Things that happen offline notice: if you’re reading this I strongly predict that you will enjoy attending a Slate Star Codex meetup. I will be at the New York meetup on Saturday 9/21, come say hi!
This is part 1 of the interview, talking about Aella’s background, Twitter, Jews, the homeless, LSD ranches, Inuit mythology, insecurity, and sex. Part 2 is about psychedelics and philosophizing and will post next week.
I’m here in a secret location in the financial district of Manhattan with the most interesting woman in the world.
And we are drinking whiskey, which is appropriate.
You’re doing all the homework beforehand. It’s really cool. I haven’t experienced this before.
In these interviews, I try to channel Tyler Cowen. Before he interviews people he reads everything they’ve produced so he’s not introducing listeners to a person, but diving really deep into how they think. Because we set this interview up on short notice, I spent 8 hours yesterday consuming your entire blog and podcast archive.
Have you heard of Nardwuar? He’s an interviewer who also does this. Last night when you sent me the questions I felt that this would be like a Nardwuar interview.
I want to start with an Askholey question. Do people know the real you? Would people who follow you online be surprised if they got to spend a lot of time with you?
I don’t know what that means, “the real me”. Most likely people would be surprised by things that aren’t that interesting, like small habits I have. Things that are interesting, I tend to talk about because stories are a commodity. Learning to identify the aspects of my life that can serve as a commodity is really useful because you can put it out there and then get attention and start a dialogue in ways that are new and creative. And so the things that aren’t novel are things that might surprise you, like how I take my coffee or something.
Do you identify with the story of you that’s out there?
I don’t know what that means. There’s a strong way in which I feel like the stuff I write about myself in the past is a completely different person. The sense that I have when writing about myself in the past, is like a story that’s not me. It’s just a dream that I woke up with in my head one day and I’m sharing that dream.
So we’re getting a snapshot of Aella’s mind on September 5th, 2019, and that’s it. Is there a set date at which you will automatically unendorse everything you’re going to say today?
It kind of happens as I say it. If I’m paying attention and being mindful when speaking, then it becomes a lot more salient for me. As soon as something leaves my mouth, it’s as if it’s no longer part of me in any way.
It’s a weird thing to have a feeling that you identify with something. Like what even is that, to identify with something?
I think that there’s no objective answer to what your identity is, it’s more of a stance that you can take. If I notice a feature of me that persists over time, and people start predicting my behavior based on it, I’m also going to predict myself based on it and it becomes my identity.
So your identity is prediction?
That’s one of the ways to think about it.
I don’t identify with a lot of aspects of my body. I don’t carry things like my digestive system or subconscious habits that I have as a sense of identity. I guess I’m saying that predictability is not all that you need.
I just saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said: “Queens are born in December”. People will craft an identity out of any random thing, like the month they were born.
It’s kind of fun!
Something I’ve been working on recently is the sense of flexible identity, being able to rapidly shift the identity that I have. And this is helping me not be afraid of carrying authority and also not be afraid of not having authority. Going back and forth rapidly between knowing what I’m talking about and knowing nothing of what I’m talking about. It feels really good to be able to shift identity or the sense of it.
I asked for question suggestions from our Twitter followers, which gave me a glimpse into your world a little bit. I have 750 followers and I’m very proud of all of them. You have 35,000, and I’m not as proud of them.
Yeah, I often have my hopes in humanity dashed by Twitter. It keeps my relation to humanity humble.
I get the sense that you’re really curious about people at large, without necessarily liking them. A lot of your Twitter questions are driven by curiosity but they don’t show people in the best light.
That is true. I enjoy bonding in darkness, finding the worst aspects of someone or forcing a bad frame or a confession. Showing that we’re all in an evil and gritty sort of world and then displaying acceptance in that world. I really enjoy the sense of acceptance and peace inside the hairy, gross stuff. And so part of my drive is to pull people downwards because I want to show that it can be safe there. It’s safe to go down. I like that.
Tyler Cowen is fond of saying that every thinker is a regional thinker. That the culture and circumstances where you grew up affect how you think and make you different from your current intellectual peers. You grew up in really unusual circumstances; how do they affect the way you think today?
It’s hard to know what is the culture and what is genetics, but there are definitely things that came into play like cultural isolation. When I was growing up access to movies and music was really limited. We weren’t allowed to see media of children who were upset with their parents so even the concept of being whiny just wasn’t in my worldview. Information was controlled at such an extreme level. And of course, I didn’t go to public school except for a couple of brief months, which didn’t have much of an effect on me.
Also very important was the philosophy of us-against-the-world. ‘Us’ being the Christians, the minority, the one that was persecuted, and we had the truth and everybody else hated us. We were told constantly that when you grow up and you go into the world, you’re going to have to stand your ground and everybody is going to think differently than you. But it’s okay to think differently. And so I think that made me feel really comfortable from an early age with the idea of being really different from everybody else. That was just the norm.
Do you still feel like it’s us-against-the-world, just transferred to a different tribe?
I don’t know. I think that this made me feel safe being different in a fundamental way. It reduced my fears around thinking terrible things, fears that other people might have. Although there was strong conformity in my culture as it was, we were still nonconformist in contrast to everyone else. So I had access to that nonconformist identity in ways that maybe the mainstream doesn’t because there’s nothing to contrast themselves to.
How about the genetic side, and also your family upbringing. Do you see any parts of your parents in yourself?
I like to think of myself as sort of the blend between my parents. My dad’s quite severe. He has Asperger’s and is ambitious in a kind of way. He’s very intelligent and kind of immature and very masculine in a low empathy, low agreeableness manner. And I can see some of that in myself, too. When you’re talking about me being more interested in curiosity and less in liking people that might come from low sociality.
But my mom is extremely empathetic and pro-social, exactly the opposite. And she taught us a lot of social norms that feel ingrained in me on a deep level, like being extremely kind to people around you no matter what. This has led to me sometimes engaging in actions that are weird, like going out of my way to get a homeless person an Uber. This backfired, the homeless person did not get in the Uber, they were insane. But I tried to do that when other people already knew that that’s not something you’re supposed to do.
I just took a homeless person grocery shopping for the first time.
Did that work?
Yeah, it was a 10/10 great experience. I see a lot of homeless people in NYC with terrible signs that are clearly lies. But this guy’s sign said: “A $10 shopping spree at CVS would be life-changing”. I liked how direct it was. I asked, “Hey, buddy, what’s your name?” -”Justin.” -“OK, Justin, let’s go shopping at CVS. Anything you want is on me.”
All he got was a box of tuna. I asked if he wanted anything else but he said that someone had already bought him soup, and that soup plus tuna is a great dinner. He also got really excited about how many different kinds of tuna there were and I almost said, “Yeah, isn’t capitalism amazing?” but in the end, I didn’t say that.
I may not have been 100% sober when this happened.
Did that cause you to do this or do you tend to do stuff like this in general? I guess it’s already within you.
I try to do more things like this in general, but I find myself doing them a lot less when I’m sober. But this was such a great experience that I’m going to do more stuff like that.
I used to do this kind of thing when I lived in Seattle. I lived alone; I was kind of lonely. And so one night I got pretty drunk and then went out on the street and saw this group of homeless people and gave them all LSD and then they all started tripping. I just hung out with them all night.
I continued to hang out with this group and would bring them food all the time and gifts. They were very picky about the food and gifts that I brought them, actually, but it was a really great experience. Homeless people and LSD is a great combo.
To all the people out there: go buy some tuna, put LSD in it, and go make friends under the local bridge.
You’re a very unique person in almost every domain, what you believe and the things you do. I have a speculative theory about that. It sounds like none of the social scripts that you’ve absorbed as a child still ring true, and so you had to figure things out from scratch at 19.
I learned a lot of things from my parents and where I grew up about what’s appropriate and what’s good. Scripts for family life, work, education, how to treat people, etc. Some of these I discarded, but for the most part, they were pretty good scripts to follow.
But the only scripts you had came from your parents since you didn’t have things like TV shows to offer an alternative. And the social rules you got from your parents seemed so bad that you completely rejected it. And so at 19, you had to reckon how to interact with the world with a completely open mind, doing sex work and psychedelics and all of that. It’s like you were born again as an adult with no prior programming.
Weirdly, I think some of this might come down to the religious training that I had. You know my dad’s a professional evangelical. A big deal growing up was proving other faiths wrong. And I was always terrified, how do we know they’re wrong and we’re not the ones that are wrong? I recognized that there is this weird parallel between my religion and the other religions. And so a huge part of my attention was devoted towards noticing that people just buy into what they’re raised in, and that can send them to hell to burn for eternity.
This was an extremely terrifying idea to me, that people could just not deeply question what they believed in. I knew I had to do that for my own faith too, which is eventually what knocked me out of it. This deep fear of not questioning the thing that I’m put into was a really big theme for me as a teenager and adult. I viewed everything with really strong skepticism because I’d always been judging people of other faiths, like Muslims and Catholics, for not looking on their lives with a critical eye.
That put the idea into my brain that nothing is sacred at all because my God, the most sacred thing of all could be taken down by reason or at least questioning.
So you still have an instinct to rigorously question things like systems of belief.
I think it’s a point of annoyance with even my closest friends that I may want to build a commune with, me being too fast to be skeptical about belief systems.
Let’s talk about friends and communities. I often think about how the people I spend most of my time with are not really representative of broad humanity, they’re huge outliers in terms of intelligence, education (I don’t mean college degrees), resources, etc. I imagine that for you this is even more extreme. Do you find it strange, living on an island of people who are strongly selected and unusual?
Yes. When I was growing up I felt super introverted and everybody viewed me as an introvert. And then I found the Rationalists and I realized for the first time that I was an extrovert with them, the people that I clicked with. I felt like I’d been looking for them my whole life. There is a way in which my current community is satisfying something for me that normal communities can’t and so I deeply appreciate that about them even though you get normalized to it. I’m assuming this happens to you, too, although maybe not.
I don’t really talk to people outside of my bubble very much. And then when I do, it’s quite a shock. I forget that the world is so incredibly different from me and my friends.
I have a normie day job, I have a soccer team and things like that. One of the reasons why I like New York and don’t move to Berkeley is that I don’t really want to have everyone I talk to be a rationalist.
I assume that growing up in Idaho in a fundamentalist Calvinist family you didn’t know a lot of Jewish people. When was the first time you met one?
I didn’t know any Jewish people growing up. When I moved to the camgirl house in Washington a lot of the other girls had moved from the East Coast and would just talk about Jews or refer to Jews playfully. And I’m like, what the fuck are you talking about? How do you have all these stereotypes about Jews? Where do you meet them? I didn’t know that there was a whole bunch of them here in New York.
And now it seems like every passing year you’re surrounded by more and more Jews.
Oh, yeah. Now it’s just Jew city.
I kind of like it. I feel mild affection for the Jews on the basis of their race, which might be racist, I’m not sure. I tend to have positive experiences with them, especially Israelis. I really like the Israelis that I’ve met. When I go to burns, often there’s a community of Israelis I hang out with and they’re quite interesting, culturally different people.
I’m glad that my tribe is representing.
Yeah, they’re doing it well.
You mentioned potentially forming a commune or an intentional community. Is that your biggest goal in life right now?
I think so. I’m starting to shift from an “explore mindset” to a “settle mindset”, and people around me have been talking about building communities forever. I’ve been afraid of it because you hear constantly about how intentional communities fail and explode. I don’t know any intentional communities that have been together for decades with the same people. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places.
Anyway, this has made me a little bit afraid of pursuing it but now I’m starting to want it badly enough that I’m going to pursue it anyway. I’m interested in getting land or a large building.
With what sort of people? You wrote: “Belief systems aren’t ‘the things we’ve logically concluded about the world.’ They are structures that give us a way to interact with our environment.” And the environment is mostly the people around you. So what sort of people are you looking for and with what shared belief system?
Sufficient intelligence, emotional maturity, and creativity are the three qualities I’m most interested in if we’re going to be scoring people on tests or something. With regards to a belief system, I think I’m primarily interested in a specific relationship to that belief system. The flexibility to recognize that beliefs are something that you hold instead of having the belief hold you. Being able to manipulate or shift around your beliefs to figure out what is most useful in the moment, because I feel like people have a lot more options for interaction available to them if they’re not subject to their beliefs. I’m really drawn to people who seem to have that quality. I would love to live with those people.
So: the anti-cult. You want questioning people who won’t just settle into agreeing on a thing just because that gets them accepted by the group.
Right. I think this falls into the intelligence category a bit. You want people who have this curiosity, which is something that I often find lacking with very creative people, weirdly enough. You’d think that creative people are quite curious, but I’ve been disappointed in this for a while.
What are the main obstacles right now for getting that community set up?
So you’re looking for a millionaire who thinks your community idea sounds cool?
That would be dope, and I don’t think is that infeasible, really. But I don’t like the idea of being at the whim of someone else. Independence is quite important to me. And if you accept someone else’s money, who’s going to be part of this project, then you’re subject to their whims.
It shouldn’t be hard for people who are intelligent, emotionally mature, and creative to make money. I’m not optimizing for making money right now but I could still save up enough in a few years to then live for 20 years on a ranch in Montana. I just want someone to help babysit my kids when I have them.
This is kind of what’s going on. I and some of my friends have some funds that we’re interested in using. Not a ton, but communities can also be businesses. You could have a community that runs a retreat or workshop center. Get investment from someone and start a company.
The FDA could eventually approve psilocybin and LSD therapy for things like addiction and depression.
An LSD cult on a ranch, it’s not like that hasn’t been done before.
Tim Ferriss recently declared that he’s putting all his energy into psychedelics research. It’s a massive business opportunity.
Yeah, I think it’s going to be big and hopefully, it’s done right this time. Last time it was a little… people weren’t ready.
Some people were more than ready. Some people had a great time.
That is true.
That’s the girl who got raped by her brother and cut off her breasts?
I don’t think I was so much identifying with one of the characters as the incredible darkness of the tales of the Inuit life. It seems when reading about legends of different tribes that the farther north you go, the more horrific they are. Demons crawling out of things to eat children and such.
Igaluk and Malina, in Inuit mythology she ends up becoming the moon and he the sun and he’s chasing her forever. This is their fucking sun and moon tale. In other places, it’s the God-father giving birth to the earth and the sun rises in a chariot or something more innocent.
The Aztecs are a tropical civilization, and their myths are pretty dark. But it does seem like warm weather cultures have more trickster gods who aren’t really vicious, they just they fuck around.
In other mythologies, there are classic tales of Hero’s Journey or some shit. But if you fall down the Wikipedia hole of Inuit mythology it’s just consistently gut-wrenching.
So what’s the morality that they teach? That the night is dark and full of terrors?
Probably. I haven’t thought about it too much, but my original theory was that the environment is a lot more threatening than it might be if you’re in a tropical or warm place. So the stories reflect that. It does stay dark up there for a really long time for half the year.
I wonder if they have a set of nicer myths to tell in July when it’s sunny all the time and then they bust out the book of really dark tales in December.
Let’s talk about sex.
There are many approaches and uses of sex, and you’ve explored quite a few of them. And some of them are somewhat in tension. Sex can be used for bonding and creating intimate relationships with people of both genders. But you also wrote about how at the heart of it is this vicious game of power and status. What does sex mean for you and how do you use it?
Maybe the question that I have the least insight into is myself and sex. I’ve been in and out of sex work for a while so for me, sex has primarily functioned as a money-making thing. It’s practical, a business, the thing that you do to support yourself and eat food. It’s quite distant and it’s very much a tool for me. And so in my personal life, it’s shifted a lot. I’ve gone from having a really high sex drive to a really low sex drive and being uncertain about what I want in my partners.
In general, status seems to be attractive. People who are high status seem to make me want to have sex with them by being high status. Not always, obviously, but it’s the highest correlate.
You said on a podcast that when you first left home you were really horny and had sex all the time.
That’s true. My upbringing was extremely sexually suppressive and getting out of it made it feel like a fun game. And of course, I treated it very rationally, thinking I need to be rational in all my actions and so I need to be rational about sex. And rationally, if I enjoy pleasure and people enjoy pleasure, I should probably have sex with as many people who bring me pleasure as I can.
And so I did, but it turns out sex is very complicated. I wasn’t actually enjoying it very much.
It’s probably common for every single human to at some point think they have sex figured out and then to discover how much there is to learn.
I’m kind of excited by the confusion that surrounds sex. Usually, when I meditate or introspect, I can develop a framework of what I’m feeling. But with sexual arousal, it’s just totally opaque. I assume it’s this way for a lot of other people too, like we don’t really know what gives people kinks. It’s a very weird part of human psychology.
I don’t have sex “figured out” but my own relationship with it is more straightforward, at least in how it works for me. It’s not a business for me, it’s not a power move. It’s pleasure and bonding; I always liked women more after sleeping with them.
It makes sense.
I hear women give each other advice that sleeping with a guy will make him respect the woman less. And I understand the evolutionary psychology and the power aspect of it, but I don’t share this feeling at all. I respect anyone who made the smart choice to have sex with me!
Many people see you as a sex object and project their sexual fantasies on you. And also many people see you as a guru and a teacher and project their hopes for enlightenment and wisdom on you. Either one of these roles is rare enough, how weird is it to be seen as both at the same time?
I suspect that the people that view me as a sex object and the people that view me as a teacher are not the same people.
The sex object thing doesn’t really feel like much to me. It feels like a weird glitch. It’s like playing a video game and running a character through this virtual world, and other characters sometimes run up to your character and try and hump it. It’s just people reacting to this type of body in a specific way. It feels quite impersonal and practical. When I was doing sex work, camming and putting photos online, it just felt like a very practical way of existing. It’s like it wasn’t really me doing it at all, but my avatar was doing it. So I don’t really think about it that much.
The guru thing is weirder. There’s this phenomenon that I didn’t realize I was going to have once I hit some level of attention, which is that people treat me as a conduit for their own validation. So they recognize that I have some sort of quote-unquote authority or awareness or attention from others that gives me status. But the thing that they’re looking for is not for my opinions, but rather for me to witness them. So they explain their problems to me, usually over email, and it seems that what they want is for me to just look at it. And so that makes me feel slightly dehumanized. It’s like I am operating as a character that serves you a specific function. It feels a little weird, more so than the sex thing.
Do you hear any problems that you feel really unqualified to answer?
I don’t have any that I remember right now, but there are some where it’s obvious that mental illnesses are at stake. For those I think I have a slightly different approach – “crazy” feels like a frame you can apply or not apply. I tend to be a little bit more open to people when they are in a crazy state because it’s not crazy, it’s just different. It’s typically just a sub-optimal way of achieving your goals.
Let’s talk about insecurity. My favorite thing that you ever wrote is So Says Crazybrain. It sounds like you’ve been thinking about insecurity a lot, attacking it in many ways. What’s the state of that struggle right now?
It vacillates, but the overall trend is having less of it. Insecurity seems to be not knowing what you are and being afraid that what you are is bad in some way. And so all of my insecurities come from the blind spots that I hold within myself. Sometimes my attention is too small or I’m not practicing mindfulness enough such that the blind spots grow and I start to experience insecurity in daily life. I think that this is why insecurity tends to go away in familiar situations because you get to know yourself more in a familiar situation.
So insecurity is feeling like you don’t know yourself, and if you knew you would be disappointed.
I struggled with it a huge amount. When I was younger, I was almost cripplingly insecure. I couldn’t do things that other kids could do because I was so afraid of what people thought of me. I don’t know if this came from my dad who is also extremely insecure.
It’s interesting that you tie monogamy to insecurity. And it seems that even though the amount of insecurity you feel vacillates, you’re never ceding polyamory to it.
I have trouble even imagining not being poly. It’s not a question that I ever think about it. I became poly almost as soon as I heard of it. I was 19, and at the time I was dating my boyfriend monogamously because that’s all I’d ever heard of and I was just doing the thing that everybody did. And then I met this guy and his wife who were living with a third person and they were all poly. And once they explained polyamory to me it made so much sense, it was obviously the thing that I want to do.
I tried explaining this to my boyfriend, why it should be okay for me to have sex with this new guy. But my boyfriend didn’t get it and we ended up breaking up. Ever since then, I was definitely poly. I’m not going to date anybody ever again who doesn’t want me to have sex with someone I want to have sex with.