When I was younger, I had time and energy to spare on weird side-projects, and a comparative lack of ideas worth spending them on. Now I have some ideas, but no time and energy to spare. I share these ideas below, in case anyone is in the same situation I was a decade ago[1].

Editing Weird Worthwhile Writers

Lsusr has a lot of interesting things to say. He also makes a lot of trivial grammar/spelling/style mistakes. It occurred to me about a year ago that someone could pleasantly do a modest amount of good very easily by volunteering to edit for him; it also occurred to me that doing this for his business writing might be a good way to learn about running a company and make connections that could be useful later. I then proceeded to not do that, because editing work isn’t my comparative advantage, and because I’d feel like I was stealing a role which could be filled by someone much younger, more ambitious and less experienced than me. Recently, that role has been filled by someone much younger, more ambitious and less experienced than me; it seems to be going pretty well for everyone involved so far.

Dominic Cummings has a lot of interesting things to say. He also has an idiosyncratic writing style which is heavily informed by his time in the Civil Service, where everyone he had to communicate with was some combination of a) captive audiences, b) people whose hectic schedules leave them with negligible attention spans c) people who use all the same jargon he does and d) people he actively despises. A teenager on Twitter has accumulated a >10k following by translating his tweets from Dom-ese to English. I suspect that rewriting some of his essays would be a good way to get appreciation and attention from the internet in general and LessWrong in particular.

Accumulating Life Stories

I used to have a hobby of showing up at train stations after midnight and asking people who had missed the last train to tell me their life story. Faced with the choice between spending eight hours scrolling on their phone and spending that time talking about themselves, almost all of them said yes.

I did this because I wanted to hear about the world from a source without the usual filters. The people I know in real life are few in number and mostly my age. Media in general and the internet in particular are disproportionately left-wing and biased towards surprising stories. Also, people usually tend to censor what they say and write, but when they’re talking past midnight with a stranger they’ll never see again who didn’t ask their name, there’s very little they’ll shy away from[2].

When I told people about this, they said it was an incredible idea, I should keep going and I should use the material to write a book. I didn’t want to write a book; I just wanted to know what the world was like. After hearing about a dozen life stories, I decided that my hobby was no longer worth what it was doing to my sleep schedule, and quit.

[Redacted because no-one but me would think this one could work]

[Redacted for reasons which are themselves redacted]

Perfect Pen-and-Paper Encryption

It is possible to encrypt messages perfectly using a One-Time Pad. If the encryption key contains as much information as the message it encrypts, and is never used again, it is logically impossible for anyone (the NSA, the UFAI, the Gods, anyone) to decode.

This much is common knowledge, at least among techies. What isn’t common knowledge (as far as I know) is an intuitive set of rules for generating and applying such encryption keys by hand[3]. If people knew they had an easy way to send messages no government could decrypt, I believe this would subtly but meaningfully change the world, probably for the better.

I designed such an encryption standard. I take no pride in this; if you understand the logic behind OTPs you could probably design a better one. The difficult part would be popularizing it. My best idea would be to make (and encourage others to make) interesting games where the player (among other things) uses perfect encryption to decode secret messages. This ‘best’ idea is still terrible, so I’ll probably never get around to trying it.

  1. ^

    . . . and because I want to hear about ideas other people have given up on, and because I want to show off my interesting thoughts.

  2. ^

    About half the people I interviewed had stories about near-death experiences, which they recounted in detail with no hesitation. If I ever write a story where a viewpoint character almost dies, I’ll be able to make it unnervingly realistic.

  3. ^

    Why by hand? Because if you’re paranoid enough to use an OTP, you’re paranoid enough to consider all computers already compromised; and because being sure an OTP works is much easier than being sure Tor/PGP/whatever work.

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:11 AM

If people knew they had an easy way to send messages no government could decrypt, I believe this would subtly but meaningfully change the world, probably for the better.

I find this unlikely. Wikileaks had a lot of trouble to get journalists with whom they communicated to use basic encryption that's much easier to use then any OTP system could be. 

You make a valid point, but . . .

basic encryption

The 'basic encryption' you have in minds is a Computer Thing. To the journalists in question, it was a New Computer Thing. If you're a Computer Person, you're probably underestimating the reticence associated with attempting New Computer Things when you're not a Computer Person.

much easier to use

I think that's false, albeit on the merest technicalities. The OTP system I have in mind is awkward and time-consuming ( . . . and probably inferior to Tor for Wikileaks' use case), but in terms of easiness it's something you could (probably) (eventually) teach the average (sufficiently motivated) tweenager.

It's not just Tor. It's also "please use Signal instead of unencrypted email" that wasn't an easy sell. Part of Wikileaks work was not just receiving documents but coordinating with journalists who write stories about those documents. Partly, documents that resulted in people like Andy Müller Maguhn getting a hardware bug on his cell phone.

As far as I know, the New York Times still runs on Slack instead of using a solution that provides end-to-end encrypion.

Another illustrative episode was the Guardian journalists who famously published the password to decrypt the Wikileaks insurance file that contained the clear names of the carefully redacted diplomatic cables and documents about the wars.

Teaching someone to use PGP is also something you can do with an average teenager. It's not that complicated. It's just awkward enough to use that it's very hard to get the people who share important information to do so.