jp's Shortform

by jp29th Aug 201930 comments
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Do Anki while Weightlifting

Many rationalists appear to be interested in weightlifting. I certainly have enjoyed having a gym habit. I have a recommendation for those who do:

Try studying Anki cards while resting between weightlifting sets.

The upside is high. Building the habit of studying Anki cards is hard, and if doing it at the gym causes it to stick, you can now remember things by choice not chance.

And the cost is pretty low. I rest for 90 seconds between sets, and do about 20 sets when I go to the gym. Assuming I get a minute in once the overheads are accounted for, that gives me 20 minutes of studying. I go through about 4 cards per minute, so I could do 80 cards per visit to the gym. In practice I spend only ~5 minutes studying per visit, because I don't have that many cards.

I'm not too tired to concentrate. In fact, the adrenaline high makes me happy to have something mentally active to do. Probably because of this, it doesn't at all decrease my desire to go to the gym.

I find I can add simple cards to my Anki deck at the gym, although the mobile app does make it slow.

Give it a try! It's cheap to experiment and the value of a positive result is high.

I tried this today and it went well. Got through ~15 cards in only a few sets. It did cause me to take longer rests between sets (I can't seem to consistently use a timer) but I'm not that worried about long rests anyway.

Entering cards seems harder for me though. Most of my cards include some sort of LaTex formatting, which I don't think the Android app supports applying.

I'm really glad to have this comment! It seems much more valuable to know that something passes a first attempt by a second party than to just hear a recommendation from one person's experience.

Why don't you just use MathJax? Maybe this wasn't the case when you wrote this comment, but there should be a button that just applies the formatting, and Ankidroid can render it.

I now use MathJax!

What to do if you suddenly need to rest your hands

On Monday I went from "computer work seems kind of uncomfortable, I wonder if I should be worried" to "oh crap oh crap, that's actually painful". Everything I've ever heard says not to work through RSI pain, so what now? I decided to spend a week learning hands free input. I wanted to a) get some serious rest and b) still be productive. And guess what? Learning hands free input is like the one activity that does not suffer a productivity penalty from not being able to use your hands.

When I started it was really slow going. Lots of yelling "no don't type 'delete word' delete the f**king word!!!"[1] But then I found this talk, which was just .. woah. Since then, I have been using Talon, and I am in love.

The key to understanding Talon, and the reason I think it's heads and shoulders above everything else I've tried, is the basic insight that most of the time the input you want to do is not writing. Talon has the concept of modes, and most of the time you're in the command mode.[2] And because there's a limited set of commands, there's much less ambiguity between inputs.

After one week, I'm able to dictate an existing code file painlessly albeit still slowly. The thing that feels important to me, is that I'm no longer living in fear of my career being taken away from me by my wrists. 

So my recommendation to you, if you find yourself in the situation I was is to rest your hands, and try learning this thing. If you do, reach out to me! I'm (at least currently) sufficiently excited about this that I would very much enjoy help you out.

Epistemic postscript: I'm writing this while still excited about it, which is providing the motivation to do the writeup, but also makes me believe that in the future I will be less optimistic, and you should take that into account when evaluating its implicit predictions.


[1] A word to the wise, if you have dictation software listening, yelling at your computer is the opposite of productive (this is good, a frustrating experience with quick negative reinforcement for outbursts induces a zen-like experience).

[2] This is similar to vim, if you're familiar.

I hadn't before actually, thanks for the recommendation. I checked it out. Talon seems more like "teach yourself the alphabet, then program using vim." Whereas Serenade is more like "teach yourself to program using our macros." This makes Talon easier to learn, and more flexible, Serenade has the following benefits as I see them: 

  • Programming in large well defines chunks, which it makes it easier to incorporate "pick which one you meant, or continue to use our default"
  • It uses more natural language, which makes me think that the accuracy has a higher ceiling

I'd really like to write more. I've noticed that some ideas become much better after I write them up, and some turn out to be worse than I initially thought. I'd also like to expand my ability to have conversations to include online spaces, which, as a confirmed lurker, I didn't really have much of until after I found myself writing code for the EA Forum. I'm going to try writing a shortform post a day for a week. Acceptable places to post include here on LW, the EA Forum, Facebook, and my org's slack. I'd like to go for at least one each.

If that goes well, my next step might be to try this thing called editing and post every other day. After that I'd like to try writing some top level posts.



Sunday: ✓ (FB)


Tuesday: ✓ (Slack)

Wednesday: ✓ (Slack)


YA Novels and Human Talent Distributions

I take a dim view of how I spent my free time as a teenager. Reverse to how many people see it, I think my school time was great for me and my intellectual development, while my spare time often made me a worse thinker.* In particular, I'll call out my habit of videogames and YA fantasy novels. Here's a thing I wish I hadn't learned.

In YA novels, if you've ever spent 10 minutes living in the woods, you're now an A+ expert on all  things forestry. It doesn't matter if you're up against an adversary who logically would have spent years training for this, don't worry, if a single person on your team has some plausibly related piece of backstory, you're going to have an advantage.

Additionally, your primary talent is probably something where you have a god-given advantage over the rest of the world.

So fantasy novels are unrealistic. I noticed this while reading them. I still think I'd rather read books that will leave my system 1 with a more accurate understanding of talents. But what I noticed recently was that I didn't quite appreciate that these novels (and books) had discontinuities of talent. Many talents are power law distributed, to be sure, but more commonly they are normally distributed.

I've noticed myself appreciating that I/my friend/coworker/acquaintance are good at something, and then it taking a while to realize how not-special their talent is, to the detriment of my predictions about the world.


Another anti-useful learning: I spent years training my intuitive appreciation for how often a 90% accurate attack will miss on game THAT LIED ABOUT IT'S ACCURACY.

* I think I still am my best self doing productive things and often my spare time is spent unproductively.

Some thoughts on free time

I've had discussions recently about how to spend free time. I'm blessed with a job with relatively well-specified boundaries (I don't typically work on weekends or outside the hours I'm at the office), but I often still feel like I'm sucked into "unproductive" things in my free time. Here are some things I could want to do during my free time:

 1 Maximize global utility directly

 2 Maximize moment-to-moment hedonic happiness

 3 Maximize long term hedonic happiness

 4 Maximize mental recovery for later productivity

 5 Use a virtue heuristic for doing things that seems "worthwhile"

 6 Do whatever one feels like in the moment

 7 Try to accomplish things that sound cool

(1) Seems penny-wise, pound foolish, and paradoxically hurt my altruistic efforts. All of the ones with maximize I endorse caring about to some extent, but not maximizing. I'm especially interested in 4. I feel like 5 has led to some great victories for me. 6 obviously guides a lot of what I do. I'm happy that I do it, but I don't want to elevate it the way some people do. I like doing 7 sometimes, but often it trades of against 1, 2, 4, and 6, in which case I mostly end up not doing it. Thus I think most of my accomplishments have come during work hours. I'm basically ok with this.

Sometimes 6 ends up tanking efforts to do 1-5,7. Here's a list of some things that I don't endorse doing:

 1 Binge watching netflix, youtube etc.

 2 Scrolling through facebook, twitter, etc.

 3 Playing a videogame that grows to consume my time

 4 Writing code < 1.5 hours before I'd like to go to bed

 5 ~Half of the times I stay up late at parties

I claim that these are usually bad for essentially all of the other goals.

Here are some things that I endorse doing:

 1 Visiting individual blogs are reading through what I've missed

 2 Churning my personal Evernote todos

 3 Trying to answer something I'm curious about

 4 Hanging out with friends/boyfriend

There's a gap here where the unendorsed list has a bunch of things I can do even when I'm exhausted, and the endorsed list usually requires at least a little bit of awake-ness. This often makes me very reluctant to take stimulant holidays. The problem I think is that zero effort things are very low points in the energy landscape. This is what makes individual blogs so useful. They're pretty low energy, but they run out of content quickly.

I'd be interested in other recommendations for low energy but finite activities and additions to the goals list.

Would it be useful to examine what exactly "low energy" means? For example, if you do not have enough sleep, then you could simply go sleep sooner, or take a nap in the middle of the day. If it's just mental fatigue, you could take a walk in a park.

My personal objection to reading web is that it requires almost zero energy to do, but on the other hand it does not let you replenish the energy. You start reading tired, and you end up just as tired. That's why talking a walk is better, because it liberates your mind a bit.

For this purpose there are two related dynamics. How much activation energy it takes to start, and how much energy it takes to leave (usually inversely related). Like an object in a potential energy landscape, being in a low energy state makes it harder to move to a high energy state. I agree there's a surprising lack of correlation between low energy states and relaxing states. Meditating is a clear example of a high energy state, but it is pretty restorative. I don't find binge watching restorative after maybe the first episode or so, but I do find reading a blog for 10 minutes to be so*.

*Possibly because by "blog" you're thinking "intellectual blog like SSC", and I'm talking about what's half the time a tumblr blog.

Bruce Schneier's original security mindset blogpost basically just says "look for holes in things." I thought I remembered the concept as being more interesting when I read it on LW and sure enough, Eliezer's post was much more cogent. "The reason security is hard is because there's someone optimizing the system down paths that lead to bad outcomes."

This video seems highly relevant to the luminator fans here.

Here's a conceptual clarification that deconfused me somewhat. – The zeroth instantiation of the internet was the telephone network. The alpha version was when someone first made a modem to let computers send 1s and 0s over the telephone system. And that was it. You had the ability for computers to talk to other ones in different cities.


A different 0th version was computers hooked up directly to other computers.


The beta version involved Usenet, emails, etc.


Finally we get to what people talk about when they say the "invention of the internet" and a web of pages that pointed you to other pages when you clicked on links. I think the reason this gets so much attention is because the previous versions were just immensely less powerful.


There's so much more about this I wish I knew.

Back in the day (meaning the 90s) people drew a distinction between "the internet" and "the world wide web".

This distinction is still relevant and useful in some contexts.

For sure. This is actually something that made me curious about the internet writ large. If the WWW was just one thing built on the internet, then why do I get mostly answers for the WWW when I look up history of the internet? (Because the WWW was so useful.) Why did the internet already exist when the WWW came along? (Because it was just the phone lines and some modems.)

I'm really curious how places that are planning to be more supportive of remote work are going to handle *partially* remote teams.

Like, a meeting with 3/4 participants being in person is hard for the remote worker to participate in.

I've generally heard that remote work works best when it's full-remote. If so then everyone's getting a very attractive view of remote work but when the pandemic's over, under this model, remote work will not be as viable as it currently is.

PDFs are the preferred communication style for papers. HTML documents are the preferred communication style for most other public facing documents.[1]

PDFs are inferior to HTML in many ways: HTML can adapt to fit the viewport and fontsize requested by the user, while PDFs are basically fancy images in this regard. This makes PDFs basically useless on mobile, and generally terrible for casual browsing.

However HTML is not as good for deep study. You can't annotate it easily, and it's harder to bookmark your place on a webpage.

I'd really like to see something that allows you to combine the permanence and mark-ability of PDFs with the flexibility of HTML. I'm not sure how good the profit opportunity is, but boy does it seems great. And not that technically difficult to make the product.

[1] Google docs, slack posts, and a long tail of web-based tools are used internally to organizations.

I use org-mode and export the same information in both HTML and PDF. If you're looking for a way to annotate the web take a look at!

I wish more scientific authors exported their latex to html alongside their pdfs.

As it happens I was trying for the first time when I procrastinated by writing this.

I found myself saying recently, "While this strategy does not in this case seem to have much causal connection to good outcomes, I feel like following the strategy in the past few months has been good for my soul."*

Humans don't have souls. I could imagine substituting, "This strategy has made me an easier agent to coordinate with and has moved me closer to the morality I was taught growing up, which has reduced my cognitive dissonance with my formerly more consequentialist actions. And it's an important part of the strategy that I don't alter it just because I can't see any negative consequences here."

I dunno, maybe that's the right way to say the thing? I think if I'd thought of that phrasing at the time maybe I should have just said that. It seems tempting to go with the shorter "good for my soul" phrasing, but I think it's likely to be pretty ambiguous in interpretation. I think after writing this rather stream-of-consciousness shortform that I'd rather stick to awkward but clear language instead of turning poetic.

* (A note in defense of my past self — While recently I've moved further in non-consequentialist directions, I've never been willing to defect when in coordination games with cooperating members of my communities.)

I think humans have souls. It just so happens that they aren't immortal by default. 

I wouldn't want to make your substitution, for the same reason why Taleb doesn't like the substitution of artificial formula for a mother's milk: the substitution implies an assumption that you've correctly understood everything important about the thing you're replacing. 

I bet there is more to a soul than what your long sentence gets at, and I don't want to cut out that "more" prematurely. 

I think you're gonna need to define soul here. Not in a way that implies you've understood everything, but in the way that you might describe fire as the red hot stuff.

I think I might say "the deepest-rooted part of yourself"? Certainly hand wavy.

The soul is the metaphorical red hot stuff :D.

Just wanted to add that "made me an easier agent to coordinate with" applies not only to coordination with other people, but also to coordination with your past/future selves. That is, what is "good for your soul" is good even when other people are not involved.

It may even be the more important aspect, because if you can't trust your future selves, how could other people? (Your deals with other people implicitly involve deals with your future selves.)