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So I've recently fallen into the timesink that is Effulgence. The premise more-or-less being: take ultra-rational Bella from Alicorn's Luminosity/Radiance universe, and put versions of her in various fanfiction universes. Oh and it's a co-writing thing between two authors. It's well-written (otherwise I wouldn't be reading it, obviously), but after reading too much of it at a time some of Bella's personality quirks start to bother me.* . But worse than those are the parts where it just gets *boring* for me, which are the chapters that I like to refer to as "world domination porn", which are just page after page of the protagonists designing and implementing their utopian visions using whatever tools are available in that particular universe, and their utopias actually are utopian or at least are clearly presented as such by the author - none of that Brave New World business where the characters are happy but the reader is supposed to be horrified**. And around the part where I was wading through the 5th world domination chapter it occurred to me that this seems to be a thing in the core LessWrong crowd: Alicorn writes world-domination fiction Eliezer Yudkowsky recently wrote what amounts to utopian fiction in a society called dath ilan, and Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex has been working on his fantasy utopia Raikoth for years now. In each case, their fiction seems to spring from a deep sense of 'the world is seriously messed up, I could do so much better if I had the means to make drastic changes and/or build my own society from scratch". It's a combination of escapism and power fantasies. Whereas while many of the rest of us have no trouble seeing that the world is messed up in many ways, but our response seems to be more about pure escapism and/or making a deliberate choice to stop caring about the big problems in order to maintain our sanity.

If someone handed me ultimate power, I wouldn't use it to become Ruler of the Universe. It sounds stressful and tedious and liable to crush me under the weight of feeling responsible for everything and become burnt out in short order. I would probably try to find someone else to be Ruler of the Universe though. I know some people who I consider to be smart and insightful and compassionate and so forth who would probably be better at it than me and also much less prone to burnout. But my own power fantasies mostly center around being able to help on a more local scale and having various cool superpowers. 

* Like: Bella's obsession with privacy, her my-way-or-the-highway approach to everything, or the way so many of the interpersonal relationships end up all cuddly and snuggly, like there isn't any way to be friendly that doesn't translate into hugs.

** Although I wasn't at all horrified by Brave New World, for much the same reason that I don't particularly care what happens to my body after I die - the point being that I take into account the fact that after I'm dead I won't be around to have opinions. Similarly in BNW I don't find it horrific because I'm taking into account that if I lived there I would have been conditioned to be happy with it. Apparently this puts me in the minority.
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(Long time, no post, etc. Maybe one of these days I'll go into detail about what I've been up for the last semester or so. Also, the key insight that led to this post is due to my friend N)

A friend of mine, B, used to suffer from terrible road rage. His girlfriend, L, felt so uncomfortable driving with him when he was like this that she put considerable time and effort into working out what was going on, since B is not typically an angry guy. Eventually, she realised that what was going on was that B wasn't seeing the other cars as vehicles containing living people with plans and emotions of their own, but as potential obstacles that sometimes moved in unpredictable ways to block his path.

One of my favorite bloggers had a very well-received post about a certain type of guy who approaches women like they're vending machines for sex, where he just needs to perform the right moves and say the right things, and lo and behold he'll get laid. When this doesn't happen he gets angry and bitter and talks about how he's such a Nice Guy but girls still aren't interested in him.

On hearing B's road rage story, it occurred to me that I have a similar failure mode when I'm socially anxious, where I treat the people around me as mysterious black boxes that require that I perform esoteric nonsensical social rituals in order to appease and become accepted by them, where any deviation from the rituals will be punished with immediate scorn and/or rejection*. Unsurprisingly, this way of thinking does not particularly aid me in my efforts to be liked and accepted.

In a post about abusive partners, one of the comments highlighted the way that the abused blame themselves, searching for the thing they did to deserve the punishment. When they think they've found it, they tell themselves that if they just stop doing that particular thing, their partner will stop abusing them. Inevitably the abuse happens again, because the thing they did that first time was at best a convenient excuse, at worst completely uncorrelated with the abusive behavior.

In all of these stories, a person with otherwise completely functional theory of mind is put in a stressful situation, and in response they have lost their ability to think about what the other people in the interaction believe and desire. I'm not sure that calling it a failure in theory of mind is quite correct though, since the classical failure mode for theory of mind is to assume that everyone shares the same information/desires/beliefs that you do, as opposed to the situations here where the failure seems to involve denying/forgetting that the other people in the interaction have meaningful internal states at all. I could call it objectification, except that the connotations of the term have drifted so far away from the strict meaning that it's now completely useless for trying to describe anything else.

Does anyone know if there's a better name for this phenomenon? Or if there's any literature on it? So far I'm drawing a blank, but it seems like an area that ought to have been studied. If people lose their ability to model others when they're under stress, it seems like this would have huge implications for a lot of subfields.

* Yes, I know that's an exaggeration of what would actually happen, but you're welcome to try convincing my brain of this when I'm feeling socially anxious
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So there's this idea, backed up by fairly solid studies, that a very large part of what most people think is 'talent' or 'genius' or whatever your preferred term for innate skill is, is actually just the result of a very long time spent practicing those skills. Around ten thousand hours or so, to be more specific - that's the amount of time most people need to spend practicing a skill in order to master it.

The other day the obvious-in-hindsight realisation struck me that I spent most of my childhood mastering skills that are completely useless to me in the grand scheme of things, and very little time mastering skills that are useful to my current work. As a result, I often feel incompetent because the skills I'm using aren't the ones that I'm especially practiced at.

Things I am almost certain I've spent at least 10,000 hours doing:
  •  Dancing,  most of which was ballet: I eventually failed at this because of hard physical constraints (eg. my hips are extremely stiff/inflexible) and because I hated performing on stage, but I did pick up a couple of superpowers along the way, like my near-eidetic memory for sequences of steps* and my ability to ignore the cold in the depths of winter as long as I'm within a 3 minute window of doing ballet (before or after)
  • Reading, especially fantasy fiction: Very large vocabulary, fast reading speed
  • Sitting and paying attention to teachers: yup, I am pro at this.
Things I have spent less than 10k hours on, but a heck of a lot more time than many others in the same class:
  • Programming - I would put my mastery level somewhere in the level of hundreds of hours, at most 1k. I appear superpowered to most of my grad colleagues, but I'm achingly aware of just how many gaps I still have and how long it sometimes takes me to do what I feel ought to be very trivial tasks
  • Video games/boardgames: Probably around the 2k hour mark, maybe higher (My childhood was basically evenly split between dancing, videogames, and school). Gave me the ability to quickly orient myself in new internally-consistent systems, to make decent chocies in those systems without a complete explicit understanding of what constitutes a good choice, and to locate loopholes/synergies/imbalances in said systems. Also, encyclopedic knowledge of the standard fantasy depictions of medieval weapons, warfare, life and philosophy, some of which bears a decent resemblance to the real thing. But again, I'm achingly aware of how bad I am at all these things relative to the real experts
  • Being on the Interwebs: 'nuff said
Things I have not spent anywhere near enough time on to feel even close to being an expert, but wish I had:
  • Working on stuff in a consistent and/or timely manner regardless of motivation levels
  • Talking to people, both in the sense of small talk/hanging out and of being able to persuade/argue coherently in real time
  • Fashion/personal appearance: Although I'm led to believe that there's a ton of low-hanging fruit here that would require less than 20 hours to learn
  • Academic/nonfiction writing: I'm a lot better at this than a random person off the street, but not relative to my peers
  • Critical thinking, with emphasis on the critical: For some reason as a kid it virtually never occurred to me that I could/should question the way things were; I treated everything as hard constraints that needed to be routed around if I didn't like them rather than challenged directly. I still have some of that mentality, where I take things as given that I have the power to change or should be least be more critical of

Audience participation: What areas have you spent your 10k hours on? Are they directly related to what you're doing now?
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I have recently realised that i I ever want to be a Serious Intellectual (or even just do things that are cool but challenging, like programming pet projects), I'll need to cut back on my fantasy/sci fi reading  and game-playing hobbies. The reason? My 'thing', that dictates what I find the most interesting, is basically problem-solving. Present me with a complicated system or problem and I will bend over backwards trying to understand it (and then get bored as soon as I sufficiently understand it. This is definitely a weakness of mine, since "I understand what I need to do to get the answer but I can't motivate myself to go through the boring mechanical part" doesn't fly as an excuse at uni). But any competent fiction author is also a decent worldbuilder. And those fictional worlds hold just as much attraction for me as real life science, since a well-built fictional world is a shiny new complex system that I start out knowing nothing about and need to unravel through the hints that the author drops in passing. As for computer games, they thrive on being able to use systems too complicated for a human to calculate by hand, and usually also have giant worlds to explore.
So in short, my brain doesn't distinguish well enough between reality and fiction. And what's more, fictional worlds are almost always easier to understand than real world problems. This makes it more pleasant to read books and play games than to work on real world stuff, since I get a faster payoff. The trick will be to train myself to be able to ignore those short-term gains and go for the longer-term ones that are ultimately more satisfying.
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The other day I had my friend over, who also happens to be the GM for our roleplaying group. While he was over we discussed various people and their behaviours, and why it was they behaved that way. Noting that most of the people in our social groups are quite intelligent and rational (more T than F, in Type-speak), there isn't much space for justifying irrational behaviour. In almost all cases of irrational behaviour it seems like the cause is a lack of self-awareness, because if the person is rational then it's difficult for them to deliberately be acting irrationally, so their own motives must be unclear to them.

From there it seems like a short step to doublethink. I know that I have self-esteem issues, but a lot of the time I act as if I don't. I'm not precisely pretending that I don't have any issues (which would be denial), I'm just ignoring them enough that I can behave more normally. And I realised that I'm deliberately exercising a form of doublethink when I do this. And that I also make use of it for keeping other people's secrets (it's hard to explain how, I don't actually forget it but I can sort of partition it off), playing more than one player in a card game (same sort of thing, partition the knowledge off and only access it when necessary; it has the drawback that I tend to be a worse player when I'm doing this beause I'm working so hard at not knowing the other player that I don't allow myself to make intelligent predictions a lot of the time) and in roleplaying, where I'm trying to take on a different personality altogether and ignore any out-of-game knowledge I may know but only for a few hours at a time. I also know that I'm not the world's best roleplayer. I can have a complete understanding of my character and what he would know, but I tend to direct my character from a distance rather than actually become the character. So at the moment my doublethink extends to keeping two sets of knowledge side by side but not to the point of being able to replace one with the other temporarily.

I now have a theory that to be very good at roleplaying you have to be very good at doublethink, in order to completely change your personality for a period of time and then revert back to your real personality at the end. I also have a less-reliable theory that to be really accomplished at doublethink you have to be quite self-aware, or else you end up either failing entirely at acting as though the new set of beliefs are true, or you end up believing your own inventions with no realisation of what you've done to yourself. Also, I find it quite interesting that if my theory holds up then it means that the better your self-awareness is, the more interesting tricks you can do with/against your own mind.
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For the last two or three months I've been part of a regular roleplaying group, my first real one, with the GamesMaster one of my friends and the other players some of his friends who I've now gotten to know (Unrelated note: I've been part of roleplaying groups in the past but each time they haven't lasted past one or two sessions. Turns out it's fairly difficult to get a successful group off the ground)

First of all, roleplaying is completely awesome. It's a semi-structured but very social activity, so I get plenty of social interaction without most of the drawbacks of unstructured socialising. And roleplaying is also quite an intellectual activity, at least the way our group does it. Some of the things we've done so far include trying to work out how a powerful evil wizard managed to get his tower blown up with him in it and trying to come up with a workable plan for a single one of our characters to sneak into an entire city of orcs and get some hostages back out with her. It really does exercise your analytical thinking.
And finally there's the character development, both for your own character and for the others. And in the course of my own character's development I'm finding a few of my own blind spots that I wasn't aware of. For example, my near-complete inability to go for direct confrontation as a first option. Every time it's been a valid option for my character I've missed it purely because that course of action doesn't occur to me naturally. The aforementioned sneaking into an orcish city could have been circumvented if I'd just marched up to the front gate and *demanded* the hostages back, our GM informed us afterwards

I kind of hope that as I continue with this I'll learn to force myself to think in strange and unexpected ways for the sake of my character, and in turn be able to reverse-engineer it to real life.
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How does one break conditioning? Or at least replace it with some more positive conditioning?

I've realised that despite the fact that I really enjoy learning things and challenging myself, I've managed to condition myself to view these things as 'work' and therefore something to be put off. I usually end up wasting stupidly large amounts of time playing computer/console games or reading fantasy novels, even if I'm not in the mood to enjoy them, rather than start on the thing that's 'work' but on the whole a lot more interesting and fulfilling than junk food type activities. (Examples: Reading nonfiction books that aren't mandatory course reading, finishing my board game, teaching myself more programming in my own time..)


On a completely unrelated topic, I seem to have sprained my ankle. It sure does suck.


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