Rationality Quotes October 2013

Another month has passed and here is a new rationality quotes thread. The usual rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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The market doesn't give a shit how hard you worked. Users just want your software to do what they need, and you get a zero otherwise. That is one of the most distinctive differences between school and the real world: there is no reward for putting in a good effort. In fact, the whole concept of a "good effort" is a fake idea adults invented to encourage kids. It is not found in nature.

--Paul Graham (When I saw this quote, I thought it had to have been posted before, but googling turned up nothing.)

I disagree with this quote. In the real world, many things are't all or nothing. The equivalent of a good effort isn't not producing any software, it's producing software that's marginally worse than the best software you could produce. That software will sell marginally less well than the best software you could produce, and produce marginally less profit, but it will still sell.

This doesn't say software is all-or-nothing. Not producing the best software you can gets you money only if it (to some extent) still does what the customer needs. Besides misinformed customers, if it doesn't do what the customer needs, you do get nothing. If it is not-quite-perfect, it's the result that gets you your not-quite-what-it-could-have-been profit. Not the effort.

Completely wrong.

As a software engineer at a company with way too much work to go around, I can tell you that making a "good effort" goes a long way. 90% of the time you don't have to "make it work or get a zero". As long as you are showing progress you can generally keep the client happy (or at least not firing you) as you get things done, even if you are missing deadlines. And this seems very much normal to me. I'm not sure where in the market you have to "make it work or get a zero". I'm not even convinced that exists.

The essay is about startups. Perhaps they are different from your company. Also, getting things done but not in time for deadlines is not the same as not getting them done but making a good effort.

The quote refers to the (end) market and users, not the internal workings of a software development firm.

As long as you are showing progress you can generally keep the client happy (or at least not firing you) as you get things done,

But eventually you do have to make sure that things are done and work.

The closest you can come to getting an actual "A for effort" is through creating cultural content, such as a Kickstarter project or starting a band. You'll get extra success when people see that you're interested in what you're doing, over and beyond as an indicator that what you'll produce is otherwise of quality. People want to be part of something that is being cared for, and in some cases would prefer it to lazily created perfection.

I'd still call it though an "A for signalling effort."

A good effort doesn't result in valuable software, but it could result in you learning to program better, increasing your human capital.

That's not necessarily false, but it's a dangerous thing to say to yourself. Mostly when I find myself thinking it, I've just wasted a great deal of time, and I'm trying to convince myself that it wasn't really wasted. It's easy to tell myself, hard to verify, and more pleasant than thinking my time-investment was for nothing.

It sure seems like a step up from when your time is really wasted, and you spent it all playing on the computer.

It's a continuum. I certainly wouldn't call a time when you're having fun and training your reflexes or pattern matching ability wasted. Or sleep. Or even sitting around anywhere where you can think stuff and meditate. The only wasted time is the one spent in to much pain to even think.

Mmm, no, whether you like it or not people who live off rent-seeking do exist.

True, but no obviously opposed to the quote. Rents are not a reward for a good effort.

We often like to think of World War II as a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism. We conveniently forget that the Soviet Union was also one of the winners.

Paul Graham

From the same article:

I do it because it's good for the brain. To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that's in the habit of going where it's not supposed to.

Also worthwhile from it:

Especially if you hear yourself using them. It's not just the mob you need to learn to watch from a distance. You need to be able to watch your own thoughts from a distance.

("them" refers to labels like "x-ist" or "y-ic" used to tar positions by association, rather than demonstrating their falsity.)

I'm not sure I'd call Russia winner in this war. It seems like having been unlucky enough to have been involved is already some flavor of losing.

I respect the insight though, that Team A, characterized by quality a, defeating Team B, characterized by quality b, is not a story of a beats b, especially when you're wrong in the first place about Team A not also being characterized (in part) by quality b.

I liken this kind of talk to "fall of the Roman Empire" talk - modern humans have an eerie tendency to try to explain the past in ways that support their current viewpoints, and wilfully ignore evidence that tells them their explanations are not very fit.

It seems like having been unlucky enough to have been involved is already some flavor of losing.

So you're saying it had no winners? That doesn't seem right. We need a word to for the huge difference in outcome between Germany and the USSR.

Also, the USSR and the US both gained a lot from the war on net - territory, military power, international political power, domestic control. If Stalin had been offered in 1939 the choice between WW2 (knowing the eventual outcome) and eternal peace while Germany conquered the rest of Europe, he would have likely chosen war. The same goes for the US.

A majority of life's errors are caused by forgetting what one is really trying to do.

-Charlie Munger

If we narrow the domain to software desgin and slap on some rigourous type systems and big unit testing suites it starts looking better for this statement.

On reflection, 'forgetting' is the wrong word here.

We don't default to being definite about anything, least of all our aims. Clear awareness has to be built and maintained, not merely uncovered.

“Whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”

Neal Stephenson - "Quicksilver"

Whenever a group of subcompetent people get together to do something, they assume they are competent enough to throw tradition and protocol out the window...

Well designed traditions and protocols will contain elements that cause most subcompetent people to not want to throw them out.

Well designed traditions and protocols will contain elements that cause most competent people to not want to throw them out.

No. If an organization contains sub-competent people, it should take this into account when designing traditions and protocols.

Corollary: all organisations eventually contain sub-competent people. Design protocols accordingly.

If an organization contains sub-competent people, it's traditions and protocols need to ensure those people are quickly and reliably thrown out themselves.

Therefore, a reliable method for evaluating competency needs to be part of the traditions and protocols. Otherwise it's just a question of time...

Not necessarily, sub-competent people can still be useful, e.g., unskilled labor is a thing.

Unskilled and sub-competent are not synonyms in this context; even a ditch-digger can be competent, it just means they dig quickly regularly and with a minimum of fuss. And not arbitrarily throwing out protocols for momentary convenience is a matter of both maintaining regularity and minimizing fuss, so I shouldn't have to worry about the ditch-digging committee making a mess of things so long as they all have their heads screwed on straight.

I suspect that many traditions and protocols promote competent decision making. Do you think that, say, the U.S. military would do better in Afghanistan if President Obama issued an order declaring "when in battle ignore all considerations of tradition and protocol"? Group coordination is hard, organizations put a huge amount of effort into it, and traditions and protocols often reflect their best practices.

"The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you're not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one." -Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny

That quote seems to be very good in making idiots who think they are not (the majority) to behave like idiots.

Yes, the quote is best modified to: "Whenever a small group of competent people..."

What strikes me most about this quote is how well Stephenson understands the psychology of his audience.

Having just listened to much of the Ethical Injunctions sequence (as a podcast courtesy of George Thomas), I'm not so sure about this one. There are reasons for serious, competent people to follow ethical rules, even when they need to get things done in the real world.

Ethics aren't quite the same as tradition and protocol, but even so, sometimes all three of those things exist for good reasons.

Him: We can't go back. We don't understand everything yet.

Her: "Everything" is a little ambitious. We barely understand anything.

Him: Yeah. But that's what the first part of understanding everything looks like.

Randall Munroe - Time

Followed by:

Him: We walked along the sea for days and we didn't learn anything. Up here we're learning lots.

Her: We haven't learned why the sea rose.

Him: But maybe we were never going to.

Him: There's food and water here. I don't want to go all the way back down, walk along the sea for a few more days, then have to turn around.

Him: Maybe the sea is too big to understand. We can't answer every question.

Her: No, But I think we can answer any question.

That last part is the most important.

We can't answer every question.

No, but I think we can answer any question.

Is there a finite proof for or against? If so, we will most likely find it.

Is there a finite proof that there is no such proof? That would be weird and unfortunate, but then the answer is "Mu".

Is there an infinite proof? Well, um. In this case I'd probably argue that the proof doesn't matter, and you can't tell anyway.

the mass of an object never seems to change: a spinning top has the same weight as a still one. So a “law” was invented: mass is constant, independent of speed. That “law” is now found to be incorrect. Mass is found to increase with velocity, but appreciable increases require velocities near that of light. A true law is: if an object moves with a speed of less than one hundred miles a second the mass is constant to within one part in a million. In some such approximate form this is a correct law. So in practice one might think that the new law makes no significant difference. Well, yes and no. For ordinary speeds we can certainly forget it and use the simple constant-mass law as a good approximation. But for high speeds we are wrong, and the higher the speed, the more wrong we are.

Finally, and most interesting, philosophically we are completely wrong with the approximate law. Our entire picture of the world has to be altered even though the mass changes only by a little bit. This is a very peculiar thing about the philosophy, or the ideas, behind the laws. Even a very small effect sometimes requires profound changes in our ideas.

Richard Feynman Lectures on Physics

"I didn't go spiralling down. Because there is no abyss. There is no yawning chasm waiting to swallow us up, when we learn that there is no god, that we're animals like any other animal, that the universe has no purpose, that our souls are made of the same stuff as water and sand."

I said, "There are two thousand cultists on this island who believe otherwise."

Michael shrugged. "What do you expect from moral flat-Earthers, if not fear of falling?"

-- Greg Egan, "Distress".

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

If--, by Rudyard Kipling

You can't trust your intuitions [in this domain]. I'm going to give you a set of rules here that will get you through this process if anything will. At certain moments you'll be tempted to ignore them. So rule number zero is: these rules exist for a reason. You wouldn't need a rule to keep you going in one direction if there weren't powerful forces pushing you in another.

Paul Graham

Note: this isn't always right. Anyone giving advice is going to SAY it's true and non-obvious even if it isn't. "Don't fall into temptation" etc etc. But that essay was talking about mistakes which he'd personally often empirically observed and proposed counter-actions to, and he obviously could describe it in much more detail if necessary.

header: funtime activity: casually accusing people of machiavellianism.

man: i’m hungry. we should buy lunch.

woman: OH, so you’re saying THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS?

--Zack Weinersmith, SMBC rejected ideas

boss: what’s your greatest weakness?

guy: i’m bad at giving rhymed answers to questions.

I am so stealing that for my next job interview.

You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do.

-- Henry Ford

You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do.

I wonder if that is true. I suspect a sufficiently competent personal marketer would be able to pull it off. Of course, it may be just as easy for them to build an equally positive reputation from absolutely nothing.

So they are building their reputation on their marketing skills, not on the future.

Which is to say, causality goes only one way.

It may, however, be possible to build a reputation on what you are preparing to do.

A number of isolated facts does not produce a science any more than a heap of bricks produces a house.

Alfred Korzybski - Science and Sanity Page 55

While this is true, it's often the case that you have to start by collecting the isolated facts, just as you'd start building a house by buying some number of bricks.

Arguably you'd start building a house by deciding what kind of house do you want and then making architectural plans and drawings...

Arguably, an early step in building a brick house will consist of gathering a bunch of bricks together. Arguably, that was obvious enough in the earlier comment to not benefit from correction.

The original quote was sufficiently meta that I think Lumifer's point stands.

Please name a science (not math, not philosophy) that did NOT start as a bunch of bricks.

We don't have to ignore the real world when we go meta, do we?

Science is a way, a method -- it neither started as, nor is a collection of facts.

The world is full of bricks/facts -- they are everywhere you look and the problem is not finding some, but finding the ones you need. And to figure out which ones you need you require some plans and ideas about how to go about things.