Who Wants To Start An Important Startup?

post by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T20:02:15.088Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 410 comments

SUMMARYLet's collect people who want to work on for-profit companies that have significant positive impacts on many people's lives.

Google provides a huge service to the world - efficient search of a vast amount of data. I would really like to see more for-profit businesses like Google, especially in underserved areas like those explored by non-profits GiveWell, Singularity Institute and CFAR. GiveWell is a nonprofit that is both working toward making humanity better, and thinking about leverage. Instead of hacking away at one branch of the problem of effective charity by working on one avenue for helping people, they've taken it meta. They're providing a huge service by helping people choose non-profits to donate to that give the most bang for your buck, and they're giving the non-profits feedback on how they can improve. I would love to see more problems taken meta like that, where people invest in high leverage things.

Beyond these non-profits, I think there is a huge amount of low-hanging fruit for creating businesses that create a lot of good for humanity and make money. For-profit businesses that pay their employees and investors well have the advantage that they can entice very successful and comfortable people away from other jobs that are less beneficial to humanity. Unlike non-profits where people are often trying to scrape by, doing the good of their hearts, people doing for-profits can live easy lives with luxurious self care while improving the world at the same time.

It's all well and good to appeal to altruistic motives, but a lot more people can be mobilzed if they don't have to sacrifice their own comfort. I have learned a great deal about this from Jesse and Sharla at Rejuvenate. They train coaches and holistic practitioners in sales and marketing - enabling thousands of people to start businesses who are doing the sorts of things that advance their mission. They do this while also being multi-millionaires themselves, and maintaining a very comfortable lifestyle, taking the time for self-care and relaxation to recharge from long workdays.

Less Wrong is read by thousands of people, many of whom are brilliant and talented. In addition, Less Wrong readers include people who are interested in the future of the world and think about the big picture. They think about things like AI and the vast positive and negative consequences it could have. In general, they consider possibilities that are outside of their immediate sensory experience.

I've run into a lot of people in this community with some really cool, unique, and interesting ideas, for high-impact ways to improve the world. I've also run into a lot of talent in this community, and I have concluded that we have the resources to implement a lot of these same ideas.

Thus, I am opening up this post as a discussion for these possibilities. I believe that we can share and refine them on this blog, and that there are talented people who will execute them if we come up with something good. For instance, I have run into countless programmers who would love to be working on something more inspiring than what they're doing now. I've also personally talked to several smart organizational leader types, such as Jolly and Evelyn, who are interested in helping with and/or leading inspiring projects And that's only the people I've met personally; I know there are a lot more folks like that, and people with talents and resources that haven't even occurred to me, who are going to be reading this.

Topics to consider when examining an idea:

An example idea from Reichart Von Wolfsheild:

A project to document the best advice we can muster into a single tome. It would inherently be something dynamic, that would grow and cover the topics important to humans that they normally seek refuge and comfort for in religion. A "bible" of sorts for the critical mind.

Before things like wikis, this was a difficult problem to take on. But, that has changed, and the best information we have available can in fact be filtered for, and simplified. The trick now, is to organize it in a way that helps humans. which is not how most information is organized.


  1. Please keep the mission in mind (let's have more for-profit companies working on goals that benefit people too!) when giving feedback. When you write a comment, consider whether it is contributing to that goal, or if it's counterproductive to motivation or idea-generation, and edit accordingly.
  2. Give feedback, the more specific the better. Negative feedback is valuable because it tells us where to concentrate further work. It can also be a motivation-killer; it feels like punishment, and not just for the specific item criticized, so be charitable about the motives and intelligence of others, and stay mindful of how much and how aggressively you dole critiques out. (Do give critiques, they're essential - just be gentle!) Also, distribute positive feedback for the opposite effect. More detail on giving the best possible feedback in this comment.
  3. Please point other people with resources such as business experience, intelligence, implementation skills, and funding capacity at this post. The more people with these resources who look at this and collaborate in the comments, the more likely it is for these ideas to get implemented. In addition to posting this to Less Wrong, I will be sending the link to a lot of friends with shrewd business skills, resources and talent, who might be interested in helping make projects happen, or possibly in finding people to work on their own projects since many of them are already working on projects to make the world better.
  4. Please provide feedback. If anything good happens in your life as a result of this post or discussion, please comment about it and/or give me feedback. It inspires people, and I have bets going that I'd like to win. Consider making bets of your own! It is also important to let me know if you are going to use the ideas, so that we don't end up with needless duplication and competition.

Finally: If this works right, there will be lots of information flying around. Check out the organization thread and the wiki.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by AltonSun · 2012-08-19T05:51:47.675Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A Backwards Kickstarter

A crowdfunding & crowdsourcing platform where you go to post your problems that you'd like to be solved, products that you'd like manufactured, programs or services that you'd like to be made, and how much you'd be willing to pay for it.

This takes LSM validation principles and reverses it - don't waste time finding out what the market wants - have them tell you, then

focus on fulfilling it.

The closest thing to it that I'm aware of would be Quora , except every upvote on a question (idea) represents $10. Everything is editable a la wikipedia. This would enable you to view trending ideas in realtime. You can give unlimited upvotes to ideas because it is deducted from your 'bank' of credits that would be linked to your PayPal or Credit Card.

Alternatively, you can follow ideas for free, and optionally receive notifications on updates or immediately actionable items that match your domain of expertise.

On the fulfillment/programming/manufacturing side, anticipated trajectories of certain categories could create clarity as to what students could best invest their time and efforts in.

If you are interested, message me and I can share more details, mockups, etc.

I'd love feedback, remembering that 'criticism is the cornerstone to progress', and 'if version 1 isn't embarrassing, you've released too late.'

Other ideas that probably wouldn't make a lot of money

  • Welcome to the internet page

  • Accountability Engine - many have an easier time helping other people than they do themselves, why not trade tasks at 5 min, 30 min, and 1 hr intervals? Alternatively, everyone in your group has to post a series of 3 screenshots or images of the progress that they've made towards two publicly declared goals. I want to make inaction inexcusable.

  • Your liaison in XYZ - want something shipped to or from a friend? Need someone to represent you in another country?

  • Intelligent alert system - Hey, you've just spent 10 minutes on Facebook - how about you work on what you should be working on instead?

  • AnswerMe - Questions? Ask them via text or email, and it will automatically be posted to Quora, ChaCha answers, and just for laughs - Yahoo Answers. At the end of the day or week, the answers are forwarded to your email or texted direct. If you're a premium user, it costs cents to post to Amazon's Mechanical Turk (and they have an API!) and only a couple dollars to post on Odesk to get hours worth of research. (I regularly hire people at $3.33/hr in India, since standard of living is so much lower.)

Odd ideas:

  • Relationship advice hotline - text or call a phone number, direct connect with someone that can help

  • LevelUpLife - Lend a GoPro camera necklace to someone, have them wear it to a social occasion or work environment situation, then advise them specifically on how to be funnier, happier, or better in some way that they choose. This can also be done with a personal recorder or iPhone in their pocket for more seamless suggestions.

Self-selecting from an audience that took the time to read this is likely worth connecting with, if at least online. If you happen to be located in the bay area, I spend most of my time in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, and am happy to meet up for tea or join you during an event with anyone who is even slightly curious.

Disclaimer: You may end up with photos of your face,, learning how to card manipulate, contact juggle, or flip a butterfly knife.

Replies from: moocow1452, Nisan, ShannonFriedman, michaelkeenan, lukedoolittle
comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-20T00:48:36.510Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

YouZingIt and Fiverr have similar offerings, along with other invention contractors on the Google nets, LambertInvent.com offering a flat rate of $199 to look at your idea and tell you if they can do something with it. Get Satisfaction also has a similar idea for products and tech support, but I like the idea of posting bounties to problems, and actually getting things done by throwing money at it until it goes away.

Looking at this from the posting of concepts direction though, I'd be a smidge paranoid disclosing ideas to a third party where I pay them a buck to make one and they can sell the finished product for ten because they have the skills and resources to bring it into reality and I don't. I dunno if that's an unrealistic expectation or me being lazy and code illiterate, (too many words all over the place) but if who owns what is a barrier of entry, the idea of a marketplace for hire might go pear shaped if someone strikes it rich.

Replies from: windup, AltonSun
comment by windup · 2012-08-21T17:59:12.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You'd be "a smidge paranoid" to publicly "disclose ideas" to a party you couldn't afford -- or couldn't find -- as a dev team, anyway? The goal of this ReverseKickstarter, in my eyes, is to get those ideas out of people before they die! The alternative to this marketplace is a) be a dev, b) pay a dev.

Those are both pretty high barriers to entry. They discourage a lot of people from contributing meaningfully or significantly to this revolution.

How can we lower the barriers to contribution? I think AltonSun has an answer.

Maybe I don't understand your ideas of "who owns what" , "marketplace for hire" or "pear shaped".

Replies from: moocow1452, AltonSun
comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-21T18:11:39.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For the sake of argument, lets say I'm a somewhat greedy bastard who would like some compensation for bringing my spark to your kindling, and I am afraid of this system because while I can only give away my idea once on the internet for it to be infinitely copied and modifiable, you can package it hundreds of times to hundreds of different people to make a mint. Common good can wait for me to produce it myself and be the flamebringer to the masses, because If I give it to you, you get the glory, financial security, and reputation that means you can live to develop another day. How do you sell this to me?

EDIT: So we don't ninja each other anymore, I'll just leave it at "this is going to be a hard sell if you want idea people to play along." But for all I know, that may be part of the plan to get more people intrested in pitching in and being responsible idea parents.

Replies from: AltonSun
comment by AltonSun · 2012-08-21T19:26:09.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To be honest, I'm not even sure what you're asking.

Though, it's not clear that it would be valuable to convince you either?

Replies from: moocow1452
comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-21T20:12:08.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm asking how you plan to market the Reverse Kickstarter to people who have an idea, want to see it come into reality, but do not want to have their brainchild run away from them and have it's own life /without them/. Maybe I'm looking at it from a more entitled direction than I should, but as far as ideas having little value without execution, the Great Patent Wars speaks otherwise.

comment by AltonSun · 2012-08-21T18:12:48.085Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey, this is exactly what I was looking to convey, but in less words and more concise ideas. Thanks.

Plus, this video is great: http://vimeo.com/25380454

comment by AltonSun · 2012-08-21T18:07:21.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

posting bounties to problems, and actually getting things done by throwing money at it until it goes away.

Well said, potential tagline:

"Incremental bounties for instrumental solutions."

paranoid disclosing ideas to a third party where I pay them a buck to make one and they can sell the finished product for ten

The idea is to bring abundance to awesomely executed ideas. Right now, it seems like much of the silicon valley is more obsessed with the idea of making things happen than actually making them happen. Besides, it's the idea multiplied by the execution that creates value. And thankfully, startup ideas are not patent-able.

Early adopters will always have to pay a premium to pioneer new areas of innovation. With time, the goal would really be to lower the barriers to awesome ideas entering the market, both physical and startup-related.

The bottom line is that you could then get a product for ten dollars when the alternative would be you getting nothing and being eternally annoyed at whatever issue initially motivated you to post in the first place.

comment by Nisan · 2012-08-20T18:49:33.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cool! I'm wondering who will decide whether a project solves a given problem. Maybe automatically survey a sample of investors?

Replies from: AltonSun
comment by AltonSun · 2012-08-22T07:03:55.931Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Awesome question: I imagine after a threshold of investors approve of a given proposed solution, work is commenced at an agreed upon % rate upfront vs. delivered afterwards, on a per project basis.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-19T07:26:56.917Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like it!

A couple of people emailed me who I think might be interested - I want to send the introduction when I'm more awake, and I will be gone all day tomorrow, so ping me if you haven't gotten it from my by Monday night.

Replies from: AltonSun
comment by AltonSun · 2012-08-21T19:36:36.003Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Awesome, well my ultimate goal is for people to love it!

Thanks for starting one of the most active and engaging threads in an area I can contribute to!

comment by michaelkeenan · 2012-08-21T19:32:48.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Responding to the Backwards Kickstarter: there's a subreddit called SomebodyMakeThis where people post products they'd like manufactured, and programs or services they'd like to be made. There's no monetary aspect, though. That would be a good subreddit to advertise this service on.

Replies from: Davidmanheim
comment by Davidmanheim · 2012-08-24T16:08:07.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quirky is probably a better example of a startup that does this. It has the problems Quora does, but is a credible attempt.

comment by lukedoolittle · 2012-09-10T13:40:01.528Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm new here and a bit late to the party but you might be able to do bullet 3 (Intelligent alert system) by interacting with the Rescuetime API. It's already set up to track what you do and how productive it is. You could just tack an alert system on top of it. Maybe?...

And I like your "Odd ideas." I was a social coach for some time and always tried to brainstorm ways to help clients remotely or, even better, automatically by recognizing speech patterns, pitch, inflection, even body positions using like a Zephyr Bioharness or something.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2012-08-21T10:36:03.481Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Better bra sizing.

It's an idea I've been kicking around for a few days. The technical and marketing-based obstacles towards getting it to work have turned me off pursuing it, but I figured it was worth sharing.

I work with operational databases for a luxury fashion retailer, and bra sizing as it currently exists (back size + cup size) makes absolutely no sense. I will sometimes ask female friends to explain how the size given for a garment can possibly be of any use in determining comfort and fit. Their answer: it doesn't.

Their actual answer tends to be a rant about inconsistency between product ranges and how contemporary bra sizing is next to useless. A couple have been both eloquent and insightful. A few times a year I'll have an idea I get excited about turning into some sort of web-based service, and in spite of its silly-sounding nature, this one is easily the one that's had the most philanthropic weight behind it.

The idea: a website containing a comprehensive list of commercially available bras. Users sign up, locate bras they own (or have tried on) and rate them along various measures of comfort/fit/support, etc. The service then locates clusters of users with similar preferences to them (exact method of analysis still up for debate, but a few likely candidates stand out), and suggests specific sizes and ranges that would meet their needs.

There are three sides to this. The first is users getting the service described above. The second is the option to license out the size/fit data to interested third parties, such as manufacturers and retailers, which would probably be the most sizeable revenue stream. The third is the possibility of using the data to produce a better sizing scheme that more accurately tackles the real-world problem.

I see two main problems with the idea. The first is encouraging user uptake (convincing women to spend time inputting details about their underwear into a website). The second, which is related, is giving them incentive to do so without the recommendation algorithm in place. I have no idea if k-NN or spectral partitioning or probabilistic classifiers or regression analysis will be any good at all in carving up the data appropriately, and I won't know until I get a sizeable set of data to develop against. There'd need to be an existing service provision for the users to encourage them to sign up and provide the data before the interesting work even begins. An existing comprehensive list of commercially available bras complete with a flat non-super-stats-enhanced rating system might be enough to get the ball rolling.

I should reiterate that I'm unlikely to pursue this idea. While I have a background in web dev, data analysis and technical fashion retail, I'm far from an expert in any of them. Still, if anyone wants to convince me otherwise, give me more reasons why it's a bad idea, or steal it outright, please go ahead.

Replies from: David_Gerard, Alicorn, atucker, Strange7, moocow1452, shminux
comment by David_Gerard · 2012-08-21T11:47:09.626Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anecdotal evidence from female friends suggests that if you can make bra sizing not suck, you will indeed make life quite a bit better for quite a lot of people.

Replies from: sixes_and_sevens
comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2012-08-21T14:42:37.211Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to touch upon an incredibly raw nerve. Many of my friends are quite thoughtful and verbose people anyway, but I get the impression some of them could talk for hours about their dissatisfaction with bra sizing. If nothing else, it's given me a good heuristic for spotting potential consumer interest: follow the moaning.

Replies from: Strange7
comment by Strange7 · 2012-08-21T23:59:21.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might be able to get a certain number of people to sign up just by making a credible effort to pursue a fully general solution at all. Work out ballpark figures for how much it would cost to construct a sufficiently detailed topological model, gather a starting dataset, etc., add it all up, put your proposal on Kickstarter.

comment by atucker · 2012-08-21T16:41:59.518Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oooh, great idea!

Something that requires less data to get off the ground:

Just try and figure out what reasonable bra size measurements might be, measure those, and tell people how to find their own measurements so that they can just buy bras that fit.

That presupposes that there's an actual set of measurements that would be reasonable, but I think that that's fairly likely.

Replies from: sixes_and_sevens
comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2012-08-21T23:38:32.335Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's an underlying question to the whole endeavour: are conventional bra sizes doing a good job of a hard task, or a bad job of an easy task? Is it relatively simple to classify the shapes of women's bodies, and standard back/cup sizes are the wrong tool, or is aforementioned classification really hard, and standard sizing is doing a sterling job of it?

I suspect it's probably neither, and standard sizing is doing a terrible job of a hard task. I tried making a few simple topological models, and it turns out breasts are actually quite complicated, but there's no reason to assume the standard sizing scheme is optimal for the task, so gains can definitely be made somewhere. I don't think just trying to figure them out is an option, though. It's a question of how women's bodies categorise, and the only way to answer that is with the data.

Replies from: moocow1452
comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-22T00:07:18.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I tried making a few simple topological models, and it turns out breasts are actually quite complicated...

Of all the boards, of all the websites on the internet, why did you have to post that post on the one I'm trying to be reasonable and well behaved? I don't even a outlet to rationalize and express my frustration induced by self restraint here outside of the verbosity you see before you! Why, sweet God; Why are you so cruel!?

comment by Strange7 · 2013-03-01T03:15:18.626Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


When an idea is so brilliant you're amazed nobody has thought of it before, consider the alternate hypothesis that there's a specialized field of study you simply don't know about.

Replies from: sixes_and_sevens
comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2013-03-01T10:52:45.019Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So specialised that in spite of kicking this idea around for the better part of the month, I still didn't come across it.

comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-21T18:00:29.318Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about a Maker-Bra, a CNC designed for rendering articles of clothing out of base fabrics and plastics?

comment by shminux · 2012-08-21T20:34:22.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Presumably better matching would lead to more sales, so the standard revenue stream from something like that is a cut from the redeemed discount coupons offered to the customers by the retailers or manufacturers through the matching site.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2012-08-16T07:15:28.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's an incredibly brilliant idea for a rationalist startup! You know how it is when you've got too much food, like a cheesecake or something, that your guests didn't finish or whatever, and your brain refuses to throw it out because you don't want it to be wasted, but you don't want to have to eat it all either? This startup would have a registry of polite, well-dressed, grateful, hungry people in your vicinity, who'll come over and eat it for you - there in ten minutes or your money back! SunkMunch.com - "We eat your food, now!" YC '13, here we come!

Replies from: Kindly, JoshuaFox, shminux, cousin_it, Jonathan_Graehl
comment by Kindly · 2012-08-16T21:49:52.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A simpler solution: contrive to get on the mailing list for graduate students at a local university.

comment by JoshuaFox · 2012-08-16T14:50:21.631Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One case of food poisoning and you'd be sued to Kingdom Come.

Apparently it's even an issue for City Harvest, which distributes leftovers to the poor.

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2012-08-16T20:01:32.844Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Truly is it said that all real innovation is illegal.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2012-08-16T20:32:44.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In this case not illegal, just not terribly well incentivized.

comment by shminux · 2012-08-16T21:34:37.410Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

polite, well-dressed, grateful, hungry people in your vicinity.

Dress for success! (Or at least dress for food. Right. "Undress for food" has been done before.)

comment by cousin_it · 2012-08-17T00:04:22.745Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or you could have a 45-minute class on throwing away food. Doesn't seem like a difficult skill to train.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2012-08-18T00:45:15.844Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

fun idea. alternatives: workplace, or, depending on your courage and environment, neighbors.

comment by jacoblyles · 2012-08-17T00:14:58.901Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tagline: Coursera for high school

Mission: The economist Eric Hanushek has shown that if the USA could replace the worst 7% of K-12 teachers with merely average teachers, it would have the best education system in the world. What if we instead replaced the bottom 90% of teachers in every country with great instruction?

The Company: Online learning startups like Coursera and Udacity are in the process of showing how technology can scale great teaching to large numbers of university students (I've written about the mechanics of this elsewhere). Let's bring a similar model to high school.

This Company starts in the United States and ties into existing home school regulations with a self-driven web learning program that requires minimum parental involvement and results in a high school degree. It cloaks itself as merely a tool to aid homeschool parents, similar to existing mail-order tutoring materials, hiding its radical mission to end high school as we know it.

The result is high-quality education for every student. In addition to the high quality, it gives the student schedule flexibility to pursue other interests outside of high school. Many exceptional young people I know dodge the traditional schools early in life. This product gives everyone that opportunity.

By lowering the cost of going home-school, this product will enlargen the home school market and threaten traditional educrats while producing more exceptional minds.

With direct access to millions of students, the website will be able to monetize through one-on-one tutoring markets, college prep services, and other means.

Course material can be bootstrapped by constructing a curriculum out of free videos provided through sources like the Khan Academy. The value-add of the Company will be to tailor the curriculum to the home-school requirements of the particular state of the student.

My background: I cofounded a company that's had reasonable success. I'm not much of a Less Wrong fan - I find the community to be an intellectual monoculture, dogmatic, and full of blind spots to flaws in the philosophy it preaches. BUT this is an idea that needs to happen, as it will provide much value to the world. Contact me at firstname lastname gmail if you have lots of money or can hack. Or hell, steal the idea and do it yourself. Just make it happen.

Replies from: Nornagest, Kaj_Sotala, cicatriz, abramdemski
comment by Nornagest · 2012-08-17T19:58:47.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Modern compulsory schooling seems to have at least three major sociological effects: socializing its students, offloading enough caregiver burden for both parents to efficiently participate in the workforce, and finally education. For a widespread homeschooling system to be attractive, it's either going to need to fulfill all three, or to be so spectacularly good at one or two that the shortcomings in the others are overwhelmed. Current homeschooling, for comparison, does an acceptable job of education but fails at the other two; consequently it's used mainly by people with very strong objections to the curriculum or other aspects of the school system. That's a small and inelastic market, and you aren't going to enlarge it much without some significant incentives.

Socialization could be addressed by integrating access to hobby groups, sports teams, Scouting-like services and what have you into the program's structure; you'd probably have to push this hard to overcome the perception gap, but it ought to be doable. Some facility for students to self-organize into study groups might also help at the high school level, but it's unlikely to be practical at younger ages.

Offloading caregiver burden is a trickier problem. There seems to be a time/money tradeoff here: you can reduce or eliminate parental involvement during working hours if they're willing to pay for tutoring services and similar resources, but those aren't cheap, and both routes make homeschooling less attractive relative to traditional schooling. Study groups again would help here, but I don't think they can substitute for an expert human without some exceptional cleverness.

Replies from: DaFranker, Jayson_Virissimo, Viliam_Bur
comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-17T20:44:23.010Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The market is most likely still larger than sufficient for the enterprise to be worth it. I only have personal WAG estimates to rely on, but it's pretty hard to get market data on a currently-counterfactual service that people have never even seen.

Anecdotally, out of a sample size of over 60 high school students, at least 8 (including myself) had confirmed to me they would definitely jump right on any alternative form of education that would still be officially recognized, since here homeschooling is very, very difficult to get approved and recognized as equivalent to a standard education. A single institution that you just sign up, and work through the material, and perhaps attend meetings to socialize, but that isn't bogged down by all the problems of shitty teachers and teacher-politics and crappy coursework? That would have (and still does) sounded like an utopian dream by comparison to the dreary and painful system we were stuck in.

Of course, that's just the students themselves, and parents are a different problem to solve too. However, 10-15% of high school students is not a small market. I'm quite certain (.98) that there are at least twice as many people with strong objections to the curriculum or other aspects as there are who actually do use current alternatives, simply by factoring in the amount of people held back by legal / institutional restrictions that require the child to go through regular compulsory education. From what I understand, bypassing this hurdle is exactly the primary service of this hypothetical company.

Also, as long as you can keep the total cost of the company's services for one child equal or under the current standard costs of compulsory education without sacrificing superior education quality, the inherent scalability of the proposed teaching techniques will mean that as your clientbase grows, your ability to provide workspaces, study groups and competent staff increases, which would further expand the market and clientbase, and then...

Yeah, lots of optimistic and positive thinking there. However, I'd really like to do what I can to save other people from the depressive ugh field that I got stuck into throughout high school - an ugh field that eventually killed my hopes of "things getting better" by the time I got to cégep and realized that even there, perfect answers with clear, written reasoning on a math test was still only worth 75% if you didn't have the right passwords (though I didn't think of it in these particular terms at the time, but that's what it was).

A good solution to those problems would have meant less time wasted in high school, and not dropping out of cégep, for this particular individual. Which, incidentally, also means I wouldn't have gotten this job with a ton of free time to read LessWrong, but that's another story.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2012-08-17T20:25:09.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...socializing its students...

Relative to what? Do you think kids are better socialized at school than at work, staying with grandparents, or whatever else they would be doing if they weren't in school? It seems implausible that kids are going to be socialized efficiently by hanging out with a bunch of other non-socialized persons, rather than persons that are already socialized.

Replies from: Dolores1984, Kaj_Sotala, Nornagest, None
comment by Dolores1984 · 2012-08-23T18:58:27.022Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In Harlow's monkey experiments, the most destructive thing to deprive monkeys of is contact with peers at a young age. Monkeys that don't spend time with other young monkeys as children tend to grow up psychotic and wildly dysfunctional.

Replies from: thomblake
comment by thomblake · 2012-08-23T20:35:24.680Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fortunately, there are plenty of places outside of school where young humans can socialize with other young humans (especially if a lot of them aren't going to school!) - parks, martial arts dojos, neighborhoods, etc.

Replies from: Dolores1984
comment by Dolores1984 · 2012-08-23T21:14:38.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was homeschooled, and, yes, that's true - but, it's really not the same level of exposure as being surrounded by other people your own age for the majority of every day. When I got to college, there was a massive relative deficit in basic social skills that I had to make up rather quickly.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-23T21:23:22.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why were adults unable to teach you those social skills?

Replies from: Dolores1984, shminux
comment by Dolores1984 · 2012-08-23T22:46:34.296Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because the way you interact with small children is wildly, radically different from the way that either adults or children interact with their own peers. This is also a trend I've observed much more widely than just myself. Homeschooled children come out weird unless their parents are very, very aggressive about socialization, much more so than most people would consider reasonable.

Replies from: Vaniver, thomblake
comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-25T17:33:02.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Socialization" needs to be broken down a bit more, I suspect.

The trouble is that school-related socialization is very different from adult socialization. When you're locked in a box with other people for eight hours a day, you get to know them and make friends for geographic reasons.

Adults don't have that opportunity, though, and do have many other opportunities. Approaching someone because the teacher assigned you to do a group project together is different from approaching an attractive person at a bar.

It seems to me that homeschooling is better at teaching adult-style socialization (finding places where friends are likely, and then making friends there), which is way more useful than school-style socialization. But homeschooling typically doesn't include the sheer amount of socialization that school does, instead filling it with things are educational or fun. Which... seems like an acceptable tradeoff, to me.

Replies from: Dolores1984
comment by Dolores1984 · 2012-08-25T18:05:35.324Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wish I could find some science on the subject, but all I can find with some cursory googling is one study with a 30-child sample size, and a bunch of angry homeschooling parents defending themselves against the accusation. I will simply say that, in my experience, I have not observed your predictions to be accurate.

There's a LOT of low-level socialization stuff that you mostly pick up by peer immersion (even near-neurological stuff like reading facial expressions). And then there's the confidence factor. It's easier to go into adulthood talking to people your own age if you've been talking to dozens or hundreds of people your own age every day your whole life. If you haven't, you're missing numerous social cues, and a good deal of confidence.

I mean, I came out relatively normal, minus some initial awkwardness -- but what you hear, frequently, is 'Oh, you're homeschooled? And you talk?" Which is not a particularly good sign.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-25T18:17:42.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, a big part of the trouble with science on this subject is the selection effects. Parents have to choose to homeschool their kids, or put their kids in Montessori schools, or so on.

Another issue is that, well, social troubles are everywhere. I know lots of people whose social lives collapsed after college, because they don't know how to maneuver socially as an adult.

So there are two cores that I'm confident in, with no commentary on how successfully they're approached in the real world:

  1. Prussian-style schools socialize students in the way they were designed- to be soldiers who form bonds with people they need to form bonds with and to respect authority.

  2. Deliberate socialization of modern adults should reflect the lives of modern adults- which include frequent moves to new locations, access to the Internet, and specialization of taste. Social skills should be treated as skills, which take instruction and practice just like other skills like math.

comment by thomblake · 2012-08-24T13:41:47.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm more familiar with "unschooled" children, who in my experience don't have these sorts of problems. I don't think any of their parents were particularly aggressive about socialization (or about anything) but they seemed to find plenty of opportunities to interact with people of all ages.

I really don't think it's helpful for children to socialize with lots of other children in an environment with few authority figures. They learn how to be brutal with each other and make up their own status games, rather than learning to be decent members of society.

Replies from: Dolores1984
comment by Dolores1984 · 2012-08-24T15:32:06.432Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Status games are a big, big part of the behavior most people consider to be 'being a decent member of society.'

Replies from: wedrifid
comment by wedrifid · 2012-08-25T17:15:01.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Status games are a big, big part of the behavior most people consider to be 'being a decent member of society.'

Why was this downvoted? For stating the obvious?

Replies from: Dolores1984, None
comment by Dolores1984 · 2012-08-25T17:15:46.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was guessing for cynicism.

EDIT: Okay, now I'm simply confused.

Replies from: wedrifid
comment by wedrifid · 2012-08-25T17:21:32.058Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was guessing for cynicism.

I was being optimistic and hoping it was something else (like general objection to your overall position in related context.) As a standalone comment it seems straightforward. Status games are what allows humans to form vaguely functioning 'societies' in the first place. Being considered a "decent member of society" means competing at least passably well in the status game centered around moral judgement and norm enforcement.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-25T23:25:20.283Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe someone for some reason doesn't like to read about status games in general.

comment by shminux · 2012-08-23T21:34:58.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possibly because Mirror neurons - you have to have someone to imitate.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-23T21:38:22.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You could imitate the adults, surely, with some adjustments conveyed verbally? Unless all the adults around you are playing weird status games and you get swatted down for doing their "I am a grownup" status moves.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2012-08-23T21:49:07.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a few problems with it -

The status games that adults play with each other are different from the status games they play with kids, and different from the games kids play with each other. Adults have power and responsibility that kids don't have, so to some extent, yes, kids are swatted down for "playing grownup." If you tried to fix that, you may well end up with alternate problems - when kids get into the college world where there's STILL a difference between peers and authority-figures, they may end up having trouble negotiating the differences.

On top of that, a homeschool environment is simply radically different in nature than college. You usually have a small number of adults interacting with a small number of kids, which changes the kind of attention and flexibility kids have with their "adult peers."

Some of this is a matter of conflict with a particular set of social norms - a society with different expectations of kids AND adults could hypothetically be a radical improvement over typical western societies. But it's a non-trivial problem to solve and it's not solved by just telling parents "treat your kids like peers" (because there are good reasons not to do that as well, children DO need authority figures of some sort)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-08-23T18:24:56.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The general belief is that school provides socialization, and that homeschooled kids who lack that tend to have poor social skills. Even if that wasn't true, it's a widely-shared belief, and a startup of this kind will need to address the fact that people believe in it.

comment by Nornagest · 2012-08-17T20:48:45.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think schools are likely to do a much better job of socializing their students than the various mechanisms in place before compulsory schooling; they probably do do a better job of conditioning students to accept a certain type of authority figure, but that's an argument that doesn't have any place in a business plan.

Those aren't the alternative here, though. The alternative is homeschooling or whatever improvement on contemporary homeschooling we can produce. And having known a few homeschooled kids in my time, I'd have to say that no, they aren't socialized as well on average as conventionally educated students. I'd speculate that this is due mainly to missing out on a large set of potential social contacts -- many themselves poorly socialized, of course, but also including quite a few adults involved with the school system or with schoolfriends. That's all anecdotal, but I don't think I've ever seen a controlled study and am not sure how you'd design one.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-18T18:05:24.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you think kids are better socialized at school than at work, staying with grandparents, or whatever else they would be doing if they weren't in school?

That way they only socialize with adults (unless they have siblings), not with other children (with ages similar enough to consider them their peers).

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-08-21T09:23:58.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

socializing its students

Voluntary meetups for website users could provide a similar effect.

offloading enough caregiver burden for both parents

Yep, this one is the real problem. Free childcare in a noble disguise of education, this is why we like our school system! A possible solution would be cooperating with various existing child care systems -- they provide the child care, you provide additional interesting content they can use.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-08-17T07:44:48.453Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Related idea: semi-computerized instruction.

To the best of my (limited) knowledge, while there are currently various computerized exercises available, they aren't that good at offering instruction of the "I don't understand why this step works" kind, and are often pretty limited (e.g. Khan Academy has exercises which are just multiple choice questions, which isn't a very good bad format). One could try to offer a more sophisticated system - first, present experienced teachers/tutors with a collection of the problems you'll be giving to the students, and ask them to list the most common problems and misunderstandings that the students tend to have with such problems. Then attempt to build a system which will recognize the symptoms of the most common misunderstandings and attempt to provide advice on them, also offering the student the opportunity to ask it themselves using some menu system or natural language parser. (I know some existing academic work along these lines exists, I think applying Bayes nets to build up a model of the students' skills and understanding, but I couldn't find the reference in the place where I thought that I had read it.)

Of course, there will frequently be situations where your existing database fails to understand the student's need. So you combine this with the chance to ask help online, either on a forum with other students, or one-on-one with a paid tutor in an interactive chat session. As the students' problems are resolved, the maintainers follow the conversations and figure out a way for the system to recognize the new problems in the future, either automatically or via the "ask a question" menus.

In particular, the system would be built so that having e.g. forgotten some of the prerequisites in a previous course wouldn't be a problem - if that happened, the system would just automatically lead you to partially rehearse those concepts enough that you could apply them to solve the current problem. At the same time, it could be designed that all of the previous knowledge was being constantly drawn upon, thus providing a natural method for spaced repetition.

This method is naturally most suited for math-like subjects with clear right/wrong answers. But if one wanted to get really ambitious, they could eventually expand the system so as to create a single unified school course that taught everything that's usually taught in high school, abandoning the artificial limits between subjects. E.g. a lesson during which you traveled back in time to witness an important battle (history), helped calculate the cannon ball trajectories for one of the sides (physics), stopped to study a wounded soldier and the effects of the wounds on his body (human biology), and then finally helped the army band play the victory song (music)... or something along those lines. Ideally, there'd be little difference between taking a school lesson and playing a good computer game.

Replies from: cicatriz, None
comment by cicatriz · 2012-08-17T16:19:03.182Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is an academic field around this called intelligent tutoring systems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_tutoring_system). The biggest company with an ITS, as far as I know, is Carnegie Learning, which provides entire K-12 curricula for it: books, teacher training, software. CL has had mixed evaluations in the past, but I think a fair conclusion at this point is that ITS significantly improves learning outcomes when implemented in an environment where they are able to use software as it's intended to be used (follow the training, spend enough time, etc).

As far as I know there isn't anything quite like this in a widely deployed online system with community discussion as you suggest. Grockit (http://grockit.com) is a social test prep site that is familiar with the ITS community and uses some principles. Khan Academy is continuing to improve, but I can't say whether they will reach the state of the art as far as intelligent tutors go. I'd say there's definitely an opportunity for more ITS in online learning now, but it isn't easy to build.

The Wikipedia article is OK. One example of a recent paper is http://users.wpi.edu/~zpardos/papers/zpardos-its-final22.pdf which also shows some of the human work that goes into modeling the knowledge domain for an ITS.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-17T16:38:02.582Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This method is naturally most suited for math-like subjects with clear right/wrong answers.

Having worked with online homework systems in mathematics for the past three years, let me say a thing -- even in mathematics, there are only clear right/wrong answers in trivial cases. It may be mostly anecdotal, but there is weak evidence that the written correspondence between professor and student that manually-graded homework provides is important to the learning process in mathematics.

In general I'm heavily skeptical of gamification.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-17T17:09:15.177Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Peer pressure and the desire to surpass your heroes seem like a large part of why teachers and other students are so important however. If at some point a teaching simulator of this caliber is created, we could integrate a ranking system where you are automatically connected with people at a similar level to compete, and you can level up by helping people with problems as well (To continue the idea of gamification to its logical extreme...) The systems which let people learn in competetive games like starcraft are amazing, and if they were properly applied to useful education at least some people would benefit tremendously.

comment by cicatriz · 2012-08-17T00:57:54.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your approach -- targeting home-schoolers who are "nonconsumers" of public K-12 education -- is exactly the approach advocated by disruption theory and specifically the book Disrupting Class. Using public education as analogous to established leaders in other industries, disruption always comes from the outside because the leaders aren't structurally able to do anything other than serve their consumers with marginal improvements.

ArtofProblemSolving.com is one successful example that's targeted gifted home-schoolers (and others looking for extracurricular learning) in math. I'm sure there are others. EdSurge.com is a good place to look for existing services, which you can sort by criteria including common core/state-standards aligned (you do have to register for free to get the list of resources). I also have thought about services that build on top of Khan Academy, but I wouldn't underestimate their ability to improve in that area. They just released a fantastic computer science platform. But they are a non-profit, so their growth depends, I suppose, on Bill Gates' mood and other philanthropy. To get to full disruption, it might take a for-profit with, as you suggest, monetization through tutoring and other valuable services.

comment by abramdemski · 2012-08-17T06:16:42.783Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This Company starts in the United States and ties into existing home school regulations with a self-driven web learning program that requires minimum parental involvement and results in a high school degree.

The nice thing about this is that it works on an existing market, while leveraging the successful tactics discovered through hard work by Coursera & the like to bring advances to the domain.

Of course, techniques designed for university courses may not precisely transfer.

I'm skeptical about 'leveraging' videos from Khan Academy for a for-profit education system. Makes it sound half-baked.

This idea may fit with the general spaced-repetition enthusiasm I am seeing in other proposals.

It cloaks itself as merely a tool to aid homeschool parents, similar to existing mail-order tutoring materials, hiding its radical mission to end high school as we know it.

...And you just blew your cover. :)

Replies from: DaFranker, jacoblyles
comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-17T20:49:25.831Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm skeptical about 'leveraging' videos from Khan Academy for a for-profit education system. Makes it sound half-baked.

Some selected public or private schools are already doing this, with great results from what little data I've seen. The feedback from the children themselves, at the very least, is impressive - the vast majority of them allegedly report (in less sciencey words) a vast improvement in their reasoning skills and their enthusiasm, motivation and enjoyment of mathematics, sciences, and studying in general.

Unfortunately, this is still on an extremely insignificantly small scale, with only a handful of teachers spread out over 4-6 schools doing this, some of them with direct collaboration from Khan Academy IIRC.

comment by jacoblyles · 2012-08-17T18:42:58.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...And you just blew your cover. :)

Nobody of any importance reads Less Wrong :)

Replies from: DaFranker
comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-17T20:11:13.301Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...you just jinxed it! Now congress is going to pass a new bill forbidding online aids to count towards compulsory education requirements for home schooling, and otherwise hamper the idea by whatever means necessary.

After all, what better propaganda system is there than a bunch of gullible "teachers" who regurgitate everything you tell them to and whom children look up to as absolute authorities?

Replies from: jacoblyles
comment by jacoblyles · 2012-08-18T01:00:22.023Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fortunately, the United States has a strong evangelical Christian lobby that fights for and protects home schooling freedom.

Replies from: DaFranker
comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-18T01:26:03.324Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good point. I have a tendency to forget about them. Mind projection and all that.

comment by JoshuaFox · 2012-08-19T08:54:18.438Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A certification system to replace high-school and college.

With the explosion in independent study on all education levels, certification is the main missing piece. One solution is tests. For example, Pearson's is offering this service to Udacity students. However, certification-by-testing has had a hard time getting prestige. In the high-status parts of the software industry, getting Java/Microsoft/etc. certification is a slight negative on your job value -- i.e., one is expected to countersignal.

So, we need a certification system that succeeds at serving as a signal.

What successful examples can we find? The actuarial industry has a system of advancement with ten exams. There is no requirement to get a certain degree to take them. The top level is considered an intellectual achievement roughly equivalent to a PhD.

Perhaps the certification we're offering should test useless skills which require a long time to acquire, proving that one is not just smart but hard-working. Compare Latin in earlier periods, and the software language Scheme (a language used mostly for theory, not for product development) in the software industry today.

The usual trappings of signaling, like association with prestigious people, would be an essential part of the marketing.

Replies from: Emile, Jayson_Virissimo, None, clgroft, DaFranker, shminux, worldaswill, Xeuton
comment by Emile · 2012-08-26T11:59:49.667Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't that a bit what Stack Overflow is doing with their careers program? "I have 10 000 points on Stack Overflow" is certainly a sign of quality (more than a degree in CS from an average school, or 10 000 points on Reddit or LessWrong); plus potential employers can verify how exactly those points were obtained.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2012-08-22T03:24:12.872Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps the certification we're offering should test useless skills which require a long time to acquire, proving that one is not just smart but hard-working. Compare Latin in earlier periods, and Scheme (a language used mostly for theory, not for product development) in the software industry today.

Latin was far from useless in 'earlier periods'. It allowed educated people from all over Europe to understand each other and contribute to a unified body of knowledge, much like English does today (but for much more than just Europe).

Replies from: JoshuaFox
comment by JoshuaFox · 2012-08-22T07:37:30.468Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but I'm thinking of the time period of roughly the first half of the twentieth century.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-19T22:18:43.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the high-status parts of the software industry, getting Java/Microsoft/etc. certification is a slight negative on your job value -- i.e., one is expected to countersignal.

Why is that? That wouldn't have surprised me too much if it had been about about academia, or about the free/libre/open source software community, but software industry... why?

Replies from: bcoburn
comment by bcoburn · 2012-08-20T05:53:05.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because it signals that you're the sort of person who feels a need to get certifications, or more precisely that you thought you actually needed the certification to get a job. (And because the actual certifications aren't taken to be particularly hard, such that completing one is strong evidence of actual skill)

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-20T08:50:09.748Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And because the actual certifications aren't taken to be particularly hard, such that completing one is strong evidence of actual skill

OK, I get it now. I don't list my ECDL (which I took in high school) in my CV because i think it's so basic that potential employers (who have any kind of clue) would think "huh? so what?", but I assumed that Java/Microsoft/etc. certifications were nontrivial to get.

Replies from: DaFranker
comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-21T17:30:02.641Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's that, and there's also (from personal experience) an element of superhero bias (or bias overcompensation? I forget which way this one goes), where basically someone who does not have a certification but can code something optimally is de-facto superior to someone who does have a certification and codes the same thing just as optimally.

Additionally, there may be some reciprocate signaling involved; if I look for certified programmers, people will see mere certification as sufficient to get the job, which is not what I want - I want people who have the actual ability. Thus, I should hire people with ability but no certification, which signals that the certification is "useless" or "not what we're looking for" relative to other criteria.

This seems to even out to a reflective equilibrium where official certification is a net negative.

comment by clgroft · 2012-08-22T03:08:04.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The actuarial industry has a system of advancement with ten exams.

Perhaps this is the key. Instead of coming up with our own replacement certification system, maybe we need to make it easier for companies and industries to create their own. They're the ones who know what matters for their own fields.

As an entry point, one might create an online job application builder. Questionnaires are easy (and probably not worth a startup), but if the application could have "code this" questions, and the answers were checked on the server, that could be a killer feature for tech companies.

Replies from: JoshuaFox
comment by JoshuaFox · 2012-08-27T06:10:08.948Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but supervision is essential for the tests to be reliable. The basic solution to that is to set up hundreds of in-person test centers, with proctors, as Pearson has. On-site testing can be minimized with various imperfect techniques, like letting people take some tests at home with cameras showing that they aren't cheating, and then using on-site tests as final confirmation of scores.

Replies from: RomanDavis
comment by RomanDavis · 2012-08-27T06:23:54.992Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a start up, having hundreds of centers might be a bad idea. See if you can make deals with local libraries/ YMCAs/ churches/ schools/ even local businesses that sometimes hold classes, like Michael's and see if you can test there, while you are still growing.

Even with that, there might be easier ways. I remember going to school in NC at a Community College online. I had a presentation I had to do as a project, The school was like, 3-4 hours away and the presentation had to be in the early morning. She let me do it over the phone.

That doesn't scale up very well, obviously, but your main advantage early on as online is being able to tap into the market all over the US and beyond. You might have one state with less than a dozen students. It'd be terrible to have to travel hours, early in the morning to one building that's only open/ needs to be open maybe seven days a year.

comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-21T17:36:14.433Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This, do-super-want. Perhaps a more specific version/implementation/tactic would be compulsory education alternatives. Of course, the signalling part remains a major problem.

One other possible element of the signalling problem is to counter a particular subset of common responses that seem particularly available: "What makes your special certification any different from all those bogus sham 'buy-a-high-school-degree-online' diploma mills?"

Establishing trustworthiness is also made more difficult by the trend that employers don't really seem willing to verify and learn about nonstandard accreditations. If someone has qualifications that they don't expect and don't immediately recognize as a good signal, it'll be dismissed without further investigation. Targeting employers seems like it would be a requirement of an optimal certification system.

Replies from: JoshuaFox
comment by JoshuaFox · 2012-08-27T06:12:41.177Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many countries, including Israel where I live, have long had matriculation tests at the end of high school. Passing them is considered far more important than the high-school graduation diploma, which is given separately.

You can sign up to take the matriculation tests even if you are not in high school. This option is generally intended for drop-outs who are catching up later in life, but you can do it as a teenager too.

After passing the tests, no one cares about your actual high-school grades.

comment by shminux · 2012-08-21T20:37:38.039Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

certification-by-testing has had a hard time getting prestige

What are the reasons for it?

comment by worldaswill · 2020-12-29T13:05:08.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

did anyone try this?

comment by Xeuton · 2012-09-04T09:11:33.127Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like testing is the go-to idea among contributors thus far for determining whether a person has achieved the level of proficiency in a field that would be commensurate with earning a diploma from a reputable accredited university, but while I have no data to support the following conjecture, I wonder whether electonic testing is even a valid method of determining anything but memory recall at a specific point or set of points in time, if the testing involves multiple steps (i.e. midterms and final).

Why not use projects commisioned or suggested by interested corporations, involving the use of teamwork/teambuilding, leadership, logistics, creativity, and work ethic, while also providing opportunities for prospective employees - people who may have been using Khan Academy alone for years and have not developed the contacts and overall sense of common academic context college students develop over time - to develop those all-important working relationships. Additionally this would allow employers to have more control over the skillsets they actively seek out, and give self-teaching students an opportunity to understand the kind of skills that will actually get them where they want to go in their careers.

Corporations or individuals would use paid accounts to have the opportunity to work with our teams to determine the kind of project that would most help them find the talents they need, and also help determine the conditions of success.

Projects ideally would have practical applications and real-world effects, and any sucessful projects that end up turning their own profit would have predetermined payout models to distribute income between the patron, our company, and the actual prospects who worked on the project itself.

Students who wished to try for a project would could pay a one-time fee to have a lifetime account, and if possible this fee should be able to be covered by as many forms of reputable student financial aid as possible.

It's 2:00 in the morning and I just got back from Burning Man so I doubt my idea is actually coherent or worth pursuing, but on the off chance it is a good idea, I will just post this now and hope it is productive and promotes thoughtful discussion, if not actual support. That said, if there are any holes in the business model or logic that you post and no one else decides to address them, I will take another crack at it tomorrow.

Replies from: JoshuaFox
comment by JoshuaFox · 2012-09-04T09:43:24.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Collaboration, independent work, etc. are very valuable and are needed.

Supervised tests also have a role to play.

  1. It costs a lot to have an expert grade an entire project.
  2. Tests can be standardized, giving comparable results across ten thousand people. I don't know if 10,000 people could be useful asked to, for example, develop a PHP email webapp as their trial project without many versions of the solution leaked into the Internet.
  3. Supervised tests minimize the opportunity for cheating.
  4. If someone does a team project, then even if they did do their share, you don't know what specific skills they have.
  5. Studies of whether such tests correlate with other success metrics show that they do.
  6. Except for a tiny minority of hot-shots (too few to support a business, and they generally find their way in life anyway), the type of independent project that most people are capable of is too trivial to give insight into their abilities.
Replies from: Xeuton
comment by Xeuton · 2012-09-04T20:19:31.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My primary question then is this: are these shortcomings enough that such a model should completely leave our consideration as an alternative?

My goal with this is to provide choice to employers and ambitious people, and the projects would be things the corporations want to achieve, don't mind sharing the results of with everyone (think more along the lines of a practical dissertation) and would normally be able to ahieve themselves (and possibly already have a rubric for grading results as these projects must be a normal part of the functioning of such businesses) but do not wish to invest more resources and miss out on discovering new talent simply for a more immediate, guaranteed return on investment.

Also, why not make projects interdisciplinary? The sort of rigorous documentation used for scientific studies could be adapted to the method by which students would be able to make notes and regular progress reports. Additionally, encouraging artists or multimedia focused individuals to make visual or audio documentation of their progress engages more fields in the process and encourages interdisciplinary networking.

I think this idea may be contingent on the development of a much more far-reaching change in the education or possibly corporate models in order to function in the real world, but there are many potential benefits I can see to this.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2012-08-14T23:33:31.510Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some non-nitwit (actual-economic-value-generating) startups I've heard proposed lately by people in this or related communities:

  • Kevin Fischer is interested in identifying useful sub-chemicals in certain legal psychoactive plants. Anyone with biotech, chemical-identifying training would be useful to him.
  • Mike Darwin (not LW-style rationalist, but cryonicist) says that his research and numerous other papers show that melatonin, among some other chemicals, is very effective at preventing cerebral-reperfusion ischemic injury which is the real killer in heart attacks and strokes, and for which there are apparently not currently approved medications.
  • Zvi Mowshowitz is now trying to refound a startup to provide evidence-based, rationalist-filtered medical care - evidence-based doctors as opposed to just evidence-based medical research that often gets ignored by actual doctors.
  • John Schloendorn is the most competent biotech guy I know. He was literally trying to cure cancer - by trying to duplicate the abilities of a 100%-cancer-immune strain of mice, in humans - when his startup ran out of money; and he has a lot of other low-hanging fruits on his list as well.
Replies from: thomblake, ShannonFriedman, ShannonFriedman, SilasBarta, ShannonFriedman, ChrisHibbert, NancyLebovitz
comment by thomblake · 2012-08-20T18:25:03.575Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Zvi Mowshowitz is now trying to refound a startup to provide evidence-based, rationalist-filtered medical care

What happened to the first one?

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T04:17:18.240Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

About Zvi's business, what would constitute evidence that the medical practice should follow? -Asked by KatelynS at the Berkeley Less Wrong Meetup

Shannon - can you explain a little more about how the company works?

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T04:11:44.609Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Colby asks - can you elaborate more about meletonin? What is he thinking should be made? How can this be turned profitable?

Is he saying that we should look into melatonin's effects more? What are you getting at? Can you explain in more detail about how this could be a business idea?

comment by SilasBarta · 2012-08-16T04:12:22.577Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Kevin Fischer is interested in identifying useful sub-chemicals in certain legal psychoactive plants. Anyone with biotech, chemical-identifying training would be useful to him.

This non-nitwit, I'll grant, but this seems like a very capital-intensive idea which won't work unless you can get a lot of investment. It has to solve two subproblems:

  • Big Pharma-level biological research
  • Not getting shut down by the FDA. No matter how good your argument for why this might be legal to sell/distribute/teach, you will have to fight (it seems) lengthy court battles before you can start making significant money this way.

If they have the backers, great, but do they?

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T04:19:59.897Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People at the Berkeley LW meet-up are very interested in Schloendorn's work at the meetup. It sounds too good to be true, is there a good summary link someone can send?

comment by ChrisHibbert · 2012-08-18T21:00:47.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Atul Gawande has a new article on how the medical industry can learn from other businesses that use production methods to achieve consistent results. He mentions a couple of national start-ups that are trying to use consistent evidence-based practices, and continuous review of outcomes to make health care more reliable and consistent and do it at a profit.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-17T03:55:54.162Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know if this is Zvi's balliwick, but I've seen people go through a lot of doctors until they find one who will listen and think.

comment by michaelkeenan · 2012-08-14T21:35:11.982Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Business/website idea: OKCupid for jobs, or possibly just for co-founders.

Different workplaces have different cultures. There are probably a wide variety of cultures that work, but mixing different cultures in a workplace leads to conflict. For example:

  • Suits or jeans?
  • Hands-on management or delegation?
  • Flexible telecommuting or rigid office hours?
  • Work 60 hours a week or 35?
  • Prefer to keep social life separate from office or integrated? Office romance approved/disapproved?
  • Is highest status given to engineering or sales or management or who?
  • Is the focus on maximizing profit or creating value for the world or what?
  • Is the focus on an exit (like an IPO or acquisition) or a lifestyle business?
  • Risk-averse or risk-seeking?
  • In software development, programming-conservative or programming-liberal?

An OKCupid-like system of asking questions about one's preferred work culture might lead to good matches between co-founders and possibly between workplaces and employees. (Though, of course, there are many non-culture-related considerations that this kind of system doesn't evaluate. While that's true for dating too, it might be even more true for work, making this system less effective.)

Replies from: patrickscottshields, dbounds
comment by patrickscottshields · 2012-08-14T23:19:02.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Path.to is a startup that appears to be doing a lot of this already.

Replies from: dbounds
comment by dbounds · 2012-08-15T02:41:50.661Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Patrick, thanks so much for mentioning us.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T02:59:32.125Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How much of what Michael talks about are you doing, and/or interested in implementing? Any interesting thoughts about what he says and how it relates to you guys? What are your next steps and needs?

Replies from: dbounds, ShannonFriedman
comment by dbounds · 2012-08-15T03:07:02.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quite a bit (I'd say all to some degree) though we may not be executing it exactly how Michael specified. We launched the service in April and it's evolving quite rapidly as we continue to learn and grow with our customers/users.

This is what we're working for: http://twitter.com/thejameskyle/status/234105524277346304

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T03:20:13.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very cool :)

What is next for you, and what/who do you need?

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T03:03:48.861Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry I was too fast - reading your response below now :)

comment by dbounds · 2012-08-15T02:58:44.676Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hi Michael,

Great suggestion! Like Patrick mentioned, this is really our focus, though I typically refer to it as 'eHarmony for hiring'. :)

We pair a more intimate understanding of a professionals education, experience, personality and interests with a deeper understanding of a company, their culture and what it takes to be successful in a particular role. We use this data to come up with the "Path.To Score" which is a 0-99 measure of how compatible a particular individual is with a specific role at a specific company, which we use to market positions to the right candidates and provide introductions between businesses and potential employees.

Without getting into too much detail we use a number of signals to inform and evolve the scoring. These range from basic Q&A to semantic analysis and natural language processing of local and external data sources likes Facebook, Twitter, GitHub and Dribbble.

It's been fascinating thus far and I'm really excited with the road ahead.

comment by sinak · 2012-08-14T21:21:35.618Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In addition to my last idea, here's another thing I've been kicking around:


Problem: Anki is great, but the user interface is mediocre and it acts as a standalone application on the platform of your choice (desktop, mobile, etc).

Solution: A hosted version of Anki accompanied by a mobile application that allows users to enter items manually, capture items from the browser via a javascript bookmarklet, or allows third parties to submit information for users via an API. In essence this would amount to "learning as a service" and could eventually be extended beyond the feature set currently offered by Anki by including customized tests for different content types.

Current development: Very much in the idea stage. Interested in hearing what ideas people have around this.

Replies from: Micaiah_Chang, Dr_Manhattan, sinak
comment by Micaiah_Chang · 2012-08-17T00:56:05.228Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I imagine this would be very hard to monetize and get customers as-is. The below is merely a brief list of problems that I've thought about

The average user needs to be sold on the effectiveness of a product very fast, on the first usage (or perhaps even sooner!) in order for them to continue using. However, SRS software in general are almost by definition antithetical to that goal: Their benefits do not come until far into the future, worse still it's an undefined time in the future. Sure you can use arguments about the benefits of SRS and the psychology of memory and , but it would appear to be an uphill battle to make the benefits immediately relevant and immediately relevant to the people who wouldn't already be using Anki and other free equivalents.

In addition, before you can even start using the product as advertised, you have to learn how to make cards that are easy to memorize or download a deck which is already well made. The first is "Wait so you want me to learn all these tiny rules before I can even start learning? ". The second presents a chicken-and-egg problem. How are you going to have high quality decks that teach things? By having users! How are you going to get users? By having high qual- oh, darn.

It would appear that your general idea is going in the right direction; to make the best SRS program as painless as possible and to extend it to be more powerful. Your emphasis though, would appear to be more oriented toward existing power users of SRS. So there's the matter of getting them to switch which... I have no idea how hard that would be. (Sample size of two; you'd obviously build something you'd want to use; I'd jump on board instantly if I could transfer my existing Anki decks).

One possible solution to the adoption is to piggyback it on an existing service; if users get to use it as an additional option on something they already use habitually then getting consistent usage wouldn't be as much of a problem. I believe Khan Academy has expressed interest in including SRS in there. Another is to try and "gamify" it (argh I hate that word) by either making the entire application a sort of game or incorporating cow clicker like features in there to get the user hooked (IT'S NOT EVIL IF THE ADDICTION IS GOOD).

The making your own decks feature can be mostly hidden from the normal user, with a gradual introduction to it as they use the product more (paid feature?). As for having high quality decks; you can try porting the entire Anki library of downloadable decks, filter them in some way and use that to bootstrap up to a much higher standard of quality.

Of course, any and all advice here means absolutely jack compared to the behavior of actual users; release a minimal version, see who bites and check to see what the users complain about before even thinking about what I said here. Making money is and should probably be a distant 4th or 5th consideration behind making a product that you would use and making it easily extensible.

Replies from: Persol, arundelo, sinak
comment by Persol · 2012-08-17T13:29:20.957Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think Micaiah_Chang mostly nailed this. I actually wrote a site that did this a few months ago. I had about 4000 users who had actually gone through a complete session.

it would appear to be an uphill battle to make the benefits immediately relevant

As guessed, the problem is that I couldn't get people to start forming it as a habit. There is no immediate payback. Less than 20 people out of 4000 did more than one session.

you have to learn how to make cards that are easy to memorize or download a deck which is already well made

This one is easily solved. The Anki decks have a (weak) rating system, and allowing people to import anki decks was easy.

Additionally, there are at least 18 competitors. Here's the list I made at the time. Very few seem to be successful.

I shut the site down about a month ago. There are numerous free competitors which don't have any great annoyances. I wouldn't suggest starting another of these sites unless you figured out an effective way to "gamify" it.

Replies from: gwern, sinak
comment by gwern · 2012-08-18T01:33:21.132Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As guessed, the problem is that I couldn't get people to start forming it as a habit. There is no immediate payback. Less than 20 people out of 2000 did more than one session.

Wow. You did a spaced repetition site which had 4000 people try, 2000 finish a session, and <20 return for a second review session?

Replies from: Persol
comment by Persol · 2012-08-18T02:43:42.101Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, typo. ~4000 people finished a session. Many more 'tried' than 4000... I just couldn't determine which users were bots that registered randomly vs users that didn't finish the first session.

  • Tried: lots (but unknown)
  • Finished 1 session: ~4000
  • Finished >1 session: ~20
Replies from: Shak
comment by Shak · 2012-08-18T05:35:48.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Persol, what traffic generating methods did you use to get those kind of figures?

Replies from: Persol
comment by Persol · 2012-08-18T12:13:26.001Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

About 75% of the hits came from Google adWords, which was on for about 8 months. Maybe about 10% from search results. I also had a few links from subject specific websites. Average CTR was about 0.25%. Best CTR were ads that mentioned 'flashcards' and 'online'. The best conversion rate (answered a study session question) was 17% with the ad below:

  • Remember Facts
  • Spend less time studying.
  • Remember more material.
  • www.superbrain.me

Graphic/animated ads were a waste of money, but at least I learned how to make animated GIFs.

Replies from: supermemofan
comment by supermemofan · 2012-08-21T01:10:47.782Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Supermemo has been working on this problem since 1982, and they struggle to make Supermemo popular because it is not "sticky" enough. Basically it involves hard work for future benefit. This is the mental equivalent of "earning an honest living," or "getting rich slowly." We do not live in a world that portrays honest, slow but meaningful progress. We live in a world that is obsessed with instant gratification, and SRS methods go contrary to the river-like "current" of this system. See: http://wiki.supermemo.org/index.php?title=Why_isn't_SuperMemo_more_popular%3F Also, the only way I could see SRS hitting massive appeal is if it were designed from the ground up to be a game of some sort where doing flashcard repetitions resulted in progress. I have an idea of how it would work, but I doubt we will see anything like that for the time being.

Replies from: shminux, Persol
comment by shminux · 2012-08-21T19:08:57.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, the only way I could see SRS hitting massive appeal is if it were designed from the ground up to be a game of some sort

Judging by the user-hostile interface of the linked site, there is probably a much lower hanging fruit in the app's UI redesign.

Replies from: supermemofan
comment by supermemofan · 2012-08-22T01:59:17.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Supermemo was designed by a scientist, and a simple user interface is not as high on the priority list as optimized algorithms, incremental reading, etc. I highly doubt that outside of Supermemo a more effective flashcard software exists. Thus, to make flashcard-based learning hit critical mass, it must be packaged in a way that is extremely appealing and fun (Aside from the joy of learning) so that people can survive the two-week "hump" that most people stop using Supermemo. Other than a game or a more aesthetically pleasing UI, I think we're kind of stuck with our present situation, unless a higher authority (Education system, government) makes such learning techniques mandatory, which will not happen due to the inefficiency of modern institutions to fulfill their explicit purpose. At least they exist for the self-motivated to use, and it gives us a mental edge on those that do not use (Or care to use) SRS.

comment by Persol · 2012-08-21T18:54:46.183Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That link (fixed version ) is very accurate. I wish I'd considered the first few points BEFORE programming/advertising the site.

comment by sinak · 2012-08-18T02:11:56.015Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Persol, that list of competitors is massively helpful, thank you.

I'd love to hear more about your experiences, and to get a better of idea of exactly what you had built. I think what I have in mind is a more mass-audience version of SRS (see my response to Micaiah above) rather than a more traditional Anki-type system.

I'd love to know how you were monetizing the service, and if there are any screenshots of what the site looked like. Did you offer a mobile application? Did you try to push people to engage via push notifications at all? I think this is definitely a core part of a strategy that I'd push for. I think "gamifying" is also an interesting route, need to think about this angle a little more carefully though.

Replies from: Persol
comment by Persol · 2012-08-18T03:22:22.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's the actual PHP code, weighing in at 18Mb. It's probably the best way to get a feel for what it was, and it might help you decide what to do.

It includes:

  • most of the site code - This code is from about a month before I moved onto a more rewarding project, but it's the last full set I have.
  • automatic stylesheets/icons for iPhone and Android (not an application, but did create an icon on the home screen)
  • a bunch of draft banner ads - the animated GIFs summarize how the site worked
  • a research folder with information on SRS publications
  • screenshots of other SRS engines

This version may not have the correct repetition calculation. Due to the inherent time factor, it was a hassle to test, so I didn't fix that part of the code until later.

It was admittedly an ugly (but fast loading) site. After a few weeks of cheap banner ads and seeing the minimal reuse, I just set it to coast until the year ran out.

I did do some A/B testing with email notifications about a month in. It didn't have a measurable effect of return use.

Monetization was via banner ads. Via A/B testing, the best location for the ad was under the card's question. Once flipping the card, the ad was hidden. I also deactivated the ads for awhile too see if they were too intrusive; return visitors didn't improve.

I also incorporated graphics and audio, since the most successful SRS systems seem to revolve around vocabulary. I personally used it to help learn basic Mandarin for use with my in-laws... but it is a boring way of learning a language. While it is much more effective than Rosetta Stone, it is very difficult to stay engaged.

"Remember what you read" If you take a look at a newer version of SuperMemo, it has this feature.

Replies from: sinak
comment by sinak · 2012-08-21T00:49:30.712Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is great - I'm going to take a look through the code and see if I can get it running on a test server.

comment by arundelo · 2012-08-17T14:29:09.418Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

incorporating cow clicker like features in there to get the user hooked

For anyone who doesn't know it, here's the (really interesting) story of Ian Bogost's "Cow Clicker".

comment by sinak · 2012-08-18T02:02:44.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

MIcaiah, thanks for the detailed and well thought-out response. I'll try and respond to some of your thoughts:

I imagine this would be very hard to monetize and get customers as-is.

As far as monetization goes, I think the best route would be to charge online education providers on per-API-call basis. The end goal would be to become something akin to the "Twilio of online learning." With a sufficiently developed system, I think it'll be possible to convince companies in the online learning space that this is a worthwhile value proposition for their users. End users who have committed to a particular online learning program are much more likely to be willing to use a spaced-repetition learning system to aid in their progress in a particular course.

Your emphasis though, would appear to be more oriented toward existing power users of SRS.

I think I gave the wrong impression here, I think I'd much rather target non-users of SRS. Building something simpler but more accessible seems like a more viable alternative. Gaining traction with average, non-SRSing users, and then later adding best-of-breed features to tempt online learning providers seems like a more reasonable approach.

The average user needs to be sold on the effectiveness of a product very fast, on the first usage (or perhaps even sooner!) in order for them to continue using. However, SRS software in general are almost by definition antithetical to that goal: Their benefits do not come until far into the future, worse still it's an undefined time in the future.

I've thought of a couple of simple use cases for this sort of platform that I think seem easy to build and quite compelling for an average non-SRS user:

  • Vocabulary expansion - For People looking to expand their vocabulary - a simple javascript bookmarklet that would allow users to learn the definitions of new words that they come across.
  • "Remember what you read" - It seems that given the number of things that an average person might hope to learn in a particular day, but which are instead soon forgotten, having a simple way to record those items would be quite immediately valuable. For example, as soon as I found Instapaper, I began saving documents that I wanted to read later. I could see a simple javascript bookmarklet for "things I've read online and want to commit to memory" being used in a similar fashion. This implementation would be a very, very crude version of SRS, but I think it could help get users on board.
  • Name-Face Identification - A tool that helps users learn the names of all the contacts in their LinkedIn or Facebook friends lists. Forgetting the names of acquaintances is a common problem, and an SRS program is an ideal solution.

Beginning with a simple, self-curated deck like the ones described above would also help to avoid the problem of not having good content for first-time users.

Very interested to hear feedback on the above.

Replies from: Kindly, Micaiah_Chang
comment by Kindly · 2012-08-19T20:52:21.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Congratulations; you've motivated me to decide I'll use some sort of SRS to remember the names of my students, the next time I have to TA a class (most likely in January).

I'll find something to use one way or the other, but if you manage to provide a working alternative by that time, I promise to use it.

Replies from: Vaniver, gwern
comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-19T23:28:38.689Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I used SRS to remember my student's names. They thought I had superpowers.

(I didn't have the TA facebook until after the first session, and so I introduced myself and shook the hand of every student, and then got the facebook and memorized the names with SRS before the second session. It might be similarly impressive to know their names before the first session without them telling you, but that runs the risk of seeming creepy.)

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-08-19T23:39:51.772Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I always thought that memorizing faces and personal details would be a good use of SRS, but I never really had any opportunity where it was worthwhile. Glad to hear it works!

Replies from: orthonormal
comment by orthonormal · 2012-09-09T04:16:28.583Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The July minicampers made an Anki deck for learning faces/names/bios before camp. We didn't get quite enough time to train properly, but it was still a massive help compared to learning 30 names in real time.

comment by gwern · 2013-02-08T22:32:07.194Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How has it gone so far?

Replies from: Kindly
comment by Kindly · 2013-02-09T01:30:44.882Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The class I'm TAing has about 60 students in it; I see 40 or so regularly because one of the recitations is early in the morning and fewer people show up to it. Despite being rather lazy about reviewing, I can match around 90% of the photos to names, and make almost no mistakes going in the other direction (trying to imagine the photo given the name).

However, I think I only have around 50% success rate when faced with actual students. The photos I have are likely outdated (they're the photos taken for university IDs freshman year, and I suspect most of my students aren't freshmen) so that might be the problem. Another problem is that when learning the cards, I tend to remember facial expressions and incidental details like background color, even though I try not to; obviously this knowledge doesn't help in actual interaction with the students.

(I used Anki instead of MemStash.co because I couldn't get the latter to do what I wanted.)

comment by Micaiah_Chang · 2012-08-19T20:23:38.873Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All three look promising. However, you might be pidgeonholing yourself by trying to go back to the "SRS as generalized learning tool". For most people, it would appear as if that's too abstract. You may be much better off focusing on the most generally appealing use case (The name-face ID one sounds the most promising; I can't imagine any people who weren't already self-motivated autodidacts using the first two). In fact, it might turn out to be much better than than the original Anki-as-service app; it appears to me that many more people view "oh god what's her name I just met her a week ago THINK" as a problem than "Oh, hm, it appears I've forgotten how to say 'praying mantis' in Japanese".

To extend the Name-Face identification concept, you could also add things such as people's birthdays, dates of important events such as anniversaries into it; although I'm not sure how many of those things aren't problems anymore because of calenders etc.

I can't comment too much on the "Twilio of online learning" idea; I don't know the interest level of online courses such as Udacity, Coursera and Codeacademy on something like that. Although I will warn that there's a real risk that it'll be treated as "just another complicated feature that I don't need to use" by the average student. But if you get a hardcore userbase who are happy with the product and willing to give feedback then you're in much better shape than trying to arbitrarily design for the "average" user.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2012-08-21T02:18:52.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just a word of caution: this seems to be the idea almost every geek I know thought of doing (including myself, had a prototype going 4 years ago). You can draw some conclusions from this.

Replies from: wedrifid
comment by wedrifid · 2012-08-21T07:37:02.458Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just a word of caution: this seems to be the idea almost every geek I know thought of doing (including myself, had a prototype going 4 years ago). You can draw some conclusions from this.

Another here. A group of four of us got as far as releasing a beta version of such a product.

Replies from: sinak
comment by sinak · 2012-08-21T16:38:30.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. Thanks for pointing this out. I'm not sure whether this is necessarily a bad thing, but it's good to know that it is a known geek archetype.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-21T16:46:02.093Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It implies that its a problem a lot of geeks have and that there's a market. Sounds like a problem that is easy to solve moderately well but has not yet been solved with excellence.

Replies from: sinak
comment by sinak · 2012-08-27T06:02:20.573Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great feedback - thanks Shannon.

comment by sinak · 2012-10-03T21:08:23.536Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey everyone - I made an initial version of this at the TC Disrupt Hackathon, see here: Memstash. It was build in 20 hours so it's obviously very very MVP, but we ended up winning trips to Paris as well as getting over 50k visitors and 5k signups (mostly via a Hacker News post).

I think that the response generally proves that there are definitely people interested in this sort of thing - but return traffic hasn't been great, which is understandable given how basic the functionality is. Anyway, would love to get your feedback on what I've built thus far.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2012-08-21T19:05:39.031Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure if this is the kind of project you were thinking of at all, but a friend and I have been brainstorming about starting a restaurant that's optimized to serve, primarily, autistic people, and secondarily, people with other disabilities, particularly mental/emotional ones like social anxiety. Notable differences from a regular restaurant are that ordering will be entirely computerized (enabling nifty features like being able to have the computer remember and act on each diner's preferred/dispreferred/forbidden foods list) with an option but not a default of talking to a waiter, all tables will have built-in textual communication devices to allow diners to communicate with anyone in the restaurant (including waiters and management), the restaurant will have a silent section where even talking is forbidden and private rooms that can be reserved ahead of time, the menu will be optimized to allow for personalization of items in terms of content, size, order of presentation, and so on, and the decor will be designed to be sensorily inoffensive while also providing detailed descriptions of local norms via signage.

It will also make a point of hiring autistic people for all positions including management, and avoiding suppliers that donate to Autism Speaks while donating to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network as possible.

Our thoughts on the project so far are collected here - I'm sure I've forgotten some important things even given the length of the above infodump :). (Also, contacting me there will work better than contacting me here after the next few days - I'm not actually following LW anymore; I only knew about this because Alicorn told me.)

comment by ModusPonies · 2012-08-14T16:18:42.184Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a resource that could help someone's project: my time. I'm a novice programmer looking to gain some practical experience, and I'd be willing to work, say, 20 hours a week for free, at least for a month or two. PM me if you think I might be able to help out.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, ShannonFriedman, Alicorn
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T01:58:16.382Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What would be your ideal subject matter to be programming?

The clearer and more detailed you answer that, the more likely you are to get it or something similar. Also perhaps information about what languages you use and/or specialties and/or link to a Linkedin page or something like that.

Thanks for making this offer!

Replies from: ModusPonies
comment by ModusPonies · 2012-08-19T02:02:40.872Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not actually sure what areas I'd most like to focus on. A big part of why I'm making this offer is to learn what's out there so I can answer that question. Currently, Java is the only language I'm familiar with, but I'd love to branch out.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-18T04:22:31.617Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would creating a wiki for this page be the sort of thing that you'd be interested in?

Things that I think could be sped up with some a program would be to translate all of the comments over wiki format, and organizing the ideas - it would be really cool if posts for business ideas to be tagged and then organized ranked by upvotes, and updated with the upvote updates on the website.

What I'm visualizing is a page with a list of links of ideas that are ranked (people can manually title the idea summaries after the wiki is created), that links back to the LW site. I'd say that's the most important aspect and I'd love to see it done soon, although there's plenty of other organization that would be nice as well.

Replies from: ModusPonies
comment by ModusPonies · 2012-08-19T02:26:50.014Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As cool as that would be, that's a bigger job than I'd want to accept on my own. I'd have to teach myself a whole lot of code, which would probably take more time than I could justify devoting to a one-shot project.

comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-14T17:59:28.287Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you grant random programming wishes or are you only interested in longer term stuff?

Replies from: ModusPonies, ModusPonies
comment by ModusPonies · 2012-08-14T18:12:15.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably. No promises, but I'll seriously consider any request.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-14T18:19:28.651Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I use Cyberduck for FTP-ing. It's open source. I want it to have a global hotkey that will upload the file I'm working on, or have selected in the Finder, to the current directory so I don't have to drag every time.

Replies from: wmorgan, DavidLS, Alexei, ModusPonies
comment by wmorgan · 2012-08-14T21:09:08.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know anything about programming Macs, but here are some thoughts for anyone who wants to try this:

  1. DDHotkey can register global hotkeys.
  2. The current working file of a window is called the "represented file." You can get the path to it by calling representedFilename of the active NSWindow (I couldn't figure out how to get the active NSWindow). I didn't try to find out how to get the currently selected file in the Finder.
  3. Cyberduck is scriptable with AppleScript, I think. It has an "Upload" entry point. See here. It has a single required argument, the path of the file to upload. Wouldn't it be sweet if you could pass in the path from step #2, and everything just worked?

(Another option for step #3 would be to programmatically drag-drop the active file to the Cyberduck window, but I couldn't figure out how to do that)

comment by DavidLS · 2012-08-16T16:17:30.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure how comfortable you are working with Terminal, but this works:

curl -T MyFileToUpload.txt ftp://myusername:mypassword@ftp.myhost.com/directory/

(and can be repeated with two keystrokes: "Up, Enter")

comment by Alexei · 2012-08-14T19:31:39.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You'll be better off learning something like AutoHotkey, which will allow you to do that and a lot more to automate your tasks, without the need to modify every program you use.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-14T19:55:41.983Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there anything like it for Mac? AutoHotkey says Windows.

Replies from: Alexei, DaFranker
comment by Alexei · 2012-08-15T07:14:21.655Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Only what Google can find.

comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-14T20:54:14.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

alternativeto.net suggests IronAHK, which apparently works on Mono and has source available.

comment by ModusPonies · 2012-08-19T02:30:03.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Figuring out how to do this is now on my list of cool projects to do when I have time. I'd estimate a one in three chance I'll actually finish this one.

comment by ModusPonies · 2012-08-14T18:11:16.454Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably. No promises, but I'll seriously consider any request.

comment by spoutdoors · 2012-08-16T21:43:11.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hi folks - long-time reader, first-time poster here. I'd like to share my new startup, formed over the past few months. In short, we use human computation to create employment opportunities in the developing world while enabling new types of data analysis for solving complex problems.

Some background and justification: extreme poverty is bad. I won't say too much to justify this point, other than that human suffering and the lost potential for individuals to do great things are two of the big things that make it bad. And just to be clear, by "extreme poverty" I am referring to the "living on $1 per day" kind (though that's a not a very good definition, it's at least in the ballpark). One way to combat extreme poverty is by creating employment opportunities so that people can help themselves, rather than giving them free shoes, or corn, or wells, all of which are suboptimal for meeting their varied pressing needs. So our approach is to hire them to do human computation work.

Human computation is when people do things that are easy for people but hard for computers. A good example is image processing/recognition (this is why reCAPTCHA works). By combining the things people do well with the things computers (i.e. software we currently able to write) do well, we can enable new kinds of data analysis. For example, we can mine figures from the medical literature for depictions of biochemical pathways, recreate many of them together (molecules = nodes, interactions = edges), and create a more complete picture of our biology.

So that's our approach: find an interesting, complex problem (so far they have been in the academic research world), collaborate with the domain experts to design human computation processes to enable the necessary data analysis and synthesis, and using our web platform, pay people in developing countries to do the work. Interesting problems get solved, we get paid, and people in Kenya get paid. Win, win, win.

Interested? We are looking for:

  • People with problems to solve using human computation. We are especially looking for domain experts here. Not sure if your problem is amenable to human computation? Let's talk.

  • Programmers. We've got a platform now but are continually improving it. Python/django. There's also a fair amount of cobbling together datasets for input and output that presents ever-changing challenges in many different languages.

  • Marketing/sales. Our concept is a hard thing to explain to people. People don't seem to be used to thinking about solving problems in this manner, so it's difficult to get people to think, "Oh yes! I have problem X and this will help me solve it!". We need to figure out some way to communicate this better in order to expand the problems to work on and increase revenue.

  • Funding. We need to pay programmers, marketing people, and us.

  • Other! Think this is a cool idea but don't fit into one of the above areas? Let's talk!

Replies from: woodside, OphilaDros
comment by woodside · 2012-08-22T11:29:39.639Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have any more examples of problems that have been solved or are trying to be solved using this approach?

This idea sounds very interesting and potentially a good business, but that rests completely on there being a large set of problems that would be cheaper to solve this way than by another method.

Replies from: spoutdoors
comment by spoutdoors · 2012-08-22T17:50:12.559Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, the business case rests strongly on having a big enough market. We think (strong gut feel, but without much data to back it up yet) that there is a very large potential market. It's kind of a "latent" market - it's a way to solve problems that people are not thinking about yet. I think of it like this: before computers became widespread, did people think about using computational tools to solve problems? No, not really. Likewise, I think, for "human computation". The capacity of the human perceptual systems to process input, and to make subtle judgments, is really tremendous, but that has not been harnessed as a resource for problem solving until recently.

There's definitely a market for what I would call "plain vanilla" human computation tasks: text and audio transcription, business listing verification, etc (high volume but cognitively boring stuff). The existence and revenue-generation by MTurk and Crowd Flower, for example, is strong evidence of this. We also think there will be a market for more interesting problem-solving applications in science and engineering research.

Another example: Air Quality Researcher Guy wants to model exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution across regions in the country; people spend lots of time in their houses, so that constitutes a lot of their exposure (integrating over time); open windows dramatically change the indoor/outdoor air mix. Therefore if we know something about window-opening frequency (and regional demographics, weather, etc) we can correlate that to incidence of respiratory illnesses, for example. Soooo...we sample images from Google Streetview and have people tell us if windows are open! (simplified, ongoing project).

We also think that the field of metagenomics, and the other new "-omics" fields in biology may have some interesting applications. They generate data much faster than they can analyze it, and the tools for making comparisons between this-thing-that-we-don't-know-what-it-is and that-other-new-thing-that-looks-kinda-like-the-old-thing-sorta-maybe are incomplete and don't do a great job (plus the inherent inexact comparative nature of biology) makes us think human computation could contribute to solutions.

Another possible application: a single-stream recycling sorting center using real-time (or near enough to real-time) human computation for sorting objects according to a binary tree corresponding to a binary conveyor system.

Some other things people have already done using human computation: ask humans to generate social scripts to help "train" people with autism for various social interactions; have people answer questions about pictures taken with a smartphone app for blind people ("Is this beverage can a Coke or a beer?"); tag photos from a film company's archive and use an algorithm to link entities and "connect the dots" to realize that the photos are the lost rolls of film from the set of "American Graffiti"

So there's reason to think there are lots of interesting, as-yet-undiscovered applications for this! So again...if this lights any lightbulbs, or you have suggestions for applications, please let me know!

comment by OphilaDros · 2012-08-18T02:41:42.059Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One way to combat extreme poverty is by creating employment opportunities so that people can help themselves, rather than giving them free shoes, or corn, or wells, all of which are suboptimal for meeting their varied pressing needs. So our approach is to hire them to do human computation work.

How are you planning to reach out to the poorest of the poor in developing countries? Will you be tying up with some agencies back there? Because you will not be able to find them over the internet.

You will also need strong mechanisms in place for quality control of the process so that the output is usable. I'm guessing a lot of the problems you will face will be similar to other crowdsourcing ventures like Mechanical Turk.

Replies from: RomanDavis, spoutdoors, Viliam_Bur
comment by RomanDavis · 2012-08-19T08:29:03.496Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, the whole time I was thinking, "Hasn't the guy heard of Mechanical Turk?'

I guess he could be using MTurk as a platform to do this on, although I don't know haw much Amazon eats of your profit.

Replies from: spoutdoors
comment by spoutdoors · 2012-08-22T16:52:41.391Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, Mechanical Turk is another platform that enables human computation work. We looked a lot at that in our early research. It does not, however, implement any internal quality control mechanisms, and it also only allows payment in US dollars, Indian rupees, or via Amazon gift card. The interface is also clunky and difficult for people with limited computer/internet experience to understand (too many windows within windows, basically).

So there are a number of reasons to sidestep Mechanical Turk.

comment by spoutdoors · 2012-08-22T16:59:56.712Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great points. I have personal connections in some poor rural areas of Kenya already (and already in that place, people are always asking, "How can I join?", both of me and of the current workers). My colleagues also have connections in a number of other developing countries where we could plant "seeds". How to grow the "crowd" from those seeds is an interesting problem, but not insurmountable, what with ever-increasing mobile phone/3G penetration and a mobile interface to our platform (lots of people in Kenya, for example, have a low end mobile phone or internet-capable "feature phone" while still living in mud huts), a franchise model using netbooks and small solar stations, etc.

As for quality control, you're absolutely right. There are a lot of ways to approach that (none of which Mturk implements). There's some well-established precedent for methods that work, so we feel confident we can generate high quality outputs.

Replies from: OphilaDros
comment by OphilaDros · 2012-08-23T16:04:52.412Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted. If you want a(n additional) "seed" in India, pls let me know. :)

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-08-21T09:11:57.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How are you planning to reach out to the poorest of the poor in developing countries?

Could humans be also used for doing this? Something like: "If you find other people to join this system, you will get 10% of their reward."

Surely, this has a lot of negative connotations. This is what many scams do, because it is an efficient way to reach many people. To remove some connotations, perhaps the reward could be limited in time, for example you get 10% of other person's reward only for 2 years. (To make it certain nobody is promissing you to "find 10 more people, and then you don't have to work again, ever".)

Replies from: spoutdoors
comment by spoutdoors · 2012-08-22T17:04:27.617Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's definitely a possibility! Ideally we want to harness the natural creativity that fuels capitalism - so we want to allow some flexibility in how workers get recruited while still making sure the incentives are aligned to promote beneficial outcomes.

comment by sinak · 2012-08-14T21:16:02.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm an entrepreneur looking to found or join my next project, so I'm particularly in interesting what people are thinking about and working on.

An Improved Platform for Reading

Problem: We forget almost everything that we read. Current reading platforms (e.g. Kindle, Instapaper, Nook, web browsers) are very crude at helping us make the most of the time we spend reading.

Solution: A platform that uses the latest in efficient learning techniques to improve the quality of recall from reading. By adding interactivity and enhancing the reading experiencing using techniques like active recall and spaced repetition, I think we can build a considerably better interface for reading articles, books, and papers.

Real-world implementation: I think that this sort of platform could be very easily built as a browser plugin and/or mobile app for tablets. As users read a document, they would be able to highlight, add notes, and share these annotations. If users want to memorize a sentence-long summary of a particular document or a particular quote, word, or note, they can select to do so. Summaries of the notes made during reading would then be emailed at the each of day, and push notifications would be used to aid users in memorizing selected text using spaced repetition.

Current development: At present this is very much at the idea stage. I'm an entrepreneur, developer and UI designer myself, and looking for people who'd be interested in helping me build this. I'm also very interested to know whether people would be interested in using such a solution, and any suggestions for improving the idea.

Replies from: nwinter, meanzu, MattTagg
comment by nwinter · 2012-08-17T17:11:44.211Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I talked to someone building the browser plugin version of this a year ago. Sorry, I don't remember what it was called.

comment by meanzu · 2012-08-18T06:06:35.964Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this is a great idea, especially in regards to modulization. I can see such a service being used in conjunction with existing interactive book platforms as well as standing on its own.

I am very open to contributing my ideas and experience (software development and pedagogical technologies) to further this project.

comment by MattTagg · 2012-09-02T07:37:23.714Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I met a dude two weeks ago at a SuperHappyDev meetup in Mountain View, doing a very similar thing. Had been working on it as a Phd. thesis for a few years, but now wants to commercialize it. He was looking for a co-founder too. PM if you want his details.

comment by JenniferRM · 2012-08-15T01:13:28.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To sound a note of caution... I spent a number of years acquiring various kinds of non-monetary capital that are useful for startups. Looking back with my current state of theoretical knowledge and memories, I suspect I may come to see this period as involving too little caution. The key concept acquired between then and now is Kelly Betting.

I still haven't worked through the applications of this concept to startups in a way that I feel is "settled", but depending on the precise nature of the risks and rewards and the bankroll of the typical person accepting startup equity in place of cash, the Kelly Criterion may indicate that startups should usually not be more than hobbies for "normal" (non-rich, non-certainly-immortal, declining-utility-in-dollars) humans. Note that if startups are roughly as risky as a simple Kelly calculation says they should be, this might still be cause for concern because most people who raise theory/practice issues with Kelly say that it over invests in risks.

I'm still exploring ways that the theory might line up with reality, but even my limited state of knowledge has caused me to scale back my startup enthusiasm in the last year or so. The math might come out more positive if you value the knowledge capital gained through startup work in the correct way, for example, but that's particularly tricky to calculate. If anyone else has thoughts on this subject I would love to read or hear them.

For reference, Robin already wrote about Kelly betting to claim that the present era is visibly unstable because most investment firms, and the economy in general, seems not to be engaged in a Kelly strategy at the present time. In some sense, Robin claimed, a financial system not dominated by Kelly-following-financial-entities would probably be a system that has no significantly old Kelly-following-financial-entities, because in the long run they "win" at finance.

Another source on Kelly betting that is directly applicable to startups flows with the "invest in the team, not the idea" dictum. The post "Optimal startup burn rate and the Kelly criterion" is no longer available in the wild but is retained on archive.org and discussed the optimal team size and experimental product cycle given a starting bankroll. (The blog is LaserLike and is not itself down.)

For what its worth, I'm not totally bearish on startups, and sort of have one cooking... I'm just trying to pursue startup stuff with an eye on keeping a bird or 6 in the hand while pursuing startup stuff in parallel. In this vein, if anyone is or knows a solid hardware hacker with RFID experience/interest, especially if they are ethical, planful, world-savey, "rational", and/or live in (southern?) California, I'd appreciate hearing from you. No particular startup interest or equity tolerance is important -- just hardware skills, character, and an interest in educational conversation :-)

Replies from: Zvi, Benja, gwern, ShannonFriedman
comment by Zvi · 2012-08-16T01:26:30.533Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have extensive experience in this realm, including both independently re-deriving Kelly before learning about it and then working extensively with variations of it, in nominally Kelly-optimal conditions. Kelly is only optimal under a very strict set of criteria, and those criteria de facto do not occur in practice. It's a great guide to the landscape, but a terrible perscription in most situations. Common errors include misunderstanding what counts as a bankroll, inability to access large portions of the real bankroll, changing returns to investment size, the existence of limiting factors, having almost any real utility function, unknown unknowns and edge uncertainty which is almost always correlated, psychological impact and inability to precommit credibly to Kelly, outside perceptions and their impact on your bankroll or utility, not accounting for calculation errors, odds or outcomes that are impacted by bet size, and more.

I may write a top-level post going into more detail (feedback on this idea is appreciated), but here I will deal only with this particular case.

In a start-up, the bankroll definition and potential is one key. Your bankroll includes more than you think, and that's especially true in a start-up world where you can, even in failure, get more investment and start again, or join someone else's start-up, or just go back to a day job. Kelly assigns infinite disutility to going broke, and going broke is standard procedure in the startup world. Also, how you take your compensation is largely for motivation and signaling and to keep control of the company, all of which impact the result. In bankroll terms my investing in my own company, and taking $0 other than expenses from my start-up work was madness, but it was clearly the correct play and has paid off handsomely in numerous non-bankroll ways even if no money results!

Going full speed at a startup, even in failure, is often a winning play as you develop connections, reputation, experience, skills and other neat stuff like that, laying the groundwork for future success.

Replies from: Benja, NancyLebovitz
comment by Benya (Benja) · 2012-08-16T16:15:05.711Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd be interested in reading that post! If you do, could you explain more about the grounds on which you'd be applying Kelly to this problem at all, though? I'm somewhat unclear on that -- see my other comment in this thread for detail.

Replies from: Zvi
comment by Zvi · 2012-08-17T11:42:54.054Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In this problem, you're starting a business, and you can consider that business as a bet, out of which you hope to gain a job, income, investment money from your equity, reputation, experience, and so on, all of which can be abstracted. Alternatively, you can look purely at the equity vs. salary trade-off in the context of Kelly, which as I explained above is deeply flawed. It's not a great scenario for such calculations, but they can still provide insightful context.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-17T06:41:26.196Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's kind of reassuring. I'm just starting to read about Kelly, and my first reaction was "and your knowledge of the final outcome comes from where?".

It also occurs to me that "Invest in real estate, they aren't making any more land" is an effort at Kelly prediction, and we all know how well that worked out.

Replies from: Zvi
comment by Zvi · 2012-08-17T11:50:58.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is a classic mistake to treat your estimates as known expected outcomes when calculating how much to bet. This is one reason why real world gamblers almost always use half Kelly or even quarter Kelly rather than full Kelly.

"Invest in real estate, they aren't making any more of it" is, in effect, a prediction of the expected returns to investment and/or the reliability of investment. Kelly would advise you on how to take advantage of the expected returns from real estate, once you nailed down your beliefs more carefully. For real estate, Kelly is rather horrified, as it finds many people investing far more money than they have into a single house. That sounds insane when you say it like that! However, a richer understanding of all a person's assets together with the tax advantages of mortgage interest, and the inability to cheaply adjust the size of that investment, can make that reasonable under Kelly if you think the bet is stable (e.g. that the house can't go to zero if it's insured, at least not in any scenario where you care much about that).

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-17T14:13:31.376Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think part of the situation is that naive investors don't quantify-- if real estate is a good investment, they don't think about how good it might be.

It's interesting to watch "Kelly" drift in and out of being personified.

comment by Benya (Benja) · 2012-08-16T16:09:11.827Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your comment rings my "math applied incorrectly" alarm -- I may just be misunderstanding, e.g. you might be motivated by a logarithmic utility function in amount of money made, but that's a very different thing from the reason we would expect the financial system to be dominated by Kelly-following-financial-entities -- so just in case, let me try to explain my understanding of why Kelly is so important, and why it doesn't obviously seem to be related to the question of whether to start a startup. Any corrections very much appreciated!

Kelly and financial markets

Suppose three investment funds are created in the same year. Let's say the first fund is badly managed and loses 5% of its capital each year; the second fund gains 5% each year; and the third fund gains 10% each year. After 100 years of this, which of the three will be the most important force in the market? I didn't specify that they had the same starting capital, but the first fund is down to 0.6% of its start capital, the second fund has increased its capital 130-fold, and the third fund has increased its by a factor of 13,800, so if they didn't differ by too many orders of magnitude when they started out, the third one beats the others hands-down.

Of course, the growth isn't really constant in each year. Let's suppose your capital grows by a factor of r(i) in year i. Then after 100 years it's grown by a factor of r(1) r(2) ... * r(100), obviously, and we're interested in the fund whose strategy maximizes this number, because after a long enough time, that fund will be the only one left standing. We can write this as

r(1) r(2) ... * r(100) = exp(log(r(1)) + log(r(2)) + ... + log(r(100)))

and maximizing this number happens to be equivalent to maximizing

(1/100)(log(r(1)) + log(r(2)) + ... + log(r(100))),

i.e., maximizing the mean of the log growth factor.

Now, imagine that the growth your strategy achieves in a particular year doesn't depend on the amount of money you have available in that year: if you have $1 million, you'll buy N shares of ACME Corp, if you have $10 million, you'll just buy 10*N shares instead. Also assume (much less plausibly -- but I'm pretty sure this can be generalized with more difficult math) that the same bets are offered each year, and what happens in one year is statistically independent of what happens in any other year. Then the log growth factors log(r(i)) are independent random variables with the same distribution, so the Law of Large Numbers says that

(1/100)(log(r(1)) + log(r(2)) + ... + log(r(100)))

is approximately equal to the expected value of log(r(i)). Thus, after a long time, we expect those funds to dominate the market whose strategy maximizes the expectation of the log of the factor by which they increase their capital in a given year.

From this, you can derive the Kelly criterion by calculus. You can also see that it's the same criterion as if you only play for a single year, and value the money you have after that year with a logarithmic utility function.

So what about startups?

An important assumption above was that the same bets are available to you each year no matter how much money you happen to have that year. If each year there's a chance that you'll lose all your money, that would be terrible, of course, because it'll happen eventually, and then you are out of the game forever; but barring that, your strategy looks pretty much the same, whether you have $1M or $100M. But if you invest $100K-equivalent in sweat equity in a startup and cash out $10M, you do not tend to re-invest that return by creating a hundred similar startups the next year.

Conversely, suppose your startup fails, and according to some sort of accounting you can be said to have lost 30% of your bankroll in the process. For the above reasoning to apply, not only would you have to start another startup after this (reasonable assumption), but the returns of this next startup, if it succeeds, should be only 70% of the returns your first startup would have yielded -- because see, our assumption was that the return on a successful bet is a constant times the amount of money you've bet (dividends on 10*N shares vs. dividends on N shares), and you've lost 30% of your bankroll, so now you can only be betting 70% of the resources you were betting before.

It seems to me that this makes basically no sense. If you start another startup right after the first one, you've gained experience, you've gained contacts, and it seems that if anything, you should be able to build a better startup this time. Even if not, it seems strange to say that if in some sense you bet 30% of your personal resources in your first startup, then this should imply that your next startup will be exactly 30% worse than the one before, and the one after that will be worse by exactly 30% again. (And that's not even taking into account that you probably won't start enough startups for the Law of Large Numbers to become relevant.)

In conclusion, it seems to me that if the Kelly criterion applies to startups, it must be for a very different reason than why we'd expect to see Kelly-following-financial entities. (Zvi, who has clearly thought about this more than I have, seems to agree with you that it applies in some way, though.) Did that make sense, or did I misunderstand you somehow?

Replies from: rocurley
comment by rocurley · 2012-08-16T22:30:03.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was a very good explanation; I found it significantly more illuminating than Wikipedia's.

comment by gwern · 2012-08-15T02:12:24.517Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the bankroll of the typical person accepting startup equity in place of cash, the Kelly Criterion may indicate that startups should usually not be more than hobbies for "normal" (non-rich, non-certainly-immortal, declining-utility-in-dollars) humans.

I'm not too clear how we would apply KC to startups (as opposed to specific contracts in prediction markets).

Let's see... Somewhere Paul Graham says that >90% of startups will fail, so our Kelly odds are 9:1. What's the return on a won bet? Well, the recent Kaufmann Foundation report on VC funds puts the single best VC funds at an overall return of ~8x but that's not enough because that implies that we may not even break even if we lost ~9 investments for every 1 investment returning 8! (receiving 8 back on a 9:1 bet)

If startups are negative expected value, the KC is not useful: it presumes bets are positive expected value and the question is what fraction to bet at any time to avoid ruin. I suppose that treating them as lottery tickets and assuming you are risk-seeking might make it useful, but I don't know how to do that.

Maybe time-value will help. Thinking of a LWer I know, he received the rough equivalent of a year's salary when the startup 'won'. But the startup itself took years and naturally wasn't paying the salary a big competitor might, so it's not obvious that he was better off in the end, which brings us back to the expected value question.

Yeah, I dunno.

Replies from: DavidLS, cousin_it, Vaniver, JoachimSchipper
comment by DavidLS · 2012-08-16T06:39:38.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

KC does apply to negative EV bets. The formula emits a negative allocation (ie "take the other side").

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-08-16T14:20:41.913Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, but I don't think that really applies to startups! (What is 'the other side'? Are there people who offer shorts on arbitrary startups for less than millions?)

comment by cousin_it · 2012-08-15T03:25:38.253Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand your calculation. Even the best VC funds probably make some losing investments, so to achieve an overall return of 8x, the winning startups must yield more than that.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-08-15T03:32:22.411Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did say it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-15T18:45:33.838Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If startups are negative expected value, the KC is not useful: it presumes bets are positive expected value and the question is what fraction to bet at any time to avoid ruin.

On the contrary, in some sense, that's when the KC is most useful. The correct amount of money to gamble on losing propositions is 0!

My estimation of startups in general is that startups are a good way for exceptional individuals to capture much of the value they create. The problem is that it's difficult to tell who is exceptional beforehand, especially if one can only measure sparkle and not grit, and also especially if one has not determined their own level yet.

In that vein, I am cautious about finding cofounders in ways like this.

comment by JoachimSchipper · 2012-08-25T14:54:52.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The major value-add of professional VCs is that they are (should be) better at picking startups than most people. It's very much possible for 90% of startups to fail while VCs still make money. (For one, successful startups can use much more capital; and the rest of the money is supplied by unsophisticated founders.)

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-25T17:43:41.639Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was under the impression that VCs often had significant industry contacts that the fledgling company would then have access to, and that advice for founders is to not sign a deal with someone who is only offering money. (Of course, that advice given by a connected investor is self-serving, and should be taken with a grain of salt.)

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T01:53:57.638Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is beautiful, I really appreciate your giving it a shot to ask for what you want on here even though you're dubious about getting it. There are a lot of awesome people, some of whom I know about personally, who are browsing through this, and I think seeing these sorts of comments and requests that show someone who is really thinking and realizes how hard start-ups are and is very selective, is likely to bring forth more such people and quality.

My request is that if you do get emails from someone promising and anything good comes out of it, that you please respond back with at least a quick line saying so on this thread - whether or not I do more things like this in the future will depend highly on that sort of feedback, and other people will be much more likely to try what you're trying if it works for you. Thanks for trying it! :)

Replies from: JenniferRM, JenniferRM
comment by JenniferRM · 2012-08-15T02:06:20.152Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the support! I put the URL and a note in my calendar, so I will probably comment again here with an update on how it worked.

comment by JenniferRM · 2013-07-18T00:10:00.925Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Responding (as sort of requested) almost a year later now...

The total outcome of the comments seems to have been educational, with a number of people learning and Zvi raising issues with Kelly that I hadn't already noticed and helping to educate me, but the ostensible purpose was to "get emails from someone" and so far no one has contacted me by outside channels on the basis of having made the grand parent comment. The lack of networking success on the basis of this comment doesn't seem like a particularly bad outcome to me in that my goal was mostly to cause education to happen that pays dividends for LWers in general in the semi-long-run :-)

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2013-07-30T16:12:11.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I appreciate your follow up. I couple of things did happen with other projects too:

  • one is that one of the better versions of Anki did get created - you can see up in the newer comments somewhere, where it was linked by hacker news.

  • Peter is also collaborating with someone working on his version, although I don't know whether or not this post had a impact on their collaboration.

  • I worked for awhile with one of the people Eliezer mentioned.

  • The backwards kickstarter folks were talking for awhile, and someone ended up working on a similar project with another group - I haven't followed up with them.

I think its likely that other stuff happened - I only found out about the better-Anki program because I ran into the guy who was behind it at a party. Likewise with my post about starting group houses - I know of several group houses that started that used it as part of their process, but I think only one commented. The co-working post has also been very successful, although not in the way I had anticipated - I don't know of much in the way of individual partnerships created, but the study hall that started is still going and populated almost 24/7, several months later.

comment by patrickscottshields · 2012-08-14T17:05:22.322Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I started MyPersonalDev a year ago to develop a data-driven personal development web application. The minimum viable product I envision is a task manager for people who like to think about utility functions (give your tasks utility functions!) My long-range vision is to use machine learning and collective intelligence to automate things like next-action determinations, value-of-information calculations, and probability estimates. I've written most of the minimum viable product already and use it extensively to manage my own tasks, but I haven't released anything publicly because it's easier to develop the software without having an existing user base.

The downside of having no user base is that there's no revenue, which is a real issue for me as a cash-strapped college student. I'll graduate in May with a degree in computer science, and I've been thinking hard about what to do after that. My impression is that working for my startup post-graduation would likely involve a period of extreme financial difficulty that I'd like to avoid. Consequently, I've been considering shutting it down and trying to get the best existing job I can get, using salary as the base metric and making adjustments for things like quality-of-life and is-the-company-doing-something-worthwhile. While ideologically frustrating (I like the idea of working for my startup full-time post-graduation), that has seemed to be the most instrumentally rational thing for me to do.

Here are some options I'll throw out there:

  • If there's collective interest in MyPersonalDev as a vehicle for some of the positive impact we're talking about in this thread, I'm interested in working with people to make that happen. Anyone interested in sponsoring development of the software or otherwise making it more financially viable during its startup phase should contact me. For the next nine months before I graduate, it could help to have a small, cheap office space near campus, as I'll be living on-campus and can't conduct commercial activity there. I'll plan to put a media kit together with more information on the company for interested parties.
  • If other programmers want to work with me on MyPersonalDev, either now over the internet, or in-person once I graduate in May, that would be exciting! I'm not sure how we would work it out in terms of equity and salary, but I'm open to suggestions. Right now the company is a stock corporation, of which I am the sole director and shareholder. I like that because it's lean (I don't need to get permission from other people to make business decisions.) That said, I'd want collaborators to be fairly compensated. Some sort of funding or revenue seems necessary for this to happen.
  • If I don't end up working for MyPersonalDev full-time post-graduation, I'm available as a programmer and aspiring rationalist who wants to work on something important. Until May, I'm available online; after May, I'm available in-person.
  • If people want to form a startup together, maybe they should live together too! I started a roommate interest coordination thread two weeks ago for purposes like that.
  • Like I said in that thread: If there were several people interested in working for their own startups, maybe they could lease a building together, or utilize collective purchasing to lower the costs of bookkeeping or legal services. (Is anyone interested in doing that?)

Look at my history of posts for more information about me. Like I said in a recent post:

I'm especially interested in collaborating with other programmers, working in Python or Go, working on data visualizations in D3, programming rationality exercises, or working on something that qualifies as "data science".

I want to work on something important. I want to work on a team. And I want to make enough money to live comfortably. When I graduate in May, I'm very interested in moving towards a more optimal living and working situation. Could we be a fit? Get in touch!

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, ahartell
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T05:00:03.119Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Colby (at the Berkeley LW meetup) is wondering about what your market is - people interested in utility functions are economics professors and Less Wrong readers. How do you envision reaching out to more people and who would you reach out to?

Group consensus: Advertise it to somewhere like Less Wrong, then if people say its cool and email you, go with it, if you don't get good feedback, let it go.

comment by ahartell · 2012-08-27T23:47:28.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Idea (You already might have something like this but I didn't see mention of it): The task manager could take into account estimated task lengths and due dates. When you put in a task, you input when it needs to by done by and how long you expect it to take. When you complete a task, you input how long it actually took. Later, when putting in a task, the manager could ask what past tasks the current one is similar to, and use past discrepancies between projected and actual completion times to inform prioritization.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2012-08-19T23:41:02.468Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let me just toss out some caution here.

I'm all for getting excited and making stuff happen. Maybe it really is that there have not yet been any LW startups because we all just failed to coordinate on it and in hindsight we'll all say "why the hell did we all wait for so long". That said, let's not forget a few key things here.

  • Most startups fail
  • even when the principals are smart and motivated
  • even when the idea is really good
  • even when [x] is [y]

And, as I already said, for some reason we haven't already had a bunch of successful LW startups. It's certainly not for lack of smart people, entrepreneurs, or technical skills.

If a LW startup is going to succeed, I think we would benefit from understanding first why we don't already have successful LW startups (not even one).

Replies from: gworley, ShannonFriedman, toner, moocow1452
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2012-08-20T00:07:15.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just to toss in my own strongest suspicion. Among LWers under 25, they probably see themselves as young and still learning and not yet brave enough to throw themselves all in to something. For those over 25, they (myself included) probably see themselves as already busy doing something and would need some pretty strong motivation to do something else, even if it does align with core values.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-20T03:00:18.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for voicing this. A lot of people said similar things to me privately before I posted the article. Apparently a lot of people have tried similar attempts to this article and had them massively down voted and go nowhere. I'm very thankful that these people shared their concerns with me, because if I hadn't gotten that feedback, I would not have put nearly as much effort into editing and honing, and almost certainly would have bombed as well.

I have a lot of thoughts on this - I'm currently just finishing a course by the Rejuvenate people that teaches coaches and holistic practitioners how to create successful businesses. I've been inspired both by the workshop and the comments in this article to switch niches from working with people who are depressed, to creating a program that combines what I'm learning with Rejuvenate and my knowledge of Less Wrong types and futurists in general. (what they teach totally worked for me - I took their program "Double Your Practice in 90 Days" and quadrupled my (small) income in a month, after coaching for years) Working on this problem of helping people in the community implement their ideas successfully is so much higher leverage than anything else I can think of that I could do.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-20T03:38:06.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also worth noting - there have been many start-ups in the Less Wrong and extended community already, some of which are very successful, such as Quixey. it just seems like from what I've seen talent wise in the community, there should be a lot more start ups than there are, and a relatively high percentage of those should be extremely profitable compared to the average start-up.

comment by toner · 2012-08-20T14:38:12.919Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quixey is incredibly successful. Also, LessWrong is still young. Give it time! There may be a bunch of startups out there we haven't heard of yet. For example, I'm doing a startup with 3 other LWers, but we need a little longer before we're successful ;-)

Replies from: Chris_Leong, Bruno_Coelho
comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-12T11:14:41.635Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment didn't age well

comment by Bruno_Coelho · 2012-08-24T01:18:35.681Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't feel LessWrong young. OB 2006 posts are extremely past to me, even if a different site.

But If we consider LW a internet startup, the site is doing pretty fine, since the failure rate is 25% for US. For the first three year, the rate of sucess is 65%, 51% for 5 years. Besides having a core content written in a unusual language.

comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-20T02:53:44.769Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Occam's Razor says that no one on Less Wrong has ever suggested making a start up before now, ergo, it hasn't happened. Granted, Shannon's a Productivity manager and brings that slant to us as a post, and a lot of us crazy kids are willing to cut loose and bring stuff to the table, but as for why it hasn't happened before now... I dunno.


comment by SilasBarta · 2012-08-14T17:35:19.223Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Idea related to peer-to-peer lending, and to increase returns on investment and decrease borrowing costs

Streamline the process of lending between users heavily invested in an internet community

One problem with P2P lending is the problem of scammers, dishonest people, and general "Parfit's Hitchhiker non-payers". However, if you have been involved in a forum or internet community, then you've built up considerable "community capital". That investment helps to establish credit among the community members, but not with formal banks. So if you could put up your community reputation/karma as collateral for the loan, you could provide stronger evidence of willingness to repay the loan, and of costs you would suffer from not doing so.

The role of the entrepreneur here would be to make it easy for intra-forum lending to happen, in exchange for some kind of fee. Services would include:

  • Administering the karma-reductions/deadbeat labeling
  • Providing pre-made, time-tested contract formats
  • Acting as certificate authority for digital signing of agreements
  • Having network of local people who can take the time to pursue legal action if someone wants to go that route.
  • Mediation and verification that payments happened

If you can provide a way to ensure payment through these community mechanisms, you would allow borrowers to pay a much lower rate than credit cards would charge, and lenders to get much higher returns than the market allows. (Incidentally, I recently just made such a loan to someone I had known for ten years only through internet forums, and I just got his final repayment.)

Edit: tl;dr: Basically, an internet karma pawn shop (although it's crucial that people not see it as simply a way of cashing in karma)

Replies from: Clippy, ShannonFriedman, NancyLebovitz, John_Maxwell_IV
comment by Clippy · 2012-08-15T19:19:11.189Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would like to redeem my karma for USD.

Edit: or a loan or whatever the term is.

Replies from: johnlawrenceaspden
comment by johnlawrenceaspden · 2012-08-20T20:53:38.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have bought a small number of paperclips on your behalf

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2012-08-21T23:50:34.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're a good human.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T04:32:03.010Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jedd (at Berkeley LW meetup) says that prosper.com you can get 16% lending, its unsecured. Before the defaults its 37% - the 16% is after defaults.

Shannon suggests having a company that arranges loans for you based on whatever information you give them to evaluate. Silas says this already exists.

Jedd asks what size of loans? He thinks smaller loans are more likely to happen.

Scott points out you can aggregate lenders.

Kaitlin asks about Linkedin networks of loans - chains of connections to establish trust through social networking.

Jedd suggests making an AI to optimize loans on Prosper.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-15T12:30:16.739Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure if this is implied by your bullet list, but security is going to be a challenge,and it's going to be worse if internet reputation becomes more valuable.

Replies from: Vaniver, SilasBarta
comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-15T18:50:41.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The marketplace doesn't say "oh, you have a forum account with eight thousand posts somewhere? Here's some money," it allows someone on the forum with eight thousand posts to lend money to someone on the forum with six thousand posts, because the two have some shared social capital.

It seems very similar to Virgin Money, but with the emphasis on internet social capital rather than meatspace social capital.

comment by SilasBarta · 2012-08-15T16:54:06.801Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You mean in terms of keeping people's information private, or exposure of financial access codes, or something else?

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-15T22:48:01.975Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure what a financial access code is.

There have been cases of scammers impersonating ebay sellers with good reputations. If a good online reputation makes it easier to borrow money, I expect there will be attempts at impersonation.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2012-08-15T23:00:40.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure what a financial access code is.

I just meant anything that would allow someone access to the target's online bank money.

There have been cases of scammers impersonating ebay sellers with good reputations. If a good online reputation makes it easier to borrow money, I expect there will be attempts at impersonation.

Good point. Fortunately, since this relies on the people being connected through the community, they can verify themselves through separate channels, which makes impersonation harder.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-17T03:50:07.026Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good point. Fortunately, since this relies on the people being connected through the community, they can verify themselves through separate channels, which makes impersonation harder.

If you actually start this sort of a business, I strongly recommend involving someone who's good at thinking about security. (Sorry, I don't know how to recognize such a person.)

If there's substantial money involved (not to mention opportunities for malice), there are going to be some very motivated people trying to steal reputations.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-22T07:04:32.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The sorry state of password security-- people have accounts at so many websites that they're more likely to reuse passwords, and techniques for cracking passwords have gotten a lot more effective.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-22T13:57:18.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have five tiers of passwords. I use my top-tier only on sites where the password getting stolen could cause me significant harm - only a couple of sites meet this criteria, such as my bank login. I use my second high tier where the password being stolen would cause me significant inconvenience, and yet are still conceivably of interest to somebody else - such as the e-mail attached to my bank login. My middle tier is for websites with significant inconvenience and which I cannot identify an external interest, such as my Amazon account (which has my credit card information, but won't send anything to an address that hasn't been sent to before without reentering that information.) My lower two tiers are for websites which either cannot cause significant harm (such as a Diablo 2 account, when I stilled played - oh no, somebody stoled my stuffs! Big whup.) but could inconvenience me, or where I literally don't care if somebody steals the account (such as my login for a dating site, or my login to pay my electric bill online, where somebody couldn't order additional services or indeed do anything except... pay my bills).

I change my top two security passwords relatively frequently, and are a mixture of characters, numbers, cases (and where permitted, non-alphanumeric characters); the lower three tiers generally stay the same. The top two tier passwords are also only used where the institution itself has a strong obligation to prevent cracking.

I generally recommend this scheme, which limits the dangers of a cracked password, and makes it easy to remember passwords for most day-to-day stuff.

Replies from: None, None, NancyLebovitz
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-22T22:25:02.639Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

where I literally don't care if somebody steals the account (such as my login for a dating site

Well, someone stealing your account on a dating site might impersonate you. I can't think of an obvious reason why someone would want to do that, but I wouldn't consider such a site (or, more generally, sites where I can communicate with other users, including forums or social networks) as bottom tier.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-22T15:01:53.027Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Additionally, two stage password protection if you are using gmail or any other service that allows it makes breaking into an account nearly impossible even with a relatively weak password. Also, I am curious how many bits of entropy do you allow per tier; losing control of your main email account is a lot worse than most people seem to assume- The accounts I have seen which have had regular use often include a SIN and a fairly large amount of information which can be used for much more costly or malicious attacks than online banking provides. I used a two tiered system at and 60 and 75 bits respectively, and if you actually want something to stay secure for any length of time against a GPU assisted brute force attack then you basically cannot go under 56 bits, which still only buys you a month against a good system.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-22T15:28:09.931Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I generally assume anybody who has the resources, expertise, and access to brute-force my password against a system is going to get in regardless of what I do, so I don't worry too much about password entropy. If my bank can't protect me against brute-force guessing, I am not going to believe they can protect me against a hacking scheme which bypasses my password altogether.

The weakest link in the chain is the one which breaks, and it makes little sense to forge one link particularly strong in case another link is particularly weak.

(Similarly, I always assume if somebody has physical access to my hard drive, they have access to its contents, regardless of what I've done to the hard drive.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-22T14:28:44.808Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I posted the link in response to a reasonable business idea which I think is vulnerable to other sites' security being hacked.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2012-08-14T21:25:34.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This sounds a lot like a credit union.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2012-08-14T22:53:09.478Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You mean in terms of it being a member-restricted lending institution, in terms of existing CUs using group social pressure to encourage loan repayment (which, if true, I didn't know), or in some other respect(s)?

Replies from: Hroppa
comment by Hroppa · 2012-08-17T10:38:42.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Group social pressure is a commonly used tool in microfinance efforts. Might be worth reading about them.

comment by Iabalka · 2012-08-16T04:01:12.678Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On how to realise it: What about LW-crowd sourcing? For a "month" ideas for for-profit start-ups are gathered. For a "month" the LW crowd ranks them (by for example committing real money) , for a "month" people interested in the 10 most funded ideas can apply for a job, the LW crowd has a month to choose which people will be "hired". Solves part of the funding problem and the team-makeing.

comment by Bill_McGrath · 2012-08-14T12:09:56.892Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First off-the-top-of-my-head idea:

An organization that would fulfill a role similar to GiveWell, but for people looking to invest money ethically in businesses. Ethical Investment could evaluate companies on how much their business reduces x-risk, improves the human condition, as well as other factors like environmental impact. What would save this from outright hippiedom is that it's actually encouraging investment in worthwhile companies, not saying "boo capitalism".

Potential problems

  • I am pretty ignorant about business issues so I don't know whether this is even possible. Is this data available, and if so is it legal to publish it? Could publishing critical data count as defamation, or whatever the business equivalent is?
  • How to profit from doing this - doesn't spring to mind immediately.
  • May already exist.
  • Assassination.

I'm sure there are others.

Replies from: RichardKennaway, lukedoolittle
comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-08-14T12:32:10.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this data available, and if so is it legal to publish it?

The job of this hypothetical business is to find these things out, and publish them. Answering this question yourself is therefore part of the work required to create such a business, but the short answer is that it's available if you can find it, and by and large, if it's true it's legal to publish (but beware of Swiss laws on business secrets).

How to profit from doing this - doesn't spring to mind immediately.

  1. Invest in what you're recommending.
  2. Publish a free web site and offer a paid newsletter.
  3. When you have built up enough reputation that people with serious money start asking you for advice, sell it to them.
  4. Become an investment company and invest other people's money for them.

May already exist.

Ethical investment.


Are you serious?

Replies from: zslastman, Bill_McGrath
comment by zslastman · 2012-08-14T13:12:04.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Are you serious?

Of course he isn't. Nobody makes money in assassination these days, the market is oversold.

Replies from: XFrequentist
comment by XFrequentist · 2012-08-15T14:58:26.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He was listing assassination as a potential concern for people pursuing this particular business idea, not as a potential business idea itself.

comment by Bill_McGrath · 2012-08-14T13:33:14.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the response!

The job of this hypothetical business is to find these things out, and publish them. Answering this question yourself is therefore part of the work required to create such a business, but the short answer is that it's available if you can find it, and by and large, if it's true it's legal to publish (but beware of Swiss laws on business secrets).

That makes a lot of sense, it would be hard to have a service that clarifies and presents already available material be illegal somehow. Defamation laws in Ireland are pretty stupid though.

Invest in what you're recommending. Publish a free web site and offer a paid newsletter. When you have built up enough reputation that people with serious money start asking you for advice, sell it to them. Become an investment company and invest other people's money for them.

Well beyond my (current) knowledge and abilities, but seems a solid plan.

Ethical investment.

Will investigate this further when I have more time.

Are you serious?

Not really. Only a tiny bit at most. I would not like to publish damning material on a very powerful corporation, but I guess one could focus on publishing positive material on good companies instead, if that was a concern.

comment by lukedoolittle · 2012-09-11T15:58:22.819Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could you use GoodGuide as a starting point (http://developer.goodguide.com/docs)? You could aggregate data on products produced by company X and use that as part of a "ethical product prospectus". Of course you might have to design modified metrics to indicate things like "human condition improvement" etc.

comment by michaelkeenan · 2012-08-15T20:11:29.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This article is a little old (July 2008), but Paul Graham has a list of 30 startup ideas he'd like to fund. With Craigslist turning evil recently, the 25th item about a better Craigslist seems timely.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-15T20:42:52.109Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love #23, about replacing Wikipedia. That's something I've been considering doing for a while; I would much rather have a comprehensive knowledge site than a mere encyclopedia.

comment by Johnicholas · 2012-08-14T19:24:29.684Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a lot of similarity between the statistical tests that a scientist does and the statistical tests that auditors do. The scientist is interested in testing that the effect is real, and the auditor is testing that the company really is making that much money, that all its operations are getting aggregated up into the summary documents correctly.

Charlie Stross has a character in his 'Rule 34', Dorothy Straight, who is an organization-auditor, auditing organizations for signs of antisocial behavior. As I understood it, she was asking whether the organizations as a whole are likely to behave badly - though one way that the organization as a whole might behave badly is by sifting out or creating leaders who are likely to individually behave badly.

What I'm trying to say is that there will be a field of auditing an organization's 'safety case' - examining why it believes that it is a Friendly organization, what its internal controls entangling it with the truth are and so on, something like GiveWell for for-profits.

Replies from: AlanCrowe
comment by AlanCrowe · 2012-08-16T20:13:54.997Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sounds like internal audit

Replies from: Johnicholas
comment by Johnicholas · 2012-08-17T01:03:09.221Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I (and Stross) am taking auditors, internal and external, as a model. Why do you comment specifically on internal auditors?

Replies from: AlanCrowe
comment by AlanCrowe · 2012-08-18T18:46:44.086Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ordinary audit is audit of the accounts; it is focused on money. Internal audit has a wider remit. Expanding the remit of audit is a natural idea. I thought it was interesting and unexpected that it was already being done. I would never have come across the Institute of Internal Audit if it hadn't been for my brother getting a job with them.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-13T23:29:59.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I’d like to encourage betting under this post. Zvi has agreed to advise someone on how to set up the market if a volunteer wants to take this on! Zvi is an expert on betting markets, and having him as an advisor is an awesome opportunity. If you think this sounds like something that you would like to capitalize on, and you are willing to commit to putting in the effort to do the project justice if you are chosen, please fill out the the form.

Bets could be on things like:

  • minimum number of projects that will get started as a result of this post and when
  • measures of success for various projects over various periods of time

Basically, whatever measurable aspects of success or failure people are interested in.

For bets, I encourage people to keep in mind the mission:

Let's collect people who want to work on for-profit companies that have significant positive impacts on many people's lives.

Thus, my request is that you only bet against a project if you think you can prevent yourself from sabotaging people’s efforts as a result. Negative bets are quite valuable, they help give people more realistic expectations and give people something to bet positively against!

The rules for bets that projects will succeed are different in this context than in a lot of standard games. Because the mission is to win the game of making humanity awesome, as opposed to a more restricted game, everything that is ethical and legal is fair game for influencing the outcome of your bets. You can offer resources to increase your odds of winning, such as personal time/money investment in the projects, counseling, connections, office space, or any other resources that seem like they might be useful.

Replies from: DavidLS, moocow1452
comment by DavidLS · 2012-08-16T07:21:08.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I contacted Shannon about this yesterday and am told Zvi will be contacting me shortly.

I've heard a lot of LWers talk about a desire for more concrete ways to handle disagreement, and will be focusing on building a good way to have people to put their karma where their mouth is... not just for this thread, but for all threads.

Like so many 26 hour old projects, the code is very rough. I am not sure when it will be ready. If you are interested in being one of the first people to use the system, please shoot an email to info-market@empirestatemachine.com :)

Replies from: mwengler, DavidLS
comment by mwengler · 2012-08-17T15:07:40.776Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Finally got the password but have no idea what to do with it. I unwrapped the enigma only to find the mystery.

Replies from: DavidLS
comment by DavidLS · 2012-08-22T07:39:11.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by DavidLS · 2012-08-22T07:40:43.291Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey guys, just wanted to let you know I'm still hacking away. Looking like Sunday is likely, with invites going out in the order the requests were received.

I'll post back here then :)

comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-22T01:15:19.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to Thumb Up this post specifically for introducing me to Wufoo when I was looking to hack together an order form that could talk to an API in Google Docs. Thank you, Shannon, and thank you Wufoo.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-22T01:37:27.158Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, Wufoo is awesome, you're welcome.

comment by Marcello · 2012-08-18T04:31:05.409Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Short version: Make an Eckman-style micro-expression reader in a wearable computer.

Fleshed out version: You have a wearable computer (perhaps something like Google glass) which sends video from its camera (or perhaps two cameras if one camera is not enough) over to a high-powered CPU which processes the images, locates the faces, and then identifies micro expressions by matching and comparing the current image (or 3D model) to previous frames to infer which bits of the face have moved in which directions. If a strong enough micro-expression happens, the user is informed by a tone or other notification. Alternatively, one could go the more pedagogical route by showing then a still frame of the person doing the micro-expression some milliseconds prior with the relevant bits of the face highlighted.

Feasibility: We already can make computers are good at finding faces in images and creating 3D models from multiple camera perspectives. I'm pretty sure small cameras are good enough by now. We need the beefy CPU and/or GPU as a separate device for now because it's going to be a while before wearables are good enough to do this kind of heavy-duty processing on their own, but wifi is good enough to transmit very high resolution video. The foggiest bit in my model would be whether current image processing techniques are up to the challenge. Would anyone with expertise in machine vision care to comment on this?

Possible positive consequences: Group collaboration easily succumbs to politics and scheming unless a certain (large) level of trust and empathy has been established. (For example, I've seen plenty of hacker news comments confirm that having a strong friendship with one's startup cofounder is important.) A technology such as this would allow for much more rapid (and justified) trust-building between potential collaborators. This might also allow for the creation of larger groups of smart people who all trust each other. (Which would be invaluable for any project which produces information which shouldn't be leaked because it would allow such projects to be larger.) Relatedly, this might also allow one to train really excellent therapist-empaths.

Possible negative consequence: Police states where the police are now better at reading people's minds.

Replies from: AltonSun, daenerys, katydee
comment by AltonSun · 2012-08-18T18:41:30.208Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Version 0.1 can be for Skype conversations. Imagine the heightened 'super power' ability to discreetly (or not so discreetly) pick up on this during your personal and business Skype chats.

I wear a GoPro camera around my neck for a life-logging project, and have tried it with a wifi (EyeFi) card. If you want live video or pics, the battery lasts around 1 hr for 1picture per 5 seconds. If you want video at 30fps at 960p, the interchangeable batteries last about 1.5 hours and records about 5.5 hrs on a 32gb card (max size supported)

The files are huge, cumbersome, and do little for me.

I have been entertaining the idea of a version that recognizes your mood throughout the day with your webcam, and plots it over time based on what type of tasks you were performing. Over time, your laptop could suggest transitioning from certain tasks to others based on your expressions to optimize for personalized productivity and mood.

Affectiva's Affdex is a company to look to for this, and has a great demo that plots your expressions over time while watching commercials: http://www.affectiva.com/affdex/#pane_overview

Another idea is to make lending out laptops free if the user agrees to having essentially no privacy - you'd sell the information and user expressions as they experience certain sites back to the companies that would pay for this program and reap a healthy profit along the way! (A part of which you'd totally send to me.)

This could be a sustainable way to get more internet enabled laptops into more hands and push people to become more contributing, creating members of society rather than the majority passive consumers that we experience today.

Version .1 of this laptop program could be lending out old/donated/extra laptops under the condition that the lendees who use the laptops create 1 thing a day of notable worth to themselves (or one project per every x hours). So everyone is held together by incrementally improving themselves and creating projects of value that are auto uploaded from a certain folder into a community of people who give each other feedback, etc.

Look forward to talking about this next time I see you in person Marcello. Also typing about this here for anyone else that happens to be reading, feel free to find me on Facebook.com/AltonSun to further the conversation.

comment by daenerys · 2012-08-21T18:32:51.630Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did an internship with these guys a couple years ago, and one of the teams was already working on the problem. Ekman's ideas were specifically brought up as a basic idea of what they were doing, but expanded beyond just microexpressions and the like. Some other things they were looking at included pore-dilation, and thermal imaging.

It wasn't my team, so I don't remember too many details, but I remember a problem being that they had to have the subjects immobile in one place, and surrounded by an array of very expensive cameras and sensors.

If you could design a system where you could set up enough sensors to look at everyone in a room, despite the fact that they were moving around, etc, and be able to pick out warning signs for violence (one of their most desired use cases), you'd be in business.

They were sponsored by DARPA or AFRL, but the work was public, so might be able to find some info by browsing around. Also, if they were doing it, I would guess that other colleges were too.

comment by katydee · 2012-08-21T05:13:18.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm skeptical of this because of my general suspicion of the validity of Paul Ekman's research program, especially since many of the potential applications of this technology seem related to the shakiest area of the research program-- lie detection.

Further, even if you assume Ekman's research is entirely valid, I'm not sure that video analysis technology can be reliable or effective enough to be useful at the present stage, especially when we're talking about stimuli that last for such a short period-- typically 40-100 ms. Machine vision isn't my forte either, so I'm not positive, but you would have to be really accurate for something like this to be fully useful, and quite fast as well if you want real-time conversational feedback. It's also important to consider that having a program like this with a substantial error rate would likely be worse than not having a program at all.

I do think that-- if possible-- this would be a great idea (indeed, it would represent one of the "killer apps" for Google Glass and similar wearable computing projects if it were effective), but I think both the research behind the idea and the ability to actually implement this in an effective fashion are very shaky at this stage.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-13T23:42:20.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


If this post succeeds, it will create a lot of data that will be much more useful if it is organized. I’d like to follow it up with posts in the discussion section, or possibly main for big things, that are focused on more specific niches within the broad topic of businesses that make the world better.

It would be great if more people want to join me with optimizing the organizational end of this. I think the ideal would be to start a discussion thread for this once we see what sorts of responses come in. Perhaps a simple rule to start might be that if you feel inspired to start a new top level thread, post to the organizational thread first, and wait at least 24hrs for feedback before implementing. I think good, well-thought-out high level organization will go quite a ways toward productive discussion and ideas actually getting implemented.

It would also be nice to start a wiki, volunteers for this would be great, but I’d like some discussion about this for at least a couple of days on the organization thread before it happens, since the quality and implementation of the wiki will have a big impact on how useful it is, and it would be best to do it right the first time and not end up with multiple wikis.

For this post, I encourage people to start threads for things such as:

  • people offering physical/material resources.
  • people interested in working on projects in various fields.
  • people interested in leading projects.
  • people who have resources such as niche training or lots of money and a particular passion related to making the world better that they would be interested in making a certain project happen related to.

In addition to posting publicly if you are interested in working on a project, you can also fill out this form to be sent to me personally and not published on the web. I’ll do what matchmaking I can with the forms personally and only send them to people who I think have potential to be good matches. ) to be sent to me personally and not published on the web. I’ll do what matchmaking I can with the forms personally and only send them to people who I think have potential to be good matches.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, ShannonFriedman, Tibor
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-18T04:25:08.296Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

x-posting comment from over here in case anyone else is willing to take this on:

Would creating a wiki for this page be the sort of thing that you'd be interested in?

Things that I think could be sped up with some a program would be to translate all of the comments over wiki format, and organizing the ideas - it would be really cool if posts for business ideas to be tagged and then organized ranked by upvotes, and updated with the upvote updates on the website.

What I'm visualizing is a page with a list of links of ideas that are ranked (people can manually title the idea summaries after the wiki is created), that links back to the LW site. I'd say that's the most important aspect and I'd love to see it done soon, although there's plenty of other organization that would be nice as well.

Replies from: moocow1452
comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-19T22:32:27.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A wiki would be invaluable to organizing something like this. I was thinking something more in the format of a Google Group or a Forum, something that splits the difference between user operated and self organized, but maybe something closer to a wiki that incorporates some Digg and Reddit features, if not just getting a subreddit for Conceptuality... stuffs.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-26T05:43:06.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Wiki is up! Thanks Michaelkeenan!

Michael wrote a script that scrapes the comments on this thread and posts them in ranked order. It is much more manageable to look the list of ideas now:


Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-26T05:46:51.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For anyone inspired to make further improvements, what I think would be most useful would be to:

  • Separate advice/other from business ideas with different sections.
  • Optimize the titles of the ideas so that someone can look at the list and instantly know what each idea is about.
comment by Tibor · 2012-08-23T10:25:05.964Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hello, I'm new on Less Wrong. The original post brought me here from Hacker News. I really like the idea presented by you and my first thought was that is this the right platform to make things happen? I scrolled through the posts and wanted to scan the headlines, just to check what kind of ideas people come up with. I noticed that I was looking at the small margins under the posts, because it signaled a new idea. That made me think that we can do better than a threaded comment system and asking people to organize information that is already there but in the wrong format. The top post right now has 12 comments and I think if each idea would have a separate discussion thread then people would be more active. I have a lot of ideas what a good platform would look like. If you like my idea, then we could put together a simple webapp that is capable of managing the ideas the post generates. It could also be a test if we can build something together.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T21:53:58.536Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you would like to help make these ideas happen, I highly recommend asking questions to the people who presented them.

Most ideas will get glossed over because they are not specific enough.

The easiest way to help people get specific enough that I know of is to ask yourself the question "What could this person say that would catch my attention and cause me to want to work with or invest in them if I were in their target demographic?"

If you use that for your compass of what questions to ask them to be more specific about, and they answer well, then much better odds of a match happening, if someone in their target demographic passes through. And if they end up getting more clarity through your questions and realizing that the idea isn't actually something they want to pursue, then that's not a bad outcome either - they can stop worrying about it and move onto something better suited to them.

In addition to helping them get clear about things you think you would want as an investor, also questions that clarify what they would be looking for in general, and especially as a next step, for the project would help. Have they answered the question "What/who does this project need?" very concretely and specifically?

If you ask the right questions, you just might be able to make the difference between someone getting their project funded or not. We can make bets about specifics of this assertion with David's market ;)

Also worth noting that even though I phrased the question about "what cause me to want to work with or invest in them" in the positive, often what needs to be addressed are peoples concerns to show that the project is actually realistic - so asking the hard questions, that could prove that the idea is not good if the person can't answer well, is actually quite important. Its much better to risk genuinely disqualifying a project than to not give it a chance to be noticed.

comment by Peter_de_Blanc · 2012-08-14T08:47:25.477Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm really excited about software similar to Anki, but with task-specialized user interfaces (vs. self-graded tasks) and better task-selection models (incorporating something like item response theory), ideally to be used for both training and credentialing.

Replies from: Will_Newsome, cicatriz, sinak
comment by Will_Newsome · 2012-08-14T08:59:17.715Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're looking for an institution around which to organize people and projects, I recently created Kilometa Labs for that kinda thing. Will start promoting it in a week or so after we think more about strategy &c. We have a few cool projects in the pipeline as well, so you'd be associating with cool people and cool stuff.

I think you should talk to muflax and Zak Vance about the Anki-like ideas. Will email you with more info, I've already mentioned your ideas to them.

Replies from: katydee
comment by katydee · 2012-08-14T11:59:14.302Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would seriously consider deleting that link until you fix your website. It looks extremely bad and will likely divert people away from your organization.

comment by cicatriz · 2012-08-17T00:36:46.344Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've explored using spaced repetition in various web-based learning interfaces, which are described at http://cicatriz.github.com I'd love to talk more with anyone who's interested. Based on my experiences, I have reservations about when and how exactly spaced repetition should be used and don't believe there's a general solution using current techniques to quickly go from content to SRS cards. But with a number of dedicated individuals working on different domains, there's certainly potential for better learning. I've been working on writing up a series of articles about this. Again, contact me if you want to be notified when that is released.

comment by sinak · 2012-08-14T21:53:09.917Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've just posted a couple of ideas that involve Anki-like systems, it'd be great to get your feedback. In general I think that anything that promotes wider use of spaced repetition and optimized learning techniques has massive societal.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-14T05:02:19.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Feedback on Reichart's idea given as an example:

The best advice is like the best shoe: it doesn't matter how much I like it if it doesn't fit your foot. Related.

And expressed a third way: the best answer to a question depends on both the context and content of the question. Who is asking, and why? What answers will be useful to them, and which ones useless? When someone asks me what computer they should buy, I respond with questions, not statements.

As for the bible functionality- there are few resources for atheists undergoing serious stress, compared to the resources available to Christians. I think that is something that will be fixed by a growing community of atheist writers, poets, and musicians, not a bereavement wiki.

But perhaps there is a gem buried there- wiki software is designed for a growing web of knowledge. What he wants is a single, sequential work which can be edited and adjusted by many people at once: the combination of version control and the tradition of oral epics. Open source community works are already common in music, I think, but the closest thing for text seems like fanfiction, which is far from the idea I'm discussing.

(Feel free to give feedback on this as an example of feedback, as well as the actual content.)

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2012-08-14T18:59:54.227Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As for the bible functionality- there are few resources for atheists undergoing serious stress, compared to the resources available to Christians. I think that is something that will be fixed by a growing community of atheist writers, poets, and musicians, not a bereavement wiki.

Hmm. I had not been thinking about this in a for-profit context (with possible exception of ad revenue when it becomes appropriate), but my current personal project is HumanistCulture.com, a site that will act as a community and curator for secular inspirational art.

For the most part, I'm doing it because I want the community and service for my own ends, and because it is fun. However, there are two extremely important functions it may serve. One is to create art and culture specifically tailored for atheist bereavement. The other is to create stories and songs dealing with the problem Peter Hurford recently addressed [? · GW], which is that our intuitions about how and when to help people are horribly miscalibrated when it comes to worldscale problems.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality made a rational-approach-to-worldsaving a cool, approachable and salient idea. A better variety of stuff like that may be very valuable.

I'm developing the website alongside a real-world community of secular artists, who hopefully will end up providing content beyond my own work and what's currently available under creative commons licenses.

But perhaps there is a gem buried there- wiki software is designed for a growing web of knowledge. What he wants is a single, sequential work which can be edited and adjusted by many people at once: the combination of version control and the tradition of oral epics. Open source community works are already common in music, I think, but the closest thing for text seems like fanfiction, which is far from the idea I'm discussing.

This is an interesting thought. I have limited skill when it comes to the nuts and bolts of web-development. If anyone had thoughts on how to make this work and would like to contribute, let me know. I'm not optimizing for profit but if the content is good enough I think ad-revenue may eventually be non-trivial.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-14T04:41:20.068Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I notice you chose the word "important" rather than "altruistic" or making some reference to social entrepreneurship. Of course I want to start an important startup- but it turns out that importance is much easier to determine looking back than looking forward.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-14T06:54:34.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For a while the working title of the post was "Profitable Altruism".

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-13T23:18:52.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Negative: Negative feedback is valuable. If you think an idea is terrible, don't just downvote, also explain. The trick to giving good negative feedback is doing so with productive goals in mind, which means, rather than saying “this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard”, think about what specifically it is that you think makes the idea infeasible in its current form, and what would turn it into a good, or at least a better, idea.

Keep in mind that negative feedback is a double edged sword. It helps people refine their ideas, and can create success in place of failure. Unfortunately, even in its best forms, it also can easily sap a person’s motivation. It tends to do this on the monkey mind level, not on the analytic level, which is frustrating since negative feedback is such a beautiful tool for the analytic mind. I’ve seen how even the slightest negative feedback can have a huge impact, even stopping people from working on projects that are pretty decent on the whole. There is a minority of people who are relatively unfazed by negative commentary, but most of us can’t help but internalize it somewhat. Agentiness is rare, and something that can be cultivated or trampled with feedback. Being specific is the one of the most helpful things you can do to deliver the most constructive criticism, because the information tends to be more helpful toward solving the problems and less personal.

Another thing that helps avoid killing someone’s motivation is speaking with the assumption that the person you're talking to is an intelligent human being whose idea could be good if worked out a little further. This is often the case, especially here. When people sense that you anticipate that they'll come back with an intelligent answer, they often do.

Here's an example for making negative feedback more specific: Perhaps you think that a person is vastly underestimating the difficulty of raising funds for their idea. I would suggest phrasing it as a question: “How do you propose to get funding for this idea?” You don’t need to convey your doubt in the question, but if you do feel the need to bring it up, do it as specifically as possible: “When I’ve tried fundraising in the past, I found it extremely hard, and extrapolating that, I have a hard time imagining it working for this project. Can you please explain how you see this happening?”

In summary, I think that it is very much worth giving negative feedback, even though it does often harm motivation. Ideas need to be good if they’re going to work, and by giving negative feedback, you are helping people improve their ideas. Even if the person with the idea doesn’t get it or update, it might help bystanders. And there’s a decent chance that the person who you talk to will understand, and you might be able to help a project happen that wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without your well framed remark.

Positive: Validation for good ideas is really helpful. You may think that people who have a good idea know that it's a good idea already. I know a lot of people, though, who feel a little better and more encouraged - and who are more likely to follow through when given validation. So if you see someone mention something great, be sure to give them a thumbs up. It will be even more powerful if you respond with a comment saying specifically why it's a good idea, with as much detail as you can manage. Not only will the person feel validated, but other people reading are also more likely to see the value that you see, so the idea is more likely to get funding, refinement, and resources. If this thread goes as I hope, any comment or up/down vote that you make might well have a impact on whether or not a world-improving project gets implemented.

Clarification: Sometimes someone will make a good point that is obvious to you, but not obvious to other people. If you understand a good point that someone has made and you think it's not likely to get across to others, it's super helpful if you can restate it clearly and succinctly so that the concept gets conveyed to everyone.

Replies from: AngryParsley, Chroma
comment by AngryParsley · 2012-08-14T03:38:11.906Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the biggest problem with your proposal is that it's hard to do a startup with founders who don't know each other well. The founders and early employees will face long hours, stress, and possibly financial woes. Some background history and an interview aren't enough to ensure that someone won't flake. The best co-founders are friends who have worked together previously. As Paul Graham says:

And the relationship between the founders has to be strong. They must genuinely like one another, and work well together. Startups do to the relationship between the founders what a dog does to a sock: if it can be pulled apart, it will be.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, Vaniver, michaelkeenan, John_Maxwell_IV, AlexMennen
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-14T04:12:49.127Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, that's definitely tricky and a downside.

I think having the common philosophies of Less Wrong would go a long way. It would also be an upside if all people are passionate about the cause and have thought it through in a lot of detail before committing to work together. There is also nothing to say that people can't get to know each other well before embarking on a project together, even if they do hook up on this blog. Things like Skype and even planes are easy to use in this day and age - if people are truly motivated and taking initiative, they can overcome that sort of obstacle.

The Less Wrong blog already has a very strong filtering effect, plus the other filters just mentioned, so I think that if/when people get to the point of deciding they want to work together, they'll likely be decent matches. For example, ideas will get chewed on much more thoroughly in this context than most, so I think there is likely to be more consistency of vision between different founding members.

Obviously I'm quite biased having written this post, so I discount my enthusiasm, and am curious about what other issues are that people see.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T02:13:16.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looking at other comments, I want to be a little more specific about why I have more hope for this particular forum than an average group of people reading a blog post who could potentially be cofounders together.

As someone who is part of the culture, I find people who are hardcore Less Wrong types to be much easier to get along with than most people when it comes to conversations that might upset people. Having the common values of truth-even-when-it-hurts and clarity go such a long way toward making communication work and progress happen, among many other great memes. I've met a lot of the crowd in person at this point, living in the Bay Area, and find that even with someone I don't know at all, if they're coming through that filter, I can talk more freely and openly with them than I can with most people, without worry about offending them or other undesirable consequences.

It is my guess that a lot of the interpersonal conflict that kills start-ups comes down to lack of clarity and poor communication. Friends getting along better fits with this notion, because they would probably communicate better and have more shared values and ways of perceiving the world than strangers.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-14T04:33:42.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe there are results (linked by Hanson recently?) showing that cofounders do better when they're selected for merit reasons (i.e. this guy was the best coder we found) rather than identity reasons (i.e. we both went to the same university). It's also relatively easy to get to know people quickly.

Flakes as cofounders, however, is a critical error that must be consciously avoided. I like your mention of previous projects- whenever someone tells me they think we'd make a good founding pair, I try to look for a small project that we can ship in a few months that will give us a taste of how we work together. I've avoided a few mistakes that way.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-14T15:16:42.005Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Something I learned from watching a nearby train wreck: The emotionally dominant person in a partnership should not be a compulsive spender.

Replies from: Reichart
comment by Reichart · 2012-08-17T16:01:17.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-17T16:23:21.337Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More general lesson: look at emotional factors about the founders, not just the abstract question of whether the business would be likely to succeed if it's run by sensible people.

When the idea of that business was first floated, the thing that made me edgiest was actually that the person the storefront was bought from and who had a similar business seemed awfully eager to sell.

Replies from: Bruno_Coelho
comment by Bruno_Coelho · 2012-08-18T13:41:46.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This have to be dome implicit or explicit? Creating a startup with someone who just met is I assume, is made primarily for technical reasons, and after that, for emotional ones. Someone will say to a person they are technically prepared but not emotionally?

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-08-18T14:37:06.349Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's an interesting question. I might have been reasonably blunt about the situation to the less dominant person if I'd seen the problems coming. On the other hand, she was the less dominant person, and I don't know whether I could have said anything general that would have helped. If I'd known the outcome of that business in clairvoyant detail (lost money, lost friendship), I think it might have registered, but there was no reason to think I would have known that much.

After it all fell apart, I read in The Millionaire Woman Next Door that it was a sort of business (gift shop) which is especially likely to go under. That might have been useful information. As I recall, the book has bankruptcy rates for different sorts of businesses.

In retrospect, I don't think they were technically prepared, either-- but I didn't know enough to evaluate that.

In general, it's hard to get good advice.

comment by michaelkeenan · 2012-08-14T21:21:36.882Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd be interested in meeting a co-founder on Less Wrong. I'd want to work on some smaller project first - some trivial website or web app, or a browser extension, that could be finished in a relatively short time. That would give me an idea of the prospective co-founder's skills and work habits. Of course it's not as much information as I'd like to have, but it'd be a good start.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2012-08-14T04:41:27.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anecdotally, Dropbox was founded by two guys who had just met each other.

But yeah, this is probably true in general. Maybe the best we can do is start making friends with people who we might like to start startups with later, as a preliminary step?

I'd like to make friends with a web designer, myself.

Replies from: Reichart
comment by Reichart · 2012-08-17T16:08:59.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Anecdotally, Dropbox was founded by two guys who had just met each other."

No, not anecdotal. While I appreciate Paul Graham's cherry picked examples just like the next person, having looked at the history of hundreds of companies, it is all over the map. In general, you can't "create" success, you can simple try to avoid or mitigate failure. "People" make great companies, by being great about making it work.

But, sadly, and I really mean, sadly, monetarily successful companies (which may not be great companies) are for the most part simply created by having a product people want to buy. You can have a staff of imbeciles selling sugar to children.

comment by AlexMennen · 2012-08-14T04:44:37.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: AngryParsley, wedrifid
comment by AngryParsley · 2012-08-14T04:56:07.642Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That study was about VCs choosing investments, not startup founders working long, stressful hours side-by-side. I realize there are disadvantages to working with friends, but I'm pretty sure the advantages outweigh them. Paul Graham seems to agree, and he makes a living picking founders.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-08-14T06:37:32.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I agree and add my own personal experience as an anecdote. Business gives different incentives and prompts different applications of power. I no longer have several friends, for most part due to business related problems.

comment by Chroma · 2012-08-16T07:06:54.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Imagine that Hacker News beat us to the punch and had a "let's found important startups" thread. Would you be as positive and enthusiastic? HN is geared toward people who know about startup culture. People who have read PG's essays and spent significant fractions of their lives improving their ability to win at startups.

Compare the HN group to the people who will reply to your post. You're selecting against people who already have experience doing startups. (Those people already have the experience and social connections necessary to start another company. There's no reason for them to take a chance on people in this thread.) Also, fluid intelligence is great, but domain experience is much more useful in the case of startups. Finally, it's important to note that LW posters seem to suffer from akrasia. When the rubber hits the road, LW users seem to flee.

Of course, I have little experience in any of these domains. The LW akrasia correlation is simply my impression, not something based in empericism.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-18T07:36:11.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They linked the article today! You can see their comments here.

comment by RomanDavis · 2012-08-27T03:08:31.183Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Food Subscription Service. The natural extreme on the Just In Time pipeline applied to food. This means less wasted food at every stage, and gets you all the benefits of buying/ selling in bulk, meaning the potential for lower price and other gains from trade.

Replies from: moocow1452
comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-28T15:11:01.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Came up after a quick Google Search, I also know that Amazon Fresh is serving the Seattle area.

Replies from: RomanDavis
comment by RomanDavis · 2012-08-29T00:54:28.484Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A quick look shows that the savings on the customer end aren't very good, not even comparable to a good discount store, or even buying in very large bulk amounts. And from reading some of the posts, it looks like super saver shipping doesn't apply, which is the only thing that would make it worth it.

In my head, I was picturing an old school sort of "drive through" grocery, because I don't think there's really a way to make the delivery of goods that need to be cold/ fresh both affordable and timely. Never tried Amazon fresh, and have never lived in Seattle. Might be worth looking into how they do business.

comment by woodside · 2012-08-22T12:11:59.225Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rough Idea: Send brilliant, destitute kids to great schools from an early age in exchange for a percentage of their lifetime earnings.

Depending on the study you read there are up to hundreds of millions of children in the developing world that are in the primary/middle school age range that will never get the chance to attend a school. Some of these children have the genetic potential to be top tier in terms of intelligence and productivity but will never realize this potential.

Develop a cost-effective selection mechanism for finding these diamonds in the rough and present them with a deal. They are moved to a top-level boarding school in a developed country (This could be a partnership with existing schools or a school developed specifically for this program, maybe there is a year long english prep trial school they go to first, there are many details to consider). In exchange they commit to paying some percentage (10% feels about right as a gut-check) of their income to the company for the rest of their lives (maybe there is an option to buy out of the contract for kids that end up sufficiently wealthy, again, many details to consider).

Biggest issues I see:

  • The program will take many years, potentially 2 decades, to start generating revenue.
  • A host of legal hurdles
  • Social/litigious blowback from groups that don't like the idea of plucking third world children from their families and signing them up for what may be interpreted as indentured servitude
  • Reliably selecting the right kids may turn out to be prohibitively expensive
Replies from: pjeby, PhilGoetz
comment by pjeby · 2012-09-10T20:34:57.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rough Idea: Send brilliant, destitute kids to great schools from an early age in exchange for a percentage of their lifetime earnings.

Have you read The Unincorporated Man for some fictional evidence of how this idea turns out? ;-)

Replies from: woodside
comment by woodside · 2012-09-10T21:08:44.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't but I'll check it out, I'm about to go on a 20 hour plane trip.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2012-09-10T03:43:46.937Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You don't pluck them from their families, because you can't do this in the US or Europe anyway. You build the schools in the other countries. You're not going to send them to Harvard. The point is not to get them hooked into the US old-boy network so they can win grants or get venture capital or work for Goldman-Sachs. The point is to get them an education, which is not what top-tier US schools are for anyway.

In the US, I think the law prevents you from doing this, unless you're the military.

Replies from: Desrtopa
comment by Desrtopa · 2012-09-10T04:57:45.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, if it's for-profit venture, then the point isn't to get them an education, the point is to prepare them for lucrative careers, in which case social capital is of high importance.

Replies from: PrometheanFaun
comment by PrometheanFaun · 2013-11-01T21:44:00.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I propose a new term for what we're trying to do here, not for-profit, nor not-for-profit, but for-results.

comment by thetimpotter · 2012-08-17T18:54:41.116Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tacit Political Map

The condensation of informal community rules and customs in to a wiki. The urban dictionary of legal systems.

Enter a foreign community. What are the expectations? How would one surmise what they could offer? How to assimilate oneself?


Arrive at your personal paradise, mentally first. Look around, connect, coalesce.


comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-14T03:00:00.109Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Topics to consider when examining an idea thread

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2012-08-17T03:40:39.830Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are a few relevant posts over at The Rationalist Conspiracy. My take-away: sell something, to avoid falling for the online advertising fallacy.

comment by buggy · 2012-08-21T20:31:36.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Second, my concept ... essentially, borrowing money from your future self for something with a postive ROI expectation value.

Economists can (OK, do) roughly value certain life milestones, such as the increase in lifetime earnings for finishing high school (for the sake of this discussion, let's use $500K for that number). They also believe that certain goals (e.g. passing grades for a semester) can be cash-incentivized. So you let an individual borrow a portion of their future benefit (10%? $50K buys a lot of incentive from a HS student) in the present, with a promise to repay that over a very long time period at a very low interest rate (something that works out to about 20% in total repayments, before factoring inflation, if I had to peg it to something for the sake of argument). A website would have a schedule of incentive schemes, possibly scaled by degree-of-difficulty (passing grades being tougher for weaker students, e.g.), and upon meeting the short-term milestones of that goal, and the final goal itself, incentives would be paid out. This could apply to any process that has a {present value of all future returns} greater than the amount needed to repay: reduced medical costs for weight reduction and smoking-cessation, job certifications (passing a CPA or actuarial exam), time off from work to acquire a work-related skill, cost of improving a home/installing energy-reducing features, etc. Yeah, some of those may not work, but I'm sure there's no shortage of quantifiable processes or goals with a positive future ROI. & I can see that measurement could be tricky, but in the school example we could have schools sign on to the program, in the certification example we get a copy of the certification from the certifying body, etc.

There's an additional monetary multiplier, in that the younger version (the borrower) is almost certainly in a lower income bracket than the older version (the lender), and the money is valued more highly ... I'd happily give $20 inflation-adjusted dollars (a pittance now) to my younger self just to go have fun with (who felt $20 was a lot of money), even taking into account that I wish I'd worked/studied harder when I was younger so I could coast more now. And when it comes time to repay the loan, the fact that I am effectively repaying myself might reduce deadbeatedness.

Of course, not everyone will repay their loans, and the payoff in this venture would be very long-term. So who would provide the seed money for this until repayments match outlays? Well:

  • The same people who loan money to Kiva, not to make a profit, but because they believe incentivizing people is more effective than aid, and if they make a few dollars off it eventually, that's gravy
  • The same people who give gift annuities to schools (a similar mechanism)
  • Foundations with money to invest and an ethical dictate to do something with that money
  • People trying to solve long-term problems (eradicating diseases, improving the education system) who just want their money to do the best thing possible
  • Alumni of the program who see the value (the same way universitites have an easy time getting money from graduates who believe school was one reason they have high incomes)
  • People who see it as a Very Good Idea and choose to fund that instead of a non-profit (I understand you personally may not consider it a VGI, but weaker concepts have attracted more money)

Please proceed to poke holes/refine. thnx. -b.

Replies from: Larks, gwern, Davidmanheim
comment by Larks · 2012-08-24T15:22:46.637Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this very different from just taking out a loan?

Replies from: buggy
comment by buggy · 2012-08-28T21:27:38.780Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For those asking how this is different from a loan, the important difference is that you don't get money just for saying you want to take money from your future self, you get money for achieving metrics that you and the lenders have decided will get you to a pre-selected goal. That goal can be as much about what the lenders want, as what you want (hopefully there will be an intersection between the two sets). And you don't get the money based on creditworthiness, but rather the expected gain in future earnings/benefit that getting the loan (and reaching the goals) will achieve. And the schedule of achievements (and payments) will almost certainly be determined (or at least approved) by the lender ... although I guess a potential borrower could solicit the site/a lender to come up with a schedule for a certain goal and/or pre-determined schedules could taken by the lowest bidder in an open market.

comment by gwern · 2012-08-25T01:27:51.798Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't this just the same as Hanson's idea on investors giving out student loans in exchange for return from future income, but with caps on totals?

Replies from: buggy
comment by buggy · 2012-08-28T20:47:45.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm looking for, but can't find that post ... is there an expand-all function to the threaded discussions? I thought I read all the initial ideas (but not all responses) before posting. In any case, "not really" is my presumed answer, since I think the distinguish features from a generic student loan would be:

  • there would be a specific schedule of milestones for a set list of goals (which could be set by individual lenders, if this was done Kiva-style). The goal is to get the otherwise-dropout to finish school, etc. This provides a societal benefit beyond the benefit to the borrower.
  • the perception that the borrower is borrowing from themselves, rather than "the man" (this may come down to how this is marketed, not a functional differences in the lending mechanism, but I think will help repayment rates, and minimize excessive borrowing)
  • low interest (not limiting the borrower's options down the road, negating the purpose of the loan, as crushing student loans are doing to some folks)
  • a distinct philanthropic and/or societal-benefit aspect (seed money would likely have to come from people with philanthropic objectives, such as raising graduation rates, or long-term vision, such as raising the number of people with skills to solve a particular problem, or filling jobs in a future industry or industry facing a future shortfall of employees)
  • this is by no means limited to schooling ... anything with an expected lifetime positive ROI is game for borrowing from your future self

It's more look-n-feel than a business model, but this business would be client-focused, rather than lender-focused. The biggest practical outcome of that differentiator would be that the loans would not be priced to account for risk (plus the inevitable delta for being unable to accurately predict risk).

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-08-28T20:59:42.732Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you Google "student loans site:overcomingbias.com", the first hit is the relevant http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/10/its-called-stock.html with comments that point to other people's versions; on the second page, http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/10/college-choice.html is also relevant.

there would be a specific schedule of milestones for a set list of goals (which could be set by individual lenders, if this was done Kiva-style).

Loans can come with such triggers and due-dates. They are written in a Turing-complete language, after all.

It's more look-n-feel than a business model

I agree that the optics are the main problem.

Replies from: buggy
comment by buggy · 2012-08-29T17:06:12.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do like the idea of creating a decision market to value those metrics (although the inherent bias of e.g. a rich Stanford alum believing a Stanford degree is worth an extra $10M and wanting to lend "too much" money on that basis only helps the business get seeded).

Unlike a Human Capital Contract, we're presupposing the lender knows the value of the goal, and unlike a loan, the triggers aren't to protect an interest ((re)payment milestones) so much as mold a desirable outcome (achievement milestones), and again, while student loans are the obvious application (and easiest to visualize), this is supposed to apply to any process where future earnings or returns are increased by more than the present value of the loan, and where the goal is less likely to be achieved in the absence of money.

Student loans are already prevalent (even if the terms of the loans are so poor that the purpose of the loan can't be met due to sacrifices needed to repay the loan); while those loans could be preconditioned ("I'll only give you this money if you work towards a degree that promises to repay it, even if you never in fact graduate"), I still think that's a far different story than "here's how much money you can borrow after achieving these steps on the way to this desirable goal (or spectrum of goals)" ... where no money is paid even if e.g. the student gets a "C" in a course they needed to get a "B" in, and only learns most of the material in a course the funder felt was worthwhile, and as a result the student has still gained some skills in logic, math, science, whatever the agenda is that's being pushed.

Optics: 'Real Genius' humor? har. But as important as it is to deconstruct a business model into functional parts, a big part of it is messaging and perception ... and while the process of borrowing from your future self (via a pool of money provided by investors) may be functionally indistinguishable from taking out a loan in many respects, I think the appeal of the two concepts are very different. It is actual human beings we're lending money to here (many of whom, by definition, are undereducated), so perception is more-or-less the reality. The fact that the primary debate still seems to be "how is this different than just lending cash?" tells me that I have a "Tivo problem" ... even if it's a great idea, if it can't be clearly communicated in a sentence or two then it's a non-starter. So, late-night infomercial tagline might be: "Do you feel like you are the only person in the world who would lend you the money you need right now to achieve your goals tomorrow?" If that's not both clear and compelling, then this is a bad idea.

comment by Davidmanheim · 2012-08-24T16:04:21.961Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love this idea, in theory. (Are you willing to start devoting time to the idea?)

The question is how to run a trial for this. Do you start with high schoolers? Or college students? (There are some real advantages there...) If it's a couple of $500 loans, there are plenty of people who would fund them. The infrastructure would be harder. Perhaps in could be run through the college, or as part of a new type of college loan program. (Speaking of which, why are those loan rate so high? Could we do better - because 8% is not a good deal for a cash advance on future earnings!)

Practical questions: 1) Can a minor (High School age) sign a legally binding contract? Who would do so for them? 2) Are monetary incentives a good idea for long term incentification of learning? There are studies that show that when monetary incentives are used, they undermine other sources of motivation. 3) Would they misuse the money (I'd hate to incentivize a teen into buying a iPad so they can waste their time and ruin their academics afterwards...)

I would be thrilled to help with $500 pre-loan incentives for good grades in engineering classes: we need more engineers, and they make good money, even if they starve in college. But are those the students that need further motive to do well in school?

Replies from: buggy
comment by buggy · 2012-08-28T21:22:20.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am willing to put some time into this idea (mostly from the www design and hosting end ... the thought of starting another business makes me very sleepy) ... see my previous post on how far I'd go with an idea.

I think the way to start this would be to ask the people who are ponying up the money what they want to achieve and what they're willing to lend to see that happen, what they think the ROI of borrowers getting that money for that purpose would be, what they think are the specific steps/incentives the borrowers need to reach that goal ... and just put money on the table. If there's money out there, someone will pick it up.

Good questions. r.e. about high schooler and contracts: the parents can co-sign, even if the repayment terms can exceed the parents' life expectancy, or the intent is to sign a new contract at majority age. r.e. downside of long-term incentives: breaking big goals into small, achievable steps is a known-good motivator; this also opens the possibility that instead of e.g. taking a minimum-wage job on the side, cutting into study time (keeping in mind that school is just one possible goal-set), the already-motivated won't have tough life circumstances keeping them from their goals; the rewards don't have to be monetary, I supposed, e.g. Harvard tells already motivated HS students that if they reach all these goals, they get a spot at Harvard (although that's moving away from the core mission).

I think a lot of people choose careers based on potential earnings, so "smudging" the step function out of their income curve isn't going to modify their total reward-incentive significantly (in fact, giving them future earnings at a time when money is more valuable to them increases the total reward, increasing the motivation ... and very-long-term goals can seem too remote to see the payoff).

Those engineers you want to lend to don't have to starve in college ... I would gladly devote a chunk of my current earnings to have made my college life more comfortable (although I suspect that struggling is long-term beneficial). & they won't borrow from themselves if they can already self-motivate ... but the ones who need a push (or have circumstances that might prevent them from completing college, or attending the most useful school for their goals) could still benefit from this. More likely, someone will say "hey, we need engineers, but they're all getting math degrees and heading to Wall Street" and use this as a carrot to shift the degree distribution ... payments might come for getting into a "technically-oriented" college, finishing certain courses, getting the degree, taking a job in engineering, staying there for 5 years, etc.

Admittedly, this is more a cocktail-napkin sketch of an idea than a business plan, and I expect like most startups its mission would evolve, but I think a variant of this has wide applications (e.g. the feds tell rust-belt businesses they can have cheap money to convert to a business that will still exist in 20 years .. really, anything with long-term ROI that needs money now in order to happen at all is a candidate ... think of it, metaphorically, as lifting an object out of a potential energy well).

comment by buggy · 2012-08-21T20:29:41.309Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First, a meta-discussion ... I think when a lot of people hear the word "startup" they think two things: long hours in an under-funded environment, and the hope of a short-term payoff (or at least an exit strategy). This may be incompatible with the idea of pulling a bunch of hours away from a bunch of bright people already involved in other things. It may also be counter-productive to the goal of benefiting people: one of the shortcomings of established corporations is the focus on near-term gains, even at the cost of long-term viability or benefits -- that mindset is exponentially worse in a time-accelerated enviro with a burn-rate that implies a near-future mortality for the corporate corpus.

Personally, if someone told me I had to do just 2 more years of what I went through with a startup in order to never work again, I'd say "no thanks". And while I'm happy to pitch in some time on concepts that either help humanity or personally enrich me (and am extra-eager if we can tie the two together), I'm not leaving my 30-hour-a-week, slippers-&-bathrobe-dress-code, commute-to-the-livingroom business any time soon (although I would if I got involved in something hugely beneficial and moderately profitable). So, I think some of the ideas already mentioned about marrying interests and abilities with different classes of start-ups need implementation if this is going to move from some sort of communal stew to a concrete business with distinct individuals making discrete contributions. [Aside: I think that's a start-up possibility right there ... a mechanism that allows arbitrary-sized contributions to a project (think open-source), but has some (community) basis for valuing those contributions, so when the cash starts rolling in, people can be compensated roughly in proportion to their contributions (yes, this is probably a harder problem than most of the startups suggested here). Thought exercise: if someone gave $1B "to Linux" (sic) for contributions to humanity, how would that money be doled out to contributors?]

Ideas with long payoff time frames are generally not good candidates for startups (unless the founders are willing to light their money on fire just because it's something they just want to see done), which limits the scope of things that can be done in a "non-philanthropic" enviro. I think you also need to delineate classes of businesses: some people will see the philanthropy angle as a mere selling tool to generate funding/interest; other people are interested in "doing good", and have ideas for companies that won't work any better as non-profits than for-profits.

So, for me: I'd like to contribute SOME time to a project with public benefit, and if I happen to get some money out of it down the road, I can decide to commit more time and/or consider that gravy. I've had a web design/hosting business (mostly LAMP) for about 15 years, and do a little bit of most things tangentially associated with that.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, moocow1452
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-22T01:10:51.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience with the Rejuvenate people is quite different - basically, if you are someone like a coach who can generate high income/hour but doesn't work many hours, you just outsource everything.

Coaches (who have taken marketing courses) usually make $97+/hr, so in that position, if you can pay someone $10-50/hr, to do a few hours of work for you - usually they get more done/hour on tasks like cleaning, filing, and basic website development anyway, and then you use a fraction of the time they save you on marketing and doing coaching, and easily make it back while spending much less time working.

If you're someone who can make a lot of money consulting or programming, do a little contract work, and hire college students to do all the work you don't want to for your projects. Have them help you come up with systems that you can easily teach new people if they quit, and you save a lot of time and stress and work that is not what you want to be doing.

I'm working on developing a program with that sort of material for this crowd (decided it was higher leverage use of my time than individual coaching/counseling after seeing the response on this post) - I'd love to quiz you (or anyone else interested) about the topics you'd most like to see covered for making your life better, easier, and more successful when doing start-ups. If you're interested, email me - shannon dot friedman at positivevector dot com. I have a ton of information I've collected through that program and other sources already, so I'm trying to figure out which pieces are highest impact to focus on for this crowd.

comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-21T23:59:12.080Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Was going to make this it's own post, but what about a micro job placement center? A Job-Starter?

Based of AltonSun's reverse Kickstarter, this would be more of a converse Kickstarter or something on par with Craigslist or Fiverr, where people can be sign up to be notified about opportunities for PayPal cash, gift cards, or equivalent wealth for work done that they are skilled in. Unlike Amazon's Mechanical Turk, this would allow for a semi-sustainable income through bigger job prizes, and more variety of work then "transcribe this" or "take data from here to there" for pennies on the dollar, where the jobs can come to you and are further incentivized through gamification or whatnot in the name of prioritization. Maybe I'm asking for too much for nothing, but it is crazy insane hard to find a job where I live, let alone one that won't take a crap on you for minimum wage and you can easily be replaced as a crap receptacle by someone more agreeable.

Maybe take it in a different direction, something like Wealthy Affiliate where you can get the resources to self start, but instead of paying per month and letting it fall into Gym Membership Stagnation, make a bootable usb or an app on your phone that locks you into better productivity habits and out of bad habits, where you can pay your own bills, and toss away the key. About anyone who procrastinates has a market in that, either to make better use of their time, or to bully and coach people who aren't.

comment by scottyah · 2012-08-19T07:02:25.378Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been thinking of developing a way for homeowners to hire the local teenagers and children to do small jobs like lawn mowing, babysitting, dog walking and housesitting etc. A lot of people like to hire local kids, but don't know enough people in the neighborhood, and don't have time to search. It would be a way to strengthen community ties, and foster teen work ethic as well as give them an opportunity to get a start on financial planning and budgeting.

It would just be a way for them to get in touch, and help choose someone reliable. I still don't know how to avoid untrustworthy people preying on children, and I do not know how this would work with child labor laws. As far as I know though, teens have been hired for this kind of work for years without any problems.

Replies from: zoerb
comment by zoerb · 2013-03-06T22:07:25.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nextdoor.com is a neighborhood social network which is very well suited to this use case, among others.

comment by asong408 · 2012-08-18T06:53:26.877Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reinvent the Refrigerator. Since its debut in the 1940s, it hasn't changed much in design. Put a bunch of food in a large cooled box and hope you remember to eat its contents before it rots. There has been some lame attempts by slapping a LCD panel on the front with an RFID scanner, but you still have to remember where you store the food. I think automation and inventory management via mobile device is key. There is a lively discussion on quora right now, but I'd like to also invite people to poke holes and/or add value to my idea.

Basically it's an automated parking garage that is shrunk down to the size of a fridge. You can learn more here I apologize in advance that I'm linking to FB, it's just were the idea currently lives.

The benefit of the company is providing a greener fridge that helps people not waste food, which is a big problem right now. Americans waste 34 million tons of food waste each year. The amount of green house gases, labor, and transportation costs to produce food just to throw away food is maddening.

Obviously the first fridge will cost the same as a luxury car, since you're basically cramming a robot into a fridge, but so was the first computer. I can see this fridge being the next big opportunity where everyone throws out the dumb fridge just like everyone did with their CRT for an LCD.

That being said, I welcome your comments and questions.

Replies from: thetimpotter, thetimpotter, Viliam_Bur, None, Laur
comment by thetimpotter · 2012-08-19T14:13:44.006Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What if facial recognition technology became food recognition technology? More simple than chipping all food items.

Replies from: Persol
comment by Persol · 2012-08-19T15:08:49.039Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking of this same sort of thing for a diet site. Rather than count calories, just photograph your plate with your hand next to it, and have the computer calculate for you.

The main issues I see with doing this in a fridge would be viewing angles and telling the difference between an old carton of OJ and a new carton of OJ.

comment by thetimpotter · 2012-08-18T15:30:50.635Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How about repopularizing chest freezers? Inherently much more energy efficient, and freezing can help save food waste.

Replies from: lsparrish, lsparrish
comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-18T16:42:28.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The trouble with chest freezers is they are a pain to get things from the bottom of. What I've seen happen is stuff remaining at the bottom of the freezer for years on end, eventually becoming freezer-burnt. But if you can automate the stacking and unstacking of things, this could be a good idea. You wouldn't even need the entire top to be openable (or at least, you wouldn't typically open the entire top), there could just be a smaller port for pulling things out of.

comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-18T17:03:09.569Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another idea for encouraging more energy-efficient freezing would be a garage-sized (or bigger) freezer designed for community use. The bigger the better from an energy efficiency standpoint because that means less surface area per unit volume. I'm thinking fully automated storage and retrieval would make this work better as a community good (compared to a walk-in freezer), since there would be no need to employ a person to retrieve and keep track of things manually. You could basically just walk up to it, swipe your card, and tell it which items you want to retrieve, at which point they are deposited on a shelf for you to grab.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-18T17:06:02.282Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Like ice cream vending machines only giant and with peas and raspberries in. Neat!

Replies from: lsparrish
comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-18T17:43:36.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would be sort of like a vending machine, but stocked by the user and with basically whatever you want. However, suppliers probably wouldn't charge too much to do deliveries, especially if there is high volume. Also, if you have an entire neighborhood eating out of the same freezer, there could be significant discounts from making group orders.

Replies from: thetimpotter
comment by thetimpotter · 2012-08-19T14:09:42.829Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Community freezer reminds me of a concept I like. Grocery stores hold effectively no food in case of emergency. With each sale, a percentage fee would pay for similar foods to be stored for you at an extremely secure facility. What if amazon orders would double spend a couple items per order and hold them for you?

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-08-21T10:31:38.253Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There has been some lame attempts by slapping a LCD panel on the front with an RFID scanner, but you still have to remember where you store the food.

A good user interface could solve this, even without the RFID scanner. The touchscreen would display items in refrigerator, sorted by shelves.

Adding a new food: click "new food" icon, select the food from the list, click on the shelf. (You are supposed to do this after you have put the food inside.) Now the panel displays the food on the correct shelf.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-18T15:37:38.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't see how a new fridge is a solution to that problem. If every time you go to the supermarket you buy more food than you'll be able to eat before the next time you go there, eventually you'll have to throw away some food, unless it lasts eternally. The standard solution to that is not going to the supermarket when you're hungry, and it works for me -- actually, if I go to the supermarket when I'm stuffed, it works too much.

but you still have to remember where you store the food

I don't remember ever having trouble locating stuff in a fridge.

comment by Laur · 2012-08-28T15:33:36.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A low-cost alternative is to have a fridge with a glass door. If you have privacy concerns or want to be extra fancy, you can use smart glass, although I would expect that it would raise its price significantly.

Seeing inside the fridge without opening the door is also good for energy conservation.

comment by thetimpotter · 2012-08-15T20:13:10.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

active browser history

I've noticed that more than a few people will have 20+ tabs open in their browser, for weeks at a time, while actively using only two or three tabs. These websites will occupy significant portions of the flash memory, using several gigabytes.

I call it active history because this is a management tool for tabs that you're not yet ready to search through your history for.

The browser plug-in would allow ' x ' recent tabs (or a memory limit), and kill the page for any older tabs. The url would be saved, the tab would still be there, and when the user opens the tab again the page reloads.

The point is that only the URL must be saved, and the system memory could be used for better tasks.

bits not gigabytes

Replies from: BrassLion, RomeoStevens, thomblake
comment by BrassLion · 2012-08-17T00:29:47.847Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Firefox already does this. Options> General> Only load tabs when selected. It's just as good as you suggest it would be, particularly on slower computers.

Replies from: thetimpotter
comment by thetimpotter · 2012-08-17T18:27:34.662Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does the function perform as imagined, or does it lead to new issues?

Romeo brought up a great point, that it may have been a psychological barrier.

Replies from: folkTheory, BrassLion
comment by folkTheory · 2012-08-20T01:46:51.883Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It leads to annoyance for me. Whenever you switch into a tab, it starts loading (from the point of view of someone who wasn't aware the page hadn't loaded, it seemed to be reloading). As soon as I saw BrassLion's post, I went into the options and disabled it.

comment by BrassLion · 2012-08-18T14:17:38.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It doesn't reduce the number of tabs I have open - in fact, it probably increases it by removing th technical barrier. Everyone once in a while I go though my open tabs and either read them, bookmark them, or close them. I believe there's an extension that will actually automatically close your oldest tab when you open a new one if you have more than n tabs open, but I don't much see the point of it - if I need a fresh, uncluttered tab bar for some project I use tab groups. Comittment devices are cool and all, but sometimes the technical issue is the real issue, not tht psychological one.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2012-08-15T21:39:45.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The barrier seems to be psychological rather than technical.

comment by thomblake · 2012-08-20T18:59:05.146Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would be hard to know which tabs just represent a URL to remember, and which ones have important state information. One way of preserving a particular version of a web page is often to keep it open in a tab; this potentially removes that ability.

comment by KrisC · 2012-08-17T19:11:07.008Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am developing a decision making app.

The user is prompted with the phrase "I want."

The user's request is matched against a database of peer-generated responses. But the search does not end there. The search results are a front end to the content which is also peer-generated. The content payload could potentially be any function of the smartphone, though it is usually screen output such a set of instructions or a link to a website. Request parsing and wild-carding is integral to reduce the number of database entries.

Should the user not be satisfied with the results presented, then the request will be broadcast through the network to peers with a favorable history. In the first pass, peer's database will be searched. If this is not sufficient the request will appear as an unanswered question to be answered by other users if they choose to respond. I shouldn't need to tell the LW audience that Bayes' Rule is used to evaluate the responses by peer. An optional milieu field helps to narrow down areas of expertise for individual contributors.

The program is integrated with phone's calendar function, allowing delayed and repeating execution of requests.

The application incorporates a screensaver which builds upon the individualized database arrangement to deliver peer-created scenes to a fixed storyline, which showcases emerging technologies. These stories display links for users to access speculative technologies, then the users are directed to open source projects (if they follow my links).

On top of all this, add the usual slew of social media options: upvoting, banning, groups, multiple user profiles, anonymous searches, recruiting incentives, et cetera.

My intention is to leave the code open source and offer free and paid versions of the app. The consumer version I am calling 'Hope' and the developer's edition I am calling 'Plan A.' Working on my own I hope to get this project to a working demo in December of this year. Currently the code is hosted at BitBucket. I plan on moving over to GoogleCode when I iron out some connectivity issues.

As a closing note, let me mention that this project was originally inspired by the question: "Why aren't more people putting 3D printers to practical use?"

Replies from: Epiphany
comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-20T02:16:03.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Critique of presentation:

I am developing a decision making app. The user is prompted with the phrase "I want."

This will be a frequent assumption: Decision-making app? On a phone? This can't happen.

The user's request is matched against a database of peer-generated responses. But the search does not end there. The search results are a front end to the content which is also peer-generated. The content payload could potentially be any function of the smartphone, though it is usually screen output such a set of instructions or a link to a website. Request parsing and wild-carding is integral to reduce the number of database entries.

I think what you're saying is "Once the user types what they want, the phone does it like a command. It can do almost any command this way." Really, what needs to be in place of this paragraph is an example. The example should either support the decision-making claim, or the decision making claim needs to be reworded.

Should the user not be satisfied with the results presented, then the request will be broadcast through the network to peers with a favorable history. In the first pass, peer's database will be searched. If this is not sufficient the request will appear as an unanswered question to be answered by other users if they choose to respond. I shouldn't need to tell the LW audience that Bayes' Rule is used to evaluate the responses by peer. An optional milieu field helps to narrow down areas of expertise for individual contributors.

Now I'm confused about what kind of question the user will input. Are they asking the phone to perform a command, answer a question, or make a decision? I have no idea at this point.

The program is integrated with phone's calendar function, allowing delayed and repeating execution of requests.

Okay, that sounds useful all by itself.

The application incorporates a screensaver which builds upon the individualized database arrangement to deliver peer-created scenes to a fixed storyline, which showcases emerging technologies. These stories display links for users to access speculative technologies, then the users are directed to open source projects (if they follow my links).

Ooh shiny! But... why is it included? I am questioning "what is the concept for this project"? Is there an over-arching concept that explains why all of this is under the same umbrella? Maybe these should be separate apps.

My intention is to leave the code open source and offer free and paid versions of the app. The consumer version I am calling 'Hope' and the developer's edition I am calling 'Plan A.' Working on my own I hope to get this project to a working demo in December of this year. Currently the code is hosted at BitBucket. I plan on moving over to GoogleCode when I iron out some connectivity issues.

How will the commercial version support itself? What is being paid for that's not available in the free version? If you don't answer questions about money immediately, people lose interest very fast.

I do not see a reason for the name "hope" or "plan a". I will forget both of these names, due to not making any connections for them. If people can't remember the name of something, it can really slow you down in marketing. I suggest that instead of explaining the name for the product, that you figure out a way to convey your umbrella concept so that people can remember what's included in this app, and then name it something related, so that they remember the name.

As a closing note, let me mention that this project was originally inspired by the question: "Why aren't more people putting 3D printers to practical use?"

I don't know why this is relevant. Is there something about this method of conception that makes your plan special? Point it out, or else leave that note out to respect the reader's limited time and lack of need to know this info.

We may have to go through this a few times to get out all the knots, then try presenting to a few people in your target audience as a test. If test fails, rinse and repeat.

My communication abilities are not good because I am able to magically present things well on the first try, but because I'm capable of figuring out how to present things after being persistent.

Don't know if I'll stick with this one - I'll have to see how it helps the world in order to invest significant time into it. You didn't include that in your post. That would be a good thing to include when you make your second version of this.

Replies from: KrisC, KrisC
comment by KrisC · 2012-08-20T22:55:04.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the review Epiphany. This is the kind of feedback I have a hard time finding.

The general message I received from your post is that I undersold the project. I did seek to keep my expectations understated. This audience does not seem to like overstated expectations.

There have been times when I have explained the project and felt that the person I was speaking to encountered an ah ha! moment, an epiphany. This is the kind of feedback that makes me feel good, but it is usually not very constructive.

Let me address your points.

This will be a frequent assumption: Decision-making app? On a phone? This can't happen.

Not much I can say to someone who makes up there mind on the first sentence. If the description were restructured this objection could be put off, but how would that help?

It is have been very difficult to categorize this app. If decision-making app is not the right phrase, what is? Wish fulfillment app seems even more preposterous. Search engine is misleading, as the search is only a step towards meeting a desire. Some people have mistaken it for a shopping app, which is only partly correct.

I think what you're saying is "Once the user types what they want, the phone does it like a command. It can do almost any command this way." Really, what needs to be in place of this paragraph is an example. The example should either support the decision-making claim, or the decision making claim needs to be reworded.

Once the user types - or says - what they want, the phone lists a set of search results. Upon selecting one, a screen is displayed, perhaps but not necessarily indicating what function of the phone will be activated. The most common action is the display of a link in a browser. It could however dial phone number, show a movie, ask the user to respond to a question, send a text message, or even send a message to a piece of electronics.

So let's say you say you want an apple. One result may post a link to a price aggregator which tracks local supermarkets and show you where apples are on sale. Another result might suggest that you grow an apple tree. A third result could tell you that recent research suggests that people who want apples actually need more exercise and suggests you do jumping jacks. A final result might be a picture of a lolcat with an apple.

From your history, the program knows that you are more likely to accept results from the contributor who lists an apple as a fruit available from a supermarket price aggregator. That result will go on top. The contributor who posted the erroneous research you had already banned, so that result is handicapped in the rankings. You may end up clicking on the funny picture and give it an approval, depending on your mood, and thus end the search. In the future, you will not only receive more results from that source higher in the rankings, but also your app will spread that result preferentially to peers.

The application incorporates a screensaver... which showcases emerging technologies

[W]hy is it included?

What may not be evident is that the purpose of the app is not to get people more stuff. The purpose of the app is to refine the procedures that users follow to get things that they ask for. The decision of what the "best" method is highly personal, and so the ranking is personal and informed by the opinions of like-minded peers.

So what does this have to do with the screensaver? The screensaver is the means to put into the users' minds and hands the things that I want to have available: space migration, intelligence increase, and life extension. By placing these things into an application which improves the methods of acquiring them through open source methods, they will hopefully be developed faster. This is a concrete boon to humanity.

It is my intent to develop the content in another application. However, to make use of the power of crowd-sourcing the content needs to be linked to the app.

How will the commercial version support itself? There are no costs to pay that I haven't already paid. Google provides the hosting. Users provide the phones and the content. I and future open source developers develop the product.

What is being paid for that's not available in the free version?

The slightest of bells and whistles. Background colors and images. The paid version is a bit of a joke. The user could just download the free version and ask the app how to get the premium features.

The paid developer version is, on the other hand, a sincere fundraising attempt.

If you don't answer questions about money immediately, people lose interest very fast.

Still don't think 'people' are getting it. The primary value is not derived from being the owner of the distribution of the software. The value is realized by the person using the app. It provides a forum for the competitive evaluation of methods of production and acquisition for the benefit of the users.

A secondary type of value is extracted by contributors. They get to influence users directly. Unlike a mere Wikipedia editor who provides background information, these contributors tell people what to buy and how to live their lives.

This reputation-based value is a potential path to monetization. By providing the app, we also have the ability to provide the seed database. I myself do not drink Pepsi. If I clone my own database and provide it as the seed, Pepsi will not be included. With the right inducement I can include PepsiCo as the source of Pepsi. Or even provide a link to the (hypothetical?) Pepsi distributor locator app.

I do not see a reason for the name "hope" or "plan a."

I 'hope' that I can find a way to 'plan a' way to get what I want. Please give me a better suggestion.

3D printers

Is there something about this method of conception that makes your plan special?

3D printer operators need models which are easy to provide via a database. 3D models can do double duty as elements used to create animated scenes such as used in the screensaver.

Closer to the core, the app is about individuals meeting their needs better. Not only can 3D printers provide completely customized items specific to the user, they can also be used to build other tools. With a 3D printer and the right set of instructions, the user will be able to provide for many of their own needs. While the scope of 3D printers' capabilities are currently somewhat limited, there is little doubt that their abilities will increase to a point where they are profitable for many more people to own.

I'll have to see how it helps the world in order to invest significant time into it. You didn't include that in your post.

The app helps the world with the same goal as SI's rationality outreach program, just using different means. We all want people to make better decisions. It would be nice if everyone learned better critical thinking skills. I just want to automate those skills in an app.

Point it out, or else leave that note out to respect the reader's limited time and lack of need to know this info.

You have a point about requiring the readers to keep thinking to get the whole message. But Socrates had a contrary opinion when it came to learning. Learning takes place in your head, not your ears. I am trying to recruit developers -- people who need to keep thinking about this in order to be useful at this time.

So in summary, I have heard it said that in order to create a successful social app you should take something you learned in EvoPsych and automate it. I am attempting to mimic the two methods of decision making. Either imitate a successful peer or do the research yourself. In this context, use the app and, when you have a better idea than what is listed, contribute content.

Replies from: Epiphany
comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-21T01:22:32.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The solution to disbelief is to make a verifiable claim. You can get clobbered so hard for making a verifiable claim that is wrong that it seems bold and people will hear you out then. Also, they can relax as soon as they have consciously noted to themselves that there is some way to test what you said - they're no longer paranoid that you can fool them when they have such an easy way to prove you wrong.

And sometimes it's best to let people see for themselves, be impressed, and categorize something by themselves. So, instead of "It makes decisions." I would give an example that is immediately verifiable as soon as you use the program. I would say "Type in X and it will say Y" - give a few more impressive examples to give the gist of the way that this thing "reasons" or whatever it does.

Hmmm... this is almost like a phone operating system, a different interface that's essentially language-based rather than visual-spatial. That could be really handy, especially if you're having a terrible time finding your buttons. Heck, I'd love to have that on my computer. And it does speech recognition? That's awesome.

Okay, I now understand why some people will think its awesome. (:

"From your history, the program knows that you are more likely to accept results from the contributor who lists an apple as a fruit available from a supermarket price aggregator. That result will go on top. "

Oh wow. I see this now. The implications for targeted advertising are all over that. I wonder what your stance is on targeted advertising? If you take a stance of "no" on that early on, I'd advertise that and put your decision in a prominent place - there's a growing movement of people who are starting to understand that they're being tracked and they don't like it. You'll get more respect and attention from them if you refuse to use it. Might be a way to stand out from competitors at some point, either now or in the future.

Those three paragraphs (with the search, the apple, and the way it selects results) were a really good start at explaining.

I feel like the screen saver fits in now, which is because my mind has decided this is kind of like an operating system. Or an operating system upgrade. Or a totally new paradigm about how to use your phone. That's enough of an umbrella to make a screensaver make sense.

Ok, so to confirm: the screensaver is a way to promote ideas? You want the public to know about technologies that you want to see happen so that they happen faster?

"It is my intent to develop the content in another application. However, to make use of the power of crowd-sourcing the content needs to be linked to the app."

That feels out of context.

So do you intend to make money off of the app or not? If not, definitely mention that it's non-profit. If this particular method (selling background colors) has been proven profitable, then cite an example and the amount of profit. Either making the claim if being non-profit or making a claim to know how to profit is really important. That's a lot of people's first question and a lot of people won't take you seriously if you don't have a realistic answer.

"This reputation-based value is a potential path to monetization."

Do you have plans in place for spammers? If not, they will ruin your app. Think I'm kidding? Back in 1998 you could try and find a pair of shoes on line, or some glasses, or other mundane household items. It didn't matter what you typed in because every result would be porn.

That's what will happen to your app if you have no security against it.

Wow 3-D printers. You have quite a vision for cell phones.

Okay, I'm going to suggest another rewrite: If I was you, I would start with the three paragraphs I mentioned before (with the search, the apple, and the way it selects results), elaborate / add information, and also, let the reader know how many users your app has so far. If it's growing quickly, let us know how long it takes to double?

Replies from: KrisC
comment by KrisC · 2012-08-21T18:29:02.653Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before I get to the rewrite, let me an answer some questions. The pitch is not the place to answer all questions, but instead just enough to recruit users

Form Factor There are a few misconceptions that I have allowed to creep in in order to simplify my description. While I am currently writing the app to be run on a smartphone, this is only the current design iteration. It started as a website, but websites can't properly store data locally. This took up several redesigns until I moved onto a standalone Java app. Then the rise of smartphones happened. Smartphones have many features to recommend them for this application. They are ubiquitous, feature a modular code design, and specialize in data transfer. And they are programmed in Java, so minimal learning curve.

The point of the backstory is that smartphones are a single form factor. A more visually appealing form factor is, what I refer to as, the 'magic mirror.' The magic mirror is a Raspberry Pi running Android and connected to a wall mounted flat screen TV. This TV is not a dedicated device, but a ~$35 component which runs the app on a single input (HDMI) to the TV. The premium version of the app makes configuration very easy.

Another form factor is far more utilitarian. A headless version, run on a Raspberry Pi, executes pre-programmed queues of commands without user interaction.

Note to makers: The reliance on the Raspberry Pi is not absolute. I was thinking Arduino before. The program is only in Java and Android because I decided to learn Java to execute the project. Rapberry Pi is the cheapest computer that runs Android that I know of.

Money at the App Store Honestly, money is a secondary concern. This project is a tool.

Even if no one else ever uses the app, I will draw value from it (though perhaps not enough to offset the time invested already, but that's Sunk Cost and written off).

Even if someone steals the idea, the open source version will be more efficient because it does not need to incorporate overhead to support financial motives. I have sufficient code and description posted to protect my own right to develop and publish. This development trail goes back several years across multiple sites.

So let's look at possible sources of revenue anyway.

The app store is a possible source of income. If there is a free version of an app and a pay version, some people will pay for the app. I wouldn't, but some people will. As I said above, the only thing I want to give those people is a little ease of customization.

Another way the app store can be used to generate income is through soliciting donations. When you ask for people's time and then ask for people's money, you get more of people's money then a direct request for donations. Using the hierarchy of gamification rewards (Status, Access, Power, Stuff), the first reward we give is status.

Another reinforcement mechanism that I am trying to call into play amounts to triggering the Sunk Cost Fallacy in users who decide to become contributors - financial or content. This is the lesser of the two purposes for splitting the app into two implementations. Users who go to the trouble of downloading an new app are going to feel the need to make use of its features. The relevant feature is the ability to add content.

The user is directed to download a new app ('Plan A') after they have created new content on their own (as opposed to when solicited from a peer). At this moment the user is being asked to take an extra step, possibly have to delete things from their phone, and to download a new copy of the app. This is because they have said they know how to do something better than someone else. This is when we ask them to upgrade to contribute more, and this is where we ask them for money. Maximum is $20 on Android market per app sale.

The new version of the app simply displays a full set of options for creating new content. These settings can be confusing for lay users which is the major reason they are kept apart. The same functionality should be accessible from the search bar in any version of the app.

Android apps make very little money compared to iPhone apps. Porting to iPhone should be an early priority.

Money and advertisers The model here is the phonebook. Businesses pay to get listed. We administer the starting directory that every app loads with. This is baked in at the code level in a mechanism used to simplify comparing databases. Under most conditions users will not be deleting these initial tables from their own devices. This does not guarantee top ranking, only the inclusion of the correct information in the results. If you don't pay, you aren't guaranteed even that.

Covert Advertising This is not meant to be a capitalist endeavor. It is meant to compete in a capitalist marketplace. The project is meant to drive users to other open source projects and solutions.

In terms of utility modeling: Every open source advance is available to me, so my fitness is increased by the sum of all open source knowledge. So is everyone else's. Preferential access to open source solutions exist. Fitness is a relative measure in a closed system.

I want "to be reminded to take my pills twice a day" Sample Responses: set alarm "Take my pills" every twelve hours, set alarm "Take my pills twice a day" time to be specified, text messages on timers.

User chooses to look for additional alternatives. Request sent to peers in network. User will not be satisfied without in home care. An opportunity. User could have been satisfied with talking to her daughter on the phone as she was actually looking for companionship.

I want "I'm hungry" Sample Responses: google maps closest restaurant, closest supermarket, local peer with excess food.

User closes search screen without selecting anything because the google map preview was sufficient. Ratings remain unchanged.

I want "to learn German" Sample Respones: google search with a website that teaches German, peer offering language lessons in exchange for dinner, Rosetta Stone website.

User chooses the peer tutoring based on the photo in the response.

Spammers The sharing algorithm is meant to allow spammers in, but force them to have a lower reputation. They play by the rules. I want something. They offer something. Their offer is of low value so they don't get up-voted.

My fear is account hijacking.

Current users I don't have users because I don't have a demo yet. I have abandoned my last several builds due to difficulties of peer to peer networking. What I have are small groups of reviewers who I consult for advice. Even that runs into problems. I usually only get one round of feedback from each person before they agree. And then stop providing meaningful feedback.

What I need are developers. I have taught myself various computer languages for the purpose of putting this program together. Experienced developers would hopefully already know how to implement the missing components. To reach developers I need a demo. So the only thing I can see to do is to continue work on the demo and to build up supporters and collateral skills and assets in the meantime.

Replies from: Epiphany
comment by Epiphany · 2012-10-06T01:01:21.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm sorry for the delay. I got tied up in other things for a while. Here are my thoughts:

Okay, it was really important for me to realize you weren't trying to make money, you're just trying to do something useful. I think, with each presentation you make, you should make it explicit either that your presentation is ONLY for the end users (if so), OR (if not) that you're doing this as an act of altruism / hobby / non-profit organization / however you classify it.

Another reinforcement mechanism that I am trying to call into play amounts to triggering the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Really? Wouldn't it be better for all constructive purposes if you showed a solid reason to invest? Not only does that provide a more stable basis for getting investments, but it will force you to reality-check and ensure that your users are getting something of value out of the project. Not forcing yourself to jump through that hoop might result in a lost opportunity for getting important feedback / taking it seriously.

Phone book

Okay, why will users use a phone book that has only a few entries? Why will businesses pay for inclusion in a phone book if users aren't using it? Neither users or businesses will want to use your phone book in the beginning. This is a catch-22. How will you begin it?

It occurs to me to wonder what kinds of competing apps are out there and how yours compares to them. I'm not a cell phone apps connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination. I barely use my phone. If I could speak all my commands to it, it might actually be useful to me for some purpose other than time sensitive calls while I'm out of the house - I can't stand typing each letter individually when I know I can do up to at least 105 wpm on a keyboard. If lost, I will take advice from ten strangers before I try and use it to pull up online maps. For this reason, convincing users to choose your app instead of competitors is probably not among my best abilities. All I can really do help you figure out how to make your presentation understood.

comment by KrisC · 2012-09-16T17:07:38.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[This is an advertisement.]

Are you beginning to think your phone might have an agenda of its own? You certainly seem to be doing more, at your phone's suggestion.

A few weeks ago you downloaded an app which promised to keep track of your schedule and diet. You asked it to set up a few menus and before you knew it you were eating better and cheaper. It even found a neighbor with some same apple trees who needed to borrow a shovel. Bonus: free apples.

Sure, sometimes the phone gets things wrong, but you can correct it.

It might be the interface, or the user created content, but the phone now seems to be able to keep track of just about everything.

You want... to try it.

        to help build it.

        to read more.
comment by temujin9 · 2012-10-06T17:59:54.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I work for a start-up, and I've worked for a number of them over the years. While it's been some of the best and most fulfilling work I've done, there are several things you need to consider.

1) Real start-ups (as opposed to ordinary new businesses) are a strange kind of betting game. They are long-shots that pay off extremely well if they hit, such that investors can afford to fund a hundred of them to get five that survive and one that hits big. This is a very different economic landscape from the one that your average job exists in, and many of your hard won beliefs about how a business works will be wrong.

2) The pay-off is pretty much all at the end, when you (maybe) hit big, or (maybe) get bought in a tech-and-talent acquisition, or (probably) get another higher paying job on the back of all the experience you've acquired. Terms like "ramen profitable" and "remaining runway" should give you a feel for the high-risk, high-stress, and questionable reward landscape that you're entering. This isn't easy, and it's hardest at the beginning, before you get customers and traction. It's also difficult on folks with family: the combination of low money, high stress, and long hours can be hard on life outside of work.

3) Remember what I said about "long-shot bets"? Your venture is probably going to fail, or everyone would already be doing something like it. Have a parachute handy, and a backup chute.

4) You will be doing work you weren't prepared for. No matter how large your comfort zone is, a good start-up will try to push you outside of it. You will agree to (or be tricked into) things you find you cannot do well, and so will everyone else around you. Getting good at handling failure (yours and others) is the only way you'll survive in the job long enough to see that pay-out.

5) There is kool-aid, and you have to drink at least a little. Take small sips, and above all, learn how to make the mix more palatable. Yes, this will mean dealing with (at times) people who are more or less completely irrational. You're doing something good for the world, and sometimes that means getting your hands dirty.

Further reading: Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator has lots of well-written ideas about (among other things) start-ups. There are undoubtedly others, but none leap to mind quite so readily.

(That all said: I'm a start-up addict. I will probably be working them, in some form or another, until I die. So if your start-up needs heavy back-end IT resource, I might be able to help you get tooled up . . . and if you want to work in an existing start-up with -- warning: kool-aid -- some of the hottest Big Data tools out there, let me know, because we're hiring.)

comment by Mister · 2012-08-22T12:58:42.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A web community where users gather relevant information/media about recent news

Problem The internet is huge now. Information or media about stories in the news is all around but not always easy to find, especially in one focused area. That video this article mentioned. Those photos that were reported on. That relevant information only people with expertise sits on, that the journalists hasn't found because they have a tight schedule. It's out there, you just don't know it.

Solution A dedicated website where users gather this information from all the corners of the web. A community where everyone focus on finding that photo and enlighten each other.

Progress I've actually created that website.

As an example of how the site works, a user saw an article about french tourists who got suspended jail in Sri Lanka for taking demeaning photos next to a buddha statue. The user then created a "subject" about it, found here: http://upnorthtimes.com/index.php?option=com_categories&view=popularsubjects&layout=subjectdetails&subjectid=248

Later, that user set out to find those photos. After finding them, he created a discussion thread within the subject where he posted the website where they can be found: http://upnorthtimes.com/index.php?option=com_kunena&func=view&catid=239&id=146&Itemid=267

Now users can see the photos for themselves and lay to rest the question of "wonder how bad those photos were?".

Obstacles We still have a few bugs to sort out. If you visit the site and the page loads everything to the left, just reload it until it loads correctly. There is also the matter of promoting the site correctly. If any of you have a good idea or want to help contribute/spread the site I would be thankful!

Replies from: buggy, Persol
comment by buggy · 2012-08-22T15:46:40.425Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can see this expanding into news-like arenas, e.g.:

Friend of a friend had their dog pulled out of their car and tossed into traffic (you may remember the story). So friend starts a site to gather info on the suspect, and eventually they have enough of a profile and info that they handed the bolus to a private detective who busted the guy. (I have another friend with a stolen -- not lost -- pet, who would like to accrete info on the thief).

Or, a person was shot and killed in my neighborhood, and since people don't talk much 'round here, that crime will never be solved. But some people know his friends, some his enemies, some his work history, etc., and if you put enough of that info together, at a minimum when people google the victim, they'll end up on this site, where they might be able to add a datum or two. Eventually, maybe a clue forms.

Basically crowd-source crimestoppers/solutions to individual problems (rather than answering a generic question whose answer can be reused ... that market is cluttered).

comment by Persol · 2012-08-22T14:57:49.400Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a very good idea. Generally Google or Reddit works for this sort of thing, but focusing on aggregating news only is useful.

Few things:

  • How would you consider monetizing this? The online advertising bubble appears to be shrinking, as people realize minimal returns. For a similar website I've been considering an iP*/Android app, but the return still looks low.

  • Much of this information can be gathered automatically. The website I mentioned above is for an automated new summary generating site... which only works 90% of the time. For what you're doing, simply gathering and listing the information automatically is relatively easy.

  • Is moderation required to scale? I wonder if the topic resolution may not be agreed on for busy topics. Using the example above, one person may find the photos with Buddha. Another may find video of it. You may end up with a video thread, a photo thread and a thread with both. Using another example, at what point is a new Curiosity rover discussion a new 'subject'. If they find little green men I'd expect a new subject... but what if the rover gets flipped upside down? You can let users decide this, but you'll likely end up with users making multiple versions of the same article/subject/thread.

Replies from: Mister
comment by Mister · 2012-08-22T17:08:27.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Monetizing: If the site gets popular, I am considering a pay-for-privilege service. Ads may or may not pay off though.

Regarding moderation: Yes, there are no "rules" of how this works yet. But with the limited activity there is now, this is not a problem. If the site grows then I would like these rules to evolve naturally, so I don't limit the creativity of the community.

comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-20T11:30:23.681Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lendle's for sale...


They're looking for low six figures afaik, but I figure I should at least bring it to the table.

comment by lincolnquirk · 2012-08-17T02:57:51.419Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Product Distribution in Rural Africa ("Amazon.com for the developing world")

Manufactured goods can improve the lives of poor people drastically at very little cost. Some low-cost frequent buys are already well-distributed, like soap and prepaid phones. But bigger-ticket items are not -- for example, hand carts and solar powered lanterns. Existing microfinance structures and NGOs can help farmers obtain these items, and the items' high utility quickly allows the farmer to repay any loan. However, the gap is distribution: the farmers don't know that the items exist, and if they found out about the item, they would still have trouble getting it.

The idea is to develop a distribution network. This is not an easy task. To help farmers learn about the goods, you could distribute brochures via NGOs and the microfinance system. To transport the goods, use group buys to lower the costs, and the bus network seems potentially viable for small deliveries. In a few years, the internet and smartphones will be widely distributed in the developing world, so the possibilities for a technology-based platform will start to come into play. This is a slow, long-term idea; there will not be any cashing out anytime soon, and it's going to be a painful grind. That said, I think it's an enormous business with a huge positive impact on the world.

Note: I'm working on another startup right now and don't intend to switch ideas until this one is done, so this is a long-term play. But I figured I'd post the idea anyway, see if people have interest or special insight. I know someone who's started an NGO to produce hand carts (http://anzacart.org) as well as some people in the optimal philanthropy community, who presumably have connections via NGOs to Africa.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-15T08:38:21.675Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have unusual abilities that I would like to share for a cause.

My terms:

For short-term projects and consultations that I accept, I will consider a "pay only if I make you money" or "we have no money, tip you later if possible" agreement, basically "volunteering with the risk of getting paid". I do not have the ability to leap off the cliff and go full-time into the start-up world at this point. I do not have part-time hours available.


I'm a psychology enthusiast with a special interest in gifted adults. This specific focus is relatively rare and may be very useful at answering questions for people who are trying to find, motivate and organize multiple gifted people and to create a good environment for them to actualize their potential in.

Communication. Have no idea how to explain your amazing idea? Don't know how to get through to everyday people? Can't get people to get along? I'm good at figuring these out. Note: I am not saying I will instantly know how to communicate things, I'm saying I can figure it out.

Give me "impossible" problems - I love challenging my creativity and seeing whether I can solve them. Sometimes I seek it out just for the sense of challenge. Not everybody is even willing to try doing a challenge that hard. Give me a paperclip and some duct tape, ask me to do something impossible and see what happens - I relish that. (No, I will not attempt just anything. I have my own way of determining whether a challenge is worth attempting, but you can throw it at me and see whether I will attempt it.)

Inventing stuff. I love inventing! I'm especially good with visual-spatial tasks and systems. I program all day, and then to relax, I make 3-D models with the goal of challenging myself to build something that is practical in ten ways at once AND beautiful (read: visual synthesis tasks). That is a favorite kind of challenge of mine. I am excellent at fine art and design. Yes, the "3-D models" I'm talking about are Minecraft structures.

Graphic design - if I get to have enough fun, I may do your project just to have done it.

Marketing ideas. I come up with tons of them. (Example) They tend to be clever "purple cows" (a term from Seth Godin's marketing books). Aside from some amusing success, my purple cow abilities are untested but a "pay only if it makes you money" arrangement is especially useful here. I can just give you purple cow ideas, you thin the herd and only pay me if the cows pay you.

Replies from: shminux, ShannonFriedman
comment by shminux · 2012-08-15T17:30:18.570Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Solving quagmires. I've been in a lot of quagmires in my life. Like, imagine a quagmire that has quagmires for fingers and toes - and THOSE quagmires have quagmires for eyes! I have developed my problem-solving abilities to the point where I tend to get myself out of ugly quagmires. Give me a paperclip and some duct tape, ask me to do something impossible and see what happens.

BS detector going off like crazy... To start, have you learned to not get into quagmires in the first place?

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, Vaniver, Epiphany
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T19:29:46.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're playing the biggest game you can, you should keep getting into quagmires by continually putting your limits to the test. A favorite quote of mine from the cofounder of the coaching school and leadership program I attended:

"If you're not failing half the time, you're not trying hard enough."

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky, shminux, Epiphany
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2012-08-16T03:05:23.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you've never been arrested, you're too law-abiding.

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala, None, Will_Newsome, Epiphany
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-08-16T08:17:30.813Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you've never been slowly and publicly tortured to death and then resurrected in order to experience it again, due to having pissed off Mexican drug lords, the Pope, the International Red Cross, the Chinese Communist Party, 4chan, the CIA, Clippy, an FAI, Lord Voldemort, the goddess Takhisis, and whoever it is that's running our simulation, all at once, you're too risk averse.

Replies from: None, Will_Newsome
comment by Will_Newsome · 2012-08-31T22:27:25.897Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your list is conspicuously lacking the scariest entity. I would rather get tortured by all of those at once than give the slightest insult to God.

Replies from: arundelo
comment by arundelo · 2012-09-01T00:34:29.928Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, God is kind of a dick that way.

Oh crap!

Replies from: Will_Newsome
comment by Will_Newsome · 2012-09-01T10:07:51.419Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think Lesswrong is a pretty cool guy. eh downvotes christains and doesnt afraid of god.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-16T09:12:21.795Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or law enforcement in your country is too crappy.

Replies from: Eugine_Nier, None
comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-08-17T22:07:55.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then you should be even less law-abiding.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-17T20:44:15.192Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Crappy may not be the best word, though, because it's not always a bad thing: a country where whoever shares copyrighted material (e.g. on a P2P) without the consent of the copyright holder ends up in prison with probability 1 minus epsilon would be a helluva dystopia IMO.)

Replies from: DaFranker
comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-17T20:56:21.596Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you think of "crappy" in terms of "bad", and bad in terms of "not instrumentally rational", then an anti-crappy law enforcement seems like it wouldn't do something this twisted and society-disrupting.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-17T22:10:31.575Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, let's say that in the great-grandparent by crappy I meant “not instrumentally rational for its own (stated) goals (i.e. enforcing the law)”, and then I replied to myself pointing out that what's not instrumentally rational for its own stated goals can still be instrumentally rational for the goals of humanity.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2012-08-16T03:09:08.588Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you've never never been arrested, you're too law-breaking. #umeshumeshisms

comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-16T03:44:13.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Failure doesn't imply risk. You can fail at challenging your friends to seemingly impossible debates or thinking of solutions to seemingly impossible problems. If you fail at those, you've lost nothing - the time is a valid investment in intellectual development. Have you never tried to solve a problem that seems impossible, Eliezer?

Try it. It's a blast.

Replies from: wedrifid
comment by wedrifid · 2012-08-16T03:57:21.955Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you never tried to solve a problem that seems impossible, Eliezer?

Now that you mention it.

Replies from: Epiphany
comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-16T06:20:17.407Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ooh. I like it. Thanks. Say, do you know if Eliezer has posed any impossible challenges to the group? It would be REALLY fun to solve them as a team. (:

Edit: I made one.

comment by shminux · 2012-08-15T20:22:32.028Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're playing the biggest game you can, you should keep getting into quagmires by continually putting your limits to the test.

I agree. However, I would question the wisdom of such actions. Depends on your risk tolerance, of course.

"If you're not failing half the time, you're not trying hard enough."

And I would add that "if you keep running into unexpected failure modes, you are not doing your homework."

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, Epiphany
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T21:19:26.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I have a pretty high risk tolerance. I have a strong desire to have as large of an impact in the world as I can. I am also quite optimistic that I will succeed in doing interesting and impressive things if I keep trying, because I think I'm in a position of having a lot of the right resources and the correct mindset for success.

I try to assess what I actually need to stay safe, and make sure I have that, and then play big beyond that. Living in a 1st world country at this point in time, I don't think my life is in danger nearly as much as the lizard aspects of my mind like to tell me. I try to evaluate as logically as I can about risk, with the knowledge that people are much more motivated to avoid pain than pursue pleasure, and making conscious corrections for this - I aim to maximize utility as accurately as I can.

Agreed about running into unexpected failure modes repeatedly being a red flag. I like strategies with high payoff potentials, which often have high likelihood of failure in expected ways. However, there are often a lot of positive externalities to trying and failing, so the likelihood of getting positive utility is much higher than that of success of what I am specifically attempting.

For example, I have already gotten a very interesting email from someone who is considering offering me an opportunity that I am excited about as a result of this article, although it is yet to be seen if any businesses will actually be created or improved.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-16T04:02:58.452Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oooh. That's a more direct assumption. Let's scrutinize this:

"if you keep running into unexpected failure modes, you are not doing your homework."

Do you agree with any of the following, if so, which ones:

  1. There is a limit to the amount of problem-solving effort that life demands of people.
  2. People are always able to predict which problems they're going to have in advance.
  3. There is a limit to the complexity of problems and it happens to match human limitations.
  4. Diligent people are in some way protected from other people's problems spilling over onto them.
  5. That expecting a problem will automatically guarantee it gets solved (that the resources will always be available, that multiple other problems won't rob you of the necessities to solve upcoming disasters in advance).

If you disagree with even one of those statements, why do you assume that if a person is presented with multiple quagmires, they didn't do their homework? This is reality and reality doesn't care about you. Life may give you problems more complex than you can figure out, other people's problems will create problems for you, sometimes life gives you more problems than you can process at once, nobody sees everything coming, and even when you do see something coming, nothing guarantees you'll have the resources to stop it.

If you know all of this, why do you say such things?

comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-16T03:52:20.536Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for understanding. (:

Do you ever play at trying to do things that appear to be impossible?

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-18T07:28:38.958Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I certainly am much more optimistic about odds than a lot of people on certain topics. For example, the odds I give of at least one successful business happening because of something in this post are quite divergent from the person who placed odds the other direction, who is someone whose intelligence I respect a lot.

Given the divergent opinions, I asked him to make predictions for several different specific/measurable outcomes for various scenarios, and we discussed what updates that he'd make to his belief system if the results are as I predict.

I highly recommend doing this - if people commit to updates based on probability they assign before hindsight bias, the updates are much more extreme than they otherwise would be; the updates might not happen much at all without the person really getting clear about how much they disagree ahead of time.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-08-15T18:30:37.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As the saying goes, intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.

Replies from: Viliam_Bur, Epiphany
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-08-21T13:17:20.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you solve an urgent problem, you are a hero; if you anticipate a problem before it becomes urgent, you are a troublemaker.

Replies from: DaFranker
comment by DaFranker · 2012-08-21T13:43:10.935Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dark Arts For Career Growth variant:

Mention all problems anticipated with p>.5. Do nothing more than simply mentioning them, if questioned claimed you don't know what could be done about them. Once problems happen, reveal that you knew it all along, and that now, having seen it happen, a flash of genius tells you how to resolve it immediately and prevent it from happening again.

I've seen this pattern in use. The Darth deliberately waits for the problem to happen, ready to be the first to jump on it (and its low-cost solution). Sometimes, they even subtly try to nudge things towards the problem happening. Even if there are lives at stake.

Replies from: Viliam_Bur
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-08-21T15:46:40.278Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you can anticipate problems your company can't, in addition to career growth you can also make extra money: create a new company that will fix this kind of problem and when the time comes, recommend it as a solution. Repeat if necessary.

(This may be technically illegal, but the fixing company may technically belong to someone else than you.)

comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-15T20:06:07.851Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just realized, this might actually have been intended as being in support to me, not a continuation of shminux's line of thought. I don't know why I interpreted it that way in hindsight. Maybe it was that I had a 6 hour night of sleep the night before. Sorry if I misinterpreted.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-15T19:51:10.461Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this comment enough that I've decided to make it into an article. So that there aren't multiple copies of the same information, I have removed it.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-08-15T20:05:47.377Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Downvoted for unwarranted presumptions and incoherent ranting.

Replies from: Epiphany
comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-16T01:50:35.296Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll try another approach. You said:

"BS detector going off like crazy... To start, have you learned to not get into quagmires in the first place?"

Challenge me directly. Don't imply that you're assuming that I got myself into those quagmires and then down-vote me for my completely warranted presumption that you're assuming that the quagmires were my own fault. You want to tell me you think I probably brought all the quagmires onto myself? Do it. And support your point.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-26T06:20:04.689Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This person saying that their BS detector is going off is actually very useful for people reading and not something that I personally want to discourage. When one person says something like this, there are usually many who are thinking it and not saying it.

It takes courage and effort to actually say - this person is giving feedback, knowing that it will likely cause a negative backlash. It is very valuable when people step into the fire like that. While it is easier to respond to when people package their feedback in kind ways, giving feedback at all is a gift.

So, what do you want?

If you want to learn how to not set off the BS detectors of people like this, this person has just offered you information, and would likely be willing to unpack more if responded to with curiosity. I would imagine that would be much more valuable to you personally than winning an argument, and if you express curiosity and hear the other person out, they'll be more likely to be interested in and listen to your points as well.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman, Epiphany
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-26T12:38:06.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For examples of my walking my talk, here are a couple of cases where someone said something critical of the goals I'm shooting for, and I thanked them and asked the to elaborate:

  • http://lesswrong.com/lw/e26/who_wants_to_start_an_important_startup/77e3 This post is about starting start-ups, and her comment discusses reasons why it might be a bad idea. I easily could have gotten defensive and argued with her. What I did instead was to recognized that a lot of people have similar doubts, and to thank her for expressing those doubts and trying despite them, validating that she was trying despite her concerns - my hope was to encourage more people with similar concerns.

  • http://lesswrong.com/lw/e26/who_wants_to_start_an_important_startup/78ij This is another example of someone talking on this post I started with the goal of starting start-ups, about how most start ups fail. Also in this case, I expressed gratitude, and it gave the the chance to elaborate a response to concerns that many people have, without invalidating the concern.

Also, as noted in the comments on that second link, I had several people give me very harsh feedback while I was in the process of writing this post. As an example, a friend predicted:

"No startup cofounder at any point in the future will say that their ideas were partially inspired by this post, unless it's an extremely distant relation. To a first approximation, nothing happens."

Largely because of the training I've had in how to deal with negative feedback, I did not get (very ;) defensive, and I quizzed these people about what I could do that would give the post the best chance of working. I do think it is because of my doing this, and these people being kind enough to give me their honest feedback even though they were concerned about what my reactions might be, that this post has been as successful as it has been. Its early yet to see if start-ups succeed, but I know of several people taking initial steps, and I'm optimistic that these discussions that are happening will have positive impact on a lot of people.

Replies from: Epiphany
comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-02T07:59:32.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do:

Please critique

You had a good point in your suggestion so I changed my "100% good" statement.

Oops sorry.

You're going against the grain - not a bad thing but it means you're going to have to really lay out your reasons if you want to change the way the wind is blowing. Elaborate, please.

I invite brutal honesty on everything I wrote there.

I intentionally picked examples dated prior to your post. Usually I would not bother to justify myself like this but I've decided that I like you.

Of course there are times when I disagree, also, and will continue to disagree until somebody gets somewhere or the discussion is lost to the sands of time. But I will not continue disagreement I don't see a way to make the disagreement constructive. If I don't think that it's likely for me to get through to a person, I will choose my battles with them.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-02T06:16:42.592Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Shannon, thank you. I see what you're trying to do here. However, in this particular case, I don't feel the criticism is getting anyone anywhere. Shminux is essentially jumping to conclusions. Hearing them out is not going to change the fact that Shminux is jumping to conclusions, and it won't convince me of anything. I hold myself to higher standards than that - I won't allow myself to jump to conclusions with new people, so I don't do like Shminux does and I do not particularly want to learn this jumping to conclusions technique. In hindsight, I saw that it's probably a common bias. If you hadn't noticed, I changed my wording a long time ago. I tried to point out Shminux's bias once. That didn't work. I liked my attempt, so I saved it for later. If getting a person to be aware of their bias doesn't work, I move on. I see policing Shminux's biased perceptions as Shminux's responsibility. I tried it once, which was nice of me. I shouldn't have to do it for them.

If you think there's something I could learn here other than "Shminux is biased, which is a sign that other people might have the same bias, so it's best not to trigger that particular bias." then you're going to have to be really clear because it does not look to me like there is any further to learn from Shminux's comment.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-15T16:04:24.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hi Epiphany,

Thanks for making these offers! I think you might get more interest if you give more information. For example, you don't want to share your current ideas regarding marketing, but perhaps you could share a past brilliant idea or two that you've had and implemented?

For reference, I've gotten a lot of backlash from friends in the community about even posting this post - it went through a lot of editing before I published it, because people are extremely skeptical about the values of business ideas in and of themselves at all. So for your purposes even with a promise to only request compensation if it works, potential interested parties will usually need a lot of convincing just to think its worth investing their time in talking with you.

Likewise, examples and data regarding other offers & claims would also be great. The feedback I've gotten that people, especially in this community want, is specific with concrete examples. You are better off being overly specific and potentially causing someone to think they're not part of your target market than under specific and having everyone just read past.

Best wishes! And please respond in this thread with any results you get from anything in this post, including if this advice helps you in another context :)

Replies from: Epiphany, Epiphany
comment by Epiphany · 2012-08-16T01:42:08.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with "potential interested parties will usually need a lot of convincing just to think its worth investing their time in talking with you" but I'm unwilling to put significant effort into trying to convince them in this post. Here's why: Nothing that I say even matters at all. They need to see it for themselves.

The way I see my post working is this: As people get to know me from my posts on LessWrong, some of them will see evidence of ability and start getting an idea of what kinds of things I'm good at. THEN they'll think it's worth investing the time to explain their problem to me and see what happens.

I'm not interested in working hard to convince people that don't want to believe me, who may be too risk averse to think big -- all for the prospect of not getting paid! My personality is like oil to that water. It's the people who are thinking big and can guess at what I have to offer based on our interactions that I'd like to work with.

I'm just not known in this community yet.

And, just in case it wasn't clear, most of my marketing ideas are untested. I've had some amusing successes, but I'm not a professional marketer. I'm a person who has enough of the right kinds of ideas that potential is there, but has not yet had the opportunity to make use of it. If you want to pay people like they're interns, you tend to hire entry level people, no? If you want to do new kinds of work, you tend to accept that it might not pay well at first, right? For marketing ideas, I've essentially got an intern-like attitude, though I am offering only a small time investment.

comment by Alicorn · 2012-09-06T00:02:32.624Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What made this seem to you like an appropriate comment?

comment by haig · 2012-08-31T20:52:22.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Surprised no one has mentioned anything involving sustainable/clean tech (energy, food, water, materials). This site does stress existential threats, and I'd think that, given many (most?) societal collapses in the past were precipitated, at least partly, by resource collapse, I'd want to concentrate much of the startup activity around trying to disrupt our short-term wasteful systems. Large pushes to innovate and disrupt the big four (energy, food, water, materials) would do more than anything I can think of to improve the condition of our world and minimize the major risks confronting us within the next 100 years (or sooner).

It's not as hopeless as it appears on first glance. Population growth will reach about 9-10 billion people within 50 years (not much more do to lower birth rates as developing countries have less children and developed countries go into negative population growth) so that is the carrying capacity to aim for. Decoupling the big four from the unpredictability of scarcity, monocrops, climate change, and depletion/destruction by not only using innovations in the specific domains, but using advanced information technologies and algorithms (operations research, stigmergic routing, ..) would be the first time our planet is placed on a secure and sustainable foundation for our basic resource needs. If there is any other large, audacious goal that would change the world positively more than this (other than a positive singularity) I can't think of it.

Replies from: haig
comment by haig · 2012-08-31T20:56:31.807Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wanted to add the insights of Neil Gershenfeld which I think is how we should frame these problems:

We've already had a digital revolution; we don't need to keep having it. The next big thing in computers will be literally outside the box, as we bring the programmability of the digital world to the rest of the world.

He was talking about personal fabrication in this context, but the 'digitization' of the physical world is applicable to the sustainability goals I mentioned. Using operations research, loosely-coupled distributed architectures, nature-inspired routing algorithms, and other tricks of the IT trade applied to natural resources, we can finally transition to a sustainable world.

comment by moocow1452 · 2012-08-28T13:34:44.907Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wanted to save this one for the Reverse Kickstarter, but it's too important to be kept in my brain without a backup, so here's my ace in the hole.


This tech exists, it is out there, I have tried to contact some of the people at NASA to no avail. (Should probably give them a little longer than 24 hours, but I only found out about those experiments yesterday. I did email them, and that's what counts.) Make this a pick up for stream of consciousness logging, allow me to parse it, or add stuff to the calendar or draft up an email by thinking about it, and I would owe a blood debt, probably a couple digits or a limb to whoever brings it into reality, because I think a lot faster than I can verbalize things, and something that can take my wandering thoughts and let me put them together after the fact would be a quantum leap in organizational skills everywhere.

Free free to contact moocow1452@gmail.com or under the post, and I'll keep an eye on how to move forward.

Replies from: lukedoolittle
comment by lukedoolittle · 2012-09-11T17:10:13.719Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dunno if I would be too much of a help but I work for a company that develops EMG amplifiers and recording / analysis software. I'm on the EEG line but am close with the clinical specialists on the EMG line. Ping me if there is anything I could do to assist.

Replies from: moocow1452
comment by moocow1452 · 2012-09-22T16:15:16.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is fantastic. Consider yourself pinged.

comment by johnfc · 2012-08-18T06:59:49.517Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tagline: Cheap Transportation with Unmanned Aerial Drones

Mission: Replace oil and roads with electric aviation. Move small packages initially, and scale up to large freight and eventually people.

Technology: Electric aircraft are cheap and GPS enabled autopilots using Arduino are less than $500.

Replies from: DanArmak, KrisC, ShannonFriedman
comment by DanArmak · 2012-08-18T15:46:41.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If electric aircraft are cheap, electric cars are much cheaper; flight takes a lot of energy! In a country with existing roads, is this difference really smaller than the cost of building and maintaining roads over time, thus "replacing roads"?

Replies from: lsparrish
comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-18T17:59:33.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cars use less energy, but aircraft are faster. Also, roads take up valuable ground-space which could be used for buildings or walkways. Roads can only take up the same area of the ground very expensively with underpasses and so forth, whereas air lanes can be layered without costing extra.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-18T18:06:43.801Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cars use less energy, but aircraft are faster.

I think he meant less energy per unit distance, not per unit time.

Replies from: lsparrish
comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-18T18:48:24.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If that's the case then the question is a good one -- at what point does the infrastructure and maintenance savings get offset by the energy cost? However, there is also the inherent advantage of getting there faster; in many cases it is worth more to get a person or package from point A to point B quickly than slowly. My guess is that even robotic cars (which can safely go faster than human driven ones) probably won't shave as much time off your commute as robotic planes.

Replies from: latanius, DanArmak
comment by latanius · 2012-08-19T04:35:50.941Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another benefit of flying is that the space utilized by drones is currently unused (compare that with the difficulties autonomous cars face with regulations... and those are cars, not small-sized transporter units considered unexpected by most car drivers)

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2012-08-19T07:15:49.558Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It may be underused now, but not enough so to allow for a personal plane for everyone commuting to work, plus another billion drones delivering mail and whatnot. And air control often has to reroute or delay flights due to unexpected congestion or weather, despite space being "unused".

Also, flight is already far more regulated than ground travel. It's much easier and cheaper to get a driver's license than a pilot's license. Politically and socially, self-driving cars will be accepted much more easily than single-person aircraft, whether flown robotically or manually.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-19T07:25:26.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's much easier and cheaper to get a driver's license than a pilot's license.

You don't need a license at all to fly ultralights.

Replies from: DanArmak, None
comment by DanArmak · 2012-08-19T16:45:44.920Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't know that that was possible in some countries. I assumed unlicensed aviation was currently limited to powered paragliders. Thanks.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-19T22:20:05.003Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-19T22:29:07.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're also not allowed to fly them over inhabited areas, if that concerns you.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-19T22:35:06.192Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was more surprised by the unusual lack of paternalism. In some countries at least, you're not allowed to ride a motorcycle without a helmet (though it's no more dangerous to others than riding it wearing a helmet), and flying a ultralight without much experience with it is, by my wild-ass guess, at least as dangerous to yourself as riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-19T22:42:35.041Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not so sure. Ultralights don't go very fast or very high. You could certainly kill yourself on one, but a car isn't going to hit you up in the sky.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-08-19T07:12:15.859Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Air mail already exists. Some people pay the premium for faster delivery. I don't think price benefits from going electric, or robotic, would be significant enough to change the existing market incentives. The last-mile door to door mail delivery by road is quite efficient, with several deliveries daily by the private companies (UPS, DHL etc). Of course the situation is less good in less developed/urbanized/rich areas, but that is due to less demand, not so much because DHL couldn't provide the same service there if demand existed.

Ditto for personal commutes to work. Robotic planes may be faster overall - although I would like to see evidence; someone who knows how existing aircraft are routed should comment on the plausibility of one-small-airplane-per-person doing a daily commute in a densely populated area. But since flight costs much more per distance traveled, people won't pay the premium. Also, faster and cheaper ground travel (e.g. trains or metro vs. cars) has its place.

comment by KrisC · 2012-08-18T17:32:02.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would a fleet of lighter-than-air drones be less costly for this application than the currently popular drone models?

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-18T07:41:52.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is next for this idea?

Is there a certain company profile that you are looking for to take it up? Is this something you intend on implementing yourself?

If you want someone else to do it, and are open to anyone doing it, I recommend giving more detail about the idea. Who/what is needed?

If its something that you only want to explain in more detail to a a person of your choice, either because of wanting to partner with them business wise or for another reason, I recommend imagining who it is that you want to be implementing this idea or partnering with you, and writing something that you think would catch this person's attention that you are a good person for them to invest their time and energy working with.

comment by alexflint · 2012-08-17T03:34:28.182Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm working for a mid-size startup and have been gathering insight into successful startups for a couple of years. Here is what I think is important.

Create value. Make sure your idea actually creates value in the world. Lots of value. It should conceivably be useful to many of people, and it should conceivably be of significant value to them. Value means your product would be important enough that, if forced to, they would give up other things in exchange for it.

Don't focus on monetization. Startups are subject to all sorts of counter-intuitive economics; it's unrealistic to plan exactly how you will make money. Make sure you're creating value, and check that there's nothing that would prevent you from ever collecting any of that value. Then go back to creating value.

Iteration beats brilliance. The speed at which you iterate is more important that the brilliance of the initial idea. Trying out a product in the real market is an experiment: the feedback your receive entangles your startup with other players in the market. Each experiment steers you towards a local optimum. To win you need (1) to start in the general vicinity of a good local optima and (2) rapid convergence to that optima.

The quality of the team is key. Early stage investors invest largely in the perceived quality of a team, and so should you invest your time alongside great people. An early stage startup should never hire consultants (wrong incentives), should never live in different cities (bad communication). Entering into a startup is like a marriage: it's very hard to get out.

Choose investors cautiously. You're also "married" to your investors on the day you sign a term sheet. Pick ones that you trust, that share your goals, and that can help you in ways other than by providing capital.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2012-08-14T02:42:56.046Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An existing example of what Reichart is talking about (I think) http://examine.com/

comment by worldaswill · 2020-12-29T13:04:34.125Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

did anyone try this?

comment by gwern · 2012-09-11T01:13:26.474Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Update: Sinak's SRS system as reviewed by Hacker News: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4496647

Replies from: bcoburn
comment by bcoburn · 2012-09-11T01:38:52.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure about the rest of the app, but the bookmarklet seems like a ridiculously good idea. The 'trivial inconvenience' of actually making cards for things is really brutal, anything that helps seems like a big deal.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-03T08:15:20.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-15T18:24:14.188Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd love to be part of an important startup. Here are some of my ideas so far.

  • Bitcoin like digital commodity that can be converted into units of virtual money of any currency, and back again.
  • Very large cryogenic warehouse leveraging the square-cube law and its effect on heat transfer for large bodies. There are other markets besides cryonics -- for example, perhaps more efficient/durable electronics for a data center.
  • Self replicating jet cutters. Possibly LN2 based.

Also would like to see Keith Lofstrom's Server Sky, Launch Loop, and Power Loop proposals given some attention.

comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-13T23:27:07.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I’d like to encourage betting under this post. Zvi has agreed to advise someone on how to set up the market if a volunteer wants to take this on! Zvi is an expert on betting markets, and having him as an advisor is an awesome opportunity. If you think this sounds like something that you would like to capitalize on, and you are willing to commit to putting in the effort to do the project justice if you are chosen, please fill out the the [form].

Bets could be on things like:

-minimum number of projects that will get started as a result of this post and when -measures of success for various projects over various periods of time

Basically, whatever measurable aspects of success or failure people are interested in.

For bets, I encourage people to keep in mind the mission:

Let's have more for-profit companies working on goals that benefit people too!

Thus, my request is that you only bet against a project if you think you can prevent yourself from sabotaging people’s efforts as a result. Negative bets are quite valuable, they help give people more realistic expectations and give people something to bet positively against!

The rules for bets that projects will succeed are different in this context than in a lot of standard games. Because the mission is to win the game of making humanity awesome, as opposed to a more restricted game, everything that is ethical and legal is fair game for influencing the outcome of your bets. You can offer resources to increase your odds of winning, such as personal time/money investment in the projects, counseling, connections, office space, or any other resources that seem like they might be useful.

comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-16T01:02:48.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have an idea for a sort of digital currency. It's hard to describe in a few words, but I'm pretty sure it can be implemented. It would be way better than bitcoin because it could be converted fluidly to other currencies and back again. It could also be fluidly converted into party-specific loans and contracts.

Replies from: ShannonFriedman
comment by ShannonFriedman · 2012-08-16T02:02:08.640Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cool. What is your next step for the idea?

If you are interested in seeing the idea get implemented, I highly recommend elaborating in as much detail as possible.

If you are looking for someone to work on it with you and want to be secretive because you plan on implementing the idea in a company you're in and believe that you have what it takes to do this, I recommend thinking about the sort of person you want to work with, and presenting what it is about you that you think would make this person want to work with you.

Replies from: lsparrish
comment by lsparrish · 2012-08-18T21:15:41.234Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here are some more details as to what I am imagining this would be like:

  • There's a base "currency" (actually, like bitcoin it is not likely to be legally recognized as a recognized currency but a digital commodity that stores value). For demonstration purposes I will refer to it as "bricks" since it is like a gold brick that serves as backing, not as something to buy and sell things with directly (at least at first).
  • There's a mechanism similar to bitcoin where peers (each of which has their own public/private key pair) validate transactions and create hashes of their set of validated transactions. When a hash of a certain minimum difficulty (adjusted to make it take a certain amount of average time) is solved, that is declared as the latest block. To make a long story short, this difficulty is what keeps the peers all playing by the same rules.
  • The rules the peers go by include rules for converting to different "currencies". Again these are just digital commodities on a network that can't be easily spoofed, not legal tender in any particular country. Unlike the bricks, they don't exist in a fixed supply, they can be generated and destroyed in potentially unlimited supply -- however, you have to use bricks to make them, and they can be recycled back into bricks.
  • What exact rules to use is the tricky part. If it is too easy to create more of a currency, you get inflation relative to the real currency's value, whereas if it is too difficult you can't reflect actual inflation. For the system to be useful, the currencies need to track the value of what they represent.

One idea for setting the value would be to implement a trading system where bids and asks are published to the network (just like the transactions are), and currency generation rates are based on successful trades.

To give an idea of how this would work I'll use "bananas" as an example currency. Basically there are two ways to go from brick to banana -- either trade, or convert directly.

If there are a lot of successful trades of bricks to bananas at a relatively higher cost (in bricks), the rule would be to increase the value of bananas by making it cost more bricks to create new bananas. On the other hand if a lot of people are dumping their bananas for lower amounts of bricks that means bananas should cost less in bricks to generate.

The quantity of bricks is conserved, so by recycling bananas you can reclaim the cost of creating them. The amount of bricks you get from recycling is based on how much was expended in creating them, with the most expensive bananas always recycled first. Thus if the price ever drops to generate them, there is likely to be a profit from recycling them. For example, say someone generates 1 banana from 1 brick. That event sits in a queue waiting for someone with a banana to recycle it. Even if the rate changes to 2 bananas per brick and someone else generates 1 banana for .5 brick, the next person to recycle bananas will get back 1 brick. (It doesn't care which banana -- they are fungible with each other.)

This gets interesting when you add other currencies. Suppose we introduce coconuts, which are a worth a lot more than bananas. The system doesn't automatically know this, but the traders do. If people tend to generate and buy coconuts with their bricks at higher rates, this tells the peers and thus the system to increase the cost in bricks to generate coconuts. The result is that bricks become worth more, and people will dump at least some of their bananas -- the entire economy is thus connected.

There may be better ways to do this, but this is just what I have so far. I'd love to hear other ideas of a better way to do it. Can we do away with bids/asks as a rate-setting feature of the system and just base the rate on what people choose to create/recycle over time? I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around it because of inferrential distance issues, but it seems like there is room for simplification there. Also, there is the question of whether we would want to add more bricks to the system over time as a reward for solving blocks (like bitcoin does with their currency), or perhaps reward block-solving in some other way (make it a requirement for generating and recycling currency, for example).

Replies from: Persol
comment by Persol · 2012-08-19T00:51:38.158Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems that the entire idea of currency is to act as a trusted means of recording exchange and debt. Of all the functions of money, which one is being improved by this proposal?

What's actually different between this and Bitcoin? I don't understand what the benefit of having two non-legal currencies instead of just one. The idea of wasting electricity to generate unbacked currency doesn't make sense to me.

comment by aumfer · 2012-09-06T19:17:23.643Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Abolish Atheism

The way to reduce the harmful power of religion isn't by getting people to stop believing in God. It's by getting them to codify and share whatever their moral belief system is. Atheism doesn't work because it doesn't really say anything. How often do you hear the phrase "most atheists" when discussing the morality of atheism?

Put together (with the help of some theologists/philosophers/social scientists/etc) a short but comprehensive quiz covering a variety of moral topics.

Once a good amount of data has been collected, apply some unsupervised machine learning classification to the dataset to determine "moral groupings" based on the algorithmically-determined relationships.

From here it would be interesting to

  1. Compare these groups to the self-identified religions of the participants
  2. Use these groups as alternatives to traditional religions/atheism as they provide a picture of moral leanings that is less biased (based purely on data rather than "history" or "branding).

Ok so that ignores the profitable criteria, but it's in my "google doc o' ideas", and I'd love to be able to analyze a dataset like that.

Note: could also apply a similar idea to political parties

Replies from: ArisKatsaris, PrometheanFaun
comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-09-06T19:24:35.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The way to reduce the harmful power of religion isn't by getting people to stop believing in God.

Most of us aren't disbelieving in God in order to "reduce the harmful power of religion", we are disbelieving in God because the evidence has led us to the conclusion that no such being exists.

Replies from: aumfer
comment by aumfer · 2012-09-07T13:21:36.733Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So you're saying that irrational beliefs aren't harmful?

I thought the point of this site was to help people develop a system to reduce exactly such non-predicting "beliefs."

One of the things that I feel discourages non-atheists from even questioning their belief is that they see atheists as "non-moral." That is, morality doesn't enter into the equation of atheism (it's only belief/non-belief), but it is intimately tied to religion. Codifying the moral beliefs of atheists and believers could help to promote atheism as an alternative to religion. Not to mention the interesting data that could be obtained about moral values as related to self-described religious identity.

Replies from: ArisKatsaris
comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-09-07T13:46:55.153Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So you're saying that irrational beliefs aren't harmful?

I believe them to be harmful in general, yes. They can even be catastrophically harmful. Human-extinction level harmful.

On the other hand placebo effects exist, so untruth and irrationality isn't required to be harmful in every single specific case and every single specific incident.

I don't see how you went from what I actually said to what you thought I said. Please try to make as few inferential leaps as possible when evaluating the words of a stranger. On my part I tend to be precise in what I mean, and I certainly didn't mean what you thought I meant.

I thought the point of this site was to help people develop a system to reduce exactly such non-predicting "beliefs."

Among other things. It's not just about epistemic rationality but also about instrumental rationality.

Codifying the moral beliefs of atheists and believers could help to promote atheism as an alternative to religion

Personally I don't want atheism to be an alternative to religion. I want the absence of God to be treated as much a factual matter as the absence of fairies or unicorns or mermaids. There's no inherent "morality" in atheism, nor any inherent immorality either -- same way there's no inherent morality or immorality in lacking belief in mermaids. I'm sure that most evil people nowadays and most good people also, both lack such belief in mermaids.

That religions tend to confuse a factual issue (the existence or non-existence of various divine superbeings and their various characteristics) with moral issues, is one of the problems that I'd like to see solved, not contribute to its confusion.

Replies from: aumfer
comment by aumfer · 2012-09-07T18:52:18.877Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That religions tend to confuse a factual issue (the existence or non-existence of various divine superbeings and their various characteristics) with moral issues, is one of the problems that I'd like to see solved, not contribute to its confusion.

That's precisely what I was hoping to do. Analysis could show the relationship between users' identification as atheist/religious and their surveyed moral attitudes. Presumably this relationship might not be nearly as strong as people think.

comment by PrometheanFaun · 2013-11-01T21:22:04.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Carcenogen is already doing all it can to demolish any grand central church of atheism that might or might not exist, For example, this kind of antimeme spreads like wildfire. There is no need for us to do anything to encourage dispersal and mutation, it is already underway. And, I'm not sure about this, but doesn't humanity already have swarm intelligence setups for generating new concepts, new categories for people? I wouldn't expect we'd need a machine to do that for us.

Second, there is absolutely no reason for us to settle for an idea that is not profitable.