Reading the Sequences before Starting to Post: Costs and Benefits

by Normal_Anomaly4 min read31st Mar 201122 comments

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Personal Blog

This post arose from this discussion in the "Philosophy: a Diseased Discipline" post.

Current Practice

There have been several conversations lately about the costs and benefits of scholarship, the effort of reading the sequences, and attempts to repackage the sequence material in an easier form [1]. There also used to be a practice on LW of telling newbies who weren't producing good content to come back when they'd read the sequences. However, David Gerard, who has been paying more attention than me, has noticed that this practice has stopped. One plausible explanation is that the stoppage is due to a rising awareness of the effort that reading the sequences takes. 

In an impromptu unscientific poll, 10 respondents said that they had read the sequences while still lurking on LW, 3 that they read them after creating accounts, and 8 that they had read them while they were still on OB. Nobody said that they still hadn't read the sequences [2]. So, assuming that this roughly represents the status quo, most LW posts/comments come from people who have read the sequences. The questions are: One, is this situation changing (are fewer people reading the sequences than in the past)? And two, should it change, and in what direction?

To answer this, one needs to look at the costs and benefits.

Costs

Length: The sequences comprise over a million words, not counting the comments. They cover material as diverse as semantics, quantum theory, cognitive science, metaethics, and how to write a good eutopia.

Interdependency: Each post in a sequence requires understanding of the previous posts in that sequence, and sometimes posts from earlier sequences. As well as being a source of intimidating and annoying tab explosions, this exacerbates the problem of length. It's hard to read the sequences except going through large chunks systematically, so they can't be broken up and read in a person's spare time.

Possible Memetic Hazard: Some of the ideas in the Sequences are controversial [3]. These points are often clearly marked in the posts and debated in the comments, so they won't sneak up on anyone; on the other hand, Memetic Hazard was used to describe controversial topics here, so at least someone thinks it's a problem. Some potential readers may not want to be exposed to treatments of controversial issues that argue for one side before they read balanced overviews. Also, discomfort has been expressed over the possibility of LW being a cult.  I don't want this post to turn into a forum for the is-it-a-cult conversation, so it's up here as something that may cause disutility to some people who read the Sequences.

Benefits

Usefulness: various people [4] have discussed the various benefits of rationality knowledge in helping them "Win at Life". These benefits vary widely from person to person, so there are many ways to take advantage of the sequences in one's own life.

Informativeness: On questions that don't have immediate practical relevance, it's still good for the community if everyone is familiar with the basic material. Discussions of uploading, for example, wouldn't go very far if people had to stop to explain why they believe that consciousness is physical. Having all participants start out with a minimum number of undissolved confusions improves the SNR of Less Wrong even when it doesn't directly help the individual members win.

A Common Vocabulary: on a forum where everyone has read the sequences, it's easy to refer to them in conversation. Telling someone that their position is equivalent to two-boxing on Newcomb's problem will quickly convey what you mean and allow the person an easy way to craft an answer. Pointing out that a debate is over the meaning of a word will do more to prevent it from expanding into a giant mess than if the participants hadn't read Making Beliefs Pay Rent. And using examples like Bleggs and Rubes or similar can connect a commenter's example to ver audience's current knowlege of the concept.

Please comment to suggest more costs and benefits, provide more info on the sequence-reading habits of commenters, share your experience, or explain why everything I just said is wrong.


[1] Some examples: The Neglected Virtue of Scholarship, Costs and Benefits of Scholarship, Rationality Workbook Proposal.

[2] This option in the poll was created after the others and would up being elsewhere on the page, so it is probably underrepresented. I'm just taking the results as a first approximation, and will edit this post if the comments suggest the status quo is not what I thought it was.

[3] Some examples: The Many-Worlds and Timeless formulations of quantum mechanics are still being debated by Physicists. Perhaps less importantly, as an average reader can understand the debate and form ver own opinion, issues like the Zombie World are still being debated by philosophers.

[4] See this post for an example: Reflections on Rationality a Year Out

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22 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:09 AM
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I read lots of the posts before joining, I didn't sit down to actually "Read the sequences" until I'd been here a few months.

At least it's not a terribly dense million words.

I can't say I came out of it thinking a huge amount I didn't already - to read the sequences is not, in fact, to take on board everything in them wholesale - but it was most educational in local jargon and cultural reference points. (e.g. Watching ciphergoth try to explain many-worlds decoherence to someone by moving his hands to illustrate configuration space and knowing what he was trying to depict because I remembered the precise diagrams he was attempting to render in gestures.)

I now have a browser window in which I'm slowly reading all of LessWrong in chronological order - all those posts by people who aren't EY. Again, the main result I expect from this is understanding the local lay of the land. Like reading the sequences, it's a project strictly for my "Internet as television" time. Approaching LessWrong itself as a casual cultural and anthropological study: how does this machine made of people actually work?

[-][anonymous]11y 1

That's an amazing project, and I hope you eventually turn this knowledge into a post--I think the community would definitely benefit from a comprehensive study of its past.

What? No, no! Sorry, I meant in the sense of looking at it all for my own amusement, certainly nothing academic or likely even keeping details! I thought that was clear when I said this was strictly for "Internet as television" time - if it wasn't just for my own amusement, I wouldn't bother. Writing up anything (beyond something irritating and idiosyncratic on RW) is entirely too much like work. Besides, I've already blown it in observer effect ...

Approaching LessWrong itself as a casual cultural and anthropological study: how does this machine made of people actually work?

if it wasn't just for my own amusement, I wouldn't bother.

Well, if any insights happen to pop into your head during this "Internet as television" time, and you happen to write them down, I for one would be interested in reading them since you seem to have deep knowledge of other worthwhile online communities.

Well, it is a personal fascination. Mostly from trying to work out how the heck to get Wikipedia to work better. I doubt I have any greater wisdom than anyone else who's been online since Usenet to write a report of concerning LW.

(I have seen someone on LW call Wikipedia a triumph of rational planning. No, it really never was - we got lucky, lots and lots, as we were all making up encyclopedia writing as we went along. Lots of decisions could easily have gone either way. Nobody understands how this thing works or how to fix what doesn't work. We sort of make suggestions at the edges of things that seem to be good ideas, and the WMF spends money on the ones that require more than individual brilliance to implement.)

Note that the costs you list are mostly to the individual in question, whereas many of the benefits are to the community in general, or to other contributors. It might be worth listing the costs to the community of asking people to read the sequences, but I don't see many: To me, "might discourage some people from contributing" is a feature, not a bug, and I'd be happy if LW was considered as "a forum for people who read the sequences".

Additional benefits

Filtering: Encouraging people to read the sequences before bringing up their own ideas on Friendly AI or Morality may filter out cranks or just people who aren't very good at expressing themselves or who are a bit intellectually lazy (lacking scholarship, not willing to question their ideas, etc.).

Avoiding redundancy: Many topics have been well covered in the sequences, additional intro material on those topics is not needed (as has been done a couple of times on decision theory), unless it's really good. The same goes for "new" ideas on how to do Friendly AI, what the basis of morality is, etc.

Many topics have been well covered in the squences, additional intro material on those topics is not needed (as has been done a couple of times on decision theory), unless it's really good.

The sequences form an index of EY material. There is not a similar index for non-EY posts from 2009 on.

Most useful, thank you!

(I wonder when someone will put together a page for the "Race and IQ" sequence.)

Agreed, which is why you seldom hear "you n00b, go read the dozens of unindexed posts!". It's a bit of a pity those aren't better indexed - a few of them are referenced on the wiki, but I don't know how many people use it to look for new posts to read (I know the wiki helped me when looking for older posts on decision theory).

A bloglike thing like LessWrong may not be the best format for collecting information for a rationalist community. Maybe it would be better to use some kind of of rationalist wiki ;-)

People have started indexing a few) Yvain), Alicorn, and lukeprog posts into minor sequences.

Interdependency: Each post in a sequence requires understanding of the previous posts in that sequence, and sometimes posts from earlier sequences. As well as being a source of intimidating and annoying tab explosions, this exacerbates the problem of length. It's hard to read the sequences except going through large chunks systematically, so they can't be broken up and read in a person's spare time.

Couldn't one just start from the beginning?

That's how I did it, and it worked pretty well for me.

That said, different people are different.

Perhaps less importantly, as an average reader can understand the debate and form ver own opinion, issues like the Zombie World are still being debated by philosophers.

And on an arguably related note the existence of God is still being debated by apologists.

Arguably true (upvoted). On the other hand, see Emile's comment on filtering. I don't think anyone who can't deal with atheism being assumed is going to be able to deal with the rest of LW.

I did it for a while. When I first started reading less wrong, I was a (admittedly pretty liberal) theist. I was interested in the practical applications for scientific research, and so just didn't worry very much about the religious issues presented. Ultimately, some personal events, and the training in rationality I'd gotten were finally enough to get me to deconvert. Never underestimate how easy it to compartmentalize.

Good for you and thank you for making me change my mind/confidence estimate about something. Voted up.

I don't have much to add, per se, but I hope you generate a good discussion. I really want to read the sequences, but certainly note the costs you mentioned. The interlinking nature of them does amount to some insane tab explosions sometimes, and my slightly obsessive nature has a very hard time just walking away at a given state -- I feel compelled to read every single post click on; this can cause burnout or frustration/feeling overwhelmed.

For the commenters, I'd be open hearing a sequence prioritization. I haven't heard how many chose to go about the sequences other than lukeprog's recording of reading all of them chronologically.

I just planned to start with Map & Territory, the two Core sequences, and How to Change your Mind. Is that a good start? I've read many posts out of order by now and was even taking notes at one point if something stood out to me, but I'd definitely like to read them in order.

I'm glad you made this post and look forward to reading the comments, especially as a new member.

Edit: just became aware of the original poll and found it on the original topic. I am now the sole upvoter of "still haven't read the sequences." I guess the current message of this "unscientific impromptu" poll is that I'd better get to work...

I just planned to start with Map & Territory, the two Core sequences, and How to Change your Mind. Is that a good start?

Yes, do that. Those are some good ones. Then, I'd vote for A Human's Guide to Words being next. It was the most useful to me after to core sequences.

I started trying to read the squences and found them generally disjointed and difficult to get into. I think I've picked up a lot of useful content by reading the site for a few months without commenting much.

I'd like to see the sequence content presented in a more easily accessible form. Perhaps Eliezer's much talked about book?

(watch me volunteer other people for work...)

FWIW, I have not yet completely read the sequences - I'm stalled at roughly 70%. I first began sporadically commenting when I was about 5% of the way through, and began commenting regularly when I was about 30% done.

While I like the concept of someone redoing the sequences material in their own words, I have to admit that I have not done any more than sample lukeprog's efforts along this line.

"Ease of reading" is at least somewhat subjective, as different people learn and process information differently.

To the extent that the same idea may be presented in different ways, it may be beneficial to have different people write different writeups of the sequences (not necessarily shorter or less dense).