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According to my submissions summary, my first top-level post dates back to February 18th, 2011. (I don’t know exactly when I started commenting, but I don’t feel like clicking through dozens of pages of old comments to find out.) By then, it had already been a month since I embarked on the most deliberate and probably the most difficult act of self-modification that I’ve ever attempted, and definitely the one I’m proudest of. At this point, I think I can say confidently that I’ve fixed one of the most irrational facets of my behaviour. A few people here know quite a bit about this, namely molybdenumblue.
[Aside: some people might find this article very personal. I’ve never had a strong privacy instinct, and since in this case it’s all my personal information*, and I talk openly about most of it with my friends and family, I have no qualms about publishing it. If it makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to stop reading.]
My New Year’s resolution for 2011, which I clearly remember making in my parents’ kitchen, was to experiment more with relationships. I had been in 2 relationships by my 19th birthday: one at age 14 with a much older recent immigrant to Canada who went to my high school, and one at age 17 with a boy who I worshipped when I was 12. Neither of them led anywhere interesting, in either an emotional or a physical sense. After breaking up with my second boyfriend, I was about ready to give up and start calling myself asexual. But since I had very little data to go on, an experiment seemed like a good idea.
I chose my experimental subject carefully: Billy, a boy I met through competitive lifeguarding, who was my age and seemed to share some of my values; he was in good shape, anyway; and whom I found moderately attractive. (I’ve been attracted to girls in the past, but that seemed like a more complicated experiment to set up.) I found him interesting without being too intimidating.
I had had some success in the past with getting boys’ initial attention, and I felt like I knew what I was doing. I started a conversation one evening when I came to swim at the campus pool and he was the lifeguard on duty, and I made an effort to be my friendliest and chattiest self. The next day I added him on Facebook, and suggested via the chat function that maybe we could hang out after guard team practice…The message must have gone though, because less than a week later, after he made me dinner at his apartment, he walked me home and kissed me outside the shared house where I was living. I went inside, shaking all over and not really sure whether I’d enjoyed it, but triumphant: success!
The only problem was that now that I had my result, I couldn’t end the experiment as easily as I’d started it. Some making out ensued, at my place and at his place. I found all of it vaguely embarrassing and a bit freaky, too; my only previous experience was with my first boyfriend, and at fourteen it had seriously grossed me out. By the end of the week, we ended up back at his apartment after some alcohol consumption, and clothes came off. I tried really hard to be okay with it. After all, it was part of my experiment, and I’d thought it was something I wanted. But irrational fears aren’t turned off that easily. When he told me that I drove him crazy, I wasn’t flattered: I was completely terrified.
I spent the next week or so putting on my game face and pretending everything was awesome, while crying on the phone with my younger sister every other night. (I can honestly say that although she’s five years younger, her social skills are much better than mine.)
I thought over and rejected various solutions because, ultimately, I liked Billy okay and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Open communication hadn’t existed in my previous relationships, so I didn’t know what to do. I was also more and more sleep deprived; my schedule had already been busy before, juggling school with two part-time jobs, and now it was unsustainable. The emotions built up, and I ended up handling it in what was probably the worst possible way: walking home from guard team practice, I started crying when he asked me if I was okay. (Bursting into tears when I don’t want to talk about something or do something and someone pushes me is a bad habit I picked up during my days of swim team performance anxiety.) It took at least an hour to get everything out: that I didn’t know what my feelings were, that it freaked me out when he touched me, and that if I had to sacrifice another night’s sleep to hang out I would probably go insane. And also the part I’d been too embarrassed to tell him earlier: I had a condition called vaginismus, and I wouldn’t be able to have sex even if I wanted to and felt ready. He walked me back to my house, carefully not touching, and I went upstairs to bed, feeling like a terrible person but also relieved. At least that was over.
I can’t really take the credit for this next part; if I hadn’t heard from him again, I think I would have walked away from it, not happily exactly, but determined never to get myself into a mess like that again. But I woke up at 6:30 to a text: Check your email. He had written me a long, fairly incoherent message, full of grammatical mistakes, but probably the sweetest thing that anyone had ever written to me, ever, in my whole life. Ending with: “With all that said, I realize that I am not just about ready to give up on us. [...] For now, I see what we have together is worth fighting for.”
I cried, felt trapped, felt miserable, and finally made myself a cup of tea, sat in my living room, decided that I’d gotten myself into this situation in the first place and I would have to cope with it. I phrased my reply carefully.
“I wanted to be everything you wanted me to be, and as soon as I knew for sure that I couldn't be that, I was terrified that you would find out and you wouldn't want me anymore. [...] I'm scared that as soon as I open myself to you, you'll reject me for being such a freak and then I'll lose you AND be hurt. [...] I kinda wish we could just start over, and go more slowly, and I wouldn't get scared and I'd be able to act maturely and not like a 13-year-old in over her head.” The problem wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I liked him as much as I’d liked any other boy. That was the scary part.
A few weeks later we went out for his birthday. I baked a cake and he blew out the candles. Later he told me that he had made a wish; that our relationship would work out. It was a lot of pressure, and I tried to hide the fact that it still freaked me out when he said things like that. But part of me found it romantic, and that was the part I tried hard to focus on.
I don’t remember the timeline as clearly for the next few months. We hung out regularly, swam together and worked out together, and spent an entire guard team competition getting in trouble with the coach (“no touching!”). I brought him Tupperwares of food when he worked Saturday afternoon shifts at the pool. We did our homework together (him doing economics math problems, me making a colorful cardboard poster for my nursing placement in a daycare, probably the first time in my life I felt like the non-nerd in the room). We both said, “I love you.”
We fought about a lot of things, too, mainly the fact that he always wanted to see me more and I always wanted more time to read, write, swim, and sleep. But we talked everything through and usually came to some kind of compromise. I started sleeping over at his apartment once or twice a week, which I resented because sharing a single bed meant that I didn’t so much sleep as lie awkwardly awake for almost the whole night. We did our grocery shopping together. Gradually we started touching again, and I habituated to it, although some things still freaked me out. I only felt comfortable making out if the lights were on. I didn’t want to do anything at my place, because I was afraid my roommates would judge me. (They probably did.) In short, those months weren’t exactly the happiest of my life: I was stressed, exhausted, and under pressure all the time.
At some point during the spring, I can’t remember the month exactly, I had my first orgasm when he was touching me. It was a huge surprise: “my body can do that?” Molybdenumblue and my mother both recommended that I practice, so I started masturbating for the first time in my life. But sex was still the main thing we fought about. Eventually we worked out a routine where I could at least satisfy his needs without too much time or effort. The semester was nearly over by now, and at some point we had decided that we wanted to try living together in the summer. We had been dating for less than four months. All of my roommates and many of my friends thought it was a terrible idea. My mother approved wholeheartedly, though, and I trusted her judgment. We moved into a subletted apartment on campus at the beginning of May.
It could have gone badly, but it went incredibly well. We had a double bed and I was actually able to sleep well nearly every night. I was working a lot, usually more than 45 hours a week, and juggling my mandatory exercise routines, but seeing each other at night was the default, rather than another commitment to slot into my schedule. Sex still wasn’t happening, so I went to see my family doctor and she recommended a physiotherapy routine that I could practice at home, and we were having sex maybe three weeks later. About the only thing I liked was that it was over quickly, but it still felt like an incredible accomplishment. My mother bought me chocolate as a reward for my hard work.
It seemed to be the end of the last snag in our relationship, the last obstacle that would have kept us from staying together long-term. We talk about everything, from the possibility of having kids someday (though definitely not soon, even though kids are uber-cute and I have to work with them every day at the pool and I want one too) to my crush on a girl at work. (When I was planning to go for a swim with her at the campus pool: “Aww, have fun on your lesbian date!”)
Conclusion: Billy left for a four-month exchange in France at the end of September, just before I went back to school for another semester of madly juggling school, work, and exercise, hoping that I would be able to cut back on my workaholic-ism; it’s irrational to think I’ll actually go bankrupt if I only work one shift a week. I was optimistic.
...And that was when I realized that I don’t feel like a scared thirteen-year-old girl anymore. I don’t feel like a freak and I don’t feel inadequate. I don’t find the day-to-day of a relationship stressful. I’ve made a ton of compromises, smoothed off some of the stubbornly contrarian aspects of my personality, and I don’t resent it; I feel good about it. My feelings are no longer as unpredictable as the weather, and when something does upset me, I almost always understand why and know how to fix it.
I couldn’t have achieved this on my own. I’ve relied on my mother, my sister, my best friend, and molybdenumblue. Not to mention one of the most incredibly patient, open-minded, and persistent people I’ve met in my life: Billy himself. But it’s a success story for me, even so. I wanted to be stronger, so I tried to change myself, and it was harder than anything I had ever done before, and I could have given up and walked away, but I decided to keep trying. And that's what makes it my greatest achievement.
*Billy has read this and ok'd everything I wrote, too.
In which I attempt to apply findings from behavioral psychology to my own life.
Behavioral Psychology Finding #1: Habituation
The psychological process of "extinction" or "habituation" occurs when a stimulus is administered repeatedly to an animal, causing the animal's response to gradually diminish. You can imagine that if you were to eat your favorite food for breakfast every morning, it wouldn't be your favorite food after a while. Habituation tends to happen the fastest when the following three conditions are met:
- The stimulus is delivered frequently
- The stimulus is delivered in small doses
- The stimulus is delivered at regular intervals
Source is here.
I had a project I was working on that was really important to me, but whenever I started working on it I would get demoralized. So I habituated myself to the project: I alternated 2 minutes of work with 2 minutes of sitting in the yard for about 20 minutes. This worked.
The other day I went to get some productivity-enhancement M&Ms from the candy machine at work. When I opened my wallet, I didn't immediately see a $1 bill. Then I looked some more and I found one, and I was happy! But of course that doesn't make any sense. If that bill hadn't been a $1, then it would have had to be a $5 or more, with an expected value of $5+, which is an amount that I certainly would not have paid for a bag of M&Ms, most excellent though they may be. This means that I preferred a bag of M&Ms to $1 (that's why I went to the candy machine in the first place), $1 to $5+ (I was happy when the bill turned out to be a $1), and $5+ to a bag of M&Ms (I wouldn't have bought them at that price). Not too surprising I guess, but still kind of weird.
A man goes in to see his doctor, and after some tests, the doctor says, "I'm sorry, but you have a fatal disease."
Man: "That's terrible! How long have I got?"
Man: "Ten? What kind of answer is that? Ten months? Ten years? Ten what?"
The doctor looks at his watch. "Nine."
Recently I received some bad medical news (although not as bad as in the joke). Unfortunately I have been diagnosed with a fatal disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS causes nerve damage, progressive muscle weakness and paralysis, and ultimately death. Patients lose the ability to talk, walk, move, eventually even to breathe, which is usually the end of life. This process generally takes about 2 to 5 years.
There are however two bright spots in this picture. The first is that ALS normally does not affect higher brain functions. I will retain my abilities to think and reason as usual. Even as my body is dying outside, I will remain alive inside.
The second relates to survival. Although ALS is generally described as a fatal disease, this is not quite true. It is only mostly fatal. When breathing begins to fail, ALS patients must make a choice. They have the option to either go onto invasive mechanical respiration, which involves a tracheotomy and breathing machine, or they can die in comfort. I was very surprised to learn that over 90% of ALS patients choose to die. And even among those who choose life, for the great majority this is an emergency decision made in the hospital during a medical respiratory crisis. In a few cases the patient will have made his wishes known in advance, but most of the time the procedure is done as part of the medical management of the situation, and then the ALS patient either lives with it or asks to have the machine disconnected so he can die. Probably fewer than 1% of ALS patients arrange to go onto ventilation when they are still in relatively good health, even though this provides the best odds for a successful transition.
Posting by non-admins is disabled for now - today we're just testing out registration, commenting, threading, etcetera.)
To break up the awkward silence at the start of a recent Overcoming Bias meetup, I asked everyone present to tell their rationalist origin story - a key event or fact that played a role in their becoming rationalists. This worked surprisingly well.
I think I've already told enough of my own origin story on Overcoming Bias: how I was digging in my parents' yard as a kid and found a tarnished silver amulet inscribed with Bayes's Theorem, and how I wore it to bed that night and dreamed of a woman in white, holding a leather-bound book called Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (eds. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, 1982)... but there's no need to go into that again.
So, seriously... how did you originally go down that road?
I remember the moment of my first break with Judaism. It was in kindergarten, when I was being forced to memorize and recite my first prayer. It was in Hebrew. We were given a transliteration, but not a translation. I asked what the prayer meant. I was told that I didn't need to know - so long as I prayed in Hebrew, it would work even if I didn't understand the words. (Any resemblance to follies inveighed against in my writings is not coincidental.)
Of course I didn't accept this, since it was blatantly stupid, and I figured that God had to be at least as smart as I was. So when I got home, I asked my parents, and they didn't bother arguing with me. They just said, "You're too young to argue with; we're older and wiser; adults know best; you'll understand when you're older."
They were right about that last part, anyway.
Of course there were plenty of places my parents really did know better, even in the realms of abstract reasoning. They were doctorate-bearing folks and not stupid. I remember, at age nine or something silly like that, showing my father a diagram full of filled circles and trying to convince him that the indeterminacy of particle collisions was because they had a fourth-dimensional cross-section and they were bumping or failing to bump in the fourth dimension.
My father shot me down flat. (Without making the slightest effort to humor me or encourage me. This seems to have worked out just fine. He did buy me books, though.)
But he didn't just say, "You'll understand when you're older." He said that physics was math and couldn't even be talked about without math. He talked about how everyone he met tried to invent their own theory of physics and how annoying this was. He may even have talked about the futility of "providing a mechanism", though I'm not actually sure if I originally got that off him or Baez.
You see the pattern developing here. "Adulthood" was what my parents appealed to when they couldn't verbalize any object-level justification. They had doctorates and were smart; if there was a good reason, they usually would at least try to explain it to me. And it gets worse...
"Something to Protect" discursed on the idea of wielding rationality in the service of something other than "rationality". Not just that rationalists ought to pick out a Noble Cause as a hobby to keep them busy; but rather, that rationality itself is generated by having something that you care about more than your current ritual of cognition.
So what is it, then, that I protect?
I quite deliberately did not discuss that in "Something to Protect", leaving it only as a hanging implication. In the unlikely event that we ever run into aliens, I don't expect their version of Bayes's Theorem to be mathematically different from ours, even if they generated it in the course of protecting different and incompatible values. Among humans, the idiom of having "something to protect" is not bound to any one cause, and therefore, to mention my own cause in that post would have harmed its integrity. Causes are dangerous things, whatever their true importance; I have written somewhat on this, and will write more about it.
But still - what is it, then, the thing that I protect?
I was recently invited to give a talk on heuristics and biases at Jane Street Capital, one of the top proprietary trading firms ("proprietary" = they trade their own money). When I got back home, I realized that (a) I'd successfully managed to work through the trip, and (b) it'd been very pleasant mentally, a nice change of pace. (One of these days I have to blog about what I discovered at Jane Street - it turns out they've got their own rationalist subculture going.)
So I've decided to hang out my shingle as a speaker at financial companies.
You may be thinking: "Perhaps, Eliezer, this is not the best of times."
Well... I do have hopes that, among the firms interested in having me as a speaker, a higher-than-usual percentage will have come out of the crash okay. I checked recently to see if this were the case for Jane Street Capital, and it was.
But more importantly - your competitors are learning the secrets of rationality! Are you?
Or maybe I should frame it as: "Not doing too well this year? Drop the expensive big-name speakers. I can give a fascinating and useful talk and I won't charge you as much."
And just to offer a bit of a carrot - if I can monetize by speaking, I'm much less likely to try charging for access to my future writings. No promises, but something to keep in mind. So do recommend me to your friends as well.
Followup to: Use the Try Harder, Luke
"Persevere." It's a piece of advice you'll get from a whole lot of high achievers in a whole lot of disciplines. I didn't understand it at all, at first.
At first, I thought "perseverance" meant working 14-hour days. Apparently, there are people out there who can work for 10 hours at a technical job, and then, in their moments between eating and sleeping and going to the bathroom, seize that unfilled spare time to work on a book. I am not one of those people—it still hurts my pride even now to confess that. I'm working on something important; shouldn't my brain be willing to put in 14 hours a day? But it's not. When it gets too hard to keep working, I stop and go read or watch something. Because of that, I thought for years that I entirely lacked the virtue of "perseverance".
In accordance with human nature, Eliezer1998 would think things like: "What counts is output, not input." Or, "Laziness is also a virtue—it leads us to back off from failing methods and think of better ways." Or, "I'm doing better than other people who are working more hours. Maybe, for creative work, your momentary peak output is more important than working 16 hours a day." Perhaps the famous scientists were seduced by the Deep Wisdom of saying that "hard work is a virtue", because it would be too awful if that counted for less than intelligence?
I didn't understand the virtue of perseverance until I looked back on my journey through AI, and realized that I had overestimated the difficulty of almost every single important problem.
Sounds crazy, right? But bear with me here.
Followup to: The Magnitude of His Own Folly
I remember (dimly, as human memories go) the first time I self-identified as a "Bayesian". Someone had just asked a malformed version of an old probability puzzle, saying:
If I meet a mathematician on the street, and she says, "I have two children, and at least one of them is a boy," what is the probability that they are both boys?
In the correct version of this story, the mathematician says "I have two children", and you ask, "Is at least one a boy?", and she answers "Yes". Then the probability is 1/3 that they are both boys.
But in the malformed version of the story—as I pointed out—one would common-sensically reason:
If the mathematician has one boy and one girl, then my prior probability for her saying 'at least one of them is a boy' is 1/2 and my prior probability for her saying 'at least one of them is a girl' is 1/2. There's no reason to believe, a priori, that the mathematician will only mention a girl if there is no possible alternative.
So I pointed this out, and worked the answer using Bayes's Rule, arriving at a probability of 1/2 that the children were both boys. I'm not sure whether or not I knew, at this point, that Bayes's rule was called that, but it's what I used.
And lo, someone said to me, "Well, what you just gave is the Bayesian answer, but in orthodox statistics the answer is 1/3. We just exclude the possibilities that are ruled out, and count the ones that are left, without trying to guess the probability that the mathematician will say this or that, since we have no way of really knowing that probability—it's too subjective."
I responded—note that this was completely spontaneous—"What on Earth do you mean? You can't avoid assigning a probability to the mathematician making one statement or another. You're just assuming the probability is 1, and that's unjustified."
To which the one replied, "Yes, that's what the Bayesians say. But frequentists don't believe that."
And I said, astounded: "How can there possibly be such a thing as non-Bayesian statistics?"
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