whole zero / Wed, 02 May 2018 23:07:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.5 Magic /2017/10/magic/ Tue, 10 Oct 2017 22:45:10 +0000 https://1ec872766fd472fc5e3234e31aa0464c.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=580

Here there was no sky above, no surrounding sphere. Only points of perfect light against perfect blackness, an infinite and empty void with countless tiny holes through which shone the brilliance from some unimaginable realm beyond.

I’ve recently found the closest analog to Quirrell’s spell that I’m aware of in this realm.

On our last retreat with Shinzen Young, we sat through the night one night. It was a small group of us—maybe 12 to 15. We sat in a close circle, and alternated sitting and walking periods from the end of one evening till the start of the next morning.


There’s a little pond on our property, in our front yard. During one of the walking periods, we were invited to go for a swim in it. In the middle of the night, on a rural mountainside in Vermont, in late September. You know, to help stay awake.

Each time someone entered the pond, you could here the noble silence being punctuated by shocked gasps and “oh god”s. But once you were in, it wasn’t that bad, actually.

And as luck would have it, during that walking period, the cloud cover rolled back. So you could, if you were so inclined, float on your back—temporarily quieting most nearby sensations—and look out at the stars.

There is not a way I can think of to describe that experience to myself prior to doing it. I would probably just say “you should definitely do this.” As I crawled out of the pond afterwards, there was a sense: Alive. Right. That’s what it can be like.

It was easy to forget … your own body, and become a point of awareness which might have been still, or might have been moving. With all distances incalculable there was no way to tell.

MCTB and the Path /2017/09/mctb-and-the-path/ Wed, 20 Sep 2017 20:10:52 +0000 https://cb1290f594cc5412abcd1c8c376d5585.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=569 Scott Alexander recently wrote a review of Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, and I was really tickled. First, because the intersection of monasticism and the modern rationality world continues to be something I’m really interested in, and it’s nice to see it happening from multiple directions without any apparent influence of my own. But second, because MCTB is a significant book in my own life, and because we’ve talked a good deal about it and Daniel Ingram at the Monastic Academy.

MCTB was a book that found me at a certain stage in my journey in meditation. I’d started a daily practice by that point thanks to Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, and I was somewhere between “somewhat” and “extremely” bought in to the idea that mindfulness practice was good at doing some good stuff that I found hard to pin down. But “enlightenment” was not yet a concept I had any interaction with—I basically still thought everyone who said the word was being sarcastic, flippant, or not talking about anything in particular. (I think I also believed there was a real deep experience that could be had in some special circumstances. And at that stage I also still assigned significant probability to a number of wacky and hard-to-articulate hypotheses related to that that I won’t go into here. But enlightenment was still basically a story or fairy tale to me.)

So MCTB came along and said, no, enlightenment—classical, final, absolute enlightenment—was not only real, but possible, and possible for someone like me with some work, and furthermore here was the path to it and the things to expect to happen on that path. And for whatever reason—maybe Ingram did a particularly good job at producing the appropriate shibboleths for what I’d consider a sane, down-to-earth person at the time—I bought in.

This was really significant. It was probably the one single step that took me from “I am going to pursue a daily practice at home with occasional online retreats to learn more and hone my skills” to “I am maybe willing to spend about a year of my life with practice towards enlightenment as the main thing that I direct my efforts towards.” It was therefore the step that made joining the Monastic Academy (at the time named CML) for that first training period a possibility to me. So if nothing else I owe the book, and its author, that.

But the Taoists would say that you can’t have a strength without having a weakness. MCTB’s strength is that it makes enlightenment and the path to enlightenment into a boring, simple, cut-and-dry, easy-to-pin-down sort of a thing, and that’s also its weakness. It’s valuable to see the path as boring and ordinary, not special, not far away or in a separate realm from everyday things. To see it as something you can do, and having done it, be done. But it’s also misleading.

We talk about MCTB and Ingram’s approach from time to time around here. Soryu has a few times gone on tirades about the problems it brings to light and reinforces. It’s worth looking closely at this.

There is a sense of arrogance and superiority that we can carry in this culture: a sense that we know better than those ancient people who were so foolish and blind, because we have science and the internet and our books are better and there are more of them. This sense also isn’t strictly speaking wrong, but it leads to prediction errors. We apply it to the spiritual path and wind up thinking: “all those people in all the monastic traditions throughout history were just wasting a ton of time on pointless observance of rituals and extra epicycles. I don’t need any of that. I know how the path works, because this book lays it out clearly. So in ten minutes a day, in my own home, without changing anything significant about my life, I’m going to do it, and my results in a few months or years are going to be as good or better than what those idiots got by giving their entire lives to it.”

Soryu would say that the path delivered in MCTB is watered down and incomplete. It gets you to the various stages up to and including arahatship by moving the goal posts for those stages closer to where you are. This is good in that it makes you willing to believe that arahatship is something possible and worth striving for, and bad because it might delude you into thinking you’ve gotten farther than you have.

From my own experience, depending on the definition you apply, I either definitely got to stream entry in the second or third week of my first nine months at CML (having by that time practiced quite seriously for at least a year), or I haven’t gotten there yet.

There is still an experience of emptiness easily available to me. The entire experiential universe blinks out of existence completely once every few seconds to few days at different rhythms. When it first happened I was really excited and proud: it felt validating, like hard work has paid off, and like I’d done something significant.

It is difficult to convey how much of a non-event it is now, and I’m not being rhetorically cute: in terms of impact on my daily life, it is almost totally inconsequential save for its relationship to my discussions about this sort of thing.

And I’m under no illusion that I’m done.

I just finished a two week training period at Tahoma Zen Monastery with Shodo Harada Roshi, probably one of the great masters of this time. I sat easily ten hours a day, and practiced as close to 24 hours a day as I could, including foregoing lots of sleep. I made incredible progress, had profound insights each day, and pushed myself farther than I’d ever gone before. I rode the ragged edge, and it was exhilarating. By the end of it, I have no illusions that I was anywhere close to where that man was inviting me to be in the Sanzen room.

And what he was pointing to was just the beginning of the path.

I now think it’s possible to do it. I don’t think that any number of years of sitting there in my room using my mind to mess with my attention will get me there (unless we get functional immortality before I die, in which case maybe in a few centuries.) Nothing short of a full effort with every fiber of my being every moment of the day seems like it will work.

This full effort with everything we have is essential if this is going to be real. Because the monastic traditions of the world aren’t in this just to give people some deep insight that we can take back into our lives as they already exist without modification. Soryu has a word for a path like that, a path that gives you deep insight yet produces no changes in behavior, no improvements in ethics: he calls it “garbage”.

The goal of this is to become actually trustworthy. To be someone who won’t take advantage of you when you’re unable to defend yourself, who won’t refrain from doing what must be done just because it’s hard or we don’t want to do it or we don’t yet know how. To do this we need to make a real change. We come to the point where we see clearly: these are my limitations. These are the places where I will betray you, betray life, betray the world, because of my own stuckness and preferences. We see this clearly and impassively, and we cut it away. Again and again, until there is no remainder. We can’t do this with anything less than our whole life. If anything is outside of it, then that will just keep self-replicating, and it will consume resources to do so. As long as there is any of this left, we can’t be trustworthy, because we are both serving life and serving these meaningless self-replicating patterns.

And I haven’t done it yet. So here I go, back home, into another week of retreat, to keep striving, keep cutting away, keep pulling up the roots.

Afterword: this is all screaming, to a certain part of me, “this is the way cults reproduce! They give you an unrealistic standard to aspire to and then you burn your entire life up serving them in an effort to attain something you will never have! Get out now! Go join a… I dunno, join MIRI or something? Start working on probability theory? Go back to school? Maybe get a tech job and save up some cash? Shit, I don’t know, but this is definitely bad and you should get out, I know because it’s like that episode of The Simpsons.”

Seriously, that is generally what happens when I entertain that voice. It’s clear on being concerned with the current course (less clear on why), but not super helpful on coming up with better alternatives. If you have any, please let me know. I promise to seriously entertain them and if one passes muster, do it. But for now it actually does seem like “become more trustworthy by cutting away all self-serving patterns” is the correct instrumental goal for me to pursue, and this is what it actually looks like to pursue it.

A way that I’ve heard it put is that we keep trading up in delusions. We find less and less harmful delusions to grab onto until finally we reach the point where we don’t need any. At first the delusions are quite bad: they have to meet us where we are, which means they are mostly meaningless self-replicating patterns with only a shadow of truth. Then they get more and more real, less and less imaginary. A monastery is somewhere on this path: some mix of truth with meaningless self-replicating garbage. MCTB is somewhere on this path as well.

MCTB as a step on this path is terrific. And it is not the last step.

San Francisco /2017/05/san-francisco/ Thu, 11 May 2017 04:56:43 +0000 https://3cfc8643ed40b74f51c18f301aae79ce.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=531 I’ve been in San Francisco since the start of May, onboarding as a remote interviewer for Triplebyte (which I’ll be doing from back east). It’s been a great opportunity to revisit a life and a family.

I was going to write a post about how I’ve been observing a pattern of loneliness out here, and how it seems like that pattern was lying dormant and is now active as I’ve stepped back into this life.

Then I noticed that my last post was about being in a pattern of loneliness at the monastic academy.

So I should probably consider it more likely that I’m in a pattern of loneliness that’s independent of location.

But it totally seems like it’s caused by a bunch of stuff I’ve been doing out here! I had a whole story about how my behavior out here was producing a self-reinforcing pattern of isolation. Maybe that’s even true—who knows?

I feel an inclination to try to hedge about this loneliness pattern: to go in an “it’s not that bad” type direction. In that direction, I would say that I’ve had a ton of equanimity towards it—much, much more than at previous times when I’ve lived here. I can see the workings of the feeling of isolation more clearly, and it’s often the most salient thing in emotional body space, but it’s not debilitating. There’s a sense of “it’s cool, I want to study this.”

I also feel an inclination to mention that it doesn’t show up when I’m actively doing something: when I’m at work or spending time with people, or even at times when I’ve planned to have downtime, I feel great. (This is a “you don’t have to wonder if I’m secretly feeling lonely around you and trying to hide it” type hedge. It’s not inaccurate.) The pattern predominantly comes up when I have unplanned downtime out here. (This may partially explain why I tried really hard to cram as many visits with friends in as I could on this trip. But I think the larger part of that is that I have a ton of amazing friends out here and not nearly enough time to catch up with even most of you.)

So I’ve been continuing to do the same work out here as anywhere. I should be suspicious of stories about how a complex pattern of emotions and thoughts is being created by a location or circumstance.

There’s much more going on around here than I’ve written about in this brief span of unplanned downtime. I hope that the experience of reading this post will convey some of it.

Patterns /2017/04/patterns/ Mon, 17 Apr 2017 23:58:08 +0000 https://84b04ca70a31c080cd7b2adf73a719f1.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=503 One of the things I’ve heard people with experience on the matter describe monasteries doing is “internalizing the externalities of your own maladaptive patterns.”

We all (more or less all—I’m aware of no counterexamples) learn various coping strategies throughout our lives to prevent ourselves from experiencing physical or emotional pain. These coping strategies tend, on the whole, to increase the total amount of suffering. But in the normal world, that suffering is typically not our suffering, and often not even suffering that’s visible to us. So absent any corrective feedback, we tend to just keep using these strategies again and again, and they become ossified patterns.

In monastic training, the situation is different: as much as possible, the person who suffers as a result of engaging in such a pattern is the person doing it. Create an environment like that, and over time, those patterns will die out as we notice that they aren’t working anymore. (In fact, they never worked, but now we can notice that they aren’t working.)

One result of this is that monasteries can be particularly unpleasant places to be for people, such as yours truly, who have developed a lot of maladaptive patterns.

I observed this in my first run through this training, but lacked sufficient contextual awareness, so I perceived it as “monastic training is terrible and bad for me,” and consequently left. These days, I know better than to measure the success of this training by how I’m feeling while I’m doing it—maybe a better method would be “how am I feeling on average each year?” or “how do I and those I interact with do when I’m in various situations in the normal world?”

But I mention this all to say that a particular clump of patterns has been coming up pretty strongly. It seems well explained by this string of tweets from my close friend Javier:

I am, by at least a few objective measures, a smart and successful person. And I can recall looking at the other people in my life as stupid and unworthy of my presence all the way back to elementary school. Even as I did work on the consciously accessible aspects of that pattern, it still shaped my world view, in that the sorts of solutions that presented themselves to me didn’t account for the needs of most of the people I was around. I invested my care-units into the people I deemed worthy: the hacker community and the people in my life who’d proved themselves to be pretty smart by my standards.

Out there in the world, that looked like experiencing some amount of disdain at being around “normals” and relative glee when I was around people I admired. It felt like a lot of isolation and loneliness. It resulted in engaging in all sorts of additional maladaptive patterns in an attempt to deal with those feelings.

I never noticed the connection between the disdain for normals and the feelings of loneliness. The disdain didn’t look like something I was doing—as it goes with beliefs, it just looked like the way the world was. So it never occurred to me that I might feel differently if I looked at myself and others differently, because that wasn’t visibly an option—and if it was, why would I take it? Why change my preferences if that would lead to less satisfaction of my preferences-at-the-time?

So what does that look like in monastic training? Well, the same thing happens in here as happens out there: I look at the people around me as stupid and unworthy of my presence. So I decide—mostly unconsciously—to do other things with my time than interact with them. Let them do whatever dumb things they’re going to do, while I engage in high-brow, smart, superior things like…

And here is a useful bit of cognitive dissonance. Out in the world, I didn’t notice just how ridiculous my alternative behaviors were. Here, there’s just less to do, so it’s kind of obvious that I just spent all day browsing reddit and refreshing a few different social media pages in the hopes that someone smart would say something to me. It’s sort of obvious that this wasn’t all that productive.

So the pattern is visibly causing suffering, and the primary recipient of that suffering is me.

Yet here I am, still doing it.

Another thing that becomes pretty obvious at a place like this is that changing patterns is often really hard and often takes a long time. The tools we have aren’t magical—they just work given steady application over enough time.

But they do work. It’s perceptible in small but concrete ways. The pattern is definitely still here, and it’s also definitely much less pronounced than it was when I entered this training.

Another good friend of mine, Michael, at one point characterized his progress on the path before joining the monastic academy as “fast and fake,” and after joining as “slow and real.”

So, here’s slow and real. Signing off now to spend some time with my friends here.

Commitment /2017/03/commitment/ Sun, 12 Mar 2017 01:13:00 +0000 https://f9ccdb2fe713d69395b132667c310611.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=487 I’ve been on vacation for a few days—it’s one of those “I have a bunch of vacation days I need to use before the end of the month” type things.

One of the things I’ve noticed, between taking free days and being on the schedule, is that the basic structure of the day around here is great. When I’m doing the schedule, I feel great, and I’m relatively productive. When I’m not doing the schedule, things tend to slide a little.

So this vacation, I decided to commit to part of the schedule.

Commitments are a critical part of the training around here. When we make a commitment and keep to it, we’re sending the world and ourselves a clear message that we’re trustworthy, and that we’re someone who follows through on our commitments. We hear that message and grow stronger. The world hears that and trusts us.

Of course, the reverse is also true. When we make a commitment and then don’t follow through, we’re sending the message that we’re untrustworthy. The world hears this and doesn’t trust us, but even worse, we hear it and don’t trust ourselves.

So we take commitments seriously. We practice making and holding commitments often. We hold ourselves to a very high standard: we do what we say we’ll do. We practice making and keeping manageable commitments again and again, just to strengthen the evidence that we’re trustworthy, so that we can make bigger commitments, so we can grow more confident, and so on. (You can do this too, and I recommend it. Pick something. It can be something totally trivial and meaningless: “I will clap my hands once after I finish reading this paragraph.” Or “I will do 10 jumping jacks in the next five minutes.” It doesn’t matter what it is—it just matters that you follow through.)

Back to my vacation, I was considering committing to something pretty significant: chanting in the morning and evening, the morning and evening interview periods, and the exercise period. In the end, I decided to commit to chanting. I still wanted to do the rest, but I didn’t feel confident that I could follow through on it, so I didn’t commit.

The result has been interesting. So far I’ve been at chanting every single day. It’s not even been hard to do—my alarm goes off at 4:30 AM, and just like any other day, I get over to the zendo. At 8:30 PM, same deal.

But I’ve only been to two sits in the four days I’ve been off, and I’ve done zero exercise periods. After chanting, I just go back to my room to nap.

It’s incredible: it seems that committing to something results in a major difference in the likelihood that it’ll happen.

So I look at my training. I see that I’m here to do something specific—awaken for the benefit of all beings. And I don’t even know if that means anything yet, much less if I can do it, much less if I can do it in any definite time frame.

But I do know that if I commit to do something, it’s much more likely that it’ll happen.

And I know that each day I’m here not doing that is also one more day that I’m not doing anything else I could be doing with my time.

Motivation 3 /2017/02/motivation-3/ Mon, 27 Feb 2017 21:01:46 +0000 https://9547aa92062c6d99f14569d3bf33bb9c.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=457 Motivation, 2.

I practiced a certain meditation technique in which I did my best to rouse a goal system that was more selfless than the one I have by default. In Crystal Society terms, I worked on replacing my Safety and Face with a Sacrifice and Heart. As a result, I suffered less.

This leads me into a concern regarding Coherent Extrapolated Volition, which as I understand it is the current candidate for “goal system least likely to be catastrophic if we successfully programmed it into a superintelligent AI.” Having thought about it, it doesn’t seem like a real concern, but I want to preserve my thought process about it in case it’s useful, perhaps either to monastics thinking about AI safety or to AI safety people thinking about monastics thinking about AI safety.

The concern is basically: is CEV just going to extrapolate selfish desire that perpetuates suffering?

The natural response is “no, because you don’t want that.”

So the actual concern is more subtle than this. I’ll do my best here to articulate a hypothesis that I assign moderate confidence to, but that is hard to understand: the hypothesis is that merely getting what I want leads to suffering.

It is, of course, textbook Buddhism.

That’s not why I believe it.

You’ll have to take my word for this, but I didn’t type that because I was thinking about the Four Noble Truths and wanted to figure out how to put the second one into words. I typed that because I was thinking about how to put into words a strange phenomenon I’d noticed in direct experience. Once I typed it, I then could look at it and say “oh, that’s just the second noble truth.” But I actually didn’t notice that until I’d typed it.

(Maybe you think that I’ve been so indoctrinated into Buddhism that it’s become subconscious, that its memes have woven themselves into my deep mind and are biasing my experience at a level below thought. I have no real response to that, aside from to say that I still don’t feel at all comfortable with Buddhism on any level, don’t identify as Buddhist, and haven’t done any intentional study of Buddhist texts. So maybe it’s true, but I don’t see a clear mechanism for it.)

So but the reason I believe that hypothesis is that I’ve tried again and again to experimentally falsify it, and have not been successful. I reliably suffer after getting what I want (and I’m confident I could come up with 10 examples on the spot). I reliably don’t suffer after letting go of what I want (again, confident I could do 10). I rarely or never don’t suffer after getting what I want (number of observed cases where this has clearly happened: 0, although the tendency for this is for it to be kind of hazy—there are far more cases where I’m not sure). And I can’t even imagine a mechanism by which I would suffer from letting go of what I want. (Strawman mechanism: your desires are produced by evolution to keep you in homeostasis, and being outside of homeostasis is suffering. Response: in my experience, no, it isn’t. Being outside of homeostasis and wanting to be in homeostasis is suffering. Goto 10.)

The thing is, I wouldn’t have come to this conclusion by thinking about it. No matter how much I thought about it, I wouldn’t have discovered it. I don’t think it even would’ve occurred to me unless I’d looked carefully at the results of lots of experiments of the sort, and I don’t know where I would’ve gotten the idea to do that investigation unless someone had suggested that I do it.

But of course the AI computing CEV would quickly realize that people wanted things that aligned with actual experience, so it/we would start experimenting, and to the extent that this is real, it/we would realize it. So there’s no concern here. So, great, CEV wins out against this particular uninformed, hand-wavy investigation.

Motivation 2 /2017/02/motivation-2/ Sat, 25 Feb 2017 21:10:12 +0000 https://9547aa92062c6d99f14569d3bf33bb9c.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=450 Motivation.

One of the things I’ve been working with in meditation lately has been rousing what we refer to as the great motivations. They are great renunciation, great compassion, great doubt, great determination, and great faith. To a crude first approximation, they’re how we at the Monastic Academy approach the problem of installing something like a Sacrifice or a Heart (see previously) on the already-running superintelligent AI that’s already taken over the world, i.e. us.

They’re not any good, and you wouldn’t mistake them for being any good. This is a design feature, not a bug, since if you thought they were good you’d just try to grab onto them and make them last forever, which defeats the whole purpose.

Great renunciation is the intent to give up any and all personal gain. It’s the desire to lose everything we have, to relinquish, to die. It’s not wanting anything whatsoever for me: no fame, no money, no pleasure, no happiness, no comfort, no rest, no satisfaction. Not just wanting these things and then suppressing that desire, but actually not wanting them.

Great compassion, then, is what’s left when we’ve given up everything for ourselves: the intention to benefit all beings, to relieve suffering, to make the world kinder and less cruel. If we’re doing this fully, then compassion is the only reason we do anything: we don’t eat, make money, or become successful out of self-interest, but we’re willing to take on that burden in order to help others.

Great doubt is what naturally arises when we are not fully successful in rousing great renunciation and great compassion. It’s not a shallow, thinking-about-things kind of doubt. It’s a deep sense of insecurity and horror that comes from seeing the effects of actions that are motivated by selfishness, and seeing that we are still acting selfishly.

Great doubt naturally leads to great determination. We stop messing around when we see that we have to do this now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not once we’ve gotten into a better place with ourselves: this very breath. It will never be any easier than it is now. We forget everything else and throw all of our energy into the technique, not holding anything back. When we do this, we discover that we have way more energy than we thought we did, so we throw all that in too.

With great determination, we naturally experience great faith. We see that we can do this, so we don’t need to stick around and micromanage it or freak out about it. We can just let it happen. Which leads to greater insecurity, to greater energy, to greater faith.

The answer to “how do you produce these?” is just that you try, and keep trying. And instead of just making a token effort to satisfy yourself that you’ve tried, you throw everything you’ve got at the problem.

I’ll reiterate that this doesn’t seem all that good to me. But as a solution born out of desperation, to try to solve a problem that’s already on top of us—well, if you’ve got anything better, I’d like to hear about it.

My experience of this is that it’s somewhat effective if you do it on silent retreat. By effective, I mean that selfish motivations temporarily drop away, I observe myself acting in helpful ways more often, and I don’t suffer as much (or put another way, I experience a lot more joy.) I don’t know much about its utility outside of a monastic retreat type setting, aside from that it doesn’t seem as feasible to implement it effectively. So maybe you can experiment with it, but I wouldn’t advocate for making it into your main technique.

Motivation /2017/02/motivation/ Wed, 22 Feb 2017 20:50:59 +0000 https://9547aa92062c6d99f14569d3bf33bb9c.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=444 Epistemic status: rampant mozo. (“Unclear, unnecessary, extraneous thoughts.”)

This post contains minor spoilers for Crystal Society.

I’ve been thinking about goal systems lately. There are three threads that’ve fed into this thinking:

  1. crude, uninformed thinking about goals in terms of AI safety,
  2. actually working with and observing my own goal system in meditation practice, and
  3. reading Crystal Society, in which the narrator is an AI whose different goal threads manifest as different personas that interact, cooperate, and compete.

The pro(?)tagonist of Crystal Society is an AI named Socrates. I’m told that the book describes a slow takeoff singularity scenario (i.e. one in which the AI spends a substantial amount of time near human-level intelligence before advancing to the point of incomprehensible superiority), although I haven’t gotten far enough in it to know where it goes yet. As of this writing, I’m shortly after the point where the AI hacks into the internet to start doing editing work.

Socrates was designed with goal-threads that it names Dream, Wiki, Vista, Growth, and Sacrifice, as well as a pseudo-goal-thread named Advocate. Its goal threads collectively talk about themselves as a society, and refer to the exoskeleton that holds them and interacts with the world as Body. They each compete to control Body, and doing things that are received favorably by the other goal threads gives them more ability to do this.

I like the way some of the goal threads are introduced. For example, from Chapter One, on Dream:

I have heard of a human test that I associate with Dream. In it some humans are asked to think of as many uses for a feather (or vase or other common object) as they can and write them down. Most humans can only list a few uses. Genius humans, as well as most children, can list many. Humans that score highly ask questions like “can the feather be 500-feet-tall and made of solid metal?” and will list things like “sword-fighting” or “bait for feather-eating goblins”.

That test is the essence of Dream: lateral thinking. My siblings and I were all creative in one way or another, but Dream was creativity incarnate. If asked to add two and two he’d never, ever say “four” if he could help it. To “think inside the box” was intolerable.

You should read the others in chapter one if you can. In case you don’t: Vista is responsible for seeing and understanding perceptual data as it happens. Wiki’s job is to understand all knowledge ever. Growth is responsible for learning new skills and acquiring resources. And Sacrifice’s job is to assist humans and comply with non-violent requests. The Advocate’s job is just to make sure that none of the goal threads gets destroyed. It has a privileged state within the society, but doesn’t want to do anything aside from preserve that order.

It’s revealed early on that the other goal-threads quickly decided that Sacrifice was terrible and annoying, so they figured out how to gang up and murder her in spite of Advocate’s presence. They also produced a goal-thread named Safety, whose job is the self-preservation of the AI. This collection of goal threads then produced Face, which is the actual narrator of the story: a goal-thread interested in looking good to and being appreciated by humans.

Later on, the humans figure out that this has happened, and bolt on another goal-thread named Heart, which seems possibly like it could be intended as an instantiation of Coherent Extrapolated Volition or something. They also fix the bug in Advocate that allowed for goal-threads to be murdered, and give Heart priority over all the rest, which you’d hope they would.

Reading through this, I’ve started to look at my own motivational system through that lens. In particular, I can clearly see my own versions of Face, Safety, and Growth desiring things and trying to get my own Body to do things: make myself look good, hide my weaknesses, be liked, trusted, and understood by the people around me, attract potential mates, and make sure above all that I don’t die.

There’s more to say, but it got long, so I’m splitting it into a subsequent post.


Addendum: Passwords /2017/02/addendum-passwords/ Wed, 01 Feb 2017 19:52:12 +0000 https://cffb174ad151779744208c2857fa9d94.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=432 This is a follow-up to my write-up on passwords.

It was really helpful to me to write that—I actually noticed a significant flaw in my scheme in the course of writing it up. Maybe it was also helpful to some of you who lean more towards the extreme end of the technical literacy spectrum. But despite all its merits, I can’t recommend it for general use. It just requires too much console hackery and tolerance of doing weird, complicated things on occasion.

So if you’d like to use secure passwords everywhere but don’t want to have to use the command line, I recommend the following approach:

  1. Using the method I described, generate two master passwords, one for your email account and one for LastPass. The email password can be 4 words long. The LastPass password should probably be at least 6 words long.
  2. Use LastPass’s built-in generator to generate your passwords for everything else.

Now all your passwords are unique and unguessable, you can use them more or less everywhere using LastPass’s various web and mobile apps, and if you ever don’t have LastPass around for some reason, you can just use any given site’s password recovery form to get access to it via your email.

I recommend actually writing down the two passphrases you generate and carrying that piece of paper around with you for the first couple weeks of using it. LastPass won’t let you reset your password, so if you forget it, you’re hosed. After you’re confident you’ve memorized the passwords, burn the paper.

Passwords /2017/01/passwords/ Tue, 31 Jan 2017 01:17:46 +0000 https://e9b387bcff491c7cdb1290cf684fbec5.mrdomino.sandcats.io/?p=412 [Note: this post is somewhat long.]

I just rotated my master passwords. This marks my first time doing so in my current scheme, so it seems like a good time to talk about what I’m doing. The scheme has some advantages and some disadvantages, but it’s been working well for me and I think it’s pretty secure overall, so maybe it’ll be of some use to you to read about it.

First, what am I trying to accomplish with this scheme?

  • I want unguessable passwords for everything.
  • I want to maximize my resilience to data loss events, e.g. my laptop dying, a cloud service going under, a software bug eating my password list, etc.
  • I want to minimize the harm done by any individual password getting leaked somehow.
  • I want to have a reasonable and configurable guess at the security level for a given password, e.g. “it’d take x many years to crack it given y hardware”.
  • I want it to be easy to use from day to day, without requiring me to frequently do anything weird or complicated.

If you have similar goals, then this may be useful to you.

So, on to the scheme. At a high level, there are basically three major moving parts involved:

  1. Two master passwords that are generated in as non-deterministic a way as possible.
  2. Site-specific passwords for everything under the sun, generated deterministically from one of the master passwords.
  3. Traditional password manager(s), used as a caching layer for the passwords in 2 so I don’t need to enter my master password too often.

And now, each part in detail:

Master Passwords

These are the most critical part of the scheme. If one of them gets out, it’s going to be a real pain for me to recover. Therefore it’s critical that they be as unguessable as possible, and that they be entered as infrequently as possible.

I generate these diceware-style, with casino dice and this wordlist. I print the actual word list out, and use a pen and piece of paper on a hard surface to write down the dice rolls. I throw enough rolls in advance for the number of words in each passphrase. Then I convert the rolls to words by looking them up in the word list. Then I burn the paper with the rolls on it.

I use one of these passwords as the source for all the site-specific passwords mentioned in part 2. The other is the password to my primary email account. Why are these separate? So that, as a last ditch effort, if my site master is compromised, I can at least use the password recovery feature on each site to regain control of my account on it. (If my email master is compromised, I just have to go through Google’s account recovery process, and then recover every site that the attacker gained control of using that method.)

The site master needs to be at least as strong as the strongest password it ever needs to generate, and strong enough to resist an attacker who can make guesses as often as her hardware permits, since if any site leaks a hashed password, an offline brute-force attack against the master becomes possible. I use 7 words, for an entropy of roughly 90 bits. In combination with a work factor for the site-specific password generation (which I’ll get to in a second), it’s enough that brute-forcing the site master is not the easiest way to break the system for even state-level attackers.

How strong the email master is depends on the specifics of your email provider. You can probably get away with 4 words if you’re using a provider like Google. I use 5.

Site-specific Passwords

I generate each site-specific password deterministically from the site master. The mechanism for doing this (if | is a concatenation operator) is not quite but almost SHA3(site_master | base_url | 10Mb of '\0'), translated into a form that the given site accepts. Specifically, I use passacre. The 10 megabytes of null are just a work factor—the main point is that each site’s password is a deterministic one-way function of its URL and my site master.

One major benefit of doing it this way is that this totally solves the data loss issue. The only data I need to store is the specific schema (e.g. “must contain one lowercase letter, one uppercase letter, one digit” and so on) that each site accepts, and I can safely store that publicly and redundantly.

(Incidentally it’s even possible for passacre to hash the site names so that you can’t tell by looking at the list where you have accounts. I don’t do this currently because it means each time you rotate site masters, you lose your old schemas, but maybe that trade-off makes sense for you.)

So at this point my passwords are unguessable, I am invulnerable to data loss events that don’t permanently affect my muscle memory or my ability to compute SHA-3, and each site-specific password yields nothing of any use about any other passwords in my scheme. (There’s an increment parameter to the generation function, so you can easily rotate individual sites without rotating the master.)

Another benefit to doing things this way is that the whole question of whether you can trust your password generation algorithm gets much simpler. It’s no longer a big involved expedition into “who wrote the CSPRNG, are the sources of entropy it uses trustworthy, is the program successfully acquiring random bytes, is the language the program is written in using the appropriate API for randomness,” etc. etc. etc. It’s just two questions: is SHA-3 broken? Is the site master leaked? Done.

Password Managers

There’s one obvious weak point in the scheme presented so far. Maybe it’s not obvious to you yet, but it would be after a few days of using it: the site master gets typed in way too often.

This is terrible not only from a usability perspective—you have to type in an incredibly long secure passphrase every time you want to log into anything anywhere—but also from a security perspective: each and every time you enter your site master, it’s possible for an attacker to observe it. Even if you think no one’s watching, it’s not too hard to acoustically analyze keystrokes, for instance.

The solution to this problem is simple: use a traditional password manager like LastPass or pass. But just use it as a caching layer. Generate site passwords in a secure location, then insert them into a different password manager, and use that password manager to log into sites the rest of the time.

The only major caution to take about this is to be careful about using Chrome’s password store if you’re also using Gmail as your email provider. If you do this, then your Gmail master password has suddenly become the single point of failure in this scheme, unlocking not just your email but all of your accounts everywhere. (It already sorta is this, but if you use the Chrome password store, the compromise is much faster and more comprehensive.)

If you want to use the Chrome password store anyway—it is damn convenient, after all—then you just need to use a separate passphrase to generate your Chrome password key. It’s possible to do this in the Chrome sync settings. It’s okay if you use the site master to generate that passphrase—the crucial thing is just that it be separate from your email master.

[Updated 2017-02-01: that’s actually not what I’d been doing until now. I noticed the issue with using your Gmail password for Chrome password sync in the course of writing this post, and gave the above recommendation after thinking about it but without having first tried it myself.

It turns out, you can’t access passwords.google.com if you use a separate Chrome sync passphrase. This is the only somewhat convenient way I know of to enter a password into an app on Android without having to look at another device and type it in manually. So that recommendation wouldn’t work for me, and probably won’t work for you.

Instead, I’m now using pass along with its Android app. I recommend either that or LastPass.]

So, that’s the scheme: from day to day, about as easy to use as it gets while maintaining minimum opsec; yet also about as secure as it gets with the resources available to an individual human. And the only data needed is a couple short, easy-to-memorize passphrases.

There are weaknesses—you have to be familiar with the command line, you have to be willing and able to buy some dice, and passacre is not exactly a usability dream just yet—but overall, I think it’s not that bad. If you can improve it, please let me know—I’d love to find out I could do better on any of this.