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In my previous post, I advanced the view that discovering and using many weak arguments generally produces better predictive models for answering questions about the human world than discovering and using a single relatively strong argument does.
My impression is that most high functioning people use the “many weak arguments” epistemic framework, and that this contrasts with people like my (past) self. I believe that people like me have misunderstood parts of the reasoning of most high functioning people due to typical mind fallacy, and that by extension, people like me have misunderstood parts of how society works.
I flesh out my thinking on this point below.
After the iterated prisoner's dilemma tournament organized by prase two years ago, there was discussion of running tournaments for several variants, including one in which two players submit programs, each of which are given the source code of the other player's program, and outputs either “cooperate” or “defect”. However, as far as I know, no such tournament has been run until now.
Here's how it's going to work: Each player will submit a file containing a single Scheme lambda-function. The function should take one input. Your program will play exactly one round against each other program submitted (not including itself). In each round, two programs will be run, each given the source code of the other as input, and will be expected to return either of the symbols “C” or “D” (for "cooperate" and "defect", respectively). The programs will receive points based on the following payoff matrix:
“Other” includes any result other than returning “C” or “D”, including failing to terminate, throwing an exception, and even returning the string “Cooperate”. Notice that “Other” results in a worst-of-both-worlds scenario where you get the same payoff as you would have if you cooperated, but the other player gets the same payoff as if you had defected. This is an attempt to ensure that no one ever has incentive for their program to fail to run properly, or to trick another program into doing so.
Your score is the sum of the number of points you earn in each round. The player with the highest score wins the tournament. Edit: There is a 0.5 bitcoin prize being offered for the winner. Thanks, VincentYu!
All submissions must be emailed to wardenPD@gmail.com by July 5, at noon PDT. Your email should also say how you would like to be identified when I announce the tournament results.
Each program will be allowed to run for 10 seconds. If it has not returned either “C” or “D” by then, it will be stopped, and treated as returning “Other”. For consistency, I will have Scheme collect garbage right before each run.
One submission per person or team. No person may contribute to more than one entry. Edit: This also means no copying from each others' source code. Describing the behavior of your program to others is okay.
I will be running the submissions in Racket. You may be interested in how Racket handles time (especially the (current-milliseconds) function), threads (in particular, “thread”, “kill-thread”, “sleep”, and “thread-dead?”), and possibly randomness.
Don't try to open the file you wrote your program in (or any other file, for that matter). I'll add code to the file before running it, so if you want your program to use a copy of your source code, you will need to use a quine. Edit: No I/O of any sort.
Unless you tell me otherwise, I assume I have permission to publish your code after the contest.
You are encouraged to discuss strategies for achieving mutual cooperation in the comments thread.
I'm hoping to get as many entries as possible. If you know someone who might be interested in this, please tell them.
It's possible that I've said something stupid that I'll have to change or clarify, so you might want to come back to this page again occasionally to look for changes to the rules. Any edits will be bolded, and I'll try not to change anything too drastically, or make any edits late in the contest.
Here is an example of a correct entry, which cooperates with you if and only if you would cooperate with a program that always cooperates (actually, if and only if you would cooperate with one particular program that always cooperates):
(if (eq? ((eval x) '(lambda (y) 'C)) 'C)
In November of 2012 I set a goal for myself: find the most x-risk reducing role I can fill. At first I thought it would be by working directly with MIRI, but after a while it became clear that I could contribute more by simply donating. So my goal became: find the highest paying job, so I can donate lots of money to CFAR and MIRI.
A little bit of background on me. Started programming in 2000. Graduated in 2009 with Bachelor's in computer science. Worked for about a year and a half at a game company. Then did my own game startup for about a year. Then moved to the bay area and joined a game startup here, which was acquired 10 months later. Worked a bit at the new company and then left. So, just under four years of professional programming experience, but primarily in the game industry. Almost no leadership / managerial experience, aside from the startup I did where I hired freelancers.
Below is my experience of finding a software engineering job in the Silicon Valley. If you are not an engineer or not in the Silicon Valley, I think you'll still find a lot of useful information here.
Before sending out my resume, I spent about a month preparing. I read Intro to Algorithms, which was very good overall, but not a huge help in preparing for interviews. I read Cracking the Coding Interview, which was extremely helpful. (If you read only one book to prepare, make it this one.) The book has a lot of questions that are similar to the ones you'll actually see during interviews. I also did TopCoder problems, which were pretty helpful as well. Looking back, I wish I spent more time finding actual interview questions online and doing more of those (that's why CCI book was so helpful).
After several weeks of preparation, I compiled a long list of companies I was going to apply to. I checked on GlassDoor to see what kind of salary I could expect at each one. I then rated all the companies. Companies with low salaries and poor personal fit received the lowest rating.
I started by applying to companies with the lowest ratings. This way I could use them as practice for the companies I thought would actually make a competitive offer. This was the right move and worked very well. (Another friend of mine did the same approach with good results as well.) Remember, you are not just doing those interviews to practice the coding problems, you are practicing pitching yourself as well.
Interviewing with a company
Standard procedure for applying to a tech company:
1. Send them your resume.
- Proofread your resume. Let your friends proofread it.
- Make sure there are only relevant things on it. When I applied to tech companies, I removed a lot of game-specific things from my resume. When I applied to companies that did 3D graphics, I made sure I had all my 3D graphics experience listed. I ended up with two version of my resume.
- Have your resume in DOC, PDF, and TXT formats. This way you'll always have the right one when you upload / paste it.
- For a few companies, I had a friend or friend of a friend who referred me. This REALLY HELPS in two ways: 1) your resume will be processed a lot faster, 2) if your friend is a great engineer/employee, you'll be taken a lot more seriously, and the company will fight for you a lot harder.
2. You'll get an email from the recruiter and setup a time to speak, where you'll talk about yourself, what you've done, why you are interested in their company, and so on. You can and should ask them questions as well.
- When you start getting multiple calls each day, make sure you know who is calling. There is nothing worse than talking about the challenges of streaming music to a car sharing startup. (True story.)
- Read about the company on Wikipedia before the call. Know the basic stuff. Look at their website and read the About page.
- Find the thing that makes the company special and successful. Find the thing that you actually think is cool about the company. Those are your answers for why you want to work there.
- Ask non-technical questions: How is the company structured? How many teams are there? How many employees? Engineers? Think of other intelligent questions to ask.
- In my experience, it's not very beneficial to tell them you are interviewing with a dozen other companies. When they ask who else you are interviewing with, just name a few companies, especially the competitors / similar companies.
- Be SUPER NICE to your recruiter. They are your main point of contact with the company. They'll be the one fighting to get you the best offer.
3. You'll have a technical phone interview with a software engineer where you'll solve a problem or two on collabedit or some similar website. At the end, you'll get a few minutes to ask them questions too.
- All the usual interviewing tips apply here. E.g. talk out loud, your interviewer doesn't know what you are thinking.
- Most companies don't care what language you use, as long as it's mainstream. (I used C# for almost all my coding questions.)
- DO NOT start answering the question by writing code. If the questions seems vague, ask about the context. Who'll be using this solution? Definitely ask about the kind of data you are working with. If it's integers, are they random? Over some small range or over all possible integers?
- List out metrics for various approaches: brute-force solution, optimized for speed solution, optimized for memory solution. Here is a question I saw a few times: Write a data structure which can accept and store integers, and can check if there exist two integers that sum up to a given number. There are multiple solutions, and the best one depends on the ratio of addInteger to checkForSum calls.
- The previous steps should only take you a minute or two. Once you've decided what the best approach is, then you can write the solution. When you are done, check for errors, then run through several examples. Do a simple example and a slightly complicated example. When you find a bug, don't be hasty in fixing it. Understand why it happened and make sure you won't introduce new bugs by fixing it.
- If everything works, make sure you handle errors correctly. Can you handle invalid input? Input that violates your assumptions? (As a reminder, I leave “\\Check for errors” comments in appropriate spots as I code the solution.)
- When you are done, ask the interviewer questions. Ask them to tell you about what they do, if they haven't already. What have they been working on recently? What technologies/languages do they use at the company? Do they use Scrum/Agile? Pair-programming? Come up with other intelligent questions to ask.
4. You'll be invited for an on-site interview which will be 3-6 hours long, at least half of which will be coding on a white-board. (Although, a friend told me he brought his laptop with him, and most people were fine with him coding on it.)
- All the previous tips apply.
- Be on time. Take bathroom breaks when you need them. I found that drinking water during the interview keeps me refreshed. Remember your posture, body-language, and eye-contact skills.
- Learn how to talk out loud as you are writing out your solution. If you are stuck, explain what you are thinking, and what your intuition is telling you.
- Learn how to read your interviewers. If you say, "Here we should check for the null case or for empty array," and they go "Yeah, yeah, okay," they are not the type of interviewer that really cares about error conditions, so you can be somewhat more lax there. By the time I was finishing my on-site interviews, I could tell if my solution was right just by the interviewer's body language.
- When you are done, ask them questions. What are they working on? What's the thing they like most about the company? What's their least favorite thing about the company? (Another way to phrase that: What's one thing you would change if you could change anything about the company?) Do they have to work overtime? How are the people here? Can you switch between projects? Are there company wide events? In all my interviews I've never met an interviewer that didn't try to sell their company really hard. People will always tell you their company is the best place to work.
- If the person is a manager or a director, ask them higher level questions. What kind of culture are they trying to create? What are the current big challenges? Where do they want the company to be in the next 5 years? How does one advance in the company? (Usually there is a managerial and a technical track.) How often are reviews done? How are they structured?
5. You'll get a call from the recruiter congratulating you on an offer. They'll go over the offer details with you.
- Before they make you an offer, they'll check if you are actually seriously considering their company. If you told a startup you are also interviewing with Google, they might suspect that you are not seriously considering them. Unless you dissuade those fears, they might actually not even make you an offer. (Happened to me with Rdio.)
- If you didn't get an offer, try to get as much info as you can. What happened? What can you improve on? Below are the reasons why I didn't get an offer after an on-site interview:
- Not doing well on a technical question. (Happened twice; one time because of a very obnoxious interviewer.)
- Not interviewing for quite the right position (that on-site interview ended early).
- Not having the necessary experience (a lot more important to startups than bigger companies).
- Not being passionate enough about the company.
- If this is not a good timing for the offer, e.g. it's one of your first interviews, then tell them so. They will probably wait to give you the offer details until you are ready to consider it.
- The recruiter will likely ask what's important to you in an offer. How are you going to make your decision? What I've said is that compensation will be an important factor in my decision, but that the team/project/etc. are important considerations as well.
6. You have a few days (usually around 5 business days) until the offer expires to decide if you want to accept it.
- Sometimes the offer will expire before you've received offers from other companies. This is why it's important to interview in rough order of ranking, so that you can just let those offers go, knowing you'll have much better ones soon. If you want to hold on to the offer, just ask your recruiter for an extension. It'll be much easier to get an extension at big companies, especially if you are interviewing for a generic position.
- If you decline the offer, let them know.
Always be very nice, friendly, and polite. Walk the fine line between telling the truth and saying the right thing. Ideally, make sure those are the same. Even if you are interviewing with a company you have no intention of working at, make sure to find something you really like about them, something that makes them stand out to you. Always have a good answer to: "Why do you want to work here?"
Before each on-site interview make sure you research the company thoroughly. Use their product. Think of ways to improve it. It's very helpful if you can meet with someone that works there and talk to them. See if they can give you any tips on the interview process. Some companies (e.g. AirBnB) want people that are extremely passionate about their product. Some companies focus more than usual on architectural questions. Many companies expect the engineers to have some familiarity with UI/UX and the ability to think about a feature from all angles.
Managing your time
I sent my resume to 78 companies, had at least a phone conversation with a recruiter with 27 of them, had an on-site interview with 16 companies, and received 12 offers. Out of those, I've only seriously considered 3. (Companies with lower ratings had an atrocious response rate.)
My time-line ended up looking something like this:
- Week 1: Started applying to low-rated companies. About 2 phone interviews.
- Week 2: About 7 phone interviews. One on-site interview. Sending out more resumes.
- Week 3: About 3 phone interviews.
- Week 4: About 15 phone interviews. A few meetings with friends of friends, who ended up referring me. 1 on-site interview. Sent my resume to all the high-rated companies. (During this week interviewing became a full-time job.)
- Week 5: About 10 phone interviews. 4 on-site interviews.
- Week 6: 8 phone interviews. 4 on-site interviews.
- Week 7: 4 phone calls. 5 on-site interviews.
- Week 8: 12 phone calls. 2 on-site interviews.
- Week 9: About 8 calls a day for a few days, while I negotiated with my top companies.
- (These are strictly lower bounds for phone calls. On-site data is pretty accurate.)
Some companies move fast, some companies move slow. Google took 2 weeks from the on-site interview to the offer call. This is very common for them, but most other companies move faster. With Amazon, I actually interviewed with two different branches. With one branch things were going well, until they dropped the ball and never got back to me, even after I pestered them. This is unusual; although, Twitter did something similar, but then ended up responding with an on-site invitation. With the other Amazon branch, when I got home from the on-site interview, I already had an email saying they were going to make an offer. This is extremely fast. (I had a very good reference for that position.) Most companies take about a week between on-site and offer. The whole process, from first call to offer, takes about three weeks.
If your recruiter doesn't respond to you during 4 days or longer, shoot them an email. They might have forgotten to respond, or thought they did, or may be things are moving slowly, or may be they decided not to pursue. You want to be clear on where you stand with all the companies you are applying to.
The timing is pretty important here. You want your top-rated companies to give you an offer within a span of a week. This way you'll be able to leverage all those offers against each other.
If your current job position is already almost optimal for your goals, then it's possible you can do a few interviews, get a few offers and pick the best one, which will give you some marginal improvement. Or use those offers to leverage a raise at your existing company. But if you are pretty sure your current job has not been optimized for your goal, then I'd say, contrary to popular wisdom, just leave and spend a full month interviewing. (Or, even better, if you can, take a long "vacation".) You just can't do this kind of intense interviewing while holding another job. The one exception to this rule I can think of is if one of your highest-rated companies is a competitor with your current employer. Then you can leverage that!
Value of information is extremely high during this process. Talk to all the companies you can, talk to all the people you can. Once you have the final list of companies you are considering, reduce your uncertainty on everything. Validate all your assumptions. (Example: I was sure Google matched donations up to $12k, but turns out it's only up to $6k.)
How to evaluate your offer
There are 4 basic components in an offer: sign-on bonus, base salary, equity, and bonus.
Sign-on bonus. Most companies will be okay offering something like $12k sign-on bonus. Some will offer more. Most startups probably won't offer any.
Base salary. This is pretty consistent across most companies. Based on your experience, you'll be given a title (e.g. Senior Software Engineer or SE 2), and that title will determine the range of the salary you can expect. If you are good, you can demand a salary at the top of that range, but it's extremely hard to go higher.
Equity. This is the most interesting part. A good amount of value will come from this portion. With a startup, it'll be most of it. Here are two things to pay attention to:
- Is the company public or private? If it's public, you are most likely going to be given RSUs (restricted stock units), which will basically convert to normal company shares when they vest. For private companies, see the section below.
- What's the vesting schedule? For almost all companies you'll get 25% of your shares right after your first year. (This is called a 'cliff'.) After that you'll be given the appropriate fraction either monthly (e.g. at Google) or quarterly (e.g. at Facebook). Amazon is an example of a company where the vesting schedule is somewhat different: 5% after year 1, 15% after year 2, and then 20% each semester for the next two years.
Bonus. This is the bonus system the company has setup. You can't negotiate it, but it's important to take it into account.
- There will usually be a cash bonus that's based on your salary. It'll have a target percent (e.g. 15%). If you can find out how many people hit their target, that will be very helpful. However, most companies don't share or simply don't have that information.
- Some companies also have equity bonuses. Try to get as much info on those as you can. Don't assume that you'll get the maximum bonus even if you work hard. If you have friends working at that company, ask them what kind of bonuses they've been getting.
- Lots of startups don't have bonus systems in place.
- Donation matching: Google matches up to $6k (you donate $6k to any charity, they'll donate another $6k). Craigslist matches 3:1 up to 10% of your salary. Most companies don't have anything like that, and you can't negotiate it.
- Paid Time Off: Google offers 2 weeks, all other companies I was considering offer 3 weeks, and some even have unlimited PTO. This is not negotiable in most companies.
- Commute: how far will you have to travel to work? Are you okay moving closer to work? (Google and Facebook have shuttles that can pick you up almost anywhere, so you could work while you commute.)
- People/culture/community/team/project are all important factors as well, depending on what you want. If you are going to spend the next several years working on something, you should be building up skills that will still be valuable in the future.
Thinking about private companies
If the company is private, you might be given RSUs or you might be given stock options. With stock options, you'll have to pay the strike price to exercise your options. So the total value your options have is: (price of a share - strike price) * number of shares.
You can't do anything with your shares until the company gets acquired or goes public. Some companies have liquidation events, but those are pretty rare. Most companies don't have them, and the ones that do only extend the opportunity to people that have been with the company for a while. There are also second-hand markets, but I don't know much about those.
If you are completely risk-intolerant, then just go with a public company, and don't consider private companies. (This is actually not exactly true. Just because a company is public, doesn't mean its risk-free, and just because a company is private doesn't mean there is a lot of risk. There are other important factors like the size of the company, their market diversity, and how long they've been around.) If you are okay with some risk, then you want a company that's close to an IPO or is likely to get acquired soon. If you want to have a chance to make more than a few million dollars, either start your own company or join a very early stage startup (my top pick would be Ripple). Before doing so, check out the stats on startups to make sure you understand how likely any given startup is to fail and make sure you understand the concepts of inside/outside view.
It's crucial to understand all the tax implications of your salary, equity, and donations. I'm not going to go into all the details, there are a lot of resources out there for this, but you should definitely read them until it's crystal clear how you will be taxed. I'll highlight a few points:
- Understand the tax rate schedule and notice the new 39.6% tax bracket. If your income is $100k, that doesn't mean you get taxed 28% on all of it. 28% applies only to the income portion above $87,850. Also note that this is only the federal tax. Your state will have additional taxes as well. Aside from those percentages, there are a few other flat taxes, but they are considerably smaller in magnitude.
- The money you donate to a nonprofit (aka. 501(c)(3)) organization can be subtracted from your taxable income. This means that you will most likely get a refund when you file your taxes. Why? Because when you fill out your W4 form, you'll basically tell your employer how much money to withhold from your paycheck for tax purposes. If you don't account for your future donations, more money will be withheld than is appropriate and the discrepancy will be paid back to you after you file your taxes. Ideally, you want to take your donations into account and fill out the W4 form such that there are no discrepancies. That means you'll get your money now rather than later. (I haven't gone through this process myself, so there is some uncertainty here.)
- You can claim tax deduction for up to 50% of your wages. That means if you make a lot of money in one year, even if you donate most of it, you'll be able to reduce your taxable income by a maximum of 50%. The rest goes over to the next year.
- When RSUs vest, their value is treated as ordinary income for tax purposes. When you sell them, the difference is taxed as a capital gain (or loss).
- Stock options have a more complicated set of tax rules, and you should understand them if you are considering a company that offers them.
- You can't have your employer donate money or stock for you to bypass the taxes. I've asked.
To calculate exactly how much I could donate if I worked at a given company, I've created this spreadsheet. (This is an example with completely fictitious company offers with very low numbers, but the calculations should be correct.) Let me walk you through the spreadsheet.
Time discounting (Cell B1)
Money now is more valuable than money later. By how much? That's a very complicated question. If you invest your money now, you might be able to make something like 10% annually with some risk. If you are donating to a charity, and they are growing very rapidly, then they can do a lot with your money right now, and you should account for that as well. If you expect the charity to double in size/effectiveness/output in the next year, then you might use a discount rate as high as 50%. I chose to use 20% annual discount rate based on my own estimates. Since I'm doing monthly compounding, the spreadsheet value is slightly higher (~22%). You can look at the column K to see how the future value of a dollar is being discounted. Note, for example, that a dollar in 12 months is worth 80¢ to me now. This discounting rate is especially important to keep in mind when examining startups, because almost all their compensation lies in the future. The further away it is, the more heavily you have to discount it.
Cost of living (Cell B2)
This is how much pre-tax money a year I'm not going to donate. See column L for the monthly expenses. We time-discount those dollars as well.
Offers (Cells A4-I15)
This is where you plug-in the offers you get. Bonus row is for cash bonus. Equity row is for the total equity the company offers you. I use the dollar amount, but you'll notice that for some of them I'm computing the dollar amount as: RSUs the company is giving me * current share price. For private companies, this is value I expect my equity to have when the company goes public. For Square it looks like: (percent of the company I'll own) * (my guess at valuation of the company at IPO) - (cost to exercise my options). For Twitter it looks like: (growth factor up to IPO) * (current price per share) * (RSUs I am granted). (Again, the numbers are completely made up.) In my calculations I'm not expecting public companies' share price to rise or fall. If you disagree, you should adjust for that as well.
Monthly projections (Cells A18-I66)
We are going to look at how much money we'll be making per month for the next four years. (Four years because our equity should be fully vested by that time.) If you are certain that you will stay at the company for less time than that, then you should consider a shorter timeline. This might affect companies differently. For example, most of the equity you get at Amazon comes during the last two years. If you are not going to be there, you are missing out on a big part of your offer.
For companies that I was seriously considering, I created two columns: one for cash wages and one for equity wages. This way I can do taxes on them more precisely.
Let's go through the Google's offer:
For the first year we'll be only making our standard salary.
After the first year, we get our cash bonus (green font). Here we are assuming it'll be 15% of our salary. We also get 25% of our RSUs vested (salmon background).
For the remainder of the second year, we are making our normal salary. Each month we also get 1/48th of our original equity offer.
Google also has an equity bonus system, where each year you can get a bonus of up to 50% of your original equity offer. This bonus will be paid in RSUs, and it vests over 4 years, but with no cliff. So we count that as well, but I'm assuming I'm only going to get 15%, not the full 50%.
In year 3 everything is basically the same, except now we got our second equity bonus, so we have two of them running simultaneously.
In year 4, we have three of them running simultaneously.
For pre-IPO companies, I've estimated when they'll go IPO. Most have clauses in place that don't allow you to sell your shares until after half a year or so after the IPO. I'm assuming I will sell/donate all my shares then, and then continue selling/donating them as they continue vesting.
Sum (Cells A68-I71)
In row 68 we have the total sum. This is the amount of pre-tax dollars we expect to earn in the next four years (remember that this amount has been adjusted for time-discounting, so it'll seem much lower than you'd normally expect). L68 is how much money we are spending on ourselves during those four years.
In row 69 we subtract our living expenses to get the amount of money we'll be able to donate. Note that I'm subtracting it from the cash column, leaving the equity column alone (for the companies where I split the two).
In row 70 we account for taxes. Note that our living expenses already accounted for the taxes we pay up to $65k, so the rest of it will be taxed at around 28% or higher. You could sell your shares, or you could just donate your shares directly to your charity. (That's what we are doing with our Google offer.)
In row 71 we simply sum up the donations from cash and equity.
Disclaimer 1: while I tried as hard as I could to double check this spreadsheet, there might still be mistakes there, so use it with caution and triple check everything. The tax calculations as they are right now are wrong, and you'll have to redo them (basically the whole Row 70) based on your own numbers.
Disclaimer 2: this spreadsheet is not great for evaluating an offer from a startup, since it doesn't capture the associated uncertainty and risk. Furthermore, if you expect the startup to succeed after more than 4 years, to correctly compare it to other companies you'll have to compute more than 48 months and potentially start accounting for things like promotions and raises.
Picking the one
All right, so how do you actually pick the best company? It's not as simple as picking the one with the highest EV, since you have to account for risk involved with startups and even pre-IPO companies. In fact, you should be surprised if your offers from public companies have a higher EV than offers from startups. If that's the case, I'd double check your calculations.
This is where it becomes extremely crucial to narrow down your uncertainty. When is the company going to IPO? What is the likely valuation? Does the company have a lot of competitors? Does the company have the necessary talent to execute on their plan? What's the company's history? What is the employee churn rate (especially for executives)? How well is the company doing financially? Who are the investors? Etc, etc, etc... There is a ton of questions you should be asking, and you should be asking them to everyone whose opinion on this issue you can respect. Honest opinion from an informed and knowledgeable neutral party is worth a LOT here!
You should also talk to the people at the company. Your recruiter will connect you to the right people if you ask. Keep in mind that nobody there will tell you that the company is going to go bankrupt or fail. But you can still get some valuable estimates, and then potentially discount them down a bit. You can even ask for their opinion on other companies you are interviewing with. Expect them to completely throw the other company under the bus though, but even so, you could get a lot of valuable criticism and bring it up when you talk to that other company. Overall, expect a lot of conflicting messages.
Keep in mind the charities you'll be donating to. What kind of donors do they have already? Are most people donating a bit from their salary? In that case, a more risky venture might be reasonable. Can they really use some money right now, or would they be a lot more effective later on with a large capital? What's their time discount rate? If you care about your charity, you can help them diversify their donor pool.
For me, it was a hard choice between big public companies (primary candidate: Google) and close to IPO companies (primary candidates: Twitter and Square).
You have to negotiate your offer. You have to have to have to HAVE TO. For any given company, you'll be able to get them to up their offer at least once and potentially thrice. Example: Google upped my offer three times.
- Some companies will tell you their offer is not negotiable. That's not true.
- It's much easier to leverage similar companies against each other. Leverage big public companies against each other; leverage pre-IPO companies against each other; etc... Leveraging between those categories is a bit more difficult, because startups know they can't compete with the raw cash value you are offered at bigger companies. The only thing they can do is up their equity offer and hope that they are a much better personal fit for you than the large companies.
- Recruiters will ask you very directly what the other companies are offering you. You can choose to disclose or not to disclose. If you don't disclose, the company will come back to you with their standard offer. That offer might be higher or lower than you expected. (Example: The first offer I got from Google was significantly worse than initial offers I got from Facebook and Amazon.) If you tell them what offers you have (and you should only disclose details of your very best offers), then they'll very likely match or come in a bit stronger. Usually you don't have much to gain by disclosing your other offers upfront. You can always do so later. However, you should let your recruiters know that other companies did make an offer, or you are expecting them to. That gives you more leveraging power.
- Sign-on bonus is very easy to negotiate. You can easily convince a company to match a sign-on bonus their competitor has offered.
- Negotiating salary is much harder, but, again, usually you can convince a company to match a salary their competitor has offered or at least come closer to it. If you are interviewing with startups, their salary offer will usually be lower than at bigger companies and even harder to negotiate. ("Cash is king" is the common phrase used there.)
First negotiating phase: simply email / call back your recruiter (who is now your best friend, right?) and tell them that the offer is somewhat lower than you expected, you have other better offers from other companies, and you are wondering if they can increase their offer. If the company made you a clearly worse offer than another similar company, you should be very open about it.
Second negotiating phase: matching other companies. This is when it makes the most sense to disclose your other offers. For example, I used my Amazon and Facebook offers to convince Google to up their offer significantly. For some reason their original offer was very low, but seeing their competitors with much better offers convinced them to update pretty quickly. You can also bring up the perks one company has that the other doesn't (e.g. donation matching or unlimited PTO). The company can make up for that with salary/equity. There is some difficulty in using offers from private companies as leverage, because there is not much information you can disclose about them. You can talk about the number of shares you'll have, but it might not mean anything to the other recruiters if they are not familiar with the startup.
Third negotiating phase: once you picked the company you'll work for, go back to them and say something along the lines of "I really like the offer and the company, but there are a few things that don't make it ideal for me. One of your competitors did this, and another company has that. Right now I'm inclined to go with your competitor, but it's a tough decision, and I would rather go with you. I think if you can make me an offer with the following parameters, it'll make my decision extremely easy, and I'll sign on the spot." Include offer letters from other companies, especially the ones that have them beat or beat on some parameters. Notice the key promise at the end: you will sign with them. Your recruiter will have a lot more leverage in fighting for you if you make that promise. You are not legally obligated to follow through with your promise, but I wouldn't advise breaking it or using it just to extract more value to use as leverage against other companies. Use this tactic at the very end to extract that last bit of value from the company that's already the best. This is what I did with Google. I asked for about 3% higher salary and 12% more equity than what they were offering, and they came back with the exact numbers I requested, which means I should have asked for more. My advice would be to ask for about twice or may be even three times as much (6% and 30% respectively). Even if they come back with a compromise, it'll very likely be more than 3% and 12% increase. If not, you can try to barter one more time.
I'm sure some people will cringe at this kind of haggling, but, in all honesty, this is what recruiters expect, and they are very much used to it. Nobody even blinked an eye when I started negotiating, even on second and third rounds. However, some recruiters might try to make you feel guilty. They'll say that if you really want to work at their startup, then you shouldn't really care about your compensation. Most points they'll make will even be valid, but if you are trying to optimize for donations, then you have to make the compensation the most important factor in your decision. I've actually told most of my recruiters that I plan to donate most of my salary to charities. I don't think that got me higher offers, but it made me come off less like a greedy jerk.
At the end of the day, the company wants you, but they want to pay you as little as possible. But, given the choice of having you and paying you the most you deserve VS. not having you, all companies will pick the first option. ALL OF THEM. This is one of the best perks of being a talented software engineer in the bay area.
Once you accept the offer, don't forget to email everyone else and let them know. Thank everyone that helped you. Some recruiters will be surprised by your decision, and some will even fight really hard to get you to reconsider.
 None of the interviews required a data structure more complicated than a heap. All the answers had a very easy to compute complexity, either polynomial, polynomial * logarithmic, or factorial. The most weird one was probably O(√n) for computing prime numbers.
 Some problems I did during actual single-round match-up (SRM) competitions, which is good for training yourself how to code and think faster than you are used to. I also did a lot of old SRM problems, which have solutions and explanations posted in case I couldn't get them. I could easily do problem 1 & 2 in the easy division, and could do problem 3 most of the time. I didn't really bother with the hard division, and none of the interview questions were ever as hard as problem 3 in the easy division.
Summary: Intelligence Explosion Microeconomics (pdf) is 40,000 words taking some initial steps toward tackling the key quantitative issue in the intelligence explosion, "reinvestable returns on cognitive investments": what kind of returns can you get from an investment in cognition, can you reinvest it to make yourself even smarter, and does this process die out or blow up? This can be thought of as the compact and hopefully more coherent successor to the AI Foom Debate of a few years back.
(Sample idea you haven't heard before: The increase in hominid brain size over evolutionary time should be interpreted as evidence about increasing marginal fitness returns on brain size, presumably due to improved brain wiring algorithms; not as direct evidence about an intelligence scaling factor from brain size.)
I hope that the open problems posed therein inspire further work by economists or economically literate modelers, interested specifically in the intelligence explosion qua cognitive intelligence rather than non-cognitive 'technological acceleration'. MIRI has an intended-to-be-small-and-technical mailing list for such discussion. In case it's not clear from context, I (Yudkowsky) am the author of the paper.
I. J. Good's thesis of the 'intelligence explosion' is that a sufficiently advanced machine intelligence could build a smarter version of itself, which could in turn build an even smarter version of itself, and that this process could continue enough to vastly exceed human intelligence. As Sandberg (2010) correctly notes, there are several attempts to lay down return-on-investment formulas intended to represent sharp speedups in economic or technological growth, but very little attempt has been made to deal formally with I. J. Good's intelligence explosion thesis as such.
I identify the key issue as returns on cognitive reinvestment - the ability to invest more computing power, faster computers, or improved cognitive algorithms to yield cognitive labor which produces larger brains, faster brains, or better mind designs. There are many phenomena in the world which have been argued as evidentially relevant to this question, from the observed course of hominid evolution, to Moore's Law, to the competence over time of machine chess-playing systems, and many more. I go into some depth on the sort of debates which then arise on how to interpret such evidence. I propose that the next step forward in analyzing positions on the intelligence explosion would be to formalize return-on-investment curves, so that each stance can say formally which possible microfoundations they hold to be falsified by historical observations already made. More generally, I pose multiple open questions of 'returns on cognitive reinvestment' or 'intelligence explosion microeconomics'. Although such questions have received little attention thus far, they seem highly relevant to policy choices affecting the outcomes for Earth-originating intelligent life.
The dedicated mailing list will be small and restricted to technical discussants.
The Buddhists believe that one of the three keys to attaining true happiness is dissolving the illusion of the self. (The other two are dissolving the illusion of permanence, and ceasing the desire that leads to suffering.) I'm not really sure exactly what it means to say "the self is an illusion", and I'm not exactly sure how that will lead to enlightenment, but I do think one can easily take the first step on this long journey to happiness by beginning to dissolve the sense of one's identity.
Previously, in "Keep Your Identity Small", Paul Graham showed how a strong sense of identity can lead to epistemic irrationally, when someone refuses to accept evidence against x because "someone who believes x" is part of his or her identity. And in Kaj Sotala's "The Curse of Identity", he illustrated a human tendency to reinterpret a goal of "do x" as "give the impression of being someone who does x". These are both fantastic posts, and you should read them if you haven't already.
Here are three more ways in which identity can be a curse.
1. Don't be afraid to change
James March, professor of political science at Stanford University, says that when people make choices, they tend to use one of two basic models of decision making: the consequences model, or the identity model. In the consequences model, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. In the identity model, we ask ourselves "What would a person like me do in this situation?"1
The author of the book I read this in didn't seem to take the obvious next step and acknowledge that the consequences model is clearly The Correct Way to Make Decisions and basically by definition, if you're using the identity model and it's giving you a different result then the consequences model would, you're being led astray. A heuristic I like to use is to limit my identity to the "observer" part of my brain, and make my only goal maximizing the amount of happiness and pleasure the observer experiences, and minimizing the amount of misfortune and pain. It sounds obvious when you lay it out in these terms, but let me give an example.
Alice is a incoming freshman in college trying to choose her major. In Hypothetical University, there are only two majors: English, and business. Alice absolutely adores literature, and thinks business is dreadfully boring. Becoming an English major would allow her to have a career working with something she's passionate about, which is worth 2 megautilons to her, but it would also make her poor (0 mu). Becoming a business major would mean working in a field she is not passionate about (0 mu), but it would also make her rich, which is worth 1 megautilon. So English, with 2 mu, wins out over business, with 1 mu.
However, Alice is very bright, and is the type of person who can adapt herself to many situations and learn skills quickly. If Alice were to spend the first six months of college deeply immersing herself in studying business, she would probably start developing a passion for business. If she purposefully exposed herself to certain pro-business memeplexes (e.g. watched a movie glamorizing the life of Wall Street bankers), then she could speed up this process even further. After a few years of taking business classes, she would probably begin to forget what about English literature was so appealing to her, and be extremely grateful that she made the decision she did. Therefore she would gain the same 2 mu from having a job she is passionate about, along with an additional 1 mu from being rich, meaning that the 3 mu choice of business wins out over the 2 mu choice of English.
However, the possibility of self-modifying to becoming someone who finds English literature boring and business interesting is very disturbing to Alice. She sees it as a betrayal of everything that she is, even though she's actually only been interested in English literature for a few years. Perhaps she thinks of choosing business as "selling out" or "giving in". Therefore she decides to major in English, and takes the 2 mu choice instead of the superior 3 mu.
(Obviously this is a hypothetical example/oversimplification and there are a lot of reasons why it might be rational to pursue a career path that doesn't make very much money.)
It seems to me like human beings have a bizarre tendency to want to keep certain attributes and character traits stagnant, even when doing so provides no advantage, or is actively harmful. In a world where business-passionate people systematically do better than English-passionate people, it makes sense to self-modify to become business-passionate. Yet this is often distasteful.
For example, until a few weeks ago when I started solidifying this thinking pattern, I had an extremely adverse reaction to the idea of ceasing to be a hip-hop fan and becoming a fan of more "sophisticated" musical genres like jazz and classical, eventually coming to look down on the music I currently listen to as primitive or silly. This doesn't really make sense - I'm sure if I were to become a jazz and classical fan I would enjoy those genres at least as much as I currently enjoy hip hop. And yet I had a very strong preference to remain the same, even in the trivial realm of music taste.
Probably the most extreme example is the common tendency for depressed people to not actually want to get better, because depression has become such a core part of their identity that the idea of becoming a healthy, happy person is disturbing to them. (I used to struggle with this myself, in fact.) Being depressed is probably the most obviously harmful characteristic that someone can have, and yet many people resist self-modification.
Of course, the obvious objection is there's no way to rationally object to people's preferences - if someone truly prioritizes keeping their identity stagnant over not being depressed then there's no way to tell them they're wrong, just like if someone prioritizes paperclips over happiness there's no way to tell them they're wrong. But if you're like me, and you are interested in being happy, then I recommend looking out for this cognitive bias.
The other objection is that this philosophy leads to extremely unsavory wireheading-esque scenarios if you take it to its logical conclusion. But holding the opposite belief - that it's always more important to keep your characteristics stagnant than to be happy - clearly leads to even more absurd conclusions. So there is probably some point on the spectrum where change is so distasteful that it's not worth a boost in happiness (e.g. a lobotomy or something similar). However, I think that in actual practical pre-Singularity life, most people set this point far, far too low.
2. The hidden meaning of "be yourself"
(This section is entirely my own speculation, so take it as you will.)
"Be yourself" is probably the most widely-repeated piece of social skills advice despite being pretty clearly useless - if it worked then no one would be socially awkward, because everyone has heard this advice.
However, there must be some sort of core grain of truth in this statement, or else it wouldn't be so widely repeated. I think that core grain is basically the point I just made, applied to social interaction. I.e, optimize always for social success and positive relationships (particularly in the moment), and not for signalling a certain identity.
The ostensible purpose of identity/signalling is to appear to be a certain type of person, so that people will like and respect you, which is in turn so that people will want to be around you and be more likely to do stuff for you. However, oftentimes this goes horribly wrong, and people become very devoted to cultivating certain identities that are actively harmful for this purpose, e.g. goth, juggalo, "cool reserved aloof loner", guy that won't shut up about politics, etc. A more subtle example is Fred, who holds the wall and refuses to dance at a nightclub because he is a serious, dignified sort of guy, and doesn't want to look silly. However, the reason why "looking silly" is generally a bad thing is because it makes people lose respect for you, and therefore make them less likely to associate with you. In the situation Fred is in, holding the wall and looking serious will cause no one to associate with him, but if he dances and mingles with strangers and looks silly, people will be likely to associate with him. So unless he's afraid of looking silly in the eyes of God, this seems to be irrational.
Probably more common is the tendency to go to great care to cultivate identities that are neither harmful nor beneficial. E.g. "deep philosophical thinker", "Grateful Dead fan", "tough guy", "nature lover", "rationalist", etc. Boring Bob is a guy who wears a blue polo shirt and khakis every day, works as hard as expected but no harder in his job as an accountant, holds no political views, and when he goes home he relaxes by watching whatever's on TV and reading the paper. Boring Bob would probably improve his chances of social success by cultivating a more interesting identity, perhaps by changing his wardrobe, hobbies, and viewpoints, and then liberally signalling this new identity. However, most of us are not Boring Bob, and a much better social success strategy for most of us is probably to smile more, improve our posture and body language, be more open and accepting of other people, learn how to make better small talk, etc. But most people fail to realize this and instead play elaborate signalling games in order to improve their status, sometimes even at the expense of lots of time and money.
Some ways by which people can fail to "be themselves" in individual social interactions: liberally sprinkle references to certain attributes that they want to emphasize, say nonsensical and surreal things in order to seem quirky, be afraid to give obvious responses to questions in order to seem more interesting, insert forced "cool" actions into their mannerisms, act underwhelmed by what the other person is saying in order to seem jaded and superior, etc. Whereas someone who is "being herself" is more interested in creating rapport with the other person than giving off a certain impression of herself.
Additionally, optimizing for a particular identity might not only be counterproductive - it might actually be a quick way to get people to despise you.
I used to not understand why certain "types" of people, such as "hipsters"2 or Ed Hardy and Affliction-wearing "douchebags" are so universally loathed (especially on the internet). Yes, these people are adopting certain styles in order to be cool and interesting, but isn't everyone doing the same? No one looks through their wardrobe and says "hmm, I'll wear this sweater because it makes me uncool, and it'll make people not like me". Perhaps hipsters and Ed Hardy Guys fail in their mission to be cool, but should we really hate them for this? If being a hipster was cool two years ago, and being someone who wears normal clothes, acts normal, and doesn't do anything "ironically" is cool today, then we're really just hating people for failing to keep up with the trends. And if being a hipster actually is cool, then, well, who can fault them for choosing to be one?
That was my old thought process. Now it is clear to me that what makes hipsters and Ed Hardy Guys hated is that they aren't "being themselves" - they are much more interested in cultivating an identity of interestingness and masculinity, respectively, than connecting with other people. The same thing goes for pretty much every other collectively hated stereotype I can think of3 - people who loudly express political opinions, stoners who won't stop talking about smoking weed, attention seeking teenage girls on facebook, extremely flamboyantly gay guys, "weeaboos", hippies and new age types, 2005 "emo kids", overly politically correct people, tumblr SJA weirdos who identify as otherkin and whatnot, overly patriotic "rednecks", the list goes on and on.
This also clears up a confusion that occurred to me when reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. I know people who have a Dale Carnegie mindset of being optimistic and nice to everyone they meet and are adored for it, but I also know people who have the same attitude and yet are considered irritatingly saccharine and would probably do better to "keep it real" a little. So what's the difference? I think the difference is that the former group are genuinely interested in being nice to people and building rapport, while members of the second group have made an error like the one described in Kaj Sotala's post and are merely trying to give off the impression of being a nice and friendly person. The distinction is obviously very subtle, but it's one that humans are apparently very good at perceiving.
I'm not exactly sure what it is that causes humans to have this tendency of hating people who are clearly optimizing for identity - it's not as if they harm anyone. It probably has to do with tribal status. But what is clear is that you should definitely not be one of them.
3. The worst mistake you can possibly make in combating akrasia
The main thesis of PJ Eby's Thinking Things Done is that the primary reason why people are incapable of being productive is that they use negative motivation ("if I don't do x, some negative y will happen") as opposed to positive motivation ("if i do x, some positive y will happen"). He has the following evo-psych explanation for this: in the ancestral environment, personal failure meant that you could possibly be kicked out of your tribe, which would be fatal. A lot of depressed people make statements like "I'm worthless", or "I'm scum" or "No one could ever love me", which are illogically dramatic and overly black and white, until you realize that these statements are merely interpretations of a feeling of "I'm about to get kicked out of the tribe, and therefore die." Animals have a freezing response to imminent death, so if you are fearing failure you will go into do-nothing mode and not be able to work at all.4
In Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Phd psychologist Heidi Halvorson takes a different view and describes positive motivation and negative motivation as having pros and cons. However, she has her own dichotomy of Good Motivation and Bad Motivation: "Be good" goals are performance goals, and are directed at achieving a particular outcome, like getting an A on a test, reaching a sales target, getting your attractive neighbor to go out with you, or getting into law school. They are very often tied closely to a sense of self-worth. "Get better" goals are mastery goals, and people who pick these goals judge themselves instead in terms of the progress they are making, asking questions like "Am I improving? Am I learning? Am I moving forward at a good pace?" Halvorson argues that "get better" goals are almost always drastically better than "be good" goals5. An example quote (from page 60) is:
When my goal is to get an A in a class and prove that I'm smart, and I take the first exam and I don't get an A... well, then I really can't help but think that maybe I'm not so smart, right? Concluding "maybe I'm not smart" has several consequences and none of them are good. First, I'm going to feel terrible - probably anxious and depressed, possibly embarrassed or ashamed. My sense of self-worth and self-esteem are going to suffer. My confidence will be shaken, if not completely shattered. And if I'm not smart enough, there's really no point in continuing to try to do well, so I'll probably just give up and not bother working so hard on the remaining exams.
And finally, in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns describes a destructive side effect of depression he calls "do-nothingism":
One of the most destructive aspects of depression is the way it paralyzes your willpower. In its mildest form you may simply procrastinate about doing a few odious chores. As your lack of motivation increases, virtually any activity appears so difficult that you become overwhelmed by the urge to do nothing. Because you accomplish very little, you feel worse and worse. Not only do you cut yourself off from your normal sources of stimulation and pleasure, but your lack of productivity aggravates your self-hatred, resulting in further isolation and incapacitation.
Synthesizing these three pieces of information leads me to believe that the worst thing you can possibly do for your akrasia is to tie your success and productivity to your sense of identity/self-worth, especially if you're using negative motivation to do so, and especially if you suffer or have recently suffered from depression or low-self esteem. The thought of having a negative self-image is scary and unpleasant, perhaps for the evo-psych reasons PJ Eby outlines. If you tie your productivity to your fear of a negative self-image, working will become scary and unpleasant as well, and you won't want to do it.
I feel like this might be the single number one reason why people are akratic. It might be a little premature to say that, and I might be biased by how large of a factor this mistake was in my own akrasia. But unfortunately, this trap seems like a very easy one to fall into. If you're someone who is lazy and isn't accomplishing much in life, perhaps depressed, then it makes intuitive sense to motivate yourself by saying "Come on, self! Do you want to be a useless failure in life? No? Well get going then!" But doing so will accomplish the exact opposite and make you feel miserable.
So there you have it. In addition to making you a bad rationalist and causing you to lose sight of your goals, a strong sense of identity will cause you to make poor decisions that lead to unhappiness, be unpopular, and be unsuccessful. I think the Buddhists were onto something with this one, personally, and I try to limit my sense of identity as much as possible. A trick you can use in addition to the "be the observer" trick I mentioned, is to whenever you find yourself thinking in identity terms, swap out that identity for the identity of "person who takes over the world by transcending the need for a sense of identity".
This is my first LessWrong discussion post, so constructive criticism is greatly appreciated. Was this informative? Or was what I said obvious, and I'm retreading old ground? Was this well written? Should this have been posted to Main? Should this not have been posted at all? Thank you.
1. Paraphrased from page 153 of Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard
2. Actually, while it works for this example, I think the stereotypical "hipster" is a bizarre caricature that doesn't match anyone who actually exists in real life, and the degree to which people will rabidly espouse hatred for this stereotypical figure (or used to two or three years ago) is one of the most bizarre tendencies people have.
3. Other than groups that arguably hurt people (religious fundamentalists, PUAs), the only exception I can think of is frat boy/jock types. They talk about drinking and partying a lot, sure, but not really any more than people who drink and party a lot would be expected to. Possibilities for their hated status include that they do in fact engage in obnoxious signalling and I'm not aware of it, jealousy, or stigmatization as hazers and date rapists. Also, a lot of people hate stereotypical "ghetto" black people who sag their jeans and notoriously type in a broken, difficult-to-read form of English. This could either be a weak example of the trend (I'm not really sure what it is they would be signalling, maybe dangerous-ness?), or just a manifestation of racism.
4. I'm not sure if this is valid science that he pulled from some other source, or if he just made this up.
Post will be returning in Main, after a rewrite by the company's writing staff. Citations Galore.
Just before the Trinity test, Enrico Fermi decided he wanted a rough estimate of the blast's power before the diagnostic data came in. So he dropped some pieces of paper from his hand as the blast wave passed him, and used this to estimate that the blast was equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT. His guess was remarkably accurate for having so little data: the true answer turned out to be 20 kilotons of TNT.
Fermi had a knack for making roughly-accurate estimates with very little data, and therefore such an estimate is known today as a Fermi estimate.
Why bother with Fermi estimates, if your estimates are likely to be off by a factor of 2 or even 10? Often, getting an estimate within a factor of 10 or 20 is enough to make a decision. So Fermi estimates can save you a lot of time, especially as you gain more practice at making them.
These first two sections are adapted from Guestimation 2.0.
Dare to be imprecise. Round things off enough to do the calculations in your head. I call this the spherical cow principle, after a joke about how physicists oversimplify things to make calculations feasible:
Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer asked a local university for help. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist. After two weeks of observation and analysis, the physicist told the farmer, "I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum."
By the spherical cow principle, there are 300 days in a year, people are six feet (or 2 meters) tall, the circumference of the Earth is 20,000 mi (or 40,000 km), and cows are spheres of meat and bone 4 feet (or 1 meter) in diameter.
Decompose the problem. Sometimes you can give an estimate in one step, within a factor of 10. (How much does a new compact car cost? $20,000.) But in most cases, you'll need to break the problem into several pieces, estimate each of them, and then recombine them. I'll give several examples below.
Estimate by bounding. Sometimes it is easier to give lower and upper bounds than to give a point estimate. How much time per day does the average 15-year-old watch TV? I don't spend any time with 15-year-olds, so I haven't a clue. It could be 30 minutes, or 3 hours, or 5 hours, but I'm pretty confident it's more than 2 minutes and less than 7 hours (400 minutes, by the spherical cow principle).
Can we convert those bounds into an estimate? You bet. But we don't do it by taking the average. That would give us (2 mins + 400 mins)/2 = 201 mins, which is within a factor of 2 from our upper bound, but a factor 100 greater than our lower bound. Since our goal is to estimate the answer within a factor of 10, we'll probably be way off.
Instead, we take the geometric mean — the square root of the product of our upper and lower bounds. But square roots often require a calculator, so instead we'll take the approximate geometric mean (AGM). To do that, we average the coefficients and exponents of our upper and lower bounds.
So what is the AGM of 2 and 400? Well, 2 is 2×100, and 400 is 4×102. The average of the coefficients (2 and 4) is 3; the average of the exponents (0 and 2) is 1. So, the AGM of 2 and 400 is 3×101, or 30. The precise geometric mean of 2 and 400 turns out to be 28.28. Not bad.
What if the sum of the exponents is an odd number? Then we round the resulting exponent down, and multiply the final answer by three. So suppose my lower and upper bounds for how much TV the average 15-year-old watches had been 20 mins and 400 mins. Now we calculate the AGM like this: 20 is 2×101, and 400 is still 4×102. The average of the coefficients (2 and 4) is 3; the average of the exponents (1 and 2) is 1.5. So we round the exponent down to 1, and we multiple the final result by three: 3(3×101) = 90 mins. The precise geometric mean of 20 and 400 is 89.44. Again, not bad.
Sanity-check your answer. You should always sanity-check your final estimate by comparing it to some reasonable analogue. You'll see examples of this below.
Use Google as needed. You can often quickly find the exact quantity you're trying to estimate on Google, or at least some piece of the problem. In those cases, it's probably not worth trying to estimate it without Google.
[Link] Researchers devise technique to allow X-ray crystallography of un-crystallized molecule groups
(Phys.org) —A team of researchers working in Japan has developed a method for allowing X-ray crystallography to work on molecular groups that have not first been crystallized. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group describes how they built small scaffolds that resemble pockets for the molecules to rest in, securing them in place and allowing for X-ray crystallography analysis.
If this process works reliably it's probably the biggest scientific breakthrough of the year. Nanotechonlogy will get a boost from the ability to inexpensively determine the structure of a lot of molecule that we couldn't visualize beforehand.
(This is a long post. If you’re going to read only part, please read sections 1 and 2, subsubsection 5.6.2, and the conclusion.)
Suppose you want to give some money to charity: where can you get the most bang for your philanthropic buck? One way to make the decision is to use explicit expected value estimates. That is, you could get an unbiased (averaging to the true value) estimate of what each candidate for your donation would do with an additional dollar, and then pick the charity associated with the most promising estimate.
Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell, an organization that rates charities for cost-effectiveness, disagreed with this approach in two posts he made in 2011. This is a response to those posts, addressing the implications for existential risk efforts.
According to Karnofsky, high returns are rare, and even unbiased estimates don’t take into account the reasons why they’re rare. So in Karnofsky's view, our favorite charity shouldn’t just be one associated with a high estimate, it should be one that supports the estimate with robust evidence derived from multiple independent lines of inquiry.1 If a charity’s returns are being estimated in a way that intuitively feels shaky, maybe that means the fact that high returns are rare should outweigh the fact that high returns were estimated, even if the people making the estimate were doing an excellent job of avoiding bias.
Karnofsky’s first post, Why We Can’t Take Expected Value Estimates Literally (Even When They’re Unbiased), explains how one can mitigate this issue by supplementing an explicit estimate with what Karnofsky calls a “Bayesian Adjustment” (henceforth “BA”). This method treats estimates as merely noisy measures of true values. BA starts with a prior representing what cost-effectiveness values are out there in the general population of charities, then the prior is updated into a posterior in standard Bayesian fashion.
Karnofsky provides some example graphs, illustrating his preference for robustness. If the estimate error is small, the posterior lies close to the explicit estimate. But if the estimate error is large, the posterior lies close to the prior. In other words, if there simply aren’t many high-return charities out there, a sharp estimate can be taken seriously, but a noisy estimate that says it has found a high-return charity must represent some sort of fluke.
Karnofsky does not advocate a policy of performing an explicit adjustment. Rather, he uses BA to emphasize that estimates are likely to be inadequate if they don’t incorporate certain kinds of intuitions — in particular, a sense of whether all the components of an estimation procedure feel reliable. If intuitions say an estimate feels shaky and too good to be true, then maybe the estimate was noisy and the prior is more important. On the other hand, if intuitions say an estimate has taken everything into account, then maybe the estimate was sharp and outweighs the prior.
Karnofsky’s second post, Maximizing Cost-Effectiveness Via Critical Inquiry, expands on these points. Where the first post looks at how BA is performed on a single charity at a time, the second post examines how BA affects the estimated relative values of different charities. In particular, it assumes that although the charities are all drawn from the same prior, they come with different estimates of cost-effectiveness. Higher estimates of cost-effectiveness come from estimation procedures with proportionally higher uncertainty.
It turns out that higher estimates aren’t always more auspicious: an estimate may be “too good to be true,” concentrating much of its evidential support on values that the prior already rules out for the most part. On the bright side, this effect can be mitigated via multiple independent observations, and such observations can provide enough evidence to solidify higher estimates despite their low prior probability.
Charities aiming to reduce existential risk have a potential claim to high expected returns, simply because of the size of the stakes. But if such charities are difficult to evaluate, and the prior probability of high expected values is low, then the implications of BA for this class of charities loom large.
This post will argue that competent efforts to reduce existential risk reduction are still likely to be optimal, despite BA. The argument will have three parts:
BA differs from fully Bayesian reasoning, so that BA risks double-counting priors.
The models in Karnofsky’s posts, when applied to existential risk, boil down to our having prior knowledge that the claimed returns are virtually impossible. (Moreover, similar models without extreme priors don’t lead to the same conclusions.)
We don’t have such prior knowledge. Extreme priors would have implied false predictions in the past, imply unphysical predictions for the future, and are justified neither by our past experiences nor by any other considerations.
Claim 1 is not essential to the conclusion. While Claim 2 seems worth expanding on, it’s Claim 3 that makes up the core of the controversy. Each of these concerns will be addressed in turn.
Before responding to the claims themselves, however, it’s worth discussing a highly simplified model that will illustrate what Karnofsky’s basic point is.
Co-authored with crazy88. Please let us know when you find mistakes, and we'll fix them. Last updated 03-27-2013.
- 1. What is decision theory?
- 2. Is the rational decision always the right decision?
- 3. How can I better understand a decision problem?
- 4. How can I measure an agent's preferences?
- 5. What do decision theorists mean by "risk," "ignorance," and "uncertainty"?
- 6. How should I make decisions under ignorance?
- 7. Can decisions under ignorance be transformed into decisions under uncertainty?
- 8. How should I make decisions under uncertainty?
- 9. Does axiomatic decision theory offer any action guidance?
- 10. How does probability theory play a role in decision theory?
- 11. What about "Newcomb's problem" and alternative decision algorithms?
Decision theory, also known as rational choice theory, concerns the study of preferences, uncertainties, and other issues related to making "optimal" or "rational" choices. It has been discussed by economists, psychologists, philosophers, mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists.
We can divide decision theory into three parts (Grant & Zandt 2009; Baron 2008). Normative decision theory studies what an ideal agent (a perfectly rational agent, with infinite computing power, etc.) would choose. Descriptive decision theory studies how non-ideal agents (e.g. humans) actually choose. Prescriptive decision theory studies how non-ideal agents can improve their decision-making (relative to the normative model) despite their imperfections.
For example, one's normative model might be expected utility theory, which says that a rational agent chooses the action with the highest expected utility. Replicated results in psychology describe humans repeatedly failing to maximize expected utility in particular, predictable ways: for example, they make some choices based not on potential future benefits but on irrelevant past efforts (the "sunk cost fallacy"). To help people avoid this error, some theorists prescribe some basic training in microeconomics, which has been shown to reduce the likelihood that humans will commit the sunk costs fallacy (Larrick et al. 1990). Thus, through a coordination of normative, descriptive, and prescriptive research we can help agents to succeed in life by acting more in accordance with the normative model than they otherwise would.
Two related fields beyond the scope of this FAQ are game theory and social choice theory. Game theory is the study of conflict and cooperation among multiple decision makers, and is thus sometimes called "interactive decision theory." Social choice theory is the study of making a collective decision by combining the preferences of multiple decision makers in various ways.
This FAQ draws heavily from two textbooks on decision theory: Resnik (1987) and Peterson (2009). It also draws from more recent results in decision theory, published in journals such as Synthese and Theory and Decision.
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