Vast willpower is, well, not one of my powers

I dunno. But I don’t think of myself as working hard at any of the things I am good at, in the sense of “exerting vast willpower to force myself kicking and screaming to do them”. It’s possible I do work hard, and that an outside observer would accuse me of eliding how hard I work, but it’s not a conscious elision and I don’t feel that way from the inside.

~ Scott Alexander

True story:

Long ago, I worked with a boy who was dating a girl. Boy goes to girl’s house for a dinner with her parents. Turns out that the girl’s father is a professor at College. The boy mentions he has a co-worker who went to that College, and mentions my name. Girl’s father says, “Oh! Craig was one of my students… He could have done well if he had applied himself.” Turns out father was one of the professors in my major. I had many classes with him, and he went on to be Department Head for a while. So he did, in fact, know me well.

I didn’t do the bare minimum. But to be fair to that professor, I didn’t really work super-hard either.

It was all, more or less, easy.

What would have been hard, would have been being in the Arts college and trying to do art-type-things. Hell, I would NEVER have even gotten accepted into the Arts college at that same university.

What was hard for me? I took a literature survey class once — ONCE. I took a journalism course… that was so hard I think I hallucinated most of it(*). I spent years trying to learn to play the piano, and the guitar– fail. And, I’m out of superlatives, but losing fat is really hard for me. And, controlling my disfunctional relationship with food is really REALLY hard. Also, languages are hard — I’ve been trying to stuff French into my head for 5 years now…


That thing you’re doing that you find easy? …I’m — or someone else, you get the point — thinking, “HOW DO YOU DO THAT?!”

(*) On the other hand, it was the only course my now-wife and I were ever in together, so while I worked very hard, I was probably a little distracted.

What the phatic?!

Douglas Adams once said there was a theory that if anyone ever understood the Universe, it would disappear and be replaced by something even more incomprehensible. He added that there was another theory that this had already happened. These sorts of things – things such that if you understand them, they get more complicated until you don’t – are called “anti-inductive”.

~ Scott Alexander

A couple decades ago — I still say I have mild Asperger’s syndrome — I would have said, “I do not understand small talk. Stop jaw’in and transmit some useful information.” S-l-o-w-l-y, as I learned how to listen, I’ve come around to the view that there are many useful layers of communication. So, new word for 2018 (for me anyway): phatic.


So basically all of these systems are intimately interconnected, and probably before this is done with researchers will find five more systems intimately interconnected with all of these. It might be that inflammation is the master system which causes a cascade of events in all of the others. It might be that one of the others is the master system. It might be that depression is a collection of multiple different diseases, and some are caused by one thing and others by another. It might be that looking for a “master system” is silly and that the true mathematical relationship between all of these things is such a chaotic process that all you can say is that they all stumbled together into the wrong attractor point and things deteriorated from there.

~ Scott Alexander

This is one of those stories where science has been carefully teasing something apart for many years, only to find out, in the end, that they had it all wrong along the way.


But — via my confirmation bias — this jumps out as another place where being “certain” about things turns out to be — wait, no — I’m not certain. Dammit. Oh well, it’s just turtles all the way down.

Beware the man

But I worry that most smart people have not learned that a list of dozens of studies, several meta-analyses, hundreds of experts, and expert surveys showing almost all academics support your thesis – can still be bullshit. Which is too bad, because that’s exactly what people who want to bamboozle an educated audience are going to use.

~ Scott Alexander

The way our civil discourse currently works, one has to be loud (or strident, or be an animated-GIF) to be heard. If one thinks, “This topic is complicated. I should learn more about it before engaging…”, then by definition you are not [yet] participating in the civil discourse.

Meanwhile, the discourse continues led by those who are willing to engage, and who may [or may not] be better informed than you.

So here’s a challenge — something to consider trying, not a challenge in the sense of me saying, “I challenge you, sir, to a duel!”…

Actually start those conversations where you don’t feel well-equiped. So for example, I should more often say, “I disagree with you because I’m not convinced that yours is the correct position . . . but I’m not entirely certain of my position either . . . can we help each other by unpacking our thinking a bit more?”

There’s a real skill to being fine with not winning the discussion. I engage, I discuss, and the other person holds their position not moving one iota. We each walk away disagreeing but at least we better understand that other individual human being. That would be civil discourse.

Growing old

Along with the pathologies there were the ill-advised adventures. “I’m going to be a great person by…um…exercising an hour a day, from now on, all the time, and eventually becoming really buff.” Lasted a month. Then “I’m going to be a great person by…um…learning to speak ten languages, one at a time.” Lasted until first encounter with the Finnish case system. “I’m going to become a great person by…” The problem with all of these were that none of these were things I actually wanted to do (cf Randall Munroe, “Never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.”)

~ Scott Alexander

I’ve said before that this year [2018] will be a year of “Hell yes!”, or “no” for me.

Life goes by in a blur. The older I get — I won’t dare say “wiser” anywhere in this post — the more it seems to me, that maybe, just possibly, you know maybe I should consider that the problem could just possibly MAYBE be that I’m the IDIOT WHO TOOK ON ALL THIS CRAP THAT’S STRESSING ME OUT.


Perfect game theorists

…now I want to write a science fiction novel about a planet full of aliens who are perfect game theorists, but who always behave kindly and respectfully to one another. Then some idiot performs a census, and the whole place collapses into apocalyptic total war.

~ Scott Alexander

That pull quote is simply fun. The article is actually a serious attempt to pick apart an interesting philosophical question.

I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions… actually, I’m not even sure I understand the question he’s thinking about. But I find that the more I peek in the dark corners of the basement of my philosophical ideas, the more comfortable I sleep at night.

Treat people like human beings

In the end what he wanted wasn’t entitlement to other people’s money, or a pity job from someone who secretly didn’t like him. All he needed to keep going was to have people acknowledge there was a problem and treat him like a frickin’ human being.

~ Scott Alexander

I’ve heard that men tend to be quick to propose solutions. That fits perfectly with my self-perception: When someone complains, or voices a concern, or raises an issue, etc., my first instinct is to try to find the root cause (or at least, a major cause) and then immediately start proposing or brain-storming solutions, things to change, action items.

It took me a long time to understand that what everyone wants, first of all, it to be understood.

Rats? Moloch?

Like the rats, who gradually lose all values except sheer competition, so companies in an economic environment of sufficiently intense competition are forced to abandon all values except optimizing-for-profit or else be outcompeted by companies that optimized for profit better and so can sell the same service at a lower price.

From a god’s-eye-view, we can contrive a friendly industry where every company pays its workers a living wage. From within the system, there’s no way to enact it.

~ Scott Alexander

I confess to having had only the slightest awareness of Moloch in the biblical or general senses. So just skimming the WikiPedia article and then taking the time to read this piece from Slate Star Codex was like discovering a new window on the world from my mind-palace.


This is the problem. (With everything.) Individually, everyone acts according to their interests and beliefs. The result? …look at the world around you.

How could one go about changing the world? (That’s a rhetorical question.)