AllAmericanBreakfast

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Marcello's Shortform

I get the point of view that we should be forthright about our goals,  practices, and community affiliations. Nothing wrong with using a label to cultivate a sense of belonging. After all, Christians call themselves after their ideal of perfection, so why shouldn't we?

I think part of the reason is that just about everybody wants to be rational. Not everybody wants to be a guitarist, Christian, perfectionist, or idealist.

Also, most groups have some way of telling whether somebody's "doing the thing" or not. Catholics have the sacrament and you have to call him Jesus, not Frank. Guitarists practice or have chops. Just about everybody tries to think rationally from time to time, even if they fail, so what's the thing that somebody would have to do to not be a rationalist?

Why don't we call ourselves epistemologists. At least it's one syllable shorter than "aspiring rationalist." Plus, it comes with the implication that we're interested in rational thought, not experts at doing it.

Funnily enough, I feel more trepidation about referring to myself as an epistemologist than as a "rationalist." I think it sounds too much like a professional title. But heck, I'm an author even though I've never published a book. I'm a musician even though I don't play professionally. Why can't I be an epistemologist?

AllAmericanBreakfast's Shortform

How should we weight and relate the training of our mind, body, emotions, and skills?

I think we are like other mammals. Imitation and instinct lead us to cooperate, compete, produce, and take a nap. It's a stochastic process that seems to work OK, both individually and as a species.

We made most of our initial progress in chemistry and biology through very close observation of small-scale patterns. Maybe a similar obsessiveness toward one semi-arbitrarily chosen aspect of our own individual behavior would lead to breakthroughs in self-understanding?

AllAmericanBreakfast's Shortform

In programming, that's true at first. But as projects increase in scope, there's a risk of using an architecture that works when you’re testing, or for your initial feature set, but will become problematic in the long run.

For example, I just read an interesting article on how a project used a document store database (MongoDB), which worked great until their client wanted the software to start building relationships between data that had formerly been “leaves on the tree.” They ultimately had to convert to a traditional relational database.

Of course there are parallels in math, as when you try a technique for integrating or parameterizing that seems reasonable but won’t actually work.

AllAmericanBreakfast's Shortform

Math is training for the mind, but not like you think

Just a hypothesis:

People have long thought that math is training for clear thinking. Just one version of this meme that I scooped out of the water:

“Mathematics is food for the brain,” says math professor Dr. Arthur Benjamin. “It helps you think precisely, decisively, and creatively and helps you look at the world from multiple perspectives . . . . [It’s] a new way to experience beauty—in the form of a surprising pattern or an elegant logical argument.”

But math doesn't obviously seem to be the only way to practice precision, decision, creativity, beauty, or broad perspective-taking. What about logic, programming, rhetoric, poetry, anthropology? This sounds like marketing.

As I've studied calculus, coming from a humanities background, I'd argue it differently.

Mathematics shares with a small fraction of other related disciplines and games the quality of unambiguous objectivity. It also has the ~unique quality that you cannot bullshit your way through it. Miss any link in the chain and the whole thing falls apart.

It can therefore serve as a more reliable signal, to self and others, of one's own learning capacity.

Experiencing a subject like that can be training for the mind, because becoming successful at it requires cultivating good habits of study and expectations for coherence.

AllAmericanBreakfast's Shortform

It was the silence of sullen agreement.

AllAmericanBreakfast's Shortform

Markets are the worst form of economy except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

AllAmericanBreakfast's Shortform

What gives LessWrong staying power?

On the surface, it looks like this community should dissolve. Why are we attracting bread bakers, programmers, stock market investors, epidemiologists, historians, activists, and parents?

Each of these interests has a community associated with it, so why are people choosing to write about their interests in this forum? And why do we read other people's posts on this forum when we don't have a prior interest in the topic?

Rationality should be the art of general intelligence. It's what makes you better at everything. If practice is the wood and nails, then rationality is the blueprint. 

To determine whether or not we're actually studying rationality, we need to check whether or not it applies to everything. So when I read posts applying the same technique to a wide variety of superficially unrelated subjects, it confirms that the technique is general, and helps me see how to apply it productively.

This points at a hypothesis, which is that general intelligence is a set of defined, generally applicable techniques. They apply across disciplines. And they apply across problems within disciplines. So why aren't they generally known and appreciated? Shouldn't they be the common language that unites all disciplines?

Perhaps it's because they're harder to communicate and appreciate. If I'm an expert baker, I can make another delicious loaf of bread. Or I can reflect on what allows me to make such tasty bread, and speculate on how the same techniques might apply to architecture, painting, or mathematics. Most likely, I'm going to choose to bake bread.

This is fine, until we start working on complex, interdisciplinary projects. Then general intelligence becomes the bottleneck for having enough skill to get the project done. Sounds like the 21st century. We're hitting the limits of what's achievable through sheer persistence in a single specialty, and we're learning to automate them away.

What's left is creativity, which arises from structured decision-making. I've noticed that the longer I practice rationality, the more creative I become. I believe that's because it gives me the resources to turn an intuition into a specified problem, envision a solution, create a sort of Fermi-approximation to give it definition, and guidance on how to develop the practical skills and relationships that will let me bring it into being.

If I'm right, human application of these techniques will require deliberate practice with the general techniques - both synthesizing them and practicing them individually, until they become natural.

The challenge is that most specific skills lend themselves to that naturally. If I want to become a pianist, I practice music until I'm good. If I want to be a baker, I bake bread. To become an architect, design buildings.

What exactly do you do to practice the general techniques of rationality? I can imagine a few methods:

  1. Participate in superforecasting tournaments, where Bayesian and gears/policy level thinking are the known foundational techniques.
  2. Learn a new skill, and as you go, notice the problems you encounter along the way. Try to imagine what a general solution to that problem might look like. Then go out and build it.
  3. Pick a specific rationality technique, and try to apply it to every problem you face in your life.
What are some low-information priors that you find practically useful for thinking about the world?

The Lindy Effect gives no insight about which of the two books will be more “relevant“. For example, you could be comparing two political biographies, one on Donald Trump and the other on Jimmy Carter. They might both look equally interesting, but the Trump biography will make you look better informed about current affairs.

Choosing the timely rather than the timeless book is a valid rule. There‘ll always be time for the timeless literature later but the timely literature gives you the most bang for your buck if you read it now.

The Lindy Effect only tells you which of the two books is more likely to remain in print for another 40 years. It doesn’t even give you insight on how many total copies will be sold of each book. Maybe one will sell a million copies this year, 1,000 the next, and be out of print in two years. The other will sell a steady 10,000 copies per year for 40 years. The first one still will outsell it over that period of time.

What I find frustrating about the Lindy Effect, and other low-info priors like Chesterton’s Fence, is the way they get spun into heuristics for conservatism by conflating the precise claim they make with other claims that feel related but really aren’t.

Unifying the Simulacra Definitions

Treat my post as utterly worthless for the purposes of actually dissecting the COVID response, and useful for the purpose of a quick sketch illustrating how a different choice of language could help us dissect the COVID response. I find it hard to express their behavior using the "social vs. physical reality frame." It's more natural to me to say something like:

"The CDC didn't trust the American public to conserve the limited early supply of masks for healthcare workers if they knew that masks were helpful. So they transferred the false information that masks were unhelpful, because it was easier to triangulate a single message that produced the desired behavior to the entire American public than it was to triangulate two separate messages - one for the untrustworthy public who'd buy up all the masks if they knew it would help; and one for the trustworthy public who would refrain from buying up the masks even knowing that the masks would be helpful to them. This decision reduced the transaction cost of buying compliance from the public in the short run by eliminating the triangulation problem, but also undermined trust in the CDC to an unknown extent. This may increase the transaction cost of buying compliance from the American public in the future due to the increased price of purchasing their future trust."

Shoehorning this analysis into the trust/transfer/triangulation framework for transaction costs is both easy for me to do, and feels like it makes my thoughts clearer. I know precisely what I mean by those words. By contrast, I don't think that "social reality" or "physical" reality carve nature at the joints, and I don't think I'll ever have a definition of them that I trust will be interpreted correctly by my audience. That's why I choose not to use them.

Obviously it's very clunky compared to just saying it in natural speech. But sometimes a linguistic straightjacket is helpful.

Unifying the Simulacra Definitions

Oh I completely agree. My aim here wasn't to give a complete account of pandemic weirdness, just to show how alternative language can help us dissect the situation in a more detailed way than seems possible with "social reality vs. physical reality."

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