deeply offensive.

Like with reliabilism, there are many different candidates, and one's choice matters for the theory. The no principled constraints objection states that there's no principled way to constrain the relevant concept of acting under a maxim. Hence, Kantian ethics cannot be successful.

Here's another example concerning the principle of indifference. The idea is that if you don't have any evidence about some number of hypotheses, then you should assign equal probability to them. The problem is that it can be hard to know how to carve up the hypothesis space. Suppose a factory produces tiles with sides that have a length between 1 to 3 inches. That's all that you know. What is the probability that a given tile produced by the factory has a side between 1 to 2 inches? A reasonable answer is 1/2. Now, suppose there's a factory that produces tiles with the area of 1 to 9 inches. That's all that you know. What is the probability that you receive a tile with the area of 1 to 4 inches? Typically, if people are asked that question, they'll say 4/9. Should you divide up the hypothesis space by the length of the sides or by the possible areas? The idea is that there is no principled way to carve up the probability space and so the principle shouldn't be used.

The general idea behind these objections is:

  • There is no principled way that a concept (or set of concepts) can be constrained to play the relevant role.

Candidate hypotheses can vary along many dimensions, as can maxims and belief generating process. The problem is that it's challenging to come up with a principled way for constraining what counts as satisfying the concept and what doesn't. If there's no principled way to constrain the concept to play the relevant role, then the philosophical account fails.

Arguments of this form don't work. No mechanism showing that there can't be a principled constraint is given in any of the objections above. A priori, there are many ways to constrain a concept and it's likely that at least some of them are principled. Given that there are many ways to constrain a given concept, we shouldn't expect any of the above arguments to work without an account of why exactly constraining the concept can't be done in a principled way. Of course, reliabilism, Kantian ethics, and the principle of indifference may be false for other reasons. I assure I am no Kantian.

To motivate the idea that these concepts can be constrained, let's return to the principle of indifference. Suppose you know that someone took a trip of 100 miles in their car. The trip took between 1 - 2 hours and Sue's average speed was between 50 and 100 miles per hour. What's the probability that the trip took between 1 hour and 1 1/2 hours? If your carve up the possibilities by duration, the answer is 1/2. If you carve up the possibilities by speed, the answer is 2/3. Which should you prefer? The time that it takes to travel a given distance is explained by speed, not a range of possible times. So, speed is explanatorily prior. The idea is to constrain hypotheses by the explanatory priority of their components. Hence, the probability that the trip took between 1 - 1 1/2 hours is 2/3. Variants of the tile case given earlier are tricker, but this is just one example of answering the charge against the principle of indifference.

Here's an example of a related argument of a different type (though there are related statements that don't):

  • Phenomenal properties are of a fundamentally different kind from physical properties.
  • If two kinds of facts are of a fundamentally different kind, then they cannot ontologically reduce to one another.
  • Phenomenal properties cannot be ontologically reduced to physical properties.

To be clear by phenomenal, I don't mean "really great facts," I mean facts about conscious experience. A justification for the first premise is that phenomenal properties are intrinsic, while physical properties are structural and functional. That's a controversial idea, but that's the kind of mechanism one needs when running a no principled constraints objection.

The fact that it's hard to see how to constrain a given concept is a problem for a view - one that should be solved. But it doesn't show that the view is likely false.

<![CDATA[ What You Do Is Who You Are ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/what-you-do-is-who-you-are/ 5f3e9efc89890977f5aa7770 Thu, 20 Aug 2020 09:16:04 -0700 Ben Horowitz's What You Do Is Who You Are revolves around signalling.

The problem is culture. The setting is in the hallways and offices of billion dollar businesses and nascent startups. The audience is CEOs and managers. The main characters, Toussaint Louverture, Genghis Kahn, and Shaka Seghor are from different worlds. But the fundamental principle comes from economic theory.

Signalling is about credibly communicating a message by paying the adequate cost. The idea is used in biology and economics to explain everything from the plumage in a peacock's tail to healthcare consumption habits. The idea is simple. Suppose I want to convince you that I'm a devout member of your religious group. I could say that I am. But that wouldn't be very convincing, talk is cheap. So, what I do is attend religious services, wear the appropriate attire, stay away from alcohol, and memorize religious texts. Each of these activities carry costs and the fact that I'm willing to pay them is evidence that I'm devout.

What you do is who you are is another way of saying that you aren't who you say you are. Talk is cheap. A company isn't a list of values or its vision, but what it does. A person isn't the values they profess, but what they reveal through behavior.

Toussaint Louverture was the military general responsible for liberating Haiti from France. Clearly a genius, he was distinctive for being admired by both Haitians and many of the French. There are a few lessons to take from his life. Toussaint Louverture needed to build trust in a low trust culture. Amongst other things, he made an unusual rule forbidding married officers from having concubines:

“Because in this army, nothing is more important than your word. If we can’t trust you to keep your word to your wife, we definitely can’t trust you to keep your word to us.”

This created a standard for enforcing trust. Horowitz calls this heuristic: create shocking rules. A rule is shocking when it specifies something to be given up. If a rule isn't shocking then it risks not being taking seriously. If living according to your principles doesn't cost you anything, it may not be that much signal.

Another heuristic: dress for success. Dressing well communicates many things, but one thing it can make clear is how how high standards are. Outmaneuver and outdress!

Another heuristic: make decisions that demonstrate cultural priorities. Louverture didn't just let French plantation owners live, he let them keep their land:

With these decisions, Louverture established what a thousand speeches could not have: that the revolution wasn’t about revenge and that the economic well-being of the colony was its highest priority. It was all very well for him to say “no reprisals,” but it was what he did that set the culture.

Note that this was not a popular policy. His successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, overturned it and contributed to the economic downfall of Haiti.

Yet another heuristic: walk the talk.  In order to show that you're genuine you need to put yourself and what you value on the line.

Louverture understood this perfectly. He asked a great deal from his soldiers, but he was more than willing to embody his own standards. He lived with the men in his army and shared their labors. If a cannon had to be moved, he pitched in, once getting a hand badly crushed in the process. He charged at his troops’ head, something Europe had rarely seen from a leader since Alexander the Great, and was wounded seventeen times.

A slogan spin on this is that you need to demand high standards for yourself, before you demand them from someone else. Ben Horowitz cites the following saying from the army:

There’s a saying in the military that if you see something below standard and do nothing, then you’ve set a new standard. This is also true of culture—if you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture.

The final heuristic: make the ethics explicit. Louverture was sensitive to the "fate which has befallen some unhappy whites who have been victims in this business." He'd show that this was so by giving food away to destitute local whites, despite having his own starving army to feed.

Each of these rules are variations on a theme. Louverture wanted a high-trust, high-performing army and eventual reconciliation with the French colonialists. In order to get that, he had to pay non-trivial costs, in other words genuinely signal their value to him and others.

Horowitz is at his best when he's laying out difficult scenarios and decisions that people need to make (see The Hard Thing About Hard Things). If signalling is the first theme of the book then the second theme is that it's difficult to know how to shape culture and what to shape it into. You need to do the hard work of reasoning through it. Likely the best part of the book are records of conversations between Ben Horowitz and startup CEOs: one get's a sense of how this reasoning is done. See the chapter, Edge Cases and Object Lessons.

But here's an example from Shaka Seghor. Shaka was imprisoned early in his life and spent 19 years in the system. He gives the case of an outsider stealing one of his men's toothbrushes. What do you do? Ben Horowitz's initial take is let it slide. Shaka responds:

He corrected me: “A guy doesn’t take that risk for clean teeth. It’s a diagnostic. If we don’t respond, then he knows he can rob your guy of something larger or rape him or kill him and take over his business. So if I do nothing, I put all our members at risk. Killing the guy would be a big deterrent—but it would also create a superviolent culture.” He spread his hands. “As I said, it’s complex.”

So you rough the guy up. Maybe.

The squad can go further and cement their status as unexploitable by wiping out the aggressor. Now what do you do if one of your members stole the toothbrush and you hear that the other squad wants to rough him up? If you're too aggressive, you'll be tempted to launch a pre-emptive strike, but:

If you handle external matters this way, people in your organization will look at that as a model. If you don’t, then the way you treat outsiders will leak back into your own organization.

The implicit model of signalling from Toussaint Louverture largely concerned what he was communicating to the Haitian army. The need to have high standards, trust, and ability to reconcile. The story is more complicated. Here, Shaka Seghor needs to make decisions that communicate messages to both his men and opposing squads. If he's not aggressive enough, that risks looking soft to his own men and exploitable to other groups. If he's too aggressive, he's building a culture of might makes right. Not only that, but you want to ensure that the values you're creating are the one's you want long term. By solving one problem, you may not like who you and your organization become in the process. These issues are hard, but not insurmountable - so long as you aren't expecting Plato's Republic.

The book is as much self help as it is business strategy. At the end of the book, Ben Horowitz offers a number of strategies that can be rewritten as heuristics for individuals:

  • Align your culture with your personality and actions: what you communicate, what you do, and who you are should be aligned.
  • Cultural orientation for employees is essential: first impressions matter.
  • Rules need to be shocking in order to work: values should specify what is being given up.
  • Incorporate outside leadership: seek and listen to feedback.
  • Object lessons: if you need to cement a lesson, make it dramatic.
  • Make decisions that demonstrate cultural priorities: someone should be able to read off your values from your actions.
  • Make the ethics explicit: every statement you utter should be understood.
  • Walk the talk.
<![CDATA[ Is Goodness Really so Far Away? ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/is-goodness-really-so-far-away/ 5f35633089890977f5aa772f Thu, 13 Aug 2020 09:08:16 -0700 Is goodness really so far away?  If I simply desire goodness, I will find that it is already here.


Think of a morally excellent person. Not the saint or olympic athlete of the moral sphere, but someone who is virtuous. A family member, friend, or acquaintance. Ordinary people who you admire for their kindness, self control, generosity, and courage. How hard is to be as good as they are?

Eric Schwitzgebel recently argued that it's not hard - or at least not hard if you want it.

Here's my take on basic the argument:

  1. If becoming excellent at something is hard, then that must be due to either cognitive, physical, emotional, or preference limitations.
  2. Becoming morally excellent doesn't face cognitive, physical, emotional or preference limitations.
  3. So, becoming morally excellent isn't hard.

Math is hard because of cognitive limitations. Whether it's calculus, physics, or staring at models with billions of parameters, at some point, it's hard for humans to understand and compute. Many activities are physically difficult. I don't have the physical makeup or skill to be a professional basketball player. Even I had devoted my life to the game, the probability of success is vanishingly low. Other tasks are emotionally difficult. Running a massive public company would be too stressful for many. The emotional demands of social work can be high. Finally, some tasks are hard due to preference limitations. They are hard because we don't want to do them. It's hard for many addicts to ween themself off a drug they desperately want to use again. If you don't care at all about becoming an accountant, it will be hard to be a great one.

Is being morally excellent like any of this? Not really.

It doesn't demand impossible cognitive skill. Sure, some good things are complicated and difficult to pull off. Nelson Mandela and Norman Borlaug were geniuses and that enabled them to do a lot of good. But it's not at all required.

It doesn't demand physical skill.

On occasion it is emotionally difficult, but how hard is it? It's not hard to donate money. It's not hard spend an hour helping someone who needs it.

Although it's true that it's often difficult to do things that we don't want to do, it isn't that hard:

With a little thought, I'm sure you could think of lots of morally good things to do that you aren't doing.

Instead, if you're like most of us, you choose to do other things.  You watch videos or play computer games or scroll through Twitter.  You spend some extra time and money having yourself a delicious instead of a simple lunch.

A point that Schwitzgebel makes repeatedly is that we don't even try:

Morality isn't hard like calculus and rock climbing are hard.  In fact, it's almost the opposite.  Just trying to do it typically gets you at least halfway there!  ("Is goodness really so far away?")  You might try and fail to be helpful; but even if you try, that's already (usually) morally better than not trying at all.

If we did genuinely try, that would go towards our moral excellence. But many of us don't. We don't want to be morally excellent.

What to make of this argument?

It's true that one step on the ethical path is merely trying to be good and often we don't do that. But that is because we, or at least I, forget, in the same way that I forget that I'm watching the breath during meditation. In Christian language, I'm a sinner and forget that I don't want to be.

If you've every tried to meditate you'll find that it's difficult to hold your attention on your breath for more than 10 seconds. After you've poured hours and hours into meditation practice, you'll find that you'll be able to do it for minutes at a time! Which doesn't seem like much of a payoff. Vice is like becoming distracted. There's the smallest mental movement, something frustrating captures your attention, and we say something marginally meaner than we would have otherwise.

In meditation, like the Confucius quote, there are many reminders that the insight that you're aiming to uncover is already there. Whatever it is: you're already in the present. You're already experiencing the transmundane. The reality of no-ego is here. All you need do is notice it. And then return to noticing it when you forget it - which yo will. Whatever you think of that, it's a useful take on cultivating virtue: if you simply desire goodness, you will find that it is here. You can turn to it and it will be so easy to be good! Yet, you'll forget. You will become distracted and prioritize other mundane desires.

Becoming morally excellent may be hard, but that's not a good reason not to pursue it.

Do you want it? If so, it's already here. It just needs to be prioritized. Again and again.

<![CDATA[ Are Americans Becoming More Depressed? ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/are-americans-becoming-more-depressed/ 5f2c320489890977f5aa7670 Thu, 06 Aug 2020 17:50:11 -0700 The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.

William Styron

Are American's becoming more depressed? To be more specific, has the prevalence of major depressive disorder increased over the past few decades? It's typical to hear the answer: yes.

There are a number of related and interesting questions here:

  • What predictions can we make about the growth of mental health expenditure?
  • Are Americas over-diagnosed for mental health disorders?
  • Are do mental health disorders have still have too much stigma surrounding them?
  • Are humans able to adapt to happily adapt to modern life? Or would were we better off as hunter-gathers on the savannah?1

Looking at depression trends is relevant to each. But before getting too distracted, here's a simple question to start with: did the prevalence of major depressive disorder in America rise or fall from the 90s to early 2000s?

One simple way to answer questions of this form is to look at a snapshot of survey responses and compare generations. If you did that and you read the following:

Members of Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, had an overall loneliness score of 48.3. Millennials, just a little bit older, scored 45.3. By comparison, baby boomers scored 42.4. The Greatest Generation, people ages 72 and above, had a score of 38.6 on the loneliness scale.2

Then you'd conclude that Americans are becoming more lonely. This would be a mistake. Someone's loneliness may change throughout their life. Being a teenager may just be a lonely affair. What one wants to do is measure a population across time, not at a snapshot. Ideally, you'd give a representative part of the population the same survey across time. Unfortunately, that's rather elusive.

The first thing I found was the frequently cited study, The Epidemiology of Major Depressive Disorder. This study provides a history of the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS) conducted in 1990-1992 and its follow up a decade later. The prevalence of the first NCS survey was high: 8.6% of respondents said that they experienced depression over the past year. However, there are two reasons to think that this estimate is off: first, it excluded people over 54, who have lower rates of depression and, second, it didn't include a clinical significance criterion. The reason it didn't do that is that it used DSM-3 and until DSM-4 came along clinical significance wasn't emphasized. What does that mean? Basically, DSM-4 came along an said that in order for someone to qualify as having major depressive disorder they need to have 5 of the 9 features:

  • depressive mood
  • anhedonia
  • change in appetite or weight
  • sleep problems
  • psychomotor problems
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • excessive self-reproach or guilt
  • impaired decision-making
  • thoughts of death

Yes, that's 277 different configurations. At any rate, the first NCS survey didn't use clinical significance criteria.  The National Comorbidity Survey Replication, NCS-R, did and find that 6.6% of adults suffered from depression over the last 12 months. So, depression fell from 90s to 2000s?

Changes in the prevalence of major depression and comorbid substance use disorders in the United States between 1991–1992 and 2001–2002 throws out the NCS and NCR-R results:

[B]ecause the two surveys used different diagnostic criteria (DSM-III-R and DSM-IV, respectively) and because of extensive differences in how the surveys assessed major depression, the two studies’ prevalence rates are not comparable, and thus change over time cannot be reliably assessed.

One can estimate the impact of adding a clinical significance criteria to NCS, which is what William E Narrow and co did in Revised Prevalence Estimates of Mental Disorders in the United States. However, the response Lowered Estimates-but of what? is pretty damning of the attempt. Roughly, they argue that William E Narrow and co aren't measuring depression or other mental disorders:

[T]he authors offer no conceptual argument that the addition of their CS represents a valid redefinition of disorder. They note that a CS appears in the DSM-IV criteria sets. However, the DSM-IV ’s criterion requires only significant distress or impairment. The authors’ more demanding CS is arbitrary as a requirement for disorder. First, service contact is conceptually unrelated to disorder status; people commonly seek treatment for non-disorders (the DSM ’s V codes), and many disorders go untreated. This is why psychiatric epidemiologists turned to community studies of true prevalence of disorder measured independently of service use. Second, symptoms interfering “a lot” with life is an inappropriate criterion for disorder because many true disorders, including mild or moderate ones, may not interfere with life a lot.

Seems persuasive.

Changes in the prevalence of major depression and comorbid substance use disorders in the United States between 1991–1992 and 2001–2002, aims to get around this by relying on two surveys on alcohol use that include clinical significance criterion of DSM-IV. Another advantage, these surveys have over NCS and NCS-R is that they sample from population of the same age. Great. What did they find?

The prevalence of past-year major depressive episode in the total samples increased significantly from 3.33% in 1991–1992 to 7.06% in 2001–2002.

So, unlike the NCS and NCS-R finding, we see a significant increase. This increase can't entirely be explained by a rise in substance abuse disorders, since the rate rose for non-substance abusing types as well: "the prevalence of major depressive episode increased from 2.76% in 1991–1992 to 6.23% in 2001–2002."

The main concern with this analysis is that is uses two different surveys and just those two surveys. The studies use the same significance criterion for depression, but have other differences. The most significant difference is that in the first survey all respondents were asked whether they had depressive symptoms. In the second, survey they were only asked this if they passed an initial screening round. There's obviously a worry that this contaminated results. To address this, they note that both had the same context for lifetime depression and found an increase (9.86% in the NLAES compared with 13.23% in the NESARC). It's unclear to me why that removes the worry. Another puzzling development: they don't find a difference between low mood and anhedonia in the screening questions. That's surprising, since you'd expect an increase if depression increased. They ask "Did the U.S. population become more willing in general between 1991–1992 and 2001–2002 to report psychiatric symptoms?" Maybe.

Challenging the myth of an "epidemic" of common mental disorders: trends in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression between 1990 and 2010 looked at a massive number of studies for the Global Burden of Disease project, excluded tens of thousands and landed on keeping 116 studies on depression. A relatively complex bayesian meta-regression model is constructed to fill the gaps. As the paper suggests, they don't find an increase.

My sense is that this is some the best work in the field. They throw out studies that should be thrown out (studies that only use lifetime prevalence or don't measure clinical significance) and have carefully constructed a model through numerous iterations.

With additional work from the Global Burden of Disease project, we find that depression rates have moved from 4.68% to 4.84% from the 1990 to 2007.3 Note that this is prevalence at a point in time, not year long prevalence - unlike the previous studies. Regardless, it's evidence that the answer to the question that began this query is largely: no, Americans have not been becoming more depressed. At least for the relevant timeframe.

But, as we've seen, this work is messy, so I wouldn't be that surprised if I change my mind.

  1. See Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence and Good Reasons for Bad Feelings.
  2. Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden.
  3. Our World In Data
<![CDATA[ Notes on Power ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/power/ 5f22ef3289890977f5aa751c Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:47:13 -0700 Power is all around us. We swim through it like fish. It touches every part of us, and it is so vast that it can be difficult to see. Power is nothing but the ability to get things done. And everyone has things to do. 1

Recently, I read through a number of pieces on power, following the syllabus from David Nussbaum's Power and Influence in Organizations course, in addition to a few other pieces.

Here are some largely unorganized heuristics that stuck out to me.

What is power?

All by itself, power is amoral. Charlie Songhurst asks people whether they'd rather have fame, power, or money. Of those, power is pretty good, but there are better things in life than all three.

At a first pass, power is just the capacity to get or prevent things from being done.

In order to produce (or prevent) change, one needs to control resources. Resources should be thought of broadly, as social, material, symbolic, informational, and structural.

Power is often correlated with status, but they aren't the same. Status can be thought of as one's perceived power and social value. One's power can go undetected. Many have false beliefs about who really holds power. One can provide social value without capturing it and converting it into power.

Speed Matters

Power changes happen quickly. While Elon Musk was on his way to Australia in 2001, the board moved to have him replaced by Peter Thiel in the span of a few hours.

Bill Agee is another nice corporate example of this dynamic:

The final showdown between Panny and Agee. . . may have involved Mary Cunningham. One story going around Detroit has it that a number of Bendix executives went to Panny complaining about the Cunningham-Agee relationship, and that Panny was planning to take the matter to the board. The next day . . . Agee fired him before he had a chance.2

In another case, Agee learns that Harry Cunningham is planning an adversarial meeting with the board without him in attendance on March 6. Agee calls his own special meeting on Feb 25th. The outcome? Harry Cunningham leaves the board.

Although some details of the case are unclear, Samuel Doe became the president of Liberia by attacking the sitting president William R Tolbert and then quickly moving to get rid of his existing supporters:

Together with sixteen other noncommissioned officers, Doe had scaled the fence at the Executive Mansion, hoping to confront the president and find out why they had not been paid. Seeing the opportunity before him, he ended the dominance of Tolbert’s True Whig Party, a political regime created by slaves repatriated from America in 1847. He immediately rounded up thirteen cabinet ministers, who were then publically executed on the beach in front of cheering crowds. Many more deaths would follow. Doe then headed the People’s Redemption Council that suspended the constitution and banned all political activity.3

Most coups follow the same pattern.

The first mover in a space will tend to have advantages. This is especially true for networks. It's easier to start the first social-impact-for-young-professionals group in a city than the second. And in order to be the to first move, you need to move quickly. In general, favor creating corporate networks over coups.

Moving fast, isn't always the right play, sometimes you'll need to delay. If you're able, slowing things down considerably can sap people's persistence, attention, and resources:

When owners of the land sued, Moses did everything he could to delay the case. Caro noted that “on the day he was scheduled to be examined, he didn’t show up in court. . . . his attorneys began a new series of delaying actions in an attempt to stall the proceedings until January.” Through the strategy of delay, Moses exhausted his opponents’ willingness to spend money; moreover, he completed the park while the case about its construction was being tried.4

Don't let the board meet without you

In general, letting people who have a say in what goes on meet without you is less than ideal, especially if the meeting is institutionally recognized.

This is a lesson from the Agee and Musk cases above. It's also noted in this article on fall of the Lehman brothers and Lew Glucksman:

With this meeting, the board effectively seized control of Lehman from Lew Glucksman, Glucksman having seized control himself a mere five months earlier. According to Breck, ''What Glucksman had done is allow the board meeting to take place without his being there. It was a classic management error. An error we never allow our corporate clients to make.''


In order to get ahead, you need to be inauthentic. This paper asks whether self-monitors get ahead and the answer is yes. Self-monitors are people who are "markedly sensitive and responsive to social and interpersonal cues to situational appropriateness." This can be described in favorable and less favorable ways. Colloquially, they are chameleons who can take on whatever beliefs and behaviors the situation demands on them in order to get ahead.

The following was said about Lyndon B Johnson: "he had a burning ambition to be somebody. He didn’t know what he wanted to be, but he wanted to be somebody."   5

See also this line on Barak Obama from David Garrow: "While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core."6 David Garrow has an axe to grind, but the description strikes me as apt of many politicians and people in power.

Political institutions will select for people who want power. And if you're a chameleon, you're more likely to get it. This is likely unfortunate. Political institutions are selecting for power hungry chameleon types, instead of the principled.

It's not obvious that you wan't principled politicians, principles can be dangerous and mistaken. You'd prefer a politician be an opportunist then someone who sticks to cruel or irrational principles. But on the margin, it seems like it would be a good thing to have more principled people in politics. That will require better systems for selection than we have now.

Read the boring details

Read! Robert Moses got the power to effective seize private citizens' land by sneaking in a clause into a boring bill that an young aide proposed.

The best example of this is the following from Managing With Power:

"BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That this body, once again, recognizes and applauds the outstanding feats accomplished in track and field by champion Harvey Glance; we commend him on his spectacular performance in the 45th SEC Track and Field Meet, in his honor we hereby repeal Act Number Nine Hundred Forty-Nine, adopted October tenth, Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Five, and congratulate him on winning the Commissioner’s Trophy, and direct that a copy of this resolution be sent to him that he may know of our pride, our praise and our highest esteem."

Act Number 949 created a committee on Finance and Taxation. Which someone didn't like, so they introduced this bill on the last day of the legislative session.

Not every power struggle is worth struggling over

Pete Peterson, former CEO of Lehman, avoided a drawn out power struggle with the previously mentioned Lew Glucksman over Lehman in the 80s. Lew Glucksman aimed for the CEO position and got it. Quote Peter Peterson. Lew Glucksman won the privilege to run Lehman into an unpopular acquisition, Pete Peterson went on to found Blackstone.

Some of the battles that aren't worth winning happen in games that aren't even worth playing.

Focus, Tradeoffs

Revisiting the great work debate, the powerful have a singular focus. At dances, Lyndon would dance with older women who knew or were married to congressman, instead of the presumably more attractive younger women that other aides were drawn to.

One is demanded to be on all the time:

Gary Loveman, CEO of the casino company Harrah’s Entertainment, understands that because many employees may see him only once in a year, he needs to be “on” when he is in front of them. Even in momentary interactions, Loveman must convey that employees work in a company led by caring, engaged people they can trust. Even if he is tired or feeling ill, in public appearances Loveman radiates energy and competitive intensity—and this competitive vitality has helped make Harrah’s successful.2

Another note on Barak Obama: on the day after Sasha was born, Barack went downtown for a meeting.

Stamina is key

In order to make a lot happen, you need a lot of stamina. Jeffrey Pfeffer remarked that: "I know of almost no powerful people who do not have boundless energy."

Recall Larry Ellison's comment on Bill Gates: he's mean and he's not tired."

Robin Hanson has a similar meditation on this theme here.

This reminded me of the line about Edward Gibbon:

"Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing."

Provide Value

One way you can accrue power is by providing value to people. This is a more optimistic story than the earlier points - as long as the people you're providing value to value the right things. This will create incentives to shut other people out of providing the same value. To some extent, transparency and clear rules can avoid that problem.

A more concrete way to think about this in the corporate context: executive and managers have OKRs (hopefully). If you can help them achieve those OKRs, that puts you in a good spot. Not only that, but most execs have a high-level view, where it's easy to miss important and neglected details on the ground. If you can provide those details, that's another way you can prove to be indispensable.

Think of it like trading in a market. You can have an edge in trading by: having insight no one else does, relating information everyone else has in a novel way, or trading in way no one else does. In an organizational context, that looks like: uncovering key information that serves the business, relating integration crucial parts of the organization together, or having talent and execution that no one else does.

Informal interactions matter

In order to know how to provide value, you need to be in a lot of information flows. Informal interactions and customs matter a lot for this.

They build help you get information that you wouldn't otherwise. This is especially easy for introverted engineering types to underrate.

But they matter in a more human way as well. People are more likely to trust you and see you as part of the tribe after informal interactions.

In the The Textile Corporation of America, a famous HBS case, one gets the sense that the talented, but relatively impotent, Harvard MBA would have been more successful in shaping his organization if he played golf with the executives.

On Information Value

If virtually all information and communication flows through you, you will have more power. One source of your power will be your control over the flow of information, and another is that people attribute power to individuals who are central.2

Information can be a critical resource. Especially for knowledge work:

His strategy? Making himself indispensable by working as hard as he could to find as much information as possible about any and every topic of possible interest to senior CBS management—such as who listened to various radio programs and why, who owned buildings where CBS wanted office space, demographic information on various media markets, essentially any data that might be useful. In many instances, these data were sitting around at CBS waiting to be compiled or came through surveys that anyone could have done.2

Taking on small tasks is useful, especially when they are one's that others underrate:

Taking on small tasks can provide you with power because people are often lazy or uninterested in seemingly small, unimportant activities. Therefore, if you take the initiative to do a relatively minor task and do it extremely well, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to challenge you for the opportunity. Meanwhile, these apparently minor tasks can become important sources of power.2

Power hacks

One model for building power is to take on the personality traits of the powerful like:

  • Be mean: ("nice people are perceived as warm, but niceness frequently comes across as weakness or even a lack of intelligence.")
  • Be angry: "Research shows that people who express anger are seen “as dominant, strong, competent, and smart,” although they are also, of course, seen as less nice and warm."2
  • Interrupt people: "One source of power in every interaction is interruption. Those with power interrupt, those with less power get interrupted. In conversation, interrupting others, although not polite, can indicate power and be an effective power move, something noted by scholars in a field called conversation analysis."2
  • Be confident: "He asserted that he had controlled what had occurred, frequently using phrases such as “I told” and “I caused.” This phrasing demonstrated that he was not running away from what he had done. Observers watching people who don’t deny or run away from their actions naturally presume that the perpetrators don’t feel guilty or ashamed, so maybe no one should be too upset."2

This is like the pickup artist who aims to become more attractive by acting like confident, attractive people. This likely goes some way, but confidence likely only works long term if you can back it up. I expect the same goes for lists that promote the top 10 ways to become powerful.

Always be understood

"ONE CAN LACK any of the qualities of an organizer—with one exception—and still be effective and successful. That exception is the art of communication. It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there."7

The key trait for an organizer is that every word they say is understood. As far as heuristics goes, it's pretty good. The only modification I'd make is that you want every word to be understood by the target audience.

Don't forget to ask for help

People find asking for help uncomfortable. You can get an edge by doing uncomfortable things, so it's often worth doing.

If someone helps you, offer to help them if you can.

A corollary of this is that people would like your help, but aren't asking for it.

From Engineers To Managers

My anecdotal sense is that in silicon valley tech companies the most powerful roles in organizations are product management roles. For some companies, it's probably engineering, but given the product focus, engineers lose out eventually. This is a broad generalization of course. Some evidence for this is that it's what many undergrads are now aiming for.

The reason for this is the following:

"The fundamental idea is deceptively simple: by connecting units that are tightly linked internally but socially isolated from each other, the person doing the connecting can profit by being the intermediary who facilitates interactions between the two groups."2

Leading slogans, leading causes

A leading slogan is a slogan that one can't disagree with. From Rules for Radicals:

The eleventh rule of the ethics of means and ends is that goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” Whitman put it: “The goal once named cannot be countermanded.”7

Yes, there are many rules in this book.

Consider the following examples of this: pro life, pro choice, family values, black lives matter.

Your path to power is going to be easier if you are aligned with a compelling, socially valuable objective. That doesn’t mean you are cynically using some social cause for your own gain—just that to the extent you can associate your efforts with a socially desirable, compelling value, you increase your likelihood of success. Opposing Laura Esserman’s efforts at UCSF was tantamount to turning one’s back on breast cancer and its victims and their families.2

There's a cynical and an optimistic take to this, in the long run I think the optimistic take on this will win out.

  1. Ben Landau Taylor, What is Power?
  2. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don't
  3. Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, The Dictator's Handbook
  4. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Managing With Power
  5. Robert Caro, The Path To Power
  6. David Garrow, Rising Star
  7. Saul Alinksky, Rules for Radicals
<![CDATA[ How I Use Roam ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/how-i-use-roam/ 5f19a08e89890977f5aa7448 Thu, 23 Jul 2020 08:26:02 -0700 I've been using Roam Research since late last year. I'd recommend trying it if you're not happy with your current knowledge management software.

I've benefited from others sharing their workflow and thought I would share mine. You'll likely get something out of this even if you don't use Roam, at least if you're interested in tracking your own work and research. The other reason to share is selfish: if you have ideas for how my workflow can improve, tell me.

I expect that how I use Roam will change significantly over the next few months. It would surprise me if I were using the exact same note taking system. But several parts of my workflow are more cemented, I'd be surprised if I moved off work cycles for example.

What is a Roam?

Roam enables unstructured and generative thought to happen, while providing the ability to structure it later. Instead of being organized like a file system, Roam is organized as graph. Thoughts, sentences, pages are nodes that can become densely networked together. This network persists and becomes more valuable overtime.

To be less abstract, it's a bullet based text editor. There are a lot of note taking apps out there, if you open Roam, you'll immediately be creating bullet point lists, like Dynalist. But that's not what powers the graph.

cose graph with stoicism at the center

Two things things that enable structure are:

  • block references
  • page references

With a block reference, it's easy to reference ideas you've had in the past. It's one way you relate thought, by reusing sentences and bringing in these sentences to whatever you are currently working on. If I click on a given block reference, I can view all the other pages that reference it.

First bullet is a block, the lower section show where it has been referenced.

Page references are references for pages. At any place in Roam you can reference the page like [[this]]. Clicking on this will bring you to that page (where you can view all the reference), right clicking on it will bring up a side panel with that page.

References are a primitive way to structure thought. What's powerful about them is that they're friendly to unstructured workflows. I don't need to decide which file to put a note in. Creating explicit references doesn't pollute the graph, so refer away.

The first page you see in Roam is [[Daily Notes]]. I think this is great, because I structure my thought around days. I don't need to leave this page, unless I want to clean up whatever I'm writing. You do not need to plan what you write or deal with organizational overhead.

I use Roam for writing, research, and working.

Many nodes, many connections.


I'm a big fan of work cycles and have created a similar routine. I'll work in 50 minute cycles. Before each session, I'll plan what I'll do. After each session, I'll spend time reflecting on what went well and what didn't. I'll also take notes on my energy after the session, give myself an output score, and score how focused I was. This looks like this in Roam:

Taken from July 12

I've created a template for this purpose here. At the beginning of everyday, I'll paste in the template for the week.

The template includes two other important components: weekly goals and an evening review. I'll also embed a block of my weekly goals at the top of the template and keep them as reminders throughout the week. At the end of everyday, I'll do an evening review, although this is a more detailed review of the day, it doesn't take more than 5 minutes, since I'm able to reference blocks I've written earlier.

The question set that I use evolves. To start with, I used the questions from the ultimate working team. Then I moved to a simpler set asking: what went well, what could go better, what I learned, and including a notes section for miscellaneous. I'm currently experimenting with just noting what I do during the cycle and planning what I'd like to do next.

Usefully, I can create block references or page references from work cycle notes. Previously, I tracked work cycles in a spreadsheet, which was annoying because the spreadsheet lived away from my note taking system and todo list. But now, everything can be noted in the same space, with little overhead, and while retaining connections.

As an example, take meetings. By creating a page for reoccurring meetings, I can instantly pull up past notes just by typing in the page. Very convenient.


How do you take notes? I've been experimenting with a version of the zettelkasten method. This word is used for a number of processes, but:

The core idea in the [[Zettelkasten]] is that every time you read something worthwhile, you write up each idea in your own words -- and link those ideas to the other notes that are related.

Taken from Conor Sullivan's page on Zettelkasten. For a given piece, I'll go through three steps:

  • Source notes: organize important quotes and references from the source.
  • Review notes: review the source notes in my own words.
  • Concept notes: create atomic notes meant persist and linked to related concepts and sources.

Source notes are a first pass at what I think was important from the text. This usually includes organizing direct quotes from the source material. Reading and highlighting on Kindle makes this easy.

Review notes, restate whatever I think was most valuable about the source notes in my own words.

It's important that what I read be linked with questions. For that reason, I create question pages with the format [[Q: question]] and link to related questions in the metadata. In the body of the page, I'll answer the question or create subquestions.

The strength of this system is that it has inbuilt spaced repetition built into it. It's also very cleanly organized. If I want to find a verbatim quote, it will be in source notes. If I want my own take on it, check the review notes. The most important ideas make it to concept cards. It also has a kind of evolutionary role, with the source notes being the initial organism and selection and mutation applied at each layer. Books and papers are compressed into the concepts that I think are most useful, the ones that answer my questions.

The main con with this system is that it takes awhile. I can potentially compress the concept and review steps into a single one. This is something that I'll likely experiment with for a week.

You can find templates for an example note page here and an example question page here.


While taking notes, I won't complete each step, so I'll create hashtags to allow quick lookup for everything I'd like to remember, like #tonote, #toreview, #toconcept.

The nested bullet format is friendly to creating questions. For example, you can ask one large question, break it up into smaller questions, break those up into smaller questions and so forth. Basically, it promotes factored cognition.

It's useful to have some structure around page names. For example, I use:

Roam syntax

But in general, don't move to structure until you realize that you'd like it.

Related tools

I haven't moved off of Todoist for todo management. Though I'll track higher level goals in Roam, it doesn't have anything like reminders and the scheduling functionality is hacky.

Anki for spaced repetition. Basically, Anki is digital flashcards. One way in which note taking and Anki creation are related is that it's very important that things always be in your own words. Copy and paste doesn't work. Understanding things helps.


I've found the following useful for learning Roam.

The following also look useful for beginners:

<![CDATA[ How to Choose What to Read ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/how-to-choose-what-to-read/ 5f10676989890977f5aa7410 Thu, 16 Jul 2020 07:51:43 -0700 There are a lot of books in the world. How do you choose which ones to read?

There are at least two questions here:

  • What topics should I read about?
  • What books do I read within a topic?

For some people, the answer to the topic question is easy. They're obsessed with a given topic. They move onto the second problem.

For others, like myself, the first can be daunting. It's not that there aren't enough topics, it's that there are too many. If I look at my Goodreads want to read list right now, I see books on the following:

Each of these topics seem great and the books seemed good enough to justify saving. I have 176 more on my list. A friend just emailed me about Why Liberalism Failed and it turns out that book looks interesting as well. How to choose?

This post is about modeling my reading engine. It's about reading for insight, reading to uncover valuable and relevant information and skills. There are other reasons to read, like to relax or for social reasons. They can be related, but I'm largely going to ignore those reasons here. This may come across as utilitarian and boring, but that's the cost of being serious.

Let's step back and consider what kind of decision is at stake here. Decisions can vary on the following dimensions:

  • reversibility
  • stakes
  • prior uncertainty
  • post certainty

When decisions are irreversible, you'll want to ensure that you take the correct one. So you'll spend more time on the decision. If they are reversible and you learn you made the wrong decision, no problem, you can change. Choosing between job offers is the sort of thing you'll likely want to spend a decent amount of time on. The switching costs are usually high. If you want a better example, consider the decision of whether to have a kid or not.

If decisions are high stakes, deciding correctly matters more. Not so much if they're smaller potatoes. Spend more time on choosing a job, less time on what to watch this evening.

If decisions are made in a shroud of uncertainty, then the value of additional information will be higher. Prior uncertainty refers to the amount of uncertainty before a given decision. Often, "When it comes to perceiving reality, our minds are in a fog."

Post certainty refers to the amount and rate of relevant information flow after making a decision. That's a bit abstract, but we all know that after some decisions, you'll know right away whether you made the right one. Ordering at some restaurants is like this. After other decisions, such as longer term investments, you may never know. To be more precise, a decision will be higher in post certainty to the degree that, after you make the decision, you get relevant information and you get that information quickly.

With these in mind we can see that the decision to read on a particular topic is:

  • reversible
  • medium stakes
  • variable prior uncertainty
  • reasonable post certainty

The decision is reversible because you can stop reading at any point. Reading is somewhat important (it depends), but not as high stakes as many decisions we make. There can initially be a lot of prior uncertainty, ideally this goes down over a life. Occasionally, the result of a decision won't be evaluable for years, for example, when it's tied up with a risky research project. An example of this is deciding to become an expert in nanotech in the early 2000s. Yet if you know that you want to take a bet on high risk, world shaping technological developments then, by asking the right questions, you'll be able to reduce uncertainty. Given that you're studying nanotech, you can evaluate whether you're studying the right issues within that domain. You can do all of this even if the decision to study nanotech won't be evaluable for years.

So choosing what domains to hop into is reversible, medium stakes, has variable uncertainty, and has a reasonable amount of post certainty.

There are two key upshots here:

  • First, what you read is determined by your projects. If you're uncertain about your projects, that uncertainty will trickle down. When I was studying philosophy, learning software engineering, or heads down in Stoa I had less uncertainty about what to read. If I'm exploring different projects, there's more uncertainty.
  • The second, is that deciding what to read is a game you'll play over and over again. It's a reversible decision that you can get better at.

What you want to think of doing then, is designing a reading engine. You're not making one-off judgements about what to read for all time. Instead, you're setting up a system for selecting, consuming, and then utilizing information. Books play a small role in that ecosystem - they're not even the primary unit.

Building A Reading Engine

This engine can be modeled as a pipeline:

Created with Roam Research's nascent diagram tool.

Reading is the core activity. But it's interwoven with a number of other activities.

What I read is influenced by what I've collected into my reserves, projects, the questions I'm asking, and curiosity.

The reserves is a list of books that I found intriguing at one point or another. It isn't a list of books to read. That seems too prescriptive - I won't read every book in my reserve. Instead, it's a list of books that I may read, if I get excited about the relevant topic. The books are on deck, as it were.

Some of my favorite ways to populate my reserves is through interviews, blog posts, conversations, and Twitter. I usually find the best pieces at the end of bibliographies or during a simple search.

The most influential driver of this pipeline is projects. I like to think of my life as organized around a few projects or goals. Some of these are mundane, others grand. Whatever they are, they should guide what you read. If you're looking for insight, that's in the purpose of something or other. Examples of projects are:

  • Building better habits
  • Learning about formal methods in cultural evolution
  • Aiming to be more Stoic
  • Cooking more varied dishes
  • Running a reading group on power and influence in organizations

As noted above, uncertainty about your projects trickles down. If it seems like there are too many things to read, that may be a sign that you have too many projects.

If this is you, you can let your work inform whether they should get dropped or not. If you want to cull projects more aggressively, derisk and prioritize. Focus on questions like:

  • What can I learn that would make this project not matter to me?
  • What cheap tests would show that this project won't work?
  • Can I build an MVP of this project?
  • What specific questions about this topic do I want answered? What would answers unlock?

Projects are vague and not sufficient for narrowing down the solution set on their own. Instead, list questions that you want answers to. If reading is inquiry guided, you're more likely to find what you want and spend less time trawling through books that feel relevant, but aren't.

Questions can help you choose the right things to read. What you decide to spend your attention on is a reversible decision. You can stop reading at any moment. So, if, like me, you feel like there are too many topics, narrow it by answering questions like:

  • What's the chance that this topic is related to my project?
  • If I understand this completely, how will that be helpful in advancing my project?
  • How long will it take you to understand this topic? Is it worth the cost?

Think of reading as inquiry guided. Your questions are the fundamental units. Read in order to answer specific queries you have. Once you've answered a question, that should generate more questions and output. If you can't find the answer, put the book down.

As an example, I want to read the book on neural design, because I'm interested in the nature of emotion. Often I feel like I read neuroscientific explanations of behavior and they don't feel like explanations at all. On the surface, they appear to be very black box (x module is linked with this behavior). Plausibly, explaining how the brain works from an engineering perspective is more illuminating. So, if I read that book then I should come into with the questions:

  • Does this book give a new kind of explanation?
  • Is this explanation useful to understanding the nature of emotion?

I can likely figure this out pretty quickly. If the answer is no, I can stop reading. Returning to the framework above, reading has reasonably high post certainty. As you read, you can get a sense of whether you're reading the right thing by updating on the book’s quality and whether it has what you want in it.

As an aside answers to these questions are things that should end up in notes. And if the answers help me push the peanut forward, they'll influence other questions, an essay, or project.

Your project likely has some private or public output.

For me the private output is in the form of anki cards and notes. Anki is a fun and useful way to remember things. A lot of people are excited about note taking systems and software today. The most important part about notes is that they actually answer the questions that you have.

Public output can be anything from behavior change to essays, from conversations in person to email. Putting things out there will help you get feedback, speed up your projects, ask better questions, and provide value to others.

Occurrent Curiosity
Not all things should be so structured. Plausibly some amount of reading shouldn't fit that tightly into your system. You're more likely to discover something neglected if you read things for the sake of reading them on occasion.

Sometimes it's fun to read something because you're curious about it at that very moment. This is less systematic but I think that occurrent curiosity plays an important role in choosing what topics to read on. For me, it serves to explore books that may not be directly related to a project of mine, but could be relevant. Sometimes a particular question, book cover, or area catches your attention and it can be rewarding to follow up on it right away.

I expect that reading for the sake of reading should take up the minority of your time. It's driven by availability and recency biases. And if you do it too often, you won't be pushing your projects forward or answering questions you have.

However, occasionally you'll stumble on something that others have yet to understand and this can be quite great.

How to Choose

In some ways, this essay didn't answer the questions it set out to:

  • What topics should I read about?
  • What books should I read?

Instead, the claim is that these questions are the wrong ones. Uncertainty about what to read can be reduced by clarifying your projects, explicitly asking questions, and treating what to read as a reversible, low stakes decision that you'll get better at over time.

This framework is useful for ensuring that you're reading in line with your projects. With questions as the fundamental unit of your reading adventure, you can ensure that you're getting better answers and generating better questions.

Instead of asking, should I read this should I read this book on How To Think Like A Roman Emperor or this The Practicing Stoic? Spend a few minutes clarifying what questions you want answers to. Questions like:

  • Who was Marcus Aurelius?
  • How do psychotherapists apply Stoicism in their practice?

Suggest reading How To Think Like A Roman Emperor, while questions like:

  • What did the Stoics believe?
  • How do the main Stoic philosophers relate to each other?

Suggest reading The Practicing Stoic. If your questions are much broader like:

  • What even is Stoicism?
  • How can I apply Stoicism to my life?

Select a few books on the genre and briefly leaf through each of them. You're not choosing to commit your life to finishing any given book! Check out a clump, read a few, check in with your questions, return to reading, repeat. This is a process where you're getting feedback between your projects, questions, reading, and output.

Build a reading engine. Returns to systematicity are high.

Thanks Austin Wilson and Evan Gaensbauer for reading and commenting an earlier drafts.

<![CDATA[ 8 Heuristics I like ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/8-heuristics-i-like/ 5f0360f089890977f5aa73e9 Thu, 09 Jul 2020 04:44:00 -0700 A heuristic is a cognitive technique, a strategy or thought pattern.

Here are 8 that I like.

Look at neglected problems

Venture capitalists are look for first rate teams working on hard problems that no one else is working on. Effective altruists measure how important a cause is by how neglected it is.

Why does Peter Thiel go on and on about how competition is overrated?

Because if you're competing against others then you're already playing a crowded game. A few years ago, a book called the lean startup was written. The main idea is to create products in an iterative way: deploy, measure, improve, and then repeat. This works well when you find fast feedback loops. But now everyone knows that fast feedback loops are valuable. The neglected space is where the feedback loops are slow and noisy.

As an analogy, consider a financial market. If you're trying to make money on the financial markets you want to:

  • Have information that no one else does.
  • Relate information that everyone else has in a unique way.
  • Trade on the information that everyone else has in an advantageous way

It's easier to do all of these things if your market isn't crowded.

Neglected problems are hard, risky problems. There's a reason why they're neglected. But, if you're working on a neglected problem, your contribution may be more valuable.

Do boring things

Daniel Chambliss studied olympic swimmers in order to tell them apart:

"What these athletes do was rather interesting, but the people themselves were only fast swimmers, who did the particular things one does to swim fast. It is all very mundane."

Most paths to success are mundane, obvious in hindsight. In The Mundanity of Excellence, Daniel Chambliss boils down the path to discipline and technique. Amongst other cases, he mentions the following: when Mary T. Meagher was 13 years old she decided to try to break the world record in the 200 Meter Butterfly race. She did. What did she do? She decided to do turn correctly and show up to every practice on time.

The improve teacher Keith Johnstone has the line: "Don't do your best." What he means is that striving after originality and trying to be clever is a distraction. In improv, you don't want to be clever or original. That takes you away from natural acting and makes your work mediocre.

In general, there is no magic. If you want to do X, think through the particular things you need to do X.

Execute quickly

If you make faster decisions and have error correcting mechanisms, you can beat out more accurate, but slower decision makers.

In some fields speed isn't that relevant. You won't be able learn about the results of some decisions for years. But often one can take advantage of speed even when it isn't obvious how to do so at first. You can reduce uncertainty in a lot of ways. Be creative and do it quickly.

Life is short. Execute quickly, improve.

Create success spirals

Many processes in the world are autocatalytic. Success is one.

This is well known in the productivity literature. When you succeed, you build expectancy and confidence. This fuels motivation. With the motivation, you're more likely to succeed again, which continues to build confidence and on and on.

George Ainslie described the will as "a recursive process that bets the expected value of your future self-control against each of your successive temptations." The upshot of this is that you want to have confidence in your future self-control, and to build that you need to provide evidence that you can get things done.

Build momentum by starting with simple, realistic tasks.

Be direct

It's easy to not be direct. It's easy to avoid real work. Or think that in order to achieve a goal you need to add on additional subgoals.

If you want to achieve a goal, be direct as possible. If you're following a well trodden career path, talk to people about the process and then do it. If you're publishing a book, there are a pretty clear number of things you need to do, one of which includes writing a book (though, depending on your goals, potentially not right away).

This matters for making plans and constructing goals, but also for talking to people.

Play with where you're knowing from

You can know how, know that, but you can also know from. Perspectival knowledge matters because it changes the salience landscape. If I picture myself as a human occupying this room, that's different from picturing myself as part of a whole: one human among billions. The picture enlarges, and I shrink, if I include a wider time range. I become one human among the past hundreds of billions and trillions of future humans. It becomes even larger if I include other sentient beings, in addition to humans.

I don't encounter any new facts during this exercise, but what I am paying attention to does change. I find that when I do this, what's most important to me stays, but trivial concerns fall away.

John Hicks described the religious life as a movement from egocenteredness to realitycenteredness. This is, in part, a matter of relating to life from a larger point of view.

Signal to yourself

If you commit to something, signal to yourself that you really care. To get a grip on this, imagine that you need to convince a skeptical party that you care (there's a real sense in which this is true - that skeptical party is yourself). What would you do to persuade the skeptic? You'd go a bit overboard and be radical in your pursuit.

If you cared about becoming fit, you'd spend more money and time on the endeavor. Pay for a personal trainer, exercise more than three times a week, change your diet, film yourself, make a public commitment, maybe even get workout gear.

I expect that a lot of what you'd do wouldn't work intrinsically. Getting workout gear doesn't help you get more fit. Many of the fancy diet and supplement routines probably don't work. But it communicates that you care about becoming fit. And this makes it easier to do what does matter.


Backtracing, also called backwards induction, is a way of coming up with plans.

It's simple: start with the end state. And then work backwards. For some reason, we're inclined to plan forwards. Or we think through the three most plausible ways of achieving a goal and then pick one. But you need a theory of change. The most complete picture of how to get from B to A.

Start with the end, then work backwards.

Note that these are heuristics, sometimes they're appropriate, other times they're not.

Many are related. Success spirals work by self signaling competence and motivation. Backtracing and directness are applications the mundanity of everything.

<![CDATA[ Notes on Productivity ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/notes-on-productivity/ 5efcad7289890977f5aa73cd Thu, 02 Jul 2020 05:43:00 -0700 Here are a number of things I've learned about productivity over the last few years, in no particular order.

  • Structure helps, especially if you're working on your own. Schedule time to work in your calendar. This is a useful commitment device.
  • Find a todo system that works. It should be easy to add elements. Small notebooks are helpful for many people. I've used Todoist for the past year. You want to be in a position where there's always something to work on next.
  • Lynette Bye introduced me to work cycles. The general idea is: break up your day into work sessions. Before each session, deliberate on what you'd like to do and how you'll start and at the end of each session, reflect on how the session went. Ultraworking has their own set of prompts, I've iterated on my own. I break up work sessions into 50 minute increments. Before the session I'll set a purpose. After the session, I'll reflect on what went well, what could have been better, and what I learned.
  • Reflecting should be built into your schedule. It's useful for catching what's going well, what could be better, what you're learning, and whether you're working on the right things. The amount of time you spend reflecting should be proportional to the amount of time you're working on. Spend more time reflecting on larger chunks of time.
  • 2 minute rule: if something will take you 2 minutes do it right away. Sometimes you should be focusing. In those cases, it's important to not make yourself available for 2 minute requests from others or from yourself. Make yourself hard to contact, don't let yourself generate tasks on your own from the internet. If you think of a task, write it down for later. This is the most useful upshot from the getting things done system for me (GTD can be useful for manager schedules, but is unnecessarily heavy for other schedules).
  • Treat work spaces as holy spaces. Beds are for sleeping and sex, desks are for work. However, occasionally it can be useful to switch contexts. Working in the same place can be boring. We're tied to environmental contexts as humans. I've found it useful to program in one place and write in another.
  • The MEVID equation is the most useful things I've read about. motivation = expectancy * value / impulsiveness * delay. Expectancy goes up when your belief that you'll succeed goes up. Think of it as optimism. Value goes up when the task becomes more rewarding. Impulsiveness means exactly what it sounds like. Delay refers to how long one waits before receiving the feedback. We like to work on things that we're optimistic that will succeed and rewarding right now. We procrastinate when tasks become unpleasant, unsuccessful, rewards become distance, and there are shiny alternatives. Each variable in the equation is a lever you can pull to become more motivated. The next few points follow from this simple model.
  • If you're having difficulty doing something, raise the stakes of failure. You can do this with tools like Beeminder. You can also also do this with accountability buddies or tools like Focusmate. If you want to do something, but won't pay $1000 if you fail, do you really want to do it?
  • Productivity is autocatlytic. If you succeed at one task, you'll increase expectancy and be more likely to succeed at the next. Take advantage of success spirals. To do this, your goals need to be realistic.
  • Setting goals and doing them is a matter of self-trust. Don't eat into self-trust. In the past, I've found that it's easy to eat into self-trust by having too many projects at once.
  • Streaks are great.
  • Deep work works. Limit impulsiveness by turning off the internet, hiding your phone, and focusing for a few hours. Start by deciding to do this for short increments of time, then increase it.
  • Wearing earplugs can help focus. Even when things aren't noisy.
  • Habits are automatic behaviors that become a part of your identity. Being the kind of person who checks things off of their todo list can be apart of your identity. Become this kind of person by surrounding yourself with people who value this, consuming content that values this, and doing it.
  • Being process oriented matters a lot. You want to be able to measure the quantity and quality of your work. Work cycles help with this.
  • How much time should you spend working? It depends on the field. Anecdotally, I've noticed that the most successful researchers work more than the typical researcher, but not that much more. Diminishing marginal returns potentially kick in faster for research. If you're in business and you want to succeed at the highest levels, you should work a lot. People at the top of the income distribution work the most. Despite this, if you want to work more, I wouldn't push that much on the abstract goal of "working more." In general, I think the meme of glorifying people working a lot is good, but it can be easy to do fake work in order to satisfy that goal. There's more leverage by working better and ensuring that you're working on the right thing. People who work a lot do it because they like it or are neurotic, not because they feel like they should. I've noticed that I can increase my stamina, but I need to do this by increasing how many minutes I work a day, not hours.
  • Working on the wrong things and becoming socially isolated are real problems, more concerning than the nebulous problem of burnout.
  • One way to ensure that you're working on the right things is to derisk. Look for breaking potential projects as fast as possible.
  • Be direct. If you want to achieve a goal, work on that goal not side goals. If your goal is to speak a language fluently, put yourself in situations where you get as close to the result as possible: move, change the language on your laptop, force yourself to use the language at home. You can learn a language from apps and courses, but because they're removed from the goal, it will take longer.
  • Default to moving quickly. This is likely one of the largest mistakes I made earlier on. I have a tendency to think through things slowly and overemphasizing accuracy. Life is short. Feedback is valuable. If you have a strong error correction system, making more inaccurate decisions can be better than making fewer accurate ones.
  • If something isn't working even though you've tried to fix it, drop it. Accountability buddies are like this for me. Don't just do something because it should work.
  • Relatedly, focus on shipping and publishing. The risk of this approach is that you may be limited by success. This happens with content creators who are captured by markets that don't let the creator create something really great. In general, it seems to me that people who are working without sharing their work face the higher risk of spinning their wheels.
  • The most successful people have an inversion of attitudes: what others see as unpleasant they see as fun. Successful athletes like getting up at 4am. I think of this as the edge of discomfort. If other's don't do X because it makes them uncomfortable, you can do good by learning to like X. Working more is an example of this.
  • Use version control whenever possible.
  • If you set a goal or new habit, ensure that you can measure success. This is obvious, but we often get it wrong. Keep goals challenging, specific and immediate.
  • If you're putting something off, set a timer for finishing it and do it then.
<![CDATA[ Questions to Ask People ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/questions-to-ask-people/ 5ef4c62e89890977f5aa73b5 Thu, 25 Jun 2020 08:46:52 -0700 Here are a list of questions that serve as useful prompts in random conversations. Usually, it's better not to ask these questions verbatim, but conversations can go well when questions that have this shape are asked:

  • What's one story from your life that people need to hear in order to know who you are?
  • What beliefs do you have that your peers think are absurd?
  • Which personality trait do you think would it would be better to have more of on the margin?
  • What's a common delusion that you wish was more prevalent?
  • Do you think the world is getting better over time overall? Do you believe in progress?
  • Do you think you are getting better?
  • What do you think is true that everyone else also thinks is true?
  • What's a silly thing you did in the past that you are most proud of?
  • What do people misunderstand about you when they first meet you? What do your best friends know about you that your acquaintances don't?
  • What's something that people misunderstand about X?
  • What is on your friends' minds right now?
  • What's something that you love doing that you're bad at? What's something that you're good at, but you love doing?
  • What belief do you have that is closest to a conspiracy theory?
  • What's something that nobody will tell me that I should know?
  • How do you get stuff done?
  • What would your younger self think about your older self?
  • What do you wish more people knew about you?
  • What kind of environment do you thrive in? Why?
  • What kind of prestige do you care about?
  • What were some of the choices that your great-grandparents had to make that contributed to your family's story?
  • If they're from somewhere else, what makes the culture at X better or worse than the culture here. What parts of it, if any, do you miss?

I took some of these questions from here and other places I don't recall.

If I should add a question to this list, let me know.

Thanks to Ivie Crawford, Ashe Kabash, and Thomas Hollands for suggestions.

<![CDATA[ What I've Been Reading 6/21 ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/what-ive-been-reading-6-21/ 5ef0c35589890977f5aa7385 Mon, 22 Jun 2020 07:47:54 -0700 An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson.

This book is excellent, if not for its content for its clarity. It's a model of how good writing in software organizations.

Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning by Timothy Williamson

Essentially a popularization of Williamson's Philosophy of Philosophy. Highlights are his view of philosophy as model building, the distinction between appearance and judgement, and his tempered defense of competition in philosophy.

On competition in philosophy:

To say that a philosophical culture of interpersonal argumentation encourages competition instead of cooperation is like saying that a chess club encourages competition instead of cooperation. There’s some truth in it, but it’s a facile contrast.

His view of philosophy:

Philosophy is a science in its own right, interconnected with the others and as autonomous as they are. It is also under constant pressure to be something else: lifestyle advice or political polemic, moralizing sermon or grammar lesson, godless religion or unreadable literature, pop physics or pop biology, pop psychology or pop neuroscience, calculation or opinion poll.

Stoicism and Emotion by Margaret Graver

I'm mentioned this last week. This is one of the best takes on the Stoic view of emotion. Graver usefully distinguishes from emotion:

The distinction between emotions and feelings therefore serves to open up an interpretive space around a central dictum of Stoic ethics. If the psychic sensations we experience ence in emotion are not simply identical with the pathe, then the norm of apatheia does not have to be cashed out as an injunction against every human feeling. One might be impassive in the Stoic sense and still remain subject to other categories of affective experience.

This is an important distinction that deserves more airtime.

<![CDATA[ Against Obsession, in Defense of Obsession ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/safe-and-risky-goods/ 5eec157289890977f5aa7366 Thu, 18 Jun 2020 18:35:59 -0700 The idea that there's more to life than an obsession is a hedge. You're hedging against the risk that you're not pursuing anything valuable and failure.

There are many people whose obsessions are useless at best, pernicious at worse. You don't want to look back on your life and realized that you were one of them.

Yet many people who we admire have a single-minded focus. When you're thinking about planning a life there's a question, would it be better if I discovered the single thing I cared most about and pursued it like nothing else matters?

The fictional personification of this is Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. He cares about architecture in a way that's nearly inhumane. His craft is spiritual. He lives a spartan, solitary life in pursuit of the building something grand. Destroying buildings if they don't meet his standards. We admire his conviction and grandness.

I don't think this life is for most of us. But when one's planning out the shape of a life, it's useful to ask, why not? After all, if you've found what's most worth pursuing, why not be devoted to it?

We live pursuing a broad range of values: social, artistic, hedonic, familial, intellectual, and so on. The obsessed person narrows that range to a specific value and they invest in it as if it were the only thing to invest in. They would work on it, even if there was no one else on the planet. Because they focus on a single value, their lives are lopsided.

The singleminded obsessive risks neglecting essential ingredients of life that make it worthwhile. What are these ingredients? The majority of the answer is mundane and familiar. Having friends, family, health, autonomy. There are a few near universal human goods that make up a good life. Religious traditions to psychologists will include a standard list.

Yet if there's anything we can learn the obsessives, it's that there are real tradeoffs. All of us face decisions between career, family, friends, and our own pursuits. It's better to reflect and decide, then have them be chosen for us.

So how does obsession fit into the shape of a life? The primary thing going for it is that our world rewards single minded focus. This is also its largest cost.

The biggest rewards in mass societies go to those who pursue grand goals single-mindedly. This usually requires an unbalanced life. In many fields, the price of trying to get into the big leagues is neglect of self, health, partner, children, and friends.

Ronald Nesse

Most of us aren't Howard Roark. But on the margin, many of us could move in that direction. You're already set up for a meaningful life with the basic material and social fabric. You'll need to work at it and be deliberate about friendships, but I'm optimistic that most people in the world can achieve this. Add to this life an obsession, something radical, something over the top. Put serious investment into denting a corner of the world for good. Be ambitious.

Nassim Taleb popularized the idea of barbell strategies. A barbell has two weights on the side. What you want to be doing is a lot of the ordinary and some of the very risky and uncertain. Nothing in between. For investing, hold low return, safe assets and risky assets. For exercise, walk and deadlift. I don't know if that's how one should be exercising, but perhaps it's how one should be living. On one side, invest in what we know is valuable. On the other side, take serious risks. Don't make decisions that will risk ruining either side.

Howard Roark ends up with social recognition and the girl in the end. This is revealing. It isn't just the obsessive side of his life that we find admirable.

<![CDATA[ What I've Been Reading 6/14 ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/links-6-14/ 5ee6427e89890977f5aa7319 Sun, 14 Jun 2020 08:44:28 -0700 Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters by Jay Garfield.

In general, comparative philosophy is better when it shows why the ideas are interesting instead of comparing them to modern philosophers. This book does a bit of both. The distinction between conventional and ultimate reality remains elusive. Garfield persuasively argues that Buddhists shouldn't be thought of as consequentialists.

Ethical engagement, on this Buddhist view, has its foundation in perceptual engagement, and perceptual engagement on this view is far from passive, far from fixed. The project of leading a life that is a solution to, rather than a reinforcement of, the problem of universal suffering is at least in large part the project of reordering our perceptual engagement with the world.

Good Reasons for Bad Feelings by Ronald Nesse.

An introduction to evolutionary psychiatry, which is really evolutionary psychology but for mood disorders. Nesse does a good job accounting for why we may have negative emotions like anxiety and depression. He also highlights how often situational factors are responsible for mood disorders. A psychiatrist may feel like there's not much they can do for a single wheel chair bound unemployed woman in her late 40s. I'd be interested in work that gets more concrete on when specific emotions are useful and when they aren't.

I vividly recall a professional motorcycle racer who asked for my help. The night before a big race, he would vomit everything he ate, and he couldn’t sleep. This began shortly after a friend had been killed in a race. Each year, he said, two or three other riders on the circuit were killed or severely injured. He had been in several wrecks but had no permanent damage so far. He denied feeling fear but reported that in addition to vomiting the day before each race, his heart rate went up, he sweated, he felt short of breath, and his muscles tightened up. He wanted a drug that would stop his symptoms. As a pro with many advertising endorsements, his income depended on it. When I told him I thought his anxiety was protecting him, he listened politely. When I told him it would be dangerous for him to take a drug to reduce his anxiety, he got angry and left. I don’t know if he is still alive.

Optimism and Pessimism by Cyan Bannister.

I really liked this piece on optimism. She's writing a book. If you read any chapter, it should be this one.

When life is difficult, it is often challenging to be optimistic. However, I believe optimism is the key to escaping most hardships. Often, people turn to pessimism as a form of protection and it becomes an engrained habit. It is far easier to believe a narrative that is negative than one in which you can picture yourself or the world around you with boundless positivity.

Stoicism and Emotion by Margaret Graver.

This book is on exactly what you'd expect. Did you know that Chrysippus thought that the decision making faculty was located in the heart?

The localization of the directive faculty in the chest was a natural choice in view of the Greeks' limited understanding of human physiology. Chrysippus's notion of signals carried by tentacle-like extensions of the sensitive material is grounded in observations of the characteristics of people and animals, not in any particular study of anatomy; still, to the extent that he was interested in anatomical details, he could look to what was known of the vascular system, with its easily visible network of branching pathways leading outward from the heart to the extremities.

I've also been poking through several short stories in Invisible Planets.

<![CDATA[ Meaning, Morality, and Obsession ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/meaning-morality-and-obsession/ 5ee24e1989890977f5aa72ce Thu, 11 Jun 2020 08:40:49 -0700 You can do a lot of good in the world.

In fact, it's difficult to justify why you don't spend most of your time doing good. It's cheap to save lives. GiveWell puts the number at ~$3500. You could forgo many expensive purchases and instead save lives. Better than merely giving money, change your life plan and directly work on whatever you think is best. Depending on who you are, that may be better. However, you do it, if you became obsessed about improving the world you could. And the costs to yourself would be minuscule in comparison with the benefits to the world.

But most of us don't invest that much in doing good. We don't seek sainthood.

Susan Wolf argues that morality and meaning aren't the same. In fact, pursuing sainthood would risk making a life worse, not better. Being moral is only one good in a life, there's more to living a good life. By "meaning" here we're talking about how good a life is, the value of a life. There's fine wine, friendship, and the aesthetic. By living as a saint, you're sacrificing other virtues and goods:

If the moral saint is devoting all his time to feeding the hungry or healing the sick or raising money for Oxfam, then necessarily he is not reading Victorian novels, playing the oboe, or improving his backhand. Although no one of the interests or tastes in the category containing these latter activities could be claimed to be a necessary element in a life well lived, a life in which none of these possible aspects of character are developed may seem to be a life strangely barren.

Yet people who we consider supremely moral whether Ghandi, Jesus, or MLK seem to live lives full of meaning. Perhaps they aren't moral saints. all three were human. Nonetheless, the candidates have in common personal sacrifice and a narrow focus on living well.

Wolf's case extends not just to saints, but to obsessives of all varieties. Lyndon B Johnson with power, Steve Jobs' with iPhones, and Derek Parfit with moral philosophy. Such people live lopsided lives, sacrificing the value of friendships, being a present parent, and hobbies to their aspirations.

Wolf herself pushes back against this characterization. This is because the pursuit of being as good as possible is a higher-order desire, one that subsumes ordinary desires:

The normal person's direct and specific desires for objects, activities, and events that conflict with the attainment of moral perfection are not simply sacrificed but removed, suppressed, or subsumed. The way in which morality, unlike other possible goals, is apt to dominate is particularly disturbing, for it seems to require either the lack or the denial of the existence of an identifiable, personal self.

What is disturbing about the moral saint is that all of desire: whether for food, relationships, physical exercise are made to service the moral saints goal of doing good. This feature isn't unique to moral desires however. My sense of most obsessives is that they're quite familiar with modulating less important desires. Exercise becomes good because it helps one make better decisions. Relationships are good insofar as they're useful for other larger, goals.

So, I think it's best to understand Wolf's view as not just against sainthood but against obsession. Whether the obsession concerns morality or not doesn't initially matter.

Of course, there are people who become obsessed in dead ends and fail to succeed. Perhaps such lives are less meaningful. Moreover, corporate and political pursuits are not meaningful unless the end is ultimately valuable. The satiated power hungry politician may have succeeded in holding an office. But life isn't about offices. Yet, so long as you're pursuing a worthy goal, the life of the obsessed seems more meaningful than the typical person. They're revered in a way others were not. Even if it's true that many would not want to live like them.

The idea that there's more to life than obsession is a hedge. You're hedging against the risk that you're not pursuing anything valuable. You don't want to be the successful and lonely tycoon asking what was this all for. If you're obsessed you're moving all of your chips into a particular value. If you're wrong, you'll go bust and your life risks not being good at all. You're also hedging against the risk of failure. When I think of people who are saints it's obvious that they live moral and meaningful lives. Vastly more meaningful than the typical person. But the risk of failure is scary. Obsession does come at the cost of other values. When we think of saints, the one's who failed don't come to mind. But even here, I'm sympathetic to the Stoic view: if they were virtuous and acted as best as they could given what then knew, then that seems exceptionally meaningful.

Most will be happier to hedge than seriously risk the value of their life. But when they get it right, we're grateful to those who risked a lot.

<![CDATA[ What I've Been Reading 6/7 ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/links-6-7/ 5edc658f89890977f5aa725e Sun, 07 Jun 2020 06:14:00 -0700 Undoing the Truth Fetish

Shamik Dasgupta argues that there's not reason to be especially excited about the truth. This paper verges on the sort of thing Aristo complained about when he said:

Those who dwell on dialectics resemble those who chew on crabs; so many bones for just a bit of juice!

This is after all, a paper on meta-meta-semantics. But there is at least one interesting insight here that may matter. It has to do with schema-flexibility, there are ways of conceptualizing meaning that are difficult to account for. For example, when I use the + operator do I mean addition or quaddition? Quaddition follows the rules of addition if the numbers are less than 50, but otherwise maps every result to 5. If you only see me perform arithmetic on numbers less than 5, what determines what I mean? For every property that can account for me meaning addition, there are properties that one can posit that would make me mean quaddition. For example, if it seems "natural" for me to mean addition, there's the property of "quaturalness." This is a kind of move that I'm sympathetic to, for example, in debates over persistence and it would be interesting if it works for supporting pragmatism writ large.

Free Cash Flows

Great thread by Ced on capital allocation and leverage one can get from free cash flows:

My sense is that plays like this are underrated by many silicon valley types. And, that the ease in actually pulling it off is underrated by others.

Tyler Cowen on American Outrage

Relevant quote:

To put recent events in perspective, the number of Americans (of all races) killed by police peaked at 1,143 in 2018. On one day last week, May 30, nearly as many Americans — 1,010 — died of Covid-19.

Korean Cover for Lessons in Stoicism

John Sellars' Lessons in Stoicism is a fine introduction to the philosophy.

There will be a Korean translation. Here's the cover:

Roam Research

I've been using Roam Research to take notes, write, and organize my work cycles. I'll write up my flow. It's the best tool of its kind. Recommended, once the waitlist is lifted.

<![CDATA[ Virtue Signaling is Underrated ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/virtue-signaling-is-underrated/ 5ed91d9889890977f5aa7205 Thu, 04 Jun 2020 09:21:36 -0700 Not only have I never considered myself overburdened with virtues worth signalling, but if I were I would generally prefer to keep them quiet.

Robert Shrimsley

Virtue signalers grandstand, essentially saying: look at me, I'm moral. They do this without actually making a difference. They're more concerned with looking moral than being moral. It's the practice of publicly expressing moral or political beliefs in order to show one's good character.

A lot of people think that virtue signaling, at least the cheap kind, is bad. Here's one of the best examples from a few weeks ago from Geoffrey Miller:

There are annoying individuals who don't care about racial equality or climate change at all, but are quick to take sanctimonious positions for the sake of self-interest. But on the whole, I think the norm of people cheaply communicating that they care about something is be good. We shouldn't expect that people know what methane clathrate is in order to advocate for climate change.

People do virtue signal. Recent examples of this are:

  • Donations: I just donated Y. Please join me.
  • Wearing masks during the COVID pandemic: I care about your safety, which is why I'm wearing a mask.
  • Changing one's social media profile picture to a mask, blackout, etc.

Many people don't have strong views about whether their donations are effective. And they're just wearing masks because the CDC changed their mind and now said that it's something that people should do.

If Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler are right, then most behavior concerning morality is going to amount to signaling. The general form of an argument for this kind of view is stated by Michael Huemer:

Very few people care very much about social justice, the good of society, and the like. Nearly everyone cares about these things a little bit, and a few people care about them a great deal. But most of those who think of themselves as deeply moved by high ideals are not in fact so moved.

...I suggest that these individuals are chiefly moved, not by a desire for some noble ideal, but by a desire to perceive themselves as working for the noble ideal–not, for example, by a desire for justice, but by a desire to see themselves as promoting justice.... If people are seeking high ideals such as justice or the good of society, then they will work hard at figuring out what in fact promotes those ideals and will seek out information to correct any errors in their assumptions about what promotes their ideals, since mistaken beliefs on this score could lead to all of their efforts being wasted...

But people don't do this. If people really cared a lot about doing good via charity then they'd do more when it came to validating which charities were good. If people really a lot about giving people solid healthcare, they'd research which hospitals were better and which treatments work. If they cared about improving the world through politics, then they'd know econ 101. They don't. This means that we end up with ineffective charities, second-rate hospitals, and even worse politics.

This argument ends up giving teeth to Miller's hyperbolic take:

Excited, but off base.

Two things make virtue signaling good:

  • It communicates social norms.
  • It encourages others to virtue signal.

You can see how signaling communicates social norms norms in the most recent black lives matter social media activism. From posts to profile picture changes, people communicated their political and moral views -- views they expected others to uphold. Sure, there's a sense in which these things don't do as much as you'd like if you're in favor of black lives matter.

But importantly, they communicate what people value. And these actions aren't without cost. People lose friends and followers, friends are a source of meaning and followers are currency (well, perhaps few people lose friends). Moreover, by communicating what they value, they're opening themselves up to critique. We see this in the silicon valley case, if you support black lives matter how come none of your portfolio companies have black founders?

Cheap displays are worth about as much as they cost. If they're too cheap, people will tend to get called out. But even cheap displays of virtue communicate norms.

Virtue signaling motivates action. If it ripples across a community, it can cause a lot of good to be done. More money is given, more masks are worn, and more political pressure is applied. I've seen a lot of people publicly offer their time to those who are struggling during the quarantine. Maybe they do this in public to get praise, but they also do it so that people will reach out to them. At first a handful of people did this and then it caught on and many more did.

My general sense is that this kind of behavior is underrated. On the margin, it would be better to have more of it, not less.

<![CDATA[ On Disproving Your Own Ideas ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-disproving-your-own-ideas/ 5ecf33be89890977f5aa71cf Thu, 28 May 2020 07:57:00 -0700 Disproving your own ideas is one of the most valuable things you can do.

If you don't do this you'll lack clarity, take on too much risk, and spin your wheels on the wrong projects.

If you want to think clearly, reduce risk, and work on the right things, you'll need to derisk your work. That will mean proving yourself wrong over and over again.

Suppose you're going through a todolist for a critical project. Whether it's writing, marketing, or building a company, there's an omnipresent question: what do I do first?

One rule you can adopt is do the hardest things first. The problem with this is that the hardest thing is not always the best thing to work on. Plus, there's the risk that you'll put hours into working on a hard problem -- with nothing to show for it a week later.

Another strategy take on the easiest tasks first. This way you'll be sure to get things done. This strategy builds momentum as you create success spirals. However, the easiest things aren't necessarily the best things to work on. Plus, many worthwhile projects just aren't that easy. By focusing on what's easy you may miss neglected opportunities.

Yet another strategy is do the most important things first. But how do you determine whether some task is more important than one another?

Think about this is in terms of derisking your projects, and then executing. If you derisk something, you'll have high confidence that it will work. Suppose you're working on building a company whose core offering is relaxing audio poetry. Here's an important question that you'll want to look into upfront: will people pay to listen to poetry? Is poetry like meditations (that people will pay for) or would people prefer to read poetry? Another question: will people pay for this offering instead of paying for a poetry book over audio? A common failure of first time entrepreneurs is to build an elaborate app. And then find out that, once it's built, no one will actually pay for it. Derisk!

Another example, when I was teaching philosophy, occasionally students would write entire papers on a topic before checking in with me about whether the thesis was  relevant and whether they understood the material. Before writing a paper, you'll want to ensure that you understand the research you are building on.

Whatever the cause, whether the task is too hard, the approach is wrong, or your thought is unclear, you don't want to work on what will fail. And if something is going to fail, you want to find out fast. Jacob Steinhardt formalizes this as a stochastic decision process. The key idea:

De-risk all components (to the extent feasible), then execute.

What does this have to do with disproving your own ideas?

Whether you're thinking about what to work on, constructing plans, or searching for intellectual insight, apply the framework of derisk and execute. In order to derisk well, you need to be good at disproving your own ideas.

Sometimes this looks like building an MVP or talking to potential customers. Sometimes it looks like setting a timer and writing all the reasons your thesis could be wrong. Sometimes it looks like the Stoic practice praemeditatio malorum: imagining all they ways your plan could go awry and realizing that you aren't prepared.

Evolution works by mutation, reproduction, and selection. By analogy, you need to select for the best ideas in your intellectual environment. To do that, ensure that the weak ideas don't survive. Disprove them. You can extend this analogy to idea generation, but let's save that for later.

That's the argument, here are three ways you can be better at disproving your own ideas.

First, be familiar with common techniques for disproving your ideas. If you're doing something where you can build a MVP, do that. Build the cheapest easiest version of the result and do that first. Sometimes this doesn't require building anything. If you're doing research, find a counter-example to your thesis. Refine it or move on. Try breaking down whatever you're working on to smaller pieces.

Second, become better at representing other points of view. In computer science there's this idea called the Turing Test. It's a test, originally constructed as a conversation,  that an AI needs to pass by being indistinguishable from a human. An AI would pass a Turing Test if you couldn't tell whether you're talking to a computer or a human for example. Can you pass Idealogical Turing tests for opposing points of view? If not, that's a risk.

Third, create an environment where your ideas will be disproving. Consume different sources of information. More importantly, put yourself in the situation where people around you will tell you when you're wrong. Publish your thoughts. Share them with your friends. Chose friends who will tell you when you're wrong. Thank them when they do.

When something fails, you want to know why. Knowing why is crucial. You can't lose, Recalling Epictetus' maxim:

If you seek Truth, you will not seek to gain a victory by every possible means; and when you have found Truth, you need not fear being defeated.

After you've completed derisking, move on to execution. Some communities and people spend too much time arguing that such and such is false or won't work. At some point, you need to stop thinking and start doing. If you're thinking well and have clear goals, the value of action will outweigh the value of seeking new information.

<![CDATA[ Against the Ontological Relevance of Meditation ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/against-the-ontological-relevance-of-meditation/ 5ec6ac2b89890977f5aa71ad Thu, 21 May 2020 09:31:25 -0700 You can’t learn about deep truths about the world from mindfulness meditation.

More precisely, you can’t come to learn any propositional knowledge about the world. This isn’t to say that mindfulness meditation isn’t valuable, it is. It’s a tool for increasing focus and discipline. And a way to practice reducing cognitive fusion.

Yet several claim that you can learn deep truths about the world from meditation. The fancy way to put this is that meditation is ontologically relevant.

We have a sense of being a subject located somewhere behind our heads, occupying the center of consciousness. We have bodies, but are not identical to them. Likewise, we have experiences, but are not identical to those experiences. This subject persists through time, has thoughts, and makes decisions.

Modern Buddhists, and those influenced by Buddhism, suggest that this sense of self is an illusion. On this view, there is no subject that:

  • Persists through time
  • Has a body and experiences
  • Has thoughts and makes decisions

Robert Wright calls this self, the CEO self in Why Buddhism Is True:

Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life as it’s ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show.

Leaving aside the issue about whether this is true, I’m skeptical that you can learn this from meditation alone.

Here’s what you’re doing when you sit down to meditate:

  • Focusing on a single type of raw sensations like the breath or tingling in the body
  • Receiving all types of sensations

This dichotomy corresponds to training attention, the ability to focus on a specific thing, and training awareness, being conscious in general. To get a better handle on this distinction consider the visual field: there’s a point where you focus, this is attention, and there’s the entire visual field, including your peripheral vision, this is awareness. Think of attention as the focal point of the mental field, awareness as everything that falls within the mental field. Both practices can be combined as you train both.

As an aside, people often talk about flow as if it were one state. Flow is the wonderful feeling of ‘being in the zone.’ Really, there are two states here, there’s a focused flow, when you’ve zoomed into a single task, ignoring everything else. You’re completely absorbed in the activity. But then there’s also panoramic flow, in this state you’re in the zone, but the zone is much larger. Both of these states have their uses and risks. One can move into both states while meditating.

When you’re training your attention and awareness, you’re doing so in a nonconceptual way. Discursive thought, verbal chatter, these are at first distractions. One notes them and returns to the meditation object. Later thought becomes a meditation object itself.

This nonconceptual nature is easier to understand in the visual case. Suppose you’re meditating on what is front of you. You take in your visual field, not as a space full of chairs, tables, a water bottle, windows or whatever else you happen to be looking at, but as a constellation of light and shadow. While meditating, space is not carved up things that occupy reality. Rather you’re paying attention to raw sensation, raw visual data. Concepts like ‘chair’, ‘table’, ‘window’, and such fall away.

If concepts like chair and table fall away, it’s easy to see that selves fall away as well. If there aren’t chairs, then there likely aren’t people. But how could one come to know that there are no chairs through meditation?

Meditation does show that our notion of things depends on having concepts. But this doesn’t show that there are no such things. An infant doesn’t have concepts like a table, but this is because it’s stupid not because its closer to reality.

A more suggestive way that meditation can come to show that you have no self, is that we learn that our sense of being a self is merely a sensation. This self feels like something that has thoughts. But, through training attention, we notice that our sense of self can’t have thoughts. It is in the mental field, it cannot contain it. But this argument confuses the sense of self, with the self. These are distinct. Suppose that what I am is a human organism. Animals can have thoughts and host a mental field! This argument makes a similar mistake to indirect realists, confusing how we experience something with the thing itself.

So much for two arguments for the ontological relevance of meditation.

Ultimately, we cannot learn about the world from meditation because of cognitive penetration. The idea is that our experience is shaped by our beliefs and desires. The philosopher Evan Thompson describes going to a retreat, in Why I Am Not A Buddhist:

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the retreat that what was happening didn’t match the rhetoric of “learning to see things as they are.” We were given a system of concepts to apply to our experience as we practiced meditation. Some of the concepts were seemingly everyday ones like “sensation,” “feeling,” “attention,” and “intention,” but they were tied to Buddhist concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “impermanence,” “mindfulness,” “not-self,” and “karma.”

Though the meditation practice was ostensibly nonconceptual, it happened in an ecosystem that was already populated by concepts. This shaped the experience of the “nonconceptual” practice.

Consider the variety of things people say you can come to learn through meditation. Though the traditional Buddhist view is the no-self one, there are others who say that you may come to extend the self through meditation. You could come to learn that everything is in the mind, but you could also come to learn that there is no mind and everything is out in the world. What you learn is contingent on how meditation is framed and the environment one meditates in.

In this way, meditative experiences are similar to religious experiences. What the experience is depends on how it is conceptualized. A Christian experiences the love of God, a Buddhist Nirvana, an atheist nature.

This isn’t to deny that meditation is valuable. However, you should invest in how you and the people around frame it. What meditation is useful for, is for training particular skills and generating experiential, perspectival knowledge. It’s one thing to know something abstractly, another thing to experience it.

But it’s not ontologically relevant.

<![CDATA[ You See the Territory or Nothing at All ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/you-see-the-territory-or-nothing-at-all/ 5ebb78c289890977f5aa7126 Thu, 14 May 2020 06:00:00 -0700 This post is about the philosophy of perception, what makes a philosophical debate substantive, and cognitive qualia.

Consider two views about the nature of perception and the world: on indirect realism we perceive a veil, we only indirectly get at the world through this veil. On direct realism, we perceive the world. The veil is lifted and we are in direct contact with the world.

On indirect realism what we perceive are mental objects like sense data. This is the veil that stands between us and the world. We must infer the existence of the world.

You can visualize the two views in the following ways:

indirect: perceiver => sense data => world
direct: perceiver => world

indirect: perceiver => map => territory
direct: perceiver => territory

indirect: perceiver => veil => world
direct: perceiver => world

Indirect realism gets its intuitive appeal from the idea of hallucination. If I have the experience of a red elephant in my room then I am perceiving my visual field, not a red elephant in the room. The object of my perception is the appearance of a red elephant, nothing more. We can visualize this as:

perceiver => experience of a red elephant => 

The last arrow points to nothing because there is no red elephant in the world. Here’s how the direct realist would visualize this case:

perceiver => 

The direct realist says that you don’t perceive anything when you hallucinate. You either see the territory or nothing at all.

Despite the intuitive appeal of indirect perception, the direct view is better. Using our visualization, you can get at this by stepping back and considering the question that a theory of perception should answer: what is the object of one’s perception? In the case where perception is accurate, the answer is the world. But for the indirect realist, the object of perception is a mental object, like sense data.

But how is the object of perception perceived? What is it perceived through?

On direct realism the object of perception is perceived through mental states, which we can call experience. Returning to the visualization, the `=>` is experience.

perceiver => world = perceiver experiences the world

The indirect realist cannot say this. This is because the object of perception is a mental object. Which is to say, it is experience. On this, picture one only experiences experiences. You can visualize this as follows:

indirect: perceiver => experience => world = perceiver experiences experience

Of course, there’s a sense in which you can experience experiences. I can experience an AirBnB experience. But when we say that, experience means two different things. What the indirect realist is committed to is the idea that one perceives mental states through other mental states at the same moment. This isn’t right, there’s just experience. Not experiences of experience. The mistake that the indirect realist makes is that they confuse the object of perception with the vehicle of perception, what was is aware of with how one is aware. We’re aware through experience, not just aware of things in our head.

You might be wondering what is going on in this debate. Is it substantive? Sometimes we debate things that are substantive, like whether there is a God or not. On other occasions, it seems like we are playing verbal or conceptual games.

I think this is a case where we’re playing conceptual games.

Here are two tests for whether something is a conceptual debate or not.

First the taboo test. Try to carry on the debate in other terms. If you can’t do this, there’s a good chance you’re arguing over the meaning of words or a concept. Here’s how this would look like in the God debate:

Before taboo
atheist: there is no God
theist: there is a God

atheist: there is no supernatural triomni person
theist: there is a supernatural triomni person

There's clearly a substantive debate here. Whether or not there is a supernatural triomni person is not a linguistic matter.

How does it go in the perception debate?

Before taboo
direct: the object of perception is the world
realist: the object of perceptions are mental states 

direct: mental states are not the object of awareness
indirect: mental states are the the object of awareness

This, of course, pushes the debate from perception to awareness. This may game will be played a few rounds, but it’s not clear to me how to proceed once the words like perception, awareness, contents of experience, and acquaintance are tabooed. Which is one would expect if one is only arguing over the purview of a concept. Both parties agree that we have experiences that are candidates for perception. The direct realist doesn’t deny that we can have the experience of a red elephant suddenly appearing in our rooms. What they do deny is that there would be any perception going on in that case. But it's difficult to restate this debate without using perception or its synonyms.

A shorter way to determine whether a debate is purely conceptual is to ask whether it differentiates between different ways for the concrete world to be. Consider debates over the following propositions:

1. Pluto is a planet
2. If something is a planet, then it clears its planetary orbit

If two parties are disagreeing about whether Pluto is a planet, they are likely disagreeing over whether Pluto meets the requirements for being a planet, like whether it clears the neighborhood around its orbit. The concrete world would be one way if Pluto cleared its neighborhood, it would be another way if it didn’t.

If two parties disagreed over the second proposition, then they’d be debating the requirements for being a planet. This is a conceptual matter. The concrete world would not change if the proposition were true or not.

Now, move to the debate over the nature of perception. We have two propositions:

3. Charles perceives a red elephant
4. If someone perceives X, then X is a mental state

Does the first differentiate different ways for the concrete world to be? It depends. If what perception means is having a mental state that includes the appearance of a red elephant, then yes, it does. If the proposition were true, then Charles has a mental state that includes a red elephant. If it were false, then he has a different mental state. What it would be like to be Charles would be different in the two cases.

True: Charles has a mental state that includes the appearance of a red elephant.
False: Charles has a different mental state

Likewise, if what perception means is to accurately represent the world, then this to differentiates between different ways for the concrete world to be. In one case, there is a red elephant and in another case there isn’t. The concrete world is different in both cases:

True: there’s a red elephant
False: there’s no red elephant

The debate over the nature of perception isn’t about whether there are red elephants or not. Nor is it about whether one can have the mental state that would be characterized by the appearance of a red elephant.

Instead, it’s about whether perception has as its object the world or some mental state. Which is to say it’s about propositions like this:

If someone perceives X, then X is a mental state

Whether this proposition is true or not will make no difference to the concrete world. Which indicates that this debate is merely conceptual.

Cognitive Qualia

I used to think that debates over concepts didn’t matter. Of course, conceptual clarity is useful because it eases communication and carving up the world neatly makes it easier to handle.

But the debates don’t matter in the sense that you aren’t figuring out anything fundamental about the concrete world. Whether or not there are quarks, whether ants are sentient, or whether egalitarian societies are more productive -- these debates matter. They get at different ways for the world to be in a way that purely conceptual debates do not.

But there’s another way in which these debates matter, something that took me a few years to realize.

I was reminded of this by hearing Eric Weinstein say the following to Josh Wolfe:

The thing that I am talking to now is the projection of you inside of my head. That comes from the stimulation. I mean, I believe that I have eyes, I don't want to get completely Jiggy but just assume that reality is the standard picture of reality. I see you as being across the room for me, but that's not the thing that it's really happening, what’s really happening, if everything I know to be is correct, Is that the thing across the room for me is generated a model in my mind, which is the only thing I've ever interacted with.

This is wrong. Eric spoke to Josh Wolfe, not a model of Josh Wolfe.

But that’s not the main point here, the main idea is that what it’s like to be a direct realist can differ radically from what it’s like to be an indirect realist. In other words, there’s such a thing as cognitive qualia. Qualia refers to the subjective character of mental states. There’s something it’s like to be sad, overjoyed, feel pain, feel pleasure. Likewise, there’s something it’s like to believe that you can see the territory, something else to believe that you’re stuck to seeing the map.

Robin Hanson has called out how beliefs are basically just like clothes. They have a social and functional role:

Functionally, beliefs inform us when we choose our actions, given our preferences. But many of our beliefs are also social, in that others see and react to our beliefs. So beliefs can also allow us to identify with groups, to demonstrate our independence and creativity, and to signal our wealth, profession, and social status.

This picture is insightful, but incomplete. Beliefs have an experiential role as well.

<![CDATA[ On Being Angry Forever ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/on-being-angry-forever/ 5eb46dd489890977f5aa70de Thu, 07 May 2020 13:34:33 -0700 Why do we concern ourselves with conflict and plotting? That man you are angry with – can you wish for him anything worse than death? He is going to die without your doing a thing.

Seneca, On Anger

Agnes Callard has an argument for why you can be angry forever. I think it’s wrong, but it useful for thinking about the nature of emotions:

1. There are reasons to be angry
2. Reasons to be angry do not go away.
3. If reasons to be angry do not go away, then all things considered, you have reasons to remain angry forever.
4. Therefore, all things considered, you have reasons to be angry forever.

Callard calls this the argument from grudges:

Once you have a reason to be angry, you have a reason to be angry forever.

Many people accept (1). (2) is more surprising. Here’s Callard on the intuition:

The tendency to cling to anger through apologies and recompense, for years sometimes and to the detriment of all parties concerned, is routinely dismissed as irrational...

But this idea ignores the fact that there are reasons to remain angry. And the reasons are not hard to find: they are the same reasons as the reasons to get angry in the first place. Apologies, restitution, and all the rest do nothing to cancel or alter the fact that I stole, nor the fact that I ought not to have stolen.

In other words, reasons to be angry do not go away. If you’re angry at the fact that someone stole from you, the act that they stole does not go away.

Grudges are not that different from other emotions, like gratitude and grief. If you’re grateful that someone helped you in a time of need, then the fact that they helped you in a time of need is something you can be grateful about forever. If you experience grief at the death of a loved one, then you have a reason to grieve for all time.

This comparison highlights an asymmetry between positive and negative emotions. It’s reasonable to be grateful forever, but not to hold grudges or grieve forever.

This asymmetry seems fundamentally right to me.

Emotions are instrumentally useful. They shape our experiences, actions, and model of the world. When we have a reason to be angry, it’s not just because someone stole from us. It’s because being angry will help us stand up for our rights. In my view, by responding in a  particular way, your reasons are dominated by your past, what you’d like to do and who you want to be. Callard’s view assumes that the reasons to have some emotional response are merely determined by the facts we are reacting to. The problem with this view is that it's not clear what would determine what makes some emotions fit to a situation other than facts about us, our needs and past, and the situation.

This explains why anger fades overtime. Emotion fades as it becomes useful. There is no point at being angry at someone when doing so will make no difference. It also explains the asymmetry between positive and negative emotions. Prompting positive emotions by remembering reasons to be grateful or happy is often useful for crafting who we want to be and how we want to act.

Anger is only useful when it’s useful, and for most of us, that’s increasingly rare.

<![CDATA[ Endurable Startup Opportunities From Covid19 ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/endurable-startup-opportunities-from-covid19/ 5eab459889890977f5aa70b0 Thu, 30 Apr 2020 14:45:25 -0700 Covid19 has rapidly and seriously changed the American economy and culture. How endurable are these changes? If these changes are endurable, there will be many Covid19 related post-lockdown opportunities for startups. If not, perhaps we will reset the world in a year or so and startup opportunities will be the exact same as they were in 2019.

My sense is that we’ll see the acceleration of existing trends and a few serious opportunities, but that this can be overstated. If you’re looking for new ideas, don’t update too much on Covid19.

The lockdown has shaped many spheres of our life:

  • Social
    • More games with friends and family over the internet.
    • More group chats.
    • We interact with and may trust strangers a lot less.
    • Demand for better group events. What happened to concerts?
  • Entertainment
    • We have more time and we can’t spend as much of it outside. More Netflix and video games.
  • Wellness
    • We have more time and don’t want to spend all of it on entertainment. Exercise apps like Strava, Nike Run and meditation apps like Calm and Stoa are in.
    • There’s a lot of uncertainty and discomfort, I was told that psychics saw an exceptional boost when relief checks were delivered. I believe it.
  • Work
    • More remote work.
    • Demand for tools and processes that support remote work.
  • E-commerce
    • Medical supplies, food and beverages are in. Fashion and luxury goods are out.
    • Subscription and convenience services are up.
  • Supply chains
    • We’ve learned that many of our supply chains were fragile. Keeping supply chains in America is likely more expensive for both suppliers and consumers, but we’d be more robust as a nation.
  • Science
    • We’ve increased the status for work on pandemic preparedness.
  • State Augmentation
    • Startups and big companies are supplying the state with more masks and tracking programs. The sort of thing that authoritarian governments would have the state do, America has private companies do.

In the short term, there are many useful things to build and contribute to.

In the longer term, I expect that many of these spheres will return to their prior shape. However, there’s promising work to be done and products to built.

  • Social
    • In person interaction is still much better than chatting over Hangouts. We largely want to date, dance, and talk in person. Things don’t have to be this way, but I haven’t seen solutions to this yet.
  • Entertainment
    • Already dying industries like movie theaters have had their death accelerated.
  • Wellness
    • I expect that the small spike is just that and doesn’t indicate a trend. Remote wellness services are not that sticky. The dark secret behind many successful wellness services is that they’re making money off of people who are subscribed but don’t use their product. Nike Run cannot replace the social and motivational goods of CrossFit yet. There’s no evidence to believe that this will change.
  • Work
    • More and more tech companies and startups have already been experimenting with remote work. I expect that trend will continue, but I don’t know whether Covid19 will speed it up or slow it down. On one hand, companies are likely learning that they can continue to be just as productive while remote. On the other, this learning is correlated with unpleasant loneliness and isolation. This association is real and may not go away.
  • E-commerce
    • I’d bet on subscription and convenience services. I’m long Amazon and the ecosystem it requires.
  • Supply chains
    • I wouldn’t be surprised to see more protectionism and a push for bringing supply chains back to America. But a major one? Unlikely.
  • Science
    • There’s a lot of exciting and important work to do here. More and more people will be thinking about pandemic preparedness which is great.
  • State Augmentation
    • The exact shape of this is unclear, but this area is really promising for companies.

I expect that we’ll see an unbundling of services that are stretched across these domains. Right now Zoom is used for work, socializing, and entertainment. Services that specialize in socializing and services that specialize with different kinds of work is promising. One way this can go is that existing services bring video conferencing into their software. There’s space for entirely new products here. Facebook Messenger Rooms is a stab at this.

My sense of how things may go post-lockdown is not set in stone. I expect that I got at least one of the above wrong, someone will make something I won’t expect.

If there’s a cultural change that I hope persists, it’s that America raise the status of building and surviving.

<![CDATA[ How Philosophy Will Influence Technological Development ]]> https://www.calebontiveros.com/how-philosophy-will-influence-technological-development/ 5ea0de37d272c3730897ef3b Thu, 23 Apr 2020 06:03:00 -0700 What philosophical work should you do if you want to influence the rate of technological development?

This question is related to more fundamental questions. Like:

  • What sort of philosophical work should be done at all?
  • If you want to positively influence the world, what sort of philosophical work should you do?
  • What philosophical research program will most influence the trajectory of civilization?

I'm ultimately more interested in questions like the first two. But one way to make progress on them is to ask descriptive questions, leaving the normative aside. That's what I'll do here. Of course, there is obviously important work for philosophers to do other than influencing the rate of technological development. I see asking the question, “what philosophical work should you do if you want to influence the rate of technological development” as being useful for other goals. Influencing the rate of technological development isn’t all that by itself.

I’ll start by clarifying the question, given examples of influential philosophy, and then speculating on what kind of work is the most promising.

Let's clarify the question.

By influence I mean that there should be a causal connection between the philosophical work itself and a change in technology. The causal chains for technological development are complex and speculative, but in order for something to be influential we need to be reasonably confident that it played a non-trivial role in the chain. Note that it should be insights from the philosophical work itself, not other considerations that play the causal role.

By philosophy, I'm talking about the kind of philosophy that solves descriptive problems. I'm not talking about these kinds of philosophy:

  • Performative philosophy, where the point of philosophy is to ask questions or express some aesthetic.
  • Historical philosophy, with one caveat that I talk about below.
  • Moral and ethical philosophy.

A good first pass of what I mean by philosophy is expressed by Scott Soames:

Philosophy is the partner of every serious intellectual discipline. It appears when enough is known about a domain to make new progress conceivable, even though it remains unrealized because new methods are needed. Philosophers provide new concepts, new interpretations, and re-conceptualized questions that expand solution spaces.

Philosophy provides the conceptual foundations for theoretical knowledge. Examples below will make it clearer what I mean.

You can influence the rate of growth in two directions: faster or slower.

By technology I mean the kind of things that take us from 0 to 1. Artifacts and processes, from computers, vaccines, microscopes, bombs, and more. I'm not talking about "social technologies" or "cultural technologies", such as institutional designs or group decision procedures like companies and democracy.

By development I mean technological change. It need not be change for the better, though it would be better if it was!

Influential Philosophy

Some philosophical research programs have influenced the rate of technological development. How much influence they had is unclear, but I'm confident that some philosophical work has mattered. I'll give three examples: computation, probability, and predictive philosophy.


Many people were involved in the creation of modern computers. Babbage, Lovelace, Turing, Von Neumann and many more. The founding text of the architecture of modern computers is “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” written by Von Neumann and the EDVAC design team. However, it’s been asserted that Von Neumann "repeatedly emphasized that the fundamental conception was Turing's."

Alan Turing's Turing Machine is essentially a conceptual analysis of computation. What is computation? From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "A mathematical problem is computable if it can be solved in principle by a computing device." What Turing did is give us a useful abstraction for a computing device. In addition to being a philosophical success, this played a non-trivial role in the development of computers.

As an aside, how much of a role this kind of work played is unclear. It could be that it only sped up the development of computers by a few days. Von Neumann himself may not have been influenced by Turing’s work. Note however, that the intellectual waters that Turing, Von Neumann, and others breathed were made up of work from a rich philosophical tradition going back to Pascal, and including Frege, Godel and Hilbert. The cumulative results of this intellectual tradition likely sped up the development of computers by years, maybe even  centuries. It's not clear. For many inventions, like calculus, it seems like the inventors may have only sped up the development by a few years, likely less. Yet there are many artifacts that have taken a surprising amount of time to invent -- which suggests that invention and intellectual discovery are usually very hard and that humanity can go centuries without discovering something that will eventually be taught to preschoolers of future generations.

Coming back to computation, someone may push back on this work and suggest that it's not philosophy, but logic or computer science. This objection is semantic, but worth addressing. First, Turing’s work is captured by the earlier definition of philosophy. Turing did a conceptual analysis of computation. Conceptual analysis is at the bedrock of what philosophers are up to. Second, it’s pretty close to what a lot of philosophers who specialize in logic do. Of course, one can object that what they are up to isn’t philosophy either but at this point this objection becomes too semantic to me.


Our concept of probability has impacted several intellectual programs, influencing financial markets, to scientific models, to artificial intelligence. Many philosophers have done important work here. Here are two. Bayes’ Theorem from our friend Reverend Bayes. If you're reading this essay, you likely know what that is. If you don't, go here. It’s mattered for a number of fields, both in terms of establishing epistemic standards, and also proving useful for the work itself, as in artificial intelligence and neuroscience. Another example is work done Frank Ramsey. In the early 19th century Frank Ramsey applied probability to the question of what it takes for an agent's beliefs to be rational. His analysis has impacted how we've modeled agents in economics, psychology and computer science.

Where work on computation verges on the logical, philosophical work in probability verges on the mathematical.

Predictive Philosophy

Finally, one can impact the rate of technological development through predictive philosophy. Nick Bostrom's work, like Superintelligence, is a paragon of this. Way back in 1997 Bostrom wrote a paper called "Predictions from Philosophy? How philosophers could make themselves useful". In this paper, he argues that there's a role for a philosopher-polymath. That is, someone who can bring together work from a number of fields, like philosophy, economics, physics, psychology, math and more. In the essay, Bostrom highlights anthropics, the Fermi paradox, superintelligence, transhumanism, uploading, and cosmology as areas for potential philosophical research -- areas he's worked in since writing that paper.

Wilfred Sellars said that:

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.

Roughly, the aim of predictive philosophy is to understand how things in a narrower sense of the term hang together and in order to make useful predictions. You could also think of this kind of philosophy as “generalist philosophy” or “polymathic philosophy”, but I prefer the term predictive philosophy since it says more about the methodology.

Though it verges on the normative side of things, Toby Ord's The Precipice is an excellent recent example of this work. Ord is concerned with existential risks to humanity. Here’s a question: what’s the probability that human civilization will be destroyed by a natural extinction risk? On the surface, this may appear to be a strictly empirical question, not something that philosophers would be well suited to answer. This perspective overlooks that is that there’s a lot of uncertainty here and non-trivial questions about how to assess the probability. Do you look at the rate of species like us going extinct? Do you only include mass extinctions or should extinctions of any species like us contribute to the rate? Do you extrapolate the rate from the fact that we haven’t become extinct yet?

In a way, I see this work as similar to philosophical work on the likelihood of the existence of God. Empirical inputs matter a lot (facts about the fine tuning of the universe for example), but there's so much uncertainty that a lot of these issues depend a lot on debates over how priors should be set, reasoning about anthropics, and the nature of probability and explanation. To be clear, I’m talking about probabilistic work by people like Swinburne and Oppy, not ontological arguments. It’s not entirely by coincidence that John Leslie was interested in both existential risk, cosmology, and traditional religious debates.

Promising Philosophy

These are the kinds of philosophical work you should want to do if you want to influence the trajectory of technological development:

  • Formal philosophy
  • Predictive philosophy

The examples of computation and probability are instances of formal philosophy. Superintelligence, The Precipice, and The End of the World are instances of predictive philosophy.

I’ll say more about the methodology and domain selection for these two kinds of philosophy.

Formal Philosophy

With formalizations, the work is more obviously philosophical. Though it has tended to be, and will likely continue to be, on the borders of the logical, mathematical, and conceptual.

When philosophers successfully formalize a concept, sometimes that formalization will directly contribute to the development of technology (as, say, in the example of computers and Bayes’ theorem) or it may indirectly contribute by improving our cognitive capabilities (as,say, work on probability has).

There are two things I'm interested in here: methodology and domain selection.

The methodology is informed by the examples of computation and probability. Philosophy here will often look more like math, logic, and computer science than some philosophers may be used to. The area of philosophy most closely approximating this style of philosophy right now, unsurprisingly, is formal epistemology.

Formal methods aren't enough, one needs to select promising domains. What you're formalizing matters. A large portion of formal epistemology will not influence the development of technology, or likely anything else for that matter, because it's aiming to answer questions whose answers will make no difference to other fields.

There are a few features of this kind of philosophy and its domains that make it more likely that work is promising:

  • The work is mathematical or logical. The historical record suggests that this work matters more for technological development.
  • The work answers foundational questions of a given field. One can imagine a graph of concepts, philosophers want to analyze the ones with the most edges.
  • The work is problem-focused. If we knew the answer to a question or had a refined notion of a given concept it would be useful for solving non-philosophical problems.
  • The work is positive. It puts forward a way the world is, rather than falsifying philosophical theses. There are some potential counter-examples to this, like Godel’s work, but by and large, the philosophy that matters is offering a positive vision of the world that we can do something with, not shooting down an existing framework.
  • The domain itself is speculative and relatively nascent. There’s a lot of uncertainty.

Domains where formalization could be useful are:

  • Modeling agents and decision theory

Work on newcomb-like problems may matter for the development of artificial intelligence.

  • Causation

Most of what academic philosophers have said here isn't useful. Computer scientists and statisticians have done most of the important work to date, but there's no reason philosophically oriented computer scientists or statistically oriented philosophers can't make important contributions here.

  • Philosophy of physics

Most work I’ve seen here just looks like the metaphysics of physics, but I could see work here being promising. I don’t know enough about this physics or the philosophy of physics to have a strong view here.

  • Cultural evolution

This work is unlikely to make a significant difference to technology, but is novel enough that philosophers can continue to make important contributions here. There are sociological questions here around why philosophers' work on cultural evolution hasn’t been more influential.

  • Evolutionary biology

Unlikely to make a significant difference to technology, but worth mentioning since it is an area where scientists should pay more attention to philosophers. Unfortunately, the same philosophers who make important contributions also get caught up in issues that don't make any difference to scientific practice.

  • Information theory

There may not be that much work to do here anymore, I don’t know.

  • Consciousness

Work on the hard problem of consciousness likely doesn’t matter for the development of technology. However, thinking about how to formalize conscious states, debates over global workspace theory and its competitors, or the meta-problem may matter.

  • Neuroscience

Carl Carver has done interesting work here. One aspect of neuroscience that makes it promising for philosophers is that no one has any idea what is going on.

Some of these domains are orders of magnitude more promising that others. The probability that any philosophical research program will result in contributions that impact that development of technology is small. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the effort isn’t worthwhile.

Predictive Philosophy

I’ve sketched out the methodology for predictive philosophy when sketching it out above. There’s more to say about it, but I’m not sure if being more precise would be that useful.

There are a few features of this kind of philosophy and its domains that make it more likely that work is promising for philosophers:

  • The work verges on the logical, mathematical, and scientific. It’s the sort of thing you could almost get away with outside of a philosophy department.
  • The domain takes inputs from a number of different fields. Being a polymath or generalist is required to make a contribution.
  • The domain is relatively neglected.
  • The work is problem focused. If we knew the answer to a question or had a refined notion of a given concept it would be useful for solving non-philosophical problems.
  • There’s a lot of uncertainty. Positions may be determined by nuanced views about probabilities and reasoning under uncertainty.
  • The work has both philosophical and non-philosophical questions at its center.
  • The work analyses the history of technological and scientific development for useful lessons.

There are a number of promising issues here:

  • Emulations and digital uploading

These issues have philosophical and non-philosophical questions at its center, making the work pretty promising.

  • Genomics and gene editing

The uncertainty here makes it potentially promising.

  • Existential risk

See The Precipice. It includes a section for useful future research, many of which are better answered by scientific specialists, but a few that philosophers can contribute to.

  • Artificial intelligence

See Superintelligence and related efforts.

  • Thinking about thinking well

Philosophers and non-philosophers have tackled this, but there’s still so much work to do.

  • Progress Studies

Progress studies are explicitly focused on economic and technological progress. Philosophers of science are especially well suited to contribute here, see below.

  • Philosophy of science

Much of philosophy of science like the metaphysics of science or descriptive history won’t influence science of the trajectory of technology. However, some it can, and potentially has been useful. Mining for applicable lessons, analyzing institutional designs, and coming up with novel systems that change the development of science and technology are quite promising.

  • Philosophy of technological development

Yes, the meta matters. What kinds of philosophy have pushed the peanut of technology forward or backwards? What kind of philosophy should we do if we want to have an impact on technology?

It’s worth reiterating that I’m not suggesting that slowing or speeding up the rate of technology is what philosophers should do. Most of the work above is worth doing, some of it is much more important than others and there’s valuable kinds of work that I’ve left out.

The main idea, that philosophy can and has influenced the development of technology seems right to me. Philosophers, as conceptual engineers, can be more ambitious.

If this is something you'd like to do, reach out to me.

Thanks To Evan Gaensbauer and Arya Sabeti for reading and commenting on earlier version of this post.