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I Updated the List of Rationalist Blogs on the Wiki

24 deluks917 25 April 2017 10:26AM

I recently updated the list of rationalist community blogs. The new page is here: https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/List_of_Blogs


-Tons of (active) blogs have been added

-All dead links have been removed

-Blogs which are currently inactive but somewhat likely to be revived have been moved to an inactive section. I included the date of their last post. 

-Blogs which are officially closed or have not been updated in many years are now all in the "Gone but not forgetten" section


-Categorizing the blogs I added was hard, its unclear how well I did. By some standard most rationalist blogs should be in "general rationality" 

-The blog descriptions could be improved (both for the blog-listings I added and the pre-existing listings)

-I don't know the names of the authors of Several blogs I added. 

I am posting this here because I think the article is of general interest to rationalists. In addition the page could use some more polish and attention. I also think it might be interesting to think about improving the lesswrong wiki. Several pages could use an update. However this update took a considerable amount of time. So I understand why many wiki pages are not up to date. How can we make it easier and more rewarding to work on the wiki?

Sufficiently sincere confirmation bias is indistinguishable from science

19 Benquo 15 March 2017 01:19PM

Some theater people at NYU people wanted to demonstrate how gender stereotypes affected the 2016 US presidential election. So they decided to put on a theatrical performance of the presidential debates – but with the genders of the principals swapped. They assumed that this would show how much of a disadvantage Hillary Clinton was working under because of her gender. They were shocked to discover the opposite – audiences full of Clinton supporters, watching the gender-swapped debates, came away thinking that Trump was a better communicator than they'd thought.

The principals don't seem to have come into this with a fair-minded attitude. Instead, it seems to have been a case of "I'll show them!":

Salvatore says he and Guadalupe began the project assuming that the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression—his tendency to interrupt and attack—would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.

Let's be clear about this. This was not epistemic even-handedness. This was a sincere attempt at confirmation bias. They believed one thing, and looked only for confirming evidence to prove their point. It was only when they started actually putting together the experiment that they realized they might learn the opposite lesson:

But the lessons about gender that emerged in rehearsal turned out to be much less tidy. What was Jonathan Gordon smiling about all the time? And didn’t he seem a little stiff, tethered to rehearsed statements at the podium, while Brenda King, plainspoken and confident, freely roamed the stage? Which one would audiences find more likeable?

What made this work? I think what happened is that they took their own beliefs literally. They actually believed that people hated Hillary because she was a woman, and so their idea of something that they were confident would show this clearly was a fair test. Because of this, when things came out the opposite of the way they'd predicted, they noticed and were surprised, because they actually expected the demonstration to work.

But they went further. Even though they knew in advance of the public performances that the experiment got the wrong answer, they neither falsified nor file-drawered the evidence. They tried to show, they got a different answer, they showed it anyway.

This is much, much better science than contemporary medical or psychology research were before the replication crisis.

Sometimes, when I think about how epistemically corrupt our culture is, I'm tempted to adopt a permanent defensive crouch and disbelieve anything I can't fact-check, to explicitly adjust for all the relevant biases, and this prospect sounds exhausting. It's not actually necessary. You don't have to worry too much about your biases. Just take your own beliefs literally, as though they mean what they say they mean, and try to believe all their consequences as well. And, when you hit a contradiction – well, now you have an opportunity to learn where you're wrong.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

Revitalizing Less Wrong seems like a lost purpose, but here are some other ideas

19 John_Maxwell_IV 12 June 2016 07:38AM

This is a response to ingres' recent post sharing Less Wrong survey results. If you haven't read & upvoted it, I strongly encourage you to--they've done a fabulous job of collecting and presenting data about the state of the community.

So, there's a bit of a contradiction in the survey results.  On the one hand, people say the community needs to do more scholarship, be more rigorous, be more practical, be more humble.  On the other hand, not much is getting posted, and it seems like raising the bar will only exacerbate that problem.

I did a query against the survey database to find the complaints of top Less Wrong contributors and figure out how best to serve their needs.  (Note: it's a bit hard to read the comments because some of them should start with "the community needs more" or "the community needs less", but adding that info would have meant constructing a much more complicated query.)  One user wrote:

[it's not so much that there are] overly high standards,  just not a very civil or welcoming climate . why write content for free and get trashed when I can go write a grant application or a manuscript instead?

ingres emphasizes that in order to revitalize the community, we would need more content.  Content is important, but incentives for producing content might be even more important.  Social status may be the incentive humans respond most strongly to.  Right now, from a social status perspective, the expected value of creating a new Less Wrong post doesn't feel very high.  Partially because many LW posts are getting downvotes and critical comments, so my System 1 says my posts might as well.  And partially because the Less Wrong brand is weak enough that I don't expect associating myself with it will boost my social status.

When Less Wrong was founded, the primary failure mode guarded against was Eternal September.  If Eternal September represents a sort of digital populism, Less Wrong was attempting a sort of digital elitism.  My perception is that elitism isn't working because the benefits of joining the elite are too small and the costs are too large.  Teddy Roosevelt talked about the man in the arena--I think Less Wrong experienced the reverse of the evaporative cooling EY feared, where people gradually left the arena as the proportional number of critics in the stands grew ever larger.

Given where Less Wrong is at, however, I suspect the goal of revitalizing Less Wrong represents a lost purpose.

ingres' survey received a total of 3083 responses.  Not only is that about twice the number we got in the last survey in 2014, it's about twice the number we got in 20132012, and 2011 (though much bigger than the first survey in 2009).  It's hard to know for sure, since previous surveys were only advertised on the LessWrong.com domain, but it doesn't seem like the diaspora thing has slowed the growth of the community a ton and it may have dramatically accelerated it.

Why has the community continued growing?  Here's one possibility.  Maybe Less Wrong has been replaced by superior alternatives.

  • CFAR - ingres writes: "If LessWrong is serious about it's goal of 'advancing the art of human rationality' then it needs to figure out a way to do real investigation into the subject."  That's exactly what CFAR does.  CFAR is a superior alternative for people who want something like Less Wrong, but more practical.  (They have an alumni mailing list that's higher quality and more active than Less Wrong.)  Yes, CFAR costs money, because doing research costs money!
  • Effective Altruism - A superior alternative for people who want something that's more focused on results.
  • Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter - People are going to be wasting time on these sites anyway.  They might as well talk about rationality while they do it.  Like all those phpBB boards in the 00s, Less Wrong has been outcompeted by the hot new thing, and I think it's probably better to roll with it than fight it.  I also wouldn't be surprised if interacting with others through social media has been a cause of community growth.
  • SlateStarCodex - SSC already checks most of the boxes under ingres' "Future Improvement Wishlist Based On Survey Results".  In my opinion, the average SSC post has better scholarship, rigor, and humility than the average LW post, and the community seems less intimidating, less argumentative, more accessible, and more accepting of outside viewpoints.
  • The meatspace community - Meeting in person has lots of advantages.  Real-time discussion using Slack/IRC also has advantages.

Less Wrong had a great run, and the superior alternatives wouldn't exist in their current form without it.  (LW was easily the most common way people heard about EA in 2014, for instance, although sampling effects may have distorted that estimate.)  But that doesn't mean it's the best option going forward.

Therefore, here are some things I don't think we should do:

  • Try to be a second-rate version of any of the superior alternatives I mentioned above.  If someone's going to put something together, it should fulfill a real community need or be the best alternative available for whatever purpose it serves.
  • Try to get old contributors to return to Less Wrong for the sake of getting them to return.  If they've judged that other activities are a better use of time, we should probably trust their judgement.  It might be sensible to make an exception for old posters that never transferred to the in-person community, but they'd be harder to track down.
  • Try to solve the same sort of problems Arbital or Metaculus is optimizing for.  No reason to step on the toes of other projects in the community.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done.  Here are some possible weaknesses I see with our current setup:

  • If you've got a great idea for a blog post, and you don't already have an online presence, it's a bit hard to reach lots of people, if that's what you want to do.
  • If we had a good system for incentivizing people to write great stuff (as opposed to merely tolerating great stuff the way LW culture historically has), we'd get more great stuff written.
  • It can be hard to find good content in the diaspora.  Possible solution: Weekly "diaspora roundup" posts to Less Wrong.  I'm too busy to do this, but anyone else is more than welcome to (assuming both people reading LW and people in the diaspora want it).
  • EDIT 11/27/16 - Recently people have been arguing that social media generates relatively superficial discussions.  This plausibly undermines my "lost purpose" thesis.

ingres mentions the possibility of Scott Alexander somehow opening up SlateStarCodex to other contributors.  This seems like a clearly superior alternative to revitalizing Less Wrong, if Scott is down for it:

  • As I mentioned, SSC already seems to have solved most of the culture & philosophy problems that people complained about with Less Wrong.
  • SSC has no shortage of content--Scott has increased the rate at which he creates open threads to deal with an excess of comments.
  • SSC has a stronger brand than Less Wrong.  It's been linked to by Ezra Klein, Ross Douthat, Bryan Caplan, etc.

But the most important reasons may be behavioral reasons.  SSC has more traffic--people are in the habit of visiting there, not here.  And the posting habits people have acquired there seem more conducive to community.  Changing habits is hard.

As ingres writes, revitalizing Less Wrong is probably about as difficult as creating a new site from scratch, and I think creating a new site from scratch for Scott is a superior alternative for the reasons I gave.

So if there's anyone who's interested in improving Less Wrong, here's my humble recommendation: Go tell Scott Alexander you'll build an online forum to his specification, with SSC community feedback, to provide a better solution for his overflowing open threads.  Once you've solved that problem, keep making improvements and subfora so your forum becomes the best available alternative for more and more use cases.

And here's my humble suggestion for what an SSC forum could look like:

As I mentioned above, Eternal September is analogous to a sort of digital populism.  The major social media sites often have a "mob rule" culture to them, and people are increasingly seeing the disadvantages of this model.  Less Wrong tried to achieve digital elitism and it didn't work well in the long run, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.  Edge.org has found a model for digital elitism that works.  There may be other workable models out there.  A workable model could even turn in to a successful company.  Fight the hot new thing by becoming the hot new thing.

My proposal is based on the idea of eigendemocracy.  (Recommended that you read the link before continuing--eigendemocracy is cool.)  In eigendemocracy, your trust score is a composite rating of what trusted people think of you.  (It sounds like infinite recursion, but it can be resolved using linear algebra.)

Eigendemocracy is a complicated idea, but a simple way to get most of the way there would be to have a forum where having lots of karma gives you the ability to upvote multiple times.  How would this work?  Let's say Scott starts with 5 karma and everyone else starts with 0 karma.  Each point of karma gives you the ability to upvote once a day.  Let's say it takes 5 upvotes for a post to get featured on the sidebar of Scott's blog.  If Scott wants to feature a post on the sidebar of his blog, he upvotes it 5 times, netting the person who wrote it 1 karma.  As Scott features more and more posts, he gains a moderation team full of people who wrote posts that were good enough to feature.  As they feature posts in turn, they generate more co-moderators.

Why do I like this solution?

  • It acts as a cultural preservation mechanism.  On reddit and Twitter, sheer numbers rule when determining what gets visibility.  The reddit-like voting mechanisms of Less Wrong meant that the site deliberately kept a somewhat low profile in order to avoid getting overrun.  Even if SSC experienced a large influx of new users, those users would only gain power to affect the visibility of content if they proved themselves by making quality contributions first.
  • It takes the moderation burden off of Scott and distributes it across trusted community members.  As the community grows, the mod team grows with it.
  • The incentives seem well-aligned.  Writing stuff Scott likes or meta-likes gets you recognition, mod powers, and the ability to control the discussion--forms of social status.  Contrast with social media sites where hyperbole is a shortcut to attention, followers, upvotes.  Also, unlike Less Wrong, there'd be no punishment for writing a low quality post--it simply doesn't get featured and is one more click away from the SSC homepage.

TL;DR - Despite appearances, the Less Wrong community is actually doing great.  Any successor to Less Wrong should try to offer compelling advantages over options that are already available.

A Second Year of Spaced Repetition Software in the Classroom

29 tanagrabeast 01 May 2016 10:14PM

This is a follow-up to last year's report. Here, I will talk about my successes and failures using Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) in the classroom for a second year. The year's not over yet, but I have reasons for reporting early that should become clear in a subsequent post. A third post will then follow, and together these will constitute a small sequence exploring classroom SRS and the adjacent ideas that bubble up when I think deeply about teaching.


I experienced net negative progress this year in my efforts to improve classroom instruction via spaced repetition software. While this is mostly attributable to shifts in my personal priorities, I have also identified a number of additional failure modes for classroom SRS, as well as additional shortcomings of Anki for this use case. My experiences also showcase some fundamental challenges to teaching-in-general that SRS depressingly spotlights without being any less susceptible to. Regardless, I am more bullish than ever about the potential for classroom SRS, and will lay out a detailed vision for what it can be in the next post.

continue reading »

The Sally-Anne fallacy

27 philh 11 April 2016 01:06PM

Cross-posted from my blog

I'd like to coin a term. The Sally-Anne fallacy is the mistake of assuming that somone believes something, simply because that thing is true.1

The name comes from the Sally-Anne test, used in developmental psychology to detect theory of mind. Someone who lacks theory of mind will fail the Sally-Anne test, thinking that Sally knows where the marble is. The Sally-Anne fallacy is also a failure of theory of mind.

In internet arguments, this will often come up as part of a chain of reasoning, such as: you think X; X implies Y; therefore you think Y. Or: you support X; X leads to Y; therefore you support Y.2

So for example, we have this complaint about the words "African dialect" used in Age of Ultron. The argument goes: a dialect is a variation on a language, therefore Marvel thinks "African" is a language.

You think "African" has dialects; "has dialects" implies "is a language"; therefore you think "African" is a language.

Or maybe Marvel just doesn't know what a "dialect" is.

This is also a mistake I was pointing at in Fascists and Rakes. You think it's okay to eat tic-tacs; tic-tacs are sentient; therefore you think it's okay to eat sentient things. Versus: you think I should be forbidden from eating tic-tacs; tic-tacs are nonsentient; therefore you think I should be forbidden from eating nonsentient things. No, in both cases the defendant is just wrong about whether tic-tacs are sentient.

Many political conflicts include arguments that look like this. You fight our cause; our cause is the cause of [good thing]; therefore you oppose [good thing]. Sometimes people disagree about what's good, but sometimes they just disagree about how to get there, and think that a cause is harmful to its stated goals. Thus, liberals and libertarians symmetrically accuse each other of not caring about the poor.3

If you want to convince someone to change their mind, it's important to know what they're wrong about. The Sally-Anne fallacy causes us to mistarget our counterarguments, and to mistake potential allies for inevitable enemies.

  1. From the outside, this looks like "simply because you believe that thing".

  2. Another possible misunderstanding here, is if you agree that X leads to Y and Y is bad, but still think X is worth it.

  3. Of course, sometimes people will pretend not to believe the obvious truth so that they can further their dastardly ends. But sometimes they're just wrong. And sometimes they'll be right, and the obvious truth will be untrue.

Require contributions in advance

53 Viliam 08 February 2016 12:55PM

If you are a person who finds it difficult to tell "no" to their friends, this one weird trick may save you a lot of time!


Scenario 1

Alice: "Hi Bob! You are a programmer, right?"

Bob: "Hi Alice! Yes, I am."

Alice: "I have this cool idea, but I need someone to help me. I am not good with computers, and I need someone smart whom I could trust, so they wouldn't steal my idea. Would you have a moment to listen to me?"

Alice explains to Bob her idea that would completely change the world. Well, at the least the world of bicycle shopping.

Instead of having many shops for bicycles, there could be one huge e-shop that would collect all the information about bicycles from all the existing shops. The customers would specify what kind of a bike they want (and where they live), and the system would find all bikes that fit the specification, and display them ordered by lowest price, including the price of delivery; then it would redirect them to the specific page of the specific vendor. Customers would love to use this one website, instead of having to visit multiple shops and compare. And the vendors would have to use this shop, because that's where the customers would be. Taking a fraction of a percent from the sales could make Alice (and also Bob, if he helps her) incredibly rich.

Bob is skeptical about it. The project suffers from the obvious chicken-and-egg problem: without vendors already there, the customers will not come (and if they come by accident, they will quickly leave, never to return again); and without customers already there, there is no reason for the vendors to cooperate. There are a few ways how to approach this problem, but the fact that Alice didn't even think about it is a red flag. She also has no idea who are the big players in the world of bicycle selling; and generally she didn't do her homework. But after pointing out all these objections, Alice still remains super enthusiastic about the project. She promises she will take care about everything -- she just cannot write code, and she needs Bob's help for this part.

Bob believes strongly in the division of labor, and that friends should help each other. He considers Alice his friend, and he will likely need some help from her in the future. Fact is, with perfect specification, he could make the webpage in a week or two. But he considers bicycles to be an extremely boring topic, so he wants to spend as little time as possible on this project. Finally, he has an idea:

"Okay, Alice, I will make the website for you. But first I need to know exactly how the page will look like, so that I don't have to keep changing it over and over again. So here is the homework for you -- take a pen and paper, and make a sketch of how exactly the web will look like. All the dialogs, all the buttons. Don't forget logging in and logging out, editing the customer profile, and everything else that is necessary for the website to work as intended. Just look at the papers and imagine that you are the customer: where exactly would you click to register, and to find the bicycle you want? Same for the vendor. And possibly a site administrator. Also give me the list of criteria people will use to find the bike they want. Size, weight, color, radius of wheels, what else? And when you have it all ready, I will make the first version of the website. But until then, I am not writing any code."

Alice leaves, satisfied with the outcome.


This happened a year ago.

No, Alice doesn't have the design ready, yet. Once in a while, when she meets Bob, she smiles at him and apologizes that she didn't have the time to start working on the design. Bob smiles back and says it's okay, he'll wait. Then they change the topic.


Scenario 2

Cyril: "Hi Diana! You speak Spanish, right?"

Diana: "Hi Cyril! Yes, I do."

Cyril: "You know, I think Spanish is the most cool language ever, and I would really love to learn it! Could you please give me some Spanish lessons, once in a while? I totally want to become fluent in Spanish, so I could travel to Spanish-speaking countries and experience their culture and food. Would you please help me?"

Diana is happy that someone takes interest in her favorite hobby. It would be nice to have someone around she could practice Spanish conversation with. The first instinct is to say yes.

But then she remembers (she knows Cyril for some time; they have a lot of friends in common, so they meet quite regularly) that Cyril is always super enthusiastic about something he is totally going to do... but when she meets him next time, he is super enthusiastic about something completely different; and she never heard about him doing anything serious about his previous dreams.

Also, Cyril seems to seriously underestimate how much time does it take to learn a foreign language fluently. Some lessons, once in a while will not do it. He also needs to study on his own. Preferably every day, but twice a week is probably a minimum, if he hopes to speak the language fluently within a year. Diana would be happy to teach someone Spanish, but not if her effort will most likely be wasted.

Diana: "Cyril, there is this great website called Duolingo, where you can learn Spanish online completely free. If you give it about ten minutes every day, maybe after a few months you will be able to speak fluently. And anytime we meet, we can practice the vocabulary you have already learned."

This would be the best option for Diana. No work, and another opportunity to practice. But Cyril insists:

"It's not the same without the live teacher. When I read something from the textbook, I cannot ask additional questions. The words that are taught are often unrelated to the topics I am interested in. I am afraid I will just get stuck with the... whatever was the website that you mentioned."

For Diana this feels like a red flag. Sure, textbooks are not optimal. They contain many words that the student will not use frequently, and will soon forget them. On the other hand, the grammar is always useful; and Diana doesn't want to waste her time explaining the basic grammar that any textbook could explain instead. If Cyril learns the grammar and some basic vocabulary, then she can teach him all the specialized vocabulary he is interested in. But now it feels like Cyril wants to avoid all work. She has to draw a line:

"Cyril, this is the address of the website." She takes his notebook and writes 'www.duolingo.com'. "You register there, choose Spanish, and click on the first lesson. It is interactive, and it will not take you more than ten minutes. If you get stuck there, write here what exactly it was that you didn't understand; I will explain it when we meet. If there is no problem, continue with the second lesson, and so on. When we meet next time, tell me which lessons you have completed, and we will talk about them. Okay?"

Cyril nods reluctantly.


This happened a year ago.

Cyril and Diana have met repeatedly during the year, but Cyril never brought up the topic of Spanish language again.


Scenario 3

Erika: "Filip, would you give me a massage?"

Filip: "Yeah, sure. The lotion is in the next room; bring it to me!"

Erika brings the massage lotion and lies on the bed. Filip massages her back. Then they make out and have sex.


This happened a year ago. Erika and Filip are still a happy couple.

Filip's previous relationships didn't work well, in long term. In retrospect, they all followed a similar scenario. At the beginning, everything seemed great. Then at some moment the girl started acting... unreasonably?... asking Filip to do various things for her, and then acting annoyed when Filip did exactly what he was asked to do. This happened more and more frequently, and at some moment she broke up with him. Sometimes she provided explanation for breaking up that Filip was unable to decipher.

Filip has a friend who is a successful salesman. Successful both professionally and with women. When Filip admitted to himself that he is unable to solve the problem on his own, he asked his friend for advice.

"It's because you're a f***ing doormat," said the friend. "The moment a woman asks you to do anything, you immediately jump and do it, like a well-trained puppy. Puppies are cute, but not attractive. Have you ready any of those books I sent you, like, ten years ago? I bet you didn't. Well, it's all there."

Filip sighed: "Look, I'm not trying to become a pick-up artist. Or a salesman. Or anything. No offense, but I'm not like you, personality-wise, I never have been, and I don't want to become your - or anyone else's - copy. Even if it would mean greater success in anything. I prefer to treat other people just like I would want them to treat me. Most people reciprocate nice behavior; and those who don't, well, I avoid them as much as possible. This works well with my friends. It also works with the girls... at the beginning... but then somehow... uhm... Anyway, all your books are about manipulating people, which is ethically unacceptable for me. Isn't there some other way?"

"All human interaction is manipulation; the choice is between doing it right or wrong, acting consciously or driven by your old habits..." started the friend, but then he gave up. "Okay, I see you're not interested. Just let me show you the most obvious mistake you make. You believe that when you are nice to people, they will perceive you as nice, and most of them will reciprocate. And when you act like an asshole, it's the other way round. That's correct, on some level; and in a perfect world this would be the whole truth. But on a different level, people also perceive nice behavior as weakness; especially if you do it habitually, as if you don't have any other option. And being an asshole obviously signals strength: you are not afraid to make other people angry. Also, in long term, people become used to your behavior, good or bad. The nice people don't seem so nice anymore, but they still seem weak. Then, ironicaly, if the person well-known to be nice refuses to do something once, people become really angry, because their expectations were violated. And if the asshole decides to do something nice once, they will praise him, because he surprised them pleasantly. You should be an asshole once in a while, to make people see that you have a choice, so they won't take your niceness for granted. Or if your girlfriend wants something from you, sometimes just say no, even if you could have done it. She will respect you more, and then she will enjoy more the things you do for her."

Filip: "Well, I... probably couldn't do that. I mean, what you say seems to make sense, however much I hate to admit it. But I can't imagine doing it myself, especially to a person I love. It's just... uhm... wrong."

"Then, I guess, the very least you could do is to ask her to do something for you first. Even if it's symbolic, that doesn't matter; human relationships are mostly about role-playing anyway. Don't jump immediately when you are told to; always make her jump first, if only a little. That will demonstrate strength without hurting anyone. Could you do that?"

Filip wasn't sure, but at the next opportunity he tried it, and it worked. And it kept working. Maybe it was all just a coincidence, maybe it was a placebo effect, but Filip doesn't mind. At first it felt kinda artificial, but then it became natural. And later, to his surprise, Filip realized that practicing these symbolic demands actually makes it easier to ask when he really needed something. (In which case sometimes he was asked to do something first, because his girlfriend -- knowingly or not? he never had the courage to ask -- copied the pattern; or maybe she has already known it long before. But he didn't mind that either.)


The lesson is: If you find yourself repeatedly in situations where people ask you to do something for them, but at the end they don't seem to appreciate what you did for them, or don't even care about the thing they asked you to do... and yet you find it difficult to say "no"... ask them to contribute to the project first.

This will help you get rid of the projects they don't care about (including the ones they think they care about in far mode, but do not care about enough to actually work on them in near mode) without being the one who refuses cooperation. Also, the act of asking the other person to contribute, after being asked to do something for them, mitigates the status loss inherent in working for them.

Upcoming LW Changes

46 Vaniver 03 February 2016 05:34AM

Thanks to the reaction to this article and some conversations, I'm convinced that it's worth trying to renovate and restore LW. Eliezer, Nate, and Matt Fallshaw are all on board and have empowered me as an editor to see what we can do about reshaping LW to meet what the community currently needs. This involves a combination of technical changes and social changes, which we'll try to make transparently and non-intrusively.

continue reading »

Anxiety and Rationality

32 helldalgo 19 January 2016 06:30PM

Recently, someone on the Facebook page asked if anyone had used rationality to target anxieties.  I have, so I thought I’d share my LessWrong-inspired strategies.  This is my first post, so feedback and formatting help are welcome.  

First things first: the techniques developed by this community are not a panacea for mental illness.  They are way more effective than chance and other tactics at reducing normal bias, and I think many mental illnesses are simply cognitive biases that are extreme enough to get noticed.  In other words, getting a probability question about cancer systematically wrong does not disrupt my life enough to make the error obvious.  When I believe (irrationally) that I will get fired because I asked for help at work, my life is disrupted.  I become non-functional, and the error is clear.

Second: the best way to attack anxiety is to do the things that make your anxieties go away.  That might seem too obvious to state, but I’ve definitely been caught in an “analysis loop,” where I stay up all night reading self-help guides only to find myself non-functional in the morning because I didn’t sleep.  If you find that attacking an anxiety with Bayesian updating is like chopping down the Washington monument with a spoon, but getting a full night’s sleep makes the monument disappear completely, consider the sleep.  Likewise for techniques that have little to no scientific evidence, but are a good placebo.  A placebo effect is still an effect.

Finally, like all advice, this comes with Implicit Step Zero:  “Have enough executive function to give this a try.”  If you find yourself in an analysis loop, you may not yet have enough executive function to try any of the advice you read.  The advice for functioning better is not always identical to the advice for functioning at all.  If there’s interest in an “improving your executive function” post, I’ll write one eventually.  It will be late, because my executive function is not impeccable.

Simple updating is my personal favorite for attacking specific anxieties.  A general sense of impending doom is a very tricky target and does not respond well to reality.  If you can narrow it down to a particular belief, however, you can amass evidence against it. 

Returning to my example about work: I alieved that I would get fired if I asked for help or missed a day due to illness.  The distinction between believe and alieve is an incredibly useful tool that I immediately integrated when I heard of it.  Learning to make beliefs pay rent is much easier than making harmful aliefs go away.  The tactics are similar: do experiments, make predictions, throw evidence at the situation until you get closer to reality.  Update accordingly.  

The first thing I do is identify the situation and why it’s dysfunctional.  The alief that I’ll get fired for asking for help is not actually articulated when it manifests as an anxiety.  Ask me in the middle of a panic attack, and I still won’t articulate that I am afraid of getting fired.  So I take the anxiety all the way through to its implication.  The algorithm is something like this:

  1.       Notice sense of doom
  2.       Notice my avoidance behaviors (not opening my email, walking away from my desk)
  3.       Ask “What am I afraid of?”
  4.       Answer (it's probably silly)
  5.       Ask “What do I think will happen?”
  6.       Make a prediction about what will happen (usually the prediction is implausible, which is why we want it to go away in the first place)

In the “asking for help” scenario, the answer to “what do I think will happen” is implausible.  It’s extremely unlikely that I’ll get fired for it!  This helps take the gravitas out of the anxiety, but it does not make it go away.*  After (6), it’s usually easy to do an experiment.  If I ask my coworkers for help, will I get fired?  The only way to know is to try. 

…That’s actually not true, of course.  A sense of my environment, my coworkers, and my general competence at work should be enough.  But if it was, we wouldn’t be here, would we?

So I perform the experiment.  And I wait.  When I receive a reply of any sort, even if it’s negative, I make a tick mark on a sheet of paper.  I label it “didn’t get fired.”  Because again, even if it’s negative, I didn’t get fired. 

This takes a lot of tick marks.  Cutting down the Washington monument with a spoon, remember?

The tick marks don’t have to be physical.  I prefer it, because it makes the “updating” process visual.  I’ve tried making a mental note and it’s not nearly as effective.  Play around with it, though.  If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of anxieties to experiment with. 

Usually, the anxiety starts to dissipate after obtaining several tick marks.  Ideally, one iteration of experiments should solve the problem.  But we aren’t ideal; we’re mentally ill.  Depending on the severity of the anxiety, you may need someone to remind you that doom will not occur.  I occasionally panic when I have to return to work after taking a sick day.  I ask my husband to remind me that I won’t get fired.  I ask him to remind me that he’ll still love me if I do get fired.  If this sounds childish, it’s because it is.  Again: we’re mentally ill.  Even if you aren’t, however, assigning value judgements to essentially harmless coping mechanisms does not make sense.  Childish-but-helpful is much better than mature-and-harmful, if you have to choose.

I still have tiny ugh fields around my anxiety triggers.  They don’t really go away.  It’s more like learning not to hit someone you’re angry at.  You notice the impulse, accept it, and move on.  Hopefully, your harmful alief starves to death.

If you perform your experiment and doom does occur, it might not be you.  If you can’t ask your boss for help, it might be your boss.  If you disagree with your spouse and they scream at you for an hour, it might be your spouse.  This isn’t an excuse to blame your problems on the world, but abusive situations can be sneaky.  Ask some trusted friends for a sanity check, if you’re performing experiments and getting doom as a result.  This is designed for situations where your alief is obviously silly.  Where you know it’s silly, and need to throw evidence at your brain to internalize it.  It’s fine to be afraid of genuinely scary things; if you really are in an abusive work environment, maybe you shouldn’t ask for help (and start looking for another job instead). 



*using this technique for several months occasionally stops the anxiety immediately after step 6.  

The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed

77 AnnaSalamon 15 January 2016 10:55PM

Related to: Half-assing it with everything you've got; Wasted motionSay it Loud.

Once upon a time (true story), I was on my way to a hotel in a new city.  I knew the hotel was many miles down this long, branchless road.  So I drove for a long while.

After a while, I began to worry I had passed the hotel.



So, instead of proceeding at 60 miles per hour the way I had been, I continued in the same direction for several more minutes at 30 miles per hour, wondering if I should keep going or turn around.

After a while, I realized: I was being silly!  If the hotel was ahead of me, I'd get there fastest if I kept going 60mph.  And if the hotel was behind me, I'd get there fastest by heading at 60 miles per hour in the other direction.  And if I wasn't going to turn around yet -- if my best bet given the uncertainty was to check N more miles of highway first, before I turned around -- then, again, I'd get there fastest by choosing a value of N, speeding along at 60 miles per hour until my odometer said I'd gone N miles, and then turning around and heading at 60 miles per hour in the opposite direction.  

Either way, fullspeed was best.  My mind had been naively averaging two courses of action -- the thought was something like: "maybe I should go forward, and maybe I should go backward.  So, since I'm uncertain, I should go forward at half-speed!"  But averages don't actually work that way.[1]

Following this, I started noticing lots of hotels in my life (and, perhaps less tactfully, in my friends' lives).  For example:
  • I wasn't sure if I was a good enough writer to write a given doc myself, or if I should try to outsource it.  So, I sat there kind-of-writing it while also fretting about whether the task was correct.
    • (Solution:  Take a minute out to think through heuristics.  Then, either: (1) write the post at full speed; or (2) try to outsource it; or (3) write full force for some fixed time period, and then pause and evaluate.)
  • I wasn't sure (back in early 2012) that CFAR was worthwhile.  So, I kind-of worked on it.
  • An old friend came to my door unexpectedly, and I was tempted to hang out with her, but I also thought I should finish my work.  So I kind-of hung out with her while feeling bad and distracted about my work.
  • A friend of mine, when teaching me math, seems to mumble specifically those words that he doesn't expect me to understand (in a sort of compromise between saying them and not saying them)...
  • Duncan reports that novice Parkour students are unable to safely undertake certain sorts of jumps, because they risk aborting the move mid-stream, after the actual last safe stopping point (apparently kind-of-attempting these jumps is more dangerous than either attempting, or not attempting the jumps)
  • It is said that start-up founders need to be irrationally certain that their startup will succeed, lest they be unable to do more than kind-of work on it...

That is, it seems to me that often there are two different actions that would make sense under two different models, and we are uncertain which model is true... and so we find ourselves taking an intermediate of half-speed action... even when that action makes no sense under any probabilistic mixture of the two models.

You might try looking out for such examples in your life.

[1] Edited to add: The hotel example has received much nitpicking in the comments.  But: (A) the actual example was legit, I think.  Yes, stopping to think has some legitimacy, but driving slowly for a long time because uncertain does not optimize for thinking.  Similarly, it may make sense to drive slowly to stare at the buildings in some contexts... but I was on a very long empty country road, with no buildings anywhere (true historical fact), and also I was not squinting carefully at the scenery.  The thing I needed to do was to execute an efficient search pattern, with a threshold for a future time at which to switch from full-speed in some direction to full-speed in the other.  Also: (B) consider some of the other examples; "kind of working", "kind of hanging out with my friend", etc. seem to be common behaviors that are mostly not all that useful in the usual case.

Proper posture for mental arts

28 Valentine 31 August 2015 02:29AM

I'd like to start by way of analogy. I think it'll make the link to rationality easier to understand if I give context first.

I sometimes teach the martial art of aikido. The way I was originally taught, you had to learn how to "feel the flow of ki" (basically life energy) through you and from your opponent, and you had to make sure that your movements - both physical and mental - were such that your "ki" would blend with and guide the "ki" of your opponent. Even after I stopped believing in ki, though, there were some core elements of the art that I just couldn't do, let alone teach, without thinking and talking in terms of ki flow.

A great example of this is the "unbendable arm". This is a pretty critical thing to get right for most aikido techniques. And it feels really weird. Most people when they first get it think that the person trying to fold their arm isn't actually pushing because it doesn't feel like effort to keep their arm straight. Many students (including me once upon a time) end up taking this basic practice as compelling proof that ki is real. Even after I realized that ki wasn't real, I still had to teach unbendable arm this way because nothing else seemed to work.

…and then I found anatomical resources like Becoming a Supple Leopard.

It turns out that the unbendable arm works when:

That's it. If you do this correctly, you can relax most of your other arm muscles and still be able to resist pretty enormous force on your arm.

Why, you might ask? Well, from what I have gathered, this lets you engage your latissimus dorsi (pretty large back muscles) in stabilizing your elbow. There's also a bit of strategy where you don't actually have to fully oppose the arm-bender's strength; you just have to stabilize the elbow enough to be able to direct the push-down-on-elbow force into the push-up-on-wrist force.

But the point is, by understanding something about proper posture, you can cut literally months of training down to about ten minutes.

To oversimplify it a little bit, there are basically three things to get right about proper posture for martial arts (at least as I know them):

  1. You need to get your spine in the right position and brace it properly. (For the most part and for most people, this means tucking your pelvis, straightening your thoracic spine a bit, and tensing your abs a little.)
  2. You need to use your hip and shoulder ball-and-socket joints properly. (For the most part this seems to mean using them instead of your spine to move, and putting torque in them by e.g. screwing your elbow downward when reaching forward.)
  3. You need to keep your tissue supple & mobile. (E.g., tight hamstrings can pull your hips out of alignment and prevent you from using your hip joints instead of your mid-lumbar spine (i.e. waist) to bend over. Also, thoracic inflexibility usually locks people in thoracic kyphosis, making it extremely difficult to transfer force effectively between their lower body and their arms.)

My experience is that as people learn how to feel these three principles in their bodies, they're able to correct their physical postures whenever they need to, rather than having to wait for my seemingly magical touch to make an aikido technique suddenly really easy.

It's worth noting that this is mostly known, even in aikido dojos ("training halls"). They just phrase it differently and don't understand the mechanics of it. They'll say things like "Don't bend over; the other guy can pull you down if you do" and "Let the move be natural" and "Relax more; let ki flow through you freely."

But it turns out that getting the mechanical principles of posture down makes basically all the magic of aikido something even a beginner can learn how to see and correct.

A quick anecdote along these lines, which despite being illustrative, you should take as me being a bit of an idiot:

I once visited a dojo near the CFAR office. That night they were doing a practice basically consisting of holding your partner's elbow and pulling them to the ground. It works by a slight shift sideways to cause a curve in the lumbar spine, cutting power between their lower and upper bodies. Then you pull straight down and there's basically nothing they can do about it.

However, the lesson was in terms of feeling ki flow, and the instruction was to pull straight down. I was feeling trollish and a little annoyed about the wrongness and authoritarian delivery of the instruction, so I went to the instructor and asked: "Sensei, I see you pulling slightly sideways, and I had perhaps misheard the instructions to be that we should pull straight down. Should I be pulling slightly sideways too?"

At which point the sensei insisted that the verbal instructions were correct, concentrated on preventing the sideways shift in his movements, and obliterated his ability to demonstrate the technique for the rest of the night.

Brienne Yudkowsky has a lovely piece in which she refers to "mental postures". I highly recommend reading it. She does a better job of pointing at the thing than I think I would do here.

…but if you really don't want to read it just right now, here's the key element I'll be using: There seems to be a mental analog to physical posture.

We've had quite a bit of analogizing rationality as a martial art here. So, as a martial arts practitioner and instructor with a taste of the importance of deeply understanding body mechanics, I really want to ask: What, exactly, are the principles of good mental posture for the Art of Rationality?

In the way I'm thinking of it, this isn't likely to be things like "consider the opposite" or "hold off on proposing solutions". I refer to things of this breed as "mental movements" and think they're closer to the analogs of individual martial techniques than they are principles of mental orientation.

That said, we can look at mental movements to get a hint about what a good mental posture might do. In the body, good physical posture gives you both more power and more room for error: if you let your hands drift behind your head in a shihonage, having a flexible thoracic spine and torqued shoulders and braced abs can make it much harder for your opponent to throw you to the ground even though you've blundered. So, by way of analogy, what might an error in attempting to (say) consider the opposite look like, and what would a good "mental posture" be that would make the error matter less?

(I encourage you to think on your own about an answer for at least 60 seconds before corrupting your mind with my thoughts below. I really want a correct answer here, and I doubt I have one yet.)

When I think of how I've messed up in attempts to consider the opposite, I can remember several instances when my tone was dutiful. I felt like I was supposed to consider the opinion that I disagreed with or didn't want to have turn out to be true. And yet, it felt boring or like submitting or something like that to really take that perspective seriously. I felt like I was considering the opposite roughly the same way a young child replies to their parent saying "Now say that you're sorry" with an almost sarcastic "I'm sorry."

What kind of "mental posture" would have let me make this mistake and yet still complete the movement? Or better yet, what mental posture would have prevented the mistake entirely? At this point I intuit that I have an answer but it's a little tricky for me to articulate. I think there's a way I can hold my mind that makes the childish orientation to truth-seeking matter less. I don't do it automatically, much like most people don't automatically sit up straight, but I sort of know how to see my grasping at a conclusion as overreaching and then… pause and get my mental feet under my mental hips before I try again.

I imagine that wasn't helpful - but I think we have examples of good and bad mental posture in action. In attachment theory, I think that the secure attachment style is a description of someone who is using good mental posture even when in mentally/emotionally threatening situations, whereas the anxious and avoidant styles are descriptions of common ways people "tense up" when they lose good mental posture. I also think there's something interesting in how sometimes when I'm offended I get really upset or angry, and sometimes the same offense just feels like such a small thing - and sometimes I can make the latter happen intentionally.

The story I described above of the aikido sensei I trolled also highlights something that I think is important. In this case, although he didn't get very flustered, he couldn't change what he was doing. He seemed mentally inflexible, like the cognitive equivalent of someone who can't usefully block an overhead attack because of a stiff upper back restricting his shoulder movement. I feel like I've been in that state lots of times, so I feel like I can roughly imagine how my basic mental/emotional orientation to my situation and way of thinking would have to be in order to have been effective in his position right then - and why that can be tricky.

I don't feel like I've adequately answered the question of what good mental posture is yet. But I feel like I have some intuitions - sort of like being able to talk about proper posture in terms of "good ki flow". But I also notice that there seem to be direct analogs of the three core parts of good physical posture that I mentioned above:

  1. Have a well-braced "spine". Based on my current fledgling understanding, this seems to look something like taking a larger perspective, like imagining looking back at this moment 30 years hence and noticing what does and does not matter. (I think that's akin to tucking your hips, which is a movement in service of posture but isn't strictly part of the posture.) I imagine this is enormously easier when one has a well-internalized sense of something to protect.
  2. Move your mind in strong & stable ways, rather than losing "spine". I think this can look like "Don't act while triggered", but it's more a warning not to try to do heavy cognitive work while letting your mental "spine" "bend". Instead, move your mind in ways that you would upon reflection want your mind to move, and that you expect to be able to bear "weight".
  3. Make your mind flexible. Achieve & maintain full mental range of movement. Don't get "stiff", and view mental inflexibility as a risk to your mental health.

All three of these are a little hand-wavy. That third one in particular I haven't really talked about much - in part because I don't really know how to work on that well. I have some guesses, and I might write up some thoughts about that later. (A good solution in the body is called "mobilization", basically consisting of pushing on tender/stiff spots while you move the surrounding joints through their maximal range of motion.) Also, I don't know if there are more principles for the mind than these three, or if these three are drawing too strongly on the analogy and are actually a little distracting. I'm still at the stage where, for mental posture, I keep wanting to say the equivalent of "relax more and let ki flow."

A lot of people say I have excellent physical posture. I think I have a reasonably clear idea of how I made my posture a habit. I'd like to share that because I've been doing the equivalent in my mind for mental posture and am under the impression that it's getting promising results.

I think my physical practice comes down to three points:

  • Recognize that having good posture gives you superpowers. It's really hard to throw me down, and I can pretty effortlessly pull people to the ground. A lot of that is martial skill, but a huge chunk of it is just that good posture gives me excellent leverage. This transfers to being able to lift really heavy things and move across the room very efficiently and quickly when needed. This also gives me a pretty big leg up on learning physical skills. Recognizing that these were things I'd gain from learning good posture gave me a lot of drive to stick to my practice.
  • Focus on how the correct posture feels, and exactly how it's different from glitchy posture. I found it super-important to notice that my body feels different in specific ways when my shoulders are in the right position versus when they're too far forward or back. Verbal instructions like "Pull shoulders back" don't work nearly as well as the feeling in the body.
  • Choose one correction at a time, and always operate from that posture, pausing and correcting yourself when you're about to slip up. Getting good shoulder posture required that I keep my shoulders back all the time. When I would reach for water, I'd notice when my shoulder was in the too-far-forward position, and then pull back and fix my shoulder position before trying again. This sometimes required trying at very basic tasks several times, often quite slowly, until I could get it right each time.

Although I didn't add this until quite late, I would now add a fourth point when giving advice on getting good physical posture: make sure to mobilize the parts of your body that are either (a) preventing you from moving into a good position or (b) requiring you to be very stiff or tense to hold that position. The trouble is, I know how to do that for the body, but I'm not as sure about how to do that for the mind.

But the three bullet points above are instructions that I can follow with respect to mental posture, I think.

So, to the extent that that seems possible for you, I invite you to try to do the same - and let me know how it goes.


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