Style of post: Alexanderian meander (though with (at best) a tenth of the artistry and thoroughness/rigor). There's a Thing here and it has been tickling at my brain for ages and I have despaired of being able to clarify it all on my own, so I'm giving you my unclarified thoughts instead. More of an extended koan than a proper essay.

An acquaintance at EA Global suggested that I investigate anagram potential before settling on a possible name for my future child.

This was a cool idea, so I went online with my frontrunner to see what the possibilities were.

There were over 111,000 of them.

If I had made some modest change, say replacing "Elizabeth" with "Frederick" while leaving the other names alone, there would have been a comparable number of completely different ones.

There's something blank about infinity, or really large numbers like "one billion."

But the explosion of possibility somehow felt more viscerally real when it was like expanding one Workflowy node to see a hundred thousand possibilities, and expanding the next Workflowy node to see a hundred thousand different possibilities, and knowing that the next node would contain a hundred thousand new possibilities still.

Most people are familiar with the Youtube videos showing an infinite zoom into the Mandelbrot set, and how you keep finding complexity as you go deeper and deeper.

But it's interesting (and often underemphasized, in my opinion) that those videos show you the beauty and complexity of one single path, and if you were at any point to go left instead of right, or shift the trajectory of your zooming by some tiny amount in the hundredth decimal place, you would get another, extremely different path of equivalent complexity and beauty.

This is one of the talking points that has come up in my chocolate tastings. I sometimes like to mention that yeah, of course, there's fantastic, staggering, unmanageable complexity everywhere around us all the time, and of course we have to mute and muffle and abstract most of it away or we would be fully paralyzed and unable to comprehend anything or take any action whatsoever—

(Something something autism, something something processing disorders)

—but it's nice, when someone highlights a particular nook in the infinite fractal chaos as being pleasant and interesting and worth some extra lingering, to stop glossing over all the detail, or at least to gloss over it a little bit less. When I lead people through a chocolate tasting, most of what is special isn't the chocolate itself; it's that they're simply actually processing a bunch of sense data that, by default, would have been ignored, because it has to be ignored, because you have to ignore 99.999% of what you perceive to be functional at all.

An old puzzle used to be: if the universe is effectively infinite in extent, and per-unit-of-arc every star in the sky is approximately as bright as the sun, and there are stars in every direction ... why isn't the sky a uniform shining white?

There are several things wrong with the "if," but nevertheless it was useful for astronomers and physicists to notice that, if stars cluster, such that a galaxy might be hidden behind a single nearby star, and might itself obscure a supercluster yet further away, then we could indeed have infinite stars in every direction and still have most of the sky be black. A sort of inverted Cantor dust effect.

Speaking of fractals, I keep getting this image of something like an infinite anthill, and I don't have anything to draw with so I'll try words and maybe it'll work.

But like. Okay, so when I was born I (basically) went from a womb to a bedroom. And as I grew, the bubble of my awareness expanded to a house, and then to a whole property, and then to a neighborhood, and then to a school district, and then to a town.

And each of these were sort of expansions of the previous, like coming out of one chamber in an anthill into a larger chamber, and that larger chamber is just an anteroom to a yet larger chamber.

(Okay, fine, I'll find some paper or something.)

A couple of things about this (very basic) model leap out to me.

The first is an appreciation for just how many nooks there are. Like, every other kid in the Alamance/Burlington School System lived in a town that was full of neighborhoods that were full of houses that each had bedrooms.

Another is that the space has more dimensions than I was able to draw on the page. It's not merely a boring geographic claim—one could argue that the next bubble outside of "Alamance/Burlington School System" was not, in fact, just "North Carolina" or similar, but rather was something like "winter drumline" or "competitive Tae Kwon Do."

(And it just as easily might have been "debate club" or "Boy Scouts" or "competitive robotics" or "getting high off whippets" or "getting really into having sex" or any number of other things.)

As I leveled up out of a given bubble, in other words, the next bubble wasn't always of the same type. But each new bubble was itself an anthill-chamber with entrances back down to lots of other smaller bubbles, e.g. once I "left" my school system and entered the larger world of winter drumline, I encountered people who had themselves emerged into the winter drumline ecosystem from their own smaller school system bubbles. I could in theory have followed them back to their smaller bubbles, and we could have burrowed further and deeper until we were snuggled up in their own bedrooms, for instance.

There's something in this about how gases take up the volume of their container, and how humans can't seem to maintain a felt sense of abnormalcy for very long.

Some people stop climbing up out of bubbles at something like their father's small business, which they then prepare themselves to take over.

Other people keep on climbing until they have e.g. the presidency, or control over internationally notable crypto exchanges.

And both of these bubbles (eventually) feel right and natural and normal, for the people in them. We acclimate. We adjust. It starts to feel ordinary, even if (at first) there's a large dose of "I never thought I'd be here!"

Part of this is down to something like "no matter what the surrounding visual imagery, you're always looking out at a sphere of Stuff around you." Like, the world that we're capable of carrying, inside our heads, is always just this spherical terrarium? And it's not that much different to adjust to a spherical terrarium made of low-earth orbit than it is to adjust to one made of the insides of a sweatshop?

From the perspective of a human brain, they're both within the same order of magnitude of pixels and complexity. Ditto something like "no matter whether you're a fry cook or Elon Musk, you have twenty-four hours in your day and you're going to spend a lot of them eating, breathing, sleeping, pooping, talking, and doing things with your hands."

(There's also something anthropic here, in that we're not going to carve out very many cave-bubbles that are inhospitable to humans; humans are ~100% of the time going to find themselves in human-sustaining bubbles by an obvious set of filtering and selection effects.)

But I am reminded of a time when my father applied for an environmental engineering job, despite having zero experience and not having the relevant specialty subskills (he was an engineer, but not an environmental engineer). His interviewer asked "so, what makes you think you can do this job, then?" and my father's reply was "what makes you think I can't?"

(He got the job and performed adequately for many years.)

I am similarly reminded of my grandfather's curious aphorism, that it's every bit as hard to compete at the bottom as at the top.

(I think this isn't quite true, but that it's trying to say something like the competition itself is just as stressful and difficult, even if you're fighting over pennies rather than empires. Like, work is still work, and cutthroat antagonists are still cutthroat antagonists, etc.)

All of which is to say: I think the experience of playing in a vast and complicated bubble is not 10x different than the experience of playing in a small and trivial one. I think that bubbles which are by any measure 1000x more meaningful or impactful or leverage-y are only maybe 2x or 3x or mmmaaaaaybe like 6x more complicated and fast-paced and skill-intensive, and often not even that. I've seen people with incredible perceptivity and dexterity and sensitivity and cleverness honing and applying outrageous levels of skill to, like, making cool videos about vaulting over trash cans, or streamlining the process of expanding their Minecraft world-model, and I've seen people who were demonstrably less-capable-agents doing passably well at moving around hundreds of millions of dollars.

I don't know what to do about any of that. There's a standard EA-bot answer that goes something like "oh! Right! Since there are bubbles that are a billion times more important, your job is to climb up to the biggest bubble you're capable of meaningfully controlling or impacting, and then Steer Toward The Glorious Future!"

But that seems ... askew, somehow? Like a misunderstanding of the question, as if someone said "wait, what's going on with this weird rock" and somebody else was like "oh, if we light it on fire we can get to the moon!"

Something's up, here, in other words, and while we could leap forward to various applications with partial and imperfect understanding, I much more want to figure out, like, a sensible model of The Thing That's Going On. To be able, if my child asks me "Dad, what's the world like? How does it work?" to include some coherent story of this fractal anthill thing in my explanation.

Like, this is what's going on when people send other people off to university, right?


Like, they're saying "get out of this bubble, get to a bigger hub, if you hang out in the 'university' bubble for a while you will see a lot of ways to climb out of it into even bigger bubbles—or at the very least, if you decide that a small bubble really is the right home for you, being in the ... antechamber? ... of a university will let you peer into a much larger assortment of small bubbles than the ones you can see from inside this small bubble, such that you'll be able to make a choice that's better suited to your goals and preferences."

(I apologize for the fragmented nature of this essay, but there are only a few more non-sequiturs left.)

People seem (to me) to have something like a parabolic arc, when it comes to how-big-of-a-bubble-they-want-to-be-in. They start out in tiny nooks, as children; they move out into the world as teens and young adults, and at some point people peak in their struggle-to-reach-a-higher-bubble. They get to some large-enough-for-their-ambitions antechamber, and they look around, and then they choose (or carve out) a smaller nook off that antechamber for themselves. They found a company, maybe, or establish a career in academia, or develop a brand. They start a family, and tuck that family away in some off-the-radar town in Northern California. Maybe they keep tabs on the larger bubble, or maybe they never actually drop back down, but they do stop climbing, most of them.


They find a nook that matches their comfort zone, or they adjust their comfort zone to match the nook they find themselves in.

Which means something, I think, when it comes to "what advice do I want to give to a clever high schooler?"

I think I want to say stuff like:

  • Think about the expanse and potential of the bubble you're in before you really settle into exploring all its nooks and crannies and becoming comfortable inside of it. Decide whether you want to keep leveling up, because there is a tradeoff between climbing to the next level of chamber-size and developing expertise in your current chamber.
  • Shoot for a nook that's higher than the nook you suspect you're ultimately comfortable with, because the bubbles get bigger as you climb, and if you stop in a comfortable spot, you'll have just arbitrarily ended up in one single random instance of a right-for-you sized nook. But if you go up one level higher than that, you will be able to access a bunch of that-sized nooks that all open up into the same antechamber, and choose from them, and thus your odds of something like satisfaction and success go way way up.
  • Similarly, there's something that's not even quarter-baked about ... like ... if you ultimately want to Do Your Real Work in a nook of size N, and you pop up to a nook of size N+1 so that you can peer into all the N-sized nooks off that larger nook ... well, you're still limited to only the N-sized nooks that are off that larger nook. You can only fly to the cities that planes-from-that-airport reach. You might benefit from going yet higher, to N+2, to see which of the N+1 nooks off that antechamber looks the most promising, in terms of containing N-sized nooks that you're likely to want to settle into, but: from the N+2 vantage point, you probably can't clearly see into the N-sized nooks. Like, you can peer into the chambers one level below you, and peer out through the exit into the larger chamber above you, but you can't really see two levels further in either direction? ...idk.
  • Don't let the vast majesty of larger nooks intimidate or demoralize you? They're probably full of monkeys of roughly the same caliber as the monkeys you're already used to?
  • Something something, all the actual joy and light and satisfaction actually comes from (relatively) smaller nooks, as far as I can tell? Like, there's this thing where, you want to pop up into a big antechamber that's got a ton of cool offshoots, and then drop into one of those cool offshoots where you can actually focus and stuff. There's tremendous value in having your next-largest-nook be a good one, that lets you pop out of your cave and rub shoulders with lots of other cool people and check in on lots of other cool projects and happenings, but you probably don't want to do Your Main Thing in the airport lounge? You want to do your main thing in a building that's convenient to the airport lounge, so that you're only one jump up and one jump back down away from other cool things that are happening. You don't want to be in the lounge itself; it's loud and chaotic and there are a million things tugging at your attention and you can't really get your feet under you and besides, most of the people in the lounge are going somewhere else so they don't have the requisite stick-around properties to help you build things, for the most part. But you also don't want to be way way way down, two or three levels below where the cool people are, because then it's very hard to stay in touch and it's very hard to get your message out and be seen and stuff.

    (There's something here about grapevines and go-betweens usually just crossing from one level to another, not crossing multiple level boundaries at a time. Like, if you impress somebody, they'll maybe go out into the next antechamber up and big you/your project up to people, but they won't likely go two levels up.)

I haven't managed to tie together the stuff at the beginning, about rich complexity, with the stuff at the end, about humans and social spheres. But I put them both in this essay because I think there is a connection. There's some insight lurking that I haven't quite had yet, about the insane complexity and detail that is everywhere bundled up into quanta that are themselves bundled up into bunches that are themselves bundled up into larger bunches, something about how you can drill down from any nook, even something like "the presidency of the United States," and it doesn't take long at all to get all the way down to a very quiet tributary of Not Much Going On.

("Not Much Going On" is a misnomer, of course. But like, relative to the standards of the presidential nook.)

There's something important, in my mind, about the fact that, when I go from an international gathering of EAs and longtermists back to my home in California, it feels like I am descending, and like the walls are getting closer (luckily, in a cozy way rather than a claustrophobic one).

When I leave my home in California (which is itself still fairly plugged in to Big Important Stuff via the internet and my social ties), and go home to North Carolina to visit my parents, it feels like I am descending further still.

I can descend all the way back to the literal room that I lived in, as a three-year-old child; the room that was once not only the center of my worldview, but also the majority of it. The room that contained Most Of What Mattered.

And some people live there. When I speak to people in my hometown (such as those who Never Escaped), it's interesting to see how they have filled their bubbles (which are so much smaller) to approximately the same extent, and with approximately the same level of apparent satisfaction, as my friends concerned with the literal actual lightcone.

(There's a filtering/self-assortment effect there, obviously, but also "but.")

In conclusion: I'm miles away from a conclusion here. I'd like your help. My main sense is that there's something about this nested nook concept that is important, that is a useful abstraction, that will clarify a lot of confusions and help capture most of the important/relevant complexity while simplifying a lot of things.

(It feels, in my head, something like the distinction between arithmetic and algebra, or between doing a recursive function and finding a straightforward equation that just takes in n and gives you the answer without having to go through every step between 0 and n.)

Curious to find out if anyone else feels the same, and curious to find out if anyone else has the ingredients of epiphany.

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18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:17 AM

This was interesting! Here's my attempt to make sense of the essay & the comments:

TL;DR We can think of the parts of reality that we have influence over as our surface area of contact with reality. One way of expanding this is increasing our scale of impact (e.g. self -> friends & family -> communities -> world). Since reality is fractal though, you can also expand by engaging more deeply with reality and developing expertise in an area (e.g. beginner -> able to cook good food for yourself). Increasing scale of impact tends to seem more impressive, but delving deeper also expands our agency over reality, just in a less visible manner. This fractal nature of reality also means that regardless of which scale you choose to work at, you will still be able to live a rich and rewardng life.

It's remarkable to me how we are all living in the same physical reality, yet some people seem to be living in much bigger worlds than others. Some work for a salary, organize gatherings with friends, sew or knit, or read autobiographies of famous people. Others start companies, set up non-profit organizations, make software used by hundreds of thousands, or collaborate with famous people. Their worlds feel much bigger: things that are merely painted items on the backdrop of my stage are props they can interact with on theirs.

An easy way to measure this difference is scale of impact. People can generally control their own actions (most of the time) and maybe cajole a loved one to do as they wish. Some can persuade their friends to say, try out a new place for a meal or sign a petition. Fewer can manage departments, fewer still can lead a multi-national company, and yet fewer still can lead a country. Similarly, anyone can write, but only some can publish novels read by millions. People who have a larger scale of impact are more impressive, because they have influence over a larger part of reality. This generally comes along with developing expertise: the more you learn, the more your reality, i.e. parts of the world you have influence or agency over, expands.

The thing is, though, that reality is fractal. The surface of your bubble is not smooth - it consists of many small bubbles, and the surfaces of those bubbles consist of yet smaller bubbles. Thus, there is another way to increase your area of influence. Rather than increasing the size of your bubble or moving to a larger bubble, you can instead delve into the tiny bubbles along the surface.

One can think of developing expertise as learning to make increasingly precise adjustments to the effects you have on the world. When learning music, you start off trying to play the notes you see on your music sheet. Later on you try to play the notes with the dynamics you're imagining in your mind. Later still, you work on using dynamics to convey the emotion you want the listener to feel. As you gain mastery, you explore the smaller bubbles, learning finer ways of influencing the world. Just like moving up the scale of impact, this gives you agency over a larger part of the reality - your action space increases. Only when you've spent time exploring the nuances of music can you play music that moves people. Only when you've spent time exploring the internals of a computer do you have the option of repairing your own laptop. Only when you've spent time shopping and comparing prices for your groceries will you know how to find the best deals.

When you engage with reality, your reality expands. You are rewarded with greater agency regardless of whether you move up the scale (zoom out) or explore the details (zoom in). However, zooming out often sounds more impressive than zooming in, because it is more visible and requires less expertise to detect.

It's easy to compare the number of people reporting to a manager. Also, people who have larger spheres of influence are more likely to be known (you're more likely to read about a CEO than a junior employee). In contrast, not everyone can evaluate how skilled a teacher is at teaching. Furthermore, a competent teacher is not necessarily going to be more well-known than a teacher who is less so. Or to put it another way, a division manager just sounds more impressive than a kindergarten teacher, even if the teacher is better at managing people.

There is a tradeoff between zooming out and zooming in, because you have a finite amount of time. Also, knowing the details can become unimportant (and possibly a waste of time) when you zoom out far enough. It's important for a CTO to have technical expertise, but it would be unnecessary for the CTO to be familar with all the nuances of a programming language.

This is a choice you can make, and maybe some would decide to scale up as much as possible. Reality is fractal though, which means that you can live a rich and rewarding life regardless of which scale you choose to work at. There's always lots of choices. For example, in cooking, you can explore making Mexican dishes, or creative presentation of food, or fusion of unusual flavors, or even finding as many ways as possible to use tofu. (Or you could move up the scale by becoming a chef and opening restaurants, sharing your grandma's recipes on your website, posting Youtube videos so people can learn to make tasty vegetarian dishes, or building software that recommends recipes based on the ingredients you have on hand.) Reality is a very rich place to explore.

I think the key thing that’s missing here is the fact that from any given “nook” of any “size” or “scale” or “scope” or what have you, there are not only multiple branches down, but also up. To go “up a level” in this hierarchy also requires making a choice of direction, and also means not going in any of the other possible “up” directions. In fact, I would say that making a choice of which “up” path to take is a more consequential choice, in that it closes off more options, and makes it harder (or impossible) to retrace your last step (go back “down” a level, and survey once again your available paths “up”) than does making a choice of which “down” path to take.

And I’m afraid that this makes a good chunk of your proposed advice substantially less useful.

Mmmm, I attempted to acknowledge this (imo correct) point with the first bit about going from A/BSS to winter drumline or martial arts; I agree it could use more emphasis.

I don't know that it makes the advice substantially less useful; it adds an extra step of picking and choosing but beyond that I'm not seeing a big chunk made less relevant? (Since I already believed/agreed with this point while writing, and yet produced those lists anyway.)

Can you say more? Perhaps about which chunk(s)?


So, you’ve given some very specific examples of the lower “levels” of a “nook hierarchy” (your bedroom, street, school system, etc.)—this is admirable. But when it comes to higher levels, the post gets vague. What’s up there? Ok, there’s college. Then what? The presidency, sure. Running an internationally notable crypto exchange, sure. Now, right away we should notice that those seem, intuitively—just based on how unlike each other they seem to be—like single examples in a vastly larger domain, which we probably have only a vague sense of. (Because if we had a more systematic apprehension of said domain, then the list of examples that we’d intuitively and instantly generate would not look like this. This is a difficult-to-formalize point, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at.)

That’s the preamble. Now, having said that, let’s back up a bit and look at a “lower” level: university. Questions for consideration:

  1. What are the levels up from there?

  2. What are the sibling “nooks”, on the same level? (Are there any?)

  3. Suppose you go up a level from university—pick any path you like. What other “nooks” on the same “level” as university also feed into this next-higher-level “nook”? (Are there any?)

  4. Of the answers to #3, were any of those “nooks” available to you, as alternatives to university, from which you could then also proceed up to whatever next-higher-level “nook” we chose? Could you have taken that different path and ended up in the same place?

  5. Is there just a single “nook” at the “top” level? Or are there multiple “top-level” “nooks”, in the sense that any two such do not share any “nook” to which it’s possible to proceed from either of the two?

Alright, now back to my earlier point about the value of the advice suggested in the OP:

Decide whether you want to keep leveling up, because there is a tradeoff between climbing to the next level of chamber-size and developing expertise in your current chamber.

But this is actually two decisions: whether to go “up a level” at all, and which “upward” step to take.

But if you go up one level higher than that, you will be able to access a bunch of that-sized nooks that all open up into the same antechamber, and choose from them, and thus your odds of something like satisfaction and success go way way up.

But which “upward” step you take determines which “that-sized nooks” you now have access to, and who knows how your choice affects your odds of “something like satisfaction and success”?

And there’s a bigger problem, which is that taking any given “upward” step is quite likely to change your life circumstances, your social context, and yourself, in ways that make it much more difficult to step back “down”—and stepping “up” in an alternate direction after that “downward” step is harder still…

What I am getting as is that (as with so many things) however intuitive it may be to visualize this model as implying a hierarchical structure—a tree—in reality the graph structure which emerges from applying the model to reality is far more complex. And thus determining an optimal traversal strategy for the graph is correspondingly more difficult…

Half-baked commentary:

There's something here that reminds me of your -day monks. Like, the 1-day monks stay in large bubbles where they can easily zoom from one 1-day problem to the next, whereas the 10'000-day monks drill down into a secluded nook where they're free fo focus on their chosen 10'000-day problem. And as here, it's good to visit a place where you can get enough perspective to choose an interesting nook to settle down in.

Since you tagged me over on FB, I'll see if I can leave some useful thoughts.

Of course what immediately comes to mind is expanding ontological complexity. There's something about how much complexity a person can manage and how big a space and how many levels up they can handle operating before they get in over their heads.

I think you get it right that the difference between moving "up" to rooms that give you 10x and 100x and 1000x leverage is not a 10/100/1000x increase in complexity. It's not really a 2x or 5x or whatever increase in complexity to get the larger increase in leverage, either. I think instead this is differentiated by adding levels of recursion to the ontological model and how much recursion you can S1 handle (S2 handling is nice but it doesn't really count for this since you can't operate in S2 mode all the time, as much as some folks try).

You might find the way Ken Wilber talks about this stuff interesting. He's got this multidimensional model thing that feels a bit like overreach, but I think is ultimately just trying to point at the same sort of thing you are here: there's basically infinite complexity in the world, you can tackle it at different levels, and there's something to being able to tackle more levels of complexity at once, but also you can just tackle less complexity and that's okay, you'll still fill up your life.

Maybe that's helpful? I'm writing this comment trying to think of what things could be worth pointing to or reminding you of that could help spark further thoughts to help you resolve the seemingly still nebulous idea you're digging into.

Very helpful. Thank you. =)

There's definitely something here.

I think it's a mistake to conflate rank with size. The point of the whole spherical-terrarium thing is that something like 'the presidency' is still just a human-sized nook. What makes it special is the nature of its connections to other nooks.

Size is something else. Big things like 'the global economy' do exist, but you can't really inhabit them—at best, you can inhabit a human-sized nook with unusually high leverage over them.

That said, there's a sense in which you can inhabit something like 'competitive Tae Kwon Do' or 'effective altruism' despite not directly experiencing most of the specific people/places/things involved. I guess it's a mix of meeting random-ish samples of other people engaged the same way you are, sharing a common base of knowledge... Probably a lot more. Fleshing out the exact nature of this is probably valuable, but I'm not going to do it right now.

I might model this as a Ptolemaic set of concentric spheres around you. Different sizes of nook go on different spheres. So your Tae Kwon Do club goes on your innermost sphere—you know every person in it, you know the whole physical space, etc. 'Competitive Tae Kwon Do' is a bigger nook and thus goes on an outer sphere.  

Or maybe you can choose which sphere to put things in—if you're immersed in competitive Tae Kwon Do, it's in your second sphere. If you're into competitive martial arts in general, TKD has to go on the third sphere. And if you just know roughly what it is and that it exists, it's a point of light on your seventh sphere. But the size of a thing puts a minimum on what sphere can fit the whole thing. You can't actually have every star in a galaxy be a Sun to you; most of them have to be distant stars.

(Model limitations: I don't think the spheres are really discrete. I'm also not sure if the tradeoff between how much stuff you can have in each sphere works the way the model suggests)

"as above, so below".

I'm reminded of commentary about scale in role-playing games, how a party goes from concerning itself with a single town to a region, a country, a planet, a galaxy, a plane of existence, as it grows in power and influence.

At any scale, there's something to look up at, and something to look down on.

This also feels adjacent to a thing which bothers me about the internet: Most of our ancestors existed in groups of a size where it was reasonable for each individual to be the best-in-the-group at something. As connectivity makes groups larger, it erases those nooks of comfort in which one can be meaningfully best, valued, etc. Or maybe that's more about a ratio of critics to experts -- digital transformation brings all claims into a world where there are many people who can tear them apart, but few to no people who with sufficient expertise to create something likely to robustly withstand its expected criticism.

There's also something around here about social pressures and these nooks. My career is several nooks "up" from my parents' world, and while I'm actually doing relatively poorly at it by this nook's standards, I seem to be doing great by my parents' standards because they can only judge my present status by those few signals which apply to both their nook and mine. If we frame nooks as levels of "accomplishment", there are also certain social pressures against dropping down through them, even intentionally. Consider how your current friends might regard you if you returned to the life and worldview of the hometown friends who "never escaped".

Re: group size and expertise, the life strategy I feel most drawn to as a response follows this argument:

It takes approximately all the effort to be the best at something. By the pareto principle, it takes a meaningfully trivial amount of effort to be reasonably good at something. You can thus become reasonably good at several things. When you are reasonably good at several things, you in yourself form a cross-disciplinary team of those competences, with VERY GOOD intra-team communication. By combinatorial explosion, given enough distinct competences overall, it's fairly easy to become the only one in the world who is reasonably good at a particular set of them.

In this framework, the focus then shifts from putting all the effort into developing a single skill, to choosing distinct skills that have a good balance of synergies vs. nonobvious pairings (ie., some skills so naturally go together that having both don't add much to your useful uniqueness, which is one thing to optimise for here).

Thanks Duncan, I really appreciate you posting this, even though you are unsure about how exactly it all fits together. I am still glad to read it in this version, likely because you are quite clear about it, and not "leaving it as an exercise for the reader" to figure out where things do fit together and where they don't (or worse, trying to make it more profound).

All of these might be stating obvious to some of you, but I am trying to clarify my thoughts and maybe some people will find it useful or correct me. At least part of this relates to (by me endorsed) aphorism (?) of "everyone is a mess", or less controversially, "everyone is struggling". Something something hedonic treadmill / adaptation - people will somehow struggle the same regardless of the bubble size, then adapt to what they were used to before by overcoming the main challenges (and learning how to deal with them) and then also "reprioritize" costs. I would definitely self-report that happening during my life. I do think this realization is important in a way I relate to others, including e.g. my daughter - the things she struggles with might seem trivial to me, but are not trivial to her - on contrary, they probably feel to her about the same magnitude as my "bigger" problems look to me. Same for everyone, everywhere.

Almost like I had some capacity of how much I can deal with stuff, and I always fill in this capacity with the things around me (my bubble?). Something like doing busy work if you don't choose what to let into your to-do list. Or something closer to "I can always do 10 things, and their size doesn't matter" (bear with me, I know this is not true and I do indeed sometimes work on a single project because it's eating all of my capacity). If I let "bigger things" into it, I will be dealing with bigger things, while also just leaving some stuff behind me or "go wrong" in a way I wouldn't allow in the N-1 bubble (something like not dealing with every single fuckup in my work, starting to take Uber instead of public transport etc).

It doesn't hold entirely, I have clearly seen people who just couldn't deal with e.g. a promotion (because it was too much for them at the given time), or, similarly, people who said they want to do more / be more ambitious but can't for some objective reasons (like a physical disease).


So, try more than you can handle, because even if you ultimately have to settle down, it will give you better perspective on what choices were available?

Also, next time you make a Mandelbrot set animation, at some moment you should split the screen and follow two paths that started very similar. Then maybe slide out one of them; and later split the remaining one again.

This is not related to this post’s topic, really, but can you say more about these… “chocolate tastings”?

Over the past two or three years, I have tasted approximately 250 high-quality dark chocolates from a wide variety of sources and makers. Logan and I do it as a sort of phenomenological study, mostly for fun but also a little bit for noticing/naturalism practice, really sinking into the experience and taking extensive notes.

I started distilling lists of favorites, and have put on two (of a planned three) "Ultimate tastings" in Berkeley, where I bring a curated preplanned menu of thirteen outstanding top-tier chocolates, and lead a group of ~20 people through it, first introducing the basics of "how to 'do a tasting'" and then doing taste-discuss, taste-discuss.

Logan's guide to chocolate tasting

Logan's description of the distinction between tasting and snacking chocolates:

I break chocolates into two categories: "snacking chocolates" and "art chocolates".

The difference between a snacking chocolate and an art chocolate is how additional attention is rewarded.

Art chocolates reward additional attention with more complex experience. If you're not offering a lot of attention, you might experience an art chocolate as sweet, bitter, and pleasant. But if you close your eyes, take your time, and listen with care and openness, all sorts of thoughts and imagined experiences will flood in, building on each other and unfolding over time. When I pay careful attention to an art chocolate and describe the experience, I have to include many details before I feel satisfied with my description, and I have to listen for a long time before I feel I've heard everything it has to say.

Snacking chocolates reward additional attention differently: with immersion in the original experience. If I got "warm lazy sunshine" in the first fifteen seconds, that's exactly what I'll get for the next two minutes. If I pay careful attention, nothing will unfold or develop. I'll sink more deeply into the feeling of "warm lazy sunshine" the whole time.

(And if I got "waxy pavement headache", well, I shouldn't wait around hoping for it to change.)

So which kind is better? That depends on what you want to do with it.

Most mass-produced chocolate—like Dove, Divine, or Tony's—is snacking chocolate. It's often delicious and sometimes complex, but it rarely goes anywhere over time.

It's basically food. It talks in short sentences made of small words to the parts of you that track your security in the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy—the parts that love extra soft beds, jumping into water, and getting a hug. What you're supposed to do with snacking chocolate is eat it. When I'm deciding how "good" a snacking chocolate is, I mostly ask myself how safe and happy I feel while immersed in my experience of eating it.

Art chocolate is basically art. It's also food, but it's food in the same way that a symphony is sound.

It's designed to cause particular emotional experiences. And like any other kind of art, it's not always all that enjoyable, especially in the first few seconds. Several of the most rewarding art chocolates I've tried would be boring and unpleasant compared to Dove if I snacked on them absentmindedly. And some of the interesting, complex experiences they offer are not experiences I like having—I once listened carefully to an art chocolate that I eventually described as, "Walking to class through the snow at 8AM with a bad hangover."

When I'm deciding how "good" an art chocolate is, I mostly ask myself whether the artist took me on a worthwhile ride. So art chocolate is the way to go only if you want to make your phenomenology a canvas for someone else's ideas.

Fascinating! And do you document the results of these tastings? Reviews, lists of tasted chocolates, etc.? (Something like Gwern’s tea reviews come to mind as a model…)

I've got lots and lots of notes but besides a few things randomly shared on FB have not done much in the way of formal organization.

Logan's stuff (findable on the site already linked) looks a lot like Gwern's.

Hmm, I did see the commentary on the linked site, yes. I confess that I had been hoping for something somewhat less… whimsical in approach.

But I certainly understand that organizing data like this for useful presentation isn’t a trivial task.