I wish my mind were larger. Certainly it is larger than most people's; during manic episodes it feels like I can fit entire other human minds inside my own, and maybe that is not entirely mere arrogance. B
How is so weak and imperfect a creature as individual man, isolated and wretched, shorn from community, ejected from egregore and unable to assimilate, supposed to make the world a better place? It would be hard enough if I were some competent ubermensch unsurpassed in self-control and diligence, but I am a languid slovenly slob barely able to brush my teeth or shower. Again and again I return to this thought. I can't escape. Multidimensional metasphex.
I see a lot of people claiming that jobs are good for people, because jobs give life more meaning. They point to studies "showing" that people are happier when employed than unemployed, even when "controlling" for just giving people money. Needless to say I haven't read any of these, because I am not in the habit of filling my brain with motivated bullshit.
Now first of all, really? Do you expect me to believe that someone who cleans toilets for a living is happier than they would be if they didn't have to do that? That's retarded.
But more importantly, this motivated reasoning is failling to take into account that not having a job gets you yelled at all the time. "Get a job!" people yell at mendicants. They really do that, all the time. And it's not just yelling. The whole American culture is infused with an ethos that being unemployed makes you worth less, that you're not earning your keep, that you don't deserve to exist. Unless you're a child, woman
I've spent years unemployed before, and I'll be unemployed again, probably soon. My quality of life is easily lower having to work all the time than not. Work sucks. This is the most obvious thing in the world. Which is one reason everyone wants to get counterintuitiveness points for pretending it doesn't. But the bigger reason, as far as I can tell the reason it's achieved memetic fixation, is that people who have jobs really hate them, and resent people who are able to get away without having them, and resolve the cognitive dissonance by telling themselves that jobs are actually good.
Look at these fucking buttons:
I have to hit these buttons many times per day, always with the same overworked left thumb. They are terrible buttons and I have a mild repetitive strain injury as a result.
I don't understand. This steering wheel is in a 2013 vehicle, but the problem of "making buttons that are nice to press, even thousands of times a day every day" was solved by video game manufacturers in the late 1970s. Do engineers who make vehicles think about ergonomics at all? Does anyone other than video game console manufacturers??
Look at this beautiful goddamn artifact:
I don't know anything about ergonomics in practice, but it's like architecture in how prevalent it is, affecting humans always and everywhere. The only book I've even heard of about it is The Design of Everyday Things, which popularized the useful concept of affordance. Hopefully I can at least listen to the audiobook some day.
I play video games on my prematurely aging laptop with a Logitech F310. It's no Gamecube controller, but I can still use it for any amount of time without any pain whatsoever. You could literally rip off a piece of the steering wheel and put the controller in, Megas XLR-style, and create a much nicer experience. If I had a lot more experience at DIY engineering, and I owned the truck I drive, I might just have tried something like that. Because it would be cool.
You should probably read Scott Aaronson's post Umeshisms before reading this post.
Concentrate on the higher-order bits.
Back in the day, this sentence took me a long time to understand, and nobody would explain it when I asked, so this is what it means:
Look at the following number: 12,345,678.
All it means is something obvious, which is that the underlined digit is a lot more important than the bolded one. If you want to make a big difference to what the number represents, you need to change the digits closer to the underlined one than to the bold one.
(As an aside, you might consider something like ?___________________________________________12345678, in order to think a little more scope-sensitively about impact magnitudes. Try to make the question mark digit positive, if you want the number to increase.)
I'm writing this for three reasons. First because I used to think umeshisms had achieved memetic fixation, but when I talk to people about them they've almost never heard of it. I googled it just now and was sort of shocked to find it has only 29 results.
Second because when I tell people about umeshisms, and give examples, statements like "If you've never been arrested, you're not doing enough interesting things," or "If you've never broken a bone, you're not doing enough dangerous physical activity," they don't seem to get it. Trying to come up with their own examples, they fail. Something counterintuitive about the idea that a successful strategy includes nonzero probability of unimportant bad things happening.
Pop quiz: Is "If you've never falsified an umeshism, you're not being badass enough," an umeshism? Answer at end of post.
Third because I want to explain the umeshism mindset, as distinct from umeshisms, the type of aphorism. I don't want this post to be a repository of umeshisms (though it'd be super cool if someone made one, like quotedb or the erstwhile limerickdb where people could submit and vote on them). Umeshism is so named like pragmatism, stoicism, or agnosticism, not in the philosophical school sense, but in the state of mind sense.
"Don't sweat the small stuff," is umeshism, but so is, "sweat the big stuff." Effective altruism is umeshism applied to doing material good. Rejection therapy is for getting your system 1 to be more umeshic in the context of asking for things.
The Hamming questions translate to, "Why aren't you being more umeshistic?" From Richard Hamming's You And Your Research:
Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.Umeshism is prioritization. It's caring more about more important things than about less important things. It doesn't mean caring a lot, or a little, in full generality; it means caring in the right order. It means not spending all your time on social media if you have anything useful to do. But it also means not spending all your time setting up intricate systems to prevent you from wasting your time.
What distinguishes umeshism from just naively trying to be more efficient is deliberately letting avoidable bad things happen as part of the overall strategy, because the harm from those things is outweighed by the cost of preventing all of them.
What's the correct number, taking resource tradeoffs into account, of deaths by electocution per year in the United States? I don't know what the specific number is, but it's not zero.
If you understand everything you read, you're reading too carefully. (Though I must say that if you never notice any misunderstandings, you're not reading nearly carefully enough.) If you don't get it yet, here are some good blog posts that explain it: Focus on the Higher-Order Bits and Why We Should Err in Both Directions
Answer to quiz: No
Lists are really, really appealing for some reason, perhaps because they are so simple and orderly and thus memorable.
Peter McIntyre wrote an article (listicle, is the pejorative) called 52 Concepts to Add to Your Cognitive Toolkit. Despite being written in pandersome newspeak it's really good; I endorse it. Most of those concepts are essential to thinking and if you don't know any you should familiarize yourself post-haste. I cannot emphasize this enough. Fluency in these concepts is by my account an adulthood developmental stage. No such listicle could ever be complete, and to my reckoning the most important omissions are:
- selection effects
- near/far thinking
- perverse incentives
- map and territory
- principle of charity/steelmanning
- use vs. mention distinction
- belief vs. alief
- seemingly-trivial inconveniences
- ugh fields
- just-world thinking
- OODA loop
- signal to noise ratio
- the tails come apart
- Intuition pumps
Some of these concepts are monster-topics that take weeks to understand. Others take less than an hour. Caveat emptor.
I am fascinated by the concept of a "cognitive toolkit" or "conceptual ontology" or "insight collection" or "conceptual vocabulary" or whatever you want to call it. It should probably be on a list of essential concepts! The fascinating thing is that it seems to comprise a list of concepts. Like the way you think is partially embedded by something as simple as a communicable list of ideas.
The 'vocabulary' metaphor for the conceptual ontology helped me realize something important. Earlier I had the minor insight that the set of words you can use is much smaller than the set of words you can recognize. The same is true for concepts. To understand other people's thinking, you only need to be able to recognize the chunked concepts involved, but to think, you have to be able to use these concepts, which requires practice. Pen-and-paper exercises and spaced repetition thereof might help. I nearly put spaced repetition in my above list, but worried it would start to become a list of all the concepts I know and utilize. Like, did you know spaced repetition helps all kinds of knowledge, not just declarative? God damn, son.
Richard Feynman attributed much of his research success to using a 'different box of tools'. It makes sense. Exploring in a different way than everyone who has come before is probably a prerequisite for finding new things. It seems to me that humans, even the brightest, mostly think the same thoughts, over and over, in the same ways, and have only a few tools and heuristics for thinking. Quoth Gian-Carlo Rota:
Every mathematician has only a few tricks.The way I see it, the way humans have different incommunicable cognitive habits is in large part responsible for differences in quality of their intellectual work, and an important proximate cause of people's uniqueness. I often see deep links between my thinking and other people's thinking, always so deep that I can't articulate them. It makes me wonder whether I have some ultra-deep grognor-only intuitions that languish, unused, because I never see them in anyone else and thus they never get reinforced.
A long time ago, an older and well known number theorist made some disparaging remarks on Paul Erdos's work. You admire Erdos's contributions to mathematics as much as I do, and I felt annoyed when the older mathematician stated, in flat and definitive terms, that all of Erdos's work could be ``reduced'' to a few tricks which Erdos repeatedly relied upon in his proofs. Actually, what the number theorist did not realize is that other mathematicians, even the very best, also rely on a few tricks that they use over and over. Take Hilbert. The second volume of Hilbert's collected papers contains all of Hilbert's papers in invariant theory. I have made a point of reading some of these papers with care. It was very sad to note how some of Hilbert's beautiful results have been completely forgotten.
But it was surprising to realize, on reading the proofs of Hilbert's striking and deep theorems in invariant theory, that Hilbert's proofs relied on a few tricks that he used over and over. Even Hilbert had only a few tricks!
Anyway these deep thought-structures are definitely not simply lists of cognitive habits or heuristics. If you could condense Erdos's briliance into such a thing, you would be as brilliant as him. Even so, lists seem, surprisingly, to compose a large part of people's cognitive faculties.
Consider these four situations:
- Conflating two things. Conflation is the mistake of thinking that two or more things are the same thing.
- Incorrectly splitting one thing into two things. This is the mistake of thinking that one thing is two or more things.
- Correctly identifying that two things are the same thing.
- Correctly distinguishing two things that used to be thought of as one thing.
The point I want to press upon you is that the situations in the top row are easier or more likely than the situations in the bottom row, due to working memory constraints. An ontology with fewer objects in it is easier to understand, so it's relatively easy for humans to correctly identify that what they thought was two things is actually one thing, and correspondingly, to mistakenly conflate two things into one. Mutatis mutandis, it's hard for people to notice subtle distinctions. And likewise people have low propensity to mistakenly think that one thing is two things.
This is why I see distinction-mongering as such an essential conceptual activity; it goes against the natural inclination to do the opposite.
It goes back to the personality distinction between lumpers and splitters. Some people want wikipedia articles to include everything related to the subject; others want to individuate the various things into their own wikipedia articles. Ever since the list of subtle distinctions I co-wrote, I've become much more of a splitter, seeking distinctions everywhere and never finding them unfruitful. Perhaps this is some sort of boast, like wow guys, look at how many distinctions I can fit in my head. I nevertheless see it as the essential conceptual activity. As Sarah Constantin once said, "science" means "to split".
I think male homosexuality is good and female homosexuality is bad. Mostly due to asymmetries in the sexual marketplace, the surplus of men. The upshot if you agree with me is that if you are a bisexual of either gender you should limit yourself to men. This is doubly good: it occupies a given man and frees up a theoretical woman. Additionally, putting this into practice should help control overpopulation (and be accord with antinatalism, which I also hold), though this isn't why I hold the belief at all.
The mathematical theory of instrumental rationality comprises two interrelated disciplines: decision theory and game theory, i.e., individual and group optimization. These are fields for which we can say that both exist. By contrast, epistemic rationality is given its coherent mathematical treatment only concerning individual knowledge. The study of group rationality is scattered to the winds, a field so small it as yet has no name. It could be called interpersonal epistemic rationality, multi-agent epistemology, interactive epistemology, or, preferably, something more clever. I title this post cooperative epistemology because that is the ideal I want the field to be about.
It will prove helpful to distinguish between the formal theories of rationality, the theory of rationality in practice, the practice of rationality, and the practice of theorizing about rationality. We can further subdivide these chunks into epistemic and instrumental by prepending the respective adjective to every instance of 'rational'. I do this as a rule, but the reason I'm inflicting such onerous distinctions on you is because the theoretical study of the practice of group epistemic rationality, by philosophers and psychologists, gets plenty of attention and is given its names. What's comparatively neglected is the mathematical theory of interpersonal epistemology.
Thus social epistemology is a cool field I aim to pay attention to, but is the "Robert Nozick investigating whether induction is justified" of group rationality, I am seeking more things like Aumann's Agreement Theorem.
Aumann's Agreement Theorem
is so famous and well-known in my circles that it needs no introduction here. Nevertheless I want to consolidate some of the last many years of discussion about it.
In the beginning, Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen coauthored a paper about how disagreements are, therefore, either irrational or dishonest.
I had ambitious plans for a much longer post, but I don't feel like writing this one anymore, so I'm going to truncate it here and publish it. The main upshot was probably going to be something about how Wei Dai continues to be and have been the single best contemporary thinker.
I've been homeless and unemployed for a long time. So I started scavenging out of necessity. But I would keep doing it even if I had were employed and dignified, to save money and prevent waste. It's smart and cool, like all forms of frugality.
I write this because it's not something that occurs to even the thriftiest of tightwads, and because even they reject the idea out of hand with some rationalization. "It's unhygienic," they say, but I've never gotten sick, even when all the food I ate was from trash cans. I'm on food stamps now. I can't spend that on anything other than food, so it doesn't cost me anything to scavenge less.
It wouldn't even have occurred to me if I weren't obsessed with not letting things go to waste. It started when I was hanging out alone in a dormitory's lounge, and some group walked in with a bunch of food, and then threw it away, with most of it untouched. "Americans. So wasteful," I thought. No one else was around, so I decided to unwaste it. I was newly homeless and not yet in the habit of scrounging, so I was hesitant for a bit. But it was great.
For several months, I fed myself by sneaking into that same building or the nearby one at 5am, and going to the lounge on every floor and picking out the good food. There was always enough that I could be picky about what refuse I consumed. There was good variety. Occasionally there was even alcohol. I stopped using those buildings after a few too many encounters with the cops. But that only happened when I was lazy and actually loitered in the building instead of looting the trash cans and splitting. It was hard not to, since the lounges were nice places with outlets, bathrooms, and free very fast wifi. Everything I needed!
After that I started using outdoor trash cans. This was a lot less fun. They were much farther apart, the amount of good stuff I could find was a lot less guaranteed, rain could fall and ruin stuff, and it was cold at night. Plus there was a much higher chance of being seen. Some part of me retained this irrational desire to appear dignified, so I only did this at night in the wee hours of the morning. I did it so much that I learned when janitors would be snooping around (annoyingly, essentially all the time), when students would be around, what days of the week were the best, and an efficient route that I could instantly modify depending on how much I wanted, how much I'd found already, which entrance to the campus I used, and so on, which ended somewhere that had an outlet and wifi. UCLA is nice enough to provide free wifi everywhere on campus.
When you're a veg*n1 and homeless and thus have no place to cook or store food, food stamps alone isn't enough to feed you. Scavenging was nice because it allowed me thus to not dip into my real money in order to eat enough, without eating nothing but raw ramen, raw oatmeal, and bananas. I could splurge on canned soup and cans of cold refried beans.
My original idea for this post also included some guidelines for what discarded foods are good and what are bad, with the obligatory "your health is your responsibility, not mine, use your judgement" and tips for how to avoid being spotted, and other things I learned over years of scavenging, but whatever. I'm not going to convince anyone to try it, so that would be pointless.
 My dietary restrictions are to not economically incentivize suffering. So I can't purchase eggs, dairy, or meat from things that can feel pain. I still buy clam products, because I'm pretty sure clams can't feel anything. For game-theoretic reasons, I can't accept gifts of these things either. But there's no reason for me not to eat meat that's been discarded and was going to be discarded regardless of my decision to eat it. I don't trust "cage free" bullshit about how some animals are in less horrible conditions than others. It's all probably pretty horrible. Anyway it's annoying that there's no short word for this, since in my view it should be the most common dietary restriction. "Vegetarianism" is stupid, since it tends to produce more suffering by way of replacing meat (small numbers of animals in Hell-conditions) with eggs (large numbers of intelligent animals in Hell-conditions).
It is called "the" lifehack because it is the only useful lifehack.
For a long time, I couldn't listen to any spoken word. Audiobooks, podcasts, and their ilk just didn't work for me. I would lose focus and think about other things, and have to go back in order to listen again to what I'd missed, and this was deeply frustrating because I had no idea how far back I needed to go and the whole point of listening to things is not having to interact with the source of the information.
Now I am always listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Whenever I'm in transit or walking around. The difference is a genuine One Weird Trick: speed up the audio.
Why does that work? Introspectively: it seems to have to do with having too much spare brainpower when listening at normal speed. My brain gets antsy, and wants to use all of itself. It tries to think about other things in the gaps between the speakers' words. In doing so, it loses focus. By speeding it up almost to the point where you can't keep up anymore, you can eliminate those gaps. It forces you to concentrate on the input. There's some loss of information this way, but what can you do? It's way better than having to go back constantly.
The above is just speculation. I don't know why it works. The important thing is that it does.
Needless to say, by doing this you can also listen to more things in less time.
In case you're convinced it is worth a try, here are some recommendations:
The podcatcher I use. I tried a few, and it was the best. Crucially, it has the ability to speed up what you're listening to, with gradations of 0.1. I usually listen to things at around 1.7x speed. The exact speed isn't important, but speeding it up to the point where you have to spend effort to keep up, is. Most people who use the lifehack listen at higher speeds than I do.
This is my favorite podcast. It is educational, often droll, and true to its name covers its entire subject matter! As of this writing it has hundreds of episodes and I'm almost caught up. Speeding this up is especially important because the host talks very slowly; I listen at 1.9x. It's also important to realize that you should skip episodes that bore you. There is no virtue in letting air waves beat against your eardrums if they stop before entering your brain. The whole point of the lifehack is preventing boredom. Boredom is the enemy. Slay it at great cost. I've skipped several interview episodes, and probably should have skipped a couple of the non-interview episodes.
Repeating for emphasis: you don't want to build a habit of not paying attention to the podcasts you listen to. That is the whole thing we are here to fix. Don't keep trying to listen if it's not working. Skip episodes if you must.
I hesitate to recommend this, because while the actual content is informative and entertaining, it commits the sins of charging for most episodes and having advertisements within them. Episodes only come out once every couple years or so. So it's a good thing podcatchers can auto-update when new free episodes arrive.
All the books are read by volunteers, so the reading varies widely in quality, but the selection is enormous. Anything in the public domain, they either have or eventually will. Literary classics, old works of history, economics, philosophy... It's impossible to ever run out of good stuff to listen to. Every book has its own RSS feed, so it's easy to add them to podcast addict and listen to them like any other podcast. Podcast addict's search doesn't always find them, so make sure to use LibriVox's catalog.
other educational podcasts
EconTalk, You Are Not So Smart, and Rationally Speaking are the only other decent ones I've found. For various reasons they are not as good as the above ones, but still better than all the competition I've seen. I welcome new educational podcast recommendations.
non-educational spoken word prose
I don't listen to any of this, but there's a lot of it. LibriVox again has a lot to offer. Welcome to Night Vale is a popular fiction podcast. Lots of podcasts are of the form "two guys chatting about whatever", and those can be fun.
But it doesn't end there
Human, your mind is limited, and so you may not have realized another use for the lifehack. You may have a reading list whose items have been languishing for years. Many of these items will have audiobook editions. Do you see it now? Perhaps not. Things that you want to read, but which are especially difficult to get yourself to read, benefit from the double stimulus of reading and high-speed listening at the same time. This takes up even more of your spare brainpower. This is how I read Superintelligence; I used podcast addict to listen to the audiobook while using the android kindle app to read the book. It worked splendidly. Not only did I find it much easier to stay focused and engaged, I think the extra stimulus helped me remember the content better. An unexpected benefit was that having to close two apps made it inconvenient to stop, which made me more able to continue.
I've encountered knee-jerk skepticism about the idea of reading something and listening to it at the same time. I encourage you to try it and see if it works for you.
 Allow me some more worthless speculation. Reading is an unnatural activity, requiring eye movements foreign to our ancestors. Beginning readers read line-by-line, very slowly learning to associate the strange shapes on the page with words they know, stored until then only as sounds. Once they do that, they still read line-by-line and only slowly learn to look at pages like a picture, eyes darting around for pieces of structure and still somehow reading the words, often accidentally skipping them. As a way of gaining information, it is less (to speak very loosely) "inherent" than listening is. Listening to other humans is something that humans have been doing since the dawn of humans. Learning to listen to speech that is much faster is merely quantitatively different from something you already know how to do. I've heard that some blind people learn to listen to speech at insane speeds like 6x. That's impressive, and makes perfect sense if listening is "easier" than reading. Another observation is: you are constantly blinking, but your ears are never "shut off".
 In addition, unfortunately, most larger works are read by multiple readers, so if you get to the middle of a book and there's a reader you can't understand, you have to turn to the original text to continue where that reader left you off. But that obviates LibriVox for that section. They are terribly 'understaffed' and have no ability to do anything about this. I assure you that plenty of the readers have good voices and good audio quality. There are plenty of works with solo readers as well.
 Many podcasts are absent from this list simply because I haven't listened to them. Sometimes I haven't listened to them because I haven't gotten around to them. Sometimes it's because I'm not interested in the subject matter. I know this isn't fair. But it's not like my recommendations are the end-all.
 It had downsides. Plowing through passages that would have been better digested slowly and pondered. Infeasibly difficult to look at the endnotes (this is true with the ebook alone, let alone ebook+audio). But the realistic alternative was not reading it at all.
 Reading Katja Grace's summaries and external links after each chapter also helped.
 I probably lean toward explaining myself too much with pointless digressions. To me it seems everyone else leans toward not explaining themselves enough. Humans don't live anymore in a world where everyone knows everyone else really well from a lifetime of interaction.
You should read The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses, by T.C. Chamberlin
It is expensive to keep track of multiple partially overlapping partially contradictory models. You must do it anyway.— Will Newsome (@willnewsome) August 5, 2012
For those who wish to avoid reading a PDF, I have reproduced the paper here.
This blog post started as an attempt to summarize the essay in order to seduce people into perhaps reading it, but then I got bogged down in the effort, so, nah.
It reminded me of William James's The Will to Believe, published a year earlier. Reading this, I noticed he quoted W.K. Clifford's The Ethics of Belief, which is excellent. Man, there's this whole world of old school practical epistemologists that I've been ignoring up to now!
I would beseech you to read these three essays. All are excellent. But I know that such exhortations would be useless. They aren't easy reads. Even if you wanted to, you have to already be in the habit of reading things from that era to understand a word they say.
I used to care a lot about whether my toilet paper faced the wall or not. I absolutely insisted that it face away from the wall, and held disdain for people who put it the other way. Looking back, I'm not sure why. I want to blame it on the universal propensity to form coalitions and something about how you seem cooler when you have strong preferences. But it's hard to imagine that mattering to me anymore. Why should anyone care about that?
everyone has like a hundred really strong and totally pointless preferences— Grognor (@Grognor) December 10, 2015
Most preferences are like this. Totally arbitrary.
The most important viewquake I've had was learning of construal level theory, or more understandably near/far thinking. You shouldn't use this blog post to acquaint yourself with this idea. You should just already know it. People often point out to themselves and others that the things they're getting concerned with are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, they encourage not sweating the small stuff. Even though I don't know what people mean by grand scheme, and even though small things can be important, I generally approve of these practices because they are ways in which people cause themselves to think about what matters and what doesn't, and to prioritize.
Here's to being less petty.
Subs are still better than dubs though. And you better use the Oxford Comma.
Ugh, the only visible response to the hastily-written, not researched and not-reflected-upon post, why would you even think that, was praise. I want to take into account the silent responses, hopefully some of which were people agreeing that the post was not good and not worth reading, but that's impossible.
Yeah what the fuck is wrong with me, having a contrarian position as regards what is worth reading. How dare I have an opinion about my own writing. This is the world I live in.
You! who is reading this post now, suppose that you'll get to the end of it, and suppose also (this stretches the imagination, but suppose) that you read the post I began by discussing. Ask yourself, why? You could have been reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, but you read poorly-written haphazard rants. Heck, you could have reread one of my earlier essays, some of which are actually good, but you chose that one and this one! Why? The real reason is probably that you have a habit of clicking on links you see. Did you decide to have this habit? Does it serve you well? Does it make you a better person? Of course not. Most of your habits have no good reason to be there, and came unbid, inexorably, from your brain's interaction with the world you live in. If your arm is full of sin, cut it off and throw it away. If your habit is dead weight, cast it from you.
I digress by mentioning sphexishness and biodeterminism and self-threshing. I hate people's reading habits. I read somewhere on overcomingbias that some ridiculous portion, something like 95%, of what people read, was written in the few weeks prior. I can't find the source but it rings true, it even rings true with myself, though I try to read old things. I did find Against News, though:
Bryan Caplan raises a neglected but important issue: are important issues neglected for news of the moment? Bryan quotes Delos Wilcox from 1900:I hate having to blockquote entire articles like that, but it's necessary because humans, including the relatively elite clasm that is my audience, very rarely follow through on the links on the articles they read. This is annoying because, for instance, sometimes people ask me questions about The Monster that they'd know the answer to if they had clicked the hyperlink on the text they're asking about. I'm digressing again. You asked for more, this is what you get.
But we must deplore and, so far as possible, overcome the evils of habitual newspaper reading. These evils are, chiefly, three: first, the waste of much time and mental energy in reading unimportant news and opinions, and premature, untrue, or imperfect accounts of important matters; second, the awakening of prejudices and the enkindling of passions through the partisan bias or commercial greed of newspaper managers; third, the loading of the mind with cheap literature and the development of an aversion for books and sustained thought.Bryan also quotes Thomas Jefferson:
Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper. …Just as fantasy typically substitutes for reality, news typically substitutes for insight – in both cases by diverting attention. The same risk applies to reading blog posts of course, which is why I try to focus on reading and writing posts on relatively deep long-standing issues, and not current news fashions. I avoid posts that should not be nearly as interesting a year before or after.
I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it. …
The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.
Yes, in a world where everyone was trying as hard as possible to contribute to long term insight and progress there would be a place for news of recent events of wide interest. And in that world it would make sense to track the news that others also track. But we do not live in such a world.
It seems to me that in our world most track the news to talk intelligently with others who track the news. By coordinating to talk on the same recent news topics, we can better evaluate how well connected and intelligent are those around us. If we tracked very different topics, it would be much harder to evaluate each other. If our conversation topics were common but old, it would be harder to distinguish individually thoughtful analysis from memorized viewpoints, and harder to see how well-connected folks are to fresh info sources.
But if you care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then consider reading textbooks, review articles, and other expert summaries instead of news.
Added: Stuart Buck quotes C.S. Lewis:
Those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.
I made a twitter poll, "should I tweet more, optimizing for signal, or less, optimizing for signal to noise ratio". The results:
"never read the comments" is a good start, but wait till you level up to "never read the articles"— Chris Wage (@cwage) December 1, 2015
- more (11 votes, 61%)
- less (2 votes, 11%)
- dichotomies are bad (5 votes, 28%)
The big thing that I do with tweets and what I decide to read, that others mostly don't, is thinking in terms of marginal utility and opportunity cost. That's it. I'm not the only one who consciously, deliberately decides what to read and what not to (though it is worth noting that this is a tiny minority), but it sure feels like I'm the only one who applies those basic economics concepts to that decision. The marginal blog post, or worse, the marginal blog comment, does more harm than good, by way of taking up scarce attention that could have been better spent elsewhere, just like the make-a-wish foundation does more harm than good by redirecting charitable donations to something with negligible impact.
Look, I'm not knocking your taste, see next paragraph, but it's *frustrating* to watch people mindlessly click the latest outrage porn and bicker about it on my facebook feed for half an internet-century before forgetting about it and moving on to the next outrage porn when they could READ A CLASSIC. Now I know that time is not fungible, that one cannot spend all one's waking hours catching up on Plato and Sipser, but would it kill you to try? to cut some of the proverbial empty calories out of your information diet? Do you really have to keep your criticisms of the hated enemy constantly up to date? Can't you just ignore things that waste your time? You'd be better off staring at a wall and thinking about triangles. I'm completely serious. Triangles are cool. Did you know the sum of the angles of a hyperbolic triangle is less than 180°? What's up with that? I'm digressing again. Where was I? Ah, yes. Politics. Not even once.
Some people just lose the lottery of fascinations. I know that you are going to concern yourself with plenty of stupid, unimportant things. Humans are imperfect. It's okay. Go ahead and reblog that dumb image with some smart sarcasm pasted over a politician's portrait. see if I care
Another reason people rug-sweep the tradeoff between quality and quantity (or more technically, total quality versus average quality) is that encouragement is encouraged while discouragement is discouraged; i.e., there's a taboo on discouraging people from undertaking anything, including writing. This is partly because encouragement is seen as associating, which is "nice", while discouragement is seen as dissociating, which is "mean", and partly because encouragement is a low-cost bet: if they succeed with their endeavor, you win some apparent prescience and a valuable ally. Conversely, someone might resent you for discouraging them, and at least other people will think worse of you. Who needs the hassle? Alas. This asymmetric equilibrium has terrible consequences. It serves no one to tell talentless hacks that they should waste time and effort on some leisure activity they'll soon abandon. You want to begin writing a novel you'll never finish? Fine. But failure begets failure. You'd do well to do only things you can reasonably do.
But there's a critical problem with the idea of not making things unless they're good, which I didn't begin to notice until I in 2014 looked upon what I wrote in 2012 and earlier, and saw that it was garbage. You can't start out by making good things. And you can't improve easily without feedback from people outside yourself. So at some level, for there to exist great writers and thinkers whom the general audience can consume without needing to heed even a single mediocre thing, someone has to start by showing someone else something subpar. There's something about making more things that instills practice much better than trying to make better things. Quoth Paul Graham:
Working on small things is also a good way to learn. The most important kinds of learning happen one project at a time. ("Next time, I won't...") The faster you cycle through projects, the faster you'll evolve.You can't write as much if you spend effort on rigor or on writing style. I don't have much motivation to spare. So that is why I am trying to lower my standards and write more, even though I'm not proud of what I write in this mode.
The concept is underemphasizing something that deserves emphasis in response to an incentive to do so. People respond to incentives whether consciously or not, and a very common felt incentive is to win an argument, so people very seldom think of relevant things that would undercut their argument.
People don't always do this on purpose, and they usually do it unaware, but it's a culpable mistake, one that does real harm, and so the word should have negative connotations and some associated social pressure to admit the mistake.
Originally published December 12, 2015
When I first tried to coin it, I wrote: The definition is pretty simple. The word will mean, "possibly deliberately (but possibly just by negligence) sweeping something under the rug" or "wrongfully understating/underestimating the importance of something"
Some rejected candidates:
- paper over
People usually ask for examples of where I'd use the word. I have frequent want for it, so I'm sure I'll think of more and add them, but for now I can only think of one:
- "If you think living forever conditioning on continuing forever to want to live would be great, you're _____ the distinction between *wanting* and *enjoying*."
As of December 9, 2016, I'm going with "gloss over" for the time being.
This is an experiment in drastically lowering my standards for post quality, that I might post more often.
I see a lot of people talking about offsetting the suffering they cause as meat eaters by consuming more cow relative to chicken and eggs, and to donate money to vegan activism organizations. I'm all for donating to veganism charities because they seem to be prioritizing a problem that is neglected on the margin. These discussions usually come with what seem to me to be ridiculously overblown calculations for how effective these organizations are per donated dollar, which allows people who donate to them to feel less guilty for eating meat, but I'm not going to try to calculate how effective they are because that's not what I want to focus on today.
These discussions always seem to come with some caveat about how maybe cows are worth a lot more moral weight than chickens, because they're more """evolutionarily advanced""" than chickens. It makes me want to wonder, have these people ever spent time with chickens or cows? Want to wonder, rather than wonder, because it is obvious that anyone who talks like that has never spent time with a chicken.
Chickens are relatively smart. They play dominance games, whence "pecking orders". They hunt bugs. They have individual personalities; some are meaner and bitier than others; many actually like humans. They know fear, and get made fun of a lot for their cowardliness (which is unfair; would you be brave if your combat capability was that of a chicken?). Virtuous or not, cowardliness is at least brain activity. Fear is an emotion. They visibly suffer.
Cows stand around and chew the cud.
The thrust of my point thus far is that this is an unexamined assumption that people keep making, occasionally with the regular lip service admitting uncertainty. If questioned, people will probably react by mentioning brain size, but whales have enormous brains and are not very smart. Yes brain size is correlated with intelligence, but to measure intelligence you have to consider how things behave and not how big their organs are, unless you want to measure moral weight in pounds.
Which reminds me, how bad is its suffering? should be the relevant question when determining moral weight, not how intelligent is it? Bentham knew this.
You know that people don't believe things for the right reasons, so let me speculate on why people automatically default to assuming cows have more moral weight than chickens. I have observed that humans have a bias toward mammals. This should be obvious. Humans are mammals. Isaac Asimov asserted the principle that ceteris paribus one serves the interests of things more similar to oneself. Many people reify this bias into a moral principle. That's stupid. It's what people do. Birds are much less popular as pets than dogs and cats. On the OKcupid thing for whether you want pets, you can select "dogs", "cats", or "none". You can't select birds.
It's harder to empathize with things you understand less well, almost by definition. People don't understand birds as well as they do mammals. When getting a new pet bird, people's first instinct is to pet it in the places that a mammal would enjoy being touched. They have to be taught that birds usually only want to be pet in the head and neck area, with species and individual variations in preferences.
I don't think this is the main reason people default to that assumption, but it's something I wanted to explain somewhere.
Okay, I guess I'm done for now.
Follow-up to: Against Advice
Related to: The Monster, St. Rev's disability
Have you tried turning it off and on again?
Have you tried running it in WINE?
Have you done a Google search?
Are their wings clipped?
Have you considered getting a job?
Have you tried homeless shelters?
Have you taken an aspirin?
Do you exercise enough?
Just be yourself and have confidence.
Have you tried counting sheep?
Have you considered quitting? [any addiction]
Have you tried communicating with your partner?
Why don't you quit your job?
Have you tried uninstalling and reinstalling?
Have you gone to a doctor?
Have you tried antidepressants?
Have you tried stimulants?
Have you tried seeing a therapist?
Have you considered filing for divorce?
Have you tried self-modifying into being polyamorous?
Have you tried learning to program?
Have you tried Craigslist?
Have you tried going into a coffee shop for 30 minutes every morning with a notebook brainstorming how to solve the problem?
Have you considered doing the obvious thing?
Have you tried solving the problem? Why haven't you tried solving the problem?
What's wrong with you? Don't you know good people don't have this problem?
These are mostly advice/posturing I have actually received or seen in the wild. They all have something in common, which is that you have to be a real moron not to think of the advice yourself. So mentioning them is implicitly an accusation that the person who has the problem is a moron who can't think of the obvious solution. Now, that's not to say these are necessarily bad advice. Even smart people are often morons; they often fail to think of the obvious. I have even personally benefited from some of them.
Weird Sun Twitter has an erstwhile meme, which became a deck of cards, of tweets about solutions to The Problem. What is The Problem? The advice-giver doesn't care. The advice-giver just wants to show off how much better they are than you. Here are some examples:
Instance Of Class:
Have you tried becoming a God?
Have you tried getting angry at it?
Mask Of Face:
Have you tried trying?
Have you tried shouting at it?
Have you tried distimming the gostak?
Have you tried throwing it down a well?
Have you tried pointing dramatically at the problem?
Have you tried being more?
Have you tried differentiating?
Have you tried becoming the problem?
Have you tried fixing things seemingly unrelated to the problem, but which need fixing, and seeing if the problem mysteriously vanishes?
Have you tried rotating the problem 90 degrees?
Have you tried making it so that the centre doesn't need to hold?
Have you tried conquering the map first?
Have you tried politely asking the problem to be less problematic?
Have you tried investigating the problem?
Have you tried becoming powerful enough to render the problem irrelevant?
Have you tried?
Have you tried applying a sufficient quantity of Instance Of Class Product to the problem?
Have you tried removing the time limit?
Have you tried making the problem someone else's responsibility?
Have you tried committing to cause a time paradox in all timelines where the problem is not solved?
Have you tried phoning a friend?
Have you tried the fish?
Have you tried enumerating all coherent possible solutions to the problem, and only doing things which will benefit you in all cases?
Have you tried emitting a strangled wail of horror and confusion?
Have you tried only solving most of the problem, and learning to endure the remainder? (This is dangerous. Partially solving a problem can reduce background awareness that it is not fully solved.)
Have you tried paying someone to deal with the problem for you?
Have you tried making the problem underestimate you?
Have you tried making extremely visible preparations for solving the problem, in the hopes that it will be intimidated and flee from you?
Have you tried never having had the problem in the first place?
Have you tried drawing a chalk circle around the problem?
Have you tried doing a wide enough variety of things to the problem that it just gives up in sheer exhaustion and/or confusion?
Have you tried walking away from the problem, solving many similar but smaller problems, and then returning with your newfound skills?
Have you tried making the background music play the track that usually plays in scenes where a protagonist solves a problem?
Have you tried removing all evidence that the problem exists?
Have you tried falling in love with the problem and realising that you no longer want to solve it?
Have you tried unfollowing the problem?
Have you tried hiring the problem to afflict your enemies?
Have you tried using That?
Have you tried confidently asserting that the problem is insoluble by mere mortals while in the company of competent showoffs?
Have you tried seeing what can be derived if you assume a priori that the problem is soluble?
Have you tried declaring the problem too trivial to bother dealing with?
Have you tried offering the problem the resources it would need to solve itself?
Have you tried becoming a witch?
Breaker Of Combo:
Have you tried being bad at things?
Gap Of Gods:
have you tried starting a meme about the problem and seeing if one of the instantiations of the meme solves it?
have you tried becoming more problematic than the problem?
have you tried thinking about a different, larger problem instead
have you tried solving the problem (at least as far as i'm concerned) by becoming a person whose problems i don't care about
have you tried it being too late to solve the problem
have you tried adopting an ontology in which the problem doesn't exist?
have you tried solving the platonic form of the problem and then waiting for the change to propagate to the world of base matter
have you tried attaining enlightenment and then still having the problem?
have you tried the solution having been inside you all along?
have you tried making the solution of the problem a necessary prerequisite to a thing that will necessarily happen?
Model Of Ensemble:
Have you tried improving your ability to classify the problem?
Have you tried letting the problem define everything about you and all that you do or don't do?
Have you tried inhabiting a narrative wherein the universe naturally solves the problem over time?
Have you tried becoming a crab?
Have you tried waiting for the problem to become a crab?
Have you tried grepping the codebase for the problem, looking for an explanatory comment?
Have you tried integrating over the problem? What about deriving with respect to the problem?
Have you tried running *toward* the problem while screaming?
Have you tried dismissing all the aspects of the problem that are illegible?
Word Of Language:
Have you tried the problem?
Have you tried pitting the problem against a bigger problem?
Have you tried proving that the problem is logically impossible to solve?
Have you tried praying for the courage to change the things you can
HAVE you tried anthropomorphizing the problem
Have you tried... oh, you have? That too? Jesus. Maybe you should give up.
Have you tried the solutions that are only available when no one is looking?
Have you tried shutting the fuck up about your god damn problems already
Have you tried coding up a universal problem solver? http://www.hutter1.net/ai/uaibook.htm
NB: DO NOT ACTUALLY DO THIS
have you tried delegating the problem to a better problem-solver than yourself?
Instant Of Time:
Have you tried erasing the words and writing them again?
Have you tried?
Have you tried killing
Have you tried making the problem into a brand?
Forge Of Truth:
Have you tried applying Instance of Class Product directly to the problem?
Have you tried making the probability that the problem occurs arbitrarily small?
Have you tried redefining a basic term to bar the problem?
Have you tried embedding the problem in a more abstract context?
Have you tried politicizing the terminology used in the problem?
Have you tried reducing the problem to a harder problem which no one expects you to solve?
Have you tried scoffing at the youthful idealism of those who believe the problem can be solved?
Have you tried renaming the problem a conjecture and moving on?
Have you tried to foist the problem on philosophers?
Have you tried writing bitter letters to the editor explaining that you have solved the problem but academy politics torpedoed your career?
Have you tried teasing out a burst of insight into the problem by fucking your mistress on prime-numbered days?
Have you tried a training montage and climactic final battle with the problem?
Have you tried tying the problem to a stone altar, extracting its heart, and tossing its body down the stairs?
Have you tried convincing yourself that you will wake up early in the morning and do the problem then?
Have you tried working the problem in unlimited margins?
Have you tried asserting that the solution to the problem is clear to the in-group?
Frame Of Stack:
Have you tried solving the problem by making a series of tweets about creative problem solving methods? Did it work?
Have you tried solving the problem by running away, joining a cult, subverting the cult, and utilizing them as minions?
Have you tried claiming it's too late to solve the problem, but really you just don't want to go through that awkward phone call
Have you tried realizing that the other person has thoughts and feelings too, and maybe solved the problem on their own
Have you tried noticing the problem?
Have you tried revealing your hand?
Have you tried signalling that you're the person?
Have you tried calling the person?
Have you tried expressing ideas you share with the person?
Have you tried following in the person's footsteps? Have you tried wearing the person's shoes?
Have you tried wearing a mask in the likeness of the person?
Have you tried signing in as the person?
Have you tried adding a time limit?
Have you tried narrowing it down to within an order of magnitude?
Have you tried doing things you previously committed to do?
"Have you tried setting up a narrative in which talking about the problem is an important means to its solution?"
Have you tried choosing a prior distribution in which the problem is a set of measure zero?
Allele Of Gene:
Have you tried having the problem?
(Have you tried throwing the problem "away"?)
Have you tried... oh, the problem's solved? Do you still want suggestions anyway?
Have you tried listening to the problem's problems? …Has the problem tried listening to its problems' problems?
Have you tried re-creating the problem in a different context? How different?
Have you tried the inevitability of repetition?
Have you tried restarting the problem to sound like a solution?
Have you tried the person's solution?
Have you tried solutions which have worked before?
Have you tried believing you have a dilution[sic] to the problem, then just doing whatever that would entail?
Have you tried claiming you discovered the problem?
Have you tried interpreting this question as good advice?
Really the problem is very simple, and we're all just thinking about it wrong. So we can all feel bad if we want.
Cats get stuck on the idea that problems are spatial, and literally coming at it from another angle will literally get around the problem.
Have you tried cultivating a way of speaking which doesn't specify the problem but does generalize the problem?
Have you tried declaring the problem a symptom and treating the underlying disease?
Have you tried making the description of the problem into an unspeakably powerful spell so people will not speak it?
Have you tried defining the problem so precisely that nobody will have time to read the definition?
Have you tried several partial solutions together?
Deity Of Religion:
Have you tried looking at the problem with deep concern until finally breaking the silence, uttering "It's probably the outgroup's fault"?
Have you tried burning the problem with fire?
Have you tried sending a fax to the problem?
Have you tried making the problem worse?
Have you tried writing a very long book about the problem?
Have you tried analyzing the trends and inferring that the problem is growing exponentially?
Have you tried praying about the problem until you develop learned helplessness?
Have you tried believing that the problem is natural, sustainable, and inevitable?
Have you tried assembling a panel of experts to talk about about the problem on cable television?
Have you tried redacting the problem from the public record?
Have you tried making it hard to differentiate between the problem and a solution?
Have you tried attempting to lose the problem while unadvisedly racing through a dangerous asteroid field?
Have you tried clearing your thought cache before trying to solve the problem?
Have you tried nonchalantly assuming that the Hegelian World Spirit will solve the problem?
Have you tried staring out the window on a lonely night, wishing you were working on a more interesting problem as the rain drizzles down?
Have you tried assigning a deadline to the problem? (cf. time limit)
Have you tried staying up late enough to catch a glimpse of the problem through the blinds?
Have you tried making claims about the problem's IQ?
Have you tried abolishing the concept of property so no one "has" any problems?
Have you tried talking a lot about how much you need a solution to the problem?
Have you tried telling others they are part of the problem and then trying to solve them?
Value Of Type:
have you tried dropping boxes of modafinil all over the place
have you tried forgiving the people who created the problem?
Disciple Of Order:
have you tried not having been born
Have you tried reading only the first few dozen paragraphs of hundreds of journal articles until you lose interest in the problem?
Proof Of Logic:
Try giving advice that's usually bad. By the fact that the person hasn't solved the problem yet, you can guess that the usual advice fails.
Have you tried becoming the person who asks others if they've tried becoming the problem?
Have you tried consuming instance of class product?
Have you tried giving advice to yourself, rather than other people?
Have you tried doing the right thing?
Have you tried putting what mental habits make you you on note cards, and swapping with a friend?
Have you tried avoiding the problem until you're on the border of forgetting it, so you can see it with fresh eyes?
Vessel Of Spirit:
hmm. have you tried solving the problem in a way that sounds clever
have you tried trying to solve the problem accidentally, but accidentally solving it on purpose
have you tried asking someone a question, and then when they tried asking you what the question is, asking them what the question is
have you tried subtweeting the problem
have you tried sarcastically solving the problem like "oh i guess i have to do x now, huh. you're making me do x" but then it works
have you tried solving the problem ironically
have you tried letting the problem solve you but then turning its strategy against it
have you tried thinking that the deadline is in the past and thinking "ahh i could have solved it" and then thinking "but wait i still can"
have you tried asking people what they've tried. have you tried lazy meta. have you tried argh here we go again
have you tried asking gorbachev to tear down the problem?
have you tried becoming the sort of person who can make a really stupid solution to the problem work anyway
have you tried becoming part of a network of problem solvers so that each problem can be solved by the person most suited to solve it
have you tried seizing upon a limited aspect of the problem and being very enthusiastic about saying that it's the whole problem
This resembles something I and others have done for a long time, which is to post deliberately bad, unfollowable, trivially true, and otherwise worse-than-worthless advice under the #lifehacks hashtag.
There is more to both of these practices than clever humor. We are hitting upon something fundamental about advice of this sort. However, it's been a very long time since I started writing this post, and I've forgotten what that was.