They say a clean house is a sign of a wasted life, and I have a very clean house.

mingyuan's Comments

Biases: An Introduction

Ah! Yes! I've never been able to properly formulate an answer to why this example bothers me so much, but you did it! Thank you!

Baking is Not a Ritual

Thank you for this! Two things that helped me immensely with developing my models of baking were (1) watching a lot of Bake Off, and (2) having to contend with dietary restrictions (I was vegan when I started baking in earnest, and am now gluten-free but not vegan, for complicated reasons). 

For (1): In addition to being both calming and delightful as a thing to watch, I find Bake Off really helpful because the bakers all have really good models of how and why baking works, and they often share them verbally. This, for example, is how I learned that kneading functions to 'develop' the gluten in a dough, and therefore cut it out of any recipe where I wasn't using gluten (although, naive substitution there is basically always doomed anyway), but that's only one among many examples. 

The other really cool thing is that you get to see the bakers make lots of mistakes, for both simple and complex steps. Observing failure modes is great for this kind of model-building, and it's all the better that you don't have to make the mistakes yourself!

For (2): Starting my baking career without eggs helped me get an intuitive feel for what they're used for (and also put me in complete awe of eggs, especially once I started using them). Similarly, cutting out gluten and seeing what happened to my tried and true recipes as a result made me understand what flour does better. Maybe I should have a concept of 'emulsifier', but I've gotten along pretty well with 'binding agent' vs 'raising agent'. (Correct me if I'm wrong but) eggs function as both. 

I never really went for weird ingredients like flax eggs or agar agar, which gave me a great chance to understand more common ingredients better! The trusty binding agents I have on hand if something isn't coming together are xanthan gum (dry) and applesauce (wet), although, I mean, usually you just want to add more of whatever is in the recipe (e.g. flour for dry, eggs for wet). For raising agents, vegan recipes will generally using both baking powder and [baking soda + acid]. Lemon juice and apple cider vinegar work equally well as the acid, although as an edge case you probably wouldn't want to, like, substitute apple cider vinegar for lemon juice in a recipe for lemon muffins.

There are also smaller things like, using almond milk instead of regular milk led me to realize that milk in recipes is almost always(?) more about fullness of flavor than about the fat, so you could really just use water and the recipe would still come out, though it would probably be less rich. Similarly, fats are somewhat interchangeable in many situations (e.g. melted butter vs olive oil in cupcakes probably doesn't make a huge difference) but definitely not all - for doughs in particular, you really want to pay attention to the behavior of the fat at the temperature you're working with, as you mentioned. Normal butter and vegan butter have slightly different melting points, which can affect doughs that you want to be flaky, and vegetable shortening has a higher melting point than either, which makes it good for doughs if you can't be arsed with all that freezing butter stuff. Unfortunately, butter tastes better than everything else.

Finally, since this is just a brain dump at this point, gluten-free all-purpose flour is heavier than normal flour, which makes it slightly harder to make rise. This isn't generally a problem for almost all recipes, but somehow turns into a complete disaster when you're using yeast. I try not to let failure stop me from trying things, but I am completely done with trying to make gluten-free yeasted breads. Even with all the knowledge I'm claiming to have here, I cannot fathom the depths of the disasters that occur in this realm.


Okay well, that was a lot. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. And remember kids: if a recipe calls for self-rising flour, they're lying to you; just add baking powder and salt to your normal-ass flour and you'll be fine.

mingyuan's Shortform

When I was in high school, I once had a conversation with a classmate that went something like this (except that it was longer and I was less eloquent):

Him: "German is a Scandinavian language."

Me: "No, it's not. German and the Scandinavian languages both fall under the umbrella of Germanic languages, but 'Scandinavian languages' refers to a narrower category that doesn't include German."

Him: "Well that's your opinion."

Me: "No??? That's not what an opinion is???"

Him: "Look, it's your opinion that German isn't a Scandinavian language, and it's my opinion that it is. We can agree to disagree."

Me: ??????????????????!!!!!!!!!????!?!?!?!?! *punches self in face*


When I was taking a required intro biology course in college, I had already read a bunch of LW and SSC, notably including That Chocolate Study. So when the professor put Bohannon's results and methodology up on the projector, I was ready as heck to talk about all of the atrocities therein. The professor asked us to pair up with the person next to us to discuss whether we believed Bohannon's results, and I decided to give the freshman next to me the chance to speak first before I absolutely demolished everything. The girl turned to me with wide eyes and a confident, creaky-voice drawl, and said, verbatim: "I think it's true, because chocolate is known to be a superfood."

I was floored. How could this be happening in real life? I was at an elite college with a sub-10% acceptance rate, and this person next to me had just said "known to be" and "superfood" like they explained anything – like they meant anything. I will never forget those words. Looking back, that may have been the day I decided to move to the Bay after graduating. No regrets.

mingyuan's Shortform

I get sick of people saying things that imply that rationality has no practical, tangible benefit (e.g. "I moved to the Bay and am no better off" etc). Lots of discussion about this topic talks about physical fitness, career success, or investing. But since this is my shortform and I can say whatever I want, I want to talk about a concept that I've personally found helpful: the idea of fire alarms (as talked about in There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial General Intelligence and Sunset at Noon), which is sort of like just another concept handle for noticing confusion.

When I was eleven, my family spent Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house. That weekend, as we were getting ready to make the several-hour drive back home, the adults were doing odd jobs around the house and my sister and I were hanging out with our cousin in the den, maybe watching a movie or something. At some point, my cousin looked up and asked, "Is someone screaming?" My priors on someone screaming were extremely low, and I didn't hear what she heard, so I said, "Nah, it's just a machine," and turned back to what I was doing. Turned out it was someone screaming, and my decision to ignore that possibility could very well have meant the difference between my dad living and dying. (The details aren't important, but for anyone who's worried, he lived.)

Another anecdote. In late 2017, shortly after the release of both There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial General Intelligence and Sunset at Noon, I was standing with Habryka in a dimly lit and dusty room, setting up A/V for a show. In a moment of stillness, Habryka looked over and said, "Is that smoke?" Due to the poor lighting and my low prior on things randomly catching on fire, my knee-jerk response was still "Nah." But luckily Habryka wasn't so dismissive, and he went over and unplugged the definitely-actually-smoking cord before a proper fire could start. I've similarly witnessed the entire LessWrong team insisting on investigating every time they smell smoke (even though every time it's just been someone burning something on the stove or in the oven). 

I think there's an implicit expected value calculation in this, where it might be slightly inconvenient to investigate every time you smell smoke or hear a scream, but sometimes - and perhaps not even that rarely - the payoff for doing so is preventing a structure fire or saving a life. I've spent years chastising myself for my dismissiveness back when I was eleven, and I think that my contact with rationality has made me into the sort of person who's more intentional about investigating warning signs, and therefore much less likely to let my dad die just because it seemed unlikely to me that someone was screaming.

How to learn from a stronger rationalist in daily life?

Just to add another single datapoint, I have had a very different experience of living around Berkeley rationalists. The people around me are constantly pushing me to actually think through the positions I put forward, to ground my beliefs more firmly in reality, and to think more deeply in general. Where three years ago (when I moved here) I was painfully shy and hopelessly intimidated by the intellectual conversations around me, I'm now much more self-confident and much slower to defer to others epistemically. I have learned to tackle big projects and face problems without immediately giving up. The changes are somewhat nebulous (i.e. it's not like I had some very tangible change like going to the gym every day), but they're very clear to anyone who interacted with me three years ago vs today. I definitely don't think most of this would happened if I weren't around the Berkeley rationalists. I wasn't exactly doing deliberate practice, but I also didn't just sit around hoping for osmosis to make me cooler - like Ray, I think I really benefited from the 'try things' mindset. I was constantly throwing myself out of my comfort zone, and while it often went quite poorly, I'm happy with the end result.

Most credit goes to Habryka for meeting me where I was at while simultaneously always encouraging me to push my boundaries, but the fact that literally everyone I live with has gone through CFAR instructor training certainly also helps, as did working at a few rationalist/EA orgs and having casual interactions with people who I know are a lot smarter and better at rationality than me. 

What are your greatest one-shot life improvements?

I was always wary of using drugs to solve my problems (I always thought I should just apply more willpower), but then my anxiety got so bad that I cried every day for nearly a year. Going on SSRIs immediately made a massive difference. I only cry about once a month now and have far more good days than bad.

Similarly, sucking it up and taking ibuprofen when I feel a migraine starting is way better than 'powering through' it. You requested only one problem-solution pair per answer, so I'll generalize this to 'significant life improvements when I stopped blindly rejecting drugs on principle.'

Why do you (not) use a pseudonym on LessWrong?

Mostly my reason is what FactorialCode said - using your real name online was just Not Done for most of internet history. But also my real name is extremely generic and I don't like it or identify with it much.

How to have a happy quarantine

Ah yes, sorry about that! Some of the exercises are available here; there are more in the book :)

For those of us living in the middle of nowhere, any cool meetup groups we can finally participate in during our lockups?

Hi lisperati, good question! There's a Facebook group here for online effective altruism events, and a Discord server here which was primarily intended to help rationality meetup organizers coordinate their online meetings, but might be a good place to ask around about groups you can join. There have also been a few online megameetups already, which have been announced on LessWrong. I hope that helps!

How to have a happy quarantine

Sorry no, it wasn't a joke - my internal doc explains this better but I thought it looked unwieldy here. The description is "Opt in once, then we’ll make you do it every day to overcome the activation energy. Maybe morning calisthenics or some other group exercise." Does that make more sense?

Also I corrected your spelling of "borders" in your recent question :P

Load More