Suggestion: Read Paul Graham

post by katydee · 2013-03-23T03:23:39.099Z · score: 37 (38 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 28 comments

This isn't really a full post, but merely a note of potential interest. Paul Graham (who runs Hacker News) has several very interesting and thought-provoking essays located on his personal website. To me they fit very well with the style of thinking employed and advocated by many people on LW and I'd advise that nearly anyone interested in LW check out his work.

I especially recommend Keep Your Identity Small, What You Can't Say, and What You'll Wish You'd Known, but nearly every essay up there is interesting to me in some way. Many of them are directly relevant to issues of rationality, while others are only indirectly related, but either way I found them worth my time.


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comment by ShardPhoenix · 2013-03-23T05:40:38.363Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

I enjoy Graham's essays and find many of them quite insightful, but they tend to be rather light on empirical evidence, which makes it hard to say how much of the insight is real.

comment by shev · 2013-03-23T08:10:25.868Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Several points:

  • For many of the things he writes about, we can take his clout and background as evidence that his insight is 'real'. It doesn't have to explained via careful science to be true. I think the fact that Paul Graham is saying something, for certain subjects, makes it highly likely to be very-mostly-correct. I'll happily believe it to a high degree unless I have reason not to. I believe the evidence that they're mostly-correct is that he wrote them, and the evidence that things he writes are mostly-correct is that they have been so in the past and that he's intelligent and moreover consistently intelligent, so we have little expectation of a given essay suddenly floundering into bullshit.

  • His insight and way of thinking can be useful even if they are unreal. I mean - I'm sure every essay on that list makes points that can be argued to death or outright refuted by a sufficiently committed pedant. But they still have value. We think in heuristics anyway, for the most part, so it's valuable to glean heuristics from smart people and to see how they think and how their heuristics work (or don't work).

  • Empirical evidence would not really improve many of these essays. For one thing, filling an essay with detailed evidence that isn't necessary for the reader to believe it would probably detract from the quality of the essay. And many of his points are opinions or perspectives. They shouldn't or can't be highly factual. They would become false if they were made hard-and-fast.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2013-03-23T14:11:55.809Z · score: 18 (20 votes) · LW · GW

For many of the things he writes about, we can take his clout and background as evidence that his insight is 'real'.

But that's at most very weak evidence that his insight is real. Much of success is luck and networking, for example, and successful people are notoriously bad at disentangling various causes of their success properly, in favor of giving themselves more of the credit than warranted.

comment by itaibn0 · 2013-03-24T14:21:12.677Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

successful people are notoriously bad at disentangling various causes of their success properly, in favor of giving themselves more of the credit than warranted.

That's not clear to me. It is common to hear successful people saying things along the lines of "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for X, Y, and Z". In particular, I'm thinking of Linus Torvalds, whom I remember denying most of the credit for creating Linux. I'm sure there are many other examples. Overall, it's hard to tell weather successful people in general overestimate or underestimate how much credit they deserve.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-03-23T04:28:20.248Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

As long as we're recommending Paul Graham essays, in addition to what's been mentioned so far I also really like

comment by BrassLion · 2013-03-25T00:21:55.329Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule changed the way I budget my time, both at work and with personal projects. It's also the best piece I know of for business people to understand engineers and other creative workers, which is useful for someone in that second category.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-03-23T04:14:00.852Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Fun fact: many modern email clients use a version of the bayesian spam filter Paul Graham proposed in a 2002 paper (itself an improvement on an earlier bayesian spam filter).

cue one of us, one of us

My personal faves are Mind the Gap and How to Make Wealth both of which I use to introduce many econ topics to people.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-03-24T16:16:00.570Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Mind The Gap is actually among my least favored essays, since I think that Paul Graham, coming from the position of someone who's made all his money working with startups, isn't giving adequate consideration to the ways in which business leaders can accumulate money without being high overall wealth producers. Also, he suggests that great income disparities in first world countries are positively associated with the health of those societies, but those first world nations which score best on various quality of life metrics tend to be those with lower income disparities, and even if the higher levels of income equality aren't driving the difference in quality of life, it suggests that higher levels of income inequality aren't driving improvements in overall quality of life either.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2013-03-24T17:38:42.054Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

he suggests that great income disparities in first world countries are positively associated with the health of those societies

And being in a hospital is positively associated with being sick. Quoting random associations is a stupid rhetorical trick. Sadly, lots of otherwise smart people use this trick. See also:

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-03-24T21:52:07.489Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree, the wealth transfer vs wealth generation distinction is an important one, but a single essay targeted at the economically disinclined can only cover so much ground.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2014-12-20T20:06:12.966Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Graham correctly notes that producing useful things can be a source of wealth, and also incorrectly takes it to be be the only source of wealth. Large sums of money can be acquired by inheritance, unproductive activities like playing stock markets, and luck. (It is ironic that he uses Bill Gates as an example. According to legend, Gates got his big break because Gary Kildare went hanggliding)

  2. Everyone is familiar with the idea that there is a relationship between productivity and deserved income, because everyone has been told that if they want a rise, they must work harder. And that's a large part of the reason people object to 100x income gaps: no amount of sweat could justify it. Markets don't respond to productivity in the sense of effort: top actors don't make 100x the films of struggling actors. I don't think people are stupidly adopting the wrong theory, I think the effort theory is being constantly promoted by people who think it doesn't apply to them.

  3. There is some evidence that equality is beneficial. The point was argued in a book called the Spirit Level, which has generated considerable debate. I am not sure what the right answer is, but Graham is too sure it that inequality is harmless.

  4. Some of the people who object to inequality and want to tax the rich are aiming to close the gap, but many more want to see something socially useful done with the money. Pre industrial societies were very unequal, but but not very innovative. The kind of inequality Graham likes, the meritocratic kind, is not possible without a supply of educated people. Taxing the wealthy and spending the money on education is a feedback loop that keeps the whole thing going.

comment by bogus · 2014-12-21T14:59:02.177Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Trading in the stock market in a way that leads to positive returns is a productive activity. Basically, a combination of improving capital allocation in the economy and soaking up risk so that others don't have to bear it. But of course there are many forms of genuinely unproductive and damaging rent-seeking, so your overall point might be said to be correct.

  2. Top actors do make 100x the films of struggling actors, in a sense. Or rather, their films have much higher popularity and exposure, in a way that's highly correlated to their ability. (Top films may well be an 'O-ring' industry, where you need many different inputs to be high-quality if you want to achieve at a high-enough level. Including, yes, actors.)

  3. Caution, this field is one where a lot of evidence gets refuted as more recent data becomes available.

  4. Some people would argue that we've been plowing a lot of money into the education problem, with fairly dismal results. It's not clear what the solution is, but it's more likely to come from genuine innovation (MOOC's?) than just throwing good money after bad.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2014-12-21T20:58:23.471Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

4.1 Who:s we?

4.2 Dismal compared to what?

4.3 If it is really a case if throwing good after bad, "we" should stop funding it, and if we think we should not stop funding it tomorrow, we should stop saying it is that bad compared to some unspecified alternative.

I am not unfamiliar with the string of complaints you repeated, I just think it belongs to the 99% of political diatribe that's barely coherent.

comment by itaibn0 · 2013-03-24T14:28:21.409Z · score: 1 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Downvoted for encouraging an ingroup-outgroup separation based on a trivial distinction (namely, Bayesianism).

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-24T15:20:16.429Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Would you still object to the comment if both the instances of “bayesian” and the “cue one of us, one of us” were removed? (BTW, I upvoted your comment, since I didn't get what exactly “cue one of us, one of us” referred to.)

comment by pjeby · 2013-03-28T00:03:58.848Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't get what exactly “cue one of us, one of us” referred to

It's a reference to this. So while it might be an ingrouping, it's a somewhat ironic/self-deprecating one, positioning LW members as "freaks" offering Graham a perhaps-not-so-welcome acceptance. ;-)

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-03-28T04:31:03.293Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's a reference to this. So while it might be an ingrouping, it's a somewhat ironic/self-deprecating one,

I'm not sure about that. I suspect these days most people who use that phrase have no idea where it originated.

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-03-24T15:23:19.911Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I updated your comment

Are you a forum moderator? Is everyone a forum moderator? Everyone but ... Kawoomba?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-24T15:40:47.089Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, merely someone so dumb as to comment while not yet fully awake and not even re-read comments before submitting them. (Fixed.)

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-03-24T11:22:58.278Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Gee, I thought everyone here would already know about Paul Graham's essays, because they get linked to a lot. But I probably shouldn't take that kind of thing for granted.

comment by katydee · 2013-03-25T08:05:23.843Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I actually had the same reaction, which is what inspired this post. I was talking with some people in person and I brought up "Keep Your Identity Small," which I expected everyone (as people familiar with Less Wrong) to know, only to find that many hadn't read it and some didn't even know who Paul Graham was.

comment by moridinamael · 2013-03-25T14:49:06.510Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I had been assuming Keep Your Identity Small was a Sequence post.

comment by katydee · 2013-03-26T02:04:04.356Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, Keep Your Identity Small has easily enjoyed the same level of influence on my thinking as the best Sequence posts. I'd give it my maximum possible recommendation.

comment by jooyous · 2013-03-31T00:57:02.340Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks a lot, you guys. Now I can't stop reading these.

comment by katydee · 2013-03-31T17:29:52.785Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Memetic infection... successful.

comment by wedrifid · 2013-04-02T04:02:16.251Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks a lot, you guys. Now I can't stop reading these.

Surely you can stop when you're finished them all? He isn't that prolific...

comment by jooyous · 2013-04-02T18:52:59.508Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When I finish all the existing ones, I'll probably get stuck refreshing the page over and over.

comment by taelor · 2013-03-24T08:28:26.069Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

More Graham Essays: The Power Of The Marginal, Persuade Xor Discover and How To Disagree.