There was once a poetry contest to determine the next Zen Patriarch. The chief monk of the Patriarch’s monastery was the heir apparent. He wrote this:

The body is a Bodhi-tree
The soul a shining mirror:
Polish it with study
Or dust will dull the image.

No one openly challenged. Huineng was a low ranked monk who worked in the kitchen. At night he wrote his poem below the chief monk’s.

Bodhi is not a tree;
There is no shining mirror.
Since All begins with Nothing
Where can dust collect?

The current Patriarch chose Huineng as his successor. Though Yeno had to flee for his safety. This split Zen into two schools. Yeno’s Southern school taught that enlightenment was sudden. The Northern School taught that enlightenment was gradual. Eventually, the schools merged but Huineng’s influence was great. Sudden enlightenment became the standard doctrine of Zen.

The Zen/Chan tradition teaches that we are fundamentally already enlightened.

The Chan tradition does not usually refer to steps or stages. Its central teaching is that we are intrinsically awake; our mind is originally without abiding, fixations, and vexations, and its nature is without divisions and stages. This is the basis of the Chan view of sudden enlightenment. If our mind’s nature were not already free, that would imply we could become enlightened only after we practiced, which is not so. If it’s possible to gain enlightenment, then it’s possible to lose it as well.

The question that immediately comes to mind is “If we are already enlightened why do we need to meditate?”. There are many traditional answers. The above article offers this response.

In the Chan tradition, therefore, practice is not about producing enlightenment. You might wonder, “Then what am I doing here, practic­ing?” Because practice does help clean up the “furniture” in the “room.” By not attaching to your thoughts, you remove the furniture, so to speak. And once your mind is clean, instead of fixating on the chairs, tables, and so on, you see its spaciousness. Then you can let the furniture be or rearrange it any way you want—not for yourself, but for the benefit of others in the room.

I think it is often useful to look at practical cases. People are commonly advised to ‘submit to the experience’ when they trip. ‘Be yourself’ is such common advice it is a cliche. How can this sort of advice work? Isn’t the feeling of ‘freaking out and trying to make it stop’ a part of the experience of a bad trip? You are already yourself. If you want different results something has to change about your approach. Despite these objections, I think both pieces of advice are quite good. But there is a koan-like quality to any advice that promises positive change through acceptance.

I have a history of struggling with loss of control. I often lucid dream. When I realize I am dreaming I often feel an extremely strong desire to force myself to wake up. This tends to make the experience negative. When I can relax and not try to ‘prove’ I can end the dream I can have a good time.

This all came to mind after a recent experience I had meditating while peaking on shrooms. Meditating made the experience dramatically stronger. Immediately after I started I reached a pretty deep state. I felt like I was standing on the wing of a giant bird flying through space. Things were clearly about to take off and get even crazier. Before things got too crazy I opened my eyes. I had lost an opportunity. But I realized that if I am going to practice acceptance I need to have compassion for my own flaws. I closed my eyes again and had a less crazy but quite good experience.

Last night I lucid dreamed. This time I did not try to wake up.

What does ‘Actually Trying’ look like?

Earlier today I talked to someone about why so few rationalists are continuing the work of developing rationality. I said that there actually seemed to be many rationalists working on mental technology. The problem is that he did not seem to be a fan of what people are actually working on. He would prefer they work on stuff closer to the CFAR handbook. There are some people working on things like that. For example my friend Shrikant and his group.

However a lot of rationalists who are ‘actually trying’ have gotten into somewhat ‘weirder’ things. Here are some of the topics:

It is perhaps not obvious why ‘actually trying’ would correlate with openness to unusual ideas, even among rationalists. But perhaps it is not surprising at all. Eliezer had a lot of weird ideas. People who actually take up his mantle are not going to be afraid of getting into weird stuff. People who just like the community are more likely to stick to the basic rationalist stuff. Personally, I love the people who are carrying on the mantle of the sequences instead of trying to seem normal.


…there is an ending [to Infinite Jest] as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book’s failed for you.

— David Foster Wallace

You can read Aaron Scwartz explain the ending to Infinite Jest here. It is really a wild ride.

Raymond Arnold has argued that honest disagreements often take years to resolve, even if all participants are acting in good faith. Of course, Ray is descriptively right. Even when reasonable people eventually change their minds, it can take years. But I think we can often do better. It is easy to make mistakes with conservation of expected evidence, but the expected value of the change in your beliefs should be zero.

Often you can feel how the story is going to end. Perhaps you accept a certain argument and one of your true cruxes falls. Sometimes the way this manifests is that you feel an aversion to considering certain arguments. The reason for this aversion is that you don’t actually have a good response. All theories have anomalies. But clear your mind and imagine thinking about the issue for a long time. Or imagine looking back in twenty years. Wherever you feel you will end up in the future is where you should be now.

Dzogchen is a Buddhist practice most associated with Tibet. It has been described as “complete enlightenment in one instant”. Once you feel the parallel lines converging there is no need to draw things out. You can let go. It is genuinely inspiring to interact with people who can change their mind without delay. Become enlightened instantly!

Don’t Eat Animal Products!

Let us estimate the ongoing hedonic utilitarian costs of eating animal products (roughly being a carnist). There are about 70 billion farmed animals. Around two-thirds are intensively farmed. Therefore, the average carnist is responsible for the ongoing mistreatment of about 10 animals. About two-thirds of those animals are being tortured.

This analysis ignores both fish and the severe environmental impacts of carnism. It also ignores the morality of both killing and exploitation. I do not think exploitation is ok and I think consuming animal products is considerably worse than this analysis suggests. But many rationalists and effective altruists endorse extremely low estimates of the harm caused by carnism. I think their analysis tends to be heavily biased and it is useful to have a quick estimate that demonstrates this.

Imagine a person who keeps ten animals in bad conditions in their basement. Two-thirds of those animals are in horrific conditions and regularly tortured. How much would they need to donate to offset their bad behavior? Does offsetting seem like a reasonable idea in this context? Claiming that you can cheaply offset such behavior seems absurd to me.

Some people claim the marginal impact of eating meat is low. But in equilibrium supply should roughly equal demand. Effective altruists have written quite a bit about how we need to avoid overcounting credit. We also need to avoid undercounting blame. If you consume the average amount of animal products, you are to blame for the average amount of animals being farmed.

Something that actually reduces your impact is changing your diet. For example, there are only about 268 million dairy cows. So one cow produces enough dairy for about twenty-six people. And dairy cows have better lives than pigs/chickens. Conversely, a hen lays about one egg per day. So the number of egg-laying hens being tortured on an ongoing basis on your behalf is approximately equal to your average daily egg consumption. (Almost all egg-laying hens are treated very badly).

Solidarity with Palestine

I found this vision of the near future fairly disturbing.

On his first day, he was told to download a program called WorkSmart. In a video, Crossover CEO Andy Tryba describes the program as a “FitBit for work.” The modern worker is constantly interacting with cloud apps, he says, and that produces huge quantities of information about how they’re spending their time — information that’s mostly thrown away. That data should be used to enhance productivity, he says. Citing Cal Newport’s popular book Deep Work, about the perils of distraction and multitasking, he says the software will enable workers to reach new levels of intense focus. Tryba displays a series of charts, like a defragmenting hard drive, showing a worker’s day going from scattered distraction to solid blocks of uninterrupted productivity.

WorkSmart did, in fact, transform Rony’s day into solid blocks of productivity because if it ever determined he wasn’t working hard enough, he didn’t get paid. The software tracked his keystrokes, mouse clicks, and the applications he was running, all to rate his productivity. He was also required to give the program access to his webcam. Every 10 minutes, the program would take three photos at random to ensure he was at his desk. If Rony wasn’t there when WorkSmart took a photo, or if it determined his work fell below a certain threshold of productivity, he wouldn’t get paid for that 10-minute interval. Another person who started with Rony refused to give the software webcam access and lost his job.

Of course, the article scared me because I can easily imagine this happening to me. But many workers are already constantly surveilled and pushed to their limits. The article talks about Amazon.

Jake, who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of retribution, was a “rebinner.” His job was to take an item off a conveyor belt, press a button, place the item in whatever cubby a monitor told him to, press another button, and repeat. He likened it to doing a twisting lunge every 10 seconds, nonstop, though he was encouraged to move even faster by a giant leaderboard, featuring a cartoon sprinting man, that showed the rates of the 10 fastest workers in real time. A manager would sometimes keep up a sports announcer patter over the intercom — “In third place for the first half, we have Bob at 697 units per hour,” Jake recalled. Top performers got an Amazon currency they could redeem for Amazon Echos and company T-shirts. Low performers got fired.

“You’re not stopping,” Jake said. “You are literally not stopping. It’s like leaving your house and just running and not stopping for anything for 10 straight hours, just running.”

As bad as things are for Amazon workers they could easily get worse as technology improves. Technology is now being used to oppress entire societies. Palestine is under constant surveillance. Thanks to technology a fairly small number of Israelis can monitor and suppress millions of Palestinians. China has been rolling art state of the art AI-powered technology. Facial recognition is used on a huge scale. Hoffiyingly these technologies are also being used on the Uyghurs in Xinyang. As many as a million Uyghurs are in literal camps. But the other ten million are being monitored on an incredibly intimate level.

For now, many of us have some degree of freedom. But the NSA shows that our freedoms can be violated too. Many of us enjoy freedom in our jobs but that can change rapidly.

While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

— Eugene Debs

There is a metaphorical sense in which the above quote is true. But there is also a more literal sense. The machinery of oppression has not been dismantled until every soul is free. As long as the machinery is operational it can be turned on us. If we want real freedom we need to destroy every system of oppression.

Solidarity with all the oppressed peoples of the world!

Norms of Inclusion

Rule of Law

The community has a set of rules. These rules apply equally to everyone, at least in theory. Usually, if you violate the rules you will be warned. After a sufficient amount of warnings more serious sanctions will be applied culminating in expulsion. At least on paper, the rules are enforced as strongly on established members as new people. If anything, new people might get a grace period. In a space with explicit moderation, many users will get feedback from the moderation staff on how to improve their behavior.

In or Out

There is some, perhaps implicit, method of determining whether you are in good standing with the group or not. As long as you maintain good standing you are free to act as you wish. The group can still have rules and norms. But occasional deviation from the rules is not going to consistently punished. In order to get sanctioned you need to be breaking rules frequently or very seriously. And if you are clearly bringing a ton of value to the group you will get a ton of leeway. ‘In or Out’ is less egalitarian than ‘Rule of Law’ but the people who can maintain good standing are freer. The core question is: “Is this person adding to the group or detracting, do we want them around?”

Reign of Terror / Guest Norms

Some subset of people has all the power and the social permission to wield this power as they please. You can stick around if and only if the ‘owners’ of the space want you around. Annoying the owners is a perfectly valid reason for a ban. Most people find these norms appropriate to a person’s home. Though conflicts can occur if a ‘community’ event is commonly held in a private dwelling. If my apartment hosts the lesswrong meetup and I feel unsafe around Julia, can I unilaterally ban her? How free people feel under these norms depends on their relationship with the owners and the owner’s personalities. Egalitarianism is explicitly rejected.

Norms not Process

To a large degree, these sets of norms are orthogonal to how power is officially distributed. The question is what are the acceptable ways to wield power. Power can be held by a single individual but that individual can uphold a codified set of rules. You can democratically elect mods and then give them extreme leeway to ban anyone who annoys them. Of course, the distribution of power is always going to impact the de facto norms. And a democratic reign of terror might turn non-democratic if the mods ban the right people. But there is a range of behavior the powerful need to stay within before they lose the mandate of heaven (this analysis is complicated if they control a de facto monopoly). That range varies quite a lot between communities.


The Whispering Earring

Scott Alexander wrote a short story on his old blog.

In the treasure-vaults of Til Iosophrang rests the Whispering Earring, buried deep beneath a heap of gold where it can do no further harm.

The earring is a little topaz tetrahedron dangling from a thin gold wire. When worn, it whispers in the wearer’s ear: “Better for you if you take me off.” If the wearer ignores the advice, it never again repeats that particular suggestion.

After that, when the wearer is making a decision the earring whispers its advice, always of the form “Better for you if you…”. The earring is always right. It does not always give the best advice possible in a situation. It will not necessarily make its wearer King, or help her solve the miseries of the world. But its advice is always better than what the wearer would have come up with on her own.

It is not a taskmaster, telling you what to do in order to achieve some foreign goal. It always tells you what will make you happiest. If it would make you happiest to succeed at your work, it will tell you how best to complete it. If it would make you happiest to do a half-assed job at your work and then go home and spend the rest of the day in bed having vague sexual fantasies, the earring will tell you to do that. The earring is never wrong.

The Book of Dark Waves gives the histories of two hundred seventy four people who previously wore the Whispering Earring. There are no recorded cases of a wearer regretting following the earring’s advice, and there are no recorded cases of a wearer not regretting disobeying the earring. The earring is always right.

The earring begins by only offering advice on major life decisions. However, as it gets to know a wearer, it becomes more gregarious, and will offer advice on everything from what time to go to sleep, to what to eat for breakfast. If you take its advice, you will find that breakfast food really hit the spot, that it was exactly what you wanted for breakfast that day even though you didn’t know it yourself. The earring is never wrong.

As it gets completely comfortable with its wearer, it begins speaking in its native language, a series of high-bandwidth hisses and clicks that correspond to individual muscle movements. At first this speech is alien and disconcerting, but by the magic of the earring it begins to make more and more sense. No longer are the earring’s commands momentous on the level of “Become a soldier”. No more are they even simple on the level of “Have bread for breakfast”. Now they are more like “Contract your biceps muscle about thirty-five percent of the way” or “Articulate the letter p”. The earring is always right. This muscle movement will no doubt be part of a supernaturally effective plan toward achieving whatever your goals at that moment may be.

Soon, reinforcement and habit-formation have done their trick. The connection between the hisses and clicks of the earring and the movements of the muscles have become instinctual, no more conscious than the reflex of jumping when someone hidden gives a loud shout behind you.

At this point no further change occurs in the behavior of the earring. The wearer lives an abnormally successful life, usually ending out as a rich and much-beloved pillar of the community with a large and happy family.

When Kadmi Rachumion came to Til Iosophrang, he took an unusual interest in the case of the earring. First, he confirmed from the records and the testimony of all living wearers that the earring’s first suggestion was always that the earring itself be removed. Second, he spent some time questioning the Priests of Beauty, who eventually admitted that when the corpses of the wearers were being prepared for burial, it was noted that their brains were curiously deformed: the neocortexes had wasted away, and the bulk of their mass was an abnormally hypertrophied mid- and lower-brain, especially the parts associated with reflexive action.

Finally, Kadmi-nomai asked the High Priest of Joy in Til Iosophrang for the earring, which he was given. After cutting a hole in his own earlobe with the tip of the Piercing Star, he donned the earring and conversed with it for two hours, asking various questions in Kalas, in Kadhamic, and in its own language. Finally he removed the artifact and recommended that the it be locked in the deepest and most inaccessible parts of the treasure vaults, a suggestion with which the Iosophrelin decided to comply.

Niderion-nomai’s commentary: It is well that we are so foolish, or what little freedom we have would be wasted on us. It is for this that Book of Cold Rain says one must never take the shortest path between two points.

I think about this story all the time. Do you get recommendations from your friends or do you check rating aggregator sites? There are many sorts of aggregators: Yelp for restaurants, Board Game Geek, My Anime List. You can combine aggregator ratings with personal recommendations. But sometimes people will say things such as ‘I know you like X but it is only rated a 7.1. I am not going to try it out’. Perhaps this is rational, but it feels like putting on the earring.

Any heavy reliance on the outside view feels like putting on the earring. For example, deferring to prediction markets to estimates probabilities. A particularly trustworthy ‘earring’ is the stock market. The efficient market hypothesis, at least the weak form, is basically true. My point is not that earrings are unreliable or harmful for achieving your goals. In the story the opposite is true. Scott’s story is essentially about the risks of making yourself too powerful.

I depend a huge amount on my GPS. And people should probably google things more quickly than they do. But something is lost when you stop relying on your own brain and the brain of your friends. I wonder how the future will feel as I make more and more decisions based on logic I don’t really understand.