1 min read30 comments
This is a special post for quick takes by keltan. Only they can create top-level comments. Comments here also appear on the Quick Takes page and All Posts page.
30 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

From Newcastle, Australia to Berkeley, San Francisco. I arrived yesterday for Less.online. I’ve had a bit of culture shock, a big helping of being increasingly scared, and quite a few questions. I’ll start with those. Feel free to skip them.

These questions are based on warnings I’ve gotten from local non-rationalists. Idk if they’re scared because of the media they consume or because of actual stats. I’m asking these because they feel untrue.

  1. Is it ok to be outside after dark?
  2. Will I really get ‘rolled’ mid day in Oakland?
  3. Are there gangs walking around Oakland looking to stab people?
  4. Will all the streets fill up with homeless people at night?
  5. Are they chill? In Aus they’re usually down to talk if you are.

Culture shocks for your enjoyment:

  1. Why is everyone doing yoga?
  2. To my Uber driver: “THAT TRAIN IS ON THE ROAD!?”
  3. “I thought (X) was just in movies!”
  4. Your billboards are about science instead of coal mining!
  5. “Wait, you’re telling me everything is vegan?” Thank Bayes, this is the best. All our vegan restaurants went out of business.
  6. People brag about things? And they do it openly? At least, I think that’s what’s happening?
  7. “Silicon Valley is actually a valley?!” Should have predicted this one. I kinda knew, but I didn’t know like I do now.
  8. “Wow! This shop is openly selling nangs!” (whip its) “And a jungle juice display!”
  9. All your cars are so new and shiny. 60% of ours are second hand
  10. Most people I see in the streets look below 40. It’s like I’m walking around a university!
  11. Wow. It’s really sunny.
  12. American accents irl make me feel like I’m walking through a film.
  14. Ok this is a big one. Apps I’ve had for 8+ years are suddenly different when I arrive here?
  15. This is what Uber is meant to be. I will go back to Australia and cry. Your airport has custom instruction… in app! WHAT!? The car arrives in 2 minutes instead of 30 minutes. Also, the car arrives at all.
  16. The google app has a beaker for tests now?
  17. Snap maps has gifs in it
  18. Apple Maps lets you scan buildings? And has tips about good restaurants and events?
  19. When I bet in the Manifold app. A real paper Crain flies from the nearest tree, lands in front of me and unfolds. Written inside, “Will Eliezer Yudkowsky open a rationalist bakery?” I circle “Yes”. The paper meticulously folds itself back to a Crain. It looks at me. Makes a little sound that doesn’t echo in the streets but in my head, and it burns. Every time this happens I save the ashes. Are Manifold creating new matter? How are they doing this?
  20. That one was a lie

Things that won’t kill me but scare me rational/irrational:

  1. What if I’ve been wrong? What if this is all a scam? A cult? What if Mum was right?
  2. What if I show up to the location and there is no building there?
  3. What if I make some terribly awkward cultural blunder for SF and everyone yells at me?
  4. What if no one tells me?
  5. I’m sure I’ll be at least in the bottom 5% for intelligence at Less Online. I won’t be surprised or hurt if I’ve got the least Gs of people there. But what if it all goes over my head? Maybe I can’t even communicate with smart people about the things I care about.
  6. What if I can’t handle people telling me what they think of my arguments without kid gloves? What if I get angry and haven’t learnt to handle that?
  7. I’m just a Drama teacher and Psych student. My head is filled with improv games and fun facts about Clever Hans! ‘Average’ Americans seem to achieve much higher than ‘average’ Australians. I’m scared of feeling under qualified.

Other things:

  1. Can you think of something I should be worried about, that I’ve not written here?
  2. I’ve brought my copies of the Rationality A-Z books. I want to ask people I meet to sign their favourite post in the two books. Is that culturally acceptable? Feels kinda weird bc Yud is going to be there. But it would be a really warm/fuzzy item to me in the future.
  3. I don’t actually know what a lot of the writers going look like. I hope this doesn’t result in a blunder. But might be funny, given that I expect rationalists to be pretty chill.
  4. Are other people as excited about the Fooming Shoggoths as I am?
  5. I’m 23, I have no idea if that is very old, very young, or about normal for a rationalist. I’d guess about normal, with big spread across the right of a graph.

It feels super weird to be in the same town as a bunch of you guys now. I’ve never met a rationalist irl. I talked to Ruby over zoom once, who said to me “You know you don’t have to stay in Australia right?” I hope Ruby is a good baseline for niceness levels of you all.

If you’re going, I’ll see you at Less.Online. If you’re not, I’d still love to meet you. Feel free to DM me!

I would bet hard cash that "I’m sure I’ll be at least in the bottom 5% for intelligence at Less Online. I won’t be surprised or hurt if I’ve got the least Gs of people there" is wrong.  

But okay, let's just go with your fears and assume for sake of argument that you're right...  Last year,  Aella did a live polling event at Manifest where she asked us to, in general, first predict how we relatively compared to the crowd on any N, then define actual buckets of values and arrange ourselves by those buckets.  

(So, e.g., "predict how recently have you exercised compared to others; the most recent, all the way on the left, the least recent, all the way on the right" and then "okay, let's define from that fence to that chair as 'in the last hour', the chair to the steps as 'in the last day', etc." and have folks line up twice based on first their relative guess, then their actual value.)

I was overall deeply surprised when she had folks line up under that system by SAT scores and IQ scores.  It was, generally, extremely poorly correlated with how awesome it was to get to talk with a given person.

This post already expresses a great deal of the vibes that make me think it will be awesome to meet you, and that you get a lot of the vibes folks are aiming for, as far as I can tell.  Looking forward to meeting ya!

Re safety, I don't know about Oakland but some parts of SF are genuinely the most dangerous feeling places I've ever been to after dark (because normally I wouldn't go somewhere, but SF feels very fine until it isn't). If I am travelling to places in SF after dark I'll check how dodgy the street entrances are. 

Have fun! I won't be going. Some random notes:

  • berkeley, san francisco is like saying maitland, newcastle
  • re: #1: yeah I don't feel unsafe outside after dark in the bay. If a homeless person walks by, I'll just say hi and ask if they have any urgent unmet needs. even just acknowledging them as a person is a nice gesture, though. many will try to engage much more than you have time or interest for; it's okay to just walk away from the convo.
  • had to look up what "getting rolled" is. yeah, it's possible, but not that hard to avoid. if an area seems very poor, there will be more desperate people. but the highest risk of being robbed is probably opportunistically on the train. keep your eyes mobile; it's probably a 1 in 300 to 1 in 3,000 train trips event, but it's pretty annoying when it happens, to put it mildly.
  • I'm not aware of there being an intense presence of organized aggressive groups in oakland, but there's certainly plenty of disorganized aggression, again mostly from desperate people. I got out of what was going to be a mugging once by offering to send them internet money (venmo) before they asked for anything, and they were so knocked off balance by this (I was saying "I don't have cash but I can send it on an app") that they almost bolted instead of accepting it. carry cash if you want to share it on purpose (people ask for money a lot and it feels nicer to say yes than no); don't if you don't. it's not as bad as some places though, because the warmth means less desperation from homeless folks; homeless folks are usually pretty chill, if rather upset at the system. there is a specific ongoing aggressive presence: there are organized car-breakin and bike theft rings. but I don't think it's like gangs you may have heard about in the past in LA. the theft rings generally want to grab the thing and get the fuck away, not engage. if you hadn't asked and nobody had told you, you probably wouldn't even have noticed anything besides harmless homeless people mumbling something they think is interesting under their breath and not expecting to be understood because they get ignored by everyone.
  • yeah homeless people often have tents. it's not where a civ would hope to be, but tents are just houses. treat it similarly.
  • is it a cult: you tell me whether it has the bad patterns that define cults. I'd personally say there have been cults spawned by it, but it's more of a general community, with reasonably healthy community patterns. Don't (ever) let your guard down about cults, though, in any context.
  • you should be worried someone convinces you to move to the bay. it's not worth it. like, literally entirely for cost of housing reasons, no other reason, everything else is great, there's a reason people are there anyway. but phew, the niceness comes with a honkin price tag. and no, living in a 10ft by 10ft room to get vaguely normal sounding rent is not a good idea, even though it's possible.
  • average bay area people are definitely overachievers, see above about cost of housing. this is not true of america in general.
  • the most important california warnings are about weed: don't buy weed. DON'T USE INHALED WEED. edibles can be a bad time if you take more than you think you're taking, but won't ruin your whole life as long as you go in with steadfast rules about when you have them, and rules like not buying them yourself. in fact, never use an inhaled or injected recreational drug, period - the fast uptake is extremely dangerous and will likely actually knock your motivation system off balance hard enough to probably ruin your life. you probably won't be offered weed unless you ask for it, and even then most people won't have any to share. If they do, it might be because they have a bad habit. It's a fun drug when contained to a social setting, though. if someone has some I might suggest trying 2mg or less (ie, one fifth chunk of a normal 10mg edible), even if you're used to weed it's not the vibe I'd suggest for highly technical conversations.
  • you should be worried someone convinces you to move to the bay. it's not worth it. like, literally entirely for cost of housing reasons, no other reason, everything else is great, there's a reason people are there anyway. but phew, the niceness comes with a honkin price tag. and no, living in a 10ft by 10ft room to get vaguely normal sounding rent is not a good idea, even though it's possible.

Why's this not a good idea? 10ft by 10ft is a lot of room. More than I had in some flats when I went to university.

I went pretty stir crazy without enough room to move around.

That's fair, but it sounds like a personal preference. I asked because maybe you knew there was something unusually bad about small flats in the Bay Area that even folks like me would find annoying. 

in fact, never use an inhaled or injected recreational drug, period - the fast uptake is extremely dangerous and will likely actually knock your motivation system off balance hard enough to probably ruin your life.

I don't think this can be remotely justified by the evidence, formal or anecdotal. Inhaling weed isn't dangerous, let alone extremely so, and will almost certainly not ruin anyone's life, as the hundreds of millions of happy users can attest (get yours today!) Hell, shisha is an inhaled recreational drug!

I'm not sure it makes sense to generalise about an entire method of delivery, when all sorts of substances with very different effects can be consumed that way.

That first point made me laugh. It’s exactly the type of mistake I expected to make, and I still didn’t see it coming.

I appreciate all this safety advice and will update my decision making based on that.

Geez, the weed thing surprises me. I hadn’t planned to smoke any until after the event. But I think I’ll avoid that now. I’m already struggling with motivation from jet lag. I don’t want to increase that feeling.

The weed thing is not true. It can sap your motivation acutely, and perhaps even have a more sustained (if definitely temporary) effect. But it certainly doesn't ruin your life by instantly "knocking your motivational system off balance".

It's a relatively chemically safe drug, but is easily habit forming and knocks you out of a productive space if used more than once every 3 to 6 months, imo. your reasoning seems reasonable. have fun with the trip!

I think go ahead and ask people to sign things. I've done it before and it went great, and the resulting book is a great memento. You've got a good conversation starter right there with asking them their favourite sequences post.

Welcome to the US!

Re: safety, it depends on exactly where you are, your skill in assessing strangers' intentions from a distance, and probably the way you carry yourself.

Speaking of which, I'd be interested in playing some improv games with you at less.online, if you want to do that!

Hmmm, I think I’m mostly bad at those things. I’ll play it safe.

And thanks for the good idea! I’ve added a session at 3pm on the Sunday.

Welcome to the US; excited for your time at LessOnline (and maybe Manifest too?)

And re: 19., we're working on it![1]

  1. ^

    (Sorry, that was a lie too.)

Are there gangs walking around Oakland looking to stab people?

Please don't ask on Manifold, you might incentivize creating one.


Note to self, write a post about the novel akrasia solutions I thought up before becoming a rationalist.

  • Figuring out how to want to want to do things
  • Personalised advertising of Things I Wanted to Want to Do
  • What I do when all else fails

Have you tried whiteboarding-related techniques?

I think that suddenly starting to using written media (even journals), in an environment without much or any guidance, is like pressing too hard on the gas; you're gaining incredible power and going from zero to one on things faster than you ever have before. 

Depending on their environment and what they're interested in starting out, some people might learn (or be shown) how to steer quickly, whereas others might accumulate/scaffold really lopsided optimization power and crash and burn (e.g. getting involved in tons of stuff at once that upon reflection was way too much for someone just starting out).

This seems incredibly interesting to me. Googling “White-boarding techniques” only gives me results about digitally shared idea spaces. Is this what you’re referring to? I’d love to hear more on this topic.

Maybe I could even write a sequence on this?

A potentially good way to avoid low level criminals scamming your family and friends with a clone of your voice is to set a password that you each must exchange.

An extra layer of security might be to make the password offensive, an info hazard, or politically sensitive. Doing this, criminals with little technical expertise will have a harder time bypassing corporate language filters.

Good luck getting the voice model to parrot a basic meth recipe!

Good luck getting the voice model to parrot a basic meth recipe!

This is not particularly useful, plenty of voice models will happily parrot absolutely anything. The important part is not letting your phrase get out; there's work out there on designs for protocols for how to exchange sentences in a way that guarantees no leakage even if someone overhears.

Hmm.  I don't doubt that targeted voice-mimicking scams exist (or will soon).  I don't think memorable, reused passwords are likely to work well enough to foil them.  Between forgetting (on the sender or receiver end), claimed ignorance ("Mom,  I'm in jail and really need money, and I'm freaking out!  No, I don't remember what we said the password would be"), and general social hurdles ("that's a weird thing to want"), I don't think it'll catch on.

Instead, I'd look to context-dependent auth (looking for more confidence when the ask is scammer-adjacent), challenge-response (remember our summer in Fiji?), 2FA (let me call the court to provide the bail), or just much more context (5 minutes of casual conversation with a friend or relative is likely hard to really fake, even if the voice is close).

But really, I recommend security mindset and understanding of authorization levels, even if authentication isn't the main worry.  Most friends, even close ones, shouldn't be allowed to ask you to mail $500 in gift cards to a random address, even if they prove they are really themselves.

I now realize that my thinking may have been particularly brutal, and I may have skipped inferential steps.

To clarify, If someone didn't know, or was reluctant to repeat a password, I would end contact or request an in person meeting.

But to further clarify, that does not make your points invalid. I think it makes them stronger. If something is weird and risky, good luck convincing people to do it.

I currently am completing psychological studies for credit in my university psych course. The entire time, all I can think is “I wonder if that detail is the one they’re using to trick me with?”

I wonder how this impacts results. I can’t imagine being in a heightened state of looking out for deception has no impact.

I’ve seen a lot about GPT4o being kinda bad, and I’ve experienced that myself. This surprises me.

Now I will say something that feels like a silly idea. Is it possible that having the audio/visual part of the network cut off results in 4o’s poor reasoning? As in, the whole model is doing some sort of audio/visual reasoning. But we don’t have the whole model, so it can’t reason in the way it was trained to.

If that is the case, I’d expect that when those parts are publicly released, scores on benchmarks shoot up?

Do people smarter and more informed than me have predictions about this?

Without a detailed Model Card for 4o it is impossible to know " for sure" why models drift in performance over time, but drift they do.

It is entirely possible that Open-AI started with a version of GPT-4 Turbo, parallelize processing and performed an extensive "fine tune" to improve the multi-modal capabilities.

Essentially, the model could "forget" how to complete prompuppies. Workhfrom just a week ago, because some of its "memory" was over-written with instructions to complete requests for multi-modal replies.

I'm confused by what you mean that GPT-4o is bad? In my experience it has been stronger than plain GPT-4, especially at more complex stuff. I do physics research and it's the first model that can actually improve the computational efficiency of parts of my code that implement physical models. It has also become more useful for discussing my research, in the sense that it dives deeper into specialized topics, while the previous GPT-4 would just respond in a very handwavy way. 

Man, I wish that was my experience. I feel like I’m constantly asking GPT4o a question, getting a weird or bad response. Then switching to 4 to finish the job.


Benchmarks are consistent with GPT-4o having different strengths than GPT4-Turbo, though at a similar overall level - EQ-Bench is lower, MAGI-Hard is higher, best tested model for Creative Writing according to Claude Opus, but notably worse at judging writing (though still good for its price point).

In my experience different strengths also mean different prompt strategies are necessary; a small highly instruction-focused model might benefit from few-shot repetition and emphasis that just distract a more powerful OpenAI model for example. Which might make universal custom instructions more annoying.