Open thread, September 15-21, 2014

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I'm posting here on behalf of Brent Dill, known here and elsewhere as ialdabaoth-- you may have enjoyed some of his posts. If you read the comments at SSC, you'll recognize him as a contributor of rare honesty and insight. If you'd had the chance to talk with him as much as I have, you'd know he's an awesome guy: clever, resourceful, incisive and deeply moral. Many of you see him as admirable, most as relatable, some as a friend, and more, I hope, as a member of our community.

He could use some help.

Until last Thursday he was gainfully employed as a web developer for a community college in Idaho. Recently, he voluntarily mentioned to his boss that he was concerned that seasonal affective disorder was harming his job performance, who mentioned it to his boss, who suggested in all good faith that Brent should talk to HR to see if they might help through their Employee Assistance Program. In Brent's words: "Instead, HR asked me a lot of pointed questions about when my performance could turn around and whether I wanted to work there, demanded that I come up with all the solutions (after I admitted that I was already out of brainpower and feeling intimidated), and then directed me to turn in my keys and go home, and that HR would call me on Monday to tell me the status of my employment." Now, at the end of the day Tuesday, they still haven't let him know what's happening, but it doesn't look good.

I think we can agree that this is some of the worst horseshit.

On the other hand, he's been wanting to get out of Idaho and into a city with an active rationalist community for a while, so in a sense this is an opportunity. Ways to help: Brent needs, in order of priority: a job, a place to stay, and funds to cover living and moving expenses-- details below. Signal boosts and messages of support are also helpful and appreciated. Ways NOT to help: Patronizing advice/other-optimizing (useful information is of course welcome), variations on 'cool story bro' (the facts here have been corroborated to my satisfaction with hard-to-fake evidence), disrespect in general.

1. Job: Leads and connections would help more than anything else. He's looking to end up, again, in a good-sized city with an active rationalist community. Candidates include the Bay Area, New York, Boston, Columbus, San Diego, maybe DC or Ann Arbor. He has an excessively complete resume here, but, in short: C#/.NET and SQL developer, also computer game development experience, tabletop board/card game design experience, graphic art and user interface experience, and some team leadership / management experience.

2. Crash space: If you are in one of the above cities, do you have/know of a place for a guy and his cat? How much will it cost, and when will it be available? Probably he'll ultimately want a roommate situation, but if you're willing to put him up for a short time that's also useful information.

3. Funds: Brent is not now in immediate danger of going hungry or homeless, but a couple of months will exhaust his savings, and (although it is hard to know in the current state of things) he has been told that the circumstances constitute "cause" sufficient to keep him from drawing unemployment. Moving will almost certainly cost more than he has on hand. There is a possible future in which he runs out of money stranded in Idaho, which would be not good.

If you feel moved to help, he has set up a gofundme account here. (The goal amount is set at his calculated maximum expenses, but any amount at all would help and be greatly appreciated-- he would have preferred not to set a funding goal at all.) Though Brent has pledged to eventually donate double the amount he raises to Effective Altruist causes, we wouldn't like you to confuse contributing here with charitable giving. Rather, you might want to give in order to show your appreciation for his writing, or to express your solidarity in the struggles and stigma around mental illness, or as a gesture of friendship and community, or just to purchase fuzzies. Also, you can make him do stuff on Youtube, you know, if you want.

Thank you so much for your time and kindness. -Elissa Fleming

Official update: HR "explored every possible option" but "ultimately we have to move forward with your termination process" after "making certain there was unanimous consensus".

Apparently several people in my now ex-office are upset about this.

Is Austin on the list? I work at a not-evil tech startup called SchoolAdmin that does school admissions software for a mix of public/private/charter schools. We're not hiring devs right now, but that might possibly change since we have a product manager coming in October. The company is REALLY not evil; we've had three different people come down with mental or physical health issues, and the president's mantra has been 'your job is to get better' in every case.

I could possibly also offer a place to crash, I've got a futon, a study it could be moved to, and already have cats.

I would recommend Austin as well. There are loads of developer jobs here, though I don't know any particular place that is hiring right now. We have an active, close-knit rationalist community that I think is pretty fantastic. Worth consideration.

I was going to make a plug for Boston, but with SAD, someplace with a sunny winter like Austin sounds like it might be nicer.

That narrative is unambiguously a case of illegal discrimination. Idaho law Defines:

"Disability" means a physical or mental condition of a person, whether congenital or acquired, which constitutes a substantial limitation to that person and is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques. A person with a disability is one who (a) has such a disability, or (b) has a record of such a disability, or (c) is regarded as having such a disability;


It shall be a prohibited act to discriminate against a person because of, or on the basis of, disability in [employment]... provided that the prohibition against discrimination because of disability shall not apply if the particular disability, even with a reasonable accommodation, prevents the performance of the work required in that job.

I am also very confused as to how actual HR drones in an actual HR department wouldn't be familiar with the law and able to create a suitable enough pretext for termination.

I already mentioned the A.D.A. to Ialdabaoth, but fighting a discrimination case probably takes more money than he's looking to raise to move, as well as being psychologically exhausting.

Either of those reasons is probably enough to convince a rational person. The spirit of Immanuel Genovese still sits on my shoulder screaming "Passive complicity!" at /me/ every time I contemplate accepting an outcome in which it is normal that this kind of treatment happens.

Me too.

The problem is... this is a complex and delicate situation, as all real-life situations are.

There are co-workers who have gone the extra mile to help me and protect me. They didn't do everything they could, because they have families, and they know that if they rock the boat too hard it will be them, not HR, that get thrown overboard.

They aren't rationalists themselves (although I was slowly working on one of them), but they are caring and intelligent people who are themselves struggling to find meaning and stability in a harsh world.

If I could find a way to laser-lance out the demons of stupidity from my workplace, I would do so in an instant. If I could do so in a way that could add net funds to my own cause, I would already be doing so.

But as it is, I know exactly who would suffer for it.

(That doesn't mean that I have committed to a decision yet; I am still weighing necessary evils.)

I hope this is not patronizing advice but rather useful info. To be clear, I am not pressuring you to do anything, I know there are many reasons not to pursue discrimination claims, but I wanted to make sure you are aware of all your options.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a possibly less costly and less adversarial way of pursuing a discrimination claim. They will investigate independently and try to arrange a settlement if they find discrimination. If settlement is impossible, they may even sue on your behalf. They have won a lot of ADA-related claims. I'm pretty sure they will consult with you for free, so the only initial costs are time and emotional energy.

I'm letting you know about what my shoulder angel/demon is shouting, because if I follow his advice I am not optimizing for giving you good advice.

You can make the empty threat that you will sue if you're not re-hired. Heck, you could even register a law-firm-y domain and copy some law firm's website and configure google apps for email and send them some intimidating email "from your lawyer". You don't have anything to lose at this point do you?

but fighting a discrimination case probably takes more money than he's looking to raise to move

You might be able to get a lawyer to work on a contingency basis - they only get paid if you win.

Woah, well done everyone who donated so far. I made a small contribution. Moreover, to encourage others and increase the chance the pooled donations reach critical mass, I will top up my donation to 1% of whatever's been donated by others, up to at least $100 total from me. I encourage others to pledge similarly if you're also worrying about making a small donation or worrying the campaign won't reach critical mass.

If 102 people all pledge to donate 1% of everyone else's total, the consequences could be interesting. (Of course it's vanishingly unlikely. But pedantic donors might choose to word their pledges carefully.)

I also hope someone can help out with writing a better resume, this one is seriously subpar. A single page of achievements based on might be a start: "describe yourself by what you have accomplished for previously employers vis-a-vis increasing revenues or reducing costs".

Yes, thanks, this has been discussed elsewhere. (That said I'll repeat the request to avoid disrespect or patronizingly phrased advice.)

I don't have any sensible way of learning about current affairs. I don't consume broadcast or print news. Most news stories reach me through social media, blogs, word of mouth or personal research, and I will independently follow up on the ones I think are worthy of interest. This is nowhere near optimal. It means I will probably find out about innovations in robotic bees before I find out about natural disasters or significant events in world politics.

Regular news outlets seem to be messy, noisy attention traps, rather than the austere factual repositories I wish them to be. Quite importantly, there seems to be a lot of stuff in the news that isn't actually news. I'm pretty sure smart people with different values will converge on what a lot of this stuff is.

Has this problem been solved already? I'm willing to put in time/effort/money for minimalist, noise-free, sensibly-prioritised news digest that I care about.

ETA: Although I haven't replied to all these responses individually, they seem very useful and I will be following them up. Thanks!

What sort of current events do you want to find out about how quickly, and why?

You should consider, if you haven't already, the possibility that the value of learning about such things quickly is almost always almost exactly zero. Suppose e.g. there's an enormous earthquake half-way around the world from you, and many thousands of people die. That's a big deal, it's very important -- but what immediate difference should it make to your life?

One possibility: you might send a lot of money to a charity working in the affected place. But it seems unlikely to me that there's much real difference in practice between doing so on the day of the disaster and doing it a week later.

Another possibility (albeit a kinda callous one): it may come up in conversation and you may not want to sound bad. But I bet that in practice "social media, blogs, word of mouth or personal research" do just fine at keeping you sufficiently up to date that you don't sound stupid or ignorant. In any case, what you need to know about in order to sound up to date is probably roughly what you get from existing news sources, rather than from a hypothetical new source of genuinely important, sensibly prioritized news.

I appreciate the distinction you make between urgent and non-urgent news.

Finding out about things quickly isn't necessarily my priority. In fact, one of my problems with "regular" news outlets is that they have poor sense of time sensitivity, and promote news that's stopped being useful. The value of knowing about Icelandic volcanoes grounding all northern European air traffic is actually very useful to me when it's just happened, but in a week's time I may as well read about it on Wikipedia.

I'm more concerned about finding out about things at all. My ad hoc news accretion drops the ball more often than I'd like. My ideal wish-upon-a-star would be a daily digest saying "here are a list of things that have happened today in two sentences or less". I can then decide whether to follow it up or not.

(I have a secondary motive of wanting to associate events in my memory to improve the granularity of my recall. I know, for example, that Eyjafjallajökull erupting was concurrent with the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election, which helps me position it in time quite accurately, as well as position personal events that I remember happening around the same time.)

Hilariously, a good option for you may be an actual newspaper. Made out of paper.

It comes once a day, it summarizes a few dozen major events in a reasonably succinct way, and many of them try to minimize reporting bias. You could consider specific papers based on size and editorial style (most offer free or cheap trials), and then sign up for a short subscription to see how you like it.

It comes once a day, it summarizes a few dozen major events in a reasonably succinct way, and many of them try to minimize reporting bias.

That hasn't been my experience with newspapers.

I get The New York Times, and I find it pretty good in those regards (depending on your definition of "reasonably succinct"). And as a bonus, its science reporting is not hair-rippingly terrible at all generally.

And the greatest advantage is that it has no hyperlinks to click. Thus, you only spend limited time reading it.

But it has a lot of the same stuff you'd have found beyond the hyperlinks -- right underneath the headlines, without even needing to click. I'm not sure that's a win.

No additional clicks from there, though, so still bounded. You can read through all the interesting stories in a paper (I used to do this) and then you're done; with the web there's no obvious stopping place.

I find daily takes up too much time, and the reporting doesn't have enough distance. So I'd recommend reading a Sunday paper instead - or, better still, a weekly or monthly magazine. If you're in the UK then Prospect is fantastic; I also read TIME (I've heard allegations that the US edition is dumbed down, so try to get a European or Asian edition).

I also read TIME (I've heard allegations that the US edition is dumbed down, so try to get a European or Asian edition).

Interesting, so the European edition of TIME is not a complete insult to their readers' intelligence?

Do you have some examples in mind of things you never found out about but would have been better off for knowing?

(Of course if you literally never found out about something you can't know. But I'm guessing there are things you did find out about but not until much too late.)

A couple of semi-recent examples would be the referendum on Scottish independence and the Islamic State business in the middle east. I obviously found out about them, but it felt like I found out about them a lot later than I would have liked. It's not so much that these have an immediate impact on my life (Scottish independence does, but it's not like I'd be able to remain ignorant by the time it's resolved), but they're massive news events that I basically didn't notice until everyone else was talking about them. This suggests I'm probably missing other events that people aren't talking about, and that makes me want to up my game.

A couple of semi-recent examples would be the referendum on Scottish independence and the Islamic State business in the middle east.

What about the recent Swedish election results?

Incidentally, it was disturbingly hard to find an article about them that didn't put a misleading spin on the results.

I can't find it, but I once read an article from a guy a trust about how he just stopped following news, assuming that if anything sufficiently important happened, he'd find out about it anyway. His quality of life immediately rose. Having followed this approach for a few years now, I would suggest consuming zero news (is minimalist, completely devoid of noise, and exceptionally well-organized).

"Remember, if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The very definition of news is “something that almost never happens.” When something is so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that’s when you should worry about it." - Bruce Schneier

But rare events matter too. For example, the big news in July 1914 was the outbreak of a massive war involving all the major European powers. I suggest that someone taking Bruce Schneier's advice ("World wars are rare events, so you don't need to worry if one breaks out") is substantially misguided.

The very definition of news is “something that almost never happens.”

This is a very good heuristic but it does have a few exceptions, e.g. astronomical, meteorological, and similar events. Lots of people assume that if the news are talking about the supermoon then it must be an exceedingly unusual event.

I remember Nassim Nicholas Taleb claiming exactly this in an interview a few years ago. He let his friends function as a kind of news filter, assuming that they would probably mention anything sufficiently important for him to know.

Wikipedia's current events portal is relatively minimalist and low-noise. It's not prioritized very impressively.

The Economist has a Politics This Week and Business This Week section. Both are only a page each and are international in scope.

Get an RSS reader and read only the headlines. That way you can process hundreds of news in a few minutes and only open the ones that seem seriously important.

A trivial inconvenience which could make a huge difference -- if there was a software which would put all those headlines in plain-text format, to reduce the temptation of clicking. (There is still google if something is irresistible.)

I scan google news headlines, top stories section and click on the items of interest. Yes, there are still attention grabs and non-news, but this is usually fairly clear from the article names.