Timothy Johnson


Sorted by New


Technological stagnation: Why I came around

I mostly agree with your thesis, but I noticed that you didn't mention agriculture in the last section, so I looked up some numbers.

The easiest stat I can find to track long-term is the hours of labor required to produce 100 bushels of wheat [1].

1830: 250 - 300 hours

1890: 40 - 50 hours 

1930: 15 - 20 hours

1955: 6 - 12 hours

1965: 5 hours

1975: 3.75 hours

1987: 3 hours

That source stops in the 1980s, but I found another source that says the equivalent number today is 2 hours [2]. That roughly matches the more recent data on total agricultural productivity from the USDA, which shows continued improvement, but not on the scale of the mid-1800's [3].

On the other hand, if the Wall Street Journal is right, being a farmer sounds a lot less strenuous today: https://www.wsj.com/articles/farmers-plow-through-movies-while-plowing-fields-11557508393 (paywalled). Instead of manual labor, farmers can sit in an air-conditioned tractor cab and watch Netflix! That's progress of a different sort, I suppose...

I also wondered about the impact of GMO food. That sounds possibly revolutionary to me, so why does its impact not show up in the numbers?

The sources I found suggest that recent GMO advances can improve yield by 10% in corn [4] or 20 - 50% across a range of other crops [5]. That's great, but not as dramatic as I thought it could be.

[1] Farm Machinery and Technology Changes from 1776-1990 (thoughtco.com)

[2]  Wheat Trivia - Food Facts & Trivia: Wheat (foodreference.com)

[3] USDA ERS - Agricultural Productivity Growth in the United States: 1948-2015

[4] New genetically modified corn produces up to 10% more than similar types | Science | AAAS (sciencemag.org

[5] GMO crops have been increasing yield for 20 years, with more progress ahead - Alliance for Science (cornell.edu)

Why Productivity Systems Don't Stick

On the format: Since you asked for feedback, I found this format a little harder to follow than other LessWrong posts. For me, short paragraphs are great when used sparingly to make a particular point punchier. But an entire post like that feels like someone is talking too quickly and not giving me time to think. (I also don't read Twitter, so perhaps it's just not well-suited for me.)

On the content: Robert Kegan's "Immunity to Change" framework addresses some of this, especially the "shadow values" (which he calls hidden commitments). I learned the framework from this book, which was very helpful for me last year in uncovering some of my own hidden commitments (as well as for a few other reasons): https://www.amazon.com/How-Talk-Change-Work-Transformation-ebook/dp/B003AU4DX2/.

I hadn't thought of applying this to productivity systems, though. That's very insightful, and definitely an area where I still experience tension. So I think this will be helpful, thanks!

Meditations on faith

I like the example of the Apollo mission. But I think an even more direct parallel to faith as surrender is EY's definition of lightness in Twelve Virtues of Rationality - LessWrong:

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.

If you are strongly committed to one belief, and then find evidence to the contrary, and actually change your mind - then you've just surrendered to the superiority of something outside yourself.

Perhaps changing your mind doesn't provoke the same mystical experience that you see expressed in Leonard Cohen's lyrics or Kierkegaard's "leap of faith"? But EY's post feels equally mystical to me.

I don't want to listen, because I will believe you

I don't have the philosophical sophistication to explain this as clearly as I would like, but I think fiction is valuable to the extent that it can be "more true" than a literal history.

Of course, fiction is obviously false at the most basic level, since the precise events it records never actually happened. But it can be effective at introducing abstract concepts. And except for trivia competitions, the abstract patterns are usually what's most useful anyway.

The best analogy I can think of is lifting weights. Fiction is an artificial gym that trains our minds to recognize specific patterns, much as weight lifting uses artificial movements that target specific muscle groups.

Fiction works by association, which as you suggest is how our minds tend to operate by default already. So at a minimum, wrapping ideas in a fictional story can make them more memorable. For example, people who memorize decks of cards tend to use "memory palace" techniques that associate the cards with vivid events.

The knowledge we gain from reading fiction is largely subconscious, but for me the most important part is the ability to understand how people who are different from me will think or act. This can also inspire me to think and act more like the role models I've observed.

There are other purposes in reading fiction - some fiction is meant mainly for entertainment. But I think most of what people would consider classics aim to teach something deeper. Perhaps what you experience as meaningful in reading Lord of the Rings is related to this?

Of course, there is the danger that reading bad fiction will make you less informed than you would have been otherwise. And the fact that learning occurs mostly subconsciously exacerbates this problem, since it can be difficult to counter a faulty narrative once you've read it.

But fiction seems no more dangerous to me than any other method of getting information from other people. Even sticking strictly to facts can be misleading if the facts are selectively reported (as occurs frequently in politics).

I do need to think some more about your point about how exactly to distinguish what part of a story is fictional and what can be treated as true. I don't have a clear framework for that yet, though in practice it rarely seems to be an issue. Do you have an example of a time you felt misled by a fictional story?

Overall, I think my understanding of the world, and especially of people, would be greatly impoverished without fiction.

Covid 12/17: The First Dose

Several months ago, some people argued that trying to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 was pointless, because the "common cold" includes several types of coronaviruses, which have never had a successful vaccine.

Now that we have multiple successful vaccines for COVID-19, could we use the same methods to produce a vaccine for the common cold?

Five minutes of research suggests to me that it would be worth it to try. (Caveat: I picked the first numbers I found from Google, and I haven't double-checked these.)

  1. The common cold costs $40 billion per year in the US alone, after including the cost of lost productivity: Cost of the Common Cold: $40 Billion (webmd.com). (Article from 2003, but I don't imagine this has changed significantly.)
  2. The US government contributed $9 billion to developing COVID-19 vaccines: How Much Will It Cost to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine? (healthline.com). As I understand it, that includes both the costs of funding the research and, at least in some cases, pledging to buy hundreds of millions of doses.
  3. Coronaviruses cause around 15% of cases of the common cold: Common cold - Wikipedia.

Spending $9 billion to save $6 billion per year (15% of $40 billion, assuming all types of colds have roughly the same severity) sounds like a good deal to me. And chances are that the cost of development could be much lower in a non-emergency situation, since we don't need so much redundancy.

This article makes it sound like the main difference is that we've never tried mRNA vaccines before: Fact-checking Facebook post comparing COVID-19 vaccine research to HIV, cancer, common cold - HoustonChronicle.com. But now that we know it works, I don't see what's stopping us.

What is it good for? But actually?

No war before WWI ever had a large enough number of combatants or was deadly enough in general to make a real dent in the population.


I think that's fairly inaccurate. Just to pick the first example that came to mind:

By all accounts, the population of Asia crashed during Chinggis Khan’s wars of conquest. China had the most to lose, so China lost the most—anywhere from 30 to 60 million. The Jin dynasty ruling northern China recorded 7.6 million households in the early thirteenth century. In 1234 the first census under the Mongols recorded 1.7 million households in the same area. In his biography of Chinggis Khan, John Man interprets these two data points as a population decline from 60 million to 10 million.

Source: Twentieth Century Atlas - Historical Body Count (necrometrics.com)

I haven't checked how much of the decline is due to battles, and how much to indirect causes such as disease or famine.

Propinquity Cities So Far

1. Thanks, I've had much better experiences with my landlord, but your experience might be more typical. Lack of adequate insulation is a clear problem, and one that's potentially worsened by the current system in which landlords pay for installing insulation but tenants generally pay for electricity. It's also the kind of issue that wouldn't become known to the tenants until after they've already moved in. So it makes sense to me that this would require legislation.

The process you propose for maintaining quality sounds reasonable enough. It might even be less susceptible to abuse than the current system of requiring security deposits, which the landlord can decide whether or not to refund. I've never experienced abuse of that type, but it wouldn't surprise me if it's relatively common.

2. I agree there's a lot more design work to do here. But before diving into that, I'm not entirely convinced by this point:

If you use [the amount that people actually spend] as your optimization metric, as our cities currently do, you get overpriced services.

When I think about which services are overpriced, the first ones that come to mind are college tuition and healthcare. But the primary cost drivers there are not rent, so I don't think your proposal would affect them very much.

If we limit our discussion to services that are overpriced due to high rent costs, the only one I can think of is restaurants. I've never seen an actual restaurant's budget, but I've heard that their costs are generally split evenly into rent, salaries, and the cost of the food itself. And it makes sense that rent would be a major cost, since table space at restaurants is clearly inefficient - even in the pre-pandemic world, restaurants often operated at capacity for only a few hours each weekend. So I'll grant that there's likely room for improvement there.

Is there something else I'm missing?

Propinquity Cities So Far
  1. One of the main drawbacks I see in this system is that it provides little incentive for anyone to improve the value of their own property, or even to maintain it. The benefit of a market system is that it does provide this incentive, which I think is much more important than you admit here.

    High housing costs at least lead to "skin in the game." Without that, you probably need regulations to ensure that everyone maintains their property at a certain minimum level, and regular inspections to enforce it. I don't see anything like that mentioned here - do you have any thoughts on how it would work, and how much the overhead costs would be?
  2. Besides that, I'm also concerned about the effects on commercial property. You commented below that being assigned a store location would look more like winning a local election than signing a lease.

    That sounds like another large source of overhead. I believe the amount that people actually spend at a store is a better measure of the value they derive from it than their voting could be. You could try to redesign your system to use store revenue as propinquity votes - but why? The free market already does that efficiently with no extra effort required.

There are only two ways I could see a marriage working longterm between two people in their early-to-mid twenties:

  1. They grow as individuals and as partners together, and remain a great match even after both of them change drastically over time.
  2. They decide to each sacrifice their own pursuits of personal growth for the relationship.

"Personal growth" can mean a lot of different things to different people, but my experience is precisely the opposite of what you suggest.

I'm 28, and happily married for two years now. One of the things I like most about my wife is the way that she encourages my personal growth, and I think she would say the same about me. That both makes us better people and makes our relationship stronger.

Being married does come with a few tradeoffs. For example, since my wife is in academia and I'm in software engineering, I'm committed to move wherever we need to for her job. (When we got married that seemed like a sacrifice, though COVID has made it kind of a moot point now.) But any logistical difficulties are far outweighed by the fact that I like who I am much better when I'm with her.

We haven't had kids yet. When we do, I expect that I'll have to scale back at work. But I also think having kids is one of the best ways to push myself to become more patient and selfless, which to me is worth more. (And my workplace, like others in BigTech, is pretty supportive of family life.)

I do feel very fortunate to have the job and the marriage that I do. But at the same time, I think most LessWrongers are capable of having the same if they want it. What part of your personal growth do you expect you would need to sacrifice to maintain a marriage and/or a family?

Load More