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SlateStarCodex, EA, and LW helped me get out of the psychological, spiritual, political nonsense in which I was mired for a decade or more.

I started out feeling a lot smarter. I think it was community validation + the promise of mystical knowledge.

Now I've started to feel dumber. Probably because the lessons have sunk in enough that I catch my own bad ideas and notice just how many of them there are. Worst of all, it's given me ambition to do original research. That's a demanding task, one where you have to accept feeling stupid all the time.

But I still look down that old road and I'm glad I'm not walking down it anymore.

Too smart for your own good. You were supposed to believe it was about rationality. Now we have to ban you and erase your comment before other people can see it. :D Yeah, same here.

Epistemic activism

I think LW needs better language to talk about efforts to "change minds." Ideas like asymmetric weapons and the Dark Arts are useful but insufficient.

In particular, I think there is a common scenario where:

  • You have an underlying commitment to open-minded updating and possess evidence or analysis that would update community beliefs in a particular direction.
  • You also perceive a coordination problem that inhibits this updating process for a reason that the mission or values of the group do not endorse.
    • Perhaps the outcome of the update would be a decline in power and status for high-status people. Perhaps updates in general can feel personally or professionally threatening to some people in the debate. Perhaps there's enough uncertainty in what the overall community believes that an information cascade has taken place. Perhaps the epistemic heuristics used by the community aren't compatible with the form of your evidence or analysis.
  • Solving this coordination problem to permit open-minded updating is difficult due to lack of understanding or resources, or by sabotage attempts.

When solving the coordination problem would predictably lead to updating, then you are engaged... (read more)

When communicating an argument, the quality of feedback about its correctness you get depends on efforts around its delivery whose shape doesn't depend on its correctness. The objective of improving quality of feedback in order to better learn from it is a check on spreading nonsense.

Things I come to LessWrong for:

  • An outlet and audience for my own writing
  • Acquiring tools of good judgment and efficient learning
  • Practice at charitable, informal intellectual argument
  • Distraction
  • A somewhat less mind-killed politics

Cons: I'm frustrated that I so often play Devil's advocate, or else make up justifications for arguments under the principle of charity. Conversations feel profit-oriented and conflict-avoidant. Overthinking to the point of boredom and exhaustion. My default state toward books and people is bored skepticism and political suspicion. I'm less playful than I used to be.

Pros: My own ability to navigate life has grown. My imagination feels almost telepathic, in that I have ideas nobody I know has ever considered, and discover that there is cutting edge engineering work going on in that field that I can be a part of, or real demand for the project I'm developing. I am more decisive and confident than I used to be. Others see me as a leader.

Some people optimize for drama. It is better to put your life in order, which often means getting the boring things done. And then, when you need some drama, you can watch a good movie. Well, it is not completely a dichotomy. There is also some fun to be found e.g. in serious books. Not the same intensity as when you optimize for drama, but still. It's like when you stop eating refined sugar, and suddenly you notice that the fruit tastes sweet.

Chemistry trick

Once you've learned to visualize, you can employ my chemistry trick to learn molecular structures. Here's the structure of Proline (from Sigma Aldrich's reference).

Before I learned how to visualize, I would try to remember this structure by "flashing" the whole 2D representation in my head, essentially trying to see a duplicate of the image above in my head.

Now, I can do something much more engaging and complex.

I visualize the molecule as a landscape, and myself as standing on one of the atoms. For example, perhaps I start by standing on the oxygen at the end of the double bond.

I then take a walk around the molecule. Different bonds feel different - a single bond is a path, a double bond a ladder, and a triple bond is like climbing a chain-link fence. From each new atomic position, I can see where the other atoms are in relation to me. As I walk around, I get practice in recalling which atom comes next in my path.

As you can imagine, this is a far more rich and engaging form of mental practice than just trying to reproduce static 2D images in my head.

A few years ago, I felt myself to have almost no ability to visualize. Now, I am able to do this with relative ease. So... (read more)

I was able to memorize the structures of all 20 amino acids pretty easily and pleasantly in a few hours' practice over the course of a day using this technique.
I imagine a computer game, where different types of atoms are spheres of different color (maybe also size; at least H should be tiny), connected the way you described, also having the correct 3D structure, so you walk on them like astronaut. Now there just needs to be something to do in that game, not sure what. I guess, if you can walk the atoms, so can some critters you need to kill, or perhaps there are some items to collect. Play the game a few times, and you will remember the molecules (because people usually remember useless data from computer games they played). Advanced version: chemical reactions, where you need to literally cut the atomic bonds and bind new atoms.
I haven't seen games using the precise mechanic you describe. However, there are games/simulations to teach chemistry. They ask you to label parts of atoms, or to act out the steps of a chemical reaction. I'm open to these game ideas, but skeptical, for reasons I'll articulate in a later shortform.

Intellectual Platforms

My most popular LW post wasn't a post at all. It was a comment on John Wentworth's post asking "what's up with Monkeypox?"

Years before, in the first few months of COVID, I took a considerable amount of time to build a scorecard of risk factors for a pandemic, and backtested it against historical pandemics. At the time, the first post received a lukewarm reception, and all my historical backtesting quickly fell off the frontpage.

But when I was able to bust it out, it paid off (in karma). People were able to see the relevance to an issue they cared about, and it was probably a better answer in this time and place than they could have obtained almost anywhere else.

Devising the scorecard and doing the backtesting built an "intellectual platform" that I can now use going forward whenever there's a new potential pandemic threat. I liken it to engineering platforms, which don't have an immediate payoff, but are a long-term investment.

People won't necessarily appreciate the hard work of building an intellectual platform when you're assembling it. And this can make it feel like the platform isn't worthwhile: if people can't see the obvious importance of what I'm doing,... (read more)

Math is training for the mind, but not like you think

Just a hypothesis:

People have long thought that math is training for clear thinking. Just one version of this meme that I scooped out of the water:

“Mathematics is food for the brain,” says math professor Dr. Arthur Benjamin. “It helps you think precisely, decisively, and creatively and helps you look at the world from multiple perspectives . . . . [It’s] a new way to experience beauty—in the form of a surprising pattern or an elegant logical argument.”

But math doesn't obviously seem to be the only way to practice precision, decision, creativity, beauty, or broad perspective-taking. What about logic, programming, rhetoric, poetry, anthropology? This sounds like marketing.

As I've studied calculus, coming from a humanities background, I'd argue it differently.

Mathematics shares with a small fraction of other related disciplines and games the quality of unambiguous objectivity. It also has the ~unique quality that you cannot bullshit your way through it. Miss any link in the chain and the whole thing falls apart.

It can therefore serve as a more reliable signal, to self and others, of one's own learning capacity.

Experiencing a subject like that can be training for the mind, because becoming successful at it requires cultivating good habits of study and expectations for coherence.

Math is interesting in this regard because it is both very precise and there's no clear-cut way of checking your solution except running it by another person (or becoming so good at math to know if your proof is bullshit). Programming, OTOH, gives you clear feedback loops.
In programming, that's true at first. But as projects increase in scope, there's a risk of using an architecture that works when you’re testing, or for your initial feature set, but will become problematic in the long run. For example, I just read an interesting article on how a project used a document store database (MongoDB), which worked great until their client wanted the software to start building relationships between data that had formerly been “leaves on the tree.” They ultimately had to convert to a traditional relational database. Of course there are parallels in math, as when you try a technique for integrating or parameterizing that seems reasonable but won’t actually work.
7Gordon Seidoh Worley4y
Yep. Having worked both as a mathematician and a programmer, the idea of objectivity and clear feedback loops starts to disappear as the complexity amps up and you move away from the learning environment. It's not unusual to discover incorrect proofs out on the fringes of mathematical research that have not yet become part of the cannon, nor is it uncommon (in fact, it's very common) to find running production systems where the code works by accident due to some strange unexpected confluence of events.
Feedback, yes. Clarity... well, sometimes it's "yes, it works" today, and "actually, it doesn't if the parameter is zero and you called the procedure on the last day of the month" when you put it in production.
Proof verification is meant to minimize this gap between proving and programming
The thing I like about math is that it gives the feeling that the answers are in the territory. (Kinda ironic, when you think about what the "territory" of math is.) Like, either you are right or you are wrong, it doesn't matter how many people disagree with you and what status they have. But it also doesn't reward the wrong kind of contrarianism. Math allows you to make abstractions without losing precision. "A sum of two integers is always an integer." Always; literally. Now with abstractions like this, you can build long chains out of them, and it still works. You don't create bullshit accidentally, by constructing a theory from approximations that are mostly harmless individually, but don't resemble anything in the real world when chained together. Whether these are good things, I suppose different people would have different opinions, but it definitely appeals to my aspie aesthetics. More seriously, I think that even when in real world most abstractions are just approximations, having an experience with precise abstractions might make you notice the imperfection of the imprecise ones, so when you formulate a general rule, you also make a note "except for cases such as this or this". (On the other hand, for the people who only become familiar with math as a literary genre, it might have an opposite effect: they may learn that pronouncing abstractions with absolute certainty is considered high-status.)
2Eli Tyre4y
Isn't programming even more like this? I could get squidgy about whether a proof is "compelling", but when I write a program, it either runs and does what I expect, or it doesn't, with 0 wiggle room.
Sometimes programming is like that, but then I get all anxious that I just haven’t checked everything thoroughly! My guess is this has more to do with whether or not you’re doing something basic or advanced, in any discipline. It’s just that you run into ambiguity a lot sooner in the humanities
It helps you to look at the world from multiple perspectives: It gets you into a position to make a claim like that soley based on anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking.

I ~completely rewrote the Wikipedia article for the focus of my MS thesis, aptamers.

Please tell me what you liked, and feel free to give constructive feedback!

While I do think aptamers have relevance to rationality, and will post about that at some point, I'm mainly posting this here because I'm proud of the result and wanted to share one of the curiosities of the universe for your reading pleasure.

You know what "chunking" means in memorization? It's also something you can do to understand material before you memorize it. It's high-leverage in learning math.

Take the equation for a t score:

That's more symbolic relationships than you can fit into your working memory when you're learning it for the first time. You need to chunk it. Here's how I'd break it into chunks:

Chunk 1:


Chunk 2:

Chunk 3:

Chunk 4:

[(Chunk 1) - (Chunk 2)]/sqrt(Chunk 3)

The most useful insight here is learning to see a "composite" as a "unitary." If we inspect Chunk 1 and see it as two variables and a minus sign, it feels like an arbitrary collection of three things. In the back of the mind, we're asking "why not a plus sign? why not swap out x1 for... something else?" There's a good mathematical answer, of course, but that doesn't necessarily stop the brain from firing off those questions during the learning process, when we're still trying to wrap our heads around these concepts.

But if we can see

as a chunk, a thing with a unitary identity, it lets us think with it in a more powerful way. Imagine if you were running a cafe, and you didn't perceive your dishes as "unitary." A pie wasn't a pie, it was a pan f... (read more)

A Nonexistent Free Lunch

  1. More Wrong

On an individualPredictIt market, sometimes you can find a set of "no" contracts whose price (1 share of each) adds up to less than the guaranteed gross take.

Toy example:

  • Will A get elected? No = $0.30
  • Will B get elected? No = $0.70
  • Will C get elected? No = $0.90
  • Minimum guaranteed pre-fee winnings = $2.00
  • Total price of 1 share of both No contracts = $1.90
  • Minimum guaranteed pre-fee profits = $0.10

There's always a risk of black swans. PredictIt could get hacked. You might execute the trade improperly. Unexpected personal expenses might force you to sell your shares and exit the market prematurely.

But excluding black swans, I though that as long as three conditions held, you could make free money on markets like these. The three conditions were:

  1. You take PredictIt's profit fee (10%) into account
  2. You can find enough such "free money" opportunities that your profits compensate for PredictIt's withdrawal fee (5% of the total withdrawal)
  3. You take into account the opportunity cost of investing in the stock market (average of 10% per year)

In the toy example above, I calculated that you'd lose $0.10 x 10% = $0.01 to PredictIt's profit fee if you bought 1 of each "... (read more)

Simulated weight gain experiment, day 2

Background: I'm wearing a weighted vest to simulate the feeling of 50 pounds (23 kg) of weight gain and loss. The plan is to wear this vest for about 20 days, for as much of the day as is practical. I started with zero weight, and will increase it in 5 pound (~2 kg) increments daily to 50 pounds, then decrease it by 5 pounds daily until I'm back to zero weight.

So far, the main challenge of this experiment has been social. The weighted vest looks like a bulletproof vest, and I'm a 6' tall white guy with a buzzcut. My girlfriend laughed just imagining what I must look like (we have a long-distance relationship, so she hasn't seen me wearing it). My housemate's girlfriend gasped when I walked in through the door.

As much as I'd like to wear this continuously as planned, I just don't know if I it will work to wear this to the lab or to classes in my graduate school. If the only problem was scaring people, I could mitigate that by emailing my fellow students and the lab and telling them what I'm doing and why. However, I'm also in the early days of setting up my MS thesis research in a big, professional lab that has invested a lot of time and money ... (read more)

The Rationalist Move Club

Imagine that the Bay Area rationalist community did all want to move. But no individual was sure enough that others wanted to move to invest energy in making plans for a move. Nobody acts like they want to move, and the move never happens.

Individuals are often willing to take some level of risk and make some sacrifice up-front for a collective goal with big payoffs. But not too much, and not forever. It's hard to gauge true levels of interest based off attendance at a few planning meetings.

Maybe one way to solve this is to ask for escalating credible commitments.

A trusted individual sets up a Rationalist Move Fund. Everybody who's open to the idea of moving puts $500 in a short-term escrow. This makes them part of the Rationalist Move Club.

If the Move Club grows to a certain number of members within a defined period of time (say 20 members by March 2020), then they're invited to planning meetings for a defined period of time, perhaps one year. This is the first checkpoint. If the Move Club has not grown to that size by then, the money is returned and the project is cancelled.

By the end of the pre-defined planning period, there could be one of three majority... (read more)

What gives LessWrong staying power?

On the surface, it looks like this community should dissolve. Why are we attracting bread bakers, programmers, stock market investors, epidemiologists, historians, activists, and parents?

Each of these interests has a community associated with it, so why are people choosing to write about their interests in this forum? And why do we read other people's posts on this forum when we don't have a prior interest in the topic?

Rationality should be the art of general intelligence. It's what makes you better at everything. If practice is the wood and nails, then rationality is the blueprint. 

To determine whether or not we're actually studying rationality, we need to check whether or not it applies to everything. So when I read posts applying the same technique to a wide variety of superficially unrelated subjects, it confirms that the technique is general, and helps me see how to apply it productively.

This points at a hypothesis, which is that general intelligence is a set of defined, generally applicable techniques. They apply across disciplines. And they apply across problems within disciplines. So why aren't they generally known and appreciated? Sh... (read more)

What gives LessWrong staying power?

For me, it's the relatively high epistemic standards combined with relative variety of topics. I can imagine a narrowly specialized website with no bullshit, but I haven't yet seen a website that is not narrowly specialized and does not contain lots of bullshit. Even most smart people usually become quite stupid outside the lab. Less Wrong is a place outside the lab that doesn't feel painfully stupid. (For example, the average intelligence at Hacker News seems quite high, but I still regularly find upvoted comments that make me cry.)

Yeah, Less Wrong seems to be a combination of project and aesthetic. Insofar as it's a project, we're looking for techniques of general intelligence, partly by stress-testing them on a variety of topics. As an aesthetic, it's a unique combination of tone, length, and variety + familiarity of topics that scratches a particular literary itch.

School teaches terrible reading habits.

When you're assigned 30 pages of a textbook, the diligent students read them, then move on to other things. A truly inquisitive person would struggle to finish those 30 pages, because there are almost certainly going to be many more interesting threads they want to follow within those pages.

As a really straightforward example, let's say you commit to reading a review article on cell senescence. Just forcing your way through the paper, you probably won't learn much. What will make you learn is looking at the citations as you go.

I love going 4 layers deep. I try to understand the mechanisms that underpin the experiments that generated the data that informed the facts that inform the theories that the review article is covering. When I do this, it suddenly transforms the review article from dry theory to something that's grounded in memories of data and visualizations of experiments. I have a "simulated lived experience" to map onto the theory. It becomes real. 

I think that for anything except scholarship, those aren't terrible. I'd attack them from the other side: They aren't shallow enough. In industry, most often you often just want to find some specific piece of information, so reading the whole 30 pages is a waste of time, as is following your deep curiosity down into rabbit holes.
I agree with you. It’s a good point that I should have clarified this is for a specific use case - rapidly scouting out a field that you’re unfamiliar with. When I take this approach, I also do not read entire papers. I just read enough to get the gist and find the next most interesting link. So for example, I am preparing for a PhD, where I’ll probably focus on aging research. I need to understand what’s going on broadly in the field. Obviously I can’t read everything, and as I have no specific project, there are no particular known-in-advance bits of information I need to extract. I don’t yet have a perfect account for what exactly you “learn” from this - at the speed I read, I don’t remember more than a tiny fraction of the details. My best explanation is that each paper you skim gives you context for understanding the next one. As you go through this process, you come away with some takeaway highlights and things to look at next. So for example, the last time I went through the literature on senescence, I got into the antagonistic pleiotropy literature. Most of it is way too deep for me at this point, but I took away the basic insights and epistemic: models consistently show that aging is the only stable equilibrium outcome of evolution, that it’s fueled by genes that confer a reproductive advantage early in life but a disadvantage later in life, and that the late-life disadvantages should not be presumed to be intrinsically beneficial - they are the downside side of a tradeoff, and evolution often mitigates them, but generally cannot completely eliminate them. I also came to understand that this is 70 years of development of mathematical and data-backed models, which consistently show the same thing. Relevant for my research is that anti-aging therapeutics aren’t necessarily going to be “fighting against evolution.” They are complementing what nature is already trying to do: mitigate the genetic downsides in old age of adaptations for youthful vigor.
That sounds more like a problem of the teaching style than school in particular. Instead of assigning textbook pages to be read, a better way is to give the students problems to solve and tell them that those textbook pages are relevant to solving the problem. That's how my biology and biochemistry classes went. We were never assigned to read particular pages of the book.
That does sound like a better way. Personally, I'm halfway through my biomedical engineering MS and have never experienced a STEM class like this. If you don't mind my asking, where did you take your bio/biochem classes (or what type of school was it)?
I studied bioinformatics at the Free University of Berlin. Just like we had weekly problem sheets in math classes we also had them in biology and biochemistry. It was more than a decade ago. There was certainly a sense of not simply copying what biology majors might do but to be focused more on problem-solving skills that would presumably be more relevant. 

There are many software tools for study, learning, attention programming, and memory prosthetics.

  • Flashcard apps (Anki)
  • Iterated reading apps (Supermemo)
  • Notetaking and annotation apps (Roam Research)
  • Motivational apps (Beeminder)
  • Time management (Pomodoro)
  • Search (Google Scholar)
  • Mnemonic books (Matuschak and Nielsen's "Quantum Country")
  • Collaborative document editing (Google Docs)
  • Internet-based conversation (Internet forums)
  • Tutoring (Wyzant)
  • Calculators, simulators, and programming tools (MATLAB)

These complement analog study tools, such as pen and paper, textbooks, worksheets, and classes.

These tools tend to keep the user's attention directed outward. They offer useful proxy metrics for learning: getting through 20 flashcards per day, completing N Pomodoros, getting through the assigned reading pages, turning in the homework.

However, these proxy metrics, like any others, are vulnerable to streetlamp effects and Goodharting.

Before we had this abundance of analog and digital knowledge tools, scholars relied on other ways to tackle problems. They built memory palaces, visualized, looked for examples in the world around them, invented approximations, and talked to themselves. They relied on t... (read more)

Please post this as a regular post.

Thirding this. Would love more detail or threads to pull on. Going into the constructivism rabbit hole now.
I'll continue fleshing it out over time! Mostly using the shortform as a place to get my thoughts together in legible form prior to making a main post (or several). By the way, contrast "constructivism" with "transmissionism," the latter being the (wrong) idea that students are basically just sponges that passively absorb the information their teacher spews at them. I got both terms from Andy Matuschak.
I second this, and expansions of these ideas.

Thoughts on cheap criticism

It's OK for criticism to be imperfect. But the worst sort of criticism has all five of these flaws:

  1. Prickly: A tone that signals a lack of appreciation for the effort that's gone in to presenting the original idea, or shaming the presenter for bringing it up.
  2. Opaque: Making assertions or predictions without any attempt at specifying a contradictory gears-level model, evidence basis, even on the level of anecdote or fiction.
  3. Nitpicky: Attacking the one part of the argument that seems flawed, without arguing for how the full original argument should be reinterpreted in light of the local disagreement.
  4. Disengaged: Not signaling any commitment to continue the debate to mutual satisfaction, or even to listen to/read and respond to a reply.
  5. Shallow: An obvious lack of engagement with the details of the argument or evidence originally offered.

I am absolutely guilty of having delivered Category 5 criticism, the worst sort of cheap shots.

There is an important tradeoff here. If standards are too high for critical commentary, it can chill debate and leave an impression that either nobody cares, everybody's on board, or the argument's simply correct. Sometimes, an idea ca... (read more)

4Matt Goldenberg3y
This seems like a fairly valuable framework.  It occurs to me that all 5 of these flaws are present in the "Snark" genre present in places like Gawker and Jezebel.
I am going to experiment with a karma/reply policy to what I think would be a better incentive structure if broadly implemented. Loosely, it looks like this: 1. Strong downvote plus a meaningful explanatory comment for infractions worse than cheap criticism; summary deletions for the worst offenders. 2. Strong downvote for cheap criticism, no matter whether or not I agree with it. 3. Weak downvote for lazy or distracting comments. 4. Weak upvote for non-cheap criticism or warm feedback of any kind. 5. Strong upvote for thoughtful responses, perhaps including an appreciative note. 6. Strong upvote plus a thoughtful response of my own to comments that advance the discussion. 7. Strong upvote, a response of my own, and an appreciative note in my original post referring to the comment for comments that changed or broadened my point of view.
1Luke Allen3y
I'm trying a live experiment: I'm going to see if I can match your erisology one-to-one as antagonists to the Elements of Harmony from My Little Pony: 1. Prickly: Kindness 2. Opaque: Honesty 3. Nitpicky: Generosity 4. Disengaged: Loyalty 5. Shallow: Laughter Interesting! They match up surprisingly well, and you've somehow also matched the order of 3 out of 5 of the corresponding "seeds of discord" from 1 Peter 2:1, CSB: "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander." If my pronouncement of success seems self-serving and opaque, I'll elaborate soon: 1. Malice: Kindness 2. Deceit: Honesty 3. Hypocrisy: Loyalty 4. Envy: Generosity 5. Slander: Laughter And now the reveal. I'm a generalist; I collect disparate lists of qualities (in the sense of "quality vs quantity"), and try to integrate all my knowledge into a comprehensive worldview. My world changed the day I first saw My Little Pony; it changed in a way I never expected, in a way many people claim to have been affected by HPMOR. I believed I'd seen a deep truth, and I've been subtly sharing it wherever I can. The Elements of Harmony are the character qualities that, when present, result in a spark of something that brings people together. My hypothesis is that they point to a deep-seated human bond-testing instinct. The first time I noticed a match-up was when I heard a sermon on The Five Love Languages, which are presented in an entirely different order: 1. Words of affirmation: Honesty 2. Quality time: Laughter 3. Receiving gifts: Generosity 4. Acts of service: Loyalty 5. Physical touch: Kindness Well! In just doing the basic research to write this reply, it turns out I'm re-inventing the wheel! Someone else has already written a psychometric analysis of the Five Love Languages and found they do indeed match up with another relational maintenance typology. Thank you for your post; you've helped open my eyes up to existing research I can use in my phi

Weight Loss Simulation

I've gained 50 pounds over the last 15 years. I'd like to get a sense of what it would be like to lose that weight. One way to do that is to wear a weighted vest all day long for a while, then gradually take off the weight in increments.

The simplest version of this experiment is to do a farmer's carry with two 25 lb free weights. It makes a huge difference in the way it feels to move around, especially walking up and down the stairs.

However, I assume this feeling is due to a combination of factors:

  • The sense of self-consciousness that comes with doing something unusual
  • The physical bulk and encumbrance (i.e. the change in volume and inertia, having my hands occupied, pressure on my diaphragm if I were wearing a weighted vest, etc)
  • The ratio of how much muscle I have to how much weight I'm carrying

If I lost 50 pounds, that would likely come with strength training as well as dieting, so I might keep my  current strength level while simultaneously being 50 pounds lighter. That's an argument in favor of this "simulated weight loss" giving me an accurate impression of how it would feel to really lose that much weight.

On the other hand, there would be no sudden tr... (read more)

Overtones of Philip Tetlock:

"After that I studied morning and evening searching for the principle,
and came to realize the Way of Strategy when I was fifty. Since then I
have lived without following any particular Way. Thus with the virtue of
strategy I practice many arts and abilities - all things with no teacher. To
write this book I did not use the law of Buddha or the teachings of Confucius, neither old war chronicles nor books on martial tactics. I take up
my brush to explain the true spirit of this Ichi school as it is mirrored in
the Way of heaven and Kwannon." - Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

A "Nucleation" Learning Metaphor

Nucleation is the first step in forming a new phase or structure. For example, microtubules are hollow cylinders built from individual tubulin proteins, which stack almost like bricks. Once the base of the microtubule has come together, it's easy to add more tubulin to the microtubule. But assembling the base - the process of nucleation - is slow without certain helper proteins. These catalyze the process of nucleation by binding and aligning the first few tubulin proteins.

What does learning have in common with nucleation? When we learn from written sources, like textbooks or a lecture, the main sensory input we experience is typically a continuous flow of words and images. All these words and phrases are like "information monomers." Achieving a synthetic understanding of the material is akin to the growth of larger structures, the "microtubules." Exposing ourselves to more and more of a teacher's words or textbook pages does increase the "information monomer concentration" in our minds, and makes a process of spontaneous nucleation more likely.

At some point, synthesis just happens if we keep at it long enough, the same way that nucleation and the gr... (read more)

Might be about using the accumulated references to seek out and generate more training data (at the currently relevant level, not just anything). Passive perception of random tidbits might take much longer. I wonder if there are lower estimates on human sample efficiency, how long can it take to not learn something when getting regularly exposed to it, for a person of given intelligence, who isn't exercising curiosity in that direction? My guess it's plausibly a difference of multiple orders of magnitude, and a different ceiling.
This reminds me of a thing that gestalt psychologists call "re-centering", which in your metaphor could be described as having a lot of free-floating information monomers that suddenly snap together (which in slow motion might be that first the base forms spontaneously, and then everything else snaps to the base). The difference is that according to them, this happens repeatedly... when you get more information, and it turns out that the original structure was not optimal, so at some moment it snaps again into a new shape. (A "paradigm shift".) Then there is a teaching style called constructivism (though this name was also abused to mean different things) which is concerned with getting the base structure built as soon as possible. And then getting the next steps right, too. Emphasis on having correct mental models, over memorizing facts. -- One of the controversies is whether this is even necessary to do. Some people insist that it is a waste of time; if you give people enough information monomers, at some moment it will snap to the right structure (and if it won't, well, sucks to be you; it worked okay for them). Other people say that this attitude is why so many kids hate school, especially math (long inferential chains), but if you keep building the structure right all the time, it becomes much less frustrating experience. So I like the metaphor, with the exception that it is not a simple cylinder, but a more complicated structure, that can get wrong (and get fixed) multiple times.

Personal evidence for the impact of stress on cognition. This is my Lichess ranking on Blitz since January. The two craters are, respectively, the first 4 weeks of the term, and the last 2 weeks. It begins trending back up immediately after I took my last final.

How much did you play during the start / end of term compared to normal?
I don’t know exactly, Lichess doesn’t have a convenient way to plot that day by day. But probably roughly equal amounts. It’s my main distraction.
Too bad. My suspects for confounders for that sort of thing would be 'you played less at the start/end of term' or 'you were more distracted at the start/end of term'.
Playing less wouldn’t decrease my score, and being distracted is one of the effects of stress.
Interesting. Is this typically the case with chess? Humans tend to do better with tasks when they are repeated more frequently, albeit with strongly diminishing returns. Absolutely, which makes it very difficult to tease apart 'being distracted as a result of stress caused by X causing a drop' and 'being distracted due to X causing a drop'.
I see what you mean, and yes, that is a plausible hypothesis. It's hard to get a solid number, but glancing over the individual records of my games, it looks like I was playing about as much as usual. Subjectively, it doesn't feel like lack of practice was responsible. I think the right way to interpret my use of "stress" in this context is "the bundle of psychological pressures associated with exam season," rather than a psychological construct that we can neatly distinguish from, say, distractability or sleep loss. It's kind of like saying "being on an ocean voyage with no access to fresh fruits and vegetables caused me to get scurvy."

Does rationality serve to prevent political backsliding?

It seems as if politics moves far too fast for rational methods can keep up. If so, does that mean rationality is irrelevant to politics?

One function of rationality might be to prevent ethical/political backsliding. For example, let's say that during time A, institution X is considered moral. A political revolution ensues, and during time B, X is deemed a great evil and is banned.

A change of policy makes X permissible during time C, banned again during time D, and absolutely required for all upstanding folk during time E.

Rational deliberation about X seems to play little role in the political legitimacy of X.

However, rational deliberation about X continues in the background. Eventually, a truly convincing argument about the ethics of X emerges. Once it does, it is so compelling that it has a permanent anchoring effect on X.

Although at some times, society's policy on X contradicts the rational argument, the pull of X is such that it tends to make these periods of backsliding shorter and less frequent.

The natural process of developing the rational argument about X also leads to an accretion of arguments that are not only correct... (read more)

Thinking, Fast and Slow was the catalyst that turned my rumbling dissatisfaction into the pursuit of a more rational approach to life. I wound up here. After a few years, what do I think causes human irrationality? Here's a listicle.

  1. Cognitive biases, whatever these are
  2. Not understanding statistics
  3. Akrasia
  4. Little skill in accessing and processing theory and data
  5. Not speaking science-ese
  6. Lack of interest or passion for rationality
  7. Not seeing rationality as a virtue, or even seeing it as a vice.
  8. A sense of futility, the idea that epistemic rationality is not very useful, while instrumental rationality is often repugnant
  9. A focus on associative thinking
  10. Resentment
  11. Not putting thought into action
  12. Lack of incentives for rational thought and action itself
  13. Mortality
  14. Shame
  15. Lack of time, energy, ability
  16. An accurate awareness that it's impossible to distinguish tribal affiliation and culture from a community
  17. Everyone is already rational, given their context
  18. Everyone thinks they're already rational, and that other people are dumb
  19. It's a good heuristic to assume that other people are dumb
  20. Rationality is disruptive, and even very "progressive" people have a conservative bias to stay the same, conform with their pee
... (read more)
A few other (even less pleasant) options: 51) God is inscrutable and rationality is no better than any other religion. 52) Different biology and experience across humans leads to very different models of action. 53) Everyone lies, all the time.  

Are rationalist ideas always going to be offensive to just about everybody who doesn’t self-select in?

One loved one was quite receptive to Chesterton’s Fence the other day. Like, it stopped their rant in the middle of its tracks and got them on board with a different way of looking at things immediately.

On the other hand, I routinely feel this weird tension. Like to explain why I think as I do, I‘d need to go through some basic rational concepts. But I expect most people I know would hate it.

I wish we could figure out ways of getting this stuff across that was fun,  made it seem agreeable and sensible and non-threatening.

Less negativity - we do sooo much critique. I was originally attracted to LW partly as a place where I didn’t  feel obligated to participate in the culture war. Now, I do, just on a set of topics that I didn’t associate with the CW before LessWrong.

My guess? This is totally possible. But it needs a champion. Somebody willing to dedicate themselves to it. Somebody friendly, funny, empathic, a good performer, neat and practiced. And it needs a space for the educative process - a YouTube channel, a book, etc. And it needs the courage of its convictions. The sign of that? Not taking itself too seriously, being known by the fruits of its labors.

Traditionally, things like this are socially achieved by using some form of "good cop, bad cop" strategy. You have someone who explains the concepts clearly and bluntly, regardless of whom it may offend (e.g. Eliezer Yudkowsky), and you have someone who presents the concepts nicely and inoffensively, reaching a wider audience (e.g. Scott Alexander), but ultimately they both use the same framework.

The inoffensiveness of Scott is of course relative, but I would say that people who get offended by him are really not the target audience for rationalist thought. Because, ultimately, saying "2+2=4" means offending people who believe that 2+2=5 and are really sensitive about it; so the only way to be non-offensive is to never say anything specific.

If a movement only has the "bad cops" and no "good cops", it will be perceived as a group of assholes. Which is not necessarily bad if the members are powerful; people want to join the winning side. But without actual power, it will not gain wide acceptance. Most people don't want to go into unnecessary conflicts.

On the other hand, a movement with "good cops" without "bad cops" wil... (read more)

You're right. I need to try a lot harder to remember that this is just a community full of individuals airing their strongly held personal opinions on a variety of topics.
Those opinions often have something in common -- respect for the scientific method, effort to improve one's rationality, concern about artificial intelligence -- and I like to believe it is not just a random idiosyncratic mix (a bunch of random things Eliezer likes), but different manifestations of the same underlying principle (use your intelligence to win, not to defeat yourself). However, not everyone is interested in all of this. And I would definitely like to see "somebody friendly, funny, empathic, a good performer, neat and practiced" promoting these values in a YouTube channel or in books. But that requires a talent I don't have, so I can only wait until someone else with the necessary skills does it. This reminded me of the YouTube channel of Julia Galef, but the latest videos there are 3 years old.
Her podcast is really good IMHO. She does a singularly good job of challenging guests in a friendly manner, dutifully tracking nuance, steelmanning, etc. It just picked back up after about a yearlong hiatus (presumably due to her book writing). Unfortunately, I see the lack of notoriety for her podcast to be some evidence against the prospects of the "skilled & likeable performer" strategy. I assume that potential subscribers are more interested in lower-quality podcasts and YouTubers that indulge in bias rather than confronting it. Dunno what to do about that, but I'm glad she's back to podcasting.
That's wonderful news, thank you for telling me! For those who have clicked on the YouTube link in my previous comment, there is no new content as of now, go to the Rationally Speaking podcast.
You're both assuming that you have a set of correct ideas coupled with bad PR...but how well are Bayes, Aumann and MWI (eg.) actually doing?
Look, I'm neurotypical and I don't find anything Eliezer writes offensive, will you please stop ostracizing us.
2Ben Pace3y
Did either of them say neurotypical? I just heard them say normies.
Oh, sorry, I've only heard the word used in that context before, I thought that's what it meant. Turns out it has a broader meaning. 

Like to explain why I think as I do, I‘d need to go through some basic rational concepts.

I believe that if the rational concepts are pulling their weight, it should be possible to explain the way the concept is showing up concretely in your thinking, rather than justifying it in the general case first.

As an example, perhaps your friend is protesting your use of anecdotes as data, but you wish to defend it as Bayesian, if not scientific, evidence. Rather than explaining the difference in general, I think you can say "I think that it's more likely that we hear this many people complaining about an axe murderer downtown if that's in fact what's going on, and that it's appropriate for us to avoid that area today. I agree it's not the only explanation and you should be able to get a more reliable sort of data for building a scientific theory, but I do think the existence of an axe murderer is a likely enough explanation for these stories that we should act on it"

If I'm right that this is generally possible, then I think this is a route around the feeling of being trapped on the other side of an inferential gap (which is how I interpreted the 'weird tension')

I think you're right, when the issue at hand is agreed on by both parties to be purely a "matter of fact." As soon as social or political implications crop in, that's no longer a guarantee. But we often pretend like our social/political values are matters of fact. The offense arises when we use rational concepts in a way that gives the lie to that pretense. Finding an indirect and inoffensive way to present the materials and let them deconstruct their pretenses is what I'm wishing for here. LW has a strong culture surrounding how these general-purpose tools get applied, so I'd like to see a presentation of the "pure theory" that's done in an engaging way not obviously entangled with this blog. The alternative is to use rationality to try and become savvier social operators. This can be "instrumental rationality" or it can be "dark arts," depending on how we carry it out. I'm all for instrumental rationality, but I suspect that spreading rational thought further will require that other cultural groups appropriate the tools to refine their own viewpoints rather than us going out and doing the convincing ourselves. 


I work in a biomedical engineering lab. With the method I'm establishing, there are hundreds of little steps, repeated 15 times over the course of weeks. For many of these steps, there are no dire consequences for screwing them up. For others, some or all of your work could be ruined if you don't do them right. There's nothing intrinsic about the critical steps that scream "PAY ATTENTION RIGHT NOW."

If your chance of doing any step right is X%, then for some X, you are virtually guaranteed to fail. If in a day, there are 30 critical steps, then y... (read more)

Aging research is the wild west

In Modern Biological Theories of Aging (2010), Jin dumps a bunch of hypotheses and theories willy-nilly. Wear-and-tear theory is included because "it sounds perfectly reasonable to many people even today, because this is what happens to most familiar things around them." Yet Jin entirely excludes antagonistic pleiotropy, the mainstream and 70-year-old solid evolutionary account for why aging is an inevitable side effect of evolution for reproductive fitness.

This review has 617 citations. It's by a prominent researcher with a ... (read more)

Markets are the worst form of economy except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

8Matt Goldenberg4y
I used this line when having a conversation at a party with a bunch of people who turned out to be communists, and the room went totally silent except for one dude who was laughing.
It was the silence of sullen agreement.

I'm annoyed that I think so hard about small daily decisions.

Is there a simple and ideally general pattern to not spend 10 minutes doing arithmetic on the cost of making burritos at home vs. buying the equivalent at a restaurant? Or am I actually being smart somehow by spending the time to cost out that sort of thing?


"Spend no more than 1 minute per $25 spent and 2% of the price to find a better product."

This heuristic cashes out to:

  • Over a year of weekly $35 restaurant meals, spend about $35 and an hour and a half finding better restaurants or meal
... (read more)
For some (including younger-me), the opposite advice was helpful - I'd agonize over "big" decisions, without realizing that the oft-repeated small decisions actually had a much larger impact on my life. To account for that, I might recommend you notice cache-ability and repetition, and budget on longer timeframes. For monthly spending, there's some portion that's really $120X decade spending (you can optimize once, then continue to buy monthly for the next 10 years), a bunch that's probably $12Y of annual spending, and some that's really $Z that you have to re-consider every month. Also, avoid the mistake of inflexible permissions. Notice when you're spending much more (or less!) time optimizing a decision than your average, but there are lots of them that actually benefit from the extra time. And lots that additional time/money doesn't change the marginal outcome by much, so you should spend less time on.
I wonder if your problem as a youth was in agonizing over big decisions, rather than learning a productive way to methodically think them through. I have lots of evidence that I underthink big decisions and overthink small ones. I also tend to be slow yet ultimately impulsive in making big changes, and fast yet hyper-analytical in making small changes. Daily choices have low switching and sunk costs. Everybody's always comparing, so one brand at a given price point tends to be about as good as another. But big decisions aren't just big spends. They're typically choices that you're likely stuck with for a long time to come. They serve as "anchors" to your life. There are often major switching and sunk costs involved. So it's really worthwhile anchoring in the right place. Everything else will be influenced or determined by where you're anchored. The 1 minute/$25 + 2% of purchase price rule takes only a moment's thought. It's a simple but useful rule, and that's why I like it. There are a few items or services that are relatively inexpensive, but have high switching costs and are used enough or consequential enough to need extra thought. Examples include pets, tutors, toys for children, wedding rings, mattresses, acoustic pianos, couches, safety gear, and textbooks. A heuristic and acronym for these exceptions might be CHEAPS: "Is it a Curriculum? Is it Heavy? Is it Ergonomic? Is it Alive? Is it Precious? Is it Safety-related?"

Don't get confused - to attain charisma and influence, you need power first.

If you, like most people, would like to fit in, make friends easily, and project a magnetic personality, a natural place to turn is books like The Charisma Myth and How to Make Friends and Influence People.

If you read them, you'll get confused unless you notice that there's a pattern to their anecdotes. In all the success stories, the struggling main character has plenty of power and resources to achieve their goals. Their problem is that, somehow, they're not able to use that powe... (read more)

tl;dr - it doesn't matter how friendly you are, if there is nothing to gain by being friends with you
5Ulisse Mini1y
Both are important, but I disagree that power is always needed. In example 3,7,9 it isn't clear that the compromise is actually better for the convinced party. The insurance is likely -EV, The peas aren't actually a crux to defeating the bully, the child would likely be happier outside kindergarten.
I see what you mean! If you look closely, I think you'll find that power is involved in even these cases. The examples of the father and child depend on the father having the power of his child's trust. He can exploit this to trick his child and misrepresent the benefits of school or of eating peas. The case of the insurance salesman is even more important to consider. You are right that insurance policies always have negative expected value in terms of money. But they may have positive expected value to the right buyer. Ann insurance policy can confer status on the buyer, who can put his wife's mind at ease that he's protected her and their children from the worst. It's also protection against loss aversion and a commitment device to put money away for a worst-case scenario, without having to think too hard about it. But in order to use his enthusiasm to persuade the customer of this benefit, the salesman has to get a job  with an insurance company and have a policy worth selling. That's the power he has to have first, in order to make his persuasion successful.
1Ulisse Mini1y
I disagree that the policy must be worth selling (see e.g. Jordon Belfort). Many salespeople can sell things that aren't worth buying. See also: never split the difference for an example of negotiation when you have little/worse leverage. (Also, I don't think htwfaip boils down to satisfying an eager want, the other advice is super important too. E.g. don't criticize, be genuinely interested in a person, ...)

How I boosted my chess score by a shift of focus

For about a year, I've noticed that when I'm relaxed, I play chess better. But I wasn't ever able to quite figure out why, or how to get myself in that relaxed state. Now, I think I've done it, and it's stabilized my score on Lichess at around 1675 rather than 1575. That means I'm now evenly matched with opponents who'd previously have beaten me 64% of the time.

The trick is that I changed my visual relationship with the chessboard. Previously, I focused hard on the piece I was considering moving, almost as if... (read more)

Kasparov was asked: how you are able to calculate all possible outcomes of the game. He said: I don't. I just have very good understanding of current situation.
I think there's a broader lesson to this ability to zoom out, soft focus, take in the whole situation as it is now, and just let good ideas come to you. Chess is an easy illustration because all information is contained on the board and the clock, and the rules and objective are clear. Vaguely, it seems like successful people are able to construct a model of the whole situation, while less successful people get caught up in hyperfocusing on the particularities.
I think that they are also to find the most important problem from all.
It's probably helpful to be able to take in everything in order to do that - I think these two ideas go together.
I also had an n-back boost using visualisation, see my shortform.

Summaries can speed your reading along by

  • Avoiding common misunderstandings
  • Making it easy to see why the technical details matter
  • Helping you see where it's OK to skim

Some summaries are just BAD

  • They sometimes to a terrible job of getting the main point across
  • They can be boring, insulting, or confusing
  • They give you a false impression of what's in the article, making you skip it when you'd actually have gotten a lot out of reading it
  • They can trick you into misinterpreting the article

The author is not the best person to write the summary. They don't have a clea... (read more)

Task Switching And Mentitation

A rule of thumb is that there's no such thing as multitasking - only rapid task switching. This is true in my experience. And if it's true, it means that we can be more effective by improving our ability to both to switch and to not switch tasks.

Physical and social tasks consume a lot of energy, and can be overstimulating. They also put me in a headspace of "external focus," moving, looking at my surroundings, listening to noises, monitoring for people. Even when it's OK to stop paying attention to my surroundings, I find it v... (read more)

There's a fairly simple statistical trick that I've gotten a ton of leverage out of. This is probably only interesting to people who aren't statistics experts.

The trick is how to calculate the chance that an event won't occur in N trials. For example, in N dice rolls, what's the chance of never rolling a 6?

The chance of a 6 is 1/6, and there's a 5/6 chance of not getting a 6. Your chance of never rolling a 6 is therefore .

More generally, the chance of an event X never occurring is . The chance of the event occurring at least once is&n... (read more)

If you are a waiter carrying a platter full of food at a fancy restaurant, the small action of releasing your grip can cause a huge mess, a lot of wasted food, and some angry customers. Small error -> large consequences.

Likewise, if you are thinking about a complex problem, a small error in your chain of reasoning can lead to massively mistaken conclusions. Many math students have experienced how a sign error in a lengthy calculation can lead to a clearly wrong answer. Small error -> large consequences.

Real-world problems often arise when we neglect,... (read more)

"Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics." - States of Matter, by David L. Goodstein

The structure of knowledge is an undirected cyclic graph between concepts. To make it easier to present to the novice, experts convert that graph into a tree structure by removing some edges. Then they convert that tree into natural language. This is called a textbook.

Scholarship is the act of converting the textbook language back into nodes and edges of a tree, and then filling in the missing edges to convert it into the original graph.

The mind cannot hold the entire graph in working memory at once. It's as important to practice navigating between concept... (read more)

I want to put forth a concept of "topic literacy."

Topic literacy roughly means that you have both the concepts and the individual facts memorized for a certain subject at a certain skill level. That subject can be small or large. The threshold is that you don't have to refer to a reference text to accurately answer within-subject questions at the skill level specified.

This matters, because when studying a topic, you always have to decide whether you've learned it well enough to progress to new subject matter. This offers a clean "yes/no" answer to that ess... (read more)

We do things so that we can talk about it later.

I was having a bad day today. Unlikely to have time this weekend for something I'd wanted to do. Crappy teaching in a class I'm taking. Ever increasing and complicating responsibilities piling up.

So what did I do? I went out and bought half a cherry pie.

Will that cherry pie make me happy? No. I knew this in advance. Consciously and unconsciously: I had the thought, and no emotion compelled me to do it.

In fact, it seemed like the least-efficacious action: spending some of my limited money, to buy a pie I don't... (read more)

So the "stupid solutions to problems of life" are not really about improving the life, but about signaling to yourself that... you still have some things under control? (My life may suck, but I can have a cherry pie whenever I want to!) This would be even more important if the cherry pie would somehow actively make your life worse. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, but at the same time keep eating cherry pie every day in order to improve the story of your day. Or if instead of cherry pie it would be cherry liqueur. Just guessing, but it would probably help to choose the story in advance. "If I am doing X, my life is great, and nothing else matters" -- and then make X something useful that doesn't take much time. Even better, have multiple alternatives X, Y, Z, such that doing any of them is a "proof" of life being great.
I do chalk a lot of dysfunction up to this story-centric approach to life. I just suspect it’s something we need to learn to work with, rather than against (or to deny/ignore it entirely). My sense is that storytelling - to yourself or others - is an art. To get the reaction you want - from self or others - takes some aesthetic sensitivity. My guess is there’s some low hanging fruit here. People often talk about doing things “for the story,” which they resort to when they're trying to justify doing something dumb/wasteful/dangerous/futile. Perversely, it often seems that when people talk in detail about their good decisions, it comes of as arrogant. Pointless, tidy philosophical paradoxes seem to get people's puzzle-solving brains going better than confronting the complexity of the real world. But maybe we can simply start building habits of expressing gratitude. Finding ways to present good ideas and decisions in ways that are delightful in conversation. Spinning interesting stories out of the best parts of our lives.

Last night, I tested positive for COVID (my first time catching the disease). This morning, I did telehealth via PlushCare to get a Paxlovid prescription. At first, the doctor asked me what risk factor I had that made me think I was qualified to get Paxlovid. I told her I didn't know (a white lie) what the risk factors were, and hoped she could tell me. Over the course of our call, I brought up a mild heart arrhythmia I had when I was younger, and she noticed that, at 5'11" and 200 lbs, I'm overweight. Based on that, she prescribed me Paxlovid and ordered ... (read more)

Make sentences easier to follow with the XYZ pattern

I hate the Z of Y of X pattern. This is a sentence style presents information in the wrong order for easy visualization. XYZ is the opposite, and presents information in the easiest way to track.

Here are some examples:

Z of Y of X: The increased length of the axon of the mouse

XYZ: The mouse's axon length increase

Z of Y of X: The effect of boiling of extract of ginger is conversion to zingerol of gingerol

XYZ: Ginger extract, when boiled, converts gingerol to zingerol.

Z of Y of X: The rise of the price of st... (read more)

This depends a lot on the medium of communication.  A lot of style guides recommend that they go in order of importance or relevance.  I suspect different readers will have different levels of difficulty in keeping the details in mind at once, so it's not obvious which is actually easier or "more chunkable" for them. For instance, I find "Addida's stock price is rising due to the decline of Kanye West's stylistic influence".  Is that ZXY?  The decline is the main point, and what is declining is one chunk "Kanye's influence".
You’re right. Sentences should start with the idea that is most important or foundational, and end with a transition to the next sentence’s topic. It’s best to do these two things with the XYZ structure whenever possible. My examples ignored these other design principles to focus on the XYZ structure. Writers must make tradeoffs. Ideally, their writing occupies the sentence design Pareto frontier.
Is there a name for the discipline or practice of symbolically representing the claims and content in language (this may be part of Mathematical Logic, but I am not familiar enough with it to know)? Practice: The people of this region (Z) typically prefer hiking in the mountains of the rainforest to walking in the busy streets (Y), given their love of the mountaintop scenery (X). XYZ Output: Given their mountaintop scenery love (X), rainforest mountain hiking is preferred over walking in the busy streets (Y) by this region's people (Z).
I don’t know if there’s a name for the practice. I notice the XYZ form makes some phrases sound like music album titles (“mountaintop scenery love”). The XYZ form is mainly meant to structure sentences for easy tracking, not just to eliminate the word “of.” “Their love of mountaintop scenery” seems easier to track than “mountaintop scenery love.” In your XYZ version, “this region’s people” ends the sentence. Since the whole sentence is about them, it seems like it’s easier to track if they’re introduced at the beginning. Maybe: “This region’s people’s love of mountaintop scenery typically makes them prefer hiking in the mountainous rainforests to walking in the busy streets.” I don’t love “this region’s people’s” but I’m not sure what to do about that. Maybe: “In this region, the people’s love of mountaintop scenery typically makes them prefer hiking in the mountain rainforests to walking in the busy streets.”

From 2000-2015, we can see that life expectancy has been growing faster the higher your income bracket (source is Vox citing JAMA).

There's an angle to be considered in which this is disturbingly inequitable. That problem is even worse when considering the international inequities in life expectancy. So let's fund malaria bednets and vaccine research to help bring down malaria deaths from 600,000/year to zero  - or maybe support a gene drive to eliminate it once and for all.

At the same time, this seems like hopeful news for longevity research. If we we... (read more)

I'm surprised by the difference. I'm curious whether the United States is special in that regard or whether the patterns also exist in European countries to the same extent.

Operator fluency

When learning a new mathematical operator, such as Σ, a student typically goes through a series of steps:

  1. Understand what it's called and what the different parts mean.
  2. See how the operator is used in a bunch of example problems.
  3. Learn some theorems relevant to or using the operator.
  4. Do a bunch of example problems.
  5. Understand what the operator is doing when they encounter it "in the wild" in future math reading.

I've only taken a little bit of proof-based math, and I'm sure that the way one relates with operators depends a lot on the type of clas... (read more)

Mentitation: the cost/reward proposition

Mentitation techniques are only useful if they help users with practical learning tasks. Unfortunately, learning how to crystallize certain mental activities as "techniques," and how to synthesize them into an approach to learning that really does have practical relevance, took me years of blundering around. Other people do not, and should not, have that sort of patience and trust that there's a reward at the end of all that effort.

So I need a strategy for articulating, teaching, and getting feedback on these methods... (read more)

A lot of my akrasia is solved by just "monkey see, monkey do." Physically put what I should be doing in front of my eyeballs, and pretty quickly I'll do it. Similarly, any visible distractions, or portals to distraction, will also suck me in.

But there also seems to be a component that's more like burnout. "Monkey see, monkey don't WANNA."

On one level, the cure is to just do something else and let some time pass. But that's not explicit enough for my taste. For one thing, something is happening that recovers my motivation. For another, "letting time pass" i... (read more)

Functional Agency

I think "agent" is probably analogous to a river: structurally and functionally real, but also ultimately an aggregate of smaller structures that are not themselves aligned with the agent. It's convenient for us to be able to point at a flowing body of water much longer than it is wide and call it a river. Likewise, it is convenient for us to point to an entity that senses its environment and steers events adaptively toward outcomes for legible reasons and refer to it as exhibiting agency.

In that sense, AutoGPT is already an agent - it is ... (read more)

Telling people what they want to hear

When I adopt a protocol for use in one of my own experiments, I feel reassured that it will work in proportion to how many others have used it before. Likewise, I feel reassured that I'll enjoy a certain type of food depending on how popular it is.

By contrast, I don't feel particularly reassured by the popularity of an argument that it is true (or, at least, that I'll agree with it). I tend to think book and essays become popular in proportion to whether they're telling their audience what they want to hear.

One problem ... (read more)

That's not how it is for me, at least not consciously. I have trouble anticipating what will be controversial and what not. I guess it shows in the high fraction of my posts that were controversial here. At best, I can imagine potential questions. But your account matches what I have heard elsewhere that having a reliable audience leads to wanting to please your audience and lock-in.
Learn to value and notice interaction and commentary, far more than upvotes.  A reply or follow-up comment is an indication that you've posted something worth engaging with.  An upvote could mean anything (I mean, it's still nice, and is some evidence in your favor, just not the most important signal). I got a zero score yesterday, +2 +1 -1 and -2 on 4 different comments.  But I got two responses, so a good day (I didn't need to further interact on those threads, so not perfect).  Overall, I shoot for 90% upvotes (which is probably 75% postitive response, given people's biases toward positivity), and I actively try to be a little more controversial if I start to think I'm mostly saying things that everyone already knows and believes.

Hard numbers

I'm managing a project to install signage for a college campus's botanical collection.

Our contractor, who installed the sign posts in the ground, did a poor job. A lot of them pulled right out of the ground.

Nobody could agree on how many posts were installed: the groundskeeper, contractor, and two core team members, each had their own numbers from "rough counts" and "lists" and "estimates" and "what they'd heard."

The best decision I've made on this project was to do a precise inventory of exactly which sign posts are installed correctly, comple... (read more)

Paying your dues

I'm in school at the undergraduate level, taking 3 difficult classes while working part-time.

For this path to be useful at all, I have to be able to tick the boxes: get good grades, get admitted to grad school, etc. For now, my strategy is to optimize to complete these tasks as efficiently as possible (what Zvi calls "playing on easy mode"), in order to preserve as much time and energy for what I really want: living and learning.

Are there dangers in getting really good at paying your dues?

1) Maybe it distracts you/diminishes the incen... (read more)

If you haven't seen Half-assing it with everything you've got, I'd definitely recommend it as an alternative perspective on this issue.
I see my post as less about goal-setting ("succeed, with no wasted motion") and more about strategy-implementing ("Check the unavoidable boxes first and quickly, to save as much time as possible for meaningful achievement"). 
I suspect "dues" are less relevant in today's world than a few decades ago.  It used to be a (partial) defense against being judged harshly for your success, by showing that you'd earned it without special advantage.  Nowadays, you'll be judged regardless, as the assumption is that "the system" is so rigged that anyone who succeeds had a headstart. To the extent that the dues do no actual good (unlike literal dues, which the recipient can use to buy things, presumably for the good of the group), skipping them seems very reasonable to me.  The trick, of course, is that it's very hard to distinguish unnecessary hurdles ("dues") from socially-valuable lessons in conformity and behavior ("training").   Relevant advice when asked if you've paid your dues:

I've been thinking about honesty over the last 10 years. It can play into at least three dynamics.

One is authority and resistance. The revelation or extraction of information, and the norms, rules, laws, and incentives surrounding this, including moral concepts, are for the primary purpose of shaping the power dynamic.

The second is practical communication. Honesty is the idea that specific people have a "right to know" certain pieces of information from you, and that you meet this obligation. There is wide latitude for "white lies," exaggeration, storytell... (read more)

Better rationality should lead you to think less, not more. It should make you better able to

  • Set a question aside
  • Fuss less over your decisions
  • Accept accepted wisdom
  • Be brief

while still having good outcomes. What's your rationality doing to you?

I like this line of reasoning, but I'm not sure it's actually true. "better" rationality should lead your thinking to be more effective - better able to take actions that lead to outcomes you prefer. This could express as less thinking, or it could express as MORE thinking, for cases where return-to-thinking is much higher due to your increase in thinking power. Whether you're thinking less for "still having good outcomes", or thinking the same amount for "having better outcomes" is a topic for introspection and rationality as well.
That's true, of course. My post is really a counter to a few straw-Vulcan tendencies: intelligence signalling, overthinking everything, and being super argumentative all the time. Just wanted to practice what I'm preaching!

How should we weight and relate the training of our mind, body, emotions, and skills?

I think we are like other mammals. Imitation and instinct lead us to cooperate, compete, produce, and take a nap. It's a stochastic process that seems to work OK, both individually and as a species.

We made most of our initial progress in chemistry and biology through very close observation of small-scale patterns. Maybe a similar obsessiveness toward one semi-arbitrarily chosen aspect of our own individual behavior would lead to breakthroughs in self-understanding?

I'm experimenting with a format for applying LW tools to personal social-life problems. The goal is to boil down situations so that similar ones will be easy to diagnose and deal with in the future.

To do that, I want to arrive at an acronym that's memorable, defines an action plan and implies when you'd want to use it. Examples:

OSSEE Activity - "One Short Simple Easy-to-Exit Activity." A way to plan dates and hangouts that aren't exhausting or recipes for confusion.

DAHLIA - "Discuss, Assess, Help/Ask, Leave, Intervene, Accept." An action plan for how to de... (read more)

I am really disappointed in the community’s response to my Contra Contra the Social Model of Disability post.


I do not represent (or often, even acknowledge the existence or cohesion of) "the community".  For myself, I didn't read it, for the following reasons:

  • it started by telling me not to bother.  "Epistemic Status: First draft, written quickly", and "This is a tedious, step-by-step rebuttal" of something I hadn't paid that much attention to in the first place.  Not a strong start.
  • Scott's piece was itself a reaction to something I never cared that much about.
  • Both you and Scott (and whoever started this nonsense) are arguing about words, not ideas.  Whether "disability" is the same cluster of ideas and attitudes for physical and emotional variance from median humans is debatable, but not that important.

I'd be kind of interested in a discussion of specific topics (anxiety disorders, for instance) and some nuance of how individuals do and should react to those who experience it.  I'm not interested in generalities of whether ALL variances are preferences or medical issues, nor where precisely the line is (it's going to vary, duh!).

What reaction were you hoping for?

Over the last six months, I've grown more comfortable writing posts that I know will be downvoted. It's still frustrating. But I used to feel intensely anxious when it happened, and now, it's mostly just a mild annoyance.

The more you're able to publish your independent observations, without worrying about whether others will disagree, the better it is for community epistemics.

I kinda feel the same way, and honestly I think it’s wrong to hold yourself back, how are you going to calibrate without feedback?

Thoughts on Apple Vision Pro:

  • The price point is inaccessibly high.
  • I'm generally bullish on new interfaces to computing technology. The benefits aren't always easy to perceive until you've had a chance to start using it.
  • If this can sit on my head and allow me to type or do calculations while I'm working in the lab, that would be very convenient. Currently, I have to put gloves on and off to use my phone, and office space with my laptop is a 6-minute round trip from the lab.
  • I can see an application that combines voice-to-text and AI in a way that makes it fe
... (read more)
Sure, but an audio-only interface can be done with an iPhone and some Airpods; no need for a new interface.
That's true! However, I would feel weird and disruptive trying to ask ChatGPT questions when working alongside coworkers in the lab.
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Calling all mentitators

Are you working hard on learning STEM?

Are you interested in mentitation - visualization, memory palaces, developing a practical craft of "learning how to learn?"

What I think would take this to the next level would be developing an exchange of practices.

I sit around studying, come up with mentitation ideas, test them on myself, and post them here if they work.

But right now, I don't get feedback from other people who try them out. I also don't get suggestions from other people with things to try.

Suggestions are out there, but the devil... (read more)

Memory palace foundations

What makes the memory palace work? Four key principles:

  • Sensory integration: Journeying through the memory palace activates your kinetic and visual imagination
  • Pacing: The journey happens at your natural pace for recollection
  • Decomposition: Instead of trying to remember all pieces of information at once, you can focus on the single item that's in your field of view
  • Interconnections: You don't just remember the information items, but the "mental path" between them.

We can extract these principles and apply them to other forms of memoriza... (read more)

Can mentitation be taught?

Mentitation[1] can be informed by the psychological literature, as well as introspection. Because people's inner experiences are diverse and not directly obervable, I expect it to be difficult to explain or teach this subject. However, mentitation has allowed me to reap large gains in my ability to understand and remember new information. Reading STEM textbooks has become vastly more interesting and has lead to better test results.

Figuring out a useful way to do mentitation has taken me years, with lots of false starts along ... (read more)

Why do patients neglect free lifestyle interventions, while overspending on unhelpful healthcare?

The theory that patients are buying "conspicuous care" must compete with the explanation that patients have limited or asymmetric information about true medical benefits. Patient tendencies to discount later medical benefits, while avoiding immediate effort and cost, can also explain some of the variation in lifestyle intervention neglect.

We could potentially separate these out by studying medical overspending by doctors on their own healthcare, particularly in... (read more)

My first thought is that lifestyle interventions are in fact almost never free, from either a quality of life point of view or a monetary point of view. My second thought is a question: Is it clear that patients do actually overspend on unhelpful healthcare? All of the studies I've read that claimed this made one or more of the following errors or limitations: * Narrowly defining "helpful" to mean just reduction in mortality or severe lasting disability; * Conflating costs imposed after the fact by the medical system with those a patient chooses to spend; * Failing to consider common causal factors in both amount of spending and medical problems; * Studying very atypical sub-populations. It's entirely possible that patients from general population do in fact voluntarily overspend on healthcare that on average has negligible benefit even after allowing for prior causes, and would like to see a study that made a credible attempt at testing this.
One of the examples given was a RAND RCT in which subjects had their healthcare subsidized to varying degrees. The study examined whether the more heavily subsidized groups consumed more healthcare (they did) and whether or not health outcomes differed among the different groups (they did not). Another was an Oregon RCT in which subjects were randomly assigned to receive or not receive Medicaid. The only health effects of getting subsidized healthcare here was in "feeling healthier" and mental health. Other studies show that regional variations in healthcare consumption (i.e. surgery rates for enlarged prostate) do not correlate with different health outcomes. One shows that death rates across the 50 US states are correlated with education and income, but not amount of medical spending. The overall conclusion seems to be that whatever people are buying at the hospital when they spend more than average, it does not appear to be health, and particularly not physical health.
Do you have links? The descriptions you give match a number of studies I've read and already evaluated. E.g. dozens of papers investigating various aspects of the Oregon randomized Medicaid trial, with substantially varying conclusions in this area.
This is just the summary given in The Elephant In the Brain, I haven't read the original papers and I'm sure that you know more about this than me. Here's what TEITB says about the Oregon Medicaid trial (screenshotted from my Kindle version): If you think this misrepresents what we should take away from this study, I'm keen to hear it!
It's mixed. As far as it goes for the original study, it's mostly accurate but I do think that the use of the phrase "akin to a placebo effect" is misleading and the study itself did not conclude anything of the kind. There may be later re-analyses that do draw such a conclusion, though. Most objective health outcomes of medical treatment were not measured, and many of those that were measured were diagnostic of chronic conditions that medical treatment cannot modify, but only provide treatment that reduces their impact on daily life. There are objective measures of outcomes of such treatment, but they require more effort to measure and are more specific to the medical conditions being treated. This is relevant in that a large fraction of medical expenditure is in exactly this sort of management of conditions to improve functionality and quality of life without curing or substantially modifying the underlying disease. It should also be borne in mind that the groups in this study were largely healthy, relatively young adults. The vast majority of health service expenditure goes to people who are very sick and mostly older than 65. It seems unwise to generalize conclusions about overall effectiveness of health expenditure from samples of much healthier younger adults.
That's helpful information, thanks. Would you characterize the Oregon Medicaid study as poorly designed, or perhaps set up to make Medicaid look bad? From your description, it sounds like they chose a population and set of health metrics that were predictably going to show no effect, even though there was probably an effect to be found.
Doesn't necessarily mean they "neglected free lifestyle interventions". Maybe they were already doing everything they were aware of. If you are not an expert, when you ask people about what to do, you get lots of contradictory advice. Whatever one person recommends, another person will tell you it's actively harmful. "You should exercise more." "Like this?" makes a squat. "No, definitely not like that, you will fuck up your spine and joints." "So, how exactly?" "I don't know actually; I am just warning you that you can hurt yourself." "You should only eat raw vegetables." Starts eating raw vegetables. Another person: "If you keep doing that, the lack of proteins will destroy your muscles and organs, and that will kill you." The only unambiguous advice is to give up all your bodily pleasures. Later: "Hey, why are you so depressed?" (For the record, I don't feel epistemically helpless about this stuff now. I discussed it with some people I trust, and sorted out the advice. But it took me a few years to get there, and not everyone has this opportunity. Even now, almost everything I ever do, someone tells me it's harmful; I just don't listen to them anymore.)
People's willingness to spend on healthcare changes with the amount they are currently suffering. Immediate suffering is a much stronger motivator for behavior than plausible future suffering and even likely future suffering. 
I'm sure there's a lot of variance in how it feels to be someone willing to spend on healthcare but less willing to change their daily habits and activities.  For me, "free" is misleading.  It's a whole lot more effort and reduced joy for some interventions.  That's the opposite of free, it's prohibitively costly, or seems like it.   There's also a bit of inverse-locus-of-control.  If my choices cause it, it's my fault.  If a doctor or medication helps, that means it was externally imposed, not my fault.   And finally, it hits up against human learning mechanisms - we notice contrasts and rapid changes, such as when a chiropractor does an adjustment or when a medication is prescribed.  We don't notice gradual changes (positive or negative), and our minds don't make the correlation to our behaviors.

Mistake theory on plagiarism:

How is it that capable thinkers and writers destroy their careers by publishing plagiarized paragraphs, sometimes with telling edits that show they didn't just "forget to put quotes around it?"

Here is my mistake-theory hypothesis:

  1. Authors know the outlines of their argument, but want to connect it with the literature. At this stage, they're still checking their ideas against the data and theory, not trying to produce a polished document. So in their lit review, they quickly copy/paste relevant quotes into a file. They don't both
... (read more)
In an arena where plagiarism is harmful, I'd call this "negligence theory" rather than "mistake theory".  This isn't just a misunderstanding or incorrect belief, it's a sloppiness in research that (again, in domains where it matters) should cost the perpetrator a fair bit of standing and trust. It matters a lot what they do AFTERWARD, too.  Admitting it, apologizing, and publishing an updated version is evidence that it WAS a simple unintentional mistake.  Hiding it, repeating the problem, etc. are either malice or negligence. Edit: there's yet another possibility, which is "intentional use of ideas without attribution".  In some kinds of writing, the author can endorse a very slight variant of someone else's phrasing, and just use it as their own.  It's certainly NICER to acknowledge the contribution from the original source, but not REQUIRED except in formal settings.
Negligence vs. mistake It's sloppy, but my question is whether it's unusually sloppy. That's the difference between a mistake and negligence. Compare this to car accidents. We expect that there's an elevated proportion of "consistently unusually sloppy driving" among people at fault for causing car accidents relative to the general driving population. For example, if we look at the population of people who've been at fault for a car accident, we will find a higher-than-average level of drunk driving, texting while driving, tired driving, speeding, dangerous maneuvers, and so on. However, we might also want to know the absolute proportion of at-fault drivers who are consistently unusually sloppy drivers, relative to those who are average or better-than-average drivers who had a "moment of sloppy driving" that happened to result in an accident. As a toy example, imagine the population is: * 1/4 consistently good drivers. As a population, they're responsible for 5% of accidents. * 1/2 average drivers. As a population, they're responsible for 20% of accidents. * 1/4 consistently bad drivers. As a population, they're responsible for 75% of accidents. In this toy example, good and average drivers are at fault for about 10% of all accidents. When we see somebody commit an accident, this should, as you say, make us see them as substantially more likely to be a bad driver. It is also good incentives to punish this mistake in proportion to the damage done, the evidence about underlying factors (i.e. drunk driving), the remorse they display, and their previous driving record. However, we should also bear in mind that there's a low but nonzero chance that they're not a bad driver, they just got unlucky. Plagiarism interventions Shifting back to plagiarism, the reason it can be useful to bear in mind that low-but-nonzero chance of a plagiarism "good faith error" is that it suggests interventions to lower the rate of that happening. For example, I do all my research
True - "harm reduction" is a tactic that helps with negligence or mistake, and less so with true adversarial situations.  It's worth remembering that improvements are improvements, even if only for some subset of infractions. I don't particularly worry about plagiarism very often - I'm not writing formal papers, but most of my internal documents benefit from a references appendix (or inline) for where data came from.  I'd enjoy a plugin that does "referenceable copy/paste", which includes the URL (or document title, or, for some things, a biblio-formatted source). 

I'm interested in the relationship between consumption and motivation to work. I have a theory that there are two demotivating extremes: an austerity mindset, in which the drive to work is not coupled to a drive to consume (or to be donate); and a profligacy mindset, in which the drive to consume is decoupled from a drive to work.

I don't know what to do about profligacy mindset, except to put constraints on that person's ability to obtain more credit.

But I see Putanumonit's recent post advocating self-interested generosity over Responsible Adult (tm) savin... (read more)

One particular category to spend luxury money on is "things you were constrained about as a child but aren't actually that expensive". What color clay do I want? ALL OF THEM. ESPECIALLY THE SHINY ONES. TODAY I WILL USE THE EXACT COLORS OF CLAY I WANT AND MAKE NO COMPROMISES. Some caveats: * I imagine you have to be judicious about this, appeasing your inner child probably hits diminishing returns. But I did experience a particular feeling about  "I used to have to prioritize to satisfy others' constraints and now I can just do the thing." * It's probably better if you actually want the thing and will enjoy it for its own sake, rather than as merely a fuck you to childhood deprivation. I have actually been using the clay and having an abundance of colors really is increasing my joy.
I like the idea of a monthly "luxury budget", because then you only need to convince the person once; then they can keep experimenting with different things, keeping the luxury budget size the same. (Assuming that if something proves super useful, it moves to the normal budget.) This could be further improved by adding a constraint that each month the luxury budget needs to be spent on a different type of expense (food, music, travel, books, toys...). Make the person read The Luck Factor to motivate experimenting. It may be simultaneously true that many people underestimate how better their life could be if they took some debt and bought things that improve their life and productivity... and that many other people underestimate how better their life could be if they had more financial slack and greater resilience against occassional clusters of bad luck. A problem with spending the right amount of money is to determine how much exactly the right amount is. For example, living paycheck to paycheck is dangerous -- if you get fired from your job and your car breaks at the same time, you could be in a big trouble; while someone who has 3 months worth of salary saved would just shrug, find a new job, and use a cab in the meanwhile. On the other hand, another person living paycheck to paycheck, who didn't get fired and whose car didn't break at the inconvenient moment, might insist that it is perfectly ok. So when people tell you what worked for them best, they may be survivor bias involved. Statistically, the very best outcomes will not happen to people who used the best financial strategy (with the best expected outcome), but who took risk and got lucky. Such as those who took a lot of debt, started a company, and succeeded.
Speaking as someone on the austerity side, if you want to convince me to buy something specific, tell me exactly how much it costs (and preferably add a link to an online shop as evidence). Sometimes I make the mistake of assuming that something is too expensive... so I don't even bother checking the actual cost, because I have already decided that I am not going to buy it... so in the absence of data I continue believing that it is too expensive. Sometimes I even checked the cost, but it was like 10 years ago, and maybe it got significantly cheaper since then. Or maybe my financial situation has improved during the 10 years, but I don't remember the specific cost of the thing, only my cached conclusion that it was "too expensive", which was perhaps true back then, but not now. Another way to convince me to use some product is to lend it to me, so I get the feeling how actually good it is.

Pet peeve: the phrase "nearly infinite."

Would you prefer "for nearly all purposes, any bounds there might be are irrelevant"?

I’d prefer WAY BIG

In most cases I think the correct phrase would be "nearly unlimited". It unpacks to: the set of circumstances in which a limit would be reached, is nearly empty. 
2mako yass3y
I don't like that one either, it usually reflects a lack of imagination. They're talking about the purposes we can think of now, they usually know nothing about the purposes we will find, once we have it, which haven't been invented yet.

A celebrity is someone famous for being famous.

Is a rationalist someone famous for being rational? Someone who’s leveraged their reputation to gain privileged access to opportunity, other people’s money, credit, credence, prestige?

Are there any arenas of life where reputation-building is not a heavy determinant of success?

4Ben Pace3y
A physicist is someone who is interested in and studies physics. A rationalist is someone who is interested in and studies rationality.
A rationalist is someone who can talk rationally about rationality, I guess. :P One difference between rationality and fame is that you need some rationality in order to recognize and appreciate rationality, while fame can be recognized and admired also (especially?) by people who are not famous. Therefore, rationality has a limited audience. Suppose you have a rationalist who "wins at life". How would a non-rational audience perceive them? Probably as someone "successful", which is a broad category that also includes e.g. lottery winners. Even people famous for being smart, such as Einstein, are probably perceived as "being right" rather than being good at updating, research, or designing experiments. A rationalist can admire another rationalist's ability of changing their mind. And also "winning at life" to the degree we can control for their circumstances (privilege and luck), so that we can be confident it is not mere "success" we admire, but rather "success disportionate to resources and luck". This would require either that the rationalist celebrity regularly publishes their though processes, or that you know them personally. Either way, you need lots of data about how they actually succeeded. You could become a millionaire by buying Bitcoin anonymously, so that would be one example. Depends on what precisely you mean by "success": it is something like "doing/getting X" or rather "being recognized as X"? The latter is inherently social, the former you can often achieve without anyone knowing about it. Sometimes it easier to achieve things if you don't want to take credit; for example if you need a cooperation of a powerful person, it can be useful to convince them that X was actually their idea. Or you can have the power, but live in the shadows, while other people are in the spotlight, and only they know that they actually take commands from you. To be more specific, I think you could make a lot of money by learning something like programming, getting
Certainly it is possible to find success in some areas anonymously. No argument with you there! I view LW-style rationality as a community of practice, a culture of people aggregating, transmitting, and extending knowledge about how to think rationally. As in "The Secret of Our Success," we don't accomplish this by independently inventing the techniques we need to do our work. We accomplish this primarily by sharing knowledge that already exists. Another insight from TSOOS is that people use prestige as a guide for who they should imitate. So rationalists tend to respect people with a reputation for rationality. But what if a reputation for rationality can be cultivated separately from tangible accomplishments? In fact, prestige is already one step removed from the tangible accomplishments. But how do we know if somebody is prestigious? Perhaps a reputation can be built not by gaining the respect of others through a track record of tangible accomplishments, but by persuading others that: a) You are widely respected by other people whom they haven't met, or by anonymous people they cannot identify, making them feel behind the times, out of the loop. b) That the basis on which people allocate prestige conventionally is flawed, and that they should do it differently in a way that is favorable to you, making them feel conformist or conservative. c) That other people's track record of tangible accomplishments are in fact worthless, because they are not of the incredible value of the project that the reputation-builder is "working on," or are suspect in terms of their actual utility. This makes people insecure. d) Giving people an ability to participate in the incredible value you are generating by convincing them to evangelize your concept, and thereby to evangelize you. Or of course, just donating money. This makes people feel a sense of meaning and purpose. I could think of other strategies for building hype. One is to participate in cooperative games, whereb
Ah, so you mean within the rationalist (and adjacent) community; how can we make sure that we instinctively copy our most rational members, as opposed to random or even least rational ones. When I reflect on what I do by default... well, long ago I perceived "works at MIRI/CFAR" as the source of prestige, but recently it became "writes articles I find interesting". Both heuristics have their advantages and disadvantages. The "MIRI/CFAR" heuristic allows me to outsource judgment to people who are smarter than me and have more data about their colleagues; but it ignores people outside Bay Area and those who already have another job. The "blogging" heuristic allows me to judge the thinking of authors; but it ignores people who are too busy doing something important or don't wish to write publicly. Here is how to exploit my heuristics: * Be charming, and convince people at MIRI/CFAR/GiveWell/etc. to give you some role in their organization; it could be a completely unimportant one. Make your association known. * Have good verbal skills, and deep knowledge of some topic. Write a blog about that topic and the rationalist community. Looking at your list: Option a) if someone doesn't live in Bay Area, it could be quite simple to add a few rationalist celebrities as friends on Facebook, and then pretend that you have some deeper interaction with them. People usually don't verify this information, so if no one at your local meetup is in regular contact with them, the risk of exposure is low. Your prestige is then limited to the local meetup. Options b) and c) would probably lead to a big debate. Arguably, "metarationality" is an example of "actually, all popular rationalists are doing it wrong, this is the true rationality" claim. Option d) was tried by Intentional Insights, Logic Nation, and I have heard about people who try to extract free work from programmers at LW meetups. Your prestige is limited to the few people you manage to recruit. Rationalist community ha

Idea for online dating platform:

Each person chooses a charity and an amount of money that you must donate to swipe right on them. This leads to higher-fidelity match information while also giving you a meaningful topic to kick the conversation off.

Goodhart's Epistemology

If a gears-level understanding becomes the metric of expertise, what will people do?

  • Go out and learn until they have a gears-level understanding?
  • Pretend they have a gears-level understanding by exaggerating their superficial knowledge?
  • Feel humiliated because they can't explain their intuition?
  • Attack the concept of gears-level understanding on a political or philosophical level?

Use the concept of gears-level understanding to debug your own knowledge. Learn for your own sake, and allow your learning to naturally attract the credibility

... (read more)

ChatGPT is a token-predictor, but it is often able to generate text that contains novel, valid causal and counterfactual reasoning. What it isn't able to do, at least not yet, is enforce an interaction with the user that guarantees that it will proceed through a desired chain of causal or counterfactual reasoning.

Many humans are inferior to ChatGPT at explicit causal and counterfactual reasoning. But not all of ChatGPT's failures to perform a desired reasoning task are due to inability - many are due to the fact that at baseline, its goal is to successfull... (read more)

Models do not need to be exactly true in order to produce highly precise and useful inferences. Instead, the objective is to check the model’s adequacy for some purpose. - Richard McElreath, Statistical Rethinking

Lightly edited for stylishness

With SSL pre-trained foundation models, the interesting thing is that the embeddings computed by them are useful for many purposes, while the models are not trained with any particular purpose in mind. Their role is analogous to beliefs, the map of the world, epistemic side of agency, convergently useful choice of representation/compression that by its epistemic nature is adequate for many applied purposes.

Let's say I'm right, and a key barrier to changing minds is the perception that listening and carefully considering the other person's point of view amounts to an identity threat.

  • An interest in evolution might threaten a Christian's identity.
  • Listening to pro-vaccine arguments might threaten a conservative farmer's identity.
  • Worrying about speculative AI x-risks might threaten an AI capability researcher's identity.

I would go further and claim that open-minded consideration of suggestions that rationalists ought to get more comfortable with symmetric weapons... (read more)

I disagree with Eliezer's comments on inclusive genetic fitness (~25:30) on Dwarkesh Patel's podcast - particularly his thought experiment of replacing DNA with some other substrate to make you healthier, smarter, and happier.

Eliezer claims that evolution is a process optimizing for inclusive genetic fitness, (IGF). He explains that human agents, evolved with impulses and values that correlate with but are not identical to IGF, tend to escape evolution's constraints and satisfy those impulses directly: they adopt kids, they use contraception, they fail to ... (read more)

Certain texts are characterized by precision, such as mathematical proofs, standard operating procedures, code, protocols, and laws. Their authority, power, and usefulness stem from this quality. Criticizing them for being imprecise is justified.

Other texts require readers to use their common sense to fill in the gaps. The logic from A to B to C may not always be clearly expressed, and statements that appear inconsistent on their own can make sense in context. If readers demand precision, they will not derive value from such texts and may criticize the aut... (read more)

Nope; precision has nothing to do with intrinsic value. If Ashley asks Blaine to get her an apple from the fridge, many would agree that 'apple' is a rather specific thing, but if Blaine was insistent on being dense he can still say "Really? An apple? How vague! There are so many possible subatomic configurations that could correspond to an apple, and if you don't have an exact preference ordering of sub-atomically specified apple configurations, then you're an incoherent agent without a proper utility function!" And Blaine, by the way, is speaking the truth here; Ashley could in fact be more specific. Ashley is not being completely vague, however; 'apple' is specific enough to specify a range of things, and within that range it may be ambiguous as to what she wants from the perspective of someone who is strangely obsessed with specificity, but Ashley can in fact simply and directly want every single apple that matches her rangerately-specified criteria. So it is with words like 'Good', 'Relevant', 'Considerate', 'Justice', and 'Intrinsic Value Strategicism'.

Why I think ChatGPT struggles with novel coding tasks

The internet is full of code, which ChatGPT can riff on incredibly well.

However, the internet doesn't contain as many explicit, detailed and accurate records of the thought process of the programmers who wrote it. ChatGPT isn't as able to "riff on" the human thought process directly.

When I engineer prompts to help ChatGPT imitate my coding thought process, it does better. But it's difficult to get it to put it all together fluently. When I code, I'm breaking tasks down, summarizing, chunking, simulating ... (read more)

Learning a new STEM subject is unlike learning a new language. When you learn a new language, you learn new words for familiar concepts. When you learn a new STEM subject, you learn new words for unfamiliar concepts.

I frequently find that a big part of the learning curve is trying to “reason from the jargon.” You haven’t yet tied a word firmly enough to the underlying concept that there’s an instant correspondence, and it’s easy to completely lose track of the concept.

One thing that can help is to focus early on building up a strong sense of the fundamenta... (read more)

Upvotes more informative than downvotes

If you upvote me, then I learn that you like or agree with the specific ideas I've articulated in my writing. If I write "blue is the best color," and you agreevote, then I learn you also agree that the best color is blue.

But if you disagree, I only learn that you think blue is not the best color. Maybe you think red, orange, green or black is the best color. Maybe you don't think there is a best color. Maybe you think blue is only the second-best color, or maybe you think it's the worst color.

I usually don't upvote or downvote mainly based on agreement, so there may be even less information about agreement than you might think! I have upvoted quite a few posts where I disagree with the main conclusion or other statements within it, when those posts are generally informative or entertaining or otherwise worth reading. I have downvoted a lot of posts with conclusions I generally agreed with but were poorly written, repetitive, trivial, boring, overbearing, used flawed arguments, or other qualities that I don't like to see in posts on this site. A post that said nothing but "blue is the best colour" would definitely get a downvote from me for being both trivial and lacking any support for the position, even if I personally agree. I would at very least want to know by what criteria it was considered "best" along with some supporting evidence for why those criteria were generally relevant and that it actually does meet those criteria better than anything else.
Interesting - I never downvote based on being poorly written, repetitive, trivial, or boring. I do downvote for a hostile-seeming tone accompanied by a wrong or poorly-thought-through argument. I'll disagreevote if I confidently disagree.   "Blue is the best color" was meant as a trivial example of a statement where there's a lot of alternative "things that could be true" if the statement were false, not as an example of a good comment.
2Rafael Harth1y
This doesn't seem quite right. The information content of agree vs. disagree depends on your prior, i.e., on P(people agree). If that's <0.5, then an agree vote is more informative; if it's >0.5, then a disagree vote is more informative. But it's not obvious that it's <.5 in general.
Fair point! The scenario I’m imagining is one in which our prior is low because we’re dealing with a specific, complex statement like “BLUE is the BEST color.” There are a lot of ways that could be considered wrong, but only one way for it to be considered right, so by default we’d have a low prior and therefore learn a lot more from an agreevote than a disagreevote. I think this is why it makes sense for a truth seeker to be happier with upvotes than downvotes, pleasure aside. If I get agreevotes, I am getting a lot of information in situations like these. If I get disagreevotes, especially when nobody’s taking the time to express why, then I’m learning very little while perceiving a hint that there is some gap in my knowledge.
Come to think of it, I feel like I tend to downvote most when I perceive that the statement has a lot of support (even if I’m the first voter). Somebody who makes a statement that I think will widely received as wrong, I will typically either ignore or respond to explicitly. Intuitively, that behavior seems appropriate: I use downvotes where they convey more information and use comments where downvotes would convey less.

Hunger makes me stop working, but figuring out food feels like work. The reason hunger eventually makes me eat is it makes me less choosy and health-conscious, and blocks other activities besides eating.

More efficient food motivation would probably involve enjoying the process of figuring out what to eat, and anticipated enjoyment of the meal itself. Dieting successfully seems to demand more tolerance for mild hunger, making it easier to choose healthy options than unhealthy options, and avoiding extreme hunger.

If your hunger levels follow a normal distrib... (read more)

Old Me: Write more in order to be unambiguous, nuanced, and thorough.

Future Me: Write for the highest marginal value per word.

Mental architecture

Let's put it another way: the memory palace is a powerful way to build a memory of ideas, and you can build the memory palace out of the ideas directly.

My memory palace for the 20 amino acids is just a protein built from all 20 in a certain order.

My memory palace for introductory mathematical series has a few boring-looking 2D "paths" and "platforms", sure, but it's mainly just the equations and a few key words in a specific location in space, so that I can walk by and view them. They're dynamic, though. For example, I imagine a pillar o... (read more)

Mentitation[1] means releasing control in order to gain control

As I've practiced my ability to construct mental imagery in my own head, I've learned that the harder I try to control that image, the more unstable it becomes.

For example, let's say I want to visualize a white triangle.

I close my eyes, and "stare off" into the black void behind my eyelids, with the idea of visualizing a white triangle floating around in my conscious mind.

Vaguely, I can see something geometric, maybe triangular, sort of rotating and shadowy and shifty, coming into focus.

No... (read more)

In some sense it is similar to Jungian active imagination