How Does Amazon Convince Anyone To Work For Them?

Amazon is in that club of employers (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, etc), where working there functions as a stamp of quality.  Their employees are frequently cold called by recruiters working for other members of the club, middle tier companies, and start ups that cannot get enough people through their personal network.  Amazon pays very well relative to most jobs, even many programming jobs, but it does not pay as well as other members of the club.  The salary is just a little less than you’d make elsewhere, but equity and bonuses are backloaded such that many people are driven out before they receive the bulk of them.  The health insurance isn’t as good.  I realize paying for your own lunch is normal, but Amazon makes employees pay for a lot of things other companies offer for free, like ergonomic keyboards.  And then there’s the work environment.

How does Amazon maintain a talent pool equivalent to the other prestige club members while paying less?

This is anecdotal, but my friends at Amazon are much more likely to have come from unprestigious companies or schools than my friends at other club companies.  Working at Amazon doesn’t make them smarter, but it does provide widely-accepted proof of their intelligence that they didn’t have before, and can leverage into cushier jobs later.   In some ways Amazon’s reputation for chewing people up and spitting them out is a feature here, because leaving after 18 months raises 0 questions among other employers.

So my hypothesis is Amazon invests more in finding and vetting smart people who aren’t currently holding Official Smart Person Cards, and that part of employees’ compensation is getting that card.  In this way it’s like the US Armed Forces, which are grueling and don’t pay well but people tend to leave them with many more options than they started with.

I’m unconvinced this is a winning strategy.  Operational turnover is expensive, and bad working conditions decrease people’s productivity even when they’re well compensated.  But it does at least explain why it hasn’t collapsed already.

In Defense Of The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Dutch disease is the economic concept that if a country is too rich in one thing, especially a natural resource, every other sector of the economy will rot because all available money and talent will flow towards that sector.  Moreover, that sector dominates the exchange rate, making all other exports uncompetitive.*  It comes up in foreign development a lot because charitable aid can cause dutch disease: by paying what the funders would consider a “fair wage”, charities position themselves as by far the best employers in the area.  The best and the brightest African citizens end up chauffering foreigners rather than starting their own businesses, which keeps the society dependent on outside help.  Nothing good comes from having poverty as your chief export.

I posit that a similar process takes place in corporations.  Once they are making too much money off a few major things (Windows, Office, AdWords, SUVs), even an exceptionally profitable project in a small market is too small to notice.  Add in the risk of reputation damage and the fact that all projects have a certain amount of overhead regardless of size, and it makes perfect sense for large companies to discard projects a start up would kill for (RIP Reader).**

That’s a fine policy in moderation, but there are problems with applying it too early.  Namely, you never know what something is going to grow into.  Google search originally arose as a way to calculate impact for academic papers. The market for SUVs (and for that matter, cars) was 0 until someone created it.  If you insist on only going after projects that directly address an existing large market, the best you’ll ever be is a fast follower.***

Simultaneously, going from zero to an enormous, productive project is really, really hard (see: Fire Phone, Google+, Facebook’s not-an-operating-system).  Even if you have an end goal in mind, it often makes sense to start small and iterate.  Little Bets covers this in great detail.  And if you don’t have a signed card from G-d confirming your end goal is correct, progressing in small iterative steps gives you more information and more room to pivot.

More than one keynote at EA Global talked about the importance of picking the most important thing, and of being willing to switch if you find something better.  That’s obviously great in in some cases, but I worry that this hyperfocusing will cause the same problems for us that it does at large companies: a lack of room to surprise ourselves.  For example, take the post I did on interpretive labor.  I was really proud of that post.  I worked hard on it.  I had visions of it helping many people in their relationships.  But if you’d asked at the time, I would have predicted that the Most Effective use of my time was learning programming skills to increase my wage or increase my value in direct work, and that that post was an indulgence.   It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me it would be read by someone in a far better position than me to do something about existential risk and be useful to them in connecting two key groups that weren’t currently talking to each other, but apparently it did.  I’m not saying that I definitely saved us from papercliptopia, but it is technically possible that that post (along with millions of other flaps of butterfly wings) will make the marginal difference.  And I would never have even known it did so except the person in question reached out to me at EA Global.****

Intervention effectiveness may vary by several orders of magnitude, but if the confidence intervals are just as big it pays to add a little wiggle to your selection.  Moreover, constant project churn has its own cost: it’s better to finish the third best thing than have to two half finished attempts at different best things.  And you never know what a 3rd best project will teach you that will help an upcoming best project- most new technological innovations come from combining things from two different spheres (source), so hyperfocus will eventually cripple you.

In light of all that, I think we need to stop being quite so hard on the sunk cost fallacy.  No, you should not throw good money after bad, but constantly re-evaluating your choices is costly and (jujitsu flip) will not always be most efficient use of your resources.  In the absence of a signed piece of paper from G-d, biasing some of your effort towards things you enjoy and have comparative advantage in may in fact be the optimal strategy

Using your own efficiency against you

My hesitation is that I don’t know how far you can take this before it stops being effective altruism and starts being “feel smug and virtuous about doing whatever it is you already wanted to do”- a thing we’re already accused of doing.  Could someone please solve this and report back?  Thanks.

* The term comes from the Dutch economic crash following the discovery of natural gas in The Netherlands.  Current thought is that was not actually Dutch disease, but that renaming the phenomenon after some third world country currently being devastated by it would be mean.

*Simultaneously, developers have become worse predictors of the market in general. Used to be that nerds were the early adopters and if they loved it everyone would be using it in a year (e.g. gmail, smart phones).  As technology and particularly mobile advances, this is no longer true.  Nerds aren’t powerusers for tablets because we need laptops, but tablet poweruser is a powerful and predictive market.  Companies now force devs to experience the world like users (Facebook’s order to use Android) or just outright tell them what to do (Google+).  This makes their ideas inherently less valuable than they were.  I don’t blame companies for shifting to a more user-driven decision making process, but it does make things less fun.

**Which, to be fair, is Microsoft’s actual strategy

***It’s also possible it accomplished nothing, or makes it worse.  But the ceiling of effectiveness is higher than I ever imaged and the uncertainty only makes my point stronger.

Filtering Labor

This is either a subset of interpretive labor or a closely related concept: Filtering Labor.  Suppose one person is generating information, and another person needs a small subset of it, or needs the information in aggregate but not specific pieces.  Who does the labor to filter it down?

Let’s talk about this in a work context.  Recently I was on a thread with four other people.  Everyone needed to get the original few letters, and everyone needed to know the final decision.  But in between those two were 5 or 10 e-mails nailing down some specifics between me and one other person.  The others needed to know the decisions we made, but reading the back and forth was of no value to them.  Nonetheless, they stayed on the thread.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if they only checked their e-mail once a day because they could skim through the thread, but that’s not how much people check e-mail, and I know it’s not how these particular people were handling this thread, because there were other messages in the same thread that required and received a near-instant response from them.

We could have saved them effort by taking them off the thread, and re-adding them when they were needed, with a summary of the decision.  But that requires looking at every message and thinking “who needs to see this?” What if a message is mostly unrelated to them but not entirely?  How do I know if a decision is finalized enough to be worth summarizing it to them?  It didn’t apply in this particular case, but my general experience at work is that the best moment to send out the summary- when everything has been more or less settled- does not draw attention to itself.  You just go two days without having to make a decision.  Not to mention that knowing what is relevant to others requires information about them- who filters that?

This only gets worse as companies grow.  My job is clearly terrified there will be something somewhere in the company that would be useful to me and I won’t know about it.  One solution would be to make things easy to find when I wanted to look for them (a pull-based system).  You can do some of this with good archiving and search tools, but to make it really work it requires effort from the information producers or some sort of archivist.  Things like tagging, summaries, updating the wiki.  Information producers rarely want to put in this effort (in part because of a justified belief it’s just going to change again next week.  But by the time that’s identifiably not true, the relevant information has faded from memory).  You can attempt to force them but it hurts morale and it really is going to be obsolete in a week.

So my job, and I believe a lot of other large software companies, uses a push system.  I’m on dozens of email lists giving me a stream of updates on what people are doing, sometimes very far away in the org.  I tried to make a list to convey to you all the lists I am on, but it is impossible.  Making the collected output of these lists useful often requires a lot of interpretive labor (e.g. translating a changelist into what a tool actually does and how it might relevant to me).  That takes time, and the farther away from me something in the org is, the more time it takes.  At this point there is no way I could thoughtfully process all of my mail and get anything else done.  It looks like information is being spread more widely, but the signal to noise ratio is so low I’m learning less.

The open office is an attempt to do the same with in person interactions- if people won’t seek out others to give them information they need (in part because they don’t know who needs it or who has it), make it impossible to not overhear.  We know what I think about that.

Some of this comes from a failure to adapt to circumstances.  When you start a company everything anyone does is relevant to you and you will always know about it without any effort on anyone’s part.  As you add people everything is still pretty relevant to them, but it takes more effort to find out about it.  Start-ups start using stand-ups or mailing lists.   The bigger they get, the more effort goes into sharing information.  For a while this doesn’t cost a lot in processing.  People have a certain amount of slack in their day (compiling, between meetings) and everything is close enough to what they work on that it’s easy to interpret.  But peoples projects grow more and more distant, and eventually you run out of slack.  After that every additional piece of information you give them beyond that comes at the cost of them producing actual work.

Which doesn’t mean you should stop: maybe it saves more work than it creates.  But I wish companies recognized the effort this required and started thinking more strategically about what was truly useful. There are already specialists that do parts of this under various names (Project/program manager, technical writer, manager, tech lead), if this was made explicit I think we could save people a lot of effort.

Why Open Offices? (synchronicity)

If one person is wrong, they’re wrong.  If a lot of people, some of whom got extremely rich off of their wrong ideas, are wrong, there’s a good possibility I’m the wrong one.  At a minimum, it’s useful for me to understand where I’m differing from others.  Open offices are one such puzzle.  To me, they are obviously one step short of Azkaban.  And yet everyone, including some exceptionally profitable companies, uses them.  Why?

At least Azkaban prisoners get their own cell
At least you get your own cell in Azkaban

[I’m going to restrict myself to tech companies because that’s what I know]

One possibility is some people genuinely prefer them.  I keep talking myself up to that, only to read another article about how everyone is miserable and unproductive in them.  I talk myself up again, and find a peer reviewed study detailing their terribleness.   I thought maybe they were for extroverts, but then I heard extroverts complain they couldn’t get any work done in them either (although they were having a lot more fun not working in them than I was).  My friends’ defenses of them/explanations of how they make it work sound more like Stockholm Syndrome, or at best the way I sound when I find a shortcut to finish a useless but mandatory  30 minute training in 5 minutes.  I noticeably improved my situation relative to the 30 minute scenario, but that doesn’t mean those 5 minutes were valuable.  But let’s assume my friends are a non-random subset and there are people who thrive in (some) open offices.  That’s great, if you hire those specific people.  One of my major frustrations with my current employer, Stark Industries, is that their interview process (closed room, no distractions, puzzles to solve on your own) is designed to filter in exactly people like me, and the work environment (completely open, constant distractions, work that sometimes feels more like being a PM* than a programmer) couldn’t be better designed to make us unproductive.

One possible justification for open offices is cost.  I certainly think that’s a larger factor than many companies admit, but if that were the only concern they’d convert to entirely work from home.  Moreover, engineers are really, really expensive, and making us less productive is costly.  The extra space necessary for doors or cubicles could easily pay for itself.  A slightly different explanation is that even if companies were willing to buy doored offices, acquiring office space is lumpier than hiring.  Having more than you need is expensive and it takes time to ramp up after a hiring spree.  That could explain temporary open offices, or roommates, but not stable ones.

Let’s go back one paragraph.  The open office isn’t the only thing I dislike about Stark Industries.  I’m also continually baffled by the fact that my technology company has a workflow designed around synchronous communication, in person if at all possible.  No one has time to answer email or IM thoughtfully because they’re running from one meeting to another, so if you want a response from someone you schedule a meeting.  The correct response to someone ignoring your e-mail is to ambush them in the hallway or, if they’re at a different site, schedule a videoconference.  It took me a very long time to get this, but making a meeting to do something that could have been handled over email is not a failure mode at Stark Industries.  This is how they expect it to work.  This must be how they want it to work, because instant messaging is a strictly easier technical problem than helicarriers, a project we also do.  Information is exchanged at meetings, which means everyone has to process it at the same time and either everyone moves at the speed of the slowest person* or you leave them behind.

What if the open office and the synchronicity are not a coincidence?  If you believe synchronicity is helpful (which Tony Stark clearly does, and which I agree with in some instances), then you’ll want to encourage it.  But as noted above, this is not the natural mode for a wide swath of programmers.  You can hire for it at first, but eventually that cuts you off from too much talent.  Any one individual can be forced to switch modes by being embedded in a group full of the other, but there aren’t enough synchronizers to absorb all the asynchronizers.

But… as much some people like retreating to do their own thing, they also like it when other people respond to them immediately.  They may be held back by empathy, but they’d still like the answer right away.  In an open office, the barriers to demanding an answer are reduced.  For one, you don’t have to leave your chair.  For two, offices and even cubicles have a sense of personal bubble.  You wait to be invited in, and it’s expected you’ll have to wait until they reach a breaking point.  After extensive experimentation I can tell you there is no way to generate that bubble at Stark Industries, and I assume open offices in general.  I once had a co-worker poke his head into the conference room I was hiding in for the sole purpose of asking if I was hiding so I could concentrate.** Open offices also lower the cost to any one interruption.  They do it by interrupting you so constantly you never get into a groove that could be interrupted, but they do technically lower it.***  So even the highly empathetic will feel less reluctance to interrupt co-workers because they are correctly calculating a lower cost to it.  In high doses, perhaps mixed with morale events and a culture that emphasizes meetings over email, this could lead to teams made entirely of asynchronous workers forcing synchronicity on themselves.

What is it about synchronicity that makes every major tech company started in the last 20 years be willing to pay so much for it?   Based on every survey ever and the coding wars study, it’s not improved performance at the object-level tasks of the job.  But work isn’t school, there’s more to it than fulfilling the terms of the assignment.  Maybe open offices lead to less redundancy or wasted work.  Maybe they make charisma and personal connections less important.  Maybe they’re the best way to force programmers to share information in the face of their steadfast refusal to write anything down.  That not only makes people more potentially more productive, it makes them more replaceable.

Bellatrix screaming in her cell at Azkaban
Look how productive she is

None of this makes me love open offices.  For one I’m pretty sure I’m better at synchronizing via technology than speech.  By a lot.  I love Slack because it gives me everything everyone said I would get from open offices, without any of the costs. It gives me a sense of control and in-touch-ness that makes me want to read it. Meanwhile I approach co-workers in person less now than I did when we all had doors, because I’m hyperconscious of impinging on the other people in the room.  But I will say I started doing better at my job when I acknowledged that I was expected to do it synchronously and rolled with it.  Matching the office work style turned out to be more important to productivity than matching my own.  It exhausts me, but at least it’s the exhaustion of having worked really hard.  When I tried to work asynchronously I came home exhausted from doing nothing, which was a much worse feeling.

*Project/program manager.  Job description depends heavily on the team but one of their jobs is to coordinate people with subject matter knowledge.

*Slowest doesn’t mean dumbest.  They may very well take longer because they’re thinking more deeply.

**The answer was yes.

***The economic term for this is bee sting theory.  You’ll work really hard to avoid your first bee sting, and you’ll pay a lot to get rid of it.  But when you already have 10, the work to avoid an 11th just doesn’t seem worth it.

Binaural Beats

[I hesitated to write this because I don’t want to jinx it.  I’ve only been using it for four days and things have a tendency to stop working for me, but I’m really excited and wanted to share.]

I first heard about binaural beats when a massage place I occasionally go to invited me to Hemi-Sync® weekend workshop, which is the brand name for a particularly well marketed form of binaural beats.  Hemi Sync (short for hemisphere synchronization) sounds extraordinarily made up.  In their own words:

The audio-guidance process works through the generation of complex, multilayered audio signals, which act together to create a resonance that is reflected in unique brain wave forms characteristic of specific states of consciousness. The result is a focused, whole-brain state known as hemispheric synchronization, or Hemi-Sync®, where the left and right hemispheres are working together in a state of coherence. Different Hemi-Sync® signals are used to facilitate deep relaxation, focused attention or other desired states. As an analogy, lasers produce focused, coherent light. Hemi-Sync® produces a focused, coherent mind, which is an optimal condition for improving human performance

The website offers hundreds of (extremely expensive) CDs sorted into categories like “behavior modification”, “cancer support”, “weight control”, “learning and information” and “shamanic”.  The “research article” section has one peer reviewed study, which I found equivocal, and a bunch of self hosted articles.

It seemed so unlikely as to be unworthy of consideration that just listening to sound could force an arbitrary brain to do arbitrary things.  On the other hand, if it was going to work for anyone, it would be me.  I have misophonia, which basically means arbitrary sounds are physically painful.  I don’t know if this is part of the technical definition, but for me sound is also often very attention grabbing when it shouldn’t be.  You know how you involuntarily shift attention when you hear your name across the room?  Imagine if you reacted like that every time anyone spoke.  And you worked in an open office.

Misophonia + sound = chronically activated sympathetic nervous system (the fight/flight/freeze response).  That is an excellent mode to be in if you have encountered a tiger, but a lousy way to spend 80% of your life.  It’s not just that you’re tense and anxious, although those are unpleasant: sympathetic activation directs energy towards tiger-avoidance systems (voluntary muscles, heart, lungs, vigilance) at the expense of long term investments like the immune system, tissue repair, and even digestion.  And it’s self reinforcing, because you become more sensitive to sound as the SNS ramps up.

We know sound can provoke immediate, strong emotional reactions.  Apparently the properties of human screams are wired directly to fear in your brain.   Sound affects how food tastes.  So it doesn’t seem crazy that certain sounds activate or at least facilitate the parasympathetic system.  That would give you an immediate feeling of relaxation, which helps you concentrate and reduces pain, and long term could lead to a greater marginal investment body maintenance, which is good for your health.  It is not as simple as “listen to tape, develop super powers”, but it seemed at least worth trying for me.

This shit is great.

Too soon to say anything about the long term effects, but this is a better muscle relaxant than anything I’ve tried.*  Moreover, it has the largest effect on the muscles that are most tense.  My shoulders and especially my lower back resist massage because pushing on a tense muscle hurts, and whatever gains I do get to be lost very quickly.  My jaw is in a pain<->tension cycle from the nerve damage.  They’re all dramatically better after some time listening to binaural beats, even under adverse conditions like the open office.  I am still kind of dumbfounded that I am getting up from working  in an open office more relaxed than when I sat down.  Actually I’m dumbfounded I’m working in an open office at all, I’ve spent most of my time as a conference room refugee.

So obviously I did get a concentration effect.  The open office is still not my ideal environment, but I can now see why other people called it “not ideal” rather than “Satan’s waiting room”.  It may have tempered my immediate response to noise, but the real gains have been that I recover from disruption much faster, which is exactly what you’d expect from something encouraging the parasympathetic without disabling the sympathetic.

The one thing it doesn’t help me with is sleep.  It’s great for power naps or falling asleep, but I wake up ~40 minutes later.  I have the same problem with meditation, which makes me think listening to these tracks does share qualities with meditaiton.  Speaking of which: I have found binaural sound to be really helpful for meditation- either focusing on the sound itself, or using it as a backdrop for a guided meditation.  Without it, when I meditate I feel simultaneously stuck and unmoored.  With it, I have a sense of flow, and a thing to concentrate on that has no chance of connecting to pain.

You can find a lot of these by searching for binaural or hemi-sync, but so far my favorites are:

I like this one because it has patterns repeating on intervals of different lengths.

Binaural Beat Machine: lets you configure the beat to your exact specification.

There’s also tracks on Google Music and I assume Spotify, although I have no loyalty to any of them.

*Short list: cyclobenzaprine, xanax, massage, acupuncture, various forms of bodywork that get very upset if you call them massage, theanine, magnesium/calcium, warm baths, heating pads.

IQ Tests and Poverty

Recently I read Poor Economics, which is excellent at doing what it promises: explaining the experimental data we have for what works and does not work in alleviating third world poverty, with some theorizing as to why.  If that sounds interesting to you, I heartily recommend it.  I don’t have much to add to most of it, but one thing that caught my eye was their section on education and IQ tests.

In Africa and India, adults believe that the return to education is S-shaped (meaning each additional unit of education is more valuable than the one before, at least up to a point).  This leads them to concentrate their efforts on the children that are already doing the best.  This happens at multiple levels- poor parents pick one child to receive an education and put the rest to work much earlier, teachers put more of their energy into their best students.  Due to a combination of confirmation bias and active maneuvering, the children of rich parents are much more likely to be picked as The Best, regardless of their actual ability.   Not only does this get them more education, but education is viewed as proof one is smart, so they’re double winners.  This leaves some very smart children of poor parents operating well below their potential.

One solution to this is IQ tests.  Infosys, an Indian IT contractor, managed to get excellent workers very cheaply by giving IQ tests to adults and hiring those who scored well, regardless of education.  The authors describe experiments in Africa giving IQ tests to young children so that teachers will invest more in the smart but poor children.  This was one of the original uses of the SATs in America- identifying children who were very bright but didn’t have the money or connections to go to Ivy League feeder high schools.

This is more or less the opposite of how critics view standardized testing the US.  They believe the tests are culturally biased such that a small sliver of Americans will always do better, and that basing resource distribution on those tests disenfranchises the poor and people outside the white suburban subculture.  What’s going on here?

One possible explanation is that one group or the other is wrong, but both sides actually have pretty good evidence.  The IQ tests are obviously being used for the benefit of very smart poor children in the 3rd world.  And even tests without language can’t get around the fact that being poor takes up brainspace, and so any test will systematically underestimate poor children. So let’s assume both groups are right at least some of the time.

Maybe it’s the difference in educational style that matters?  In the 3rd world, teachers are evaluated based on their best student.  In the US, No Child Left Behind codified the existing emphasis on getting everyone to a minimum bench mark.    Kids evaluated as having lower potential than they actually do may receive less education than they should, but they still get some, and in many districts gifted kids get the least resources of any point on the bell curve.

Or it could be because the tests are trying to do very different things.  The African and Indian tests are trying to pick out the extremely intelligent who would otherwise be overlooked.  The modern US tests are trying to evaluate every single student and track them accordingly.  When the SATs were invented they had a job much like the African tests; as more and more people go to college its job is increasingly to evaluate the middle of the curve.  It may be that these are fundamentally different problems.

This has to say something interesting about the meaning of intelligence or usefulness of education, but I’m not sure what.

Status Through Disbelief

Reading The Remedy, or really anything about the time after formalized western medicine but before the germ theory of disease, is an exercise in terror or frustration.  How could anyone think attending a childbirth with autopsy gunk on your hands was a good idea?  Or leaches.  Who looked at those and said “I’ll bet those will make people healthier”?

My first reaction reading The Colony, about a Hawaiian leper colony founded shortly after the germ theory became entrenched, was “oh no doctors, you overapplied the lesson.”  Leprosy has an epidemiology a lot like tuberuclosis: long periods between infection and symptoms, and an ease of spreading that means everyone is constantly exposed to it.  This makes it look like an inborn condition, not a contagion.  Leprosy and TB are actually pretty closely related too.  I assumed that doctors looked at their failure with TB and overcorrected.  It didn’t work because only a small fraction of people are suspectible, and (it’s implied although never stated outright) they will be exposed to it whether symptomatic patients are quarantined or not.

Then I remembered that shunning lepers* predates germ theory by a couple of thousand years.   Ancient and medieval people were completely capable of identifying disease as contagious and instituting a separation.  So why didn’t industrial-age doctors?

Then I remembered that while the peasantry considered it obvious that disease was contagious and should be shunned, they considered it equally obvious that leprosy was punishment from God for sin and the black plague could be avoided by killing Satan’s minions, the cats.  Nobody talks about all the things everyone knew that doctors correctly disbelieved in.

Without a lot of proof, I strongly suspect that doctors signaled intellectual rigor and membership in the medical class by disbelieving things the peasantry believed.  Believing things the peasantry does believe doesn’t signal either of those things even if the belief is correct.  No one gets credit for believing eating food is good and eating Belladonna is bad.  If you’re not very careful in that environment, it’s easy for peasants’ belief in something to become evidence against it.

This is similar to the process of the toxoplasma of rage, in which people signal membership in an ingroup by loudly believing its most dubious claims.  I also highly suspect it’s what’s going on with dietary constraint and toxins.  It is obviously true that what you eat matters, some things you put in your body will damage your cells, getting rid of them is good, and there are things you can take to get rid of them.  It’s called heavy metal poisoning and chelation.  Or if you’re Huey the dopamine dog, chocolate and activated charcoal.  But dietary constraints and belief that specific things were bad for you got associated with special snowflakenes, so you can signal intellectual rigor by dismissing them.  This despite the fact that nutrition obviously makes a difference in your health, that humans vary across many dimensions and there’s no reason to assume they wouldn’t vary across digestion and nutritional needs.  Likewise things we put in our mouth obvious have the capacity to hurt us and there’s no reason to assume we have an exhaustive list of those, or that they’re identical across all humans.

In D&D terms: people are advertising their will save bonus by how credible an idea they can disbelieve.  No one wants to be this guy:


[Thor rushes Loki, only to run through the illusion and trap himself in the cage]

Disbelieving everything is an easy way to be right most the vast majority of the time.  For every correct idea that’s an almost infinite number of wrong ones, and even those that are true are incomplete (see: physics, Newtonian).  But if everyone disbelieves everything, we will never discover anything new.

I’m not in a position to criticize anyone for being frustrated at people for being wrong.  I lived that life for a long time.   But I try to counter it now by remembering that humans aren’t really capable of distinguishing “laughably wrong” from “correct, and world changing” without investing a lot of energy.  If there aren’t negative externalities and they’re not asking anything from me, their investment  in their crackpot idea is something like an insurance policy for me, or a lottery ticket.  Most won’t pay off, but when they do I’ll be glad they were there.

“Minimal negative externalities” and “at no cost to me” are important caveats.  Children need vaccinations, and I don’t want the government paying for medicinal prayer.  But if a functional, taxpaying citizen wants to spend their own money to get their chakras realigned every six months?  Yelling at them seems like a waste of energy.  Hell, they may have a genetic variation that enhances the placebo effect to the point it is medically significant.  The human brain is weird and we don’t even know what all the pieces are, much less how they work.  If someone investigates something that’s a positive for me, even if all they do is conclusively prove it doesn’t work.

chakras

You can believe people are wrong, you don’t have to accept all ideas as equally valid.  But what I would suggest, and what I’m attempting to do myself, is to make the amount of energy you put into your disbelief proportional to the harm the idea causes, not its wrongness.  To have wrong ideas drop out of sight, resurfacing only if they cause problems or turn out to be a winning lottery ticket.   I think that on net this leads to a better world, and in the meantime I’m calmer and less annoyed.

*Which really means shunning anyone with skin discoloration, ancient people not being entirely up on their bacteriology.

Making Hannibal Make Sense

[explicit spoilers for episode 1 of Hannibal, implied spoilers for 2 and 3.  I haven’t seen past that  but I am making predictions about what will happen]

My need to make movies make sense is most obvious when it comes to animal behavior*, but that’s not its only manifestation.  Take police procedurals.  I made Bones tolerable by saying la la la science fiction.  I’m now watching Hannibal because it’s one of the best shows available on Amazon Prime Streaming, which is the only streaming service that allows offline viewing, which is important because I have a bus commute again.**

Hannibal… does not make a ton of sense.  The premise is that an ex homicide detective is a brilliant criminal profiler but unable to get into the FBI because he couldn’t pass the psych screening, so they just hire him as a “special agent” that does everything a normal agent does, including field work.  You would think that was Hannibal Lecter, but it is not.  Lecter is the psychiatrist the FBI hires to babysit the unstable profiler (who I can only imagine will one day regret copying Lecter’s answers off a psych test).  Lecter also accompanies the agent on field work, which I don’t think even regular FBI agent’s counselors are normally allowed to do.  The actual profiler (Will Graham) comes up with theories more or less out of thin air and they always turn out to be correct.  He insists the evidence makes it obvious.

On the face of it, this makes no sense.  But what if Hannibal is set in a just slightly alternate universe, where psychic powers exist but are considered shameful because they make people mentally unstable?  The FBI can’t officially hire them, and they in fact test for powers before hiring to make sure they don’t hire any psychics.  But if there just happens to be a profiler who makes totally evidence based leaps, enabling them to catch really gruesome serial killers they otherwise couldn’t, well surely you can hire them on a contract basis.***

Why doesn’t the psychic Graham notice Hannibal is murdering and eating people? I’m glad you asked.  Hiring a babysitter for a psychic is tricky business.  You wouldn’t want someone they could manipulate or even read, that would defeat the purpose.  So you hire someone who’s a null field to psychics, or at least your psychic.  As a bonus, this person can lie to them when need be.  Note that Graham says he hates going to psychiatrists- presumably every one he’s been to has been unreadable to him, and he hates that.

And that’s how I learned to enjoy Hannibal.

*Ask my brother about watching the King Kong with me.

**”So you’re coping with your motion sickness by watching a show about food and gore?” “Yes”

***The same way my team at Microsoft rehired the same contractor for our Apple version over and over again.

Review: Inside Out

First, it’s great, and totally reverses Pixar’s downward slide.  Second, they did an amazing job of making everything work as a character/story and a metaphor for how the brain works and an Aesop.  A good chunk of the time kids’ shows teach lessons I consider abhorrent (looking at you, My Little Friendship Means Never Having Boundaries) , and at the beginning it looked like they were setting up one of those, but in the end in became clear they considered it exactly as problematic as I did.

Also I need to see it at home so I can cry harder. That is all.

Inclusivity is a Trade Off

[Content Note: talking about talking about sexual assault][not a typo]

A few years ago I was an extremely active member of a martial arts studio.  Martial arts has risks, and this school chose to take more than the bare minimum- sparring involved head shots and take downs.  I was willing to accept the risks of this with most people at the dojo, because I knew they were acting with my safety in mind and the risks were worth the benefits, but there was one guy, Snotlout, who did not pass that test.

An artist's rendering of Snotlout
Snotlout is a psuedonym

Where most people will aim to hit near your face, so a mistake means you get a tap, Snotlout aimed to hit you, and the failure mode was hitting your face really hard.  He took blind kicks at full power and blamed you for not getting out of the way.  He once flipped a child flat on their back and his first concern was letting us know how lightly he had touched them.

The school wouldn’t kick him out, wouldn’t even really place restrictions on him.  When I complained to the de facto leadership it was always redirected to what I could do to take care of myself, but when I did so (e.g. insisting on slow motion sparring), I got push back from other de facto leadership.  No one would kick him out or place the necessarily level of restrictions on him, apparently out of fear those restrictions might drive him to leave.  If I really pushed, the people who would talk to me about it would say that they or someone they loved was that dangerous when they came in, and they wanted to give that guy the same chance.  Which is a beautiful thought, except that I know at least three people for whom he was a contributing factor in leaving the school.  Where was the inclusivity for us?*

It's not only morally wrong that Astrid has to keep fighting off Snotlout, it's bad for the tribe's survival.  Between the two of them, she's clearly the one to bet on.
Where would Berk be if Snotlout had driven out Astrid?

Last year Seattle Effective Altruists had a member who brought up sexual assault a lot, in ways that made it clear it was personally relevant to her.  This made me really uncomfortable, but I was aware of how often rape victims are silenced and how damaging that is, so I didn’t say anything.  What occurred to me much later was that statistically there was at least one other victim of sexual assault in room, probably more, and they might find also find it uncomfortable.**  The choice wasn’t “do I silence this rape victim or not?”, it was “who do I make/let be uncomfortable?”, even if I didn’t know who the other person was.  Obviously a trauma victim discussing work with personal meaning to them is in no way equivalent to a jackass endangering people’s safety in order to prove how awesome he is, but that is part of my point: even actions with very good motivations have costs.

Back to martial arts.  Notice that I said de facto leadership?  The problem wasn’t that someone calculated Snotlout vs. [me, the two people I know about, and unknown number of others he drove away] and chose him.  It was that no one did the calculation and no one was responsible for making sure it was done.  There wasn’t even anyone I could negotiate with to ensure my personal safety; a plan I worked out with one senior student would be publicly ridiculed by another.*** No one had ownership of student safety so there was no one to turn a pile of individual complaints into “wow, that guy is dangerous and we should do something”.  To this day I’m not sure why “we have to be welcoming” meant “you have to let him hit you in the face over and over”, and everyone I asked described it as a decision made by someone else.  I don’t even think this worked out particularly well for that guy, because while no one was willing to restrict him, a lot of people would have been happier if he just left, and it showed up in petty things like him never quite getting added to the parking mailing list.  Eventually, after driving out who knows how many people, he screwed up so badly the school had to put severe restrictions on him.  He never came back.

In the real world bullies rarely improve their behavior without seeing its consequences.
An unanticipated struggle to find parking rarely inspires the kind of self reflection that leads to redemption or dragon riding.

Back to EA.  My eventual solution to the “how to talk about rape” problem was to simultaneously ask the woman to tone down the sexual assault talk in meetings where it wasn’t relevant and host her own meeting on the topic.  Unfortunately she left for other reasons before I could implement this.  But if I’d had the chance, it only would have worked because I was empowered as an organizer to do both of those things.  If I’d approached her as a peer, the request to limit talk about sexual assault would have had less heft, and a dedicated meeting would have been a suggestion, not an offer.  But it probably wouldn’t even have gone that far, because it wouldn’t have felt like my place to do it.  That leaves the hypothetical assault victim that didn’t want to constantly hear about rape to defend themselves by approaching her directly, and possibly requiring they disclose their history to see results, which they shouldn’t have to do.  In order to be truly welcoming to them**** , someone had to proactively make the space safe.

There have been other, less fraught trade offs.  One person’s friendly debate is another’s attack, and a third person’s derail.   I think one of my major contributions to the group has been not the decisions we made on these (although those were awesome), but that we made decisions at all, and worked out how to implement them.

If you are an organizer, for EA or something else, these are my recommendations:

  • Have a small, identifiable group with whom the buck ultimately stops.  Individual meetings in Seattle are run mostly on a who-is-excited-about-this system, but there are three people explicitly in charge of the administrative stuff, including disputes.
  • Make explicit decisions about your norms, share them, and enforce them.
  • Explicit is not the same as fixed.  I’m extremely excited about our plans to experiment with different norms at specific meetings, even if some of the norms would make me miserable as a participant.  Not every meeting needs to be for every person.
  • There’s a fine line between overpreparing and sticking your head in the sand until something blows up.  Some of our best decisions are “let X keep going unless Y happens, and then figure out a plan.”

*See also: Geek Social Fallacy #1.

**Much later still I would learn I was right.

***10 minutes before the same guy started quoting The Gift of Fear on listening to your instincts, and specifically leaving situations where you felt afraid.  I walked out.

****Or people who were uncomfortable talking about sexual assault for other reasons, or people who just wanted to talk about the planned topic.