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When is it faster to rediscover something on your own than to learn it from someone who already knows it?
Sometimes it's faster to re-derive a proof or algorithm than to look it up. Keith Lynch re-invented the fast Fourier transform because he was too lazy to walk all the way to the library to get a book on it, although that's an extreme example. But if you have a complicated proof already laid out before you, and you are not Marc Drexler, it's generally faster to read it than to derive a new one. Yet I found a knowledge-intensive task where it would have been much faster to tell someone nothing at all than to tell them how to do it.
This is an extension of a comment I made that I can't find and also a request for examples. It seems plausible that, when giving advice, many people optimize for deepness or punchiness of the advice rather than for actual practical value. There may be good reasons to do this - e.g. advice that sounds deep or punchy might be more likely to be listened to - but as a corollary, there could be valuable advice that people generally don't give because it doesn't sound deep or punchy. Let's call this boring advice.
An example that's been discussed on LW several times is "make checklists." Checklists are great. We should totally make checklists. But "make checklists" is not a deep or punchy thing to say. Other examples include "google things" and "exercise."
I would like people to use this thread to post other examples of boring advice. If you can, provide evidence and/or a plausible argument that your boring advice actually is useful, but I would prefer that you err on the side of boring but not necessarily useful in the name of more thoroughly searching a plausibly under-searched part of advicespace.
Upvotes on advice posted in this thread should be based on your estimate of the usefulness of the advice; in particular, please do not vote up advice just because it sounds deep or punchy.
There is a lot of bad science and controversy in the realm of how have a healthy lifestyle. Every week we are bombarded with new studies conflicting older studies telling us X is good or Y is bad. Eventually we reach our psychological limit, throw up our hands, and give up. I used to do this a lot. I knew exercise was good, I knew flossing was good, and I wanted to eat better. But I never acted on any of that knowledge. I would feel guilty when I thought about this stuff and go back to what I was doing. Unsurprisingly, this didn't really cause me to make any positive lifestyle changes.
Instead of vaguely guilt-tripping you with potentially unreliable science news, this post aims to provide an overview lifestyle interventions that have very strong evidence behind them and concrete ways to implement them.
[Highlights for the busy: de-bunking standard "Bayes is optimal" arguments; frequentist Solomonoff induction; and a description of the online learning framework. Note: cross-posted from my blog.]
Short summary. This essay makes many points, each of which I think is worth reading, but if you are only going to understand one point I think it should be “Myth 5″ below, which describes the online learning framework as a response to the claim that frequentist methods need to make strong modeling assumptions. Among other things, online learning allows me to perform the following remarkable feat: if I’m betting on horses, and I get to place bets after watching other people bet but before seeing which horse wins the race, then I can guarantee that after a relatively small number of races, I will do almost as well overall as the best other person, even if the number of other people is very large (say, 1 billion), and their performance is correlated in complicated ways.
If you’re only going to understand two points, then also read about the frequentist version of Solomonoff induction, which is described in “Myth 6″.
Main article. I’ve already written one essay on Bayesian vs. frequentist statistics. In that essay, I argued for a balanced, pragmatic approach in which we think of the two families of methods as a collection of tools to be used as appropriate. Since I’m currently feeling contrarian, this essay will be far less balanced and will argue explicitly against Bayesian methods and in favor of frequentist methods. I hope this will be forgiven as so much other writing goes in the opposite direction of unabashedly defending Bayes. I should note that this essay is partially inspired by some of Cosma Shalizi’s blog posts, such as this one.
This essay will start by listing a series of myths, then debunk them one-by-one. My main motivation for this is that Bayesian approaches seem to be highly popularized, to the point that one may get the impression that they are the uncontroversially superior method of doing statistics. I actually think the opposite is true: I think most statisticans would for the most part defend frequentist methods, although there are also many departments that are decidedly Bayesian (e.g. many places in England, as well as some U.S. universities like Columbia). I have a lot of respect for many of the people at these universities, such as Andrew Gelman and Philip Dawid, but I worry that many of the other proponents of Bayes (most of them non-statisticians) tend to oversell Bayesian methods or undersell alternative methodologies.
If you are like me from, say, two years ago, you are firmly convinced that Bayesian methods are superior and that you have knockdown arguments in favor of this. If this is the case, then I hope this essay will give you an experience that I myself found life-altering: the experience of having a way of thinking that seemed unquestionably true slowly dissolve into just one of many imperfect models of reality. This experience helped me gain more explicit appreciation for the skill of viewing the world from many different angles, and of distinguishing between a very successful paradigm and reality.
On ChrisHallquist's post extolling the virtues of money, the top comment is Eliezer pointing out the lack of concrete examples. Can anyone think of any? This is not just hypothetical: if I think your suggestion is good, I will try it (and report back on how it went)
I care about health, improving personal skills (particularly: programming, writing, people skills), gaining respect (particularly at work), and entertainment (these days: primarily books and computer games). If you think I should care about something else, feel free to suggest it.
I am early-twenties programmer living in San Francisco. In the interest of getting advice useful to more than one person, I'll omit further personal details.
If your idea requires significant ongoing time commitment, that is a major negative.
There's a core meme of rationalism that I think is fundamentally off-base. It's been bothering me for a long time — over a year now. It hasn't been easy for me, living this double life, pretending to be OK with propagating an instrumentally expedient idea that I know has no epistemic grounding. So I need to get this off my chest now: Our established terminology is not consistent with an evidence-based view of the Star Trek canon.
According to TVtropes, a straw Vulcan is a character used to show that emotion is better than logic. I think a lot of people take "straw Vulcan rationality" it to mean something like, "Being rational does not mean being like Vulcans from Star Trek."
This is not fair to Vulcans from Star Trek.
Central to the character of Spock — and something that it's easy to miss if you haven't seen every single episode and/or read a fair amount of fan fiction — is that he's being a Vulcan all wrong. He's half human, you see, and he's really insecure about that, because all the other kids made fun of him for it when he was growing up on Vulcan. He's spent most of his life resenting his human half, trying to prove to everyone (especially his father) that he's Vulcaner Than Thou. When the Vulcan Science Academy worried that his human mother might be an obstacle, it was the last straw for Spock. He jumped ship and joined Starfleet. Against his father's wishes.
Spock is a mess of poorly handled emotional turmoil. It makes him cold and volatile.
Real Vulcans aren't like that. They have stronger and more violent emotions than humans, so they've learned to master them out of necessity. Before the Vulcan Reformation, they were a collection of warring tribes who nearly tore their planet apart. Now, Vulcans understand emotions and are no longer at their mercy. Not when they apply their craft successfully, anyway. In the words of the prophet Surak, who created these cognitive disciplines with the purpose of saving Vulcan from certain doom, "To gain mastery over the emotions, one must first embrace the many Guises of the Mind."
Successful application of Vulcan philosophy looks positively CFARian.
There is a ritual called "kolinahr" whose purpose is to completely rid oneself of emotion, but it was not developed by Surak, nor, to my knowledge, was it endorsed by him. It's an extreme religious practice, and I think the wisest Vulcans would consider it misguided1. Spock attempted kolinahr when he believed Kirk had died, which I take to be a great departure from cthia (the Vulcan Way) — not because he ultimately failed to complete the ritual2, but because he tried to smash his problems with a hammer rather than applying his training to sort things out skillfully. If there ever were such a thing as a right time for kolinahr, that would not have been it.
So Spock is both a straw Vulcan and a straw man of Vulcans. Steel Vulcans are extremely powerful rationalists. Basically, Surak is what happens when science fiction authors try to invent Eliezer Yudkowsky without having met him.
1) I admit that I notice I'm a little confused about this. Sarek, Spock's father and a highly influential diplomat, studied for a time with the Acolytes of Gol, who are the masters of kolinahr. If I've ever known what came of that, I've forgotten. I'm not sure whether that's canon, though.
2) "Sorry to meditate and run, but I've gotta go mind-meld with this giant space crystal thing. ...It's complicated."
Consider the following commonly-made argument: cryonics is unlikely to work. Trained rationalists are signed up for cryonics at rates much greater than the general population. Therefore, rationalists must be pretty gullible people, and their claims to be good at evaluating evidence must be exaggerations at best.
This argument is wrong, and we can prove it using data from the last two Less Wrong surveys.
The question at hand is whether rationalist training - represented here by extensive familiarity with Less Wrong material - makes people more likely to believe in cryonics.
We investigate with a cross-sectional study, looking at proto-rationalists versus experienced rationalists. Define proto-rationalists as those respondents to the Less Wrong survey who indicate they have been in the community for less than six months and have zero karma (usually indicative of never having posted a comment). And define experienced rationalists as those respondents to the Less Wrong survey who indicate they have been in the community for over two years and have >1000 karma (usually indicative of having written many well-received posts).
By these definitions, there are 93 proto-rationalists, who have been in the community an average of 1.3 months, and 134 experienced rationalists, who have been in the community an average of 4.5 years. Proto-rationalists generally have not read any rationality training material - only 20/93 had read even one-quarter of the Less Wrong Sequences. Experienced rationalists are, well, more experienced: two-thirds of them have read pretty much all the Sequence material.
Proto-rationalists thought that, on average, there was a 21% chance of an average cryonically frozen person being revived in the future. Experienced rationalists thought that, on average, there was a 15% chance of same. The difference was marginally significant (p < 0.1).
Marginal significance is a copout, but this isn't our only data source. Last year, using the same definitions, proto-rationalists assigned a 15% probability to cryonics working, and experienced rationalists assigned a 12% chance. We see the same pattern.
So experienced rationalists are consistently less likely to believe in cryonics than proto-rationalists, and rationalist training probably makes you less likely to believe cryonics will work.
On the other hand, 0% of proto-rationalists had signed up for cryonics compared to 13% of experienced rationalists. 48% of proto-rationalists rejected the idea of signing up for cryonics entirely, compared to only 25% of experienced rationalists. So although rationalists are less likely to believe cryonics will work, they are much more likely to sign up for it. Last year's survey shows the same pattern.
This is not necessarily surprising. It only indicates that experienced rationalists and proto-rationalists treat their beliefs in different ways. Proto-rationalists form a belief, play with it in their heads, and then do whatever they were going to do anyway - usually some variant on what everyone else does. Experienced rationalists form a belief, examine the consequences, and then act strategically to get what they want.
Imagine a lottery run by an incompetent official who accidentally sets it up so that the average payoff is far more than the average ticket price. For example, maybe the lottery sells only ten $1 tickets, but the jackpot is $1 million, so that each $1 ticket gives you a 10% chance of winning $1 million.
Goofus hears about the lottery and realizes that his expected gain from playing the lottery is $99,999. "Huh," he says, "the numbers say I could actually win money by playing this lottery. What an interesting mathematical curiosity!" Then he goes off and does something else, since everyone knows playing the lottery is what stupid people do.
Gallant hears about the lottery, performs the same calculation, and buys up all ten tickets.
The relevant difference between Goofus and Gallant is not skill at estimating the chances of winning the lottery. We can even change the problem so that Gallant is more aware of the unlikelihood of winning than Goofus - perhaps Goofus mistakenly believes there are only five tickets, and so Gallant's superior knowledge tells him that winning the lottery is even more unlikely than Goofus thinks. Gallant will still play, and Goofus will still pass.
The relevant difference is that Gallant knows how to take ideas seriously.
Taking ideas seriously isn't always smart. If you're the sort of person who falls for proofs that 1 = 2 , then refusing to take ideas seriously is a good way to avoid ending up actually believing that 1 = 2, and a generally excellent life choice.
On the other hand, progress depends on someone somewhere taking a new idea seriously, so it's nice to have people who can do that too. Helping people learn this skill and when to apply it is one goal of the rationalist movement.
In this case it seems to have been successful. Proto-rationalists think there is a 21% chance of a new technology making them immortal - surely an outcome as desirable as any lottery jackpot - consider it an interesting curiosity, and go do something else because only weirdos sign up for cryonics.
Experienced rationalists think there is a lower chance of cryonics working, but some of them decide that even a pretty low chance of immortality sounds pretty good, and act strategically on this belief.
This is not to either attack or defend the policy of assigning a non-negligible probability to cryonics working. This is meant to show only that the difference in cryonics status between proto-rationalists and experienced rationalists is based on meta-level cognitive skills in the latter whose desirability is orthogonal to the object-level question about cryonics.
(an earlier version of this article was posted on my blog last year; I have moved it here now that I have replicated the results with a second survey)
There are some things money can't buy. They are the exceptions that prove the rule.
For the pedants, to say something is an exception that proves the rule is to say that when you look at the exceptions, they're so unusual that it reinforces the point that the rule is generally valid even though it isn't universally valid. In the case of money, there's a reason people don't say things like "there are some things hand-knit scarves can't be bartered for" or "Hand-knit scarves can't be bartered for happiness."
Eliezer once described the sequences as the letter he wishes he could have written to his former self. When I think of the letter I wish I could write to my former self, the value of money is at the top of the list of things I'd include.
You can give a cynical, Hansonian explanation of why we don't tell young people enough about the awesomeness of money, and I suppose there'd be some truth to it. But I'm not sure that was my main problem. Growing up, my dad spent a lot of time urging me to go into a high-paying career, to the point giving me advice on what medical specialty to go into. He just didn't do a great job of selling me on it. It wasn't until I learned some economics that I really came to understand why money is so awesome.
Several months ago I began a list of "things to try," which I share at the bottom of this post. It suggests many mundane, trivial-to-medium-cost changes to lifestyle and routine. Now that I've spent some time with most of them and pursued at least as many more personal items in the same spirit, I'll suggest you do something similar. Why?
- Raise the temperature in your optimization algorithm: avoid the trap of doing too much analysis on too little data and escape local optima.
- You can think of this as a system for self-improvement; something that operates on a meta level, unlike an object-level goal or technique; something that helps you fail at almost everything but still win big.
- Variety of experience is an intrinsic pleasure to many, and it may make you feel less that time has flown as you look back on your life.
- Practice implementing small life changes, practice observing the effects of the changes, practice noticing further opportunities for changes, practice value of information calculations, and reinforce your self-image as an empiricist working to improve your life. Build small skills in the right order and you'll have better chances at bigger wins in the future.
- Advice often falls prey to the typical-mind (or typical-body) fallacy. That doesn't mean you should dismiss it out of hand. Think about not just how likely it is to work for you, but how beneficial it would be if it worked, how much it would cost to try, and how likely it is that trying it would give you enough information to change your behavior. Then just try it anyway if it's cheap enough, because you forgot to account for uncertainty in your model inputs.
- Speaking of value of information: don't ignore tweakable variables just because you don't yet have a gwern-tier tracking and evaluation apparatus for the perfect self-experiment. Sometimes you can expect consciously noticeable non-placebo effects from a successful trial. You might do better picking the low hanging fruit to gain momentum before you invest in a Zeo and a statistics textbook.
- You know what, if there's an effect, it may not even need to be non-placebo. C.f. "Lampshading," as well as the often-observed "honeymoon" period of success with new productivity systems.
- It's very tempting, especially in certain communities, to focus exclusively on shiny, counterintuitive, "rational," tech-based, hackeresque, or otherwise clever interventions and grand personal development schemes. Some of these are even good, but one suspects that some are optimized for punchiness, not effectiveness. Conversely, mundane ideas may not propagate as well, despite being potentially equally or more likely to succeed.
- If you were already convinced of all of the above, then great! I hope you have the agency to try stuff like this all the time. If not, you might find it useful, as I did, just to have a list like this available. It's one less trivial inconvenience between thinking "I should try more things" and actually trying something. I've also found that I'm more likely to notice and remember optimization opportunities now that I have a place to capture them. And having spent the time to write them down and occasionally look over them, I'm more likely to notice when I'm in a position to enact something context-dependent on the list.
I removed the terribly personal items from my list, but what remains is still somewhat tailored to my own situation and habits. These are not recommendations; they are just things that struck me as having enough potential value to try for a week or two. The list isn't not remotely comprehensive, even as far as mundane self-experiments are concerned, but it's left as an exercise to the reader to find and fill the gaps. Take this list as an example or as a starting point, and brainstorm ideas of your own in the comments. The usual recommendation applies against going overboard in domains where you're currently impulsive or unreflective.
Related posts: Boring Advice Repository, Break your habits: Be more empirical, On saying the obvious, Value of Information: Four Examples, Spend money on ergonomics, Go try things, Don't fear failure, Just try it: Quantity trumps quality, No, seriously, just try it, etc.
This is the third post in a series discussing my recent bout of productivity. Within, I discuss two techniques I use to avoid akrasia and one technique I use to be especially productive.
I like to pretend that I have higher-than-normal willpower, because my ability to Get Things Done seems to be somewhat above average. In fact, this is not the case. I'm not good at fighting akrasia. I merely have a knack for avoiding it.
When I was young, my parents were very good at convincing me to manage my money. They gave me an allowance, perhaps a dollar a week. When we would go to the store, I'd get excited about some trite toy and ask my parents whether I could buy it.
Their answers were similar. My mother would crouch down, put a hand on my shoulder, and say "Of course you can. But before you do, think carefully about how much you will enjoy this after you've bought it, and what other things you would be able to buy if instead you saved up."
My father was a bit more direct. He'd just shrug and say "It's your money", with the barest hint of derision.
I rarely spent my allowance.
I now use a similar technique when dealing with distractions.
(It's worth noting that it's always been very easy to put me into far mode, perhaps in part because I decided at a very young age that I wasn't going to die.)
As Kaj Sotala and a few others noted, assigning guilt to non-productive tasks is not especially healthy. Nor is it, in my experience, sustainable. In a few different cases, I experienced scenarios where I wanted to do something but couldn't will myself to do it. I suffered ego depletion and hit a vicious cycle of unproductivity and depression. I never fell completely into the self-hate death spiral, but I flirted around at the edges. It became clear that I needed a new strategy.
To break the cycle, I decided to stop fighting myself.
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