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just_browsing's Shortform

Summary: this post is mostly for self reflection. I my first impressions (likes/dislikes) after using Roam, a note-taking app with good "linking" features. I also use this post to think about some Roam-related decisions (should I look into competitor apps, should I upgrade to Roam's lump sum "Believer" plan). 

I'm trying out Roam and liking it so far. I started using it when I started working on a research project in order to reap the full benefits. 

Before I list pros and cons, I should clarify that I am a novice at Roam. I know I am not using Roam close to optimally, and probably some of the disadvantages I've listed are due to my lack of knowledge rather than problems with Roam. (Feel free to tell me where I am Being Wrong on the Internet because then I will learn more about Roam!) 

Advantages of roam: 

  • Organization system makes it easy to want to write. There are "daily" pages which you I can tab to at any time by pressing Alt+D. Or, I can create "topic" pages for a book I'm working through, a concept, whatever. So when I open Roam to work I know I'm either learning something and taking notes in Roam, or maybe writing my miscellaneous ideas in my daily page.
  • It feels fast. Better than google docs or Overleaf. Difference between offline environment barely noticeable (meaning occasionally I get a big lag spike because of an internet problem on my end, rather than a constant amount of noticeable latency).
  • Search results are fast and relevant. If you've written those words before, they're easy to find. Admittedly my graph is small since I'm new so I'll have to wait and see whether Roam scales.
  • "Page links" are useful. I thought it would be annoying to get in the habit of linking [[Some Concept]] every time I say it but it actually isn't. Worst case I can write first and link later. I think it's genuinely useful to be able to click [[Some Concept]] and see all places I've mentioned it—this is helpful if I want to refresh my understanding of a concept for example.
  • "Block links" are even more useful. Roam notes are a bunch of nested bullet points and a block is a single bullet point. Each block has a reference code. If you paste that reference code elsewhere, the same block appears (but underlined and "linked" to its source). I find this super super useful because often my brain is writing and thinks "wait this is just X thing I've seen / written before". With block references I can just paste that block in (or a link to it). It's so much faster than my previous workflow, which was scrolling up through my ideas document, or even browsing different files, looking for where I'd written that thing before.
  • TODO list. There is an easy shortcut (Ctrl+Enter) to add a block to my TODO list. So it's easy to go and look at all my TODO items on different pages. This is great if I am writing something and want to make a note to come back to a point without breaking out of flow.

Disadvantages of roam: 

  • LaTeX needs two dollar signs. Also Roam's LaTeX is clunky. If you write two dollar signs, it autocompletes the next two, but you can't advance through those by pressing dollar sign—you have to use the right arrow key instead. I wish there was a setting to use Overleaf-style input instead. 
  • Some features which seem like they should be intuitive are not intuitive. Most notably I still am not comfortable with moving blocks and the side panel. 
  • Limited offline functionality (I think?). I thought Roam was only supposed to work if you were connected to the internet. However it actually seems to work fine if I am temporarily disconnected from the internet, which is great! TODO (I'd be pressing Ctrl+Enter if I was in Roam☺) is experiment with this and see how offline I can go. 
  • Works fine but not great on mobile. It's decent but just slightly clunky in browser. I think I would be more likely to reference my graph if there was a smooth mobile app than if I had to open my phone's browser and get to the appropriate page every time. 
  • Some shortcuts are counterintuitive. It's hard for me to remember all the Shifts, Tabs, and Ctrls. And then Ctrl+Shift+o is how you open links for some reason? This is kind of unfair criticism since every feature-heavy platform takes time to adjust to but it's a current bottleneck of mine for sure. 
  • Some stuff seems to require using the mouse. For an app with so many shortcuts you'd think there'd be shortcuts for thinks like "paste current blocks' reference into clipboard". It's hard to reliably right-click the tiny bullet point (necessary for grabbing the block reference) so this is a bit of a time waster. 

Something I am uncertain about is whether I should switch to a cheaper competitor app. I have money but not that much money. $15/month is worth it to me since Roam seems to be increasing my productivity, but also maybe a free competitor app with Roam's linking capabilities would also increase my productivity by the same amount. 

Something else I am uncertain about is how to make the decision of whether to stay on the monthly plan ($15/month) or switch to the Believer plan ($500 for the next 5 years). In order to make this decision I feel like I need to both quantify how much Roam will actually improve my productivity and whether cheaper competitor apps will improve my productivity by the same amount. It's worth mentioning that the Believer plan comes with extra features (including "offline mode")—but it's hard to know how much I will like this without actually purchasing the Believer plan. 

I feel like in order to compare which of two apps is better I need to spend a long time (say 6 months) getting fairly good at each app. Otherwise, I will just be comparing how shallow the learning curve is for beginners. 

So, my current plan is to go all in on Roam for the next 6 months and give it a fair shot. Then after that I will explore/exploit competitor apps, spending an amount of time on them proportional to how likely I think they are to beat Roam. 

just_browsing's Shortform

This is an interesting way to think about it. For me, I'm not sure whether it's as much of a pressure differential as much as it is a pressure threshold. The latter meaning, if I exceed a certain level of excitement about a topic, then I feel a compulsion to communicate (and it feels effortless). By contrast, if I have not hit that level, it becomes much harder to write or think about that topic. I wonder whether developing more motivation based on the "sink" would in turn make me a more effective communicator...

just_browsing's Shortform

Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking of! 

just_browsing's Shortform

This might be helpful advice. Some of the more required writing I've been putting off is probably too niche for the "Being Wrong On The Internet" aspect but I could probably more proactively find people willing to let me explain things to them. Come to think of it this has often been a good way to motivate me to learn / write things...

just_browsing's Shortform

Uh oh..."everybody knows" was poor wording here then. I guess it would have been more precise to say "I've heard this from multiple different non-overlapping groups so it seems like widely applicable advice". 

Or maybe you write for a living because you are naturally good at selecting the right time to write / have a wider window for when you are capable of writing well? 

just_browsing's Shortform

(this is just a rant, not insightful) Everybody knows how important it is to choose the right time to write something. The optimal time is when you're really invested in the topic, learning rapidly but know enough to start the writing process. Then, ideally, during the writing process everything will crystalize. If you wait much longer than this the topic will no longer be exciting and you will not want to write about it. 

Everybody gives this advice, both within and outside of academia. I've heard it from professors, LW-y blog posts (maybe even on LW?), and everywhere in between. 


just_browsing's Shortform

Ah, I googled those and the results mostly mentioned "Thinking Fast and Slow". The book has been on my list for a while but it sounds like I should give it higher priority. Thanks for the pointer!

just_browsing's Shortform

I've thought through an explanation as to why there exist people who are not effective altruists. I think it's important to understand these viewpoints if EAs want to convert more people to their side. 

As an added bonus, I think this explanation generalizes to many cases where a person's actions contradict their knowledge—thinking through this helped me better understand why I think I take actions which contradict my knowledge. 

Summary: people's gut feel (which actually governs most decision-making) takes time, thought and effort to catch up to their systematic reasoning (which is capable of absorbing new information much quicker). This explains phenomena such as "why not everyone who has heard of EA is an EA" and "why not everyone who has heard of factory farming is a vegan". 

Outcome / why this was useful for me to think about: This framework of "systematic reasoning" vs "gut feel" is useful for me when thinking about what I know, how well I know it, and whether I act on this knowledge. This helps distinguish between two possible types of "this person is acting contrary to knowledge they have": 1) the person's actions disagree with their gut feel and systematic reasoning (= lack of control) or 2) the person's actions agree with their systematic reasoning but not gut feel (= still processing the knowledge). 

Full explanation: People's views on career choices, moral principles, and most generally the moral value of particular actions are quite rarely influenced by systematic reasoning. Instead, people automatically develop priors on these things by interacting with society and make most decisions according to gut feel.  

Making gut feel decisions instead of using systematic reasoning is generally a good move. At any moment, we are deciding not to do an insanely high number of technically feasible actions. Evaluating all of these is computationally intractable. (for arguments like these see "Algorithms to Live By")

When people are introduced to EA, they will usually not object to premises such as "we should make choices to do more good at the margin" and "some charities are 10-100x more effective than others". However just because they agree with this doesn't mean they're going to immediately become an EA. In other words, anybody can quickly understand EA concepts through their systematic reasoning, but that doesn't mean it has also reached their gut feel reasoning (= becoming an EA). 

A person's gut feel on EA topics is all of their priors on charitable giving, global problems, career advice, and doing good in general. Even the most well-worded argument isn't immediately going to sway a person's priors so much that they immediately become an EA. But over time, a person's priors can be updated via repeated exposure and internal reflection. So maybe you explain EA to someone and they're initially skeptical, but they continue carefully considering EA ideas and become more and more of an EA. 

This framework is actually quite general. Here's another example: consider a person who is aware that factory farming is cruel but regularly eats meat. This is because their gut feel on whether meat is OK hasn't caught up to systematic reasoning about factory farming being unethical. 

Just like the EA example explained above, there is often no perfect explanation which can instantly turn somebody into a gut feel vegan. Rather, they have to put in the work to reflect on pro-vegan evidence presented to them.

(n.b: the terms "systematic reasoning" and "gut feel" are not as thoughtfully chosen as they could be—I'd appreciate references to better or more standard terms!)

just_browsing's Shortform

I used to struggle to pay attention to audiobooks and podcasts. No matter how fascinating I found the topic, whenever I tried to tune in I would quickly zone out and lose the thread. However I think I am figuring out how to get myself to focus on these audio-only information sources more consistently. 

I've tried listening to these audio information sources in three different environments: 

  1. Doing nothing else
  2. Going on a walk (route familiar or randomly chosen as I go)
  3. Doing menial tasks in minecraft (fishing, villager trading, farming, small amounts of inventory management)

My intuition would have been that my attention would be best with (1), then (2), then (3). In fact the opposite seems to be true. I focus best while playing minecraft, then while walking, then doing nothing else. 

I think the explanation for this is fairly self-evident if you turn it around the other way. The reason why I am not able to focus on podcasts while doing nothing else is usually because my mind goes off on tangents, tunes out the audio, and loses the thread. To a lesser extent, this happens on walks. It seems like menial tasks in minecraft take up just enough mental energy for me not to additionally think up tangents, but not so much mental energy that I can no longer follow the discussion. In summary: "Being focused" on a fast-paced one-way stream of information requires not going off on tangents, which my brain can only do if it is sufficiently idle.

Something I am aware of but haven't tested is that it could be that minecraft is too taxing and I am not absorbing as much as I would be if I were going on a walk. However, I would argue that it is better to consistently absorb 80% of a podcast than it is to absorb 100% of a podcast's content 80% of the time and be completely zoned out for the other 20% (as is perhaps the case when I am walking). Pausing and rewinding is inefficient and annoying. This is also an argument for listening to podcasts at a faster speed (perhaps at the cost of absorption rate). 

Moreover, I am listening to podcasts with the goal of gaining high-level understanding of the topics covered. So, "everything but slightly fuzzy on the details" is better than "the details of 80% of everything" for my purposes. Perhaps if I was listening with a different goal (for example, a podcast discussing a paper I wanted to deeply understand), more of my focus would be required and it would be better for me to walk (or even sit still) than play minecraft. 

Initially, I thought I was bad at focusing on podcasts since I lacked the brainpower to follow a fast-paced audio. Having experienced decreased distractability while listening to a podcast and playing minecraft, I have now updated my model of how I focus. I think focus might follow a sort of Laffer curve (upside down U) shape, where the x axis is # external stimuli and the y axis is # content absorbed. 

More precisely (a picture really would do better here but I don't know how to put one in a shortform): Call the most # content absorbed y0 and the corresponding # external stimuli x0. I used to think podcasts were more than x0 stimulus for me, meaning that I could never absorb a near-optimal amount of content. However the minecraft+podcast experiment showed me that podcasts take less than x0 stimulus for me, and minecraft just enoug boosted the amount of stimuli to get me to the optimal (x0, y0) focus situation. 

Going forward I definitely want to experiment with different combinations of stimuli (media, physical activity, environment) and see how I can optimize my focus. Some thoughts which seem like other people have them / do them: 

  1. What can I focus on best while exercising? Previously I have been putting dumb tv shows on in the background—is this all I can focus on or can I use this time more productively? (If I can be more productive then I will probably exercise more—win win!)
  2. Within the realm of podcasts, can I come up with different "categories" and associate optimal actions to each? Three categories I have experience with are "technical" (AXRP, more hardcore episodes of 80k Hours podcast), "soft skills" (less hardcore episodes of 80k Hours podcast), "fun" (e.g. podcasts about a tv show). Then I could build habits based off this (e.g. pairing "soft skills" with minecraft or "technical" with sitting outside) without having to put as much effort into decision making.
  3. Podcasts + fixed stimuli make for good benchmarks which will help me measure whether my focus is higher or lower than usual. For example, maybe if I am unable to focus on a combo that I usually am able to focus on, that could be a sign there is something wrong with my physical health or that I am mentally exhausted. 
  4. Some people report being able to focus on difficult tasks (e.g. theoretical research) best when in a noisy place but otherwise undistracted (e.g. coffee shop). This seems like an instance of what I am talking about here.

Outcome: I will try to think about this more deliberately when planning which activities I do when, and in particular how I pair activities which can be done simultaneously. Who knows—maybe I will finally be able to get through some of those 3+ hour long episodes of the 80,000 Hours podcast! :) 

My Model of the New COVID Strain and US Response

This post (and the discussion in its comments) were interesting reads, thanks. 

I noticed a small typo you might want to correct. The "will not agree" is missing from

Urban blue tribers because containment in cities is much harder anyway.

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