COVID-19

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (but checking my blog?), the worst pandemic in a generation is gripping the world. If you’re looking for the bare minimum of what you should do:

  • Stay home. Do not leave your home except to buy food or medication.
  • Wash your hands regularly. Properly. With soap.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Take it seriously. People you know will be dead before it’s over.

That’s pretty much it really.


I wanted that version to be punchy, so I simplified a little bit. Here’s a few elaborations:

  • Technically it’s fine to leave your home as long as you:
    • Stay 6 feet away from other people at all times.
    • Avoid enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.
    • Don’t touch anything that other people have touched.
  • It’s possible that nobody you know will die from this, if:
    • You are a hermit who doesn’t know anybody to begin with.
    • You live in China, South Korea, or Japan. Those three countries are the only ones who have successfully contained the outbreak.

For a more in-depth look at the situation we’re in and possible outcomes I would recommend The Hammer and the Dance.

For statistics I would recommend WorldOMeter. Though be aware that with delays in incubation and delays in testing, any numbers are likely to be a week or more out of date. At least 4x any number you see.

For more information on your local situation and laws, check with your local government; I don’t know where you live. But do be aware that government response has been really really bad in most parts of the world (again excepting China, South Korea, and Japan). Take it more seriously than your government does.

For general advice on planning for disasters, I recommend this fantastic guide. It’s a bit late for a lot of the advice now, but some of it is still useful, and a lot of it will be useful if you survive this round.

International Conflict X-Risk in the Era of COVID-19

Jeremy Hussel had a great comment pointing out something which is easy to forget – major disasters often have multiple quasi-independent causes. Many things go wrong all at once, and any safeguards are overwhelmed by the repeated issues. COVID-19 could clearly be one of those root causes. What might be others?

Another clear source of turmoil for the western world right now is domestic politics. America has a historically unpredictable president and is heading into a divisive election year where the two candidates are both likely to be very old. The UK is finally going to leave the EU and hasn’t yet struck a deal to determine what that actually means. Canada (where I live, though less critical on the world stage) was in the middle of its own domestic crisis around Native American land rights and infrastructure projects before that got overshadowed by COVID-19 – our railroads and as such some parts of our supply chain had been shut down for weeks already by protesters.

A third source of problems might be the “oil war” between OPEC and Russia, but I don’t know enough about that to really write about it usefully.

With all that said, the thing that I am most afraid of right now is China. China has been very aggressive on the world stage in the last couple of days, and I fully expect them to continue that pattern. Why wouldn’t they? Just as their country is recovering from the virus and starting to pick back up, the crisis in America and Europe is still growing. They are feeling strong while Western democracies are weak, divided, and looking inwards, and we should fully expect them to take advantage of that power imbalance in the short term to do things like finally and properly annexing Hong Kong (predict 50% that by the time COVID-19 has run its course in North America, Hong Kong has lost whatever quasi-independence it might have had).

The question is how far they will go, and how will we (our governments) react? In normal times I would expect them to be cautious but I would also expect a cautious response from western governments. With the current volatility in the American system and the antagonism built up over the previous Chinese-American trade war, there is substantial risk of something escalating out of control. A full military conflict between world powers at this point in time would truly be something else going terribly, terribly wrong.

Multiple Meanings in “I don’t know how I feel about that”

I noticed an unexpected form of ambiguity recently in the context of the phrase “I don’t know how I feel about that”. In common English, that sentence and its many permutations and variants have a fairly specific meaning, which is almost but not exactly the literal meaning. I was trying to specifically communicate the literal meaning, and realized I couldn’t without a bunch of explanation. This post is that explanation, for future reference.

As an example, let’s say you were offered a piece of food. We can roughly map your emotional reaction down to a simple scale from -100 (very negative; you would not eat the food under any circumstances) to 100 (very positive; you desperately want to eat the food). A score around 0 would be neutral, or ambivalent. This loses a lot of nuance of course, but that’s OK for the purposes of the example.

Given this scenario, if you say “I don’t know how I feel about that”, that’s generally taken to mean your reaction is around 0; you are roughly ambivalent. But literally taken, you do actually know how you feel: you know that you’re ambivalent. What you’re really expressing uncertainty about is which side of 0 you’ll fall on (ever so slightly positive, or ever so slightly negative), and thus whether you should eat the food.

However, in the specific case I ran into recently, I didn’t want to express “I’m close to neutral on this”. I wanted to express “I literally do not know what number I am feeling”. I could have been anywhere on the scale between -100 and 100, and I simply didn’t know. This not knowing was a very weird experience in itself, since it doesn’t seem common to be that out of touch with your own emotions. But apparently it can happen. Who knew.

A Cautionary Note on Unlocking the Emotional Brain

[Follows from Mental Mountaineering]

In children’s stories, the good guys always win, the hero vanquishes the villain, and everyone lives happily ever after. Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

The world of therapy presented by Unlocking the Emotional Brain reads somewhat like a children’s story. Loosely, it presents a model of the brain where your problems are mostly caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (bad guys). The solution to your problems is to develop or discover a correct emotional belief (good guy) that contradicts your incorrect beliefs, then force your brain to recognize the contradiction at an emotional level. This causes your brain to automatically resolve the conflict and destroy the incorrect belief, so you can live happily ever after.

Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

After about a month of miscellaneous experimentation on myself based on this book, my experiences match the basic model presented, where many psychological problems are caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (I don’t think this part is particularly controversial in psychological circles). It also seems to be true that if I force my brain to recognize a contradiction between two emotionally relevant beliefs, it will resolve the conflict and destroy one of them. Of course, as in real life where the good guy doesn’t always win, it seems that when I do this my brain doesn’t always destroy the right belief.

I have had several experiences now where I have identified an emotional belief which analytically I believe to be false or harmful. Per UtEB I have identified or created a different experience or belief that contradicts it, and smashed them together in my mind. A reasonable percentage of the time, the false belief emerges stronger than before, and I find myself twisting the previous “good” belief into some horrific experience to conform with the existing false belief.

In hindsight this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Whatever part of your brain is used to resolve conflicting emotional beliefs and experiences, it doesn’t have special access to reality. All it has to work with are the two conflicting pieces and any other related beliefs you might have. It’s going to pick the wrong one with some regularity. As such, my recommendation for people trying this process themselves (either as individuals or as therapists) is to try and ensure that the “good” belief is noticeably stronger and more immediate than the false one before you focus on the contradiction. If this doesn’t work and you end up in a bad way, I’ve had a bit of luck “quarantining” the newly corrupted belief to prevent it from spreading to even further beliefs, at least until I can come up with an even stronger correct belief to fight it with.

Mental Mountaineering

Back in November, Scott Alexander wrote a post called Mental Mountains, referring to the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain and this discussion of it over at Less Wrong. I’m halfway through the book itself, and I’ve read both discussions of it including some of the follow-up conversations that happened in the comments. It’s a fascinating model and definitely worth reading if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ve been reading a lot of therapy/psychology books recently and this one does seem to tie a lot of things together very nicely.

One partial comment that stood out to me from the Less Wrong discussion was the following by PJ Eby:

…I didn’t realize yet that hard part 1 (needing to identify the things to change) and hard part 2 (needing to get past meta issues), meant that it is impossible to mass-produce change techniques.

That is, you can’t write a single document, record a single video, etc. that will convey to all its consumers what they need in order to actually implement effective change.

I don’t mean that you can’t successfully communicate the ideas or the steps. I just mean that implementing those steps is not a simple matter of following procedure, because of the aforementioned Hard Parts. It’s like expecting someone to learn to bike, drive, or debug programs from a manual.

Let it never be said that I didn’t like a challenge.


I’ve been working on my own brain fairly intentionally for several years now. This process has included traditional therapy with a licensed psychologist, a bunch of reading, and of course just a lot of my own time spent thinking and introspecting and running various thought experiments to see how different hypothetical worlds would make me feel. In this time I have made substantial progress on some problems, and very little progress on others. I’m always looking for more tools to add to my toolbox, and when I first read Scott’s article I added Unlocking the Emotional Brain to my short-list of books to get out of the library.

I’ve read the first three chapters of the book now, and I’ve already paused my reading several times to try and put various pieces of it into practice inside my mind. It’s far too early to draw any reliable conclusions from that, but preliminary results appear promising. I should, however, note that I’m likely to be an outlier in this respect. I’m an introspective and generally self-aware person to begin with, this is an area of general interest for me anyway, and of course I’ve already spent a substantial amount of time articulating and discussing my problems with the help of a real psychologist (though not one who is aware of UtEB). In other words, I have a fairly substantial set of advantages over the average person who might read UtEB and try and self-inflict its particular form of therapy.

At this point it’s too early to know if the internal process I’m going to follow is even going to generate substantive long-term results. If it does however, then I may very well take a crack at generalizing that into a series of posts for do-it-yourself therapy. PJ’s reservations are well-founded but I firmly believe I can explain just about anything to a general audience, and this sure seems like it would be valuable enough to try.

Two More Weird Moral Rules

In my previous post I unpacked a number of moral rules I’d developed as a child trying to be clever and hack adult morality. What I didn’t quite realize when I published it was that the list incomplete – now that I’m actively paying attention to my moral intuitions I keep running across additional things which belong on the list. Here are more things that are still part of my psyche in some way.

Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. I’d originally just edited this into the previous post after the fact, but now that I’ve found more rules it deserves a proper write-up too. This one is really interesting because in practice I’m sure I still hyperbolically discount my choices a lot of the time. However it has led to some weirder personal choices which I’m still not sure are entirely wrong. For example, I don’t drink coffee for largely the same reason I don’t do heroin: the long-term costs of an addiction seem to outweigh the temporary benefits. Clearly most people don’t think this way (or at least don’t bother to think this way), and the cost-benefit analysis for coffee is not as clearly one-sided as it is for heroin, but… it still makes sense in my head. It’s also worth noting that I do drink coffee occasionally, as a tool to stay awake when e.g. driving long distances late at night. But this is reasonable because caffeine is much less addictive than heroin, so it can be more safely used as a tool in certain situations without developing a habit.

Another weird one this short-term-long-term rule has affected is how I listen to music. I’ve noticed that I tend to listen to my music at a much lower volume than other people, I never use earbuds (in-ear headphones) if I can avoid it, and if I’m in an environment that is noisy such as an airplane, I tend to prefer turning my music off rather than turning it up to compensate. My brain tells me I do this because I strongly value my future hearing much more than whatever marginal enjoyment I’d get from slightly louder music. I imagine this is mediated in part because, as a fairly musical person, half the music I “listen to” is entirely in my head anyway.

Never seek status or be seen to be seeking status. My brain argues that it’s a waste of resources since it actually lowers your status among the people who do the real work. I need to get my hair cut right now (it is getting sufficiently shaggy to start being a problem) and I was avoiding it because it felt wrong. Digging into this made me realize that the barber I’ve been going to was “too fancy”, and that I was actively making myself feel guilty for spending money on “status” services that weren’t “practical” enough. There’s a clear kernel of truth behind this one; “shallow”, “vain”, etc. are all pejorative for a reason. And I’m sure a lot of it can be traced back to this Paul Graham essay which I have probably referenced way too much in the history of this blog now. But still, I’m clearly taking this rule too far. A haircut is a haircut.

Beyond those two additions, I want to leave one more thought on a group that showed up in my previous post: don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t double down, don’t learn things the hard way. These four rules are all underpinned by a pretty fundamental intuition which is: you are not as smart as the system. Other people know what’s what, and if you try and cheat them (or even just ignore their advice) it will go badly for you. What’s weird about this one is how false it seems to be in practice now. It was certainly true when I developed it (I was a kid, my parents are both very smart, and my mother at least is also very perceptive (hey dad!)) but now I’m fairly certain that I could lie and cheat circles around most people without getting caught. I don’t. And anyway the people I actively spend time with tend to be just as clever as me and unlikely to be fooled. But it’s weird to think of an alternative evil version of myself that has a very different social circle and is a creepy manipulative bastard, and gets away with it. I don’t want that life, but it seems achievable, which is scary enough.

A Meta-Morality Tale

As a child, you hear a lot of fables and morality tales. Most stories aimed at children have a moral of some sort, and even stories that aren’t explicitly aimed at kids typically have some sort of morality baked in. It’s hard to avoid when writing.

As a child, I noticed this and thought I was being very clever by trying to pattern-match my way from the collection of these morality tales to “general rules for life”. I didn’t frame it in quite this way at the time, but it seemed obvious that adults were trying to teach kids certain things about the world using repetition and variation on a theme, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just formulate the rules into English and tell me them already. But I liked puzzles and so if they wouldn’t tell me I’d just figure it out myself. As I formulated my rules, I promised myself that I would follow them unconditionally. After all, I was being clever and unlocking the secrets to life “early” somehow, so if I just always did the right thing that should clearly be an advantage. Spoiler: it wasn’t.

Considerably rephrased for clarity, this is what I remember coming up with:

  • Always put the tribe first (I was later delighted when I found out that Star Trek did in fact state this explicitly as “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few”).
  • Always default to trust. Many more problems are caused by good people not trusting each other than are caused by bad actors.
  • Never try to cheat any system, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never lie, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never double down on a sin. Fess up and accept the smaller punishment instead of having to deal with the bigger punishment that inevitable comes when your house of cards collapses.
  • Never learn things the hard way (In other words always trust other peoples’ tales of their own experiences and lessons learned. If they say it was a bad idea, it really was a bad idea).
  • Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. [edited to add, then just moved to a whole new post]

Seeing them written out like this I’m still kinda impressed with young me. Some of these are actually pretty solid and most of them I still follow to some degree (I was and still am more of a deontologist than a utilitarian). But I’ve run into enough problems with them that of course I was not nearly as clever as I thought I was. In particular the issues I’ve run into most are:

  • “Put the tribe first” has led me down a fairly guilt-ridden self-sacrificing route a few too many times. If I had to pick a better alternative I’d hazard a guess that “Always cooperate” would address the same kinds of morality tales and prisoner’s dilemmas without casting as wide a net.
  • “Never lie” hasn’t caused me so many direct problems, but mostly because I did figure out pretty early that in fact there are higher ethical concerns. I’d still wager that I lie a lot less than the average person, but I am capable.
  • “Never learn things the hard way” has been a big problem in practice, though fairly subtly. The problems are that a) Not everyone has the same set of values, so what may be a bad idea for you might be a good idea for me, and b) Second-hand knowledge may substitute well for first-hand knowledge in abstract decision making, but it really doesn’t substitute at all in terms of life skills or self-actualization.

In summary: ethics is hard. If my parents had known this was going through my head at the time they probably could have saved a lot of trouble by just giving me Kant and Hume to read.

P.S. Now that I’ve given this a title I wish I had the energy to go back and rewrite it in the actual structure of a morality tale. Alas it is late and I am lazy.