Two Explorations 2020-12-16T21:27:42.790Z
alkjash's Shortform 2020-12-03T02:37:45.276Z
Pain is not the unit of Effort 2020-11-24T20:00:19.584Z
Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) 2020-10-26T20:25:50.503Z
Prediction = Compression [Transcript] 2020-06-22T23:54:22.170Z
The Pit 2019-10-26T05:28:07.610Z
Timothy Chu Origins Chapter 1 2018-04-13T18:40:00.586Z
HPMoE 3 2018-04-04T01:00:01.660Z
HPMoE 2 2018-04-02T05:30:00.475Z
Harry Potter and the Method of Entropy 2018-03-31T20:10:00.448Z
Hammertime Postmortem 2018-03-22T18:10:01.627Z
Hammertime Final Exam 2018-03-22T01:10:00.662Z
The Strategic Level 2018-03-21T05:00:00.598Z
Reductionism Revisited 2018-03-20T06:00:01.379Z
Internal Double Crux 2018-03-19T05:50:00.733Z
Silence 2018-03-18T04:10:00.941Z
CoZE 3: Empiricism 2018-03-17T04:10:00.858Z
Design 3: Intentionality 2018-03-16T04:30:00.367Z
TAPs 3: Reductionism 2018-03-15T05:20:01.089Z
Yoda Timers 3: Speed 2018-03-13T18:00:00.861Z
Bug Hunt 3 2018-03-13T00:20:00.912Z
Murphy’s Quest Postmorterm 2018-03-11T20:10:00.818Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 13: Existential Risk 2018-03-11T07:10:00.683Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 12: Meta-Contrarianism 2018-03-10T23:00:00.941Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 11: Resolve 2018-03-10T06:40:01.081Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 10: Gears-Like Models 2018-03-09T23:00:01.234Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 9: Double Crux 2018-03-09T00:10:00.613Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 8: False Pentachotomy 2018-03-08T05:30:00.786Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 7: Outside the Box 2018-03-07T05:50:00.807Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 6: Perverse Incentives 2018-03-07T03:50:01.374Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 5: Fail Gracefully 2018-03-06T05:10:00.635Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 4: Noticing Confusion 2018-03-05T07:20:01.112Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 3: Murphyjitsu 2018-03-05T02:40:01.260Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 1: Exposure Therapy 2018-03-04T04:50:00.918Z
Murphy’s Quest Ch 2: Empiricism 2018-03-04T04:50:00.861Z
Hammertime Intermission #2 2018-03-01T18:20:00.894Z
Friendship 2018-03-01T06:00:00.657Z
TDT for Humans 2018-02-28T05:40:00.450Z
Goal Factoring 2018-02-26T23:30:01.074Z
Focusing 2018-02-26T06:10:00.614Z
Mapping the Archipelago 2018-02-26T05:09:49.833Z
Three Miniatures 2018-02-25T05:40:00.911Z
CoZE 2 2018-02-24T05:40:00.805Z
Design 2 2018-02-23T06:20:00.656Z
TAPs 2 2018-02-22T05:10:00.490Z
Yoda Timers 2 2018-02-21T07:40:00.792Z
Bug Hunt 2 2018-02-20T05:00:00.491Z
Missives from China 2018-02-17T12:30:00.555Z
Confidence Confusion 2018-02-16T02:00:00.852Z
Status: Map and Territory 2018-02-09T19:10:01.182Z


Comment by alkjash on Covid 1/21: Turning the Corner · 2021-01-21T23:16:22.499Z · LW · GW

Adding onto this a little, here's a toy model of viral genetic diversity based on my high-school level biology. 

Suppose the virus' DNA starts out as 000 (instead of ACTG for simplicity), and it needs to mutate into 111 to become stronger. Each individual reproduction event has some small probability p of flipping one of these bits. Some bit flips cause the virus to fail to function altogether, while others have no or negligible effect on the virus. As time goes on, the number of reproduction events starting from a given bitstring grows exponentially, so the likelihood of getting one more 1 grows exponentially as well. However, each time you jump from 000 to 100, it's not as if all other copies of 000 turn into 100, so making the next jump takes a while of waiting on lots of copies of 100 to happen. And then some 101 appears, and there's no jump for a while again as that strain populates.

The upshot is that you imagine the viral population to be "filling out the Hamming cube" one bitflip at a time and the weight of each bitstring is the total number of viruses with that code, and a genuinely new strain only appears when all 3 bits get flipped in some copy. But:

(a) The more total copies of the virus there is, the faster a bad mutation happens (speed scaling linearly).

(b) Assuming that some mutations require multiple independent errors to occur (which seems likely?), the virus population is "making incremental research progress" over time by spreading out across the genetic landscape towards different strains, even when no visibly different strains occur.

Comment by alkjash on Covid 1/21: Turning the Corner · 2021-01-21T22:28:19.790Z · LW · GW

re: why are there more scary new strains now: 

Have people have already accounted for the fact that the more virus there is in the world, the more likely it is for one of these viruses to mutate? If there's 5x as many cases of covid floating around right now than in September, a strain as bad as the UK strain will emerge 5x as quickly in expectation.

Comment by alkjash on Do you fear the rock or the hard place? · 2021-01-14T01:14:38.589Z · LW · GW

This feels like an extremely important point. A huge number of arguments devolve into exactly this dynamic because each side only feels one of (the Rock|the Hard Place) as a viscerally real threat, while agreeing that the other is intellectually possible. 

Figuring out that many, if not most, life decisions are "damned if you do, damned if you don't" was an extremely important tool for me to let go of big, arbitrary psychological attachments which I initially developed out of fear of one nasty outcome.

Comment by alkjash on Two Explorations · 2020-12-17T17:31:19.860Z · LW · GW

I agree, but I was more asking about how you think your insight about the "distance to safety" can help with that.

Well, after a bounded number of initially difficult "far-out explorations" that cover the research landscape efficiently, the hope is that almost everything is reasonably close to safety henceforth.

Interesting. My own approach is usually to collaborate/ask someone who knows the subject you want to learn. But that does require being okay with asking stupid questions.

Yes, I think your approach is ideal for the efficiency of learning if anxiety was not a factor. Unfortunately the people who know the subjects I want to learn best are people I care about impressing and/or people so well-versed in the subject that they have difficulty bridging the inferential abyss between us. At least for me it is hard to treat them as a "psychologically nearby" companion who has my back.

Even after getting much better at asking stupid questions, it feels like the maximum I feel okay with asking in a meeting with someone who knows a subject already is ~3, and not ~40, which is the number I want to ask.

Comment by alkjash on To listen well, get curious · 2020-12-17T16:45:15.745Z · LW · GW

Very nice post! I would add that it is a useful and nontrivial skill to notice what you're paying attention to. It may not be helpful to try getting curious unless you know concretely what this means about how you move your eyes and attention.

To give a video game example, players new to a genre have no idea where to put their eyes on the screen. When I told a friend playing Hades to put their eyes on their own character, instead of on the enemies, they instantly started taking half as much damage. I got a lot better at Dark Souls, on the other hand, by staring at the enemies to catch their telegraphed movements and not on myself. Similarly, I had a friend who could not get into Path of Exile because they wanted to dive into playing the game mechanically and was frustrated about my claim that to properly enjoy the game you spend most of your energy staring at skill trees and item builds and wikis. I found that my natural state playing PoE was leaving my eyes half unfocused on the game, spamming my skill rotation while thinking about my next item or skill upgrade on my second monitor.

To listening properly and be curious, I think the main places one should focus one's attention (in addition to the words they're saying) are: (a) on the other person's face and body, (b) on the other person's tone of voice, and (c) on your own bodily sensations. In other words, everywhere but your own thoughts.

Comment by alkjash on alkjash's Shortform · 2020-12-17T16:11:12.182Z · LW · GW

To be clear, the papers would almost certainly have gone through anyway, the helpful thing was being very comfortable with Bayes rule and immediately noticing, for example, that conditioning on an event with probability 1-o(1) doesn't influence anything by very much. 

Another trick I derived from this comfort is to almost never actually condition on small-probability events. Instead, the better thing to do is to modify the random variables you care about to fail catastrophically in the small probability scenario. 

For example, in graph theory I might care about controlling a random variable X which is the number of times a certain substructure appears in the random graph G(n,p), but to do so I need to condition away some tail event E like the appearance of a vertex of extremely high degree. Instead of working with conditional probability for the rest of the argument (which might go on to condition away 3 or 4 other tail events), the nicer thing to do is to modify X into a variable X' which is defined to be 0 when E occurs, and reason about X' instead. This is better for multiple reasons; the most important one being that the edge appearances in G(n,p) are no longer independent when you condition on E complement.

I think mostly what I got out of the Sequences was removing an air of mystery around Bayes rule. Here by mystery I mean "System 1 mystery," i.e. that before I read the Sequences, to figure out a conditional probability I would have to sit down and carefully multiply and divide. This post also helped.

Comment by alkjash on Two Explorations · 2020-12-17T15:59:25.940Z · LW · GW

How do you think this apply to intellectual pursuits? I have in mind research advising: in my experience, some people that I think could be great researchers are terrified of exploring some part of knowledge where there is no answer yet. And even we established researchers can easily be afraid of learning a new subject or a new technique that would help them tremendously. Maybe the comfort flags should be links with stuff that the graduate student/researcher knows well? Anecdotally, people seem more open to learning about what you want to say if you link it to their own field.

I don't pretend to be an established researcher, but here is what I had in mind. Most researchers at one point or other spend some amount of time white-knuckle learning things that are outside their comfort zones, but usually these things are just barely outside. My suggestion would be that all other things equal, some of that time should be spent learning things really far out instead.

Also I think learning in pairs is a very helpful tool. The active ingredient is to have someone you trust enough to freely share your ignorance and ask basic questions, and the easiest way to get this trust is to find someone who is also obviously ignorant of the same thing.

Comment by alkjash on Motive Ambiguity · 2020-12-16T05:05:46.923Z · LW · GW

I wonder if the following are also examples of motive ambiguity:

  • Mothers choosing to stay at home.
  • Researchers choosing to be bad at teaching.
  • Mathematicians choosing to work on problems with no applications.
Comment by alkjash on Mental Blinders from Working Within Systems · 2020-12-12T03:03:41.499Z · LW · GW

Let me share some more gears/evidence. I believe something a little more interesting happens than what you're saying (which is definitely one piece of the puzzle).

(1) It's fun to look at how the audience organizes itself during math talks. The faculty almost always sit in the front row, point out mistakes more directly ("You mean this" instead of "Is this correct?"), ask questions more often (and with less hand-raising), and sometimes even feel comfortable to answer questions in the speaker's stead. I suspect this is a social role that everyone learns through attending enough seminars.

(2) Faculty have access to a lot more privileged information about other mathematicians than everyone else. They are on editorial boards, hiring committees, admissions committees, conference organization, awards panels, etc. I got a confidence boost after peer reviewing my first couple of papers, the transition to faculty is this x10 in terms of data to train on and notice you're being underconfident.

(3) Professors spend a lot of time with their research groups/PhD students/undergrads compared to in the company of other faculty, so they aren't doing as much comparing themselves with other faculty as you would think. At least in mathematics, it's generally preferred for faculty at the same university to have research interests as far as part as possible (to cover a breadth of fields), so each professor interacts a great deal on the day-to-day with their group of undergrads/grad students/postdocs. Meetings with other faculty are mostly logistical, with the possible exception of a handful of close collaborators. This is probably even more true in fields where a professor is literally a head of their own lab and the PI for all research that happens in the lab. I think status feelings tend to work on the level of "people you interact with most on a daily basis" instead of "people you intellectually compare yourself to."

Comment by alkjash on alkjash's Shortform · 2020-12-11T22:42:59.839Z · LW · GW

Fascinating! Definitely plan to check this out, thanks for the recommendations and detailed introduction.

Comment by alkjash on Mental Blinders from Working Within Systems · 2020-12-11T16:47:41.716Z · LW · GW

Thank you for writing this, it led me to reconsider this phenomenon from a different perspective and revisit Lsusr's post as well as competent elites, which seemed to really string things together for me.

  • Lsusr is primarily talking about success "outside of the usual system", which generally frees someone up even more from the usual system. Start-ups are the primary example of this.
  • Alkjash is primarily talking about success within the existing system. The stereotypical successful career is an example of this.

This definitely feels like part of the thing, but I would (as with many things) phrase it in the language of status. I claim that much of the "freedom" that Lsusr talks about and the "intelligence and aliveness" Eliezer talks about is consequences of feeling high status. In academia, the standard solution to all of the ennui and anxious underconfidence a grad student or postdoc feels is ... wait for it ... tenure. Your inhibitions magically disappear when you become faculty, and mathematicians often become confident to explore, gregarious, and willing to state beliefs even in dimensions orthogonal to their expertise (e.g. Terry Tao on Trump). This is explained by direct changes in the brain, as well as external changes in how the intelligent social web coopts your cognition, when a person gains status.

My guess is that the difference between what you call Lsusr's "outside of the usual system" and my "within the existing system" is the difference between systems with shorter and looser status hierarchies and those with longer and tighter ones. In the former it is easier for an exceptional individual to quickly gain competence and reputation and reap the benefits of status. This difference is in turn mostly explained by systems having different levels of play. Thus, one would find success more agency-limiting for a longer period of time in professional Go than in professional Starcraft, in mathematics than in AI/ML, in Google than in a startup, etc.

My interpretation of Lsusr's philosophy is that there is a magic sauce that rhymes with arrogance which allows one to turn on powerful high-status feelings and behaviors (confidence, agency, vision) regardless of circumstance. Unfortunately there are harsh cultural defenses against this kind of thing that one has to prepare for.

Comment by alkjash on alkjash's Shortform · 2020-12-11T15:44:01.631Z · LW · GW

Very interesting! This thread is the first time I've heard of NLP (might have seen the acronym before but I thought it was ML people referring to Natural Language Processing), I will definitely check it out. I guess I just rounded off my observations to the nearest things I recognized. I'm not surprised that Robbins stuff is embedded in a larger technique but am kind of surprised that I've been ignorant of it for so long.

Is there a book or resource that you would most recommend to learn NLP?

Comment by alkjash on alkjash's Shortform · 2020-12-09T15:17:23.313Z · LW · GW

The phenomenon I'm pointing to via "making couples fall in love with him" (which might be the wrong words) is that in relationship interventions he uses a combination of explicit models, personal charisma, and hard-to-transfer people-reading skills to make each person feel understood at a level that causes them to trust him deeply. This level of trust seems pretty extraordinary and hard to distinguish from love. After that he proceeds to use exercises to transfer this trust to between the couple in a way that requires very little agency on the couples' part. They sort of just go along with/paraphrase TR's statements to each other and then get this massive intimacy boost. I would guess that they come out of the experience feeling as positive or more so about TR than about each other.

I would love to hear which pieces of his written work you think of as "actually new or useful insights," the only thing that fits that description for me from his youtube videos is the Six Human Needs, which is a useful template for goal-factoring for me.

Comment by alkjash on The Parable of Predict-O-Matic · 2020-12-04T17:34:29.937Z · LW · GW

Like Asimov is back among the living.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-12-03T19:48:48.474Z · LW · GW

No worries! Perhaps it's worth reminding everyone here that asymmetric justice incentivizes inaction. I hope I didn't do this just now, I very much appreciate the spirit of your experiment and encourage more people to try to state their beliefs and move fast and break things.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-12-03T19:04:31.663Z · LW · GW

Your comment is interesting and helpful for me because I have only a small sample of people who don't follow the "pain is the unit of effort" heuristic to a pathological extent. Perhaps this is explained by my circle of friends being dominated by Asian-Americans who went to the top universities. I definitely didn't consider what possibly ill effects it might have on others for whom this is not true. So thanks for that information!

However, enough of my brain interpreted your comment as a status move/slapdown that I'd suggest you reconsider doing these reviews, at least in the tone you're currently doing them. I don't believe you intended it this way, but your comment comes off as claiming a position of authority and also encourages too much (imo) Goodharting on the LessWrong "top 15 posts" metric. Both of these feel icky to me. I predict you will at minimum annoy a lot of authors if you continue to write these.

Comment by alkjash on alkjash's Shortform · 2020-12-03T18:49:56.008Z · LW · GW

The way I tried Tony Robbins was "spend two full days watching all of his youtube videos at 2x speed." I don't believe that much of his power will transfer through his books/audio programs. In fact I don't believe much of his power can be acquired by listening to his ideas at all - they are helpful and were somewhat novel to me but mostly forgettable. 

To see what his power is, I think it's worth watching some of his relationship intervention videos. As far as I can tell, one of his core strategies is "solve an irreversibly damaged relationship in an hour by making both parties fall deeply in love with him (TR) and then transfer that love to each other." (Of course, the examples on youtube are only the cases where TR succeeded most totally, so his actual success rate doing this is hard to estimate. If I had to ballpark, it works 50% of the time, so TR can make half of all humans fall in love with him in under an hour, under a weak precondition of the other person being receptive to a normal conversation.)

Unfortunately (or fortunately for him) this has the uncanny side effect of turning a consistent fraction of the attendees (in particular exactly the fraction who get the most out of his workshops) into a zealous army of unpaid volunteers who follow him all over the world. I may be using the words "memetically safe" incorrectly, but this is the danger I'm pointing to that I don't feel from CFAR. I didn't consider the opposite danger of CFAR immunizing against other forms of self-improvement, it seems like it wouldn't be too strong of an effect but much less bad in any case?

Comment by alkjash on alkjash's Shortform · 2020-12-03T02:37:45.658Z · LW · GW

Instrumental Rationality Mini-Retrospective

I promised several years ago to write a retrospective on Hammertime a year after it was released. I broke that promise but I wanted to take some time to do the work now, and to summarize my current beliefs about how much rationalist self-improvement affected my personal growth. I'd also like to estimate how it compares to other schools of self-improvement I've dabbled in.

First, I should mention that epistemic rationality has been directly useful in my career, although this is highly unlikely to generalize. At least three of the best papers I wrote in graduate school featured tricky applications of Bayes' Theorem. I was able to do from muscle memory certain calculations about conditional probability and expectation that might have taken weeks otherwise (if we figured them out at all). I attribute this ability in large part to reading the Sequences. YMMV if you don't work in or adjacent to probability theory. The rest of this review will ignore this relatively idiosyncratic improvement and focus on my beliefs about what is usually categorized as "instrumental rationality."

Over the last three years, I've seriously attempted the following "self-help schools of thought": CFAR applied rationality, therapy, Jordan Peterson, Tony Robbins. Insofar as numbers mean anything, in terms of personal progress in my life: CFAR is responsible for a ~100% improvement, therapy ~15%, Jordan Peterson ~40%, and Tony Robbins ~200%. Tony Robbins I encountered quite recently so the error bars are the biggest, and the effects have not yet had time to play out. As weak but verifiable evidence that the other three actually made an impact on my life, my publishing rate at least doubled since CFAR, the theorems have improved despite this. Also, I believe the quality of my writing has radically improved in these three years.

For a few more gears into these numbers:

CFAR is unique in that it (a) synthesizes the best bits of many other schools and couches it in language that is palatable to its target audience, (b) immerses you in practice in a way that any other immersive workshop does approximately equally well, but is nevertheless strong in a way regular practice and habit isn't, and (c) is astronomically memetically safe compared to the alternatives, due to deliberate choices like noting when models are "fake but useful but definitely fake."

Therapy can be hit-or-miss, the average-case scenario seems to be roughly that you pay a savvy friend armed with one or two CFAR techniques to listen and consciously apply that technique once a week. Still probably worth it.

Jordan Peterson was very useful as a charismatic psychology professor. His Youtube lectures seem to be the best available resources on the subject, and I don't believe there is a single other source that will get you the same level of understanding of the academic literature at the same cost in effort. What you get out of that abstract understanding will depend primarily on your general problem-solving ability. I don't believe there's anything remarkable about his self-improvement philosophy, although doing it will help (just because doing anything like this helps).

Tony Robbins is the best-in-class person at simultaneously blasting every part of your brain with charisma and motivation, and works for a general audience of homo sapiens (unlike CFAR). He is also extremely memetically dangerous - he knows all the buttons of the human brain that have been discovered and will push whichever ones it takes to effect the change he envisions. (For example, much of his technique rests on attaching positive meaning to suffering.) If it's any comfort, his intentions seem to be about as good as one can possibly expect for someone armed from adolescence with this superweapon. He is currently my leading candidate for "human best at getting out of the AI box." I do not believe I could have safely jumped into watching a bunch of his videos, learned a lot, and jumped back out, without much of the preparation and growth I got from the other sources listed above. 

Comment by alkjash on Asymmetric Justice · 2020-12-03T02:34:49.735Z · LW · GW

Pretty much the best thing ever.

Comment by alkjash on Is Rationalist Self-Improvement Real? · 2020-12-03T02:23:43.006Z · LW · GW

Nominating this post because it asks a very important question - it seems worth considering that rationalists should get out of self-improvement altogether and only focus on epistemics - and gives a balanced picture of the discourse. The section on akrasia seems particularly enlightening and possibly the crux on whether or not techniques work, though I still don't have too much clarity on this. This post also gives me the push necessary to write a long overdue retrospective on my CFAR and Hammertime experience.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-29T02:42:37.226Z · LW · GW

Thank you for extending more charity than you did previously. It was hard for me to respond fairly when you made arguments like "Well actually, you shouldn't use the word 'never' because no probability is literally zero."

I honestly don't think point [2. You're not trying your best if you're not happy.] is specified well enough to be confused with an interesting truth claim, as opposed to a helpful heuristic. For example, one can easily make the case that that no human is "trying their best," and therefore the statement is vacuously true because a true statement is implied by anything. I think the most reasonable way to interpret the sentence is "nobody is trying their best, and happiness is a particularly high ROI dimension along which to notice this."

I tentatively accept the applicability of this claim to the restricted domain of people who are physically/mentally healthy, economically/socially privileged and focused on their long-term impact. Since I'm in that category, it may well be useful for me actually, so I'll try think about it more; thanks for raising the argument.

Given that you believe this part, I suspect that we pretty much agree on every claim about the territory. If you think so too, then I think there's not much left to dispute other than word choice.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-28T18:07:09.840Z · LW · GW

Thanks for opening this discussion! I think this conversation is hard because I was trying to talk at several levels at once, and not even consciously aware of it. Let me first explain with an analogy what was going on in my head when I wrote the previous reply. 

Imagine I am writing a math paper, and the most important thing to me is that the main theorem is true. What I received from Richard was information that one of the supporting lemmas [1. if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong] in the paper is false or at least the proof was insufficient. I also received an implication that said lemma is not just a lemma but also one of the main theorems in the paper. My instinct in this position is to ditch the lemma and make sure the actual main theorem is on solid footing as the first course of action. In doing so, I argued that I only need a much weaker form of the lemma to prove the theorem, e.g. instead of a Central Limit Theorem I only needed to apply Markov's Inequality.

I think where I went wrong and raised rationalist red flags is that the way I make this argument: (a) makes it seem like I don't believe in the strong form of the lemma and am intentionally stating false observations for instrumental reasons, and (b) also looks like a conversation-stopper that I'm not willing to investigate certain truth claims on their own.

Neither of these are true. At least at the time of posting I was moderately confident about both lemmas as truth claims (up to poetic embellishment). After ChristianKL's comment about soreness I don't endorse the [1. if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong] statement any more, that seems like motivated blindness on my part. I will think about replacing it with the [1'] statement you proposed instead, although I feel some aversion to making deep edits of already published posts. I still essentially endorse [2. You're not trying your best if you're not happy.] and am very much open to discussing the truth value of this statement, once there is shared understanding that the main theorem does not depend on it.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-28T17:36:25.363Z · LW · GW

Thank you for pointing this out.

My initial reaction was that "soreness" doesn't count as pain within the context of the post because it's not as immediate, but I couldn't come up with a principled reason for doing this gerrymandering. I no longer endorse point 1 (If it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong) in the form stated and will think about how to reflect that in the post.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-28T01:47:11.234Z · LW · GW

I've been sitting with this post for a couple days and I'm starting to feel like it is only the tip of the iceberg. Here are three more pieces of the phenomenon to add some color:

1. My brain may be artificially injecting unpleasantness into effort. When engaged in activities that fall into the category of "work" I think my brain adds additional, unnecessary doses of drowsiness, anxiety, and feelings of low status and low agency. While doing the same activity, I can make these feelings disappear by remapping the activity in my head as "play." I hypothesize that this is an attempt to prove to myself that I am the kind of person who tries hard.

2. In attempts to reintegrate old memories of working hard in school, I feel a mental flinch every time I suggest the hypothesis that "In this instance, I put myself through a ton of pain for no reason." I predict that the primary immune reaction people will have to reading this post is the feeling of "This can't be true, or else all my suffering would have been pointless!" People like very much to ascribe meaning to suffering. This also maps onto behaviors like "Back in my day..." complaining and slapping people down for looking for easy weight loss solutions "because losing weight is supposed to be hard."

3. Part of the "pain is the unit of effort" heuristic is that pain is supposed to be the signal that you've exhausted your mana bar. Part of why it's so attractive is the idea that if you don't spend your mana, you're wasting it. So you work up to your pain tolerance to spend it all. My rebuttal to this model is that human energy is really frigging weird and a fixed mana bar is not a good model for it. I can have an entire afternoon of small group meetings and come out of them feeling more energized than I went in. Others have claimed that human energy is even weirder; for example in the discussions around Kensho I recall Valentine making a claim (can't find the exact place) indistinguishable from "There is a way to input ↑↑↓↓←→←→BA into the brain through meditation practices that unlocks infinite energy mode."

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-27T20:04:40.886Z · LW · GW

I'm specifically disputing your further conclusion that people in general should believe: "if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong" (and also "You're not trying your best if you're not happy."). In fact, these are quite different from the original claim, and also broader than it, which is why they seem like overstatements to me.

You are correct that the further "conclusions" are definitely on weaker epistemic grounds than the original claim. They are more of "attempts to propose solutions" than "confident assertions based on models." I tried to be clear about this in the text, but I probably wasn't.

Actually, there's something else here, and it might fall into the territory of Dark Arts. On reflection, the two proposed statements "if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong" and "You're not trying your best if you're not happy" are not primarily truth claims at all. They are primarily sequences of words that are supposed to trigger mental moves to pull you out of the damaging belief "pain is the unit of effort." To the extent that these claims are literally true, that is only instrumentally helpful for the effectiveness of the mental move. But for the purposes of this post it's only necessary that they feel true enough of the time to get people noticing confusion. They are called "antidotes" and "proposed counterbalancing beliefs." It may not be helpful to take an antidote if you're not poisoned in the first place.

Determining when people are wrong is already useful intellectual progress. Figuring out what the correct heuristic is is much harder and not something I seriously attempted in the body of the post. (If I had to take a guess right now, the correct answer is that effort as a concept is more trouble than it's worth in creative domains. Tracking it leads to people doing superstitious things "to be a certain kind of person," whereas most things should just be tracked by results.)

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-26T19:11:13.617Z · LW · GW

I think the replies to this and the previous post have surprised me in how much even LessWrong readers are capable of rounding off a specific technical claim to the nearest idea they've heard before. Let me attempt just once to state what the thesis is again.

I am not saying that effort should never painful. I am also not saying that many useful interventions are painful. I am specifically saying that when you measure effort in units of pain this systematically leads to really bad places (and also that a lot of people are doing this). For example, you will discount forms of effort that are pleasant even if they are more effective.

"If it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong." This is just an assertion from an analogy with sports, where even the analogy is false - elite athletes put themselves through a ridiculous amount of pain.

Most amateur and intermediate athletes are doing something wrong if it hurts. "Most amateur and intermediate athletes" is a much larger piece of probability space than "elite athletes."

As evidence for this, note that the domain where rewards are most heavy-tailed (entrepreneurship) is notorious for being painful: "It’s like chewing glass and staring into the abyss."

I'm not quite sure I see how this is evidence for your point? Most entrepreneurs fail. It's possible that they fail because they can't handle enough pain. It's also possible that they fail because they Goodharted on a terrible heuristic and lost all the free energy human brains need to innovate. As someone in mathematics research, which I thought would be filled with staring at a wall banging your head until I actually tried it, my gut leans towards the latter. 

Comment by alkjash on Pain is the unit of Effort · 2020-11-26T04:00:40.525Z · LW · GW

One more elaboration on this "avoid pain" mode of thinking: avoiding pain is not necessarily easy. For example in practicing this mode I have refused to do things that are merely slightly unpleasant, at moderately large social cost. This did not come easily to me. 

(I suppose one could quibble about whether the path I took was actually more painful because of the psychological discomfort of going against social pressure, but I'm talking more on the level of "what do you do if you take the spirit of the heuristic seriously." I admit to being confused here which probably means I'm using the wrong words.)

Comment by alkjash on Pain is the unit of Effort · 2020-11-26T00:00:07.484Z · LW · GW

They say imitation is the highest praise so thanks for writing this. :D 

A substantial chunk of my heart identifies with this post, but what I think it's pointing to is that pain can be a reasonable measure for a certain kind of effort. The difference between this post and mine feels close to the difference between making a desperate effort and making an extraordinary effort

When I imagine making a desperate effort, it feels like exactly what your post describes: pushing my body to the point of physical exhaustion and reaching a level of achievement I didn't think possible. When I imagine making an extraordinary effort, I see instead: sitting back in an armchair and surreptitiously saving the world by writing a fanfiction while following my heart's desire. Reality doesn't care how much pain you're in. Perhaps you can tell by my language, but the latter is what I aspire to. 

If you live in a world where nobody is trying and you find in yourself the ability to try in one particular way by making a desperate effort, your body might learn that this is the only way to try. I would offer that if you sat back and did only things that came easily, you might learn an altogether different way of trying with all the extra slack that saves you.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-25T18:20:13.165Z · LW · GW

I think this is an important consideration, and the picture does look different if you are living with chronic (physical or psychic) pain, but I disagree with the overall claim.

When your very survival, barely holding together a family and a home, takes up 15 hours of your day, it's going to hurt if you're trying to advance yourself with education or other self-improvement, it's going to take a necessary toll on your physical and mental health.

This seems like an over-generalization, and does not mesh with my experience talking to family members who escaped poverty. If anything they found escape and respite in working on their education, and having hope and a direction to work towards increased their subjective well-being. The mindset may be determined by personality differences more than differences in circumstance. 

I think what is true is that when you are carrying a huge amount of pain and urgency in your body day-to-day, you become numb to the amount of annoyance that is "studying for the fourth hour in a row" or "sharp pain in the wrists from bench pressing." Depending on the situation this can be either marginally effective or actively dangerous, but regardless pain is not an accurate unit of effort or progress here. Perhaps the fourth hour of studying causes more than half of the total pain, but it is highly unlikely that the fourth hour of studying was responsible for more than half of the total learning that occurred. Of course, the fourth hour could very well still be worth doing, simply because any marginal speedup on "getting out of my current situation" is worth massive amounts of temporary unpleasantness.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-25T18:02:36.715Z · LW · GW

That's the one, I took some liberties with the translation.

Comment by alkjash on Pain is not the unit of Effort · 2020-11-24T21:43:23.163Z · LW · GW

For activities that feel effortful, I mostly measure effort by time put in, usually in units of 25-minute Pomodoros. I think correcting "I will work on this until I feel unhappy/tired" as the standard for satisfaction to "I will work on this for 2 Pomodoros" is a big step.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-11-13T23:40:55.193Z · LW · GW

This is fascinating, I've not heard of a single SWE who takes many multi-month breaks. If you don't mind sharing, I'd love to hear more details on how you manage this. How are you able to negotiate longer breaks with your employer(s), or do you have to keep jumping ship? I would think that it's extremely expensive (especially with how equity vests), exhausting, and inefficient to be quitting jobs and starting new ones in order to take breaks shorter than say a year. 

The labor market is extremely inefficient and it can often be exploited heavily to gain personal freedom and success simultaneously.

Can you say more about this?

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-11-13T06:52:31.177Z · LW · GW

Here's another angle at the same bug, I think. I have a gut intuition that goes like this:

Real success is a Pareto improvement.

There should be some direction you can move from where you are now, where you literally get more (or at least not less) of every single thing you want. Whatever direction that is should be what we call "success" in our heads. (And since social approval is quite important to most people this definition actually lines up decently well with the conventional definition anyway.) So when people say things like "I'm happy where I am now and wouldn't want to be more successful/ambitious," or when people do striving-like stuff and ostensibly make progress but then somehow end up worse off, or when people say things like "I plan to do so-and-so which will improve my life, but I'm just not there yet" instead of diving straight in ... my gut translates these actions as "I don't want what I want" and just gets very very confused and cynical.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-11-13T06:36:16.279Z · LW · GW

Thanks for this! It is hard to overstate how desperately I cling to every piece of praise I ever receive, especially when it comes to writing. You didn't come off condescending at all.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-10-29T17:48:46.296Z · LW · GW

I read it as the latter.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-10-29T00:46:04.640Z · LW · GW

Wow, this comment alone makes writing the entire post worth it.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-10-28T19:38:40.748Z · LW · GW

All the details in the parables section are strictly apocryphal, though there are only a small number of Quanta articles that this story is generalizing from. 

From what I know of June Huh in particular he is working on exactly what he wants to be working on.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-10-28T17:19:51.500Z · LW · GW

I certainly agree that all the things you suggest to maintain one's freedom are technically possible. It is technically possible for Michael Jordan to abandon the entire status-oriented psychological machinery he built throughout his life to become the GOAT and play baseball in a recreational league. It is technically possible to simply stop caring about an entire dimension of human experience and set yourself free from society's notion of success. 

This post is a set of observations about how succeeding a second time in a different area is often harder than succeeding the first time. Of course it is still not impossible, and indeed it happens all the time, but significant extra effort is required that was not required the first time. This seems to me surprising and counterintuitive, because my initial model of such things was that success multiple times should only get easier and easier, since "gitting gud" is a cluster of highly generalizable skills.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-10-27T21:16:30.487Z · LW · GW

It's...honestly kind of hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be reluctant to start learning a new skill I know very little about, and I'm definitely not worried about being judged by my peer group for it.

Curious if you've had anything like the following experiences: most Starcraft players I know only play the one race they picked up in the first couple weeks of play, and finds switching races difficult psychologically (more so than learning the game fresh). Most DOTA players I know only play one role (or two similar ones) out of five and find picking up other roles difficult.

(One of) the feature(s) I'm pointing out is that nobody has to be mean or judge you for you to feel bad for switching...because you start losing a lot.

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-10-27T02:36:41.030Z · LW · GW

Looking forward to it! To be clear that isn't a real branch of math (afaik).

Comment by alkjash on Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full) · 2020-10-27T00:53:21.021Z · LW · GW

Do you think success is economical, professional, intellectual...? Is it a static goal or is it a journey? That changes how it influences your freedom. In essence, the definition and meaning that you give to your own life will change very much I free do you feel. 

In my writing I err on the side of using simple words in the hopes that the charitable reader interprets it in whatever way it makes the most sense. Here I think I define "success" as "psychological success" = whatever makes you currently feel successful.

I don't think that success itself is the reason of constrained freedom, I believe that "identity" is.

I definitely agree that strong attachment to identity is one of the big factors that constrain freedom, however I disagree with reducing this entire phenomenon to one mechanism. In my personal experience whenever I break what seems to me to be the biggest barrier, e.g. "identity", to my freedom, I usually make progress for a period of time only to find another, entirely different barrier, in my way. To use a video game analogy, this is a final boss with multiple stages and "identity" is probably the first stage that most people get stuck on.

It seems like the shape of reality is itself bent in such a way to constrain our freedom, independent of whatever psychological attachments we have internally that only make matters worse.

Comment by alkjash on Babble & Prune Thoughts · 2020-10-20T23:48:08.340Z · LW · GW

In in-person discussions, a good way to lessen this problem is to preface statements with qualifiers like "This is a dumb question, but..." or "Here's a crazy idea:" or "I don't endorse this, but I was thinking..." and so on. This creates a kind of protection for the speaker. They still get credit for good ideas; but if the idea really was bad, they take less of a hit.

This doesn't work as well for longform text discussions, because readers know you had time to think things through. But [epistemic status:] flags can play a similar role. If you don't feel like an idea is good enough, you preface it with [epistemic status: super dumb] or whatever, and take some comfort in the fact that if the reader doesn't like what you wrote, they were warned.

I think having this norm is much better than attempting to sustain a norm that everything is "epistemic status: raw thoughts" by default.

I mostly agree with this angle, my mind is definitely changed. This disagreement reminds me of the culture war between "take personal responsibility even though society sucks" and "society is to blame for putting us in shitty situations."

My main point here is that improving babble doesn't mean reducing prune. Alkjash sometimes speaks as if it's just a matter of opening the floodgates. Sometimes people do need to just relax, turn off their prune, and open the floodgates. But if you try to do this in general, you might have initial success but then experience backlash, since you may have failed to address the underlying reasons why you had closed the gates to begin with.

I do agree with this in general, although at that time of writing I think my prune was particularly pathological, and simply opening the floodgates led to uniformly positive outcomes. Independently, one thing I tried to emphasize is that improving babble is often about trying on different prune, hence the anecdotes about poetry and weirdly constrained writing. 

[epistemic status: raw thoughts]

Comment by alkjash on The Pit · 2019-10-27T02:42:07.888Z · LW · GW

If I had to say (and this is only a slice of the story), I am the boy and the scientists (or whatever they are) are the rationality community. Rationality showed me light, taught me how to seek truth, saved me from destructive biases. Many others in my position dropped their "conventional" lives and moved to Berkeley/started working on EA or AI Risk. But me - after my interaction with rationality - I turned away from the community to continue grad school and pursue my pure mathematics with renewed vigor.

Comment by alkjash on [Hammertime Final Exam] Quantum Walk, Oracles and Sunk Meaning · 2019-09-10T20:46:17.817Z · LW · GW

I just stumbled back into LessWrong after many months, very pleased to see that you completed this journey with such seriousness! Looking forward to your thoughts and comments in the postmortem post.

Re: Sunk Meaning, immediately after reading this, my brain sent strong signals that *something else is going on here* with regards to making the cow's death mean something and there's some Chesterton's fence that you shouldn't break. I think the error you're making is basically the same error that causal decision theorists make two-boxing in Newcomb's problem. You do not get to choose whether or not to honor a dead cow in this specific instance. You only get to choose (for all time) whether or not your source code implements an algorithm which honors the dead. Being able to do this is really really useful for all sorts of Newcomblike situations that occur in real life.

Comment by alkjash on [Hammertime Final Exam] Accommodate Yourself; Kindness Is An Epistemic Virtue; Privileging the Future · 2018-09-10T03:22:51.866Z · LW · GW

I identify strongly with the "Accommodate Yourself" - a substantial fraction of things I figured out with rationality boiled down to realizations of the form "You didn't have to live like this!" I set up a Schelling point for my glasses so I didn't have to scramble around looking for them every morning. I got over the inherent virtuousness of cooking my own meals and tried Mealsquares. I got a monitor and mouse for my laptop. The list goes on...

Kierkegaard wrote "So only one lack remains [in our time], even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty. Out of love of humankind, out of despair over my awkward predicament of having achieved nothing and of being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, out of genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I comprehended that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere." It seems to me, however, that despite all our progress, life is sufficiently hard as it is. We don't need to make it any harder than it has to be.

With regards to the thoughts on delayed gratifications, it seems like a valuable reminder that pendulums usually swing a little too far in the other direction. Most people most of the time would benefit from a reminder that the future exists, but some smaller fraction of them also need the reminder that the present exists too.

Thanks for following Hammertime, and I'd love to see more of your writing on here in the future. =)

Comment by alkjash on Friendship · 2018-08-20T01:56:25.360Z · LW · GW

Just book a slot and leave a message for how long you want it to be.

Comment by alkjash on HPMoE 2 · 2018-04-04T01:02:59.916Z · LW · GW

Guvf vf evtug, avpr! Gunaxf nyfb sbe gur pbeerpgvba.

Gur bayl pbzzrag V unir vf: sbe gur ynfg ceboyrz, lbh fubhyq or noyr gb jevgr qbja n pybfrq sbez, be ng yrnfg na rfgvzngr. Jung xvaq bs tebjgu engr qbrf guvf fhzzngvba unir? Cebonoyl Fgveyvat jvyy gnxr lbh pybfr gb gur evtug nafjre.

Urer'f nabgure jnl gb trg fbzrguvat: tebhc hc gur pbbeqvangrf va frgf bs guerr naq gnxr gur frg bs nyy irpgbef juvpu unir (1,1,1),(0,1,1),(1,0,1),(1,1,0) va rnpu gevcyr bs pbbeqvangrf. Guvf rknzcyr tvirf lbh 2^{(2/3)a} irpgbef.

Comment by alkjash on Unyielding Yoda Timers: Taking the Hammertime Final Exam · 2018-04-03T23:03:10.166Z · LW · GW

I like (2) a lot, I find writing up talk/lecture notes on a topic extremely productive. It's surprising how many details I'm always missing that take work to produce.

Would you mind commenting a link to this on the original final exam post?

Comment by alkjash on Harry Potter and the Method of Entropy · 2018-04-02T05:31:45.014Z · LW · GW

Gur svefg unys vf evtug, gur xrl vqrn vf gb pbzcner r gb o, naq purpx gung guvf oernxf n havirefr bs 15 cbffvovyvgvrf vagb 7 naq 8. Nsgre gung lbh unir gb or n ovg zber pnershy nobhg znxvat gur evtug pbzcnevfbaf, sbe rknzcyr vg ybbxf yvxr lbh'er nffhzvat n<r<o whfg orpnhfr r<o, jura vg pbhyq nyfb ybbx yvxr r<n<o.

Comment by alkjash on April Fools: Announcing: Karma 2.0 · 2018-04-01T16:55:16.910Z · LW · GW

Smart and thoughtful change, what a wonderful Easter surprise!