Comment by austin-chen on [deleted post] 2021-05-29T18:09:09.153Z

I deeply agree with your perspective on biology - there's so many cool things imaginable (curing mortality, augmenting health and mental capabilities) but progress feels hard to come by because of high barriers to doing basic work. The timescales to get a full feedback loop (think of an idea, try it out, analyze the results) often look like weeks to run an experiment, whereas in the digital world your code will compile in seconds. is really neat, though fundamentally I wouldn't have imagined bioinformatics/data processing to be the rate limiting step in advancing biology research...

And btw for other readers: I realized that my earlier examples may have been construed as "everyone should be programming" - which is a view I might also endorse, but not my main point. My intent was closer to "in any field you're trying to study, you'll retain more knowledge and be more motivated by the process of creating something others value". That could look like: LessWrong posts summarizing state of the art research for a grade school audience, or creating a Discord for fellow students to exchange ideas.

Comment by austin-chen on [deleted post] 2021-05-29T07:36:07.080Z

Problem area: how do we apply highly engaging feedback mechanisms (e.g. games, internet points, social media) towards creating things of value?

Conversely, how do we prevent that same engaging feedback from destroying value (opportunity costs of time, attention, literal money)

Step one: create a highly engaging product (apps/games/websites) - done, kinda

Step two: go up one meta level to make a product which creates other products, in a highly engaging way-WIP. Eg: remove friction from the existing workflow of the game creation, or make it easier for an alpha tester to provide feedback to a new app creator.

Why haven't I done this? Well, my current main project is shaped like this, but I do feel like a lot of distractions or perceived obligations get in my way... Eg not having a cofounder, or raising money, or optimizing where to live. Would love to hear what's helped others focus on doing (rather than just "trying")!

Comment by austin-chen on [deleted post] 2021-05-29T07:10:40.132Z

In case having concrete steps on buying modafinil would help: I've had two good purchasing experiences with in the last few months. They take PayPal, no messiness with eg bitcoin needed.

Re: studying, it sounds like you're still in school? I studied a lot in school and got top grades; same for many of my friends. None of us wish we "studied harder", looking back.

Instead of focusing on studying for the sake of it, just go out and create something valuable! The periods I learned the most did not look like "studying more", they looked like "teaching for an undergrad CS class", "building mobile apps with a team of friends, and publishing them on the Google Play Store".

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on The Schelling Game (a.k.a. the Coordination Game) · 2021-05-04T20:12:29.140Z · LW · GW

The Schelling Game seems spiritually very similar to a game I helped implement, Listorama:

In Listorama's Threefold mode, everyone lists out 3 entries for a particular category (e.g. "Movies"), and earn points based on how many others put down the same word. If you enjoy the Schelling game, give this one a try too!

(There are two other modes, too: Forgotten Four, where you earn points for putting entries that nobody else put; and One on One, where the goal is to match exactly one other person)

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Problem Solving with Mazes and Crayon · 2021-04-13T22:21:24.435Z · LW · GW

Also: Searching from the back in addition to searching from the front can be really helpful in reconstructing the overall path!

In computer science, we might call this "breadth-first search from both sides" or "bidirectional search" (image); the insight being that you keep searching until your two search trees have some point in common. This is nice because you explore fewer total paths -- in a large maze, the number of paths you explore grows exponentially as you get farther away from the starting location.

The analog in general problem solving might be to look both backwards and forwards. If I want to e.g. be happily married with kids in 5 years, I should not only think about my possible actions today ("go on more  dates", "reconnect with old crushes"), but also backwards from my destination ("which marriages are happy", "how to raise children"), and look for how the two can connect ("ah, Eve is an old friend from high school who shares this interest in child rearing").

This is also a technique in math proofs. From XKCD:

"Handy exam trick: when you know the answer but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don't notice the seam."

Except: sometimes, instead of tricking the grader, you actually just find the correct derivation!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on How You Can Gain Self Control Without "Self-Control" · 2021-03-25T10:00:52.223Z · LW · GW

I really loved this article! The content is great; breaking down self control into subparts makes it much easier for me to understand where my self control goes awry, and highlights new strategies for dealing with laziness/akrasia.

The way the article is laid out is excellent, with flash cards and plenty of concrete examples; as a result I'd expect to remember much more from this article in eg a month from now, compared to other articles read around the same time.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on MetaPrompt: a tool for telling yourself what to do. · 2021-03-17T17:54:06.949Z · LW · GW

Not super familiar, actually -- we came to this from another direction of gaming (party games, word games like Codenames and Decrypto). Thanks for the recs, though, I'd love to check these out. And definitely LMK if you have any feedback!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on MetaPrompt: a tool for telling yourself what to do. · 2021-03-17T07:36:57.173Z · LW · GW

I took a couple hours and hacked together a very simple prototype, just to see how MetaPrompt would play out! Try it out here.

Doesn't support multiple users yet, but it wouldn't be that much harder to build out. Here's the rough source code.

(And since your post led to an implementation of MetaPrompt, that would make your post a... MetaMetaPrompt)

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on MetaPrompt: a tool for telling yourself what to do. · 2021-03-17T02:14:41.353Z · LW · GW

This is really cool! It reminds me a lot of a game we're actually building right now, Storytime. Storytime is a creative-writing game where a group of players are writing a story together, each competing to write the most interesting story continuation in 2 minutes & 280 characters; and you get bonus points for using certain random words, madlib-style.

In Storytime, we have a few default starting prompts (an isekai themed one; a rhyming one; etc) written by hand, One idea we had to increase our pool of prompts was to draw them from responses that our players have created. But maybe an actual meta-prompt, aka having our players explicitly compete to write prompts, would be another way of generating great prompts... Thanks for the idea!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Contrarian Writing Advice · 2021-03-07T15:54:56.102Z · LW · GW

Of course, comment quality is an input into your overall feedback. But not the only input, and importantly not the main one, I think. (By "comment" here I'm thinking of "random internet strangers saying things about your article, eg here on Lesswrong.")

There are so many other sources of feedback, including:

  • how you yourself judge the article
  • feedback from people you trust
  • reshares, link backs, quotes of the article
  • up votes, views

Which I think should combine for a holistic evaluation of how well your particular article was received. Comments may be one of the easier metrics, but leaning on it too heavily runs afoul of "drunk looking under streetlight for keys"

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Contrarian Writing Advice · 2021-03-07T08:49:07.870Z · LW · GW

At the risk of being a misinterpreting idiot:

When I spell things out so clearly only an idiot could misinterpret my words, the comments get worse because idiots misinterpret my words.

Do you judge how successful a piece is by the quality of the comments it received? That strikes me as a strange metric to optimize for.

I could see this metric aligning with "discover", if you permit bad comments to waste your time. But I think you get more "explain" by writing for a broad audience. Maybe not "dumb", but at least "ignorant".

Even math PHDs prefer simple English before differential equations. See Eliezer on "aim high, shoot low":

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on MetaMed: Evidence-Based Healthcare · 2021-02-10T16:36:51.838Z · LW · GW

Thank you for posting this; I found it very helpful in clarifying some things with my current startup. And thanks to Zvi (presumably) for writing this too!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Give it a google · 2021-01-25T14:18:12.801Z · LW · GW

Great article. I think there's a lot of day-to-day things that we just bumble through in our lives, applying the algorithm of "deal with it the way I dealt with it the very first time I thought about it". But a 2-minute Google crawl can improve your algorithm immensely. 3 examples that I Googled after reading this article:

  • Can you eat the leaves on a strawberry? I'd habitually plucked and thrown them away my whole life, but Google says that I can just eat the whole berry!
  • Should you pop a zit? I'd always done so assuming it would speed up getting over the zit, but Google says letting it heal naturally is overall faster
  • What's the correct way of wiping poop? I'd barely ever thought about this daily behavior, doing probably the same motion I've done since I was a kid ("fold 3 sheets, wipe once, throw away"), but Google suggests installing a bidet; and failing that, adding a bit of the water to the sheets.
Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Great minds might not think alike · 2020-12-27T21:43:57.160Z · LW · GW

Great post! One note:

Think in terms of language-to-language translators: to translate really well from language A to language B, you need be masterful at A (to understand all the subtleties of the meaning) and also at B (to convey that meaning while preserving those nuances). That’s why good translators (in both senses) are so rare.

Mastery of both A and B is great, obviously, but if you can choose only one, choose B.

I've spent a decent chunk of my life scanlating manga from Japanese to English, and my observation is that fluency in the target language (English, in this case) is much more important for a good translation than fluency in the source. I can overcome a misunderstanding in Japanese with copious amounts of research (Google Translate, JP dictionaries, etc); but the thing that my readers consume is a product in English, which is much harder to "fake".

Two takeaways, continuing on the translation analogy:

  • If you want to get into cultural translation, start by writing for the audience you know really well, and then do research into the source culture. My bet is that Scott is more "fluent" in the analytical audience, not the social one.
  • Scanlation teams often have a JP to Eng translator, fluent in JP, and a second English editor who can clean up the script. Cultural translation may also benefit from two people from different cultures collaborating (SSC's adversial collaboration comes to mind)
Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on The First Sample Gives the Most Information · 2020-12-25T20:41:11.334Z · LW · GW

This is a really powerful concept; I can immediately think of at least two fields this applies to:

  • When you're not sure how to build a software user interface, you might think "let's run an A/B test on 1000 people and see which performs better". But you'll get 90 percent of the value just by showing it to one or two users and watching them use it, live.

  • When you're learning to cook, one of the first things they teach you is to sample your food throughout. The first sip or bite will immediately tell you how to adjust the recipe (eg add more salt, add something spicy, or a dash of vinegar)

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on 100 Tips for a Better Life · 2020-12-24T06:44:54.588Z · LW · GW

That's a good point, actually; one takeaway from the FIRE (Financially Independent, Retire Early) community is that your retirement date is basically a function of your current expenses; assuming a safe withdrawal rate of 4% you "just" need 25x expenses to retire forever.

But dropping your expenses to zero is fairly hard; in fact, dropping your expenses by any meaningful amount is hard since people have fairly sharp intuitions about where their money is going, and probably not wantonly spending it in the first place.

And moreover, the goal isn't to extend your personal runway to infinity, but rather to improve the fuzzy metric of "living a happy, fiscally secure life". Presumably, most of your expenses are reasonably rational purchases on that axis, and getting rid of them would make you less happy overall.

My thesis is that, for the same amount of annoying dealing-with-financial-institutions-effort, setting up an online brokerage account to put the majority of your money in index funds is like 10x to 100x return on effort for many, compared to saving $20 a month switching banks.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on 100 Tips for a Better Life · 2020-12-24T01:01:58.031Z · LW · GW

First off, I'd like to apologize; I wasn't trying to gatekeep LessWrong or anything like that. This is part of what's hard about giving advice online; my mental model of the audience is shaped by the few I know personally + myself, but it's by no means comprehensive. Some people need to hear "this is specifically how you can save $20/month" and not "this is the general way to approach personal finance"!

That said -- I still want to push back. When it comes to personal finance, it's easy to focus on cutting costs and personal spending; it feels virtuous, and the benefits are visible. But the huge gains in personal finance come from a getting a handful of things very right, almost all of which are related to making more money rather than cutting your costs.

In my head, these things are:

  • Earning a consistent high return on your cash (stock market's  ~10% rather than saving account's ~0.5%)
  • Negotiating your salary
  • Working on your career capital and connections

One intuition for this is the amount of money you can earn is unbounded; no matter who you are, I'd guess you personally know someone making 2x as much, and know of someone who makes 10-100x as much. But the amount of expenses you can cut is hard capped at 100%, and most people would have a pretty difficult time dropping it by even 30%.

And again, it's hard for me to speak to your financial situation, not knowing you personally; it's possible your financial strategy matches well to your risk appetite and lifestyle, in which case, please ignore my musings!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on 100 Tips for a Better Life · 2020-12-23T06:00:05.075Z · LW · GW

This is a great list! However, I was almost immediately turned off because of 

2. Some banks charge you $20 a month for an account, others charge you 0. If you’re with one of the former, have a good explanation for what those $20 are buying.

Because this point is nowhere near top of mind for "tips for better personal finance". $240 per year should never make or break your life (among people who are reading these comments, anyways), so I'd suggest something more along the lines of:

  • Make sure you have 3 months of expenses in liquid cash
  • Store 90% of the rest of your money in an index fund
  • Experiment with the last 10% (stock picks, prediction markets, crypto, who knows)

The cash-on-time return for getting these basics right is much much higher than switching banks to save a measly $20/month (or e.g. worrying about interest rates on your savings accounts)

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Writing tools for tabooing? · 2020-12-14T08:43:34.659Z · LW · GW

A chrome extension sounds promising; I wanted a similar tool to help me improve my writing skills. Concretely, I noticed that I would end up hedging a lot in my online conversations, including needless disclaimers like "I think", "I suppose", "I guess", etc. that would detract from the clarity of my writing.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Covid 12/3: Land of Confusion · 2020-12-05T02:14:52.727Z · LW · GW

A highly recommended quality-of life improvement is to use ShareX, a program which will let you take a screenshot, immediately upload it to Imgur, then copies the URL link into your clipboard. Sharing, embedding, and backing up anything you see becomes habitual. For example, I hit "Ctrl + Shift + 4", then "Ctrl + V" and get:

It not only saves me time, it cuts out a trivial inconvenience of showing my screen to others. URLs work universally, and I don't have to figure out the image upload process of every website everywhere. It's actually a qualitative change in the type of content I share to e.g. coworkers and friends, and, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Sunzi's《Methods of War》- War · 2020-11-20T08:41:16.849Z · LW · GW

I love all the insights here, and curious - what did you find it to generalize to?

My head's been on startups lately; reading "enemy" as "competitor" it might be that poaching their employees is worth more than a normal hire? (This was one internal theory about why Google retains so many engineers who don't do that much). If "supply" is "ideas", it's not obvious that copying ideas from the competitor is any better than finding them from any other place, though.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Gifts Which Money Cannot Buy · 2020-11-06T09:23:27.646Z · LW · GW

Expanded into a shortform blog post!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Gifts Which Money Cannot Buy · 2020-11-06T08:22:07.384Z · LW · GW

I already believed this, but I'm glad that this concept is now written up so I can point to it in the future!

Another frame: A lot of people seem to think "oh, Billy likes cookbooks, I'll buy him a cookbook since he'll probably like that". But that's exactly backwards! Billy has spent a lot of time figuring out which cookbooks are the best, which ones suit his tastes; it's very unlikely that your money spent on a cookbook you picked more-or-less at random would be spent nearly as efficiently as if you just gave the money to Billy straight up. Conversely, you would have to spend a lot more effort to research the space of cookbooks to give even a passingly good gift.

Instead, just give him something where you have comparative advantage; something from a hobby you enjoy that is a bit foreign to the recipient. The best gift I ever got was a sketchbook and set of drawing pencils; I know nothing about art, but appreciated the gentle nudge from an experienced artist.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Covid 9/10: Vitamin D · 2020-09-29T07:19:13.805Z · LW · GW

That's intriguing. Another news article on Covid/Homeless, I'd love to see more evidence:

A more-studied effect on Vitamin D is that of skin color. This is especially seductive since it's well-established e.g. Black Americans suffer Covid disproportionately, and also are deficient in Vitamin D disproportionately. But the effect seems to disappear after adjusting for confounders:

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Covid 9/10: Vitamin D · 2020-09-29T07:08:55.060Z · LW · GW

Oh, that's awfully interesting. I've been going out and telling literally everyone I know to buy Vitamin D; is that not universalizable? Is this a "n95 masks" situation where we think it is effective but want to keep mum to protect the most at-risk?

Thinking a bit more -- on the margin, it feels like the world should use more VitD (both against Covid and in general) so I'll continue to beat on my drum. I'd also love to see how you arrived at the few tons per year conclusion!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Covid 9/10: Vitamin D · 2020-09-27T19:38:27.639Z · LW · GW

I was doing some further research, though, and it seems that the specific correlational studies called out (the LessWrong quoted ones) may actually be fraudulent:

  • Authors of the Indonesia study have no other history of papers, are claimed to now be deceased (... of COVID)
  • New Orleans study has n=20
  • Philippines study was authored by a single doctor in his 20s with a radiology background

This was a bit concerning to me; the first and third are very widely cited, e.g. by Joe Rogan on his podcast.

The further balance of evidence once again convinced me, such as this meta-analysis (which specifically does call out the first and third as possible frauds).

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on Covid 9/10: Vitamin D · 2020-09-27T09:06:39.727Z · LW · GW

Just found the New Orleans study: , I believe. This was posted early on (April 28th) with a very small sample size (n=20), so I'm discounting this rather heavily now. 

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on A tool to estimate COVID risk from common activities · 2020-09-03T03:16:33.351Z · LW · GW

I accept that my 10k figure is lower than typical; again, I'm relatively young (25) and risk tolerant. I'm curious where you'd bound your "cost of avoiding covid" at - $100k? $1M?

I did not model impact on others, and agree that this is a major oversight - as OP stated, there aren't great models of this yet and we should try to do better.

But crucially, I don't think "my current parameters leads to a massive underestimate" logically equates to "dollars are a bad framing device for understanding risk". I almost feel like the fact that you can have such strong immediate opinions on seeing these dollar figures, means that converting to dollars provided a lot of clarity around our respective thought processes.

Of course it's a simplification; it paints over, for example, the fact that two people with different incomes but the same risk tolerance would assign different dollar values. But on the flip side, literally every member of our society has grown up assessing the prices of things in dollars. QALY, micromorts, now microcovids, etc are incredibly esoteric by comparison.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on A tool to estimate COVID risk from common activities · 2020-08-31T23:54:06.137Z · LW · GW

Good point, thanks.

Running the "microCOVID to $" conversion from the other end of the spectrum, the recommendation of 1% COVID risk = 10k μCoV to spend/year would suggest a conversion rate of $1 per μCoV (if your yearly discretionary budget is on the order of $10k/year).

I keep coming back to the "dollars conversion" because there's a very real sense in which we're trained our entire lives to evaluate how to price things in dollars; if I tell you a meal costs $25 you have an instant sense of whether that's cheap or outrageous. Since we don't have a similar fine-tuned model for risk, piggybacking one on the other could be a good way to build intuition faster.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on A tool to estimate COVID risk from common activities · 2020-08-31T21:31:28.025Z · LW · GW

I hear this objection a lot but don't have a sense of how likely/how bad "permanent lung/brain damage" is -- do you happen to have any sources? I think this scenario is in the public conciousness because it's scary and newsworthy, not because it's common. Randomly guessing I'd say that permanent damage is meaningful in ~1% of all cases?

I tried to factor this already into my $1k - $10k COVID avoidance price, but I'd be happy to update on new data, and of course you might have different subjective valuations.

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on A tool to estimate COVID risk from common activities · 2020-08-31T06:47:22.606Z · LW · GW

A microCOVID (μCoV) is a 1/1,000,000 chance of catching COVID, not of *dying from* COVID. Off the top of my head, COVID has between a 1% and a 0.1% case fatality rate, so the cost of hangout death is something like $1 to $0.10. (Equivalently, a μCoV costs between 1 and 10 cents.) That hangout seems pretty cheap now!

You might separately check cost of going through COVID, which ranges from "no symptoms" to "pretty sick for a week to a month". Being an affluent, reasonably healthy young person, I'd pay $1k to avoid the COVID experience but not $10k -- so this additional cost is between $0.01 and $0.001 per μCoV. For simplicity's sake, I'm combining both these figures into an overall 1 cent per microCOVID.

I definitely agree that a dollar framing helps make things actionable. Eating inside (5000μCoV = $50) is ridiculously expensive compared to outside (300μCoV = $3), and hitting up a bar, at 40k μCoV, has an astronomical cost of $400!

Comment by Austin Chen (austin-chen) on On Systems - Living a life of zero willpower · 2020-08-17T05:31:45.974Z · LW · GW

This post was super helpful to me on a number of points, including:

  • Separating "rejuvenative breaks" from "procrastination spirals"
  • Encouraging me to track "time since last 1:1 with friend"
  • Getting social permission to try sending Calendly links to friends

I do somewhat vacillate between the ideas of "willpower is finite, optimize accordingly" presented here, and "screw it, just follow your obsessions" (see two SSC, two PG essays). It's possible these aren't actually opposed and that setting up systems frees you to dive deeply into your fascinations... but basically, I wonder how much structure the people we idolize enforce in their day. You do have a ton of blog posts which I'm now enjoying, so that is some positive proof!

One point of confusion: Is the "digital calendar" you mentioned like, Google Calendar? Or a physical, dedicated screen that exists just to surface your calendar?