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.
Things I come to LessWrong for:
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
Markets are the worst form of economy except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to 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... (read more)
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)
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'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:
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)
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)
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)
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
while still having good outcomes. What's your rationality doing to you?
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)
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)
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.
If a gears-level understanding becomes the metric of expertise, what will people do?
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
An end run around slow government
The US recommended daily amount (RDA) of vitamin D is about 600 IUs per day. This was established in 2011, and hasn't been updated since. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences sets US RDAs.
According to a 2017 paper, "The Big Vitamin D Mistake," the right level is actually around 8,000 IUs/day, and the erroneously low level is due to a statistical mistake. I haven't been able to find out yet whether there is any transparency about when the RDA will be reconsidered.
But 3... (read more)
Explanation for why displeasure would be associated with meaningfulness, even though in fact meaning comes from pleasure:
Meaningful experiences involve great pleasure. They also may come with small pains. Part of how you quantify your great pleasure is the size of the small pain that it superceded.
Pain does not cause meaning. It is a test for the magnitude of the pleasure. But only pleasure is a causal factor for meaning.
Sci-hub has moved to https://sci-hub.st/
Do you treat “the dark arts” as a set of generally forbidden behaviors, or as problematic only in specific contexts?
As a war of good and evil or as the result of trade-offs between epistemic rationality and other values?
Do you shun deception and manipulation, seek to identify contexts where they’re ok or wrong, or embrace them as a key to succeeding in life?
Do you find the dark arts dull, interesting, or key to understanding the world, regardless of whether or not you employ them?
Asymmetric weapons may be the only source of edge for the truth itself. But s... (read more)
How to reach simplicity?
You can start with complexity, then simplify. But that's style.
What would it mean to think simple?
I don't know. But maybe...
Question re: "Why Most Published Research Findings are False":
Let R be the ratio of the number of “true relationships” to “no relationships” among those tested in the field... The pre-study probability of a relationship being true is R/(R + 1).
What is the difference between "the ratio of the number of 'true relationships' to 'no relationships' among those tested in the field" and "the pre-study probability of a relationship being true"?
What is the #1 change that LW has instilled in me?
Participating in LW has instilled the virtue of goal orientation. All other virtues, including epistemic rationality, flow from that.
Learning how to set goals, investigate them, take action to achieve them, pivot when necessary, and alter your original goals in light of new evidence is a dynamic practice, one that I expect to retain for a long time.
Many memes circulate around this broad theme. But only here have I been able to develop an explicit, robust, ever-expanding framework for making and thinking abo... (read more)
Different approaches to learning seem to be called for in fields with varying levels of paradigm consensus. The best approach to learning undergraduate math/CS/physics/chemistry seems different from the best one to take for learning biology, which again differs from the best approach to studying the economics/humanities*.
High-consensus disciplines have a natural sequential order, and the empirical data is very closely tied to an a priori predictive structure. You develop understanding by doing calculations and making theory-based arguments, along with empi... (read more)
What rationalists are trying to do is something like this:
This looks exactly like virtue ethics.
Now, we have heard that the meek shall inherit the earth. So we eschew the dark arts; embrace the virtues of accuracy, precision, and charity... (read more)
You can justify all sorts of spiritual ideas by a few arguments:
A checklist for the strength of ideas:
Worthwhile research should help the idea move either forward or backward through this sequence.
Why isn’t California investing heavily in desalination? Has anybody thought through the economics? Is this a live idea?
My modified Pomodoro has been working for me. I set a timer for 5 minutes and start working. Every 5 minutes, I just reset the timer and continue.
For some reason it gets my brain into "racking up points" mode. How many 5-minute sessions can I do without stopping or getting distracted? Aware as I am of my distractability, this has been an unquestionably powerful technique for me to expand my attention span.
All actions have an exogenous component and an endogenous component. The weights we perceive differ from action to action, context to context.
The endogenous component has causes and consequences that come down to the laws of physics.
The exogenous component has causes and consequences from its social implications. The consequences, interpretation, and even the boundaries of where the action begins and ends are up for grabs.
Failure modes in important relationships
Good reading habit #1: Turn absolute numbers into proportions and proportions into absolute numbers.
For example, in reading "With almost 1,000 genes discovered to be differentially expressed between low and high passage cells [in mouse insulinoma cells]," look up the number of mouse genes (25,000) and turn it into a percentage so that you can see that 1,000 genes is 4% of the mouse genome.
What is the difference between playing devil's advocate and steelmanning an argument? I'm interested in any and all attempts to draw a useful distinction, even if they're only partial.
Empathy is inexpensive and brings surprising benefits. It takes a little bit of practice and intent. Mainly, it involves stating the obvious assumption about the other person's experience and desires. Offer things you think they'd want and that you'd be willing to give. Let them agree or correct you. This creates a good context in which high-value trades can occur, without needing an conscious, overriding, selfish goal to guide you from the start.
Chris Voss thinks empathy is key to successful negotiation.
Is there a line between negotiating and not, or only varying degrees of explicitness?
Should we be openly negotiating more often?
How do you define success, when at least one of his own examples of a “successful negotiation” is entirely giving over to the other side?
I think the point is that the relationship comes first, greed second. Negotiation for Voss is exchange of empathy, seeking information, being aware of your leverage. Those factors are operating all the time - that’s the relationship.