Closer to Fine

Epistemic Status: Personal

I’ve done a lot of personal growth work in the past year, and I wanted to document it here, for the sake of general edification and also to keep a record of things.

I’m now at the point where I have markedly less interest in general “self-improvement” — skill-building never stops, of course, but I feel like I’m fundamentally fine and don’t need fixing, I feel like I’m done with the “fix myself” stage of my life.  So it seems like a good point at which to stop and reflect.

Basic Mood

I manage my mood with antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, and have since September of 2015. I have pretty vanilla 21st century mild depression/anxiety, and at the moment I do much better medicated than not.

But I think of mood as just a sort of baseline scalar value, and addressing it chemically isn’t enough if you also have more complex cognitive stuff going on that needs to be fixed.

Scrupulosity

Scrupulosity is a term borrowed from the Catholics, referring to “An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not”.  In other words, irrational guilt. This used to be a big problem for me.

Scrupulosity is very painful, and seems to be little discussed outside of religious contexts, but one can definitely get it about secular issues. Is it bad that I make money? Is it bad that I hold some controversial opinions? Am I too difficult, too overbearing, too greedy, too much?

The first thing, for me, in combating scrupulosity, was having a moral framework in which I could be confident that the benign things I did were, in fact, not wrong. It was very important to me that this framework was credible and didn’t feel like a bunch of pretty lies. Some things are wrong: cruelty, dishonesty, etc.  I am not perfect and do occasionally do bad things. But things like “thinking for myself” or “asserting myself” or “earning a living” are good, not bad.  And there are straightforward reasons why.

This isn’t enough by itself, because you can be intellectually aware that a thing is true, and still have strong negative feelings that contradict it. So the first thing I started doing was developing repetitive associations & verbal fluency. I literally made Anki cards with inspiring quotes on them and memorized them. I read books that encouraged self-worth. I talked to people who could tell me I was okay.  I picked up little verbal mantras that I’d repeat to myself when I felt down.

This still isn’t enough, because you can fall into the trap of depending too much on external reassurance. There’s a big difference between “please tell me I’m okay, for the umpteenth time” and just believing “yeah, I’m okay, that’s a fact about reality.”  Getting over this last hump, for me, was mostly a matter of insights, deeply internalized.

Epiphanies are weird, because what happens in practice is that you have a lot of them, and they all sound really obvious if you say them out loud. I believe this is normal. Single epiphanies don’t change you for life, mostly, but an aggregate of many epiphanies on the same theme add up.

Things like “I can trust myself more”, “I deserve happiness”, “I am actually successful by my own standards”, “I have strong convictions and admire heroism and that is a good thing”, “I care about truth and science a lot”, “I care about peace and freedom a lot,” “I deserve to give myself credit”, “I deserve to live”, and so on, sound like mundane platitudes, but there’s an experience of grokking them deeply, recognizing that they’re not just nice things to say but in a certain sense literally true in real life, that is essential and can’t be replaced.

Emotional Lability

I had a problem with freaking out over small stuff and wanting a lot of comfort and attention in response. Moreover, I didn’t entirely want to stop freaking out; I kind of enjoyed the drama.

What “attention-seeking” felt like on the inside was craving an intense sensation of pleasure, which was maddeningly hard to get access to, but seemed like it ought to be easily available, and it was frustrating that people weren’t giving it to me, when it seemed so simple. All you have to do is react strongly to my behavior — be shocked, be enthusiastic, be angry, be sympathetic, give me stimulus of some kind!  What’s so hard about that?

But it is hard for a lot of people, and I began to realize that it was a burden on people I love. Moreover, it’s especially harmful to people who are very truthful. Emotional reactions often run counter to careful, honest reasoning.  Splashing around in the Emotion Sandbox often means saying things you don’t really mean, and when people take you literally, you’re deceiving them. Truthful people are also reluctant to jump into the Emotion Sandbox with you, because they want to maintain their own intellectual integrity.

Careful, denotative, truthful use of language, where you’re trying to communicate about reality, rather than just splashing emotional stimulus at each other, is a really useful skill. It built civilization.  Very few people are good at it, and those people are precious. Some of the most important people in my life are good at rationality in this sense, and I care about their happiness, and wouldn’t want to pressure them into damaging their souls. I’m good at rationality in some contexts, for that matter, and enhancing my ability to do science is very important to me, so I need to be careful with my mind.

Also, I’m getting older. “Wild and crazy” is cute on a teenager, less so on an adult.  The person I want to be in the coming years is an intelligent, decisive, practical woman.  I’m going to have a lot of things to do, and that trades off against emotional sound and fury.

So I basically concluded that I can accept a lower-emotional-lability life, because other things are more important.

In practice, that means I’ve cut out social media, drastically reduced the amount I bug people for emotional reassurance or otherwise try to provoke an emotional reaction, and am cultivating a sort of “I’m fine”, cheerful-worker-bee, don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff, sensibility.

At first it started out as a sort of grim satisfaction in Doing The Right Thing, but increasingly it’s felt more like actual cheerfulness, or like strength. Security in my own ability to be fine.

Perversity

Perversity is my word for when you do bad things on purpose.  Usually, in my case, this was laughably simple: I would go around saying “I’m bad!” and using really gloomy language.

I think it’s akin to some kinds of impulsive behavior like abusing drugs or self-harm, though, in that it involves doing stuff because it’s against the rules or doing stuff because it fits your self-image as a bad person.

I think perversity is actually quite widespread. When people lose hope that some good thing is possible, they say “forget it, I’ll just be Bad then.”  When people believe that ethical people are doomed to lose to unethical people, they can decide to be Bad. (I’ve met finance guys who are actively excited about how they’re investing in companies that destroy the rainforest. It’s not that they’re principled critics of environmentalism, it’s that they identify as the Baddies.)  I think some kinds of shallowness and cynicism and playing-dumb are symptoms of loss of hope.  I think that when you lose hope, you tend to adopt the belief that only losers hope.

In the game of Hearts, the person who accumulates the most heart cards loses — unless you accumulate all the hearts, in which case you win. This is called “shooting the moon.”

Perversity is like shooting the moon; somewhere, subconsciously, you hold the belief that if you only lost enough, you’d win. It doesn’t make sense, but somehow it can be emotionally powerful. There is a will to lose. There is such a thing as Thanatos, the death-drive.   There is such a thing as hatred of the good for being the good.

Any talk of such impulses has a tendency to sound paranoid, but I’m pretty confident that this is a real thing.  It’s not a complicated thing, or a mysterious force of darkness, though. It’s just the subconscious belief that a.) you’re definitely screwed (in some way), and b.) if you decide to lean into the bad thing on purpose that will make it okay.  If you suck on purpose, you don’t have to feel guilty for failing; if you harm yourself on purpose, or harm others, that will make it okay that the world harmed you.

This is kind of bassackwards, of course. There is no rule in reality that if you collect all the Badness, you win.  You just lose more.

(I am not the first person to notice that Hearts can be a weirdly emotionally compelling game, and deeply linked to the impulse towards perversity.)

For me, perversity was partly downstream of scrupulosity. The “I’m definitely screwed” part took the form of believing that I was a bad person, or an unsuccessful person, or an undeserving person.  Understanding that this literally wasn’t true was essential to overcoming despair.

There’s also the more-or-less independent epiphany that’s best summarized as “Goodness works.”  Being truthful, constructive, principled, etc. results in victory, not defeat.  The Allies won and the Nazis lost. The Quakers got rich on their reputation for honesty in business. Correct physics will build airplanes that fly.  Having nice things depends on people building nice things, and most of the time and in the long run, the best way to have nice things is to contribute to building them.  Exploitation is an edge case, that only works locally and burns itself out quickly.

Scott Alexander gets this:

I worry that I’m not communicating how beautiful and inevitable all of this is. We’re surrounded by  a vast confusion, “a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night”, with one side or another making a temporary advance and then falling back in turn. And in the middle of all of it, there’s this gradual capacity-building going on, where what starts off as a hopelessly weak signal gradually builds up strength, until one army starts winning a little more often than chance, then a lot more often, and finally takes the field entirely. Which seems strange, because surely you can’t build any complex signal-detection machinery in the middle of all the chaos, surely you’d be shot the moment you left the trenches, but – your enemies are helping you do it. Both sides are diverting their artillery from the relevant areas, pooling their resources, helping bring supplies to the engineers, because until the very end they think it’s going to ensure their final victory and not yours.

Understanding that goodness wins is the same thing as understanding that you can’t shoot the moon.

Being as bad as possible doesn’t make you Milton’s Satan, it makes you the dictator of North Korea. It is small and shitty and ruined and disappointing and sad.  You can’t get nice things by wrecking all the nice things.

If you grok this, then you stop seeing the appeal in fake things, or scams, or random chaos, or anything that isn’t “productive” in the “building more nice things” sense.  An unscrupulous employer can give you money…which you won’t enjoy, because working there will wear you down? That doesn’t sound fun. An angry outburst will…hurt the love of your life?  Well, that just sounds sad.  Obeying someone mean and scary means…you have to spend more time obeying someone mean and scary, instead of getting free. What’s so great about that?

I don’t think I’m articulating this well, but there’s sort of a sense of “you could have paradise — why would you lock yourself into a cage? why not have more good things…and fewer bad things?” And when this solidifies into what you actually believe (as opposed to an idea you’re flirting with or trying on), you have a kind of armor against perversity.

 

 

 

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Life Update

I’ve just started a job as a data scientist at Recursion Pharmaceuticals.  I’m using machine learning to find new drug compounds.

The basic model is:

  • take some rare diseases that are caused by single genes;
  • simulate these diseases cheaply and at scale with siRNA knockdowns;
  • detect (here’s the machine learning part) how images of sick cells look different from healthy cells
  • observe (machine learning again) which drugs make sick cells look like healthy cells
  • send the promising drugs on to in-vitro and in-vivo screens

This is basically my dream job.  I’ve been torn between math and biology since I was maybe 9; now I get to do both.  And I get to work towards precisely the problems I care about: curing diseases, getting as much purchase as possible out of computational methods in practical applications, reversing Eroom’s Law, etc.  I’m thrilled to be working at Recursion.

Due to company policy, I won’t be able to continue doing freelance lit review any more, at least not for paid projects; I expect to keep doing the occasional free project here and there.

I’ve also made a few updates in my views recently that I thought I’d share here.

  • The boost in my productivity and overall well-being from having a meaningful job, working with people I trust and respect on problems I care about, is enormous. Much more than I’d have expected. I am now much more sympathetic to messages like “too many people are trapped in bullshit jobs”, “pointless busywork in school is harmful”, “it’s bad to be alienated from one’s labor”, etc. I’m more bullish on things like self-employment, unschooling, quitting your job to pursue your passion, and so on; stagnation is a real cost to your soul.
    • I’m reminded of the theories of people like Gabriel Kolko, who said that the bigness of “big business” is an artifact of regulatory capture, in which large businesses are subsidized by the state. In this model, the “natural”, undistorted size of businesses would be smaller, and fewer things would be done that had no real purpose besides checking an officially-required box.  Pointless activity, under this model, is not “natural”; it’s usually forced.
    • I’m sort of playing with the idea of a philosophy of “makerism”, in which the good guys are simply the people who do self-evidently useful things. Building a house or preparing a meal is obviously Useful Work. As is discovering a drug or inventing a tool. In makerism, if you’d have trouble explaining to a precocious twelve-year-old why you’re doing a useful thing, there’s a chance that what you’re doing is bullshit. I’ve sort of poked at the idea of measures of awesomeness and the ecosystem of industry before.  The thing I’m trying to grope towards is productiveness. Not productivity, as in number of hours worked per day, or number of widgets produced per worker, but reaching towards usefulnessvalue, fruitfulnesssubstantialness, good-for-humans-ness.
  • My main update from job searching this time around (in mostly Silicon-Valley-based data science jobs) is that there is a thing called “fit” — how close the applicant’s background and skills are to what the employer is looking for — and the jobs you are an exact fit for will love you, and the ones you’re an imperfect fit for will reject you. For instance, it’s basically not worth it for me to even apply for jobs as a “data engineer”, because I’m not one. “Oh, it’s close to what I know and I can learn it on the job”? Nope. The right job is the one that’s dead center in the middle of your skillset.
    • Also, I had significantly better results applying to companies in the biomedical industry, I assume because I’ve done biomedical stuff in the past (systems-biology research in grad school, a personalized-medicine startup).  The takeaway here is that I expect you have the best shot in jobs that correspond well to your entire background, including things that you might classify as a “side interest”.  If you have a unique combination of skills, look for places that actively want that.
  •  Bay Area software companies seem mostly pretty sane, in that they do not hire the flagrantly unqualified. Don’t expect to bluff your way in.
  • Because there are so many people sharing stories about the opposite experience, I think it behooves me to share mine; I didn’t experience anything that I’d classify as sexism during my job search, even though nearly all my interviewers were male, and so were nearly all the data scientists at the companies where I applied. The closest thing was being told that I was too “nervous” by one interviewer, which is sort of gendered in a statistical sense, but is also legitimately true of me, and not true of all women.
  • I have noticed that a fair number of companies are “segregated”, in that all the engineers are Asian (and foreign-born) while all the managers are white. It seems to correlate really well with, for lack of a better word, “lameness” — companies that are stagnant, hierarchical, complacent, don’t have a strong engineering culture, etc.  I now consider racial glass ceilings to be a red flag.
  • Skills I wish I’d had: better memory for SQL syntax (yes, really), deep learning, computer vision, ETL pipelines
  • Skills I was glad I had: Spark, familiarity with the Python scientific computing & ML libraries, basic ML skills at the level of Hastie & Tibshirani, basic algorithms & data structures.
  • In technical interviews, a lot comes down to “fluency” or “execution” — can you solve simple math and programming problems correctly and quickly? are you checking for small errors? It’s very g-loaded, but I think there’s a skill of “turning your g on”, getting into “performance mode”, which I learned from years of being a math contest kid, and felt myself relearning as I went through the job search process. If you know what I’m talking about, focus on cultivating that, through repetitive practice of fairly-easy things with a high bar for accuracy, rather than studying super-advanced topics.

What’s Your Type: Identity and its Discontents

the-sea-lion-photo-u1

My type is Lisa Frank Sea Lion.

When I was a teenager, I had the intuition that third-wave feminism was a genre of feminine content.  A lot of the feminist books and magazines I came across had pink covers. A lot of them were about sex and relationships and clothes and pop culture — the same sorts of things I looked for in Seventeen magazine. I liked those topics; they gave me a deliciously wicked frisson; and I liked the kind of pop-feminist writing that was about Expressing Yourself; but I was obviously not a predominantly pink-flavored person. I was a serious person.

I am embarrassed to say that I never really appreciated the achievements of Rosalind Franklin until I was much older. I had grown up hearing about her as a “women in STEM” sermon.   I was a woman and I was a scientist, but I had decided that “women in STEM” was not my genre, or at least not so much that I would be in danger of being typecast.  The story of Watson and Crick was about DNA, but the story of Rosalind Franklin was about politics and unfairness and the HR-office side of a scientific career.  Obviously, DNA was more exciting to me at the time. It was only later that it clicked — if she independently discovered the double-helix structure, then she’s as much of a genius and pioneer as they were, arguably more so.  Her discovery belongs in the story of scientific progress, not on the shelf of books with pink covers.

In a liberal paradigm, things like feminism or anti-racism or LGBT rights or religious freedom are about liberating people.  You want to get rid of irrational prejudice and oppression so that people of any origin or creed can be free to do human stuff as they choose. The operative word is people. Sexual harassment, for instance, is wrong because it is an unjust harm to people.  None of this has anything to do with being pink-flavored or rainbow-flavored; you can be a middle-aged man with a dark suit and sober habits and speak out against injustice because it harms people, and you care about people, full stop.

The idea that feminism could be a flavor or a subculture or a genre is bizarre, if you look at it from the liberal paradigm.

But there’s also a market segmentation paradigm in which to think about this.

Market segmentation is a technique that marketers use to target products to certain demographics — and “products” include “content”, that is, books and articles and TV shows and so on.  And, with the rise of the internet and the abundance of consumer data, marketers have become very good at it.

Market segmentation involves identifying you with a type of person. A subculture, a demographic, a style, a flavor, a personality type. Cambridge Analytica, the internet marketing firm behind Trump’s success and the Brexit vote, categorizes people by their personality type in order to target political advertising at them. Marketers write profiles of a “typical” buyer of a product — a simplified bio of what kind of person they’re targeting.

“Red state” vs. “Blue state” is market segmentation. Personality types are market segmentation.  Exaggerated gender dimorphism — all women’s products are pink, all men’s products are black — is market segmentation. Subcultures (“nerd”, “goth”, “hipster”) are market segmentation.  Generations (Boomer, Gen X, Millennial) are market segmentation.

Statistical differences between groups of people obviously exist in the real world, but “identifying as” a category, exaggerating how much you match the category’s flavor and style, choosing a “type” to belong to, is a form of actively playing along with market segmentation, over and above whatever statistical differences exist.  One doesn’t “identify as” being born in 1988, but one does “identify as” a Millennial.

What flavor are you? What’s your type? What product is right for you?

There’s something irresistible about a personality quiz.  Tell me what type I belong to!  Tell me about myself!  It gratifies my vanity, and it helps me feel like I know my place in the world.

(I’m an INTP and a Gryffindor, natch.)

It took me a long time, and Dreyfus’ excellent commentary, to realize this, but Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, which literally translates to Being, is really better understood as the behavior of “identifying as.”

Dasein is what you do when you assert what it means to be human, what it means to be you, what it means to be a member of your community.  Dasein is self-definition.  And, in particular, self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type?

“Identifying as” always includes an element of misdirection. Merely describing yourself factually (“I was born in 1988”) is not Dasein. Placing an emphasis, exaggerating, cartoonifying, declaring yourself for a team, is Dasein.  But when you identify as, you say “I am such-and-such”, as though you were merely describing. You’re aligning yourself with your flavor of choice, while at the same time declaring vehemently that you’re only describing the way things are.

Your identity, no matter what it is, is always sort of bullshit or arbitrary or performative.  It’s role-playing. It’s kind of like wearing a mask.

And, for people who like it, there’s a delight in “identifying-as”, of putting yourself in a category, of knowing your type.  It makes you feel simple, well-defined, and important.

I knew a psychologist once who worked with businesses, and loved giving his clients the Myers-Briggs personality test. He told me that the main reason he used it was not the particular personality breakdown, but the simple fact that it divided people into 16 types. People would get into workplace disputes that were basically dominance hierarchies, arguments over who’s right or who’s best or who’s in charge. And he would resolve those disputes by helping people understand that Alice is one Myers-Briggs type and Bob is another; not better, not worse, just different.  “There are 16 kinds of people in the world” allows everyone to feel special (“A type! Just for me!”) and defuses hierarchical tussles, because no one type is on top.

But, of course, there are problems with “identifying-as.”

Paul Graham’s essay “Keep Your Identity Small” observes that the very feature that my psychologist acquaintance liked about personality types — that no type is better than any other — as a problem that makes it impossible to assess merit when identities are in play.

For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable—that all languages are equally good. Obviously that’s false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

Sometimes there are objective things that can be said about topics that people have chosen to build identities out of. Sometimes a programming language has strengths or weaknesses. Sometimes a government policy has benefits or harms. You might, in some circumstances, care about those objective, on-the-merits evaluations; maybe you want to achieve some goal and want to choose the best programming language for the job. You’re not going to be able to do that if the discussion gets taken over by identity; what people are doing when they’re identifying-as is self-expression or self-definition or self-assertion, which is lovely when you want it, but doesn’t answer any of your practical questions.  Unfortunately, people often do self-expression in the guise of answering your practical questions, and you may not know, or your interlocutor may not even know himself, that he’s really saying “I am a Lisp programmer!!” and not describing anything about the properties of Lisp.  One of the qualities of Dasein is that it’s very very stealthy, and it wants everything to be about Dasein, so it winds up muddying the waters, even when you don’t intend it to.

Coming back to the issue of politics, Dasein can mess up the attempt to solve social problems. If, when you say “sexual harassment”, people hear “feminist shibboleth”, then if they don’t identify as feminists, they may not actually notice the possibility that sexual harassment is a big problem that hurts a lot of human beings and that they might want to take seriously.  Sexual harassment gets perceived as a flag for pink-flavored people to wave, and if you’re not pink-flavored, you’re not the target market, so you don’t take it seriously.

If something matters generally, or is true objectively, regardless of subcultures, personality types, and tribes, then the identity mindset will be inadequate to deal with it.

Identity is obviously a really big part of the human experience. Heidegger thinks it’s essential and cannot be excised, and people who think they’ve achieved objectivity are fooling themselves. Without making that strong an absolute claim, I think it’s fair to say that identity is pervasive, and if you think it’s not an issue for you and have never considered it before, you should probably take a closer look and see how much it affects your life.

It’s also worth noting that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party, and that Nazism (as described in Mein Kampf) is all about how objectivity is terrible and how strong feelings of identity, specifically national and racial identity, are the best thing ever.  So there are some reasons to be suspicious of putting identity first at the expense of all other considerations.

Identity is always vivid, personal, flavorful.  It’s not “mere” fact, it’s alive with emphasis and exaggeration.  It’s never bland or dry.  I think that’s part of its appeal.  It makes you special, it makes you valid, it makes you distinctive.  It adds vim and verve to your self-image. It’s like all-caps and italics for your soul.

It may be dull in terms of information content (what it says is, always and forever, “I AM!!!”) but it’s never lacking in personal flair.

Most people I know who think about “identity” are rather like Paul Graham; they don’t have that strong a craving for it, and they’re frequently getting annoyed that other people are caught up in it. Or, they seek very specialized and cordoned-off ways to provide it for themselves: think of secular atheists who create rituals or highly independent introverts who contemplate the human need for community. I come at this from the opposite direction: I am a person who likes things hot-pink and in all caps, who always craves a higher emotional temperature, and who has been learning about how to navigate the fact that this is sometimes damaging and worth avoiding.

So, coming from that perspective, I’m genuinely unsure: do we want to channel identifying-as into safe, satisfying forms of pretend-play, or do we want to just have less of it?  To what extent is it even possible to channel or reduce it?