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Rational Toothpaste: A Case Study

68 badger 31 May 2012 12:31AM

Inspired by Konkvistador's comment

Posts titled "Rational ___-ing" or "A Rational Approach to ____" induce groans among a sizeable contingent here, myself included. However, inflationary use of "rational" and its transformation into an applause light is only one part of the problem. These posts tend to revolve around specific answers, rather than the process of how to find answers. I claim a post on "rational toothpaste buying" could be on-topic and useful, if correctly written to illustrate determining goals, assessing tradeoffs, and implementing the final conclusions. A post detailing the pros and cons of various toothpaste brands is for a dentistry or personal hygiene forum; a post about algorithms for how to determine the best brands or whether to do so at all is for a rationality forum. This post is my shot at showing what this would look like.

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Rationally Irrational

-11 HungryTurtle 07 March 2012 07:21PM

I understand rationality to be related to a set of cognitive tools rather than a certain personality or genetic type. Like any other tool it can be misused. You can kill a person with a spoon, but that is a misuse of its intended function. You cut a pound of raw meat with a chainsaw, but that is a misuse of its intended function. Tools are designed with both intended purposes and functional limitations. Intended purposes serve to provide the user with an understanding of how to achieve optimal impact. For example, some intended uses of a sword would be killing, disabling, acting, or training (and many more). Tools can be used outside of their intended purposes. The use might not result in optimal output, it might even damage the tool, but it is possible.  A sword can be used to cut wood, clear shrubbery, as a decoration, a sword could even be used as a door stop. Doorstop has long departed from the intended function for a sword upon its design, but nevertheless it exists as possibility given the structure of a sword. Functional limitations are desired uses that a tool cannot meet given its structure.  A sword alone cannot allow you to fly or breathe underwater, at least not without making significant alterations to its structure, rendering it no longer a sword.

Every tool exists with both intended functions and functional limitations. From reading some essays on this website I get the impression that many members of this community view rationality as a universal tool. That no matter what the conflict a certain degree of rationality would provide the appropriate remedy. I would like to question this idea. I think there are both functional limitations to rationality and ways to misuse one's powers of reasoning. To address these, it is first necessary to identify what the primary function of rationality is.

The Function of rationality

From reading various articles on this website I would suggest that rationality is seen as a tool for accuracy in obtaining desired results, or as Eliezer puts it, for “winning.” I agree with this analysis. Rationality is a tool for accuracy; increased accuracy leads to successfully obtainment of some desired result; obtainment of some desired result can broadly be described as “winning.” If rationality is a tool for increasing accuracy, then the questions becomes “are there ever times when it is more beneficial to be inaccurate,” or in other words, are there times when it should be desired to lose.

Why would a person ever want to lose?

I can think of two situations where increased accuracy is detrimental: 1.) In maintaining moderation; 2.) In maintaining respectful social relations.

1.) *It is better to air on the side of caution*: The more accurate you become the faster you obtain your goals. The faster you obtain your goals the quicker you progress down a projected course. In some sense this is a good thing, but I do not think it is universally good. **The pleasure winning may deter the player from the fundamental question “Is this a game I should be playing?”** A person who grew up playing the violin from an early age could easily find themselves barreling along a trajectory that leads them to a conservatory without addressing the fundamental question “is becoming a violinist what is going to most benefit my life? It is easy to do something you are good at, but it is fallacious to think that just because you are good at something it is what you should be doing. If Wille E. Coyote has taught us anything it is that progressing along a course too fast can result in unexpected pitfalls. Our confidence in an idea, job, a projected course, has no real bearing on its ultimate benefit to us (see my comment here for more on how being wrong feels right). While we might not literally run three meters off a cliff and then fall into the horizon, is it not possible for things to be moving too fast?

2.) *”Wining” all the time causes other people narrative dissonance*:  People don’t like it when someone is right about everything. It is suffocating.  Why is that? I am sure that a community of dedicated rationalists will have experienced this phenomenon, where relationships with family, friends, and other personal networks are threatened/damaged by you having an answer for everything, every causal debate, every trivial discussion; where you being extremely good at “winning” has had a negative effect on those close to you. I have a theory for why this is, is rather extensive, but I will try to abridge it as much as possible. First, it is based in the sociological field of symbolic interactionism, where individuals are constantly working to achieve some role confirmation in social situations. My idea is that there are archetypes of desired roles, and that every person needs the psychological satisfaction of being cast into those roles some of the time. I call these roles “persons of interest.” The wise one, the smart one, the caring one, the cool one, the funny one, these are all roles of interest that I believe all people need the chance to act out. If in a relationship you monopolize one of these roles to the point that your relations are unable to take it on, than I believe you are hurting your relationship. If you win too much, deprive those close to you the chance of winning, effectively causing them anxiety.

For example, I know when I was younger my extreme rationality placed a huge burden on my relationship with my parents. After going to college I began to have a critique of almost everything they did. I saw a more efficient, more productive way of doing things than my parents who had received outdated educations. For a while I was so mad that they did not trust me enough to change their lives, especially when I knew I was right. Eventually, What I realized was that it is psychologically damaging for a parent’s 20 something year old kid to feel that it is their job to show you how to live. Some of the things (like eating healthier and exercising more) I did not let go, because I felt the damages of my role reversal were less than the damages of their habits; however, other ideas, arguments, beliefs, I did let go because they did not seem worth the pain I was causing my parents. I have experienced the need to not win as much in many other relationships. Be they friends, teachers, lovers, peers, colleagues, in general if one person monopolizes the social role of imparter of knowledge it can be psychologically damaging to those they interact with. I believe positive coexistence is more important than achieving some desired impact (winning). Therefore I think it is important to ease up on one’s accuracy for the sake of one’s relationships.

- Honestly I have more limitation and some misuses I to address, but decided to hold off and see what the initial reception of my essay was. I realize this is a rationalist community and I am not trying to pick a fight. I just strongly believe in moderation and wanted to share my idea. Please don't hate me too much for that.

- HungryTurtle


For-Profit Rationality Training

24 ksvanhorn 28 December 2011 09:42PM

As I've been reading through various articles and their comments on Less Wrong, I've noticed a theme that has appeared repeatedly: a frustration that we are not seeing more practical benefits from studying rationality. For example, Eliezer writes in A Sense that More Is Possible,

Why aren't "rationalists" surrounded by a visible aura of formidability? Why aren't they found at the top level of every elite selected on any basis that has anything to do with thought? Why do most "rationalists" just seem like ordinary people...

Yvain writes in Extreme Rationality: It's Not That Great,

...I've gotten countless clarity-of-mind benefits from Overcoming Bias' x-rationality, but practical benefits? Aside from some peripheral disciplines, I can't think of any.

patrissimo wrote in a comment on another article,

Sorry, folks, but compared to the self-help/self-development community, Less Wrong is currently UTTERLY LOSING at self-improvement and life optimization.

These writers have also offered some suggestions for improving the situation. Eliezer writes,

Of this [question] there are several answers; but one of them, surely, is that they have received less systematic training of rationality in a less systematic context than a first-dan black belt gets in hitting people.

patrissimo describes what he thinks an effective rationality practice would look like.

  1. It is a group of people who gather in person to train specific skills.
  2. While there are some theoreticians of the art, most people participate by learning it and doing it, not theorizing about it.
  3. Thus the main focus is on local practice groups, along with the global coordination to maximize their effectiveness (marketing, branding, integration of knowledge, common infrastructure). As a result, it is driven by the needs of the learners [emphasis added].
  4. You have to sweat, but the result is you get stronger.
  5. You improve by learning from those better than you, competing with those at your level, and teaching those below you.
  6. It is run by a professional, or at least someone getting paid [emphasis added] for their hobby. The practicants receive personal benefit from their practice, in particular from the value-added of the coach, enough to pay for talented coaches.

Dan Nuffer and I have decided that it's time to stop talking and start doing. We are in the very early stages of creating a business to help people improve their lives by training them in instrumental rationality. We've done some preliminary market research to get an idea of where the opportunities might lie. In fact, this venture got started when, on a whim, I ran a poll on ask500people.com asking,

Would you pay $75 for an interactive online course teaching effective decision-making skills?

I got 299 responses in total. These are the numbers that responded with "likely" or "very likely":

  • 23.4% (62) overall.
  • 49% (49 of 100) of the respondents from India.
  • 10.6% (21 of 199) of the respondents not from India.
  • 9.0% (8 of 89) of the respondents from the U.S.

These numbers were much higher than I expected, especially the numbers from India, which still puzzle me. Googling around a bit, though, I found an instructor-led online decision-making course for $130, and a one-day decision-making workshop offered in the UK for £200 (over $350)... and the Google keyword tool returns a large number of search terms (800) related to "decision-making", many of them with a high number of monthly searches.

So it appears that there may be a market for training in effective decision-making -- something that could be the first step towards a more comprehensive training program in instrumental rationality. Some obvious market segments to consider are business decision makers, small business owners, and intelligent people of an analytical bent (e.g., the kind of people who find Less Wrong interesting). An important subset of this last group are INTJ personality types; I don't know if there is an effective way to find and market to specific Meyers-Briggs personality types, but I'm looking into it.

"Life coaching" is a proven business, and its growing popularity suggests the potential for a "decision coaching" service; in fact, helping people with big decisions is one of the things a life coach does. One life coach of 12 years described a typical client as age 35 to 55, who is "at a crossroads, must make a decision and is sick of choosing out of safety and fear." Life coaches working with individuals typically charge around $100 to $300 per hour. As far as I can tell, training in decision analysis / instrumental rationality is not commonly found among life coaches. Surely we can do better.

Can we do effective training online? patrissimo thinks that gathering in person is necessary, but I'm not so sure. His evidence is that "all the people who have replied to me so far saying they get useful rationality practice out of the LW community said the growth came through attending local meetups." To me this is weak evidence -- it seems to say more about the effectiveness of local meetups vs. just reading about rationality. In any event, it's worth testing whether online training can work, since

  • not everyone can go to meetups,
  • it should be easier to scale up, and
  • not to put too fine a point on it, but online training is probably more profitable.

To conclude, one of the things an entrepreneur needs to do is "get out of the building" and talk to members of the target market. We're interested in hearing what you think. What ideas do you think would be most effective in training for instrumental rationality, and why? What would you personally want from a rationality training program? What kinds of products / services related to rationality training would you be interesting in buying?

A Rational Approach to Fashion

19 lionhearted 10 October 2011 06:53PM

Related to: Humans are not automatically strategic, Rationalists should win

Fashion isn't prioritized in many hyper-analytical circles. Many in these communities write it off as frill and unnecessary. They say they "just dress comfortably" and leave it at that.

To me, that seems like a huge blind spot. It misses a fundamental point -

A piece of clothing is fundamentally a tool.

Definitions are important so everyone is on the same page. I feel like Wikipedia's first sentence on "tool" accurately describes it -

A tool is a device that can be used to produce an item or achieve a task, but that is not consumed in the process.

Clothing clearly fits that definition of a tool.

Appropriately chosen clothing can keep you from freezing in the winter, from getting sunburnt in the summer, and can keep you dry in a rainstorm.

It can also help you achieve things involving other people. I think it's fair to draw a distinction between "clothing" and "fashion" based on whether your objectives involve interpersonal skills. If you're wearing clothing in relation to the environment and without other people, that's using clothing as a tool.

But clothing clearly can affect other people's opinions of you, willingness to accept your arguments, willing to hire or contract you, even their desire to associate with you. All of that is changed by clothing - or more specifically, your "fashion."

While most rationalists would happily and quickly plan out the best hiking boots to wear to not get blisters on a hike, or research the best shoes for bicycling or swimsuit for swimming, anecdotally many seem hesitant or even hostile to the idea of using fashion as a tool to achieve their objectives.

That's possibly a mistake.

The thing fashion can do best and most fundamentally is affect a person's initial first impression of you. Fashion is less important if you're in a context where you're guaranteed to get to know someone over a longer period of time, and is more important if you're going to get filtered quickly.

I propose that the most rational usage of fashion is this -

1. Ask yourself what your goals are in the situation you're about to go into.

2. Ask yourself what first impression would help you reach your goals.

3. Pick out and wear clothing that helps communicate that first impression.

The process is important. In isolation, there's no "good fashion" - it depends on your objectives.

In some circles, people more or less won't care how you're dressed. But even then, there's likely some clothing that will perform better than others. If you can afford the time or money to find clothing to fit your objectives, then there's no reason not to utilize this advantage.

I say "time or money" because you can deploy either - if money isn't an issue, there's stores where the majority of things look good, and the people there are professionals who will spend time giving you good feedback. Any high end department store like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, or a high end tailor fits this category.

Alternatively, you can deploy time. To do that, survey the people that most effectively communicate the first impression you want to convey. Take actual notes and look for common trends. Then, go find pieces that look similar. You won't be perfect right away, but like any other skill, with practice you'll rapidly improve. Incidentally, the marginal cost to produce clothing is incredibly cheap, so most fashion lines over-produce clothing and have to liquidate it at super-discount sale prices periodically. There tends to be a major "Summer Sale" and "Winter Sale" once per year that have high end clothing that 70% to 90% off, making the cost comprable to the mid-tier.

There's also "Sample Sales" where over-produced items are liquidated or when a designer wants to see the buying public's reaction to their new pieces. Again, ultra-high-end clothing can be purchased at discount rates at these environments. You can get basically any semi-standard piece of high end clothing for not very much money if you put in the time. My strategy in the past has been to wait until finding a great opportunity like that, and then buying 1-2 years worth of clothing in one swoop. It doesn't take much supplementing after that.

It takes very little cognitive energy to begin this process. Next time you see someone who strikes a very good impression, stop and analyze a little bit. Note what they're wearing. If you want to strike that same first impression, go get something comprable. Your fashion will be working for you at that point, and your interpersonal dealings will become easier.

Knowing what you want is a prerequisite to getting what you want

-3 nwthomas 12 July 2011 11:19PM

Frequently, we decide on a goal, and then we are ineffective in working towards this goal, due to factors wholly within our control. Failure modes include giving up, losing interest, procrastination, akrasia, and failure to evaluate return on time. In all these cases it seems that if our motivation were higher, the problem would not exist. Call the problem of finding the motivation to effectively pursue one's goals, the problem of motivation. This is a common failure of instrumental rationality which has been discussed from numerous different angles on LessWrong.

I wish to introduce another approach to the problem of motivation, which to my knowledge has not yet been discussed on LessWrong. This approach is summarized in the following paragraph:

We do not know what we value. Therefore, we choose goals that are not in harmony with our values. The problem of motivation is often caused by our goals not being in harmony with our values. Therefore, many cases of the problem of motivation can be solved by discovering what you value, and carrying out goals that conform to your values.

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Less Wrong NYC: Case Study of a Successful Rationalist Chapter

138 Cosmos 17 March 2011 08:12PM

It is perhaps the best-kept secret on Less Wrong that the New York City community has been meeting regularly for almost two years. For nearly a year we've been meeting weekly or more.  The rest of this post is going to be a practical guide to the benefits of group rationality, but first I will do something that is still too rare on this blog: make it clear how strongly I feel about this. Before this community took off, I did not believe that life could be this much fun or that I could possibly achieve such a sustained level of happiness.

Being rational in an irrational world is incredibly lonely. Every interaction reveals that our thought processes differ widely from those around us, and I had accepted that such a divide would always exist. For the first time in my life I have dozens of people with whom I can act freely and revel in the joy of rationality without any social concern - hell, it's actively rewarded! Until the NYC Less Wrong community formed, I didn't realize that I was a forager lost without a tribe...

Rationalists are still human, and we still have basic human needs. lukeprog summarizes the literature on subjective well-being, and the only factors which correlate to any degree are genetics, health, work satisfaction and social life - which actually gets listed three separate times as social activity, relationship satisfaction and religiosity. Rationalists tend to be less socially adept on average, and this can make it difficult to obtain the full rewards of social interaction. However, once rationalists learn to socialize with each other, they also become increasingly social towards everyone more generally. This improves your life. A lot.

We are a group of friends to enjoy life alongside, while we try miracle fruit, dance ecstatically until sunrise, actively embarrass ourselves at karaoke, get lost in the woods, and jump off waterfalls.  Poker, paintball, parties, go-karts, concerts, camping... I have a community where I can live in truth and be accepted as I am, where I can give and receive feedback and get help becoming stronger. I am immensely grateful to have all of these people in my life, and I look forward to every moment I spend with them. To love and be loved is an unparalleled experience in this world, once you actually try it.

So, you ask, how did all of this get started...?

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Cheat codes

37 sketerpot 01 December 2010 09:19PM

Most things worth doing take serious, sustained effort. If you want to become an expert violinist, you're going to have to spend a lot of time practicing. If you want to write a good book, there really is no quick-and-dirty way to do it. But sustained effort is hard, and can be difficult to get rolling. Maybe there are some easier gains to be had with simple, local optimizations. Contrary to oft-repeated cached wisdom, not everything worth doing is hard. Some little things you can do are like cheat codes for the real world.

Take habits, for example: your habits are not fixed. My diet got dramatically better once I figured out how to change my own habits, and actually applied that knowledge. The general trick was to figure out a new, stable state to change my habits to, then use willpower for a week or two until I settle into that stable state. In the case of diet, a stable state was one where junk food was replaced with fruit, tea, or having a slightly more substantial meal beforehand so I wouldn't feel hungry for snacks. That's an equilibrium I can live with, long-term, without needing to worry about "falling off the wagon." Once I figured out the pattern -- work out a stable state, and force myself into it over 1-2 weeks -- I was able to improve several habits, permanently. It was amazing. Why didn't anybody tell me about this?

In education, there are similar easy wins. If you're trying to commit a lot of things to memory, there's solid evidence that spaced repetition works. If you're trying to learn from a difficult textbook, reading in multiple overlapping passes is often more time-efficient than reading through linearly. And I've personally witnessed several people academically un-cripple themselves by learning to reflexively look everything up on Wikipedia. None of this stuff is particularly hard. The problem is just that a lot of people don't know about it.

What other easy things have a high marginal return-on-effort? Feel free to include speculative ones, if they're testable.

Goals for which Less Wrong does (and doesn't) help

57 AnnaSalamon 18 November 2010 10:37PM

Related to: Self-Improvement or Shiny Distraction: Why Less Wrong is anti-Instrumental Rationality

We’ve had a lot of good criticism of Less Wrong lately (including Patri’s post above, which contains a number of useful points). But to prevent those posts from confusing newcomers, this may be a good time to review what Less Wrong is useful for.

In particular: I had a conversation last Sunday with a fellow, I’ll call him Jim, who was trying to choose a career that would let him “help shape the singularity (or simply the future of humanity) in a positive way”.  He was trying to sort out what was efficient, and he aimed to be careful to have goals and not roles.  

So far, excellent news, right?  A thoughtful, capable person is trying to sort out how, exactly, to have the best impact on humanity’s future.  Whatever your views on the existential risks landscape, it’s clear humanity could use more people like that.

The part that concerned me was that Jim had put a site-blocker on LW (as well as all of his blogs) after reading Patri’s post, which, he said, had “hit him like a load of bricks”.  Jim wanted to get his act together and really help the world, not diddle around reading shiny-fun blog comments.  But his discussion of how to “really help the world” seemed to me to contain a number of errors[1] -- errors enough that, if he cannot sort them out somehow, his total impact won’t be nearly what it could be.  And they were the sort of errors LW could have helped with.  And there was no obvious force in his off-line, focused, productive life of a sort that could similarly help.

So, in case it’s useful to others, a review of what LW is useful for.

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A Player of Games

15 Larks 23 September 2010 10:52PM

Earlier today I had an idea for a meta-game a group of people could play. It’d be ideal if you lived in an intentional community, or were at university with a games society, or somewhere with regular Less Wrong Meetups.

Each time you would find a new game. Each of you would then study the rules for half an hour and strategise, and then you’d play it, once. Afterwards, compare thoughts on strategies and meta-strategies. If you haven’t played Imperialism, try that. If you’ve never tried out Martin Gardner’s games, try them. If you’ve never played Phutball, give it a go.

It should help teach us to understand new situations quickly, look for workable exploits, accurately model other people, and compute Nash equilibrium. Obviously, be careful not to end up just spending your life playing games; the aim isn't to become good at playing games, it's to become good at learning to play games - hopefully including the great game of life.

However, it’s important that no-one in the group know the rules before hand, which makes finding the new games a little harder. On the plus side, it doesn’t matter that the games are well-balanced: if the world is mad, we should be looking for exploits in real life.

It could be really helpful if people who knew of good games to play gave suggestions. A name, possibly some formal specifications (number of players, average time of a game), and some way of accessing the rules. If you only have the rules in a text-file, rot13 them please, and likewise for any discussion of strategy.

(Virtual) Employment Open Thread

35 Will_Newsome 23 September 2010 04:25AM

tl;dr: Some people on LW have a hard time finding worthwhile employment. Share advice and help them out!

Working sucks. I'd rather not work. But alas, a lot of the time, we have to choose between working and starvation. At the very least I'd like to minimize work. I'd like to work somewhere cheap and comfortable... you know, like on the beach in Thailand, like LW (ab)user Louie did. Then I could spend my spare time on things like self-improvement and ahem 'studying nootropics' all day. I'd like to travel, if possible, and not be chained to an iffy job. It'd be cool to have flexible hours. I've read The 4-Hour Work Week but it seemed kinda difficult and scary and... I just don't wanna do it. I can't code, and I'd rather not learn how to. At least, I'd rather not have my job depend on it. I never graduated from college. Hell, I never got my high school diploma, even. A team of medical experts has confirmed that my sleep cycle is of the Chaotic Evil variety. (For those who read HP:MoR, imagine Harry Potter Syndrome, except on crack. I bet a lot of people have similar sleep cycles.) I'm 18, and therefore automatically low status for employment purposes: I'm obviously much too young to make a good teacher, or store manager, or police officer. I can imagine having health problems, or severe social anxiety, or a nearly useless liberal arts degree, or just a general setback limiting my employment opportunities. And if it turned out that I wanted to work 14 hour days all of a sudden because I really needed the money, well then it'd be cool to have that option as well. Alas, none of this is possible, so I might as well just give up and keep on being stressed and feeling useless... or should I?

I bet a whole bunch of Less Wrongers aren't aware of chances for alternative employment. I myself hear myths of people who work via the internet, or blog for a living, or code an hour a day and still make enough to survive comfortably. Sites like elance and vworker (which looks kinda intimidating) exist, and I bet we could find others. Are there such people on Less Wrong that could tell us their secret? Do others know about how to snag one of these gigs? What sorts of skills are easiest to specialize in that could get returns in virtual work? Are virtual markets hard to break into? Can I just blog for an hour or two a day and afford to live a life of simplistic luxury in Thailand? Pretty much everyone on Less Wrong has exceptional writing ability: are there relatively well-paying writing gigs we could get? Alternatively, are there other non-internet jobs that people can break into that don't require tons of experience or great connections or that dreaded and inscrutable bane of nerds everywhere, 'people skills'? Share your knowledge or do some research and help Less Wrong become more happy, more productive, and more awesome!

Oh, and this is really important: we don't have to reinvent the wheel. As wedrifid demonstrated in the earlier Intelligence Amplification Open Thread, a link to an already existent forum is worth ten thousand words or more.

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