On writing as therapy

Journaling has been such a great help for me lately. It has slowly replaced most of the therapy in my life lately (and it’s a great thing). In many cases I think I needed therapy just to express what I think and feel and journaling allows me to do that without having to wait for a session, or pay for it.

I don’t mean to say that journaling is always a replacement for therapy, it’s just that at some point I realised that I can imagine what my therapist would suggest or say, or how she would show compassion and so on. And on the other hand, it makes sense to try to express what is the problem before the session, so that I don’t have to waste time on that during the session. So I started writing it down.

Turned out that in many cases the extension of working memory that writing gives, plus the rubber duck effect, meant that I knew what to do with the problem by the time I finished writing it down. If you ever had that thing, where you write a question to Stackoverflow, make it all nice with a minimal working example and then realise that you don’t need to post it anymore because you know how to fix it — apparently, it works with therapy too.

And I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t work as a substitute before I did all the therapy before that, before I internalised that voice, and so on. But if you’re questioning whether you want to phase out your therapy, or if you don’t know if you want to start one (or if you don’t have the opportunity to do so just yet) — try writing all of your problems and questions down, it can only help.

On free markets, personal responsibility and rational agents

There are a few arguments that come up in all too many conversations about social justice and related issues that I would like to unpack here. The words often used are fairness, freedom and personal responsibility. It seems to me that these arguments are derived from the concepts of individualism, essentialism and free markets. These in turn are directly connected with neoliberalism, liberalism, alt-right, libertarianism and many others, but extend beyond political affiliations, so I will talk about these concepts, rather than political views. I also don’t think that a lot of people actually follow these principles in all situations, unless they are a hardcore Ayn Rand fan, but they often come up as default assumptions for many issues, which is why they deserve further examination.

Firstly, free market is neither pleasant, nor effective economic model. For example it doesn’t describe labour markets, immigration or rent control the way people think it does when they propose policies about these issues. Free market also isn’t what brought prosperity to the western countries. Wars, protectionism and colonialism did. We don’t want and don’t actually have unregulated free markets now. We don’t allow people, child labour, human organs, university places, hard drugs, votes and many other things to be traded freely. I definitely don’t envy American free market healthcare. I would say market regulations are pretty good in these cases.

In a world where free market is the optimal system and pursuing self-interest leads to the best of the worlds vaccination doesn’t make any sense. Why would you vaccinate if your personal decision doesn’t give you any benefit as long as most people around you are already vaccinated? Why would you stay at home during a pandemic if you’re not in the risk group? Why would you go vote?

You might say that the rational agent wouldn’t. But that breaks the logic of perfection of free markets. You might say that the rational agent would include context, like how many people already vaccinated or voted. But really, outside of toy problems, how complex do you think can the computations of predicting other people’s actions get? We would be stuck in infinite computations trying to predict the consequences of our actions. Which is why we have heuristics and emotions baked into our brains. But it is a mistake to think that it’s some immutable function impermeable to the outside influences.

There isn’t any inherent self-interest that our rational self is driven by because there is no separate rational self and no separate self-interest. Both are essentialist concepts that just don’t hold up to the reality. And yet this is and the idea that is often implicit in conversations about free vs regulated market and morality, the assumption often being that political ideology can be reduced to rationality. The central idea of neoliberalism is the extension of free markets to all spheres of life.

The real world turns out to be more complicated than that. Everyone’s interest is always a mix of biology, societal pressures, and meta-cognition that exist intertwined and inseparable in constantly ongoing feedback loops. Our biology defines our physiology, our physiology influences how we interact with the world and how society interacts with us, as well as our cognition and metacognition, which in turn influences our environment, which changes our physiology (neural connections in our brains, our weight, fitness, etc). In the same way there is no clear line between what you really want and what other people made you think you want.

A good example is treating IQ as some inherent ability that quantifies goodness of a certain person. If IQ is strongly correlated with genes, then it must be a biological trait, an essential ability inherent to every person. To see how it is not true, I suggest you to think about correlation between genetics and slavery… If you want a less loaded example try earrings and gender. That shows that if the trait is affected by genetics does not mean that it is an inherent quality or ability. Personal qualities are the result of complex interplay between biology, society, history of society, history of your family and countless other factors.

Which is, of course, problematic, if you want to operate in the framework of fairness, personal achievement and individual responsibility. So you start desperately searching for boundaries of what is truly an individual and what is the outside (the virtue signaling accusation is a good example of this). Never mind that the entire idea was just that, an idea, a model, an especially convenient one if you want to justify slavery, for example. We have countless examples from economics, psychology, and sociology to show that it is not a good descriptive model.

The attempts to resolve this often include evolutionary psychology and pointing out that altruism was just effective for our survival, so altruism and emotions, for example, is just a part of the rational agent. Except that including emotions and society and altruism into definition of rationality is never actually performed because that would destroy the entire concept of rationality and make the free market model unmanageable. Also evolutionary psychology is all too often takes after folk etymology and is used to explain any differences and justify bigotry, but that’s another story. It’s just one of this concepts that is used in science, but doesn’t make any explanation scientific on its own.

The problem with individualism is that it often implies essentialism. If society played a role in shaping an individual and influencing their choices, then the concepts of fairness and personal responsibility start to look shaky. What does it mean that you deserved something, good or bad?

Accepting the role of society in shaping individuals might mean that we actually need to change our society. And that doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for personal choices, but that these consequences need to be judged on their overall impact, rather than framed in terms of reward and punishment. Restorative vs punitive justice is part of this debate. Availability of childcare and equal parental leave vs “having children is your personal choice” is about this too. As well as natural consequences in authoritative parenting vs punishment in authoritarian parenting. It’s not just about policies, it is also about the way we interact with each other.

And I understand that throwing out these clear concepts of individualism and personal responsibility is hard. But if you still feel like individualism should remain a normative theory, that this is the moral stance that we should take, despite its failings, then I urge you to ask yourself why. Why instead of accepting the complexity of human condition and our limited understanding and working from that you decide to pick one arbitrary measure. And how is this better than, say, accepting what the church says is good or bad? If we have outgrown church as the moral judge, then maybe it’s time we outgrow individualism too?

On a personal level, I know pretty well how anxiety-inducing this uncertainty can be. Uncertainty about the future, about what is good and bad, whether you made the right decision and the right judgment. I have no way of seeing what is in other people’s heads, but there are better ways of dealing with it than claiming that one moral theory is fundamentally right and then wasting all that energy and thought ignoring all the inconsistencies it creates. Just as with other kinds of anxiety the key is not to run, but to accept it, sit with it, and eventually realize that it doesn’t kill you. Emotions are not a thing to be rationalized away, they’re just a fact of life, a signal, a part of you. Since there is never a way to confirm that a moral theory is correct, the endless doubting just creates more suffering. Don’t think that I’m advertising accepting every uncomfortable situation if there is a way to make it better, it’s just that this isn’t one of those.

On a societal level I see the truth in Mark Fisher’s dire view that capitalism has achieved its goal of concealing the fact that it depends on some subjectively assumed belief. This leads to the situation where the power of corporations and capital is accepted as the default and any attempt at market regulation is scrutinised and requires more and more justification. We’re alright with people not even having an opportunity to get good education from the start because of the web of intergenerational effects of socioeconomic status and long-lasting effects of colonialism, but affirmative action is discrimination. This is called meritocracy. Individualism is not a lens at all because it’s the default, but any other lens[19] is just part of identity politics. Humanities and (post)modern philosophy with all their attempts to makes sense of and analyse society and human nature are just gibberish. Individualism is the clear rational choice. Or science. Or utilitarianism. And yet, there is a Hardin for every Hobbes, an Ostrom for every Hardin, a Wittgenstein for every Russell, a Kuhn for every Popper and a Nietzsche for every Bentham. Moral theory and rationality is an ongoing conversation without a single answer.

This is what people like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Charles Murray, Stephen Hicks and Ben Shapiro refuse to acknowledge. They might not agree on the solutions, but they are promoting this idea that the dominant culture must be the right one. Claiming, erroneously, that there is one moral position that can be justified either by science or rationality (often obscuring the conflicting nature of pure reason and empiricism). Shutting down other voices by calling them irrational. And many rationalists buy this, because unquestioned scientism and dismissal of every argument not based on facts is very natural, especially in the tech community. But the problem is that the facts are only a part of the picture. Who gets to choose what facts to show is determined by society. What is being left unsaid is just as important as what is being said. Narratives and opinions matter.

There are many ways in which the ideology of free markets and individualism destroy our environment, increases discrimination and inequality, affects our mental health, etc. The issue is that all of these problems are somehow justifiable if we just accept individualism and essentialism as the axioms. If you do that then all the talk about systemic racism, sexism, fatphobia, ableism, mental health issues makes sense, because of course each of the individuals is responsible for their condition and this is all that matters. We are all just trading our essential abilities on the free market and this is what the free market has decided. Any casualties are necessary sacrifices on our path to the bright future.

To see all of these as problems requires changing the perspective and questioning your values. And this is just not something that happens if you are comfortable in your status quo and is surrounded by people who are just like you. To reach out to other people and listen to them, to accept that voices that seem irrational from inside your framework can have a point, one needs some kind of motivation. It seems that the most effective way to create this motivation is to talk and listen to people who are like you, but not quite. Maybe I can be one of these people, I don’t know. That is my hope in writing this. Thank you for your attention.


Stuff to read (from more accessible to more technical):

Youtube channels to watch (from more entertaining to more technical, kinda. It’s a mix of philosophy, politics and economics):

Deep learning dev environment

I wonder if it is just me who struggles so much with ML development environment.

There is no way I can do any development locally even if I had a GPU on my laptop: the models are too giant and reproducing the environment and data is a pain in the ass. So we work on servers and clusters.

My work environment is pretty much one sshfs mapping, one ssh+screen terminal and jupyter notebook for short experiments. It is a mess!

If I’m working in a notebook then I only have code that can be run in that notebook. There is no class structure or anything, just a giant pile of global variables and functions.

If I’m working with an actual project, especially someone else’s I have no decent way of debugging. The best I could come up with is pdb.set_trace() and then running it in jupyter through %run. So that’s fun when the code takes 20-ish minutes to load.

At some point I found a way to debug remotely through PyCharm and ssh, but it only works if there is a direct ssh connection, no jumps and containers. And now the thing started to complain about my remote filesystem case-sensitivity mismatch, gah.

Don’t even get me started with restrictions on sshfs and notebooks on some servers.

There should be a better way. Or am I just dumb and true devs figure debug models in their heads and commit correct code from the first try?

Bayesian confirmation loop

People who have a great deal of trust in science usually also have a great deal of trust in statistics in probability theory, because it is an incredibly useful tool in that and many other contexts. It does, however, become problematic when it turns into a theory of everything. It seems that if you don’t clearly say that this is the one true theory you can still be objective and change your theory of everything to something else. This is a trap!

This is how it goes: the Bayes theorem (and probability theory in general) might not be the one true model, but it probably is because I think so and my mind must be Bayesian so because I think that the Bayes theorem is probably the one true model, because…. Gödel what? As long as you think that the probability theory has the highest probability of all other models you are stuck. Your only chance to get out is the one that is irrational in this framework, probably when you stumble on something that just feels clearly wrong.

The annoying thing is not so much the unprovability, the annoying thing is that. It blinds you to everything that doesn’t conform to your theory. It is not a confirmation bias, it is a confirmation loop. Your sources are self-selecting for the ones using the Bayesian reasoning. Confirmation bias can be corrected for, this cannot.

This is also why confirmation bias is a bad argument against someone else’s reasoning, by the way. It is a tool to find one in your own head, but in others it is indistinguishable from just using the kind of sources they consider good sources. And you need some kind of selection, or you’ll wind up reading flat-earth arguments all day. But if you’re in a confirmation loop you end up discarding entire research fields and together with expert opinions, because they’re not using statistics as an argument.

So I’m afraid we’re stuck with just regular ways of trying to be reasonably right.

I have a lot of very interconnected thoughts in my mind about this (as well as a giant dumpster fire of drafts in Notion), so hopefully I’ll be posting some more about this soon. For now if you’re interested in reading more about limits of formal methods like this you’ll probably like https://metarationality.com/how-to-think. I’m really impressed with the discussion and examples there, at least.

Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus, which is often sold as an ADHD superpower, isn’t that pleasant or useful. Sure it can be really fun to be very interested in solving a particular problem, I’m pretty sure that every one of my interests periodically gets a hyperfocus phase and that’s how I came up with the whole PhD idea.

But that being said, I have no control over where exactly my brain decides to hyperfocus. In my case, it’s often some kind of argument with other people, and I’m thinking it over and over, I’m trying to talk to people, if I can’t I’m having dialogues in my head, I’m writing, trying to walk it out, I’m waking up super early and can’t go back to sleep because I already started thinking what I’ve been thinking for the entire day yesterday and that’s how I end up sleep-deprived for a few days.

And all things that go with it — neglected self-care such as: eating irregularly and not taking care of what I eat, higher risk of migraines, not enough activity and fresh air, and overall all the other tasks and routines neglected. All this time I’m in some kind of do/fight mode, probably with high cortisol, it starts to feel really unpleasant, but really hard to snap out of.

I mostly described a bad scenario here, of course, the one where I’m focusing on something negative, but really the effects are often similar even with the more positive topics. I think of my attention as if it’s an untrained puppy — and in hyperfocus, it’s a dog with a bone. That’s an issue with which meditation helps directly, btw, it both helps you snap out a bit and train your puppy to be a bit more manageable. But it takes time, of course, and it’s so hard to keep doing it when you stop remembering how it feels to be out of control.

W.r.t. routines and habits

Here is a thing that my inner critic doesn’t want to admit and that constantly gets rejected by the productivity community: you don’t actually need to do something every day/week all the time to learn to do it. You can learn to draw, to code, speak a new language, whatever by studying it for a while, then not doing it, then picking it up again. It’s going to take longer, but you’re definitely not going to need to start from the scratch every time. It also will not reflect on your character in any way, even if it feels otherwise. You also don’t need to make everything a habit, it’s alright to just do things. That doesn’t apply if you want to have benefits from, say, doing sports regularly, because that’s not about learning things, but you can still learn a physical skill (dancing, exercise form). It’s like riding a bike.

Since there is nothing going on on the work/study front I thought I’d catalogue my current interests.
For that matter, one of the main motivations for me moving to Europe instead of US were better prospects for work/life balance. I’m, as is probably clear by now, not the kind of person who thinks that putting as much time into work as possible and some more is a good or feasible strategy.
One of the things I keep coming back to is trying to just be more active. I’ve been dabbling with lifting and calisthenics since 19, mostly because these were the most practical solutions that are easy to measure and don’t involve comparing my traditionally unsporty and chubby self with other people.
But it seems that I just lacked the right company I’m comfortable with. I’ve been going to bouldering since October, minus the 1.5 month due to COVID and we have recently started going to tennis. And while I’m still sticking to the easier routes, especially after the break, it feels good to move and solve problems and kinda proud that despite having the opposite of the ideal muscle/body fat ratio for the sport that is basically consisits of lifting your own weight as far from the ground as possible, I am still sticking to it.
We are even planning to go to the legendary park Fountainbleau, which is the cradle of bouldering.
Talking about weight, I’m doing much better with my binge eating, and the next step I decided was to actually get clothes that I like and that fit my body as it is now. Turns out it requires a lot of altering, as I have a lot of clothes that I like something about, but they rarely are completely right. So I’ve been spending some time stitching by hand and listening to audiobooks, both of which are something I couldn’t stick to before.
I haven’t been doing a lot of painting, but since starting it I started to be very interested in colors. That got me into actually doing my makeup and figuring out the scientific part of skincare.
I also really want to try ice dyeing, but I would need to wait for the suitable fabric dye to begin.
I think I generally like the idea of bespoke things. Clothes, sport, or life, I am rarely satisfied with ready made solutions, but tweaking and adjusting, optimizing lifestyles, operating systems and everything else is something I enjoy deeply.
That comes with a bunch of problems, unfortunately, including the fact that my experience is rarely useful to anybody else, but oh well, I prefer to imagine that at least something I put out there will resonate with somebody.

How to apply for a PhD if you’re not perfect – part 0

For a long time now I’ve been thinking that I should finally write that post about applying for PhD programs and the main thought in it was that it’s pretty easy to find what the ideal candidate looks like: they’ve graduated a great school at 16 or whatever the normal age in their country is, they’ve finished the best university in their location with a perfect average grade, meanwhile they’ve won a few world competitions in their field and published at least 2 papers at NIPS or whatever the top journal in their subject is and now they are applying to the top-3 schools and OMG, what are their chances, please somebody tell, they’re so freaking out.
That is, er, not my story.
But I remember countless answers from PhD students or graduates to applicants’ questions on what they should do to get into a PhD program that were exactly along these lines: make your resume look like stated above, be absolutely sure in your reasons to pursue a PhD, only apply to top-[3-50] universities because what’s the point otherwise.
I think this ideal picture is something worth keeping in mind, just to have some direction, but please do not let it get into your head. As any perfectionist idea in high doses it leads to fear, paralysis and despair. Divide what you read or hear by 10, or, better yet, take a logarithm.
The other problem I’ve seen is that most of the resources are very American-oriented. They imply that you have access to research internship, to course selection, that you lecturers encourage participation and keep track of student performance in classes, that you have study groups and so on. This is, again, very different from my experience, I hope you’re luckier than me, but chances are you’re not.
So, if you’re not an ideal candidate, but still think it’s a good idea to pursue a research career I can share some of the things I’ve discovered so far and they might be useful.
My impostor syndrome is hitting hard, tho, so please remember that I am actually completely unqualified and they’ll probably kick me out soon anyway.

On fevers, shutters and kernel panics

I’ve been pretty sick these last few days (the only times when I dislike living alone). Btw, I don’t know how it usually works here in Germany, I’ve decided to not go to a doctor, because it’s probably just a flu and sitting in a waiting room with 38.7 body temperature only to get an advice of staying in bed doesn’t seem very productive, but how is it supposed to be handled? Back in Russia I’d make a house call, but my regular insurance here doesn’t cover that.

One good thing came off me being sick — I’ve been able to sleep with light and even some noise. Usually I have this weird kind of insomnia, which it’s not that much about me not being able to fall asleep, but rather waking up from any kind of disturbance — including tiny lights or any noises. Which leads me to my love of shutters, that are installed pretty much everywhere around here. No need to suffer with blackout curtains that are never really blackout and all that. Why don’t we have these things back in St. Petersburg? That would make so much more sense with White Nights and all.

However, today my feverish brain played a joke on me — I woke up and my first thought was that I have some kind of kernel panic in my bedroom window. I think I’ve ran through the scenario of rebooting this whole thing and finding a live-usb and all that in second that it took for my eyes to focus and see that this is just sun shining through the shutters. Oh well, at least now I know that I won’t panic in case it really happens. I really don’t think I’d be surprised if it would, given how things break around me all the time.

FYI: my window is on the first picture. The second is for the reference.

Waiting periods for psychiatrist in the sunny (today) town of Saarbrücken vary between one month and one year. Makes me worry about mental health of the inhabitants. Meanwhile I am trying to find strategies that don’t involve suggestions for “keeping your eyes on the goal and just doing stuff” (you would have troubles finding somebody who is more. focused on their life goals or more aware of the importance of focused work). That mostly means a lot of todo lists and tables, gotta compensate that nonexistent working memory. And my procrastination routine now revolves around Crazy-Ex Girlfriend (really, what’s up with me and obsession with shows about mental illnesses). But it’s witty, super relatable, feminist and all that jazz. I think I have a song about most of life situations from it now