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The bonds of family and community: Poverty and cruelty among Russian peasants in the late 19th century

The question for me is how much these observations apply to peasant life in other places and at other times.


Most of this sounds a lot like my dad's life in China in the 1970s. I don't know about infanticide or some of the other things, but the impression I get from my dad's stories is of a dirty, lawless village dominated by horrible people. The following is mostly based on my memories of stories my dad told me when I was younger, so I will definitely get some details wrong, but the basics are true.


Food: Many days out of the year, my dad's family ate nothing but rice. They raised livestock (my dad had to share his room with a pig for a while), but as far as I know they only ate meat at spring festival (and much of this was left out for the ancestors). They also ate eels and frogs that they caught in the river — where they also bathed, washed their vegetables, and dumped their chamber pots — and presumably ate vegetables when they were in season. One time my dad cooked me and my sister the 'soup' he used to eat when he was a kid, which was just boiled water with a bit of soy sauce.

Illness: One time when he was very young my father got a horrible fever, and people thought he might die... but his grandmother scooped water from a muddy puddle into a bowl, and showed him a bubble resting atop the water. She told him that the bubble contained his spirit, and had him drink the muddy water to heal him. (Obviously he survived.) Also, my grandfather had bronchitis for about sixty years, and one of their neighbors had a persistent cough for years on end that would drive everyone crazy.

My dad has an anecdote:

One day when I was 4 years old (1971), I fell and cut my forehead on the stone door step of my house and needed to be stitched up. My grandmother wrestled and carried me, with the help of a neighbor, to the village “clinic”, which was staffed by the one and only “barefoot doctor” in my area. A barefoot doctor was a hygiene worker sent down from an urban city to rural areas during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). The entire medical supply in the village (of more than 1,200 people) fit in a wooden box the size of a small countertop microwave. The supply did not include numbing gel or anesthesia of any kind. It took four adults to pin me down on a wooden board over two workbenches to sew up my wound.

Jealousy: This is maybe a bit different, but ever since my dad moved to the US (even when he and my mom were on foodstamps and raising a kid with no income), ~100% of his interactions with his family back in China include them asking him for money, often in the $10,000+ range. And not even for necessities, but for things like funding a new (doomed) business venture, or buying an apartment for his nephew so that his girlfriend would marry him.

Morals / cruelty / women

Cruelty to animals: At least my dad definitely didn't see animals as worthy of compassion — they were either wild or livestock. Dogs were generally wild (I don't know of people keeping them as pets), and it was normal to throw rocks at them to shoo them away. My dad hated his family's pig (which smelled terrible, was loud, and ate so much that sometimes there wasn't any left over for the humans), and even today he has no interest in pets whatsoever.

Cruelty among kids: My dad has a memorable story about chasing a rival gang of boys from a neighboring village into the village's waste pit (i.e. a giant pile of shit). I get the sense that at least in my dad's experience, kids were cruel to each other in general — he had maybe one friend, and he has no warm feelings towards either his older or younger brother, and most of his childhood stories involve rivalries or fights.

Cruelty among adults: Physical fights among adult men also weren't uncommon. When the village's harvests were pooled by the government and each family was allowed to take a share, people would fight each other for the best melons. Sometimes people fought in the street for other reasons as well.

My dad's dad was an embezzler, and was verbally and physically abusive to both his wife and his children — he beat my dad for things such as using his writing paper to fold boats, accidentally cracking one of the chamber pots, and not going to school, at least as young as the age of five. He beat his wife all the time, and I think she often took beatings for her children, and he raped her with their children in the room.

My dad writes:

On days my mother didn’t cook enough for everyone, my father would yell at my mother for being a stingy bitch. On days my mother prepared too much food, my father would accuse my mother for being a wasteful idiot incapable of planning ahead. Sometimes my mother found her life too hard to bear and wanted / threatened to end it. She would reach for one of bottles full of pesticides on the living room floor. When fights broke out between my parents, I usually wanted to run away but almost always ended up sticking around to watch for dangerous moves. Quite a few times I had to wrestle that pesticide bottle out of my mother’s hands.

The women of my grandmother's generation were tasked with spraying the fields with pesticides, and most of them (including my grandmother herself) consequently died young due to ovarian cancer. Also my great-grandmother had bound feet; not sure how that factors in but it's horrifying.



If this kind of cruelty is common, is it inherent to poverty, including the lower levels of education that necessarily accompany poverty? And if so, does increased wealth and education alone lead to a more humane society, or did the transition to more equal rights and status also require a change in morals and other ideas that is not a natural or inherent consequence of material progress?

I'm much less sure about anything here. But my dad's family seems to have stayed pretty terrible despite the changes of the last fifty years (they now have plumbing, electricity, and plenty to wear and eat). His father never stopped being cruel, his brothers never stopped trying to guilt him into giving them money, and his younger brother's wife divorced him for being his terrible self. Then again I guess despite their rise in material wealth, they probably still never got anything beyond a middle school education, so maybe just not a relevant example at all.


Hope this was helpful! Clara had already showed me some of the Semyonova stuff so I had already been thinking about this a fair amount and I'm glad to have a reason to write it up.

Speaking of Stag Hunts

Small addition: LW 1.0 made it so you had to have 10 karma before making a top-level post (maybe just on Main? I don't remember but probably you do). I think this probably matters a lot less now that new posts automatically have to be approved, and mods have to manually promote things to frontpage. But I don't know, theoretically you could gate fraught discussions like the recent ones to users above a certain karma threshold? Some of the lowest-quality comments on those posts wouldn't have happened in that case.

Where do you live?

There's currently an effort to start an EA Hub in the Bahamas, which I'm told is easier to immigrate to than the US (though that's a low bar tbh). 

My current thinking on money and low carb diets

This entire post is premised on carbs being 'harmful' but I'm not bought into that claim. Try to convince me?

[Update] Without a phone for 10 days

I've long been interested in the Light Phone (primarily for my husband and not myself), though I guess in practical terms that's not much different from getting a feature phone. 

And this isn't a direct response to the post I guess, but I'm personally pretty content with my relationship with my phone. I like having it in my pocket as a camera, as a means of calling for help in an emergency (I'm a worrier and also in fact see a lot of accidents and crime while out walking), and as a shield to let me avoid unwanted social interactions. Having Uber and maps available also helps me feel more secure and like I won't end up trapped somewhere. Also, I'm happy with the quantity and quality of the notifications I get, since most days, no one messages me except my mom, my sister, and my husband.

In terms of addiction, I weakly recommend:

  • Putting your phone in greyscale (more or less permanently)
  • Having a habit of not following the news, not only on your phone but on any platform
  • Cultivating disdain for people who spend time on their phones
  • Cultivating deep hatred of infinite scrolling, and deleting any app that has this feature
  • Leaving most group chats or servers you're in, or if you can't leave them (e.g. if they're for work), at least muting most of them

I have more of a problem with addiction to my computer, but there too, I've successfully made my computer pretty boring. I use UBlock Origin to block most content and features on Facebook and Youtube, and then, since I don't have any friends, the only things available for me to compulsively check are things that don't actually update frequently and so it gets boring (I check email, Facebook, LW, Discord, and Slack compulsively, but 85% of the time there's nothing new). I guess I don't recommend the part about not having friends.

And finally, +1 to reading Digital Minimalism.

My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

I want to note that this post (top-level) now has more than 3x the number of comments that Zoe's does (or nearly 50% more comments than the Zoe+BayAreaHuman posts combined, if you think that's a more fair comparison), and that no one has commented on Zoe's post in 24 hours. [ETA: This changed while I was writing this comment. The point about lowered activity still stands.]

This seems really bad to me — I think that there was a lot more that needed to be figured out wrt Leverage, and this post has successfully sucked all the attention away from a conversation that I perceive to be much more important. 

I keep deleting sentences because I don't think it's productive to discuss how upset this makes me, but I am 100% with Aella here. I was wary of this post to begin with and I feel something akin to anger at what it did to the Leverage conversation.

I had some contact with Leverage 1.0 — had some friends there, interviewed for an ops job there, and was charted a few times by a few different people. I have also worked for both CFAR and MIRI, though never as a core staff member at either organization; and more importantly, I was close friends with maybe 50% of the people who worked at CFAR from mid-2017 to mid-2020. Someone very close to me previously worked for both CFAR and Leverage. With all that backing me up: I am really very confident that the psychological harm inflicted by Leverage was both more widespread and qualitatively different than anything that happened at CFAR or MIRI (at least since mid-2017; I don't know what things might have been like back in, like, 2012). 

The comments section of this post is full of CFAR and MIRI employees attempting to do collaborative truth-seeking. The only comments made by Leverage employees in comparable threads were attempts at reputation management. That alone tells you a lot!

CFAR and MIRI have their flaws, and several people clearly have legitimate grievances with them. I personally did not have a super great experience working for either organization (though that has nothing to do with anything Jessica mentioned in this post; just run-of-the-mill workplace stuff). Those flaws are worth looking at, not only for the edification of the people who had bad experiences with MIRI and CFAR, but also because we care about being good people building effective organizations to make the world a better place. They do not, however, belong in a conversation about the harm done by Leverage. 

(Just writing a sentence saying that Leverage was harmful makes me feel uncomfortable, feels a little dangerous, but fuck it, what are they going to do, murder me?)

Again, I keep deleting sentences, because all I want to talk about is the depth of my agreement with Aella, and my uncharitable feelings towards this post. So I guess I'll just end here.

My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

I agree with other commenters that you are just less likely to see psychosis even if it's there, both because it's not ongoing in the way that depression and anxiety are, and because people are less likely to discuss it. I was only one step away from Jessica in the social graph in October of 2017 and never had any inkling that she'd had a psychotic episode until just now. I also wasn't aware that Zack Davis had ever had a psychotic episode, despite having met him several times and having read his blog a bit. I also lived with Olivia during the time that she was apparently inspiring psychosis in others. 

In fact, the only psychotic episodes I've known about are ones that had news stories written about them, which suggests to me that you are probably underestimating the extent to which people keep quiet about the psychotic episodes of themselves and those close to them. It seems in quite poor taste to gossip about, akin to gossiping about friends' suicide attempts (which I also assume happen much more often than I hear about — I think one generally only hears about the ones that succeed or that are publicized to spread awareness).

Just for thoroughness, here are the psychotic episodes I've known about, in chronological order:

  1. Eric Bruylant's, which has been discussed in other comments. I was aware that he was in jail because my housemates were trying to support him by showing up to his trials and stuff, and we still got mail for him (the case had happened pretty recently when I moved in). I think I found out the details — including learning that psychosis was involved — from the news story though.
  2. I was on a sports team in college, and the year after I graduated, one of my teammates had a psychotic break. I only heard about this because he was wandering the streets yelling and ended up trying to attack some campus police officers with a metal pipe and got shot (thankfully non-fatally).
  3. It's unclear to me if what happened with Ziz&co at Westminster Woods was a psychotic episode, but in any case I knew about it at the time, but only had the details clarified in the news story. 
My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

Okay, meta: This post has over 500 comments now and it's really hard to keep a handle on all of the threads. So I spent the last 2 hours trying to outline the main topics that keep coming up. Most top-level comments are linked to but some didn't really fit into any category, so a couple are missing; also apologies that the structure is imperfect.

Topic headers are bolded and are organized very roughly in order of how important they seem (both to me personally and in terms of the amount of air time they've gotten). 

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