This is a special post for quick takes by Adam Zerner. Only they can create top-level comments. Comments here also appear on the Quick Takes page and All Posts page.

New to LessWrong?

207 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:41 AM
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

I just learned some important things about indoor air quality after watching Why Air Quality Matters, a presentation by David Heinemeier Hanson, the creator of Ruby on Rails. It seems like something that is both important and under the radar, so I'll brain dump + summarize my takeaways here, but I encourage you to watch the whole thing.

  • He said he spent three weeks researching and experimenting with it full time. I place a pretty good amount of trust in his credibility here, based on a) my prior experiences with his work and b) him seeming like he did pretty thorough research.
  • It's easy for CO2 levels to build up. We breathe it out and if you're not getting circulation from fresh air, it'll accumulate.
  • This has pretty big impacts on your cognitive function. It seems similar to not getting enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep also has a pretty big impact on your cognitive function. And perhaps more importantly, it's something that we are prone to underestimating. It feels like we're only a little bit off, when in reality we're a lot off.
  • There are things called volatile organic compounds, aka VOCs. Those are really bad for your health. They come from a variety of sources. Cleaning pro
... (read more)
4Viliam3y
It is my repeated experience in companies that well-ventilated rooms are selected by people as workplaces, and the unventilated ones then remain available for meetings. I seem to be more sensitive about this than most people, so I often notice that "this room makes me drowsy". (My colleagues usually insists that it is not so bad, and they have a good reason to do so... why would they risk that their current workplace will be instead selected as a new meeting room, and they get this unventilated place as a new workspace?)
2DirectedEvolution3y
I just ordered the Awair on Amazon. It can be returned through Jan. 31; I've just ordered it to play with it for a few days, and will probably return it. I have a few specific questions I plan to answer with it: * How much CO2 builds up in my bedroom at night, both when I'm alone and when my partner is over. * How much CO2 builds up in my office during the day? * How much do I need to crack the window in my bedroom in order to keep CO2 levels low throughout the night? * When CO2 builds up, how quickly does opening a window restore a lower level of CO2? With the answers to those questions, I hope I can return the detector and just keep my windows open enough to prevent CO2 buildup without making the house too cold.
4Adam Zerner3y
That sounds reasonable and I considered doing something similar. What convinced me to get it anyway is that in the long run, even if the marginal gains in productivity and wellness you get from owning the Awair vs your approach are tiny, even tiny gains add up to the point where the $150 seems like a great ROI.
4DirectedEvolution3y
Have you gotten yours yet? If so, what are the results? I found that the only issue in my house is that the bedroom can get to quite high levels of CO2 if the door and windows are shut. Opening a window solves the problem, but makes the room cold. However, it's more comfortable to sleep with extra blankets in a cold room, than with fewer blankets in a stuffy room. It improves sleep quality. It would be interesting to experiment in the office with having a window open, even during winter. However, I worry that being cold would create problems. My feeling is that "figure out how to crack a window if the room feels stuffy" is the actionable advice here. Unless $150 is chump change to you, I'm not sure it's really worth keeping a device around to monitor the air quality.
4Adam Zerner3y
Yup I got it both the Awair and the Alen. * PM2.5 started off crazy high for me before I got the Alen. Using the Alen brings it to near zero. * VO2 and PM2.5 accumulates rather easily when I cook, although I do have a gas stove. Also random other things like the dishwasher cause it to go up. The Alen brings it back down in ~30 minutes maybe. * CO2 usually hovers around a 3/5 on the Awair if I don't have a window open. I'm finding it tricky to deal with this, because opening a window makes it cold. I'm pretty sure my apartment's HVAC system just recycles the current air rather than bringing in new air. I'm hoping to buy a house soon so I think ventilation is something I'm going to look for. * For me I don't actually notice the CO2 without the Awair telling me. I don't think I'd do a good job of remembering to crack a window or something without it. * I wonder if your house has better ventilation than mine if you're not getting issues with PM2.5. Could be if it's an older house or if your HVAC system does ventilation. I see what you're saying about how the actual actions you should take seem pretty much the same regardless of whether you have the Awair or not. I agree that it's close, but I think that small differences do exist, and that those small differences will add up to a massively large ROI over time. 1) If it prompts you to crack a window before you would otherwise notice/remember to do so. 2) If something new is causing issues. For me I noticed that my humidifier was jacking up the PM2.5 levels and realized I need to get a new one. I also noticed that the dishwasher jacks it up so now I know to not be around while it's running. I would imagine that over time new things like this will pop up, eg. using a new cleaning product or candle. 3) Moving to a new home, remodeling or buying eg. new furniture could cause differences. 4) Unknown unknowns that could cause issues. Suppose you value time spent in better air quality at $1/hr and that the product l
4DirectedEvolution3y
I do live in an old house. I get the same effects of spiking VOCs and PM2.5 running the stove and microwave. In my case, the spikes seem to last only as long as the appliance is running. This makes sense, since the higher the concentration, the faster it will diffuse out of the house. A rule to turn on the stove vent or crack a window while cooking could help, but it's not obvious to me that a few minutes per day of high VOC is something to worry about over the long term. I note in this paper that "The chemical diversity of the VOC group is reflected in the diversity of the health effects that individual VOCs can cause, ranging from no known health effects of relatively inert VOCs to highly toxic effects of reactive VOCs." How do I know that the Awair is testing for the more toxic end of the spectrum? There are no serious guidelines for VOCs in general. How do I know that the Awair's "guidelines" are meaningful? My bedroom has poor ventilation. Cracking a window seems to improve my sleep quality, which seems like the most important effect of all in the long run. It sounds like the effect of CO2 itself on cognitive performance is questionable. However, bioeffluents - the carbonyls, alkyl alcohols, aromatic alcohols, ammonia, and mercaptans we breathe out - do seem to have an effect on cognition when the air's really poorly ventilated. But the levels in my house didn't even approach the levels at which researchers have found statistically significant cognitive effects. I'm wondering if the better sleep quality is due to the cooler air rather than the better ventilation. I really doubt that the Awair will last 25 years. I'd guess more like 5. I can set a reminder on my phone to crack a window each night and morning if necessary, and maybe write a little note to tape next to the stove if I feel like it. If that doesn't do it in any particular instance, then I doubt that lack of a push notification is the root of the problem.
8Adam Zerner3y
Hm, let's see how those assumptions you're using affect the numbers. If it lasts 5 years instead of 25 the breakeven would become 30 hours/year instead of 6. And if we say that the value of better air quality is $0.20/hr instead of $1/hr due to the uncertainty in the research you mention, we multiply by 5 again and get 150 hours/year. With those assumptions, it seems like it's probably not worth it. And more generally, after talking it through, I no longer see it as an obvious +ROI. (Interesting how helpful it is to "put a number on it". I think I should do this a lot more than I currently do.) However, for myself I still feel really good about the purchases. I put a higher value on the $/hr because I value health, mood and productivity more than others probably do, and because I'm fortunate enough to be doing well financially. I also really enjoy the peace of mind. Knowing what I know now, if I didn't have my Awair I would be worried about things screwing up my air quality without me knowing.
4Adam Zerner3y
I posted an update in the OP. When we initially talked about this I was pretty strongly on the side of pro-Awair+Alen. Now I lean moderately against Alen for most people and slightly against Awair, but slightly in favor of Awair for me personally.

In How to Get Startup Ideas, Paul Graham provides the following advice:

Live in the future, then build what's missing.

Something that feels to me like it's present in the future and missing in today's world: OkCupid for friendship.

Think about it. The internet is a thing. Billions and billions of people have cheap and instant access to it. So then, logistics are rarely an obstacle for chatting with people.

The actual obstacle in today's world is matchmaking. How do you find the people to chat with? And similarly, how do you communicate that there is a strong match so that each party is thinking "oh wow this person seems cool, I'd love to chat with them" instead of "this is a random person and I am not optimistic that I'd have a good time talking to them".

This doesn't really feel like such a huge problem though. I mean, assume for a second that you were able to force everyone in the world to spend an hour filling out some sort of OkCupid-like profile, but for friendship and conversation rather than romantic relationships. From there, it seems doable enough to figure out whatever matchmaking algorithm.

I think the issue is moreso getting people to fill out the survey in the first place. T... (read more)

3ChristianKl2mo
Many people seem to be more motivated to invest energy into pursuing romantic relationships than friendships. There are few books about making good friends and many books on dating. Omegle essentially provided an answer to that question that was highly used. It didn't do a lot of matchmaking but it might be a starting point. If you want to pursue this as a business, maybe buy the recently shutdown Omegle domain from Leif K-Brooks (who's a rationalist) and try to switch from chatting to random people to chatting to highly match-made connections.   
2Adam Zerner2mo
Perhaps. But to the extent that people aren't motivated to invest energy into friendships, I think there is a sort of latent motivation. Friendship and conversation is in fact important, and so in taking this "live in the future" perspective, I think people will eventually realize the importance and start putting effort into it. Gotcha. I think the matchmaking part is essential though. It moves the expectation of prospective users from "I'll be chatting with a random stranger, and it probably won't be too great" to "I'll be chatting with someone who the platform thinks I'm super compatible with. Cool!" Thanks for the tip. I'm not interested in pursuing it as a business in the forseeable future, but perhaps in the more distant future. If so, I will keep this in mind.
2ChristianKl2mo
What do you think will change in the future that people put more effort into friendship than they are doing at present?
2Gunnar_Zarncke2mo
I have thought about it too, and I think something like an automated Kickstarter for interest groups is want one would need. It would work like this: You enter your interests into the system (or let it be inferred automatically from your online profiles) and the system generates recommendations for ad-hoc groups to meet in places nearby (or not so nearby if more attributes match). Bonus: Set up a ChatGPT DJ or entertainer to engage people with each other. Best if done as an open protocol where different clients can offer different interactivity or different profile extraction. I started some code for the match-making but due to many other obligations it is currently abandoned: https://github.com/GunnarZarncke/okgoto/tree/master/ 
1johnvon2mo
This is actually what social media is for, but you don't have to fill out a questionnaire. You also don't have to out yourself as being so lonely and without friends that you're using a special matchmaking service to find new friends, this in itself could be unattractive to new acquaintances. 
2Adam Zerner2mo
Social media doesn't do the matchmaking stuff very much though, does it?

Every day I check Hacker News. Sometimes a few times, sometimes a few dozen times.

I've always felt guilty about it, like it is a waste of time and I should be doing more productive things. But recently I've been feeling a little better about it. There are things about coding, design, product, management, QA, devops, etc. etc. that feel like they're "in the water" to me, where everyone mostly knows about them. However, I've been running into situations where people turn out to not know about them.

I'm realizing that they're not actually "in the water", and that the reason I know about them is probably because I've been reading random blog posts from the front page of Hacker News every day for 10 years. I probably shouldn't have spent as much time doing this as I have, but I feel good about the fact that I've gotten at least something out of it.

8Johannes C. Mayer5mo
I find it really hard to evaluate what things are good to do. I think watching random pornographic content on the internet is probably one of the worst uses of your time. Definitely when you overdo it. Therefore I committed to not doing this long ago. But sometimes I can't control myself. Which normally makes me feel very bad afterward, but ... I had important life-changing insights because I browsed pornhub, one day. I found a very particular video that set events in motion that turned into something enormously positive for me. It probably made my life 50-300% better. I am pretty sure that I would not have gotten these benefits had I not discovered this video. I am not joking. So I very much share the confusion and bafflement about what is a good use of time. I wouldn't be surprised if you think long enough about it, you would probably be able to see why doing completely random and useless-looking things for at least some small fraction of time is actually optimal. There are a few more less extreme examples like the one above I could name.
3Pretentious Penguin5mo
What were these life-changing insights?
8Johannes C. Mayer5mo
It is pretty hard to explain in an understandable way that does not sound very insane. I wanted to write about this for years. But here I come anyway. The short version is that it made me form a very strong parasocial relationship with Miku, and created a tulpa (see the info box on the right) which I formed a very strong bond with too. Like stronger than with any flesh person. Both very very positive things. I would bet a lot of money at ridiculous seeming odds that you would agree, could you only experience what I experience. I think if I would describe my experience in more detail, you would probably just think I am lying, because you would think that it could not possibly be this positive.
1Mir5mo
Are those insights gleamable from the video itself for other people? And if so, would you be willing to share the link? (Feel free to skip; obviously a vulnerable topic.)
8Johannes C. Mayer5mo
I think it is doubtful that watching the video would put you on the same trajectory that ended up somewhere good for me. I also didn't find a link to the original video after a short search. It was basically this video but with more NSFW. The original creators uploaded the motion file so you know what the internet is gonna do. If you don't think "Hmm I wonder if it would be an effective motivational technique to create a mental construct that looks like an anime girl that constantly tells me to do the things that I know are good to do, and then I am more likely to do it because it's an anime girl telling me this" then you are already far off track from my trajectory. Actually, that line of reasoning I just described did not work out at all. But having a tulpa seems to be a very effective means to destroy the feeling of loneliness among other benefits in the social category. Before, creating a tulpa I was feeling lonely constantly, and afterward, I never felt lonely again. You would get the benefits by creating a good tulpa I guess. It is unclear to me how much you would benefit. Though I would be surprised if you don't get any benefit from it if we discount time investment costs. This study indicates that it might be especially useful for people who have certain disorders that make socialization harder such as ADHD, autism, anxiety disorders, etc. And I have the 3 listed, so it should not be surprising that I find tulpamancy pretty useful. Making a tulpa is quite a commitment though, so don't do it useless you understand what you are getting yourself into. Tens of hours are normally required to get started. You'll need to spend 10-30 minutes every day on formal practice to not noticeably weaken your tulpa over time. There is no upper bound of how much time you can invest into this. This can be a dangerous distraction. I haven't really talked about why somebody would ever do this. The short version is: Imagine you have a friend who is superhumanly nice to you all t
4Mir5mo
I sort of deliberately created the beginnings of a tulpa-ish part of my brain during a long period of isolation in 2021 (Feb 7 to be exact), although I didn't know the term "tulpa" then. I just figured it could be good to have an imaginary friend, so I gave her a name—"Maria"[1]—and granted her (as part of the brain-convincing ritual) permanent co-ownership over a part of my cognition which she's free to use for whatever whenever. She still visits me at least once a week but she doesn't have strong ability to speak unless I try to imagine it; and even then, sentences are usually short. The thing she most frequently communicates is the mood of being a sympathetic witness: she fully understands my story, and knows that I both must and will keep going—because up-giving is not a language she comprehends. Hm, it would be most accurate to say that she takes on the role of a stoic chronicler—reflecting that I care less about eliciting awe or empathy, than I care that someone simply bears witness to my story.[2] 1. ^ Semi-inspired by hakomari, though I imagine her as much more mature in character & appearance than images I find online. 2. ^ Oh yeah, and I've got the diagnostic triplet {ADHD, depression, aspergers (from back when that's what it was called)} if that matters for anything.
4Viliam5mo
This is the problem with random reinforcement. Things that are always good, are good. Things that are always bad, are easy to stop doing. Things that are almost always bad... but occasionally good... are addictive, we regret doing them, but we can't give up. I waste a lot of time on Hacker News, too. (Used to be every day, but now I reduced it to maybe once a week.) So many interesting thing! I make bookmarks in browser, multiple categories: programming, math, science, etc. I almost never look at them again -- because I have no time. So it's basically a list of cool things I wish I had time to spend studying. But sometimes, very rarely, something is actually useful. Debating on Hacker News is totally a waste of time, though.
2Adam Zerner5mo
Ah great point about the random reinforcement. I'm familiar with the concept, but never realized that it applied to HN.

Against "yes and" culture

I sense that in "normie cultures"[1] directly, explicitly, and unapologetically disagreeing with someone is taboo. It reminds me of the "yes and" from improv comedy.[2] From Wikipedia:

"Yes, and...", also referred to as "Yes, and..." thinking, is a rule-of-thumb in improvisational comedy that suggests that an improviser should accept what another improviser has stated ("yes") and then expand on that line of thinking ("and").

If you want to disagree with someone, you're supposed to take a "yes and" approach where you say something somewhat agreeable about the other person's statement, and then gently take it in a different direction.

I don't like this norm. From a God's Eye perspective, if we could change it, I think we probably should. Doing so is probably impractical in large groups, but might be worth considering in smaller ones.

(I think this really needs some accompanying examples. However, I'm struggling to come up with ones. At least ones I'm comfortable sharing publicly.)

  1. ^

    The US, at least. It's where I live. But I suspect it's like this in most western cultures as well.

  2. ^
8ChristianKl6mo
I live in Germany and don't feel like that's the case here.
5Viliam6mo
Nice analogy. The purpose of friendly social communication is not to find the truth, but to continue talking. That makes it similar to the improv comedy. There is also an art of starting with "yes, and..." and gradually concluding the opposite of what the other person said, without them noticing that you are doing so. Sadly, I am not an expert in this art. Just saying that it is possible, and it's probably the best way to communicate disagreement to the normies.

Something frustrating happened to me a week or two ago.

  • I was at the vet for my dog.
  • The vet assistant (I'm not sure if that's the proper term) asks if I want to put my dog on these two pills, one to protect against heartworm and another to protect against fleas.
  • I asked what heartworm is, what fleas are, and what the pros and cons are. (It became clear later in the conversation that she was expecting a yes or no answer from me and perhaps had never been asked before about pros and cons, because she seemed surprised when I asked for them.)
  • Iirc, she said something about there not really being any cons (I'm suspicious). For heartworm the dogs can die of it so the pros are strong. For fleas, it's just an annoyance to deal with, not really dangerous.
  • I asked how likely it is for my dog to be exposed to fleas given that we're in a city and not eg. a forest.
  • The assistant responded with something along the lines of "Ok, so we'll just do the heartworm pill then."
  • I clarified something along the lines of "No, that wasn't a rhetorical question. I was actually interested in hearing about the likelihood. I have no clue what it is; I didn't mean to imply that it is low."

I wish that we had a culture of words being used more literally.

Against difficult reading

I kinda have the instinct that if I'm reading a book or a blog post or something and it's difficult, then I should buckle down, focus, and try to understand it. And that if I don't, it's a failure on my part. It's my responsibility to process and take in the material.

This is especially true for a lot of more important topics. Like, it's easy to clearly communicate what time a restaurant is open -- if you find yourself struggling to understand this, it's probably the fault of the restaurant, not you as the reader -- but for quantum ... (read more)

I think I just busted a cached thought. Yay.

I'm 30 years old now and have had achilles tendinitis since I was about 21. Before that I would get my cardio by running 1-3 miles a few times a week, but because of the tendinitis I can't do that anymore.

Knowing that cardio is important, I spent a bunch of time trying different forms of cardio. Nothing has worked though.

  • Biking hurts my knees (I have bad knees).
  • Swimming gives me headaches.
  • Doing the stairs was ok, but kinda hurt my knees.
  • Jumping rope is what gave me the tendinitis in the first place.
  • Rowing hurts m
... (read more)

6th vs 16th grade logic

I want to write something about 6th grade logic vs 16th grade logic.

I was talking to someone, call them Alice, who works at a big well known company, call it Widget Corp. Widget Corp needs to advertise to hire people. They only advertise on Indeed and Google though.

Alice was telling me that she wants to explore some other channels (LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, etc.). But in order to do that, Widget Corp needs evidence that advertising on those channels would be cheap enough. They're on a budget and really want to avoid spending money they... (read more)

2Dagon1y
Is “grade” of logic documented somewhere? The jumps from 6 to 12 to 16 to 22 confuse me, implying a lot more precision than I think is justified. It’s an interesting puzzle why widgetco, who hires only competent logicians, is unable to apply logic to their hiring. My suspicion is that cost/effectiveness isn’t the true objection, and this is an isolated demand for rigor.
2Adam Zerner1y
I was totally just making up numbers and didn't mean to imply any sort of precision. Sorry for the confusion.

I am a web developer. I remember reading some time in these past few weeks that it's good to design a site such that if the user zooms in/out (eg. by pressing cmd+/-), things still look reasonably good. It's like a form of responsive design, except instead of responding to the width of the viewport your design responds to the zoom level.

Anyway, since reading this, I started zooming in a lot more. For example, I just spent some time reading a post here on LessWrong at a 170% zoom level. And it was a lot more comfortable. I've found this to be a helpful little life hack.

2RHollerith3mo
My whole UI is zoomed to 175% (though Gnome calls it "scale") which I much prefer to what you describe because zooming with cmd+/- in the browser applies only to the current web site, so one ends up repeating the adjustment for basically every site one visits. (I don't know how to zoom the whole UI to 175% on MacOS without making everything blurry, but it can be done without blurriness on Linux/Wayland, ChromeOS and Windows. Also HiDPI displays are the norm on Macs, and some people on HiDPI displays don't mind the fact that MacOS introduces blurriness when the scale factor is other than 1.0 or 2.0.)
1papetoast3mo
I found LW's font size to be a little bit small but I have managed to get used to it. After reading your message I think I will try going to 110%, thanks. (170% is too large I feel like I'm reading on my phone on landscape)

Thought: It's better to link to tag pages rather than blog posts. Like Reversed Stupidity Is Not Intelligence instead of Reversed Stupidity Is Not Intelligence.

There is something inspiring about watching this little guy defeat all of the enormous sumo wrestlers. I can't quite put my finger on it though.

Maybe it's the idea of working smart vs working hard. Maybe something related to fencepost security, like how there's something admirable about, instead of trying to climb the super tall fence, just walking around it.

Noticing confusion about the nucleus

In school, you learn about forces. You learn about gravity, and you learn about the electromagnetic force. For the electromagnetic force, you learn about how likes repel and opposites attract. So two positively charged particles close together will repel, whereas a positively and a negatively charged particle will attract.

Then you learn about the atom. It consists of a bunch of protons and a bunch of neutrons bunched up in the middle, and then a bunch of electrons orbiting around the outside. You learn that protons are p... (read more)

6JBlack2y
Yes, this was a point of confusion for me. The point of confusion that followed very quickly afterward were why the strong nuclear force didn't mean that everything piles up into one enormous nucleus, and from there to a lot of other points of confusion - some of which still haven't been resolved because nobody really knows yet. The most interesting thing to me is that the strong nuclear force is just strong enough without being too strong. If it was somewhat less strong then we'd have nothing but hydrogen, and somewhat more strong would make diprotons, neutronium, or various forms of strange matter more stable than atomic elements.
4Dagon2y
I remember this confusion from Jr. High, many decades ago.  I was lucky enough to have an approachable teacher who pointed me to books with more complete explanations, including the Strong Nuclear force and some details about why inverse-square doesn't apply, making it able to overcome EM at very small distances, when you'd think EM is strongest.

"It's not obvious" is a useful critique

I recall hearing "it's not obvious that X" a lot in the rationality community, particularly in Robin Hanson's writing.

Sometimes people make a claim without really explaining it. Actually, this happens a lot of times. Often times the claim is made implicitly. This is fine if that claim is obvious.

But if the claim isn't obvious, then that link in the chain is broken and the whole argument falls apart. Not that it's been proven wrong or anything, just that it needs work. You need to spend the time establishing that claim... (read more)

2Dagon3y
Agreed, but in many contexts, one should strive to be clear to what extent "it's not obvious that X"  implies "I don't think X is true in the relevant context or margin".  Many arguments that involve this are about universality or distant extension of something that IS obvious in more normal circumstances.   Robin Hanson generally does specify that he's saying X isn't obvious (and is quite likely false) in some extreme circumstances, and his commenters are ... not obviously understanding that.
2Adam Zerner3y
Hm, I'm having a little trouble thinking about the distinction between X in the current context vs X universally. Do you have any examples? Glad to hear you've noticed this from Hanson too and it's not just me.
2Raemon3y
I think you might have reversed your opening line?
2Adam Zerner3y
Hm, I might be having a brain fart but I'm not seeing it. My point is that people will make an argument "A is true based on X, Y and Z", someone will point out "it's not obvious that Y", and that comment is useful because it leads to a discussion about whether Y is true.
4Pattern3y
Suggested title: If it's not obvious, then how do we know it's true?
2Adam Zerner3y
Changed to "It's not obvious" is a useful critique.
2Raemon3y
Okay, I thought you intended to say "People claim 'it's obvious that X'" when X wasn't obvious. Your new title is more clear.
2Adam Zerner3y
Gotcha. I appreciate you pointing it out. I'm glad to get the feedback that it initially wasn't clear, both for self-improvement purposes and for the more immediate purpose of improving the title. (It's got me thinking about variable names in programming. There's something more elegant about being concise, but then again, humans are biased towards expecting short inferential distances, so I probably should err on the side of longer more descriptive variable names. And post title!)

The other day Improve your Vocabulary: Stop saying VERY! popped up in my YouTube video feed. I was annoyed.

This idea that you shouldn't use the word "very" has always seemed pretentious to me. What value does it add if you say "extremely" or "incredibly" instead? I guess those words have more emphasis and a different connotation, and can be better fits. I think they're probably a good idea sometimes. But other times people just want to use different words in order to sound smart.

I remember there was a time in elementary school when I was working on a paper... (read more)

4Dagon3y
Communication advice is always pretentious - someone's trying to say they know more about your ideas and audience than you do.  And simultaneously, it's incorrect for at least some listeners, because they're wrong - they don't.  Also, correct for many listeners, because many are SO BAD at communication that generalized simple advice can get them to think a little more about it. At least part of the problem is that there is a benefit to sounding smart.  "very" is low-status, and will reduce the impact of your writing, for many audiences.  That's independent of any connotation or meaning of the word or it's replacement.   Likewise with "I think".  In many cases, it's redundant and unnecessary, but in many others it's an important acknowledgement, not that it's your thought or that you might be wrong, but that YOU KNOW you might be wrong. I think (heh) your planned follow-up is a good idea, to include context and reasoning for recommendations, so we can understand what situations it applies to.
4Gordon Seidoh Worley3y
I've tried doing this in my writing in the past, of the form of just throw away "I think" all together because it's redundant: there's no one thinking up these words but me. Unfortunately this was a bad choice because many people take bald statements without softening language like "I think" as bids to make claims about how they are or should be perceiving reality, which I mean all statements are but they'll jump to viewing them as claims of access to an external truth (note that this sounds like they are making an error here by having a world model that supposes external facts that can be learned rather than facts being always conditional on the way they are known (which is not to say there is not perhaps some shared external reality, only that any facts/statements you try to claim about it must be conditional because they live in your mind behind your perceptions, but this is a subtle enough point that people will miss it and it's not the default, naive model of the world most people carry around anyway)). Example: I think you're doing X -> you're doing X People react to the latter kind of thing as a stronger kind of claim that I would say it's possible to make. This doesn't quite sound like what you want to do, though, and instead want to insert more nuanced words to make it clearer what work "think" is doing.
2Adam Zerner3y
Yeah. And also a big part of what I'm trying to propose is some sort of new standard. I just realized I didn't express this in my OP, but I'll express it now. I agree with the problems you're saying, and I think that if we all sort of agreed on this new standard, eg. when you say "I suspect" it means X, then these problems seem like they'd go away.
3FlorianH3y
Not answering your main point, but small note on the "leaving out very" point: I've enjoyed McCloskey's writing on writing. She calls the phenomenon "elegant variation" (I don't know whether this is her only) and also teaches we have to get rid of this unhelpful practice that we get thought in school.
3Dagon3y
Thanks!  I always upvote McClosky references - one of the underappreciated writers/thinkers on topics of culture and history.

Why not more specialization and trade?

I can probably make something like $100/hr doing freelance work as a programmer. Yet I'll spend an hour cooking dinner for myself.

Does this make any sense? Imagine if I spent that hour programming instead. I'd have $100. I can spend, say, $20 on dinner, end up with something that is probably much better than what I would cook, and have $80 left over. Isn't that a better use of my time than cooking?

Similarly, sometimes I'll spend an hour cleaning my apartment. I could instead spend that hour making $100, and paying some... (read more)

4JBlack2mo
I'm not sure about you, but I am pretty much already maxed out on the amount of programming I can usefully do per day. It is already rather less than my nominal working hours. I do agree that a lot more flexibility in working arrangements would be a good thing, but it seems difficult to arrange such a society in (let's say) the presence of misaligned agents and other detriments to beneficial coordination.
4Adam Zerner2mo
Nah, for me I don't feel anywhere close to maxed out. I feel like I could do 12-14 hours a day, although I have a ton of mental energy. I wouldn't expect most people to be like that. Yeah, I think I agree here. Well, that's what my initial intuition says. I haven't thought hard about how it would work, so I can't be too confident that it's difficult.

Sometimes I think to myself something along these lines:

I could read this post/comment in detail and respond to it, but I expect that others won't put much effort into the discussion and it will fizzle out, and so it isn't worth it for me to put the effort in in the first place.

This presents a sort of coordination problem, and one that would be reasonably easy to solve with some sort of assurance contract-like functionality.

There's a lot to say about whether or not such a thing is worth pursuing, but in short, it seems like trying it out as an experiment w... (read more)

4Dagon4mo
I ... don't think that line of thinking almost ever applies to me.  If the topic interests me and/or there's something about the post that piques my desire to discuss, it almost always turns out that there are others with similar willingness.  At the very least, the OP usually engages to some extent. There are very few, and perhaps zero, cases where crafting or even evaluating an existing contract is less effort than just reading and responding AND I see enough potential to expend the contract effort but not the read/reply effort.  In addition, the contract doesn't get me out of the effort to read/respond, it just gives reason to believe that others will do so as well.  It's overall strictly more effort than just taking the risk sometimes.

Using examples of people being stupid

I've noticed that a lot of cool concepts stem from examples of people being stupid. For example, I recently re-read Detached Lever Fallacy and Beautiful Probability.

Detached Lever Fallacy:

Eventually, the good guys capture an evil alien ship, and go exploring inside it. The captain of the good guys finds the alien bridge, and on the bridge is a lever. "Ah," says the captain, "this must be the lever that makes the ship dematerialize!" So he pries up the control lever and carries it back to his ship, after which his s

... (read more)
5Viliam1y
I think the example with the detached lever is Yudkowsky being overconfident. Come on, it is an alien technology, way beyond our technical capabilities. Why should we assume that the mechanism responsible for dematerializing the ship is not in the lever? Just because the humans would not do it that way? Maybe the alien ships are built in a way that makes them easy to configure on purpose. That would be actually the smart way to do this. Somewhere, in a tribe that has seen automobile for the first time, a local shaman is probably composing an essay on a Detached CD Player Fallacy. (just kidding)

Closer to the truth vs further along

Consider a proposition P. It is either true or false. The green line represents us believing with 100% confidence that P is true. On the other hand, the red line represents us believing with 100% confidence that P is false.

We start off not knowing anything about P, so we start off at point 0, right at that black line in the middle. Then, we observe data point A. A points towards P being true, so we move upwards towards the green line a moderate amount, and end up at point 1. After that we observe data point B. B is weak ... (read more)

4tailcalled2y
I believe that similar to conservation of expected evidence, there's a rule of rationality saying that you shouldn't expect your beliefs to change back and forth too much, because that means there's a lot of uncertainty about the factual matters, and the uncertainty should bring you closer to max entropy. Can't remember the specific formula, though.
2Adam Zerner2y
Good point. I was actually thinking about that and forgot to mention it. I'm not sure how to articulate this well, but my diagram and OP was mainly targeted at gears level modesl. Using the athiesm example, the worlds smartest theist might have a gears level model that is further along than mine. However, I expect that the worlds smartest atheist has a gears level model that is further along than the worlds smartest theist.

A line of thought that I want to explore: a lot of times when people appear to be close-minded, they aren't actually being (too) close-minded. This line of thought is very preliminary and unrefined.

It's related to Aumann's Ageement Theorem. If you happen to have two perfectly Bayesian agents who are able to share information, then yes, they will end up agreeing. In practice people aren't 1) perfectly Bayesian or 2) able to share all of their information. I think (2) is a huge problem. A huge reason why it's hard to convince people of things.

Well, I guess w... (read more)

1papetoast3mo
Modelling humans with Bayesian agent seems wrong. For humans, I think the problem usually isn't the number of arguments / number of angles you attacked the problem, but whether you have hit on the few significant cruxes of that person. This is especially because humans are quite far away from perfect Bayesians. For relatively small disargreements (i.e. not at the scale of convincing a Christian that God doesn't exist), usually people just had a few wrong assumptions or cached thoughts. If you can accurately hit those cruxes, then you can convince them. It is very very hard to know which arguments can hit those cruxes though and it is why one of the viable strategies is to keep throwing arguments until one of them work. (Also unlike convincing Bayesian agents where you can argue for W->X, X->Y, Y->Z in any order, sometimes you need to argue about things in the correct order)
3Adam Zerner3mo
Suppose you identify a single crux A. Now you need to convince them of A. But convincing them of A requires you to convince them of A.1, A.2, and A.3. Ok, no problem. You get started trying to convince them of A.1. But then you realize that in order to convince them of A.1, you need to first convince them of A.1.1, A.1.2, and A.1.3. I think this sort of thing is often the case, and is how large inferential distances are "shaped".

I think it's generally agreed that pizza and steak (and a bunch of other foods) taste significantly better when they're hot. But even if you serve it hot, usually about halfway through eating, the food cools enough such that it's notably worse because it's not hot enough.

One way to mitigate this is to serve food on a warmed plate. But that doesn't really do too much.

What makes the most sense to me would be to serve smaller portions in multiple courses. Like instead of a 10" pie, serve two 5" pies. Or instead of a 16oz ribeye, divide it into four 4oz ribeye... (read more)

4Dagon4mo
Interesting puzzle.  Some random thoughts:  I'm not sure how much of the quality difference is "hot" vs "freshly prepared" - time under a heat lamp isn't necessarily an improvement.  The fact that buffet-style dining isn't more popular is some evidence that most people don't value this compared to their preferences for individually-prepared food. Hot Pot and Brazilian Churrascaria are two cuisines that give fresh/hot servings on-demand.  Oh, also the better sushi bars (not hot, but very fresh), and Benehana (or other Teppanyaki or mongolian-grill place).  I love all of these, but it seems they're more popular for the cuisine and flavors, and to some extent the spectacle and novelty, and not so much "good normal food, fresher than a standard restaurant". I suspect all this is evidence that for most people, for most meals, there's a threshold of freshness rather than an optimization function.  Being "fresh enough", while staying convenient, affordable, and/or "what I'm in the mood for" is what most places deliver because it's what most people want.  The last bite of steak is warm rather than hot, and the last slice of pizza is getting toward lukewarm, but it's still good stuff that I'm happy to eat.
2Adam Zerner4mo
Ah, that's a good distinction. I think that what matters is usually "freshly prepared". Oh interesting. I didn't know that was the case. Yeah, I think so too. And more generally, people just aren't very choose-y about their food, much less willing to pay lots of money for it. So I guess that's probably it. Also, if there was an inefficiency here, a restaurant trying to exploit it doesn't have a huge market to profit from. The market would be restricted to the local area. And people only frequent expensive restaurants so often. So yeah, there probably aren't many if any metaphorical dollar bills laying on the ground. But... I suspect that there are "foodie points" up for grabs. Like, I suspect that serving four 4oz ribeyes hot really is a notably better experience for foodie-types, and a restaurant that pursued this would get respect amongst foodies.
2MikkW4mo
Not directly tied to the core of what you're saying, but I will note that I am example of someone who doesn't strongly prefer such foods warm. I do weakly prefer it being warm, as long as it's not too hot (that's worse than it being cold, because it hurts / causes minor injury), but I'm happy eating it room temperature or a bit cold (not necessarily cold steak though)
4Adam Zerner4mo
(I bet you also like your steaks medium-well. Just kidding.) I'm curious: is this a case of you not having strong preferences about food in general? Or is it the case that you do generally have strong preferences about food, but don't strongly prefer such foods being warm? (Not that those are the only two options, it's just easier to phrase it this way.)

Long text messages

I run into something that I find somewhat frustrating. When I write text messages to people, they're often pretty long. At least relative to the length of other people's text messages. I'll write something like 3-5 paragraphs at times. Or more.

I've had people point this out as being intimidating and a lot to read. That seems odd to me though. If it were an email, it'd be a very normal-ish length, and wouldn't feel intimidating, I suspect. If it were a blog post, it'd be quite short. If it were a Twitter thread, it'd be very normal and not... (read more)

7Elizabeth6mo
Gmail displays long messages better than e.g. Signal, even on my laptop. And I often do find the same email feels longer when I read it on my phone than my laptop.  Gmail also makes it easy to track long messages I want to delay responses to. Texts feel much more "respond RIGHT NOW or forget about it forever"
2Adam Zerner6mo
Hm. Do you think this is due to readability or norms? I'd say I'm roughly 80% confident it's norms. I also suspect that this is due to norms rather than functionality. For example, Gmail (and other mail clients) let you mark things as unread and organize them in folders. However, it seems easy enough to scroll through your text messages (or Signal, or WhatsApp...), see if you were the last person to respond or not, if not whether their last message feels like the end to the conversation. What do you think?
3Elizabeth6mo
I think it's at least partially readability. Signal won't give a given line more than half my screen, where gmail will go up to 80% (slack and discord are similar). I don't use the  FB messenger app, but the webapp won't give a line more than half the width of the screen.    I think this is way more work than looking at "what's still in my inbox?", and rapidly becomes untenable as the number of messages or delay in responding increases. 
1Johannes C. Mayer5mo
Hmm, I have never thought that a message from another person is too long. But I think my messages are sometimes too long. I once wrote a message on Discord that was iirc over 8000 characters long. I think that was a bit too much but for a different reason. It interrupted the flow of the conversation just too much and did not enable enough back and forth.

Words as Bayesian Evidence

Alice: Hi, how are you?

Bob: Good. How are you?

Alice: Actually, I'm not doing so well.

Let me ask you a question. How confident are you that Bob is doing good? Not very confident, right? But why not? After all, Bob did say that he is doing good. And he's not particularly well known for being a liar.

I think the thing here is to view Bob's words as Bayesian evidence. They are evidence of Bob doing good. But how strong is this evidence? And how do we think about such a question?

Let's start with how we think about such a question. I... (read more)

2Dagon2y
I notice I'm confused.  I don't actually know what it would mean (what predictions I'd make or how I'd find out if I were correct about) for Bob to be "doing good".  I don't think it generally means "instantaneous hedonic state relative to some un-tracked distribution", I think it generally means "there's nothing I want to draw your attention to".  And I take as completely obvious that the vast majority of social interactions are more contextual and indirect than overt legible information-sharing.   This combines to make me believe that it's just an epistemic mistake to take words literally most of the time, at least without a fair bit of prior agreement and contextual sharing about what those words mean in that instance.   I'm agreed that thinking of it as a Bayesean update is often a useful framing.  However, the words are a small part of evidence available to you, and since you're human, you'll almost always have to use heuristics and shortcuts rather than actually knowing your priors, the information, or the posterior beliefs.  
4Adam Zerner2y
It sounds like we mostly agree. Agreed. Agreed. I think the big thing I disagree on is that this is always obvious. Thought of in the abstract like this I guess I agree that it is obvious. However, I think that there are times when you are in the moment where it can be hard to not interpret words literally, and that is what inspired me to write this. Although now I am realizing that I failed to make that clear or provide any examples of that. I'd like to provide some good examples now, but it is weirdly difficult to do so. Agreed. I didn't mean to imply otherwise, even though I might have.

There's a concept I want to think more about: gravy.

Turkey without gravy is good. But adding the gravy... that's like the cherry on top. It takes it from good to great. It's good without the gravy, but the gravy makes it even better.

An example of gravy from my life is starting a successful startup. It's something I want to do, but it is gravy. Even if I never succeed at it, I still have a great life. Eg. by default my life is, say, a 7/10, but succeeding at a startup would be so awesome it'd make it a 10/10. But instead of this happening, my brain pulls a ... (read more)

Squinting

“You should have deduced it yourself, Mr Potter,” Professor Quirrell
said mildly. “You must learn to blur your vision until you can see the forest
obscured by the trees. Anyone who heard the stories about you, and who
did not know that you were the mysterious Boy-Who-Lived, could eas-
ily deduce your ownership of an invisibility cloak. Step back from these
events, blur away their details, and what do we observe? There was a great
rivalry between students, and their competition ended in a perfect tie.
That sort of thing only happens in stories, Mr Potter,

... (read more)
2Adam Zerner1mo
Maybe this is an example. I'm listening to Eric Normand's reading of Out of the Tar Pit. The paper Out of the Tar Pit kinda feels like it is saying, "complexity is the enemy in software projects, and here is the best way to tame it". When I squint, I don't see software development. I see a a field of engineering. A very complicated one. One that has been around for maybe 50 years. And I see someone making a claim about the best way to succeed in the field. Looking through this lens, I feel a large amount of skepticism.

As a programmer, compared to other programmers, I am extremely uninterested in improving the speed of web apps I work on. I find that (according to my judgement) it rarely has more than a trivial impact on user experience. On the other hand, I am usually way more interested than others are in things like improving code quality.

I wonder if this has to do with me being very philosophically aligned with Bayesianism. Bayesianism preaches to update your beliefs incrementally, whereas Alternative is a lot more binary. For example, the way scientific experiments ... (read more)

2Viliam2mo
Speed improvements are legible (measurable), although most people are probably not measuring them. Sometimes that's okay; if the app is visibly faster, I do not need to know the exact number of milliseconds. But sometimes it's just a good feeling that I "did some optimization", ignoring the fact that maybe I just improved from 500 to 470 milliseconds some routine that is only called once per day. (Or maybe I didn't improve it at all, because the compiler was already doing the thing automatically.) Code quality is... well, from the perspective of a non-programmer (such as a manager) probably an imaginary thing that costs real money. But here, too, are diminishing returns. Changing spaghetti code to a nice architecture can dramatically reduce future development time. But if a function is thoroughly tested and it is unlikely to be changed in the future (or is likely to be replaced by something else), bringing it to perfection is probably a waste of time. Also, after you fixed the obvious code smell, you move to more controversial decisions. (Is it better to use a highly abstract design pattern, or keep the things simple albeit a little repetitive?) I'd say, if the customer complains, increase the speed; if the programmers complain, refactor the code. (Though there is an obvious bias here: you are the programmer, and in many companies you won't even meet the customer.)
4niplav2mo
I'd wager that customers (or users) won't complain about slow code, especially if there's many customers, for the same reason that most people don't send emails with corrections or typos on most online posts.
1paragonal2mo
Ritualistic hypothesis testing with significance thresholds is mostly used in the social sciences, psychology and medicine and not so much in the hard sciences (although arbitrary thresholds like 5 sigma are used in physics to claim the discovery of new elementary particles they rarely show up in physics papers). Since it requires deliberate effort to get into the mindset of the null ritual I don't think that technical and scientific-minded people just start thinking like this. I think that the simple explanation that the effect of improving code quality is harder to measure and communicate to management is sufficient to explain your observations. To get evidence one way or another, we could also look at what people do when the incentives are changed. I think that few people are more likely to make small performance improvements than improve code quality in personal projects.

I've had success with something: meal prepping a bunch of food and freezing it.

I want to write a blog post about it -- describing what I've done, discussing it, and recommending it as something that will quite likely be worthwhile for others as well -- but I don't think I'm ready. I did one round of prep that lasted three weeks or so and was a huge success for me, but I don't think that's quite enough "contact with reality". I think there's a risk that, after more "contact with reality", it proves to be not nearly as useful as it currently seems. So yeah, ... (read more)

I've gotta vent a little about communication norms.

My psychiatrist recommended a new drug. I went to take it last night. The pills are absolutely huge and make me gag. But I noticed that the pills look like they can be "unscrewed" and the powder comes out.

So I asked the following question (via chat in this app we use):

For the NAC, the pill is a little big and makes me gag. Is it possible to twist it open and pour the powder on my tongue? Or put it in water and drink it?

The psychiatrist responded:

Yes it seems it may be opened and mixed into food or somethin

... (read more)
8Ann5mo
The way the psychiatrist phrased it made me mentally picture that they weren't certain, went to review the information on the pill, and came back to relay their findings based on their research, if that helps with possible connotations. The extended implied version would be "I do not know. I am looking it up. The results of my looking it up are that, yes, it may be opened and mixed into food or something like applesauce." Your suggested replacement is in contrast has a light layer of the connotation "I know this, and answer from my own knowledge," though less so than just stating "It may be opened and mixed into food or something like applesauce." without the prelude. From my perspective, the more cautious and guarded language might have been precisely what they meant to say, and has little to do with a fallacy. I am not so confident that you are observing a bad epistemic habit.
3Adam Zerner5mo
Ah, I see. That makes sense and changes my mind about what the psychiatrist probably meant. Thanks. (Although it begs the new complaint of "I'm asking because I want confirmation not moderate confidence and you're the professional who is supposed to provide the confirmation to me", but that's a separate thing.)

Subtextual politeness

In places like Hacker News and Stack Exchange, there are norms that you should be polite. If you said something impolite and Reddit-like such as "Psh, what a douchebag", you'd get flagged and disciplined.

But that's only one form of impoliteness. What about subtextual impoliteness? I think subtextual impoliteness is important too. Similarly important. And I don't think my views here are unique.

I get why subtextual impoliteness isn't policed though. Perhaps by definition, it's often not totally clear what the subtext behind a statement i... (read more)

3Dagon6mo
Can you give a few examples (in-context on HN or Stack Exchange) of subtextual impoliteness that you wish were enforceable?   It's unfortunate but true that the culture/norm of many young-male-dominated technical forums can't distinguish direct factual statements from aggressive framing. I generally agree with "no good path forward" as an assessment: the bullies and insecure people who exist everywhere (even if not the majority) are very good at finding loopholes and deniable behaviors in any legible enforcement framework.   "Please be kind" works well in many places, or "you may be right, but that hurt my feelings".  But really, that requires high-trust to start with, and if it's not already a norm, it's very difficult to make it one.
2Adam Zerner6mo
Here are a two: 1, 2. /r/poker is also littered with it. Example. I'm failing to easily find examples on Stack Exchange but I definitely know I've come across a bunch. Some that I've flagged. I tried looking for a way to see a list of comments you've flagged, but I wasn't able to figure it out.
2Dagon6mo
Thanks - yeah, those seem mild enough that I doubt there's any possible mechanism to eliminate the snarky/rude/annoying parts, at least in a group much larger than Dunbar's number with no additional social filtering (like in-person requirements for at least some interactions, or non-anonymous invite/expulsion mechanisms).

Life decision that actually worked for me: allowing myself to eat out or order food when I'm hungry and pressed for time.

I don't think the stress of frantically trying to get dinner together is worth the costs in time or health. And after listening to this podcast episode, I'm suspect that, I'm not sure how to say this: "being overweight is bad, but like, it's not that bad, and stressing about it is also bad since stress is bad, all of this in such a way where stressing out over being marginally more overweight is worse for your health than being a little ... (read more)

I think that, for programmers, having good taste in technologies is a pretty important skill. A little impatience is good too, since it can drive you to move away from bad tools and towards good ones.

These points seem like they should generalize to other fields as well.

Rationalist culture needs some traditions like this.

Inverted interruptions

Imagine that Alice is talking to Bob. She says the following, without pausing.

That house is ugly. You should read Harry Potter. We should get Chinese food.

We can think of it like this. Approach #1:

  • At t=1 Alice says "That house is ugly."
  • At t=2 Alice says "You should read Harry Potter."
  • At t=3 Alice says "We should get Chinese food."

Suppose Bob wants to respond to the comment of "That house is ugly." Due to the lack of pauses, Bob would have to interrupt Alice in order to get that response in. On the other hand, if Alice paused in betwee... (read more)

5Raemon7mo
Can you describe a real-world situation where this sort of thing comes up? The artificialness of the example feels hard to engage with to me.
3Adam Zerner7mo
Another example I ran into last night: at around 42:15 in this podcast episode, in one breath, Nate Duncan switches from talking about an NBA player named Fred VanVleet to an NBA player named Dillon Brooks in such a way that it didn't give his cohost, Danny Leroux a chance to say something about Fred VanVleet.
2Adam Zerner7mo
Certainly! It actually just happened at work. I'm a programmer. We were doing sprint planning, going through tickets. The speaker did something like: * t=1: Some comments on ticket ABC-501 * t=2: Some comments on ticket ABC-502 * t=3: Some comments on ticket ABC-503 If I wanted to say something about ABC-501, I would have had to interrupt.
1frontier647mo
Is there anything stopping you from commenting on ticket ABC-501 after the speaker stopped at t=3? "Circling back to ABC-501, I think we need to discuss how we haven't actually met the user's...." That should only be awkward if your comment is superfluous.
3Adam Zerner7mo
I think that sometimes that sort of thing works. But other times it doesn't. I'm having some trouble thinking about when exactly it does and doesn't work. One example of where I think it doesn't is if the discussion of ABC-501 took 10 minutes, ABC-502 took another 10 minutes, ABC-503 takes another 10 minutes, and then after all of that you come back to ABC-501. * If you have a really important comment about ABC-501 then I agree it won't be awkward, but if you have like a 4/10 importance comment, I feel like it both a) would be awkward and b) passes the threshold of being worth noting. * There's the issue of having to "hold your comment in your head" as you're waiting. * There's the issue of lost context. People might have the context to understand your comment in the moment, but might have lost that context after the discussion of ABC-503 finished.
2Adam Zerner7mo
I think I notice that that people use placeholder words like "um" and "uh" in situations where they'd otherwise pause in order to prevent others from interjecting, because the speaker wants to continue saying what they want to say without being interrupted. I think this is subconscious though. (And not necessarily a bad thing.)

Something that I run into, at least in normie culture, is that writing (really) long replies to comments has a connotation of being contentious, or even hostile (example). But what if you have a lot to say? How can you say it without appearing contentious?

I'm not sure. You could try to signal friendliness by using lots of smiley faces and stuff. Or you could be explicit about it and say stuff like "no hard feelings".

Something about that feels distasteful to me though. It shouldn't need to be done.

Also, it sets a tricky precedent. If you start using smiley ... (read more)

5RHollerith7mo
You can make the long reply its own post (and put a link to the post in a brief reply).
3Adam Zerner7mo
Related: Socratic Grilling.

Capabilities vs alignment outside of AI

In the field of AI we talk about capabilities vs alignment. I think it is relevant outside of the field of AI though.

I'm thinking back to something I read in Cal Newport's book Digital Minimalism. He talked about how the Amish aren't actually anti-technology. They are happy to adopt technology. They just want to make sure that the technology actually does more good than harm before they adopt it.

And thy have a neat process for this. From what I remember, they first start by researching it. Then have small groups of pe... (read more)

1Noosphere891y
From my perspective, part of the issue of this post is I notice a type error in the post when it talks about capabilities improvements being aligned with our values. The question is, which values, and whose values are we talking about? Admittedly this is a common issue with morality, but in this case of capabilities research, this matters as our aligning it to our values is too vague to make sense. We need to go deeper and more concrete here so that we talk about specifically what we want our capabilities research is aligned to what values.
2Adam Zerner1y
Yeah, I do agree that "values" is ambiguous. However, I think that is ok for the point that I'm making about capabilities vs alignment. Even though people don't fully agree on values, paying more attention to alignment and being more careful about capabilities advancements still seems wise.

Spreading the seed of ideas

A few of my posts actually seem like they've been useful to people. OTOH, a large majority don't.

I don't have a very good ability to discern this from the beginning though. Given this situation, it seems worth "spreading the seed" pretty liberally. The chance of it being a useful idea usually outweighs the chance that it mostly just adds noise for people to sift through. Especially given the fact that the LW team encourages low barriers for posting stuff. Doubly especially as shortform posts. Triply especially given that I person... (read more)

Notice when trust batteries start off low

The basic idea is that your trust battery is pre-charged at 50% when you’re first hired or start working with someone for the first time. Every interaction you have with your colleagues from that point on then either charges, discharges, or maintains the battery - and as a result, affects how much you enjoy working with them and trust them to do a good job.

The things that influence your trust battery charge vary wildly - whether the other person has done what they said they’ll do, how well you get on with that per

... (read more)

Covid-era restaurant choice hack: Korean BBQ. Why? Think about it...

They have vents above the tables! Cool, huh? I'm not sure how much that does, but my intuition is that it cuts the risk in half at least.

Science as reversed stupidity

Epistemic status: Babbling. I don't have a good understanding of this, but it seems plausible.

Here is my understanding. Before science was a thing, people would derive ideas by theorizing (or worse, from the bible). It wasn't very rigorous. They would kinda just believe things willy-nilly (I'm exaggerating).

Then science came along and was like, "No! Slow down! You can't do that! You need to have sufficient evidence before you can justifiably believe something like that!" But as Eliezer explains, science is too slow. It judges t... (read more)

I was just listening to the Why Buddhism Is True episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast. They were talking about what the goal of meditation is. The interviewee, Robert Wright, explains:

the Buddha said in the first famous sermon, he basically laid out the goal, "Let's try to end suffering."

What an ambitious goal! But let's suppose that it was achieved. What would be the implications?

Well, there are many. But one that stands out to me as particularly important as well as ignored, is that it might be a solution to existential risk. Maybe if people we... (read more)

Just as you can look at an arid terrain and determine what shape a river will one day take by assuming water will obey gravity, so you can look at a civilization and determine what shape its institutions will one day take by assuming people will obey incentives. 

- Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

There's been talk recently about there being a influx of new users to LessWrong and a desire to prevent this influx from harming the signal-to-noise ratio on LessWrong too much. I wonder: what if it costed something like $1 to make an account? Or $1/month? Some trivial amount of money that serves as a filter for unserious people.

3Vladimir_Nesov10mo
This doesn't work worldwide, so probably a nightmare to set up in a way that handles all the edge cases. Also, destitute students and trivial inconveniences.
2Adam Zerner10mo
Why is that? My impression is that eg. 1 USD to make an account would be a trivial amount for people no matter the country or socioeconomic status (perhaps with a few rare exceptions). I think of this as more of a feature than a bug. There'd be some people it'd filter out who we would otherwise have wanted, but the benefits seem to me like they'd outweigh that cost.
1niplav9mo
Man I think I am providing value to the world by posting and commenting here. If it cost money I would simply stop posting here, and not post anywhere else. The value flows in both directions. I'm fine not getting paid but paying is sending a signal of "what you do here isn't appreciated". (Maybe I'd feel different if the money was reimbursed to particularly good posters? But then Goodharts law)

From Childhoods of exceptional people:

The importance of tutoring, in its more narrow definition as in actively instructing someone, is tied to a phenomenon known as Bloom’s 2-sigma problem, after the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom who in the 1980s claimed to have found that tutored students

. . . performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods—that is, “the average tutored student was above 98% of the students in the control class.”

Simply put, if you tailor your instruction to a sing

... (read more)

Nonfiction books should be at the end of the funnel

Books take a long time to read. Maybe 10-20 hours. I think that there are two things that you should almost always do first.

  1. Read a summary. This usually gives you the 80/20 and only takes 5-10 minutes. You can usually find a summary by googling around. Derek Sivers and James Clear come to mind as particularly good resources.

  2. Listen to a podcast or talk. Nowadays, from what I could tell, authors typically go on a sort of podcast tour before releasing a book in order to promote it. I find that this typi

... (read more)
0joseph_c1y
I think it really depends on your reading speed. If you can read at 500 wpm, then it's probably faster for you to just read the book than search around for a podcast and then listen to said podcast. I do agree, though, that reading a summary or a blog about the topic is often a good replacement for reading an entire book.
1Adam Zerner1y
I'm having trouble seeing how that'd ever be the case. In my experience searching for a podcast rarely takes more than a few minutes, so let's ignore that part of the equation. If a book normally takes 10 hours to read, let's say you're a particularly fast reader and can read 5x as fast as the typical person (which I'm skeptical of). That'd mean it still takes 2 hours to read the book. Podcast episodes are usually about an hour. But if you're able to read 5x faster that probably implies that you're able to listen to the podcast at at least 2x speed if not 3x, in which case the podcast would only take 0.5 hours to go through, which is 4x faster than it'd take to read the book.

I've been in pursuit of a good startup idea lately. I went through a long list I had and deleted everything. None were good enough. Finding a good idea is really hard.

One way that I think about it is that a good idea has to be the intersection of a few things.

  • For me at least, I want to be able to fail fast. I want to be able to build and test it in a matter of weeks. I don't want to raise venture funding and spend 18 months testing an idea. This is pretty huge actually. If one idea takes 10 days to build and the other takes 10 weeks, well, the burden of
... (read more)
2ChristianKl1y
The solution is likely "talk to people". That could involve going to trade events or writing cold LinkedIn messages to ask people to eat lunch together.  You might also do something like an internship where you are not paid but on the other hand, will also own the code that you are writing during that internship.
2Adam Zerner1y
Something like an internship would be a large investment of time that doesn't feel like it's worth the possibility of finding a startup idea. I guess talking to people makes sense. I was thinking at first that it'd require more context than a lunch meeting, more like a dozen hours, but on second thought you could probably at least get a sense of where the paths worth exploring more deeply are (and aren't) in a lunch meeting.

Bayesian traction

A few years ago I worked on a startup called Premium Poker Tools as a solo founder. It is a web app where you can run simulations about poker stuff. Poker players use it to study.

It wouldn't have impressed any investors. Especially early on. Early on I was offering it for free and I only had a handful of users. And it wasn't even growing quickly. This all is the opposite of what investors want to see. They want users. Growth. Revenue.

Why? Because those things are signs. Indicators. Signal. Traction. They point towards an app being a big hi... (read more)

Collaboration and the early stages of ideas

Imagine the lifecycle of an idea being some sort of spectrum. At the beginning of the spectrum is the birth of the idea. Further to the right, the idea gets refined some. Perhaps 1/4 the way through the person who has the idea texts some friends about it. Perhaps midway through it is refined enough where a rough draft is shared with some other friends. Perhaps 3/4 the way through a blog post is shared. Then further along, the idea receives more refinement, and maybe a follow up post is made. Perhaps towards the ve... (read more)

2ChristianKl2y
It sounds to me like in a more normal case it doesn't begin with texting friends but talking in person with them about the idea. For that to happen you usually need a good in person community. These days more is happening via Zoom but reaching out to chat online still isn't as easy as going to a meetup.
2Adam Zerner2y
Perhaps. I'm not sure.

This is super rough and unrefined, but there's something that I want to think and write about. It's an epistemic failure mode that I think is quite important. It's pretty related to Reversed Stupidity is Not Intelligence. It goes something like this.

You think 1. Alice thinks 2. In your head, you think to yourself:

Gosh, Alice is so dumb. I understand why she thinks 2. It's because A, B, C, D and E. But she just doesn't see F. If she did, she'd think 1 instead of 2.

Then you run into other people being like:

Gosh, Bob is so dumb. I understand why he thinks 1.

... (read more)

When I think about problems like these, I use what feels to me like a natural generalization of the economic idea of efficient markets. The goal is to predict what kinds of efficiency we should expect to exist in realms beyond the marketplace, and what we can deduce from simple observations. For lack of a better term, I will call this kind of thinking inadequacy analysis.

https://equilibriabook.com/inadequacy-and-modesty/

I think this is pretty applicable to highly visible blog posts, such as ones that make the home page in popular communities such as Less... (read more)

It's weird that people tend so strongly to be friends with people so close to their age. If you're 30, why are you so much more likely to be friends with another 30 year old than, say, a 45 year old?

4CronoDAS6mo
Lots of people make friends in age-segregated environments, such as school and college.
4Adam Zerner6mo
That's true, but I don't think it explains it because I think that outside of age-segregated environments, an eg. 30 year old is still much, much more likely to befriend a 30 year old than a 45 year old.
2CronoDAS6mo
Part of it is that age gap friendships are often considered kind of weird, too; people of different ages often are at different stages of their careers, etc., and often don't really think of each other as of roughly equal status. (What would it be like trying to have a friendship with a manager when you aren't a manager, even if that manager isn't someone you personally report to?)
2Adam Zerner6mo
Right, that's the kind of thing I suspect as well. And I like the thought about careers and statuses.
2localdeity6mo
The first explanation that comes to mind is that people usually go through school, wherein they spend all day with people the same age as them (plus adults, who generally don't socialize with the kids), and this continues through any education they do.  Then, at the very least, this means their starting social group is heavily seeded with people their age, and e.g. if friend A introduces friend B to friend C, the skew will propagate even to those one didn't meet directly from school. Post-school, you tend to encounter more of a mix of ages, in workplaces, activity groups, meetups, etc.  Then your social group might de-skew over time.  But it would probably take a long time to completely de-skew, and age 30 is not especially long after school, especially for those who went to grad school. There might also be effects where people your age are more likely to be similar in terms of inclination and capability to engage in various activities.  Physical condition, monetary resources, having a committed full-time job, whether one has a spouse and children—all can make it easier or harder to do things like world-traveling and sports.
2Adam Zerner6mo
I should have been more clear. Sorry. I feel like there is a specific phenomena where, outside of age-segregated environments, it's still the case that a 30 year old is much more likely to befriend another 30 year old than a 45 year old. Yeah maybe. I'm skeptical though. I think once you're in your 20s, most of the time you're not too different from people in their 40s. A lot of people in their 20s have romantic partners, jobs, ability to do physically demanding things. Personally I suspect moderately strongly that the explanation is about what is and isn't socially acceptable. If that is indeed the (main) explanation, it seems weird to me. Why would that norm arise?
4Viliam6mo
I think it is a combination of many things that point in a similar direction: School is age-segregated, and if you are university-educated, you stay there until you are ~ 25. Even after school, many people keep the friends they made during the school. A typical 25 years old is looking for a partner, doesn't have kids, doesn't have much of a job experience, often can rely on some kind of support from their parents, and is generally full of energy. A typical 40 years old already has a partner, has kids, spent over a decade having a full-time job, sometimes supports their parents, and is generally tired. -- These people are generally in a different situation, with different needs. In their free time, the 25 years old wants to socialize with potential partners. The 45 years old is at home, helping their kids with homework. Also, I think generally, people have few friends. Especially after school. * To use myself as an N=1 example, I am in my 40s, and I am perfectly open to the idea of friendship with people in their 20s. But I spend most of my day at work, then I am at home with my kids, or I call my existing friends and meet them. I spend vacations with my kids, somewhere in nature. I simply do not meet the 20 years olds most of the time. And when I do, they are usually in groups, talking to each other; I am an introverted person, happy to talk 1:1, but I avoid groups unless I already know some of the people.
2Adam Zerner6mo
Thanks, I liked this and it updated me. I. do still think there is a somewhat strong "socially acceptable" element here, but I also think I was underestimating the importance of these lifestyle differences.
2Viliam6mo
I suppose the "socially acceptable" element is a part of why it would feel weird for me to try joining a group of people in their 20s, on the occasions that I meet such group, in contexts where if it was a group of people in their 40s instead, I could simply sit nearby, listen to their debate for a while, and then maybe join at a convenient moment, or hope to be invited to the debate by one of them. Doing this with a group of people a generation younger than me would feel kinda creepy (which is just a different way of saying socially unacceptable). But such situations are rare -- in my case, the general social shyness, and the fact that I don't have hobbies where I could meet many people and interact with them, have a stronger impact. The most likely place for me to meet and talk to younger people are LW/ACX meetups.
2Adam Zerner6mo
For me, one place I've noticed it is in my racquetball league. There is a wide mix of ages, but I've noticed that the 30somethings tend to gravitate and the 50+ aged people tend to gravitate.

There were other lines of logic leading to the same conclusion. Complex machinery was always universal within a sexually reproducing species. If gene B relied on gene A, then A had to be useful on its own, and rise to near-universality in the gene pool on its own, before B would be useful often enough to confer a fitness advantage. Then once B was universal you would get a variant A* that relied on B, and then C that relied on A* and B, then B* that relied on C, until the whole machine would fall apart if you removed a single piece. But it all had to happe

... (read more)

I wonder if the Facebook algorithm is a good example of the counterintuitive difficulty of alignment (as a more general concept). 

You're trying to figure out the best posts and comments to prioritize in the feed. So you look at things like upvotes, page views and comment replies. But it turns out that that captures things like how much of a demon thread it is. Who would have thought metrics like upvotes and page views could be so... demonic? 

I don't think this is an alignment-is-hard-because-it's-mysterious, I think it's "FB has different goals than me". FB wants engagement, not enjoyment. I am not aligned with FB, but FB's algorithm is pretty aligned with its interests.

4Adam Zerner7mo
Oh yeah, that's a good point. I was thinking about Facebook actually having the goal to promote quality content. I think I remember hearing something about how that was their goal at first, then they got demon stuff, then they realized demon stuff made them the most money and kept doing it. But still, people don't associate Facebook with having the goal of promoting quality content, so I don't think it's a good example of the counterintuitive difficulty of alignment.

Open mic posts

In stand up comedy, performances are where you present your good jokes and open mics are where you experiment.

Sometimes when you post something on a blog (or Twitter, Facebook, a comment, etc.), you intend for it to be more of a performance. It's material that you have spent time developing, are confident in, etc.

But other times you intend for it to be more of an open mic. It's not obviously horribly or anything, but it's certainly experimental. You think it's plausibly good, but very well might end up being garbage.

Going further, in stand up... (read more)

2Dagon7mo
Stand-up is all about performance, not interaction or collaboration, and certainly not truth-seeking (looking for evidence and models so that you can become less wrong), so it's an imperfect analogy.  But there's value in the comparison. I do see occasional "babble" posts, and fairly open questions on LW, that I think qualify as ideation.  I suspect (and dearly hope) that most people do also go on walks and have un-recorded lightweight chats with friends as well.

On Stack Overflow you could offer a bounty for a question you ask. You sacrifice some karma in exchange for having your question be more visible to others. Sometimes I wish I could do that on LessWrong.

I'm not sure how it'd work though. Giving the post +N karma? A bounties section? A reward for the top voted comment?

Alignment research backlogs

I was just reading AI alignment researchers don't (seem to) stack and had the thought that it'd be good to research whether intellectual progress in other fields is "stackable". That's the sort of thing that doesn't take an Einstein level of talent to pursue.

I'm sure other people have similar thoughts: "X seems like something we should do and doesn't take a crazy amount of talent".

What if there was a backlog for this?

I've heard that, to mitigate procrastination, it's good to break tasks down further and further until they become ... (read more)

Mustachian Grants

I remember previous discussions that went something like this:

Alice: EA has too much money and not enough places to spend it.

Bob: Why not give grants anyone and everyone who wants to do, for example, alignment research?

Alice: That sets up bad incentives. Malicious actors would seek out those grants and wouldn't do real work. And that'd have various bad downstream effects.

But what if those grants were minimal? What if they were only enough to live out a Mustachian lifestyle?

Well, let's see. A Mustachian lifestyle costs something like $2... (read more)

4Dagon1y
I think that only addresses a branch concern, not the main problem.  It filters out some malicious actors, but certainly not all - you still get those who seek the grants IN ADDITION to other sources of revenue.   More importantly, even if you can filter out the bad actors, you likely spend a lot on incompetent actors, who don't produce enough value/progress to justify the grants, even if they mean well.   I don't think those previous discussions are still happening very much - EA doesn't have spare cash, AFAIK.  But when it was, it was nearly-identical to a lot of for-profit corporations - capital was cheap, interest rates were extremely low, and the difficulty was in figuring out what marginal investments brought future returns.  EA (18 months ago) had a lot of free/cheap capital and no clear models for how to use it in ways that actually improved the future.  Lowering the bar for grants likely didn't convince people that it would actually have benefits.
2Adam Zerner1y
Meaning that, now that they're living in the commune they'll be more likely seek more funding for other stuff? Maybe. But you can just keep the barriers as high as they currently are for the other stuff, which would just mean slightly(?) more applicants to filter out at the initial stages. My model is that the type of person who would be willing to move to a commune and live amongst and bunch of alignment researchers is pretty likely to be highly motivated and slightly less likely to be competent. The combination of those two things makes me thing they'd be pretty productive. But even if they weren't, the bar of eg. $20k/year/person is pretty low. Thanks for adding some clarity here. I get that impression too but not confidently. Do you know if it's because a majority of the spare cash was from FTX and that went away when FTX collapsed? That's always seemed really weird to me. I see lots of things that can be done. Finding the optimal action or even a 90th+ percentile action might be difficult but finding an action that meets some sort of minimal threshold seems like it's not a very high bar. And letting the former get in the way of the latter seems like it's making the perfect the enemy of the good.
2Dagon1y
Ah, I see - I didn't fully understand that you meant "require (and observe) the lifestyle" not just "grants big enough to do so, and no bigger".  That makes it quite a bit safer from fraud and double-dipping, and a LOT less likely (IMO) to get anyone particularly effective that's not already interested.

Asset ceilings for politicians

A long time when I was a sophomore in college, I remember a certain line of thinking I went through:

  • It is important for politicians to be incentivized properly. Currently they are too susceptible to bribery (hard, soft, in between) and other things.
  • It is difficult to actually prevent bribes. For example, they may come in the form of "Pass the laws I want passed and instead of handing you a lump sum of money, I'll give you a job that pays $5M/year for the next 30 years after your term is up."
  • Since preventing bribes is diffi
... (read more)
2lc1y
I haven't seen any good reasoning or evidence that allowing businesses and titans to bribe politicians via lobbyists actually results in worse laws. People gasp when I say this, but the default doesn't seem that much better. If Peter Thiel had been able to encourage Trump to pick the cabinet heads he wanted then our COVID response would have gone much better.
2Adam Zerner1y
To me the reasoning seems pretty straightforward: 1. If the politician is trying to appease special interests, that will usually comes at the expense of society. I guess that is arguable though. 2. If (1), that would be "worse" because goodness depends on how the policies affect society as a whole.
2lc1y
Most billionaires at least seem to donate ideologically, not really based on how politicians affect their special interest group. There's definitely a correlation there, but if billionaires are just more reasonable on average then it's possible that their influence is net-positive overall.
2Dagon1y
Is there anyone for whom this is NOT important?  Why not an asset ceiling on every human?   The problem is in implementation.  Leaving aside all the twiddly details of how to measure and enforce, there's no "outside authority" which can impose this.  You have to convince the populace to impose it.  And if they are willing to do that, it's not necessary to have a rule, it's already in effect by popular action.
2Adam Zerner1y
It generally is quite important. However, (powerful) politicians are a special case because 1) they have more influence on society and 2) I presume people would still be motivated to take the position even with the asset ceiling. Contrasting this with my job as a programmer, 1) it'd be good if my incentives were more aligned with the company I work for but it wouldn't actually impact society very much and 2) almost no one would take my job if it meant a lower standard of living. Wouldn't the standard law enforcement people enforce it, just like how if a president committed murder they wouldn't get away with it? Also, it's definitely tricky but there is a precedent for those in power to do what's in the interest of the future of society rather than what would bring them the most power. I'm thinking of George Washington stepping away after two terms and setting that two term precedent.
2Dagon1y
I don't believe either of these is true, when comparing against (powerful) non-politician very-rich-people. I didn't mean the end-enforcement (though that's a problem too - standard law enforcement personnel can detect and prove murder.  They have SOME ability to detect and prove income.  They have very little ability to understand asset ownership and valuation in a world where there's significant motive to be indirect about it.  But I meant "who will implement it", if voters today don't particularly care, why will anyone define and push for the legislation that creates the limit?
2Adam Zerner1y
Hm, maybe. Let me try thinking of some examples: * CEOs: Yeah, pretty big influence and I think smart people would do it for free. Although if you made a rule that CEOs of sufficiently large companies had to have asset ceilings I think there'd be a decent amount less entrepreneurs which feels like it'd be enough to make it a bad idea. * Hedge fund managers: From what I understand they don't really have much influence on society in their role. I think some smart people would still take the job with an asset ceiling but they very well might not be smart enough; I know how competitive and technical that world is. And similar to CEOs, I don't think there'd be many if any hedge funds that got started if they knew their traders would have to have asset ceilings. * Movie stars: Not much influence on society, but people would take the role for the fame it'd provide of course. After trying to think of examples I'm not seeing any that fit. Do you have any in mind? There might be things that are hard to prevent from slipping through the cracks, but the big things seem easy enough to detect: houses, cars, yachts, hotels, vacations. I guess they'd probably have to give up some rights to privacy too though to make enforcement for practical. Given how much they're already giving up with the asset ceiling, the additional sacrificing of some amount of privacy doesn't seem like it changes anything too much. I'm not optimistic about it, but to me it seems at least ballpark plausible. I don't understand this stuff too much, but to me it seems like voters aren't the problem. Voters right now, across party lines, distrust politicians and "the system". I would assume the problem is other politicians. You'd have to get their support but it negatively affects them so they don't support it. Maybe there are creative ways to sidestep this though. * Make the asset ceilings start in 10 years instead of today? Maybe that'd be blatantly obvious that it's the current politicians not wanti

Goodhart's Law seems like a pretty promising analogy for communicating the difficulties of alignment to the general public, particularly those who are in fields like business or politics. They're already familiar with the difficulty and pain associated with trying to get their organization to do X.

When better is apples to oranges

I remember talking to a product designer before. I brought up the idea of me looking for ways to do things more quickly that might be worse for the user. Their response was something along the lines of "I mean, as a designer I'm always going to advocate for whatever is best for the user."

I think that "apples-to-oranges" is a good analogy for what is wrong about that. Here's what I mean.

Suppose there is a form and the design is to have inline validation (nice error messages next to the input fields). And suppose that "global"... (read more)

I was just watching this YouTube video on portable air conditioners. The person is explaining how air conditioners work, and it's pretty hard to follow.

I'm confident that a very large majority of the target audience would also find it hard to follow. And I'm also confident that this would be extremely easy to discover with some low-fi usability testing. Before releasing the video, just spend maybe 20 mins and have a random person watch the video, and er, watch them watch it. Ask them to think out loud, narrating their thought process. Stuff like that.

Moreo... (read more)

0Zian2y
To the degree that people do things only to signal, I don't expect your idea to take off.

I think that people should write with more emotion. A lot more emotion!

Emotion is bayesian evidence. It communicates things.

One could also propose making it not full of rants, but I don’t think that would be an improvement. The rants are important. The rants contain data. They reveal Eliezer’s cognitive state and his assessment of the state of play. Not ranting would leave important bits out and give a meaningfully misleading impression.

...

The fact that this is the post we got, as opposed to a different (in many ways better) post, is a reflection of the

... (read more)

I wonder whether it would be good to think about blog posts as open journaling.

When you write in a journal, you are writing for yourself and don't expect anyone else to read it. I guess you can call that "closed journaling". In which case "open journaling" would mean that you expect others to read it, and you at least loosely are trying to cater to them.

Well, there are pros and cons to look at here. The main con of treating blog posts as open journaling is that the quality will be lower than a more traditional blog post that is more refined. On the other h... (read more)

Inconsistency as the lesser evil

It bothers me how inconsistent I am. For example, consider covid-risk. I've eaten indoors before. Yet I'll say I only want to get coffee outside, not inside. Is that inconsistent? Probably. Is it the right choice? Let's say it is, for arguments sake. Does the fact that it is inconsistent matter? Hell no!

Well, it matters to the extent that it is a red flag. It should prompt you to have some sort of alarms going off in your head that you are doing something wrong. But the proper response to those alarms is to use that as an op... (read more)

2Dagon2y
Inconsistency is a pointer to incorrectness, but I don't think that example is inconsistent.  There's a reference class problem involved - eating a meal and getting a coffee, at different times, with different considerations of convenience, social norms, and personal state of mind, are just not the same decision.
2Adam Zerner2y
I hear ya. In my situation I think that when you incorporate all of that and look at the resulting payoffs and probabilities, it does end up being inconsistent. I agree that it depends on the situation though.

The other day I was walking to pick up some lunch instead of having it delivered. I also had the opportunity to freelance for $100/hr (not always available to me), but I still chose to walk and save myself the delivery fee.

I make similarly irrational decisions about money all the time. There are situations where I feel like other mundane tasks should be outsourced. Eg. I should trade my money for time, and then use that time to make even more money. But I can't bring myself to do it.

Perhaps food is a good example. It often takes me 1-2 hours to "do" dinner... (read more)

5Dagon2y
I suspect there are multiple things going on.  First and foremost, the vast majority of uses of time have non-monetary costs and benefits, in terms of enjoyment, human interaction, skill-building, and even less-legible things than those.  After some amount of satisficing, money is no longer a good common measurement for non-comparable things you could do to earn or spend it. Secondly, most of our habits on the topic are developed in a situation where hourly work is not infinitely available at attractive rates.  The marginal hour of work, for most of us, most of the time, is not the same as our average hour of work.  In the case where you have freelance work available that you could get $1.67/minute for any amount of time you choose, and you can do equally-good (or at least equally-valuable) work regardless of state of mind, your instincts are probably wrong - you should work rather than any non-personally-valuable chores that you can hire out for less than this.
1JBlack2y
One thing strikes me: you appear to be supposing that apart from how much money is involved, every possible activity per hour is equally valuable to you in itself. This is not required by rationality unless you have a utility function that depends only upon money and a productivity curve that is absolutely flat. Maybe money isn't everything to you? That's rationally allowed. Maybe you actually needed a break from work to clear your head for the rest of the afternoon or whatever? That's rationally allowed too. It's even allowed for you to not want to do that freelancing job instead of going for a walk at that time, though in that case you might consider the future utility of the net $90 in getting other things that you might want. Regarding food, do you dislike cooking for yourself more than doing more work for somebody else? Do you actually dislike cooking at all? Do you value deciding what goes into your body and how it is prepared? How much of your hourly "worth" is compensation for having to give up control of what you do during that time? How much is based on the mental or physical "effort" you need to put into it, which may be limited? How much is not wanting to sell your time much more cheaply than they're willing to pay? Rationality does not forbid that any of these should be factors in your decisions. On the startup example, my experience and those of everyone else I've talked to who have done it successfully is that leading a startup is hell, even if it's just a small scale local business. You can't do it part time or even ordinary full time, or it will very likely fail and make you less than nothing. If you're thinking "I could spend some of my extra hours per week on it", stop thinking it because that way lies a complete waste of time and money.
2Adam Zerner2y
No, I am not supposing that. Let me clarify. Consider the example of me walking to pick up food instead of ordering it. Suppose it takes a half hour and I could have spent that half hour making $50 instead. The way I phrased it: * Option #1: Spend $5 to save myself the walk and spend that time freelancing to earn $50, netting me $45. * Option #2: Walk to pick up the food, not spending or earning anything. The problem with that phrasing is that dollars aren't what matter, utility is, as you allude to. My point is that it still seems like people often make very bad decisions. In this example, the joy of walking versus freelancing + any productivity gains are not worth $45, I don't think. I do agree that this doesn't last forever though. At some point you get so exhausted from working where the walk has big productivity benefits, the work would be very unpleasant, and the walk would be a very pleasant change of pace. Tangential, but Paul Graham wouldn't call that a startup. I disagree here. 1) I know of real life counterexamples. I'm thinking of people I met at an Indie Hackers meetup I used to organize. 2) It doesn't match my model of how things work.
1[comment deleted]2y

Betting is something that I'd like to do more of. As the LessWrong tag explains, it's a useful tool to improve your epistemics.

But finding people to bet with is hard. If I'm willing to bet on X with Y odds and I find someone else eager to, it's probably because they know more than me and I am wrong. So I update my belief and then we can't bet.

But in some situations it works out with a friend, where there is mutual knowledge that we're not being unfair to one another, and just genuinely disagree, and we can make a bet. I wonder how I can do this more often. And I wonder if some sort of platform could be built to enable this to happen in a more widespread manner.

Idea: Athletic jerseys, but for intellectual figures. Eg. "Francis Bacon" on the back, "Science" on the front.

I've always heard of the veil of ignorance being discussed in a... social(?) context: "How would you act if you didn't know what person you would be?". A farmer in China? Stock trader in New York? But I've never heard it discussed in a temporal context: "How would you act if you didn't know what era you would live in?" 2021? 2025? 2125? 3125?

This "temporal veil of ignorance" feels like a useful concept.

I just came across an analogy that seems applicable for AI safety.

AGI is like a super powerful sports car that only has an accelerator, no brake pedal. Such a car is cool. You'd think to yourself:

Nice! This is promising! Now we have to just find ourselves a brake pedal.

You wouldn't just hop in the car and go somewhere. Sure, it's possible that you make it to your destination, but it's pretty unlikely, and certainly isn't worth the risk.

In this analogy, the solution to the alignment problem is the brake pedal, and we really need to find it.

2Adam Zerner2y
(I'm not as confident in the following, plus it seems to fit as a standalone comment rather than on the OP.) Why do we really need to find it? Because we live in a world where people are seduced by the power of the sports car. They are in a competition to get to their destinations as fast as possible and are willing to be reckless in order to get there. Well, that's the conflict theory perspective. The mistake theory perspective is that people simply think they'll be fine driving the car without the brakes. That sounds crazy. And it is crazy! But think about it this way. (The analogy starts to break down a bit here.) These people are used to driving wayyyy less powerful cars. Sometimes these cars don't have breaks at all, other times they have mediocre brake systems. Regardless, it's not that dangerous. These people understand that the sports car is in a different category and is more dangerous, but they don't have a good handle on just how much more dangerous it is, and how it is totally insane to try to drive a car like that without brakes. We can also extend the analogy in a different direction (although the analogy breaks down when pushed in this direction as well). Imagine that you develop breaks for this super powerful sports car. Awesome! What do you do next? You test them. In as many ways as you can. However, with AI, we can't actually do this. We only have one shot. We just have to install them, hit the road, and hope they work. (Hm, maybe the analogy does work. Iirc, the super powerful racing cars, are built to only be driven once/a few times. There's a trade-off between performance and how long the car lasts. And for races, they go all the way towards the performance side of the spectrum.)

Alice, Bob, and Steve Jobs

In my writing, I usually use the Alice and Bob naming scheme. Alice, Bob, Carol, Dave, Erin, etc. Why? The same reason Steve Jobs wore the same outfit everyday: decision fatigue. I could spend the time thinking of names other than Alice and Bob. It wouldn't be hard. But it's just nice to not have to think about it. It seems like it shouldn't matter, but I find it really convenient.

Epistemic status: Rambly. Perhaps incoherent. That's why this is a shortform post. I'm not really sure how to explain this well. I also sense that this is a topic that is studied by academics and might be a thing already.

I was just listening to Ben Taylor's recent podcast on the top 75 NBA players of all time, and a thought started to crystalize for me that I always have wanted to develop. For people who don't know him (everyone reading this?), his epistemics are quite good. If you want to see good epistemics applied to basketball, read his series of posts... (read more)

I wonder if it would be a good idea groom people from an early age to do AI research. I suspect that it would. Ie identify who the promising children are, and then invest a lot of resources towards grooming them. Tutors, therapists, personal trainers, chefs, nutritionists, etc.

Iirc, there was a story from Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise about some parents that wanted to prove that women can succeed in chess, and raised three daughters doing something sorta similar but to a smaller extent. I think the larger point being made was that if you ... (read more)

I suspect that the term "cognitive" is often over/misused.

Let me explain what my understanding of the term is. I think of it as "a disagreement with behaviorism". If you think about how psychology progressed as a field, first there was Freudian stuff that wasn't very scientific. Then behaviorism emerged as a response to that, saying "Hey, you have to actually measure stuff and do things scientifically!" But behaviorists didn't think you could measure what goes on inside someone's head. All you could do is measure what the stimulus is and then how the human... (read more)

1JBlack2y
The long standing meaning of "cognitive" for hundreds of years before cognitive psychologists was having to do with knowledge, thinking, and perception. A cognitive bias is a bias that affects your knowledge, thinking, and/or perception. Epistemic bias is a fine term for those cognitive biases that are specifically biases of beliefs. Not all cognitive biases are of that form though, even when they might fairly consistently lead to certain types of biases in beliefs.
2Adam Zerner2y
Hm, can you think of any examples of cognitive biases that aren't about beliefs? You mention that the term "cognitive" also has to do with perception. When I hear "perception" I think sight, sound, etc. But biases in things like sight and sound feel to me like they would be called illusions, not biases.
1JBlack2y
The first one to come to mind was Recency Bias, but maybe I'm just paying that one more attention because it came up recently. Having noticed that bias in myself, I consulted an external source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases and checked that rather a lot of them are about preferences, perceptions, reactions, attitudes, attention, and lots of other things that aren't beliefs.  They do often misinform beliefs, but many of the biases themselves seem to be prior to belief formation or evaluation.
2Adam Zerner2y
Ah, those examples have made the distinction between biases that misinform beliefs and biases of beliefs clear. Thanks! As someone who seems to understand the term better than I do, I'm curious whether you share my impression that the term "cognitive" is often misused. As you say, it refers to a pretty broad set of things, and I feel like people use the term "cognitive" when they're actually trying to point to a much narrower set of things.

Everyone hates spam calls. What if a politician campaigned to address little annoyances like this? Seems like it could be a low hanging fruit.

2habryka3y
Depends on what you mean by "low-hanging fruit". I think there are lots of problems like this that seem net-negative, but it doesn't seem anywhere close to the most important thing I would recommend politicians to do.
2Adam Zerner3y
By low-hanging fruit I mean 1) non-trivial boost in electability and 2) good effort-to-reward ratio relative to other things a politician can focus on. I agree that there are other things that would be more impactful, but perhaps there is room to do those more impactful things along with smaller, less impactful things.
2Dagon3y
I don't think there IS much low-hanging fruit.  Seemingly-easy things are almost always more complicated, and the credit for deceptively-hard things skews the wrong way: promising and failing hurts a lot (didn't even do this little thing), promising and succeeding only helps a little (thanks, but what important things have you done?). Much better, in politics, to fail at important topics and get credit for trying.

Against "change your mind"

I was just thinking about the phrase "change your mind". It kind of implies that there is some switch that is flipped, which implies that things are binary (I believe X vs I don't believe X). That is incorrect[1] of course. Probability is in the mind, it is a spectrum, and you update incrementally.


  1. Well, to play devils advocate, I guess you can call 50% the "switch". If you go from 51% to 49% it's going from "I believe X" to "I don't believe X". Maybe not though. Depends on what "believe" means. Maybe "believe" moreso means som

... (read more)
3Yoav Ravid1y
How does "change" imply "flip"? A thermometer going up a degree undergoes a change. A mind that updates the credence of a belief from X to Y undergoes a change as well.
2Adam Zerner1y
Yeah that's a fair question/point. I was thinking about that as well. I think I just get the impression that, thinking about common usage, in the context of "change your mind" people usually mean some sort of "flip". Not everyone though, some people might just mean "update".
[+][comment deleted]3y2