Viliam's Comments

The horse-sized duck: a theory of innovation, individuals and society

Sometimes I get an impression that people on autistic spectrum "have outlived their usefulness" (TV Tropes) from the perspective of the society. There was a time, not that long ago, when normies didn't care about computers, because using them required esoteric knowledge of things such as binary numbers, and they didn't care about internet, because it was mostly a way to interact with people who cared about these esoteric things. To become good with computers, you had to spend a lot of time studying obsessively something that didn't have much value in the eyes of most people.

Then it became common knowledge that IT is where the money is, and also working with computers became easier. Suddenly people with no intrinsic interest in esotetic knowledge started paying attention to IT. And now you have students of computer science who freely admit that they actually don't like programming and consider it boring... but they are willing to do it for money (because presumably all other jobs are boring, too).

The weirdoes became a minority in the field they have created, and the social norms are turning against them. Caring about the craft already became low-status; if you care about clean code and algorithmic complexity, you are obviously not paying attention to the larger picture i.e. the buzzwords the management is most happy about recently. There are not enough resources to do anything properly (although there sometimes are resources to do the same thing over and over again as the old solutions keep falling apart under their technical debt). The social skills are more important than the technical ones. Even in open source people are kicked out of projects for being bad at political games.

Of course, there is a value in social skills, and there is a harm in excessive weirdness. People can have long unproductive wars about minutiae of formatting the source code. Lack of communication within the project can waste lot of resources. Documentation sucks when it is written by people who hate talking to others. Introducing social skills to the project should be good... if we could keep the balance. If the people with social skills could respect the people with technical skills, and vice versa. But it seems to me that after the initial resistance is broken, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, and suddenly we have a formerly nerdy profession where people are regularly reminded that nerds suck.

Normie-ness is a positive feedback loop; the more normies you have, the greater the pressure to eliminate the non-normies. People with better social skills will almost by definition succeed at pushing the narrative that what we really need is to give even more power to people with social skills. And when things start falling apart, instead of shutting up and fixing the code, more and more meetings are scheduled, because for a normie, talking endlessly is the preferred (and the only known) way to solve all problems.

To some degree, this is not as bad as it sounds. Software is easy to copy. You could have 99% of software projects completely dysfunctional, and the remaining 1% would still move the planet forward. Similarly, you can have million anti-vaxers, but as long as you have one Einstein, science can still move forward. One person doing the right thing is more important than millions wasting time, if the solution can be copied.

But ultimately, the resources are scarce, and the people pretending to care are competing against the people who actually care. When you get to the point where the Einstein can't get a job, because he is outcompeted at every position by people with better social skills, then -- unless he is independently wealthy (but how could he save for early retirement if he can't get a good job?) or he has a generous sponsor (but here he also competes against people who have better social skills) -- he will not be able to work on his theory of relativity. And if only 1% of programmers care about clean code, you won't get clean code in 1% of projects; it will be much less, because most projects are developed by teams, and you would need a majority of the team to actually care.

Why do we have offices?

There are multiple reasons, and here is one of them:

Imagine yourself as a boss. How would you check whether your employess are doing the stuff you pay them for, or just taking your money and slacking? (Because there are many people who would enjoy the opportunity to take your money for nothing.)

This depends on the work. Sometimes the outputs are easy to measure and easy to predict. Suppose your employees are making boxes out of cardboard. You know how many boxes per hour can the average worker make, so you have a simple transformation of your money to the number of boxes produced. If someone does not produce enough boxes, they are either incompetent or slacking; in both cases it would make sense to replace them with someone who will produce enough boxes.

This is the type of work that would be safe to let people do remotely -- as long as the same amount of boxes is produced, you get the value you paid for -- although there may be other reasons that make it difficult: transportation of the cardboard and the boxes, or maybe if a machine is needed.

But imagine the kind of work like software development. To the eternal frustration of managers, the output is hard to measure. Both because of inherent randomness of the work (bugs appear unexpected and may take a lot of time to fix), and because the people who supervise the work are usually not programmers themselves (so they have no idea how much time "writing a REST controller which provides data serialized in XML format" should take - are we talking minutes or weeks?). Different people have different strong opinions on what quality means, but it is a fact that some projects can grow steadily for years, while others soon collapse under their own weight.

Having this kind of work done remotely, how do you distinguish between the case when the employee solved a difficult problem, fixed someone else's bug, and spent some time preventing other bugs happening in the future... and the case when someone did some quick and dirty work in 2 hours, spent the remaining 6 hours watching Netflix, and afterwards reported 8 hours of work? Trying to impose some simple metric such as "lines of code written per day" is more likely to hurt than help, because it punishes useful legitimate work, such as designing, or fixing bugs.

Making the people stay in the office guarantees that they will not spend 6 hours watching Netflix. They may do good work, they may do bad work, or they may find ways to procrastinate (e.g. watch YouTube videos instead). But at least, there is a long list of things they can't do.

It seems like a problem of trust, but on a deeper level it is a problem that you can't even "trust but verify" if you can't actually verify the quality of the output. So you have to rely on things like "spent enough time looking busy", which sucks for both sides.

Mati_Roy's Shortform

High status feels better when you are near your subordinates (when you can watch them, randomly disrupt them, etc.). High-status people make the decision whether remote work is allowed or not.

Thomas Kwa's Shortform

Something like Goodhart's Law, I suppose. There are natural situations where X is associated with something good, but literally maximizing X is actually quite bad. (Having more gold would be nice. Converting the entire universe into atoms of gold, not necessarily so.)

EY has practiced the skill of trying to see things like a machine. When people talk about "maximizing X", they usually mean "trying to increase X in a way that proves my point"; i.e. they use motivated thinking.

Whatever X you take, the priors are almost 100% that literally maximizing X would be horrible. That includes the usual applause lights, whether they appeal to normies or nerds.

Should we all be more hygenic in normal times?

Should humans be less disgusting? All in favor, raise your tentacle...

There is so much low-hanging fruit. Doctors don't wash their hands consistently. Parents send sick kids to kindergartens and schools. They are told repeatedly; and they ignore it. Cost/benefit analysis? If I send my sick child to kindergarten, it's your cost and my benefit; that's all I need to know.

How would you take math notes to make the most of them?

To me it helps to imagine that I am explaining the topic to someone else. If I had enough time, I would never copy the textbook; I would rewrite it using my own words, and probably change the entire structure. (In other words, instead of "paper1 -> paper2", it would go "paper1 -> internal model -> paper2".) Unfortunately, doing things the way I wish takes a lot of time.

For example, if I make notes about programming, I am trying to write the simplest code that illustrates the concept in isolation from other concepts. (Most examples I find online are introducing multiple concepts at the same time. Okay, I suppose in reality, you usually use X and Y and Z together in the same project. But I still want to see X used separately, and Y separately, and Z separately. And then an example of how X and Y and Z go together.)

I would suggest to explore the concept in unusual ways. For example, when you learn about commutative operators, don't just use "addition" and "multiplication" as obvious examples, but also think about ones like "least common multiple" or even "these words have the same amount of strokes in Chinese". (Ultimately coming to "there is an arbitrary undirected graph, where the nodes are the possible inputs, and each edge contains an arbitrary output as a label".)

Also, when you learn things, the value is not merely in the individual things, but also (mostly?) in their connections to other things. That is the difference between a newbie who can recite the facts but cannot apply them, and an expert who can immediately take three abstract concepts and chain them together to solve a problem. (Not sure what exactly this imples for note-taking and zettelkasten method. My preferred way to make notes would be like making wiki pages, so I would mention these connections at the bottom of the page.) For example, there are many proofs that there are infinitely many primes, but I enjoyed reading an argument how having finitely many primes would allow us to create an insane compression algorithm. (You take the input as a binary number, factorize it, and save the factors. If your input is much larger than the hypothetical largest prime, the output file size will be a logarithm of the input file size.)

How Do You Convince Your Parents To Prep? To Quarantine?

For me, "Italy" sounds convincing, because it is closer to us -- I live in Europe --, geographically and culturally, than China. (Talking about China feels about as relevant as talking about Mars.)

A video from Italy, showing the crowded hospitals and soldiers on streets, would probably feel more convincing than citing numbers. (Also, this was shared on SSC.) I would only cite numbers afterwards to say something like "see, two or three weeks ago they also had only X known cases".

I would probably try convincing along the lines of: (1) if everyone will stop their social life in two weeks anyway, we might as well do it today, and (2) many people are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, and the incubation time is several days while people already spread the virus, so by the time you know 1 person in your neighborhood to have severe symptoms, there are probably already hundred who spread the virus.

Also, when talking about the probability of death, I would add that even "non-death" can mean a lot of pain and irreversibly damaged health.

Most people are altruistic, therefore I would emphasise "you might unknowingly infect people you care about" over "you might get sick and die". (Also, gender stereotypes: men are socially conditioned to not worry about what happens to them, but they are supposed to protect their families.)

If your parents don't have Skype (or equivalent) ready, install it now.

Start buying stuff for your parents even before you have convinced them. Say "I know you don't share my worries, but knowing that you have this stuff makes me feel much better, please accept it".

How Do You Convince Your Parents To Prep? To Quarantine?

If she manages to convince them later, the supplies will already be there, so it's definitely a good move.

Positive Feedback -> Optimization?

Not sure whether this is what you meant, but there is a difference between a situation when resources are abundant and the reproduction is an exponential function of the speed of reproduction, and when resources become scarce and reproduction is only one important parameter along with survival and interaction with competitors.

To continue with your example, imagine that Y has faster doubling rate than X (assuming abundant resources), but X can disassemble Y to create its own copy while Y can't do the same to X. So there will be first a period when Y exponentially outgrows X, followed by a period where Y greadually disappears.

If you want to model this by matrices or something similar, you need to somehow include this aspect.

Also, the reality will be more complicated, because the values of X and Y and their interaction may depend on local environment. So it is possible that X eliminates Y in warm waters, but Y survives around the poles. Then it is possible that X evolves into intelligent species that causes global warming... okay, this is probably outside the scope of the original question.

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