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John_Maxwell_IV comments on LW 2.0 Strategic Overview - Less Wrong

47 Post author: Habryka 15 September 2017 03:00AM

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Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 18 September 2017 06:05:16AM 5 points [-]

I appreciate the literature pointer.

taking expert consensus as the prior

What expert consensus are you referring to? I see an unsolved engineering problem, not an expert consensus.


My view of amateurism has been formed, in a large part, from reading experts on the topic:

The clash of domains is a particularly fruitful source of ideas. If you know a lot about programming and you start learning about some other field, you'll probably see problems that software could solve. In fact, you're doubly likely to find good problems in another domain: (a) the inhabitants of that domain are not as likely as software people to have already solved their problems with software, and (b) since you come into the new domain totally ignorant, you don't even know what the status quo is to take it for granted.

Paul Graham

Introspection, and an examination of history and of reports of those who have done great work, all seem to show typically the pattern of creativity is as follows. There is first the recognition of the problem in some dim sense. This is followed by a longer or shorter period of refinement of the problem. Do not be too hasty at this stage, as you are likely to put the problem in the conventional form and find only the conventional solution.

Richard Hamming

Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you’re reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff.

Edward Boyden

This past summer I was working at a startup that does predictive maintenance for internet-connected devices. The CEO has a PhD from Oxford and did his postdoc at Stanford, so probably not an amateur. But working over the summer, I was able to provide a different perspective on the problems that the company had been thinking about for over a year, and a big part of the company's proposed software stack ended up getting re-envisioned and written from scratch, largely due to my input. So I don't think it's ridiculous for me to wonder whether I'd be able to make a similar contribution at Valve/Riot/Blizzard.

The main reason I was able to contribute as much as I did was because I had the gumption to consider the possibility that the company's existing plans weren't very good. Basically by going in the exact opposite direction of your "amateurs should stay humble" advice.

Here are some more things I believe:

  • If you're solving a problem that is similar to a problem that has already been solved, but is not an exact match, sometimes it takes as much effort to re-work an existing solution as to create a new solution from scratch.

  • Noise is a matter of place. A comment that is brilliant by the standards of Yahoo Answers might justifiably be downvoted on Less Wrong. It doesn't make sense to ask that people writing comments on LW try to reach the standard of published academic work.

  • In computer science, industry is often "ahead" of academia in the sense that important algorithms get discovered in industry first, then academics discover them later and publish their results.

Interested to learn more about your perspective.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 18 September 2017 01:49:48PM *  2 points [-]

(a) They also laughed at Bozo the Clown. (I think this is Carl Sagan's quote).

(b) Outside view: how often do outsiders solve a problem in a novel way, vs just adding noise and cluelessness to the discussion? Base rates! Again, nothing that I am saying is controversial, having good priors is a part of "rationality folklore" already. Going with expert consensus as a prior is a part of "rationality folklore" already. It's just that people selectively follow rationality practices only when they are fun to follow.

(c) "In computer science, industry is often "ahead" of academia in the sense that important algorithms get discovered in industry first"

Yes, this sometimes happens. But again, base rates. Google/Facebook is full of academia-trained PhDs and ex-professors, so the line here is unclear. It's not amateurs coming up with these algorithms. John Tukey came up with the Fast Fourier Transform while at Bell Labs, but he was John Tukey, and had a math PhD from Princeton.