by mingyuan1 min read21st Nov 201924 comments
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I get sick of people saying things that imply that rationality has no practical, tangible benefit (e.g. "I moved to the Bay and am no better off" etc). Lots of discussion about this topic talks about physical fitness, career success, or investing. But since this is my shortform and I can say whatever I want, I want to talk about a concept that I've personally found helpful: the idea of fire alarms (as talked about in There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial General Intelligence and Sunset at Noon), which is sort of like just another concept handle for noticing confusion.

When I was eleven, my family spent Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house. That weekend, as we were getting ready to make the several-hour drive back home, the adults were doing odd jobs around the house and my sister and I were hanging out with our cousin in the den, maybe watching a movie or something. At some point, my cousin looked up and asked, "Is someone screaming?" My priors on someone screaming were extremely low, and I didn't hear what she heard, so I said, "Nah, it's just a machine," and turned back to what I was doing. Turned out it was someone screaming, and my decision to ignore that possibility could very well have meant the difference between my dad living and dying. (The details aren't important, but for anyone who's worried, he lived.)

Another anecdote. In late 2017, shortly after the release of both There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial General Intelligence and Sunset at Noon, I was standing with Habryka in a dimly lit and dusty room, setting up A/V for a show. In a moment of stillness, Habryka looked over and said, "Is that smoke?" Due to the poor lighting and my low prior on things randomly catching on fire, my knee-jerk response was still "Nah." But luckily Habryka wasn't so dismissive, and he went over and unplugged the definitely-actually-smoking cord before a proper fire could start. I've similarly witnessed the entire LessWrong team insisting on investigating every time they smell smoke (even though every time it's just been someone burning something on the stove or in the oven). 

I think there's an implicit expected value calculation in this, where it might be slightly inconvenient to investigate every time you smell smoke or hear a scream, but sometimes - and perhaps not even that rarely - the payoff for doing so is preventing a structure fire or saving a life. I've spent years chastising myself for my dismissiveness back when I was eleven, and I think that my contact with rationality has made me into the sort of person who's more intentional about investigating warning signs, and therefore much less likely to let my dad die just because it seemed unlikely to me that someone was screaming.

Thoughts on skill-building


Like many people I know, I never really had to try at anything growing up, and so I never learned to try. I never had to learn how to 'study' because I always aced tests regardless, and honestly I still haven't figured it out. College was a lot more challenging, and when faced with that I basically gave up on learning and just half-heartedly tried to survive.

So these aren't novel ideas, just reflections on deliberate learning from someone who has never really had to do it before.


In my first week of college, I tried out for a bunch of a cappella groups. I'd always had a good raw singing voice but had very little training – I'd taken a handful of private voice lessons, but I'd never sung in a choir or anything. Even during the auditions I could tell that I wasn't going to pass. I especially struggled with matching a series of pitches played on the piano. It was so obvious to me that I wouldn't get any callbacks (and I was right) that I scheduled a hangout with a friend during callbacks.

Despite not getting into any groups, I stayed close to the a cappella scene and latched on really tightly to one group in particular. They even let me sing with them sometimes in casual social settings, and I learned so much just from observing them, their processes, and the things they focused on when learning and giving each other feedback. That – my first year of college – was when I really started getting serious about deliberately improving my singing. The summer after first year I took three months of voice lessons (which still wasn't enough for me to pass a cappella auditions) and bought myself a Blue Yeti.

Throughout college I recorded songs on my computer, started to learn harmony parts by ear, and invented harmonies to sing with myself. When I listened to music I would improvise harmonies over it, and honestly, most of them were terrible for about the first five years; it's only in the past two years that I've gotten a good enough hit rate on harmonies to do this aloud when other people are around. I also learned some hard bits from Hamilton just by repeating them hundreds of times in the shower and while walking around campus (e.g. Eliza's runs in Helpless, and the 123456789 sequence from Ten Duel Commandments). By the end of college my solo voice had improved a lot but I still had a lot of technical issues that I knew I needed to work on.

After college I joined the Bayesian Choir, which is a pretty good environment for skill building because the rehearsal structure is that every week you have three hours to learn a new song from scratch and then record it at the end. At my first rehearsal I was one of only two altos who showed up, and luckily the other one was a lot more experienced because I was absolutely and completely lost. I could only sight-sing insofar as I could tell whether we should be moving up or down. A year later, I was confident enough to sometimes lead the alto (or tenor) sectional. The next year I went to a jazz camp where I 'majored in' singing, which supplemented my more structured choir experience with a healthy dose of improvisation and fun.

Three years after college graduation I music-directed my house's production of Hamilton, which involved things like coming up with vocal exercises to help my 'cast' with specific problems, teaching people to harmonize for the first time, and a small amount of arranging. I think I understand music a lot better now.

Uh oh

But here's the part that I hadn't really encountered before: I've now reached a point where I've corrected the obvious problems and can easily sound good in most situations. But now I'm trying to do harder things like learning Beyoncé runs, singing entire a cappella arrangements with just myself, and 'finding my voice' (rather than just emulating the style of the original of what I'm singing).... and I now feel like I'm a terrible singer and can never get better. 

My friend from college gave me a vocal exercise (intended for my Hamilton cast) that requires quick precision on weird intervals, and while I can do it if I focus, it highlights to me how large a gap there still is between me and her. Why do I lean on vocal scoops so much, especially when switching registers? It can be a stylistic choice, but I'm doing it inadvertently and that's just sloppy. Wasn't my range bigger in the past? Will I ever sound genuinely good in the soprano range? I still struggle with rhythm and that probably means that I will always-for-the-rest-of-my-life struggle with rhythm. I could definitely still do with better breath support but I'm too lazy to train it, and it feels like I will never get the hang of that Beyoncé run. 

I'm pretty sure there are books about this (like Robert Greene's Mastery and Seth Godin's The Dip) that I just haven't gotten around to reading. I just feel more down on myself about singing than I'm used to (even though I still believe that I'm good at it and I still have projects I'm excited about). I think the more I know about singing, the more obvious the differences between good and bad singing are to me, and the more obvious it is how far I am from being Beyoncé. 


I think the bad news is that yup you are now in the valley of Good Taste and Medium Skill and if you're trying to run the "minimize feel bad about not being able to do everything", alas, that'll be awhile.

But, good news is I think the set of things you're currently talking about are indeed achievable. It may take a few years though, depending on how hardcore you're optimizing your life for this specifically.

(FYI, 10 years ago I formed the goal of "be able to improvise musicals and get people to sing with me whenever I go in the world", and... discovered it was impossibly hard. And then last year I noticed I... almost could do it, well enough that when I listen to an episode of Off Book I can see the gears of what choices they're making and why)

Housemate conflicts

It’s been a heck of a weird year so far, and what with quarantines and pandemics and protests and everyone’s ensuing mental health crises, I know a lot of group houses that have seen significant internal strife, my own house among them. So I’m writing this not necessarily because I think it’s insightful, but because I think it might be healing (or, failing that, at least explanatory).


When choosing housemates, you’re usually thinking along the lines of, “Are these people interesting to talk to, financially responsible, and generally non-odious to live with?” You probably want to have in place mechanisms for conflict resolution, but those conflicts will likely be along the lines of “should we hire cleaners or just be stricter about chores?” or “how late at night is it okay to play music?” – relatively low-stakes. In many cases, you can also just move out if you find you have irreconcilable conflicts, which puts an upper bound on how bad the situation can get.

But lately, we’ve been thrown into a world where the housemate question is more, “Do I trust these people to make life-and-death decisions for me and be arbiters of my every action, and do we have conflicting neuroses that will drive us crazy if we’re forced to spend every day together for the foreseeable future?” To me, that sounds a whole lot like marriage, and I sure as hell wouldn’t marry someone on the basis of, “well, they happened to be there and seem pretty okay overall.” (I don’t even want to marry my wonderful boyfriend of three years!) And while moving is always costly, it's much more so in a world where you can't have other people come in your house and touch your stuff, you can't feel safe renting a car to move the stuff yourself, travel is very limited, and wherever you move to is where you'll have to spend nearly 100% of your time.

In the archetypical marriage – a close and trusting relationship between two people who love each other – you can sit down and talk through major problems, and come to really understand one another’s point of view, hopefully bringing you to a compromise that doesn’t hurt anyone. In a California-standard social bubble of 12 people, it’s difficult to do the same. Even small decisions require an hour of discussion, you have less emotional safety than you would in a one-on-one discussion with someone you love, and even if everyone does share their honest emotional perspective, it’s often impossible to come to a decision that doesn’t hurt anyone. And for me at least, it’s impossible to care about 11 other people’s emotions to nearly the extent that I care about my boyfriend’s, which makes for a less productive decision-making environment.

All that is to say – the many fights and housemate breakups that have arisen in the past few months don’t mean that anyone involved is a bad person, or that the people can’t ever be friends again. It just means you weren’t ready to get married. And that's okay.

When I was in high school, I once had a conversation with a classmate that went something like this (except that it was longer and I was less eloquent):

Him: "German is a Scandinavian language."

Me: "No, it's not. German and the Scandinavian languages both fall under the umbrella of Germanic languages, but 'Scandinavian languages' refers to a narrower category that doesn't include German."

Him: "Well that's your opinion."

Me: "No??? That's not what an opinion is???"

Him: "Look, it's your opinion that German isn't a Scandinavian language, and it's my opinion that it is. We can agree to disagree."

Me: ??????????????????!!!!!!!!!????!?!?!?!?! *punches self in face*


When I was taking a required intro biology course in college, I had already read a bunch of LW and SSC, notably including That Chocolate Study. So when the professor put Bohannon's results and methodology up on the projector, I was ready as heck to talk about all of the atrocities therein. The professor asked us to pair up with the person next to us to discuss whether we believed Bohannon's results, and I decided to give the freshman next to me the chance to speak first before I absolutely demolished everything. The girl turned to me with wide eyes and a confident, creaky-voice drawl, and said, verbatim: "I think it's true, because chocolate is known to be a superfood."

I was floored. How could this be happening in real life? I was at an elite college with a sub-10% acceptance rate, and this person next to me had just said "known to be" and "superfood" like they explained anything – like they meant anything. I will never forget those words. Looking back, that may have been the day I decided to move to the Bay after graduating. No regrets.

Once upon a time I ran a pair debugging session for my local rationality meetup group. A guy showed up who I'd never seen there before and as far as I know never showed up again. Below is the gist of our debugging session, which was... rather eye-opening for me:


Me: Hi there, what bug do you want help with?

Him: I need help buying groceries.

Me: Okay, what goes wrong when you're buying groceries?

Him: Every time I buy groceries, lots of them end up going bad in the fridge.

Me: Okay, that's pretty common. Do you make a list before you go grocery shopping?

Him: Yes.

Me: So is it that you're buying too much of things? Or are you buying things you don't actually like to eat?

Him: No, I'm buying the right amount of things. The problem is that sometimes I have to leave town, and then the groceries spoil.

Me: Oh, okay. Do you know in advance when you'll need to leave town?

Him: No, I have to leave town for unknown amounts of time on short notice. My parents and sister all have severe depression and I have to drive to their city to help when they're having mental health emergencies.

Me: Oh gosh, I'm sorry! Are they receiving any type of care?

Him: No.

Me: Do you want help with getting them care?

Him: No, the problem is that they don't have health insurance.

Me: Okay, can we help them get health insurance?

Him: I'm in charge of getting them health insurance, and I've tried, but the ObamaCare website doesn't work for me.

Me: ..............................................................

[[Me: Dear god please see a therapist good luck bye]]

Another exchange from the same session, with a different guy. Less legendary but still instructive:


Him: My sink is always full of dirty dishes.

Me: Okay, do you know what the blocker is?

Him: I just never feel like doing my dishes.

Me: Why?

Him: Well, I only want to wash my dishes with hot water, but the water in my sink doesn't get hot enough, so every time I do the dishes I have to boil water for that purpose, but my stove isn't very powerful and I only have one pot, but it's not big enough to fill the sink so I have to boil three pots full of water before I can do the dishes, and that takes like half an hour.

Me: o.0

I hope I am not missing a point, so just to be sure... the point is that buying a larger pot would dramatically improve this guy's quality of life, but he is unable to notice this?

(Or buying an electric kettle. Or only washing greasy dishes with hot water, and everything else with water from sink. Or switching to Soylent... okay, this is too extreme, but still within 5 minutes of thinking about the problem.)

Oh, part of this is that I posted this anecdote as a supplement to the main one; it illustrates the same point but less starkly. I think the thing I was pointing at here was: people come to you stating that their problem is "I don't feel like doing my dishes" or "I'm bad at grocery shopping", and it turns out that there's a more fundamental thing in the way that on some level they know is the actual blocker, but they don't realize that that's where they need to intervene on their problem. Knowing Guy 2, I think he would have been able to come up with all of the solutions that you did within 5 minutes of brainstorming, but he was focused on {sink full of dishes} rather than looking at the problem as a whole.

This same thing can open happen with debugging but internally.  You think it's about dishes but actually it's about not having your mother's love.

I've observed that different pair debuggers tend to focus on finding the root internal or external causes, and the best can hone in on which is more relevant.

A lot of rationalists are on the self-improvement train and I have been as well, but lately I've been thinking that maybe personality traits just don't change over time. As a baby I nursed for comfort and would overnurse until I threw up; as an adult I still have trouble telling when I'm hungry or full and seem predisposed to develop eating disorders. As a child I had massive problems with anxiety and rage; as an adult, I still do. I've always been weirdly drawn to house cleaning and related skills – when my mom would drive to the grocery store my sister would stay in the car and write in her notebook, while I would learn how to calculate which cereal had the cheapest unit price – and housework is still one of the things I spend most of my time on. 

I've changed a lot, but these things haven't changed.

Do people just all have underlying traits that stay with them from birth to death and make them who they are? 

I feel like Kaj has a post where he says something has substantially changed for him. I think it's this one.

Also, I think my underlying traits haven't changed too much, but my experience of life has. I've been intensely depressed and lonely at times, and other times forgotten life could even be that bad. Which I will definitely take and put time and effort into changing, even if it doesn't count as 'underlying traits'.

To me it seems that change is difficult and frustratingly slow, but possible. Over time, slow changes accumulate.

The traits that don't change, do they still have the same intensity? I have some bad traits that used to be worse in the past.

Your behavior is a function of your traits and your environment. Even if the traits are (at least in short term) fixed, perhaps you could change something about your environment? If you forget things, take notes, or set up dozen alarms in your smartphone. Buy tools that encourage you to do the right thing, and put them in a visible place in your room. Also, people you meet regularly are like live reminders (of things they typically do or talk about). Sometimes just hanging out with different people has a big impact on how you behave.

For problems with food, have you tried Soylent? This outsources the questions of "how much?" and "what?".

Taking care of housework sounds like a good thing.

[This is in shortform because I haven't looked into any of the existing literature on the subject]

I've been thinking for a while about how people's mental machinery works. Specifically, I've been thinking about spelling and reading. It's reasonable to assume that everyone has roughly the same mental machinery for spoken language, as this is something that has been a part of human experience for tens of thousands of years. Similarly, you'd expect everyone to have the same mental machinery for loving others, feeling hungry, and other things that were present in the ancestral environment.

Reading, on the other hand, is an 'intellectual technology' that's only been around for a couple thousand years. And of course, along with reading comes writing and spelling.

My housemates and I had a conversation once a couple years ago where we each tried to describe our internal experience of spelling words, and they were so vastly different as to be incomprehensible. For example, for me, words are basically indistinguishable from their spellings - each English word is a chunk, and when I think of a word I just also think of a picture of that word. If asked to spell it, I can read it off from the picture, or I can just say the correct sequence of letters in a way that's introspectively opaque to me.

On the other hand, some of my housemates described having to sound out the word each time (it was stored verbally rather than visually), or other things that were even more foreign to me and that I can't remember because the conversation was two years ago. (But you can imagine another person who has to imagine looking the word up in a dictionary, or typing it on a keyboard, in order to spell it.)

I see this also with the task of memorizing text. For me this is basically trivial - I can memorize hundreds of lines of text in a day or two if I just read through it enough times. One of my housemates, on the other hand, has basically nothing memorized at all, and it's very hard for him to memorize anything. We once went caroling, and even though we sang the same song like 20 times in a row, he just had to hum along in the background because he couldn't learn the words.

The takeaway is that we all have basic mental scaffolding that allows us to develop skills like spelling and memorizing text, but there are many different edifices that we can construct on top of that scaffolding. Some will be more effective than others (e.g. my native memorization machinery is much more effective than my housemate's). This isn't often noted because most people are not as into introspection as the people I know.

Something to note is that, since many of these edifices are constructed from a very young age, one would expect them to be very hard to retrain. For a real example of people building new mental edifices, look at memory palaces - they replace an introspectively opaque, sort of random process with a structured and effective process, but they take time to learn. 

Follow-up thoughts: Could this be leveraged to teach people to spell, or be better at more important things like math or research? Like, instead of saying, "spell this word", you could say, "picture this word in your mind and read off the letters." Except that not everyone has mental imagery? Typical mind fallacy feels related but in a more complex way than just "these are the same topic." 

My lunch break is now over.

Hmm, "what mental machinery should we try to teach children" is a pretty interesting question (with potentially different answers depending on how much of this is 'children randomly pick a scaffolding to build' vs 'people are hardwired differently for mysterious reasons')

I think about the mystery of spelling a lot. Part of it is that English is difficult, of course. But still why does my friend who reads several long books a year fail so badly at spelling, as he has always struggled since 2nd and 3rd grade when his mom would take extra time out just to ensure that he learned his spelling words enough to pass.

I have never really had a problem with spelling and seem to use many methods when I am thinking about spelling explicitly, sound it out, picture it, remember it as a chunk, recall the language of origin to figure out dipthongs. I notice that students who are bad at spelling frequently have trouble learning foreign languages, maybe the correlation points to a common cause?

Also probably related: habit formation