Life doesn’t have a Break Glass option

See also Defining Freedom. Epistemic status: Emotional.

Here’s the most common anime trope: The hero’s been driven to desperation by an enemy completely beyond his power, and it looks like he (and, probably, the whole world) is doomed. But suddenly the hero discovers his hidden strengths, turns blonde, and punches the bad guy into oblivion (This may take several episodes).

This makes for a good story, and isn’t restricted to anime. Gilmore Girls starts off with Lorelei reaching out to her estranged parents once she’s desperate enough for money. TvTropes has a whole page about characters who’s despair finally drives them to an anguished confession of love. We want to believe in this story, because we want to believe we have hidden powers that we’re just not desperate enough to use. That if we were pushed to the brink, we’d not only find out we could deal with it, but that we have hidden powers once we lose our inhibitions. We want to believe in a big red switch that would make us powerful, if we’re ever hard-up enough to break the glass and hit it.

Life doesn’t have a break glass option.

I found this out when I was fifteen. For the first time in my life I had a best friend. Heck, I had two, the guy I competed with for the “best at math” spot and the girl I’d talk to on MSN messenger, who seemed like the first person who’d ever actually listened to me. I was happy. Inevitably, they started dating, and didn’t care much about me after that.

The hard part was the change. I’d had these people who’d cared what I had to say, and suddenly nothing I said could reach them anymore. And I didn’t have an emergency button to make them listen. There wasn’t something we’d fought over I could apologize for, there wasn’t something I could do to turn things back. They’d moved on, and nothing I could do could bring them back. It didn’t matter how hard I was willing to try.

A few months later we had our big fight and official falling out, but by then it didn’t really matter.

I know I was lucky. God knows there’s worse ways to find out what it’s like to have no way out.

Most cases we encounter aren’t like this. Most cases have a break glass button that doesn’t actually fix anything.

For example, it always seems a bit weird to me that women ever complain about being lonely. Lonely women can always get on a dating app or go to a bar and have dozens of guys showering them with attention and, if they want, sleeping with them. How can you say you’re lonely when you always have that option? If you were really desperate for companionship, you could always hit the button.

The answer is, it’s not a real option. Picking up a random stranger for a one-night stand doesn’t actually make you feel less lonely. It’s tempting to reach for an emergency button that might do something, but one you know doesn’t help won’t be particularly tempting even if you’re desperate.

(In the interests of gender fairness, I should mention the break-glass option men have that women don’t: If someone’s pushing us too far and we really, really don’t want to be in this conversation anymore, we can always get out of it by punching someone in the face. Like the option mentioned above, this comes with a cost and doesn’t actually make anything better, which is why most men don’t use it to get out of unpleasant situations much).

In defining freedom, I defined freedom as the number of directions in which you can act without falling off a utility cliff. You can think of break-glass options as small cliffs – not ones you’d actually jump off, but ones you could imagine jumping off when you’re not in front of them. It’s a lot easier to say you’d jump a ten-foot cliff to get out of the situation you’re in when you’re facing a hundred-foot cliff than when you’re actually in front of a ten-foot cliff.

This is a major barrier to empathy: When something’s not even an option to you, it’s easy to be dismissive of how trapped people feel when they have it as a break-glass option. And conversely, when you’re desperate enough to actually hit a break-glass option, it can be hard to make someone who doesn’t have that option how desperate you had to be to hit it. “Of course you went there”, they’d say. “You always had that option.”

Some people think suicide is the ultimate break-glass option, so they can hit it if things ever get really bad. These people are idiots. Suicide, like punching your boss to get out of an uncomfortable presentation at work, isn’t an option that can ever make things better. Sometimes people are desperate enough for a break-glass option to convince themselves that suicide is one anyway.

This is all pretty depressing. To end on an optimistic note, I’ll say that just because there’s no desperation safety guard doesn’t mean things can never get better. But improvement is slow and incremental, and gets harder the worse off you are. You don’t get an emergency switch and you don’t get magical healing, but at best, you do get rehab. Slow, painful, gradual rehab, but eventually you can walk again.


On Religion and Dogma

Epistemic status: Not really saying anything new or revolutionary, but I run into people who forget this distinction enough that I’d like to have my thoughts on it written down somewhere in an organized way.

There’s a thing rationalists tend to forget about religion: It’s unashamedly dogmatic.

Well, maybe it’s not rationalists. Maybe it’s just me who forgets it. But it’s very easy to forget. I’m used to the world of math, or at least science, where you get credit for making arguments about things. Sometimes they’re rigorous mathematical proofs, or at least replicable studies with rigorous statistical standards, and any fair-minded person will become convinced of the truth of your claim. Other times they’re insane troll logic based on weird puns. But either way, you always need to have the pretense of justifying your claim.

People who live around a religious community… don’t really have that. They’ll assume the structure of the world is a certain way (based on the bible, or what their pastor or rabbi says, or whatever), and just go with it. The filter part – where you look at a theory or rule and try to decide if it’s really neccessary – just isn’t there. When my aunt says the reason Arab countries haven’t invaded and destroyed Israel is religious people’s prayers, it’s not really based on geopolitical analysis. When talk radio talks about how being gay is a sin, and the right thing to do is lead your families away from the sin, they don’t really stop to think if it’s the right thing. It’s a rule you can make, it sounds good and comes from a radio pastor, so we can just go with it. The point isn’t to be right, it’s to have an applicable rule.

This isn’t restricted to religious people. There’s plenty of people on the far left who’ll just assume any issue has to do with racism, without having to wait for evidence. But religion is a bit special in that it’s unapolegetic about it. The people blaming seemingly-unrelated things on racism will usually have an argument, or at least feel like they should have one.

There is a dogmatic fringe whose argument will just be “this is about racism because everything in a racist society is about racism.” This is probably just over the line from religion’s “This is about religion because God is everywhere, therefor <arbitrary rule>.” This is unsurprising, because you’d expect unapologetic dogmatism to be a feature of all sufficiently dogmatic people, not just those who believe in a specific religion.


There’s research showing religious people are healthier, happier, and less suicide-prone than non-religious people. This is usually blamed on religion’s community and purpose, but it doesn’t seem like you can get the benefits by having a purposeful community that’s not about a dogmatic religion. So I wonder if the real benefit of religion isn’t the community, but the enforced dogma. Maybe not having to think about the rules you live by, and just accepting them dogmatically, is the real mental health benefit.

I have a roommate who complains that I don’t clean the dishes well enough. By itself, this is a pretty standard roommate squabble that would resolve pretty easily – I make a bit more effort to clean to accommodate his needs, he bends his standards a bit to accommodate mine, and we reach a middle ground we can both kinda live with.

I’ve tried this with him, and it has failed catastrophically. It’s not really about the cleaning – I make the effort to clean more rigorously and faster than I would without him there, but in the end of the day I don’t have his standards and I’m going to slip up sometimes, either by not cleaning a dish until the next morning, or not doing it to his exacting standards. And whenever I do, he goes ballistic. And the interesting part (well, the part that would be interesting if it weren’t also annoying) is that it’s never about his preferences. He believes that there are objective standards of cleanliness that must be held to, and I’m violating them. I’ve tried explaining that we have different standards, and he just point-blank does not (and I think, can’t) understand things in those terms.

This is a guy who’s lived most of his life in fundamentalist religious communities. He grew up a hardcore Christian, the converted to being a Muslim, then went back and forth between religions for a bit. Every time, he left because the dogmas had some pieces he couldn’t agree with. And nowadays he’s not religious, but he misses it.

I wonder how much of it is him missing the dogma. When he talks about missing it, he usually talks about the community, but that may just be because he knows I’ll understand that part. I wouldn’t really understand the other part. I’m unusually bad at being dogmatic. But I’m pretty sure he needs it. And I wonder if the kind of person who needs dogma in his life can ever really let go of that worldview, even if he’s let go of religion.

Song Translation: The City In Gray

(Original song, lyrics)

If you want me to show you
to the city in gray
Come and walk through it with me
through its old stony ways
Silently we would look up
see birds over the bay
If you want me to show you
to the city in gray

Then I give you my hand and
as we walk to the shore
Fallen leaves piled around us
blowing winds make them soar
You’d wrap up in your scarf and
with it keeping you warm,
I would give you my hand and
we would walk to the shore.

On a bench we will sit and
with the setting of day
If you tell me I tire
of this city in gray
I’ll sit with you on bird wings
and through clouds we’ll take flight
To the city that waits there
with its houses of white.

Defining Freedom

I’ve always found the concept of Freedom confusing.

There’s a level on which it makes sense. When William Wallace is talking about being free from the yoke of Edward Longshanks, it’s obvious what he means – the English king and his goons regularly come to town, order people around, take their stuff and beat them up. Being free of English rule means they don’t do that anymore, and William Wallace and his friends can just go around farming and living their peaceful lives without having to worry about anything worse than the soul-crushing depression of living in Scotland.

On the other hand, what the heck does the word free mean in the context of “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Is there even a reasonable definition? The original song is about being free from English rule, but it’s been two and a half  centuries since Edward Longshanks and his goons were ruling America, and not-being-ruled-by-the-King isn’t really a core property of most Americans’ identities these days.

I settle the first one by thinking of freedom as defined relative to a constraint. You can be free of something if you don’t have to worry about it when making decisions. This matches the common use of freedom – you’re free of having to worry about parking if you don’t have a car, free of a tyrant if you aren’t constrained by him telling you what to do, etc. This also explains why the second use seems so weird – it’s trying to use a fundamentally relative term without using it in relation to anything. So my response to the second use used to be to roll my eyes at people throw around empty deep-sounding terms.

But now I think we can resolve this. We start with the mathematical definition of degrees of freedom – your total freedom level at a given time is the number of options you have available to you at that time (if you want to sound all mathy, you can call this the local dimension of your options space or something)1.

But there’s a fundamental problem here: At the end of the day you’ll only pick one of the options you had, because you can only pick one – once you eliminate the big constraints, you’ll just be subject to smaller and smaller constraints until you’re down to one option. Even if there’s no law forcing you to wear black socks, you’ll end up wearing black socks by the constraint that they were a dollar cheaper on Amazon and you were too lazy to scroll down. If you actually incorporate every single constraint you have, you end up having one action. Can we solve this using more math?

Yes. Let f(x) be the utility function on the space of possible positions you can be in. In this definition, the choice you make in a given position is simply to take a step in whichever direction increases f(x) the most. We generally think of constraints as cliffs in the utility function – if you disobey the tyrant he’ll probably kill you, so the “disobey tyrant” direction of decision space has a massive drop in f(x). Smaller constraints, like “white socks are a dollar more and involve scrolling down on Amazon”  are only minor dips in f(x).

In this case, we can think of absolute freedom as a measure of flatness of f – Some measure of how many directions you can go without falling down too big a cliff. There are a lot of ways to formally measure this, but the idea is that this should be a value that goes down more by wider or steeper cliffs (although steepness has diminishing returns – the difference between a specific option getting you badly injured or killing you is fairly minor if you can easily just not take that option). In a sense, this is just a measure of resilience – how many non-terrible routes do you have? Because your position and options are constantly changing, there’s a lot of value in having multiple non-terrible paths.

Finally, note that under this definition freedom definitely isn’t all we want – we also like having opportunities to massively increase our utility (instead of just saving ourselves from decreasing it too much). We can think of Welfare vs. Freedom as increasing our EV vs. reducing our variance.

1. There’s an issue here with how to count/measure options – e.g. “go to the ball/don’t go to the ball” is clearly a freer choice than “go to the ball wearing white socks/go to the ball wearing black socks” – but like most measure issues you can mostly just ignore it and use your intuition.

Song Translation Wandering Birds

Original Song, Hebrew Lyrics.

With the autumn came the wandering birds, free
They flew over the mountains, flew over the sea,
And he saw her standing on a twig
And she was blue of feather, she was light of wing.

It was when the fall winds blow,
and he loved her ever so,
And she was lovely, like a song,
Like fall birds flying in the dawn.

He built her a nest of leaves and weeds,
And she went on the ground,and she would gather seeds.
He had a song of love that he would sing,
And she gave him a gift, a feather from her wing.

It was when the fall winds blow…

In the winter, cold and dark and bleak,
They huddled there together, beak pressed up to beak,
And sometimes when the sun came out again,
They flew into the garden, looking for some grain.

It was when the fall winds blow…

And finally the spring came back to be,
It came back to the mountains, came back to the sea,
And wind that blew into the garden found
A flower and a feather, scattered on the ground.

It was when the fall winds blow…

Song Translation: Florida

This one doesn’t rhyme, but the rhythm is kind of off, which made it surprisingly hard to do even without the rhymes. The other hard part was the plant names – the whole point in the original song was that you don’t see these plants in America, so their English names sound oddly formal and unfamiliar. I decided to just lean into it, and use it to reinforce the feeling of alienation .

(Original song, Lyrics).

Florida was full of flowing spring and summer forests
and out in the torrent floats a pair of strangers
trapped in a Subaru box
and suddenly between him and myself
there started playing
a tape full of memories
And all the Then and all the There flowed with the music

This flowery Florida has never seen
not even in a dream
A field of hiding cyclamen
and blooms of poppy, blood and scarlet,
golden flowering Acacia
standing lonely by an orchard, old and long-forgotten at
the village edge, forsaken and alone.

Home’s a place out there
Where if you ever need to go again
The door is always open to come back
And songs can sometimes be
The last way to remember love
for a home you lost…

Now it must be night out there
The Via-Maris streetlights
light up on the roadside by the beach
The dunes are going dark
The laundry-ropes are blowing
in the salty breeze
My mother told me:
Boy when you are far away out there and on your own
Your best friends in the world will be your memories…

Now put the tape back in
So we can drink the drug of melody
so bittersweet
Home is a place
where if you ever need to go again
The door is always open to come back
And songs can sometimes be
The last way to remember love
for a home you lost…

Home’s a place out there…

Song Translation: Melancholy, My love

(Original song, Hebrew Lyrics)

All the girls are walking here along the street,
Glancing into stores they’d like to buy things of,
So attractive, well made up and looking neat,
It’s a day for love

Who among you pretty girls will be marry me
Who will seal her fate with mine and let it be
Who of you will share my cup of poison tea
And its light and love

I wrap myself in sorrow like a sheaf,
curled in sweetness and in grief,
Oh, melancholy, you are my true love
You who are my true and secret bride
In all your jealousy and pride
Oh, melancholy, you are my true love

All the girls have gone, the streets are bare and grey
Gathered their long pretty legs and walked away
Fading twilight falls here from the sky above
Fading light and love

She will take me home, her fingers wrapped with mine
Celebrate my loneliness with bitter wine
give me absolution as she stabs and twists my spine,
Oh, this is my love

I wrap myself in sorrow like a sheaf…