Coronavirus crash vs history 2021-06-14T10:55:44.779Z
bfinn's Shortform 2021-04-27T14:48:05.086Z
How & when to write a business plan 2021-04-15T15:45:50.288Z
Write a business plan already 2021-03-25T00:13:21.700Z
Stock market hints for 2021 from past crashes 2020-12-30T20:05:44.578Z
Post-crash market efficiency 1696-2020 2020-05-22T14:13:50.903Z
162 benefits of coronavirus 2020-05-12T11:19:43.289Z
Premature death paradox 2020-04-13T23:15:18.641Z
Urgent & important: How (not) to do your to-do list 2019-02-01T17:44:34.573Z
Rationality of demonstrating & voting 2018-11-07T00:09:44.239Z


Comment by bfinn on Covid 6/17: One Last Scare · 2021-06-22T21:45:25.945Z · LW · GW

On a detail, the UK/English variant (B.1.1.7) is not called the London variant. It was first identified in Kent, not London; so within the UK it's often called the Kent variant.

Comment by bfinn on Coronavirus crash vs history · 2021-06-18T09:55:13.879Z · LW · GW

Incidentally the second graph is neatly encapsulated by the phrase ‘method in the madness’, which could have been a title/subtitle for the whole post.

Comment by bfinn on The value of low-conscientiousness people on teams · 2021-06-15T08:23:01.285Z · LW · GW

I like this analysis a lot. BTW there’s a word for the effect of Oxonian behaviour: sprezzatura - meaning apparently nonchalant, effortless ability obtained by extensive secret practice. This was considered desirable among 16th century Italian courtiers:

“The ideal courtier was supposed to be skilled in arms and in athletic events but be equally skilled in music and dancing. However, the courtier who had sprezzatura managed to make these difficult tasks look easy – and, more to the point, not appear calculating, a not-to-be-discounted asset in a milieu commonly informed by ambition, intrigue, etc.”

Comment by bfinn on Coronavirus crash vs history · 2021-06-14T17:35:33.001Z · LW · GW

It's the same set of crashes, just that on the previous post the US and UK were on separate charts. The criterion for a crash is in footnote 1, viz. a real total return fall of 20% or more in 8 weeks or less.

I don't know the specific reasons for the US recovery being unusually fast (I'm not an economist alas).

Comment by bfinn on A lateral way of thinking about Cause X: barely visible but potentially enormous categories of value · 2021-06-14T16:19:58.829Z · LW · GW

Re new subcategories of beauty created by technology, new art/entertainment forms like photography, film, radio, animation, TV, video games are examples. And printed books, not so long ago.

Comment by bfinn on A lateral way of thinking about Cause X: barely visible but potentially enormous categories of value · 2021-06-14T16:16:41.889Z · LW · GW

Re barely visible vast tragedies, untreated extreme (torture-level) prolonged pain, such as from cancer, is surely one. Many countries apparently don't provide even cheap painkillers like morphine. And I suspect extreme prolonged pain is vastly worse than other bad things people campaign about, that cause ordinary levels of discomfort & misery, and vastly worse than any pleasure is good. (Stick your hand in the fire, and see how long it takes for you to agree with me.)

Hence I suspect almost all the bad stuff in the world (affecting humans) resides in this extreme pain. Most of which could be treated quite easily & cheaply.

Comment by bfinn on Experiments with a random clock · 2021-06-14T15:28:00.399Z · LW · GW

I once had a designer watch with no minute hand. (The hour hand consisted of a ball bearing that moved round the face by magnetism; though a normal hour hand would do.)

With practice I found you could estimate the time from the hour hand's position to an accuracy of about +/- 5 minutes. So this would be ideal.

Comment by bfinn on The value of low-conscientiousness people on teams · 2021-06-14T15:07:20.190Z · LW · GW

This may be an obvious point, but low-conscientiousness people can freeride on the high-conscientiousness ones. Which is advantageous to the former. 

And as to why some (but not all) are highly conscientious, maybe it's down to the evolutionary psychology explanation for why some, but only some, people are obsessive checkers (an example of high conscientiousness): because in a prehistoric group, it's beneficial for one or two people to be inclined to e.g. check there are no tigers around, but there's little further value in everyone else doing so, and lots of lost value in other uses of their time.

Also, low conscientiousness (e.g. laziness) in males is seen as unattractive by females, but as long as there are females who are unattractive for other reasons, presumably the latter will pair up with the former anyway for lack of available alternatives. So the laziness reproduces.

Comment by bfinn on Precognition · 2021-06-14T14:39:28.278Z · LW · GW

An extreme example is high-frequency trading, in which responding to a market change milliseconds ahead of others can be crucial to making money. A decade ago, Spread Networks spent $300 million laying a fibre optic cable in a straight line between Chicago and New Jersey, cutting through mountains, purely to shave 3 milliseconds off the transit time.

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-06-10T09:00:05.291Z · LW · GW

An interesting postscript: Cummings recently gave 7 hours evidence to the UK parliament about the government's COVID response, criticizing it heavily (my shortform summary here).

In this he gave more detail on his trip out of London that had attracted all the vilification. Apparently it followed a crowd of people gathering at his house threatening to kill his wife & children (after a false negative media story about him). Boris Johnson told him to leave London for his own safety, regardless of the rules. This effectively exonerates Cummings (for the main trip).

If this is true, I assume he didn't state this at the time to protect Boris, and one of the reasons Boris protected him was because Boris knew what had actually happened.

Incidentally in the BBC Radio 4 news report of Cummings' evidence, none of this was mentioned! Though they found time to interview locals around Barnard Castle about why they think Cummings is so nasty.

Comment by bfinn on Wrist Update · 2021-05-29T12:47:16.183Z · LW · GW

FWIW I find Dragon Professional (from Nuance) excellent at dictation (even in noisy environments), and last time I checked a couple of years ago it seemed to be rated rather better than anything else.

Comment by bfinn on Mati_Roy's Shortform · 2021-05-27T19:51:08.757Z · LW · GW

Yes I only recently discovered LW's bookmark - wish I had years ago!

Comment by bfinn on MikkW's Shortform · 2021-05-27T13:41:16.912Z · LW · GW

As it happens I came across this issue of strength (& its reverse, qualification) the very first time this morning, in Paul Graham's essay How To Write Usefully. Here are his thoughts on the matter, FYI:

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-05-27T08:48:53.208Z · LW · GW

I watched all 7 hours of Dominic Cummings' testimony to parliament yesterday on the UK government response to COVID. (Cummings was the Prime Minister’s top adviser.)

Key points he made that are relevant to rationalists (some hardly mentioned by the media):

  • Groupthink throughout government and its SAGE committee of scientific advisers meant their initial plan - no lockdown, await herd immunity - wasn't abandoned soon enough. Psychological 'memes' - that Britons wouldn't accept lockdowns or track & trace - were believed with little basis. The groupthink was broken in part by Cummings seeking an outside view of technical documents from Demis Hassabis and Tim Gowers (interestingly).
  • Institutional design failure means incompetent people get promoted to leadership and decision-making roles in UK government and political parties. Various highly competent individuals in more junior ranks were sidelined and left. People aren't incentivized to do the right things. Cummings said he himself shouldn't have been in such a high-powered job, which should have been held by someone far more intelligent & capable. (Cummings was in fact considered the smartest person in Downing St, though he lacks a technical background.)
  • Weak planning for catastrophes, e.g. poor access to data, inability to circumvent slow bureaucratic procedures, lack of detailed advance plans and lines of responsibility for them. He mentioned anthrax attacks and solar flares as other potential scenarios.
  • Human challenge trials should have occurred early on - perhaps even in Jan 2020.

Overall I found him a credible witness, because his testimony was very detailed (e.g. he recalled numerous dates of meetings & events), and quite self-critical, blaming himself for not forcing a lockdown sooner, and for not resigning at various points. His analysis above also seems sound.

Comment by bfinn on On silence · 2021-05-08T11:45:38.969Z · LW · GW

Not surprisingly, blind people also rely on similar sound maps, and are very aware of the acoustics of different surroundings. IIRC some blind people can echo-locate like a bat by making tutting/clicking sounds with their mouths, and listening to the reflection, enabling them to tell when they’re near large objects!

Comment by bfinn on On silence · 2021-05-01T08:54:43.045Z · LW · GW

Yes I’ve heard others say they can’t listen to lyrics.

The one thing I’ve started playing recently in the otherwise silent room where I work is quiet birdsong (background level, hardly noticeable). On the grounds it may have a subconscious effect of making me feel I’m outdoors, which may be conducive to creativity (cf walks), or at least be relaxing.

Comment by bfinn on On silence · 2021-04-30T08:31:57.187Z · LW · GW

Good post. This could be an important topic. Some thoughts arising:

Maybe research on noise pollution (eg from traffic, aircraft, wind farms) would say something about it.

Also maybe research on noise distraction as people get older. I'm 52 and have noticed in recent years I find background noise, particularly loud music in cafes, increasingly annoying and distracting. I assume this is because the brain has to work hard to blank it out (cf the so-called 'cocktail party effect'); hence that even in younger people it's using up brainpower somehow. I've never been able to do intellectual work with background music, and am baffled by people e.g. programmers who work with headphones playing music all day. But maybe for them it does just use different parts of the brain.

When I have a shower in the morning I listen to the radio news, but realise this is just ear-candy because there's rarely much of great interest. So sometimes I switch it off and then often have a flood of useful ideas - I assume partly because of the well-known phenomenon of thinking in the shower (I assume related to thinking on walks - see separate comment), and partly because I've been asleep so my brain is relaxed, able to freely associate, and also maybe has been half-thinking about various topics while I was asleep. Which confirms my suspicion that background sound - particularly attention-grabbing sound such as speech and music - inhibits thinking. But nonetheless I do find it quite hard to switch the radio off - I crave the ear-candy.

Relatedly, research on boredom might be useful. There's the interesting experiment where people are put in an empty room to sit in silence for a few minutes, with the option to give themselves electric shocks. Many (particularly men) choose to to avoid boredom. Presumably cavemen wouldn't have done this. I assume this shows that we are generally overstimulated in the modern world, including by sound. Many observe that smartphones etc. provide too much stimulation, and that in our parents' and grandparents' day people were much more able to do nothing, or at least create their own entertainment (an active process, rather than passively listening).

Comment by bfinn on On silence · 2021-04-30T08:16:39.716Z · LW · GW

I also read a paper that compared walking in nature with walking in a city, I think with regard to creative thinking. Walking in nature did better. It speculated that that's because a city has more distractions, such as big buildings and sources of danger (traffic etc.) Also that the creativity produced by walking is because the slowly shifting surroundings gently prod your unconscious for associations; whereas in a neutral fixed environment (an empty room) your thoughts can get stuck. That said that experiment above suggests there's something about walking itself that may (at least partly) explain it.

Comment by bfinn on What are your greatest one-shot life improvements? · 2021-04-27T17:48:58.773Z · LW · GW

I fixed my sleep in a few weeks using the (paid) online service Sleepio, which has been clinically proven (to the extent I think it's available via NHS prescription in the UK):

It took me from getting 1 night's full sleep per year, to sleeping a full night maybe 6 nights a week.

This was after I'd done my own research study for months trying out lots of different standard sleep improvement techniques - none of which made a significant difference.

Sleepio got me to try various things, and hit on one I hadn't considered, which was that I was allowing too much time to sleep in - i.e. setting my alarm clock too late. So I was sleeping too shallowly. It gradually made me compress my sleep into a shorter and shorter time until I was sleeping deeply enough to stay asleep throughout the night. Problem solved!

Comment by bfinn on What are your greatest one-shot life improvements? · 2021-04-27T17:37:24.043Z · LW · GW

IIRC getting up at the same time each morning (including weekends!) is more important than going to bed at a consistent time. Though doing both is best of all.

In particular, if you go to bed late, don't change your waking-up alarm. You'll be a bit tireder the next day, but will probably correct for it automatically by falling asleep faster and sleeping deeper the next night.

Comment by bfinn on Productivity: Working towards a summary of what we know · 2021-04-27T15:36:36.345Z · LW · GW

Thanks for this - a useful resource.

As it happens I've read many books & web sites about productivity over the last decade or so, and made vast numbers of notes & mindmaps, though not organized it into a form suitable for dissemination like this. (I've had plans for a while to write up many new thoughts arising from all this research/thinking, but that's a big job.)

One recommendation arising: of the various authors I've read, the one with the most original and well-thought-through ideas (and usually, though not always, right IMO) is Mark Forster. His easiest read is his most recent book (being a bit of a listicle) - Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done.

Comment by bfinn on Reflections on Premium Poker Tools: Part 3 - What I've learned · 2021-04-27T15:09:54.542Z · LW · GW

I've also heard a lot of coaches complain about students who pay them $100+/hr not do the homework that they are assigned. The coaches beg and plead, but the students just don't want to do the work.

Indeed this is a common experience among music teachers. A singing teacher I know, who teaches middle-aged amateurs, says they never practice what they're told to, and pretty much come along to (a) do a little expensive supervised practice and (b) have a nice chat about anything.

In contrast I started singing lessons a few years ago, and did what a pro singer friend advised me: recorded the lesson. Then I listened back to the whole thing afterward, and did several hours practice before the next lesson, doing everything the teacher had told me.

At my second lesson, the teacher said I had got much better in just a week - like, as if I'd had months of lessons in between - and he couldn't quite believe it. Presumably almost no-one remembers most of what the teacher told them, let alone practices it for hours between each lesson, like you're meant to.

The same is true of physiotherapy. I once had some treatment for a sprained ankle. The physiotherapist gave me some daily exercises to do at home, and explained that if I did them then they would work, but in practice almost no-one ever does them. (Or they do them once or twice then give up.)

This may suggest a point even more basic than More Dakka (which IIRC said, if something doesn't seem to work, or only works a bit, try doing it more): if you don't do something at all, then it definitely won't work.

Comment by bfinn on bfinn's Shortform · 2021-04-27T14:48:05.452Z · LW · GW

'Up to' is a misleading rhetorical device widely used in marketing, politics, etc. It precedes a statistic that is an impressive or scary maximum, where some kind of average would almost always be the relevant figure instead. So I'm immediately suspicious of any claim containing the phrase 'up to'.

Eg broadband providers that quote maximum speeds (that only a few optimally-located customers might get in the early hours of the morning) instead of averages. IIRC the UK's advertising regulator has banned this particular trick.

Indeed maxima are often nearly meaningless, such as 'up to x% of COVID cases result in death'. Why not a single figure? In practice it may mean something like: among various studies, the highest estimate produced was x%. (So why not give the range, or just the average?) Or it means something almost irrelevant, like: among various unstated categories of people, the highest figure is x% - likely to be a small, unrepresentative subgroup (e.g. aged over 90, or those with BMI > 30).

I can't be the only person who's noticed this rhetorical device everywhere (I haven't checked), though I've never read/heard anyone else mention it.

Comment by bfinn on Write a business plan already · 2021-04-27T14:26:51.372Z · LW · GW

Yes I see what you mean re drawing the line in different places. Similarly an idea for a product can be distinguished from the execution, i.e. creation, of the product.

A few times I've been approached by people who claim to have 'invented' some software, perhaps with a patent for it, but on closer question they've merely had an idea for some software and want someone else to write it. (Again assuming that the idea is the hard part.)

This illustrates that a patent is a simulation (or indeed a plan) of a product. If it were to be created, it would do XYZ. (US patents are meant to include sufficient detail to enable people with relevant skills to implement it - i.e. a complete plan - though European patents needn't.)

Comment by bfinn on Write a business plan already · 2021-04-26T10:40:32.301Z · LW · GW

My inconclusive thoughts around this:

In the phrase 'ideas mean nothing and it's all about execution', I think by 'ideas' people normally mean (good, novel) ideas for a product/service.

But indeed they also mean visualizing their product/service succeeding (without thinking about all the implementational details, especially ways it can go wrong).

For a startup to succeed, you need a good product/service idea AND good execution. (As a good product poorly executed will probably fail, as will a bad idea well executed.) So neither is optional.

But by saying 'ideas mean nothing and it's all about execution' people often imply that (good) product/service ideas are relatively easy, and execution is the hard bit. However the fact that only 5% of patents get commercialized, and only 10% of startups succeed, suggests that good ideas & good execution are both scarce.

So maybe 'ideas mean nothing and it's all about execution' is simply a counter to inventors who assume that execution is easy and ideas are the hard bit. As they often do, e.g. individuals who file patents and assume incorrectly that they're very brilliant/valuable and lots of companies will want to licence or steal their idea.

Or it may be that those who are good at execution can recognise good product/service ideas (fairly well), even if they can't come up with them themselves. Whereas those who can come up with good ideas usually can't do good execution. So good executors are more valuable for a startup.

Comment by bfinn on Write a business plan already · 2021-04-24T11:20:04.798Z · LW · GW

The argument for conciseness these days would be that people are more likely to read it. Medium published stats a few years ago from which I inferred the optimum article length is v roughly 1200 words, if the aim is to maximise total words read (readers x mean words read).

Also analysing my own Medium articles suggests people typically stop reading after about 4 minutes regardless of the article’s length.

But I take your point re examples - they improve clarity disproportionately.

Comment by bfinn on Give it a google · 2021-04-24T10:49:46.336Z · LW · GW

I remember the first time I realised the full potential of web searching. In the late 1990s I met a guy on a course who was a specialist consultant on software testing. A few months later we realised this would be useful for my company, but all I knew was the guy’s name. We racked our brains as to how to contact him - if I’d known where he lived we would have gone to the library and looked him up in the relevant city’s phone book!

Then someone had the bright idea to try typing his name into a search engine (probably Alta Vista back then.) Lo and behold, up came some rudimentary web page he’d created for himself, including his email address. We sent an email to it, and within hours got a reply saying he was in Texas at the moment (we were in London) but would be back in the UK soon and would get in touch.

This was miraculous. We could now track down and communicate with someone anywhere in the world, given only their name.

Comment by bfinn on Write a business plan already · 2021-04-24T10:30:05.881Z · LW · GW

Thanks again for the detailed feedback. In practice I don’t think I’m going to improve this post further as I’ve spent far too much time on it already (I find assembling coherent thoughts painfully slow), but it’s useful for my future posts.

Comment by bfinn on Writing to think · 2021-04-23T18:46:49.284Z · LW · GW

Re writing for mental health, the Self Authoring program does this. Essentially it makes you spend quite a few hours simply writing about your past, present, and future under various headings. Apparently this is clinically effective at fixing various mental health issues.

(I tried it, and though I don't have mental health issues, it provided many insights into myself and I can see how others would find it very useful.)

Comment by bfinn on Five examples · 2021-04-22T22:23:38.298Z · LW · GW

Philosophy thrives on carefully-chosen examples, which are thought experiments - i.e. that illustrate relevant aspects, and hopefully exclude irrelevant confusing aspects; they are also often tricky (e.g. extreme or borderline) cases. Test cases in law are similar.

Comment by bfinn on Five examples · 2021-04-22T22:18:37.166Z · LW · GW

Re 'hell yeah', I tend to roll my eyes at such advice from self-help gurus, because for example, not many people can find jobs they can go 'hell yeah' at. Hell yeah they'd like to be a rock star or film star or astronaut, but they're only capable of humdrum work, or they train as a musician/actor and find there's almost no paid work. (So then the self-help gurus tell them that if they'd only adopt the right positive attitude they'd say 'hell yeah' to shelf-stacking - rather than just accept that life is a mixed bag and we have to do some things we don't like much.)

The weak form is better, viz. if you think of something you can say 'hell yeah' to that's actually feasible, then do it. I.e. say yes to 'hell yeah', rather than say no to not-'hell yeah'.

Comment by bfinn on Write a business plan already · 2021-04-22T22:03:55.894Z · LW · GW

PS re examples, I agree they are helpful in general (and I liked your post on the topic). Looking back at my notes I see I had a few more, but didn't use them because they didn't make crystal-clear points (and I was concerned the post was getting too long/complicated already). Actually in retrospect I realize I could have just made up examples if I couldn't produce actual ones. Anyways.

Comment by bfinn on Write a business plan already · 2021-04-22T15:29:03.792Z · LW · GW

Indeed, I've had many other thoughts about planning in general that I'll write up at some point. Like, planning your life :)

On occasion I've used a checklist of business plan headings & points when planning entirely different things, as many of them turn out to be relevant.

I think things like planning should be taught formally at school. They are key life skills (similarly, decision making). You're given vague advice sometimes to plan (e.g. plan your essay) but not really told how to, other than one or two very basic points (e.g. make a to-do list). Similarly if you're given something to plan, e.g. some college event. Just kind of left to figure it out for yourself.

Comment by bfinn on Write a business plan already · 2021-04-22T15:22:45.915Z · LW · GW

Thanks for this feedback. Re real-world examples of startups that went awry for lack of a plan, the classical music video one is of a standard kind - he thought 'this would be a cool product for people like me' but never thought how many there were like him, i.e. the market size. I assume similar examples exist for each of the headings in a business plan - people who didn't think about e.g. marketing, distribution, risks, and especially financials. But though I've advised various startups, I don't know many such examples, because I find if I insist on a business plan and they don't want to write one, I tend not to hear from them again and never find out what happened. Many founders seem to find writing one an insurmountable obstacle.

I agree maybe I should steelman the opposing arguments, though I don't know how strong they are. I thought a bit about the lean startup process, as it appears to contradict writing plans, but it's largely about the earlier stage of finding a plausible idea for a business. So it's not inconsistent with writing a plan once you've found one (even though people often don't). I sense the anti-planning mindset is more of an 'attitude' than a rationale, with the negatives that suggests. I don't think I'm too strawmanny though, as the lame excuses I give seem widespread (even if not always articulated).

As it happens I also had a poker software startup a few years ago (AI for playing/training with), which never succeeded - not for lack of a business plan, it was that making the software good enough took far longer than we expected (it being a particularly hard problem, and research as much as development), and we were chasing a moving target as the standard of online poker play was increasing fast. I spent a long time estimating companies' market sizes via various proxies, including indeed multiple of employees. I had a rare chance to test this, as I'd estimated PokerStars' revenue (from various things including traffic), which no-one knew since they were very secretive and published no figures - but when they were bought by Amaya they had to file accounts, and it turned out I had been only about 10% out. This was helped though by the fact various poker companies already published accounts, from which I had been able to calibrate the proxies quite well.

Re writing to think, indeed years ago a corporate finance company gave me this justification for writing a business plan. It forces you to think it all through.

I'm not sure a startup's business plan is that different from an established business's one - I've never noticed much difference when writing them myself, but maybe haven't thought about the differences enough. (Other than that a startup is naturally more speculative, and has to create departments & processes that would often already exist in an existing business.)

Comment by bfinn on Why has nuclear power been a flop? · 2021-04-20T14:23:55.031Z · LW · GW

Good post. Sorry I didn't read it all, but I get the impression you didn't cover the unfortunate influence of the environmental movement on the decline of nuclear power, which is presumably a major reason for the overregulation, and for political opposition to & closure of nuclear power stations in recent decades in countries like Germany.

Environmentalists should have been all in favour of nuclear power, but many strongly opposed it until quite recently. (Possibly because of somewhat Luddite attitudes to modern technology, capitalism, etc. - I speculate.)

Comment by bfinn on Are there opportunities for small investors unavailable to big ones? · 2021-04-19T16:10:37.952Z · LW · GW

The sourcing-cheap-clothes-on-eBay method doesn't sound like 'small value-add' in that evidently people are prepared to pay quite a lot extra for her to do this. I.e. to save them the trouble of trawling through pages of crap on eBay; but also presumably saving them the risk that stuff sold on eBay (with crappy photos etc.) is often crummy, whereas stuff properly modelled (with nice photos) is more likely to be good.

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-16T08:53:57.806Z · LW · GW

They do, but the committee was trying to predict future reactions.

Comment by bfinn on How & when to write a business plan · 2021-04-15T21:53:23.772Z · LW · GW

If someone's starting a business in a field they have some expertise in themselves (and I wouldn't recommend they do otherwise), it seems likely they'd know at least one suitable expert, or else know someone who knows one. And if not, they could try approaching people they don't know out of the blue - I imagine some would be helpful enough to give free advice. (I do!)

Comment by bfinn on How & when to write a business plan · 2021-04-15T16:41:06.300Z · LW · GW

Thanks. I suspect the reason some online articles downplay the importance of business plans is:

(a) Clickbait: people want to read about shortcuts, hacks, ways of avoiding effort;

(b) Incubators and VCs don't want to put off founders who haven't written a plan, because they can spot a startup's potential without one. But it's still in the founders' interest to write a plan - as it's they who will suffer most if they don't.

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-09T21:12:14.290Z · LW · GW

This seems like a post-rationalization. IIRC the way it played out over a number of days was that initially it wasn't clear what the facts were, and hence what if anything Cummings had done wrong (e.g. whether his journey had been legal, or at least justified). And even if he had done something wrong, I heard one pundit point out that as Cummings wasn't a minister or public-facing figure there was no requirement for him to resign or be fired (rather than apologise or be disciplined in some way).

But nonetheless the media picture right from the start was that this maverick egg-head weirdo must be guilty of something, even if they weren't sure what exactly. And the public reacted accordingly.

For example, 3 days before Cummings' press conference (which IIRC was the first time his side of the story was fully set out) I heard a radio phone-in about what an evil character Cummings must be, in which callers were mostly accusing him of risking his parents' health by going to stay with them. Or saying he must have stopped at a petrol station and so risked people there (he denied this). It later turned out he hadn't even stayed in his parents' house, or had close contact with them, but stayed in another building nearby.

So then it was a question of, was his main journey illegal (with much detailed media analysis of the fine points of the law)? Or if not, how about the short trip to Barnard Castle? Which is what most people - the narrative - have now settled on.

What this all shows is that in this trial by media, Cummings was presumed guilty from the start; and then it was just a matter of finding some crime to pin on him. And once something was found that seemed enough like one, everyone could congratulate themselves that they'd 'known' all along, and so their outrage had always been justified.

(I can't recall which cognitive bias this is - but quite a typical example.)

(To avoid doubt, as I turned out I think it's very likely he broke the rules and adjusted his story to try to exonerate himself. And clearly Boris mishandled it badly. But my point isn't about whether he/they turned out to be in the wrong, it's about the fact the media had it in for Cummings, and had no trouble swaying the public accordingly.)

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-09T08:33:57.112Z · LW · GW

During COVID the UK government has been heavily advised by the SAGE committee (an emergency committee of scientists), including a subcommittee of behavioural scientists who advised on what the reaction to measures like lockdowns might be. I don't know how reliable behavioural science is at the moment (with the replication crisis) but this seemed like a reasonable move - being guided by them rather than politicians' own hunches.

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-08T09:30:42.477Z · LW · GW

Social reality topics are often things in the news. When I was a student I realised I could just stop following the news because it almost never affected me. Only maybe once a year was there anything in the news that I needed to know, because it would affect my short-term actions. (COVID of course being a notable exception.)

The kind of serious news I follow is about real-world events - albeit in politics, things happening in other countries, etc. - causally distant from me. Not local news, which may be the most likely to affect me, though in some trivial way (a new store opening or something).

Those who follow celebrity culture etc. are even less affected by the 'news' they follow, except I suppose insofar as it's about new films, albums etc. which they might see/buy. Indeed such people see the news more like what it is. Its main effect is in the meta (= social reality) realm, as a source of talking points. You 'need' to know the news in order to join in conversations with your friends about the news.

The relevance or truth of the news is beside the point. For the same applies to the 'need' to read Harry Potter, if everyone else is talking about it.

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-08T09:17:31.780Z · LW · GW

I think he was only known & unpopular among those who follow politics closely. I expect 80% or 90% of the UK hadn't previously heard of him. The media coverage of the incident turned him from a niche suspect figure into a universal hate figure.

Re your point [1], people associate physical appearance with attitude. I overhead someone in the street at the time saying of Cummings' press conference: "He's so arrogant! Did you see how he was dressed?" I.e. that Cummings was and is deliberately slovenly to show two fingers to the press/Establishment - i.e. that he doesn't care what they think. Which is probably the case. Or at least, the geeky view that how you dress shouldn't matter - the two of course being closely related.

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-06T23:31:29.839Z · LW · GW

PS I just realized, one of the main reasons the general public fell in with demonizing Cummings was the very one you identified that delayed reaction to COVID: he seems weird, and reacting to a faroff disease which everyone else is ignoring would seem weird. And seeming weird is the worst thing in the world.

Comment by bfinn on Monastery and Throne · 2021-04-06T23:01:50.498Z · LW · GW


On a side issue, as you probably know but other readers may not, Dominic Cummings was central to another case of social reality. For he was subsequently turned into public enemy no. 1 by the British media, when he broke lockdown rules to drive his family across the country to his parents' home. Most of the public had never heard of Cummings, but he had apparently made enemies in the media (as well as government) by treating them with disdain, and this was their chance for payback.

And so, in a trial by media over several days, it was amazing to see how easily almost everyone in the UK was persuaded that Cummings was the devil incarnate, which continues to this day. (I broke ranks to post a defence of Cummings, or rather a criticism of the public's ill-founded view of him, on Facebook, which got a lively response.)

Just as amazing was the opposite attitude to the BLM protests in the UK soon after; I don't think it even occurred to 99% of the public that those were just as illegal as Cummings' trip. And a politician (Stephen Kinnock) who made a similar cross-country drive to Cummings on the very same day, to visit his famous father, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, attracted almost no media coverage or criticism. This all showing that the law was quite beside the point - merely providing a pretext for demonizing Cummings.

Anyway, in the face of all this media and public pressure, Boris Johnson spent much political capital refusing to fire Cummings, as he was said to be 'Boris's brain' and by far the smartest person in Downing St. Boris even extraordinarily granted Cummings (a mere adviser) his own press conference in the Downing St garden, in which Cummings presented an implausible account of events exonerating himself, to general derision.*

The whole incident provided a pretext (that phrase again) for many Britons subsequently to break lockdown rules. The public mood changed immediately from a wartime spirit of doggedly following government advice to half-disregarding it - often explicitly saying "If Dominic Cummings can drive to Barnard Castle, then I don't see why I shouldn't do XYZ". Regrettably it's likely this has significantly increased COVID cases ever since.

(*I reckon it should have been played like this: Cummings should have admitted breaking the rules (perhaps inadvertently), and offered his resignation. But Boris should have reluctantly refused the resignation, on the grounds of not rocking the boat in a national emergency, and maybe accepted a fine as punishment.)

Comment by bfinn on Urgent & important: How (not) to do your to-do list · 2021-03-16T12:22:23.095Z · LW · GW

In this case of making a small one-off tweak with long-term benefits, if the expected return is only moderate, i.e. Should, then it's always less important than Musts, so you should never do it - until & unless one day you run out of Musts. It may seem paradoxical that there are some things you Should do but it's optimal never to do them, but that just shows that you always have (even) more important things to do.

However there's another kind of case which I call the Gym Paradox: it's never important to go to the gym today because you only miss out on 1 day of exercise, i.e. it's only a Could so should almost always be procrastinated; but it is important that you go to the gym (i.e. get exercise) sometimes, or you will become unhealthy. I haven't thought hard about this one and how to resolve it.

Comment by bfinn on Covid 3/4: Declare Victory and Leave Home · 2021-03-12T16:44:11.761Z · LW · GW

It now seems it's about 60% more deadly:

Ah I see you discuss this in your latest post, just posted.

Comment by bfinn on Covid 3/4: Declare Victory and Leave Home · 2021-03-05T15:07:20.474Z · LW · GW

Re the English strain, do you (still) think its dominating new cases by mid-March will lead to a huge increase in cases/deaths nationwide, or will vaccination prevent that?

The CDC's latest ensemble forecast doesn't predict an increase in deaths, though it only goes out to the end of March:

Comment by bfinn on Takeaways from one year of lockdown · 2021-03-01T15:54:26.597Z · LW · GW

I wonder if this was partly due to groupthink, eg within your house. Wikipedia has a useful definition:

“a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome”

Comment by bfinn on The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed · 2021-02-04T14:01:16.710Z · LW · GW

Good post.

Though as is often the case, there is already a well-known saying that encapsulates this idea: "do it properly or not at all".